It occurred to me while I was listening to my neighbors, both beautiful women in their late twenties, and they’re talking about dating apps and their conquests or lack of conquests, that I interrupted them and said, “This is why I miss my twenties.” Not for the untreated, at-times-crippling mental illness, but for the fact that I wasn’t concerned about IRAs. This stuff was life or death to them, as it was for me when I was that age. There’s an innocence to it that is impossible to replicate, and if there were some way I could give my neighbors more time to enjoy it, I would.
One of my neighbors, I’m going to call her Ethel, talks to me like she knows me. We’ve had a couple of one-on-one conversations, and we share the same pot dealer, but that’s really it. But she’ll say something that would probably impress me if I knew what she was talking about, and I’ll stand there, and she’ll cock her head like she’s expecting me to weigh in. She gave me a recently published, critically acclaimed book to read which is currently draped in a thin layer of dust.
I don’t really read because I have yet to find the book that scratches my itch. I spent a year or so burning through Urban Fantasy novels, looking for the one thing and not finding it. Finally, I decided that I’d have to write it myself, and I currently have over two-dozen novels written. And maybe the reason Ethel talks to me like she does is because she sees me writing constantly, and she thinks I’m unraveling the secrets of the human condition when I’m actually writing a murder mystery starring New York nineties club kids.
Ethel thinks I’m an intellectual, and she is way off.
I’m not anti-intellectual. Ever since I was a little bitty asshole, I could soak up information like a sponge, but what I couldn’t do was process it. I would learn everything I possibly could about a subject and that’s what I want to be when I grow up, and a new subject would come along, and no, this is what I want to be when I grow up. It was exhausting, and I didn’t score high marks in grade school.
They flagged me as gifted in the seventh grade and entered me into the gifted program where all the smart kids got together and went to concerts and played the stock market game and listened to guest speakers, but mostly it was a chance for us to miss class and hang out with our nerd friends. My first kiss was in the back of a Gifted and Talented Education van (high-five!). Looking at the GATE kids now, about half of us are a serious letdown. The reason I was in this program was because I took an IQ test well, and those things are not reliable. One of the girls I used to hang with in middle school repeatedly tried and failed to test into the gifted program, and she was smarter and more hardworking than me any day.
It wasn’t because of GATE that I felt like an intellectual when I was a teenager. It was because of my Best Man. He was an artist from a Seattle-adjacent town in Washington, and in the time since he’d dropped out of high school and moved to Gallup, he taught himself culture. I would sit in his studio apartment for hours, learning from him.
When I was in college, I set out to be an intellectual, but I didn’t have the discipline. I bullshat my way through the English Department. (If the English Department ever reads this, their response will be to impatiently reply, “Yes, we know!”) I stopped dressing like a grunge fan had sex with a goth and I was the product of their union, and I started dressing more like a smart person, with tucked-in shirts with banded collars. I almost failed out of college.
The intellectual mindset followed me to New York where I was going to become a writer of a novel that was going to make critics cry. I drank whisky with a high school English teacher. I wore hound’s-tooth sports jackets. What I didn’t do was write. I got into art, and all my friends thought that was fabulous, but I couldn’t make them understand is I wanted to learn how to draw pictures of one person punching another person really hard, not canvases that contained the secrets to the universe. I wasn’t planning to write literature, just something fun with hopefully some heart, when I got around to it.
I began my career as an editor within a year of leaving New York, and that made me feel like an intellectual, but I was editing self-published books, and a substantial portion of those were people talking about their lawsuits. A number of them were political diatribes. I read a lot of thrillers written by middle-aged white men about middle-aged white men who got shit done, unlike all this pencil-pushers in the CIA. I read a truly baffling book about a dented can of Juicy Juice that made people dance if you listened to it (but whatever you do, don’t drink it). There was no scholarly literature in the pile, but I kept up the pretense for ten years until I was fired for turning in substandard work.
That takes me to now. When I’m not working, or when I’m working from home, I wear T-shirts and jeans. I hardly talk to anyone, but I don’t try to give the pretext of being smarter than I am. I watch Marvel movies (though I am rapidly becoming disillusioned with them) and collect Doctor Who action figures. I have a framed print of a cat in a TARDIS surrounded by framed postcards of varying sizes of John Singer Sargent paintings along with a small black-and-white drawing of Wonder Woman drinking a latte. I have one shelf of my bookshelf of actual books and seven bookshelves of graphic novels. I have Lego models. There is nothing in here that says intellectual (except for Ethel’s dust-covered novel), but the myth persists.
Do I explain to Ethel that I’m not actually that smart? That I’m not literary, not cultured? Do I really want to dispel this myth? And my answer is no. I hardly ever see her, and I talk to her alone even less than that. I’ve heard some of her guy friends talking, and they’re as bad as I used to be. What’s the harm in her thinking her neighbor is this cool intellectual who sometimes hangs out in the backyard? This, I’ve concluded, is the smart thing to do.