What’s Montague?

They’ve got a name for everything nowadays. That’s how it should be, I guess, but sometimes I wonder if they just make things up so they can try out a catchy name –fleek springs to mind. I heard it on a bus, downtown, but from the looks the kids gave the person who used it, I think it had already passed its best-before date. But that’s the trouble with names isn’t it? Especially if what they name isn’t really there, or has already transmogrified. Or maybe worse, never was, and the name was, well, unconsummated.

So I am very particular about names. Nowadays, of course, they could be fake news, but there was always a danger. You had to source them carefully. Validate their lexical potential, lest you be accused of neologizing for kudos –itself an irregular transliteration of the Greek kydos. See what I mean? Names can become Möbius loops if you’re not careful.

As such, I was particularly wary when I came across misophonia as you can imagine. I suppose context has a role to play, though. If I heard it on the BBC, I would assume it had something to do with the mistreatment of microphones or something; in a mall in the suburbs, I would think I had wandered into the food court. As it happens, I overheard it on the CBC here in Canada. A neurologist was being interviewed on the radio about a condition in which specific sounds trigger negative thoughts and reactions in certain people -up to 20% of the population, apparently. Sounds like chewing, coughing, slurping, horking… well, you get the idea. Its cause is unknown, but sometimes identifiable on fMRI as demyelination –unwrapping, as it were- of certain neurons in specific areas of the brain.

Great! Naked neurons lurking in 20% of our heads waiting for a chance to expose themselves and embarrass us. Definitely not fleek. But it did command my attention –especially when I heard the trigger sounds they broadcast as examples. I don’t normally hit my radio, but sometimes you just have to do what’s necessary, eh? It got me wondering whether the condition –which has yet to have its accouchement in the DSM psychiatric bible- is really as prevalent as reported. And if so, could this account for various cultural differences in tolerance of table noise? Mutations in DNA, or, if it can’t be found that way, epigenetic modification by lowering the volume on certain genes? Sorry -I suppose I’m just being a scientific reductionist, but I need excuses. Idiosyncrasies become reclassified as exemplars of dementia at my age.

Time for another coffee shop experiment. I decided against the upscale, usually working age Starbucks in case somebody complained. Lenny’s seemed a more suitable venue, with its offer of free terrible coffee for seniors on certain days. I figured I could test them out without fear of reprisal.

My plan was simplicity itself. I would go in, sit beside a doddering group, and make table noises and see what happened. To randomize the groups, I could switch tables after a few minutes and, like doing a poll, get a representative sample of the population. Wow.

I googled the local Lenny’s –I didn’t even know there was one- and discovered that Tuesdays were the free senior coffee days. It didn’t define the term ‘senior’, but as soon as I looked through the window at the sea of gray, I knew I had chosen well. I walked in and obtained my free coffee from a bepimpled teenager who should have been in school, and sat next to a three-seat senior’s table in the corner of the room. I figured it must have been purpose-built because it had arm rests, and a large gap on one side for a wheel chair, I suppose –but in this case, at any rate, a place to lean their canes.

So far, so good, I thought, as I smoothed a paper napkin from the dispenser screwed on to the middle of my table to discourage borrowing. I thought I should record things and I didn’t want to bring a clipboard. Writing it on my phone or a tablet might alert the subjects and alter their unwitting participation. Subterfuge was paramount, I realized, and although I doubted it would pass strict ethical muster, I could always claim my noises were how our family always behaved around the dinner table.

They were all men at the table, and I have to say their voices were all rather fortississimoid and they used an inordinate number of hand gestures. I found it terribly annoying, to tell the truth. I realized why they were seated in a corner –or had been sent there.

