Everyone likes to sound as though they know what they’re talking about. Well, almost everyone, that is. I shy away from that sort of thing, because once people think you know something, they start asking you all kinds of annoying questions in an attempt to trip you up and embarrass you in front of your friends. My approach is to plead complete ignorance, to claim no knowledge whatsoever about anything. The drawback there, of course, is that when you admit to having large gaps in your understanding, an enlightened person always appears, uninvited and as if by magic, intent on educating you – and making a public show of it at the same time, mostly to embarrass you in front of your friends.
One way the informed people promote their own image is by imparting some secret morsel of insight, a little-known fact that demonstrates their status as inner-circle experts.
They tell you about things that have to breathe, for example.
I’ve been advised that my house has to breathe. My entire house. So does the furnace, and the grout between the floor tiles. Even the paint on the walls has to breathe, and the shingles on the roof, too. Clothing, cars, and appliances are all objects I had long believed to be inanimate, but that I now realize have urgent respiratory needs.
I used to own an electric shaver, the kind that could be operated either wet or dry. It was called the Wet-Dry Shaver, which I felt was a fine name. One day, I noticed the shaver wasn’t working well. It seemed sluggish, would get a sudden burst of energy, and then become lethargic again, as though it were struggling with some deep emotional trauma. I dried it off, slipped it into a plastic bag, and took it to a local repair shop. This was about twenty years ago, when it cost more to buy a new thing than it did to fix the old one.
As I placed the bagged shaver on the counter, the man who worked there looked at it and shook his head.
“You can’t put an electric shaver in plastic,” he said. “It has to breathe.”
“It does?” I asked. I made no effort to hide that complete ignorance I mentioned earlier. “But when I first bought the shaver, it came sealed in a plastic package,” I told him. “In fact, I spent close to twenty minutes getting it out of there. Was it holding its breath all that time?” I really said this, because I wanted the man to see that I wasn’t like all those other pathetic dullards who probably walked into his place every day carrying the remains of their asphyxiated grooming devices.
The man fluttered his eyes in that way smart people do when they’re about to explain something they had thought, up until that moment, required no explanation.
“That was before moisture had gotten inside the motor,” he said. “As soon as there’s water inside, the shaver has to have moving air so the water can evaporate.” He tried to sell me a repair kit for seventy dollars. I had just taken a CPR course, and decided I would go home and try to revive the shaver on my own. Besides, after hearing the price of the repair kit, I was having trouble breathing myself.
It used to be that respiration was pretty much restricted to living things. Animal life, to be most specific — creatures that had to take in air in order to continue being alive. When I was a child, the biggest threat to my well-being was the thin plastic that protected my parents’ clothing when they came back from the dry cleaners. Their stern warnings created an image in my mind of this sinister material that was both translucent and mysterious. If it got anywhere near your face, it would wrap itself around your head and seal off your mouth and nose. You’d be dead within a minute.
“Never put a plastic bag over your head.” I heard this about twice a week, which served both as a helpful reminder and a hazardous one, because while I was often involved in unfathomably stupid activities, I don’t know that it had ever occurred to me that wearing a bag on my head might be enjoyable in any way. But like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden story, once I became aware of the danger, I was drawn to it like a moth to a cashmere sweater.
Glass wool was another tempting menace in our home. It was used inside the filter of our aquarium, and had to be changed periodically. This required someone to extract the correct amount of new material from its pouch and insert it into the filter housing. Glass wool was the color of cotton, and appeared to match its texture, as well. I bet a skilled seamstress could have made a pair of underwear out of it. What was the problem?
“It’s made of glass,” my mother would say. “If you touch it, you’ll cut yourself.” I couldn’t make sense of that, especially because she handled the glass wool every week, and never seemed to get hurt. Then again, maybe she recognized in me some early sign of carelessness around sharp objects and pretty much anything that ran on electricity. There was that unfortunate incident with the wood-burning kit when I was nine. About two years ago, I was tearing off a piece of aluminum foil and nearly severed my thumb on the box’s serrated metal edge. And just the other day, I submerged the container part of our blender in the kitchen sink, then reached inside to wash it, forgetting that there were blades in there. The resulting slit in the tip of my middle finger still hasn’t closed. I was going to put a bandage over the cut, but then I remembered that my skin needs to breathe. At least that’s what someone told me – someone who actually knows things.