Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tom Sawyer (And I Don't Mean Rush)

Name brand of a sneaker (tennis shoe, sand shoe, etc.).   Did some marketing jackass decide it would be clever and catchy to just leave the “B” off of “Basics” and that would pique interest in the shoes.
Not quite.

ASICS is an acronym for : Anima Sana In Corpore Sano. It is a Latin phrase. I would tell you the English translation but I want you, the reader, to figure it out. It’s good for you; give you that sense of achievement (even if it’s a little one).

Run to Google. Or Ask. Or any other search engine.

Put it to you this way: the sneakers will get you the second half of the saying.

As for the first half, that’s every bit as important, but we seem to neglect maintaining/developing our brains.

When was the last time you read a book (and on Kindle/Nook/Kobo, e-reader to be named later)? What’s that? You’re listening to books on tape? You’ll just wait for the movie?
Sorry. I have to wait for my eye to stop twitching.

When I was a teacher, I heard a lot of complaining from “my” kids about having to read (and an equal amount of bitching from later generations of kids).  That is, except when they had to do a presentation on what they were reading. The boys were fascinated with a pictorial history of World War II and when making their presentations, would emphasize Hitler’s “blue eyes and blonde hair” rule for the Aryans and every little shit in that classroom would turn around and stare at me.  Like they hadn’t done it two weeks prior for the previous kid with the same book.  As teacher, I got to tell them to turn around and pay attention or pay time in detention (not that I wanted to spend extra time). Okay, they read the book but it was essentially a PICTURE book.

“So what?” you say. “At least the kids were reading a book.”

Pull up a chair, Bunkie. Let me educate you. (I’ll get some mileage out of the teaching degree yet)

Unlike muscles, tendons and bones, your brain has neurons and neural pathways. The more you use them, the more active they become. Repeated behaviors strengthen pathways. It’s why you learn things like tying your shoes. It’s not a big chore each and every time (unless, God forbid, you’ve had some sort of brain injury and need to relearn). Curiosity, learning new things, learning new skills builds new neural pathways, keeps them strong. And like anything that’s disused, well, they don’t actually rust or grow weeds, but it’s tough to get them back up and running again.

The act of reading is not just about gathering information (or entertainment) from the printed words in front of you. If you remember back to learning the alphabet and learning to read, it was a lot of hard work learning the rules, learning to decipher what the words were AND WHAT THEY MEANT. When you read, you are 1) identifying and recognizing the letters, 2) identifying and recognizing the words (or looking them up if you don’t recognize them), 3) identifying the sentence containing the words and 4) deciphering the meaning of that sentence and the ones around it. In reading this blog, you’re actually working your brain, not a bad thing.

Writing adds an additional component. Not just creating a word or a sentence, but coordinating the actions of the hand to what is going on in the mind. Writing with pen and paper requires even more effort than typing away on a keyboard (and yes, I do both. When I’m starting a new story or just getting the notes together, I go pen and paper. In addition to neural pathways, I’m exercising my fine motor skills. There is something about connecting the pen to the hand that triggers the more creative areas of the brain. Besides, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Chaucer did all of their writing with pen and paper. Works for me. Bonus question: what was the FIRST novel (American novel, perhaps) to be written on a typewriter? I’m not going to tell you. YOU TELL ME.

My grandfather, Cliff Thatcher aka Gramp or Chief (I always got a kick out of my cousins calling him Uncle Chief) completed the crossword puzzle, the jumble and another syndicated word puzzle (may have been a word search or acrostics) every day. He designed and built furniture in his basement woodshop, played piano, organ and taught himself the clarinet. Gramp stayed mentally active all his life (and could tell a joke with the best of them all the way up to the end). As a young man, he worked as a bank teller and into his 80s, could swiftly and accurately add, subtract, multiply and divide in his head. They didn’t have computers or calculators; the human brain WAS the calculator.

My grandmother, Kay Thatcher aka Gram or Auntsie, could run me off my feet (of course, I had a truckload more weight on at that point) despite having 57 years on me. From a lifetime of knitting (before her hands gave out with tendonitis from 60 years of using them), we could give her knitting needles and yarn and watch a fisherman’s knit sweater grow accurately (no misplaced or dropped stitches) while she was watching “As The World Turns” and “The Guiding Light” on TV. With so much repetition of that activity, she had extremely strong neural pathways built. She also read daily and finished “Gods and Generals” just before she passed. I’ve read it. It’s challenging stuff.
Reading and writing are essentially cardio for your brain. Solving a puzzle, be it crosswords, Sudoku or quadratic equations, is weight-lifting for your brain. I have no idea what kind of mental workouts he does, but Robin Williams must have a super highway of neural pathways. Why? Get hold of his “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and watch the lightning speed with which he pulls up references on pretty much any subject. That’s a fit brain.

As technology has advanced and we’ve become more reliant on electronics, I would argue (tentatively) that we’re becoming…dumber. We’re not depending on our brains to solve math problems, figure out a route or even remember the basics of spelling and grammar. And that is how we end up with signs like this:

If you go to Northridge, CA, to a shopping center on the corner of Tampa and Nordhoff (the side with the Fresh & Easy), you will see this sign.

