Nary a cross word

April 25th, 2010 § 8 comments § permalink

Two events were to bring home to me the fact that I had finally grown up in the eyes of my parents.

The first was a cri de couer from my mother: she needed my advice on arranging a dinner party for the family’s first meeting with my youngest sister’s prospective mother-in-law, who was a formidable old bat. You have to understand that my mother, although by no means an intellectual (to put it in the kindest way possible!), was the smartest cookie on the block when it came to throwing a party, what to wear on certain occasions, table manners, etiquette and the like. So, to have her ask me, her least favourite daughter, how she should handle a potentially sticky social situation, was HUGE.

My second symbolic rite of passage into adulthood was a phone call from my father, wondering if I might have the solution to a clue in the Irish Times cryptic crossword that had stumped him. My Dad was an out and out genius with crosswords. When he lived in London during the Blitz, he would begin and finish The Times crossword on the 10-minute bus ride between his digs and the Imperial College of Technology, where he was studying for a post-graduate diploma in aeronautical engineering. And he did it while holding up his end in a lively conversation with the friend who told me this little gem at his funeral.

I adored my father, and yearned for his approval. But, somehow, I just never seemed to be able to meet his expectations. I was supposed to be the smart one in the family, the kid everybody expected to breeze through school and on to university, where I would excel and graduate at the top of my class. But the reality was very different. Although my school work was a doddle, I was also a lazy sod, who would go to any lengths rather than study. And even if I did come home from school proudly brandishing a second place in some test or other, my Dad would frown and wonder aloud why first place seemed to be beyond my grasp.

I think he was trying to goad me on to greater effort, in his own extremely undemonstrative way. But it had the opposite effect; there didn’t seem to be any point in trying, since I could never measure up. At least that was how I justified skiving off from classes at every opportunity, hopping the wall of my very expensive private school to meet boys from a nearby school and snog with them in the back row of the cinema. This kind of escapade led to me failing my exams miserably, and prompted the nuns to recommend transfer to boarding school – their polite way of expelling me.

That didn’t work either, and I continued on my merry way, flouting school rules, blowing through my allowance on novels and sweets, failing to pass exams or to matriculate to university. Then I crowned it all by getting myself expelled from the secretarial college where I’d been sent to learn typing and Pitman’s shorthand. This had been my mother’s solution, when my exasperated parents were at a loss as to what they should do with me. (There was no point in hoping I might marry young; when I was only 12 years old, my father told me I would die a spinster, because no man would tolerate such a smart-arse.) Mother felt that a secretarial course would give me skills that would always be useful. (Which indeed they were, thirty years later, when I finally made it through university. I took verbatim lecture notes in Pitman’s, which I would later type up as a memory exercise. I remember that the shorthand intrigued the hell out of one rather dim young woman – who really should have been in typing school rather than university. She leaned over my shoulder in class one day, and asked me why I was taking notes in Arabic!)

As it happened, when Dad called to ask about that crossword clue, I was working as PA to the CEO of a public company. So I guess my mother was proved right, although I ended up there by a circuitous route, through au pair in Germany, shop assistant, barmaid and receptionist in Britain, and a series of dead end temp jobs back in Ireland. And she was proved right yet again, when I emigrated to Canada two decades later. The only job I could find at first was clerical, and my shorthand and typing speeds blew the socks off everyone.

But I digress. You probably lost the thread long ago, but, believe it or not, the topic of this post was supposed to be crosswords. A few months ago, I tweeted something about a cryptic crossword, and a friend of #1 Son responded that, although she considered herself an intelligent person, she just could not do cryptic crosswords. I tweeted her back, something to the effect that all she needed was a wide vocabulary, a mind full of useless information and a slightly twisted perspective on things.

