Something Wrong With the Boy--small freshman
Mountain Boy Meets Plato--I am dumb
Something Wrong with the Boy
The Oxford American, June/July 1996
I was a small one. As a high-school freshman, I was four-and-a-half feet tall and weighed 68 pounds.
The tiny mountain town where I tried to grow up did not encourage independent thought. I was a boy, and boys went out for football. I played on the B team–freshmen and sophomores. Off the field, when I told people I played football, they laughed in my face. “Whaddya do, run between their legs?” Everyone said this. There were no exceptions. I would see the words forming on their lips, see the joy of originality dancing across their features. To this day I have no patience, to the point of rudeness, with predictable utterances.
After the first night of practice, guys I didn’t know clapped me on the shoulder pads and said, “Way to go, Dave.” I looked around and saw that I was unique in receiving these congratulations. But I had done nothing noteworthy at practice, nothing at all. My achievement was that I had survived.
This was the first sign of a somewhat cuddling perspective that people took toward me that year, right through to the end, when many students wrote in my yearbook, “Don’t ever change, Dave. Stay just the way you are.” When they wrote that, I was underdeveloped, self-absorbed, fearful, and depressed.
But I was good for some things. At a school assembly early in my freshman year, a voice over the loudspeaker summoned me by name from the seated student body of 800. I hurried on little-boy legs down the auditorium aisle and up to the side of the stage, wondering what honor might be in store for me. I was whisked to a single folding chair at center stage behind the curtain. Whispers came from the wings. To the sudden blare of music, the curtain rose.
A swarm of popular junior and senior girls, dressed as flappers, rushed toward me and mimed adoration as they lip-synched “Charlie My Boy.” While the audience screamed with delight, I blushed and imagined the savvy faculty-student cabal that had engineered this spectacle: Let’s surprise the kid and see what happens.
Later in the fall, there came another summons by public-address system, this time to the student-newspaper office. A mistletoe-kiss photo was planned for the Christmas issue. I had been matched with the tallest senior girl, Lenette. A long name, Lenette. She looked like Grace Kelly, whose beauty in Rear Window had recently kindled new feelings in me.
The photo shoot was well planned, again in advance of my arrival and without my agreement. It was a three-shot sequence depicting ill-starred lovers trying to get together. Lenette towers over me in the first picture. She is on her knees in the second, looking unhappy on the hard, cold floor. No kiss yet. Our romance seems doomed. Finally, I stand on a chair. This puts me an inch or two above her. We kiss on the mouth. For some reason, I kept my coat on through the whole sequence. When the issue came out several weeks later, there were grins and more claps on the back. “Way to go, Dave.”
Along related lines, a highly desirable senior girl named Doreen once got it into her head to fool around with me on a band trip. While the cold bus chugged along, Doreen whispered endearments and stroked my hair, my ears, and my neck. Her feelings? Probably nine-tenths maternal, one-tenth sexual. (I insist on that one-tenth.) As for me, I found her behavior unanswerable. I couldn’t respond in kind, I couldn’t ignore her, and I couldn’t ask her to stop. All I could do was wriggle in my ill-fitting band uniform. The faculty chaperone sat right behind us. A chucklehead, he was clearly unequipped to meet the challenge of the dynamics before him. “Give him a couple years, Doreen,” he joked, “and then watch out.”
I knew his meaning: The boy has no manhood. Play with him at will.
My father, showing a rather touching respect for my manhood, made me wear a cup jock for football. No other player wore one. The irony galled me: The least-developed was the best-protected. The jock chafed my inner thighs, raising sores that grew to silver-dollar size, and blood poisoning put me in the hospital for three nights. I seemed not to know how to take care of myself. Gauze pads would have protected my legs, but I didn’t know of their existence.
I didn’t know about anything that year. I was out of the mainstream. When your biological manhood lags behind, you become a student of life, but a poor student. Even if you wanted to join the herd and draw from their wisdom, you couldn’t. The herd shuns you. What pleasure is there in telling a dirty joke to a soprano? My piping laughter in the locker room must have called to everyone’s mind a boyhood so recent in memory as to require immediate denial. “Way to go, Dave”–but also, “Go away, Dave.”
