Sunday, September 11, 2011

Blair, being Smart

I’ve been thinking about my buddy Blair lately. Before he passed on, he symbolized to me how there are certain pitfalls to being real smart, pitfalls that he overcame.

He was brilliant.

Here in Calgary Blair Petterson is known as the guy who comes down from Edmonton for the annual science fiction and fantasy convention, CON-Version, wearing a business suit. Stout, blond and bearded, he’s well known at the con. He adds so much value by proposing ideas for panels, sitting on panels and chairing panels. He told me he was pleased at getting the audience to participate. It helped that he was so quick with humorous quips. As for me, I would seldom be up on the panel myself, since I didn’t know enough, but I would be in the audience putting up my hand to say things like, (All this talk of funding a moon base by mining H-3 is fascinating, but) "Inquiring minds want to know: What the heck is H-3?" (Helium-3)

Since CON-Version is a science and literary con, there are always several panels to choose from. Blair told me he was touched that I showed up so often at his panels, because I knew they would be well run: I said, "I'd get good bang for my buck." He valued how my comments were always so interesting and concise. Naturally: One of my hobbies is “meetings,” and long ago as a volunteer journalist I learned to be concise.

For Blair, one of the joys of going to cons was how he met so many brilliant sf writers. He treasured how they would engage him in long conversations, as he was brilliant too. Naturally, most sf readers, just like the computer guys in Silicon Valley, tend to dress in jeans and T-shirt. The reason for Blair’s business suit, I learned at last, was he would come straight down from Edmonton, where he was a trial lawyer for Alberta Family Services.

I was not surprised to hear how, when arguing before the judge, the man I knew from panels would speak at great length with unusual power and conviction… because, unlike the other family lawyers, he didn’t need to use notes.

Working in family law, he believed, as I do, that women deserve equal rights. I’m sure he made the connection, which always goes unspoken, that those who would abuse children start by devaluing women. Blair didn't devalue any minorities, in fact, he had troubled himself to get a good grasp of two Asian Languages and two European ones. Once I asked him about Canada’s most populous province flirting with bringing in Muslim sharia law: He had nothing but outrage and contempt.

Perhaps Blair was being modest when he explained how he was able to propose to a judge a useful change to family law, a change that is commonly used now. He explained that the Edmonton law school is “like a strobe light” showing law today, while his school in the Maritimes had given him a background in how law developed. Maybe so, but my smart friend had to apply himself in order to envision any change to the law.

In person he was a decent, good-hearted, earnest man. Never mind the pathetic US slogan, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” I think Blair preferred to make less money than he would as a corporate lawyer because he could have such immediate effect on vulnerable people who needed help.

A common pitfall, I think, for smart young people, for whom success in anything is so easy, is to go chasing money without considering what they truly want to do. 

For the really smart people, I think the real danger is not falling into a pit of snobbery —which Blair avoided as surely as he avoided devaluing women— but the almost unavoidable bitterness of being in a smart minority.

I’m thinking of poor guys like Mark Twain. Remember The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Huck slowly journeyed down the Mississippi river while having the mental “adventure” of slowly coming to reason that all of his friends and all of his neighbours —in other words, an entire society— were wrong. Huck came to realize that Nigger Jim deserved to have a life, even if this meant Huck had to break the law about helping runaway slaves and, therefore, go to hell. Poor Twain: surrounded by people who believed in various prejudices only because, willfully, they would not take the time to think things through. Twain's life must have been a daily hell.

Like Mark Twain, Blair Petterson was smart and curious: They both thought things through.

Unlike Twain, Blair avoided falling into bitterness at human folly. Me too. Here in Calgary, a decade or two ago, only a few miles from the university, I curiously wandered into a hotel lobby and then into a meeting room. Quelle Surprise. I found a large meeting of people, most of them up from High River, nearly all of them members of the “short haired older generation,” having a meeting for a dark purpose: being anti-gay. On some six-foot tables —that’s “tables” plural— at the back were a number of books, presumably published before the war, about how horrible the Jews are. I only wish I had my camera, for I might have put the Jewish defense league onto those homo-haters. Meanwhile, at the University of Calgary, many not-so-bright students with library cards continued to believe that being gay was a "choice." Were these university students simply not smart enough? Or were they being willfully ignorant?

Not long afterwards, an acquaintance managed to get a human service worker job in High River. At a community center one night here in Calgary, at a dialogue group meeting, as soon as we had a break, she sped across the room to ask me what I thought of her getting a job in that town. I said, “Well, when I go there I feel like I am in enemy territory.” It would be so easy to feel as Mark Twain did. But I won’t do bitterness.

My buddy Blair, in his legal work, had seen a lot of the seamy side of humankind. Accordingly, his meetings with his clients would never be held at the courthouse tower. This was to lessen the chance of him being spotted or identified. He half expected, nevertheless, to be murdered one day. For this he had fear and acceptance, but not bitterness.

