Dylan Xavier Chroz In the "Flesh"

>> Thursday, December 23, 2010

I told you about him, but I'm all for you deciding for yourselves. Be warned. There is a preponderance of references here on his overthinking and feelings regarding Tessa. That's because it's central to the story and because depth of feeling does not bring along with it innate knowledge on what to do when something really matters. I personally find that both charming and humorous.

From Chapter 2

Dylan was not the slightest bit melodramatic, even emotional, as a general rule. He didn't see his response to Tessa as romantic or fantastic at all but as a single irrefutable and immutable fact. He loved her and she had changed his world into something worth living.
Chapter 3

Tessa said nothing, but held herself stiffly. She did have a temper. She waited until they were halfway through the school before hissing, "I could have taken care of that myself."

"I haven't the least doubt that you could have nor that watching you kick his rather pansy ass would have afforded anyone of taste no little satisfaction. But I wanted to do it and I was faster," he replied. Not to mention that no one—no one—man-handled Tessa and walked straight for a week. Tessa could have taken him down, but she would have been less inclined to make it painful and humiliating.

"I don't need a bodyguard, Dylan. Seriously. I'm quite capable of taking care of myself. Right now, they'll likely think I kicked him in the balls, not that you hit a pressure point that I know as well as you do." She did know the pressure point and many others. Dylan had made sure of that personally. He also knew, first-hand, how effectively she had learned it since she had tested her knowledge on Dylan—at his own insistence. He sincerely hoped she never used it on him in earnest. At least he hadn't screamed.

"I expect anyone who saw I was there will have no doubt who hurt him. If you are called into the office, as I highly doubt you will be, you need only have them contact me. I'll take full responsibility."

"And you'd do the same if you were halfway across the school. If I get called into the office, I'll take care of it myself, Dylan. I don't need to be insulated from all ugliness. Have you so little faith in me?"

He was genuinely shocked at the notion, so shocked he stopped dead. "No, Tessa. Of course not! Who better than I to know what you're capable of. You're incredible, talented, brilliant, and driven. I know you could have taken care of him and half a dozen like him," he told her, earnestly.

She sighed and grabbed his arm as she so often did, laying her head on his shoulder. "But?" she prompted, tugging him forward.

For Tessa, ever and always, the truth. "But, I wanted to do it." Just like he wanted to protect her, give her every opportunity, and make her happy. Did she need him to? Perhaps not. But he wanted to do it anyway. “I'm not altruistic," he assured her with perfect honesty. "Everything I have ever done has been done to suit myself.”
Chapter 5

His mind dispassionately contemplated hiring a professional to ensure he would be an skilled and careful lover for Tessa. Despite an instinctive antipathy to the idea, he evaluated several positive aspects. He considered proposing it to Tessa until he realized that, if she endorsed the idea, she would likely expect the same type of instruction for the same reasons. His revulsion at that notion was sufficient to make him realize that the idea was very unlikely to find favor. Better not try it.
From Chapter 7

He'd hardly slept. She liked him, perhaps loved him. He hadn't even allowed himself to expect that. After hours of tossing and turning, he'd looked for distraction.

In the interest of furthering his knowledge, he looked to the internet in search of more detailed sexual instruction, and found far far more than he had bargained for. Perhaps such things were of intellectual interest, but they were, across the board, a far cry from what he had envisioned with Tessa.

Feeling a bit disoriented, he cleared registers, cookies and history, shut down his browser, ran a virus scan, and vowed to be far more selective in his terms for any future searches he might contemplate.

Then he thought he should get her something. If they were dating, surely, he could buy her things outright, no? No more passing by a jewelry store or clothing store, frustrated because the perfect item for her beckoned and he had no right to buy it for her. He recalled a set of tanzanite and another of sapphires that would have suited her exceptionally well. And a lovely dress, full length, of deep blood-red silk. She'd need rubies for that.

Perhaps that was too much? Overwhelming? He had to admit he had a tendency to overkill when it came to Tessa. No sense scaring her silly. Perhaps going slow was a good idea in every aspect.

He contemplated an on-line retailer, like Amazon.com, then realized he had absolutely no idea what he should buy her. He could buy her any number of things, but what did she want? Shouldn't each gift mean something, reflect his deep understanding of who she was as a person? If so, why was he stumped on what to buy her? Shouldn't he know?

He was overthinking things again. She didn't care about stuff. He'd ample proof of that. Or prestige. Or travel, or not much. She liked books and learning new things and trying new things, and challenges and him. He'd known that, of course, he'd always known she'd liked him. He'd just had been too afraid to read too much into that, afraid of expecting something from this lively fascinating person he could never earn as he was relatively dull and uninteresting.

That's it! He could make something for her. She made presents for him every birthday, something crafty and clever and perfect in every way. Each one was a work of art and treasured. He just wasn't crafty. Oh, he could probably make something, but it took some time to develop a skill, and special materials. And they frequently took time to create, too, like the crewel work she sewn that hung over his fireplace or the needlepoint on the opposite wall.

