Planet Plague 7: Anagrams

I play a word game on my phone. Like many people my age and older, I do this partly out of fear. Word games are supposed to sharpen the mind. Not sharpening the mind leads to dementia. I think I’m cognitively OK right now provided I’ve had my morning coffee. All that can change though. Before you know it, I’ll be walking along the side of a freeway wearing nothing but my bunny slippers or microwaving a baby because I mistook it for a Hot Pocket.

Both of these situations are hilarious, but only when they happen to someone else. I am sometimes able to laugh at my own misfortune, but only if I have the mental awareness to be in on the joke. Clapping along and saying “I like pudding” does not count.

But how worried should I be? At 58, I’m no spring chicken, but I’m also 20 years younger than the President of the United States. The chance I have REM Behavior Disorder (I’ve blogged about this before) is at most a maybe. Episodes of loss of muscle atonia are infrequent and pretty minor. I’m probably fine. I think.

To reassure myself, I use pieces of my day-to-day life to test if my brain is still working, Can I still do my job? Do I have functioning interpersonal skills? Am I aware of who I am and what I am doing? Given the state of my life in this pandemic, there are ample opportunities for panic.

First, there’s the job situation. I work remotely with all the isolation that entails. When I have questions, not only is the person I need to ask not in the room, they are often in India. Email works for some situations, but if a dialog is necessary, I set my alarm for 4 AM. And then there’s the work itself. Even under normal circumstances, it’s hard to be sure if the near-constant learning curve is due to challenging work or my own stupidity. With others around, I can at least commiserate about the horrors of JavaScript. In practice, the language is not so much software engineering as googling then copying and pasting opaque incantations until you find one that works.

These days, my in-person interaction is limited to Becca. While I enjoy her company immensely, our interactions in no way prove I can deal with the world at large. Even predating the months of lockdown, we’ve taken to communicating in a language of our own devising. Plain old English is still used if we have ideas we wish to convey, but there are times when dispense with words entirely. Sometimes while we’re on the couch drinking wine and watching cartoons, all we need to communicate are grunts, murmurs, squeals, and the occasional whoop.

Spend enough time doing this and it’s easy to think I’ve regressed to the level of a chimpanzee. That’s not a good mindset to have, especially when being a little smarter than most people is the only thing that has allowed me to skate through life. To combat this, I either had to sharpen the mind or prove that it has not dulled severely. That’s where word games come in.

You might be wondering how a self-professed smart person came to believe that word games would save him from senility. Was it peer-reviewed and/or coming from a source with no conflict of interest? No and no. I saw it in an ad for a word game.

On an intellectual level, I knew I was being played. I didn’t mind the bullshit in their pitch because it was hopeful bullshit. It was certainly more appealing than the first round of targeted ads when I started googling RBD and Lewy body dementia back in 2019. One in particular got heavy rotation in my Facebook feed. It had a photo of man in his 70s with a blank expression and eyes as vacant as any heroin addict’s. The ad copy read (I’m paraphrasing) “If this sorry asshole is you or someone you love, help is available. Granted it ain’t great help and won’t change shit, but if you have the cash, we have a shoulder to cry on.”

If there was any way to avoid that fate, I would. It didn’t matter that Lewy body dementia had a silver lining in the form of hallucinations as one of its early symptoms. I enjoy tripping balls as much as the next guy, but I also know its downside. Whenever I’ve dropped acid, I’d get the notion in my head that I was never going to come down. In that condition, ideas and suspicions are hard to dismiss. The best I could do is seek out the part of my brain that was still rational and have it remind me that I was being an idiot. Eventually, I would come down and realize rationality was right all along.

On a Lewy-body trip, there is no such lifeline. The rational mind, after going through the data, cannot come up with a more comforting response than “Tough shit.” The prognosis is clear. The hallucinations will go away, but only for a while. It’s the rational mind that’s going on borrowed time, but look on the bright side. You’ll be dead in less than 10 years.

Grim stuff. So yeah, I was willing to play a word game no matter how dubious the science behind its claims may be.

I did a quick search on my phone and installed the first one I found. It’s called Wordscapes. You get six or seven letters in each round and the object is to fill in a crisscross puzzle (it’s not a crossword because there is only one or two intersection points rather than blocks of letters) with the correct words. You also get bonus points if you pick a word that isn’t one of the ones on the screen. Alas, not every word works. Profanity and slurs are not accepted no matter how many times I try them.

After playing the game for a while, I began to appreciate anagrams. The words to solve the puzzle are pretty common so I don’t have to be a vocabulary whiz. I just need to get maximum mileage out of the words I’m given. ICON is an anagram of COIN. BEEFIER is an anagram of FREEBIE. GRAB is an anagram of GARB and BRAG. And so on.

After a while, I began to wonder if anagrams are unrelated other than their letters or if there is some hidden meaning under the surface. TUTOR and TROUT don’t seem to have anything to do with each other unless you start thinking about a school of fish.

You might be rolling your eyes after reading the last paragraph and I don’t blame you. The notion of intelligent design is as nonsensical when it comes to anagrams as it is anywhere. It doesn’t even matter if the anagram is something really awesome GROW A PENIS for SPIRO AGNEW, INSANE ANGLO WARLORD for RONALD WILSON REAGAN, or CHILDREN BY ANIMAL for LINDY CHAMBERLAIN (the woman whose baby was eaten by a dingo).

So meaning is a human construct. Fine, that’s pretty much my philosophy in a nutshell. However, it’s important to remember that it is an invention that can be shared. That’s where my paranoia kicks in.

Or maybe imagination is a better word. It’s really only paranoia if you start believing whatever you pull out of your ass. In this case, what I pulled is the suspicion that the game masters are picking anagrams and near anagrams that carry a hidden payload based on how they relate to each other. By getting me into a certain mindset, I become more receptive to the ads that play between rounds of the game.

SNAIL and SLAIN could make me more likely to buy poison pellets for the garden. RELIVE and REVILE might prep me for a liquor ad so I can feel the need to drink to forget. I may have been onto something.

Alas, the battery on my phone began to die before I could test my hypothesis by matching anagram groups with the ads that followed. When I got a new phone, my history as a player did not get transferred to the new device. The game was no longer fun so I stopped playing it.

If I were truly paranoid, I might believe that they started killing my phone before I got too close to the truth about their mind control. I know that doesn’t sound believable. Then again, NEURAL is an anagram of UNREAL.

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