What Do You Know?

Acutely or peripherally?

I don’t think that any one person can know everything. Most knowledge is peripheral, that is why we seek out specialists. Some of us are lucky enough or mindful enough to have acute knowledge on topics that interest us and bring us joy and satisfaction. 

I have peripheral knowledge on most subjects. Layman’s knowledge. I sorta know how cooking works, automobiles, basic tools, electricity, plumbing. I know the basic belief systems of all the major religions, understand the workings of several layers of government from several different nations. I can hold my own at most social gatherings and appear knowledgeable and able to form opinions on many topics. I, like many others can live with peripheral knowledge because I have tools to research and I know how to get resources pertinent to any subject I may be curious about. I also know who not to consult.

Some people have acute knowledge on a specific subject like I have with music. I know a lot, but there are huge gaps. Some of the musicians I play with know music that I have only heard of. For example, I have never knowingly listened to Iron Maiden or Kiss. I am continually learning new things about music to expand my horizons, but, alas, there is only so much one can stuff in one’s head and my interest is narrowly tapered. I have peripheral knowledge of opera, twelve tone composition and punk rock. Even subjects I am well-versed in like Jazz and R&B and folk-rock and Bob Dylan are not exhaustive. I know more than most, but less than some. 

I saw a tee shirt in a tourist trap in Chinatown that said “I don’t need Google, my wife knows everything” (there was another that said “husband”) which is kind of funny in a passive aggressive way. I used to say of my friend Danny that I didn’t need Google because I had Danny. He could talk in depth on a plethora of subjects as unrelated as “fractals” and “organic farming” and “taxi licenses” or “water pumps”. I was locked in a bathroom once, as the handle had a malfunction. I really could not figure it out, so I phoned him up and he McGyvered me out of the situation. Useful practical knowledge about everyday things and general physics and tools and then silly amazing pockets of knowledge about bizarre phenomena are part of what made talking to Danny a delight. Danny is no more, so Google is a useful if not as loveable resource. 

I read recently in “The New Yorker” a story that made reference to Jane Eyre. I asked Sharon if she had read Jane Eyre , and she responded “anybody who is a reader has read it” but I am a reader, and I don’t think I ever did. It might be a gender related experience. 

I often hear from students the phrase “oh, I know that” or “I’ve seen that” and if I press them about it, ask what it is about, or to describe it. It usually is the case that they may have heard or seen it peripherally and don’t really “know” it. Mere exposure to something does not make one more knowledgeable.

When I was in grade 4, it was discovered after a series of tests that I had dyslexia. My mum looked into resources to help me, and I went to see a Dr. Kirschner who was a specialist. I had to do many exercises that involved eye-hand co-ordination such as swatting a rubber ball suspended from the ceiling on an elastic string and walking along a rail among others. The most important homework he gave me, though, was to “notice everyday things”

People who go on walks with me or who are passengers in my car know that I am not exactly a “point A to point B” person. I will not stop noticing things and revelling in their existence. I can’t pass a blossoming tree without sniffing the flowers. I enjoy interesting buildings, rocks, trees,and abandoned spaces. I prefer driving a country road to the highway. I love old cars. I love used record stores and flea markets. I prefer to shop in small stores rather than mega superstores. 

I try to be acute and in the moment. To fully experience what is here today. One day, before I had kids (pre-k…or “j” as I call it) I was in Smith’s Cove, Nova Scotia at the 9 bedroom “cottage” which was the family cottage of my first wife. I woke up to the sound of surf, seagulls, and Beethoven being played live on the piano. It was an exquisite moment and I went into the kitchen to make a coffee and intended to sit on the porch in the sun and watch the dew evaporate to the sound of Beethoven. In the kitchen was a guest of my brother-in-law with headphones on listening to heavy metal while he coloured in panes for a comic book he was hired to put out. The juxtaposition of my world views\ and his at this point was so clear to me. Why anyone would choose to block out the Beethoven and sit inside under a fluorescent light rather than enjoy the glory of the morning was beyond me.  

