The stories we tell about ourselves.

In 2008, the television game show Jeopardy! hosted a Kids Week Reunion, bringing back contestants who were originally on the show when they were 10, 11, or 12 years old. If you have ever caught Kids Week, you know that every kid knows they're destined to be a brain surgeon, an embedded war journalist, concertmaster of a symphony, the first person to [enter achievement here], a Supreme Court justice, an astronaut, and/or President of the United States.

They have additional aspirations of curing cancer, solving world hunger, and ending political bipartisanship. They're so bright-eyed, and so smart, you root for them to achieve their dreams. Heck, aren't they already halfway there just by being tiny geniuses? So I made it a point to watch the Kids Week Reunion and see what kind of impact each now college-aged young adult had already made on the world.

For the last six years, every now and again, I've thought back to that week of shows, wondering just what happened to those kids, just what went 'wrong.'  Now, don't misunderstand me - I didn't think that by 19 or 20 they all would be Steve Jobs-like gurus. But I did imagine exciting D.C. internships, a patent pending on an invention, national math and science awards, a published book...things of that nature.

There is extremely limited information online about that week, so I have to go on memory - and what I remember is that they had somehow morphed into average citizens whose contemporary goals looked nothing like their assured dreams of yesteryear; looked like the goals of the rest of us who never competed on Jeopardy! as a child. Although I can offer no particulars, the disappointing ordinariness of the contestants can be summed up with the fact that one of them was currently attending community college.

The show runners responded accordingly by creating categories and 'answers' that were mildly challenging at best; the contestants, in turn, still struggled. And I remember feeling sad for their lost dreams.

More importantly, though, I wondered how could this be? There would be nothing odd about three or four of the contestants having stumbled along the way to greatness; but the majority of them?

If they were too bright-eyed as kids, too confident of their future, it wasn't their fault. Maybe their parents and teachers, even the community, put too much emphasis on the budding intelligence of upper-elementary students; maybe on that side of the American Dream a successful future was too exciting, seemed too inevitable.

Maybe those kids were told stories about themselves too compelling to resist.



What I'm reading: Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
What I'm watching: Raising Hope
What I'm listening to: In the Lonely Hour, Sam Smith
Mood: content
Smells: somebody barbecuing at nearly midnight
Sounds: Jimmy Fallon's musical guest
Temperature: 68 degrees
Thoughts: honestly can't tell if this band is three women or three dudes.


Flowers for Algernon: Review

I read the short story version of Flowers for Algernon in eighth grade English and it has always stayed with me, so when I recently found out it was expanded into a novel I read it right away. So, herewith my thoughts on it, and as most people know how it all turns out there will be spoilers. :)

Charlie Gordon is a mentally handicapped man in his early thirties who has a deep-seated longing to learn to read and write, to be 'smart,' and through his classes at the Center for Retarded Adults in Brooklyn, he meets the teacher (Miss Kinnian) who will eventually nominate him for an experimental surgery at Beekman University. Dr. Nemur and Professor Strauss have succeeded (so far) in performing the surgery on a mouse named Algernon, which greatly raised the little guy's intelligence, and they feel ready to attempt the same on a mentally handicapped human being.

Probably the best thing about the story is that it is told through Charlie's own words, via progress reports he keeps for Nemur and Strauss. Through his basic vocabulary, misspellings, and complete lack of punctuation we are immediately drawn into his mind and his world, and it's heartrending to read. Like a child, he carries no natural suspicion of others, least of all his 'friends' at the bakery where he works as a janitor; he's superstitious, carrying a rabbit's foot and lucky penny; and he has no real memory of the past.

The surgery, as we might expect, is a success, and there's something really exciting in being able to follow along as his writing, via the progress reports, reflects his increasing IQ. We're right there with Charlie as he begins to really understand the world around him, and this of course inevitably means the good he formerly saw in people is exposed for what it is. For example, he believed the men who work at the bakery were his friends because they laughed at him, which in turn made him laugh and feel good; in reality, he was always only their foil, their court jester, and when Charlie realizes this, he is ashamed. (That was probably the strongest impression I took away from the short story, that moment when the veil fell away)

Eventually Charlie's intelligence far outstrips that of Miss Kinnian, Professor Strauss and Dr. Nemur; most people, in fact, as his IQ reaches 185 and beyond. He reads voraciously, teaches himself twenty languages, becomes an expert on fringe mathematics – the world of thought is his oyster. At the same time, Algernon (who had the surgery weeks before Charlie) begins a slow decline.