Sunday, May 30, 2010

All the Smart People Want

Yesterday, I had the unexpected opportunity to have coffee with someone I sort-of knew, and his wife, whom I totally didn't know, and it was great---like a little oasis of inspirational connection with cool people.

"Bully for you," you say? Right. But here's the thing: this kind of happy synchronicity is so very very far outside my comfort zone. In the face of virtually all situations, I choose not to expose myself to a potentially-uncomfortable interaction with near-strangers, particularly without a well-worked out escape route. I am the person for whom the app exists that makes it look like someone is calling you and you have to go.

I met Baldie a few years ago because he was one of a group of people that I worked with on a project. Smart guy, very extroverted (in inverse proportion to the amount of hair he possesses, thus the name). We had a number of good conversations at the project meeting, and then a couple of follow-ups over the years: I saw him at a conference or two, exchanged emails, etc. I found him to be charming and also a bit "charm-offensive" on occasion---you know the dudes who refer to themselves in the third person? As in the ones who say, about themselves, stuff like "and I told them that Baldie McShine was having none of that!" Yep. Sort of like that. [Why I'm simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these guys is fodder for both therapy and another post.]

Last week, I noticed on Facebook that he and his wife were headed out on vacation, and would be driving by my city, and on a whim, I wrote to tell him that, if they had time, he should drop in for coffee or lunch. Let me say, for the record, I never really thought that he would. Who stops on a road trip to see people?! Um, apparently Baldie does. So with great trepidation and no escape plan (he caught me really flat-footed, as in "we'll be there in about an hour, will that work for you?"), I headed out to meet them.

Mrs. Baldie, or "Hash" as I think I'll call her (reasons below), was far more delightful than I would have expected. As was Baldie. I don't know if this is his pre-vacation stance, but he was natural, and relaxed, and using the first-person pronoun. [As I think about it, it may also be the case that he has settled into a solid job at a fairly prestigious SLAC, and so can relax a little.] Our conversation, as noted before, was really enjoyable, in that "wow, you think Polanski is a douchebag too? And you are appalled by Dr. Drew? Be my friend!" kind of way. [And here's what really made me love Mrs. Baldie: I was explaining how much I missed having cable, and the lucky happenstance of catching something on it that is just crap that you wanted to see. Her reply: "That's my favorite thing too! Who knew that I really needed to see Independence Day again, for the eighth time? What I really wish I could do is settle down with it with a big bowl of hash, and eat the old ice cream, the kind with the ice crystals in it." You want to be friends with her now too, don't you?]

Toward the end of the conversation, the topic turned to the "now what do we do with our lives" topic that is so much a part of my mental geography of late. Both of them laughed and talked about how they'd been thinking about getting new degrees, although it was difficult to support that idea---not for the reason I thought (cost, application, time commitment)---but rather because they have the skills to read something hard in a particular field and use secondary criticism to get more out of it. If that's the case, then why go to a program? "It's obvious," said I. "We all just want to have great, focused conversations with smart people."

As I walked them back to their car, it became clear to me that outside of the academic programs that I've been in, which really helped to engender those kinds of conversations, I would really have to be focused about creating them. I wonder if, in fact, that's one of the reasons many of us choose this profession: because we imagine that it's as close to a guarantee of those interactions as we can get. Baldie, it seemed, was making an effort to find these kinds of things too, or else he and Hash would have kept right on truckin' up the freeway. There are many things that I have thought I need to spend more time doing, now that my leave is up: write more, read more, get more exercise. But this seems like something I need to practice and develop an intention for as well---getting myself into social situations with smart people. Why has it taken me so long to figure that out?

I'm going to see if I can find a copy of Independence Day. Happy holiday, y'all. Go find a smart person and see what they can tell you.

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