It was just one more brief meeting at the public crossroads that is Twitter, but it struck a chord with me. Although I do a couple of cryptic crosswords every day, and several on weekends, I used to be like my Twitter friend @snosk – at a loss to understand why, although I was widely-read and had a large vocabulary, I just could not do cryptic crosswords. Then, one day, I decided that, although the cryptics were beyond me, I could still enjoy the Simplex crossword, and to hell with the cryptic smart-arses. And guess what? That eejit, Malcolm Gladwell, was right – practice really does make perfect. I’m not sure if I put in 10,000 hours at the Simplex crossword (although it felt like it – secretarial work can be very boring!) but eventually I began to sneak a look above the fold to the cryptic and I discovered I could solve four or five of the clues. That, of course, whetted my appetite and I began to spend more time poring over the cryptic and ignoring the Simplex, until finally, I solved an entire cryptic crossword. I was so proud of myself. And, for the first time in my life, I got the impression that my Dad was proud of me too.


April 12th, 2010 § 6 comments § permalink

Sticks and stones

April 5th, 2010 § 7 comments § permalink

I’ve been following with interest the ongoing debate about what the headline writers are now calling “the R word,” as in retard. The issue was given new impetus when White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, who is famous for his foul mouth, referred to liberal activists as “fucking retarded.” He brought down on himself the wrath of disability advocates and a sharp rebuke from Timothy Shriver, Chairman of the Special Olympics, not to mention a Facebook tirade from Sarah Palin, who never saw a bandwagon she didn’t want to jump on.

As a card-carrying logophile, I have mixed feelings on movements to ban the use of any word. On the one hand, I think political correctness can all too easily run amok: remember the fuss when a political aide to the Mayor of Washington DC used the word “niggardly” to describe a civic budget? On the other, I understand how painful the impact of words can be, especially when they are bandied about thoughtlessly. On yet another hand, if I had one, that is how most of the human race employs language, nine times out of ten. (I leave it up to you whether or not to include lawyers in the human race, which might affect these odds. Pardon my lame joke. Which, by the way, illustrates the problem, since ‘lame’ is another word with the power to offend.)

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me! Nyah nyah nyah nyah!” Remember shouting those words on the playground … and then going home and crying your eyes out? It’s a huge lie; names can hurt like hell. But name-calling is just the tip of an iceberg; the real problem lies in people’s attitude to disabilities and to those who live with them. I had a very tiny taste of this attitude myself, many years ago, when I suffered some nerve damage during a spinal fusion and needed crutches to get around for a few months. Because I was not wearing a plaster cast or bandages, the crutches aroused intense curiosity in some people, who would debate aloud the possible reasons why I might need them. On one occasion, when I was on the train to work, a couple of women sat across from me, wondering what was “wrong” with me, and whether I should even be on a commuter train if I was “seriously crippled.” When I leaned across to explain why I was using crutches, they were quite offended at my interrupting their “private” conversation. Later, I mentioned the incident to a friend of mine, who had polio as a child and uses a motorised scooter. He laughed and said “You didn’t know? ‘Cripples’ are all deaf!”

Some of the bloggers in my blogroll have disabilities. Although society would lump them all together as ‘disabled,’ they are, in fact, a disparate bunch, with very little in common. FWD/Forward is a feminist blog with a number of contributors. As a feminist myself, albeit of the old bra-burning school, I find their points of view refreshing, trenchant, often provocative and sometimes shocking – which is how I believe feminists should be.

Planet of the Blind is another blog I like. It’s co-written by a professor of creative writing and disability studies at the University of Iowa and his wife, and also has a number of other contributors. It’s topical and interesting, and I highly recommend it.

We may think we’ve come a long way from the days when children born with disabilities were shut away in institutions, or displayed in exhibits for the ignorant to gawp at. The reaction of the Canadian media, during the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, to Alexandre and Frederic Bilodeau proved otherwise. As I read the front page stories, salivating over Mr Bilodeau and his brother, I turned to The First Husband and said “WTF? (or words to that effect) Is the man a hero for winning a gold medal [assuming any normal person gives a shit!] or for acknowledging his brother, who has cerebral palsy, in public? This is sick.” Anna, a FWD/Forward blogger who takes no prisoners, wrote a terrific post about it. I hate to say it, but it was pretty damn’ inspiring! (Sorry, Anna.)

Stephen Fry on the Catholic Church

April 5th, 2010 § 1 comment § permalink

I stole this from Bock. I’m hoping he won’t mind. Also, one of Bock’s commenters mentions that the whole debate is available on both YouTube and

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