Everyone seemed to know stuff. Guys would talk about parts of cars as if they slept with them. Where did they get this? Who explained it to them? Even our football playbook made me feel ignorant. It contained scores of plays, with countless variations signaled by subtle codes. The coach told us to learn them all. I took him at his word and agonized over the book. My mind could not contain all the plays. My brain, like my body, was manifestly too small to be of any good. Meanwhile, I hated the playbook for another reason. Every sketch showed each defensive player being blocked. My interpretation, therefore, was that every offensive play should produce a touchdown. I don’t know which enraged me more–the playbook’s rosy construction of reality, or the repeated failure of the offensive players to carry out their idealized assignments.
Toward the end of the season, I finally figured out that no one knew all the plays. The team ran only a handful of them, over and over, and I certainly knew those. Why was I confused about what was expected of me? Because unfair standards were my mother’s milk. Life, for me, consisted of literally unattainable heights. The playbook was simply one more.
In preparation for this momentous year, I had read Twixt Twelve and Twenty and Hi There, High School! These, too, were proving to be books of lies. Where in their casts of all-American characters was Doreen, the band-trip fondler? Where was the sophomore who, mysteriously enraged by my smallness, stopped me in the hall every day with his fist raised to my face and denounced me as “a little pimp”? My life seemed so improbable that I decided someone had foisted a false biography on me. One day a white-coated scientist would take me aside and tell me that I was exactly as old as I looked–10 years of age instead of 14–and that Science had wanted to see how I would fare if thrown into high school prematurely. Now that the experiment was over, I could go back to the fifth grade. I knew it! I would shout with unashamedly boyish joy. I knew it!
I had nestled for nine years in the elementary school, where, though tiny, I had become as unremarkable as I was to my family. Only rarely did dark hints of my future appear. One day a substitute teacher stormed across the playground and ordered me to go play with the children my own age. My mates rose to my defense and said I belonged with them. She left me alone, but not without first laughing in a Ma Kettle cackle.
The sudden, daily ridicule of high school blindsided me. But even there, as the year wore on and astonishment faded, whole days would pass in which I was treated like an average person–my only goal in life. Each venture into the world outside the school, however, evoked fresh wonder. The band director arranged his marching rows with the little people on the ends. During parades, downtown boosters got a boost of their own when my row passed. In memory, the crowds are caricatures of derision, and I am an animated outcast. I am Dumbo.
I cultivated the notion of a “safe haven.” The elementary school had been one, and the high school could become one, too, as long as I remained within its walls. Staying put became an organizing principle, and at later points in my life I would sink deep roots, even in the poorest of soils, to avoid a change of environment. In graduate school, when I was nearing the end of my work and still expressed vagueness about the future, a friend said, “What are you going to do, rent a room in this house the rest of your life?” I realized that was exactly what I wanted to do.
High-school football–a subject with which I am not finished, nor will I ever be–was somewhat theoretical, several steps removed from a contest with an opponent other than myself. Football consisted of practice, not play, and practice meant standing around a lot and then gasping through wind sprints. I “suited up” for just two or three games in my freshman year. This was a high privilege because there were enough uniforms for only about half of the team after the first-stringers. Suiting up meant donning a gold jersey with silken blue numbers as big as my back. It meant warming up with the regulars in the end zone and sitting close to the colorful action on the field. Suiting up also meant I might actually enter the game–a prospect that, for one ignorant of the full playbook, was quite salubrious to the bowel tract.
Our B-team games were a preliminary to the A, or varsity, games. The varsity players would watch our games until they had to leave for the locker room, and they would often chant in their deep voices, “We want Carkeet. We want Carkeet.”
