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You're Only Old Once! by Dr. Seuss : A Book for Obsolete Children by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) (Random House: $9.95; 42 pp., illustrated)

March 09, 1986| Jack Smith

At 82, the beloved Dr. Seuss has published his first book for adults.

That's assuming that all his children's books weren't meant for adults, and that this one isn't meant for children.

"Is this a children's book?" the jacket blurb asks slyly. "Well . . . not immediately. You buy a copy for your child now and you give it to him on his 70th birthday."

Theodor Seuss Geisel, living on his hilltop in La Jolla, turning out his children's books full of wonderfully imaginary and benign animals for the past 30 years, may have seemed to us like the Creator himself, beyond the reach of mortality.

Now he reveals himself as human and old, and full of aches and pains and alarming symptoms, and frightened of the world of geriatric medicine, with its endless tests, overzealous doctors, intimidating nurses, Rube Goldberg machines and demoralizing paper work.

His cartoons are the same. Round and billowing, in pink, blue, green and yellow, as if sculptured in ice cream. The verses are as charming and the rhymes as outrageous as ever. We do not find the cat in the hat or the wocket in the pocket, but Dr. Seuss' cornucopia of strange fauna and flora has not gone dry.

We do find the health-giving Tutt-a-Tutt Tree, in the green-pastured mountains of Fotta-fa-Zee, and an animal that comes from out beyond Z.

His story, which can be read in 10 minutes, takes an uneasy old man (who is us) through the anxieties, indignities, boredom, outrages and sheer terrors of a thorough examination in that advanced technological machine, a modern hospital.

He looks like Everyman (at 70) in his plain suit and polka-dot bow tie, with bald head, tufts of white hair over his ears, and white mustache. Mr. Milquetoast.

At the outset, we find him sitting in the waiting room beside an aquarium, being examined tentatively by its lone occupant, a fish that might be a goldfish. (And then it might be a quandary.)

Our patient (for that is what he is) is reading a copy of the National Geographic about Fotta-fa-Zee, "where everybody feels fine at a hundred and three . . . and they live without doctors, with nary a care. . . ."

A finger beckons ominously to a room down the hall, past signs pointing to such unnerving departments as Optoglymics and Dermoglymics, and our patient is led, evidently, into Optoglymics, where he peers through one of Dr. Seuss' fantastic contraptions, while a mechanical hand presses his head against the eyepiece, to read a screen of letters of increasing size: "Have you any idea . . . how much money . . . these tests are . . . costing . . . YOU?"

The caption notes that "You've come in for an eyesight and solvency test."

Anyone who has been through the hospital routine will empathize with our patient as he is stripped of his clothing and stood up in a metal chamber to be ogled from either side by doctors peering through oglepieces and a nurse who peers up through the bottom, obviously ogling the last resort of the poor chap's privacy.

You haven't a chance,

for the next thing you know,

both your socks and your pants

and your drawers and your shoes

have been lost for the day.

The Oglers have blossomed

like roses in May!

And silently, grimly, they ogle away.

In the next panel he waits again beside the aquarium in his hospital robe, looking helplessly into the eyes of the little fish ("he's quite sympathetic, as Clinic Fish go"), waiting for the results of his tests.

"There you'll sit for several hours,

growing tenser each second,

fearing your fate will be worse than you reckoned,

till finally Miss Becker, your beckoner, beckons...."

Dr. Seuss is not a gloomy prophet or philosopher. He has exorcised the world's real monsters by filling it with his own--the yuzz, the wumbus, the snee, the itch-a-pod, the fuddle and the grinch--which are not, after all, the least bit more improbable than the wallaby, the kangaroo, the armadillo, the aardvark, the hippopotamus and the kinkajou.

Perhaps Dr. Seuss' magic has been in creating a world through which children can imagine and learn not to fear the real world. In the same way, this new book, ostensibly written for old people, may help them face up to the perils of hospitalization. It may be equally useful in helping children to understand the frailties and fears of their grandparents.

It has a happy ending, as usual. Our patient leaves the hospital, bow tie comfortably back in place, having been told that "you're in pretty good shape, for the shape you're in."

In real life, of course, we know that in the end, the hippopotamus eats us.

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