, I wore my reporter's cap in this space, writing about Scooter Libby's putative cognitive deficits. Today, in the middle of my book tour, I'm going to try to catch up with myself. As of this morning, Carved in Sand
is on the shelves of nearly every bookstore in America. A feature story about my journey appears in USA Today
. For a slew of reasons, that is amazing. A decade ago, my cognitive firepower was definitely on the wane. As I write in the first pages of the book, "Something was happening to my mind. I felt vague and foggy. I couldn't remember what I'd read for much longer than it took to get to the bottom of the page."
I was suffering from something ? but I couldn't name it. I though that maybe I'd lost my edge ? a sad thing at 40, especially when the career I loved ? investigative reporting and feature writing for magazines ? depended largely on my ability to retain and synthesize information. I couldn't think of anyone I could tell, so I kept my troubles to myself. If the same difficulties hadn't cropped up a few years later among just about everybody I knew ? irritating glitches involving proper names, elusive mental calendars ? I might have stayed silent. Instead, I decided to make myself a guinea pig, exploring every possible intervention, in an effort to figure out what was going on upstairs.
When I decided to take on Carved in Sand in my mid-forties, my confidence in my mind had seeped away. The steel trap I'd possessed in my twenties and thirties had been replaced with a kitchen colander. Frankly, the prospect of tackling relentlessly complex subject matter ? neuroscience, biochemistry, and genetics ? made me woozy. For months, I went blind with anxiety when I scanned the dense pages of peer-reviewed professional journals that formed the basis of my research. But here's what surprised me: My editors and agent were absolutely confident that I had what it took to pull it off. They produced contracts and proffered advances, carefully ignoring the facts that I'd laid before them in my book proposal: My middle-aged mind was behaving unnervingly. When, in the interest of full disclosure, I noted this, they might as well have clasped their hands over their ears.
Often (usually in the middle of the night), I wondered what had allowed these experienced professionals to take such a bold step. Did they not see what I knew too well ? that someone had snatched the poles from my intellectual tent? When they talked to me and read my work, did they somehow encounter a smarter, more insightful version of me than I could find in myself? Couldn't they hear me grasping for words, fudging conversations when proper names disappeared, arriving windblown and out of breath because I was looking for a building I'd been to several times ? on the wrong block? Wasn't it obvious?
Finally, I concluded that their interests were wonderfully selfish: They, too, were in middle age, struggling with daily episodes of forgetfulness. For them, I was a Russian monkey-cosmonaut: If I ? who had the nerve to go public with my cognitive shortcomings ? could find a solution, maybe they ? and the whole middle-aged world ? could benefit.
Their confidence ? which never flagged ? worked miracles. They knew, certainly, that responsibility was (and continues to be) my middle name. It's a known fact that I'm constitutionally unable to let anyone down. They knew that I was meticulous, even compulsive in my research ? the nagging voice that tells me that something is still missing from the picture won't shut up until I get to the bottom of a difficult question. But these traits ? however laudable ? wouldn't have been enough to produce a book of the size and scope of Carved in Sand. They had no way of knowing that I'd be able to sustain a narrative for 265 pages, or that I could manage the many hundreds of interviews that were required, nor that, once the book was published, I could handle three media appearances a day for a month straight. They took it for granted that I possessed the mental filing cabinet that would allow me to produce nearly 500 full citations ? the list of endnotes that appear on page after page at the end of the book
In short, those editors and that literary agent made a wager. They banked on my brain ? that it was still good enough, and that it would get better. They bet right: The very work of writing Carved in Sand was exactly the antidote I needed. The intense mental effort involved ? which went on seven days a week, for over three years kicked my lazy neurons back into action. Some days, I swore I could feel it happening, the ebullience of the hook-up...synaptic connections zinging to life, new associations made, deeper understanding emerging.
In Carved in Sand, I write about new research that suggests that the best way to maintain your brain is to offer it relentless challenges. Get out of your routine, and take on something that doesn't come easily. Take up chess. Learn salsa dancing. Get into a bridge game. Leave the microwave alone. Instead, shop for and cook ? from a recipe ? a complicated meal ? and time it so you get several courses on the table in a timely fashion.Or, if you have four years, write a book.