Posts Tagged ‘Genius’

I had terrible eyesight as a kid. When I was in 3rd grade, before I was home schooled, I had trouble copying the numbers from the blackboard. The teacher didn’t like me, so she kept putting me in the back of the class for some reason. Anyway, after it was discovered I needed glasses, I was in for yearly checkups. For a while, I felt like I was constantly getting new glasses (which I probably was). I remember one doctor I went to, who insisted my prescription hadn’t changed after I took the eye test.

Me: But it’s all still kind of blurry.

His face got red, and he was clearly pissed.

Doctor: Doesn’t matter. Your prescription hasn’t changed.

Me: …but why is it so blurry?

He puffed his cheeks out and glared at me.

Doctor: You don’t need things to look crisp and sharp all the time.

By this point, I was getting kind of agitated – of course I wanted things to look crisp and sharp. What the hell, dude.

He called Mom in, and explained it all to her. He got more and more irritated as the conversation went on.

Doctor: He’s eating minus.

Mom: Eating minus?

Doctor: He’s addicted to seeing crisper and clearer. He doesn’t actually need new glasses. He can see fine.

I was kind of steamed. Mom was pissed, too. I don’t remember if there was a blowup or not (knowing Mom, there probably was…they all kind of run together, honestly) but if there was I wouldn’t have minded it. There was actually a reason for her to be mad this time.

Anyway, as a kid I always had “trouble” with math, which Mom always attributed to my eyesight. That’s what Mom and Grandma always called it – “trouble”. But it was “trouble” like the Cuban Missile Crisis was a minor disagreement. I could understand stuff like addition and subtraction – usually. But when it came to multiplication and division I was lost. I can’t tell you how many hours Grandma sat with me and the math flash cards.

Grandma: What’s 5×5?

Me: 15?

Grandma: No, try again. Think about it. What are five fives?

Me: 10?

Grandma: Add it up.

It took me a long time, and I used my fingers.

Me: 25?

Grandma: Right. Do you know why it’s 25?

Me: No.

Grandma: Because it’s five added up five times.

I just looked at her blankly. This was gibberish to me.

She tried to explain it to me, but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get that multiplication was a “faster” way to add – it just seemed to be a harsher form of Chinese water torture. We would do the flash cards until I wept – literally wept – in frustration. I eventually figured out that I didn’t need to understand it, just memorize it. I was able – with a great amount of effort – to memorize the times tables up to about 5. After that, I couldn’t keep the numbers in my head. I would cry and yell and throw things. Absolutely nothing in this world made me feel worse than math. Nothing made me feel more like a complete idiot. What’s worse, is because I was “smart” (according to Mom and many, a “genius”), it was an impossibility that I couldn’t understand math. I was just not applying myself. I busted my ass with math, all with meager returns on my investment. I had to use a calculator, or my fingers. I usually eventually gave up on my home schooling tests and cheated my way through them – reading the answers in the teacher’s key. I got A’s and B’s in math, but I knew I didn’t earn them – I didn’t deserve them, because I was too stupid to “get” the math. It made me feel miserable and dirty.

To further add to the irony, musicians are supposed to be great with math (at least, that’s the myth). I remember being in the studio with Russ while he puzzled out how to end a song. He and Paul (the engineer) were going back and forth on what would be the best ending. I piped up.

Me: What about da da daaaaaaa da. That makes sense, right?

Russ was impressed.

Russ: Yeah…that’s it exactly. You must be really good at math.

I opened my mouth to tell him that I wasn’t – that I was actually pretty terrible – but I closed it again. How could I possibly explain it to someone?

It has haunted me throughout my life. I’d panic when I had to make change, or when I gave someone cash – sometimes it wouldn’t be enough, or sometimes it would be way too much. I could never be sure I was doing it right.

When I took my SATs, I got perfect or near perfect scores in English and below average scores in math – and at that, I had to work my ass off with a tutor several times a week. I wept in frustration over my SAT books, just like I would weep in frustration over my college math textbooks. In retrospect, I don’t think I’ve ever cried – literally cried – over anything as much as I have math.

