Sunday, January 8, 2012

totally useless information

"Totally useless information" is such a delicious phrase. It is dismissive and absolute in a way that puts the user in a homemade cat bird seat: Why would I worry about the feeding habits of a sea urchin or the Serbo-Croatian word for "eggplant?" Anyone with a lick of sense knows that some things are important and some things are unimportant. To think otherwise is to bring chaos to this life -- a trip to some rubber room or a tour of duty behind bars.

But "totally useless information" is kind of interesting. It varies as circumstances vary and so, in one sense, can never be "totally useless."

When I was in the army, I could speak German well enough so that, on one particular evening when I sat down with two German tourists in my favorite Berlin bar, the Eierschale, the woman asked me to prove with identification the fact that I came from New York. My German was pretty good at the time: The army had given me six months of schooling and I spent my work days listening to and translating East German government telephone calls. If I had not yet perfected the apex of all foreign languages -- the appropriate and accurate use of slang -- still I was pretty good: The woman really did not believe I was American.

But today, I can barely remember any of it. Literally. All that German is pretty much gone, although a friend once consoled me by saying that if I went back to Germany and got drunk three times, it would all come rushing back. Totally useless information.

Equally useless are the lessons learned while building the zendo in the backyard or the information, if that's the right word, learned during meditation retreats, or writing news stories or sailing down the Volga River or reading some biography or finding friends and enemies or wrestling through one personal flaw or another or tying my shoe laces. All of it was bright and important and useful in its time. But now ... what is it now? "Totally useless" would be a smug overstatement, yet calling it "useful" is not exactly true either. In what way is knowing that "Feuerzeug" (fire thing) means "lighter" in German germane or useful ... other than the fact that the word always tasted good in my mind's mouth and made me smile?

Question: If there is information that qualifies as "totally useless," is there likewise information that qualifies as "totally useful?" I find it "totally useless," for example, that some dancing, self-important ninny can wax wise with a line like, "'Totally useless' and 'totally useful' are one and the same." Horseshit! ... or anyway I think so. Standing at a safe, intellectual distance from the totally useless and totally useful is ... well ... totally useless. This is a personal matter to be perused personally.

Looking things over, I guess I think the matter really does boil down to circumstances. What may have been gimlet-eyed "useful" becomes forgetaboutit "useless" and back again. But "useful" and "useless" are entirely my responsibility. And if this is so, the question arises, "How 'useful' or 'useless' am 'I'?"

I would love to be important, relevant, or compelling in line with the old joke-prayer of the beach: "Oh great sun god, bronze my body and make it desirable!" But does this longing square up with the facts? And then the question whispers as well, "What are facts?"

Basically, all of this boils down to "totally useless" information, but thinking a bit about it may help to loosen life's knots and help to implant something more relaxed -- something along the lines of, "Get over yourself."

Or maybe not. What do I know?

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