Monday, September 26, 2016

Striving to Keep My Wits

by Bruce Carroll

Let’s face it; none of us is getting any younger. Last year I turned fifty.

As we grow older, memory becomes a more and more tenuous thing. This is not news for anyone who is leaving middle age behind. More alarming than simple forgetfulness is dementia. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s claim the memories – and eventually the very souls – of their victims.

Being – shall I say, more mature? –  I began reading about neuroplasticity, a phenomenon that has been studied extensively only in the past decade or so. Scientists have discovered that the human brain is much more malleable than was previously thought. This malleability is called “neuroplasticity.”

Our brains change throughout our lives, and researchers have discovered it is possible to guide those changes. It is even possible to stave off age-related memory loss and dementia. One easy and effective way to do this is by learning something new as one grows older. A person could choose to learn anything: how to play a musical instrument, how to rebuild a car engine, how to cook, even how to write and speak a different language.

About the same time I was learning about brains and how to keep memory loss at bay, I read How to Learn Any Language in a Few Months While Enjoying Yourself by award-winning author Nate Nicholson. The techniques Mr. Nicholson offered seemed straightforward and effective. If I were going to learn anything, I decided, I would learn a language. After all, language is used to express every aspect of our lives. What could be more effective for brain development?

Once I had decided to learn a language, I had to choose which one to learn. There are many Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. Perhaps I should learn Spanish? But my exposure to Spanish had been rather limited. I had studied French formally throughout school. Maybe French was a better choice? (Funny how little of it I could remember after all these years.) I had also studied Japanese informally in college. Ah, Japan – there was a culture very different from my own!

I hadn’t yet decided on a language when I happened to be watching an interview with the Japanese Idol group Babymetal. (Yes, I am a fan – kitsune up!) The trio spoke only in Japanese. There were English subtitles, but I remembered enough Japanese that I questioned the translation I was reading. Was that really what they were saying?

After I watched the video, I read some of the comments people had left. There among them I found an extremely racist remark against the Japanese people. Somehow that brought me to choose Japanese as my second language.

Since then, I’ve begun learning (or relearning) French, too. Spanish is next on my short list.

What about you? What do you do to keep your brain healthy? Let me know in the comments.

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Math, Mother, and Memory

by Bruce Carroll

It's funny how an insufferable experience can become a fond memory, given time. Homemade candy helps, I suppose.

As a child, I struggled with math. Multiplication was a bear. Fractions were even worse.

When I was in sixth grade, I brought home a particularly daunting worksheet as my math homework. My parents insisted I begin doing homework almost as soon as I got home. I was granted enough time to consume a snack, then it was time to hit the books.

I endeavored, I toiled, I sweat. It was several pages and the answers were not coming easily. I was allowed another break for dinner. Dinner? I'd already been working two hours and still had a long, long way to go.

After dinner, I was back at my worksheet. I'd complete a page and have my parents check it, only to discover I had done the entire thing wrong and had to do it over.

As a sixth grader my bedtime was early; eight p.m., if I recall correctly. I wanted to go to bed. Badly. My head hurt. I was indescribably frustrated. I just wanted the night of mathematical torture to end.

Finally, at just past ten p.m. I managed somehow to get the last problem on the last page solved correctly. Exhausted, I said good night to my mother.

But she had a surprise for me. She was proud of my hard work, she said, and she went on to tell me that earlier in the day, while I was at school, she had made some Heavenly Hash. Now Heavenly Hash is my absolute favorite candy. I was surprised and delighted when she said I could stay up just a bit longer and eat a couple of pieces.

Sadly, my mother passed away a few years later, succumbing to cancer. I've grown older, and today I can no longer recall what kind of math problems I struggled through that night. But I remember the lesson my mother taught me about persistence and hard work.

What fond memories do you have? Let me know in the comments below.

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Monday, September 5, 2016

When She Fell

by Bruce Carroll

I will never forget where I was the moment Akiko fell in love. She was in the school library with Tommy. The two of them always went there after lunch, before their next class. Tommy would read to her.

Akiko had been rescued from a fire, which had left her blind. That had only been a few months ago. She was learning Braille, but still had a way to go before anyone could call her “fluent.” The fire had not only left her blind: it had left her illiterate.

Tommy had been reading Karen Vance Hammond’s Shoe Marks. Akiko’s friend Sarah had told her Tommy liked her. Akiko had been skeptical, but Sarah pointed out how much time Tommy spent with her. That day, as Tommy read, Akiko had reached out and found his shoulder. She rested her hand there as he read.

When the bell rang for the next class, they both stood. Akiko thanked Tommy for reading to her yet again. That was when Tommy suggested they go out. He had tried to sound casual, but Akiko clearly heard the nervous quaver in his voice. She smiled and told him she would like that. She resisted the urge to jump up and down excitedly and squeal.

And where was I when this all happened? Why is it so indelibly burned into my memory? I was at the Graham Public Library, right across the street from the Lutheran church, seated at a little round wooden table typing away on my laptop. A wall of books silently watched as I created; books with titles like “Get a Literary Agent,” “In the Shadow of Edgar Allen Poe,” and “Teenagers 101.”

For me, it was the first time I had experienced the joy of having one of my characters fall in love.

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