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Thursday, March 31, 2011

A well rounded person

Yesterday Steve Sailer posted a review of a new book about Robert Heinlein by William H. Patterson, Jr. In his review, Sailer focused on how Heinlein, though his books were essentially nerd magnets, was not a nerd himself, but was in fact just the opposite:

Sailer quotes what was evidently a famous saying (I had never heard it before) by Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn [steer] a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

It's a wonderful quote, and anybody who could do all those things would have to be a wonderful human being. It's essentially a more vivid way of saying a human being should be smart, resourceful, decent, independent, adaptable, romantic, practical, modest, and brave.

I don't know anyone who could do all those things, but one thought that occurs is that the Greatest Generation always seemed much more capable that way than we Baby Boomers are.

My father, who is now 83, could speak six languages, and knew chemistry, zoology, philosophy, and history. He held an NCAA freshman record in the 200 yard breaststroke, was a fourth degree black belt at judo, and could walk on his hands across a room. He was an Eagle Scout, with all the skills that entailed. He could ski, sail, fish, and pitch a tent. He has flown an airplane, and wanted to be a paratrooper in the Army, but after they tested his IQ they put him in cryptography instead. He spent his career as a professor of history at Harvard. But he could also pave a driveway, do carpentry, and even do minor repairs on a car. He has been an astute stock market investor over the years. He has also tried his hand at art -- which, in my estimation, he stunk at. But he was at least moderately capable at all the other things listed here, and was quite good at some of them.

I, by comparison, am a newly hatched chicklet, unable to fend for myself in practically any situation you can think of. This makes me a somewhat typical Baby Boomer.

I'm not sure the character of the WW II generation was all that much better than that of the Baby Boomers -- after all, the former raised the latter, and children do tend to reflect their parents. But those who grew up in the Depression knew that getting something fixed meant doing it yourself rather than looking for the appropriate repairman in the Yellow Pages.

Which certainly made them seem a lot less spoiled, and a lot more capable.

My children, of course, mock me for not being able to negotiate the ins and outs of a computer as handily as they. I guess I look bad from either angle.

My favorite Heinlein book, by the way, was Time Enough For Love. Reading the quote above makes me want to take another look.


Anonymous said...

Nice hommage to your Dad.

John Craig said...

Thanks Guy.

Anonymous said...


Great post, your father is quite a man, not only intelligent but also "hands on". From my limited experience in this life your usually one or the other..rarely both. I live each day trying to learn something new that can benefit my family in some way. Life goes by so fast it would be a waste of time not increasing your knowledge. Especially with the countless interesting topics out there to choose from. I can tell from your blog you are very proud of your father, as you should be. I feel the same way for mine.

Mad Dog

John Craig said...

Tom --
Thank you. I remember seeing the picture of your father in his Navy uniform, he was part of that Greatest Generation too. And you're actually much more that way than I am, you're definitely a "hands on" guy.

John Craig said...

PS -- Now that I think of it, John Hancock was an exemplary member of the Greatest Generation too.

Anonymous said...

Sounds good