Rereading The Phantom Tollbooth in This Year of Our Pandemic Doldrums
Kate Washington on Norton Juster’s Classic
In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo—the child-hero driving through a world of word and number play—accidentally enters a low, dull place. The world loses all its color, everything becoming “grayer and monotonous.” He feels drowsy, his car won’t move, and finally he comes to a dead stop. He has strayed into this land of stasis by failing to pay attention to where he’s going, and, an inhabitant tells him slowly, it’s called The Doldrums: “‘The Doldrums, my young friend, are where nothing ever happens and nothing ever changes.’”
Its inhabitants, the Lethargarians, are firmly wedded to their torpor, sticking to a strict schedule of doing nothing at all and telling Milo that thinking is against the law (“Ordinance 175389-J: It shall be unlawful, illegal, and unethical to think, think of thinking, surmise, presume, reason, meditate, or speculate while in the Doldrums”). When Milo objects that everyone thinks, they shoot back that most of the time, in fact, people don’t, and in fact that’s why Milo is in the Doldrums.
I’ve thought of this passage often over the last year, and somehow it felt fittingly mournful that its author, Norton Juster, died just as we were reaching the sad milestone of a year of pandemic life—though, of course, that anniversary is slightly different for everyone. These doldrums, like those in The Phantom Tollbooth, took many of us by surprise. I, at least, wasn’t paying attention closely enough to the looming threat the pandemic caused.
My teenage daughter loves to remind me that she texted me in January 2020 to say she didn’t think we were taking this seriously enough and we should stock up on food. She was right, but there have been so many threats averted (H1N1, for instance) that I wasn’t able to imagine this one coming to pass as it has. For much of 2020, the federal government and a lot of our fellow citizens seem to be adhering strenuously to Ordinance 175389-J.
The Phantom Tollbooth’s wordplay conflates an emotional state with a real place, but the doldrums are also a real place—though not one you can drive to in a car. In the days before steam engines, boats could end up adrift in the equatorial calms, the space without winds in the middle of the world, for weeks. The intense heat of the sun in the band about five degrees north and south of the equator forces hot air up, leaving little surface wind. Sailors took to calling this region the doldrums. I would have guessed that the feeling was named for the region, but it’s the reverse: a whole vast section of the ocean, named for feeling down in the dumps, unable to move backward or forward. (The word doldrums shares an Old English root with “dull.”)The inhabitants of the Doldrums are firmly wedded to their torpor, sticking to a strict schedule of doing nothing at all.
British sailors called areas nearby the Horse Latitudes. According to a possibly apocryphal story, there becalmed captains started throwing horses overboard, because they drank too much of the limited freshwater supply on board. I think of the value of the horses, so precious as military equipment that they were shipped at enormous trouble halfway around the world. Of doomed horses swimming. Of the oppressive silence so far from land there is not even the squawk of birds but instead an incongruous squeal of a drowning horse—the smallest of minor tragedies in the context of a shipping industry that, at the time, was transporting human beings to enslavement.
So much language—evocative, punchy, rich—comes from the sea and the world of sailing, words we never think of: aloof, close quarters, a clean bill of health, knowing the ropes, aboveboard. The language of seagoing feels far from my landlocked life, but resonant when so many of us have been marooned, becalmed, the wind taken out of our sails.
During the pandemic I found myself thinking with longing of water, seeking out a weekly dunk or swim, despite the challenge of finding a COVID-safe place without other people in the summer of closed pools and uncertainty. I live in a landlocked, summer-crisped place, but I can drive to the ocean for the momentary relief of broadened horizons. In the summer, before the wildfires began and California’s air quality became hazardous, my family and I tried to go to one of the rocky beaches of the Sonoma coast. But it was the first day of the killer heat wave that sparked those wildfires, and everyone else had the same idea. “BEACH PARKING FULL. TURN AROUND,” a sign several blocks inland flatly proclaimed. Thinking we might be an exception, as so many of us do, we briefly got ensnared in the Lethargarian traffic jam of a tiny town. We turned off into a parking lot and looked over the beach, teeming with people during a summer of surging COVID cases. We turned away from the seaside town, the soft-serve ice cream, the normal pleasures of a summer day at the beach, and kept driving.
Farther up the coast, we found a spot to look out over the rocks and the bright impossible blue and the grimy foam, the mussels grinding up the coarse-sand beach with every fling of the surf. I stood in the surf and thought about riptides and whether it would be so bad, really, to be swept out and flung against those rough rocks. It would, of course, and I turned back to my husband and my children, anxious about the number of people at the small cove. Even after five months of isolation, I could see their worlds narrowing, their rigidity and fragility growing. Now, as we approach a tentative re-entry into the world, I think about the losses to them, and the greater losses to so many more children with less ability to go to a rough beach on a sunny day. I know that I, and my kids, have been lucky to experience nothing worse than doldrums.
