On being ... curved molding

By Ingrid Sapona

In my family never did crossword puzzles. I don’t know why -- we just never did. Sure, it’s occurred to me it might be because English wasn’t my parents’ first language. But not being a native English speaker never stopped my mother from playing Scrabble -- and winning at it!

Last year when I visited one of my favourite law school professors I was a fish out of water when he tried to get me involved in the morning ritual of tackling the New York Times crossword over coffee. I politely explained that, though I had tried crossword puzzles once or twice over the years, I was absolutely useless at them.

Undaunted, my host proceeded to read clues and letter counts aloud and encouraged me by ignoring my spelling deficiencies and cheering the few words I managed to come up with. And, in true professorial style, as he filled in all that I couldn’t come up with, he explained crossword puzzle clue tricks, for example, how you know to use an abbreviation, or when to use a plural. By the end of the long weekend I was pretty much hooked, though under no illusion I’d ever be able to finish a crossword puzzle myself (not even “the Monday” puzzle).

On my return from that trip I was relieved to find that my newspaper doesn’t run the New York Times crossword, so at least I have a fighting chance. Lest you think I have worse self esteem issues than I actually have, in my own defense I honestly believe the main reason the Times crossword will remain forever out of my reach is not because I’m particularly stupid or because I’m a terrible speller. It’s because I never took Latin. (Mea culpa.)

Unbeknownst to me (15 letter, 3-word phrase meaning: without one’s knowledge), at about the same time both my sisters started doing crossword puzzles. I found this out when we were together for a long weekend in February and one sister pulled out a crossword she had started earlier. I think we were all surprised to learn that we enjoy them. That weekend we had fun impressing each other with words the others couldn’t come up with.

One thing I’ve noticed is that everyone has their own style when it comes to doing crosswords. I start by going very quickly through both the “across” and “down” lists, filling in all words I’m sure of right off the top. I don’t ponder the clues on that first round at all. Then I return to the top of the “across” list again and I think about each clue more, dissecting it for hidden meanings (plurals, abbreviations, multi-word phrases, etc.). Then, if I come up with a word but am unsure of it, I check to see whether any of the possible letters work with any of the “down” clues before I pencil it in. I go through both lists like that a few times, before I’m forced to spend longer periods thinking about any particular clue.

My professor friend, on the other hand, goes corner-by-corner (or small section by section), rarely moving on until he has all the “across” and “down” words in that section filled in. I’m never patient enough to do it that way. Indeed, if I’m working with someone and they’re reading the clues, if neither of us comes up with something in a few seconds, I pester them to go on to the next clue.

I don’t subscribe to the notion that how a person approaches a crossword puzzle reveals much about their personality. Does my method betray a short attention span? Maybe – but it could also have to do with the fact that I see crosswords as a game, rather than a painstaking intellectual exercise. Similarly, I don’t buy into the notion that whether one uses a pen or pencil is a sign of confidence (or a lack of it). I have one sister who uses erasable pen -- what would you make of that? (Her rationale for doing so is simple: it’s easier to read letters written in ink (a testament to the fact that our eyes aren’t what they used to be), but it’s always handy to be able to erase!)

That said, doing crosswords has brought my attention one negative trait I’m trying to work on. You see, once you’ve been doing crosswords created by the same person (or company) for awhile, you start to relate to them like a friend: you become familiar with quirks of how they phrase things and you tune in to words they like (and re-use). In many respects, it’s comforting. But, I’m embarrassed to say I’ve noticed there are some words my friend the crossword likes to use that I have a mental block toward.

It’s quite embarrassing, not to mention frustrating. A four-letter word for curved molding is a prime example. For the longest time I couldn’t remember the word for it, despite having noted it in the puzzle solution every time it came up. I tried everything: I made a mental note of it; I looked it up at least half dozen times; and I tried using it in a sentence. Nothing seemed to work. It’s only when I considered maybe my mental block is part bad attitude that I decided perhaps I could put some of that stubbornness to a different use by forcing myself to remember the word.

I’m happy to report my efforts have paid off. This week when I came across that bugaboo on my first run through the “across” clues, I joyfully penned the word in and moved on.

