Sunday, April 27, 2014

Thinking one thing, typing another

Among the daily diversions there is Sudoku.  I got my start watching my son do one from the newspaper.  I soon was competing with him for who would get to the puzzle first.  Then my wife bought me a book.  As I used to do the NY Times Crossword in pen, a habit partly begat by arrogance but also by the practical reality that I was more prone to chew on a pencil than a pen, the oral fixation quite strong at the time, this was also the path chosen for doing the Sudoku puzzles.  There is a lot of pattern recognition in becoming proficient completing these puzzles.  As I was still early in the habit formation, I didn't have all the patterns as part of my repertoire and would make the occasional conceptual mistake as a consequence, not detect it till some time later, and result with a screwed up puzzle that I put a big X through.

After a while the big X's became demoralizing and I looked for online alternatives (also the book was getting pretty much done and as a cheapskate I didn't want to pay for another book).  Web sites that offer free Sudoku seem to come and go.  I'm on my third one.  They allow one to erase entries without messing up the rest of the board.  They also include a button to check whether the current entries are correct.  Some offer a hint button, a way to find the full solution to the puzzle, and possibly other "features," though I consider the timer function that many include more a detriment than anything else.  This is not a race.  It is enjoyable to find entries that to attain require substantial logical deduction.  That's why one does the puzzles, not to get a good time.

I play a different game with myself as I complete the puzzle.  It's where the trouble begins.  I keep my right hand on the mouse and use it to position the cursor into the right cell in the grid and to click in the cell when I want to insert an entry.   Either the index finger or middle finger of my left hand starts on a number key (usually I begin with the number 1 and see if I can find a place for that to be inserted).  I visually position the finger onto that first key.  Thereafter I try not to look at the keyboard but instead explicitly move to the next appropriate key by sliding my finger to the adjacent key and counting the number of times I need to do that till I've reached the destination key.  This game within a game I do probably for the same reason that some people knit when they attend a seminar (which I witnessed on Friday at the Center for Writing studies Colloquium).  There are two different types of mistakes I make while doing this.

Sometimes my finger moves too quickly and doesn't touch the adjacent key, so I screw up the count that way.  Other times my brain resets and I start the count on a number that doesn't match the key I'm currently on.  Both sort of errors I've made since I started to play Sudoku online.  But the frequency has increased in the last couple of months.  I'm wondering why and dreading the possible explanation.  I should also note that something similar is happening in writing these blog posts.  I have made typos since I've started.  But they seem to be getting worse as of late, errors with greater frequency and more egregious in the commission.  Some of that is spelling, which seems to come and go.  But more frequently I'm seeing that I type a real word or phrase, just not the one I spoke to myself as I was composing the prose.  The fingers and the brain seem less in sync.

I have always been sloppy about my physical environs.  Some of this is the badge of the absent minded professor, books strewn all over the floor, desktop cluttered with papers. Another part is simply not caring about neatness.  A third is that in living a life of the mind a conscious choice has been made to devote my attention to other things.  And  yet one more is that when younger I used to be able to keep track of many balls in the air, with them only occasionally tumbling down when I wasn't yet ready, so for the most part I could deal with practical reality when necessary and otherwise handle it in an autonomous way.  I haven't yet learned to alter my approach.

I did once ruin a perfectly good laptop during a presentation I was giving by spilling Diet Coke on the laptop, the can placed precariously on the edge of a counter with the laptop sitting aside, only to see an unintended demonstration of potential energy converted into motion, as in reaching for the can without looking at it so as to keep my head in the presentation, I knocked the can over.  During the period where I made such presentations I had an absolutely wonderful secretary, Mary Barker, who dealt with much of the practical reality that was part of my Campus job, so the balls I did juggle could be of the strategic variety.

My guess is that while working much practical reality needed to be confronted, even with Mary's wonderful assistance or later when I moved to the College of Business and tried to put buffers in place to keep the practical stuff in the background.  With what did creep through I was getting adequate practice to maintain proficiency.  I suspect that between dealing with less practical stuff now and with aging there lies the explanation.

But there is an additional fear.  My mom, who passed away in December 2012 at age 92, showed evidence of dementia (measured by doctors) while she was in her mid 70s, and the last five years or so she was totally out of it.  I'm afraid that I'm genetically disposed to ending up the same way and that what I'm writing about here is actually early warning signs.

I've already mentally scripted how it will happen.  My logical processes will remain intact throughout, perhaps slowing some but otherwise remaining strong.  My ability to cope with practical reality will steadily decline.  As that happens more and more clutter will appear in all aspects of life, eventually enveloping me.  It's as if dust starts to stick to the windows of the house and after a time one can no longer see outside.

I hope this is a nightmare only, not an accurate prognostication.  How does one tell?

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