Story Sickness

Presently I am recovering from particularly viral strain of “story sickness.” At least, that is the name I give to it, that passionate “fevered” desire to complete a particularly imaginative or well-told tale, and the effects are not pretty. The story envelops me. I cannot eat. I cannot sleep. I relinquish all work – as well as most conscious thought – as I devour page after page or scene after scene, driven to discover “What happens next?” Does the Count exact his revenge? Does Taran save his friends from the Black Cauldron? If Nia transforms into an intergalactic harbinger of death and destruction, how will she and Simone ever be together? Stuff like that.

I recall one night several years ago, when my Dad knocked on my door sometime around one or two in the morning. Both of my parents had not seen me for much of the evening. I had disappeared to my room right after inhaling some steak and potatoes and rapidly spitting out a garbled “One moment, Mom. Room with flying keys! Gotta go!” Relinquishing them to this cryptic phrase and some small tuffs of fallen potatoes, I scampered down to my room without a sound.

Worried at my unusual absence, the late hours, and whether I was alive or dead – being the good parents that they are – they decided to check on me. So spying the light creeping beneath my door past midnight, Dad decided to investigate. I, of course, had been reading all day. Recently, you see, my brother Ryan had received the fourth Harry Potter book, and taking an interest in the hype I opened the Sorcerer’s Stone that afternoon . . .

“Are you still up? What are doing in here?”

“Learning magic.” (I cannot recall exactly what I said here, but it was something to this effect. I possess little shame.)

“A book? You’re reading a book at three o’clock in the morning?”

“Yeah, Dad, this book is incredible! The storytelling is fantastic. It just pulled me in almost as soon as I began.”

“Well, remember not to burn the candle at both ends. In a few hours, it will be dawn, and you have to take the kids to school tomorrow. You can always finish tomorrow, you know.”

“I know. I know. But I’m almost finished this second book. It’s so hard to put down. I’ll go to sleep soon. I promise.”

Shortly after that, Hogwarts safe once more and basilisk slain, the second book ended, and I lay on the bed exhausted. With a flip of a switch the Walmart-bought fan twirls and cools my head, steaming with potential ideas for Harry’s later chronicles. Will Voldemort return? What is his connection with Harry? Will Ron always be the comic relief?

“I wonder if Harry fancies Ginny or Hermione?” I think aloud. A few minutes later, I break my promise and leaf through the third book until five or six in the morning. I fall asleep for an hour or two, waking exhausted somewhere between pages one-hundred twenty-eight and twenty-nine. The pages peel from my drool-dampened cheeks and ears. Like a wino with a hangover, I curse at the sun, shining brightly through my windows and stumble off to find Sean and my car keys. I – safely – drive my brothers across town to summer swimming practice, where I then waited in the parking lot, my mind passing into slumber and dreams: detailed visions of wizards, castles, and werewolves.

Such is the nature of my affliction, my “story sickness.” Considering the number of stories I finish each year, few provoke such unhealthy responses. Typically coming-of-age tales empowered with dynamic characters, heroic battles, or the search for true love incites the germ (at heart I am a hopeless romantic). Combine these elements with incredible writing or poetic prose, and the infection spreads. The story consumes me, and for hours or days later I am lost within another world among friends, both old and new. The story sickness strikes once again.

Of course, others may know of a more clinical term – insanity perhaps. My siblings simply tell their friends that their older brother is weird and a little eccentric at times, citing the T-shirt wisdom: “He lives in his own little world, but it’s okay they know him there.” I have heard the word “obsessed” too, somewhere in the din as I sat reading Verne and Doyle long ago. I cannot remember when or where. Growing up in a family of ten, you learn to cloud much of the daily cacophony, especially when there are lands to explore and ghost hounds to unmask.

Frankly, I have just learned to accept the fact that stories are a natural part of my life. A natural inclination like the love of seashores or ice cream. It is akin to breathing. Inhale and exhale. Read and write. The only difficulty lies in choosing between the two:

It’s hard to know when to respond to the seductiveness of the world and when to respond to its challenges. If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn by the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
— E. B. White

A Fable: Of Cereals and Spoons

Seeing my dazed and despondent look on my face, a fellow classmate asked me several weeks ago how my one o’clock class had gone. I answered him with a story, whose moral could be applied to any of the various classes attended this semester:

Once upon a time in Japan there lived a young boy who lived with his grandparents outside many of the major cities. The boy grew up immersed in the old styles and customs of the country as his grandparents shunned many of the modern traditions and habits adopted by the urban populations. Although he loved and respected his grandparents, the boy wished to see and experience the world a bit. He particularly yearned to visit the Western world and taste its delicious food for his grandparents would only eat rice, night and day, day and night. The boy was in desperate need for a change of a palette.

Then one day, the boy got an invitation asking him to visit his cousins in America for the summer. Overjoyed at this news, the boy — after obtaining permission from his grandparents like a good grandson — quickly packed and left for America. When he got to the house of his cousin, he decided that his first experience was to sample American cuisine; therefore, on the morning of his first day he slipped downstairs early in the morning and grabbed a box of flakey cereal and a glass of milk. He had many good things about how delicious cereal in America was and how you eat it not with chop-sticks but with Western utensils, namely a spoon.

The boy had just poured the milk onto the snapping flakes and readied himself for the first bite when his cousin’s father trudged downstairs. The father was an out-of-work academic and seeing the young boy with his first bowl of cereal used this opportunity to refresh his teaching skills.

“Hold on, Kyon,” — for that was the boy’s name — “Wait a moment before you eat that.” The boy, Kyon, hesitated, just inches away from sampling the the spoonful of crunchy sugary cereal.

“Before you eat, let me explain a little history to you about the utensils that we use here in the States. It will help you to better appreciate that meal of yours.” The boy set down his spoon into the bowl and waited, while the milk slowly soaked over and into every morsel of breakfast cereal.

The father then began explaining the history of the spoon, its uses, its origins, and what types of food were created specifically for the utensil: soups, custard, porridge, and grapefruit. He delved into the types of spoons from soup spoons to ladles, to spoons with holes and spoon-straws. “An amusing invention,” the father said, “but quite absurd unless one is eating an orange slush.”

He explained the composition of each spoon, reveling in the stories of ancient wooden spoons, its uses in warfare, and the eventual advent of metal leaden spoons and then lead-free metal spoons: “A practical and eventual discovery, but wonderful nonetheless.”

He then described the architecture of the spoon. How he had coined the round curved section as “bowl” and then thin metal handle as the “handle.” “All of this,” he chimed as his lecture climaxed, “paved the way for the invention of the . . . spork!”

He said this as if to receive an applause, but none came. The boy looked on. His face a strange mixture of boredom and incredulity as the father then descended into another lecture about sporks, eventually transitioning into forks, their uses, their history, and why no one had every thought of such an incredible utensil before.

Eventually after what seemed like several hours, the father paused. The morning paper had landed on the lawn and the sprinklers threatened to soak the Classified and Unemployment section. The father ran outside, accidentally locking the door behind him. Quickly the boy used this opportunity to taste the cereal, which — as you might have guessed — had now turned into pile of mush floating in lukewarm milk. This was worse than week-old rice, the boy thought, promptly tossing the mushy mess, spoon and all, down the garbage disposal.

The moral of this story, for those who have not guessed it, is that even the most delectable exercise can become unpalatable if weighed down with too much instruction. Sometimes the best way to teach anything is by not teaching at all.