In college, I realized I’d have to take math. The professor was Russian or something, and had a  thick, hard to understand accent. If you had any questions, he’d say “Red Ze Buk” (I assume this meant “Read the book”). If you were a girl, he’d answer all your questions while ogling your breasts and practically drooling. Anyway, I worked hard on the homework – for the first half of the semester. I’d try something, I’d get a tutor, and I’d feel like I totally got it. Then I’d realize it didn’t stick at all. Not only was what I did for homework wrong (almost invariably, I got D’s and F’s on it), but when I went back to it I couldn’t even remember what I thought I had understood in the first place.

You’re supposed to be a genius? I’d tell myself. Some fucking genius.

By the middle of the semester, I had stopped going to the class altogether – it made me too anxious and depressed. Even though it was in the middle of the day – I think it was at 1 PM – I’d just stay in bed the whole day instead of going to class. I didn’t realize until much later that depression had started to get its hooks in me by this point, which probably didn’t make learning math any easier.

I ended up with a D in the class, by the way, which meant I had to retake it. The professor was nice enough to give me a 2nd crack at the final – he said if I got an A he’d bring it up to a C which meant I’d pass. I studied hard and finally took the final. I felt confident and prepared – my roommate who was a math major helped me, as did several other people who gave generously of their time. I even got to use a calculator, which I sort of felt was my ace in the hole. I got an F. I wasn’t angry though…I was just resigned. I looked at the transcript.

Me: Of course. I guess I’m D material.

It wasn’t until about a decade later that i would get tested. I would come to find out I had a legitimate learning disability, at least in regards to math – it had nothing to do with my eyesight after all. I could see the numbers just fine. It explained a lot – why I could never read maps, why I got lost all the time, and why I had difficulty telling time. It wasn’t that I couldn’t tell time – I could – it just took me about 400x longer than normal people. If someone asked me for the time, I’d look at my watch for a long time and they’d think I was being rude and get fed up. But I would actually be looking at the hands and counting in my head (five…ten…fifteen…twenty). I’d come up with the right answer…eventually, but by the time I did they had gotten their answer elsewhere. I could have gotten a digital watch, I suppose, but the irony of it is I really like analog timepieces. Plus I just thought I was stupid when it came to math.

When they tested me, they also did an IQ score, which was humbling. The verbal side of my IQ was really high – I think it was almost “very superior”. But the math side was awful, and brought my combined score down so low that it was “average”. After spending my life believing I was a genius, I stared at the paper. I had answers, sure, and they explained a lot. But now I had hard numbers to go with them. In looking at my score, I don’t think I ever hated numbers more than I did that day. Having the air sucked out of a long held belief is a real kick in the balls. The doctor testing me assured me that I wasn’t “average” just because my total score was. I nodded like I agreed, but I really didn’t. She explained that it was just an aggregated score, and that if you looked at the English side it was really quite high…but I kind of tuned her out at that point. I was well into my own head, beating myself with a cudgel. I had spent a lifetime believing I was smart…and staring me right in the face was proof that I wasn’t. It took me a long time to see past the numbers. Perhaps that’s not surprising. I had so much of my identity wrapped up in the idea that I was different, a genius, or whatever, that it really was a crushing blow to get at the age of 28. I had to come to terms with it eventually, though, and I decided that – numbers aside, I am what I am. Whatever that is.

The point of the blog for me isn’t self aggrandizement – it’s to say things as they were (or at least as I saw them at the time) flaws and all, including my own. So I hope you’ll forgive my use of the word “prodigy” and “boy genius” in regards to myself. In this case, they’re there to paint a more full picture of how I was seen by my Mother and certain others in my life. Not the least of which, they also illustrate how I felt. I was Extremely Talented, so much so that the Mafia either wanted to “make me” or assassinate me. Yes, it was a fearful time but it was also a time of great possibility and pride for me. All that in mind, you can imagine the blow to my ego when, years later, I finally put the pieces together and realized I wasn’t important enough for anybody to want dead. At the time, though, it was me and Mom vs. the World – along with a small cadre of allies (Uncle Richard and Russ, and Uncle Carlo).

