2 timeless hacks for distracted minds

Ulaanbaatar looks like a word signalling the start of a fantasy novella; in fact it’s the capital of Mongolia. I remember learning this from a cryptic clue:

“Banal tour around capital” (9)

The first two words form a pair that feels too strange to be useful: what sort of tour could be called banal? Immediately the mind is served with too many slippery possibilities. Better to notice that the pair comprises nine letters (the same required by the clue), and is followed by a classic “anagram indicator” (in the word “around”). This tells us we’re meant to take the letters b-a-n-a-l-t-o-u-r and jiggle them until we’ve something resembling a “capital”. The problem is that in this case the city name is one that’s all too infrequently encountered by your average fan of cryptic crosswords. Even wizzened veterans of Sporcle.com’s geography quiz may fail to recognise it.

Cryptics are almost a century old, and feature often in literature. Authors tend to suffer the duopoly of A) exaggerated fondness for wordplay and B) desperation for plot devices, that see them reaching for toys like these. Solving them requires us to walk the tightrope and balance left-right brain activity, as we use one hemisphere to follow the specific rules & conventions of the game whilst being take creative, experimental risks with the other. It can very often resemble Philip Pulman’s descriptions of how Lyra uses the alethiometer: a feeling of looking at something without staring directly; holding it just on the periphery of your field of vision so it resolves into not just its visual image but into the potential meanings of that image in the context of everything else going on at the same time.

In this way each of us can gain a deeper understanding of something by holding it at arm’s length, examined in just enough detail that we “get it” without “getting lost” in the weeds of the detail.

A further trick for which any human can reach, is the harnessing of exhaustion itself. Nothing can prepare us for those slumping moments getting in from a long day, or a poor night’s sleep. But we can lean into these moments and perform a sort of turning of the tide. Not reversing its flow from high to low, in to out, but swivel its compass so we’re headed due north instead of due south. Do some activity that thrives on the exhaustion, something that calls for us to be lain horizontal for a few minutes. Some folks find reading words on a page or screen is too much efort at these times, so there’s always the ear as recepticle: pick a podcast or tune into a radio station.

The propulsion we receive from aural stimulation is not insignificant, especially if somewhere there’s music in the mix. Its ability to blend chaos with order to generate meaning, can force us through a fearful exhaustion and get us moving once more.



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Oli Steadman

Bass/BV @StornowayBand. DataCat @AstraZeneca. Consulting via StoneStreetProductions.