Thursday, February 18, 2010

Horses Don’t Need Words, Do They?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Everybody knows that horses can count, right? At least some of them, those who are trained to do so. I had a revelation one day while doing reps on my exercise ball about how horses can count without having language for the numbers. In my advancing age, I get hit with occasional aphasia. But I've noticed that I can keep track of the count even when I temporarily can't remember "thirty-five, thirty-six" etc. If you want to experience the way horses count (or rather the way I think they do), try counting in groups of three, then groups of four, then groups of five, using only grunts and nodding your head if you like. It seems to help the horses:
uh-uh-uh uh-uh-uh
uh-uh-uh-uh uh-uh-uh-uh
uh-uh-uh-uh-uh uh-uh-uh-uh-uh

People, however, unless counting in groups, do need words to express the complexities of the human condition. I always get a kick out of hearing a parent try to help a screaming toddler regain control by saying, “Use your words.” It’s one of those concepts, like “time out,” that hadn’t yet become part of the parenting repertoire when I was a kid. But it makes perfect sense. In fact, I haven’t minded hearing a very young child scream, or not as much as I used to, since I truly got it that the screams express frustration that the child would be able to articulate if only his or her language skills were up to the task—as they soon will be in most cases.

Having honed my ability to express myself in words over a period of more than sixty years, I am appalled and furious that some of those words are starting to slip away. It seems to be a combination of dementia and aphasia—memory loss and loss of actual words—as I pass through my sixties. I hate the fact that it’s happening and fear it getting worse, especially if I live into my nineties, like my parents and aunts on both sides.

Nothing makes me madder than some “expert” claiming that my generation’s memory loss is reversible, if we’ll only keep our minds active and reduce the stress in our lives. In the past ten years I’ve learned to use a computer with enough skill to make my living on it in two different careers (therapist and writer); honed and expanded my clinical skills, which I didn’t start acquiring till age forty; written four novels and eight short stories and learned the craft of editing fiction with increasing sophistication; learned and applied another body of new skills, those of book promotion; and used words to treat clients, maintain friendships, and keep up meaningful connections with a vast network of people all over the world. Is my brain active? You bet.

As for stress, I’m already doing all I can. I do my best to live one day at a time, without futile obsessing about the past or the future. I run or exercise daily. I meditate. I’m keenly aware that self-care must come before helping others—though I do a lot of helping others both professionally and personally—because if I’m running on empty, I’m no use to anyone. And as best I can, I avoid toxic people and situations. But hey, I live in New York City in the 21st century. Stress is endemic.

Yet at sixty-five, I can’t deny that aphasia is setting in. Some of it is a matter of slow retrieval, as if my hard drive is wearing out. I come up with the word I need—two days after the conversation in which I needed it. Some of it, as a friend pointed out recently, may be because my hard drive is getting full. I certainly have uploaded a lot of information to my poor old brain by this stage of my life.

One way people differ from computers is that for us, the older data is more accessible, not less. I recently had to relearn from scratch the lyrics of two dozen songs I wrote myself, most of them in the 1990s or later. Yet I can still remember every word of Tom Lehrer’s lyrics (along with quite a few members of DorothyL who have also been around since he recorded them) and the songs I sang in Girl Scout camp.

So what can I do about it? Use my words as much as I can to keep them sharp and polished. Go on exercising and meditating and remember not to volunteer for any committees. Take my vitamins and supplements (though it’s getting harder to remember on a daily basis if I did or not). And if all else fails, count like a horse.


Stephen D. Rogers said...

Hey Elizabeth,

I hear ya. {sigh}


signlady217 said...

Talking about small screaming children: one thing I've learned as a sign language interpreter is that the sooner they can have some kind of communication skill, the better off they will be (early intervention). Learning sign language helps them to not become so frustrated in trying to communicate their needs because it gives them a tool to use.

Sheila Connolly said...

I know what you mean.

When I was in eighth grade, for English we read "Flowers for Algernon", a short story written by Daniel Keyes (I don't think I ever knew the author's name, but the title stuck with me). It made a powerful impression on me.

Long story short, it's about a surgery that can increase intelligence, told from the POV of the first human subject, Charlie. It works--but only for a time, and the most poignant part of the story is the interval when Charlie realizes that his new-found intelligence is slipping away.

That's what this aging stuff feels like. You know you used to know the answer to the question, or the word you want, but you just can't find it any more.

Sandra Parshall said...

Have you seen those irritating ads for computers that are "senior-friendly"? The ads emphasize their simplicity -- no confusing technical stuff to frustrate "older" people. And by older they mean over 50. Plenty of people decades older than that have learned to use computers and do so quite competently every day. I hate the equation of older with stupid, as if we hit a certain age and suddenly turn into idiots.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, Flowers for Algernon was a deeply memorable story for me too. It was made into a 1968 movie called Charly with Cliff Robertson.
See how it works? I remember a story I read in the Sixties, but yesterday's breakfast?

Sandra Parshall said...

Congratulations to Liz on her Agatha Award nomination for her short story "Death Will Trim Your Tree"!

Chris V. said...

Hey Elizabeth saw the Agatha nominee for your story! big Congrats!!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thank you. :) I'm thrilled--and in great company!

kathy d. said...

This forgetting things is so true.

I remember lyrics to songs I heard on the radio when in my teen years and can't remember what I read in the NY Times yesterday.

I always say to myself that I used to know something but don't know it now.

A friend refers to the times she can't remember something as "senior moments," and then keeps going and remembers eventually.

I, too, try to keep mentally active by reading, doing crossword puzzles, but the grey matter is not what it used to be.