By the time I was 2 1/2, I was carrying full on conversations with adults. By the time I was 4, I had written a short story (well…I call it that liberally. It was probably half a page, about finding a fox in the yard – so, a short short short story?). By 6, I had written my first song. By 10, I had recorded it in a studio, sang on it, and played on it. I somehow got the idea in my head – I’m not entirely sure where this came from, possibly even Mom – that I ought to be a published songwriter. I wrote and produced a jingle for a local diner (the theme of the diner was trains – I made sure the arrangement sounded very train like), and approached them. I remember standing red-faced with embarrassment in front of the counter, asking for the owner. When he came out, I asked him (eyes firmly planted on my shoes) if he would like to hear a jingle I wrote for his diner. He listened, and was delighted. Within a week, it was airing on a local radio station. It was in this way I became the youngest (or one of the youngest) published songwriters in the country.

I wrote from time to time, when the inspiration struck me – perhaps a song a month, or a few songs a year. Mom got it into her head somehow that we needed to keep Russ’s interest, and to do so meant writing a lot of songs. Like, writing songs EVERY DAY. Maybe several a day. Hot resentment bubbled up inside me – I did not like her stepping on my creativity. This felt wrong, this felt like an incursion. Yes, her nocturnal visits where she woke me up and asked insane questions were ridiculous, and yes her constantly dragging me into her rehashing sessions of what Russ said or didn’t say were exhausting, but this was a bridge too far. For the first time in my life, I actually protested. I insisted that creativity was something to be nurtured, it wasn’t a factory – I couldn’t crank out dozens of songs a week.

Mom: Then you’ll never make it. You’ll fail. And they’ll never let you in, or Sit Down and Talk to you.

I was quiet. I did want to be successful, but this felt wrong. In the end, I decided to do as she asked (not that there was really a choice – she would harass me endlessly until I did it anyway). I wrote a song a day, minimum – sometimes 3 a day if I could manage. I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, it was important to develop and hone my skills as a writer – the only way to do that was to write consistently and have Russ (himself a seasoned songwriter) critique it. But that also meant churning out what amounted to musical slush. I mean, I turned out some real turds. And I knew full well they were turds as I was writing them. But I bravely typed out the lyrics, recorded the music on my little tape recorder, and presented them to Mom and Russ. About every 10 songs I wrote, I’d hit one that was actually worthy of more attention. We’d spend the lesson with Russ reading over my carefully typed lyrics, listening to me play my songs, and considering what I had written.

Russ: Well…why on earth would you write a song about not being able to get to sleep?

Me: I don’t know…I guess I just felt like writing it.

Russ laughed. Mom laughed.

Russ: Uh. Not your best work, Danny. Next.

And I’d show him the next one, again feeling those hot embers of resentment glowing in my chest. He was complicit in all of this and it made me very angry. I wouldn’t say I hated him for it – I didn’t hate him yet, not then – but I had hoped he would step in on the side of free creativity.

I wrote. I cranked out songs. Between running to auditions and banging out songs at the piano, those were my days, my weeks, my years. If I didn’t write, I was harassed either by Mom or Russ.

Mom: You need to write. You haven’t written yet today.

And I’d gamely sit at the piano and slush out a tune.

If I walked in and didn’t have anything for Russ (which was very, very rare) Russ would shake his head.

Russ: Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work. You gotta keep writing, Danny.

The difficulty is that they were probably right – the best writers write every day. I think I just resent the way I was thrust into that world – kicked through the door, if you will. I still struggle with that issue. I still write – not all the time, and not as much as I should. When I don’t write, I’m beating myself up for not writing every day. When I do write, and it’s junk, I beat myself up. Maybe I’d have ended up with this same dilemma regardless of Mom’s machinations. It’s hard to say, but it is one of the bigger issues I’ve wrestled with out of my childhood.

By the time I was 13, I had 600 copyrighted songs to my name. By the time I was 18, it was over a thousand. I stopped counting after that, though I did keep writing. Let’s just say I am prolific.

Genius. Prodigy. Boy Wonder. Many strangers and friends pronounced these names over me. Maybe I was. Who knows? But it became something else to live up to – another pressure. I had heard somewhere that really smart people – people like Einstein or whatever – suffer severe depression. I think they struggle with – and sometimes collapse under – the weight of their own genius. I totally get that. Once that is declared over you, once that label is affixed, that is what you are. You can’t be average any more, you can’t be just alright. You have to be amazing. And that is pressure. And God, do I know it well.