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Sunday
Jul272014

Why I Love Crossword Puzzles

Getting ready to dig into the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. July 27, 2014.

People tease that they wouldn’t play Scrabble with me. After all, I love words. I admire how other people use language. And I work hard to use words well myself. They figure they couldn't win.

Yet I’d venture that Scrabble experts love the game less for its use of language than for its employment of strategy and memorization—almost like chess. The best Scrabble players have memorized high-scoring words that few people speak or write, know the quantity of each letter the game provides, think many words ahead, and use these data points to develop strategies and work the board for maximal points.

I don't find chess terribly compelling. And I like language that lives, not words that fit a strategy. No one crafts sentences from words like xi, zax, or quanat: “Bob, the guy who forgot xi in reciting the Greek alphabet, mistakenly tried to dig a quanat with his zax.” No.

Of course, I enjoy Scrabble. I love board games in general. But I can’t claim Scrabble wizardry—or even to adore the game.

Crossword puzzles, though? Love.

Crossword puzzle writers and editors play with language to develop clues that lead players to words typically within their everyday lexicon. Unpacking the creators' thinking, watching the answers piece together via cross-hatching with words from other solved clues, and seeing quadrants of the puzzle fill in with letters feel like collaboration: “Oh, I see what you did there. Clever!”

I love crossword puzzles like I love rap music—for the word play that goes beyond strategy and memorization into creative problem solving that turns and twists language into art.

Perhaps more rap artists and fans should pick up the hobby.

What types of puzzles do you like best—and why?

Friday
Jul252014

Nurturing Friendships

Nurturing a friendship beyond acquaintanceship requires a variety of shared experiences, conversations light and deep, seeing each other in a number of situations—and probably through some stressful ones. A few of my friendships were launched in happy moments and cemented in life’s trials.

In childhood, given the seeming endlessness of time and the volume of it spent with peers, deep friendships developed in a matter of months, if not weeks. In adulthood, with career, family, household, and general life responsibilities, it takes years. And focus.

What you’ve spent so much time cultivating, you shouldn’t easily let go to seed. Hence my goal, mentioned in a previous post, to nurture my relationships after life swept me too far from the people who matter most.

Alas, nurturing doesn’t prove easier than creating.

Shortcuts don’t exist.

Time with many people at once has efficiency and ease benefits over shared moments in which two or three people focus on each other with minimal distraction. You only have to plan one activity to see many contacts at once. Through large events, clusters of friends stay in general touch and preserve and build their group dynamic. Further, some activities just feel more fun with a crowd. Korean barbecue, for example. Heck, barbecues of all kind.

Yet you can’t assume you’ve nurtured your relationships when you’ve spent time with friends only in large groups. Moments shared with just one other person—maybe two—provide the only path past the stories safe for general audiences to the real truths.

And so we’ve returned to the time challenge—rather, the lack-of-time challenge—for busy adults.

Does this mean each of us can have only a handful of serious, close friends? I’d say yes. And I’d say this fact further hammers home their importance.

What do you think?

Wednesday
Jul232014

Milestones

Last week, I called a friend for a big birthday—one of those pesky decade markers—and she wondered whether she had to stop all silliness, now that she’s reached an age of gravitas.

I argued to the contrary: Knowing yourself can easily go down as one of the biggest benefits of getting older. And sometimes, knowing yourself means admitting goofiness. (At least, it does for me.)

Besides, we decided, numerical ages—decades or no—don’t count as milestones requiring seismic mental and behavioral shifts. Yes, the years advance, bringing physical and psychological changes. Yet specific numbers have less validity than how we feel, which can vary widely no matter our chronological ages.

And so what, we mused, count as actual milestones? After all, careers, jobs, growing up, growing older, goals, friendships, romantic relationships, and more all have milestones.

Milestones mark progress.

My friend and I met while traveling, but many people would consider the first tandem vacation a milestone in friendship—one some people wouldn’t even attempt to reach—and travel definitely marks progress in a romantic relationship—one that could even call a halt to further progression.

Some of my most vivid memories mark my turn toward adulthood: The moments that taught me parents aren’t infallible, pedestal-vaulted gods but simply people. My first car accident, which happened in a distant city before the era of cell phones and the Internet. The latter experience launched me on a lifetime of confident self-reliance. The former lessons freed me to show my parents more compassion.

In careers and jobs, people mention the first time they managed someone in a task or as a direct report. Some talk about the first time they oversaw a full project with budget responsibility. And many people mark ninety-day, year, and five-year tenures.

And everyone ever in a romantic relationship will hark meeting the family as a big milestone. My friend—the one with the birthday—said you never really know about a man’s long-term potential until you’ve seen how he behaves when sick. Personally, I think you have to see how someone fights to know about a possible future together.

