Born on a Blue Day – Daniel Tammet

Years ago, I watched a BBC documentary on autistic savants in the world.  Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie, Rainman, was a contribution to the program, but another major focus was on a twenty-something Daniel Tammet.  He was filmed setting the European record for reciting over 22,000 digits of pi, the irrational number which has an infinite amount of decimal digits.  When I picked up ‘Born on a Blue Day,’ I didn’t have this person in mind, but it was a nice surprise to find his autobiography in the pages.

Tammet was the first born in a large family with many siblings, but the new parents could tell from an early age he was unlike most children.  He cried constantly and found it difficult to make friends in school.  His interests were fascinating but bordered on obsessions.  He collected hundreds of ladybirds over a period of weeks (lady bugs to the US readers) and proudly brought them to school one day.  He had thoroughly read about the insects and was excited to share the small pets to classmates and his teacher.  The teacher realized the bugs may live a better life in the wild, so he created a note to send Tammet out of the classroom while a classmate freed the insects outside.  Tammet was crushed and didn’t speak to the teacher for weeks.

Daniel also had a fascination with numbers from an early age.  He uses a rare case of synesthesia to develop visual images of numbers.  The number nine, for example, resembles tall figures, and the number six is represented by a dark hole.  Putting these figures together, he can quickly find arithmetic answers, and even large prime numbers (his favorite).  When he set the record for reciting the digits of pi, he created a landscape of the digits which helped him memorize the thousands of numbers in the correct order.

Tammet’s synesthesia not only gives him numerical gifts, it also allows him to learn foreign languages more easily than most.  One challenge given to him was to learn a language in less than a week, and speak fluently enough in it to be interviewed on a local news program in the native language.  The language chosen by producers was to be Icelandic.  It is a difficult language spoken by only around 300,000 people.  It was a great challenge, but Daniel was successful and gave a great interview on the local news program in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Though his gifts are now apparent, it wasn’t always that way.  As a child, Daniel had few friends. As is common with children with autism, he lacked emotional connections to peers, and found it difficult to maintain conversations. Daniel Tammet said of his experiences, “The very same abilities that had set me apart from my peers as a child and adolescent, and isolated me from them, had actually helped me to connect with other people in adulthood, and to make new friends.”

Currently, Daniel Tammet runs a successful website in the UK that provides language tutorials to consumers.  From a teacher’s prospective, Tammet is  an ideal model for many students with autism.  He has focused on his abilities to create a successful living and has overcome some challenges to become successful in the world.



A Lucky Child – Thomas Buergenthal

I’m always intrigued by first-hand accounts of the Holocaust.  Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, is no exception.  This is a unique story, others of this kind are not known to me.  He was ten years old when he was finally liberated from Sachsenhausen in 1944.  He survived over two years in the harsh conditions of these labor (concentration) camps as a child.  Most children in those camps were collected upon arrival and killed in the gas chambers.  He considers it nothing but luck that he and his father were witty enough to get around the fate that fell upon so many others of Thomas’ age.  At the first camp, Thomas’ father was seen as a factory manager and stated that his son was useful.  Thomas mustered the courage to let the commander of the camp know that he could work!  In Birkenau, Thomas had several close calls as the infamous Dr. Mengele sought out children or special cases to perform ‘scientific experiments’. Thomas’ father taught him to line up for morning counts near the doors to the barracks and then sneak back in as soon as counts concluded, to avoid selection if possible.  Thomas also spent time in Auschwitz before moving to his final camp in Sachsenhausen.  During that final march, the cold took two of Thomas’ toes with frostbite.  He spent a few weeks in the infirmary, scared to death as that is the most likely place for SS guards to round up people to exterminate. As he was nearly healed, bombs dropped in nearby Berlin and the camp was liberated.

While in the infirmary, a man known as Odd Nansen visited often.  He shared candy and bits of food with Thomas, even bringing him some books to try to get him started with education as the war had taken that opportunity away.  Later, during the reconstruction, Thomas was reunited with his mother after a year in a Polish orphanage (his father died with unknown circumstances in the camps).  While he was with his mother, they told each other their many stories, reconnecting from all the time spent apart.  Thomas mentioned in fondness of the kind man who had helped him in the infirmary and soon they came upon a news article about Odd Nansen from Norway.  Thomas wrote Odd Nansen and reconnected with him, visited him in Norway, and was proud to learn that Odd Nansen had published his personal diaries from the camps, dedicated them to young Thomas.  Thomas had become somewhat of a celebrity!

Buergenthal spoke of many friends and family he lost during the war.  Many times in the book, he sadly stated that ‘I never saw or heard from him/her again.’

