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Things I Thought I Knew

Wednesday, September 26, 2012, 15:19 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Nobody’s perfect. I know I’m not. Sure, my co-workers consider me their personal IT help desk, my friends know they will always lose to me in Trivial Pursuit, and my son calls me a wellspring of useless information, although he insists that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, which is why he’s still in the will.

Jack Nicholson in "Tommy"All that notwithstanding, there is plenty I don’t know. Some of it I didn’t know I didn’t know until something happened to enlighten me. Such was the case the other night while I was watching the 1975 movie Tommy for probably the third or fourth time in my life. At the scene when Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed take Roger Daltrey to a doctor who, they are told, “can cure the boy,” I realized for the first time that the doctor is Jack Nicholson. How did I never notice that before?

Then there are things we think we know until we are told otherwise, often in embarrassing fashion. Years ago I heard a motivational speaker, a woman named Rita Davenport, describe the moment when she realized she had always mispronounced the word “omnipotent.” Rather than saying “ahm-NIH-puh-tent,” she was saying “ahm-nee-PO-tent.” I can see why that would be a problem for a professional speaker, but her point was that we all make mistakes and we all have things to learn.

But sometimes what we learn is wrong, or at least incomplete. I used to think that every human being who ever lived was either blue-eyed or brown-eyed. Sure, I realized that there were many more actual iris colors than just blue and brown. But I managed to get through most of my life thinking that what we called them was either blue or brown.

I’m not a geneticist and I don’t play one on the internet, but I got that notion somewhere. I blame my teachers. Does this look familiar?

Eye color genetics

That’s the kind of chart we were shown in science class to demonstrated how a dominant genetic trait subjugates a recessive trait. Specifically, the lesson purported to explain how two brown-eyed parents could have either a blue-eyed child or a brown-eyed child based on whether the parents pass on dominant (B for brown) or recessive (b for blue) alleles. But two blue-eyed parents (each with two bs) can’t have a brown-eyed child, we were taught, because neither has a dominant B to pass on. I never was quite sure how any combination of Bs and/or bs could result in eyes that were really neither brown nor blue, but Eye colorsthat didn’t prevent me from going on my merry way believing that amber eyes were a variant of brown and all those gray-eyed and green-eyed and hazel-eyed people were what geneticists would call blue-eyed. And that if two blue-eyed parents ended up with a brown-eyed baby, said baby was either adopted or bore a striking resemblance to the mailman.

A green-eyed co-worker recently tried to set me straight. Not willing to take her word for it, I looked it up and sure enough, what I had learned was a gross over-simplification of reality. A green-eyed person isn’t blue-eyed by any definition. And it turns out that hazel eyes are actually considered a subset of brown. I therefore extend my humblest apologies to those over the years whom I complimented for their “blue eyes” that weren’t the least bit blue.

"Hold me closer, Tony Danza"As disconcerting as this revelation was, it wasn’t as embarrassing as a mistake that many people make: singing along to a song and, in the presence of others, belting out the wrong lyrics. This phenomenon inspired a web site named for a misheard lyric from the Jimi Hendrix song “Kiss the Sky” (“‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”). Some of the user-reported errors are understandable and others leave me scratching my head wondering how anyone could possibly hear what they claim to have heard. Then there are the errors that are practically universal. Let me just say that I’m glad I’m not the only person alive who sang along to that Doby Gray song “Drift Away” for decades before it was gently explained to me that it has nothing to do with the Beach Boys.

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