Everybody (Doesn’t) Know That

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Cash Cab was a game show that first aired in 2005 and is now back on Bravo with its original host (in the US) Ben Bailey. Contestants enter what they assume is a regular taxi only to suddenly be sitting in the middle of flashing lights and music. They answer trivia questions for mney in ascending amounts until they arrive at their destination. If they get three wrong, they must get out. Two shout-outs are available—one to a random stranger on the New York City street and another to a person of their choice.

On one episode of Cash Cab, two youngish—maybe mid-30s—professional types were asked this question: “What Algonquin word means essentially a baby backpack?” The couple didn’t know. Rather than take a strike, they did a mobile shoutout to an equally professional guy in a nice camel-hair coat, repeated the question, and got this response: “Everyone knows that—papoose.”

He was wrong—not about the word but about everyone knowing the word. Obviously, since he was being asked. Probably he didn’t intend to be rude, though the woman mumbled something under her breath. And the couple didn’t win anything because they got three strikes, having only answered a couple of questions correctly.

Recently, my visiting family and my local family were introduced to a trivia board game called Eye Know, purchased at a thrift because of the packaging. (The box looks like an eye, complete with a lenticular iris and 2-inch long eyelashes. Irresistible.) Players ranged in age from 26 to older by a lot. Play uses two-sided cards. Twelve are placed face up with an image showing. Players roll a die to choose which category they must pick (colors suspiciously like Trivial Pursuit). Correct identification leads to a question about the image. Knowing both results in a won card, six to win.

It was fun and funny. One interesting phenomenon came to light: Different generations knew different things. Obviously, you might say. It’s more complicated than that: The older ones were surprised by what we would have considered “common knowledge” absent from the younger ones’ sphere.

The example: First, the image was a grasshopper. Easy enough. The question on the back was this: “What other insect is associated with the grasshopper in the familiar fable?” Our 20-something was clueless. “You know—from Aesop…The Ant and the Grasshopper.” No help. Never had heard of the fellow.

The ideas flowed naturally, at least from the older folks’ gallery. Wouldn’t it be great to share with the under-30s what they need to know but don’t know they don’t know? These are what we worked out:

  • Aesop’s Fables are used all the time, in that they are part of our vocabulary. People say “sour grapes” and have a general understanding of the meaning. “If you describe someone’s attitude as sour grapes, you mean that they say something is worthless or undesirable because they want it themselves but cannot have it.” The source is Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes.” Another common reference one hears regularly is “crying wolf,” based on
    The Shepherd and the Wolf.” In fact, the site is from the Library of Congress, and all the illustrations are lovely. That said, guess what? There are hundreds of fables! I don’t know them all, obviously.
  • Stories that are just stories, not fables. That doesn’t make a lot of sense perhaps. Aesop is ancient, but these are modern. The Little Red Hen in this version is from 1918. The earliest appearance of Donald Duck, in fact, is in this version called The Wise Little Hen from 1934 in which he and a pig refuse to help the hen because they have a tummy ache. She is planting corn and when her cornbread is ready, she gives them a bottle of castor oil instead. Even then Disney was changing details, but the premise is the same: If you help, you eat. If you don’t, you don’t.

Another is The Little Engine That Could with a written version in 1930. That the often-repeated refrain of “I think I can, I think I can” gets to “I thought I could, I thought I could” sounds onomatopoeia-cally like a steam engine is probably lost to the modern generation, but that can’t be helped. These stories are obvious lessons on work and attitude.

More obvious, however, are phrases like “down a rabbit hole,” heard commonly. It comes from Alice in Wonderland, in the first chapter which you can listen to and read in the link. Again, there are hundreds of such things, and I’ve chosen only three.

  • Mother Goose rhymes, fairy tales, the Greek and Roman myths, the Norse ones—the list is very much a short beginning which soon gets too long. Sometimes we hear just a part, like with Alice: “Birds of a feather flock together,/And so will pigs and swine./Rats and mice have their choice,/And so will I have mine.” How could anyone not know their fairy tales, with Disney princesses everywhere? It’s the unnamed adaptations that are relevant. Would the youngers recognize Working Girl (1983)or Pretty Woman (1990) as Cinderella stories? What about the relevance of the phrase “If the shoe fits…”? Myths are explanations, often, but the names of characters are everywhere. All the planets except Earth (which pretty much means just “ground”) are named for Greek and Roman gods unless you call Earth by its Greek name, Gaia.
  • Your mother’s phone number. Just kidding. I know people who don’t know their own without looking. The general message is that you might be lost if somethings aren’t written down.
  • Just to list a few others suggested: Shakespeare, the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, the Bill of Rights, dates and dates every American should know (thought these are technical opinions), causes of wars from the American Revolution onward), basic life skills like writing checks (maybe) or filing taxes (definitely), age-appropriate expectations. A friend in her late 60s recounted a nephew asking her to pick wild mustang grapes—standing up in a kayak holding a bucket. Not realistic. I once testified in court that a 12-month-old can’t be expected to potty train.

Time Out: Almost 1000 words on the youngers.

PART 2:

In the midst of our enthusiasm, it came to me how one-sided it was. And overwhelming. I asked our 20-something for a favor—what do you want us to know? Harder, but here’s a start.

The remote(s). Everything has them. Mostly the tv, but also the sound system, the ceiling fan, and so on.

The telephone. Everyone (almost) has one. Few of us know many of its features. I am just handed a new one occasionally, with everything transferred over thank you very much. I have no idea how to do any of that.

Google. Ah, you say, I know how to do that. Maybe. But there is more to it than most of us realize. Listen to what the young ones might say. They can get better answers quicker.

Etiquette. Oh no, you say. I definitely know that. The question is what kind of etiquette. The word itself just means how to behave. Once I was given someone’s phone with the photos up and started scrolling through others. The thought makes me quiver with embarrassment now. That younger schooled me in proper etiquette. “Don’t,” more or less. Applies lots of times.

So, part 2 is harder. I know there are songs and artists I should know. Taylor Swift’s new album The Tortured Poets Department has these lines: “You left your typewriter at my apartment/Straight from the tortured poets department/I think some things I never say/Like, who uses typewriters anyway?” As I look through the lyrics, I recognize Dylan Thomas but not Patti Smith or the Chelsea Hotel. What am I missing?

This blog is a beginning. It needs to be a book, I suppose. Of more interest in what you need to know is what I need to know. As someone put it recently, “The thing is, we old fogies can pick up things that weren’t addressed when we were in school if we so want, but the kids don’t even realize that there is something missing in their knowledge, Their entire cohort is missing it, so there are no casual references that would clue them into the gap and make them go searching for the knowledge.” True, but I think it goes both ways.

And for both, it’s the curiosity to figure out what I don’t even know I should know. Something like that. Contributions welcome…

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