Seuss-syphean

March 13, 2007 at 5:05 pm (Uncategorized)

Until recently, I haven’t been much a Dr. Seuss fan. Perhaps this is because it hasn’t been until recently that Andrew has grown old enough for Dr. Seuss’ narrative books. As a baby and toddler, he loved the Seuss word-play books, like Fox in Socks and Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You?, which, after eighteen or nineteen consecutive readings, made me question my sanity. There are only so many one-syllable rhymes your brain can process before it either short-circuits or starts thinking up lewd versions of the rhyme. I mean, you don’t have to be the poet laureate to come up with some pretty naughty phrases, especially in the -ox/-ocks family of words.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I cracked open Dr. Seuss’ books for older children – like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Horton Hatches the Egg, The Lorax, and The King’s Stilts. In addition to the pervasive Seussian rhyme, these books had both a plot and a point. The Lorax, for instance, with its tale of the Onceler and his rapacious greed, bears an overt environmental message, while Horton, in which the eponymous elephant won’t break his promise to sit on a bird’s egg, is the story of constancy rewarded. “Not bad,” I thought.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Andrew and Jay returned from their weekly pilgrimage to the library with fresh Seuss-fare: I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew. Initially published in 1965, this funny-sounding little book packs a powerful message, so you’ll have to bear with my re-telling. Despite its cute, fuzzy hybrid animal characters, Solla Sollew has the feel of an epic (albeit one for kids). The book opens with the nameless hero of indeterminate species falling (literally) on hard times. Not watching where he’s going, he falls off a ledge and breaks his tail. Once trouble has found him, it won’t let him go. He is beset first by a Quilligan Quail, who bites his already-wounded tail, and then by a Skritz and a Skrink.

“There I was, all completely surrounded by trouble,” our hero recounts, “when a chap rumbled up in a One-Wheeler Wubble.” The chap, it turns out, is bound for the “City of Solla Sollew,” a mythical land “on the banks of the beautiful River Wah-Hoo,” whose main draw is that “they never have troubles, at least very few.” Our narrator joins the Solla Sollew-bound wayfarer on a journey that rivals the Iliad or the Odyssey for its adventures and obstacles. Although the chap with the One-Wheeler Wubble makes it sound like Solla Sollew is just around the corner, days and then months pass en route. The camel that pulls the Wubble “got sick and started to bubble,” so our narrator must pull the cart – and the camel – up a narrow mountain pass. He leaves the sick camel, driver, and cart with a doctor, and plods on, alone, for Solla Sollew. As he walks along (the bus to the promised land is out of order, too), he gets caught in a flood, then pressed into military service by the General Genghis Kahn Schmitz, and narrowly avoids getting eaten by Perilous Poozers. He escapes into some type of subterranean sewer network, and finally emerges at the gates of Solla Sollew. He skips up to the guard, anticipating a trouble-free life, only to learn that he can’t enter the city because there is a Key-Slapping Slippard barring access to the one and only door to Solla Sollew. The guard says, “I’m leaving Solla Sollew…And I’m off to the city Boola Boo Ball…where they never have any troubles! No troubles at all!”

Our furry hero is about to go along to seek the new promised land Boola Boo Ball, but instead “did some quick thinking inside of my head” and decides to go home. “I know I’ll have troubles,” he muses. “I’ll, maybe, get stung. I’ll always have troubles. I’ll, maybe, get bit by that Green-Headed Quail on the place where I sit.” Rather than avoid his troubles, though, he opts to confront them. “But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me.” The book closes with a picture of the narrator swinging his bat as he approaches his old nemeses.

The way my life has been going lately, I’ll take inspiration wherever I can find it, even from a kids’ book.  And I’m not ashamed to say that Solla Sollew was helpful. I have much to be thankful for – a loving and supportive family, a healthy and precocious child, a comfortable house in a comfortable town, access to health care, and so on. But I’d still say that I have my share of troubles – a chronic disease that has taken a nasty turn toward debilitating me along with messing with my most vital of organs, my heart. Because I have been plagued with a sinus infection for the past few days (courtesy of said precocious child), I could not take my weekly dose of Enbrel (the super-expensive injectable biologic agent that shuts down part of my immune system – hopefully the part causing my sarcoidosis). Consequently, I awoke this morning and spent a few minutes wondering if I could get out of bed. I suppose it’s good to know that the Enbrel does actually reduce my joint pain when I’m able to take it, but it was nonetheless depressing to experience such acute pain just laying in bed. I did eventually make it upright and hobbled downstairs. After consuming about a gallon of coffee, I discovered that the arthritis in my hands makes typing a problem. Since I’m a writer and all, it felt doubly unfair. It seems as though having to worry about keeling over from a heart attack from my cardiac sarcoidosis should have been trouble enough.  But, no, I also have my own Quilligan Quail gnawing on my bones.

I don’t mean to overdramatize myself.  Read the morning paper and you’ll find an overabundance of trouble. Today’s New York Times had a story about hospice centers for dying newborn babies. The main opposition leader in Zimbabwe was jailed and beaten; increasing numbers of homeowners are unable to make their monthly mortgage payments; Iraqi Shiites on their way to Karbala continue to suffer violence from Sunni extremists; families who lost loved ones in the Bronx fire mourn. And on. And on.

