Fillering in the details

When I was a kid in Beaumont, my family subscribed to the local newspaper. When I was very young, we got the Beaumont Enterprise in the morning and the Beaumont Journal in the evening (or maybe it was the other way around, but you get the idea). As a cost-cutting measure, the two editions later combined into one evening paper, the Beaumont Enterprise-Journal. As far as I know, it continues to this day. Anyhow, my favorite part of the paper wasn’t the comics, although that came in a solid second. My favorite part was the fillers.

For those of you who’ve only read newspapers composed on computers, let me explain fillers to you. Newspaper columns were long and narrow, and a lot of the typesetting was done by hand. Occasionally, a newspaper article would not quite fill the column inches allotted to it, and the technology to adjust the column by stretching the column’s lettering didn’t exist. So at the end of the odd column, in the, say, half-inch of leftover space, the newspaper staff would insert a filler. Our fillers were bits of trivia. Randomly, one of my favorites was the fact that August Kotter invented the rifle. Heaven only know why that stuck with me. And did you know that the Statue of Liberty’s nose is six feet long?

Fillers are long gone, but my love of trivia remains. It’s fun to know odd facts, even though most of them are fairly useless. You can live a happy and fulfilled life without knowing that Venice was mostly founded by people hiding from invaders by living in swamps. (I also think that you can live a happy and fulfilled life without having studied calculus, but that’s a topic still under discussion at our house.) Most people are perfectly content without carrying in their heads the fact that the design that we called paisley comes from the Middle East and is associated with flames. And perhaps only truly nerdy Methodists know that Welch’s grape juice was originally created as a non-alcoholic communion wine for my supposedly teatotaling denomination. But if you have a mind like mine, which is roughly akin to the attic in the Smithsonian where the curators store all of the stuff they have that’s too trivial to exhibit but too cool to throw out, knowing this stuff makes you happy.

Loving trivia is one reason I enjoy traveling so much. You learn a lot when you’re on the road. The tidbit about Venice, for example, came from a tour guide we employed on a visit to La Serenissima about twenty years ago. In Normandy, I saw my first hedgerow and realized why they were such great spots for hiding murder weapons in my beloved manor house cozy mysteries. At the Alhambra in Granada I learned that “Seventh Heaven” isn’t just an Aaron Spelling TV production from the 1990s; in fact, it’s the highest level of heaven in traditional Judaism and Islam. In Jumilla, a trip to a winery taught me that Rioja wine comes in four grades, based on how long it’s aged: Rioja, a couple of months; Crianza, at least a year in oak; Reserva, at least a year in oak and two or more after that in the bottle; and Gran Reserva, two years in oak and at least three more in the bottle. And in London, I learned never to leave your toddler unsupervised with a Beatrix Potter puzzle. Apparently the pieces are delicious. But that may be another kind of learning, perhaps to be explored in another blog.

Living abroad has had the desired effect of teaching me a lot of things that are interesting, if not overly useful. In particular, for me, lots of things I’ve read about in books have been clarified. Like the hedgerows, which I’d only read about, I’ve now seen (and photographed, see evidence herein) wine being dispensed from casks straight into large plastic bottles that consumers bring with them to market. And handsome, dark men do attach the containers onto motorbikes and drive off with attractive young women behind them on the seat, arms wrapped around said HDM. Total bonus. Likewise, conversations, even the quietest ones, do travel up the central stairwells of apartment buildings, echoing off the marble and tile stairs. So all of those gossipy grannies who tender important overhead clues about the mischief of their neighbors below to baffled police inspectors might actually exist!

Of course you also learn some less salubrious information. An Italian mystery I’m reading now involves the prostitutes who wait by the side of the road for clients to happen by. This occurs in rural areas as well as urban ones. In fact, Mark and I were driving down a road between two fields last week and passed a woman sitting in a chair under a beach umbrella placed next to the entrance to a farm. I turned to Mark and started with, “Do you think she’s a…,” to which he responded immediately, “Yes. Otherwise, why would she be wearing high heels out here?” Actually, apparently a lot of the ones who wait by the traffic roundabouts can be very helpful if you’re lost, and I do mean only with directions here.

So I may not know calculus or remember the names of the big Constitutional Law cases we studied in law school, but that fine. I rarely need any of that information any more, and besides, there’s Google. I’m happy fillering in the trivial, entertaining details that keep me amused and enliven my reading.

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