A Synesthesia Of Sorts

For a long time now, perhaps as long as I can remember, letters and numbers have had colors and personalities and aesthetic grades. Here are the ways in which they do, for me:

  1. I see colors in vowels. The letter ‘a’ is yellow; ‘e’ is red; ‘i’ is white; ‘o’ is black; ‘u’ is grey. Because of these colors associated with vowels, when I see a printed word, I see a word that is colored somehow. That word ‘somehow’ is red and black for instance; it has acquired a particular color for me. My name has shades too; my first name is ‘lighter’ because of the presence of the ‘a’ and ‘i’ in it; my last name is made darker by the presence of an ‘o.’ Words in which there are very few vowels in proportion to their length look a little colorless to me as a result. ‘Sky,’ for instance, is entirely colorless. Blocks of text in which a particular vowel predominates acquire a shading based on the color of that particular vowel.
  2. I see ‘personalities’ in numbers (not all). ‘2’ is timid and obsequious; ‘3’ is a little smug and self-satisfied as does ‘6’; ‘4’ looks ‘closed off,’ not ‘open’ to conversation; ‘5’ looks a little like a plump person. 1, 9, 8, and 7 do not produce such connotations. Neither does zero.
  3. I see some numbers as pretty and some as ugly. ’74’ is a beautiful number; ’57’ is ugly as is ’77’. These examples show that it is not the number ‘7’ that makes the difference here but the particular combination with other numbers. Moreover, my perception of beauty in these numbers has nothing to do with their arithmetical or number theoretic properties. This perception of numbers as beautiful continues for a while but fizzles out somewhere below 1000; after that the ‘appearance’ of the numbers is of little interest or importance to me, though some older perceptions persist and affect my take on even larger numbers. For instance, because I find ’77’ ugly, I find any number ending in those two digits ugly. So acute is the perception of some numbers beauty or ugliness, that I can barely stand to see them; I find ‘111’ ugly and don’t even like seeing it in print. Some other beautiful numbers below 100 are: 54, 86, 84, 76–these are all even numbers; some odd numbers I find ‘beautiful’ are: 71, 63. I have noticed that I find more even numbers beautiful than I do the odd ones, suggesting to me that odd numbers seem ‘incomplete’ or not ’rounded off’ to me. My daughter’s birthday falls on the 23rd of a month; I remember being vaguely disappointed at that birth date; a 24 or a 26 would have ‘looked much better’; ‘even’ a 25 would have better.
  4. Lastly, I see the numbers ranging from 0-100 in a kind of spatial grid and not arranged along a number line. The grid looks like a stack of ten rows and ten columns; the first row runs from 0 to 10, the second row from 11-20, and so on till the tenth row which runs from 91-100. If I’m watching a game of any kind in which the score–whether team or individual–advances from 0 onwards to 100, and possibly beyond, I see it advancing along this grid. I suspect that my lifelong history as fan of a sport obsessed with statistics–cricket–has had something to do with the enhancement of this vision.

Wikipedia defines synesthesia as:

Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia; from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, “together”, and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, “sensation“) is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[1][2][3][4] People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme-color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.[5][6] In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).[7][8]Synesthetic associations can occur in any combination and any number of senses or cognitive pathways.[9]

Based on these definitions, I am inclined to think I’m a synesthete of a sort. I welcome comments from folks who report similar perceptual experiences.

An Epistolary Relationship For The Ages

Shortly after I finished high-school I bade goodbye to a good friend. He was headed to the United Kingdom, to join his father–he had taken up a job with a civil engineering firm. My friend would, so to speak, ‘repeat’ high school; he would take his A-levels and then seek university admission. I was sad to see him go; he had been a constant companion, providing a nerdy interlocutor for conversations about cricket, music, science, and of course, girls. We had cut school and harassed teachers together; we had fretted about life after school together.

But all was not lost; we could write to each other. We resolved to do so. I was not lacking in confidence in my letter writing abilities; I had, after all, spent two years in boarding school and built up a diligent correspondence with my mother, and over the years I had often exchanged letters with my grandfather. I had some facility in the art of writing a letter.

And so it came to be. For five years, from 1984 to 1989, as my friend finished his university education, we corresponded regularly. We wrote letters by hand, sometimes on plain sheets of paper, which were then folded and stuffed into vintage airmail envelopes–the ones with those colorful, seemingly serrated, blue and red borders–and sometimes, more conveniently, but less thrillingly, we wrote on Indian postal service aerogrammes.

My friend wrote to me about his school, the friends he made, the music he listened to–the kinds of things boys and young men in the making talk about. We discussed the Indian cricket team’s fortunes; we lamented sporting failures; we crowed over sporting glory. We ‘talked’ about the movies we had seen, and sometimes, in a nod to our growing maturity, we offered each other commentary on the world’s geopolitical state.

