A few decades ago, a friend observed that I seemed to be “playing catch-up ball intellectually.” She was surely right. But the thought that I might try to catch up is just so exhausting – running and running trying to keep up with the Cicero-spouting intellectuals who form a substantial part of my clan – that I’ve decided finally to abandon it.
In the greater scheme of things I know nothing, but there are certain areas in which I excel. Emily Ocker’s circular cast-on, of course, is one. I also know the difference between a blackpoll warbler and a black and white warbler. I know there’s such a thing as a pentatonic scale. I know when somebody is lying to me and I excel at conversation with plumbers and painters and mail deliverers.
I have a fairly substantial vocabulary and I generally know bullshit when I hear it. And that last, knowing bullshit when I hear it, even if it’s coming out of my own mouth, is valuable. I hardly ever bullshit except occasionally to my kids, but only if they’ve bullshitted me first. Okay, sometimes I start it. See there? No bullshit.
Sometimes I start it. I’m not scared when the doctor tells me I’m allergic to my dogs and will have to get rid of them, because I know it’s bullshit. The fact that I started sobbing, and sobbed through the appointment, through the flu shot and the blood-taking and the bill-paying and the elevator to the parking lot, through the gate and all the way home, was not bullshit. It was true, and it was real, and I was right. I’m not allergic to my dogs. And here’s another thing that’s not Cicero but it’s not bullshit either: things eat each other.
There’s a little flycatcher in my trees and when he spots an insect he goes after it and he takes it back to his branch and he eats it. All day. How many dead bugs is that? Why does he have to work so hard all the time? The big mower in the field mows the baby rabbits, and the baby foxes and ducks and newborn deer. The hawk eats the mourning doves, who are slower and dumber. These are things I know!
I know that some people have to keep moving and some people have to take it slow. I know that the beast is slouching toward Bethlehem; I think about him all the time. Of course that’s not intellectual; it’s sub-intellectual or sub-rosa or subconscious or subliminal. It might also be a waste of time.
I suppose I’ve spent my life going inward, and now I might be so far in there I can’t get out. I know the mistakes I’ve made, at least some of them, and while that’s not an intellectual achievement it does involve thinking. Which begs the question: what does it mean to think? Should I be thinking about certain things and not about others? Should I not waste my time with dogs or teeny rock garden plants or Emily Ocker and her cast-on? Truthfully, I’m not that great a knitter. I make mistakes, I go walkabout on the 40th row of the pattern, I put down my knitting and don’t pick it up during the baseball game. Knitting is something for non-intellectuals anyway, unless you’re in it in order to be part of the Brooklyn “makers” class, who are so deeply intellectual they not only dye their own yarn but grow their own dyestuffs in vacant lots.
Oops, but I got off-topic, another reason why I haven’t achieved the intellectual home-run chops of some of my friends. So, what would be intellectual chops? Shakespeare, Chaucer, the history of the Kurds and the Wheys, the connection between the Shetland Islands and Sweden (or is it Norway) during the second World War (or was it the first, or both?). I’m pretty good on the useless stuff; Freud, run-off, Faustian bargains, Fibonacci numbers, the theory of the weed-free lawn (it’s related to immigration policy), the fact that foxes leave their scat in the middle of the road or the top of the rocks, that nuthatches only go down the tree and brown creepers up, that my father shouldn’t have given gin to the dog and my mother should have come out of the basement when I went for my abortion, that John Irving is a classist monster, that deer shot with arrows die by bleeding to death as they run, that every one of us is running as fast as we can, that Hunter Thompson killed himself in the most flagrant, mean way by blowing his brains out while his wife was at the gym and his son was on the way over and that that’s unforgivable, and that some things might really be unforgivable.
But back to Shakespeare. I never took the course. Not in high school and not in college. I’ve tried reading on my own, and I’ve seen a few plays including one in the Shakespeare theatre in London. I’ll be damned if I can remember which one. I got my knitting group to do a few sessions on Hamlet, led by our English professor/knitter. Nada. I did learn that Hamlet was Danish which I found moderately interesting.
I do get that to be or not to be is a good question. But what is “to be”? If I knew that, I would have caught up. My life isn’t over yet, and I suppose it’s never too late to catch up, if only I knew what that meant.