Finally, it happened. I entered a game at the very end of the season for a single play. The crowd roared as I scurried out to the huddle. Vic Smothers, a sophomore second-string quarterback, looked at me and said, “Big chance, Dave. Forty-six drive.” I knew the play. The right halfback follows the fullback through the hole off left guard, receiving the ball en passant and, according to the playbook, scoring a touchdown. I was that right halfback.
The leaf in memory’s album turns to a blank page, then turns again to a vivid image of Vic Smothers lunging for the ball, which for some reason is squirting across the grass. Vic, a long fellow, looks especially gangly as he dives to recover the fumble. My fumble. When he put the ball in my stomach, it must have bounced right out. I remember thinking how heroic Vic looked as he went after that ball. I admired him. That’s dedication, I thought. That’s how the game ought to be played. That’s how I would play–if there weren’t something wrong with me.
Around this time, I was chosen to play a trumpet solo before the entire school. I was not sure why the band director had singled me out. I was third in rank, after a senior and junior. Was he going for cuteness? I hoped not. The piece was “Trumpeter’s Lullaby,” a beautiful standard by Leroy Anderson. On cue I rose from the band and circled to the front of the stage. The audience buzzed with curiosity. Another “Charlie My Boy,” perhaps? The spotlights hit me full in the face, making me squint. Some girls giggled.
When it was my turn to play, I discovered that all the moisture had left my mouth. The result was quite a few notes that were mere air. A classmate in the audience counted them for me and gave me the total afterward.
Apart from those obvious breathy gaps, I didn’t have much of a feeling for how I had performed until that night, at a football banquet at the Elks Lodge. Several of the guys congratulated me. Their faces bore expressions so unusual as to turn them into strangers. They appeared awed and rather deeply moved, not by my talent, I suspected, but by my courage.
That praise from the guys taught me two important things. I learned that people weren’t always cruel. This contradicted most of my high-school experience to that point. The second lesson is of particular importance to the small ones of the world, who at an early age discover that their best weapon in the battle of life is achievement. I learned that one can perform less than perfectly and still perform creditably.
The football season ended, and so did my first semester. When grades came out, important evidence came my way about who I was, along with a new reputation: straight-A student. I was cuddly, yes; a little pimp, certainly. But I was also a brain. I was a double freak, an elephant man who knew his way around a teacup.
It was thrilling to have a new attribute. Whenever I misbehaved, people would josh me for not acting like a straight-A student. One spring afternoon, when I was idly watching the varsity baseball team work out, the coach yelled, “Get outta here, Carkeet! I don’t want no straight-A student watchin’ my practices.” There were some manly chuckles from the infield. I chuckled, too, to myself. They were dumb brutes toiling in the dirt. I was pure mind. I rejoiced in the difference.
This sequence of events–entry with substandard status, quiet work propelling me to acclaim–became a pattern for the rest of my life and gave rise to a new identity. I became a sleeper. Whatever arena I entered–college, new job, softball diamond–I did so demurely, with downcast eyes. Then I would silently soar, or try to. The trick is to remain stone-faced through it all, as if you don’t know you’re amassing a fortune of distinction. It’s a kind of aggression, to be sure. It catches the competition off guard and leaves them disoriented and confused. It makes them feel the way you felt. It is the revenge of the little ones.
Mountain Boy Meets Plato
River Styx, 71 (2005)
One fine spring evening when I was in college, I decided once and for all that I was dumb. This crisis in my mental history arose thanks to a rather unlikely figure—Charlemagne. I suddenly realized that I didn’t know who he was. I surveyed my roommates, four strange fellows with whom I shared the top half of a house (Berkeley, the late sixties). Three of the four identified him with the brusque confidence of game-show contestants on a roll. Willie was my last hope. He was a poet and the first person I knew to drop acid and use the word “uptight.” I found him in the kitchen, washing the dinner dishes. My question slowly drew his attention from the sudsy water. I watched him grope through the mist of history—his own as well as that of medieval Europe. “King of the Franks?” he said. I asked him for the date. He giggled and said, “Eight hundred?”
