Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bad Days

Not long ago, I reviewed two of the Alexander books by Judith Viorst. That poor kid just can’t catch a break.  The stories are amusing glimpses at the “bad days” we have as children. There’s certainly a spectrum of what constitutes “bad,” and it means something different for every child. But his experiences seem somehow universal—a microcosm of the little things that go wrong and pile up on one another until their sum equals one terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

I’ve been having a few of those days myself recently. Nothing major. You know, just little stressors that accumulate and no amount of shrugging seems to slide the weight from your shoulders. Bills to pay.  Parties to plan. Sick kids to take care of. Not having time or energy to write. Or writing garbage. Those sorts of things. And the cold and dark of February in Minnesota hasn’t helped. Nor has our recent snowstorm. Don’t get me wrong; snow is lovely. But in December, when it’s new and exciting. And it’s nice to have a White Christmas.  Even in January, I can handle it. But in late February, after Mr. Punxsutawney Phil himself promised me an early spring?  Too much. Especially when it’s fourteen inches on top of the 60+ inches we already have. Especially when you have to take your twelve-month-old to urgent care in a blizzard to conquer an ear infection that keeps him up at all hours. Poor little guy.

Hey, Al by Arthur Yorinks
Farrar Press, 1986
Illustrations by Richard Egielski

But I digress. My point—if I have one—is what should a late-twenty-something do when he, for the first time in his life, experiences a mild bout of seasonal affective disorder (which has the most wonderfully appropriate acronym: SAD)? How does an adult handle a no good, very bad day?

I’ve heard sitting for hours in front of a bank of bright lights can help. But who has the time for that?

Mercifully, and coincidentally, a former co-worker and friend recently suggested that I revisit the 1987 Caldecott winner Hey, Al by Arthur Yorinks (illustrated by Richard Egielski). It wasn’t a suggestion for improving my mood, just a favorite of hers that she had recently reread. But it was the right book at the right time for me.

For those of you not familiar with the story, Al is a janitor who lives in a small (and I mean small) apartment in New York with his dog, Eddie. They eat together and watch TV together and are generally content. The narrator asks, “What could be bad?” which sets a playful tone for the story, especially when you turn the page to find the answer: “Plenty.”  Turns out Eddie’s not happy. Not happy with their dumpy apartment or Al’s job. Not happy that everything’s hard, everything’s a struggle.  “Pigeons live better than us!” he says. Oh, did I mention that Eddie speaks?

Then a large bird comes a-calling, “Hey, Al.” He takes Al and Eddie to a beautiful island in the sky, where there’s plenty to eat and drink, and the days are long and beautiful and sunny. The large bird says, “So, Al, is this so terrible?” Al says he could live like this forever. Facing this seemingly interminable winter, I have to agree with Al.

But as the narrator points out, “ripe fruit soon spoils.” And Al wakes up one morning to discover that he and Eddie are turning into birds. Al says he’d rather mop floors than be a bird, and he and Eddie flap on outta there. But before they reach home, Eddie—exhausted—crashes into the ocean. Al barely makes it back alive, alone and missing his friend. But luckily little Edie is quite the swimmer and he finds his way back to their apartment.

The last page shows the little apartment all covered in newspaper as Al paints the walls. The narrator concludes that “Paradise lost is sometimes Heaven found.”

So perhaps the story is a little clichéd. You know, “appreciate what you have,” or “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.”  That sort of thing.  And the story almost seems to suggest that we should “be careful what we wish for” and not “fly too high.” A little conservative for my taste.

But that’s overanalyzing it. The story is not preaching or intellectualizing. It’s just a good story with a good emotional punch. When Al gets home, exhausted and alone, I almost tear up. Sad, right? But I feel sorry for Al. Sure things are bad at the beginning of the story, but at least he has Eddie. Now Eddie’s gone. This is terrible! 

But then Eddie returns, and not only is all back to normal, but things are better than normal because Al and Eddie realize—I mean, truly understand—that they have each other.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. A story that reminds me I have friends is what broke me out of my winter funk? Yes. It is. But not by making me think about what I have. Hey, Al is a simple story, but surprisingly visceral. It makes me feel my appreciation for what I have.

I often read as a writer, trying to understand why something in a story works and how a writer achieves desired effects. But there are times I read as a reader, too. And when I’m in a funk, I let a story wash over me.  My guard is down in a way that it’s never down when I’m having a conversation with someone. This is one of the many reasons we need story. We need to feel.

Thanks, Peggy for the recommendation. Before bed, I think I’ll read Dr. Seuss’s Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?, which offers a different emotional nudge to break free from a slump—humor to enumerate the outlandishly awful things that could be.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Riley. This was a reminder that children's books often offer the simple wisdom that we need from time to time as adults. It's nice to know that lessons often have great timing, whether in a book, blog or recommendation from a friend.