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A Worthy Opponent

 

 

There’s something about us humans that makes us appreciate a challenge. It’s one of our most stimulating occupations.

Nowhere is this more true than in games. We want to win. Yes, of course. But not every time.

Our opposition, the degree of difficulty, must be just enough to stretch our capabilities to the limit. Just enough to keep us from winning every time.

Thomas Middleton is a worthy opponent for me. He’s a cruciverbalist who composes acrostic puzzles (much tougher than crosswords), and he’s puzzle editor for Simon and Schuster. I’ve been battling it out with him for years, and I’ve found him a most worthy opponent. I always finish his acrostic puzzles, but I am not always the winner.

You see, I have my own rules for doing these puzzles. First, I go through the clues and jot down any possible answers that come to my head. If I have seven or eight, I’ll take a pass through the puzzle to see if I can get a word or two. If I can, I inch my way along, one letter at a time.

If I do not have enough for a start, I check my Franklin Thesaurus for possible synonyms. Or, if I on my computer, I will allow myself to look up a few (not too many) answers in an online encyclopedia, the bible, in literary references, or Google.

Sometimes, if stumped, I will ask Ed for an assist. If he can give me two or three right answers, that’s usually enough to allow me to finish the puzzle.

In a very difficult case (“Saint, leader at First Council of Nicaea,”) or some scientific name, I will be unable to complete the puzzle without looking at the answer in the back. In such a case, clearly, Middleton has won.

When I can do a whole puzzle without any assists from reference books or friends, that is a knock out (full count) win for me.

The others are all gradient decisions, with no clear, obvious victories. If I have to look up too much, get too many answers elsewhere, I know that the win goes to Thomas. Better luck next time.

I get better over time. I’m getting to know my opponent. (Thomas, that’s the second time this week that you’ve used escritoire for secretary or a writing desk. Getting a little hard up for “E” words, are you?) As I learn all of his favorite “E” words, I win a little more often.

But I still have to look up quite often. I still have to get help.

He’s tough enough that I can win only some of the time–and even then I’m often quite bloodied after the battle.

That must be just the way I like it.

 

© Ruth Minshull   27 July 2016

 

* * *

YOUTH, WHERE ARE YOU?

YOUTH, WHERE ARE YOU?

 

Whether I’m in the pharmacy or in the health food store, I always see a cluster of senior citizens perusing the area of vitamins, minerals, assorted supplements and alternative offerings—looking for the magic combination of pills and capsules that might restore the robust, healthsome state of their youth.

Elsewhere in the pharmacy, in the aisle of painkillers, I always see an assortment of older people carefully studying the gallimaufry of nostrums there.

They’re in pain too, I think. They can’t wait for the vitamins, minerals and fish oil capsules to work. They need immediate relief. They’re just looking for a way to get through the day—or the night.

When you’re younger no one tells you about the pain that goes with old age. Or if they do tell you, you don’t listen. That’s too far away. Besides, we all think that old age (like death) will never happen to us.

A number of years ago I was taking an exercise class when the woman next to me groaned. “I forgot to take my Tylenol this morning and I’m paying for it now.”

“Do you take Tylenol every morning?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” she replied. “I have to.”

How strange, I thought, why doesn’t she just fix it? Tell the doctor.

I look back now, and smile at my naïve outlook. How innocent. How inexperienced. How young.

It doesn’t just happen in an instant—the day you turn 50. It creeps up on you. One knee aches a little when it’s rainy. You remember an injury you had in that knee years ago. A shoulder gives you trouble and you figure you played too hard on the weekend.

Finally, one day, you realize that the little pains are not going away.

Eventually you understand that nearly everyone gets arthritis sooner or later—not just that peevish old aunt of yours.

You explain to the doctor. He nods knowingly, feels of the bothersome area. It’s warmer than other spots. He nods knowingly. “Yup, you’ve got arthritis,” he announces. He may write you a prescription, but he doesn’t offer anything in the way of a cure.

