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.



The Newness of it All

You know, by now you’d think I would have seen it all; tasted all the flavours on the menu; touched at least the edge of the weft and weave the rainbow has on offer. But there is always something new, I find. Something fresh. Something unexpected. And just when I decide the day has run its course, a new one dawns inside my head.

Perhaps I expect too much of sleep –too much of the waning light. Maybe there is no refuge from the New: the message in the cricket’s song; another way to feel the dark… A different voice in memory’s store.

But is it all a mirage –an oasis dream in the parched wasteland of my aging brain? Is it neural loss or neural gain that facilitates my reinterpretation of the Old and makes it garden-fresh? Or have I discovered, in my dotage, the elixir of youth that forever eluded Ponce de Leon: the art of seeing like a child?

I awoke one morning with that dream still coursing through my head and so I thought I’d run it by my friend Brien. The world always seems a wonder to him.

Each time I visit him on his porch, new surprises tend to bump me like people passing in the mall. Sometimes it’s his hair –it is a cherished and precious commodity, divided into separate pastures with which he is constantly inventive. Like farmers with their fields, he has a rotating system of combing that rations which section he will use that day. Sometimes I even think he pencils in any discrepancies -but fallow, he never leaves it.

On other, all be they rare occasions, he will seem to have mastered the button system on his shirt, and neither one too many, nor one too few will greet the final hole. There will be other anomalies to compensate, to be sure, but he faces them as everything else, with equanimity, and a beer. You have to take things as they come with Brien. Life moves at a different pace on a porch.

It is perhaps why Brien is a large man, and although I accept that there may be a chicken-or-egg component to the observation, I’ve always thought he seemed specifically designed for porch-life. Everything about him says ‘veranda’; every change is contextually driven, every surprise adaptive.

I found him on the porch as usual, legs extended from his lawn chair, staring at his favourite tree. It’s always awkward greeting someone who doesn’t see you from a porch –a form of ocular trespass perhaps, so when he finally mustered his eyes I smiled and sat on the steps for a moment. You have to give him time to adjust.

He glanced at his watch. “Wondered where you were,” he said finally, as if I were late for a meeting neither of us knew about. But at least it was an acknowledgement, I suppose, so I dived in.

“Brien,” I said with the enthusiasm of a child at recess, “Do you ever wonder whether it’s possible to run out of New as we get older?” I immediately realized I had phrased it poorly –he does not see the world in metaphor.

He tore his eyes from the bottle he was holding, and I almost heard them ripping off bits of label as they left to walk up and down my nose like a sidewalk. “You mean so we have to go to the store more often?” Brien was nothing if not well-hardened concrete. I shook my head but his face had already turned inward for a moment as if it was looking for something it had missed. Finally, it emerged triumphantly. “No,” it said with conviction, even though the rest of him didn’t seem so sure.

Then one hand flew up like it had another idea in class. “Oh, like new words?” He considered the fresh possibility with a forehead muscle I’d never noticed before. “No,” he said, this time with some emotion. “There are still plenty of sounds left…” He stared at his bottle for a second. “I mean that’s how they made up words in the old days.” From his tone, he made it sound like he was quoting from Wikipedia.

I had no idea why he thought I’d been talking about words. I felt like I had wandered into a class on non sequity -if that’s a word. But, curiosity got the better of me. “How on earth do you figure that, Brien?” I said dismissively.

He shrugged and looked at me as if I had sustained some sort of head injury. “Put a couple of sounds together, point at something, figure out how it should be spelled, and bingo, a new cave-word,” he said smugly.

“That’s not how it was done, Brien!”

“Sure it is!” He tends to dig in his heels once he’s decided something; I should have known.

I sighed rather dramatically, I’m afraid. “Okay,” I almost shouted, “Give me an example of a random sound that is also a word…” It seemed like a suitable challenge under the circumstances and for a split second I thought I had him.

He shrugged. “Dog,” he said and smiled.

That caught me off guard, I must admit. “The word probably has deep historical roots,” I mumbled staring at his now empty bottle for a moment. “And anyway, nowadays we tend to adapt old words for new purposes…” I realized I was on pretty thin ice here. “…And besides, we wouldn’t just make up new words with any old sounds…”

His smile grew alarmingly large. “Yes we would.”

I started to shake my head vigorously but he held up a finger like a Philosopher King as a mild rebuke of my childishness. “Bling,” he said and went into the house to get us both a beer.

Maybe the Ponce should have talked to him…