From The Neck Up (or, I Thought He Had A Brain The Size Of A Planet But In Fact It Was Only His Head)

Chatting to a colleague.  I learned that she teaches a dance class in the evenings.  I have been looking (not very hard, but intermittently) for a dance class.  I’m too fat though, and unfit.  No one will want to dance with me.  I won’t be able to do it.

Anyway, I asked her: What kind of dance, when and where?

I think I might go.

I told her: ‘When I was growing up, we were only ever praised for our achievements from the neck up.’  It’s true.  It was all about being clever.  Coming top of the class.  Getting the best grades.  And not only in school: smart alec comments, being witty, snide, sarcastic, getting the answers right, quickly adding a column of numbers, finding a better way.  (Though, come to think of it, we never did general knowledge crosswords or anything when I was a child.)  Sure, my mother would say we looked nice.  From time to time.  You know, if we were dressed up for an occasion or something.  But it was never about enjoying our bodies.  About being fast or strong or supple.  My mother used to dance sometimes if music came on, but always in a sort of ironic, annoying way.  And I was always far too repressed to dance.  Or sing.  I used to mime if I ever had to sing a hymn (which was practically never).  Everything was embarrassing.  No one should look at me.

Eating was what we did with our bodies.

Brains was what we wanted.  Not beauty or brawn.  And not kindness, consideration, compassion, which I don’t think were ever discussed.

It’s odd though, because although I know nothing about my father’s physical youth (though I treasure a photo of him as a young man with his baseball team) I do know (or at least she has often told us) that my mother was pretty athletic when young.  She apparently competed at regional level in the long jump.  She, who barely gets out of her chair all day now.  My dad went skiing for the first time aged 25, apparently, and loved it.  Their honeymoon was a skiing holiday and my mother broke her leg on day one, so badly that she had to have it set and re-set, with a metal rod which gave her trouble ever after.  He took us skiing in Switzerland when we were tiny (which was pretty unusual then).  I remember we had leather boots with laces.  And we tied our skis to our legs with cord so they wouldn’t disappear if they came out of their flimsy bindings.  And in Iran we went skiing every weekend during the winter.  In London, my dad used to come home from work every evening and walk the dog with our neighbour in nearby Richmond Park while my mother made dinner.  We sometimes walked the dog, too, of course, and enjoyed the park.  I used to cycle there a lot.  Other than that I don’t remember any exercise, or any stretching or testing of our physical selves.

I think maybe my mother was too much in awe of my father’s apparently superior smarts.  She was a poor girl with no dad.  She had grown up a refugee in Western Germany having escaped from the East with nothing.  Her mother left her in a small town to look after her little brother and went away to the city to work.  My mother went to work herself as soon as she could, to help make ends meet.  Her brother went to university.  She did not.

My father must have seemed quite a catch in many ways.  Older, foreign, handsome and (relatively) rich.  And so educated and clever.

It was always cleverness that attracted me.

Actually, not always: there was one guy I had an affair with in Hong Kong who was so unutterably stupid that I found myself wishing he would just shut his gob and get on with it.  And he wasn’t even that handsome either – kind of neanderthal looking and I have no idea really what attracted me to him because he was really rather repulsive and I did know that at the time…

But most of my relationships have been with men I have found irresistibly clever.  20, 30, 40 years later I have got back in touch with some of them and boy have they by and large turned out to be very disappointing of intellect.  Why did I big them up so?

When I was at university there was an unspoken understanding (and this was not just me) that it was ok to be a complete arse if you were clever.  Some people still hold that view.

Now I am older and wiser, I look around at some of the people I knew years ago who were not all that.  And, lo!  Some of them have great jobs and great lives and generally seem to have won whatever competition I may have thought we were engaged in.  I have comprehensively lost, if there is any.  I am not just talking in material terms.  I have nothing to show for my life.  My contribution to the world has been zero, and the joy I have taken out of it (beyond my children) virtually zero also.

Speaking of my children: they are all quite terrifyingly bright.  And mostly not very physical.  I told them all the time when they were growing up: ‘Being clever isn’t everything’.  But children don’t just hear the words, they also hear the unspoken messages, and I fear I have visited on them the same curse.  Though they had dance classes and ju-jitsu and tennis and what have you, we tended not to do things much as a family like go for walks.  What we tended to do as a family (apart from eat) was read.  Play chess, maybe.  Not me, cos I am rubbish at chess, but the children are all good, and they did use to play with their dad.

Now there was a man I thought of as as clever as anything.  I remember that both he and one of my lovers had a near perfect GMAT score and I was rather stupidly very impressed by that.  And then of course, he did keep telling everyone including me how clever he was.  When we were first dating my nickname for him was Highly.  This was because in his application to INSEAD he had described himself as ‘highly intelligent’.  It struck me because I realised that there was absolutely no way I could ever imagine describing myself thus.  (But then, I don’t think I am.)

We used to laugh about how he had a brain the size of a planet.  But now I realise it was only his head.  What took me so long?



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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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