Word games and why

I like to do crosswords and other word puzzles. I once heard another poet say he does them to keep a flow of words through his mind. I used this principle a few months ago when I wanted to write a poem to send to a competition. The word “newness” in a puzzle gave me the idea: it was just before surgery, and the poem is called “The Promised Hip.”

I would rather do my own creative work than put the required intense energy into really difficult puzzles. I prefer those of medium difficulty. My purpose is to idle, to be meditative, to take a break from serious pursuits.

My favourites are cryptograms, quotations that are printed in a code where each letter is represented by a different letter of the alphabet. For example, “book” could be printed as “akkn” or “twwd.” Most cryptogram books have really good quotations, so I find that solving them is worth the work. I recently came across one by Cardinal Richelieu that chilled my heart: “Show me six lines written by the most honourable of men and I will find something there to put him in prison.”

More on clothing

From the frightening to the more mundane: someone at a recent Mensa event, in response to my column, said it was brave of me to print what I think. She was likely referring to my comments about clothing and style. Here is more on that subject.

It is easy to think in extremes, that one’s only choice is to be either a slob or else perfectly turned out, with the time, effort, expense, and discomfort that may entail. But there are alternatives on the sloppy-slick continuum.

A slob is often a person who considers that paying any attention to personal appearance implies a lack of seriousness, a lack of anything “better” to think about. I find this attitude unfortunate. When we look good we feel good and others respond positively to us.

(I once went so far as to claim that a physical slob is a mental slob. I said that to a friend when we were leaving a poetry reading in a pub. Then on the subway I caught sight of my own rumpled clothes reflected in a window and was duly embarrassed.)

Surely the ideal is a happy medium, clothes which are reasonably neat and clean and appropriate to the occasion. Though I greatly enjoy the aesthetic aspects of clothing, I don’t trust the other extreme, slickness. In the presence of a person ostentatiously dressed to kill I am wary, assuming an intention to impress or manipulate in some other way.

Are these judgments too hasty? I refer you to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, about rapid cognition.

Feedback from readers of Adventures, Opinions, and Imaginative Forays, #6

One reader frequently uses the word “mighty” in a book he is writing about inner strength and happiness. As to the ephemeralness of e-text and tee-shirts, a second reader points out that tattoos are an attempt at permanence.

A third reader says she has always been fascinated by the relationship of literacy and power. At one time scribes and those in possession of the ability to read and write were part of an elite group associated with gods and kings. She compares that to graffiti, which she sees as a kind of secret language in which she is completely illiterate. She has taken risks to get to the sites where she can document graffiti with her camera.

Further to my trying to read the tee-shirt of a man on a bus, a fourth reader points out there are many conclusions that can be reached from this incident. For example, that buses are evil.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………

Postscript

This article came out in the September-October, 2013 issue of Montage: The Toronto Mensa Newsletter with the announcement that it would be my last. I was surprised to find on the facing page an article by a contributor who was inspired by what I had written about tee-shirts to offer his own opinions.

I see in his article an unfortunate and unnecessary rift between the between the aesthetic and the intellectual. He mentions how carefully he chooses his tee-shirts according to their wit and appropriateness to the venue. That totally missed my point that an important purpose of clothing is to enhance the body, rather than treat it as merely the support for an overt message, no matter how clever. Wearing a tee-shirt that disregards the aesthetic and sensual aspects of clothing is, to me, the equivalent of wearing a sandwich board or carrying a sign, albeit more comfortable.

The author of the article also pointed out that the usual spelling was “T-shirt,” after the shape of the garment. I’m glad to know about this origin. I suppose I unthinkingly chose the alternative spelling because I like to save capital letters for Special Things.

Advertisements

For five weeks in April and May a few years ago I was a juror in a murder trial at the Ontario Supreme Court at the University Avenue Courthouse. I am forbidden by law to talk about many aspects of the case. So I will sketch out the bare bones of the case and share some of my personal experiences in court.

The charge was second-degree murder trial. Our verdict, which had to be unanimous, was the lesser charge of manslaughter. Sentencing is the duty of the judge and takes place several weeks later. This was not a high-profile case and not widely reported in the media.

