Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Brain Matter

I used to tell my students when they’d grumble about “why do I have to read (choose a literary classic) when I’m going to be a (something not an English teacher)” that one of the really cool things about knowledge was that the more you knew, the more interesting life got. If nothing else, I told them, you’ll be able to watch reruns of Frasier and get the jokes.

The down side is, of course, the more you know, the more you realize how little you know and how much more there is to learn. That’s a bit frustrating.

I’m an English nerd. A big ol’ geek. The Playfriends groan when I start babbling about “the house as a metaphor” or “the betrayal of suspended disbelief.” But I find it fascinating.

And then I found these on Jenny Crusie's site: Dating Death: Love and Sex in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Assassination of Cordelia Chase.

(They're quite long -- but worth a read -- but I'll tell you that they offer critical analysis of love and romance in the Buffy-verse and a wonderful discussion of character. If you want to write romance, I recommend them both for how to look at a character and character arc.)

Now, I’m a huge Jenny Crusie fan. I’m also a huge Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel fan. I think romance rocks, and I love a good meaty analysis. To find all that in one place… Geek-gasm.

And then I felt really, really stupid. Not just because Jenny does such an awesome job (in such an entertaining way) synthesizing a huge amount of source material into her analysis. Not just because I was nodding my head all the way through. (That’s the sign of good analysis. It makes sense. Maybe you didn’t know it consciously or couldn’t have articulated it even if you did, but you know she’s right. That’s why Riley always irritated me a little and why I loved Spike so much.) No, I felt stupid because there was no way I’d have been able to synthesize and articulate it so well. What happened to my critical thinking skills?

Dog knows, I’ve analyzed things to death and pulled some crazy crap out of my butt (“Noetic Abundance and Romantic Ideology in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” anyone? Maybe “Self-Created Psychological Captivity.” Oh, and my personal favorite: “Is Mercutio (Romeo and Juliet) Bi-Polar or a Repressed Homosexual?). Yep, I wrote those papers. They still live in my hard drive, and as I looked them over to pull the titles, I wavered between impressed at my own attempts to articulate an idea and tease proof out of the texts and supporting materials and rolling my eyes at the lameness on display.

More depressingly, though, I realized that I’d be hard pressed to try to analyze something now. It’s a skill that it’s definitely lost if not used. Critical thinking muscles have to be exercised or else they lose strength. (And I will refrain from extrapolating that statement into a lecture about broader society and the shocking lack of critical thinking on display on any given news program. The Playfriends are pretty sick of that lecture, too.)

I feel like I’m getting a little dumber every day. Of course, as AC approaches her tweens and teens, my IQ drops about three points a day in her eyes, so that doesn’t help, either.

So, good little geek that I am, I’ve decided to start exercising those critical thinking skills again. I contacted a few friends that I went to graduate school with and started an “English Major Book Club.” We’re all such nerds, we’re excited about a book club that will basically recreate that school experience – only with wine and snacks this time. And no papers to write.

I’ve always obsessed over improving my body – my weight, muscle tone, etc – but now I’ve tempered that some with the idea I shouldn’t ignore my mind. Just as I need to work different muscle groups, I need to work different parts of my brain as well. This year, I’m going to start tapping back into a part of my brain I just forgot how to use.

So thank you, Jenny Crusie. I’m a big fan, and I love you. But I hate you just a little as well. I fully admit that hate is totally fueled by jealousy for your amazingly big brain that writes awesome books and remains sharply critical and analytical. But thanks for the push. You’re welcome at our nerdy little book club anytime.

Hopefully, life will get a lot more interesting.

So, here’s a question. Have you lost a skill you used to have? (My ability to do a triple pirouette without busting my butt also jumps to mind…) Is it something you’d like to get back? Have you ever tried to?


Angel said...

Oh, Lord. Yes, my critical thinking skills have gone down the drain, and I seem to get more tired every day. I loved nothing better than to sit in my English classes and talk "themes" and "metaphors", but now I'm just lucky to be able to read at all. :)

I think part of my problem is a lack of opportunity. Daily I deal with a lot of things, but few of them require those same skill sets. So while I'm by no means dumb, my family isn't very impressed with my ability to examine text. I've always thought I'd like to take English classes for fun, but there's simply no time. :)

Other abilities I've lost: ability to grow a decent garden (no patience anymore), cross-stitch (no patience), and bake complicated recipes (no patience). Hmmm... I see a theme!


Christine said...

Critical thinking is important. My hubby and I realized that we had lost our intellectual touch with world events after he went to DC for work and spent dinner discussing world events with our former neighbors. We used to be so in touch because we were in the Nation's Capitol and had access to The Washington Post as well as the public radio news and more. Our local news was the National News.

We bought 3 months of The Washington Post to read online as an antidote. I may have to stop watching House Hunters International (I dream of my retirement in 100 years) and tune into a more weighty news network or public television.

I hope it's not too late to save our few remaining critical thinking brain cells!

Problem Child said...

Okay, when I first came over, the formatting was fine. Now it looks all funky to me. Hmmm... Blogger hates me.

I do think opportunity has a lot to do with it. I mean, it's not like I can lead a discussion about dramatic tension in R&J at the dinner table with a 9 year old and a Geek.

and I quit crossstiching as well, Angel. It started to make my eyes hurt.

And Christine, we have a great public radio station here. Nice mix of the news.

Instigator said...

Aw, dang. As if I wasn't feeling bad enough for blowing my diet by eating that entire pack of Keebler cookies. :-)

Yeah, I've lost lots of skills I had as a teenager. But really, who needs the ability to do the splits? And, honestly, the thought of analyzing anything right now makes my head hurt. I envy you the enthusiasm and energy to go after this...can I live vicarioiusly through you?


Christine said...

Thanks for the tip PC-I'll look for it on the dial. Meanwhile, I read my Post this morning and I think I saved one brain cell.


Playground Monitor said...

Sorry to be late commenting. Now, what was the question again?

Smarty Pants said...

I was never much for heavy analysis, be it art or literature. I've had people point out things in my own writing ("I love how her injury is a metaphor for her emotional journey") where I was like, what? You get that from a limp? Ok, but its just a limp and you're giving me way more credit that I deserve. Makes me wonder if all that stuff is deliberate by the author or if English types come up with it on their own.

Things I used-ta-could do... math. Like big, calculus math. My brain has completely shut down when it comes to anything more complicated than calculating a tip or a percent discount off shoes. I used to be able to do computer programming in three different languages. Zippo now. I could also speak Spanish fluently. Would actually dream in spanish sometimes. I could probably fake my way through being stranded somewhere in a Latin country, but nowhere near what I could do back in the day.

Use it or lose it, people.

catslady said...

I hate that I can't always recall the words that I want to use. I always had a large vocabulary and it drives me crazy.

robertsonreads said...

Yes, mine would be shorthand. It would sure come in handy now. I have professors and other people coming at me all the time and this skill would be wonderful. And I can't believe that I am saying that. But it would be nice to remember with my job now.