I consider myself to be an astute observer of modern society. I take pride in my ability to stay informed about important issues, timely trends, top stories, and the details of daily life. So it's alarming whenever I stumble onto some fact or fragment of information that catches me by surprise.
This happened recently during my regular morning walk. One of the neighbors had taped a hand-lettered sign to the side of his mailbox, so it could be seen by passing cars. The message seemed to be a statement about an unfair jail sentence handed out to some local personality, but the name left me baffled.
Why had I not heard of this case? I assumed it must be very controversial, and I was impressed that my neighbor felt strongly enough to express his opinion in such a public fashion. Was he trying to stir up interest in a story that had been ignored by the media? There were many intriguing possibilities, but I was too embarrassed to knock on the door and ask for an explanation.
So I hurried home, determined to find the answers as quickly as possible. As usual, the first person I confronted in this state of confused agitation was my wife.
"Listen," I said, "I saw a sign on a mailbox. It said 'Free Vinca Minor.' Do you know who she is? Is she in prison around here?"
My wife reacted with an expression of stunned incredulity, as if I had suddenly been transformed into a giant, talking insect.
"You're kidding, right?" she asked, tentatively.
"No," I replied, feeling even more nervous. It sounded as if I had failed to notice a major news event.
"Vinca minor is a plant!" she said. "It's a ground cover. Periwinkle. 'Free Vinca Minor' just means that somebody's giving it away. How could you not know that?"
"I've never heard the name in my life," I said, defensively. "Anyway, botanical terms strike me as a rather esoteric subject."
"Well, it's common knowledge," she said, invoking a phrase that I have never been able to successfully refute. Common knowledge apparently exists in molecular form, suspended in the atmosphere, waiting to be inhaled and absorbed. My mother referred to it often, usually when describing the political shortcomings of the Roosevelt administration.
I'm truly glad to know that vinca minor isn't a victim of trumped up charges. In my mind, I had pictured her as a kind, grandmotherly woman who resembles Mrs. Butterworth, the syrup lady.
I seldom disagree when someone tells me how smart I am. There are, however, significant gaps in my intellect, as my wife discovers on a regular basis. It's not something I can deny. But I'd prefer that it wasn't common knowledge.
* Jeffrey Shaffer, who lives and writes from Portland, Ore., is a frequent contributor to the Monitor.