I was a child when I first realized I wanted to know things. When I discovered it was possible to come to know something I hadn’t known only a few moments before, that was a moment of profound revelation for me. The nature of knowing fascinated me. I remember telling my mother once, when I was still young enough to make such a statement without coming off cocky or zealous, that I intended to one day know everything. Being a good Mom, she gently informed me that this wasn’t possible, that no one could know everything except God. Since then, after a lengthy review of the available evidence, I’ve come to the provisional conclusion that if God’s even up there, there’s a fuck of a lot that he don’t know, either.
Still, learning that I couldn’t know everything didn’t discourage me from seeking to know things I didn’t know, but which were knowable. These were things like why fish can only breathe in water (instead of lungs, they have gills, which extract oxygen from water rather than air), how Santa Claus makes it to every child’s house in a single night (magic), and why it took three days for Apollo astronauts to get to the Moon when Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D were going from planet to planet in a couple of hours, tops (spacecraft utilized by NASA in the late 1960s lacked warp propulsion). Not the most practical questions, I realize, but come on, I was, what, seven? Eight?
One day I was at my Pap and Granny’s house when it suddenly occurred to me that I wanted to know how to write things in Chinese. I walked up to Pap, who was sitting at the kitchen table doing something that was probably very important, presented him with a pencil and a pad of paper, and asked him to draw me an “A” in Chinese. Pap, who never progressed beyond the 8th grade but was nonetheless a very intelligent fellow, was smart enough to know that Chinese as a written language employs tens of thousands of logogrammatic characters and, as such, has no single equivalent to “A” or any other character in the Latin alphabet (though Pap probably wouldn’t have put it quite that way).
Pap also loved his precocious but unsophisticated grandson, and wasn’t yet at the point where he was comfortable letting on that he just flat out didn’t know something. So he took the pencil from me and wrote this on the pad:
What amazes me when I think back on it today is his commitment. He didn’t have to stop and think about it, and once it was down he never gave the slightest hint that he’d just pulled the thing right out of his ass. I asked for a Chinese “A” and Pap gave me a Chinese “A”.
And to this day it still makes an odd sort of sense to me. I mean, if they did have “A”’s in Chinese, don’t you think that’s what they’d look like?