Finding your spark of genius

Albert EinsteinIn the post immediately preceding this one, I spoke about American gypsy girls who are steered into young marriage, followed immediately by a career as a homemaker, no matter their talents.  There’s nothing wrong with being a wonderful mother and homemaker, but one does wonder, of course, whether those girls were deprived of the opportunity to discover a hidden talent within themselves.

I’ve been thinking about the whole “hidden talent” thing a lot lately.  It’s been a part of my thinking for years, actually, ever since my sister went to college.  Her first boyfriend there grew up in a small farming community and was the first person in his family to go to college.  When he got to college, he was required to take his first ever language class.  He chose French, which is where he met my sister.  She was also taking German, as a continuation of her high school studies.

Over the course of just one semester, my sister’s boyfriend became fluent not only in French, which he was actively learning, but in German, which he was passively absorbing, both from my sister’s studies and from my parents German-language conversations.  It turned out that, when it came to languages, he was savant, and could learn any language with passable fluency over the course of a few months.  Had he stayed home on the farm, it’s likely this gift would have remained dormant forever.  As it was, within two years of meeting my sister, he was one of six American college students selected to go on a special Russian language program to the Soviet Union.

I thought of this guy just last week, when my high-school-aged son came home from his first day in art class at school.  He’s never had an art class before, but he brought home an incredibly good representation of his own hand, meticulously worked in 3D.  He didn’t need lessons in perspective; he instinctively understood it.  Had he not been required to take this class as a prerequisite for graduating, he might never have known he has this gift.

And in this same vein, I’d like to recommend a bad, but wonderful documentary.  The documentary is called “Blood Brother,” and it’s playing on PBS.  The young man who made the documentary focuses on his friend, an almost paralyzingly ordinary boy from Pittsburgh, who did wonderful things.  The documentary is bad because it’s poorly constructed, poorly photographed, poorly narrated, poorly everything . . . but it’s still worth watching.

The ordinary young man is Robin “Rocky” Braat.  Rocky grew up in a dysfunctional home, suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mother’s many boyfriends, got shunted to his grandparents for a few years, and then ended up with his father.  He describes himself as a kid who was so bad in school, he was “marginally retarded.”  When he speaks, he has the slurred, dull cadences of a stoner (although there’s no indication that he is, in fact, a stoner).

Rocky was aimless.  He had a short attention span, and felt that there was nothing for him in Pittsburgh.  He decided for no reason whatsoever to go to India, because he wanted to go someplace “authentic” (although why Pittsburgh, in its own way, isn’t as “authentic” as anyplace else in the world, I do not know).  Once there, Rocky came upon an orphanage.  What makes this orphanage unique is that all of the children and all of the staff have HIV.  Rocky had found his place on this earth.

Although Rocky readily admits that he didn’t like children when he arrived at that orphanage, there was something about the children there that called to him.  Watching the boundless love he feels for them, and the equally boundless love they return to him, is incredibly moving.

The best part of the documentary comes at the end, so you have to stick with it or, if you have it on TiVo, fast forward a bit.  One of the HIV-infected boys, a kid maybe 9 or 10, ends up in the hospital with God knows what.  His skin is a festering, bleeding, peeling mass; his eyes are so crusted and white they look like a corpse’s; he’s coughing his lungs out from tuberculous; and his kidneys are shutting down.  The child looks gangrenous and he’s in an Indian hospital in a remote region where care is minimal and death a certainty.

Rocky cares for that child as if the boy is his own flesh and blood.  Wearing only gloves to product his hands, he bathes the boy’s endless wounds, oils his broken skin, cleans his oozing eyes, and holds him as he cries in pain.  It is an outpouring of selfless love that would make Mother Teresa proud.

It turns out that, when it comes to caring for HIV-infected children in a remote region of India, Rocky is a savant.  Had he stayed in Pittsburgh, he would have been nothing.  If he worked, he would have had a low-level job.  He probably would have drunk too much on weekends, and wasted his days away in a haze of bad television, cheap food, and a kind of nagging existential despair.  Instead, because he wanted something more, he found himself.

One of the blessings of living in America is that so many of us have the opportunity to explore different pathways in life.  Maybe we’ll just have a variety of experiences that we’ll talk about later (and boast about when we’re old).  But for the lucky ones, their travels in America will introduce them to the genius within themselves.

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    Rocky’s internal childhood wounds mend themselves by caring for the children in India with visible wounds.
    Not a bit surprised at your son’s 3D  perspective artistic skills – his mother is multi-dimensional.

    • Bookworm

      Awwwww.  Thanks, Sadie.

  • Ymarsakar

    People search for meaning in life, but it must be a solo journey. Society cannot humans do things. If it did, then those are no longer humans.

