The best and worst thing that happened to me

The best and worst thing that happened to me shaped my entire life.

When I was five, my parents decided to move cross country. They sent me to my Grandma’s for the summer while they took care of business.

Along the way, my Mom developed health problems. The summer turned into fall, and winter, and another summer. It was a year and a half before they were able to take me back.

Grandma’s house was on the coast of the Pacific ocean in Washington state. Days I spent combing the dunes and the beach. Weird stuff would wash up, animal remains brought from the unspeakable depths, debris from fishing vessels that floated thousands of miles on the Japan Current. When the weather kept me inside, I’d go to the second floor and scan the horizon with a pair of binoculars.

Nights were a different story. Grandma sat in the easy chair with her “special” orange juice and turned on PBS. I was welcome to watch if I wanted; what I was not welcome to do was distract her.

There wasn’t much for a five year old to do solo. I had few toys, and they were boring without other kids. We’d go to the library for kids books once a week or so, but I’d plow through those in a couple days.

So I found the dictionary.

It was a big, old school Random House, unabridged. Grandma had been a high school teacher back in the day, and I’m sure she valued having a serious reference tool.

It was beautiful: a thick, textured hard binding. Gold leaf on the edges of the pages. Little notches with letters to put in your finger and flip straight to a section. An atlas with maps, lists of the highest mountains and longest rivers, flags of the world.

Each page had a handful of illustrations, and at first I just looked at the pictures. But sometimes I wouldn’t recognize a picture, so I’d read the entry next to it. And then I wouldn’t understand a word in the entry, so I’d look that up.

Every night for about a year and a half, I read the dictionary. This was the best and worst thing that ever happened to me.

The benefits probably don’t need explanation. I hoovered up any information in my general area, and stored it in a giant memory palace, which I could visit and explore any time I was bored. The drawbacks were at least equal though.

Other kids saw me like an alien, bizarre and incomprehensible. A few liked it, most didn’t. I got in my first fight, defending myself against three other kids, because I used the word “exacerbate”.

Internally, I had a burden to bear. I had eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, been cast out of the garden. I understood concepts like failure, pain, and death; as well as a seven year old can, anyway. My Dad remembers me greatly concerned about the “Solidarity” labor movement in ’83 Poland. I remember reading a pamphlet graphically describing political torture in Iran.

It was the best and worst thing. School was easy, but that made it really hard. Some people saw my ability and wanted to use it; others wanted to squash it.

Every time I feel the pendulum swing one way, towards better or worse, a counterexample occurs to me and balances it out.

This is the most true thing I’ve learned: nothing is good or bad in itself, or you could say it’s good and bad at the same time. We choose what we want to see.

What you choose is very much the same as what you are.



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Lifelong musician, quarter century programmer, recent writer. Punk Buddhism, Bike Party Party, Practice Uncertainty