Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Five More Thoughts (Psycho Smart Ed.)

Don't be threatened by the title, this post is meant to be about smarts, and believe me, it's meant to be ironic. If it makes you feel any better, you can snicker to yourself about the brilliance I actually display--it is mostly about me after all--but I'm aiming for unseriousness here. So what if it's Tuesday.

1. Brightness, after all, is a curse. I'm doing okay in the faculties department, at least relative to the general population, and in some rare cases, I even know when to shut the fuck up to avoid looking like a dolt. But I'd so much rather be a genius. It would make life so much easier.

Certainly, I'm no physical genius. I'm okay at some sports (and miserable at others), but certainly I'd be unlikely to achieve a competitive level even if I wasn't too old. Never had that killer instinct anyway. I play music, but even though I can bang out a tune, sort of, I can easily project an arc that has an asymptote well short of art (best I can hope for is a stuttering voice, which as it happens is good enough for me). I always wanted artistic skills, but even more than the music, my pen yields sketches that at best are "identifiable." In high school, I was bright enough to skate entirely, and even college required only select applications of effort. Grad school killed me though, as it was evident that I'd reached a level at which real study was required. If I were a brilliant scientist, then I'd have breezed right through that and right through a post-doc, publishing with reckless abandon, really making a mark. Even though I've managed to milk an occasionally clever streak, for most of my career I've had to slog hard for nuggets in order to succeed. Unfortunately, I'm not a genius of self-motivation either. No, there I'm totally retarded.

It's good to be a all-around above-average type and all, but I'm jealous of brilliance. I'd settle just for something really cool to stand out from my peers. I suspect any one of you I can point at can multiply big numbers on demand, read 200 pages per hour, recite the most obscure trivia, woo women (or men), aim, make the hard sell, memorize long numbers, perform convincing sleight of hand, bend your joints backwards, play brilliantly by ear, put people at ease, hold absurd amounts of liquor, find level and plumb by eye, bloviate. With six and a half billion people in the world, people with distinctive brain skills will rise up and concentrate to a high degree to the somewhat better levels of discourse, and stumbling awkwardly through them myself, I keep bumping into all you damned savants.

2. Well, maybe one thing I can claim is some minimal writing skill. One way I deal with my essential laziness at work is that when my schedule is full of desk tasks, I can crank out reports and proposals in a third the time that anyone else can, leaving me lots of time to scrawl crap like this.

Right now, I have a big one going on. I shouldn't be anywhere near the blog, but one thing about getting into a writing mode, is that it's actually hard to stop. I love it when my brain's in high gear--wish I could do it at will. When I go to bed tonight more words will be chasing each other around my skull. It'll stop when I get tired enough.

3. My older daughter keeps a journal for school. It's designed to keep the children in form for the writing assessment part of their evaluation testing, but it's cool, it's a good project, and my little girl--child of two engineers--is pretty good at it. I was looking through it recently, and here's what she had for her November entry:

"I'm thankful for my dad because there are already two monkeys in the family, and it's good to have at least one real person..."

Like any good father, I take every opportunity to compare my kids to lesser primates, but to tell you the truth, I don't find actual monkeys (by which I mean apes--chimpanzees--monkeys are more like squirrels that can smile) very funny at all. Staged simian hijinks always seem a little sad to me, the underlying coercion doesn't escape my notice. But the Platonic "monkey" is still pretty amusing though. The pure essence of monkeyness spends lots of time masturbating, chattering, and flinging poo. Comedy gold.

Amusing. I sometimes like to believe that I have muses. All those voices in my head, it's a barrelful of monkeys in there. Fun like that, and with a lot of flying turds.

4. That last thought was pretty shamelessly recycled, but I'm gambling that anybody who's gotten this far (either of you) didn't catch the original. If you're all tired of that thought, consider it scribed for posterity then.

We all have our own series of little performance routines, but depending on how big's your repertoire, how much you change it up, and how skilled you are at singing it, it can grating over time for anyone. One of the few upsides of meeting new people is the prospect of a fresh audience. Last week, I had such an opportunity, to meet some long-lost offshoot of my in-laws' hopelessly complicated family tree. It was fun to see my wife's parents pull out their classic material--hadn't seen it in quite a while ourselves--and be reminded that some people are best when you first get to know them. (A problem with knowing people for a long time is that you lose energy for the fun dances, or else you try your friends out as a focus group for dangerously untested material.) It was great to see them spewing out mock-philosophy with friendly enthusiasm, and just to see the general animation. Naturally, I held myself bemusedly above the fray, benignly aloof, accessible just outside the clamor. That's a big part of my act.

5. It's funny how we meet people, what with the few degrees of separation and all, contrasted with all the billions of us. I know I've read this before (probably from one of you crazy savants) that even if we find one person in a million worthwhile, that still makes for a handful of hundreds right here in North America. Blogging, and upon a time Fraying, it's like I'm chipping away at the several hundred who have similar interests and mindsets. I link to X bunch of people, who connect with Y, who… One drawback to this model is that folks like us probably pop up a little more frequently than in the ppm range.