For the first time, he regretted his inability to create meaningful poetry or fanciful stories. He could write in rhyme and rhythm, but the facility to make them alive, to touch the heart, that was beyond him. He'd have to think of something else.

They should go on a date. They could head out tomorrow, just the two of them, to spend time alone together . . just like they always did, but, somehow, more romantical.


But where?

In his whole life, his brain had never been this sluggish and unresponsive. Instead of the dozens of destinations it should have provided (which would be nerve-wracking enough), his mind was completely blank.

He almost called Lawrence [his chauffeur] for advice before realizing it was three in the morning.


Meet Dylan Chroz (Really, this time)

>> Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I said, some time ago, that I was all excited about a new character, one of those uber-bright people that don't seem possible, largely because I identified with him so completely. Yes, I know that still sounds conceited.

Well, I'm still pleased to know him even though I've been too distracted with other things the past week or so to really work with him much since. I will though. I have some time off. I got sidetracked on what I saw were some of the challenges for being "too" smart, but I really want to focus on Dylan because I want you to understand him, even if you don't like him.

I could tell you what everyone else sees: he's brilliant, with a perfect recall (a genius friend of me once explained that everyone has a perfect memory; what they might lack is recall) and an innate logical ability that can address details and big picture simultaneously (not impossible, I do that, too. It's the obvious that often gets me and that's true for Dylan, too). He can instantly size things up and plan out action (think Sherlock Holmes in the recent film) and has the motor skills I lack.

He's also rich and already, at the age of seventeen, enjoys a substantial autonomy, partially because his father does not have his technical abilities (and his grandfather did and used Dylan from an early age) and partially because his personality is forceful. He's good-looking, though he doesn't see himself that way. Too busy.

But that's what everyone sees.

He's been, however, largely isolated from any affection. His mother despised him. His grandfather used him (and despised his father). His father didn't really try to know him until Dylan was nearing his teens. Other than that, his life was filled with fawning or resentful servants and acquaintance, most of which never saw past the obvious.

However, like myself, Dylan is capable of great emotional depth however dispassionate he might appear, depth, in fact, in direct proportion to his intellect. As I am, he's somewhat all or nothing. When he loves, it is absolute.

Enter Tessa. Smart, pugnacious, impulsive, determined, imminently honest and honorable, she is as isolated in her way as he is, except she has the love of family. And an unshakable sense of self, that instantly draws Dylan who had all but stopped thinking of himself as a person, but only as a thing to be used. As he, in turn, saw people around him.

Tessa wants nothing from him, but only demands from herself, including the urge to one-up Dylan. Her unwillingness to take engenders an obsessive need to give. Her regard for herself--and himself--as people, not tools, changes his outlook entirely. (I know some are skeptical this is plausible. I have to believe otherwise; I've lived it.)

At no moment in the book is his unshakable devotion to Tessa in doubt. For the readers, I doubt her love for Dylan is also obvious (though he is slow to acknowledge it - long story). But then, love is only part of it. It's when Tessa is threatened, endangered, that we see both Dylan's strengths and weaknesses in the clearest light, his abilities and his limitations, what makes him human not robot.

And we see that he wasn't necessarily as alone as he thought he was.

Next time, a taste.

Gosh, I hope things work out well for Dylan. I really like him.


Having It Easy Ain't Easy: Sidebar on Birds of a Feather

>> Monday, December 13, 2010

Over my last two posts on this subject (here and here), two different people brought up putting gifted children among their peers, where their differences are not so marked and where they could conceivably develop social skills among less stratified peers. One noted it with clear approval (if not obligation on the part of the parent to ensure gifted children are surrounded by similar peers), the other more in the terms of a question so good I'm posting it here:

One question I read into your post is whether it is more important (1) to bring up children in such groups that will minimize "being different" so that they may develop social skills in a friendlier (less bullying) environment or (2) to allow a more diverse environment so as to force them to learn that it's acceptable to be independent, to be who they really are rather than who they think the crowd wants them to be. Should they pursue path one while young and vulnerable and then slowly attempt path two only after they've developed strong social skills and can withstand the blowback from expressing their real differences?

What's the answer? I don't know. Nor am I readily convinced there is one good answer. But, I can tell you what I learned going from town to town, living in small districts and large districts, with strong gifted and talent programs and none to speak of as well as what I learned when I went to college.

One caveat is that I can only discuss this subject with regards to US schools. In an environment (such as found in certain European and Asian school systems) where being bright is socially acceptable, if not prized, much of this may not be the same.

First, from an academic standpoint, gifted and talent programs are almost essential (if not just plain essential) to not discourage or squelch the potential of an extraordinary mind. Dragging along a bright mind that "gets it" immediately, at a pace convenient for the lowest common denominator is good way to discourage any interest in learning or school. Bright children readily become disruptive influences, bored, desperate for diversion and other more dangerous mischief if they don't have adequate constructive activity.

