Our dumb brains


Flowers for Algernon poster by Lonnie Busch

My neighbor Edie, who has macular degeneration, recently hired a woman I know to be her driver for errands and appointments. Because this woman — let’s call her Paula — told Edie she and I are friends, Edie has been plying me for information.

Edie is a great neighbor and wonderful woman, apart from an unfortunate love of garden gnomes and of gossip, both of which I prefer to avoid.  Edie is curious in this instance because while Paula has spoken of a husband, a daughter and grandchildren, she senses some hole in the fabric of truth. I know why, though Edie doesn’t: Paula has somehow neglected to mention her female partner of some 25 years, whom she recently married.

I am averse to lies of omission, but it’s possible to tell one’s own truth without gossiping about another’s. So when Edie asked me this morning how I came to know Paula, I told her I’d met her more than 30 years ago in the lesbian community.

“I don’t know anything about her nationality,” my neighbor said.

Now we were both puzzled, because while Edie’s vision is failing, her hearing is just fine. Then I realized that my neighbor  — who has lived a conventional life, and had never known an openly Lebanese person before me — was having trouble reconciling a husband, a child and grandchildren with lesbianism. Her aging brain punted, and somehow made fair-skinned, blond Paula Lebanese instead of the infinitely more plausible lesbian.

This had the effect of making me laugh — quietly, to myself, because correcting Edie would have invited the gossip I wished to avoid, plus I didn’t want to hurt her feelings — and of making me feel all warm and fuzzy toward my 76-year-old friend. Her brain, I figured, is slowly dissolving in a sea of decrepitude, no longer able to think quickly nor clearly.

I was still basking in this gently affectionate condescension as I took my morning run along a trail above my home, where I encountered several hikers. “You’re a beautiful runner!” one said to me as I passed. “How glice!” I called back. “Glank you so must!”

Now, I have written about this sort of thing before, preferring not to see it as a sign of aging, but rather as some sort of mysterious synaptic brain fart that occasionally occurs between stimulus and response, causing me to speak like an idiot.algernoncover

But my “occasionally” is becoming more frequent: When it comes to using my words, I can identify a starting point and an ending point, but not always the path between. I feel a bit like Algernon, the titular laboratory mouse in the book that became the movie Charley: Having been temporarily elevated to intelligence, clarity and coherence, I am now slipping slowly, inexorably back toward involuntary dumbness, wandering around the maze forgetting which way to turn for the cheese, and sometimes forgetting even that I was looking for it.

In Flowers for Algernon, the cause of the mouse’s ascension — and subsequently, that of the human subject, Charley — is experimental surgery, which later fails, not only returning Algernon to ordinary-mouse intelligence, but eventually killing him. You know, like youth does human beings, followed by its failure, which we call aging.

Now, I am not a scientist, but I have a solid grasp of the neurological effects of getting old. When you are young, your brain looks like this:

healthy brain

When you are old, it looks like this:


All of which is to say, my days of gently laughing at Edie’s eroding grey matter are limited, because at 58,  I can feel myself joining her.  It’s not just that the right word escapes me, sometimes replaced by gibberish;  it’s also that the quick, clear thought becomes leaden, turbid. And that I forget where I’ve read what, and confuse facts and ideas.

Every time I acknowledge this, I want a beer —  not withstanding recent evidence that even moderate alcohol consumption damages the brain. Which seems cruel, sort of like not just giving dumb and dying Algernon the cheese he loves simply because even moderate cheese consumption causes brain damage.

At least I think I read that somewhere …






  1. Erica Hunter · · Reply

    I love this — it’s wonderful! Aging is a weird thing, isn’t it? Lots of giving up of control, which we Americans are so attached to. And it’s kind of amazing how many stages of aging there are, and how long it takes for us to mentally drag ourselves into the next stage. I’ve concluded that there’s no such thing as “aging gracefully”!


    1. I concur! I didn’t expect to feel the effects of age as early as I did — physically by my late 30s, mentally by my late 40s — and both now noticeably accelerating. There’s a lot to be said for dying sooner rather than later, though we Americans are also highly resistant to that. 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting.


  2. Absolutely hilarious. Ha ha ha


    1. It gets a little less funny as time goes on. 🙂


  3. Dennis Beard · · Reply

    What a wonderful article. I just recently turned 50 and I have those days where my mental sharpness is more like a rounded stone of granite. Just remember that all that running you do staves off that second brain scan for a little while longer. Thank You for being the wonderful person you are. Our lives are just a little richer when we read what you write. Looking forward to your next Zen Of Hen article. Let’s do the Ascent together next year. We’ll do a brain scan before and after the race and see how the altitude factors into all this.


    1. Aw, Dennis; this is such a lovely compliment. I’m glad you’re my friend, and grateful for your appreciation as a reader. Thank you. And you’re just the guy to keep my aging and collapsing feet running a little longer, if anyone can. Maybe we should do the Ascent next year! Of course, that means a half-marathon qualifier this year. Ouch.


  4. My wife and I often supply each other’s lost words…but I refuse to live without cheese and beer!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Apparently, I need a wife if I am to continue my beer and cheese habit. I’ve made a note of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This made me laugh. I love the references to Flowers for Algernon, because it is definitely a correlation with our life cycles. Of course, I also think frequently of “Soylent Green” when I think about aging, so what do I know?
    Although, lately, as I watch a family member decline due to Alzheimer’s, it is part in fear of my own aging path and partly curiosity about how delicate the connections and tendrils in our brains are – somehow a complete mystery of what information gets kept and what gets discarded. And then I drop off into a nap…


    1. Grab your fifties, whippersnapper! The decline becomes more precipitous every year.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: