Before I start, I just want to say that this is NOT a sob story. I don’t want sympathy, let alone pity.
I have spent most of my life defining myself by my intellect. I went to one of the nation’s premier liberal arts college. I did so well on my GREs and LSAT that the counseling center at my undergraduate college, asked me write up my suggestions for success. (Namely: study the books if you feel you have to (more important for the GRE, especially the subject test), get enough sleep, get all of your gear ready to go the night before, and eat breakfast.) I graduated from a top five law school. I passed the California Bar the first time I took it, even though I was six months pregnant and throwing up all through the first day, and zonked out on antiemetics the second and third.
I was on Jeopardy!. I lost. Although I never really told people this, I was somewhat crushed. (Although I had an excuse: I lost to Ken Jennings.) I told people it was just an honor being able to play.
Dear Academy, it’s such an honor to be nominated….
I kept on mentally thinking of myself as, if not the smartest person in the room, then certainly one of them. I was not accomplished (and I’m not) but by God I was smart.
Then in 2015, following a serious viral infection, I developed delirium from what the doctor described as post-viral encephalitis. I suffered cognitive damage, memory damage, and executive functioning/attention damage. The unfamiliar doctor who did the psychometric testing told me, “You’re fine. Your scores are average, some high average. The only problem is attention and executive functioning; those are very low.” She didn’t quite understand why I started crying. (The doctors who knew me agreed that I was not “fine.”)
Losing high cognitive functioning devastated me. I had not lost my intellect, I had lost myself. I had lost my sense of identity. I had lost my way of being in the world. (As an aside, this is the reason Dr. Strange is my favorite MCU character. His experiences resonate with me in a way that, say, Iron Man’s, do not.)
It took a year, but cognition came back (mostly), memory came back (mostly), and the executive functioning…. is probably toast for good. I have the attention span of an over-caffeinated squirrel.
During that year, I had to find a new identity. I had to change the way I think of myself. I was still smart, but not as smart. But I came to realize that that was not all I was. I was caring, I could be funny, I was passionate about people, I was courageous at times. I was sweet, and gentle. (There are negative attributes too, but those are for another post.) Those things had been there all along, of course, but I was too busy being arrogant about my intelligence to think about them much.
I am thinking of all of this because of tonight’s trivia game. My friend Chris, who runs the trivia games, had an entire category of questions that were on my Jeopardy! game. He didn’t tell us that was what it was until afterwards, of course.
I tanked the round. True, a particularly annoying team was making so much noise that it was difficult to hear, let alone think, but really, for most of them I just didn’t remember. (I did remember the question that had been final Jeopardy!, about Monsanto. I grinned at the memory of getting it right, and stomping the annoying Georgetown lawyer who came in third.)
Chris told me later that he expected me to run the category. And five years ago, I would have been angry with myself for not doing so. I would have been upset at not getting questions I had gotten right fifteen years ago. I would have worried about whether I was losing my grip. I would have beat myself emotionally over a really silly trivia game being played for beer that I’m not even going to drink.
Tonight, though, I am simply terribly amused. Whether or not I remember what animal is on the Victoria Cross, or what inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire called themselves, it’s all good. In Moana, Maui said “Hook, no hook. I’m still Maui.” I could say “Smarts, no smarts. I’m still Pat.”
So as I said, I was — and am — greatly amused by my poor performance in the “Jeopardy!” round.
That was true even before I won the game.