I tried a tentative slurp with my coffee –this turned out to be easy, because its taste demanded a reaction. In fact, in those brief interludes between shouts, they were all doing it. The sound was actually a pleasant relief from the otherwise obnoxious cacophony. Nobody turned to stare when I tried it during one of the lulls. If anything, I felt accepted

Then the irritating discordance resumed with no paper-napkinable response I could record. And the replacement noise was becoming infuriating. Time for the coup de grace: my teenage version of the smoker’s hork –produced, incidentally, should the method ever need validation, by a soupcon of coffee percolated over the uvula and then coughed into a (different) napkin. Unfortunately, it went largely unnoticed in the fray -although one of the men actually looked over and smiled as if he recognized me before he resumed yelling at his friends. Maybe they were just deaf, I thought, rationalizing the failure of yet another promising experiment that might have quantified the syndrome enough to be used in a future DSM.

But all was not lost, I realized as I dumped the remaining coffee with its thin waxy cardboard in the waste bin and slunk out of the door. I had, in effect, validated the reality of the problem. Misophony was alive and as naked as a newborn in a fresh set of my own hitherto unsuspecting neurons. They continue to skulk, for the most part, I guess, but I don’t go in Lenny’s anymore for fear of exposure. Not that you’d notice in there anyway.



Coloured Babel

I was listening to somebody talking at the next table in Starbucks the other day. Well, actually, it could have been any day, because I like to listen. I figure it’s sort of like window shopping. Anyway, the grey haired man sitting next to me was leaning over his table and whispering to another younger looking man, and nothing attracts my curiosity more than a whisper.

Some of what he was telling his friend was lost in the babel of louder words that seems to define coffee shops, and what I heard was initially trivial: he was losing the colour of his words. Nice metaphor, but commonplace, nonetheless, so I turned my attention back to my sausage and egg sandwich which I had separated into its component parts so the egg and the meat could both cool. I began to center them more appropriately on their respective bun-halves, when I heard the word colour again –this time reiterated more clearly by the younger man. I centred my ears on their table.

“You mean different words have different colours for you?” The young man sounded excited, so I focussed my ears.

“Not all words, Sydney, just names, mainly –but only some names.” the grey man whispered in response.

The young man appeared to think about that for a moment. “Nothing else –no other words?”

Grey closed his eyes and was silent for a second or two. “Well, maybe the months had colours once…”

“How about the days?”

Grey shook his head. “No, just months and certain names.” He appeared to sigh, although I couldn’t hear it in the din. “And now, even they seem to be fading…” He looked unhappy. “My wife’s name, for example. Flora was green…”

That seemed obvious, even banal to me, so I withdrew into the relevant details of my sandwich arrangement. The last remnant of my ear shopping trip was the fact that Grey was divorcing Flora so maybe that had something to do with it fading. Sydney’s name was still the colour black, he said, though –I didn’t feel like psychoanalyzing that any further.

And yet, that snippet of overhearing started me thinking about synaesthesia. It’s some sort of cross-synapsing, or maybe alternate routing of messages in the neurons, I think I recall reading. Colours get attributed to sounds, or numbers and the like. I remember reading Oliver Sacks’ ‘Musicophilia’ where he mentioned some of his patients’ ability to see notes or chords –even key signatures- in colour. Numbers have colours for me as well when I think about them, but I only feel the colours –I don’t actually see them coloured on a page.

It’s interesting to me how some abstruse topics like that somehow materialize out of the gestalt, seem to grow like crystals for a while, and then dissolve once again into the void as if they’d never existed. Retirement fodder…

I decided to have breakfast in the local bakery a few days ago. I rarely go there in the morning and didn’t realize it would be so busy. All the tables were full, but I saw a red-sleeved arm waving from one of them; it was attached to a person I hadn’t seen for months -or maybe even years. I think she’d been away. I groaned inwardly, realizing I was trapped.  I remembered that she seemed always to have done or read something bizarre and then wrapped herself in it like a patriot in a flag. Basically harmless, and sometimes childlike, the last one, I think, was her fairy phase. She believed she’d been given the power to grant wishes to the select few who asked, but unfortunately, after she was medicated, she lost her powers, and had settled back into the shadows –at least until now.

