I actually looked forward to these dehumanizing games, my only means of participation in an adult conversation. The praise wasn’t bad, either.
“That boy’s going far,” someone would inform my parents.
I learned how to read from a four-foot atlas. I’d lay it flat, and plant my feet on the Atlantic and the Indian, crouched on our living room floor. My mom corrected my pronunciation as I sounded out every country and its capital. If you ask her, I knew them all by the time I was four.
The Atlas was tall, much taller than I was. Its colors were flamboyant, and it was replete with smiley oceanic life forms, plus palm trees or glaciers where vaguely appropriate. It encompassed my field of vision. Yet—despite the book’s prismatic tenor—mastering the atlas felt furtive. The globe was somehow private. I memorized countries and capitals as if the information were available only to me.
Adult brows scrunched. Family friends searched for the hardest ones, the craziest countries they could muster. “China,” they’d come up with often. I’d mumble, “Beijing,” half bored, half thrilled.
I realized I could hypnotize, merely stating these proper nouns. I internalized how people viewed you when they thought you wise. They assumed I knew other things, too. I knew no other things. And instead of learning other things, I embarked on lazier fun, lying to those who asked for capitals I knew they knew not themselves.
They smiled, awestruck, and said things like wow.
I made it all the way to high school certain that I was, for all intents and purposes, the only person my age who knew all the capitals. Confidently, I joined the geography bee team. I would earn our school’s first win.
But right when we got to the bee, I knew something was off. These other kids looked unintimidated. Minor-league Jewish private school versus ninth graders in ties. They didn’t, it turns out, just know the capitals: they knew the four capitals through which the Danube flows, they knew the political timeline of tribal warfare in Comoros, they knew the metric depths of each lake in Siberia. They knew it well.
“Name the three Canary Islands,” the moderator said to my team. She intended this as an easy one.
We convened, then answered, “chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.”
How much did these people study? Did no one care how good I was at making capitals up? Why did my mom never make me read the lakes? Did they always wear ties?
My childhood felt like a waste. My furtive pleasure: weak, delusive.
The heavens heard my anguish, and for the next and last round we played the city’s other minor-league Jewish private school. The competition became to offer the most hilarious answers, and the moderator became an anti-Semite. Ours was a Pyrrhic victory, but the small win placed us 7th out of 16, much better than we could have expected. We returned to school boastful. I regaled the hordes with a self-aggrandizing play-by-play of our annihilating defeat of our rival. But I had been pulverized.
I met people unimpressed by my capitals, people who would be unimpressed no matter how well I knew the children’s atlas. Memorization, once delightful, felt impotent.
We hadn’t been able to eat the non-kosher food served at the bee, and after eating lunch, I felt considerably better. In addition, my friends were really impressed by 7th. That, and I saw that I didn’t need capitals, or to memorize anything, to recreate my earlier pleasure of hypnosis. People in the cafeteria gathered to hear about the competition. I appreciated that I could capture people’s minds with a pathetic tale about misplaced confidence and worldly ignorance. And I was okay with these tales’ autobiographical nature as long as they continued to garner audiences, as long as I found the right charisma, the right turns of phrase, the right ways to tell them. The information in an atlas, it turns out, is available to everyone. But this, in some small, furtive way that you can’t tie down, was actually mine.
I was okay with the dismal narrative of the geography bee because of how effectively I managed to tell it. Good storytelling, as a creative product, is not always reproducible, and therefore unreliable. I can’t memorize it. And I certainly can’t count on approving smiles and wows. But when it does take, I find the payoff incomparable. Even fabricating fake capitals is incomparable to fabricating truth. I’ll never forget how much more important to me was telling the story of my loss than the four capital junctions of the Danube that caused it. I’ll also never forget: Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna, Bratislava.