Oct 31, 2014

Losing ground, but making a game of it

When I started this blog I was 70. My goal was to write every day. I failed. 

So I tried again. And I failed again. But failing didn't daunt me. I've had lots of practice trying and failing. I tried and failed again. 

And again.

Now, a couple of years and a few failures later, it's time to try (and possibly fail) again. 

I'm older. I'm nearly 72, no longer the perky 70-year-old I once was. The ever present signs of aging are--well, they are ever present. I'm losing ground. Physically. Mentally. 

A few weeks ago I'd had it. "Enough!" I said. "I'm digging in. I'm going to recover some lost ground--or at least slow the decline." Well, I didn't actually say that. But I might have if I was writing a play about my life instead of living it.

So I decided to make a game of it, even though I knew was a game I was going to lose.

Face it: We're all going to die. You are, and more important, I am. And on the way to dying is the process of decline, euphemistically called aging. The aging that I imagined is different than the process that I'm experiencing. 

First, my imagined process of aging was, well, imaginary. Unreal. Theoretical and hypothetical. Aging was words. There is a difference, and not a small one, between the words "losing mental abilities" and the fact of losing them. The idea is kind of interesting. The fact is sucky. At least it was until I started taking action. Now it's getting a to be fun. A little. Sort of.

Or at least interesting enough to write about.

It started when I noticed changes in my speech. No one else noticed--or was willing to admit that they had noticed. But I did. When my speech system hiccupped--a stutter, or "too long" a pause looking for the right word--a metaphorical red light went on in my head. And recently the light's been going on too often.  Hence, action taken.

To speak we need to coordinate a set of complex, largely unconscious skills. Most often we able to articulate thoughts without "thinking."  By "thinking" I mean the deliberate process of creating, considering, selecting among alternative ideas, and alternative ways of presenting those ideas. The stream of ideas is converted to a stream of words, which are then translated to a stream of sounds, and movements of the lips and tongue and other parts of the vocal apparatus to manipulate those sounds into words. Magically, effortlessly, the words pour forth.


Old people complain that young people talk too fast. But old people used to be young once, talked at that speed, and had older people tell them to slow down. Young people don't talk too fast. Old people listen too slow. 

Turning ideas into sound is a complex intellectual task, and so is turning sound back into ideas. I didn't realize how hard it is until I start losing the ability and until I thought about what was going on. Here's what I think happens. 

We think we hear the words in a sentence like "I want to go to the store," and know that someone wants to go to the store. But that's not how it works. If someone is talking to you in American (rather than English) you'll hear a sound stream that's more like "Iwunnaguhtuhduhstaw." Now you have to figure out where the words might begin and end before figuring out what the words might be, before attempting to decide what they might mean. It's an iterative process and if the first division of sounds into words doesn't make sense, we try another. This all takes computing power and time. The less computing power, the more time. 

My brain is my computer, and as I get older my clock runs slower and I've got fewer processing units to throw at the problem. As long as I've got enough CPU to resolve one utterance before the next one starts, things are alright. But if my window for computation closes, if someone says something before I fully understood what they previously said, my mental speech-to-meaning apparatus crashes and I can't understand anything. My choices: "Will you please repeat that--slower?" or "Uh huh."

The road to brain deterioration runs straight through "Uh huh." Brains are lazy. When a brain learns that failed speech-to-meaning translations are acceptable, it doesn't try as hard. Next time it will fail an easier translation with a longer window. And so it goes, all the way down to senility. 

The first time I became aware of the speech-to-meaning translation process I was in my thirties, watching to a play done in Irish dialect. I realized a lag between the speaking and my apprehension of the meaning. It was like watching a badly dubbed movie, or one for which the projectionist (remember those) had not looped the film (remember that) properly in the projector (remember them). 

It was interesting. It continued. And today it happens even when I listen to people who speak American in environments that are too noisy. 

On the output side, I'm increasingly aware of moments when my tongue and lips are trying to move in two (at least) different directions as my vocal apparatus tries to emit two words with roughly equivalent meanings at the same time. I assume that some mental module that would previously have chosen between the words and sent only one to the sound production apparatus is either not working at all or is failing to complete its computation in its computational window. 

When that happens, I might blend the two words, starting one and finishing the other. Or, in the worst case, the entire linguistic apparatus stops. Period. Dead. And there's a long, uncomfortable pause while it resets. Or an even longer period when it reboots. 

There are other failure modes, but I don't want to catalog them now. Or maybe ever. Instead I want to make the system run better.

To do that, I've decided exercise it more. One way is by dictating some blog posts. Sometimes I'll write them longhand, then dictate them. Sometimes, as with the last part of this one, I'll just dictate. 

Dictating from scratch has a many advantages. First of all, it does not give me the opportunity to endlessly edit, tweak, and tune what I'm writing. When I'm typing I fiddle endlessly. When I write by hand I fiddle less. When I dictate, I say it, and its done. I may edit a bit later, but I seem to be able to keep that under control.

Second, it gives me a way to exercise the entire mental and physical system from generation of ideas, to choice of words, to generation of sound. 

 I can force the pace by consciously trying to increase the rate at which words come out of my mouth. Sometimes that results in the speech generation machinery breaking down. Sometimes, I can't generate ideas fast enough. I adjust the timing, and give it another go. I'm getting a hell of a work out. 

I'm losing ground. I'm eventually going to die. But until I do, but I'm making a game of it.