Jury selection

Both the summons to appear as a potential juror, as part of the jury panel, and the actual choice to be a juror were conducted by lottery. I believe the former was from the tax roll. According to the number on our summons letter, we were put into groups of twenty and presented to the judge and lawyers of a particular case. If both lawyers agreed, a person was accepted as a juror and sworn in on a choice of holy book or by personal affirmation. A potential juror who was refused for one trial was then considered for a different case, and so on, until all the trials had sufficient jurors.

The twelve of us, once chosen, were instructed to arrive fifteen minutes before the judge wanted us in court. We gathered in the public corridor on a different floor from our courtroom to avoid running into other people involved in the trial. We were met by a court constable, who led us through a secure corridor to a jury room across from our courtroom. (There was also an entrance to the courtroom from the general corridor for visitors, including several high-school classes for brief periods). When one juror was twenty minutes late on our second day, we realized that the whole court was delayed until we were all present. After that, for the rest of the five weeks, none of us was ever late or absent; one juror’s plumbing backed up, but her husband was able to stay home and deal with it.

Aspects of the jurying experience

Every day, several times a day, we were kept in a jury room until our presence in court was required. Then the court constable lined us up in the hallway by number according to the order in which we were chosen. When we entered the courtroom from the special jury entrance, we turned left into the jury box, an enclosure with two rows of six chairs each, the second row raised behind the first. Juror Number One sat at the far end of the first row and I, Juror Number Seven, sat just behind him, making the two of us the most visible to visitors. To my embarrassment, made worse by this visibility, I had a tendency to doze off.

Before being selected, while we were still waiting in the jury pool, we were informed by means of an orientation video that it wasn’t necessary to dress formally, but just to be neat and clean. However, in the courtroom where the judge and lawyers were wearing robes and the witnesses were in suits and ties, I was inclined to dress formally as well to suit the occasion. As the jury stood and filed out of the jury box, I was the last to leave. With my back visible the whole time, I always wore a jacket of some kind and made sure it was pulled down over my hips.

Being in the jury room itself was an experience in sensory deprivation. The walls were a neutral grey. The amenities were an oval table with twelve comfortable chairs around it, a small fridge, trash containers and two washrooms. The windows were frosted over. Though the trial and my time in the jury room took all my attention, going out of the building for lunch and at the end of the day were a welcome change. It was late April, and I eagerly marked the progress of leaves and flowers coming out. Once or twice a day I was able to walk though the grounds of Osgoode Hall nearby and enjoy the tulips.

This was during the first weeks of the trial, when the evidence and witnesses were presented and we were not yet sequestered. Entering the Courthouse was awkward for me with my knee replacement: twice a day the metal in my knee set off the security alarm and slowed up everyone behind me. The whole experience was rather like working full time again, though we often started at 10:00, at the Judge’s discretion, and were able to miss the worst of the rush hour traffic. The jury was composed of six men and six women from a variety of backgrounds and walks of life. Some of us had to travel from as far as Scarborough or Etobicoke.

Towards the end of the trial

After four and a half weeks, the lawyer for each side summed up the case as he saw it and the judge summed it up, as well. The judge told us several times that we were to decide on the verdict according to our life experience and common sense. Then he turned the case over to us, and we were sequestered for our deliberations.

Sequestration means that we were cut off from all outside contact: no access to media or telephones, though we were allowed to send and receive phone messages through the court constable. We stayed in the jury room and hashed out the case, with our notes all over the table. Lunch was brought in, and we were taken to a different jury room to eat. Sometimes we were taken out for a brief walk before getting back to deliberations.

This took us parts of four days, with three nights spent in a nearby hotel. So after a day of deliberations, the twelve of us walked to the hotel with our assorted sports bags and small wheeled luggage, escorted by four uniformed court constables. What a treat it was to be in a luxurious dining room with greenery visible out the windows. The hotel was obviously experienced with juries and had a special two-choice menu for us. All sixteen of us took up a wing on one floor of the hotel. Each juror was assigned a room; then one of the constables inspected each room to make sure the television and phone were disabled. Two constables at a time stayed awake in the corridor for half the night, guarding us. In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel, then back to the court through a private entrance–no more security alarms for me!