I never asked him about the worst pitfall really smart young people face, an existential choice: "Should I lower my consciousness, dial down my smartness, stop learning so much?" Not everyone makes the same choice... a choice I find is talked about more in science fiction than in real life. For example, in the sf novel Atlas Shrugged, in a flashback where  Dagny Taggart is a child, she wonders aloud if she should try to be more popular by not being so smart and capable. Her friend slaps her.

In boyhood Blair and I enjoyed sf writer Robert Heinlein’s young adult novels where heroines have to hide their light under a bushel basket. In Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy a crippled old beggar, Baslim, adopts a boy. They beg together, living in a caste-ridden society where all their peers are illiterate. Nevertheless, Baslim teaches his son reading and mathematics. Sometimes, late at night, Baslim has doubts about his decision to educate the boy… Today I think parents working over in the Arab world must have similar self-doubts, because they say if you send your son to the international school he will be at a disadvantage for trying to chat up/hit on Arab girls, since he won’t be overly macho.

I remember once, I was reading over the phone to Blair an essay about Sarah Conner, in which woman don’t punch hard, when he immediately interjected, “Learned helplessness.” Yes. A fictional example of learned “not-so-smartness” would be in Bio of a Space Tyrant, by Piers Anthony, where the narrator’s sister is really beautiful. She is not method acting: She has genuinely made a long-forgotten decision, before the story opens, to live her life at far, far less than her potential. C’est domage.

George Orwell, the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four, came of age during the rebellious years in the aftermath of the Great War. In an essay he once reasoned, in accounting for the horrors of two world wars, how an entire ruling class could have dialed down their smartness. I’m no time traveler, so I can’t directly judge Orwell’s findings, but it makes sense. Here in the present day, from certain regions, I have often encountered rich young people. I find a much larger proportion of them to be frivolous, and status-oriented, than can be accounted for by mere chance.

I first began meeting rich people in college. There I happily found non-frivolous students who were into the college-personal-growth thing. This was when I was first decompressing from things I had seen, first able to process meaning-of-life questions. Should I dial down? Hide my light? I dimly recall using an example of Ming vases, and asking a pretty Chinese girl “What should I do if the person I’m talking to knows nothing about such vases? What’s the point?” She said brightly that I could bring them up to my level, telling them about vases. Yes.

Forget trying to walk a fine line: I believe it’s best to be expecting too much knowledge, rather than too little, from others. In my last three-person shared house I lived with two much-less-educated sex trade workers. One said grandly how she saw me as “knowledge.” They didn’t feel the least bit intimidated by me: I believe it’s best to be without arrogance.

My buddy Blair, good-hearted, never arrogant, must have believed the same things. When I was with him around restaurant staff, store clerks or his cleaning lady I was amused, charmed, even a little embarrassed, at how he would cheerfully expect people to know things, or cheerfully expect people to welcome his enthusiastic explanations. I treasured that aspect of him. I think that, avoiding all pitfalls, he made a splendid accommodation to his being so smart.

The only glimpse he ever gave me of the flip side of his life was one day when we were watching the dubbed version of my anime series Elfen Lied. I said I had checked and found the dubbing was wrong: What the students were living in was not a vacant restaurant, it was an inn. Out of the blue Blair said he really appreciated me because, like his fiance (wife), I never bored him. That was a nice thing to hear, but— a world of boring people? I  pushed the thought away.

We were watching the anime dubbed, although true fans insist on watching anime with subtitles, because a) I seldom do subtitles, because I have VHS, and b) Blair’s failing health. His vision had weakened. No books, no subtitles. So, being Blair, he became an enthusiast for audiobooks... A few years ago he had to stop attending conventions.

In September, in the year of our Lord 2011, Blair passed away.

I never asked him what it was like to live in a world of boring people, and now I never will.

Sean Crawford
September 2011
~On Amazon, the best (top) review (687 of 707 liked it) of "Firefly--The Complete Series" is by Blair.

~My computer statistics feature shows that today someone was on my site, someone using the search term “Blair Petterson,” (Blair is in a democracy essay footnote) so I am posting this essay right now, instead of holding it back for editing and second thoughts. The searcher was from either the UK or the US, not Canada. Blair had friends everywhere.


  1. Smartest man I've ever known - able to converse with authority on pretty much anything. I've known him since 1971, and he's always been a bit of a hot mess, but in a good way. It's too bad he died so early - he took such pleasure simply in existence. Nice testimonial.

  2. My google-fu is strong: after reading Blair's thoughtful and compelling Firefly review I searched his name, confident I'd find him since the name "Petterson" is probably not that common. How sad that he passed on! He sounds like he was a wonderful person. Sorry for your loss, Sean.