Friday, January 13, 2017

Ready to square off over a little knowledge.


     My cousin Harrison and I were doing what thinking people do nowadays—comparing our sense of deep foreboding over the advent of such a reality-averse president—and discussion slid into the eclipse of intelligence. He pointed out a scene in Broadcast News where a network executive tells Holly Hunter he imagines it "must be nice to always think you're the smartest person in the room."   
     "No, it's awful,' she whispers.
     Sure is. One comfort is that Donald Trump didn't make being smart go out of fashion: I believe that was Nero, when he forced his tutor, Seneca, to commit suicide. The ability to think about stuff has always been a mixed blessing. True, you don't buy as many time share condo memberships or accidentally set yourself on fire quite as much as other folk. But you aren't part of the cheering crowd of like-thinking buddies either. 
     Not that I'm complaining. Being smart makes you tough—two qualities not often paired. In a few days we'll have a bullying dope in the White House. But I've been dealing with bullies ever since Trent Carruthers—bigger, stronger, older, meaner—lay in wait for me after Fairwood School in the 5th grade. I don't remember what particular offense singled me out for abuse from Trent, but I'd put my chips on my being smarter than he was, though I imagine THAT didn't take much doing.
     Anyway, my exchange with Harry brought to mind this column:

     This was years ago. But it is branded upon my mind. My wife-to-be and I were at another couple's house. The pizza was gone, and we were playing Trivial Pursuit, the type of thing people do before children pour kerosene all over your free time and drop a lit match.
     It was my turn. The other guy's wife read my question: "This American author lived at Walden Pond and wrote a book about it."
     Easy as pie, I thought. "Henry David Thoreau," I said.
     The wife—an emaciated woman with feathered hair—flipped the card over to read the answer. Her eyes widened. "How did you...?" she stammered, amazed. And then she seemed to get angry. She extended her middle finger and held out her arm full stretch until the insulting digit was an inch from my nose. She uttered the accompanying oath.
     That, in a nutshell, is the story of my life. Though I was not showing off—we were playing a game, she asked me the question—I am forever bursting forth with information that damns me as a brainiac, an intellectual. I would have sworn that every human being older than the age of 15 could have answered that question. Walden. Thoreau. But of course I would be mistaken.
     People have the wrong idea about smart people. We are not arrogant. We are not showoffs. We live in fear that our secret will be discovered and we will be humiliated and hated.
      Just the other day, I was at a meeting with several associates. I was relaxed, comfortable, just one of the group. We were talking about the 12 square miles of presidential palaces that Saddam Hussein wants to keep off-limits from the prying eye of international inspectors.
     "Twelve square miles!" the man across the table said. "A square, 12 miles on a side."
      Sweat sprang to my forehead. I squirmed. I glanced around, praying for someone to pick up the ball.
     "That sure is a big square—12 miles each way," another agreed. I felt like a secret homosexual listening to his construction worker buddies slam fags.
     I tried to keep my mouth shut. The conversation seemed to be moving on. There were five other people in the room. Nobody caught my eye and shared my pained "What should I do?" gaze of entreaty.
     Finally, reluctantly, I said it, in a hushed, flat voice:
     "Twelve square miles wouldn't be a square 12 miles on a side. It would be a square three miles by four—a rectangle."
     In truth, I expected a lot of forehead slapping and sheepish grins. I expected giant shrugs of embarrassment, arms flung out, Zorba-the-Greek style. I expected nervous laughter.
     What I didn't expect was argument. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then we began a heated discussion. If the matter could have been settled by a vote, then 12 square miles would now equal a square 12 miles on the side. I stuck to my guns, thinking of Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men."
     "Trust me," I said, "I am completely confident about this. A square 12 by 12 would be 144 square miles."
     I was given incredulous looks. Could this be a joke? That's ridiculous, one colleague said. "Twelve square miles is twelve square miles--12 miles square."
     We went back and forth. I thought of just giving up, of slumping back in my chair and letting it go. What am I, schoolmarm to the world? But we are a newspaper, and you ignore something like that, next thing you know it's in print.
     So I drew a graphic.
     "Let's say you have a room, 12 feet by 12 feet," I said, busying myself at a yellow legal pad. I drew a big square. "And let's say you want to carpet it. This is a square foot of carpet," and here I drew a little square. "And here is your room." And then I drew 11 vertical and 11 horizontal lines over my big square (11 because, to divide a line into 12 pieces, you cut it 11 times).
     "Now, you're going to the store to buy carpet. How many square feet, how many of these" and I tapped my little square box "do you need to go into this?"
     I'm not sure whether people eventually grasped it, or just pretended to so we could move on. I know I felt as if I had committed some brazen act of self-puffery, some unforgivable braggadocio routine.
     So have pity on people who know stuff. They live a lonely life.
              —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Oct. 11, 2002.


