Socks and the single pensioner.

Okay, I know losing socks in a clothes dryer is the stereotypical single man trope, but when you add Age into the picture, it hints at perceptual problems and presumes, well, cognitive declination. That which, in my salad days, was merely assumed to be an idiosyncrasy, has now become part of the entrance exam for the Home. The sock has become a sort of washable Rosetta Stone to interpret otherwise puzzling psychological conundrums.

I suppose it’s understandable; it’s natural to seek resolutions to ambiguities –no matter how banal. But algorithms for more efficient sorting of socks? It’s supposed to be a Radix algorithm, or something, so I looked it up in Wikipedia (of course): ‘radix sort is a non-comparative integer sorting algorithm that sorts data with integer keys by grouping keys by the individual digits which share the same significant position and value’. I didn’t understand a thing, but anyway it seemed like a waste of math.

You don’t get to my age without solutions, so socks are a mere piffle. When I sort them into pairs and stuff them into each other, if they don’t exactly match, so what? Who would lift my trousers to check to see if the socks are the same length, or shine a light on them to see if the colours exactly match? The trick is in the pant length, so all these years I have managed very well without an algorithm, thank you. But the very idea that someone might want to make a name for himself in the sock-sorting world intrigued me.

Brien has always had problems with his socks and I thought he might be interested in the approach outlined in the BBC article. He gets all his information from television or the old newspapers stores sometimes still wrap stuff in. The latter is not strictly ‘news’ in the etymological sense – but, as Brien always says when I see the yellowing, crumpled paper near his chair, “You have to learn from the past -it explains a lot of what they say on TV.”

Anyway, I found him dozing on a lawn chair on his porch, a woolen blanket covering everything but his head and feet. Even before I climbed the steps, though, I could see a sock colour discrepancy, but there was a certain symmetry to them, too: they both had big-toe holes. You have to admire his logic.

One eye opened as I mounted the wooden steps, and both feet disappeared under the covers.

“Cold today,” he said, his arms obviously stretching out under the warmth of the wool.

“Brien, it’s November. Why would you sit outside?”

“I didn’t know you were coming over,” he said and rolled his eyes as if that explained everything except why I was there.

“I just read an article about socks.”

“Why would you do that?” He shook his head slowly. I was a complete puzzle to him.

One foot surfaced for air from under the blanket and I pointed at it before it disappeared again.

“Private socks,” he explained. “The holes match, so I figure they’re good to go when I’m not expecting company.

He wasn’t clear on why he’d wear them on a porch so near a sidewalk, though.

“They’re different colours, Brien.”

He sat up straighter in the chair and pulled the blanket tighter around him. He still managed an indifferent shrug, nevertheless. “Lost the brother sock to each, so I matched something different… That’s gotta count,” he whispered irritably to himself. Then he ventured a glance at my face. “So what’s the article say counts as a match?” He sounded unwilling to accept the advice of a mere ‘article’, however.

I thought about it; Brien had a point. If we match lengths, colours, and patterns –even textures and materials- then why not holes? I brought the article up on my IPhone to check. They talked of sorting things into categories but there was nothing in it that disqualified holes as a group…

“What’s wrong with matching holes?” I could hear him muttering. “Why just colours? Seems like a waste of the rest of the sock…”

I put the phone away and smiled my best conciliatory, pedantic smile. “You sort for what people notice –what they see, Brien.”

He rolled his eyes again at my dull-wittedness. “You were the one who advised me about the pant-length trick.” He shook his head slowly and sighed. “Now, I’m going to advise you about the under-reported footwear trick.” He screwed his eyes into my face like he was going to hang a picture. “I’ll bet there are hundreds of guys walking around with hidden holes in their socks, as we speak. Thousands, maybe… How would you know?”

For a moment I thought he was going to put his theory to the test and ask me to take off my running shoes to prove the point. But all he said was “What happens in the shoe, stays in the shoe, eh?”

He sat up fully in the chair, and slipped his holes into a pair of rabbit’s fur slippers. “Want a beer?” he said, and padded off into the house before I could answer.


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