While the jury was out, i.e., in deliberation, the whole court–judge, lawyers, court officials, accused, family members–were available at short notice to receive our verdict. We presented our verdict late Saturday afternoon of the Victoria Day Weekend.

Looking back

My experience in court was very different from what we see on television. What often happens on crime shows is that the identity of the guilty party is clear but that can’t be proven until near the end, when one tiny piece of evidence is shown to him and he confesses. This all takes place within an hour of snappy dialog and quick-changing bright-coloured scenes. In contrast with my experience, I remember a lot of time in an elegant courtroom with wood paneling and marble, with a large, beautifully-designed, modern interpretation of the crest of Ontario (lion, unicorn, motto) above the judge’s seat. There was an appropriate unhurriedness to the procedure, conducive to necessary reflection, and no single obvious piece of evidence or testimony that the whole case hinged on, unlike on crime shows where everything is simplified and heightened, as befits entertainment. The trial was thorough, and it was clear that this was a serious matter that deserved the well-prepared and well-presented attention.

As a result of participating in “my” trial I have lost my taste for watching CSI. But I have gained a new interest in court-related works. I recommend the play Twelve Angry Men (available on video and DVD with Henry Fonda), and the John Grisham novels The Last Juror and The Runaway Jury. All these are American and very different in attitude from my experience, but they are more meaningful to me after my court experience.

In conclusion, I am very impressed with our court system as I saw it. The ambience in the courtroom was one of respect and consideration. Having worked with newcomers for many years, I am reminded of how fortunate we are to live in Canada.

First I’d like to announce my solo art show at the Northern District Library, Toronto, for the month of July.
Details at http://www.marvynejenoff.com

(from Montage, The Toronto Mensa Newsletter, July-August, 2013)

Communication

The pen is mightier than the sword. Or, as a reader updates it, the e-ink is mightier than the Uzi. Two thoughts come to mind:
1) Why not an update for “mightier,” as well—has anyone actually used that word recently?
2) The pen/e-ink gets more laughs than the sword/Uzi.

A foray into personal communication, i.e., in the physical presence of others: Out of curiosity, I asked a few people what sort of talk they like at social events. One said the purpose of conversation is to contribute to and learn from it. Another is happy to speak very little and just sit among the company.

What I enjoy a great deal is gentle back-and-forth banter with other people in a group. I am disappointed when this type of interaction is impossible. I’m thinking here of too much ambient noise in a pub or restaurant or a discussion that gets too intense for my liking. At such times I tune out what is being said and focus on the extreme sports airing in silence on the surrounding mammoth TV screens (To me, all sports are extreme, even the commentary.) At the same time I still get the pleasure, the buzz, of being among other people. There must be pheromones or some such thing that electronic communication deprives us of.

More about tee-shirts

An old school friend visiting recently from out west took me to lunch. He was wearing a tee-shirt printed with a photograph of his wife in her wedding dress, taken decades ago. A propos of my article mentioning tee-shirts on The Big Bang Theory, he told me about the website http://www.sheldonshirts.com, where one can buy them. From what I could tell, Sheldon’s most interesting ones weren’t available, but I had likely reached the limit of my browsing skill.

Still more about tee-shirts, or is it about literacy?

“Literacy” includes the gamut from basic reading ability to the compulsion to read any text that catches one’s eye. An old acquaintance, so compelled, called himself a print junkie. I guess that’s me, too. That can be an awkward habit.

For example, I once attended an amateur stand-up comedy night. One of the performers was wearing a tee-shirt with text on it, so of course I was drawn to read it. That was difficult because I was sitting off to the side and the performer kept moving. I alternated between trying to ignore the text and wondering whether it was related to the content of the act. I never did get to read the t-shirt, and I missed much of the performance.

