Smart is Not Socially Apt, per Modern Media

NB: The Editor pointed out I had an unclosed bracket and offered up a Tropic Thunder comparison that was too good to pass up. Fourth paragraph. Enjoy.

For a few reasons, but mostly because we cannot stomach the idea of paying $80 for what would be about 3 channel’s worth of consumption, the male person and I do not have cable. This is not out of some holier-than-thou quest for a more wholesome home environment as much as an exercise in opportunity cost; we have Netflix and RedBox and so forth. As such, we are “discovering” TV shows that others have long and since discovered, and re-discovering ones we had mucked about with in earlier years.

Let’s face it, most TV is drivel.  Everyone has this opinion, for the most part, it’s just their definition of drivel varies. For example: I think any show featuring the Kardashians is not worth the effort it takes you to push the buttons on the remote control, never mind the time it would suck from your life to actually watch it. I’m sure there are others who would much rather watch the Kardashians than, say, 60 Minutes. You’d have to pay my father to watch a football game, but he happily watches The Daily Show. The presence of 500 channels worth of 24/7 programming means that our tastes are such that we like about 10% of it at best, but that 10% is different for each person. (For a truly excellent podcast on why you have to pay for ESPN, even though you don’t watch it, go here.)

Out of this drivel, though, comes definitive trends in programming. This year it appears to be a slough of “I’m dealing with my older parents” sitcoms, in previous years it has been the waves of Laws and Orders, NCIS, CSI; then there’s the ER/Chicago Hope/House/Scrubs medical vein (pun intended).  And within these aerie are typified characters and situations: the older, hardened cop who’s actually quite sensitive despite his drinking problem, the tougher, young female cop/lawyer who wants everybody to take her seriously, the angsty interpersonal relationships that form between coworkers (because no one on TV has the sense to NOT dip their pen in the company ink), the inevitable will-they-won’t-they that means they eventually do, after 4-5 seasons, but then it nearly immediately blows up because Someone Messed With The Formula And The Ratings Are Down So Please Fix It Now.

Into this context I bring you the recent epiphany I had, which is we apparently can’t have socially intelligent characters with high IQ’s. Let’s take two shows: The Big Bang Theory, first aired in 2007, and Bones, first aired in 2005; one is a nominal comedy with some small dramatic parts, the other is a drama with some small comedic parts. Both feature many intelligent characters, but the most intelligent (based on IQ’s indicated in exposition or comparison) are Dr. Sheldon Cooper (BBT) (IQ: 187) and Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan (Bones) (“my IQ is quantifiably higher than yours”, and the like) .

Social (and other) media have picked up on this (I am not suggesting anything new here) when each character has been individually investigated (e.g., tv reporter/blogger asking the writers/producers) for Asperger’s Syndrome. (Interestingly enough, NEITHER show confirms this for these characters even though the actors themselves admit to playing them that way; in BBT’s case Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon Cooper, has stated he believes Sheldon is an “Aspie” but Bill Prady and Chuck Lorre vehemently deny it). The message is muddled, but constructively: super-smart people are really socially awkward, possibly because of a “syndrome”, but we won’t confirm it because then we are Labeling People. Or, as my Editor points out, “You can’t go full genius“.

As though making a series of jokes around IQ (“I’d have to lose at least 60 IQ points to be considered smart,” Sheldon derisively mentions in one episode) is not a label of sorts.

These are not the only two shows to do this; the new Sherlock Holmes BBC series features an Aspergian Sherlock (again, as characterized by the actor playing him) (190 IQ). Numb3rs featured a brilliant mathematician (“genius-level IQ”) who was hindered, if not completely inept, at interpersonal relations. Criminal Minds also had a brilliant young person, IQ 187 (Dr. Spencer Reid) who is, you guessed it, socially awkward. Message received: we can have kinda-smart, socially normative people, but we cannot have super-smart, socially normative people.

There’s a couple of hypotheses for this: H1 is that we cannot have hyper-smart, socially normative people on TV because that would make them appear cocky, even if they weren’t actually, and that would make them a less liked character (both by their peers and by the viewers). Indeed, it is Sheldon’s awkwardness that allows his friends (even his fellow PhD’s) to feel like they can compete with, or even succeed against, him on some plane. Penny (the non-PhD, “normal” person across the hall) calls him sweetie a lot and tries to explain awkward situations to him (when he’s being earnestly lost) and snipes at him with double entendres when he’s being earnest and coming off as an ass. The other 3 characters (2 PhD’s, one ME) spend entertaining minutes trying to explain on Sheldon’s level (with whiteboards and references), discover  they can’t, and give up/go to the movies without him/let him go to the comic book store/play Xbox with him.