“Shirley,” I said, walking over and sitting down in the seat she was pointing to. “I haven’t seen you for a while now. Were you on vacation?”

Her face lit up and although she barely nodded her head, I could see she was excited to tell somebody about it. “I was in Europe,” she answered, leaning across the table conspiratorially, but with a wink that commanded me to ask more about it.


But I couldn’t even finish the sentence. “I was in Greece studying, actually…”

I took a bite of my bagel and smiled. I didn’t need to encourage her.

“Colours,” she continued. “I was studying colours.”

I nodded, to show her that I could both eat and listen at the same time, but she stopped talking and just stared at me. Clearly, I was required to ask her to explain, but before I could finish my mouthful, she decided to skip that step.

Word colours,” she added, scanning my face for interest. “I’ve always thought that language –words- should be assigned colours…” Although I was still chewing, I tried to smile. “This was a course for synaesthetes actually…” She tightened her eyes to see if she needed to define the term, but I nodded recognition and her whole face relaxed and welcomed me to her table.

“I’m not a practicing synaesthete, as you probably know…” Actually I didn’t know, and it’d never occurred to me to even ask. “But I thought I’d pretend I was writing an article on the subject, so they opened up to me.” She immediately sighed, grinned toothily at her cleverness, and then sent her eyes out to capture me again. “Most of them were grapheme-colour synaesthetes, you know -the ones who see words or numbers in colours,” she explained. “But most of those only felt the colours rather than actually saw them…” She obviously thought this deserved a shrug. “I suppose that’s still synaesthesia …” She seemed disappointed, though –as if the ones who couldn’t actually see coloured words were just the poor cousins: wannabes who had gone to the conference to improve their skills.

I went,” she continued, “because I have always felt that although some words maybe already have colours, many many more deserve them.” Her forehead ruffled pedagogically. “So I went to Greece to learn how to colour them for other people. I think that a coloured language would be far more descriptive, far more… poetic.” She deliberately italicized the word, maybe hoping that might somehow colour it. But although I think I saw the italics, there was still no colour that I could detect.

I had finished my bagel by this stage, and so I suppose she felt she now had permission to ask some questions. “What do you think?”

I sipped at my coffee to buy some time to think. “You mean, about whether or not words deserve colours…?”

Her eyes suddenly morphed into saucers and her face wrinkled from forehead to chin when I said that; I have to admit I recoiled slightly, fearing I may have triggered something in her again. “How did you do that?” she said, barely able to say the words.

I cocked my head, puzzled at her reaction. “Do what?”

Colour that word?” Her eyes circled around my face like a pair of bees near a flower, but then they flew away.

I was lost. “What word did I colour?”

She recalled her eyes, and hid them briefly in shadows. At first I thought maybe one of the overhead lights had burned out, but nobody else in the room seemed to notice. Her eyes peered out at me as if they were tethered to perches beside her nose. From a safe distance they were inspecting me more closely than before, as if they were looking for a special amulet, or ring that I might be wearing. And her face wore that mysterious smile I’d seen so long ago: the fairy smile. “Even the Syns couldn’t do that,” she said with reverence. Then she laughed with a delightful tinkling sound and touched my hand as if I’d finally been unveiled as an undercover member of her synaesthesia church. She winked conspiratorially -a gift she thought she owed me for the coloured word.

Suddenly she scraped her chair back from the table and stood up. She still seemed impressed. “You are one of us…” she whispered loudly, her eyes almost pleading with mine to confess. And then she was gone, slipping through the crowd like a fish swimming through some reeds.

I could only stare at her as she disappeared, and felt a little sad that the doctors had decided she needed medication.

Some of us are afraid of magic.


Life is a Garden

Life is a garden, but I don’t seem to have planted well. Now that it is autumn, there is not much of a crop to show for it at any rate. There should be rows and rows of green and leafy vegetables beckoning from night-dark fields and plump red apples calling from their aeries on the trees my father left for me to prune. There should be more to show for all these years, but as I look around, I have to squint to see the harvest.

