Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Giving Tree Incident

I’m not a big person for the question “what is your best [blank]?” I don’t believe in the "best” anything. I believe in the Perspective Evolution. I believe in the Eternal Now. I believe every day I wake up a different man ...

But, I understand the need to occasionally work within the system. It's an annoying conversation when you're just trying to have small talk with someone and they're all, "every day I wake up a different man." So if you ask me my favorite movie, I’ll tell you Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And if you ask me my favorite book, I’ll tell you The Brothers Karamazov by my mizzah Fyodor.

But specifically on the book tip, my mind will invariably think about other potential contenders to the throne. I've cried every time I've read The Brothers Karamazov, and I think that's my primary factor in determining my best/favorite book. Crying, in my mind, is a tougher *get* than laughter, so if a book draws the tears out it receives extra points for difficulty. As such, the primary challenger to The Brothers K is a book I've only read once or twice, but sparked a memorable crying episode. And that book is: The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

Now it’s quite possible that I read The Giving Tree as a child. But for whatever reason, I don't remember it. So for all intents and purposes, my first real reading of The Giving Tree came my freshman year in college. And it wasn't in a class, it was while hanging out with friends. On drugs, natch.

All my incidents with 'shrooms were confined to my freshman and sophomore years in college. The experiences I had were sufficiently intense enough that I’m fairly afraid to try them again. I could give it a shot -- I'm about 90% sure I could handle it -- but fantasies of what could happen in that 10% zone are enough for me to play it safe.

This particular episode was maybe my third or fourth time taking mushrooms. In contrast to my previous escapades where I was full of vim vigor and vitality, on this occasion I was sick. Not just a little sniffle mind you, I basically had the bubonic plague; fever, chills, and a few days spent in three sweatshirts under mountains of covers praying for death. It was also dead in the middle of winter in Connecticut. All the ingredients you need to officially call yourself miserable.

On the bright side, it was college. And so I had visitors. One friend came by and gave me 20 vitamin C. Others stopped by just to say hello, or to laugh at my dilapidated state. The sort of love and camaraderie you don't get (or at least I don't) once you leave school. My roommate "Teeks" was very sympathetic; when he stole a keg from a frat house and brought it back to our room circa 5:45 AM on a Friday night/Saturday morning he took great pains to keep it on his side of our 12x12 dorm room. The friends who came to the impromptu kegger jumpoff that followed were also kind enough to not jump on my bed or spill beer on me. Everyone's so considerate in college, I kind of miss it.

Now I had gotten sick early in the week, marinated in my own pestilence for a few days, and woke up on Saturday, post-kegger, feeling nominally better. Once out of bed I found many of my friends had gathered for a weekend 'shroom festival, and it seemed like every hot girl on campus was in on the action. I was distraught figuring there was no way I could participate. I kept thinking maybe I could push it, but when they said they'd be taking 'shrooms I thought, no, maybe some other drugs I could do, but not 'shrooms. I was too sick for that.

BUT, it was college, and in college if three people decide they're going to walk on their hands in traffic and ask you to join, you're like, hmmmm, I can't walk on my hands, and the traffic sure looks dangerous, but ... welllllll ok. You only live once, etc. etc. The memory is fuzzy, but I'd guess 30 minutes or so after determining I couldn't do 'shrooms in my condition I was scarfing them down.

Magically, as the 'shrooms took effect I was reinvigorated. My sickness, apparently, was no match for the power of hallucinogenic drugs. And even better it seemed the over-the-top trippiness was used up in combating my misery. I was slightly loopy, but very much in control, which in my weakened state was perfect.

As was the norm with 'shroom festivals, the large tribe of drug users splintered off into traveling sects. I was still conscious of not overextending myself and stayed in the dorm. I ended up in a room with three of my closer friends, two girls, one cup guy.

At this point we're just hanging around having normal college conversation, and somehow The Giving Tree comes up. My friends start debating the morality of the story, but I wasn't familiar. Somehow we located a copy and started reading.

Right from the onset I found the story incredibly gripping. I could relate to the boy. I could relate to the tree. I'm a sucker for stories/songs/fantasies of unconditional sex love, and this is perhaps the most classic of them all. So in my mushroom-enhanced emotional state, I easily immersed myself in the melodrama.