Stratification allows different paces so that a teacher isn't forced to either drag those less adept along a pace they can't match, bore the bright students nearly to tears, or try to teach two or more paces concurrently in the same class (and, yes, teachers try this). Do note that yanking a struggling child forward at a pace they can't possible match isn't any less discouraging than bogging down the pace for bright mind. It's not just pace either. Many of the methods that work best for children who don't necessarily understand the concepts (repetition, memorization, formulaic teaching) are counterproductive to very bright children, either providing useless make work or failing to spark any mental stimulation.

Stratification is challenging, however, for smaller schools and earlier grades given the unforgiving fiscal realities (which will continue as long as local, state and federal governments continue to regard a viable education as a "nice-to-have"). The smaller the pool, the less gradation you can put between classes and the more the brightest or slowest have to work outside their given path. Given that being bright doesn't always reflect ability in all subjects, grade school classes (where all subjects are frequently taught in the same classroom) stratification can be more challenging when math brains with backwards verbal/writing skills end up in the same classrooms of brilliantly articulate children who can't visualize math easily.

This is one of the conundrums pertinent to Mike's question. Putting bright children together early in their social development when all the children are learning mostly academically and the same curriculum has a great deal to recommend it. It's just harder to do given the limitations in the student pool size and the challenges inherent in the fact that all bright children aren't created the same.

Another problem is that identifying a bright gifted and talented child isn't a black and white business and early testing may not identify a mind that catches up and sprints forward at a little later date. Too frequently, an early test determines placement for an entire gradeschool career, leaving a mind that "gets it" long discouraged and anti-school by the time they graduate (with the same social issues discussed in earlier posts). But another part of the problem is just the reliance on tests to decide.

At a higher level (middle/high school), stratification is easier with a larger pool of students and more specialization (i.e. math genius isn't forced into highest level English classes etc.), but social awkwardness may already be deeply entrenched and the academic stratification has to compete with other forms of stratification, including wealth, race, beauty, interests, athletics, etc.

Still, with all those challenges, I think stratification is still a good thing for most gifted children (and less gifted children as well) at as many levels as possible, but for academic reasons more than anything else.

However, I'm less convinced it's always better from a social standpoint. Here's why.

Gifted does not mean identical or compatible. Among the gifted, you might find creative geniuses, math savants, logical experts and people who can retain and regurgitate anything they've been given, and to varying degrees from the somewhat quicker than average to the "that ain't human" levels. That makes for a wildly divergent mix of personalities and talents and doesn't assure anyone is "normal" or has a potential friend readily identifiable. In my own experience, I found my own way of thinking outside the norm, whether it was the five student superclass in the tiny town in Maryland or the thirty student college-bound seniors at the largest high school in Nevada.

Being the top of the latter class, yet thinking differently than most of the others who seemed to generally have more "standard" smartness made me feel more of an outsider than ever, even though I was a favorite of teachers (or perhaps because). I was also poor, articulate, proud of my brains, sarcastic, and responsible. I was backward socially and I found my bright peers were no more tolerant of it than any other group I'd ever known. In fact, I was loathed far more in my G&T classes than the classes I took that were with general students (Driver's Ed, Spanish, World History, Health), possibly because those interactions had more to do with personality than brains and partially because sarcasm and stylelessness apply to more than brainiacs. I actually found myself most socially accepted in the ROTC crowd, which is ironic given how little interest I've ever had in the armed services. But they were friendly and nonjudgmental.

Competition. As much as kids don't like the "smart" kid in class, most kids aren't personally offended by it. They know they have other interests, other strengths. However, make it a class of nothing but people who see intelligence as their bailiwick, and the competition can get very ugly, very quickly. This can become more pronounced when children, used to setting the curve find themselves in an environment where they are barely competing at all or when there is still a bright frontrunner standing head and shoulders above the rest. The front runner can be socially brutalized (particularly if they think in ways that are outside the norm the others have), but it can also be demoralizing for those that are no longer at the top. When they were teased and made fun of by "regular" kids, they at least had something they excelled at. Now, they aren't even the best at that . . .

I saw this in college a great deal. I had the highest level of academic scholarship (limited to 15) at my university and most of the other recipients were very bright, very talented, with far more other scholarships as well. Of the other ones I knew personally for more than a year (three of them), one flunked out, and two lost their scholarships and changed to easier majors. The one that flunked out even told me I was directly responsible for her flunking out (GPA 1.2 the semester we were roommates) - she "couldn't compete." (Utter nonsense.) Part of that was, naturally, being under the tight control of someone else's discipline instead of developing your own. Part of that was that they weren't prepared for things to be actually challenging instead of as easy as it had always been. Part of that is that, with no one to tell them what to do, they started doing "fun" diversionary things they'd never had the chance to do before (and it took over their lives or at least enough of their lives they couldn't do the work). Part of it was that, when things started to go south, they had no internal mechanism to deal with it. They had no idea what to do or how to recover once they started failing. So they gave up.

