Visual Books

Books you read with your eyes.

You Are Who You Meet

I read Su Meck’s “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” awhile ago. It’s her own story of having her life vanish at 22 years old, after being hit in the head by the blade of their kitchen ceiling fan. Something’s been bothering me about it—but it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Su’s story is about more than just textbook memory loss of detail, where she couldn’t remember her name, her husband, her children, or her house. She couldn’t remember what those things even were. She didn’t know what it meant to be a woman, or a wife, or a mother. And because no one realized or accepted the extent of her injury, after a very short time in rehab, she was sent back into her normal existence and expected to perform life as an adult, except she was as uncomprehending as a newborn.

With babies, we expect and understand that they don’t know any of life’s logistics. But Su was that blank slate as an adult, completely vulnerable. She had no idea of what was happening or had happened before, and the people around her (including doctors) either denied her condition, covered it up, or even took advantage of it. But she was forced to cope, even if it was all just rote repetition of doing what people had told her to do, or imitating what people around her did. In rehab, she had been taught how to make a tuna sandwich. So after she was sent home, all she ever made was tuna sandwiches, for every meal, because that is the only thing she knew how to make. Imagine what the next twenty years of life were like for her (including the logistics of marriage and pregnancy). She couldn’t string information together, couldn’t understand patterns or people or relationships. And because no one really believed this could be true, they didn’t discuss it with her. And she didn’t ask questions. Because all the while she didn’t understand that she understood nothing.

I got really upset reading her story, which isn’t surprising, since it’s full of unfairness and frustration and pain, but there was something more about it that just kept making my brain itch. What finally dawned on me is that how Su learned things and operated as an adult isn’t really much different from how most of us do it. We all start as blank slates and develop our operating systems, the way we see the world and ourselves, largely based on what we learn from the people around us. Then we take what we’ve learned and run with it—and just keep running.

if this is true, it makes sense that the kind of people you know are (generally) the kind of person you turn into. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s who you really are. Su, having nothing else to go on, became who she thought she should be based on what her family told her to be, and on what she saw the people around her doing. And she continued to make tuna sandwiches for a very long time. (The extent of her trauma did eventually come into the light, but there was no magic fix, and you should really just go read the book.)

Everything goes by so fast. For so much of life, we just keep running with what we’ve learned so far and don’t often stop to look around for ourselves—it’s always a bigger world than we think it is. Always be curious. Ask lots of questions. Tuna is great. But what do you think of peanut butter?

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Categories: On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Making It Up As I Go: The Six-Word Memoir

The myth is that the six-word story concept evolved from a challenge Ernest Hemingway once accepted. He came back with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Stunning, right? It’s like the counterpoint to “a picture’s worth a thousand words.” Back in 2006, SMITH Magazine took up the idea of creating six-word memoirs and started collecting them. A couple of years later, they published, “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous & Obscure Writers.” (And you can still follow their story experiments here.)

It’s a great book, and though there’s technically no plot (though you could count the hundreds of life stories as individual narratives), it’s extremely hard to put down. These are real people giving you a snapshot of how they view their own lives. Some of the entries are inspirational. “Open road, no map. Great scenery.” A lot are funny and good for a smile. “I fell out of the nest.” But every now and then there was one full of regret that just dropped into my heart with a thud . “Followed rules, not dreams. Never again.” or, “My life’s a bunch of almost’s.” True to reality, our lives are not all witty and amusing, and I was impressed by the bravery of people sharing the hard stuff.

It’s almost impossible not to start imagining what you’d write for your own life, so I started trying to think up my own. A few candidates so far:
• Jumped in pond. Made good ripples.
• Libraries saved me from total bankruptcy.
• Death’s great. No clocks. No clothes.
• Came to terms with snowflake speech.

Think about it. What’s your story?

Categories: From the Lips, On the Page, Uncategorized, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Appropriate Response: Thoughts on a Boring World

The great master Yunmen was once asked by a monk, “What was the Buddha teaching his entire lifetime?” Yunmen answered, “An appropriate response.” – from Reb Anderson’s Being Upright

When I came across this story, I wondered, “What would a world actually look like where everyone actually responded appropriately?” And before I even managed to go look up “appropriate” anywhere, my imagination quickly pulled up this drab, gray picture of a world where everyone was extremely well-behaved and emotionless—boring, unadventurous, unimaginative, and devoid of excitement or joy. It was a world filled with well-dressed people at afternoon tea served with all the “appropriate” silverware. Forever. (No offense to tea-drinkers. I really like tea.)

