I’m officially a nerd, I confessed to a friend I first met at a Latino civil rights community congress I helped organize in 1992 (which bizarrely had nothing to do with a maybe-member-of-the-tribe from Italy landing in America instead of India 500 years before). I am in love with ideas!
Kindly, he did not scream “DUH!!!” into the phone but let me blather on and on about my latest fascination with the distinction that Power of Myth which all seemed very Upanishady or maybe Kabbalahish or even Gnostic-Tolstoyesque, you know?made between Jungian archetypes and Freudian complexes that I had just re-read in the
My friend is one of the smartest people on the planet. He is an eloquent writer of songs and essays and documentary film narratives and books (the latter of which get thoughtful reviews in places like the New York Times). He’s won fancy-schmancy awards and residencies, can talk as easily about cultural theory as the latest psychopharmocological discovery, and has a sweet university teaching gig in sunny California. If memory serves me right, he completed about two college credits, which gives his smarts an even cooler edge. And, I’d bet anything that he’d claim his wife is way more brilliant than he is. (Sharp and a mensch to boot!)
I am super lucky to have friends like this (and they’re all equally creative and funny and intelligent and quirky) because I have finally gotten over the idea that was drilled into my head by neighborhood bullies that smartness and coolness are mutually exclusive. Not that I was ever the smartest kid on the block. It’s not all my fault: I had the opposite of a Tiger Mom. I can’t imagine she didn’t know I learned to stick the thermometer in the radiator just long enough to cause the desired non-doctor-necessitating-but-better-stay-home strategy.
I didn’t like school much. I thought it was because it was yeshiva and had lots of rules, but then I somehow snuck into this magnet high school that’s supposedly one of the best in NYC if not the entire United States. That place kind of sucked too, especially having to listen to one teacher tell us that even though we all thought we were “the cream of the crop,” if we didn’t listen up, we’d be “the cream of the crap.” (It was only funny the first time Mr. McDonald.) I dropped out at the end of 11th grade, but wound up in college anyway, mainly because I was underage, parentless and figured it was the most acceptable way for me to live on my own and away from my well-meaning-but-meshugana extended family. Where were all the radical and engaged university students? Oh right, this was the 80s, when it was morning again in America and fellow students shut down discussion of ideas with statements that began with the horrid clause “the reality is.” Feh.
Thankfully and also somewhat accidentally, I attended the London School of Economics my junior year, which I had never even heard of until I got accepted and learned that Mick Jagger had dropped out after one year. Destiny was dialing my number! Studying there was less syrupy, more self-directed. There weren’t any textbooks for example. Instead we got a list of 20 books of original thought related to each theme covered in class. There might be 10-15 such themes covered over the course of a semester. We were expected to choose a certain number of themes that piqued our interest the most, and read as many related books as we could. Final examinations tested our ability to integrate what we had studied with our own original thought. Plus, to the Brits, the smarter you are, the wittier, where wit=hip.
Things kept improving. Grad school was actually an educational (and social, I might add) blast. It took me nearly four years to complete my masters because I simultaneously worked as second-in-command at a membership association of about 30 immigrant-led community-based nonprofits. The advantage was that it gave me a framework for analyzing what felt like incredibly complex systems and dynamics, and that context and emotional distancing really helps when you’re 20 something and super idealistic and self-righteous and convinced that none of the adults know what the fuck they’re doing. (Can you see that we’re not too far away from my thermometer-holding antics?)
I loved the practical applications of ideas too: “Follow the money” or “Check out who stands to benefit and who to lose with any proposed policy or programmatic change.” We drew CIA diagrams (what factors do you have Control over, where do you have some Influence and what can you only Appreciate”), tossed around terms like “opportunity costs” and “poverty pimps” and then spent our wages at the local watering hole, at the advice of a globe-trotting professor whose specialty was an anthropological method known as “rapid appraisal” — he figured the best place to learn about a town, at least from the perspective of men, was the local pub. (With 20/20 hindsight, I can see that it probably hurt my reputation that I was something of a fixture in the local Salvadoran bar scene, rather than just someone from out-of-town having a good time and asking plenty of open-ended questions.)
I don’t know that I ever developed much skillfulness in being around people who aren’t smart in the same way I am, which probably explains how easily frustrated and impatient and high-strung I used to be, especially around work stuff. This week I’ve found myself similarly frustrated with folks who want to pounce into action without taking sufficient time to ask questions or read up on a subject and are ready to jump into crisis-driven decisions which I can assuredly predict (without any special psychic powers) will lead to costly and time consuming clean-up later.
But whatever, I bounce back a lot quicker especially as I have an amazing grad-school buddy visiting me, and fun to him is showing me videos by thinkers such as the late Terence McKenna. Next week, another beyond-brilliant friend (whose forthcoming book I hope will get reviewed in all the right places) has already made me commit to a couple of writing dates (and I need her discipline: did you notice how long it took me to apply ass to seat and write this post?).
One thing I’d like to do is some automatic writing about is my grandfather, who died more than 30 years before I was born and who I bet was one smart puppy. I wonder what kind of ideas he was into, and how I might figure that out, given the time difference in our lifespan.
Would love to hear about how you handle your own brand of smarts (or anything else you care to share)!
Be very well — Yael