Now if you're not familiar with the story, there's basically a boy, and a tree, and the tree loves the boy, and the narrative tracks the life of the boy as he grows from child to old man and constantly takes advantage of the tree using it for his own selfish needs and never offering anything in return. First he uses the tree as a playground, then for shade to hang with his girl, then for apples to sell, then for its branches and so on. But the tree doesn't mind because the tree loves the boy unconditionally.

Towards the end the boy actually cuts down the tree to make a boat or somesuch, just leaving a stump in his wake. And as the good-for-nothing brat leaves to carve up the tree that loved him the text reads, "And the tree was happy." Followed on the next page by, "But not really."

The way the book is formatted, just one line to the page, I thought that was the end. I couldn’t believe it. I was crushed. I had been sitting on the lap of one of the girls who was reading the story to me and, oh chile, when I read those words I was inconsolable. The tears started streaming and I smacked the book out of her hand, got up, and just started bawling:

"This is a story for children?!? How can they let kids read a story like this?? It's horrible! It makes me sick! That poor tree dedicated everything she had to that boy. He carved in her, and played on her, and used her for money, and this is how it ends?!!?!? 'And the tree was happy. But not really.' What?!!? This is bullsh*t. What kind of devil book is this?? This story is what's wrong with this f'ing world. I can't believe you let me read this evil thing. The book should be burned and the author should be hung.... "

Or something like that. It was probably a lot less coherent.

Needless to say my friends were taken aback. Back then, as I am now, I was a fairly cool, calm and collected individual. Yet here I was having some sort of nervous breakdown prompted by a fictitious boy chopping down a tree.

But it's a moving story, and emotions are contagious, so next thing you know the two girls are welling up over my display. Meanwhile my guy friend was being sarcastic and mocking me for crying at a children's tale. I'm not sure, but I'm guessing this was all happening at the peak of our "trip."

Eventually they calmed me down and revealed that the story wasn't over. In fact, there was more to it.


I wiped the tears from my eyes and the snot from my nose and soldiered forward, fearful of being exposed to further inhumanity, but confident it couldn't possibly get any worse. Turns out the boy comes back one more time as an old man and while not totaling redeeming his lifetime of obnoxious behavior, he spends time with the tree (now just a stump) and the story concludes with the tree being happy. The End.

The finale was still bittersweet, and I remained a bit fragile until I came down from the 'shrooms, at which point my sickness returned. But now instead of hating the book, I love it, perhaps unconditionally, for the moment of raw, drug-induced, emotional release it afforded me.

I found two youtube renditions of The Giving Tree. One's a live action after-school special type deal. The other is a plain reading, much like the one that led to me exposing my malnourished heart one fine wintry day:

Shel Silverstein [Official Site]


  1. Oddly, only children's books make me teary eyed. The Giving Tree tops the list. Love You Forever and the poem "Where the Sidewalk Ends" also get me teary for different reasons. The only adult books that almost got me there were The Bluest Eye and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

  2. Anonymous2/07/2008

    I smell a hypocrite.

  3. I can honestly say that I do not remember reading that book, but I know I did - I had all of Sheldons stuff.

    And as for the 'shrooms, man they did those over at Smith too! Bwahaha! Perhaps its a Mass thang? Iont know. What I DO know is that I wasnt about to mess with them, oh no! Lola does NOT do any drug that has the potential to permanently (sp?) alter the chemistry of ones brain with just one useage. My college drug experimentation was limited to pot. And that was good enough for me, lol.


  4. Sure, blame it on college. I never got the opportunity to experiment with shrooms, but I did try the blue pill. I never felt so great in my life. It was a one time thing though...


  5. "The Giving Tree" also invokes that feeling of sadness in me, too (so, too, does "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", and yes, the two are much closer in theme than most realize).

    It makes me sad, not just because I have empathy of the tree, but because it hits me in a different place... I've taken from people my whole life. Once in a while, as I've gotten older, some things invoke a bit of guilt.

    At least I'm grateful, though. That boy is a brat.

  6. Anonymous2/13/2008, check out the track "burning bush"

  7. Anonymous3/17/2008

    Wow...I'm a mom of two in CA and my 8 year old son read
    The Giving Tree to me today and I balled. We ended up having a lengthy discussion afterwards. He was angry at the boy and offered alternatives to taking from the tree. He said, "why didn't he just get a job instead of taking her apples?" I said the tree represents all trees and that we cut down trees to make money. So, its a very vicious cycle. He pondered my comment and just sat there kind of perplexed. He said, I feel mad and sad, so many things all at once. It was one of the most powerful moments we've had together. I'm glad to see the book had a similar effect on you.


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