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Too Late Smart

September 9, 2016 — Leave a comment

Americans are smarter than they used to be.

According to an article published by the American Psychology Association1, IQ’s have been on the rise steadily in this country for the last century. That makes the average person today smarter than 95% of the people living 100 years ago! Which is not to say that our brains have suddenly been engineered to accomplish greater things, but rather that our ability to attack a wider range of conceptual problems has improved. And get this – it’s due to the complexity of modern life.

My childhood happened in a simpler era: there was one breadwinner, one family car, one phone wired to the wall, and only three TV channels. We walked to school and came home for lunch, and we either walked or rode our bikes to after-school activities like Little League or Brownies. We would even walk to Sunday school. Way less complex.

Which would explain a lot about me, and my not being the sharpest crayon in the box, as evidenced by my repetition of behaviors that…

Always had a negative outcome. Color me a slow learner.


Summer 1958

Exhibit A: I loved to ride my bike in the summer, and I also loved wearing flip flops. However, these two things never mixed well. But did this affect my decision to ride a bike in flip flops again and again?


Moooooooom!!! I’m bleeeeeding!!!” I would wail as I charged through the front door.

From the kitchen, a calm reply: “Come here and let me see.”

“My toe – it huuurts!!!

“What happened?” she would ask, lifting me up onto the kitchen counter to get a closer look.

“I was riding my bike and scraped it on the curb.”

“Okay, we’ll wash it up and put a Band-Aid on it. It’ll be okay.” Then out would come the mercurochrome2 and a small metal box full of bandages. My folks should have bought stock in Johnson & Johnson for all the Band-Aids I blew through.

No pity is due me here, though. I owned tennis shoes. I just opted – again and again – not to wear them.

Exhibit B: There was a huge catalpa tree on our block. We called the long pods that hung from the branches “Indian cigars”. Were these pods actually cigars? No. But did that stop us from trying to light them so we could smoke? (Unfortunately tobacco products were in vogue during this “less complex” era.) Again, no.

I was recently admiring a magnificent catalpa tree in my cousin’s front yard, loaded with pods.


Photo credit: Linda Marlow

“Indian cigars! Did you guys try to smoke these pods when you were kids?”


“Oh. We did, but it never worked.”

“Where did you get the fire?”

Good question. Where did we get the fire? “I don’t know,” I replied. “Probably matches, but Dad always had Zippos around, too.”

Yes. I knew kids weren’t supposed to play with matches. But I don’t recall having to be involved with the fire directly, seeing that I had an older brother.

So fire was easily obtained, but the concept of freshly picked catalpa pods being utterly inflammable due to their water content, was not so easily grasped.

We repeated that little ritual at least once a season, sad to say.

Exhibit C: Summers were not only full of scraped toes and catalpa pods, they were also teeming with – lightning bugs! And we meant to capture them!


(Creative Commons by Jessica Lucia via

Shortly after sunset, we could be found outside, running around like chickens with our heads cut off, darting after the elusive quarry. Invariably, one of us would come up with the brainy idea to run inside and get a jar. Mom could usually be counted on to wash out an empty pickle jar for us and, upon request, poke a few holes in the lid so our captives could breathe. The perfunctory twig and some blades of grass — for natural habitat’s sake – and voila! We were all set to…

Execute hapless insects. Slowly.

Not once did I wake up in the morning to find live lightning bugs. Always dead – every single time. But did this grim reality inform future lightning-bug-catching expeditions? Not in the least. We carried on in like fashion, ad infinitum, summer after summer.

De facto serial killers. All on account of being not so sharp.

You know, I hear from a lot of my peers that they aren’t too thrilled about getting older. But I say bring it. With the increasing complexity of the technologically advancing world, I think I finally have a shot at getting smarter.


  1. “Smarter Than Ever”, by Lea Winerman.
  2. Once upon a time, a staple of the family medicine cabinet. In 1998, the ubiquitous mercurochrome was declared by the FDA as being “not generally recognized as safe and effective” as an antiseptic. Suppose it had something to do with the mercury?

Our house was only a few blocks from the school when we lived in the city, so I walked. But sometimes… seriously… sometimes I wonder if I hadn’t been a walker, whether they’d have made me ride the short bus.

I mean, from time to time I was a little sharper than a marble. Like, I knew some stuff.

For instance: you imagesCACENI07wouldn’t get warts from holding a frog. Can you even believe some of the things kids say? I think I always knew that just because kids said so, didn’t automatically mean a thing was true. So I fearlessly handled lots of frogs. I was just brave like that. But I did get a wart in fourth grade though. And I hadn’t messed with any amphibians for months. Well, maybe weeks. Or was it a few days…?

Here’s some other stuff I just knew:

  • a watermelon wouldn’t grow in my stomach if I swallowed a seed
  • it wouldn’t break my mother’s back if I stepped on a crack
  • my eyes wouldn’t freeze that way if I crossed my eyes (sheesh!)
  • finding a four-leaf clover was definitely good luck
  • if you tossed a cat off the banister of the front porch, it would always, always land on its feet. Please don’t make me tell you how I knew that…

Then there were other things I just wasn’t all that sure about, so I hedged my bets: I avoided walking under ladders, I collected rabbit’s feet for good luck, and I tried like the Dickens to blow out all the candles with one breath so my wish would come true.

Finally, there was this third category. You know, those things about which I was utterly clueless. As in: half-baked, dim-witted, bubble-headed.

Take, for instance, all those times I punched holes in the lid of a glass jar with an ice pick so I could have a “night light” by catching lots of fireflies. Didn’t my tiny prisoners always quit lighting up after a few minutes, then fade to black shortly thereafter, never mind the few blades of grass and leaves thrown in to “keep them alive”? And despite this consistent grim outcome, didn’t I commit this harebrained stunt repeatedly? Sigh.

And then there was this really huge catalpa tree on our block. You know, one of those trees with the gigantic heartcatbig1b-shaped leaves and those pods that hang down from it like enormous green beans. The neighborhood kids called it an Indian Cigar Tree. Ooooo, a tree that grows cigars? Dad smokes cigars, and he is cool. Maybe I’ll be cool too if I smoke an Indian Cigar. (Okay, you can see where this is going, right?) Let’s just say, it wasn’t cool. Not one bit. Didn’t have the sense to realize the pods would have to dry before they would light. (And don’t ask who brought the lighter to this little soiree. Not me. No pockets, remember?)

And lastly, there was the time my dad brought home a really cool inflatable globe. This wonderful educational resource was probably 20 inches in diameter and spun on its axis. It totally commanded a spot in our dining room. Unfortunately, my dad’s desk was in proximity, in another corner of the dining room. On his bulletin board was a map with little brightly colored map pins indicating the location of every Goodyear dealer in his sales territory. I mean, these little map pins were so colorful… so I took a notion to put a cute little map pin in every star on that globe. You know, like Washington DC, London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City, Moscow… it was great.

Now, let me hasten to add: I was fully aware that a pin stuck in a balloon would make it pop. And I’d watched my dad and brother patch many inner tubes, so I knew that a nail in a tire caused it to deflate. I also knew that the globe was, well let’s see… inflated. So don’t ask me why I imagined that the globe would magically be okay after my little decorating party. I guess my elevator just didn’t get to the top floor on that one. Even though I never intended to kill our wonderful globe, my parents were, nonetheless, displeased. Putting it mildly.

I wish I could say I’ve outgrown all my miscalculations and blunders. But, regrettably, I still have my short bus moments. I figure if I ever stop having them, somebody had better call the undertaker. I’ll be dearly departed.