What I Don’t Know

Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City: “I can’t sing at all. I sang once in my life, at an initiation or something–it was terrible ! So I don’t know what we’re going to do if I ever have to sing. Now I do have better legs than Rudy, so I probably can dance.”

Susan Sontag, writer: “An infinite number of things. I regret everything I don’t know; I’m not complacent about my ignorance. I don’t know anything about sports and I don’t know anything about jazz, and I feel these are two great gaps. I’m woefully ignorant in all the sciences, except I have a little bit of medical knowledge. I think not to be scientifically literate is a real defect. If I had to take a class, I probably would study either German or Russian. I can read in romance languages, but I would love to have another language, another really hard language that has great literature in it. And I’ve started to take piano lessons. I’m a great seeker of pleasure. It’s all about pleasure.”

Kurt Andersen, radio host: “Sports, generally. I know nothing about sports. It comes up all the time, and I have to fake it. I can admit to my family, for instance, that I didn’t know that Peer Peekabo or whatever her name is. But the manly sports, like football and baseball, that you have to discuss with cab drivers and other guys. Do I know who played in the Super Bowl? No, I don’t. I don’t know who played in the fucking Super Bowl! I used to sit in front of the television with my father, just in order to be with him, but it wasn’t a thing we really shared. I grew up in Nebraska, and everybody in Nebraska is supposed to be into Nebraska football. It never took, but it gives me lots more time for other things. The other big area of ignorance is the Bible and Christianity. That saves time, too: no church.”

James Carville, political consultant : “My wife is 10 times more mechanically inclined than I am. Whenever something breaks, she has to do it. I can’t take a test, I got the lowest SAT scores–maybe I’m just stupid. I’m not very good-looking, I annoy people–you ought to see the mail I get. I’m good at bullshit, O.K. The only thing I can do is bullshit, so I just work hard at bullshitting. But it’s a good commodity, and you know what? I like it in other people.”

Mary Matalin, assistant to President George W. Bush, wife of James Carville: “I am the mechanical one. I don’t know a lot about sports, and I think that’s a real cosmic hole, because it’s such a cultural connection, and it’s good for the kids, and my husband’s an addict on every sports thing there is. I don’t know what President Bush doesn’t know anything about, and I’m not spinning. I really think he’s a Renaissance kind of guy, and I’ve known him for 20 years, and I’ve never been on a topic where he doesn’t know something about it. I’m going to venture a guess–I don’t know this for a fact–but his mother was a big needlepointer, and I’ve never seen him needlepoint.”

Jeffrey Ross, comedian: “Clearly, I don’t know about women. Even the shoe-bomber has a girlfriend, a beautiful Middle Eastern chick! Relationships. When you’re a comedian, you’re like a gypsy. You know, I have two apartments, I’m on each coast. Everyone I went to college with, everyone I grew up with, is married with kids. And they start talking about, ‘Oh, Shlomo took his first shit today.’ I’m already doing long division in my head thinking about anything else. The only woman really on my mind at all–and this is probably why I can’t figure women out–is Thora Birch. Ghost World , and she’s on the cover of Interview magazine. Oh my God, so beautiful. I met her at the Playboy mansion, and I know less about her now than I did before I met her. She showed me around the game room and was really nice to me. Talked to me for half an hour, then disappeared. I was like, ‘What?’ And now I just think I can’t figure women out. I’m so in love with a ghost. Was she playing a role, was it like a gag? I tell you one important thing I don’t know: her phone number …. I think it’s good to not know much about other comedians. I never watch anybody, although the other night I did watch a rerun of one of Sinbad’s specials. I would rather have sex with Sinbad than see that again. I would rather have to wear Sinbad’s wardrobe for a year. That guy is the worst dresser in the world. Another thing I don’t know is how to dress, because he’s a big star and I look like I’m helping somebody paint when I go onstage. He wears those clown outfits–like a red leisure suit with beads and fringe on it, and like a blue cape. And he’s telling these jokes. I’m thinking, ‘Are you gonna finish your set and fly away?’ He dresses like an overweight, out-of-shape superhero. He dresses like a goalie for Brazil. Is he trying to get laughs or not get hit by a car? It’s like, your shirt can’t be funnier than your jokes.”

Bill O’Reilly, TV host, The O’Reilly Factor : “I know nothing about anything mechanical. I can’t fix anything. I know nothing about cooking. Physics, chemistry, math, anything like that. I know everything about history and geography. I’m like one of these, what do they call it, you know, the Rain Man guy? I don’t drink, so I know nothing about wine. I’m a barbarian, so opera and ballet are out. I know everything about hockey, football, baseball. I want to renew my scuba license, that’s how shallow I am.”

