thief of time

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Getting Lost

One thing I don’t mind is a nice walk in the bush—early in the day, of course, well-covered from the sun and on a well-marked path.

I’m not exactly saying I want a paved footpath through the trees, but I’d really rather not get to some point in the walk where it’s not obvious which way to go and you try one way and it’s a sheer rock face and you try another one and it ends up the same. Then you’re unsure whether to push on or, discretion taking the better part of valour, retreat.

It always makes me speculate about my chances of ending up one of those short news items about the poor lost traveller that goes out ill-equipped into the bush and spends days lost, suffering from hypothermia, dehydration and the whole host of things that can happen to you out in the bush—if you survive. The only good thing about the Australian bush is that you’re unlikely to run up against large, unfriendly carnivores, though the spiders and snakes add their own special touch to the possible experience.

Something happened the other day in one of our larger department stores that reminded me of my hiking days—not the possible danger, just the frustration.

My daughter was busy trying on various things and I decided to use the time to find the department store’s facilities.

Now, I could have gone out into the shopping centre, but it seemed a straight-forward activity, so I started out with great confidence, following the well-marked signs that indicated the toilets were in such and such a direction. I got to an intersection and, again, the signs showed me which way to turn. I followed on, when the trail petered out and didn’t seem to be heading anywhere in particular. Puzzled, I retraced my steps to the last sign to make sure that I was going in the correct direction, which I was. Back again I went, but more slowly and uncertainly, busily scanning all the side aisles where the toilets might have been hidden.

It was still no good, but I became determined. I retraced my steps one last time and took a side shoot that I hadn’t noticed before and there they were. The toilets certainly weren’t obvious.

Was it all a plot to encourage people to use the facilities out in the shopping centre, or was I just someone with no sense of direction?

Judging from my outdoors hiking, I suppose I’d better drop the paranoia and just memorize where they are for the next time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Language and Dictionaries

I wonder if it’s just the difference between my son and me, or if it’s a generational difference?

The other day, my son lent me a magazine which I quite enjoyed. In one article, à propos of nothing, there was a little box with a dictionary’s favourite words for 2004. I had a quick look at the list and recognised every word but two.

Now, I’m as lazy as the next person and rarely use a dictionary—I quite understand my son’s aversion to having to look words up, but usually there’s no need because you can figure out a word’s meaning from its context.

You can do the same thing in a foreign language to a large extent. I occasionally see my first year French or Spanish novels and every second word has a neatly pencilled English translation above it. You soon get over that, except in dire circumstances, and just go for the context. (Unfortunately, my Spanish has largely disappeared from lack of use, so now I’d have to go back to the dictionary to get myself back into gear with the language.)

These words in the magazine, however, were merely listed and had no context whatsoever, so I decided to look them up out of interest’s sake. My son couldn’t be bothered.

Obviously I was having the reaction the writers of the article were hoping to get, whereas my son wasn’t playing the game, so I don’t know whether this makes me easily manipulated, but it certainly made me annoyed with him. Of course, I’m the person who would often be his personal dictionary when he was growing up, so I guess I only have myself to blame.

I’ll have to take a stand for intellectual integrity and curiosity and force him to look things up from now on, not just hand him a word on a plate—though of course, it does take away the moral superiority you exhibit when you’re able to exclaim—“What? Fancy not knowing that word!”

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[By the way, the words were defenestration and callipygian, which I probably won’t be using in conversation any time soon, though obviously, as an old French student, I should have been ashamed of myself for missing one of them.]