Happy birthday, Dr. Seuss!

Originally published on March 1, 1998, this piece was assigned by The Christian Science Monitor to honor the birthday of Dr. Seuss. It’s included in my essay collection, Writing Home, now available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.


It was the late 1950s, and he put the fun back in reading when he booted Dick and Jane out of my neighborhood. To me, he was (and still is) the wizard of words, the “gandorious” great-uncle of terrific tongue-twisters.

To many adults who have since become parents, he’s a beloved household icon. His rhymes have thrilled more young bookworms than even he could have imagined. And nobody could imagine things quite like Theodore Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

His influence is so awesome, in fact, that March 2 — Geisel’s birthday — is designated “Cat in the Hat Day.” Endorsing the holiday, the National Education Association suggests we celebrate by reading to a child tomorrow evening.

Starting in 1937, when he wrote and illustrated his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, Geisel found his niche churning out tales of the weird and the whimsical, populating them with squawking fish and top-hatted cats. Even today, few other children’s authors can tickle a four-year-old funny bone as swiftly as Dr. Seuss. Which is why it’s hard to believe that this creator of nerkles and nerds had no kids of his own. Yet he penned 47 children’s books — and sold more than 100 million copies in more than a dozen languages.

Geisel was born in 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father was a brewer who ran a zoo during Prohibition — a zoo that undoubtedly provided endless fodder for young Geisel’s fantasies. (Geisel, by the way, coined the term “nerd” in If I Ran the Zoo.) In 1925 he graduated from Dartmouth, where he’d drawn cartoons for a humor magazine. While studying literature at Oxford in England, he met Helen Palmer, an American literature student who encouraged him to pursue an art career. For a while he drifted in Paris.

In 1927 he came back to the states to marry Helen Palmer. Though he had planned to write novels, the Depression temporarily derailed his art career, and he resumed writing gags for humor magazines. Though his first attempts to publish had been difficult, by the late 1950s “Dr. Seuss” was producing nearly two children’s books a year. Delighting young baby boomers and their parents, Horton Hears a Who was published in 1954, followed by How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat in 1957.

After Helen Palmer’s death in 1967, Geisel married Audrey Dimond and acquired two stepdaughters. He died in 1991 at eighty-seven, with his family at his bedside.

“His contribution was making reading fun again,” says Laurie Harris, a Pleasant Ridge parent and series editor of Biography Today for young readers. “The rhythm and warmth of his words stay in a child’s head forever.”

“I like nonsense,” Geisel once said. “It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But as every fan discovers, Geisel’s “nonsense” isn’t just for kids. His stories are laced with sophisticated messages and illuminating parables, which is why theyre so much fun to read aloud – with or without children. The Butter Battle Book, for example, tackles the perils of the atomic age. Meanwhile, the uproarious Cat in the Hat gets into big trouble, yet somehow manages to redeem himself and straighten out his messes.

Whether were nine or seventy-nine, after all, there are many horrific hills to climb and, yes, incredible kooks to reckon with. — Cindy La Ferle, March 1, 1998


Another birthday

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.” — Samuel Ullman

My birthday rolled around again this week. As I do annually during the first week of August, I take stock of everything that’s happened over the past year. I ask myself where I’ve fallen short or succeeded — but mostly consider what I’ve learned along the way.

Smack in the middle of my fifties now, I’ve finally accepted my imperfections and my weird streak. It’s been a struggle, but I’m also at peace with the idea that not everyone on Earth is going to like me or my ideas.  A woman whose political views I admire once pointed out that if everyone adores you, it’s likely that you don’t have a spine — or any opinions worth defending. I’d rather keep my spine and my opinions.

That said, I don’t ever want to stop growing, changing, and attempting to improve. With that in mind, here are a few things I want to keep working on in the coming year….

Curiosity. One of my favorite quotes from Ray Bradbury goes like this: “Life is trying things to see if they work.” Enthusiasm and curiosity demand a lot of energy — but they keep everyone young in spirit. I’m finding that it helps to hang around with creative people who take risks, seize their passions, try new things, and encourage others to do the same.

Patience. Growing up in the age of instant gratification, I have to keep reminding myself that waiting isn’t such a bad thing. Sometimes I need to chill. Anything worth its salt — including well-written articles, durable relationships, and a great marriage — takes a fair amount of time. And patience. The older I get, the more I appreciate the things I’ve earned through sheer perseverance. But I still need to learn to wait patiently for answers, and to keep the lid sealed on the slow cooker.

Being silly. When I’m at my lowest, it’s usually because I’ve started taking myself way too seriously. And I never cared much for humorless people who take themselves too seriously. I was lucky enough to be raised by a boatload of whimsical Scots who believed that acting silly — really silly — keeps you sane when nothing else makes sense. Now that I’m almost grown up, I know they were spot on.

Listening skills. I’m a talker and a teacher by nature. But as I mature, I hope to become a more accomplished listener and thoughtful conversationalist. My biggest pet peeve is other people who deliver self-absorbed monologues in social situations. I wish I had a dollar for every hour I’ve had to spend with tiresome folks who ramble on and on about their their own stuff — and never ask a single question about my stuff. My new rule of conversation: I must never leave a party, family gathering, lunch date, or interview without knowing at least three new things about the people with whom I’ve spent a few hours. No matter how well I think I know them.

Reality checks. One of my favorite scenes in The Wizard of Oz is when Toto pulls back the curtain and reveals the goofy old guy pretending to be Oz. I’m grateful for every opportunity that serves to zap false illusions and expose the naked emperor. As I age, I hope to have more of these opportunities. This year, I’ve been booked to work as an extra in several feature films and TV episodes. I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking — and human nature. I’ve learned, for instance, that Hollywood is synonymous with hard work, long hours, and sleep deprivation. I’ve met some of the nicest people behind the scenes, and also discovered that real movie stars aren’t quite as glamorous up close as they appear on film. Of course, I knew that all along, but wanted proof. Movie stars are (mostly) regular folks with a knack for high drama. I prefer to be a regular person without the high drama, and I’m ever so grateful I came to that conclusion in my own backyard.

Authenticity. I believe this is the highest quality anyone can aspire to.  As surely as I continue to seek it out in other people and experiences, I must continue to nurture sincerity in myself, in everything I do.

Reading the fine print. I hope to live a healthy life, well into old age, and to die clutching a book in one hand and a real newspaper in the other. I appreciate the Internet and all its wonders, but there isn’t a blog or site in cyberspace that can top or replace the scent of fresh ink on paper, or the discovery of a wonderful novel at my favorite bookstore. This year I must, and will, continue to support the printed word by purchasing newspapers and books and magazines. The employment of many of my dearest (and most respected) friends depends on the endurance and triumph of the printed word. I believe that civilization itself depends on it too.

Appreciation. This has been a year of loss and worry, laced with many reminders to cherish and appreciate the people I love. My father-in-law died in June, and my mother’s health is in question. Meanwhile, a very dear friend is recovering from cancer surgery. Appreciation is the incomparable thrill I get each time I walk through my side door and am reminded of my day-to-day blessings. It’s the sense of comfort that washes over me when I hear my husband breathing next to me, or my son’s voice on the phone. Or when I flip through my address book and glance at the names of the good people I could easily call on for help any time of the day or night. I appreciate every single day and every friend I’m given, and I need to send a thank-you note to the Universe. I really do. — Cindy La Ferle

— Photo: “Crazy Science” by Doug La Ferle —