When I was a little kid, my parents and I would drive to St. Petersburg, Florida, a couple of times a year to see my grandpa, who lived in an apartment on the 11th floor of an independent living facility. The six-hour drive from my hometown of Jacksonville was largely unbearable except for several elements: my Madonna-stocked Walkman, the grandeur of the neverending bridge we always crossed toward the end of our trip, whatever book I happened to be reading, and the immediate promise of its successor, which I knew I’d be bringing home from our trip to Haslam’s Book Store.
Haslam’s was (and hopefully still is) one of those magical old bookstores that just sort of wind and twist around themselves, with janky ramps between the rooms and tattered old books mingling on the shelves with their freshly-minted cousins. I’m almost positive that old shop on Central Avenue was the spot where I discovered the Sweet Valley High series (it’s seriously no mistake that I now drive a Fiat, have a close friend named Elizabeth and distrust all orderlies named Carl — remember that crazy-ass pancake-making kidnapper?) and it was most definitely the place where I bought my first Anti-Coloring Book. Now, let me explain the latter half of that sentence: I had nothing against coloring books by any means, and neither did my parents — in fact, the title’s completely misleading. To this very day, you can hand me a simple sketch pad and Sharpie and I’m a very happy girl. The thing about this series in particular, and the reason for its provocative name, is that it gave the most fantastic prompts and then just kind of let you fill in the rest using your totally insane and therefore absolutely wonderful 7-year-old imagination. Aside from the fact that I got to stare out over the 11th floor balcony of my grandpa’s digs during each visit — and believe you me, the 11th floor of anything was a super big deal at the time* — the family tradition of letting me romp around this crunchy old bookshop every time we were in St. Pete was a highlight of my childhood.
So, about these beloved activity books: one page might have 20 or so circles of varying sizes strewn about it with the prompt, “How many different things can circles be?” spelled out underneath. Another would feature a Jack Sparrow-eque character in the bottom left corner with a thought bubble taking up the rest of the page, prompted by the question, “What kind of adventures do you remember from your past life as a pirate?” Others delved into emotional topics — say, an angry-looking girl sitting at the bottom of the page alongside the question, “What is it that makes you angriest at your parents?” And the list went on and on: “Make a wish on this wishing well.” “You’ve been hired to design a new subway token.” “Make up your own big lie.” “What does a skunk smell like?”
These books were safe spaces where you could create, create, create as far as your colored pencils could take you. I was addicted. So last week, when I found myself inside one of the coolest new/used bookstores in the nation — Powell’s Books, in Portland, Oregon — I was on a mission from the kindergarten gods. Something had pushed these awesome creativity boosters to the top of my memory, and I wasn’t stopping until I found one this past Sunday. Luckily, I did, and now it’s sitting here with me on the couch. I’m almost afraid to touch it, it’s so freaking precious. In part, these books made me who I am. They cracked open the hinge in the center of my imagination and encouraged me to put dreams to paper — ideas into tangible forms. They gave me an outlet with guidance that was way less strict than a typical coloring book but far less intimidating than a blank white page. They made it okay to make something crazy.
On the plane ride back home, I tucked my new/old Anti-Coloring Book into my bag and chose to hold my inner elementary school student at bay in favor of the book I’d taken on the trip with me to begin with: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. It’s about a guy who, sort of on a whim, decides to train for the USA Memory Championships — an event where people do things like memorize thousands of digits in a particular order and recite them back exactly, or memorize a 100-line poem in 15 minutes or less and transcribe it from memory with perfect precision, including punctuation.
The author really did this in real life; the book is straight nonfiction. As a journalist researching an article he was planning to write about the annual event, he was intrigued by a comment one of the competitors made about the fact that anyone could become a memory champion with proper training — that it was mainly about using tricks, mnemonic devices and good old-fashioned discipline. So, he decided to give it a go and see if these champions were, indeed, complete freaks of nature or just highly-practiced memorizers. In doing so, he wound up diving into all sorts of questions about what paths we choose for our lives and why, as well as what our memories are really made of and how they work. Questions like, are we really recording every little thing we experience and then just repressing the stuff that doesn’t seem useful? Or are we constantly filtering and forgetting things that can’t ever be retrieved, even with cues and prompts that would pull them out of our subconscious if they were still truly filed away somewhere?
Foer met with researchers, scholars, cognitive disorder patients, and fellow memory champs-in-training while undergoing this process, and chronicled his own doubts and frustrations along the way. At the book’s onset, he admits his distaste for soupy self-help types and voices his wonderment at so much of the irony that exists in the competitors’ lives; some of them have what we would consider to be photographic memories (a concept that’s largely discounted throughout the book, oddly enough) and yet can’t hold down jobs or meaningful relationships as a result of some of the obsessive — not to mention competitive — behaviors that creep into their lives. You’d think a guy who never forgets a birthday, an anniversary or the way a girl takes her coffee could charm his way into any given skirt or corner office, but apparently that’s not the case. So, the good news is, there’s hope for us Forgetful Joneses out here. Crazy as it sounds, we might be better off in some manner of speaking than the Doogie Howsers and chess champions of the world. It’s strangely comforting, in a way.
I do wish I could improve my memory, though. So many things fly in one ear and out the other; others take up residence deep in my core for a while and then, oddly, fly away into space, never to return, even though they once seemed indelible and oh-so-important. I’ve never been able to extract rhyme or reason from the way I remember some things and forget others — that’s what the author of this book is on a bit of a quest to figure out from the sum of his sources. It’s also something my boyfriend’s sister is on a quest to figure out, from an entirely different angle, through her work each day in a proper science lab in Manhattan. On some level, I think we’d all like to understand how we remember things so we can start remembering more (and, of course, forget the things we wish we could but can’t.)
I’ll never not be fascinated by these sorts of things. One point that’s agreed upon by practically everyone Foer encounters is this: even though we forget a ridiculous amount of our life’s experiences, the more enriching moments we take part in — the more adventures we have, risks we take, places we go and thresholds we cross — the longer our lives seem to have been when we get to the end of them. Days in a cubicle can blend into one another month after month, year after year, until they feel like one lifelong eight hour block, while one simple, lazy morning in a French bakery might make us smile for decades after. That’s a perfect reason for us to wheel our chairs back from our desks every once in a while and get on a plane, play a little hooky, jump around in the ocean, and laugh until it hurts. Setting expectations aside and letting our imaginations lead us to new places is, in my not-so-humble opinion (when it comes to this topic, anyway), one of the best forms of therapy in the world.
There’s already plenty of crap to cry about — plenty to bemuse us and punch us in the gut. Those things, I think, are easier to forget… or at least set aside… when we balance them with the pursuit of extraordinary things. Even if we barely remember any of it once we’re through, at least we did it anyway and loved the hell out of it while it was happening. So it makes sense to me that the best way to live is to choose our own adventures and not worry so much about coloring inside the lines. As far as we all know, we only get one shot at all of this. I, for one, intend to make the most of it. That’s a plan I hope I won’t ever forget.
*and kind of still is