Oh yes -- the word: it’s ogee. (Look it up if you don’t believe me.) But don’t worry if you can’t remember it -- you can always drop me a line, I’d be happy to help!

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... as it should be

By Ingrid Sapona

The summer of 1969 was a turbulent time: the Vietnam War was going on, the U.S. put a man on the moon, and my cousin Nick spent the summer with us. Nick’s visit was memorable for me and my sisters for many reasons. For starters, we weren’t used to having a boy around (if you can call a 16-year-old a “boy”). Also, the fact that Nick’s first language was Greek and my sisters’ and my only language was English made for lots of misunderstandings.

Though each of us has our own memories of our cousin’s visit, all of us have Nick to thank for a saying that has become an odd combination of inside joke and words to live by. The saying is: “hate is a big word”. Nick uttered these words as a retort to some protestation one of us made about how much we hated this or that. (With three girls in the house ranging in age from 9 to 16, I’m sure there was at least one object of hate du jour, so it’s no surprise none of us can remember what the object of hate was at that prompted the comment that first time.)

I can still picture the sly, satisfied smile on Nick’s face when came up with that little play on words. However clever the pun may have been, it didn’t go over well with my sisters and me because by that time we had had just about enough of Nick and his gratuitous comments about everything we said and did.(Mind you, we were a bit too young to appreciate the fact that dear Nick had probably had enough of us by then too, or to give him credit for being sophisticated enough linguistically to make a pun in a language that wasn’t his mother tongue.)

Despite our annoyance with Nick, the truth behind the point he was making resonated with us -- and stuck. The fact is, we did have a tendency to throw the word “hate” around. Of course, back then, our excessive use of the word could be chalked up to youthful hyperbole. Unfortunately, though we’ve matured and our use of language has become more refined, my sisters and I still occasionally, indiscriminately use the H word. But, to this day, if one of us happens to say it within earshot of a family member, there’s no doubt Nick’s saying will be invoked.

Actually, I’m to the point that if the word leaves my lips, a silent (yet loud, and oddly Greek-accented) voice inside my head reminds me that hate is a big word -- too big do throw around willy-nilly. And for this I will be forever grateful to cousin Nick. For you see, every time I catch myself I become aware of my thoughts and reactions and this helps me try to dial back whatever anger or frustration I was feeling that prompted me to use the word. Pretty neat behaviour modification technique, don’t you think?

The past few months I’ve had a bit of fun using a variation of this technique on a friend of mine, hoping to make her more aware of how many of her frustrations and disappointments are really nothing more than things not turning out quite as she thinks they will. Or, to put it in her words, that things don’t go as they “should”.

I’ll give you a simple example: once, when we were on the highway headed toward a far-away provincial park, I suggested we stop for gas because once we get off the main road there might not be many stations. Her response was, “No, we don’t need gas for awhile. Besides, there should be plenty of stations.” Well, when we were in the middle of nowhere and the light came on indicating we were almost out of gas, who suddenly became indignant? Me? No. I was just worried about how we’d describe our location to the auto club when we call to ask them to bring gas. She, on the other hand, got irritated that the world wasn’t unfolding as it “should”.

I don’t mind when my friend says this or that “should” happen -- I really don’t. But when she gets frustrated because things don’t go as she thought they should, I feel bad for her. So, thinking that maybe she’d benefit from becoming more aware of the role “should” plays in her vocabulary and her outlook, I decided that every time I catch her saying it, I would interject a hearty, confirmatory: “Yes, it should”. Nothing more, just the simple affirmation.

At first she didn’t notice when I did it. At some point, however, she began to and I suspect she thought I was mocking her, but she didn’t protest. Eventually she started realizing how much she uses the word and how it sets the stage for a fair bit of unnecessary anger and disappointment. (Granted, for the most they’re minor disappointments, but sometimes they’re enough to sour her otherwise sunny disposition.) Though I don’t think she’s yet to the point of catching herself when she uses “should”, the ironic smile she gives me every time I catch her tells me she’s getting there.

Wow. Where’d the evening go? When I started writing this column my ideas were pretty well formulated and I figured it should only take a couple hours to complete – but here it is well after 9 p.m.! Man, I hate it when I misjudge things.

© 2010 Ingrid Sapona