Adventure #25: Avoiding the Doldrums

In 1976, my dad is transferred from our home in Massachusetts to Vermont where my mom’s family lives. And because it isn’t always easy to find a place at a moment’s notice, we move in with my grandparents including my mom’s two younger brothers.

There are several benefits to living here. First off, I’m able to walk with either of my grandparents to the market about a half a mile away. They don’t own a car or even know how to drive so I learn to shop small and frequently – something that will come in handy years later when I, too, live without a car.

When summer comes, the benefits get even greater for five year old me. Because it is the 1970’s, it doesn’t matter that I am only five years old, I can cross the highway with the 50 mph speed limit (80 km/hr) and walk across town a full mile to the town swimming pool, spend the afternoon there and then, because apparently I live in Jimmy Stewart film, I can stop by the town bank to say hello to my Aunt Iva who stands behind fancy wrought-iron bars as she works as a teller. One day I get introduced to the manager of the bank who opens the heavy wooden door that leads in to the “employees only” part of the bank and he takes me back to see the antique vault filled with money. “It has a time lock on it and once it’s closed it won’t open again until the next day.” he tells me.

A few steps past there is Richardson’s Country Store where folks go to buy their beer but also to stand and shoot the breeze for hours. One regular there who doesn’t seem to have a job spends so much time talking he earns the nickname “The Mayor of Bethel, Vermont” and a decade later will also become known as the guy who saved up enough money from picking up bottles and cans and returning them for the deposit that he was able to buy himself a used car.

Across the street from Richardson’s is the candy store where we were still able to buy penny candy by the piece. And next to that is Mills’ Store where the owner who looks to me to be 100 years old, works at an old fashioned soda fountain. When my grandmother takes me there to chat with Mrs. Mills, I order a Coke. She gets a curvy glass emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo, measures a shot of dark Coke syrup in to it, tosses in some ice, fills it with soda water and hands it to me with a long spoon inside. It is delicious and sweeter than any canned soft drink I could get.

But the greatest treasure to me is just down the street. It’s the public library, and I’m also allowed to walk there on my own with my very own library card and check out whatever I want.

One day after I have finished first grade, and am just starting to enjoy summer vacation, I visit the library. And today in the children’s section there are a whole bunch of kids sitting on the floor. I find out that it is story time. Today, and for the next several weeks we are read the book “The Phantom Tollbooth”

We hear the story of Milo, a little boy who is a little spoiled. He has lots of toys but is bored by all of them. One day he gets a mysterious gift – a tollbooth that he can assemble and play with. He puts it together, gets in his kid-sized toy car (See? Spoiled!), pulls up to the tollbooth, puts a coin in and is transported to another world. What I didn’t know at the time was that I, too, would be transported to another world as a result of this book.

Summer vacation ends before the book is finished and so I check it out and bring it home to finish myself. And I love it – Milo travels all over this new world, having new experiences, meeting new and different cultures and expanding his mind.

In all of my memory I can read, and I always enjoyed books, but until I came across this book, I didn’t know it was possible to so completely fall in to the world of a book. A year later I start reading The Hobbit after I learned about it from a TV special, and that was it. I always have a book or two going from then on out.

All of this is a very good development for me on a few fronts. On the one hand, being an avid reader and so thirsty for knowledge helps me build a good relationship with teachers and librarians as I grow older.

At the same time, though, things at home are starting to take a turn for the worse. Both parents are drinking more and more, waking me up with stressful screamed arguments at night and sometimes behaving unpredictably. My mother finds herself in a mental hospital a few times, and by the time I am thirteen, I am balancing starting a new school where I am an outcast with being at home taking care of my four year old brother – all while my dad visits my mom in the hospital.

But it is OK. I have my books to fall in to. I can go back and hang out with Frodo or David Copperfield or Ford Prefect any time I like.

And I connect with other adults in school. Instead of being at home listening to my parents or following in their footsteps at a party by the river, I’m at school. I’m working on the Spring Musical with Mrs. Barreda, I’m staying after school to learn about computers with Mr. Hubbard. I’m volunteering with Young Volunteers in Action, I’m playing in a jazz ensemble with my best friend and her mom. One teacher invites me to go to a workshop to learn to be a peer counselor to help kids avoid drugs and alcohol and I’m shocked to have a name for what my parents are experiencing: alcoholism, and to learn what impact it can have on others at home. I start to look around me and while I see many kids with parents like my own I also get to know other adults whose families don’t scream at each other or knock their teeth out falling down drunk. I learn a valuable lesson: that just because I have been experiencing the family life I have been, doesn’t mean that it’s right or normal.

Were it not for books, I would never have connected with these other adults. I’d have no reason to spend extra time with teachers, librarians, music directors and others. And had I not read The Phantom Tollbooth when I did, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have the love for books that I do.

When I am twenty-one I log in to one of the first Internet chat systems – the same one I’ve been visiting off and on for two years. I sign on with the name I use there: Milo, and within hours I’m talking to Phantom. We talk about our lives, our interests, the books we love, the things we value, our experiences in our families. Soon I learn that her real name is Sage and before long we are talking on the phone for hours every day. Within two months she comes for a one week visit. I invite her to stay for good, and she does. It’s been 28 years and we now have a child, and much of our initial bonding started over our love for books and one in particular: Free to be You and Me – a feminist children’s book I discovered not long after The Phantom Tollbooth.