Willie was a strong argument that being relatively drug-free gave me no intellectual advantage whatsoever. My life was clearly a sham. Sure, I had been a top student in high school, but look at the high school, filled with sons of foothill cowboys and daughters of snow bunnies, provincials who divided the world into two geographic zones—(1) home: the Gold Rush village of Sonora, California, pop. 2,500; (2) “down below”: the nearby Central Valley (Modesto, Tracy), the more distant Bay Area (Oakland, San Francisco), or anywhere else (Chicago, Copenhagen). All those places were “down below.”
In elementary school I had been a boy genius. I was the one the teachers asked to help other students with their math, the last soldier standing in spelling bees. An older boy who discovered my report card read my grades out loud across the baseball diamond and shouted, “Jeez, Dave, who are you, Einstein?”—a name unknown to me. I remember two older girls on the playground, fifth-graders, asking me to spell hard words that they themselves had just learned in their higher grade. They laughed and petted me and clapped with delight at my performance. I thought, They are petting me because I am smart.
High school reinforced this self-image, but with some disturbing moments of contradiction, especially in my last year. Mr. Hanft, a well-traveled teacher new to the school, liked to shock us with world context. Early in our senior speech class, he began musing out loud about the college experience just ahead of many of us, and he asked if there were any straight-A students in the class. Everyone pointed to me. I was glad—now I would have an edge when he gave out grades. But he was no fool. He said, “Congratulations, David. In college you’re going to be a straight-B student.” I bristled, but I also thought, What if he’s right?
Someone once said that there are just two plots in fiction—a stranger comes into town or a person goes on a journey. In life, these are precisely the two kinds of experience that can wake up a hayseed to his mediocrity. After Mr. Hanft, another illusion-buster came to town with a visiting Marine band—an 18-year-old who nimbly performed Haydn’s E-flat trumpet concerto. I didn’t know the tune, but as the first-chair trumpeter in our band, I attended closely to his tone and technique. Afterward, a French horn player in my class, a plain girl with no role in my life to that point, walked up to me and said, “He sure showed you up.” (One thing about high school: you get feedback.) As she walked off, I plumbed my soul. Her words were doubly cutting, for, yes, on consideration, the Marine was the better player, but I hadn’t bothered to compare him with myself because he was, after all, a whole year older. And right there was the second cut: how stupid of me to assume that another year would bring me up to his level. Not only was I not as good a trumpeter as I had imagined, I was too dumb to know it.
This episode has a coda of further humiliation. Since Sonora lacked a music store—since, in fact, no musical instrument, score, or even a single note could be purchased anywhere in the county—on my next trip to the valley I tracked down Gottschalk’s Music Shop in the slightly bigger burg of Modesto and bought the Haydn concerto. I was determined, you see, even though in the end I would never master it as the Marine did, would never come close. When I carefully asked for the piece by name, the clerk smirked, as did two other nearby customers. (Was the whole world crueler then? Was it?) At the time, I assumed they thought the purchase overly ambitious of such a young lad. But now I suspect—and I only recently figured it out—that they smirked because at that age I must have pronounced Haydn with a long a instead of a long i. In other words, they laughed at me in Modesto for being a boor. In Modesto!
Valley towns often slapped me around like that. When the local Bank of America Award was given to me near the end of my senior year for four years of virtuous achievement, I went on a journey to the regional contest down below in Stockton, a big city to me because it had more than one high school. There I met the larger world, represented by two Asian-American students, a boy and a girl who knew each other from prior competitive head-knockings. They huddled and chatted at a feverish pace—warming up, I later realized. The way they ignored me, after polite handshakes, should have alerted me to their swift shared assessment: mountain boy poses no threat.
