Words, Like the Wind…

I’m having trouble with something, but I don’t know what. It’s something I can’t seem to describe in words –nothing fits. I suppose I could be forgiven for dismissing it as nothing; there’s a word for everything isn’t there…? Everybody important gets a name –so does every place. I’m wondering about every feeling though, or every concept… Does everything like that get assigned a descriptor? A label?

For the longest time I assumed that everything that was too difficult to encapsulate in a word was either relegated to a category –the same flock, as it were- so that it could be described by a common theme, and whatever adjective or noun that seemed relevant for one, could be assigned to another by extrapolation; or the responsibility for describing its ineffability was delegated to metaphor. To poetry.

But as age slowly creeps across my neural circuits forcing me to neologate in order to deputize new sounds to stand in for those I’ve forgotten, I realize I’ve only had my hand in one pot. I’ve been drawing water from the same well all this time, and it makes me wonder what I’ve missed -or rather, what has missed me. Have I -limited as I have been by the cadre of words assigned to me, and bound by the metaphors my culture would understand- been restricted in what I feel as well? Would those evanescent emotions even be recognizable if they resisted condensation? If they were absorbed by some other, larger, but different entity?

It’s an interesting question, and one only partially addressed by a fascinating article in the BBC Future series: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170126-the-untranslatable-emotions-you-never-knew-you-had There are certain things that seem obvious when pointed out, but which might never occur to someone unaccustomed to viewing them that way. They are often fleeting, and if not captured as they occur, pass like the wind in a field of grain. Tim Lomas, from the University of East London, searched through the academic literature for ‘untranslatable’ words and his first compilation was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. ‘“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of.’

The words he found range from the more banal, such as the Tagalog Gigil: the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished’ to the profound –Wabi-sabi: a Japanese term that describes our appreciation of transient and imperfect beauty – such as the fleeting splendour of cherry blossom’ – a “dark, desolate sublimity”…

And then there is Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University. ‘Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

‘This is called “emotion granularity.” Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.’

But, for me at least, these observations are largely beside the point. Too reductive. Too pragmatic. Like embarking upon a study to find out where the geese actually go as you hear their honking disappear into an early morning mist, rather than being captivated by the magic of its occurrence. Captivated by the feeling. The moment. It’s why, I suppose, I was so enthralled by the concept of Wabi-sabi –it seems so… perfect! It’s not needing a scientific explanation for, say, a beautiful sunset, and being unentangled by an urge to describe it further, but rather, watching it wordlessly. Mindlessly…

Experiencing is mindless, I think. Listening to a symphony doesn’t necessitate describing it. It isn’t a purposive exercise requiring a justification, nor even an explanation. Much like the evanescent bewitchment of the cherry blossoms on a tree one morning, it just is… And yet, if there were a word that acknowledged the feelings it engendered, a way of expressing it, characterizing its effect on you to someone not present, and conveying the emotion, it might help to reify something that would otherwise disappear -a memory unshared and unsharable no matter the desire for acknowledgement. For someone else, it might never have existed, and in fact didn’t…

So does the inability to adequately encapsulate a moment in words –or in a word- either diminish its appreciability, or lessen its likelihood of being noticed? I suppose, without reverting to the linguistically oppugned Whorfianism (which suggests that language itself can influence thought), I would prefer to defer to the Bard himself and paraphrase his Juliet’s ‘What’s in a name?’ –a rose, even without a name, would smell as sweet.

Even so… a name is something sharable isn’t it? You would know it wasn’t a lilac I had smelled. You could partake of my experience, if only vicariously.

And sometimes, that’s enough. It’s something, at any rate…








Mouth Honour

Now that I’m retired, people don’t quite know how to talk to me. They’re curious, but cautious –after all, they’re talking to an old man. Retirement is a kingdom far away and over a fence for most people. It is a land cloaked in eternal shadows, a place where people talk loudly, and canes, not swords, hang on the coat rack beside the faded pictures of those long gone. A realm where memories are indistinguishable from reality. A place of unhurried rest. I hate that.

But I suppose that’s what I saw when I was living prairie-like as a younger man and looked at the mountainous horizon ahead, full, not of peaks so much as troughs –valleys in which, once entered, I would be forever trapped. Well, I see it differently now, and although there is a certain sense in which I find myself confined, it’s a verbal prison, not one of steep cliffs.

The voice is like a muscle –it atrophies without constant exercise. Even its children, words, get lost if they’re not chaperoned, or at least analyzed at the table. There’s an unanticipated vacuum lurking in retirement for some of us. Unseen and largely unmeasured, it steals upon the unwary like a cirrus cloud on a winter’s day: adialogia. Okay, I just made that word up, and anyway, even for me, it’s only hypodialogia –I do speak occasionally to the cat, and in periods of exceptional verbal drought when the cat is out playing with mice, I speak to wrong numbers on the phone.

