February 4, 2007

Your most systemizing moment?

Some memorize maps of ancient empires, others maintain intricately ordered collections of foreign coins, and others still seach for patterns in sports statistics that they've mentally catalogued. Some of these are passing whims -- such as a childhood stamp collection -- while others persist throughout one's lifetime. Aside from the latter perennial interests, what has been your most systemizing episode? I ask because these fleeting flirtations provide amusing insights into the pointless obsessions that enthrall the "male mind."

I'll go first: it was the beginning of sixth grade, and I had just moved six hours (by car) to a different state, and as I couldn't drag along any of my friends from elementary school, I knew no one as I began middle school. With nothing better to do, I watched my classmates go about their business and before long noticed patterns in their daily movements. It turned out that the assignment of the seven class subjects to the seven periods within an individual's schedule showed dependence -- if you had Reading third period, you for certain had English fourth period, for example. More, there was a smallish number of assignments, so that no one ever had English third period followed by Reading fourth period... or something like that -- I've forgotten the nitty-gritty in the 14 years that have passed! As I recall, the schedule was really composed of four chunks that were internally predictable, though some chunks were chronologically discontinuous (e.g., the predictable Gym and Electives chunk might have formed periods 5 and 7, while the Math and Science chunk formed periods 3 and 6). Lastly, with a few exceptions, there was only one teacher per subject. By estimation, I'd say there were 100-125 people on my "team" (sixth graders were divided into two teams, with different groups teaching each one, though it was not a tracking system).

Over the course of my day, I'd look for clues to see who went where and when, and I'd play the known data over and over in my head during my free time, so that by the spring I had memorized everyone's schedule on my team. One day on the bus ride home from school, a guy who occasionally sat next to me had mentioned something about one of his classes, and I said, "Oh yeah, you're in Ms. So-and-So's 1st period, right?" Perplexed, he responded, "Yeah, how'd you know?" I told him that I knew his entire schedule -- even though I didn't share a single class with him -- and he laughed it off in disbelief, until I recited it in order without pausing. "How'd you know all that?" he asked. I told him I knew everybody's schedule -- I should've followed up with a bellowing "Muahahaha!" but my dark humor streak hadn't fully developed yet.

I stopped doing this once I made friends in seventh grade, but later in high school, this knack came in very handy when I needed to track the movements of my various crushes, the better to catch sight of their beauty. Spread out over the school day, these glimpses provided a nice respite from the dullness of classwork. Come to think of it, though I've never stalked anyone (even if "admiring your crush" is now called "stalking" among youngsters), this tendency would have served males better than females: they would aid when analyzing the movement patterns of game animals and hostile war parties -- or when they suspected their wife was engaging in "surreptitious mating," as it's called in the literature, since males are more jealous and guard mates more assiduously. (I'm sure these explanations have already been suggested somewhere by evolutionary psychologists, but not having researched the issue, I don't know by which ones exactly. David Buss' work on jealousy comes to mind.)

We "people nerds" (in Steve's phrase) buck the overall trend of nerds who have no appreciation for The Pleasant Little Things in Life. Nothing gets me as excited as walking along the crowded, narrow sidewalks of Georgetown or people-watching at length over a cafe amb llet alongside a Barcelonan thoroughfare. And no, I'm not there to further analyze my object of inquiry -- while there, I'm more like a pyrotechnician beholding a fireworks display.

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