I guess this
provides the best context. Read the entry and at least the first six comments. And maybe also the NYT article, except I'm sure it's behind the pay wall by now.)
I'm replying to this comment.
It's not that bad.
The hearing test suggestion came from certain college roommates of mine who were heavily into Firesign Theatre and other such things. One night we had gotten back from seeing "Catch 22", this being about a week or two after seeing a Tom Stoppard play...
... and at some point in the discussion I made the mistake of revealing that this sort of thing really doesn't do a whole lot for me. That is, yes, the play/movie/skit in question was quite funny in places, but overall it was almost completely incoherent. So much stuff happening at once and it's all a confused mess, and I really didn't see why people are holding this forth as some kind of masterpiece.
My roommates were suitably aghast. How could I not recognize that "Catch 22" was, of course, the most brilliant piece of cinema of the 20th century? And I was like, "Look, it made no sense. Which is to be expected since they're telling the story from the point of view of a guy who's going insane. I mean, I guess that's the point. War is hell and all that."
Which they thought was a completely trite summary; which perhaps it was.
But then they proceeded to explain all of the various scenes. What exactly was going on in the bomber ("Pilot to bombadier. Wait, I am the bombadier.") Who that woman was in scene 23 who came at Yossarian with the knife and why. And no, Yossarian wasn't going insane; his putting the rubber boat in the water at the end was the only rational thing he could do, because of the other guy who had made it to Sweden that way ("What other guy who ...? Oh right, I'd forgotten about him..."). And about 27 other things that I had totally missed. And it wasn't just a matter of my not having read the book beforehand, because, of course, neither had they.
The Tom Stoppard play ("The Real Thing") was even worse. At no point did I have any idea what it was about. It didn't help that the dialog was going at around 90,000 words/minute. If at any point you lose the thread of it, well, too bad for you. Usually in such a situation, I can still get a reasonably vague outline of what's going on, but here I was hopelessly adrift.
Even with really basic questions like who the characters were, what was motivating them, I was just losing:
"No X and Y weren't married. X and Z were married. Y was married to W.... Oh wait, you were probably thinking of the first scene."
"Yeah, X and Y looked pretty definitely married in the first scene. Problem is, I couldn't quite figure out what happened after that. Where they broke up and why..."
"Oh.... um.... that first scene was play-within-a-play."
"They were acting. It was a performance."
"You didn't catch that? Well it was kinda subtle, I suppose. I mean they're sitting at a table and then there's a picture of an identical table on the wall behind them, and you're supposed to get the idea from that."
"Well gosh, that would have been useful to know."
Apparently this should have been completely obvious and there were 20,000 other cues that I'd missed. Not surprisingly, because I had built up from that first scene a completely wrong model of what all of the various relationships between the characters were, nothing in the subsequent scenes made sense, and so it all fell apart.
As for the Firesign Theatre, they're just plain psychotic. I'll readily admit that they can be screamingly funny in places (Richard Nixon smoking dope: "Gee I could use a 20 pound bag of Oreo cookies right now"). But then they start playing all of their games with the tape loops and whatever other compression methods were available back in 1974... all for the sake of making absolutely certain that there are no less than eight things going on at any given time and not a single second of dead air anywhere in their final product, because of course that would mean that they've failed or something.
"And really it's quite strange that you keep missing all of this stuff. Have you thought about getting your hearing checked?"
Even after I came back the next day with the quote from the technician ("I have never seen scores like this. Your hearing is perfect") they remained unconvinced; clearly there was something wrong with me.
* * *
I actually did at one point rent "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" just to see if maybe it was just that one play where Stoppard was doing some kind of dodgy experiment in postmodern storytelling. But, no, it seems all of his stuff is like this. Every character speaks in fluent Machine Gun.
Even knowing the story of Hamlet fairly well courtesy of the high school English class in which we spent however many weeks tearing it apart, recognizing at least some of the various references, and having the VCR controls in hand so that I could stop, repeat, play at half-speed, or whatever, and I was still, "So what actually is the point here? Hamlet from R&G's point of view. I got that part. Now what?" Yes, there are some funny scenes but it seems like the basic message is, "I can fit in five times as many words and allusions as anyone else, and if you can't keep up, you must be a fucking moron."
Except this is apparently deemed to be brilliant wit, or something.
Or maybe nobody wants to admit that they're not keeping up.
* * *
I've always been aware that dealing with stuff in real time (the "thinking on your feet" attribute that is so highly valued in some quarters) has never been one of my strong points. Still I have trouble thinking of it as being anything more as a matter of people having their various strengths and weaknesses.
Consider one of the aforementioned roommates.
We were in a lot of the same math and physics classes together. And as time went on and things got more advanced, the more time he'd spend off in the library doing the various problem sets. Huge amounts of time. I'll grant that the Fine Hall library was certainly a nice, quiet place to get stuff done. And to be sure, some of the problems were quite difficult.
But there was something more going on here, and somewhere along the way we finally got to talking about it. He was, in fact, rather puzzled that I seemed to be getting the same problem sets done just fine even though I hardly spent any time in the library at all --- I suppose I tended to put more of a value on changes of scenery, sometimes working in my room, or the computer center, or the basement of 1903 Hall, or wherever I happened to feel like it...
Turns out, in his way of doing things, if you don't know enough to solve a particular physics problem, what you're supposed to do is go through the reference books, read up on everthing in sight, see what folks like Fermi and Dirac have to say about it, follow the chain of bibliographies,... you know... do research. Enough of this and something will eventually lead you to the crucial insight you need.
And he'd apparently do incredible amounts of reading to try to get the right angle on a given problem. Which suited him, because he's one of these people who puts Evelyn Wood to shame ... remembers Every Last Fucking Word --- I was suitably astounded when, half-way through our junior year, he would recall the exact words of a completely inconsequential conversation we'd had from orientation week, two and a half years earlier.
I'm sure when he finally got to law school he completely terrorized the other students.
So here he is describing his methodology ...
... and I'm like, waitaminnit, why do you need to do this? This is a physics class. Everything you need to know about the problem is in the chapter we just read. All you have to do is sit there and think about it long enough and you'll eventually get it. That's sort of the point of how these textbooks are structured. I mean, yeah, these are rather difficult and for some problems I might indeed spend up to an hour or so staring at the wall before I finally got to the eureka moment, but....
... at which point he's just sort of picking his jaw off the floor, "You mean you just do them?"
* * *
To be fair, his way of doing things has certain advantages once you get past the point where everything is spelled out in textbooks --- to say nothing of what happens when you switch from math or physics or theoretical computer science to the more applied realms where the sorts of problems you can solve by staring at the wall without too much reference to what everybody else has done about them come up somewhat less often.
And he did go on to become a Rhodes scholar, UofChicago law school, and now has way the hell more of a career than I do, whereas I only managed to get to Cambridge and needed to bail after merely 8 years at Microsoft.
So I dunno quite who "wins" this.
But the notion that there's some kind of "cure" or treatment for either one of us I find quite absurd, though maybe that's just me being set in my ways...