Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Story Twenty: The Necessity of Nerds

Wow! I can't believe the month is now winding down. Just as some of the stories feel like a snapshot of something much larger, this one feels more like a character sketch. One thing Norton Juster discussed the other day was how hard it is to start writing. He often will do things to start like write a dialogue between characters that he will never use just so he can hear the character's voice and get a sense of who they are. He also spoke of a magic moment that happens when you realize you're not writing a story but, rather, eavesdropping on one.

Anyone who is a writer will tell you that his discussion is not so much an aha moment, but is more of, "Hey, that's a nice way of describing normal for me...."

This story is one of those "conversations" that will probably get tossed aside. A bit of a character study of someone who would be involved in a situation that what is written here. Jeremy is a nerd coming to a level of self-realization. I'm not sure what his story is going to be yet, but I suspect it will be a bit of a hero's journey. In the meantime, meet Jeremy as he gets ready for the MCAS and fantasy baseball season.


Jeremy’s book shelves weren’t just stuffed, they were overstuffed.

As one of those kids who read before he could speak because he didn’t start speaking until he could speak in complete paragraphs. He looked every bit the nerd with his big glasses, braces and shaggy hair cut. He tended towards Hawaiian shirts and khakis over the more popular t-shirts and jeans his classmates wore.

He pretended not to notice when kids tended to avoid him on the playground but wanted to partner with him on research projects. He knew the ones who were (not so) secretly grateful for not having to sit at the peanut allergy table with him, because he knew the truth was he’d be the most popular kid when it came to fantasy baseball picks.

Little did they know it was, in part, because of those overstuffed bookshelves that his fantasy baseball teams were always the strongest.

Jeremy was fascinated by Bill James, the man who changed how baseball was played by looking at numbers differently. Bill James made it guys like Jeremy a valuable commodity when it came to talking sports in general and baseball in particular. He filled his bookshelves with magazines, books and almanacs and studied as if they were religious texts and he was a monk.

He once heard Bill James say, “I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say.”
It was probably one of the times that it really hit him why he gravitated towards Bill James the way the moon was a satellite of the Earth. Too often Jeremy felt that he didn’t have “the common communications of smiles and gestures,” the way other kids did.

He knew he was the odd man out, and that seemed to be the story of his life.

But the recent words that he returned to over and over again were from an article about talent when Bill James wrote, “It is my very strong belief that there is talent everywhere and all the time.” While James was arguing why we have so much talent in baseball and sports instead of great writers, those words inspired Jeremy every time he sat alone pouring through old extracts, almanacs, magazines and player guides. As he read through those things, he felt like he was reading the writings of a kindred spirit.

Jeremy had committed most of the words to memory at this point. Now if only they would come in handy at just the right moment, then he’d be OK. Today was draft day, so there were plenty of kids who would have peanut free lunches. He’d have company for a few days and he supposed he should be happy about it, but why couldn’t he have been a cool kid instead?
Well, he’d have to feel good about being the cool kid even if it was only for a couple of days. He supposed if it weren’t for draft day, then he’d be eating alone all year long instead of just most of it.

He took a deep breath and headed out the door to school.

It didn’t take long for the more popular kids to start attaching themselves to him for advice. He was glad to slowly work through his morning work to have some time to think things through before he was the most popular kid in the class.
Because they were coming up on the MCAS, the Massachusetts version of No Child Left Behind testing, there was a lot of teacher nervousness and more serious work instead of the usual sorts of instruction. But nothing could have prepared him for the writing prompt they were given that morning.

“OK cats and kittens,” Mr. McGarrett started with a hand clap, “today’s prompt for you to work on today. As you write I want you to remember the basics: tell them what you want to tell them, tell them, tell them again and then tell them what you told them. On today’s menu is: why do we pay more attention to professional athletes than academic geniuses?”

Jeremy smiled and began to write.

Tell them what you’re going to tell them: There is always an abundance of talent around us. Talent, genius, whatever you want to call it, is around us every day no matter where you look. It may not always be obvious and you may not always know you’re looking at it, but it is there and it is always present. What we look at and for genius and talent depends on what we need at the time.

Tell them: Four hundred years ago, London had more writers of talent and genius than the world has ever seen to the point where we still study the works of William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, the poets of the Romantic era, John Milton and more. While some people argue that our focus on sports figure is superfluous and inferior to the focus on great minds, I would argue that we are in a situation where we need to appreciate the beauty and grace of athletic talent and genius. According to Bill James, the developer of Sabermetrics, which changed how we value and view athletes, we don’t need great writers at this time. In a recent piece in Slate, he stated “We need new athletes all the time because we need new games everyday.”

Tell them what you just told them: Since we are still studying centuries of great literature and have growing need for great athletes, who have much shorter careers, we focus on the athletes. This does not diminish the need for great authors, only that our focus needs to be elsewhere at this time. By changing the focus, we ask the questions differently which leads to looking at information differently. By looking at objective evaluations of players, rather than the traditional method that was based on emotional and intuitive guesses, the questions are asked differently which forces our perspective to view circumstances differently.

Tell them what you told them: Because the focus on genius shifts on the needs for the time in which you examine for traits of genius, societal needs change. In the end our current focus needs to be athletic genius, but as the objectivity of time prevails and that genius is no longer necessary, the discovery genius beyond athletics will be revealed as needed.

He read through the short essay and felt good about it. Not too much, not too little. Should be just enough to score as he needed it to.

With a smile, he leaned back and looked around the room at the kids he could tell were panicking. Most of those panicking were the kids that only brought peanut free lunch during draft time.

He thought a bit about the question again. This week his genius would be recognized because it was a necessary genius. In a moth or so, it would be as necessary, so it would be overlooked yet again.

With a smile, Jeremy thought, “Bill James was absolutely right. Genius is recognized as it is needed and necessary.”
It was OK for him to have a set of overstuffed bookshelves and memorizing the work of Bill James. Jeremy would be recognized as a genius for the week or so as he did every year at this time. He needed to be a genius to the world around him as kids began thinking about baseball for real. Next week, a different genius would be needed for this particular world. That’s how it worked. It’s not that his perspective or knowledge wasn’t needed or desired, only that it wasn’t necessary for that particular slice of time.

“It is my very strong belief that there is talent everywhere and all the time.”

There is talent and sometimes he needed to remember that other talents were just as genius as his. His day would come. Maybe it would be in the next few years, maybe many years later, but his time would come and it would be for more than a week at the peanut free table. Perhaps one day he would be Bill James’ intern. Maybe he would be his replacement or maybe even his competition at a different team.

It would happen and it would all happen in good time. But for now he would need to settle what he had. He may not be Shakespeare or Dickens, but he still knew how to ask the different questions and look at the problems from a variety of angles.
Tonight he would go home to his overstuffed bookshelves. He’d check on line for any new articles. He would spend some time looking over stats, making his own picks and registering his on line draft that, in the end, would probably In the end it would all work out, but for now he would have to learn to be content with the limited time that he would be recognized until his real day came.

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