As he was reconnected with his mother, he wrote ‘I could be a child again.’  He spent years of his childhood thinking and surviving as an adult.  He had no chance to play or let others take care of him.  It was quite a relief to know that his mother was responsible for him again.  A tutor was hired to help Thomas catch up with his peers and the man realized that academically Thomas was far behind, but in maturity, the camps had made him think and act much more like an adult.  They had many adult conversations and discussions about the war, the strategies, the losses. At first, Thomas wished to have a mounted machine gun to shoot all the Germans he saw walking the streets, but after further reflection, he realized that would not accomplish anything.  Like many other survivors, he found that a dedication to the improvement of human rights was a paramount cause as he had seen first-hand how low humans could go without help from others.  As he wrote in the book “I began to think that it was important that individuals like Nansen and the rest of us who had been subjected to terrible suffering at the hands of the Germans treat them with humanity, not because we sought their gratitude or to show how generous in spirit we were, but simply because our experience should have taught us to empathize with human beings in need, regardless of who they were. At the same time, of course, I was convinced that those Germans who ordered or committed the crimes the Nazis were responsible for should be punished.”

Thomas Buergenthal left West Germany in 1951 to study law in the US.  He became focused in human rights law and served as a judge on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, worked at the Claims Resolution Tribunal for Dormant Accounts in Switzerland, and eventually served a ten year tenure as the American judge on the International Court of Justice in The Hague, he is currently a professor of international law and human rights at the George Washington University Law School.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Col. Chris Hadfield

Wow, a very enjoyable book.  I grew up with a father who followed the news of space and he even took us to watch a shuttle launch in Florida one summer.  Reading and watching programs about space exploration and science have been fascinating and this book was no exception.  I first learned about Colonel Chris Hadfield as many others have, singing a version of David Bowie’s Space Oddity while in orbit in the space station (Click here for video: ).  As a teacher, I shared multiple youtube videos of Hadfield in space demonstrating things like what happens to the water when you wring out a wet towel, or how you throw up in space.  Students loved the Canadian Space Agency’s youtube channel and it was a go to on many days in the classroom.

So now to the book.  Let me begin the review by including Hadfield’s description of the night sky from the International Space Station, one of the nicest lines I’ve read in literature, “The night sky was beautiful, too: fine-spun necklaces of countless tiny lights dressed up the jet-black cloak covering Earth.” (p179)

As a child in the 1960’s, Hadfield watched the astronauts land on the moon in 1969 from his neighbors house in rural Canada.  From then on he dreamed of being an astronaut.  At the time, this was impossible.  Canada had no space agency and only Americans and Russians were allowed into the space programs.  He never gave up on his dream, and in 1995 he made it into orbit.  The first third of his book was very motivational and told how he got to the position he achieved.  Many times, he asked himself, “What would I need to do to get myself closer to the dream?”  He studied mechanical engineering, flew fighter jets in the service and became a test pilot, all preparing him for the impossible. Until one day, NASA opened up their applications to other counties and Colonel Hadfield made the cut.

The last two-thirds of the book went into great detail of training, launching, living in space, and landing.  Riddled in with the technical details, Hadfield included many personal stories which helped bring the reader into the book at a more personal level.

Many people wonder, what does an astronaut do when they aren’t in space.  As Hadfield explains, the astronauts train for nearly two years after they have been assigned a mission, before the blast-off.  Many medical tests, and simulations are done to ensure the safety and success of a mission.  Planning, practicing, and executing are essential for space exploration.  Hadfield made a great point that being successful at any profession finds necessity in these ideals.  Perhaps, though, preparation is a little more thorough in space exploration.  It makes more sense to have a few individuals who are ‘jacks of all trades’ than to have a specialist in each need on board.  Astronauts are trained in dentistry, plumbing, electronics, robotics, just to name a few skills they have on their repertoire.

Hadfield wrote “Preparation is not only about managing external risks, but about limiting the likelihood that you’ll unwittingly add to them.  When you’re the author of your own fate, you don’t want to write a tragedy.” (p65)

In all honesty, I could probably write a book about this book.  I really liked it and found so many interesting points he made and stories he told.  I recommend it to any and all who have the slightest interest in aviation, space exploration, or just want to know what it’s like to be a successful person.  Colonel Chris Hadfield, thanks for a great read.