In August, I go back and read this book again and I find it holds up well. And I’m reminded of one character in particular, Tock, that I remember really loving the first time. He’s a “watch dog” (You can tell he’s a watchdog because he has a clock on his side) who cares deeply about being on time, and using your time wisely. Very early in the book, Milo ends up stuck in a very foggy, depressing place called “The Doldrums”. Nobody there has ambition, nobody wants to do anything, and they generally feel blah all the time.

Tock asks “I suppose you know why you got stuck” and Milo responds “I guess I just wasn’t thinking.

“PRECISELY,” shouted the dog as his alarm went off again. “Now you know what you must do.”

“I’m afraid I don’t,” admitted Milo, feeling quite stupid.

“Well,” continued the watchdog impatiently, “Since you got here by not thinking, it seems reasonable to expect that, in order to get out, you must start thinking.”

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

A brilliant bit of advice for me whenever I’m feeling down if there ever was one: listen to Tock, start thinking, start paying attention, and start caring about the value of time. Don’t “kill time” as the residents of the Doldrums do in the book, don’t waste it. Actually do things that matter to you, make progress toward goals you care about. The number of times Sage has been my watchdog, saying just these things when I needed it have been so many.

And a few more quotes jump out at me from the book on the reread:

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes … as long as you take the trouble to learn from them. For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

And one quote that in just a few words explains exactly why in just a few weeks I’ll be getting on a bicycle in India and exploring:

“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between.”

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

And so it is, that I find myself starting today’s adventure. I find myself on the other side of town at Ink and Water Tattoo. Whenever anyone else I knew would get a tattoo I would say that I never had any interest because there was never anything that I felt was constant enough in my life that I wouldn’t regret having it permanently tattooed on me. But now I have an idea.

I walk inside, electronically sign a release form and go in to the studio. There are two other artists working and mine sets to work right away. She asks me a few questions, shows an image in a few sizes, and I decide on one. And then I roll up my left pantleg and stand on a bench. She comes behind me and shaves my calf and then puts the stencil I chose on it.

I lie down on table and wait while she finishes setting up. Then she asks if I’m ready.

“I think so…Um…Yeah.”

Inside I’m sure I want to do this but am not sure just how much it is going to hurt. Am I going to have to grit my teeth the whole time, biting an imaginary bullet? Is it possible she’ll hit a nerve and really hurt me? I don’t know, but I figure lots of people have done this so how bad could it be.

A buzzing sound starts and she leans on my leg – probably to hold it down in case I jump. But then I feel a light vibrating scratching. It isn’t bad. The intensity varies from barely noticeable at a minimum to “someone gently touched my sunburn” at its worst. I can feel her drawing with the needle and I try to guess what part she’s doing as she goes.

She checks in with me a few times to make sure I’m still doing OK, and surprisingly I am. In fact, I am beginning to find this relaxing. If it hurt a tiny bit less I think I could fall asleep.

There are a couple of breaks where she cleans the area with what feels like an alcohol wipe. It gets a little more sensitive but still never above the “I should’ve worn sunscreen” stage. I’m good.

And before I know it, 45 minutes have passed and she says she’s done. I’m quite surprised. I thought it would’ve taken much longer. I contort myself to have a look at my left calf and am so happy with what I see: a reminder and a thank you to the librarians, teachers, authors, and other adults who whether they knew it or not helped me. They gave me escape, a break from difficult times, or a role model. They were my watchdogs, the ones who showed me that if I just pay attention, and use my time wisely, I’ll get out of the doldrums and on the road to a more exciting and fulfilling adventure.

12 thoughts on “Adventure #25: Avoiding the Doldrums

  1. I love The Phantom Tollbooth. I introduced it to my grade five class many years ago. The vocabulary was a bit advanced for some of them so I’m very impressed that you read it in grade one. The tattoo is great.

  2. Great tattoo, Todd!
    It really is amazing to trace things back through our lives and find where the convergence points are. Rarely where you think they’re going to be.
    Great story, too 🙂

    1. Thanks! This is so true. I have found so many ridiculous ones any of which, had they changed, could make my current life never have happened. This is why whenever someone asks me “If you could change anything about your past, what would it be?” I always answer that I wouldn’t change a thing. The butterfly effect is too real!

  3. I always enjoy reading your posts, but this one knocked me out. You manage to speak truth with compassion and insight. You really connect us to you as a boy using books and others to crawl out of a pit of despair. Love the tattoo.

    1. It truly is. And I think people sometimes underestimate the value of seemingly simple support – a book, a friendly normal conversation or the interest of a teacher in helping in situations like this.

  4. This is such a beautiful story! One of your best…..Loved reading it. The tatoo makes so much sense, it’s so much a part of you, it’s just perfect.
    Had seen the picture on Instagram in Sage’s account. Glad I read the story behind it 🙂

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