"Ignorance is Bliss" in the olive capital of Nyons.
TO BE HONEST, I don't know how to spell today's French "word," or gesture, rather. You'll just have to press your lips together tightly, then force a gust of breath through them. If a "pppp" sound didn't come out, then you've been too prude (and ended up with a "ffff"). Try again.
The resulting sound actually has meaning! It translates, specifically, to these French words: "Je ne sais pas." That's right:
Pppp! = Je ne sais pas. (I don't know.)
Go figure. In my own (American) culture, we don't have to worry about making funny (easily mistaken for somethin' else...) noises. To give in to inquiry, we simply raise our shoulders!
I remember being caught off guard, the first hundred times I heard the French "pppp!" (Especially when a woman ppppd.) All that's changed now, and I welcome the tickle that my lips feel after uttering a sound that once lacked appeal.
"How many calories are in those cookies?" a French friend asks.
"Pppp! (I don't know!)"
"Is it an American specialty?"
"Pppp! (Beats me!)"
Go ahead. Dare someone to ask you a baffling question today. (But don't be surprised if, on hearing your reply... they run the other way.)
I am sitting at the edge of the bed, looking out the window at November's end. Once the pomp and parade of fall colors fade, what is left are the ashes of autumn. The earth turns in on itself and so do those who trod upon it. In the darkness, questions come to light, nagging issues such as, What is important in this life?
I look over to my teenage son, who is busy with the task of grooming. He's got my tattered trousse de toilette* beside him, having fished out the clippers from inside.
"Max," I say. "If you were given the chance to share an important thought with the entire world, what would that message be?"
Next, I brace myself for that flicker of genius to appear... the kind that graces children--and chance be ours when we're focused enough to hear!
I wait patiently for "the message" to be mysteriously channeled through my 13-year-old son with the overgrown toenails. I'm one to believe in the pureness of pint-sized knowledge and hope to be tuned in when Sagesse* speaks, "out of the mouth of babes".
Leaning forward, I put my ear close to the chapped lips of the would-be child savant, and this is what I hear:
"I don't know, Mom."
With that, the messenger resumes his toenail clipping. That'll do, I decide, letting the answer linger a bit.
Doubt creeps in and I double check with the mini messiah. "'I don't know.' Is that it? Is that what you have to share with the world?"
"Mmmhmmm," Max replies, and I watch a few more nail clippings rocket through the air. Some messages come with fireworks, I decide, never mind these aren't sizzling.
Well, I can work with that. And so I do. I think about Max's "I don't know" answer to a meaningful life. The "I don't know" concept is, after all, brillant! For, with knowledge comes power and how many of us make the mistake of tacking pride on to that? Pride then squashes humility and things tend to go
downhill (Pride goeth before the fall...) from there.
And knowledge, or too much of it, sometimes leads to fear. I listen to friends talk about the effect that all those info-packed newspaper headlines had on the economy. Panic sent people zipping up their pocket books. Companies shut down. People lost jobs.
I don't mean to give the big K, "Knowledge," a bad name... no, I'd never argue with my faith-filled mom when she tells me to fill up on The Word! Only, I sometimes wonder about how much I should strive to know when a lot of what I take in only serves to distract. Bits and pieces of this and that and, before I know it, I've gotten off track! There I am, left spinning in the super flu. Dad once said "You think too much!" and, you know, I now think he's right: so busy are we sifting through a magnitude of facts, that the basic ideas get hidden beneath all those "informative" stacks.
Most times I'm guilty of assumption: when I think I know something and, in fact, I've got it all wrong. Such "insights" paint my perceptions and, busy with a wealth of tidbits, I'm circling through a Never Never Land of ideas again.
I once had a Mensa-ish friend, one of those brilliant types, but what amazed me was her humility. I'll never forget her response when asked about her know-it-ness. She abruptly raised both hands... and began hitting her head! "I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING!" she screamed, in all sincerity (none of that false
modesty). Her startling, head tapping show, wonderfully illustrates the concept of "I Don't Know!"
Knowledge isn't all bad, especially when it connects us to another:
Having known pain, one sympathizes with the sufferer,
having known poverty, one understands need,
having known injustice, one argues for the accused,
having known loss, one's heart goes out to the grief-stricken,
having known fear, one comforts the frightened.
* * *
I'm beginning to think that what is important in life is not how much we know, but what little we can focus on. In my case, the teenage toenail clipper sitting beside me. While I'll never understand the physics behind those "flying toenails," how they self-launch following each clip of the cutters, I can know the fondness I feel for a boy whose "message," in the end, is ever so coy.
Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome, here (in the comments box).
References: la trousse (f) de toilette = make-up (shaving) bag; la Sagesse (f) = Wisdom
Listen to Jean-Marc pronounce today's gesture (if pronouncing a gesture is possible...), in response to my question "Cheri, ou est-ce que tu as mis les clés? (Honey, where've you put the keys?) Download Pppp . Download Pppp
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Gifts & More~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Simple enough for a beginner but challenging enough for a more advanced student, French Demystified is your shortcut to mastering this engaging language.
Chansons Pour Noel: French Songs for the holidays.
Quiet Corners of Paris is a beautifully illustrated peek into eighty-one often overlooked, always beautiful, locales: hidden villas, winding lanes, little-known 19th-century passages, serene gardens, and cobblestone courtyards.
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