Bruce Frankel

Author of the new book "What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

photo: author Bruce Frankel

Clue: Boxing That’s Good For The Brain (answer: Crossword Puzzle)

May 5, 2010

The brain’s vitality, like an engaging crossword puzzle, depends on good connections. Conversely,  the loss or weakening of connections among brain cells appears to cause most cognitive decline. So, it’s not surprising that over the last couple of years several studies have demonstrated that keeping the brain active through physical exercise and mental stimulation is key.

Three of the most compelling of those studies have shown that:
    a) doing regular mental activities like crossword puzzles appears to give the brain beneficial reserves as we age
    b) searching the Internet to propel curiosity and to learn new information can strengthen neural circuitry
    c) doing complex, engaging tasks, such as school mentoring, for 15 hours a week, appears to reverse cognitive decline

I thought of these with a certain delight when I read Sally Bliumis-Dunn’s poem “Crossword,”  in The New York Times in March. I was thrilled for several reasons beyond my friendship with her. Her poem suggests for me many of the reasons why poetry is a powerful stimulant of cell connectivity, a claim I make based on intuition and logic, with no studies in hand.

Consider that language in a good poem usually means more than one thing. Like a clue in a crossword puzzle, its literal meaning usually casts tendrils of association on entirely different branches of thought and feeling, on emotions generally more central to the poem’s meaning. A good poem causes palpable neurological leaps. It will send the brain to its own cerebral search engine, another book, or to the Internet, to deepen understanding. And, if it really grips us, will cause us to share it with others, to use it to “teach” something we have learned from it. Additionally, it will instruct us with its rhythmic or metrical pattern. But before I launch into theories of cognitive poetics, with her permission, here’s Sally and her poem. 



The white and black squares
promise order
in the morning mess
of mulling over

the latest political morass,
what’s on sale at Kohl’s,
the book review.

Each letter, shared,
which lifts away
some sheen of loneliness I
can’t quite explain.

This week, “arsenic” and “forsythia”
are joined by their i’s
like long-estranged cousins.

And when they ask
for the French equivalent of sky,
I’m back on a wooden chair

in Madame Baumlin’s
eighth-grade class, passing
a note to David, having

no idea, as my hand grazes his,
that he will drown sailing
that next summer.

I like doing the crossword
with my husband —
Source of support,
three letters.

I’m the one who guesses it,
glad he doesn’t think
of “ bra” in this way.

The puzzle rests
on the counter all week.

I like coming back,
looking at the same clue
I found insolvable
the day before, my mind

often a mystery to me,
turning corners when I sleep
or am upstairs folding clothes.

They get added to pounds.
Yesterday I thought
it had to do with money or meat;

now I can see the chain-link fence
at the local animal shelter.
Of course. “Strays.”

(Printed by permission of Sally Bliumis-Dunn. ©copyright 2010 Sally Bliumis-Dunn; all rights reserved.)


Praise for What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life?

“Bruce Frankel’s upbeat, inspiring, timely book shows how taking a risk and fighting to find a passionate career — at any age — can reinvigorate your life...”

— Susan Shapiro, author of Speed Shrinking and Only As Good as Your Word

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