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Saturday, November 07, 2009

Will daily exercise help?

By Dick Hirsch

After ignoring them as time wasters for most of my life, I have started doing crossword puzzles. Yes, I’m still busy with other things, but I am trying to find the time each day to work on a puzzle. Why the change? That’s a silly question. You know the reason for the sudden interest.

Exercising the brain.

I’ve been told that it often doesn't make any difference but I’m willing to adjust my schedule and make time for this new activity. I’ve been told each individual’s supply of brain cells begins diminishing by around the age of 40. With people living longer there are many examples of older adults who have quietly slipped into a netherworld where confusion reigns. It’s a status that is almost universally considered and feared.

I understand there are some people who take a daily dose of vitamins or dietary supplements to prevent that condition from eventually afflicting them. The so-called “brain” pills have never intrigued me because, as a remedy, it sounds too easy to be effective. Just pop a few pills on a regular basis and you will fortify yourself against dementia in the future. It’s just too simple; my belief is that anything worth achieving requires striving and effort, either mental or physical.

I have no information on the current condition of my synapses and cranial interconnections, nor do I believe I’ve detected any telltale symptoms that any are frayed or unraveled. I’m discounting the occasional instances when, however briefly, I can’t think of the proper word to include in a certain sentence. I remember it eventually and I’ve been told to ignore them because such episodes are common.

A year or so ago I began these limited brain calisthenics with the crossword puzzles. They are now a part of my personal fitness program, along with my routine of jogging---some might describe it as schlepping---and a few gym exercises. I’ve discovered that the crosswords can be engaging and fun.

I’m still involved at what is considered a rather elementary level, the daily crossword in the paper. Occasionally I’ll steal a glance at the puzzle in the Sunday Magazine of The New York Times; I admire those friends who work on that puzzle and who seem to solve it without too much difficulty. I am not yet ready for that league but my hopes are high and my intentions are good, so all I need is more practice and confidence. I was introduced to crosswords at a young age by a neighbor lady, Mrs. Mackey, who explained the process and then told me that regular puzzle-doers learn certain words that recur repeatedly, not because they are so difficult, but because they are useful to fit in certain situations.

The example she gave me I still remember: “Egyptian sun god.” I have not seen that definition in any puzzle I’ve tried in this latest campaign, but it was a regular 50 years ago. The answer “Ra.” I tried the puzzles for a short time but gave them up in favor of baseball, bicycles and girls. Over the years I’ve known and admired many puzzle aficionados but never was motivated to emulate them until recently.

One of the first trends I noticed was repetition, especially among short words. I’m not talking about the four letter Anglo-Saxon expletives that are often muttered and occasionally shouted. Here is a partial list of words that keep reappearing: err, tee, cab, asp, eel, rue, roe, saga, epic, item, apse, abet, adit, Esau, ruse, rage, asea, ooze, seep, sari, sob, Reno, aura, taxi, tern, erne, boar, ecru, erode, erase, egret, Etna and, finally, ness (as in Loch not Eliot.) I’m sure there are many others, but those come immediately to mind.

If working on the puzzles is a learning process, I can report some progress; from that list, I learned three new words. They are tern, erne and adit; tern and erne are both marine birds or sea eagles, and an adit is a passage in a mine. Yes, this marks the first, and probably last time I’ll ever use those words in a sentence, but their compact nature makes them ideal for the puzzles.

As I plan the eventual conquest of more complex puzzles I just noticed a few words used in this column that I hope to encounter in a future crossword. They are: netherworld, synapses, frayed, episodes, calisthenics, aficionados, motivated, emulate and conquest. Those are all decent words and since I know them I’d welcome them in a future puzzle.



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