Take a second and do something for me: think about what you don't know. Does that make any sense at all? Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't. Stick with me here.
So, several years ago my wife and I were watching "Big Brother" and one of the contestants and her shomance boyfriend were in the courtyard. He looked up into the sunlit eaves of the show's house, and noticing a spider, pointed it out to his lovely, large-breasted companion. Almost immediately, they started talking about the web and OUT LOUD she wondered how spiders spin their webs. My jaw dropped. If memory serves, neither of them knew exactly how it happened and I was further amazed. We hit a commercial break and my wife skipped off to the laundry room. I couldn't shake what I'd just witnessed and, following her, asked my wife if SHE knew how a spider spun its web.
Kneeling with her arms fully extended into the depths of the dryer, she retrieved my next round of 'before the show comes back on chores'. "No, I don't," was her quick and terse response. My wife, you see, knows me far too well. After years of my watching what she calls Nerd TV, she knows that I have more useless knowledge bouncing around my brain than can ever be tactfully unleashed on the public. From how supernovas are formed, why ants live in colonies, to the reason hops are used to make beer, all the way to how combines are manufactured and what goes into the proper way to make dinner for four under $25, and everything in between, I have seen it all. I know she is aware of the mechanics behind a spider web, but I asked anyway - for effect. You see, she knew I knew how a spider spins its web and was waiting for me to say something stupid. And boy was she right.
Before it was successfully routed to my mouth, my MMC (Married Man Censor - something I acquired far too deeply into my marriage) came online. "Whoa! Buddy, you DO NOT want to ask that question. Trust me. I'm here for your protection." In a split second, the MMC had sent a message to my brain and disrupted the nerves around my mouth at the same, clamping it shut. What I had intended to ask was, "Uh, doesn't everybody know that?" Magically, I was the only person who heard the question, dripping though it may have been with indignation between my ears.
Before my MMC timed out, my wife interrupted and continued her response. Apparently, she hadn't seen me struggle to speak as she loaded me down with hot clothes and turned me back toward the sofa. "I don't know how a spider spins its web, and why should I? Why do I have to know everything?" Uh oh....what had I unleashed, I thought to myself. She went on to say something about why every show on television and all of the news programs want you to learn something useless. Quite honestly, I wasn't paying that much attention to her. My PATYWWSS (Pay Attention To Your Wife When She's Speaking) application was a little glitchy, not to mention the fact that I was lost in thought. She's right - why should she know about everything? That's when I thought about all of the stuff that I don't know.
How the hell does an airplane stay in the air? I mean, I know it's because of the lift generated by the aerodynamic properties of the wing, but what the hell were the Wright brothers smoking when they decided to cobble together some string and wood and cabling and launch the damn thing off of a bluff at Kitty Hawk? How did Oppenheimer know how to make a freakin' atomic bomb? Who was the super nerd who invented navigation systems? Why do my lights come on instantly when I flick the switch? Somebody had to come up with not only the answers to these things and more, but they had to first ask themselves the question. Necessity is the mother of Invention.
My father-in-law is one of the people in the world of whom I am most jealous, and he's also one of the people in world I cannot stand. My mother-in-law might chuckle a bit at this statement, but I think he's some kind of technical and mechanical genius. He can do damn near anything, and I'm not joking. I'm not. Seriously. It's like he's Tool Time Tim Taylor and I'm the schmuck in the audience watching the goings on. When I take my motorcycle to him to add parts and various accessories, I basically just hold stuff and take direction. He can do anything, and everybody knows it. Case in point:
A couple of weeks ago my lawnmower pull string broke. Crap. I trundled down to The Home Depot, bought a replacement pull string and set up shop in my garage, determined to fix this f'in thing myself. My child was watching, and even served as my helper. I'm not afraid to admit that over what felt like eight days but was probably closer to an hour and a half, I pulled and spun, wound and tied, cursed and stared at the irreparable lawnmower pull string apparatus in my hands. Know what my child said to me, innocently and without understanding the biting malice with which I interpreted it? He deadpanned: "I'll bet Rick could have fixed that already."
I am laughing now, but I wasn't when the sting left his lips. What I wanted to say was censored by another program in my brain. You cannot tell your nine year old that of course Rick could have fixed it by now because the man who can completely disassemble a Harley, paint it, and even manufacture parts along the way before putting the entire GD thing back together may very well have been able to fix the f'in pull string on the lawnmower, but I'M your daddy and you're supposed to be impressed by what I can accomplish without assistance! He may not have learned how to fix a pull string, but he sure did pick up a couple new words I quickly cautioned him not to say anywhere. My lawnmower is still broken, by the way.
There are people who know how to build entire rooms in their basement (Rick), replete with bathrooms and drop ceilings. There are people who know how to wire extra outlets in my garage (my neighbor Kenny). And there are people who know how to do astronomically inventive things I cannot fathom. And then there are people like me who know how to make a phone call to said expert, or swipe their debit card at The Home Depot, and are smart enough to hand over my purchase to the guy who won't burn my house down or flood my bathroom.
This evening, I set out to straighten a portion of my split rail fence that had been leaning over for far too long. Feeling industrious over the weekend, I bought some rope and a couple of hearty plastic stakes with these convenient holes through the tops. As I looped the rope around the fence posts and through the square chicken wire, back again, knotting them all the way, I noticed my son was watching me intently. "Did you go to the Boy Scouts or something?" he asked me. "Nope," I said, looping and knotting and praying that my fly-by-night intertwining of the rope would actually work. That's when it hit me. Oh shit, he thinks I know what I'm doing! I channeled every single bit of my father-in-law that I could and put a few extra twists and turns and knots into the rope as fake-professionally as I could - entertainment value aside. I prayed that after the spikes were hammered into the ground, that the knots would hold and my inner Rickness would help me impress my child. I just looked out the window just now and the fence is still upright for now.
My wife thought something was wrong with me early on in our marriage when things broke in our house and I couldn't fix them. She'd grown up watching a genius and an artisan. Nolan knows that I have no idea how to repair a lawnmower, but his daddy can make one hell of a Boy Scout knot and fix a fence. I know how a spider spins its web, how a car engine works, and I'm praying I never have to take my motorcycle apart. What don't you know?
I look at my son and wonder what I know now that I didn't know when I was nine.
And I wonder what he knows at nine that I never will.