Whoever placed the order for the sign didn’t know the correct spelling for “coming.” The person who took the order for the sign didn’t correct the spelling. The person who actually made the sign didn’t correct the spelling. It’s a simple word.
I have a dual degree: Bachelor of Science in Education and English was my teaching major (Social Studies was the teaching minor. Don’t get me started on people’s inability to find things on maps or ignorance of their country’s history). Whereas most people would argue that I am a killjoy and nitpicker, I would argue that as a former Language Arts teacher, I am sensitive to language. I am the educated, intelligent, independent female snob that Rick Santorum hates and fears. That being said…

Spell Check is ruining people’s ability to intelligently express themselves.

There, their and they’re. Common homonyms. What’s a homonym? Homonyms are words that sound like other words, but are spelled differently and have different meanings. I grind my teeth when I see these words misused. Over the past few years, I’ve been grinding my teeth so much, I’m surprised I still have any. “Their” is a possessive pronoun. If I was talking about the Obama family’s dog, Bo, I would say, “Bo is their dog.”  If he was standing in front of me, I would use the adverb “there.”  “Bo is standing there.” If I was describing the Obamas bringing Bo to me to puppy sit (which I would do, he’s adorable. I love those white paws), I would say “They’re dropping him off tomorrow.” 
This is shit I learned in third grade, yet I’ve seen errors in newspapers like USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and (sadly) the Boston Globe where “their” stands in for the other two. As long as it’s (and there’s another lesson: the difference between it’s and its) spelled T-H-E-I-R, Spellcheck won’t catch it. Spellcheck isn’t programmed to evaluate context; just whether or not you have the letters in the correct order.

Excessive reliance on Spellcheck makes the user dumber. Excessive use of text and Twitter abbreviations cause the neural pathways that get used for correct spelling and grammar to grow over with weeds and makes the user present him/herself as a lazy dumbass (“Well, I can do it when I need to.” Really, Sparky? Even if you don’t PRACTICE???). IT’S PREVENTABLE!!!!

12 years back, we had the great Y2K Scare. Since programmers had shortened years from four to two digits in order to save space, nobody knew if all the computers on Earth were going to have a major freak out on January 1, 2000. They didn’t BUT…if they had…most people would have been screwed because of too much dependence on computers and not enough dependence on brains. They math wizards who get stuffed into lockers would have had the advantage because they don’t need computers to calculate. Ever seen the movie “Apollo 13” starring Tom Hanks? Rent it, get it on Netflix, whatever. There’s something I want you to see. Understand: this movie is set in 1970. Your average laptop computer is now more powerful than the big room-filling, punch-card eating monsters that NASA used for the space program back then. There is a scene, after the onboard explosion has occurred (not a spoiler. Not only is it in the movie, it was in the news) and the NASA scientists and engineers need to plot a course and calculate a trajectory for the spacecraft that 1) won’t use up too much fuel, 2) won’t be so shallow that the craft essentially deflects of the Earth’s atmosphere or 3) won’t be so steep that the spacecraft comes in at too acute an angle and burns up. We don’t see the guy actually calculating the course, but we see a roomful of engineers confirm his math. No calculators (they didn’t exist). No computers. They all used their heads and slide rules, which require brain power.  Not only did the actors survive the movie, but actual astronauts Lovell, Haise and Swigert made it home in real life. Had Y2K happened on their watch, these men would have ended up ruling the planet.

I hated algebra and geometry in high school (and have the lousy report cards to prove it). The classic grumble is “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Well, we’re not required to solve quadratic equations as part of our jobs (unless we’re employed at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena), but it took me to getting to be an adult and to seeing my best friend’s computer programming homework in college that it dawned on me: Algebra and geometry are teaching problem solving. Here’s a set of rules: here’s your situation (not to be confused with one of those Jersey Shore idiots). How do you solve this problem? We didn’t think about it then and we probably don’t stop and consider it now, but as we go through a day, we are constantly “solving for X.” If it’s 20 miles to get to work and the 101 is jammed, what time should I leave the house to be to work on time? Oh, yeah: it’s algebra. This is not something you can tap into a computer. You’ve got to sit back and figure it out yourself.

Geometry ties into solving logic puzzles (part of the LSAT that I absolutely detested. If it wasn’t for the hot flashes, just the thought would give me cold sweats). “If A, then B.”  Sudoku puzzles also tie into solving logic problems. Real world application? Bride and groom trying to figure out a seating chart for their reception where they have a) bitterly divorced parents, b) at least 3 friends they’re trying to match with 3 other friends, c) 1 friend of the groom who can’t be seated anywhere near the potential hook-ups because he’s slept with 2 of them and talks about it when drunk and d) over the bride’s objection, children ARE coming and she needs to properly place a kiddie table. (Do yourselves a favor, People: Elope and then throw a cocktail party.) No computer program can solve this, but if you’ve been doing your Sudoku puzzles, YOU CAN .

It may make the politicians feel safer and more secure if we’re dumb and placid (push button society and all it becomes capable of is pushing buttons), but they forget that when the uneducated finally get pissed off, they lack the negotiating skills, diplomatic language and requisite skill set to peacefully move a government out of power. Nope: when it’s serfs up (that was intentional), they WILL go French Revolution on your ass.

So, step away from the video games, the audio books and the Spell Check. As you would work to strengthen your body, strengthen your mind. Pick up an actual book, a puzzle or a book of sample math problems.  As you build muscles and tendons, bulk up on neurons and neural pathways.

After all, sound mind in a sound body.

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