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When life gives you a few As, but mostly Xs and Zs, make a Zax

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Lynne D. Schwabe Lynne D. Schwabe
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Lynne D. Schwabe was owner of Schwabe-May of Charleston, ran her own marketing consulting firm and is a nationally recognized motivational speaker. She has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Women's Wear Daily, and has appeared on CNBC's Power Lunch. She is now director of development for the National Youth Science Foundation. She can be reached at schwabestatejournal@gmail.com

We all have read about the value of keeping one's mind active. The more engaged our brain cells are, the less risk we have of Alzheimer's disease, stroke, midriff bulge, bad puns and urinary incontinence. I want to be mentally fit and healthy well into my Golden Years, and so I seek out every opportunity (well, a few opportunities) to enrich my mind.

Sudoku is too hard. I don't care for numbers. Puzzles are boring. What's the point of sitting over a bucket of tiny pieces which are supposed to combine into a 5-foot x 5-foot picture (on a card table — are puzzles ever done on any other kind of table?) of  Custer's Last Stand?  Learning a second language is out. I have visited other countries, and I just find it easier to carry a little language dictionary. I have fun with the occasional rebus, but since "Concentration" went off the air, opportunities are rare. The New York Times crossword puzzle is for people like William F. Buckley. So that leaves me with very few options.

But I have discovered online Scrabble, and I am addicted. I play against the computer, who is a whiz named "Al." Al has the entire Official Scrabble Players Dictionary at his disposal, whereas I just have my own mental lexicon and a 35-year-old Merriam Webster dictionary at my side.

When I first got to know Al, he dazzled me with his skill. I learned a lot from Al, while being repeatedly drubbed. For instance, I learned that "qi" is a word. So are "qat," and "resh." These words come in handy, and the "q" tile is worth 10 points alone. Al isn't afraid to use the word "dog," because he knows that on his next turn, he will shake the board and rack up huge point values with a word like "euphenics." Al is a Scrabble army of one.

I, however, am a quick study. Without even making a list, I have committed to memory some of Al's best words, and I am beginning to beat him at his own game! For instance, I connected "fleuron" onto his "utopia," and scored in a big way! And Al no longer intimidates me. I just go right ahead and use words like "sure," and "go," because I have "fluxgate" and "ligula" up my sleeve. I'm not embarrassed to resort to putting an "s" on all his long words, and I memorize how to spell words like "zabaglione" and "xenophobia" so that at a crucial juncture, I can casually throw one down. "Quotidion" comes in handy as does "quinquennium." Victory is just a hop, skip and a few scrabble tiles away. Al doesn't Skype, so I am never tempted to sing him a song made up of all the game words. It's probably just as well.

Scrabble is a game of wit and skill. There are other games that people play to engage their minds. "Angry Birds" has swept the world, along with "Triple Town" and "Farmville." I learned early on to avoid these games, which burn themselves into the unconscious mind and make frequent appearances in dreams. There is actually a website called Luminosity that exercises one's neuroplasticity, whatever that is, to improve core cognitive functions. Chess is no slouch at keeping your brain agile. There are 400 different positions after two players make one move each, and there are 72,084 positions after two moves each. Alas, I am no Bobby Fisher. All my friends are playing Words with Friends; I'm sticking with Al, because he's smarter.

It's a good thing that we now know what to do to remain mentally sharp into our old age. Perhaps with the help of online games and puzzles, I will be quick witted well into my 90s. What a great thing to look forward to: matching wits with all comers, while strapped into my wheelchair, connected to my oxygen tank, and wearing Depends. Thanks, Al! 

On the other hand, "Downton Abbey" in which Maggie Smith plays the dowager duchess is the essence of dry wit based on living a life of mental exercise. No need to be strapped in a chair if you can be sensibly dressed and wearing a fabulous hat!