Other bizarre aches and pains come along—mostly unexplainable.

If you’ve got an infection, they can give you antibiotics. If you have a broken bone, they can set it. If you’ve got a deteriorated hip, they can replace it. If you have a bad heart, they can open you up and do a miracle repair job. But if you’re just suffering from the most common malady of all—the slowly crushing effects of old age, they can’t do much more than wish you well.

You’ll soon find yourself in the pain killer aisle. And you won’t be alone.

(c)  Ruth Minshull  17 March 2016

Three Short Ones

Three Short ones

INTELLIGENCE
by Ruth Minshull

Webster provides at least a dozen definitions of the word intelligence. The first two are: the faculty of understanding and the capacity to know or apprehend.
Curiously, the definitions all suggest a completely passive quality. They are not about doing. One religion, in fact, uses the word to describe sort of a disembodied universal spirit.
Intelligence by definition has nothing to do with living. It just hangs out.
A high IQ. means that a person remembers data, is fairly well acquainted with the language and can figure out a few test problems.
Among Mensa members (who have demonstrated that they are good at doing IQ. tests) I’ve seen a complete cross-section of people. There are the very rich, the penniless, and everything in between, the well-known (Isaac Azimov, for instance) and the unknown, the achievers and the laggards, the talkative and seriously introverted, the God-fearing, the agnostics, the atheists, democrats, republicans, libertarians, the grousers and the people-pleasers, the gays, the straights, the liberals and the conservatives, the interesting and the crashing bores, the nice folks and that other kind.
They can all read and learn and remember data. Some have practical intelligence and some would have to organize a committee to change a light bulb.
To me, the strangest aspect of intelligence as defined is that it has nothing whatever to do with living life.
So what good is it?
We can sit back and feel superior to people with less intelligence. We can carp and criticize and strut and preen. But so what?
I have known people who would not burn up the pages on IQ tests, but they know how to live a good life.
To me that is a better test than anything else: how well do we live our life? Do we spend more time smiling or scowling? Are we able to put our anger, our grudges, our disappointments behind us? Are we able to keep learning and changing? Are we doing the work we enjoy? (If not, perhaps we should change jobs–or learn to enjoy the work we do.) Is our overall attitude about life one of disappointment or one of fulfillment? To me, whether or not we score well is not nearly as important as whether we live well. Our intelligence is merely another tool.
We are sculptors waving our chisels in the air–useless tools, unless we use them to carve out a satisfying life.

*********

FRIVOLOUS BEING
by Ruth Minshull

I believe that each person has an image of himself that he carries around in his head and, to a large extent, it influences his behavior.
My best friend, for instance, is an outrageous being and, very often, behaves accordingly.
Personally, I’m a frivolous being. The dictionary says that frivolous means “lacking in seriousness or sense; silly. Of little worth or importance; trivial.”
I’ve never thought that I was of little worth (who does?) but I don’t attach a lot of importance or seriousness to life. So basically, I try to regard things in a frivolous manner. I try to move away and look at things from a distance. Everything seems less intense that way.
Have you ever watched the activity around the an ant hill? You wonder “What’s all this scurrying about? These guys are so frantic, they’re going to get an ulcer if they don’t slow down a little.”
To me, the opposite of frivolous is stressed out. Obviously a person in that condition is taking it all too seriously.
I don’t always remember that I’m a Frivolous Being, but after suffering a lapse, I try to get back in the right frame of mind.
A Frivolous Being does not: 1) worry about money, 2) worry about what the neighbors think, 3) get on the scales every day and adjust eating accordingly, 4) take life too seriously.
In fact, frivolity is basically a war against seriousness.
When I want to know whether something is right or wrong I ask myself whether people are happy about it or serious. Running, for instance. Running is serious. Have you ever seen a runner smile? Health nuts are serious. Very religious people are serious.
It may not be possible to become totally frivolous, but it’s a worthy goal.

