Alas, the letter with the little red complimentary AARP membership card comes to us all in good time. I tore mine up because it seemed the quickest and most expressive way to deny the passage of time. But denial didn’t keep me from perusing the instructive AARP website, or from spending a half hour with the Brain Health tab and the useful games it offers.
I say “useful” because the games promised to exercise and train recall, to improve ability to calculate quickly, to sharpen pattern recognition, and to hone other skills that peak and then decline as we pass through middle age. I gravitated to a game called The Right Word—perhaps a coward’s choice. As a kid I had meticulously read through my father’s leather-bound Merriam Webster—nerd alert, nerd alert! And now I spend my work days with words (including these).
So you can imagine my shock when the game beat me. Well yes, it took me a while to discover that the “enter” key could substitute for a time-consuming mouse-click and that the “submit” function didn’t respond in the same way to the enter key. I also discovered that the game featured no spell-check, and therefore, it wouldn’t award a point if I entered “innoculate.” But it was the precision and specificity that posed the real test, and here the game really handed me my lunch.
The first definition asked for the right word for “closed premises for parked cars.” I typed in “parking ramp.” The game wanted “garage,” instead. Fair enough, “closed premises” wouldn’t really fit an open ramp, would it? Then for the next, “careful, diligent, and pains-taking,” I entered “meticulous.” The game wanted “scrupulous.” And here, too, admittedly and on reflection, the game had me. “Meticulous” carries the flavor of excessive care, does it not? “Scrupulous” on the other hand suggests exactitude and integrity in the taking of pains. So it’s the right word. I had one more unfortunate answer. For “a departure from a place or a country, especially of many people,” the game wanted “exodus,” not “emigration.” Yes, the emphasis on departure, the dramatic Cecil B. De Mille moment in the history of a single group rather than the drawn out process of leaving, made exodus the right choice. After three wrong responses in a row I began to worry—would I also begin losing my keys and misplacing my reading glasses? Maybe I should retrieve the torn AARP card and try to piece it back together after all? If I wanted to beat this game, I’d need to knuckle down and think these through even at a cost in reaction time.
The game then asked for specific recall in the categories trees and birds that began with the letter C. I typed in “cherry, chestnut, and Chinese maple” after much straining, and then “Canada goose, cormorant, and cassowary.” (Cassowary, really?—remember the game exerts time pressure, and plainly, names for trees and birds are never at the tip of my tongue.) The game preferred answers like “cypress, cottonwood, and cedar,” and “crow, chicken, and canary.” Cottonwood I should have remembered, because it’s a violent allergen that my neighbor calls “the tree from hell.” But doesn’t chicken seem more like a food than a bird? Anyway, I’d needed to memorize these for the instant the question came up again.
Surprised at the way the game got under my skin, I stuck at it until I beat it, or to say it another way, until I bested myself. The game asked, “easy to approach, with a friendly demeanor”—think—“easygoing” or “genial” wouldn’t do because neither carried both senses. Let’s try “affable,” I thought, and “affable” it was. Then the game posed “to throw cargo overboard to lighten a load.” “Discard” and “dispose” wouldn’t work because they just didn’t reach far enough or missed the naval nuance. Ahh, got it, “jettison.” Yes. . .the stuff you throw overboard when the ship is sinking turns into jetsam; it’s got to be “jettison” because the action seems to contain the objects. And how about “formal dispute arising in conflict?” Forget “discord” and “disharmony” because they measured the emotional temperature of a disagreement without supplying the noun for the dispute itself. All right then, you merciless rats, will you take “schism”? I was beginning to get the hang of this game. And when the game asked for three trees that began with C, I dutifully typed in “cedar, cottonwood, and “cypress.”
Eventually I made it through the definitions without an error in spelling or interpretation. Thus this game exhibited the virtues of all good games. I’d been lured by competition, taunted with defeat, supplied with hints, invited to “game” the rules, required to practice, spurred along with the prospect of looming victory, and encouraged to evaluate my performance against the rest of my cohort. The AARP designers had rigged this game for success, because winning meant training both for memory itself and for quickness of recall. Their enjoyable brain game rewarded mastery. As the game shut down I reached for my glasses. Now where did I put those blasted glasses?