The human brain, in case you haven’t noticed it, is subject to a number of forms of brain rot. Not only the clinical varieties like Mad Cow Disease or Alzheimer’s, but a fairly extensive set of what one might call normal, everyday versions.
I’ve identified several.
For instance, I’m sure many of you have noticed the total corruption of discrimination and good taste that comes over people (not us, of course, but other people) when they have babies. (Their own babies, that is. We’re not talking about grandparents, whose loss of objectivity is so far beyond the pale they should wear warning signs.)
In such cases, normally staid, sober, even astringent people are wont to suddenly gush and coo. Reliably saturnine friends will lie in wait so they can suddenly whip out plastic strips stuffed with images of dreadfully undistinguished children. They will tell you, with complete sincerity and at great length, of the incredible good looks, universal good humor, and multi-faceted precocity that your more distant perceptions might fail to discern. They will confidently predict the great accomplishments that lie in their offsprings’ futures. All of which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t come with a compulsion to ask us if we didn’t agree with them.
Only short months before, this new-found mother or father might have been heard to loudly declare that while babies certainly have their own personalities, predicting their futures on the basis of infant behavior was obvious folly. No longer. They might have even allowed as how babies in their blue-eyed early days are pretty much of a muchness. I remember one lady friend insisting that nothing in the world looked quite as old and unhappy as a newborn.
Ah, but that was before the brain rot set in.
That last-mentioned lady later told me, with complete sincerity and the air of someone stating a fact so obvious it bordered on a law of nature, that no sight in the world was ever more beautiful than her own new-born. And I could tell that she felt her baby had only improved with age.
I suppose this kind of brain rot is a necessary survival factor for the race. Clearly, making parents see their offspring as especially wonderful and precious is what leads them to protect (and pay for) miniature human beings who have yet to demonstrate any other signs that they are worth it. And, as they grow older, it is this corruption of judgement that keeps us protecting and paying for them during those long days when it clearly seems a bad investment. I remember my own mother used to say, with considerable emphasis, that it was lucky God made children so cute—it kept you from killing them.
Still, useful or not, it can be hard on the bystanders.
You see, it affects not only the reasoning centers, but certain sensory inputs and control centers as well. I remember the first time this was brought home to me was while trying to carry on a conversation with a friend who was the center of the orbits of two screaming kids. She had no problem hearing every word I said, but I couldn’t filter her soft tones from the sheer volume of background noise. It was made all the harder because, every time I leaned forward to hear what she was saying, she would suddenly interject a loud instruction to her progeny (which they blithely ignored).
I should say that only a year before, this had been an unfailingly courteous, graceful lady almost too indulgent of her guest’s welfare. Clearly, that facet of her character had become subject to rot, as well. Of course, she was not alone. I swear to you I have, more than once, had mothers holding infants screaming at the top of their lungs telling me how their babies never cry.
Another form of brain rot I’ve noticed takes the peculiar form of the mental hiccup. This hiccup is a strange sort of discontinuity that makes the brain unaware of what has gone before. Somehow there is a corruption of the logical faculties that allows two incompatible things to be placed side by side with perfect contentment.
Perhaps it is only my many years of bachelorhood, but this one, too, is associated in my mind with parenthood.
Picture, if you will, my listening to some friend telling me a long tale of woe (and I can’t tell you how many versions of this story I’ve heard over the years): First, the Kid “borrows” the car without permission. Then goes out drinking (underage) with friends. Then manages to sideswipe a parked car on the way home. Then (at 3 AM) calls plaintively from the police department, begging to be rescued.
After a few minutes of suitable commiseration, there is a pause, then there is that strange hiccup I mentioned. With perfect sincerity and no apparent awareness of discontinuity, my friend turns to me and asks, “Bill, aren’t you sorry you never had any kids?”
Uh, excuse me, but weren’t you in the room a minute ago when someone told me a hair-raising story designed to make me glad I never had kids? Didn’t someone just give me a long and detailed list of the unrewarding plague of costs that come with having kids? Aren’t you the one who has told me, time and again, that if you had known how hard it was you’d never have started?
The look of total incomprehension you get in return for these remarks is, to my mind, the infallible symptom of brain rot.
However, it is the last example, which has nothing to do with kids or parenthood, that I find most disturbing.
I have, of late, spent a fair amount of time wandering around antique shops. And while we are discussing human failings, I could spend a very long digression talking about all the souvenirs of somewhere or other that were not only in incredibly bad taste when new but seem to get lots worse with age. Trust me, things that once inspired the adjectives “cute” or “quaint” don’t age well.
These objets being pretty well universal, you had better develop a certain tolerance for them or simply give antiquing a miss altogether. But there is another whole class of treasured artifacts that evoke sure symptoms of brain rot.
As it happens, I was raised in the fifties. Those were days of mohair sweaters, architectural pastels, greased (when not crew cut) hair and narrow ties. It is a bit disturbing to find relics of your youth promoted to “antiques,” but that, too, one becomes inured to. However, there is another phenomenon of antique shopping that I am flatly beyond tolerating.
The fifties produced an incredible wealth of chromium plated furniture with cushions brightly done in solid oranges and greens. It produced flying saucer shaped lamps that hung above you on long, arcing tubes (also chromed). It produced so many wooden concoctions labeled “Danish Modern” that all the hills in Scandinavia should have been stripped bare of trees. One could go on and on.
Now the truth is that some of this, like the Danish Modern, I rather liked in those bygone days. But all that sterile, chromed awfulness with those bilious colors I rejected with all the snobbery of precocious youth. Looking back, I probably approved of maybe ten per cent of the fashions and arrogantly rejected all the rest. Today, I might challenge the arrogance, but I find it difficult to challenge the taste involved.
What has all that to do with brain rot? Just this: I have come to accept, with a weary tolerance, the tendency to gain weight easily and lose it slowly that comes with age. The thinning of my hair is certainly not accepted, but it seems beyond my powers to fix. I’ve even become somewhat resigned to the cute tricks my memory has begun to play on me.
But to find myself wandering through antique stores, looking at all that kitsch unaccountably preserved from my youth, and to find myself actually feeling nostalgic at the sight of it, well, that is a symptom of brain rot absolutely beyond bearing.