Subgroup biases against visible brilliance. There are certain subgroups where you have a "built-in" social group where being visibly academically brilliant is an anathema. Girls are one; it's not a coincidence that I still number more male friends than female friends. I wish that last statement wasn't true more than you would believe and I saw it less than many because I was fortunate that all of my teachers were passionately pro-smart women (as was my father, even if he didn't always express it well). I have heard stories from others that this can be true of other minority groups like blacks and Latinos. Some subgroups venerate intelligence and academic prowess in the opposite manner, like the Vietnamese community of my friend Phuong Nga. But it means that putting bright kids in classes of their peers doesn't entirely insulate them from social bullying and the like. And not just from the community.

In such an environment, being bright anyway (in a visible manner) has social consequences also in the expectations of others outside that community. In many areas of this country, people will assume black children, for instance really aren't that bright. That kind of thinking flavors their willingness to teach a brilliant child to his potential, but also, in those children who excel anyway, tends to allow people to regard those bright black children with suspicion. For women, it can be equally marked and more socially acceptable to make those kinds of sweeping patronizing assumptions. Several of my engineering coworkers (female) had stories of teachers that literally asked them what a "pretty little thing like you is doing in an engineering class like this." That didn't happen to me, but in college, I could scare guys away in a heartbeat. I just had to tell them my major (Engineering Physics). (That didn't happen in high school, probably because most people already knew who I was and just didn't approach. I was a pretty girl, too.) Ironically, because of my own social backwardness, the men who didn't run screaming as I approached generally ended up friends either because I was too dense to notice advances or they were too cautious in approaching me. Or because we were just better friends.

For many, just this kind of repercussion is more than reason enough to hide one's intelligence. I accepted (2nd grade) being ostracized and took it as a given. I can literally remember the moment when I decided I wasn't going to be less than myself for anyone and accept the consequences. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm guessing that kind of resolve and acceptance is unusual.

It has another consequence. When you are resigned to ostracism, you are also very grateful for anyone who doesn't care you're bright. Sometimes, too grateful and too accepting, even if that attention is self-serving, using, or otherwise destructive. I've got a whole marriage to prove it. But that's another story.

Grouping social misfits together doesn't make them adept. Socially stunted people don't suddenly gain acumen by being grouped together. There's something to be said for like minds and not feeling alone (provided that's the reaction of your particular gifted individual in a group of other gifted children), but it doesn't mean that it solves all the problems. It may even emphasize and reinforce some notions and antisocial tendencies which might be most prevalent like individual pursuits, strictly electronic socializing or considering those that aren't bright the same way "lesser beings." Which is one reason why MENSA has never held any interest for me.

Reinforcing intellectualism to the exclusion of all else. What do Math Club students do when they throw a party? Go bowling? Well, if they're smart, they might. Too much time in front of a computer screen (guilty!) and the solution to everything is on the internet. Books, games, friends, social interaction, shopping, entertainment. When I was going to school, I was supposed to take four years each of English, math, science, history, foreign language. And do the required classes, a quick glance will show you that doesn't leave much time for something fun or creative or entertaining or inspiring like art or choir or drama, speech. I love to sing, but I never sang in class until college and even there I had to take it for no credit hours because my calendar was already full. Other interests, besides just books and school, are healthy and not just for the body. Burn out is a real risk when all you think life is a series of word problems or you never come outside of the work and the artificial worlds other people have created. It's hard to find something passionate about your life if you're just working and not living.

I think it also tends to focus people on what they do as a definition of who they are instead of, well, who they are. I'm an engineer or a writer or a pick-your-label-here. I get a black belt in Tai Kwon Do and crochet a few baby blankets for friends, and I might start to realize I have more going for me than just my brain. And, once I see myself as a three dimensional person, others might as well.

Real world isn't stratified. I mean, it can be if you're a research physicist or something, but most people living in communities that have a mixture of all types of people. Either you will have no friends (except on line) or you will have to learn to learn to interact usefully with people of all intellectual levels. Going through school without understanding that can lead to a very jarring realization after the fact.

I'm not sure if that's all of it. It might be. It's long enough for today and just gives you some perspective, hopefully, on why I don't think the question or the answer is black and white.

My husband, who doesn't have a high school diploma but still routinely gets 20 points higher on IQ tests, wanted me to add two things.

The problem won't go away until society as a whole stops vilifying people for being bright, being expert and thoughtful. As long as the suspicion of all things unfathomable is part and parcel (and that plays into teachers and parents, too) of society, bright kids will always have a tough road.

The second part is that the US emphasis on measurable metrics (i.e. testing) will continue to marginalize and adversely affect those that think in original ways. School will continue to bore the pants off children at every level unless their intellects are challenged and that means more than teaching kids to take tests. That means teaching critical thinking and fostering creativity and imagination.


