Unblock that metaphor

The Phantom Tollbooth is a fantasy about ideas turned real. This year, we tried to turn our incomprehensible reality back into ideas.

On Tuesday came the news that Norton Juster, best known as the author of the marvelous children’s novel The Phantom Tollbooth and the lovely little illustrated volume The Dot and the Line, had died. He was 91, a resident of Western Massachusetts, and had worked for his whole career as an architect, in addition to being the author of these unpindownable works of art.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a fantasy and an allegory, but one that, as Laura Miller recently wrote for Slate, gives allegories a good name rather than their commonly bad one. It tells the tale of Milo, a slender and beaky little lad as depicted in scratchy black and white drawings by Jules Feiffer. Milo is bored, but when a mysterious tollbooth appears in his room, he goes through it into the Lands Beyond, where two beautiful princesses named Rhyme and Reason have been banished by two royal brothers locked in a battle over whether words or numbers are more important. Milo sets off to rescue the princesses, along the way making friends that include a part-clock “watchdog,” a twelve-faced Dodecahedron, a Soundkeeper who collects the world’s noises, and a conductor whose orchestra plays the world’s colors. He returns home newly attuned to the beauty and interest of his world.   

While I was sad to hear of Juster’s death, I was also surprised he had still been alive, since he hadn’t seemed young when I met him as a child. Around the late 1980s, Juster came to read at my local kids’ bookstore, The Children’s Book Shop, where I would soon talk myself into my first paid job. (If you’re in the Boston area and have any small readers to buy for or like kids’ books yourself, please go there posthaste. It’s a gem.) At the time, The Phantom Tollbooth was already at least a quarter-century old, and Juster had attained a white-bearded and twinkly middle age, not unlike one of his characters.

“We had a huge party!” recalled Terri Schmitz, the proprietor of the bookshop then and now. There were edible letter cookies and entertainment. Schmitz, who has personally sold hundreds of copies of The Phantom Tollbooth over the years, said of the book, “It was and still is amazing. I just love the ways it turns kids on to the idea of wordplay, when they can suddenly get the jokes. It’s just a cornerstone kind of book that everyone should have.”

Juster delights in taking common ideas and making them both as literal and as playful as can be. (One man, who is both as tall as can be and as everything else as can be, turns out to be, of course, Canby himself.) We encounter a smoky, noisy, tempestuous creature called the awful DYNNE, whose job is to go around sourcing ingredients for horrible sounds. Ignorance is a series of dark mountains crawling with demons, including the Terrible Trivium, a dapper fellow with no face, who pleasantly assigns the heroes undoable tasks like moving a mountain of sand with tweezers, and who still haunts my dreams. The Phantom Tollbooth was where I first encountered words like “doldrums”—in Juster’s depiction, a monotonous region inhabited by small lazy creatures called Lethargians, whose only talents are time-wasting and blending into their surroundings. The book embodies these concepts in friendly, offhand, silly, clever ways, making a persuasive overall case for the generative power of language.  

Juster’s departure caps what has been, for many of us, a whole year in the doldrums. The pandemic, which sank into the American consciousness on this precise week in 2020, has left us in a surreal, unfamiliar landscape punctuated by loss, and with no tollbooth and small electric car to offer escape. None of us know quite how to describe it, and so we have reached for our own metaphors.

Fortunately, we have left behind the period where life was like a bald eagle confronting Donald Trump, though that certainly went on for a while. You can buy a T-shirt with an adorable dumpster fire, a common shorthand for 2020, though the even more poignant dumpster fire with a face mask seems to be sold out. Match.com is running commercials in which 2020 is personified as a dirtbag hot girl who finds love with Satan—“Make 2021 your year,” the ad suggests. (Charmingly, the couple hold their first date at an Olmstedian overpass in Central Park. Classic move, Satan!)

But 2021 is already offering up dark metaphors of its own. There’s Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, walking in to nix a raise to the minimum wage carrying a large chocolate cake—for staffers, but the look was very Marie Antoinette. There’s Wall Street’s Fearless Girl statue, which in honor of International Women’s Day was surrounded by broken glass intended to represent glass ceilings becoming “stepping stones.” How apt, since many women can indeed relate to the idea of being immobilized in a sea of menacing glass shards; just ask Meghan Markle or Taylor Lorenz. There’s the very 2021 sea slug that made headlines this week for ripping off its own head and crawling off to regrow its body, leaving the old body to respond to stimuli for months before decaying—“It me,” one commenter said.

