Day Nine: On Learning

Last night, Husband & I went out to dinner with two friends  – Lisa and Ian – for Vietnamese Pho soup. They go every Monday night. The place is hideous – thick, cherry wood tables that feel laminated like the menus, linoleum on the floor,  a neon bar in the corner that looks like it’s from the Cathouse – but the food is delicious. We were all tucking into our face-sized bowls of broth, when Lisa asked a question that would normally make my blood run cold.

“So, what do you guys think about the Petraeus case?

Instead of busying myself with bean sprouts and sirracha sauce, I looked up, curious.

“I don’t understand why they’re making it such a big deal,” she continued, slurping.

“I can’t believe the he was so stupid and careless – wasn’t he involved with the CIA?”

“Yes, he was the Director,” added Husband.

“So, this is how the Director of the CIA conducts his affairs? He can’t figure out how to not send emails?”

“I know. But also, you know, he’s not an elected official; he was hired. And so I don’t think it’s necessary for us to know anything about it,” Ian interjected, looking down to spin the rice noodles around his spoon without capsizing it and losing the beef he’d scooped up.

Husband agreed. “And he was really admired for his work. He did a really fantastic job in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

I dared to participate. ” I guess folks feel we need to know about it in case there was a security breach.”

“With that crazy lady?” Lisa asked.

“Which one?”

” I know, there are a lot to choose from.”

Husband leaned back in the booth and put his arm across the top, squinted, and smiled. “You know? Let me ask you this. Is there a double standard here? You know, he’s able to step down, he’ll be fine once it blows over. But she, she is screwed. She’ll never have another job for the rest of her life.”

” I think there’s totally a double standard because she’s a woman.”

“Yeah – she’s a whore, he’s just ‘being a man, that’s what they do.””

Oh my god! I thought. This reminds me of something I read today! ” I was just reading an article in the Atlantic this morning about the response to this that many are having is to say, ‘men can’t mentor women, because it will always become sexual, it’s just too dangerous,’ and how that is a really sad and stupid thing to have come out of this,” I offered, pausing with a basil leave in hand, ready to be shredded into the soup.

” I’m curious about the third woman – Jill something? – I heard on NPR that her role in life is to like, make life more comfortable for generals.”

“What? What what?”

“Yeah what, like a geisha?”

” Is she a madam?”
” No, I mean like, she has dinner parties for them.”

“This is her job?”
“No, her hobby.”

” Her hobby is to throw dinner parties for Generals?”
“What, does she put an ad in the paper advertising for 5 -star Generals looking for cocktails and a home-cooked brisket?”

” What! This is so crazy! That makes no sense.”

” I know! See, this is what I want to hear more about!”

” Well, I think the whole thing should just blow over. It’s ridiculous, it’s over.”

“That’s true. I just don’t see why it’s such a big deal still.”

I had gained enough momentum and comfort now to make a hypothesis. “I don’t want to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but I feel like the reason they – the Republicans – are making such a big deal about Petraeus is in order to build a case against the administration. The hole they’re trying to poke right now in the White House is that they’re not keeping us safe; that there are things they’re not telling us; that terrorism is still a threat. And last night Lindsey Graham was on Meet the Press saying, “Obama’s platform during the election was, ‘I killed Bin Laden, Al Queda is gone,’ but now we’re seeing that national security is a mess and that’s not true. He was going on about how Obama just used this as a tactic to get elected, and now the truth comes out that we’re all in grave danger, which is easy for people to believe. So by making the Petraeus issue a big deal about national security breaching, and being obsessed with Susan Rice saying it wasn’t a terror attack, they’re putting together a story that this administration lies and we’re not safe.”

Oh my God, I thought, When did I learn all this shit?

Now, nobody else seemed to necessarily be making sense of what I was saying – the comments fluttered in and out of the conversation like disoriented butterflies- but I was struck by them. I had an opinion, and expressed it! I had read an article that ended up being relevant! I made a connection between two news events happening and the same time! I remembered the name and position of someone new, and used it in a sentence correctly without anagramming it by accident!

How the hell did this happen?

While the conversation moved to talk of traveling for weddings and whether it’s acceptable or bratty to complain about terrible service at a restaurant, I was distracted. Fascinated. In the past week, I had learned stuff. Information had seeped in, and the thing that’s rare for me is – it actually stuck. In the past I’ve had no problem reading and watching the news, and understanding it; it’s just that damn remembering part that always gets me.

So, I started to retrace my steps. How did I know about any of this?