Having It Easy Ain't Easy Part 2

>> Friday, December 10, 2010

Last time I talked about some of the reasons why "having it easy" makes having friends difficult. There are more reasons but the others are also tied to what I alluded to was the other issue here: the stunted or off-nominal social/emotional growth often found with a "genius." I'm considering these factors have to do with both.

Dispassion. The same capacity for honest evaluation required to excel at anything—anything!—is frequently tied to a sense of dispassion. Even someone who is passionate about, say, dance, passionate about excelling, has to look at his own performance dispassionately for improvement or he will never be great. Dispassion is great for excellence but sucks for interpersonal relationships. Passion, for the dispassionate, can be confusing and seem perverse. The objectivity built into the genius frequently leaves him unable to cope, not only with the passionate resentment of others, but with extreme emotional responses of any kind.

He may try to counter emotional responses or motives with reason and be genuinely confused when it fails. He may try to understand the emotional responses using logic and decide that all unfathomable emotional responses are, by definition, stupid. I don't think I really have to work too hard to explain why this would not do much to reconcile a genius with his peers.

But it can do more than widen the gap. It can also be self-limiting. Dispassion in some aspects, and a reliance on logic for everything, can severely limit emotional relationships with anyone, or emotional reactions. Dispassionate excellence is only intellectually satisfying. Do it often enough, and it's not even that (Straight A's isn't thrilling if that's all you ever get). Passion adds meaning to life, interest, color, purpose. Having none came make life colorless, bland and unappealing.

People have emotions, even the genius types. If people begin to distrust emotional reactions on principal, they stand to either squelch/revile their own emotions (which makes a fulfilling life just that much harder to attain) or they feel no responsibility for them whatsoever, no handle on control or limiting them. Which means their natural emotional reactions are out of control, unhinged.

Perhaps I could have saved myself from several paragraphs of explanation by just saying dispassion adds distance, whether it's with others or within one's own life.

Expectations. This is a big one. It plays a part in social ostracism—people expect geniuses to be unpopular and behave a certain way, even if it's not true—but it also plays heavily into a child's development. For instance, an intelligent logical child might be expected to excel at math, but, because they can't spatially envision three dimensions, they become stymied by geometry. The censure (both self-inflicted and by teachers/peers/parents) can be far more severe than that for someone "normal" who had the same problem. My husband, like many dyslexics, was very articulate at an early age. When writing began in school, he went a considerable time being told he was lazy, he wasn't trying, that he was unmotivated, when the problem was very specific. Their expectation of his brilliance (which was valid - his IQ is almost off the scale) led them to expect he could do anything language related (which was not valid) and a presumption, if he didn't, that it was willful.

Expectations, even within a field of excellence, can also be unrealistic as children and adults continue to push the bar up, only to find no satisfaction but rather even more egregious demands. Parents planning to live their dreams vicariously through their children are notorious in this aspect. Coincidentally, expectations in a particular field may also be for a particular kind of result, one that may be at odds, particularly for a creative genius. The genius can readily become frustrated at always being asked to provide Y, which he finds limiting, or gets criticized for providing something that doesn't fit neatly into a box, even though that creativity is part and parcel with genius.

One of the most devastating ways expectations can adversely affect a genius is by parents/mentors confusing their smarts with maturity. Parents of a gifted child (and teachers) can often feel emotionally distant (see dispassion) and assume their child really doesn't need nurturing, emotional support, love. Not so. It is quite possible that a gifted child won't know to ask for nurturing and support—how would she know?—or might not even realize she was lonely or lacking because she's never known any different. The parent assumes, because the child might not be demonstrative, that the child needs no demonstrations of care or concern. A parent might even be put off by that perception and make it self-fulfilling.

That same sort of thing, expecting a gifted child to be effectively an adult, is also carried forward in other ways, where a parent expects judgment or adult-level dedication from someone who is still a child. Logic does not take the place of experience in many ways and the emotional challenges a gifted child might have actually makes them less likely to address an emotional or social dilemma effectively, not more. Too often, and we see this with prodigies in music and athletics frequently, the parent expects devotion to the art, judgment, skill, self-control to just be part and parcel of the gift, instead of something that must be developed. And that is frequently not the case.

Ironically, the same people (parents, the occasional teacher) who expect them to have the dedication, work ethic and judgment of an adult are frequently the same people who seem determined to control every aspect of their child's life, dismissing what a child might want (or need) over what's "good for them." It's a conundrum that, even now, I can't wrap my mind around, yet I've seen it played out time and time again. Children, forced to take adult-sized responsibilities and meet adult-sized expectations, but given no autonomy or control over their own destiny. That is one resounding recipe for a screwed-up kid.

All work and no play. When my daughter was born, I had a very disheartening realization. I did not know how to play. I couldn't recall playing (though I had a vivid imagination), not with dolls or games or anything except as an indulgence to my siblings or others. This concerned me because I understood, intellectually, how important play is to the development of children. Fortunately, my second husband is a professional-quality player and helped me learn the basics and provided play for my children. Maybe too much, but that's a different story.

