Never Underestimate the Power of a Librarian

A regular ritual when I visit my father in Los Angeles, is to go to my much beloved Huntington Library. This week in a quest to organize my life, I reshelved some of my most precious books. Two books my Dad bought me on our most recent trek to The Huntington Library make the cut as precious. Before they went back on the shelf, I sat down and reread them. Then phoned my father.

Fond Memories of The Huntington Library

My parents were divorced when I was very young.  At five, I started to join my sister on airplane trips down to California from Vancouver, B.C. every summer.  Trips to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Sunday morning rounds to the hospital to see Dad’s patients before church, and visits to the Huntington Library became favourite rituals.  I liked trips to the Huntington Library because my stepmother would buy me new dress-up outfits to wear for the outings.  As a very little girl, I gravitated to the two paintings of the prints that my mother had bought with white French provincial frames to match my bedroom suite.   I called them “Pinkie” and “Bluey”.  The prints of the famous paintings, Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence, and The Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough were positioned over our beds in the room I shared with my sister in Vancouver.  I got Pinkie over my bed.  The paintings were also displayed in the same room in The Huntington Library.  I assumed the artist was the same and that the kids were friends.  I wanted a dress like Pinkie’s and I liked the shiny blue outfit “Bluey” was wearing. 

When I was 8 years old, one of my Dad’s patients, Lyle H. Wright, was grateful to my father for saving his life.  However, post brain surgery, he was no longer able to manage the altitude of 7500 feet above sea level and trips to his precious cabin.   We became the proud owners of our Silver Lake cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Lyle left all his books.  Cabin time lent itself to reading along with blackjack, hiking and fishing. 

As I got older, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and The Gutenberg Bible printed on vellum captivated more of my interest on trips to the Huntington Library. I found it amazing that there was a time when books were written, decorated by hand and printed on animal skins. I was amazed that the little metal squares needed to be placed individually in the printing press. I was part of the modern world with the typewriter. My mother’s claim to fame was that she was a private and confidential secretary who could type over 90 words per minute. The dimly lit room in the separate building that houses these literary treasures creates reverent attitude. Or am I simply living out my life as a slave to literacy?

Huntington Library Treasures

It wasn’t until I talked to my father the other day, that I understood why he wanted to leave the book collection in the cabin untouched. Lyle was a reputed librarian at the Huntington Library who had amassed the significant collection of American fiction. Who knew? After our phone call I followed the process for so many of us living in the COVID-19 era. I logged into my Amazon account and made my desperately required purchase. Another piece of the puzzle will arrive on Sunday.

AMERICAN FICTION, 1876-1900 (AMERICAN FICTION) BY LYLE H. WRIGHT PUBLISHED IN SAN MARINO: HUNTINGTON LIBRARY PRESS, JANUARY 1, 1978; ISBN-13: 978-0873280426. THE FIRST TWO EDITIONS WERE PRINTED IN 1965 AND 1969.

In the meantime, I am feeling infinitely indebted to who I remember as a gentle, old man with white hair, a very big moustache, and a kind smile. Someone who liked me. It was in fact Lyle who cultivated my love for a good murder mystery.  I had thought it was Jessica Fletcher on Sunday nights.  It was Lyle who provided the opportunity for my Dad to reach for the Edgar Allan Poe collection and terrify me with his suspenseful rendition of “The Pit and the Pendulum”.  It was Lyle who fed my quest for social justice when he put Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning within my grasp for repeated readings over the years.  Never underestimate the power of a librarian, even long after death.  Thank you, Lyle.  I just wish I could to talk to you about books!

Fascination with the Brain

Walking along Jericho Beach as a little girl, this piece of wood screamed “brain” to me.  This was long before the fascination with the brain had extended beyond neuroscientists and doctors, to psychologists, to educators, to anyone aging and fearing cognitive decline.  The brain held secrets that were not readily apparent to the naked eye.  It was the also the basis of the best bonding with my neurosurgeon father.

Dr. Peter Dyck is not a man who relished talk of feelings, hopes, dreams, aspirations or divergent opinions.  However he has always been an example of the consummate learner.  He survived war times in Germany.  When he was 12 years old, he was sponsored to come to Canada with his mother and siblings by his uncle in Alberta.  He learned English and excelled in school.  He ended up working on his step-fathers farm in Abbotsford while attending school.  When a cow would die, he did not shed a tear.  He would dissect it behind the barn.   My aunt boiled many a chicken bones so he could reassemble them.  When I would go on rounds with him during summer visits to Los Angeles, the nurses would run when they heard his footsteps.  He was demanding of staff and took patient care very seriously.  Dad became fascinated with the possibility of destroying, rather than removing a brain tumour by using a local anaesthetic and a three dimensional C/T scanner to avoid the trauma of opening the skull.  Radioactive material in a small tube was targeted through a tiny hole in the skull into the centre of the brain tumour.  The concentration used would result in the radioactivity reaching only the tumour cells.  A team was formed including him as the neurosurgeon, Armand Bouzaglou, the radiation oncologist and Livia Bohman, the radiologist, to travel to Germany in 1981 to study the technique for stereotactic isotope implantation with Professor Fritz Mundinger at the University of Freiburg.   This technique was brought back to the USA and his first book about it’s success in avoiding the trauma of a full craniotomy was dedicated to the patients whose hope against overwhelming odds brought about this endeavour.

Not even neuroscientists agree on the inner workings of the brain.  However asking a question and our attitude seem to be the key components informing our brain and resulting in amazing accomplishments and sometimes survival.  Viktor Frankl’s answer to his question, “Why do I need to survive?” allowed him to walk out of Auschwitz and go on to develop his theory of logotherapy, write his influential book, Man’s Search for Meaning, and help many people find a way to cope with the challenges in their lives.   Norman Doidge details many examples of therapies that have allowed the brain to heal in ways that are still outside of mainstream medical practice in The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of  Neuroplasticity .  John J. Ratey, MD, in his book SPARK – The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, provides a compelling argument as to why exercise is integral to our ability to cope with stress, learn, as well as maintain good mental and physical health.  The brain is central in all facets of our lives yet understanding how it works is still somewhat elusive.

Educators, such as Eric Jensen started to focus educators’s attention on Teaching with the Brain in Mind  in the 90’s.  Educators are now seriously considering the implications of what neuroplasticity means in the classroom.  Previously held conceptions about the limits of some learners no longer apply, and standardized testing has become one indicator of specific learning strengths and weaknesses, but not an accurate measure of future success.    Perhaps the greatest outcome has been talking to children about how their brain works and how they learn best.   This puts the responsibility and joy learning with the child and allows them to move beyond just looking for a good mark on an assignment.  Giving children the capacity to talk about the connections they are making in their learning and providing numerous opportunities to share their ideas and discoveries, opens up the possibilities to ask new questions and see their peers, teachers and parents as partners in a collaborative process.