The three of us were ushered into a room where half a dozen businessmen sat behind a table. They gave us a question to ponder for three minutes: “How can young leaders of today encourage other young people to take advantage of cultural opportunities?” My two competitors delivered flawless speeches bursting with allusions to current culture drawn from resources that clearly went well beyond the Sonora Daily Union Democrat. I didn’t have much to offer in the way of cultural examples, guessing that I would score few points for talking about how my friend Jim Pedri had recently bagged his first buck and brought the bloody carcass by the house in his pickup truck during dinner. My response relied heavily on the phrase “What is past is prologue,” which I thought sounded pretty damn smart and well worth repeating. I had learned it the week before at the Sacramento Governor’s Conference on Traffic Safety, attended by young leaders like myself—“What Is Past Is Prologue” had been the conference theme, posted on every piece of paper that had passed through my hands.
If, indeed, what was past was prologue, the outlook for me was not rosy. I knew it as I rode back home from the competition, clutching my third-place ribbon and thinking, I am less than I reckoned. I knew it as I delivered the graduation speech telling my class how to achieve world peace. I knew it when I arrived at the college dorm and met my roommate, a freshman geology major with a four-foot slide rule and a massive Bach LP collection. I remember his wordless inspection of my own records—The Dixieland Dandies, Spike Jones, The Moanin’ Sax of Ace Cannon, Frederic Fennell Conducts Victor Herbert.
My limits received sharper outline in the classroom. Beginning German was taught by Professor Kawczynski, a central European so old that when he pointed to call on a student his index finger bent ambiguously and four people answered. Herr Kawczynski had us pronouncing German in the first minute of class, and somehow half of the students could already do it. In Freshman English, when I got my first essay back, it bore the improbable grade of F, along with the comment, “Master the material first, then criticize it!!!” Apparently Miss Cain, toward whom I bear no ill will, was not persuaded by my critique of Plato’s Republic. In psychology, taught by a man almost as ugly as the pig-faced Miss Cain, students with cigarettes asked long questions full of psychological terms that we hadn’t covered yet. I sensed that the questions were insincere, the students “phonies”—Holden Caulfield’s favorite word, though I didn’t know even that, being so unread and all.
I was fighting back, you see, fighting as if for my life, because then, as now, an attack of intellectual insecurity feels exactly like drowning. In Beginning German, I soon learned that the precocious pronouncers were really losers who had taken German in high school but had performed so poorly in it that they had had to start at the beginning again. Their glory faded as the semester wore on. As for the psychology phonies, I had made the right call: they stopped asking questions after the first week. And it turned out that Miss Cain was simply using the then-common SWAT-Team grading strategy of making violent attack noises in the initial encounter. Within a few weeks she graded by realistic standards, and I ended up with a B in the class. (Shut up, Mr. Hanft.)
This pattern of alternating retreat and advance defined my college experience. In first-year chemistry I wanted to sing “I Can’t Get Started” like Bunny Berrigan, whose lugubrious rendering of that forties hit I played in my dorm room over and over. But I fared better in American literature as taught by Mr. Zimmerman, a pacer and arm-waver. He opened Huck Finn for me—my first deep introduction to the book. He called Emerson “slippery,” which encouraged me. Zimmerman was full of questions, some rhetorical, some not. I misunderstood his intent once when he quoted D. H. Lawrence on Natty Bumppo: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” Zimmerman looked up at the class and said, “Is hunting a part of anyone’s life here?” I raised my hand for the first time all semester, planning to tell him about the time Jim Pedri bagged his first buck and brought the bloody carcass by the house in his pickup truck during dinner. I caught myself and lowered my hand. Zimmerman went on lecturing. It was a narrow escape. If I was going to become an intellectual, mountain boy would have to stay in his cave.
That same semester, I took a sociology class from Ernest Becker, a campus favorite whose fame would later widen with the publication of The Denial of Death. (It’s one of the books that Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer buys for Annie Hall in his aggressive broadening of her.) Most of my instruction came from a fast-talking, angst-filled T.A., who would balance his burning cigarette upright on its filter on the rubber-topped seminar table while he expanded on a point (we watched his cigarette). But once a week, in the large lecture hall, I experienced Becker. Without notes or a hint of preparation, he would stroll in and transform an audience of unruly, revolutionary upstarts into an adoring throng. We were still just children, after all, and we longed for an adult we could respect. Becker was cool about the adoration, pretending not to notice, and I admired that. I also admired the way he twitched his shoulders. The twitch seemed to involve a resettling of his sports coat, so I wore a sports coat and twitched and resettled it day and night. I admired Becker’s walk too. As it happened, his route to campus took him by my apartment on Dana Street, and I would gaze down and twitch as he walked by and twitched. He often wheeled a baby in a stroller. I wanted to know where he got that baby and how I could get one.
