Malcolm and Me

The road to Geekdom can be awfully lonely


By Cynthia Adams

Malcolm Gladwell is a fearless geek.

The bestselling author recently revealed that he is utterly fascinated by the army of researchers in Cincinnati — 1,000 to be exact — working to make Tide detergent even better. 

I would have so befriended Malcolm in my younger years — that is, if he hadn’t been in Toronto, and I hadn’t been stuck in Hell’s Half Acre, aka, my childhood home in Cabarrus County.

You see, as a high schooler, I spent an obsessive phase not in the pursuit of coolness, but geekdom.

A ruined bedspread was the catalyst.

Our Mom, an occasional redecorator, had mixed results that would have never landed her many followers on Instagram. She was a fiend for “antiquing” furniture, first slapping on a frog skin green paint, then adding the finesse, a grotesque looking wash that looked for all the world like a smear of French’s mustard.

She was also known to dye our bedspreads. To her dismay, the mottled outcome always resembled tie-dye. 

Being a nerd, I consulted my science teacher, Mr. Drinnen, as to why.

For many months thereafter, I came home armed with beakers, pipettes and fabric samples, and set to work, analyzing dye absorption in my kitchen laboratory. Rit fabric dyes replaced Jell-O packets on the yellow Formica countertop. Jell-O, the sole dessert I was permitted to make, suddenly felt like child’s play.

Mom was unimpressed.

Only Mr. Drinnen egged me on. Once, he even came to our house to explain to my family why wrecking the kitchen was in service to science.

After winning a science fair award, my face was rigidly serious in The Concord Tribune photograph. (Would Madame Curie smile, I asked myself? No.) 

This earnest nerdiness would disqualify me from the dating scene until I left home for college.

My social circle — which my friend Malcolm explains cannot include more than 150 people — shrank.

You may recall that the author also popularized terms like “tipping point,” and the “10,000-hour rule.” 

Well, that geeky photo was my tipping point: like 32 degrees, turning simple water to ice.

Bird dogging scientists, academics and researchers has played out well for Malcolm, who, by the way, is a guy. But science fairs and the Honor Roll were Napalm to a teenage girl’s social life.

As senior prom approached, my father stunned me, announcing that he knew someone who wanted to go with me. My prom date, Dad said enthusiastically, was Emmett, someone I’d never met. (Maybe he hadn’t seen the photo, I thought, but cringed at my father shopping me around.) I declined. My Dad was insistent.

My father even took me to shop for a prom dress. He liked one embellished with maidenly rose buds; suitable for a chaste, unsmiling virgin. 

He plunked down the money and we chugged back to Hell’s Half Acre.

When Emmett arrived on prom night, he and Dad discussed herd management. Of course, I thought. Emmett was into farming. Dad loved farmers.

Good humoredly, Dad reminded Emmett to have me home early.

Prom wasn’t Carrie awful — nobody dumped pig blood on me.  But even Mr. Drinnen, a chaperone, cast quizzical looks at me and Emmett, who seemed glued to the punchbowl.

I finally asked Emmett to dance, tired of sweatily clutching the warming punch. He declined.

A gallon of punch later, another hour had passed more painfully than my recent driving exam.

We returned to find my parents in the den watching Gunsmoke. Dad smiled warmly at Emmett, who proceeded to settle on the sofa beside him. Exasperated, I offered to make popcorn.

As I stood by the stove in my Cabbage Patch doll gown, I could have cared less if the roiling oil splattered my bodice.

The kernels popped; as always, some did not.

Tipping the popcorn into a bowl, I wondered. Why is that?

There just had to be a good reason.

Malcolm would have known who to ask.  OH

Contributing editor Cynthia Adams has yet to put Tide laundry detergent to the test, but says she’s got the vegetable oil ready. 

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