That which makes me stupid

Ever read something that left you feeling stupid? This did it for me:

“…the only possible patterns for English foot, discounting riders and other syncopations, are iambic, trochaic, dactylic, anapestic, and amphibrachic.” —John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

I supposed if I had studied poetry, I might understand all that. But that was a logical conclusion I can write now; it wasn’t my first reaction.

That which makes me stupid


My first reaction was the feeling of confusion. Like being suddenly transported to another culture where what you think you know doesn’t count for anything. I discovered this at Oxford watching a cricket match for the first time and clapping at what I thought was a well executed play. To my astonishment, I was the only one that did so. My hands stayed in my pocket for the rest of the match. I felt stupid then too.

In my most recent experience, it was the word “foot” that threw me. I was perplexed about why the author would suddenly start talking about this anatomical unit and especially about patterns for English feet. My strange mind quickly imagined an array of colorfully tattooed Brit’ feet, though I wasn’t sure why theirs would be any different than mine.

Suddenly, I had that “ah-doy” moment you have when you’re suddenly aware you’re not in Kansas anymore.

My second reaction, perhaps to cover my embarrassment at not knowing that a foot is the basic metrical unit in poetry, was to shoot the messenger. “Geez, do people really get this carried away with this stuff? They have waaay too much time on their hands.” I made the same comment to my wife once when a friend of mine had painted the inside of his garage. To my dismay, instead of agreeing, she “inspired” me to paint our own.

Once I unstrapped my holster though, I came to a more reasoned response and the two questions that I need to ask anytime I have a similar encounter. Is this critical to know for the work I have to do? If it is, I need to dig in deeper and consult other resources until I can understand it. But if not, then the right question is, What piece of information is interesting to me? I need let go of the desire to understand everything I read and look instead for what might interest me. Why pull the whole mining car when I can put a diamond in my pocket?

Between the extremes of self-appointed shame and self-righteous blame is a better response to that which makes me stupid: Carry what I can.

What are some of the responses you’ve had to challenging material?

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