It’s a strange, tenuous time, with states jockeying to open up even while most of us have yet to be vaccinated. Mercifully, it does look like the situation will improve within two months. States and cities are upgrading their buggy vaccination systems, and Biden has promised enough doses to cover all American adults by May. What this means, though, is that the many people still dying are doing so within sight of the finish line, which gives these losses an especially bitter sting. Lisa Respers France, at CNN, recently eulogized her beloved dad, lost last month just as they searched for a vaccine appointment for him. My family learned this week that a dear friend in San Francisco, Noe Hill Market owner Sami Bsisso, had died of Covid as well. He, too, would have been vaccinated soon.

Still, as far as metaphors go, I’m going to cling to the one I spotted in my neighborhood this week: a nest in progress, in a bare tree. The nest was built partly of twigs, like in any year, and partly of string and some kind of blue-striped plastic packing material. But because it was 2021, it was also built partly of personal protective equipment, with the fingers of a filthy rubber glove trailing limply off the side.

It was disgusting. But it was also sort of touching, in the way that a Terrible Trivium can be simultaneously horrible and amusing, and in the way that this moment is at once so sad and so filled with promise. I hope some creature will lay eggs in that weird nest, and that their offspring will thrive. In a few weeks, I plan to go back and see.

What to read

New York’s hottest fashion trend is: Zizmorcore, according to this New York Magazine story by Stella Bugbee—in other words, wearing the fashion of the most deeply NYC brands in order to support them, in a phenomenon named after the quintessential campy subway-ad doctor. As a person with at least one Katz’s Deli, Economy Candy, and WFMU T-shirt to her name, and having once had the magical NYC-cubed experience of listening to Roz Chast riff on Dr. Zizmor inside the Flatiron Building, I am 1000% the target audience for this. Buy the T-shirt, defend your institutions. (Works for other cities, too.)

“The contemporary royals have no real power. They serve entirely to enshrine classism in the British nonconstitution. They live in high luxury and low autonomy, cosplaying as their ancestors, and are the subject of constant psychosocial projection from people mourning the loss of empire.” I am completely exhausted by royal drama at this point. But if you’re going to read one piece about Meghan and Harry’s explosive interview with Oprah on the disparate treatment and tabloid nastiness that led them to step down from their official duties as royals, make it Patrick Freyne’s cool-blooded, perfectly written dissection of the event in the Irish Times.

For NBC’s Think section, I wrote about the social function of group chats during the pandemic—to keep you sane and to keep you honest. If you are in any of my group chats from the past year, THANK YOU. If you don’t have one (or more) going, it’s not too late to start.

What to consume

My best Twitter follow of the week was Lego Lost at Sea, an account devoted to a huge cache of Legos lost at sea in 1997 that continue to wash up on Cornish beaches, along with other plastic toys and detritus. Besides the serious environmental implications of this plastic waste and the visual pleasure of seeing a lot of similar found objects grouped together, there’s some wonderful sleuthwork on display—like figuring out this random little piece of plastic that washed up this fall is a specific doll’s evening clutch from 1963.

It’s fascinating to listen to Georgia elections mastermind (and former gubernatorial candidate, romance novelist, etc.) Stacey Abrams in a long interview, because she is such a brilliant, idiosyncratic thinker that she often rejects the whole premise of the question and lines up the pieces to create something completely different. She was on the New York Times’s Sway podcast last week talking to, full disclosure, my wife.

I can’t even explain how I ended up in this particular crevice of Spotify, but this playlist of extremely bland piano covers of pop songs is just so bizarre. If you’ve ever wished you had a player piano that could cover “Despacito” and “Cry Me a River,” you’re in luck. It makes my brain itch in an uncomfortable way, but I just know there’s some great purpose for this mashed-potato music—a film score? Background music under the radio DJ? If you find a good use for it, let us know.

Here’s hoping you find out what these next couple months are similar to, and that they are similar to something good. See you next week.