  • Bill C

    I am a savant of bad television, cheap food, and nagging existential despair. 
    I meet my wife when she was very young- 20.  I knew that I began to fall in love the first moment I saw her.  Ours wasn’t an arranged marriage but her mother certainly spurred us on so that we were married barely six months after we meet.  I have tried to help my wife find her way and we discovered she has an amazing talent for hair styling.  She enjoys her work and it keeps her happy which keeps our family happy.  Had she remained in Russia she probably would have found her way to this place but she wouldn’t have had the education she received. 

    • Bookworm

      Bill C, you’ve perfectly illustrated the beauty of freedom of choice and the pursuit of happiness.

  • jj

    The sudden emergence of daffodils and geniuses every spring is a never-ending surprise.  What it says in brief is that talent will out; you can’t keep it down.  But sometimes you have to.  The question really is: will it be of any use to whoever possesses it?  We’re all trammeled by the requirements of life, and that often gets in the way of the free exercise of whatever talent one possesses.  Talent, like philosophy, requires leisure.  Norman McLean didn’t write A River Runs Through It until he was 74 years old because he’d been busy, trying to feed himself and raise his family, and he wasn’t as brave as, say, Hemingway, who’d go to the Paris parks and wring the necks of pigeons to get something to eat.  Norman didn’t see that as a viable lifestyle – and who can blame him?  So he worked, and postponed the exercise of talent.
    I can relate a story that might be, perhaps, of interest.  When I was young, my father had a set of golf clubs in his den closet.  I think I was probably about twelve years old – which would have made him 61 – before I ever saw him play a round of golf.  He went out with a couple of old friends who showed up to visit, also pretty well along in years.  I walked along, and noticed that he beat them.  No practice, no preparation, no emergency dieting – just went out and did it.  One of them told me, with great good humor: “I don’t believe I’ve ever beaten your father.”  The other one said said: “Oh, I have!  In 1937 I beat him! At Meadow Brook too, his home course!”  Everybody laughed.  I was a little kid.  I had no idea I was talking to Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen, and if I had known it wouldn’t have meant anything to me: I didn’t know who they were. (Never saw Jones again, spoke to him on the phone a few times; saw Dad and Gene play a few more times over the years.) 
    I have probably a hundred silver stirrup cups, flutes, mugs, trays, etc. from golf tournaments he won in the 1920s and 1930s.  (He kept them in boxes in the cellar.  I never saw them either, until he sold the farm and moved off Long Island – when I was in my 30s.  Got a pile of crumbling old newspaper articles, too.  Never knew any of it when young.)  He played occasionally with the fathers of friends of mine at school, when he was in his 60s and 70s, and just walloped them.  He was a freak on the golf course, there is no other word.  The physical ability was right, the temperament was perfect – a freak.  He played with everybody from Jones and Sarazin to Gay Brewer, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Bing Crosby, Frank Costello – everybody.  And of course he was asked by a number of my friends’ fathers to whom he’d given a lesson: “how come you never played professionally?”
    He’d just laugh.  To him it was a silly question,  asked by people who were 25 years younger than he, who didn’t know any better.  (He was decades older than the fathers of my classmates.)  His best years were, like most athletically-inclined people, his 20s and 30s.  He was born in 1900, and his 20s and 30s were the 20s and 30s – and you couldn’t make a living playing golf.  When he was at his height Arnold Palmer, who really made golf into a business,  was 3 years old.  Though the PGA existed from 1929, professional golf wasn’t paying anybody a living wage, let alone making them wealthy.  You couldn’t do it and expect to eat regularly.  The greatest golfer of the day – who never beat Dad – was a well-off amateur and lawyer who didn’t need to get paid.  (When he hit the stage in life where he did need to, Jones quit, and went and lawyered full-time.)
    Now – my father multiplied his salary by a factor of 10 every year, playing in friendly matches on which money was riding – an old friend of the family told me he watched him make $10,000 in cash one afternoon in 1936  (back when the average salary was under $2000) – but he never supposed he could depend on that.  He needed to earn a living, a real one.  And then he very quickly got involved with other things that took him out of the country for weeks or months at at a time, etc., etc.  Had the perfect temperament for that, too, and golf didn’t offer him the possibility of millions of dollars a year, as it does now. 
    So he missed out on that particular (very healthy) income stream – and who do you blame for that?  All the talent in the world, but the timing was bad: he was too early.  A lot gets in the way of talent, genius, strong ability – call it what you will.  Life gets in the way of it: you need clothes on your back, shoes on your feet, something in your belly and, for choice, a roof over your head to keep the rain off.  If your talent doesn’t feed pretty directly into that, then it pales in importance.  It’s nice that you can do “X.”  In the meantime the electric bill needs to be paid.  You do what you have to.  It very often isn’t what you might do best, that might involve your native abilities.  And the universe doesn’t care.

    • Gringo

      Quite a story. Thanks for posting it.

  • Ymarsakar

    In a truly free market, most humans will specialize into their individual talents. But humanity has yet to achieve this ideal system, for a number of reasons.

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