*************

THE ARGUMENT
by Ruth Minshull

When you have known someone for well over thirty years and you see that person almost daily, there are bound to be occasions when you don’t get along perfectly.
So it is with Ed and me. We’ve been friends so long that it’s hard to remember when we didn’t know each other. Generally, I would say, we have one of the smoothest relationships alive.
However, there have been certain times when we have disagreed more or less seriously. Such disputes have never lasted too long. They have ranged all the way from serious differences to rather superficial natterings. Quite often they have veered off into what we call creative fighting. This usually happens while we’re preparing dinner. Not because of our activities in the kitchen, but because–like most creatures–we get mean when we’re hungry. One of us will snap at the other, the other will snap back. And we’re off.
Pretty soon we’re exchanging nasty remarks. At the next level of argument, we become creatively nasty. Usually, when we’re on a roll, we end up laughing–as do any spectators around.
Anyway, we’ve never taken our squabbles too seriously. Offhand, I can’t even remember most of the things we ever argued about. They must have had no lasting importance.
One snappy exchange, however, has remained in my mind for years. I had a new cleaning woman coming, so the evening before I was picking up things around the house and putting them away. I guess I asked him to help, or to take away something of his. In what I thought was a rather snide manner, he said, “Oh, you’re cleaning the house for the cleaning woman, huh?”
This annoyed me so much that I lashed out at him. “I’m putting things away because I want the place neat as well as clean. Since she doesn’t know where anything belongs, I don’t want to spend a week trying to find everything again. I’m not cleaning the house, and I resent your using such a goddamn cliché on me.”
He looked stricken–as if I had smashed him in the face. And it was the last time he ever made fun of me for tidying up.
As I thought about it later, I was a little surprised. In the spirit of an argument, I had denounced him countless ways over the years. There were moments of cruelty, but my words were usually just rubber balls that bounced off him leaving no bruises. Why did this rumpus affect him so strongly?
Later I realized why–and I’ve never forgotten it. I could have accused him of being a slob, a bigot, a bum, a clod. I probably have. But they all rolled right on by, leaving him unscathed and unchanged. But accusing him of using a cliché–this crushed him.
It was then that I knew–no matter how much he protested, no matter how long it took for him to take full advantage of it–he had the soul of a writer.
Because nothing would cut more deeply into the thin skin of a writer than to be charged with the creation of a cliché.

(c) 2015 Ruth Minshull

CHOICES

CHOICES
by Ruth Minshull

There are many levels of freedom. The obvious ones include our numerous rights as citizens of a free country.  As individuals and families we can choose where we will live and work and nest. Given a reasonable amount of intelligence, we can select the economic level and the lifestyle we wish.

On a completely personal plane, we have more choices than we usually acknowledge. For one thing, we can have any opinion on any subject. Some people insist on believing that you are either in or you’re out. You like it or you don’t. To them, it’s an either-or world. Actually we have more choices than that. We can choose (in most cases) either, both or neither. That’s four choices. Furthermore, we can change our minds.

For instance, I’m not an animal rights activist; sometimes these people seem to be pretty crazy to me. On the other hand, I’m often in complete agreement with their efforts. I certainly never favor needless cruelty or killing of any creatures. I’m an environmentalist most of the time, but not necessarily on every single issue.

I’m neither a conservative nor a liberal. Sometimes I’m a bit of both; sometimes I’m neither.
To me, one of the greatest freedoms is the right to have no opinion at all on a given subject–to keep options open, or simply remain indifferent. For instance, if there would be a movement to save the endangered triple-fanged tarantula, I might be indifferent to that effort. (Well, actually, I might pay money to the hit man who could ensure their extinction.)

A man once asked me, “Do you like modern art?” He was perplexed when I replied, “I don’t have an opinion on the subject.” We constrict our lives so much when we try to form an opinion about an entire block of life at once. I could have said, “Which art?” There’s no way to determine how much pleasure we forfeit when we pre-decide that we like all modern art, or that we dislike all of it. For some people there is, apparently, a certain security in pre-fabricated opinions. It’s lazy, but it’s safe.