Rating: **********10/10

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Bear Grylls – Mud, Sweat and Tears

My grandmother and I both share similar tastes in reading – classics and biographies/autobiographies. This Christmas, she gave me a copy of Bear Gryll’s autobiography, Mud, Sweat and Tears. I don’t have a TV, but I’ve seen Man Vs. Wild and some of the similar survival shows.  I like traveling and camping, but I’ve never gone to the extremes. I try to be prepared enough that I don’t have to eat a frog, but I’ve been known to do so.

I didn’t know much about Grylls, other than he was British and he drinks his own wee.  Ha.  I liked watching Man Vs. Wild because of the incredible places they filmed and it’s good to know some basic survival skills if you plan to spend any time in the outdoors.  He has written a few books, but this one was more focused on how he grew up and the time before he was a star.  He talked mostly about his family, the boarding schools, SAS training (Elite British forces ‘Special Air Service’), and his journey to climb Mt. Everest.

His great-great-great grandfather, Samuel Smiles, had written one of the first ‘self help’ books during the Victorian age, titled, Self Help. When it came out in 1859, it was so popular, it even outsold Darwin’s Origin of Species.  The book talked about building character and how important being a gentleman is to a man. He was one of the first to profess that a poor gentleman has more than a snobby wealthy man could ever have.

Bear’s grandfather, Walter Smiles, was a war hero and a Member of Parliament.  He tragically lost his life at sea, a few miles from his home at Portavo Point.  Just as Walter’s grandfather had written about character and strong qualities of a gentleman, Walter found himself doing everything possible on the fateful ship to save as many lives as he could.  He was remembered as a hero.  Walter’s daughter, Patsie, took his seat in parliament and soon left her husband for another MP.  The other MP didn’t feel as strongly and he didn’t leave his own wife so Patsie was left a single mother.  Years of regret bottled inside led her to write a very poignant letter to Bear’s sister at birth.  The letter was filled with jewels of advice to try to pass down her knowledge to ensure happiness for her future family.  In Bear’s book he shared part of the letter, which advised his sister to “Try always to think ahead and not backward, but don’t ever try to block out the past, because that is part of you and has made you what you are.  But try, oh try, to learn a little from it.”

Bear’s father also had a strong influence on him.  He took him on climbs and camping, and built a love of the outdoors in him.  Although his father was busy being a member of parliament, he tried to find time when he could to have quality time with the family.  Bear recalled one time that stood out to him.  Bear was on the school rugby team, but was really just the linesman. While nobody else consistently came to watch, Bears dad would be there watching his son doing his linesman duties.  It meant the world to Bear.

Bear was a rugged pup from the beginning.  He loved climbing both trees and mountains throughout his youth.  At Eton College he started a mountaineering club and started a hobby of climbing building and towers around the college.  The pinnacle was his late night climb of Eton’s Library.  It included a dome, which Bear had to use the cord to the lightening rod to shimmy up.  The only other one to climb it was the legendary explorer, Sir Ranulph Fiennes.  Both have scratched their initials onto the dome.

Upon completion of college, Bear didn’t have a desire to pursue the university, so he signed up for the SAS selection while he attended a small uni in Bristol.  After signing on, he was picked to go through the year-long course to train for the selection process.  Although the SAS is very private and confidential, Bear did a good job of telling what he could of the process.  After a few weeks of strenuous drills, a group of the men were put through the weekend marches.  Often they would run over 15-20 miles at a time through mountains with loaded fifty pound packs and had to complete the courses in a certain amount of time.  Bear failed to meet the time about 1/4 of the way in and was taken home.  This upset him greatly, but when the SAS invited him back for the second time, he vowed that he wouldn’t let himself fail.  He completed the second selection and served a few years in the SAS on various missions as a reserve soldier.  He enjoyed that time a lot.

An interesting fact, Bear liked to play guitar around Bristol.  He met a friend and they would play together sometimes, he called his friend ‘Blunty’, but his real name was James Blunt, the singer known for the song ‘You’re Beautiful’.

One day, Bear and his friends went skydiving and his chute ripped and didn’t open all the way.  Instead of cutting the cord to release the reserve, he panicked and tried to land it.  He fell on his back with a thud and fractured three vertebrae.  During his months of rehabilitation, he decided he would climb the world’s tallest mountain, Everest (if he could after breaking his back).  His rehabilitation went well and Bear was ready to start training.  He spent three months on Everest and successfully reached the summit.  Out of the forty people that started the trek, only a handful made it to the top.  Exhaustion, lack of oxygen, injuries, and weather kept the others from making it all the way.  Bear went into great detail of his expedition on Everest and it was a story of a lifetime.  He was only the 31st Brit to ever make the climb.  At one point, a sheet of ice broke and he fell, nearly to his death, but was saved by a rope he was harnessed to, which should not have been able to withstand the fall.  He was lucky and he knew it.

