Thursday, September 8, 2011

Crushes of the Well-Read Mind

It's time I admit it. In spite of my (tenuous) claim on adulthood, I nearly always am crushing in a way that could make a 13-year-old slap her forehead in shame. I'm a woman who rarely gives a hug except under duress. Yet dignity, marriage, professionalism, famed reservedness, and ice queen demeanor is regularly thrown out the window for the objects of my fascination.

The fact is, I crush on philosophers the way your neighbor's pre-teen daughter crushes on Justin Bieber. No, wait. I crush on philosophers the way your neighbor's pre-teen daughter crushes on Justin Bieber if Bieber were also the hot high school star quarterback.

Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing about C.S. Lewis' chrome dome that turns me on (I save that for Jason Statham or Edward Norton from "American History X" sans tattoos). Voltaire is a bit old for me (although I have nothing against old, providing they're living). Ayn Rand is a woman (nominally, by the looks of her photographs, but I still don't swing that way, desert island scenario notwithstanding). But I have a sometimes passion for these thought-leaders that approaches a Texan politician's love for Jesus. (Speaking of Jesus, he had some good ideas going for him, too...)

Going back a couple decades, there was my flush-faced love for the Greeks. Sadly, even if I had been interested in deceased early Mediterranean philosophers romantically, I would've been the wrong gender anyway (minus Sappho, a poetess who doesn't count). But none of this kept me from reading many of the treatises, plays, analytics, and rhetoric authored by Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus, and Socrates.

The thing is, there's nothing wrong with reading it. But there's everything wrong with a 14-year-old entering into a conversation like this:

Person A: So I saw Joe last night with Danielle. Does he know you two don't get along?
Person B: What the fuck?? That pig! He oughtta know that I hate her!
Me: Maybe Joe was just being nice. You know, Socrates would probably advocate for assuming positive intent. He believed no one would knowingly do bad things.
[cricket] [silence]

I'd like to think in the intervening 20-some years I've learned, but really, I haven't. Which is why I met a sorority sister for (liquid) dinner a couple weeks ago and we had this conversation:
Her: I think it's safe to say we're fairly liberal Catholics.
Me: What does that mean?
Her: Well, we don't necessarily believe in a literal heaven or hell or that souls exist in the way a lot of very spiritual people may believe they exist.
Me: Oh, I totally get you! In fact, I was reading this book by Julian Barnes a few months ago who I think has some similarities to Kirkegaard in how he writes about the possibility of an afterlife.
Fortunately, this sister has a nerd beacon that'd be as bright as mine if she didn't have a bubbly personality and years on dance team to mask it. She gets me. But that's just luck. Normally this would be an opportunity for my guest to gesture to the server, "more drink, please! And fast!" On the other hand, maybe she had prearranged a more discreet signal and I just didn't notice it.

Most recently I have been all about Chuck Klosterman. Okay, even die-hard fans of Cee-Kay must admit that he falls a far cry shy of being a philosopher. Let's go with "pop culture analyst with a specialized following." Klosterman (whose entire bibliography I've read save one) expounds on my generation's pop culture with references that require me to keep Google open nearby. This is all material I should know but I don't because playing Michael Jackson or acknowledging existence of the Smurfs in my parents' house was a capital offense. Klosterman synthesizes a couple decades of music and pop culture with a certain baldly gritty anti-savoir faire that is deeply appealing to me.

But the real gift that Klosterman brings to my literary table is that he's so fricking normal. I can parrot his opinions and it's immediate connection with another. Death, life, soul, morality, existence, principles of reality - those are limited appeal niches that won't get me invited back to any cocktail parties unless they're attended by Mr. Peanut and Rich Uncle Pennybags. But Klosterman and low culture (hey, that's what *he* calls it so it must be okay!) allow me to capture a little of the cool kid appeal. It's allowed me to instead have conversations like this:

Person A: Did you catch what happened in "Glee" last night? I can't believe it!
Person B: Oh, I know. Pretty heavy-handed, don't you think? When did TV become like that?
Me: I was reading Chuck Klosterman's essay about "Saved by the Bell," remember that? He addressed how the purpose of TV shows is to re-state the preferred moral reality so viewers can feel reassured.
See how I did that? I'm still irritating, but I'm relatable. There are lots of places the conversation can go from here: Was Mark-Paul Gosselaar or Mario Lopez cuter? Can you believe how Elizabeth Berkeley destroyed her career? What current show is closest to Saved by the Bell? But, everyone will have something to offer. No need to fear silence.

Now, I don't totally fool myself. Quoting writers I'm crushing on, however contemporary they may be, isn't exactly 'school-moms-drinking-wine-over-pedicures' conversation. But it's a whole lot closer than where I was. Moving from existentialism to Bon Jovi lyrics is a huge improvement.

I'm not dating Justin Bieber the quarterback by any stretch. But maybe Klosterman at least helps me be the quirky cute little sister of the almost-popular wide receiver.