There is a magic moment that exists between the plate falling and the brain’s conscious decision to do something about it. Cognitive function just isn’t fast enough. The plate hits the floor. The autonomic nervous system, however, is perfectly capable of stepping into that magic moment, telling the hand to reach for the plate, even as it is falling, and in the same fluid instant, plucking it from the inevitability of destruction. I don’t understand scientifically how this works, but I know it has saved many a dish in my kitchen. Surprisingly, even as most other functions are slowing, I am still catching Corelle as it hurtles to oblivion. It’s a mystery.

Understanding this to be a verifiable phenomenon, I have been motivated to study and utilize it in my own behavior. I have never been able to remember names and faces. Since I am indeed a visual learner and with language skills so far intact, this deficit is a puzzler. Observing my thought process led me to an astounding discovery. When presented with a human face, my first response, the one that clogged the magic dish catching moment, was the thought, “I can’t remember faces.” In every instance, I was wasting the magic moment wherein I might have effortlessly linked the name and the face. Based on this observation, I formulated an hypothesis: The lag time that exists between autonomic perception and purposeful cognitive response is predictable and can be put to use to improve memory and performance.

Since 2007 I have been watching a lot of cable news trying to understand my culture beyond the purview of my lifelong geeky concerns. I have watched hundreds of talking heads pontificate for way too many hours. No notes. Just watched and listened. Usually when a face would flash on the screen it was several seconds before the name and mojo of the speaker would appear. I decided to utilize the situation and see what would happen. Internalizing Nike, I told myself, “just do it”. When a face appeared, I refrained from telling myself “you can’t”; I just spoke the name. The amazing result was that I did know those people’s names and faces and could match them up amazingly well for a geek with a self diagnosed learning disability.

The next thing to do was to examine my learning process both past and present. From the time I could prattle letters and numbers, I was convinced that only so much information could be stored inside my little noggin. I guarded my mental capacity assiduously, refusing to memorize what I regarded as extraneous. What possible use could be found for adding numbers, or worse still, multiplying them? I would never have learned my times tables had a savvy teacher not taken away my library privileges until the deed was accomplished. The problem was so bad that it was only in the seventh grade at boarding school that I began sneaking down into the first grade classroom during the wee hours and using their flash cards to memorize addition and subtraction facts by flashlight.

My parents were complicit in this farce. Mother told me that girls weren’t good at arithmetic, so I shouldn’t fret over it. When I asked my dad for help, he showed me the all time best method for counting on my fingers. I used that ruse until I invented a unique method of counting up visualized dots, unique to every numeral. The number one had one dot at its base. The number two had two dots, one at each end of its base. Each number displayed its commensurate number of dots positioned for ready visualization, the larger ones distributed in domino patterns.

All this functioned marginally, earning me B’s but denying me the A’s I wanted. I had created a monster. A big ugly secret. Guarding the secret became a knot of anxiety centered in my gut. It moved in and took over my way of seeing the world of performance, like a cancer eating my ability to sing, play an instrument, speak before an audience, and of course doing arithmetic spontaneously in the presence of others. While as a child soloist I had sung before large audiences, as a teen I abdicated that spotlight and became one of a gaggle of choir sopranos. I had once played the piano with remarkable expression, but eventually gave up solo recitals altogether.

While arithmetic was ever my bane, conceptual mathematics tantalized me with its beautiful mysteries. As a pre-schooler, I had spent my time on the potty tearing up squares of toilet paper into ever diminishing progressions that approached but never achieved zero. I marveled at the fact that each unit alternated between being a square and being a rectangle. There was surely some truth there lurking in the diminishing and alternating shapes. It was like standing between two mirrors and trying to count the images that replicated to infinity. In the second grade I discovered the fun of walking to school using every available hypotenuse, amusing since I had not yet been introduced to Pythagoras.

Then came Algebra, and I fell in love. Algebra was letters. Friendly letters. Numbers were involved, but peripherally. I was the duck; Algebra was the water. An elegant proof could bring tears to my eyes. It was time to make those A’s, but of course I got tangled up in the under-drawers of my arithmetic anxiety. It slowed me down and added a boat-load of fear to the mix. I was stuck in the purgatory of being a so-so math student. One day my teacher provided a life-changing insight. He took away the pressure of performance. He put an equation on the board and announced, “No one will be able to do this, but I’m letting you people try it just for fun”. Silence. All the smart-ass straight A students sat pondering, but I confidently walked to the board and chalked the entire solution. The teacher smiled and said, “I always suspected there might be more to you.” So I accepted myself as retarded at arithmetic but promising in mathematics.

That quandary haunted me through thirty-five years of a BS degree, and a career, though admittedly checkered, in engineering. I was a rip roaring CAD jock and inventor, but never if somebody was watching. Twice I made A’s in differential calculus, only to go on to twice make D’s in integral calculus. Go figure. Now it’s all over, and I am free to puzzle out what that was all about. I have learned not to believe people when they say “You can’t do that.”, “What will they think?”, “But you’re a girl.”, and the absolute worst, “You’re just a little old lady.” I have started reconciling my bank balance without a calculator, adding and subtracting, though haltingly, in my head. The secret: I use my magic moments. My job is to “just do it” and to pass that winning algorithm on to those of my progeny who will listen, along with my still functioning set of Corelle.