Friday, June 03, 2011

The Shallow Pond

I sometimes like to stand on the shore of my knowledge and look out over its vast expanse, and I try to pretend that under the surface lie vast depths of wisdom and insight and understanding. But the fact of the matter is that it would be possible to walk across it and never get the tops of my shoes wet.

In short, I know a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about practically nothing. I’m very good at trivia. I can name songs from WWI (“Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven, ’Cause My Daddy’s There”), tell you what the last song was played as the Titanic sank (not “Nearer My God to Thee,” but a hymn called “Autumn”). I can tell you what Eartha Kitt, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostley, and Robert Clary have in common (all were in the cast of “New Faces of 1952,” which I saw in Chicago during my freshman year of college.)

But by and large, my vast knowledge is mostly a series of (trivia alert!) Potemkin villages (false fronts erected on the banks of a river by Grigori Alesandrovich Potemkin, a minister of Russia’s Queen Catherine, the Great, to convince her of how prosperous the country was. Potemkin was also the namesake for the battleship Potemkin, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s classic silent film). In other words, pretty impressive at first glance, but without much behind it.

Which is why I dread people asking me who my favorite author is or what my favorite book is: I don’t feel myself qualified enough to answer. I’ve read many, many books, but know nothing of literature on a scholarly level. I shudder at the prospect of being asked my opinion on almost any subject. The truth is, I probably don’t have one that doesn’t sound like pap.

I have firm opinions on very few things simply because I don’t feel I know enough about anything to form one. In that regard I’m like the beauty pageant queen who, when asked what she wants to do with her life, grins vacuously and says her goal is to work for world peace. Uh, yeah…like that.

I have a love-hate relationship with those who will pontificate on any subject presented to them. On the one hand, I stand in awe of their knowledge, but on the other hand I have no idea whether they actually know what they’re talking about, or if they’re just blowing smoke.

One of the nice things about being a writer, as I’ve often said, is that your readers almost always give you the benefit of the doubt. Unless you have your hero, caught between the warring Umbizzi and M’gwuba tribes on a hilltop in 1880 Transvaal whip out his cell phone to call for backup, most readers will go along and assume you know what you’re talking about. You can get away with a lot when you sound authoritative, as long as you don’t push it.

Did you know the tradition of “women and children first” in disasters came from the 1852 sinking of the British troopship Birkenhead off South Africa? With not enough lifeboats for everyone, the troops formed ranks on the deck as the women and children were put on what few lifeboats there were. It's still known as "the Birkenhead Drill." Few of the soldiers survived, but their bravery lit a beacon which still shines today. I love trivia.

But can I intelligently discuss the social ramifications of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the same year the Birkenhead went down? Nope.

Hey, nobody's perfect.

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