Another example: once on a bus I was intrigued by the tee-shirt of a man sitting opposite me and off to the side. It had ancient runes or some sort of symbols on a slightly faded rust-coloured background. My obvious interest must have made him uncomfortable. As we got off the bus at the same stop he waited to see which direction I would take: the opposite of where he was going, as it happened.

How ephemeral is literacy? Yet another reader pointed out that centuries ago a shortage of papyrus in Europe resulted in a loss of literacy in the populace. (A quick historical summary: then followed paper, the printing press and, in living memory, typewriters with carbon copies.) Now we have electronic media. Much written there is ephemeral. But we also have tee-shirts.

(Note: See the announcement of my upcoming solo art show, http://www.marvynejenoff.com.)

(from Montage, The Toronto Mensa Newsletter, June, 2013)

Logic

There was recently a small item on the news that Toronto has surpassed Chicago in population and is now the fourth largest city* in North America. Something to be proud of, I suppose. But the most prominent Toronto feature in the news these many days is our mayor. Conclusion: size doesn’t matter.

Adventure

By the time this is posted I should be walking normally, having survived hip replacement surgery in late March. In late April as I write this, I am weaning myself away from a walker to two canes, which make me nervous: it is too easy to kick one of them as I walk.

Having to stay close to home and needing a lot of rest has meant an opportunity to enjoy daytime TV, even with limited access to channels. Programs that have to do with purchasing and renovating homes provide me with geographical and sociological interest and a colour and design fix. At the same time I remain thankful for my small, low-maintenance apartment with a lot of pale bare walls, a clean visual slate as a backdrop for doing artwork.

Opinions

Design, visual art, what we like to look at–this segues nicely into an opinion I’ve been saving for a summer issue when tee-shirts begin to show outdoors.

As we age our upper backs tend to curve forward. This shape is not attractive in a tee-shirt, particularly the kind with a neckline that cuts straight across the middle of the curve and emphasizes it. Solution: a light-weight shirt with a collar, that draws the attention upward, is more flattering and equally comfortable. A shirt worn over a tee-shirt is also a good option.

I am not pointing the finger here. I came to this when I noticed my own profile in the mirror. The following is my long-held opinion about a worldwide practice I am not inclined to adopt: wearing tee-shirts with stuff printed on them. Often chosen without much thought, they nevertheless serve as billboards: as will all our attire, they represent the wearer for good or ill.

An example: The Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, goes on a date (yes!). He wears a tee-shirt that says, in large black letters on white, “My other tee-shirt is clean.” Surely anyone sitting across the dinner table deserves better literary and visual stimulation than that, or else a neutral canvas. I can understand wearing a bit of text that is worth pondering. But who wants something stupid to be burned on their retina?

Someone in the public eye whose tee-shirts I enjoy is the character Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory. He has quite a colourful variety of them with intriguing images of what his mother would call “science-y stuff.”

A related point I remember from one of the ten-year-defunct Sunday trivia evenings at the Artful Dodger. In a group which included tee-shirt wearers, the concensus was that dark-coloured ones stand up better to laundering and look good for longer than white ones do.

Fashion is what’s available; style is what we choose. That statement is not original with me, and I regret now remembering where I read it—I’d like to give credit. My point here is that each of us has a personal style in the eyes of others, regardless of whether we are aware of how we look.

Applied Mathematics

Feedback about my April post: I mentioned that the fastest-growing age segment of the population is the over 100’s, and I was surprised to discover this. A reader pointed out that in a small segment any increase is proportionally a large one. Maybe there aren’t so many of them after all.

Another reader pointed out that the Romans didn’t number the days of the month as we do. Their months were divided into markers according to the phases of the moon, the ides being the full moon. Each day was referred to by how many days it fell before one of these markers. Surely it is more complicated, with various emperors adding extra days to the months named after them. But serious research has no place in this light-hearted column, so I’ll leave it at that.

*In case you were puzzled, as I was, the size ranking of North American cities is: Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto.

Easy Adventure

I am pleased to announce that my poem, “Dinosaur Aloft,” will be posted on the League of Canadian Poets’ National Poetry Month Blog on April 26. Weeks ago when I received the call for entry I submitted the poem, and was soon notified that it had been juried in. A lovely boost before surgery! Do check out the other poems, as well. All poems on the blog will be archived there for the rest of the year.

