I’ve been wondering when I got so stupid. It goes like this:
Nick got a new scooter the other day. He took it to a play over at his friend Indar’s.
On the way to picking Nick up, I had stopped by the market and loaded a couple of grocery bags into the trunk.
“I think the scooter will fit in there too,” I said as we prepared to leave Indar’s house.
I picked up the scooter. I’d left the instruction booklet at home, of course. I knew it folded into a compact version of itself but I didn’t know how. It had some levers and other twisty knobs.
Nick grabbed the scooter. It spun around in his hands and became a quarter of its size. He threw it into the trunk on top of the grocery bags.
“Hey, watch it,” I said. “There’s eggs in there.”
“Nick, have you ever folded this thing up before?”
That’s the whole thing right there.
Out of respect to the black hole that is my I.R.A., I subscribe to a financial magazine. In the last issue, I found an article with a disturbing title, “Aging and Investing: The Risk of Cognitive Impairment.”
The article explained the intellectual perils of age. It was geared toward handling money, but it applied to handling scooters as well. There was a graph, reproduced below. Unlike most of the graphs in this journal, this one was intelligible to me. With a few, simple strokes of the pen, it unlocked the whole experience of parenthood.
Age runs along the bottom. Smarts runs up and down.
It turns out there are two kinds of intelligence. The first kind is called crystallized intelligence, which is based on accumulated experience. It’s the ability to solve familiar problems. It’s the intelligence that tells you not to throw a metal scooter on a carton of eggs. I’m not sure, but I think some people call this common sense.
Common sense goes along way. But one must always bear in mind that it is common sense which tells you that the earth is flat.
The second kind of intelligence is called fluid intelligence. It’s the ability to solve a problem you’ve never seen before.
Crystallized intelligence is the gold colored line. It accumulates throughout life, ever rising, bearing people, barring dementia, into the extremes of old age. I find this reassuring.
Fluid intelligence is the red line. It declines without remorse, in that alarming downward diagonal, as you age. Nick’s greater fluid intelligence is why he can fold the scooter and I can’t. I do not find this reassuring. Not at all.
The dotted purple line is how you do overall, counting the two intelligences together. Your overall performance peaks at age 53 and declines slowly thereafter.
I never discuss my age. But in the cause of academic rigor, I will confess to being on the wrong side of 53.
Not reassuring at all.
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
It’s no wonder that the world seems more and more mysterious and inexplicable to me. My fluid intelligence is leaking away. At an ever increasing rate.
It makes me glad I have a child to accompany me on through the dimming light. I’m sure this is what the prophet Isaiah had in mind when he said, “…and a little child will lead them.”
I explained all this to Nick today. I reminded him about the scooter and the eggs.
“There were eggs?” he said.
“That’s not the point,” I said, “Forget about the eggs. I’ll be counting on you and your fluid intelligence from now on.”
Long pause. He went on eating his cheese sandwich. He seemed indifferent to his new responsibilities.
“Nick, what do you think of all this?” I said.
“Good?” I said.
I’d hoped for more. But perhaps, I reflected, this was the way of fluid intelligence.
“Nick,” I said, “You’re the teacher here. I’m listening.”
“Dada, shoo.” he said, “Eating now.”
This essay was originally published at The Good Men’s Project
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