Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Method Of Loci
Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.
I sit in my father's old office, in the chair his typist used when he came every morning to take dictation (memoirs, articles, essays, books, email, whatever struck my father's fancy. We kept telling him to concentrate on the memoirs, but he always had some new project to push).
The great big shelf built into the wall above the door was nearly full of newspaper-wrapped bundles of books, packed in batches of five or ten each. Nearly all of them were copies of books by my dad. He was, I realize now, our household's own Asimov, prolific and polymathic. He wrote about the history of Kannada, about the Bhagavad Gita, recently a set of essays about sparrows in literature and the word "sparrow." Today my sister and I used the ladder and brought down about eight hundred books, our fingers turning black with newspaper ink. We'll be giving a lot of these away at the service on Sunday.
I hear rain outside. No surprise; it's monsoon season. I can't see it, since it's 1am -- just the reflected shadow of the curved metal bars in the diamond-patterned window panes, by the light of two white fluorescent tubes above. Every so often the power fluctuates and various devices beep.
To my left and behind me are five dark gray metal bookcases, reaching nearly to the ceiling. Each case has nine shelves, including the top, bolted. I think these are the sturdiest bookcases I have ever seen. They are completely filled with books. Nearly all the titles I can only sound out slowly, since I barely know Kannada and don't know Hindi. It looks like he had a complete set of F. Max Muller's Sacred Books of the East.
Just behind me is a pink plastic chair. I think Dad sat in it while dictating. Three thin cushions lie on the seat, and a green acrylic blanket slumps over the back.
Of course there are closets set into the wall, also filled with books, and a computer desk with books and notes on every free horizontal bit of wood, and a dining-style wood table in the middle of the room, piled with books, surrounded by upholstered wooden chairs whose seats serve as book-pile pedestals. Rounding out the table's inhabitants: notes, a phone that doesn't work, a white-and-maroon mug of pens ("First West Coast Kannada Sammelana: April 1996, Los Angeles"), newspapers, a magnifying glass, folders, plastic bags ("plastic covers" they would say here) full of who-knows-what. Under the table and in the corners, cardboard boxes sit, half-full of office supplies, brochures, clippings, I wish I knew because we are going to have to sort all this out.
My dad got broadband, at my sister's cajoling, in case she and I had to suddenly drop everything to visit them. If the house switched from dialup to a speedy Internet connection, she reasoned, we'd be able to work from India remotely. Now that's come true and he can't appreciate it. He'd been asking in recent months for us to set up Skype (he called it "Spike") on his computer so he could video chat with his daughters. I put it off.
While debugging the wifi the day I arrived, I pulled out my blue Ethernet cord (don't get on a plane without it) and plugged it into the router. The wifi works now, but I like sitting in the typist's chair in the office, plugged in. My sister gives me a look of disbelief when I say I'm going to go do my internetting in Dad's office. "It's so crowded," she says. "Aren't you uncomfortable?"
She forgets that I'm the girl who loved to take stacks of "Jack and Jill," "Cricket," and other children's magazines into a cardboard box and sit for hours, reading. I once moved the box into the closet, leaving the door a crack open for light, and got so absorbed that I didn't hear them calling me, and they thought I was missing. My mother hated that. She told me I should never get so lost in something that I couldn't hear someone calling my name. I might have learned hyperfocus if it weren't for that, I think bitterly, unfairly. "Code fugue" is what we called it freshman year of college, in Freeborn Hall, when hackers lost themselves in the trance state. I bet my dad found himself in code fugue many a time, when he was developing that Hindu astrology starchart-casting program in GW-BASIC. I think I helped with the colors.
One reason it's unfair to resent my mother is that her edict is probably not the reason I'm not a hacker -- the true bottlenecks were elsewhere, I think, but that's not what I mean to dissect now. And another is that the Harihareswara children had one excuse that absolutely, without fail, got them out of chores, eating, or nearly any other obligation: "I've been struck by inspiration and I have to write this down NOW." The parent always retreated so the child could return to that struggle we all knew, instantiating the private golden world onto the unforgiving page. She and I remembered this a few days ago while telling visitors about our childhood, and looked at each other, realizing with a start that we'd never abused this privilege.
What did it do to us, growing up in a household that put out a magazine every other month, edited anthologies every year, organized book tours for author friends, accumulated boxes of books in the garage the way some families end up with seas of cheap toys? We learned to treat writing as sacred and easy.
If I am sitting in the typist's chair, then I can imagine my father sitting behind me, reading something, taking longhand notes, looking around for Post-It notes to annotate the text. I don't hear him, but then I am wearing headphones.
I wish he were here, to organize his damn notes, to tell us what his system was. But he would have been impatient with us. He had things to do.
28 Jul 2010, 22:20 p.m.
29 Jul 2010, 6:15 a.m.
29 Jul 2010, 9:31 a.m.
29 Jul 2010, 15:53 p.m.
03 Aug 2010, 17:23 p.m.