Up the Valley: IQ or DQ?

March 20, 2013

Is it smarter to be born stupid? Today’s column in the Star…

They say it takes all kinds to make a world. Specifically, there often seem to be two types of people in any given category. And I’ve long harbored the nagging feeling that, whichever category was best, I fell into the other one. Having just turned 55, I’ve decided it’s time to finally take stock.

For starters, there are bright, energetic morning people, and then there are groggy night-crawlers like me. An inveterate night owl, I frequently find myself spending “just five more minutes” well into the wee hours. Would I change this habit? Absolutely! I envy those who rise early each dawn to milk the chickens and who put in a full day’s work before breakfast, leaving the rest of the day free to accomplish even more. Plus, they get to smell the morning air, and watch fewer infomercials.

In another category, confident people are praised, while insecure self-doubters are referred to therapy. But isn’t a realistic knowledge of our own limitations a good thing? I’ve occasionally been over-confident, and wish someone would please remind me, for example, that I cannot — and will never be able to — use super glue without gluing my fingers together.

Of course everybody thinks thin is better than fat, although let’s talk when the nuclear winter arrives. Do I covet a metabolism that facilitates the consequence-free consumption of cheese? Of course! But I’m also less wrinkled than my skinnier friends, require fewer sweaters, and suffer less food-guilt, so let’s call this a wash. Similarly, I don’t agree that athletic is automatically better than bleacher-bound. Sure, athletes are healthier and trimmer, but we spectators suffer far fewer sprains, and have a lower incidence of skiing headlong into a tree.

Next: to be beautiful or not? I imagine that exceptional physical beauty would be a burden. The unwanted attention and do-they-love-me-for-my-looks questions, followed by years of anti-aging efforts, sound exhausting. So I’m happily sticking with so-so.

Homeowner or renter? There are arguments on both sides, but no one can seriously argue the wisdom of getting someone else to underwrite the roof over your head. And when it comes to welfare, I’ve always believed it better to avoid joining the moocher-class. But watching wily rich folks dodge taxes and sidestep underwater mansion mortgages while benefiting from taxpayer subsidies is enough to drive you onto the dole.

Career-wise, American mythology elevates the capitalist job-creator over the worker. Yet I’ve noticed that it’s my long-employed friends, with their health plans and paid vacations, who have now retired with pensions, enjoying life when so many entrepreneurs struggle.

And suddenly, we, members of stressful “elite” professions like law and medicine, often find ourselves less valued than those with practical skills, like plumbers, electricians or upholsterers. Becoming well-educated, or even well-trained, can be perceived as wasteful, with a premium placed instead on the practical knowledge of techno-gadgetry found among 20-somethings with scant work, or life, experience.

Which leads to the big question: is it better to be smart or dumb? In the past, I’ve been a high-achiever with OK IQ. But mightn’t I have been happier working at the DQ, clueless but cheerful, clumsily operating the soft-serve machine weekdays for 4.5 hours (with breaks) before rushing home to watch Honey Boo Boo? Certainly it is satisfying to write a snappy sentence. Discerning the Daily Show and the nightly news is great. But if I didn’t, would I even know what I was missing? And if we’re being honest, doesn’t it sometimes feel like certain professionally helpless people fare better — or at least with less drama — than their competent counterparts?

So to recap: in my next life, I’d like to be a reasonably attractive morning person with a speedy metabolism, below-average IQ, but still smart enough to (a) find a lifelong low-stress job with pension and benefits; and/or (b) land a smarter, solvent spouse who finds my air-headedness attractive. I would live cost-free in my mate’s house until it became necessary for me to move on to the next relationship — of which there would be an infinite supply, what with my needing rescue and all.

I would breeze through life letting other people handle all my problems — repairing my flat tires, replacing my toner cartridges and reprogramming my electronic devices. I would develop one serious marketable skill requiring only moderate effort; perhaps something I could learn at trade school or in a manual of advanced sexual techniques. I would never be called upon to pick up a check, hire an employee or pay interest to a bank. I would claim the maximum public benefits and pay the minimum possible taxes. In short, I’d be the smartest stupid person you ever met.

