Last Christmas, when my immediate family got together, I had a few conversations with one of my nephews, who was 25 at the time. During our conversations, he asked me what certain words, like “ambiguous” and “prolonged,” meant since I’d peppered my conversations with such vocabulary. At one point, I told him that if he’d read more, he’d know the meaning of those words.
Unlike other members of my immediate family, I’m not induced into thinking that just because this particular nephew is on the autism spectrum that he can’t do better. I’ve witnessed him manipulate other people, especially my parents, into doing things for him. He ‘d mastered that behavior at age three. Since I’ve lived out of town for most of his life, I have always seen through the learned helplessness charade. Not every struggle can be written off as intellectual disability, especially with someone smart enough to scheme.
For that Christmas, I’d gifted him a nonfiction book and two literary magazines. I knew he liked history and the novel was about a married autistic man’s journey to being a better father and husband by learning how to be more empathetic–lessons I thought my nephew needed to learn as well.
Just on a fluke, I told him for next year’s Christmas gift (2017), I’d get him a dictionary to help build his vocabulary. Then I added that I’d probably had to decorate it with pictures to get him to read it. I asked him with which kind of pictures he’d like me to decorate the dictionary.
“Big titties and Kim Kardashian!” he answered without the slightest hesitation.
I told him I wasn’t going to buy any porn, but I still kept the request in mind as I flew back to Texas. The more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued with the challenge of modifying a dictionary to the point that a 25 year old man would actually look at every page.
So, on January 2nd, I went to Half Price Books and checked out the reference section. I wanted a dictionary that had around 300 or fewer pages, medium-to-large print, hardbound, and thickish pages. I loved the irony of the small print at the top of my dictionary choice: “A vocabulary book for people who don’t need one.” Oh, my nephew definitely needed one!
While at the checkout counter, I told the guy my intentions for buying the dictionary. Then I asked him what Half Price Books did with their old magazines, emphasizing that I didn’t want porn. He directed me to the recycling center in the back of store, telling me that perhaps there were some gentlemen’s magazines that hadn’t been recycled them yet.So, I explained my project to one of the women who worked in the recycling center. As fortune would have it, she had a shopping cart full of vintage Maxims and similar magazines. She handed me a heavy stack of 12 magazines. I’d originally thought I’d have to go through a lot of junk mail to get such pictures from racy ads. The universe conspired for me!
Then, I went to one of my favorite craft stores, told the story behind the dictionary project and asked for a recommendation for a pen I could use to write on the pages. Again, the cashier was more than happy to direct me to the scrapbooking section where I found gel pens that were chemically neutral and wouldn’t bleed. My intention was to write a comprehensive sentence at the top of each page, using the framed vocabulary word.
When I say “framed,” I mean just that. For each page, I planned to paste, using the acid-free glue sticks I bought at the craft store, an eye-catching picture, which will cover up some of the other words. With colored pencils, I’d create a colorful scenic/decorative background to make all the other words on the page recede, leaving one vocabulary word and its definition(s) uncolored; so he’ll be able to see the definition of vocabulary word I write at the top of the page.
In about six weeks time, I’d decorated every page with, what one woman had referred to as “cheesecake shots.” Regardless of whether the page had text on it or not, I made use of all the available space.The overall plan was to add inspirational quotes from famous women on those pages where no vocabulary word was highlighted. Since my nephew is a history buff, I wanted to make sure he’d read the words of a variety of successful and influential women.Based on which word I chose to highlight, I glued an appropriate-sized picture for that page.
After all the pictures were placed, I then boxed in the highlighted word, using a gel pen. For certain pages, such as the index, I wanted my nephew to still be able to use them, yet I decorated those pages as well and added the inspirational quotes later.
The next step involved writing sentences for each highlighted word. Ever the perfectionist, I knew I’d edit them later. Yet the sentences guided me on how to decorate the dictionary with colored pencils and stencils. Having the handwritten sentences were much easier to reference and saved ink and paper of printing out typed up sentences.
I thumbed through the book to see which pages needed inspirational quotes from famous, successful women. Those identified pages were the ones that had no highlighted vocabulary word. So, I knocked out getting quotes for those pages in one setting.
The most intense labor of love had to be designing the background for all the pages with highlighted words. I spared my sanity by searching for image outlines online to print and trace rather than drawing them freehand. This saved time and helped make the illustrations look better. Just think: mastering cutting paper and coloring in kindergarten still served me so well much later in life.October 7th marked a significant day in the making of the burlesqued dictionary: all the hand-illustrated backgrounds were completed! Months of reading the sentences; looking up a black and white outline to copy and paste into a word document; printing out the outlines to use as stencils; finally tracing and coloring the resulting backgrounds.
The penultimate stage has begun. I’m now writing in the inspirational quotes on the pages that lack vocabulary. I’m not sure that I can take the project out to other places and complete this stage like I could when tracing and coloring the backgrounds. I could still follow conversation while doing those things, but I’d like to have no conversational obligation when copying sentences. I need more concentration. At least I have white out.
I figured this last stage would zip by. Compared to designing the backgrounds by hand, this last step in dictionary design was a breeze. The only things that slowed me down was when I inevitably edited the sentence or had to white out something that was sloppily or erroneously written. Nonetheless, what a pleasure to revisit the example sentences I’d written just months ago.
Once I completed writing the sentences by mid-October, the only thing left was to scan all the pages for prosperity’s sake. Thank goodness I finished relatively early since I needed to practice the scanning technique. Most importantly, with all the choices I could save the images to, I initially had no idea which format worked best for which platform. I’ve since learned that TIFF is the best for an overall record; PDF is best for book publishing; and JPEG is best for this blog! I’ve no idea what PNG is good for. I’m sure I’ll find out after I’ve gifted the dictionary to my nephew!
I forewent the normal Christmas card and wrote out my thoughts on an index card instead. Even so, I don’t think I tricked him into thinking it was a normal study guide.Speaking of whom, here’s the satisfied gift recipient.
And just as I’d hoped, he’s now reading in bed! Now, all that remains is how many words he’ll actually learn. At least other people can build their vocabulary as well, reading Aunt Teresa’s Burlesque Dictionary.