My point is that play is often overlooked while people are "nurturing" genius. And that's bad. Play is a great method of social interaction, where one's talents or brains aren't necessarily a handicap. There are many aspects and types of play that are cooperative rather than competitive. Play is a great way to foster creativity and give the mind a break from constant overuse. Play can be a good place to learn some of those emotional responses in a relatively safe environment, even develop some passions. Play is a good place to learn about other aspects of life, beyond books or one's special bailiwick, hobbies, outlets, pastimes that can help fill an otherwise dreary life. Too much of one thing is pretty darn limiting and sometimes unfulfilling.

Cynicism. One of the real risks to being a genius is becoming cynical. As you become dismissive of the passions and emotional railings of others, you can't help but notice how many people want to use your skills or make you look bad so they can look better. It's very easy, especially if you've had limited emotional connection with others, to ascribe the worst to the motivations of others and/or see the world as collection of users.

It's not just the expectations (which can quickly escalate into the absurd), but also the sense that you are just a tool, with no value other than what you can do. If the people around you are primarily focused on what you are (Genius, Prima Ballerina, Quarterback), it's challenging to see yourself in any other terms or to think that you have any value as an individual. It's not much of a step from that to begin looking at others the same way, as means to an end, as tools, as things. It's dehumanizing. I have actually been called "a machine" on performance evaluations. It sounds like a compliment (in terms of performance) but it's a far cry from being seen as an individual.

Self-reliance. Self-reliance is good, right? Ah, all things in moderation, grasshopper. Learning to depend on yourself rather than others is something all children (not just the gifted ones) should learn to do. Gifted kids are often called upon to do so early (see "Expectations") and more extensively than other children because, in large part, of the expectation of maturity (whether or not they are also being controlled). Combine that with a sense of cynicism (most people just want to use me anyway) and the belief (whether real or perceived) that someone can only accomplish things if he does them himself, and you have a perfectionist control freak.

This has many issues associated with it, not the least of which is an inability to ask for help when needed, whether with a project, or in the larger world. Any failure, even if the task was impossible, is taken as a personal failing and the results can be collapse, despair, suicide, depression, pick one. It is unreasonable that one can always handle whatever is tossed at one, no matter how capable. A bright star on her way to glory at a dizzyingly young age can be completely sidetracked by an unexpected pregnancy. And clueless how to deal with it. A man with everything to live for who has the world in his hand can find it gone in a flash with kid's diagnosis of leukemia. No one of can control every aspect of our lives (God, can you think how boring it would be if we could?), but there are many of us who leap to take responsibility and shoulder burdens that are more than can be born.

Of course, social ostracism can limit the pool of resources one can draw on, but frequently gifted people don't even turn to the people closest to them, determined to figure out a solution alone. And that, my friends, has done a great deal of damage, especially when they fail.

And that's more than enough for today.


Having It Easy Ain't Easy Part 1

>> Thursday, December 9, 2010

I told you there were downsides to having it "easy." My first thought is that there are two serious issues. The most obvious one is emotional isolation from other people, which tends to be blamed on either the smarty-pants or the "envious hordes," depending on which group you're in. The other is a potential for a lack of any sort of emotional fulfillment, a stunted emotional growth that can be related to the emotional isolation but also part and parcel of a life that has too few challenges or the wrong kind of challenges.

Note that when I talk about geniuses here, I'm not just talking about people who are book smart (though I do include people who are exceptionally book smart and/or logical - not the same), but also prodigies in music or athletics or a particular academic field, people who make something (if not several somethings) look so easy that it seems they have no troubles at all.

I can't address it all in one post and I also can't seem to get a handle on separating the two. Some of the same factors play a part in both isolation and emotional growth. I won't touch them all and some won't apply and some will to any particular individual. These are the ones I've seen first-hand, factors that increase that isolation and make it hard to fully develop.

Being different. This is the easiest to explain, starts the earliest, lasts the longest. It's also the easiest to overlook because, as people mature, they come up with other rationales to explain why they dislike someone even though being different is really at the core. Smaller children are less reticent about the core differences and words like freak and weirdo are used liberally. But the belief that there is one kind of thinking, one way of doing things that "everyone" should do, is still alive and well even among adults.

Fresh perspectives, new ideas, different ways of doing things, dispassionate evaluation, even genius—all can be readily dismissed along with the people who have them. For children, they're dismissed for no better reason than because they're different. For adults, it's frequently because it "hasn't been tested" or "challenges core values" or "goes against logic" even when the logic challenged is entirely unsound. People like to understand, to know, to feel they have a handle on things. People who don't think the same way, who are not readily comprehended, threaten that and frequently pay the price by being ostracized.

There's also an impact on the genius herself other than ostracism: that sense of no one being like her, no one understanding her viewpoint. It's a very isolating feeling to believe no one in the world sees things like you do. You don't belong anywhere.

