Observation 1: All about us, all the time, things are going on that we don’t notice; hidden bits of information are available for the taking. Examples abound. When I was a senior in high school, driving around a neighborhood with a friend, she pointed out all the wisterias growing up into the mesquite trees. Until that moment, I’d never seen the purple-flowered vine. Suddenly, they were everywhere. (I announced “hysteria for wisteria,” but no one thought it was terribly clever.) Just last week, I found the cabin filter in the glove box. Never knew such a thing existed, but it obviously needed replacing. I also learned the term “baking sheet dinners” and found dozens of recipes. My foray into newly-discovered ice cream bread was an abject failure, but maybe you’ll do better.
Observation 2: I’m not the only one. Scientists go about all the time discovering things they didn’t know about, but they seem to take such events in stride. For example, we’ve been living in these bodies for thousands of years. Only last week, in a PET scan, scientists found what they are calling “tubarial glands” in the area behind the nose and functioning as part of the salivary system. I love how the researchers worded the news: “To our knowledge, this structure did not fit prior anatomical description.” In private, they’re probably doing a “Oh my goodness, look what we found!!! dance. Sometimes, of course, such stories are hoaxes. The Memory Palace podcast recently featured the tall tale of traveling stones, a joke from 1867 in which journalist Dan De Quille reported finding metal spheres that, when separated, travelled back to each other. PT Barnum offered him $10,000 take them on tour. Scientists wrote to him from around the world. De Quille tried without success to get out of the loop by directing people to Mark Twain. It didn’t work.
Observation 3: It’s a big world, so such opportunities abound, no matter your expertise. If you’re feeling confident about your savviness, look over this list of hundreds of misconceptions. Usually, if my field is words—grammar or punctuation, usage or plurals, vocabulary or literary terms—I think I know a good bit though obviously not every. When the term “contranym” (one word that can mean two opposite things) swam into my ken, I saw that I should have noticed. When I asked a clever grandchild if he’d heard the term, he said he hadn’t but then rattled off several: “Oh, you mean like…” Yes, like that. I am not as bright as that.
Observation 4: The introduction of new material can be overwhelming or can inspire new thought. Often both, of course. I particularly liked the contranym “leave” and “left.” Kids and grandkids typically leave their things when they leave. When I started working on the poem below, I thought it would be a new and clever sort of thing but found that it led me places I didn’t know about. It wasn’t until I was discussing the problems I was having with it that I saw the solution. So, not simple work but a puzzle. As now-almost-forgotten novelist James Branch Cabell once said, “Cleverness is Not Enough.” Just that way.
When you leave, you leave
Socks, toothbrushes, wolf ears.
We rush through the house
“It’s time to go! Everything loaded?”
But you always leave something
When you leave,
For me to find through the tears
To pile for next time.
The cobwebs remain,
Left only the fly’s dust
Which I dust and destroy
But no laughter stuck there
Caught in the spinning out of days.
I wish I could catch hollers, smiles
Screams of delight
Or horror or hurt knees.
Oh, just stop: Cleverness will not do.
I miss you, all of you, but perhaps especially
The four-year-old, whoever he is right now
On his way to five.
I need how he loves me.
It’s not a technique,
Some new figure of speech.
No. I just need to hear him
Call my name. A tear comes.
There. That’s better: Joy.