What this does, of course, is weaken the cords. I mean it’s not like I can talk very long to the mirror without running out of stuff to say –especially when the other guy keeps interrupting. And it’s not like at the office, where I had to be an active listener and an even more athletic answerer –people expect answers, if that’s why they came to you in the first place. So in those days, I got my exercise at work; these days, my voice is becoming obese –or whatever happens when it just sits around and lollygags its way through a rainy day.

But humans have not evolved this far without an uncanny ability to cope. To improvise. If the mountain will not come to the senior, why then, the senior must go to the mountain. Of course, even though there are a lot of mountains near where I live, I’d still be doing a monologue with the trees. I decided on Starbucks instead.

Even there though, it’s location, location, location. And similar to the housing market, you can’t always get what you want when you want it. Ideally, a table smack in the middle would allow a multi-quadrant exposure to potential ears, but one must adapt. Wasn’t it Camus’ Étranger, Meursault who said he could adapt even if he were lying in a hollow log looking up at the sky? Well, anyway, I thought that was what he said until I couldn’t find it.

At any rate, I decided to take whatever table I could find as a trial run, and then figure out an exaptation. And, of course, as luck and the morning addiction would have it, I was relegated to a table in a dark corner near the washrooms. I suppose it was a bit pathetically fallacious, though, because I decided to splurge on a Venti, dark (with room for milk) -I didn’t want to run out of coffee before I found someone to talk at… sorry, talk to.

The problem with too much coffee, apart from the obvious –which I figured I had aced- is that it shifts word production into overdrive, and I found so many wandering around in my mouth that I just had to let some of them out. There was an older woman sitting at the next table glancing every so often towards the door as if she were expecting somebody. She had enough napkins on her table for a bridge game, so I realized I had an opportunity.

“Excuse me,” I said, with a desperate smile on my face, “I seem to have forgotten to get a napkin. May I borrow one of yours?” Weak I suppose, but words were pounding frantically on my teeth to be let out.

She turned her head and examined me for a moment. “Borrow?” she finally said, her face trying to achieve some form of equanimity, while her fingers sorted through the pile to find one that wasn’t already soiled with spilled coffee. “Here,” she added when she happened upon a relatively dry one. “But I want it back when you’re finished, eh?” Her eyes twinkled at the thought, and a row of spotless dentures surfaced briefly.

I hadn’t expected the ‘eh’ for some reason and it threw me off. The only thing I could think of was a brief lip-wipe, and then a rapid redeployment of said napkin back onto her pile. “Thank you, ma’am,” I said, trying to make my now-clean lips appear grateful for the shine. But I shouldn’t have let my guard down, and a few more words burst out as if I hadn’t screwed the cap on quickly enough. “I really should have brought a few more over to my table when I got the milk and sugar so I could have returned the loan with interest…” I managed to stem the flow briefly, before some more spilled out. “Of course, if I had my own, then I wouldn’t have needed to borrow from your stash, so…” I had a quick sip of what was left of my Venti to discourage another prison break.

First she glanced at the barely-soiled napkin returnee and then turned the full force of her eyes on me. “But then we wouldn’t have been able to engage in this intriguing conversation either… Would we?” Her face softened and she unhooked her eyes from my cheeks and let them fly back to the door again.

But my words were milling around inside still, now excited that some of them had been able to escape. I could almost hear the vowels begging for a ride on the consonants so they wouldn’t be left behind if the doors opened again. I decided to go for it. “Well, if there’s ever anything I can do for you to return the favour, just look for me at this table, eh?” When I saw her eyes narrow, I immediately regretted my choice for parole. Of all the words banging around in there, why did I let that group out?

I have to say she did smile –well sort of. It was more the kind of expression you see on politicians’ faces when somebody heckles them at a rally. A kind of polite dismissal. The words inside suddenly fell silent and I could hear them taking their seats again, embarrassed at their usually well behaved colleagues’ improprieties. They weren’t going to be accused of Aspergering their way out. For a while, anyway.

And in the quiet that followed their abashed capitulation, I became aware of another voice from another region, gesticulating silently for my attention. I smiled and touched her sleeve as a sign of apology and headed for the washroom. But when I returned, I found that my table had already been taken by two other women, both talking to my new friend. They all fell silent when I reappeared, however, and their eyes bespoke a certain trepidation –like children wondering if they’d been overheard.

“I’m sorry, sir,” my lady said, pretending surprise, then glancing at her friends as if to say they would probably need the rest of her napkins. “I thought you’d left…”

I bowed slightly and smiled a weak acquiescence. My lips were more comfortable now but I thought maybe I’d order a cookie-to-go from the counter. Perhaps the barista would listen to me for a while if I took some time to choose…




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…