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MARTHA SEZ: Puzzling way to sharpen the brain

July 25, 2014
By MARTHA ALLEN , Lake Placid News

Crossword puzzles and other word games, according to the conventional wisdom, are salubrious for the brains of the elderly. By keeping our verbal acuity honed, we can can stave off dementia, or at least slow the brain's downhill progress. So they say.

Just recently, however, I heard that a study performed at the University of Iowa showed that working crossword puzzles does indeed sharpen mental function, but only for finding words; don't expect improvement in any other area, such as totting up how much you spent on cat food or wine last month, or remembering where you put your reading glasses.

The brain of the word puzzle addict probably looks like a house with nobody home, except for one tiny night light flickering in the speech and language room. The University of Iowa has some other exercises that they claim work better for improving general cognitive ability. You can find out more by Googling Brain HQ or Posit Science.

Right now I am too busy word-finding to bother with Brain HQ. Word-finding exercises, after all, are very useful for writing columns. Notice how I came up with hard words like salubrious and acuity, both in the first paragraph?

In fact, I am obsessed with word-finding. All my brain wants to do is come up with random lists. Lists of this, lists of that. I can't stop, and not because of crossword puzzles. This started last week, when my sister called to ask me for suggestions for a new quilting project she is working on.

First, you need to understand that my sister will not be piecing a traditional log cabin quilt. Nor will she be tackling fool's puzzle, crosses and stars, flower basket, wedding knot, flying geese, hovering hawks, Aunt Sukey's patch, corn and beans, wreath of roses, rocky road to Kansas, shooting stars, toad in the puddle, or any of those other old-fashioned patterns. Not this time. If she were, she would know better than to ask for help from me. No, she is constructing a wholly original quilt with people on it.

There are 18 of these people, cut from whitish felt and stitched to a canvas backing that she has painted gray. The people are slightly raised, as if they have some stuffing or padding between them and the canvas, which lends a sculptural effect to the quilt. Their faces are three dimensional but plain. All share a common expression, which to me looks blank, and at the same time a little surprised.

At this point, one might ask, wait, you are still calling this a quilt?

The answer is yes, the finished work will be entered in a quilt show, but no, it is probably not a quilt that will ever be used as a bed spread. I have one of my sister's quilts on my bed right now, and as soon as I can get Orangey the enormous cat to move over I will pull it up and make the bed properly and it will look beautiful. The words "Like A Bird on a Wire" are appliqued on the quilt, from a song written by Leonard Cohen.

You must have heard the song. Lots of singers have recorded covers of "Bird on a Wire," including Joe Cocker, Dave Van Ronk, Johnny Cash, Tim Hardin, Pearls Before Swine, Kiko Veneno, Rita Coolidge, Madeleine Peyroux, Jackie DeShannon, Willie Nelson and K.D. Lang.

Getting back to the quilt people: My sister asked me to think of descriptive labels for them, which will become part of the work. What about teetotaler, lion-tamer or miser?

No, she said, no "er" or "or" words, that's too easy.

My brain, always reluctant to start anything new, sluggishly came up with a few more nouns. Thug? Blackguard? Adulteress? Nothing overly negative, she said. Try for neutral. Then my brain went into overdrive.

Fanatic. Addict. Simpleton. Fool. Poltroon. I can't help it, negative words are just more interesting.

Acrobat, barista, wheelwright, wordsmith.

Somebody help me. I can't stop.

Ascensionist, apiarist, bandit, braggart, celebrity, crony, crone, curmudgeon, cowboy, diva, dogsbody, fop, factotum, groupie, handyman, homebody, ichthyologist, jack of all trades, kelpie, kamikaze, kid, kook, lounge lizard, malcontent, maven, nervous nellie, optimist, Oddfellow, octogenarian, prodigy, pirate, pyromaniac, potentate, queen, quisling, quintuplet, quilter--one word ending in "er" must be all right-- renegade, stalwart, seductress, superstar, teddy boy, telepath, upstart, vagabond, wanton, wetnurse, xenophile, xenophobe, Yankee, yeti, yogi, zombie, zealot and zillionaire

Keep that little candle burning, and have a good week.



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