Grueling adventure

I have survived hip replacement surgery and, four weeks later, am in the recovery period. The wooziness and pain are mostly gone. I am still hobbling with a walker, but able to get out to the corner for a newspaper. Of necessity my focus has been close to home. I’m grateful to be able to do small tasks: preparing oatmeal in the microwave, washing dishes in the sink.

Until I have the surgeons okay to bend the hip in certain ways, I am getting help with light housekeeping and laundry. What a fortuitous seque into this month’s blog! There is no separate issue of Montage in May, so I am revising/reviving this article from Montage many years ago.

Reflections on Identity

They say we define ourselves through our choices. I have always enjoyed choosing simple things I really like for daily use. One such choice that gave me a lot of pleasure was an unusual laundry hamper that attracted me as soon as I saw it at the store. Upright, freestanding, white fabric mesh on a wire frame, with handles, it can be used for carrying dirty clothes to the laundry room. I enjoyed the elegant, light-hearted design.

Soon after I moved into the building where I now live, this laundry hamper was much commented on. In the laundry room it was a useful conversation starter. In fact, so many people commented on it that I tried an experiment. I filled it with l balloons and walked up and down the hallways with it. No one noticed the balloons, but several people commented on the hamper itself. I tried another experiment. This time I walked up and down the halls not carrying anything, and people still stopped me to ask if I were the one with the unusual laundry hamper.

I could see that this was becoming my signature piece. One person in my bridge group at the community centre down the street, when I mentioned where I lived, said she’d heard there was someone in that building a very unusual laundry hamper. At a party in Scarborough, when I mentioned I lived in North Toronto, someone said he’d heard about a strange laundry basket in that area. Not long afterwards, when I went to Vancouver, someone who heard I was from Toronto said…

You get the idea. At first I was annoyed at being identified so closely with a laundry hamper: surely I am a full human being. Then, on reflection, I appreciated the implications. By association, I was considered upright, freestanding, whimsical, elegantly designed, light-weight, domestic, and clean. Fine qualities to be defined by. Much more acceptable than the qualities of the paper-shredder I’d bought around the same time.

Postscript

Ten years after this article was written, I now use a wheeled hamper. People still stop me and ask where I got it, as if I am so clever! Does no one else browse the laundry-equipment shelves at Solutions or Canadian Tire or Home Hardware?

(from Montage, The Toronto Mensa Newsletter, April-May, 2013)

Adventure

By April 1—no joke–I will have had hip replacement surgery. I mention this for two reasons: It is an opportunity to use the future perfect tense. And if I die (adventure is risky, by definition) under the knife (do they still use knives?), my thoughts, having been published, will be immortal. this is my one last chance to be immortal.

Bloodiness (I don’t expect much) and pain (I expect some, but it will be manageable) have no place in this light-hearted column. However, there are some peripheral aspects of joint replacement surgery that I feel are worth mentioning.

Vocabulary

Some time ago I had knee replacement surgery as the long-term consequence of an accident in my twenties. During the appointments leading up to the surgery the hospital staff referred to the “good” knee and the “bad” knee. This crass terminology irritated me a little, but it was accurate so I went along with it.

After my surgery I was nonplussed to find that they kept the same terms. At first I didn’t know what they were referring to. There I was, knowing that I had a perfect new titanium-and-plastic knee inside me and that the swelling and discomfort would eventually subside. This was no longer a bad knee in any sense!  I kept insisting that they were both good knees now. How about calling them the “old” knee and the “new” knee?

Occasionally I thought I had made some headway in converting the hospital staff, but it seems there are forces stronger than reason. On my way out of the hospital I was still overhearing “good” knee and “bad” knee.

The knee turned out so well that I requested the same surgeon for my hip. Now, nine years later, some things are different. This time, in preparation, I was provided with a thorough glossy manual for dealing with joint replacement surgery. I was delighted to see the terminology had changed to the “involved” (and “non-involved”) leg before surgery and the “operated” (and “non-operated”) leg afterwards. Though toward the end of the book I think I saw a reference to a “bad” leg—perhaps the editor missed it.