I think it’s really interesting to note that Dr. Brennan’s friends and coworkers take on a more protective role and do not deride or smugly note her awkwardness, they just “try to work around it”. Angela (her best friend) calls her “sweetie” rather a lot and spends time trying to explain how a social situation may be interpreted, most of the lab staff shrug their shoulders and get on with work; her love interest gets to be the Protective Male Person With A Gun and, again interestingly, a lot of time is spent on him not letting her have one (despite her declarations she’s an excellent shot. She’s so learned in other things, including a 3x black belt, that this is not implausible). Maybe if he gives her the gun she won’t need him, so let’s not let her have the gun.

I sit here, looking at as many recent TV characters as I can find, for one who is both very intelligent and also socially competent, and come up dry. Dr. House has a drug addiction and the bedside manner of a troll, of the only other two – people on Bones, one turned out to be a sociopathic cannibal and the other was English and they killed him off (Mr. Nigel-Murray. I liked him a lot.) in order to provide a reason for Bones to feel vulnerable, jump into bed with The Male Person With A Gun, and get pregnant, thus creating another twist in the “will they or won’t they” plot.

H2, and others have suggested this, is the reason our most intelligent characters must be socially awkward is we (the viewer) cannot handle the idea of someone so smart and seemingly without flaws — we will lose interest, we will want to compare ourselves to that character and we will come up lacking. We will close the book, if you will. I think it’s a good point but I don’t know that it is true for all: I would like to see what a good writer could do with an intelligent character that DIDN’T have some sort of crippling social deficit.

To be fair, we have the exact opposite on TV currently too: the Jersey Shores, the Kardashians, etc. — all full of presumably socially “current” or apt people with combined IQ’s equivalent to a bag of Doritos. Clearly someone is watching that. So I wonder what would happen if we could somehow have a brilliant Kardashian?

Hey — I like science fiction, too.

Experiential “Spending”

Because I have, at one or two points, ordered something online from Athleta, I receive a catalog roughly once every three weeks from them. Because I have, at one or two points, ordered something online from Athleta, I also receive catalogs regularly from Title Nine and assorted other Look We Are Women Who Work Out And Yet Can Be Fashionable In A Really Sporty Way catalogs.

The Athleta catalog arrival in my house is met with trembling perspiration, as I tend to like the cut of the fabric and most of the designs even if I am not the highly-muscled size two twentysomething that graces each page. (The highly-muscled size two twentysomething comes in a variety of skin tones and hair styles but basically if you put them in greyscale and blocked their face and hair they are the same human). It usually results in me rationalizing the purchase of a sweater, a skirt, a top, etc. (usually just “a” thing) that I normally wouldn’t spend that much on. It also serves the same purpose as the gym membership: if I’ve thrown money at it, it clearly must be something I am doing and therefore I too can be a Woman Who Works Out And Yet Can Be Fashionable In A Really Sporty Way, if not a highly-muscled size two (almost) fortysomething.

(Anyone unfamiliar with the Athleta catalog should probably also know that most of the models in the clothing are NOT just standing looking cute. Usually they’re doing instructor-level Yoga poses, sometimes, you know, balancing on their head, or folding themselves into a pretzel. Or they’re actually running on a beach. Even their sweat is cute.)

This particular catalog has sat in askance at my chair side for about six days, with dog-eared pages indicating the latest Shiny Thing I Want To Spend On. And, like every other time, I’m obsessing over what will ultimately be a relatively harmless expenditure (call it about 2 weeks of skipped latte’s). This is because I am remodeling my kitchen.

For the analyst, any home improvement project is an invitation to insanity: you start at the project with very specific quotes, measurements, appliance model numbers, and expectations. And then, as each week unfolds, you find out you need another electrical outlet (so the price goes up) or that particular range does not have the expected rebate (so the budget goes up) or you waited too long to reply to that one email (so the project extends by three weeks) or you didn’t take into account that the flooring needs time to adjust (so the project extends by four more days). You also realize that everything in the kitchen needs to be packed up.