No one likes trouble. Not the narrator of Solla Sollew, not me, not you. We don’t like experiencing trouble, and we don’t like witnessing others’ troubles. Trouble is at best uncomfortable, and at worst, lethal. The existence of trouble in the universe is like a hard smack against the mouth. It feels unjust, unfair, indeed unnatural. We are all beset by Skritzes and Skrinks. So it is only right that we, too, should want to leave behind the biting bastards and strike out for the rich new land of Solla Sollew. Isn’t there some clause in the Constitution that outlaws trouble? Isn’t it against the codes of man and God to have a baby and hold him for twenty minutes before he dies from some rare and debilitating genetic disease? And what of all of us sarcoidosis sufferers? We certainly never signed on the dotted line for this disease.

Which is why the prospect of a quick and permanent fix – a Solla Sollew – is so appealing.  Both to receive and, apparently, to offer.  Everywhere we turn, someone like the chap on the One-Wheeler Wubble, is promising us a carefree trip to a version of Solla Sollew. “Climb aboard,” he calls down to us, “and I’ll show you the way to a life without troubles.” Nowhere are the whispers of the Solla Sollew-touts louder than in the realm of health.  As I’m sure anyone who has spent a day or two in Chronic Town will testify, people love to come knocking on your door, eager to take you to Solla Sollew. There are the folks who want you to see a naturopath. “If you just take these herbs, or this potion, you’ll be in Solla Sollew in no time,” they tell you. Or maybe they tell you to eschew dairy, eggs, meat, wheat, eggplant, and strawberries, as someone did to me yesterday, assuring me this was a guaranteed cure for my arthritis. Or maybe they’ll send you to the fanciest hospital in the world.   Maybe they want you to visualize perfect health, imagine your disease waning.  Everyone knows someone who took a wonder drug, or swore off a wonder drug, and was cured.  Three easy steps, right this way.

As appealing as this vision might seem, though, I also find it chimeric, and ultimately diminishing, as it so often seems to come with the implicit judgment that if you do not magically cure yourself, it’s your fault, you burden, you.  And yet illness, suffering, and death (troubles, in other words) were once viewed as central to the human condition: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life… until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return,” proclaims Genesis.  But these days, dwelling on our imminent return to dust isn’t the norm, no matter how religious we as a nation claim to be. You’d think such a morbid turn of mind would be standard, given our soldiers getting exploded in Iraq, an epidemic of plague-like proportions going on in Africa, warnings of the bird flu circulating with spring air, and childhood cancer rates skyrocketing – to name just a few of the troubles surrounding us. Instead, the focus always seems to be not on how to deal with troubles, but rather on how to avoid them altogether.

We can spend our lives plotting a path to Solla Sollew. We think there must be a quick way through the sickness and the muck to a shining city on the hill – and isn’t it worth a few trials and tribulations to get there? What’s a little drowning and warfare when it comes to a trouble-free existence? The fact is, though, that I think Dr. Seuss was right. Once you make it to Solla Sollew, there’ll be a problem with a lock. And the touts will be there to lure you on to the next promised land. You could waste your life, trotting around trying to avoid the things that get you down, that beat you up, that make you sad. Better to realize, “I’ll always have troubles,” and start searching for a bat.

I don’t think kindly old Dr. Seuss meant for us to wallop everything that holds us up or causes us trouble. Instead, I think he meant for our hero to take hold of his life again, to stop chasing castles in the air and turn instead to the land at his feet. God knows, it’s hard for me to do. I spent three hours on the Internet last night, reading up on all the “miracle cures” available for rheumatoid arthritis. There are days when I just want to stay in bed and not test the aching soles of my feet on the floor, nor push my swollen fingers to make words on the keyboard. It’s always much easier for me to ruminate on the unfairness of my current existence, instead of figuring out ways to be a creative, engaged individual within the circumstances of my disease. But, I will always have troubles. If the sarcoidosis remits, there will be some new critter to vex me – some Quilligan Quail or Skritz or bellowing Genghis Kahn Schmitz. Now is the time to grab the bat and deal with it.

There’s another story about perseverance I should mention here to round out my thoughts on Solla Sollew. This one isn’t just myth-like in its message, but a genuine myth. The story of Sisyphus, a Greek king who tried to trick the Gods into avoiding death, was probably meant as a cautionary tale, because for his hubris, Sisyphus was punished in the underworld by having to roll an enormous boulder up a hill throughout eternity. Some might see this as damnation, indeed. But for me, rolling the same stupid rock up the same stupid hill feels like an apt metaphor for life itself – the ultimate representation of mortality. It’s our lot. Maybe that’s why there are so many scriptures and legends and myths and stories and kids’ books about it. Our troubles aren’t going anywhere. Just keep pushing and carry a big stick. And a little rhyming never hurts either.

3 Comments

  1. Marianne said,

    Rebecca,
    This doesn’t have anything to do with illness, but I would be really interested in a list of your favorite children’s books. James is into dinosaurs so even if a book doesn’t have one, he insists there is one in the story… Anyhow, I’m tired of dinosaur books and would love some suggestions.
    Marianne
    PS you have inspired me to take my kids to the library. Luckily, the loud one isn’t a redhead, so I can pretend she isn’t mine.

  2. Barbara (Baabs) said,

    Just started a journal (blog). Went to a dermatologist in Syracuse today hoping she’d put me on Enbrel (very leary here!). I’ve had psoriasis since I was nine. Tired mentally and physically. My blog is listed under baabs space walk. I haven’t written much of anything but tonight when i typed those specific words in your journal mentioned Seuss and I see what you’re going through. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and family. Pray for me too. Barbara P.S. Maybe I’ll write an entry in mine while I’m on.

  3. rebecca said,

    Thanks, Barbara. My thoughts and prayers are indeed with you. I tried to find your blog, but was unable to. I’d love to read your thoughts, so if you could send me the address that would be great. The Enbrel is helping me a lot, though, like you, it makes me pretty nervous. Hang in there. And thanks for writing.

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