Resentment. In this case, resentment is the attitude that it's unfair one person can excel "so easily" when others struggle. Note that this also manifests when dealing with people who succeed through hard work, but it's particularly pronounced when someone excels in a particular challenging field or when someone is academically superior "effortlessly." Busting the curve, making others "look bad"—almost always ascribed to malice—are considered crimes against fellow students, deliberate slaps all because the genius has an unfair advantage. It's difficult to fight because geniuses do have an unfair advantage (someone who understands math instinctively, for instance, does have an unfair advantage over someone who struggles to understand concepts) but the difference is made worse when the system is designed for children to compete against each other.

The problem isn't that it's untrue, at least to an extent. It's that it's no one's fault, either the genius or the kids who feel lessened as a result. Without a convenient target, however, resentful students have no choice but to blame the genius, as if he had anything to do with the advantage other than using it. A genius cannot use his genius to its greatest extent without causing resentment. In fact, once it's been identified, he cannot use it even minimally without resentment. Perhaps at all.

Arrogance. One of the most frequent complaints about genius in any field is arrogance. I won't lie; I suspect most geniuses are arrogant at least in the sense that they're well aware of their capabilities and even their limitations. There are also, any number of truly arrogant geniuses, in the sense that they feel their genius in whatever field proves that they actually are smarter and superior to the insignificant flotsam around them. It may not look like it from the outside, but there is a difference.

Don't get me wrong. Both can be tough to swallow from the outside. People who know what they can do and do it generally look good, even when they have notable limitations, largely because they're aware of them and steer clear of them. False modesty serves no dispassionate purpose (outside of relationships with others) and gets in the way of honest self-evaluation. Even the best of geniuses can be dismissive or intolerant of error or slower efforts (despite the effort that might have been exerted) others make. They shoot down ideas that don't make the cut without compunction. They are slower to be impressed with achievement. Part of that may be that they're just not competing with anyone but themselves; part of that might be dispassion that comes with pure logic—more on that later.

Those inflicted with the latter kind of arrogance, however, give the rest of us a bad name. I can kind of see it especially if you excel in a particular field. One can't expect Mozart to sit comfortably back as someone butchers a piece of music on the harpsichord when he could have played it better at the age of five. It is frequently difficult for prima donnas who are truly gifted to working effectively with those that are not so gifted, without being impatient and rude.

Note, however, that you certainly don't have to be truly gifted to be a prima donna. In fact, in my experience, that kind of attitude is almost inversely proportion to the amount of talent someone has (with some exceptions). If I find someone like this, he is usually either a true genius in some very narrow field who mistakingly thinks that makes him a genius in everything. (Not so!) or she is a person who consider herself a great deal more smart/talented than she actually is. In my experience, people most often jumping to the forefront to trumpet their intelligence are the ones whose intelligence is, at most, moderately high. People who are truly brilliant don't need to tell anyone. Many wish they were better at hiding it.

There are a significant number of geniuses (most of the ones I know) who are well aware of their abilities, yet don't treat people like crap. Part of that is because no one is good at everything. If you're smart enough to see this, you're smart enough to realize others have strengths and weaknesses, too, that they're not lesser, just different. They go out of their way to understand that strengths in those around them and are the types most likely to work well with others.

Sometimes, the arrogance is a direct result of the ostracism, a defense mechanism to defend a sense of self-worth in a critical world. Focusing on what one can do and telling yourself everyone else is jealous may be all one has to avoid a sense of worthlessness. This arrogance/impatience on the part of the genius undoubtedly contributes to their emotional isolation from others, something they do that makes their ostracism more pronounced. It's an ugly cycle made worse by . . .

The perception of arrogance. One of the most frustrating things about being on the genius side of things is that just acting normally is considered an act of arrogance. This goes hand in hand with the resentment described previously. Speaking using complete sentences, good diction and vocabulary becomes a calculated slur on those around one. Performing well on a test, getting a difficult task completed handily, correcting other people's problems, finding problems that didn't exist—just doing a job right can be viewed as an insult to everyone else, everyone who didn't do so.

For folks who are looking for arrogance, there's no distinction made between knowing one's own worth and thinking one's god's gift to the world of whatever. Short of playing dumb or completely hiding one's gifts, you can't win with this sort. They will see arrogance in everything, especially if they are the ones being corrected or overruled. However, even among the more tolerantly minded, the ones who might appreciate the notion that someone is intelligent, there is still a lingering sense of "less" when confronted with someone who sounds superior in some way. If a genius, unwittingly or no, makes someone feel inferior, especially repeatedly, it's only a small step in logic to deduce the effect was intentional.

Defenses. One cannot stress enough how challenging this ostracism can be on a genius, even among others of "his own kind"—the hierarchy is often less forgiving among geniuses and intellectual achievement does not equate to emotional maturity (which I'll go into in a later post). For some, the isolation is completely debilitating and they grow up emotionally crippled, either leading to lifelong psychological issues or overwhelming arrogance bordering on sociopathy. For others, it's just painful, one of the prices of excellence.