But oh, what a dull world that would be. Who would read stories about Appropriate Response World? And would anything interesting ever happen there? But I did go look the word up, just to check: appropriate: adj. suitable or proper in the circumstances. I did note the absence of the words “drab, dull, and lifeless,” though, and so I thought about it a little more.

Back to the beginning: what constitutes an appropriate response? In every situation, it’s different. As I shuffled through a deck of examples that came to mind, an idea generally started to emerge that any appropriate response would be made up of actions and/or words that are helpful to each particular situation and are given out of agenda-less caring. Someone’s excited? Be excited with them. Someone’s bruised? Hugs and band-aids. Someone’s hurt you? Don’t hurt back (not helpful)—but be patient, wait out your anger, and figure out what’s really going on. (So sometimes the appropriate response might even just be not responding.)

I began to realize I’d been confusing “appropriate” in Yunmen’s context with my idea of the word “proper.” So now this world is already seeming better. Helpful, supportive. Kind of a nice place. But what about passion, excitement, or adventure? And would anything be funny in Appropriate Response World?

And then I remembered a story about another very wise man…

“What my father figured out was if you can’t get out [of a joke], you just either blow something up, or you eat something, or you just throw penguins in the air.” – Brian Henson (son of Jim Henson, Muppet God)

And there it was—the “Eureka” moment where Appropriate Response World really came into view, and there were all these beautiful colors! I’d been selling it short, having a failure of imagination. Appropriate Response World is filled with options. Proper had been left on the side of the road, miles back where things had to follow conventional rules or fit in to status quo. Appropriate is different, hilarious and exciting. Find a beautiful mountain? Learn how to climb it, explore it, reach its summit. That can be one appropriate response of many. Love the wind in your face? Run a marathon. Try skydiving! (Not inappropriate if it works in your life.) Meet someone completely amazing? Choose to love! That’s definitely not boring and lifeless–and probably even more breathtaking than skydiving! Doing anything when it’s rooted in appropriate response just means that it’s coming from a place of helpfulness and courage a good chunk of wisdom. It has more than enough room to hold intensity, connection, and joy. Big and loud. Small and quiet. A caveat, though—Appropriate Response World isn’t free from pain or surprise or things not turning out as you expected. But in that world you would have learned how to deal with those things (that’s just life anywhere) in ways that were helpful, not destructive. Appropriate Response World would be full of wonder, whatever it involved. And, happily, sometimes it might even involve throwing penguins.

*(Note: While it is not entirely impossible that throwing real penguins would never be an appropriate response, it is more likely to be appropriate if using Muppet penguins.)

Categories: In the Lexicon, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Anything Too Stupid to be Said…

is sung, at least according to Voltaire. “But,” I would add, “it isn’t sung by Stephen Merritt.”

I discovered the many worlds of Stephen Merritt in a rather roundabout way. Having become completely enthralled with Lemony Snicket’s dark, dire, and cleverly written “Series of Unfortunate Events” books, when I discovered that the audiobooks, at least the first few, were read by Tim Curry, I couldn’t help myself, and began at The Bad Beginning (which is a very good bad place to start). But the first recording began not with the story, but with a song—a dark, accordian-lurching waltz sung by an equally dark, melancholy voice, low and dead-eyed, forewarning the horrors of Count Olaf and his henchmen. (“You might be thinking what a romp this is, but wait till you meet his accomplices…”)

Extremes are a funny thing. For instance, there are some animals that are just so homely that they’re completely endearing. Likewise, the Snicket books are so gloomy and macabre that they’re hilarious and delightful—this is also true in the world of Stephen Merritt. Under the guise of The Gothic Archies for the Snicket books, he wrote a dreary, depressing tune for each book filled with tales of the terrible things to come, and about what a horrible world it is.

Lots of people have done this. Lots of people sing depressing songs about what a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad world it is. But they’re not funny. What makes Merritt’s lyrics hilarious is his wordplay, his juxtapositions of strange words and rhymes perched jauntily on top of dreary ukulele melodies that lurch under the weight of the awfulness to come. Anyone who can rhyme “accomplices” so cheerily and then fall into a folk song-y cadence of “run, run, run, run, or die, die, die, die die…” is a delightful genius in my books.