Harold Bloom, literary critic: “I am computer illiterate; I’ve never learned to type. That’s it. I confess to my total computer illiteracy. I can’t type. I write longhand with a pen and notebook.”

Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer, The New Yorker “The Winter Olympics. Black holes. The weather. Wine. Cars. A lot of cars say ‘four by four.’ Like four by four what? What do the two numbers mean? I mean, I know they all have four wheels.”

James Downey, TV writer, Saturday Night Live : “Trees, birds, rocks, fish. I’m sure a hundred years ago when a bird flew by, anybody on the street could tell you exactly what it was: a thrush, a barn swallow, a nightingale. And when pointing to a tree they could say, ‘That larch over there.’ When you read 19th-century literature and see references to, say, a grove of locust trees, we’re missing something that everyone once understood. It would be nice to think we’re at least as smart as the average person a hundred years ago. Also gay porn. I know absolutely nothing about gay porn. I couldn’t name a single prominent performer, director or title.”

Bill Clinton, ex-President: “I wish I knew more now about biochemistry. Because I think that the next 20 years, we’re gonna see a huge revolution in the biological sciences, and I think we need to understand it more. So I wouldn’t say I know nothing about it, because my last three years in the White House I began to study it a little. In 1999, I got the Congress to take the first serious action to try to prepare for possible bioterrorism. I wish now that I knew more about the sciences than I do. I’d like to learn how to speak more languages!”

Lewis Lapham, editor in chief, Harper’s Magazine : “I don’t know really anything about science. I have interest in it, I just don’t have a foundation in it. I read occasionally in the subject, but I wouldn’t consider myself even close to being literate, to understanding the physics of the natural world. It’s embarrassing not to know what is the nature of matter. I’m completely ignorant about New York restaurants. I go to the same ones, the three or four restaurants that allow me to smoke. The rest of them, they come, they go, I have no idea. I think it’s O.K. to be ignorant about that. I can’t believe how much people know about physical exercise and food. I don’t know anything about cars; I don’t have any idea. I don’t know anything about watches. You could say I don’t know anything about any of New York magazine’s ‘Best Buys.'”

Fran Lebowitz, writer: “Right off the top of my head, I would say math, except that sounds too high a form, because I can’t even add . I’m sure it’s some sort of neurological defect. I can’t count, I can’t add, I can’t subtract, I can’t divide . I count on my fingers. You know you have to pay for things, unfortunately. I’m known as a pretty big tipper, and that’s only because I can do half. I sometimes double the total–that’s what we’re talking about here. I bring an artistic approach to accounting; I’m the Arthur Andersen of individuals. And the other thing is any kind of machine. I’m not just talking about high-tech–I’m talking about a flashlight, which I view as a machine. I believe two things: that I can’t work anything, and I’m right. And that if I do something wrong in trying to work it, I believe that any machine has the capacity to blow up. Including a bicycle. I know very little about sports. It’s not just that I’m not interested–a lot of people are not interested. I actively hate sports. No matter what the sport is or how elaborately it’s presented to the population, I think of it as some form of gym . I’m amazed that adults are so interested in sports. It’s only because men are in charge of the world. I know there are women who like sports, and I know that there are women who even play sports, but the truth is that if women were in charge of the world, there would be no such thing as professional sports, that I can promise you. The most surprising men are obsessed with sports. You can know a man your whole life and then find out he has a dark side. You can think he’s a fascinating person, and then one day by mistake he’ll run into some other guy while you’re with him and they’ll start exchanging baseball scores. Friends of decades , I’ve discovered this about them. I view the person differently, and I announce it to them. What is truly chilling is that there are a lot of smart people interested in sports. That just gives you no hope at all for the human race.”

Letty Pogrebin, feminist: “Anything other than the arts, politics and literature, poetry, etc., I don’t know anything about. I don’t know how to save a bulb. If you get a plant and it has a bulb and people say ‘You can save it for next year,’ I don’t know how to do that. And I know there are people who can make things bloom forever, and it always mystifies me …. I don’t understand men. You need Dave Barry to decode men. I feel O.K. on culture and politics. I know boxing because Floyd Patterson was a good friend of mine when he was heavyweight champion of the world …. Actually, I used to say that I didn’t know how to write a novel and I always wanted to, and now I’ve written one, and it’s being published.”

