It’s Not What You Know, It’s Whether You Can Become Part of the Goddamn Machine

I’ve always been smart.  It was confirmed early on by teachers and standardized tests.  It has always been a part of how I think about myself, but I sometimes wonder if it’s been a good or a bad thing in my life.

In high school, I was astounded that there wasn’t a mad rush to become the main squeeze of Colin, our valedictorians, who had astounded everybody in 7th grade science class by correctly pronouncing the microbe gonyaulax polyhedra.  In fact, I noticed early on that there was a blank, manly look that girls seemed to go for, so I started cultivating it.  Mouth slightly open, mysterious.  A slight swagger, nothing exaggerated.  Never answer a question in class.  And, of course, never talk about Lord of the Rings or Beethoven sonatas or calculus, forget that, that wasn’t sexy.

But it wasn’t just romance that intelligence has blocked.  It’s always tended to make me overestimate my own abilities, as well.  When I first became a freelance writer, I assumed it would be easy to make the jump to book publishing within three years.  It wasn’t.  When I became a magician, I thought I could easily get onto cruise ships within five years.  It’s been excruciatingly difficult, and I’m still not on them.  Is it any surprise that the Great Recession has given a severe beating to my bankbook?  Well, it surprised me.  I knew I had intelligence on my side.

I sometimes muse that life would be so much easier if I had just accepted my role in the machine.  Gotten a responsible job doing technical writing for a defense contractor, had a couple kids, and retired early with over a million in the bank, as my best friend from college Josh will do next month.

“I’m going to take a buyout,” he recently told me over dinner.  “The T-bill rate is tied to my pension, so if I wait any longer, I figure I’ll lose $100,000.”

I didn’t understand it, either.  Josh was fairly smart, but unlike me, he wasn’t filled up with his own greatness.  After college, we lived together for a couple years, and without the demands of classes, he dove into heavy dope smoking for what I called our St. Elmo’s Fire period.  He would sit in the living room with reddened eyes and listen to Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and John Fahey’s “Bring Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry.”  Soon, he realized that altered states weren’t going to get him anywhere, and so ended up getting together with a boring girl who could help him quit smoking and land a boring job.

Josh loved Mark Twain, but he didn’t have to become the new Mark Twain.  He could just be Josh.

Bob Dylan once sang in anger:

Advertising signs con you

Into thinking you’re the one

Who can do what’s never been done

Who can win what’s never been won

Meantime life goes on all around you.

Our high school valedictorian Colin paid a price for his high IQ, too.  After graduation, he dove deeply into philosophy and mathematics.  He started taking 16-hour walks to think more deeply about things.  He would stop in parks to sleep, then continue walking and thinking.  He had long brown hair and thick black glasses that made him look the part of the genius lost in his thoughts.

“Colin, what do you do on your long walks?” a friend once asked.


“What do you think about for all that time?”

“Well, I look at all the people, and I think, ‘Where can they all be going to?’  And I look at all the food in all the grocery stores and restaurants and kitchens, and I think, ‘Where does it all come from?'”

Obviously, Colin was falling off the deep end.  Within a couple years, Colin was killed by a hit-and-run driver on one of his long walks.

[My sister has requested that I take down a section of this post involving her, and I have.]

Don’t feel sorry for me.  I’ve gotten lots of things out of my IQ numbers.  I understand the music of Steve Reich.  I type 105 wpm.  I can use inchoate in conversation.  But some nights, as I’m balancing my checkbook in the evening, ruining my sleep for sure, I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d accepted the offer to become editor-in-chief of Shape magazine when I was 28, accepted the fast track and what was handed to me, rather than flashing a superior smile to Joe Weider over lunch at the Velvet Turtle and telling him, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t, I’m writing a novel.”

8 thoughts on “It’s Not What You Know, It’s Whether You Can Become Part of the Goddamn Machine

  1. Mate – stick with being unique, because if you’d gone the other way you would be so disappointed in yourself and you’d have wondered instead, “What if I’d been me?”

    Life is a challenge, no matter which way you run it. You owe it to yourself to be as true to you as you can. Forget about the rest of the world and what they are doing – they’ve got their own problems and nothing is as it seems on the surface.

    Cheers to you. May your guiding star ever shine true.

  2. Hi-
    I love your blog, love the way you write, love your ideas. But I have trouble reading it due to the black type and fading grey background….I feel like I’m missing a lot.
    Thought I’d throw that out there.

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