But say there's a couple thousand that, by criteria I don't entirely understand, I'd really rather get to know, and a good couple million that I wouldn't mind in my general circle. It can't be done. Even with the help of the internet, our little communities can only reach so far. Couldn't even hope to meet a signifiant fraction of them.

This drives me batshit. In a way, it's like everything I've ever tried to organize. You'd really like detailed information for every entry, with proper cross-references, and detailed notes for all. In truth, you really end up filling those things as they're relevant. If there's anything that keeps me from going over the edge into obsession though, it's a profound sense of "good enough," call it a fundamental laziness or else call it (as I prefer) a measure of wisdom to be content in the first local minimum that's pretty comfortable and has a reasonably good view. Even though this makes me a poor carpenter and scientist, it does keep me more sane. Even though there's a maddening sensation in the back of my mind that so much is always left incomple


Archaeopteryx said...

Wow. Great minds (or in our cases, so-so minds) think alike. I too have skated along my whole life. Fortunately for me, people confuse a freakish memory for meaningless trivia and a mediocre ability to construct sentences in English for intelligence. Turns out, that's good enough to let me coast through graduate school and to have a job where I make a passable amount of money, have a passable amount of freedom and leisure time, and get do do things that I find passably enjoyable. I'll never discover anything earth-shattering or have an ecological axiom named after me. If only I'd work a little harder.

I've also had that thought about all the worthwhile people I'd like to meet or get to know. It's very sad to me that I occasionally randomly meet someone with whom I just "click," (in a non-sexual way--that's a different deal), but with whom there is no chance of any kind of friendship. And I'm also like you in that I "meet" folks on the Fray, or here on the Wiki, and that connection seems to be there, but to me it sometimes seems like a waste or a missed opportunity.

Anyway, to summarize: again you have said what I was thinking, but much better than I would have. In my eyes, that makes you a fucking genius, so, just go with that.

switters said...

"God help us: We're in the hands of engineers."

Or something like that.

1. I'm a natural athlete. I'm not bragging. I'd hold that being one held me back because I never had to practice or push myself. So I ended up just being good as opposed to great.

I wrote (and talked) my way through undergrad. When grad school came around, it was put up or shut up. So I shut up.

As for brilliant people, I truly do marvel at the writers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. And The Onion, obviously. And a few in the cast of The Office. I'll watch Steve Carrell and wish I were that good at something.

2. I get those "in the zone" moments when I write as well. Love those.

3. Sweet journal entry. Good for her, in every sense.

4. You are sooooooo BUSTED!!! My best friend and I have a shorthand that confuses new people. I don't care.

5. This might sound weird because I'm not sure how to phrase it, but I'd be content not to meet anyone new. I'd be fine with that.

Really good post, K.

JohnMcG said...

On 5, I just finished reading Michael Lewis's The Blind Side which ended with a somewhat unsettling thought.

The protagonist is a 6'5'' 320 pound kid who can move. But it's only via a sequence of accidents that his talent is discovered, since he grew up in terrible neighborhood in Memphis.

And his talent was obvious. What if his talent was poetry, or stock trading, or speech writing, or programming? Indeed, how many people's talents are being wasted now?

And if that's so, might there be people who would be better at doing what I'm doing than I am? If we truly unleashed the talents of everybody, I might have to let go of the conceit that I have earned my middle class status through my own hard work and talent. We are uniquely positioned in history to have even our most narrow idiosyncratic talents developed and celebrated.

Dawn Coyote said...

I agree that bright is a curse. I will never be as smart as I wanna be. At this point, I would settle for consistent performance. Where some people seem to have brains that burn evenly, like good stoves, mine is like a late fire: bright spots and embers and ashes all spread out. The hot spots can be interesting, but are rarely well-placed. Too often, I find my hands full of ashes.

Keifus said...

Thanks, y'all. Responses quite jumbled and out of turn:

As for meeting people, a caveat: I can't handle more than a handful of buds anyway. But I find it's important to connect now and again. And it's crazy all the lives that it's impossible to live, almost unfair. (Total loner sounds appealing sometimes, but truth is, I'm a misfit in that role just like so many others.)

ALso, there are a lot of downsides to meeting folks, especially if you're me. I gotta get 'em past a series of foot-in-mouth doofus tests. It takes a lot of patience on their parts.

John, I agree with that (although I read a related article--Lewis' prototype?--a while back and had mixed feelings about it). People end up where they do starting from a limited range of socioeconomic status. How many Newtons or Einsteins are lamenting in the third world?

Here's another thought for all the billions too, pretty close the savant thing. How many Newtons or Einsteins are working right now, without the chance to crack open crazy new fields...meaning, as the famous Bern patent clerk noted, and stated here with only half seriousness, we've already figured the less crazy stuff out.

