Fellow mystery writer Cheryl Solimini and I, along with at least a handful of others I’ve located on the e-lists DorothyL and Murder Must Advertise, share a mysterious malady. Each of us, when the symptoms first appeared, thought we were the only one. And now Cheryl has given it a name: homonym aphasia. When it strikes, formerly perfect spellers and error-free keyboarders start thinking one homonym but typing another. We who prided ourselves on never needing Spell Check or proofreading suddenly render “two” for “too,” “wear” for “where,” and “their” for “they’re.” In addition to perfect homonyms, we screw up dissimilar words that share a syllable or even just a letter or two: “restaurant” for “residence,” “will” for “with.” This neurological stumble began for me when I turned sixty. One day, I hadn’t misspelled a word since 1955, when I flubbed a word in the New York City round of the National Spelling Bee. Blow out enough candles to set off a smoke alarm, and all of a sudden I have to double check everything that flies off my fingers onto the screen.
Those who don’t have it don’t understand. “I never could keep those little words straight,” they say. “I do that all the time.” That’s not it at all. Among the diagnostic criteria for homonym aphasia is a history of impeccable spelling and grammar and crackerjack typing. Like me, Cheryl was a spelling champ and has been a professional editor. If you always screwed up “its” and “it’s,” you’re not one of us. If you never did, but now you do and it embarrasses the hell out of you, you are.
Cheryl has proposed an organization to offer support and seek funding for a cure. She calls it the World Homonym Aphasia Treatment Society for Incomprehensible Spelling, or WHATSIS. Sign me up; I’m proud to be a chapter mental—uh, I mean a charter member.
Analogous to homonym aphasia is that far more widespread ailment of the aging, failing memory retrieval. Once again, the diagnostic criteria include not having had a lousy memory in the first place. Does anybody remember (no wordplay intended) the Fifties TV game show Name That Tune? I’ve always had an ear for music, and until my early forties, my completely reliable memory could always come up with a work and composer in the case of classical music or a song title and performer for popular music. That changed in my early forties. My first conscious experience of what many call CRS (for “can’t remember s**t”) occurred during a period when I listened to a country music radio station as I drove to work every day. They had a contest in which they’d plan (see? homonym aphasia: I meant “play”) a miniscule snatch of a song—just a couple of notes—and listeners had to name the song and artist. I recognized the songs all right. But I couldn’t recall the names.
Experts on aging often seem to believe that age-related memory loss is a delusion of the middle aged. They claim that if I keep my mind active and reduce my stress, my memory will be just find (did it again! I meant “fine”). These folks—who are probably under forty themselves—make me grind my teeth. Have I kept my mind active? Let’s see: in the past ten years I have gone from computer-illiterate online technophobe to online therapist and trainer of clinicians in online practice skills, written at least four novels and hundreds of articles if you include blog posts, stayed afloat in a society in which maintenance tasks like paying the bills and organizing one’s calendar have become increasingly complex and time-consuming—need I go on? And what was the rest of the prescription? Reduce stress? I run three miles a day. I sometimes meditate. I have a happy marriage, supportive friends, and delightful grandchildren. I eat healthy. I regularly leave the city for the peaceful country. I have terrific conflict resolution skills. I don't hold grudges. If stress reduction were completely within my power, I’d be blissfully stress-free.
Not that I think the mental acuity I used to have would bounce back if I could zap all my stress. I think it’s neurological. Besides, the source of stress today is not primarily within the individual. Oh, I can tell you how to get rid of it. One, fix the economy....