I have a roughly 7×10-foot kitchen, U-shaped, with about 20′ of linear cabinetry (if you add top and bottom), plus a pantry. I have also had a thing for cooking for slightly under 20 years. Ergo, I have a LOT of kitchen stuff: in packing my kitchen up (something not done in 9 years) I discovered I have not one but TWO ravioli rolling pins, a rice cooker (I have been cooking rice on a pot on the stove for the last 9 years), 5 jars of cumin (??), and a truly impressive collection of cookie cutters. That, plus everything else (minus a few plates and a cutting board and basically the kind of reserves you’d make for such a project), is now boxed up in my study. Every item that was packed (for the most part) incurred a fleeting thought of 1. what was I thinking when I bought this, and 2. have I actually ever used this (I have two mushroom brushes, I am not kidding), and 3. what can I do to make sure I don’t actually spend money on something I am not going to use?

I recently read “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending” and it (like every other book that offers financial advice) pretty much nails non-necessary expenses (e.g., discretionary expenditure) as a permanent exercise in opportunity cost analysis paralysis. I can, for example, obsess endlessly over whether or not I will be buying the super-cute boots on page 48 (I’m not) or what I could do with that money instead. The argument of this particular book is that if you’re going to spend the money, it is better spent on an Experience than a Thing. To wit: you can buy the boots but what kind of experiences will you have in those boots that you cannot have in other boots/shoes/footwear, and instead what kind of experience can you buy for $180 plus shipping and handling? Or, in my case, will it buy me a faster, quieter vent for the kitchen (a thing) that means I can actually cook AND hear my son talking to me (endless experience)?

The problem with a remodeling (or moving) exercise where you are required to look at your past purchase history and review each item (I have enough wine stoppers to stop the wine in an entire case) is that you realize you didn’t have this discipline in your younger years and now there’s a strong urge to hypercorrect in your more mature present. For a consumptive and excessive youth there is a penurious and stringent old age. This is antithetical to what most consider retirement and/or the higher-earning years: in my parents’ generation it was starve now and play later, which has (appropriately) afforded them lovely retirements (case in point: one set of parents is in Europe for 7 weeks).  And suddenly, those words of caution they offered when you were spendthrift in your twenties make sense.

All from a 72-page Athleta catalog, provided for free. That’s an entertaining experience.

A Pluot Principle

“…And then I heard this guy say, ‘I feel like I’ve missed pluot season’…”

It was a surreal Seattle moment: at a friend’s house for the Sunday before Labor Day, eating fresh, organically home-grown grafted tomatoes from a tomato plant nestled next to kale and squash, with three young urban professionals (not including yours truly and the Editor), one of which we will call John.  (The others we will call K and Margles). John had been on Bremerton for the day, rode the ferry (and heard the above quote), cycled to K and Margles’ house for dinner, and shared the quote.  (Note: my garden failed this season due to rabbits, deer, opossums, raccoons, and possibly a plague of locusts. I’m not bitter.)

There is nothing not Seattle about all of that. From the cycling* and the ferrying and the home-grown tomato-ing and the quoting and the pluot piece, that was all so clearly Seattle it made me ache (appreciatively). It also made me vaguely jealous: somewhere, out there, is someone for whom that is a thing. Someone out there has TIME to worry about whether or not they’ve missed a season of a fruit that is only a recent addition to the fruit sphere.  They’ve worried enough about it that they were talking to someone else about it, like there is some sort of Pluot Appreciation Week or Festival that was missed. (NB: you can get a 12 pack of pluots at Costco. I’m not sure how artisanal they are anymore).

*Not just John who is the cyclist – K and Margles once spent a season doing nearly every long-range ride (including at least two double centuries) the Cascade Bicycle Club arranges. They called this “fun”.

What I am getting at (albeit laboriously) is it seems to me, more often as of late, that there are a wide variety of things out there to learn/do/participate in/obsess on and a diminished resource of time, and that some of the prioritization I have had to make of late (work… obsessive housecleaning…) combat with this time scarcity issue.  I’m not entirely sure if this realization is driven from a burgeoning sense of mortality or if this is something that’s been floating around in my head for a while and now it’s just beginning to gel. I find myself increasingly weighing the experiential benefits of a reorganized library or an extra couple of hours’ sleep on the weekend against a bike ride or sailing or woodworking or such. In effect, the culmination of years of only marginally completed “to-do lists” seems to be weighing in more heavily as I head to 40. This is compounded by the fact that I am the product of four hyper-driven parents, each with hobbies that involve activity and analysis (cataloging, if you will).

I haven’t been entirely a bump on a log this time, and have done a little cycling here and there, for example. But I think it’s time to start a new list and drive a little harder on it.

Item one: experience pluots. Before they go out of season.