PUPPET-HANDLING, A HUMANE ART

If it is true that we learn the most from situations we would have avoided if at all possible, then Parker Lockwood is well positioned to learn in You Will Call Me Drog. He has always been a likeable and easy-going boy, a bit of a dreamer, taking his parents divorce in reasonably good stride, content to have a single best friend and to occupy himself with creative projects. He’s a truthful boy. But when he finds an old hand puppet in the junkyard trash and puts it on, suddenly the truth he has to tell is unbelievable. 

The puppet talks, with no apparent mechanical means of doing so, and, no matter how hard he tries, Parker can’t get it off. Drog’s remarks are sarcastic, rude, and wickedly funny, and everyone—his mother, his distant father, his teacher, and his classmates—assumes that it’s Parker doing the talking and wonders why he’s taken this turn. Even his best friend Wren concludes he is “making this up,” perhaps as a way of distancing himself from her. As Parker says, “I guess telling the truth only works if you have something usual to say.”

In very short order, trouble comes at Parker from all sides, but he is now isolated from the very people he could normally count on to help. There is no one he can really talk to about his problem except Drog, who is the problem. He can’t even distract and console himself by making things, because that takes two hands.

You Will Call Me Drog is not a horror novel, though getting a rude and critical puppet stuck on your hand is certainly a horrific premise. It is not a therapy tale about children of divorce, though divorce plays a role. Nor is it a story about a child learning anger management or self control, though some of that happens.

We could say that it is primarily a “coming of age” novel in which a young boy learns who he is, what he values most, and how to relate to others around him. We could, that is, if most of us were not, still, “coming of age” in that sense, still engaged in the work of figuring out what it means to be alive in this moment, how best to live. In the course of this novel, 11-year-old Parker must find the courage to face situations and dilemmas that would daunt many adults. How many of us have simple and ready answers to these basic human questions:

--Who are we when we are alone?  How can we learn to live with the solitude of self?
--How can we live with the possibility that we may never be understood? 
-- Are there inner truths that are deeper and truer than external “facts”?
--How can we reconcile our inner world with the world around us? How can we be our selves in both worlds simultaneously?
--What does it mean to find your voice? What happens if you don’t?
--How can we best deal with anger and violent impulses, our own and other people’s? How can we respond to an opponent without becoming an opponent ourselves?

Those are all questions occupying Parker, even though he would much rather just go do something and get his life back to normal. Of course he is not entirely alone in his struggle, as he discovers. His aikido Sensei is one person who never urges Parker to try to get Drog off, but accepts and respects him with it on.  Nor does Sensei give Parker advice, even when he asks for it. All he will say is “Practice.  Center yourself and practice. That is all I know.”

Practice what? On the surface, it's the throwing and falling techniques he’s learning in class, the focus on a center of gravity and energy in the abdomen, the strategy of joining your attacker and moving not away but toward him, where you can turn his energy (and him) to the side. 

At first, despite the calm atmosphere available to him in aikido class, the level of fighting and anger and mistrust in Parker’s life outside actually increases, and he begins to wonder if Drog is right, that aikido is “for losers.” One night after class the unfairness of his situation and the growing misunderstanding with his parents all come to a head for him and he tries to take his anger out on Sensei by breaking the expected form, punching and kicking him without restraint. Sensei adjusts instantly to the parries and soon has Parker kneeling on the floor, relieved that he has not succeeded. What Sensei says next sums up the self-defense philosophy of aikido in a sentence:  “It is wrong to hurt someone, so if you prevent someone from hurting you, you are doing him a favor.” Then he adds, “Don’t worry. It’s gets easier with practice.”

The solution Parker eventually works out for himself and Drog is essentially an aikido solution. Throughout most of the story, the burning question for him is: how can I get this awful puppet off my hand? Everything he tries in his desperation fails, until he finally asks a new question: why in the world does Drog want to stay on? Once Parker develops some understanding and empathy for the very Drog he needs to get rid of, he is able to “join” him and come up with a way out that is best for them both, that allows them both a voice.

Late in the story, Parker discovers another encouraging friend in Sergio, the puppeteer, who serves as an example to him that it is possible to live a creative and intuitive life and still function in a more literal-minded world. He is stunned when Sergio is able to put Drog on and slip him off at will. “How?” he asks, and Sergio answers, “It gets easier with practice.” 

Though Sergio probably has never taken an aikido lesson, he and Sensei are talking about the same “it.”

Sue Cowing