2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
Last week I pontificated a little bit about fiction’s weak-minded strongmen. That clearly argued delineation of frail heroes, however, did not really cover the entire subject of brawn versus brain. For the brainiacs have their flaws, too.
First, a little full disclosure, as the TV commentators customarily announce.
My parents and some of my teachers early recognized that I had some intellectual gifts, particularly in the arts of writing and drawing. However, they also were perplexed by my weakness in arithmetic, which, because of my embarrassing exhibitions at the blackboard, I grew to hate. In the fifth grade one day, I sat in the arithmetic class and drew a picture instead of working on my assignment. The teacher, walking the aisles, noticed my crime and told me I should be calculating the numbers, not drawing people.
“This is an arithmetic class!” she admonished me sternly.
“I hate arithmetic!” I replied with all the vehemence I could muster.
The teacher ordered me to come to her classroom after the final bell rang that day. I, supposing her intention was to punish me with a detention or worse, mounted my bicycle and rode off to see a movie.
The frustrated teacher sought support from the principal, but I had recently won a city-wide lyrics-composing contest—to a degree highlighting the school—and he was disinclined to discipline me. That night the teacher called my mother and told her that she did not think I was a genius but that I was the most gifted child she had ever seen and yet I was having a severe problem with numbers. She urged Mother to enroll me in a private school where I could receive special attention toward my gifts while also being more directly guided in arithmetic, learning to incorporate the latter with the former as full learning. But Mother could not afford the tuition for a private school; plus, the nearest private school was more than ten miles away, and she could not take me to school and get to her job on time too.
So, I plodded through arithmetic and math courses for the next seven years. Well, you can count that as fifteen when you include college years. I still have a distaste for numbers, especially when some clerk and I are determining how much money I should give her or how much change I have coming.
Over these many years, I have pondered the imbalance among my abilities. Oddly enough, I had a fairly high proficiency rating in acquiring foreign languages, an ability which some psychologists have said involves the same part of the brain adept in math. The only conclusion I could draw was that back in the first and second grades—when we had arithmetic bees as well as spelling bees during class time—I stumbled enough during the former to develop a fear of and then a hatred toward numbers in general. Other than some undetectable missing math-related cells in my brain, that is the only explanation I can see for my disaffection for arithmetic. I am so handicapped in that area now that I almost entirely rely upon calculators in my phone and in my computer to keep my checkbook register accurate.
A more important and unusual aspect of intellectual imbalance that I wish to discuss here, though, is that of the brilliant person who is deficient in common-sense. I first heard about this phenomenon just weeks after graduating from high school. I was visiting a girl next door, a girl I had seen occasionally during the year of my residence there, but I had never spoken to her: I had broken up with a girlfriend just before this episode. I was not really trying to start anything with my new acquaintance; she just had invited me over to her house for supper with her and her mother. While we were in the living room after dining, the subject of a boy in her class (she was just starting her senior year) entered the conversation. The girl told her mother that the boy was brilliant but didn’t have any common-sense. My ears perked up because, although I knew she was not describing me, I identified with the boy, and my interest was piqued by the seeming paradox of a brilliant person not having “sense enough to come in out of the rain”. Please pardon the hyperbolic extravagance of that cliché, but it strikes the right note here, for we who are thus afflicted do often find ourselves confounded by the simplest puzzles or social etiquette.
A second such episode entered my life about forty years later, while I was visiting an old lady in Grandfalls, Texas. Her first daughter, in Dallas, had urged me to drive down there and talk to her about reviving the woman’s monthly newspaper. Deep in my heart I knew the project was senseless, at least from an economic standpoint, but I went anyway. When I explained to the old woman what her daughter had dreamed up, she stood astonished for a moment and then swore, “Goddamn it! That girl is brilliant but she hasn’t got any common-sense!” I drove back to Dallas, saddened a little but not surprised really.
Then just a week ago, I was sitting at a table in a local coffee shop with the owner and one of his employees in a contracting business he also operates. I will not name the man they were talking about, but the café-owner said, “That guy might be brilliant and well-educated, but he hasn’t got any common-sense!” That was my cue to mention the episodes I related above, and for several minutes we speculated as to how some people can solve big, technical problems but seem confounded by small, everyday issues.
I am not here discussing idiot savants. Nor are “absent-minded professors” the topic of this essay. No, this is about very smart people who have difficulty in reading the elements of a situation right in front of them, as well as the signals apparent in other people’s faces and movements, until well after the time for appropriate remark or action has passed. We might call them “foggy-minded folk”. And, sad to say, I am one of them.