Susan Orlean, staff writer , The New Yorker : “Cats. We just don’t interact. It’s a foreign nation. Why would you clone a cat? Why would you have a cat to begin with? When my boyfriend, now husband, told me he had once stopped going out with someone because she had several cats, I knew we were meant to be a couple. It was sort of the only thing we had in common. I don’t actually hate cats. I’m a dog lover, so it’s not that I’m anti-animal. I’m actually very pro-animals. I love art, but I don’t feel at all educated about it, and I feel often completely humiliated and embarrassed. I’m completely intimidated by everybody at The New Yorker , including the receptionist. Death: I’d rather just not know about it until I actually experience it. I would rather not have a whole bunch of near-death experiences before I die. What am I happy knowing nothing about? Prime-time television. I was just scolded by somebody who asked me if I ever watch Sex and the City and I said no. I’ve watched about five minutes and I actually was disturbed. I thought it was really vulgar and depressing, really dreadful, distasteful. I get misty-eyed about the prime-time television that I did love–I watched every episode of Dynasty . I know nothing about Friends . I don’t know the names of characters, I don’t know who plays what. I do know how much they make per episode, but I don’t know if it’s a big group-sex thing. When I’m really depressed and I feel my life’s a mess, I think, ‘At least I don’t know anything about Friends .'”

Georgette Mosbacher, Republican fund-raiser: “Chemistry, I haven’t a clue. If people are talking about space, I just sit in rapture. It’s too, too out there in space. I secretly suspect that the ones who think they know what black holes are or string theory are just guessing. They’re intellectuals who have just enough knowledge to come up with an incredible theory that nobody else has enough knowledge to shoot down …. Anything that has to do with these so-called devices to make our lives easier: like my computer, if it crashes, that’s panic time. My Iridium telephone, if that P.I.N. number flashes up, I go wacko. If my cell phone locks, I go nuts.”

Andrew Sullivan, writer: “I have almost no grasp of mathematics. I have read alarmingly little fiction–no Dickens, no Faulkner, no Proust. I can’t drive a car. I have no desire to visit Japan or much of Africa. Opera strikes me as absurd, and the few that I have attended have bored me to tears. If I had a year, I would learn ancient Greek. My father urged me to learn German rather than Greek in high school, and I’ve regretted it ever since. My knowledge of American history between Lincoln and T.R. is full of holes. I’d like to take a whole batch of courses in American history. In England the subject is barely taught, and I’ve been an autodidact in much of it. So I’d benefit enormously from immersing myself in it under expert guidance.”

Gay Talese, author: “One thing that irritates me, I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘scholar.’ In the newspapers it is used without restraint to apply to almost anyone who is supposed to be the subject of some sympathy–a human-rights group criticizes the Chinese government for holding in prison certain scholars . Everybody the Chinese government throws in prison, they’re really spies, you know, but they’re called, by human-rights standards, scholars . What is it I don’t know? I’m a writer who still writes with a pencil and crayon, so the computer has always been an instrument of mystery. I still don’t have e-mail; I’m determinedly disinterested in certain subjects, like the Wide World Web–I don’t care! Health food. Jesus. I mean, there’s nothing more depressingly unhealthy than to be around people who are into health and talk about it all the time. I find myself offended when I walk down the street and I find people carrying a plastic bottle of bottled water. I saw Ralph Nader on C-SPAN, he was running for something, God knows what. I see Nader having delivered a speech at some university with 11 adoring people applauding him, and he’s on the stage with his old Brooks Brothers suit from 1963, and he’s carrying a bottle of bottled water in his hand. The reason I am so offended by people carrying bottled water is that they are parading their health–it’s a sense of caution, a prioritizing of health and what they ingest in their body. And I think, ‘Get off it with this. Just do it, just do anything, just die! Just drink, be merry and drop dead; just get out of here with your plastic bottle of Evian!'”

Salman Rushdie, writer: “Fixing a car. I wish I could play a musical instrument. Plus I cannot sing. It would be nice to be able to sing. I don’t know much about a lot of television programs, and that’s all right. I find that I watch less and less TV. I know too much about books.”

Stephen Jay Gould, scientist: “There really is only one answer, and it’s eternity and infinity. I don’t think the human mind knows how to deal with it, frankly. I mean in the ultimate sense. What is the ultimate origin of things? How far out there does the universe extend? When I was eight years old, like a lot of kids, I used to lie in bed at night saying, ‘How could there be a beginning if there wasn’t a fellow named God? Who began and who made God?’ Or I’d think, ‘Well, where does it end?’ So maybe there’s a brick wall out there. Fine, but what’s beyond the brick wall?”

Tony Randall, actor: “I always wished I knew the names of trees . That’s it, trees. Trees.” What I Don’t Know