1. I had watched Morning Joe every other day, while preparing my puppies’ kibble with chopped carrot and apple, and doing a short burst of aerobics while boiling a few eggs to have as breakfast and a midday snack. Every morning kind of sounds the same on that show, but there’s something about the vibe I find vaguely soothing and invigorating, all at once. It reminds me of when I used to buy Starbucks coffee on the way to high school, and the clean white cup, with the dark and serious coffee in it, made me feel very cool and grown up, like I was twenty or something. I imagined I looked sophisticated. There is something about watching Morning Joe for me now that makes me feel like drinking that coffee as a teenager. Perhaps it’s just the genius Starbucks branding. Because I couldn’t tell you a thing they talk about, even fifteen seconds after hearing it. In one ear, out the other.

2. Yesterday, at my aunt’s house, we sprawled across the sofas like whales beached by the tide of a too-big lunch. In the interim between afternoon and evening football games, we mustered the strength to lift the remote and change the channel  to Meet the Press. I had never watched the show before. I was totally captivated, because it seemed to be a balanced and reasonable group of people, from both sides of the partisan fence, talking at normal civil volume, and making sense. This was a novel concept & experience. I made note of the names of two guys on the show – Lindsey Graham and Mike Rogers – who I found reasonable, but knew were conservative; the ensuing cognitive dissonance was something I noted I wanted to explore in a later blog post this week. This definitely made it easier to retain their names.

3. I watched the Colbert report last night as well, and they did a terrific bit about the sordid details of the Petraeus affair. It involved a falcon, Susan Lucci, mentions of a psychotic twin, and an Anthony-Weineresque sexting graphic. No question as to how those factoids made it into the old noggin.

4. On Facebook, an old-Satre-quoting-best-friend-turned-Christian-Conservative posted the Atlantic article about the stupid response many are having to this situation, which involves warning us that any mentor/mentee relationship between a man and woman will inevitably  become sexual. I read it, hoping it would be funny or provocative, which it wasn’t. I made it about five paragraphs through, realized that was just the introduction, and closed the window.

From this, I can gather that I learn best when a) I have the intention of writing about a topic later on, or b) there is some kind of salacious, shocking, or suspenseful element that ensconces the kernel of news in a fluffy, caramelly, crunchy shell. I’m more likely to remember popcorn than a kernel of raw maize, it seems.

This got me thinking about the way people learn, and retain information. This topic has long fascinated me – not because I was a teacher, but because I have been awestruck or horrified by the ways in which people gather, keep, and regurtitate ideas.

In my experience, there are three kinds of learners.

I’m talking about real learners you encounter in the adult world who make you feel ignorant, horrified, jealous, impressed, insecure – you know, grown-up feelings. I’ve parsed them out into three categories.

The Serial Killer

My first deep encounter with this kind of learner happened in college, with a serious boyfriend I shacked up with against my grandmother’s (correct) advice. He fancied himself a scholar. He was very, very obsessed with Chechnya. Granted, he had decided to write his thesis about it, but there was a different flavor to his research. He got a glassy, romantic glaze in his eyes when talking about the Chechnyan rebels, the way I imagine Paula Broadwell did when discussing her subject of choice. When I would come home from work, I would find him huddled in a corner of the sofa, hunched over his laptop, looking up articles about Chechnya. Surrounded by splayed open books about Chechnya. With Beautiful Mind notebooks full of scrawling charts and maps and tables about Chechnya. Most conversations would end up, somehow, about Chechnya.  I really found his pin-like focus; his obsession with topics that was true, manic, monomania; his aspergian frustration and shutting down any time conversation veered away from his pet topic to be more like a sociopath than a lover of self-education. One night at dinner, when I tried to engage him in a conversation about the definition of Friendship, the following ensued:

“I feel like when I try to talk to you about broader things, like philosophical things, you don’t like talking about it.”

” Like what?”
” Like now. Like trying to talk about Friendship. Like, we’re just batting around ideas of how you’d define Friendship, but I feel like you hate this.”



“Well I kind of do.”

“But why?”

” I don’t like talking about things when I feel like you know more than I do.”

” . . . ”

” . . . ”

” Well. What would you rather talk about?”

” I don’t know.”

” Chechnya?” (sarcastically.)

” Sure!” (too quickly.)

The Serial Killer is, in my experience, most often male. Common topics for Serial Killers are : baseball history, scientific processes, and actual serial killers. Why yes – he is also enthralled, adorably, by serial killers themselves. He finds them “interesting” and “fascinating.” He is admiring of their focus and precision. He watches a lot of Dexter, and shows on Biography about famous Hollywood murderers. Husband is like this. And I don’t trust it.

