I occasionally write (and much less frequently publish) fiction. The piece posted below was written for MySpace as part of a 20th anniversary piece they ran on the Nirvana album In Utero .
I busted my ass in high school and got into an elite college in the Northeast, one of those places where half the graduates go on to win Pulitzers or Nobel Prizes or Rhodes Scholarships. You probably know which one I’m talking about.
Within months, though, I realized I was an intellectual phony who had no place at said elite college. I stopped trying, my grades flatlined and I started dedicating my energies to schmoozing at parties, hoping that some rich kid would take a shine to me and toss a cushy finance job my way.
I mostly blame my freshman year roommate. On a campus overflowing with brilliance, he put everyone to shame. It seemed like knowledge couldn’t be created fast enough for him to consume. His brain was simply larger, more powerful. My friends and I affectionately referred to him as “The Dumbass” after once catching him pushing a door that read “pull.” It was probably the only miscalculation he had made that semester.
We lost touch for a while, but then something odd happened. Midway through his junior year, having already completed a prize-winning economics thesis, the Dumbass got hooked on DIY beer distillation. No one understood this sudden fascination. He never drank a lot; in fact, he’d often describe food and drink as nothing more than fuel. Yet, like any other field of study, beer distillation was soon bent to his will. He borrowed expensive contraptions from the college’s chemistry department and stored them in an abandoned warehouse rented with thesis prize money. It became his personal brewing laboratory. In typical Dumbass fashion, he caught on fast. His first couple attempts were already better than most run-of-the-mill macrobrews. Within months, the Dumbass was sweeping homebrew competitions across the state, each batch vastly superior than the previous. While his new extracurricular activity disturbed our college faculty, my friends and I cheered him on, finally able to appreciate the extent of his brilliance.
The brewing awards continued to pile up, but still something gnawed at the Dumbass. Speaking in terms and concepts way over our heads, he described his dilemma. Conventional brewing was plagued with baseless myths. People fussed over serving temperature, what food to pair with the beer, how to pour it, into what type of glass, etc. These were worthless hang-ups, none of them supported by science. The secret lay within the barley. Pointing at complex diagrams and equations, the Dumbass imagined that there must exist a “perfect” barley kernel with the optimal amount of enzymes, which would in turn produce the “perfect” beer. His mission was to find it.
That summer he turned down a prestigious fellowship at Oxford. Instead, he planned to spend three months scouring Ukraine’s vast barley fields, home of the best barley on Earth. His professors had a fit when they heard. We, however, celebrated the news and wished him the best of luck.
I always considered myself a cynic, but even I couldn’t help but feel inspired by the Dumbass’s mission. Hearing his passionate speeches on brewing stirred something in me, made me question why I wasn’t pushing my own abilities to their limit. After the Dumbass departed for Europe, I enrolled in a class that taught you how to do computer code, taking two miserable bartending jobs so I could afford it. I started feeling better prepared for success in the 21st Century, just like the class pamphlet said I would.
Several times a week, after a long hot day exploring the barley fields, the Dumbass would send us email updates from a crowded hostel where he analyzed the kernels. His enthusiasm grew with each message; the “perfect beer” appeared to be within his grasp. Suddenly, though, the updates stopped. In August he finally sent a rambling email full of typos. He had, in fact, found the “perfect barley kernel.” There was a whole field of the stuff, just sitting there in rural Ukraine. However, when he asked about buying the property, the peasants who tended the field laughed and said something that sounded like vulgar slang. They argued until someone found a translator, at which point the Dumbass realized they were actually saying “Pabst,” and that the barley was not only owned by someone, but was widely used in Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Milwaukee and most other Pabst Brewery beverages.
The news crushed us. We had a lot riding on the Dumbass. He was supposed to discover the final frontier of brewing, not PBR, a beer we bought when we planned to drink to the point of vomiting. If this sort of failure could happen to the smartest, most hard-working person any of us had known, what hope did schlubs like us have? I refused to turn in my final coding assignment, failed the computer course and never wrote a piece of code again.
The Dumbass returned to campus that fall showing virtually no interest in beer. “The brewing industry’s already overflowing with geniuses,” he explained. “There is no room for improvement.” We didn’t see him much. He spent most of senior year writing a thesis on pre-Socratic metaphysics in Greece. Very few were able to understand it, but those who did praised it copiously.
A few weeks before graduation one of the rich kids came through for me and I’ve held down a steady job at a big bank ever since. I’d tell you more about the gig, but a lot of days even I’m not sure what I’m doing. I play golf and bullshit with clients, mostly. Sure, I’m not exactly pushing myself, and I’m usually the stupidest guy in the room, but, all things considered, I’m pretty content with where I’m at.