Applied Mathematics

People say that joint replacement rejuvenates those who get one. That certainly happened to me with my knee. When this hip business is over—there is a long period of rehab–I’m looking forward to being able to walk  gracefully again. (The only people I envy are those who skip up the subway stairs two at a time. They are usually very tall, very young men, but still.)  

Another aspect of rejuvenation: a case could be made for averaging the age of the new body part with the age of the rest of one’s body for a new, more accurate number. Most of us would be affected in some way, since this principle would also include, among other parts, dental implants and the new lenses they put in during cataract surgery. I hesitate to mention this in print, though. The government might get ideas and defer our pensions.   

Celebrations

Birthdays seem to be a theme in this column. Some months ago at a gathering of acquaintances I noticed several people congratulating one man on turning 80. I thought of sending him a card.

I wasn’t sure whether there were cards made specifically for 80-year-olds, but this is what I found when I went shopping. There were cards for age 21, then 25, and then for every 5-year milestone up to 100. There were several designs for each age, including 100. I’ve heard that over 100 is the fastest-growing age segment in the world. I’m going to take good care of my (shiny?) new hip to make it last for several decades.

(from Montage, The Toronto Mensa Newsletter, March, 2013)

Applied Mathematics

Feedback to this column is becoming an adventure. I started the last article with something deliberately neutral and inoffensive, the winter months. Before it was published I mentioned this theme at a Mensa gathering. There quickly ensued a heated discussion about a more equitable system of numbering dates in the calendar: eliminate 13’s and add more lucky 7’s? Eliminate 4’s and add  more lucky 8’s?

I’m sure someone can figure out how to do this, but I hope there is no such change in my time. I like to keep practical things simple, as in Flaubert’s quotation, translated from the French: Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your art.

I’m not sure what “bourgeois” means in this context. If it means “middle class” there is the implication that an artist can afford to live that way. If “bourgeois” had been translated I wouldn’t have had to figure out how to spell it. I suppose that was good for my brain, though.

The Brain

They say it is important to keep the brain healthy by creating more synapses. Learning new languages and doing certain kinds of puzzles help with this. I suspect I am benefiting my brain at the moment with the temporary use of a cane.

The cane’s real purpose is to keep me tolerably comfortable during the long countdown to hip replacement surgery. With the cane in my left hand I step normally with the left foot and then use the cane together with my right foot for the next step. The idea is to lessen the pressure on my right hip by putting some of my weight on the cane.

Doing so, however, puts unbalanced pressure on the left hand, arm, and shoulder, affecting my back muscles and posture. Of course my brain is affected, as well. After surgery there will be more changes: weeks of rehab, during which I will have to remember to avoid bending the new hip in certain ways.

Ultimately I will learn to walk normally and be able to behave like the energetic person I fancy myself to be. All these adjustments will surely refresh my brain, though likely in a more primitive area than the cognitive.

Health, Stealth

Everyone knows it is a good idea to maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight takes a toll on the body, in my case, raised cholesterol and unnecessary pressure on the joints. My doctors and I agree that I am carrying more than a mere 4 or13 excess pounds. But when I’ve mentioned this once or twice to others I’ve been met with an astonished look: You’re not overweight at all! And I am astonished to hear this.

I reflect on our changing context.  Looking at the people around me I don’t seem out of place. But in a photograph of my aunt’s wedding party in 1945 everyone is slim. And some are smoking in the photograph, even the pregnant person.

A woman I know recently lost weight, and I asked how she did it. I have to admit I didn’t really listen to her reply. I was being sneaky, hoping for a quick tip that would be picked up directly by the extra pounds. The pounds would just slip off quietly without any attention on my part. That hasn’t worked yet, but it’s still early days.

 

This column is currently my major prose writing: whimsy is serious work. I was happy to get feedback from a blog reader. Referring to my December 2012 post about the square cake, she pointed out that on a round cake one could arrange the candles in a spiral or an asterisk. That got me wondering: which is preferable, the prettier or the more rare?