On a recent moonful night when the winter’s cold had seeped into the room, and the only light was grey and percolating slowly through the somber clouds, I suddenly awoke thinking of Aesop’s grasshopper –you know, the one who discovered to his dismay that you have to plan ahead; that doing what you enjoy does not necessarily provide for future sustenance. And I, in that nadir of the depth of night, imagined that I may have enjoyed my job too much; that I may have sewn patients as my crop instead of friends; I may have built only a coffee-stained social network of hospital records…

But when day finally arrived and the rest of the bedroom surfaced, I realized I had found the answer to retirement: coffee. The meaning of the panic attack was simple: to achieve the full potential of the freedom that lay ahead of me like a field of untrodden prairie snow, I had to socialize. It was never one of my strong suits, mind you, but I understood that it was probably only a question of practice. I mean how hard could it be? I merely had to show up at the village coffee shop, order a coffee, and sit at a table somewhere. The progression from there was unclear, but I envisaged some sort of engagement with strangers curious as to who I was and why I had chosen the table they always used –my first social intercourse.

And it was Wednesday –I had to check my phone to be sure- so what better day to start a new and enriched life? I pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and a just-washed black sweat shirt –no sense in pretending I was a workie- and headed down to the cove to the coffee shop nearest to the ferry terminal. I live on an island whose mornings revolve around the hourly ferries to the mainland, so start big, I thought. Start busy. And start early –the meetings would be necessarily brief as the work-serfs ebbed and flowed.

But crowds at 6 AM are anomalous no matter how much you prepare. And noise is a companion to the afternoon -okay, and maybe the evening –but definitely not the early morning. I’ve always used the early hours to plan for the day, to decide how to proceed -not to party. And yet, as I walked into the café that first time, all sorts of strange thoughts swirled in my head. I wondered if I would be noticeably out of place, or carded. How would I explain my sudden, unexpected appearance? How could I justify my presence in this club to which I obviously didn’t belong?

As it turned out, the problem was not so much one of explanation or apology, as of fighting my way through the crowd –finding a place to stand. There were no tables that didn’t have uncountable appendages arrayed around them, no spaces that weren’t already occupied with arms waving for attention, hands busy with Styrofoam cups shielded from danger by little cardboard sleeves. The noise was deafening, the recognition absent. I might as well have been standing on a crowded rush hour bus downtown for all the socialization opportunities available.

If I hadn’t been so anonymous, I would have felt embarrassed at having arrived with such an amorphous agenda -embarrassed for standing around pretending I had just come down for a coffee; embarrassed that I was the only person in the crowd whose lips were not moving: the embodiment of solitude in the herd I had come to join.

I was about to turn and leave when I felt a hand on my shoulder. The sensation was so unexpected, l think I shuddered at the intimacy. When I turned, I saw an older man smiling at me almost apologetically.

“I think we both got here at the wrong time, eh?” he said, raising his voice to be heard. “I usually come around nine, but for some reason I woke up early today.” He looked around the crowded room, shrugged disappointedly and glanced at his watch. “They’ll be gone soon, so we can grab a table before the next shift arrives.” Then he looked at me more closely. “Retired?” he asked, and a mischievous smile immediately appeared on his face.

I nodded. “How did you guess?” I asked, wondering if it was really that obvious.

He chuckled and let his eyes study me for the briefest of moments. “You get to recognize fellow travellers,” he said, and pointed to a free table as the room began to empty like water down a just-opened drain.

“My name’s John, by the way,” he said, extending his hand to shake. “You hold the table while I grab us a coffee.” His eyes suddenly twinkled. “You do drink coffee, don’t you Gary?” He knew my name! I think my mouth must have fallen open in surprise, so he smiled. “It’s a small island, my friend,” he said, walking over to the coffee urn. “Did you really think you were an unsigned letter?”

No, but maybe an unplanted seed I thought, feeling his smile still lingering in the air as he walked away.