I majored in German because I was good at it. If I had been good at lizards, I would have majored in lizards. German sounds like a smart major, but it isn’t. How is your thinking going to develop from learning an additional word for every word you already know? Why would anyone with their wits about them major in a foreign literature, where one can never attain perfect intuition about style and lexical nuance? But I wore my major proudly, and I added adornments—glasses (having willed myself nearsighted), tobacco, and silence. I became a tortured Teuton.
I am sure my trappings and twitchings fooled no one, but many posers succeed, and today’s poser is tomorrow’s bully, and I say shame on them all. Shame on anyone who opens a topic, meets with lackluster response owing to the listener’s ignorance, then persists in working the subject like a dog head-whipping a stuffed animal. Shame on anyone who delivers a borrowed argument as if it were a personal inspiration. Shame on those who are never surprised by what others say. To express surprise, after all, is to admit prior ignorance. Nervous academics have this flaw—historians, especially—and they say “of course” when they convey information, apparently feeling that for maximum impact they must treat all knowledge as longstanding givens. Shame on philosophers for the way they scoff at other disciplines for operating in the absence of answers to the fundamental questions—the job of philosophy. I guess we’re all supposed to wait until they’re finished. This arrogance goes back to Plato and his boss, who condemned every field but their own. As I dragged my freshman body through Platonic dialogues, losing flesh all the way, I longed to ask Socrates why, if all he knew was that he knew nothing, he was so obnoxious.
The Greeks loomed large in my life. On my dorm floor was a philosophy major with an Aristotelian quote for all occasions—Brian, an Irish-faced fellow with a quick smile. (Everyone told him he looked like Donovan, a name that meant nothing to him.) Brian became my best friend and mentor. With his humor, his vocabulary, his curiosity, and his Great Books—he had the whole series there in his dorm room—he reached down and pulled me out of the Slough of Ignorance. Brian helped me spelunk Plato’s Cave. He taught me Ockham’s razor—in Latin. He taught me the Horatian proverb he threw at anyone who enthusiastically voiced travel plans: Caelum, non animum, mutant qui trans mare currunt (“The sky, not the soul, changes for him who flees across the sea”). He would say it with a grin, oblivious to any irritation he aroused. It was Brian who captured the cultural essence of Sacramento. “Yes, they have a symphony orchestra,” he said with a sigh, “but the audience claps between movements.” Brian walked with a bounce, ready to spring on any inconsistency lying in his path. He often wore a tie to class and always used a cartridge fountain pen. A professor once remarked to him, “You’re a bit of an old-fashioned boy, aren’t you?”—an appraisal Brian reported with delight. He sounds conservative, but he was actually a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee hell-raiser.
Brian taught me for four years. He dragged me to incomprehensible lectures like visiting scholar Noam Chomsky’s “Language and Mind.” But I gave him a few things in return. I took him to German films like the hilarious post-war Wir Wunderkinder. I introduced him to Mozart and the gang, where he lagged mysteriously. (I cannot remember when or why I began to enjoy classical music.) I corrected his terrible spelling and his occasional language lapses—he thought “prose” was a plural noun and would say of a writer, “His prose are beautiful.” But most of the instruction went the other way. I never really appreciated how much I had modeled myself on him until another friend, spontaneously imitating my speech style, came out with “We need to make a distinction here.” Trying to sound like me, he sounded just like Brian. On the day I realized that I could not have a thought without first considering what Brian’s thought would be, what was left of me grabbed me and pulled me back—not back to stupidity, but to autonomy. I spoiled the friendship with a peevish declaration of independence when we graduated. I was like the confused narrator in A Separate Peace, who deliberately jostles the branch high in the tree and makes his best friend—a lively, affable fellow superior in all respects—plunge to the ground.
