"How do you know so much stuff?"
I get that question from time to time, and I'm always quick to refute its premise. I don't know very much at all. In fact, I'm demonstrably pretty frickin' stupid, pretty frickin' often.
Like anyone else with a deficiency, I have devised ways to cover it up. I make it a matter of great urgency to avoid having to do anything mechanical, for instance. I just try mighty hard not to be around in any place where gobsmacking whoozits into thingamajigs might conceivably occur.
The reason for that is quite simple: I have the mechanical aptitude of a common amoeba. Part of it is innate: my vision, especially on the periphery, is piss-poor and my depth perception is waaaaaaaaaaaa thump holy shit that's deeper than I thought; my co-ordination, likewise...isn't; and for whatever reason, I just don't seem to be equipped to visualize changes in three dimensions. This has resulted in my abject public humiliation more than once, most memorably when I was trying to pass the final test to be a summer intern at CAMI Automotive in Ingersoll.
I dearly wanted the job: it paid substantially more than I make now, in 1990 dollars. I'd aced all the preliminary tests and interview, and last up was a physical aptitude test. It came in two parts. The first involved putting discs on brakes and tightening them. I did okay on that: it was pretty straightforward. The next test was something called the "subassembly"...a word that coils my stomach 26 years later.
We sat at big tables. On each table was a subassembly. I have no idea what a subassembly actually is or does, and believe me, for the purposes of this test it didn't matter one bit. To describe it: it was a...thing. A complicated thing, with fifteen or twenty or eleventy squillion component...things...making it up. Each of us had a completed model on our tables, and a giant bucket of components: the object was to recreate as many exact replicas of the model as we could in 45 minutes. We were shown how, first slowly and then quickly...and that was it.
I might have done marginally better with a schematic in front of me. I would have done a great deal better with strictly textual instructions and each part labelled. (Take part A and screw it into the left side of part B...") Lacking both these things, I bombed in a way I'm not sure any candidate has ever bombed before or since. The best subassembler completed 26 replicas in 45 minutes, I remember that. I think the average was around ten to fifteen. Guess how many I did?
Zero. Zilch. Sweet fuck-all.
I'm not sure words can describe the self-loathing I felt while I was trying to figure out what went where, and what step three was...wait, did I even do the first step right? what was the first thing I was supposed to grab, anyway? Tears were threatening within three minutes and openly falling within five, then they dried up and were replaced by a cold hard ball of anger, which gradually dissipated into soulless despair.
A more resilient person would have taken such an abject failure that as motivation to improve a skill set he didn't have, and worked at it and worked at it and worked at it until could be not just a subassembler but a SUPERsubassembler. Me, I slammed a door on a wide array of useful life skills. Then I locked it, bolted it, and put a whole bunch of furniture up against it just to be safe.
Oh, yeah, I know a lot.
A few jobs ago, we used to play various quiz games at lunchtime. I was usually the quizmaster, asking all the questions. It allowed me to soak up the answers for use weeks or months later, when everyone else had forgotten they were ever asked the questions. How do you know so much stuff? I read it once.
That's almost always the cold hard answer, really. Because I read it once. I piggyback on authors' research: historical fiction writers are at least as good as historical fact writers when it comes to interesting tidbits. Many of them have something to do with language, which I'm endlessly intrigued by and which offers many windows on many different worlds.
Did you know the word 'fascinate' derives from the Latin fascinum, meaning "godly penis"? (Isn't that...fascinating?) The D in "D-Day" stands for "Day", making "Day-day" almost as repetitiously redundant as the La Brea Tar Pits ("the The Tar Tar Pits"). O.J. Simpson was originally cast to play the Terminator, but the studio balked, thinking he'd be unconvincing as a cold-blooded killer. Russia considered beer to be a "soft drink" until 2011.
Many Evas would say "that's nice, dear" to any of the little factoids I dredge up. Many other people might actually concede that those are actually interesting facts. I like to take it a step further, in my head, dragging in etymology whenever I feel like it. The O.J. thing, for instance. That's an instance of something that is astounding common: people mistaking persons for personas. ("Persona" is actual Latin, meaning what you'd expect, "mask" or "character"...and "person" derives from the same word. Which makes all persons personas. There's a deep thought.
Bill Cosby is a good current example. When the first accusations against him surfaced many years ago, the women who made them were reviled...how DARE you, that's Cliff Huxtable you're impugning! DOCTOR Cliff Huxtable, if you please!
Or beer being classed as a soft drink in Russia. That makes me think of vodka, which is the diminutive of voda, "water". We have common tap water, and then "little" water, which is potently alcoholic. Did the very language make rampant alcoholism in Russia--the cause of 30% of all Russian deaths in 2012-- inevitable? These are the things I think while I'm stocking shelves.
Back during a certain TV show's reign at the top of the ratings, the U.S. Coast Guard used to field dozens of calls a year from people very concerned about the folks stranded on "Gilligan's Island". This seems moronic to most folks today, even as we read something on the Internet and believe it. I get caught every so often myself forgetting to fact-check something which conforms to and confirms my biases. Then somebody -- it's usually either Eva or my friend Susannah -- calls bullshit on me and I learn something.
Bullshit, incidentally--see, now, there's an interesting word. Why do we say "bullshit" when we mean nonsense? Because it stinks? Lots of things stink...why "bull" in particular? Because "bull" in this sense actually isn't a male cow at all. It derives from old French bole, "deception; fraud; trick". (The shit was added for emphasis.)
My mind is always doing that with words, playing around, looking at similar words to see if they are in fact related. It makes me look smart. I'm not. I'd trade all this book knowledge for a nice thorough grounding in reality, the kind my brother-in-law, my stepfather, and all sorts of other Real Men (tm) have as a matter of course. In a heartbeat I'd trade it. I'd doubtless be living a much more productive life, and it wouldn't change my core beliefs on love...which means in all the respects I consider important I'd still be the same Ken. Hell, I know a man who is at least as book-smart as I am and who works with his hands all day, the kind of guy who can fix something by staring at it for a a while and telling it in a firm, manly voice to behave itself. Mark my words: I envy that man. A lot.
But to even approach him in utility--in value, in other words--would require a complete tear-down and rebuild of my brain, starting in diapers (if not -- who knows? -- before). As it is, as fiercely as I'd like to know how to rewire a room, or something equally meaningful, I'd much, much rather download the skill, Matrix-style, than actually exude the gallons and gallons of skullsweat necessary to learn it. You just know I'd zot myself into the next dimension. You try teaching your cat algebra and see how far you get.
In the meantime, if I have to answer the question "how do you know so much stuff"? positively, I'll say "because I didn't know anything, once" and leave it at that.