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Learning to Be Less Stupid with Patricia Marx

Author and humorist Patricia Marx discusses search history shame, trying to learn Cherokee, and fighting the reality that we've all been getting dumber since college.
September 8, 2015, 6:00pm
Photo via Simon and Schuster

If you've heard of Patricia Marx, you likely already know that she was the first woman elected to The Harvard Lampoon or that she was a writer for Saturday Night Live during the show's glory days in the early '80s.

A few other things about Patty: In 1983, she published the satirical manual, How to Regain Your Virginity: And 99 Other Recent Discoveries about Sex and in 1999, she released The Skinny: What Every Skinny Woman Knows About Dieting (And Won't Tell You!), an "anti-diet diet book." She's fearless when it comes to putting herself in inherently awkward social situations. As a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, she has traveled to South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of world, to pose as a potential patient, and last fall, she took a petting zoo's worth of phony emotional-support animals out on a number of unlikely excursions, including a fifteen-pound turtle to Christian Louboutin, a thirty-inch snake on a SoHo shopping spree, a turkey on the Hampton Jitney, an alpaca on an Amtrak train, and a pig on a JetBlue flight.

Most recently, though, after becoming concerned that her brain isn't working quite as well as it once did, Patty has written Let's Be Less Stupid. The book is based on the all-too-real notion that our brains steadily slow down (and perhaps figuratively shrink) with age, particularly post-50-ish. This is when we apparently forget more and more, illustrated when we do things like start sentences and trail off in confusion or look for our phone when it's in our very hand. Don't we all do stuff like that all the time? I'm 30, and I feel like I've been getting dumber since college. Turns out I'm not exactly wrong. The human brain apparently peaks at 22 and begins to deteriorate at age 27.

Image via Hachette.

On a mission to achieve cognitive rejuvenation, Patty took herself through a series of varied tasks, which included eating blueberries and dark chocolate (not necessarily at the same time), taking Mental Clarity pills, attempting to learn a new language, and using a machine called the Fisher Wallace Stimulator on her head. The result? An MRI proved certain regions of her brain increased by 33 percent. But that doesn't mean she necessarily feels smarter. I recently sat down with her to ask her some questions, some stupider than others—because isn't it true that an interview is only as intelligent as its interviewer?

Broadly: Tell me about some of the tasks you performed in your quest to get your brain in topnotch shape. Favorite? Least favorite?
I learned Cherokee (kind of), tried meditation (and flunked), learned piano scales (boring and fun at the same time), endlessly did brain exercises online, and zapped electricity into my brain twenty to forty minutes a day. My least favorite was the physical exercise because… well, one of the many titles I have for my autobiography is "Too Far To Walk."

In the book, you quote someone who said, "So-called wisdom is merely the result of the brain's slowing down, becoming less impulsive and driven by emotion." What's your definition of wisdom?
I don't have a definition but I always feel very wise when someone follows my advice. Other people's problems are always so much easier to solve than mine, and I find when you say something with confidence, even if you don't know what you're talking about, people act like you're as all-knowing as the Dali Lama.

If anyone ever revealed my search history, that would be the end of me.

What's the most important thing you learned writing this book?
What a waste of time and money it was to take all that fish oil.

What do you like most about your brain?
I've been told by people with MRI machines that I have very nice ventricles.

What makes your brain hurt?
Listening to someone explain how I can easily fix my computer myself when we both know the easiest way would be for me to let the person explaining fix it.

What makes your brain happy?
Wasting time online. If anyone ever revealed my search history, that would be the end of me.

What was the hardest part about writing this book?
The words.

Some might say your 2007 book, Him Her Him Again the End of Him, which is about an otherwise astute young woman who is hopelessly fixated on an unworthy man, gives insight into what you were like in your twenties. Is that true? Have you ever been obsessed with a loser guy?
Before that book was published, my mother read a copy of the galley and told me to change the name of the narrator's cousin. "I don't want to be related to anyone named Sugar," she said. "But it's a novel," I said. "Yeah, yeah, yeah," she said. "Just change it." There was also a podiatrist uncle character whose profession she wanted me to elevate. I believe those characters remained as written, but I did give in to her request to change the country of origin of the grandmother (either to or from Romania, I can't remember) and to use the name of her hairdresser in the book. Yes, I've been obsessed by a jerk or two, but more often, the guys I had a thing for were great and it was I who was the less appealing of the pair.