I once knew a man who had sat down at some time or other and figured out how he felt about everything–philosophical questions as well as all matters of taste. After that, he never again looked at things anew. When any subject came up, he simply pulled out a ready-made opinion. You couldn’t actually converse with him. You listened to a monologue. In a very short time, I found him pretty boring.

Another very profound choice is how we feel about something–how we will react to life around us at any given time. Many times we try to disown this choice, but nevertheless, it is ours.
Love is a good example. People like to pretend that love is sort of a disembodied force that comes out of nowhere and grabs us in the gut and then either fills us with ecstasy or rips us to pieces, depending the course of events. We like to say, “I couldn’t help it. I fell in love.” We get on a roller coaster and then sit back and become effect of the sensations, good and bad. We don’t want to admit that we’re in charge of the roller coaster. I guess we think it’s more fun to disown our own creation.

Strangely, however, when we withdraw our loyalty or affection or love we are more willing to take responsibility. We know we can turn it off. We will decided I didn’t want to belong to that group any more.” “I didn’t want him for a friend any more.” Even, “I realized that I didn’t love him any more.” When it no longer seems like a good idea, we simply change our minds.

I know a young man who falls in and out of love about as often as some people change their socks. He always endows the first meeting with mystic reverence; he’s quite hopelessly romantic. He’s now going to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. But the next time I see him, he is saying, “Oh, I’m not seeing her any more. I decided that….”

In other words, we fall into love with our emotions, but we fall out of love with our heads.
There are other choices we make. We can choose how we will respond in any given situation–how we will feel, what we will think. We do have emotions come in on us unbidden, of course, but if we can’t turn them off, we can still decide whether or not to take them seriously.

We all know certain people who specialize in making underhanded jabs at others. When someone says or does something in an attempt to hurt us, we can choose our response. We can be mad; we can be crushed; best of all, we can let it roll right off. We can detach ourselves from the situation knowing the other person is the one with the problem.

Lastly, our whole attitude about life is actually our own choice. We can decide that the news is depressing, the weather is horrible, people are terrible–so naturally we feel miserable. Some people have an insatiable thirst for drama. They insist that everything happens to them. Even though they have about the same grab bag of experiences that the rest of us have, they play out each occurrence with full histrionics. Give them an orchestral background and they’d have a “reality” soap opera. They love to confound you with the complexity of their problems, the unsolvability of their unique situations. They choose to be neurotic because they think it makes them interesting.

In the end the rest of us usually choose to leave such people behind.

Life can be anything from horrible to wonderful. Naturally, we can’t always control what comes our way. But we can control how we respond to it.

© Ruth Minshull 2015

The Beat Goes On

THE BEAT GOES ON
By
Ruth Minshull

Today I was wishing that I didn’t always feel driven to do something. Driven to work on the site. Driven to write a piece. Driven to do some exercising. Driven to keep up with all the day-to-day mundane tasks.
I asked the stillness of the morning: Won’t there ever come a time when I can wake up and find that there is simply nothing to do? .
I would have every choice in the world. I could do nothing. I could do anything. I could take the blank canvas of the day and paint it with any picture I wished.
Would I paint my day with bustling comings and goings, people entering and leaving in a blur of activity, phones ringing, beeping, chirping and tinkling melodically?
Would this artificial “action” make me feel that I was living life in the fast lane?
I think not.
I believe we all create our days-our lives-just the way we want them to be. Just enough action, just enough noise, just enough quiet, just enough players in the scene, just enough drama to satisfy, just enough difficulty to require a bit of fretting, just enough outrageousness to witness and cluck over. Enough good to enrich us; enough evil to astound us.

If I could wake up and paint the canvas of the day just the way I wanted it, I would do just what I’m doing right now. Work a little, write a little, loaf a little. Mewl and grouse a little.