Grylls spoke briefly of his experience with fame after Discovery picked up his show, Man Vs. Wild.  He is far too modest to accept his fame, and he’s grateful that the show is a little less popular in Britain so he can live peacefully with his wife, Shara and three boys.  The income from the show also gives him the opportunity to give a lot of money to charities, which is one of the most important things that he believes in.

Being so close to death so many times, Bear knows he is lucky.  He finished the book by saying “Every day is the most wonderful of blessings, and a gift that I never, ever take for granted.  Oh, and as for the scars, broken bones, aching limbs, and sore back?  I consider them just gentle reminders that life is precious — and that maybe, just maybe, I am more fragile that I dare to admit.”

He is a true class-act and a man that all can look up to.

An Artist in America – Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton has a rich history and added much to the collection of Regionalism in American art. Born in a well-to-do family in Neosho, Missouri in 1889, Benton’s father pushed his son to follow in his own steps to become a lawyer.  His own uncle, from whom his name was given, Thomas Hart Benton, was a state senator (Theodore Roosevelt even wrote a book about the man), and added to the feeling of lofty expectations for the young Benton.  The more his father pushed to pursue law, Thomas reeled the other way.  As a teen, he left Neosho and worked as a surveyor in nearby Joplin.  No so much to be a surveyor, but it was his opportunity to escape from the small town that he felt harnessed him to the prominent family he was born to.  One night in Joplin, he was at a bar, admiring the artwork on the wall of a bare maiden.  The older gentlemen ridiculed him and he explained he was an artist, admiring the artistic qualities of the piece.  They all laughed at him, but one of the men suggested he apply at the paper to be the artist and use his talents.  Though they did not know, his drawings were more of a hobby and he was terrified of the idea of becoming a professional artist at that time.  He got the job and did pretty well at drawing pictures of the locals for articles in the paper.  Soon, he realized his political father had friends everywhere, and Joplin was not a big enough to escape the feeling of being judged, so the search for himself continued. He wound up in Chicago at art school, but felt the assignments of drawing classical sculptures limited his abilities, and he took the leap to move to Paris to explore their art scene.  He felt the friends he met were often too critical and always he felt out of place, so after a few years in pre-WWI Europe, he moved to New York, where he dabbled in a film career, but mostly made his means through little jobs here and there.  He got in with some well-to-dos and began painting these men and it became a more steady income.  During the war, he was employed doing technical drawings of buildings and work places and he found it really showcased his talent.  After the war, he continued this practice in art, and traveled the country drawing the people and their workplaces, and found the Regionalism art movement in America to be his niche.  From this, he became a famous muralist.

The book he wrote, An Artist in America, tells of his travels across our country, drawing everyday scenes.  From the hill countries in the Ozarks and Appalachia, the Mississippi River, North, South, East and West, Benton went everywhere.  His stories are often comical, and give the reader a chance to meet the people he encountered along the way.  Benton was quite a philosophical man, and many times between stories, he goes into verbose asides about the underlying situations in the areas he traveled.

For me, the stories are worth the read. His deep thoughts are interesting and relevant, but the seem to slow down the book.  I am glad they are included because I can really see his stream of conscious as it examines the belief of the times and his explanations of the places and people he meets.

For example, while speaking of crooked businessmen he met in New York, he countered the thought of their crooked racket and explored their other side of gentlemanly manner by saying, “On the edge of the underworld, chivalry makes its last stand.  In the dread impermanence of its life there comes to this land a rush of strange and extravagant sentiments, loyalties, devotions, and hates.  Among other things, the perfume of the lilies of love comes there, an extraordinarily pungent narcotic to disguise with the grace of tender illusion the sinister wills and compulsions of the rackets.”

Benton so loved the railroads and showed his feelings when he said, “To this day I cannot face an oncoming steam train without having itchy thrills run up and down my backbone.”  Drawing gave him a worthy excuse to travel and move.  A stationary artist was limited in his eyes.  The people and their lives were what made America beautiful.  He also appreciated the natural beauty of the land, and made a wonderful observation come to life in his description of the cypress swamps of the south, “Nothing on the face of the earth has a more forbidding beauty than a cypress swamp.  The trees with their fat curling bases rise out of the dark water like enormous fungi.  As a rule they have little foliage, and that is transparent, fragile, and lacy.  From their branches long whiskers of moss hang in gray veils.  Sometimes a dead tree stands up stark, like a piece of white sculpture.”  Truly beautiful descriptions of people and places in this book.