What was it like being on The Harvard Lampoon (if you, indeed, remember)?
Nonstop laughter. Some of the funniest people I've ever met were there then, for instance, Jim Downey, who for years was in charge of Weekend Update at Saturday Night Live, and Ian Frazier, a New Yorker writer who also writes wonderful nonfiction books. I was so intimidated I don't think I said a word my entire freshman year at the Lampoon for fear of revealing myself to be a witless clod.

Whoever discovered the wheel is overrated. I so could have done that.

What's the worst piece of advice anyone's ever given you?
Have a nice day.

The best piece of advice?
I'm still waiting.

What's your favorite aspect of being a woman?

If you were a "Real Housewife" of Bravo, what would your tagline be?
Can I have a different house?

Beyoncé or Rihanna?
I'd have to eeny-meeny-miny-moe that one.

What's your drug of choice?
Is artificial sweetener a drug?

If you were a superhero, who would you be and what power would you have?
I'd settle for being able to telepathically color my hair.

If you were a shade of nail polish, what color would it be and what would it be called?
"Nail"—it would be nail color, but not clear. And it would have perfect moons at the bottom and white crescents at the top. That, or plaid.

Which fictional character (not counting your own) with whom do you most identify?
Given that it just took me eight months to get permits from the city of New York to do construction on my new apartment and two months to fight the requirement that I get scaffolding insurance even though I am planning to do no external work, I'd say Joseph K from The Trial. Given that I am exhausted by this endeavor, I'd say Oblomov [from the eponymous Russian novel], who once "rose from his chair, but, failing at once to insert his foot into a slipper, sat down again."

How do you feel about astrology?
Next question, please.

Describe your writing process.
1) What a great idea! It'll be a cinch to write! 2) I hate this idea. There is no way I can ever write it. Kill me now. 3) How do I get out of this assignment/contract? 4) I know! I will whine and complain to everyone I know so that they are as miserable as I am. 5) Write. 6) Realize when it's too late what I should have written.

If you were going to post an ad for something on Craigslist, what would it be for?
I guess Craig.

They are always looking into the adverse effects of artificial sweeteners, never anything positive.

What's the most recent stupid thing you did?
I almost died from stupidity the other day when I became trapped in a sliver of space between the elevator door and an apartment door. It's too complicated to explain but, trust me, the main topic of conversation at my funeral would have been about my idiocy.

If you were sending out invitations to a dinner party comprised of definitively not-stupid people, who would receive one?
Harold Bloom.

Who is the most overrated "smart" person?
Whoever discovered the wheel. I so could have done that.

In your 2011 novel, Starting From Happy, your character, Imogene Gilfeather, says, "Perfect is not my type." Do you feel the same way? Do you have a "type"?
This is only somewhat related, but it is interesting and I know it, so I will tell you that there is something in psychology called the Pratfall Effect which says that people who, say, spill coffee on themselves and trip are much more likeable than perfect types. That said, maybe I could live with perfect—although I bet I could find faults with anyone.

What is the craziest thing you've done for an article?
Rollerbladed through Holland, spent eighteen days on a freighter across the Atlantic with about thirty foreign men and no Internet, took a turkey to a deli for a turkey sandwich, an alpaca to a museum, and a pig on a plane. You pick.

You've described yourself as a "shallow person." What are five things no one could tell by looking at you? Or is it all right there at the surface level?
1) I'm an octuplet. 2) I have the world's largest lint collection. 3) I discovered a nuclear particle. 4) I look short, but I'm really 6' 8". 5) I've never been to Florida.

If you were to invent an ideal object (like toy or gadget) to make people less stupid, what would it be? Or is there already one out there? It's the Rubik's cube, isn't it?
I have a feeling I probably couldn't even figure out how to take the Rubik's cube out of the packaging. I am hoping that they are going to discover artificial sweeteners make you very smart. They're always looking into the adverse effects of those chemicals, never anything positive.

What is the stupidest question you've been asked in an interview?
It was also my favorite question. My friend and illustrator Roz Chast and I had just published a children's book. A kid asked us at a reading, "How many inches apart do you live?"