Learning and transcribing other people’s music is a great example of listening acutely. Sometimes a song I want to learn and may have heard dozens if not hundreds of times reveals a twist or hook that is beyond what a casual listener would be able to discern. Maybe a diminished chord mistaken for something else. I love music that has chords with notes in the bass other than the root. G/A for example has the 9th degree as the bass tone. D/F# is another common type of chord especially in singer/songwriter music. Sometimes a chord can be interpreted several ways depending on where it leads and where it comes from. Sometimes it defies description. When I learned “You’re a big Girl Now” by Bob Dylan, the D/F# that leads to the  B minor chord where the singing starts struck me as particularly interesting and kind of jarring, but perfect. Usually a chord before a Bmi would be an F#7 or an f# minor or perhaps a diminished chord. None of those could possibly be as effective as the one Dylan ultimately chose. A similar thing happened to me where I tried to pick up the chords to a song made more famous by the Beatles “Til There Was You” I was doing great just from memory until I was temporarily stymied by  a faulty memory. The chord I was missing was a Bb minor that came after a G minor….I heard other things that weren’t quite right….the obvious C7 after G minor……my memory could not retrieve this little morsel until the person who had asked me to learn it to play with him said “Bb minor” and again, it was perfect. Not an obvious choice. I love puzzles like this. 

I also listen to music for pleasure. I am not always analyzing the piece or trying to understand the lyrics, or counting measures. Sometimes the joy of listening without understanding is immensely enjoyable. I recently put on a J.J. Cale record that I am less familiar with and it took me into feelings and thoughts that ultimately led to these musings. I was not actively listening so much as just passively hearing while resting and the feelings were subliminal. I am only recognizing them in retrospect.

I am one of the lucky ones freed from Plato’s cave. Well, What do you know?

“In my defense, I am Dyslexic”

One of the little things I take pleasure in is giving an alias to the baristas at Starbucks when they ask for my name. I am usually buying a latte for my sweetie. I have used some such as:  “The Emperor”; “Viking Banana”;”Ziggy Stardust”; “The Dude”; etc.

I also like to give the names of famous musicians as well. I have used “Frank Zappa”; “Willie Nelson” and “Bob Dylan”. 

This little game usually puts a smile on the person’s face who took the order and also the person who prepares the coffee. I make a point of asking who it’s for if the barista just hands it out. If the name is really absurd I might ask them to announce it louder. It is a fun game and most of the servers go along with it. They won’t print swearing, which I understand but I find irritating. I wanted to use “corporate prick” and was refused. 

One time I told the Barista I was the “Queen of Sheba” who is a biblical figure of repute. An African Queen who bore gifts of great value to King Solomon. The barista wrote “Queen of Shiva” which is a word likely known to the man who was probably jewish rather than Hindu. In Judaism, shiva is a period of mourning. In Hinduism it is a god of asceticism (deprival)…similar, but not Sheba.

My latest encounter was when I told the person taking my order that I was “Beethoven”. She complied and before I saw it she said it was “probably mis-spelled”. I asked “How can you mis-spell such a famous name?” She said “I am in Science, not music!” I told her I was in music, but I could spell “Einstein” and furthermore I asked her if “for example, you are writing a Master’s thesis on Hydrocarbons, what would happen if you got “Hydrocarbon” wrong? We agreed she would probably fail. She then exclaimed… “in my defense, I am dyslexic!” which to me is not a defense at all, but an excuse because I, too, am dyslexic and have only used that as an excuse for comedic reasons as in “I have sex daily” which is an anagram of “I have dyslexia”. (I’d rather have sex daily for the record.)

When I got the coffee and read the label on the cup I was amazed at how wrong she could have gotten it. I was tempted to ask if she was related to Donald Trump, but that would have been cruel and insulting.