I looked forward to his letters; I presumed he did the same on his end. The sight of that aerogramme, the airmail envelope, marked with the distinct impress of her Her Majesty’s Postal Service and my friend’s stylish, busy handwriting, never failed to produce a little thrill. I would tear open the flaps, making sure not to destroy the missive visible within, and then, eagerly read through its contents.

I left India in 1987, but our correspondence continued. My address, my zipcode, changed; my friend’s did not. Now I typed up my letters using the fancy word processors whose use I had recently mastered; I used laser printers to produce gleaming printouts on fancy white paper; my letters sped across the Atlantic, powered now by the US Postal Service. Besides his letters, my friend sent me newspaper cuttings with cricket scores, commiserating with the sad deprivation I was now subjected to in the Land Without Cricket.

Early in 1989, we both switched to email. Later that year, my friend moved to California to begin his graduate studies. We continued to write but the frequency of our correspondence began to trail off. We met each other on our trips to the East Coast and West Coast; we spoke on the phone.  Later, after finishing business school in Boston, he moved to New York City and began work, first with a management consulting firm, and then later, with an internet startup. He got married; he had two children. Our lives steadily grew apart; I was a graduate student and an academic; he was a businessman. He once suggested my failure to respond adequately to a message from him indicated we had grown too far apart; I said I did not think so, and shortly thereafter we met again for a drink. All seemed well.

Last year, after my daughter was born, he wrote me an angry email, asking why he had not been sent a birth announcement, why I had not visited him in India on my last trip there. I wrote back, pointing out the only announcement I had made had been on Facebook, that I had not informed anyone on an individual basis, that my trip to India had been consumed by familial commitments and even some legal hassles. My explanation did not seem adequate to him; he did not write back. I have not heard from him since.

But I have not forgotten his postal address from those five years of sustained correspondence: 102 Wandle Road, Morden, Surrey, SM4 6AE UK.

Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.

Letters to the Editor, Big Mouths, and Getting Slapped Down

By definition, a blogger is a bigmouth. He or she wants to say things out loud, write them down, and have others read them. As I noted in my ‘Happy Birthday Blog’ post last year, I intended this blog to be a ‘letter-to-the-editor plus notebook and scrapbook space,’ one where I could sound off and be sure of my ‘complaints’ being published. Part of the reason for that desire was that my publication track record with letters to the editor was pretty dismal: 2-for-God knows how many. But one of those two got me into trouble.

In 1988, having finished my first year of graduate school and cohabitation with three other graduate students in a small tw0-bedroom apartment, I was ready for a change. My living quarters felt both cramped and expensive. An advertisement for a graduate resident assistant at my graduate school promised deliverance; I’d get room and board. And not just any old ‘room and board’, I’d have my own room. I promptly filled out an application, sent it in, and was called in for an interview.

The interview went well. I met the director of student affairs and a couple of the current resident assistants; I was quizzed about hypothetical disciplinary situations and my responses seemed to evoke favorable responses from my interlocutors. I emerged from the meeting feeling mildly optimistic about my chances. A day or so later, one of the resident assistants contacted me to tell me that he thought my chances were outstanding, that I had ‘impressed everyone.’ I was ecstatic. A better living and financial situation awaited.

Around the same time, an event described as ‘World Week’ was being staged in our graduate school. This was a pretty generic business, designed to cater, somehow, to the diverse international student body: there were posters, food stands, music performances. You get the picture. But on the very first day of this carnival of conviviality, I noticed something amiss: a poster, issued by the Chinese Ministry of Tourism, featuring a Tibetan landscape with the slogan: ‘Beautiful, Mysterious, Tibet’.

I was enraged. An occupied territory being advertised thus? Why had the organizers permitted this propaganda mongering? I walked over to the nearest computer lab, sat down and dashed off a letter to the student newspaper, one brimming with pique at this slight to the Tibetan people, finishing off with a flourish: ‘It is ironic that an event which purports to increase our knowledge of other cultures has served instead to showcase the organizers’ ignorance.’

A few days later, my letter ran in the student newspaper. I picked up a copy, saw my letter and my name in print, and feeling absurdly pleased, carried it home with me to show to my roommates. My elation didn’t last long. My friend, the incumbent resident assistant, accosted me in a hallway a day later: ‘Are you fucking nuts?! Do you know who organized World Week? R____, the director of student affairs, who interviewed you for the RA job. He’s mad as all hell. He can’t believe someone wrote such a nasty letter to the student paper.’ My response was equal parts incredulity and dismay: ‘Are you serious? He’s not going to hire me for the RA position because of this?’ Was the director of student affairs really so thin-skinned?

Two days later, I had my answer; I received a polite rejection letter in the mail. No rent-free room; no room of my own on campus. Back to the shared bedroom, the suburban commute. And whenever I ran into R___ again on campus, he walked past me with nary a trace of recognition on his face. I never applied for a RA position again.

But I’m not sorry I wrote that letter to the editor.