When I was a sophomore in college, I took part in a televised debate about the future of the Western Washington University football program. It was the early eighties, and the state, like much of the nation, was mired in recession. Staff layoffs were looming, and some untenured professors were in danger of losing their jobs. For people who didn’t care about football—or found the sport immoral—this was the time to scrap the football program forever. My opponent was Greg Sobel, who at the time was the student body president. While Sobel marshaled his facts and figures, I fell back on an organic conservative argument that I had learned from one of my political theory textbooks. This wasn’t Adam Smith’s economics, concerning the “invisible hand” of the marketplace. It was the thinking of the late-eighteenth-century British statesman Edmund Burke, an astute critic of the French Revolution: Change should be gradual; don’t scrap a venerable institution—in this case, a college football program that had endured at least 80 years but eventually was terminated in 2oo9. When I debated Sobel under the lights of the television studio, I was almost entirely at ease.
But this post isn’t about football; nor is it about the French Revolution. It’s about how wary I am these days of speaking publicly without a text in my hands. Roughly two years ago, when I was part of a panel discussion about Alzheimer’s, in Brockton, Massachusetts, I had no difficulty speaking fluidly in front of an audience. But in November, in a very similar situation, I was feeling anxious. I did bring a prepared statement, but in the spirit of the forum, I was determined to field any questions that came my way. It is no surprise that, given that I’m now five-and-one-half years down the Alzheimer’s trail, that I would be experiencing more pronounced difficulties with the spoken word. But I didn’t anticipate just how steadily my train-of-thought function has been deteriorating. This last May, I rode with several friends to see a friend’s play in upstate New York. For hours, another friend of mine and I conversed. Over the two-day trip I lost my train of thought many, many times.Much more awkward was a recent incident in Marlborough, Massachusetts, on November 9. Just before the forum, I started writing notes of what I wanted to speak to, but soon the panel discussion was underway, and I felt ill-prepared. And sure enough, when I launched into my answer, within a matter of 15 or 20 seconds, I lost my train of thought. I’m not sure anyone see my face go red; I could certainly feel it. I was now on a bridge to nowhere, in front of perhaps 200 people. I did manage to get back on track, and I even drew some laughs when I imitated the electronic male voice that spoke to me when I was trying to add more credit to my subway pass: You’re running out of time. You’re running out of time. Still, the experience in Marlborough humbling.