And I also wonder if people (by which I mean "I") value genius more when it's out of reach. Wanting it where we ain't got it.


Thomas Paine said...

"...people confuse a freakish memory for meaningless trivia and a mediocre ability to construct sentences in English for intelligence...."

Well, it seems that alone would put you in the top 5% or higher!

Anonymous said...

brightness as a curse:

in the same vein as looks, health and happiness are curses.

in the same vein that memorable fun experiences are something to be ashamed of.

in the same vein that living life to its fullest is downright selfish.

Nietzsche is rolling in his grave.....

JohnMcG said...

"Good" looks are indeed a curse because those with good looks quickly receive positive feedback from those continuing the patriarchy.

This praise becomes an addiction, leading the good-looking to tailor their appearance and behavior even more so as to please their oppressors. So hooked are they on this positive attention, that rareley do they question the source of it, and indeed resist attempts to remedy the system that (they think) has lavishly rewarded them for a genetic accident.

Anonymous said...

hope you are kidding....

Find me the parent that wants ugly kids (saves them from being so cursed!)

We good looking people (should I say "us"? heh heh) sure spend a lot of time looking into the mirror.

As you can guess, I not only disagree with the morality which finds beauty wrong, I find such a view itself immoral.

Worse - I don't believe you'd practice what you preach. Would you/did you choose a mate screening out the attractive ones?

JohnMcG said...

Yes, I'm kidding -- I thought it would be fun to write like a Blamer for a while.

Thomas Paine said...

Would you/did you choose a mate screening out the attractive ones?

I didn't, but there are those who might suggest that my wife did!

Keifus said...

anon: don't ever change.

john: you're getting dangerous with that.

TP: much as I'd like to say I'm one of the pretty people...

bright said...

Dawn Coyote said...
I agree that bright is a curse....


(Great post K.)

MsZilla said...

Being a "genius" doesn't make your life easier.

Being bright paints you as a pinkish monkey in a sea of brown ones, but if you stand in the shade or at a certain angle, you can appear brown enough to get through. Genius makes you such a hot shade of fuschia there is no amount of machinating that makes you fit in.

And it's not like you can do anything about it. What you're calling genius is incredibly hard to hide. And you can't stop doing it. It's just the way your brain works. And you are forever running into people who just now notice something you've been doing for years. I work with a good friend of mine. Worked with her for over five years. She just noticed last week that I can write two different things at once with both hands. I was frantically trying to take notes in a meeting just like I always do, but you'd have thought I scalded her cat.

It's not like it gets you anywhere in the real world. I have a client on a closed system in DC right now having major problems. I can't figure out what he's done to that bloody bedamned server so that every time we try to install our latest upgrade it takes it out. We've been at this for three weeks and for all my soi disant "genius" I still look like a monkey fucking a football here.

And it doesn't change that last paragraph at all. There's always a compromise between the real world and the contents of your head. And the divide is much sharper this way. There is an expectation that all that wattage is somehow going to make any difference at all and it doesn't seem to.

And yes, I'm having an awful, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Keifus said...

Thanks, curse!

Sorry you're having a bad day, MsZ, but it's nice to see you back. (It's not Slate's server, is it?) May this pink monkey humbly make the suggestion that you take a hammer in each hand, and, well, you know.


TenaciousK said...

Keifus - love your post.

John - your presumably sarcastic comment from the perspective of the blamers was right on.

Anon - you don't get it. Neither did Nietzsche, in whose philosophy plantation owners and corporate executives everywhere find intellectual succor. I wouldn't screen out a mate for being physically attractive. I might screen out a mate who so relied on being physically attractive that I could foresee an inevitable self-esteem spiral, as the cumulative effects of age and experience become evident.

Or who relied on the same, from me.

Once you lean too heavily on any crutch (become reliant on it to get by), the prospect it might be kicked out from under you becomes terrifying. This is where self-handicapping comes from; finding ways to avoid putting your abilities to the test, whilst retaining the ego-bolstering idea that they are there for you (if I'd only studied for that test, even a little, I would've aced it!). When you're beautiful, it becomes difficult to accurately assess what, exactly, people are responding to (and terrifying to face the prospect of finding out it was your looks, all along).

A few years ago, the mother of one of these immeasurably bright kids consulted with me (briefly). That girl had no peers. Anywhere. Her mother was attempting to help her avoid becoming one of the maladjusted circus freaks she kept running into, at the university programs who were courting her daughter. She talked a lot about the other parents she'd met - parents who had trained their children into being little performers, at their developmental expense, to feed their narcissistic appetites.

Those children are left wondering, deep down, whether or not their parents love them, or whether their affection is based on their performance. Sometimes, they'll even put this idea to the test - act out, develop a shameful problem etc. But adolescence is a scary time, and some of those tests can be catastrophic. Or deadly.

Anyway, nice post, Keifus.

Keifus said...

Thanks TK. Tell you the truth, I just wish I could underachieve at a higher level.