All thirteen songs from the Snicket series have been since compiled onto a standalone disc, The Tragic Treasury. But to my delight, I discovered that Stephen Merritt had yet another group, a “real” group, The Magnetic Fields, that had been recording long before Snicket and the Archies even existed. I picked up the “i” recording, more than a little nervous that it would be much more mainstream than the Archies. But not to worry… the same melancholy tunes, Merritt’s same melancholy voice, the same deadpan humor and despondency. A little more mature in content than the Archies in places, but all the same beautiful, terrible tales of love and lost love and fanciful desires. “I wish I had an evil twin, running round doing people in…”

There is laughter and mischief mixed in there with all the melancholy. And the world can be a very scary place—a little chuckle in between can take the edge off just a bit.

Categories: Audiobooks, From the Lips, In the Ears, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

The OED: Possibly the Funniest/Saddest Read Ever

“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel…”
– Horace Walpole

Depending on your view of the glass being half full or half empty, the Oxford English Dictionary could be either the funniest or saddest collection of words in existence. I suppose it depends on the order in which you read it. Having not read the entire work myself, I can’t say for certain, but I stumbled upon a book some time ago that has convinced me it’s quite the comical thing.

“Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages” is Ammon Shea’s recounted adventure of reading the OED from cover to cover—all 150 pounds and twenty volumes of it. It’s remarkable. It’s death-defying. And, most importantly, it’s hilarious.

Shea’s book is divided into 26 chapters, A-Z, each chapter beginning with a description of his current emotional and physical state during the mammoth undertaking, followed by short commentaries on a handful of words beginning with the chapter’s alphabet letter. If you read the book in alphabetical order (which you don’t necessarily need to do), you’ll follow along with his descent from exuberance into just a little madness, eye strain, backache, and his eventual return to pleasure upon reaching the final pages.

As one could expect, the experience became completely surreal at times, with words and sanity losing context in the real world—somewhat like watching any more than five episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a row.

Shea’s book is such a fun read, and his short asides on words often made me laugh out loud, which created some interesting complications when reading excerpts to friends. The peculiarities he chose to share are delightful and odd and enlightening. There are words we use today that we would never think to connect with their origins. And there are those I simply fell in love with, even though I can’t bring myself to use them casually in conversation. It’s where I fell in love with “epizeuksis,” and how I found out that “petrichor” describes the smell of rain on the ground.

True, Shea’s is an abridged adventure through the OED, but it’s a fantastic one, and it will do for now. Some things can get away with being abridged. Others cannot. More on that later.

Categories: From the Lips, In the Lexicon, On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What to Read in 2012: A Good Start

Even just a few days into the Aardvark’s existence, I was asked, “What should I read in 2012?” Where to begin? (We do read a lot of books here.)

For the sake of brevity, I’ll mention just two books (well, one is a trilogy), that I was enormously glad I read last year and can’t stop recommending to people.

Fiction for good story

The Hunger Games trilogy (Suzanne Collins). Is there a word for “fear of trends?” I can’t seem to find it (let me know if you do), but I was deeply skeptical about picking up such popular books. However, I was deliciously surprised and impressed. It has been a very, very long time since I’ve encountered such a strong female protagonist in Young Adult fiction. Courage, harsh conditions, battles, politics, humanity, compassion, etc. (Yes, this is YA fiction—I could hardly believe it myself.)  I was describing it to a friend, and surmised that it’s somewhat similar to the battle school children of Ender’s Game, only with a female lead. (And if you haven’t read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, you should really do that, too. I re-read that series in 2011, if that counts.)

Non-fiction for learning

Your Money or Your Life (Vicki Robin). A few years ago I’d read the first edition of this, originally published in 1992. It was updated in 2008, and I was compelled to read it to see what they’d added. There are a lot of money books out there. What make this one good isn’t just how it guides you in finding out how you’re actually earning or spending your money, although it does that in practical, objective exercises. What makes it great is that it looks at what money really is and is used for, defining money (spoiler alert) as “something you trade your life energy for.” Then it helps you discover what you’re doing with yours. Robin steps back to non-monetary questions such as “What do you value in life?” and “Are you spending your money in ways that reflect what you value?” which are really at the root of anyone’s financial situation, regardless of how much you have (or don’t). Whether you do the more major tracking exercises they recommend or not, it’s fairly revelatory even just for the reading. It definitely triggered a few epiphanies for me.

So there’s the start of “books we love.” There are millions of books out there. Sadly, a large number of them are not that great. Some are really good. Some are great. Even fewer are those that are crafted so well we feel compelled to tell everyone we know about them.

We’d love to hear which books fall into that last category for you (mostly because we’d love to read them, too).

Categories: On the Page, Visual Books | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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