Seems like, in life, milestones abound. And so, curious, I’ll take a poll:

What do you consider your big milestones in life so far?

Monday
Jul212014

The Lure of the Break

I’d posted a new item on this site every other day for a year and seven months. Before then, I’d taken only two days from posting on schedule. Even an objective observer would consider this level of regular activity a habit.

Recently, a combination of unexpected franticness at work combined with a nasty head cold and scratchy throat threw me off the schedule. I cried “uncle.” I took a break.

The break didn’t even last a week. I skipped two scheduled posts. Yet when it came time to get back on track, the little devil on my shoulder poked its pitchfork into my ear and whispered,

“What does it matter, this blog and this posting schedule? Few people read what you write. And for the amount of effort? This can’t seem worthwhile to you. The time off sure felt nice, didn’t it? Wouldn’t a longer break feel even more fantastic?”

I won’t lie: I listened to the little devil.

And I realized that if I didn’t get back on schedule, I’d never return.

Tragic, the death of this blog? Hardly. However, the expiration of an impetus to create, think through topics I wouldn’t otherwise, improve my craft, start dialogue—the aspects of this blog that make it worthwhile—would prove unfortunate. Not for the world at large, but for me.

I pushed myself back to the keyboard. And I felt better. Energized. Analytic and curious about my world anew. I remembered why I love writing.

Good stuff.

Yet what does my experience say about all the “power of habit” rigmarole?

We’ve heard that the difficulty of breaking habits means cultivating routines around good activities will stitch them permanently into our lives—that positive-habit formation can provide routes to health and happiness and wellbeing.

Hmm.

Sure, I struggled before taking a few days away from writing. Yet once I broke the routine, the lure of the hiatus threatened to turn into a new habit all too easily.

So how valuable can we consider habits if they so easily fall away? Or do only certain habits so easily get shuttled? Do positive habits—with long-term payouts in terms of health, achievement, happiness—more easily break than habits with immediate physiological rewards?

After all, writing can seem like a chore in the moment—and a break feels good straightaway. Staying healthful in eating and exercise can feel like a trial when faced with a cupcake and a 5 a.m. alarm—and food indulgences and sleeping in feel amazing immediately.

If so, this doesn’t bode well for habits—at least the positive ones—proving all that valuable in changing our lives. Instead, it seems that the fragility of good habits requires constant vigilance. (One more thing for us to monitor.) A positive habit provides the benefits of a routine—you experience less of a willpower struggle when you regularly do something—yet you must stay top-of-mind aware that once you pop the routine’s bubble, you’ll nearly need to start anew.

What do you think?

Saturday
Jul192014

When the Body and Mind Disagree on What We Love Most

My friend Sarah wants to chase storms someday. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes—the gamut. She interviews storm chasers on her blog, watches storm-chasing programs, and participates in storm-chasing forums. When she hasn’t had a storm come through her area in a while, she gets antsy.

But storms make Sarah sick.

The changes in barometric pressure that precede dramatic weather events give Sarah headaches. Sometimes they throw her stomach off-kilter.

Similarly, I love boxing. Sparring beats the heavy bag, double-end bag, and mitt work when it comes to training for the sport. After all, none of the other options quite compare to calculating another person’s movements and actions, playing defense and offense at the same time, and learning how to take a hit.

Knowing I’ll spar on a given day gets my adrenaline going well before I get in the ring. Gearing up wakes my body from conscious slumber: I can feel joints and muscles, blood pumping in veins, air moving through windpipe and lungs.

Yet while I look forward to sparring, I dread the aftermath.

Thanks to the adrenaline, I don’t feel pain in the moment. Hours later, I notice the scrapes on my arms from my opponent’s gloves and the bruises on my shoulders, face, and body from her punches. By evening, my neck and back feel a little stiff. The following day, I can sense every muscle I worked and my body revisits every wrong move I made. (And yes, many times wrong moves took me straight into a punch—or many.)

I don’t get it.

I can find articles about people hurting the ones they love. Likewise, I can find information about people who get sexual pleasure from pain.

Yet I can’t find research on the reasons some people enjoy hobbies that cause pain and discomfort—other than interviews with extreme athletes about the thrill of human will triumphing over human body. The mind-over-matter rationale, while valid during an intense activity, doesn’t quite address how a person's body and mind often don’t agree in general—at any given time before and after an event—on what she loves the most.

My mind says, “Boxing! Yes!” My body says, “Boxing? Ouch!” For Sarah, the intellectual thrill of a massive storm system can’t overcome the physical effects of haywire atmospheric changes.

But why? And so I ask you, dear readers:

Why do you think we sometimes love what causes us pain?