Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Understanding and Loving Our Nerds

Very famous non-nerd and very famous nerd.

I just read the most amazing article by Benjamin Nugent in Psychology Today. Nugent is the author of a book with the arresting title American Nerd: The Story of My People which I’m now going to go out and buy. In his article he explains why some people who are exceptionally good at math and science and chess and inventing things are often also very awkward in dealing with their fellow men. To put it in the current parlance, Mr. Nugent explains why nerds are nerds, and why it is not their fault.

Apparently some highly intelligent people are genetically programmed to have what scientists are calling a “systemized brain” or an “S-brain” for short. A person with an S-brain is good at thinking like a machine, but he doesn’t have the wiring to easily understand people and social systems. As children, S-brainers point out their teachers’ errors, something that rarely endears them to their instructors or their fellow students. They have solitary hobbies like building radios and computers in the garage and they consequently have trouble making friends. People, they discover, don’t work like machines and they are puzzled by this. Being smarter than most other people and being socially inept are isolating and these two traits compound each other. Nerds have fewer opportunities to learn the very things about people they need to know in order to not be so nerdy.

The opposite of an S-brain is an “E-brain” or “empathetic-brain.” People with this kind of wiring, writers Nugent: “are good at divining what people are feeling and people with E-brains develop sharper social skills. More men have S-brains than women and more women have E-brains than men—though men and women both fall all over the spectrum.”

But it isn’t all bad. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both nerds. Albert Einstein knew his universe but he had great difficulty with women, leaving the field wide open for his less intelligent friends.

I read this article with growing excitement. My brilliant father, who sometimes said the oddest and most hurtful things, suddenly came into focus. He was an S-brain nerd, if there ever was one.

When my sister and I were children he was great fun. Nerds can relate to children because they are also socially inept. He said things to us like “Don’t cry. Don’t you know tears just turn to water vapor?” which always made us laugh, though now that I have read this article I wonder if he was actually just giving us what he felt was important information. He loved making us swing sets and even more than that liked solving the problems of children. When he caught us fighting one day over whose turn it was to swing on the swing, he went away and brought back an old kitchen timer, nailed it to the tree, and called it the “turn timer.” End of problem. Well, mostly.

He built our first house because he thought it would be interesting. Once he even tried to explain to me how an internal combustion engine worked—as if I wanted to know! When he really wanted to kick back, he could be found in some quiet corner reading his college physics textbook.

You learned never to ask him how you looked, not if you didn’t actually want to know. Once, when I was at the height of my television career and in the prime of my youthful attractiveness, I went to an enormous amount of trouble to go with him to his fiftieth high school reunion in Homewood, Alabama. (My Mom didn’t want to go.) At the party, I overheard one of his schoolmates compliment me: “She’s so pretty,” said the man. “She must be like your wife.” And my father answered: “Yes but my wife would never wear stockings like that.” The stockings were a shimmery platinum color from Donna Karan. I thought they were gorgeous. I thought a proud father might have said “Thank you” to a compliment like that and I was very hurt.

Yet if there was a Boy Scout at his front door, asking for a donation, he had the softest heart on the block. I was baffled.

Once, he and my mother visited me in Florida. I exhausted myself trying to make my house perfect. I took them to wonderful places. I drove them everywhere. On the last day, we were headed out to get my Dad an ice cream cone, his absolutely favorite thing. I was driving the car and as we pulled out he said to me: “One thing I really don’t like about you—” When he paused here, I stopped the car and turned to him and just about burst into tears. Then he continued: “ … is that you don’t put your seatbelt on until you start the car.” I started laughing, since the second half of his sentence was such a surprise after the first half. When I stopped laughing I said: “One thing I don’t like about you … is that you would start a sentence to me with the phrase ‘one thing I don’t like about you.’” He had been trying to be fatherly. It had just come out the wrong way. The nerd way.

My mother constantly made fun of him because he had no interest in popular culture. “You don’t even know who Barbra Streisand is,” she said one day with derision. He cocked his head and looked at her and you could see the little wheels in his head going around, trying to compute for what reason he should know this person she had named.

Ludwig von Mises, on the other hand, the Austrian economist, this man my dad was familiar with. At age 78 he read Mises’ 845 page tome Human Action because he was curious about how economics worked. No wonder he had no time to listen to “People Who Need People.”

Here is the most ironic part of this story. Now, at 89, my Dad’s wonderful S-brain has gone on the blink. He can’t figure out how anything works anymore and the paradox is that this has caused him to become as funny and friendly as a goofy teenager. He absolutely adores me and my sister and says so all the time, something he never ever expressed before in his entire life.

So there you are. Life is truly strange at least it seems so to me, the high-IQ E-brained child of an S-brained father. And life sprinkles its blessings on you in the strangest ways. Here’s the blessing I pass on: may you be lucky enough to love a nerd.


n.yezhov said...

I'm finally catching up on your initial posts, Robin. The more I read about your father, the more I respect him. I particularly liked him reading Ludwig von Mises 'Human Action' at age 78. There are people who choose to stop living at a much younger age, but your father continued to push his mind. That was where he found his bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say (other than loving you and your sister, in his way). You honor him in various ways throughout your blog, building an image of him for us that shows why you still love him. You worry sometimes when you're down that you failed in some way. Know that in this, the loving daughter who honors her father, you excel. The measure is in the vibrant, life-affirming image I have of your father through your eyes, though I never knew him.

Robin Chapman said...

You are so kind to say these things to me about my father. I can't shake the feeling that I failed him somehow. But I keep trying to love and understand him and that's the best I can do.