Sailors might have known more than most people through history about how to handle boredom and long, enforced isolation in tight quarters with people you had to tolerate. That has continued long past the days of yore: according to Harper’s Index, some 200,000 seafarers were stranded on board a ship because of the pandemic. Much about life on the seas seemed to be about endurance, getting through it. That engendered strange hobbies. Think of the time consuming carving of scrimshaw. Think of building ships in bottles. Think of singing sea shanties to cope.Humans love a disaster, but only shaped and curated and set to music, not to live in. We want the fall to be followed by the rise.
The grand tradition of marine songs and stories extends back past memory and up to the minute of shanties’ unlikely TikTok moment. Their modern master is Stan Rogers, a Canadian folk singer who died of smoke inhalation on a burning plane, a different kind of shipwreck. Rogers, who grew up visiting family in a seafaring part of Nova Scotia, sang some traditional shanties but also wrote his own seafaring songs. My favorite is “The Mary Ellen Carter,” the story of a sunken ship and the men who want to raise it from the depths. In the documentary One Warm Line, about Stan Rogers’s life and early death, the makers interview one sailor who credits his own survival of a shipwreck to the song. While floating, waiting for rescue, in freezing waters, he sings the rousing chorus, which exhorts listeners to “rise again,” to keep himself alert and persevering. The thing is, it’s not the Mary Ellen Carter that does the rising, not on its own. The sailors who love her raise her up.
Humans love a disaster, but only shaped and curated and set to music, not to live in. We want the fall to be followed by the rise, the sharp break of a wreck and the clarity of rescue, the clean lines of narrative to give us hope. The endless, ongoing muddle of a slow-moving disaster no one of us can shift alone doesn’t make for good storytelling, never mind a good way to live.
I listened to “The Mary Ellen Carter” regularly four years ago when I thought my husband was dying after his bone marrow transplant. I listened to it again on pandemic Sunday afternoons in when I needed to put clean sheets back on the bed. One of these things was a much more taxing experience than the other, but doing anything, these days, is a push. I just didn’t have it in me, much as it seemed through 2020 that the U.S. didn’t have what it took to slow a pandemic.
Over the long pandemic year, the smallest thing could take the wind out of my sails. Leg cramps that were more painful than usual. A grocery delivery (the first slot I found open in four months) that substituted giant hamburger buns instead of hot dog buns, messing up a lazy dinner plan. A computer glitch stopping me from placing an unnecessary online order. Moments requiring even a smidge of resilience would leave me crying, flattened, forward momentum stopped. The pandemic squandered our reserves, just as the government’s response in 2020 squandered our resources. Forget learning from history; we weren’t even learning from the present.
I’ve heard faux-desperate people say they would like to walk into the sea, as a way of hoping to leave it all behind. I said it myself on that failed beach day when my daughters were fighting in the back seat as we looked for a beach: I want to stop this car and simply walk into the sea.
Taking to the sea—instead of into it—is a different hope of escaping. It involves collective action, or nearly always does: signing onto a crew, pledging to work with shipmates.
The power of water and wind is too much for almost any individual, leaving aside quixotic odysseys like that of Kon-Tiki. I’m not sure I understand the point of those solo quests. Both the appeal and the horror of the ocean depends on others. We need to mass our physical strength to steer a boat, to withstand the waves; one person alone can’t hold out for long against the relentless force of water.
I wonder, as I think about my daughters’ changed world, what kind of horses we are all throwing overboard simply to conserve our limited resources. Some of the things I’ve thrown overboard: limits on my daughters’ screen time and my younger’s bedtime, certain more ethical consumer practices (my plastic bag collection now could choke an ocean and I suppose someday will), so many small bits of my routine that were once dear to me, above all most of my writing. The culture, more broadly, is throwing horses overboard with abandon: school, for instance. In most of the United States, we chose bars in May over schools in September, and the wake from that decision will rock a generation. Some members of that generation, sadly, will be swamped, thrown overboard as part of the losses our society, writ large, decided we could accept: Hundreds of thousands of lives ended. Hundreds of millions, maybe, opportunities curtailed.
In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo eventually got out of the doldrums by thinking as hard as he can. The lesson is clear to any of us raised in a household where a parent shot back, “Only boring people are bored!” in response to any nothing-to-do whining: You must innovate your way out of your doldrums. Milo thought of “birds that swim and fish that fly,” of foods he’s eaten and words that start with J, as he thinks, the wheels of his fantasy car begin to turn. Our long becalming ends with words beginning with V: votes for a relief package, vaccines that bring us back together. Even in the United States, land of the new Lethargarians, I think I can feel the wind.