The Doldrums

"There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself - not just sometimes, but always."

This is the first line from Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth. Illustrations by the great cartoonist, Jules Feiffer. Page after page that I want to quote, for anyone out there who hasn't found this book yet. The best kind of children's book: a little strange, a bit disturbing, altogether hopeful, and a friendly dog to guide the way.

Much of it reminds me of the Tea Party section of Alice in Wonderland, and I'm also reminded of The Point (music by Nilsson, including the classic "Me and my Arrow," which I can still hear in my head just by thinking of the title). This was an animated movie that, like many childhood icons I hold dear (who here has read The Lonely Doll?), seems to have been seen by no one but my family.

I've been feeling, lately, like Milo stuck in the Doldrums. His car goes slower, and slower, until it comes to a stop in a gray, monotonous world where "even the air hung heavily." It's a land bound by many rules, none of which make sense, and all designed to deepen the lethargy at play. The Lethargians, as the inhabitants are called, have a very busy schedule, however, with each hour allotted to a specific task. For example, "From 1:00 to 2:00 we linger and loiter. From 2:00 to 2:30 we take our early afternoon nap. From 2:30 to 3:00 we put off for tomorrow what we could have done today."

I'm not sure if it's the weather in Chicago: completely overcast sky, cool but not crisp, a bit of nothing pervading everything. Or if it's the post-holiday crash: you push and push, and then, suddenly, it's over. Or if it's the way that my spring is shaping up: already way too many things to schedule, too many places that I need to fly to, too many things overlapping so that I am already anticipating having to make as graceful an exit as possible from one commitment in order to make it to the next. I feel like a Lethargian, with every moment scheduled, yet this is the result:

"As you can see," the creature tells Milo, "that leaves almost no time for brooding, lagging, plodding or procrastinating, and if we stopped to think or laiugh, we'd never get nothing done."
"You mean you'd never get anything done," corrected Milo.
"We don't want to get anything done," snapped another angrily; "we want to get nothing done, and we can do it without your help."

Milo escapes the Doldrums with the aid of the Watchdog: an oversized dog with a tail, four legs, and a midsection of a ticking alarm clock. But the dog, as in the tradition of best animals in children's books, doesn't save him: he advises Milo how to help himself: "'Well, . . . since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect that, in order to get out, you must start thinking.' And with that, he hopped into the car.
'Do you mind if I get in? I love autmobile rides.' "

Since I have neither a toy car that goes on a fantastic trip nor a Watchdog, I'll have to muddle through.

Oh, and my favorite part of the book? When the Soundkeeper (who stores all the sounds ever made, including the tune George Washington whistled as he crossed the Delaware in 1777 and what you said to your mother this morning) strikes a big bass drum, and six large, wooly cotton balls come rolling out. Just the way that the sound of a drum would look, don't you think?