The Professional

The Professional comes in two forms: Quiet, and Loud. The Quiet Professional doesn’t say much (duh) when it comes to most topics. They refrain from offering opinions – either by pleading ignorance, or a love of neutrality. However, when you get them on the topic of their profession, suddenly they become a flung-open pandora’s box. Whereas they were unwilling to proffer a thought on the current war, or women’s rights, once you get them started on the thing they do all day, you can’t fit the lid back on. They know every single code and stipulation in the union contract. They speak computerese, and fluently interface with programmers around the world in strange chat spaces where code is traded like hashish in an back alley. They know all the cabinet members of the neighborhood government.  They can tell the difference between 457 different forest leaves. They know the history of fifteen branches of hot yoga, stretching back four centuries. In sofar as they are insanely knowledgable about one topic, they are similar to The Serial Killer. However, the practical/professional nature of their knowledge makes them less . . . scary.

The Loud Professional knows less but says more. She mostly focuses on laws, politics, policy, and newsy sound bytes related to her field, and while they are intended to make her sound passionate and informed, they mostly make her sound self-righteous and angry. By discussing the fiery bits of current events that are related to her own work, she also does a good job of making it sound as though she is really working on the frontlines of something – a trend, a breaking story, a topic of national concern. She is doing important work – really important – and dammnit, you should know.


The Wallflower


The Wallflower is similar to the Quiet Professional, in that they are loathe to offer opinions or ideas when pressed. However, unlike the Quiet Professional, there is not really one thing about which The Wallflower has a hidden treasure trove of knowledge. They do have strongholds of opinions, and these are mostly about their own families and friends. Usually, I have found Wallflowers to be women. They are very good at their jobs, but they are not gripped with a fever-hot passion for their work. They read magazines and Jennifer Weiner novels. They politely decline to engage in conversations about the news by saying things such as “I’m not really a political person,” or “the news is too depressing.” They are very good at talking about their mothers, that one single girlfriend who is always being a selfish jerk, giving advice about your problems, and reminiscing about what was important to you as teenagers. She is best courted over a glass of pinot noir, which is when she’ll let herself at least be a little snarky, if not daring.

The Generalist

The Generalist is the most fun – but also the most intimidating. The Generalist seems like your standard ignoramus as you chat mildly and idly about pop music and mutual friends, but then the drone attacks start. Imagine being at a dinner party, and as you reach for the brussel sprouts you hear him quietly reply to his partner in conversation, “I’ve only read three of Rushdie’s novels, but his short stories are really stunning. Have you read his travel essays? They’re like what Paul Theroux tries to do, but better, and twenty years earlier.” Strange, you think, slightly curious. Later, filling your glass with more wine over by the kitchen sink while pretending to wash dishes, so it’s less noticeable that you’re still trying to get drunk while others have moved on to water, you hear him saying, “Well it’s more about the capital gains and locking in rates and less about the fiscal cliff threat than you might think, if you really look at the S&P and think Huh. Hmm. That’s something I know nothing about. Interesting.(Glug.) Fascinating. (Pour.) Very curious. (Glug.) Over dessert, as you stab the last bit of cake on your plate, you hear him say loudly with his bourbon breath, “well, that was more around the time of Rasputin, but I don’t think it matters in terms of why it happened.” OK, seriously?! You think, shooting eye darts at him. Seriously what the- come ON now. Rasputin!? Rasputin!?!?!? And your eyes seek those of his partner in conversation, expecting to find them rolling, or squinting in disbelief, or looking to you for help. And yet his companion nods, up and down, up and down as he speaks, meeting his gaze. He is very, very interested.

Is he full of shit, or full of smarts? Such is the Sphynxian riddle of The Generalist.

I don’t know if I fit into any of these categories – but I look forward to figuring it out here!


One thought on “Day Nine: On Learning

  1. It’s funny. Before I acquired a “higher” education, I was completely intimidated by anyone and everyone who had any college or any letters after their name. They knew something and I, clearly, did not.

    I felt this way because people from my generation (a generalization) often revered folks who had an education. People who could say: “I graduated from so an so, and majored in Art History,” for example, always made me shudder with fear. They know things, I thought. I was in awe. I could not talk to them because nothing I could say would be worthy. And then I attended university – me.

    While attending university, I was literally stunned by the breadth and depth of the ignorance displayed by numerous Phd’s. I had no idea that people with such amazing educations could actually say and do such incredibly dumb things. I remember my first semester lab professor who was all of 30 yelling at me after I inadvertently placed my rat in the training pen prematurely. He began screaming at me and asking me how many times did it take for me to comprehend the importance of timing and precision in a lab experiment??

    I responded by saying that it occurs to me that I have actually been working longer than you have been out of school. I have real world experience and I am attempting to learn more. My goal is to broaden my understanding of the world and to better myself. If you feel that the only way to teach me something is to yell at me – a peer – your career will be very short lived. I think you need to learn more. I don’t think you are ready to teach.

    My professor stood there with mouth open, blinking. He recovered and said, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled at you. I should not have been so disrespectful to you. Can we start again? I nodded in the affirmative. We both learned something that day and I haven’t forgotten the lesson.

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