But would I be male or female? I’ll have to get back to you on that one.

I often find myself including obscure references in these columns that I fear no one else appreciates. Most people are too young to remember them, and those who are old enough forgot them years ago.

You may therefore miss my meaning when I tell you: I am turning Japanese (I really think so).

You see, I’m on a diet emphasizing food prepared in the Japanese manner. It’s a lot like the “French Women Don’t Get Fat”-type diets, except that instead of featuring skinny super-confident French Champagne-swilling cookbook authors (and their scary mothers) it features skinny super-competent Japanese sake-sipping cookbook authors (and their even-scarier mothers).

Both diets emphasize portion control, the French version of which is to invite a companion to share your dinner plate from which you slowly feed each other by hand, followed by vigorous sex. The Japanese version involves serving tiny food on odd-sized plates decorated by twisted pickled ginger slices and artfully sculpted vegetables, the preparation and serving of which leaves everyone too exhausted for sex. Further distinguishing Japanese delicacy from French debauchery are the cupfuls of powdery green tea where the carafes of wine should be.

The Japanese diet relies on rice, which is wonderfully warm, filling, and can be repurposed as pudding. Plus you can simply toss rice into an electric cooker and leave. Not so easy is creating the “umami” taste by combining exotic vegetables, strange soy products, bonito flakes, kelp and other seaweeds into labor-intensive broths like “dashi” (which is Japanese for “makes your kitchen smell like Benihana”). Daily shopping for fresh ingredients is required, as is stockpiling cartons of leftover rice and soup in the freezer, now resembling a specimen lab.

But the best recipes feature fish of multiple varieties. Fish is low in fat, yet high in the fatty acids, vitamins and minerals so essential to good health. But there is one minor caveat: Eating seafood may kill you. It can contain traces of toxins and enough mercury and heavy metals to foster a fish phobia. When farm-raised it can become diseased, while even the wild-caught versions are susceptible to whatever some careless camper dumped in the river the day before.

The latest scare concerns falsely labeled fish. Fully 40 percent of Northern California fish purchases and 76 percent of sushi may be faux. Apparently there are schools of rockfish out there cleverly disguising themselves as snapper, and tacky tilapia and grabby grouper angling to pass as ritzy red snapper. Scientists now trace fish DNA like criminologists on an episode of “CSI: Marine World.”

Not only does one worry about sustainability and sourcing for health and environmental reasons, there are social consequences as well. A serving of inappropriate fish can be as unwelcome here as foie gras or Sonoma wine. Fortunately, the Monterey Bay Aquarium provides handy brochures and smartphone apps so that the correctness of consumers’ fish choices can be instantly confirmed. It is comforting to know that one’s mackerel has the moral high ground.

Still, there are times when you crave that ahi tuna burger, and so customers skulk away from the supermarket fish counter like potheads from a medical marijuana dispensary. They shop for suspiciously sourced salmon or grab off-season crab. Buying endangered Chilean sea bass can be considered bad form; buying abalone can be a criminal offense. It’s enough to make you eat red meat.

My fish-fairness role model is Cindy Pawlcyn, the renowned local chef who also serves as culinary partner to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s restaurants. She is well-known for serving only reliably sourced, sustainable seafood, and I’m confident that the fish on her plates once led happy and fulfilled lives. Still, serving fish at an aquarium is a bit like serving panda burgers and giraffe dogs at the zoo; I would have expected tofu in the shape of a trout. Cindy’s onsite presence must make the aquarium fish nervous, although perhaps not if they heard that she suffers from a seafood allergy, and can be held at bay by an aggressive lobster while the other crustaceans make a break for it.

Although I now launder my garbage and deodorize my hands with a miraculous steel egg, I am nonetheless hugely popular with the cat, who gazes at me longingly as if I were an open can of plump Italian sardines. Meanwhile, I am feeling healthier and thinner all the time. And while (to quote from “The Mikado”) not every seafood variety I’ve tried makes me say Yum-Yum, I’ve discovered that there are indeed lots of good fish in the sea.