Of the multitude of items packed into my room, a tiny dictionary rests on the topmost shelf of scattered books. This dictionary is older than I am. It fits in the palm of my hand and has around five hundred and twenty bible-thin, cream-colored pages. There’s an unmistakable crack down the front cover that drags through the blue, green, and faded orange accents. All of the “a” entries are missing. On page 351, there is a blotch that resembles a tea stain shrouding the words “promenade” and “prominent.”
The Oxford Minidictionary (edition unknown, as the copyright page has been ripped out as well) belonged to my dad when he was studying in the UK. I dug it out from an old suitcase, years ago, that was more or less a treasure trove of personal history: physics textbooks, old passports, a maths examination with high marks. There were also several photographs, mostly of the college grounds, with painstakingly written or typed inscriptions on the reverse sides. Since then, I’ve always pestered him with questions of his college experience overseas, from being flung into a world of a foreign language to meeting Stephen Hawking to running real cross country (i.e. running through farms, fields, mud, tackling fences, landing in animal droppings, arriving back so filthy that the shoes always needed a good wash. He says that American cross-country is spoiled with its neat trails and tracks).
It’s hard to say what draws me to his stories, but I think it’s the nagging sense that I want to know him, not as my dad, but as a person. By unearthing these pocketable anecdotes, I see his past, and therefore also his present. I begin to understand his opinions and his judgements—why he believes certain ideas to be right, why he leans away from others.
Vicarious mediums are wonderful, but they also hold misconceptions: we think we know what it is like to be someone else. Yes, we know what it is like, but we don’t know what it is to wade in the ocean of another human being. All we have are subtle imprints that press our minds like stamps, and we’re given ink, not the carved rubber base. Those imprints are as genuine as conscious thought, which is to say, they exist but have no dimensions. When my dad recounts a certain day of his life, I’m left with splashes of images, often colorful, but never tangible.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: there is something oddly wonderful and sad in that while we all share emotions and events and time, our experiences are very much our own, and all we can give are little capsules of memory tucked into stories, and while those stories can blossom into vivid, winged ghosts, they are split two ways—one half as a mirror, the other as a one-way glass, tinted, filtered.
[a sudden grotesque thought comes to mind: simstim. mixed feelings about that, for sure. at least, in gibson’s world, it only extends to present actions and not past experiences.]