Turning the Nerd Brain Off for the Summer

slothTwenty-four minutes.  From 10:54-11:18.  Time is regimented.  Bites are quick, then back to class.    Lunch can be a perfunctory transaction.

By the end of the first week in summer mode, I had already forgot that it was Friday.  Days lose definition without clear structure, when every day is a day off (a thought summed up beautifully in this song), so we made our way to a local sushi joint where I enjoyed every…single…morsel…slowly.

In addition to learning to chew my food at a normal human pace, my brain begins to move a different speed in the summer.  It takes a while, but after nine months of constantly monitoring the running narratives of my 100+ students, I have a lot more time to chew the morsels that pass through my mental diet as well.  And more often than not, that involves an informal ritual that I often pass through for a few months: Turning the Nerd Brain Off for the Summer.

Putting the Nerd Brain in summer storage usually starts with getting the intense urge to get outside all the time.  Check.  Next, it begins to snack on less intellectual fare: this year the NBA Finals and the inane babble of AM sports radio, and endless barrage of “expert opinions.”  Soon, the brain wanders, no longer bound by laying out the perfect lesson plan day after day.  Finally, it begins to more fully enjoy the absurdity of the world with a more relaxed, humored outlook so that it can return in August fully rested.

The Nerd Brain fades into the background, and the summer brain moves to the fore.  A final totem of this transition arrives in reading.  As a Thank You gift, a student gave me The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.  Enclosed a blue envelope, the student had penned a note of honest gratitude.  The book’s mentor character Socrates, he said, had reminded him of his experience with me as a teacher.

How could I not read further?  However in the initial pages, my nerd brain kept getting in the way, worrying about things like syntax and organization…teacher jargon.  But when I got to the part where Socrates (the character, not the philosopher) can not only leap to the top of buildings with ninja-like stealth and speed as well but also induce hallucinogenic, spiritually edifying trances on his students (can I do that to my students?) I shelved the Nerd Brain and allowed the story to unfold.

The story, itself, holds few surprises, so there’s little need for “Spoiler Alerts” here.  Dan, a gymnast at Berkley, finds himself haunted by dreams of death and mornings of melancholy.  Strangely late one night, he finds himself at a gas station  where he meets the aforementioned Socrates.  From there, Dan’s life vacillates between highs and lows with Socrates, a service station attendant, as his mentor guiding his mental and spiritual growth through all of it.    Socrates uses visions as well as many of the philosophies that show up in my class: Buddhist Koans, Taoist parables, New Testament preachings of simplicity, and yes (all you former Philosophy students)…Socrates and the Allegory of the Cave for the win.

I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would.  It was a good first read for the summer brain.  Then I flipped the book over and realize that it had been made into a movie.  Morbid curiosity drove me to find the film, as I was sure the film would be a hot, stinking mess.   Spiritual enlightenment rarely plays out well on film.  My expectations, it turns out, were not disappointed.

As it happened…(“As it was meant to happen,” as Bokonon would say), I flipped on the TV the next day to see how down the hole the Red Sox had slid over the weekend.  And–lo and behold–there was Peaceful Warrior, the film adaptation with Nick-Freaking-Nolte as Socrates.    Wise Socrates is reduced to a New Age Greeting Card with fast reflexes, reminding Dan only to “take out the mental garbage,” and realize “there are no moments where nothing is happening.”  Dan, who is plagued throughout by melancholy and existential angst, is reduced to a two-dimensional jock stereotype, a gymnast trying to turn a triple-flip on the rings.  The depth of the book shows up in flashes, but barely so.

Look, I really try not to be one of those uppity book-nerd people you read or read about on the internet.  You know who I’m talking about.  The movie comes out.  They’ve read the book.  It’s not the same.  Blah. Blah. Blah.  And I get that an English and Film teacher who jumps online to blog to his twenty or so readers, bitching about how the book and movie don’t compare, is about as cliche’ and…well…nerdy as you can get.

I tried to make my peace with this, but I can’t.  My nerd brain can relish in absurdity, but it can’t handle the mendacity or the willful ignorance.  Hence the screed that follows.

And if you, like most of the known world, skipped this film when it came out in 2006 (it couldn’t recoup its $10 million budget) this is your SPOILER ALERT.  Though, to be fair, the film is so cliche, you’ve probably already seen it a hundred times.  Here’s the Trailer.  You’ll see.

Dan rides a motorcycle with stereotypical male hubris, believing he’s invincible.  He’s not.  A yellow sedan proves otherwise.  Shattered by injury, he’s told he will never walk again, let alone compete.  His teammates abandon him.  His coach forgets him.  He goes to Socrates, who makes him believe in himself, who makes him stop over-analyzing things and stay present in the moment.  Then, Socrates sets up a set of rings behind the gas station for him to practice.  At the end, he wows the coach, tries out for the Olympics.  Swell of music.  Slo-motion photography.  Emotional Crescendo.  He sticks the landing.  Crowd goes wild.  Dan is mobbed.  Hero shot with his teammates.  Screen goes black.  Facts about Dan’s life that explain what all-around awesome and inspirational guy he has become.

The film is based on Dan Milliman’s life story,(I’ve posted his TEDTalk below) so most of this probably happened.  What the movie blindly leaves out from the book is that after leading Berkley to the National Championship, which finished his college career as a gymnast, he was met with a crippling sense of loss of purpose.  What do I do now?  Dan had achieved more than anyone could’ve imagined, he got exactly what he wanted–and he still wasn’t happy.  The victory that the film lauds as the apex only serves to teach Dan how fleeting that happiness is.  It takes ten years of wandering aimlessly through his life–marriage, fatherhood, living on beaches in Europe, divorce, and a near-death vision of Socrates as he hikes through the Sierra Nevadas before he finds a more lasting peace, one borne of an understanding of his place in the complex web of life.  And part of this realization is that the very successes that constitute the coda of the film–the glory of athletic victory– are not what finally brings him happiness, but that he has happiness in his life when he has sought this deep spiritual truth.

I don’t know.  I couldn’t let it go.  Maybe movie Socrates…you know, Nick Nolte…would’ve told me to just “take out the mental garbage” while pointing at that mystical spot on my forehead.  But the film had taken what I thought was valuable wisdom and sold it for a cheap sports movie cliche’:  hard work and dedication can lead to victory, which is where happiness lies.  Apparently, according to the talking heads on AM Sports Radio, it’s what Lebron just taught all of Northern Ohio.  I felt the book’s themes to be so much more inspirational and authentic.

So, I guess the nerd brain never really goes away from the summer.  Maybe it’s the price, as Socrates (the real Socrates) would have posed for being vigilant against shadows of truth as opposed to something that is more real, more authentic. Or even as Dan Milliman discusses, be conscious of change and acting appropriately.  Staying in the Pivot as the Taoists say.  Blogging about social implications in a film/book dichotomy sure as hell doesn’t count as “taking it easy.”


The summer brain will probably still lose track of time more easily, and get more exercise than in the school year.  But as I went for a run this morning, I was content the nerd brain that cares about books and music and film and life to the point where it calls bullshit when it sees it.    Writing about it here seems like the natural reaction to it.  Thanks for reading.  Thanks, Brady, for the book.




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