What weird thing do you know that almost nobody else knows? We all have bizarre pieces of information that we accumulate over the years, as random as lint and just about as useful. Sometimes they are trifles; sometimes they are bits of treasure.
For example, I know that the famous line from Shakespeare — “The lady doth protest too much” — has “methinks” at the end, not at the beginning. This came in handy when I was able to correct a woman who was taking a position in opposition to my own on Oprah. She misquoted the line from “Hamlet.” I corrected her, and the audience cheered. It was deeply satisfying.
I like collecting the scraps of learning as much as I like the crumbs at the bottom of the brownie pan and the last French fry. Sometimes they’re the best bits.
I like knowing that “nikhedonia” is the word for the pleasure you get from imagining success whether you’ve done anything or not (wouldn’t Nick Hedonia be a great name for a lazy dreamer?). I loved learning that when you reheat frozen pasta, it becomes significantly healthier, because your body digests the carbohydrates differently.
Here’s why I know that the symbol for iron on the periodic table is “Fe”: the first week we were learning the table in junior high school, I saw a license plate on a muscle car that read “PUMP FE.” I’d been sitting silently in the passenger seat when I suddenly screamed, “PUMP IRON! PUMP IRON” at my father, who was driving. He had no idea what was happening. He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. He almost drove into another lane on the freeway. There was no context; my old man wasn’t looking at the license plate. He had no clue what was happening. At that moment, I felt a unique sense of mastery over the sciences. I still cherish knowing “Fe.”
And I love learning new material. I was astonished and intrigued when I learned from my anesthesiologist friend, Lisa Saunders, that redheads require higher doses of anesthesia (it doesn’t count if red is not your natural color). I was fascinated to be introduced, by my friend Elizabeth Prete, to the recognition of Darwin’s tubercle, which is a little cartilage bump on a person’s outer ear (she has one). From my Facebook friend Carrie Rickey, I learned that Tula Finklea became Cyd Charisse, Frances Gumm became Judy Garland, and Issur Danielovitch became Kirk Douglas (Carrie is a film historian as well as a film critic).
Then there’s a whole other category of what you consider to be wildly esoteric, only to discover that everybody else has known this forever.
This recently happened to me with binturongs.
I’d never seen nor heard the word. Yet a good friend from college, Esther Cohen, not only casually referred to this mammal from Southeast Asia, she also commented on its smell. Apparently binturongs smell like buttered popcorn, and they look like bears in cats’ bodies. I was delighted. I learned something amazing, and everybody else would soon hear about it.
I walked into my office that morning, proud to have some new information to share. I’m ready to announce the discovery of a creature that smells like popcorn when Abigail Rockefeller, age 20, engineering major, interrupts. “You mean a binturong?”
Apparently everybody too young to apply for Social Security is binturong-aware, just as they are obsessed by narwhals.
Until 10 years ago, I’d never heard of a narwhal. In case you haven’t been out lately, a narwhal is similar to a beluga whale, but it has a tusk. Having captured the imagination of at least two generations of our youth, narwhals have now spawned (I use the word lightly — I don’t know much about their private lives) books, stuffed toys, Etsy sites, boutiques and shoes.
This is because narwhals are referred to as the unicorns of the sea.
When I was a kid, we had “chicken of the sea,” but that was different.
Not every piece of trivia is, of course, buried treasure. Yet the words and stories that made us curious, the bits and scraps of knowledge that made us pay attention, the minutiae and technicalities that stay with us long after their utility passes, build up like a coral shelf and add surprising depth and beauty to our lives.
As narwhals know.