On The Reading Shelf

How Alice in Wonderland Saved My Life

It was the spring of 1971, and I was close to failing high school geometry.

I had started the class armed with ruler, compass, number two pencils, plenty of notebook paper, and enthusiasm. The nun who taught the class was young, personable, and fun. I did just fine until Spring rolled around. On nice days, we headed outside to sit on the grass under a budding tree while she explained the latest proof and drew on notebook paper to illustrate her point. Everyone loved it, including me.

Imagine it for a second. The sun is shining, a breeze is gently rustling the new green leaves, Sr. Mary Mary is holding forth on Euclid in all his glory. This is what is going through my head ……Euclid….blah…… blah……blah….oooh look at that big spider …..hypotenuse….blah…blah…..blah…..this grass is tickling my legs…….. blah……….blah…..therefore we can say that………..did that spider just crawl up my leg?……….everyone got that?      Um, what?

I was lost.

Near the end of the semester, desperate not to have to go through this again, I asked for an extra credit project and, given a choice of several, I chose to do a paper on the logic in Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgson, was a mathematician and logician with strong opinions on the subject. Math and logic references are frequently found in his works, as in this exchange from Alice in Wonderland:

`I couldn’t afford to learn it.’ said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. `I only took the regular course.’

`What was that?’ inquired Alice.

`Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with,’ the Mock Turtle replied; `and then the different branches of Arithmetic– Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.’

`I never heard of “Uglification,”‘ Alice ventured to say. `What is it?’

The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. `What! Never heard of uglifying!’ it exclaimed. `You know what to beautify is, I suppose?’

`Yes,’ said Alice doubtfully: `it means–to–make–anything– prettier.’

`Well, then,’ the Gryphon went on, `if you don’t know what to uglify is, you ARE a simpleton.’

I’d never read Alice before that class, and I fell in love with the book for all its outright craziness and convoluted logic.  I loved Alice for being curious about it all.

“Curioser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for a moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).

Maybe the story fit right in with my teenage brain trying to make sense out of a world that sometimes seemed nonsensical. The illustrations by John Tenniel were perfect companions to the text and will forever be what I think of when I envision Alice in Wonderland—a little crazy with a hint of terror lurking at the edges.

alice-and-cards

I hope you’ll be tempted to open Alice and enjoy. There’s a wealth of information online about the math and logic problems in Carroll’s works if you want to be curious yourself.

By the way, I passed geometry class. Thanks, Alice.

There is another connection with Alice and that will be in my new line of literary jewelry.  Stay tuned for updates on that project coming soon.

On The Reading Shelf

On Reading Vogue

A subscription to Vogue Magazine is a requirement for the Build a Line Challenge sponsored by B’Sue Boutiques. I haven’t read Vogue since my salad days. When the first issue arrived, I couldn’t wait to dig in. I sat in the comfortable Lazy Boy covered with a warm blanket armed with red pen, highlighter and a myriad of little arrow Post-It notes. The first thing I did was rip out all the perfume ads. Love those.

I wasn’t quite sure what the objective was in requiring the subscription, but I was ready to begin. I took my time exploring and examined each page carefully, highlighting jewelry, writing comments on the photos, dog-earring pages. What was I seeing? What did I like? What was speaking to me?

I was inspired. No… I was fired up. I went into my bedroom closet and took a good look around. I saw imitation Uggs, baggy yoga pants that have never come in contact with a yoga mat, heavy wool sweaters, bulky socks, and not a Jimmy Choo in sight.

And then, I got into the car and headed to the local upscale lifestyle center. Jimmy Choo was calling and I answered. The blue suede Vixen with its perfect little bow at the back longed to be on my feet as did the Hitch in that oh-so-lovely orchid shade. A pair of black stilettos were added, and I was done.

And then, I headed to Dolce and Gabbana. That green striped cardigan with the jeweled pineapple embellishment was just the spot of brightness I needed. Those black cuissard boots and the cordonetto lace sheath dress in black begged to come home with me; and not being one to resist, I let them.

And then, I headed to makeup. It was time to get new. So I went with everything Chanel. Just the sound of Poudre Universelle Libre made me feel beautiful. Of course, I also bought some perfume.

And then, with no butler in sight to carry my purchases and bring the car around, I searched the massive parking lot for my car. And searched. And searched. And searched.

And then I woke up.

And put on my imitation Uggs and the baggy yoga pants. Pulled on a coat over my two warm shirts and stuffed my fingers into a pair of gloves followed by a pair of mittens. I opened the side of one the perfume ads and rubbed it all over my jacket.

And then, I went outside and shoveled four inches of snow out of the driveway.

Exploration · On The Reading Shelf

Visual Intelligence

During art class in fifth grade, our teacher would repeatedly say “You have to learn how to look.”  without saying anything more.  What was I looking for?  How was I supposed to do this?    I never had the courage to ask; I thought everyone but me knew what they were doing.

Amy E. Herman’s book Visual Intelligence:  Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life instantly intrigued me.   Herman conducts classes in visual perception that have been used by the FBI, Scotland Yard, NYPD, Department of Homeland Security, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine,  and other organizations where visual sharpness is required to perform jobs well.  An art historian and attorney, Herman helps her clients see what others do not, and these skills can translate to saving a life or saving a company.

To begin, Herman has us look at various paintings then look away and write down everything we observed.  What details did we catch and what did we overlook?  She relates the story of how a crime was ultimately solved by someone who noticed on security camera footage that the perpetrator’s pants had been turned inside out – a small detail that escaped the notice of experts for months. Next, Herman has us look at the words we’ve used to describe what we see in a painting.  Are they subjective or objective?  What’s the difference and why does it matter?   What biases are we bringing to our observations?  How do we learn to look objectively so that we can communicate to others what we are seeing?

Some of her suggested exercises are reminiscent of the game played in the novel Kim, and they are still useful today. In an age of constant distractions, learning what can we do to focus our attention is more pertinent than ever.  Her suggestions and methods will help make me more aware of what I observe.

If you would like to test your own visual perception, visit Herman’s website and take a short quiz.  Don’t miss scrolling down the page and reading the article How Distractions are Making Us Dumber.  There’s also a TED talk on How Art Can Help You Visualize.