Brian went on in philosophy and became exactly what I became, a humanities prof at a Midwestern university. When a novel of mine was published, he decently broke the silence between us to write and tell me how much he liked it—qua book. He had taught me qua, so I knew what he meant. A few years ago, I called up his departmental page on the Web, out of curiosity. Like me, he’d been teaching for a quarter of a century, but on his page he described his upcoming courses with the joy of a fresh convert to the life of the mind. I had imagined him to be rather tired by now, overweight too, but the photograph on the page could have been taken back at the freshman dorm. Sitting at his office desk and grinning over the banana he was eating—an e-lec-tric-al banana, perhaps—he still looked just like Donovan.
About Chomsky, it's worth noting that affectation and imitation signal what someone wants to be, and so they can be the first steps of a real change. When I puffed on my pipe, sometimes I puffed on my brain too. I began to take long walks not in order to be seen taking them but in order to think. Better thinking led to a field more suited to me—linguistics—and eventually I found myself standing before a class explaining the very book based on the lecture that had once baffled me, Chomsky’s Language and Mind.
I like linguistics both for itself and for the impression it gives you that I know things that you don’t. But there are many things you think I know that I don’t, and my shame is great. I’m stupid about everyday subjects too, and when they come up I leave the room. A good example is birthdays in relation to what grade a child is in. Every time a parent talks about a kid’s birthday and whether the kid is young or old for his class, I fog up. I just can’t follow it. My wife is good on this subject, and I admire her and try to learn from her (but not too much—remember Brian). I have a restless mind, which means that although I may have thought hard and even well about some controversy, if you bring it up years later, I’m a lunkhead; I take comfort in knowing that Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain is the quintessential novel of ideas, complained of a blankness in his head when readers approached him years after the novel’s publication to take up its themes. I tend to see both sides of a question, and I think it unfair that those who are loud and opinionated seem smarter than those who are tentative and open-minded. What about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous claim: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time”?
Like the claustrophobic who takes a pass on an invitation into a stuffed elevator, I avoid situations that trigger the old symptoms of insecurity (a rapid emptying of the brain, shallow breathing, self-loathing, an emotional cascade into a terminal pool of nausea). I shun monologists, for example; they make everyone look dumb, for they allow just two responses, either “hear hear” or flat contradiction. I will not go to a gathering that is self-consciously smart—no salons for me, thanks. An atmosphere of goodwill is necessary—I go stupid at the first whiff of hostility. And there must always be room for humor.
But I am slightly more relaxed on this subject than I used to be. I think that for others, too, the drive to seem intelligent weakens with age. The people I hang out with are more concerned with seeming to be other things now—seeming funny, seeming happy, seeming to be a good parent, seeming to be able to get unbelievably low air fares. It helps that we no longer get graded evaluations of our brains and that we’ve proven we can feed ourselves and sometimes even one or two others besides. I hope never again to cry out, with the rube-hero of The Damnation of Theron Ware, “I am the most ignorant man alive!”
Looking back, I realize now that when I left the little domain where I had worn the crown of junior achievement, and when its jewels were exposed as baubles in a brighter light, I suffered because I had no perspective, not even enough to think of the obvious cliché, Big fish in a small pond. A fish without such awareness, on venturing into new waters, does not calmly think, “I’ve been impressive in a limited pool. In a larger one, naturally I will be bested. After all, I am certainly not the biggest fish in the world.” Instead of relocating myself in some global hierarchy, as I should have done, I felt a collapse of the entire mechanism of evaluation, as if my little town had raised its children on hallucinations.
In other words, I had no concept of “the second tier,” where one can live respectably and have some good ideas—not ceaselessly, but every now and then. That is where I finally concluded I belonged and where, when I finally grew up, my intellectual life began to run its proper, measured course.