"I have read your two textbooks, Dr. Druss, and you will never be a scholar," said Dr. Keys. He was angry at me; he was angry at everyone. Crawford Keys was an eminent professor of history at a nearby university and a patient of mine. He went on: "Your footnotes are few, your references are scanty, and your bibliographies are thin soup, indeed. You are really nothing more than an anecdotalist, a second-rate Homer at best."
I said nothing to this latest tirade but thought, "Thank you, thank you, Professor Keys! What a compliment! I aspire to be no more than a second-rate Homer!"
When my son and daughter were children, I began to tell them bedtime stories on Sunday evenings. They were adventure stories in serial form that I created as I told them about two children, Jimmy and Elzpeth (guess who they represented!), and each episode would build to a dramatic climax. Like The Perils of Pauline from the movies, each episode would end with both protagonists in dire straits. For example, Jimmy and Elzpeth would be in a deep forest, on the run from their arch enemies, Cora Munn, their evil babysitter, and Joseph Keviac, satanic warden of the nearby reform school for runaways. In their flight, the two children would fall into a bog of quicksand, with Mrs. Munn and Mr. Keviac hot on their trail. They were trapped and close to drowning. Only their heads remained above the water, and they were sinking fast….
"Well, that’s it until next Sunday."
"Oh, no!" the children groaned, and they happily went off to their rooms.
I had exactly a week to figure out an ending to such impossible circumstances. So, the next time, I had Jimmy and Elzpeth grab two hollow swamp reeds and breathe through them with their heads underwater. Mr. Keviac and Mrs. Munn could not see the children as they hastily ran by. One could always count on the stupidity of these two villains to save the day.
These stories of mine were created from residues of my own childhood, culled from the 500-plus golden age comic books I owned and endless hours at the radio listening to The Shadow and Arch Oboler’s Quiet Please. Stanley Kunitz, the former poet laureate, might have called them campfire yarns. The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen called them fairy tales. They give scary pleasure to the listener and replace the unvoiced and uncontrollable anxieties of everyday life with overt and controllable ones. My adult son and daughter remember these stories with great affection.
Since that time, some 25 years ago, I have read the works of humanistic physicians who describe the healing power of words. They say that telling stories to patients can often be dramatically helpful. A carefully chosen story can be the centerpiece of a good psychotherapy session as well.
But I didn’t have to go any further afield than my three grandsons to challenge my skills. When Noah, the eldest, was 3, he suffered the birth of a younger brother. He quickly discovered that Jared was not going to be returned to the toy store, and he turned from a sweet, cherubic little fellow into an angry and obstreperous one. His anger (never directed toward the infant) was expressed with fists, elbows, and knees and in lost eating skills. When my wife and I drove up to Bethany, Connecticut, for our monthly visit and entered the family room, we saw a scene of almost total chaos. We saw Noah in his high chair, bib askew, juice overturned, firing peas across the room. My son and daughter-in-law, both sleep deprived, were trying to calm screaming, colicky little Jared.
I walked over to Noah and began in a quiet voice: "Once upon a time, there was a good little boy by the name of Noah Druss. And he lived with his mommy, daddy, and baby brother in Bethany, Connecticut."
"17 Anthony Court?" asked Noah, and he was hooked.
"The very one," I said. "One day Noah was playing with an old yellow bottle he found in the closet, and when he pulled on the plug, out walked a little man no bigger than my fingers." I walked my two fingers across the high chair tray.
"Like this?" asked Noah, walking his two fingers across the tray.
"Just like that," I said. "The little man had almost no hair and wore funny eyeglasses. ‘I am Pinday,’ he said. ‘I have been in that bottle for a thousand years. Because you have freed me, I will grant you three wishes.’"
"‘Oh, good Pinday, dear Pinday, wonderful Pinday, my first wish is to be able to fly,’" said Noah.
"‘Let it be so,’ commanded Pinday, ‘Fly! Fly!’"
As I flapped my own arms wildly, I told Noah that Pinday had given him the gift of flight. Noah watched me with jaws agape. My wife Margery was holding Jared, now asleep, and my son and daughter-in-law were out cold.
I kept the story going for about 40 minutes. The second wish to Pinday (good Pinday, dear Pinday, wonderful Pinday) was to be made the strongest little boy in the world, able to intimidate Riley, the large Labrador retriever across the way who frightened Noah a bit. The third wish (good Pinday, dear Pinday, wonderful Pinday) was to be made the fastest little boy in the world.
"Noah was so fast," I said, "if he got an itch on his back, he could run around the world and scratch his own back!" I’m not sure Noah entirely grasped this concept, but it appeared to amuse him.
I can report that later, when we were about to leave, I bent down to give Noah a goodbye kiss, and he whispered in my ear, "You know, Grandpa Richard, you look a lot like Pinday!"
I wish I could report that this story produced more than a 40-minute change in Noah’s behavior; the implicit moral of the story—that it is more fun to be a strong, fast boy than to be a baby—did not last. But Pinday did. In his weekly telephone call the next weekend, my son told me that he saw Noah rummaging through a carton of empty soft drink bottles. My son told him that the bottles were empty and were awaiting recycling but that there were plenty of full bottles in the refrigerator and that he could have one if he wanted it.
"No," Noah had said. "I looking for Pinday."
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