  1. I understand.
    And the fact that I'm considered "The Smart Guy" makes me very afraid for our future.
    I always think of civics questions. How the immigrant who is scorned knows more about our nation and its founding and constitution than the majority of native born Americans who use Love of Country and Patriotism as their sword to combat "them others."
    Ignorance, and pride in it, is shameful to humanity.

  2. It's worrisome that the 12 sq. miles error guy would be working for the paper.

  3. A man once said, "I drink, and I know things."

    Well, one out of two ain't bad! 😂

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  5. I imagine it's a bit difficult to talk science, economics and yes politics with someone who can't tell square feet from square heads. Could be Neil has hit on the real reason it's not President Hillary who will be inaugurated in a preciously few days.


  6. I think those who brought Socrates up on charges of corrupting the youth of Athens made being smart do out of fashion long before Nero. After Alexander's death, Aristotle got the hell out of Athens because of his association with the now-hated Alexander and because he knew what could befall smart guys in Athens who fall out of favor. The perhaps made-up quote attributed to him was "I won't let the Athenians sin twice against philosophy."

    I do fundraising for a medical center. I'm liberal-arts-level smart, but I'm pretty much always the least smart person in the room here when it comes to medicine, community health, and so much more. Always humbling to realize what one doesn't know, and fun to have masny many opportunities to learn more.

  7. Once a physics teacher at my high school made the same mistake. "So you've got 1,000 square centimeters, which is a square meter...."

    I corrected him: "No, there are ten thousand square centimeters in a square meter."

    He said "Open your mouth" and flipped a piece of chalk at me.

    Luckily, this was a high-powered prep school packed with smart guys, so the whole class backed me up.

    In fairness to this poor guy, he was an Olympic medal-winning swimmer who had been brought in to coach the swim team. They just gave him the physics class to teach because he had been some sort of engineer, and you had to teach a class in addition to coaching.

    Bitter Scribe

  8. Reminds me of a sign on the wall at the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan. "If you're so smart, how come you ain't rich?"

  9. I've been accused of being a know-it-all. With some justification I suppose, but would rather that than the opposite. I do actually have expert knowledge gained from working in three quite diverse occupations over a span of years, but beyond that was infected early on with an addiction to the sweetness of learning by my little Welsh Nain (grandmother), an accomplished poet I'm told, but in a language I can't read. I've learned enough from books to weigh in on a wide range of topics, about which I will readily concede that deep down I'm shallow.

    I suppose our new President knows more than most about the real estate business, but all evidence is that he would fail a leadership test posed by Francis Bacon. "Expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots, and marshalling of affairs come best from those who are learned."

    Tom Evans

  10. I think I am relatively smart, despite the fact I was a terrible student, at least when it came to subjects like science and math. And I was terrible taking tests. I was actually lucky to graduate high school and college. And this is despite the fact that I read a lot starting from when I was quite young. Maybe it is just that I have a lot of general knowledge. I never read Thoreau, but I do know he wrote about Walden Pond. On Jeopardy I do have a clue about tv shows or movies that I have not seen. I guess that stems from reading about them. I guess I have just been able to retain a lot of stuff

  11. I have the same problem, but worse... because on top of that, I have Asperger syndrome... so I really have trouble stfu-ing when I know something the rest of the people around me get wrong. One thing that keeps me from blurting things is the thought "Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?"

    1. Elliot, I understand there are medications to help with that.

  12. I don't know why they would do that. Intellectuals will sell out at least as quickly as less gifted folks...and give you a very well thought out reason for it as a bonus.


  13. I seem to remember the inteligencia being rounded up as I read histories. And journalists. Maybe they spoke out against the new regimes.

  14. The intelligentsia who disagree with them get rounded up.

  15. You've made me think of the memory of playing Trivial Pursuit and my father asking me, in amazement, "How'd the thunder did you know that?", when I answered that the Battle of Hastings was in 1066. Or the co-worker who was taking the citizenship test and questioned me while we were working. He told me I was the only person of our co-workers who knew all the answers. It wasn't that I was so terribly smart, math and science also gave me fits, but a lot of information stuck with me.

  16. I guess I'm smart? Those two questions are pretty basic.

  17. 12 square miles can also be 2x6 or 1x12.


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