Embarrassment of RichesMay 21, 2004
One thing I'm often struck by is just how simplistic most of us are. Each of us has our own area of expertise or specialization, but when confronted with those with indepth knowledge of something we know little about, we basically have no idea how to relate. It's really very similar to the typical reaction we have when encountering a star of some note, whether a musician, actor, or athlete. My guess is that when someone meets a particularly famous person, they ask one of three standard questions specific to that person, questions they receive hundreds of times a year.
But my point is really not about famous people. My point is that famous people are really the same as anyone we are intimidated by, or whose area of expertise is outside our own known world. In other words, the same embarrasing moments that are described regularly in sitcoms or movies (i.e. nervous nobody encounters world-famous person, finds themselves completely ill at ease, and resorts to a comment or question we would all hope to avoid... "Roxanne sure is a great song, Sting!") actually happen on a regular basis in real life, just on a much smaller scale.
Two examples come to mind. I have a friend, Katie, who majored in Medieval Literature. Now, no matter how fascinated I may be with the subject, I have absolutely nothing to contribute to the conversation, certainly nothing that would be intellectually interesting for her. If I were to inquire about something, I would probably mention either King Arthur or Canterbury Tales. Both of these could themselves be hilariously off-the-mark for medieval literature, which is exactly my point for how simplistic we can be, and the embarrasment that is the result. It's as if our minds can only store a single entry next to most subjects, and our brain, which should be multi-dimensional and creative, finding complex relationships between esoteric concepts, is reduced to nothing more than an Excel spreadsheet of word associations.
Baseball > Babe Ruth
Texas > Cowboys
Computers > Bill Gates
Civil Rights > Martin Luther King
Southern > Conservative (and/or Backwards)
Medieval > Castles
Golf > Tiger Woods (then Jack Nicklaus, then Arnold Palmer)
President's Day > Mattress Sales
Eastern > Liberal
My general point is we are both simplistic and, well, lazy. We are unwilling to put forth the effort to go beyond the surface of a subject or the public caricature of a person. And by extension, we lack respect for ideas and knowledge.
My second example relates to another friend (or step-sister, depending on one's perspective), Heidi. She is in the process of completing her PhD in Spanish Literature and will be pursuing a university teaching position in Spanish. Here is a highly educated, intellectually interesting, provactive thinker with years of training in the highest levels of Spanish thought. But, what regularly comes to my mind is how she would be the perfect person to interpret those random bits of Spanish found in rock 'n roll songs throughout history, such as Spanish Bombs by The Clash, Stop by Jane's Addiction, and any number of Los Lobos tunes. And though I have not attempted to confirm this, I feel confident that her brilliance has been abused in just such a fashion on many occasions in her past. It's like the Seinfeld episode where they meet a deaf person and enlist her in a secretive lip reading mission. At one point, Jerry says, "She's not a circus act, George!".
Like I said, we are a simplistic and generally disappointing people.