Why Do Smart People Do Stupid Things?
At one point in the film I Robot, (loosely based on some of sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov’s novels) Will Smith’s character says to the lady scientist, “You’ve got to be the dumbest smart person I know.” Later in the movie when he realizes what is going on (spoiler alert: it’s VICKY, the central computer and not the evil-seeming company CEO) he repeats the line referring to himself as “the most stupid smart person.” I thought of those lines as the nail on the index finger of my left hand, which had been turning varying shades of purple finally fell off.
Flash back to the aftermath of a wet winter snow storm as I pushed my snow thrower along the driveway. I say “pushed” because it is undersized and only likes dry, powdery snow. Purchased over a decade ago, when I was new to country life, I had yet to learn the lesson that sometimes more is more. The wet snow, heated by the friction of the blades, tends to refreeze in the ejector tube. This is a real pain because the driveway was over 150 feet long and a car is the only way to get anywhere other than the deli across the road. Though I keep a 5 foot piece of doweling handy it always ends up where I am not. I can’t carry it as both hands are required to engage the spring-loaded plow drive and blade motor controls.
I know that it is not safe to put my hands into the maw of the machine when it is running, even with the blades disengaged. There’s a warning label clearly stating the snow thrower should be turned off before placing ones hands anywhere near the blades. And yet, for 13 years, absent my dowel, I have poked my hand into the tube to push the ice out without incident - - but not this time. As I push the ice my gloved finger encounters the slowed, but still spinning blades. It is akin to smashing your bare toe into an immoveable object: the pain physical, mental and spiritual. Why did I do something so stupid?
Wasps Another aspect of country living are the flying insects that control the skies during the late spring and summer months. Paper wasps are my bête noir. They are very territorial and their territory seems to include all the areas around the outside of my house. You don’t have to interfere with them, but only pass too close. Unlike bees that die after stinging, the wasp remains alive and, if possible, more ornery. It continues to sting (and encourages its comrades to join the party) chasing you until you find shelter indoors. The pain of a single sting can last a week.
Their nest starts off as a single cell attached to whatever surface the wasp-mind deems suitable by a seemingly too-thin thread. Left undisturbed, it can grow to be the size of a football or larger. If it reaches this size, with the attendant population of wasps, it becomes impossible to get into or out of the house safely. So, when I saw a couple of wasps hovering around the beginnings of a nest located in the doorway I knew that immediate, decisive action was required.
Never mind the time-honored adage advising against poking a stick into a wasp nest. This, after all, was not really yet a nest. Grabbing a too-short, flimsy branch from a weeping willow (more like a feather duster than a stick), my plan was to swat the embryonic nest and leave the wasps to find another location. I approached the doorway, reached out with my branch and sought gently, but quickly, to dislodge the nest. Before the branch was within a foot of the nest, the wasps flew at me, like the bulls at Pamploma. I turned as quickly as I could, slipped out of one of my sandal, tripped on the other and went face-down onto the asphalt. I’d lacerated my hands and knees and my head bounced as it hit. The scars on my knees will be with me forever. I would rather have been stung. Have I become the kind of person who believes they are not subject to the rules of mortal men?
Some are more special than others
George Orwell had it right when he wrote in Animal Farm that “some are more equal than others.” We all think that rules and procedures are good and benefit all, but that they don’t necessarily apply to ourselves. I’m special, so I don’t need to follow the rules. I’m special so it can’t happen to me. I’m special so I will live forever. I’m special so I don’t need to look before cutting you off. I’m special so I can yak with the supermarket cashier as the line behind grows ever longer. I’m special so I don’t have to read or follow instructions. I’m special so I can argue with you about the driving directions you have given me although I don’t have a clue myself. This last is a long-standing pet peeve.
As a child, I often found myself hanging around the corner with my friends on hot summer days with nothing particular to do. I must have appeared wise beyond my years because drivers inevitably asked me for directions and inevitably they disagreed with me. Was this because even though they thought me mature enough to give directions, as adults they felt no compunction about contradicting me? They must have felt special. In the face of this I would concede (after all, I was only seven or eight years old) even while knowing their directions were incorrect. After a while I started agreeing with them from the start, especially if they were wrong. This small maliciousness will increase my time in purgatory, but it will be worth it because I am special.
This belief is ingrained in us from birth, growing, as we grow, from the “terrible twos” to its apex in the latter teen years when we become special by virtue of knowing everything. While this sense of specialness decreases as we age it never completely goes away. It remains the one common faith among all peoples that: contrary to multiple personal experiences and in the face of concrete evidence to the contrary we are not bound by the rules of common sense.
Continuing to plow my driveway, the same day I smashed my finger, the snow refroze and jammed the machine - - again. The dowel was, of course, not nearby and without a second thought I moved my hand toward the machine . . .