And feel fortunate that I’m alive to experience all this
© Ruth Minshull 2013.

Spring Fever

SPRING FEVER

Spring Fever is a commonly recognized malady that manifests itself differently in each of us.

It usually occurs somewhere near the first day we can go outside without a coat. A balmy sort of day with sparkling sunshine and a gentle breeze.
It’s the kind of a day when students want to skip school, workers want to call in sick. Homeowners want to start planting flowers, though it’s much too soon.

It’s the kind of day when people want to fly a kite, stroll along the beach, play ball in the park, buy a new hat.

The main thing about Spring Fever is that it makes us vaguely restless. We want to be doing something different. We sense that we’re missing out (on some unnamed something). We want to play hooky from real life. Maybe sail around the world or learn to fly an airplane.

I’m not sure how people in the south celebrate Spring Fever. There isn’t that much difference in the weather. I was in northern Florida when spring arrived this year, and I didn’t even know it. One day I noticed that there were azalea bushes blooming everywhere. Then I heard a couple of morning TV hosts saying something about winter being over. What winter? I wondered. I guess I missed it. Must have slept in that day.

For me, I usually take long rides and short walks, exploring the countryside, discovering new places–taking in the smells and soaking up the gentle warmth.

I always have a strong urge to run away. This is accompanied by a nagging, guilty feeling that I should be cleaning out closets and beating mattresses–but so far I’ve always summoned the strength to fight off such sickness.

I go play somewhere instead.

(c) Ruth Minshull 2014

Getting to Know You…

GETTING TO KNOW YOU…
by Ruth Minshull

We never really know people until we spend time together under the same roof, until we see them when they wake up in the morning, until we watch the news together, share a few meals, walk to our favorite places with them.

There may be countless acquaintances (or even public figures) that we assume would be enjoyable companions or spouses. But we don’t know this, because we haven’t lived with them. We see them only on their “good behavior” and (in our imagination) we may add intriguing depths beneath the veneer of their “company manners.”

But sharing our personal space with them dissolves the mystique. We discover their true character and whether or not it is compatible with our own.

This week I spent three days with an older relative who came for a visit. I have never been with him for more than a few hours at a time. He lived in the same town I did when I was young, so he was someone who stopped by often, would chat with the folks for a few minutes and leave. Sometimes he would take us all for a ride. But we had never lived under the same roof and he had never before been a guest in my house.

My lifelong impression of him is as a good-natured, decent soul who seemed to maintain a child-like wonder about life. He has loved trains since early childhood. He spent his entire working life on the railroad–as a fireman, then an engineer. Even now, at the age of 88, one of his favorite forms of evening entertainment, is to drive to the nearest railroad crossing, wait for a train to come, watch it go by, and return home. (To me this is only slightly more exciting than standing in the Laundromat and watching the washing machines run.)

I’ve always liked this man, although I have guessed that he is not a person of towering intellect. Only by living in the same house with him have I learned to know him well.

To my amazement, I discovered that a very short visit was enough. In that time I could learn all there really is to know about him. I would hear his repertoire of stories and anecdotes, his philosophical commentaries, his collection of colloquialisms, his litany of fatuous clichés.

In less than three hours I could hear it all. From then on it becomes excruciatingly, boringly, exhaustively redundant.

If forced to spend much more time with him, I would feel that I was being severely punished.

To a thinking person, there can be no greater cruelty than having to maintain a facade of polite interest in the company of a stupid, shallow, utterly predictable bore.

Of course, my relative is still the good-natured, decent soul with a child-like wonder about life.

But he is also so much more–of so much less.

I thought about what’s required for a good marriage.

Well, for starters, the couple must be on similar mental and spiritual wavelengths. Too much disparity in intellect leaves both people very lonely.

Neither person should be trying to manipulate the other.

They must grant each other space–to be in, to grow in, to change in.

Most important of all, they must not bore the hell out of each other.

© Ruth Minshull 2014