Some choose to hide their abilities or distract from them. They become class clowns with witty comebacks and negligent study habits (which may still not protect them from good grades, but might distract). I've seen several very bright boys go down this path.

Another frequent defense mechanism is playing dumb, way dumb, in fact. I'm sad to say, I see girls do this more than anyone, though I hear that it's also common among some minority groups. There's many women who have felt under particularly intense pressure to pretend an ignorance they didn't have or face near complete isolation. I find that ineffably sad, especially as my daughter is one of them. I can't tell you how painful it is for me to see my sharp quick-thinking daughter turn into a trash-talking moron whenever in the company of a "friend," even though I know how painful her isolation was for her her first few years of school. There is always a price and many a girl who spends her life playing dumb eventually discovers its no longer an act, her abilities and knowledge leeched away through misuse.

There's more features, many of which contribute both to isolation and to emotional challenges for geniuses, but I'll leave that for next time


Still Working on It

>> Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It is much easier to just sit and write Dylan Chroz than it is to sit here and write about what it's like to be "the smart one" or some type of child prodigy. I am working on it because I think it's actually important, but it's harder than I expected and I have to come to grip with things I tend to set aside and work past.

I accepted being unpopular as being part of being myself, since I wasn't willing to act like someone else. But there is always a price. I hadn't appreciated how much there was to it, how complicated and interwoven it was until I tried to put it together. How much my first marriage was tied to it.

I'm not sure everyone gets to decide if they accept it (some are unable to play a role). I know a lot of genius types do put on a persona not realizing that there's a price for that, too.

Bear with me.


Setting the Bar (Renamed, I'll explain why later)

>> Friday, December 3, 2010

Yes, I'm still busy writing and the end is not in sight (+45K words and counting). But I thought I'd pause to tell you why I've found this particular book so compelling.

I've been leading up to it, I think, for some time. I've skirted around it and flirted with the concept, taken away bits of it and put others in. I've written variations on the theme in almost every book I've worked on (if NOT every one). I wrote a multi-post review of mangas and somehow, I think, missed a key common denominator, one particular type of character that is endemic to my own work: the over-achiever who makes things look easy. There's one in every one of my favorite mangas (save two and they're barely among my favorites). They're in some of my favorite novels by others (Roarke, The Duke of Avon, any member of the House of Korval).

I've always been fascinated by people who did exceptional things as if it were easy, Mozart writing timeless music while still a youth, Baryshnikov who would look graceful falling down a flight of stairs, Feynman, Hughes, by a long list of people who made it look "easy" without getting famous. I've been fascinated not only by their abilities and thought processes, but by what they didn't have and their challenges (but that's another post).


Because I am one. I never took homework home in four years of high school. I could get it all done in and between class (I walked to/from school and hated carrying the books) [with the exception of writing research papers and I could have done that if I hadn't insisted in topping myself]. I could literally have been anything I wanted, gone into any into any scholastic field: history, English, foreign language, math, science, engineering. I don't joke when I say I'm an engineering physics graduate by accident (I could get a scholarship from both the college of engineering and and the physics department at the same time). Or, at least any field that didn't require motor skills, artistic talent or athleticism.

I don't think like anyone I've ever known, even people I consider equally intelligent. I don't see things the same, don't reach the same conclusions given the same data. I get more done in less time than anyone I've ever met, and I've met a great many productive people. I get, I kid you not, words like "machine" in my performance reviews routinely.

I know some of you are thinking, "Get over yourself, why don't you?" It's not like that. I'm not bragging. There's no merit in inherent logical ability; I didn't earn it. It just happens to be part of who I am like the curly dark hair and the really horrible fingernails made, apparently, of papier-mâché I have. I'm not better than other people. I'm just different.

I don't do everything better than other people. In fact, there's any number of things I suck at, like selling anything to anyone or remembering names. But I don't believe in false modesty. Nor do I consider it arrogance to know and say what I can do. If I tell you I can do it, you can take that to the bank. And I know first hand how hard it is for people to understand that having it easy doesn't actually make it easy. All my life I've heard "Well, everything's so easy for you," as if really was. It's surprisingly difficult, having "everything easy." There's always a price (but that's another post).

That's why I'm so excited about Dylan Chroz. I've never had a character that reflected so completely the way I think, the way I feel, the world as I've seen it. Oh, he's different than I am in many ways, better in many ways, backwards in others. I've loved writing him and that's why this has been so exciting for me.

Or, like many things, maybe that's just me.

Update 12/4/2010: I read this and it scares me a little. I can feel how this sounds, so off-putting when my intent is anything but. But I don't know how to say it more effectively. Will I alienate people rather than reach them on how it is to be me? As always, language is too limiting. I wish I could put a portal in my forehead so I could pass what I mean along to people in a way they could understand. (I've actually written one in one of my incomplete novels).

Or would my unusual thought processes thwart that, too?



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