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JEAN SHEPHERD-Trivia, “just in case”

“I’ll award the brass figlagee with bronze oak leaf palm to the first person who can tell me…”

010_Brass_Figlagee CROPPED

Brass Figlagee With…

The brass figlagee, with its made-up silly word, is a Shepherd invention, poking fun at the world of real awards given for real accomplishment….Within the same sphere of humanity’s array of foible-filled activities, there lies the peculiar fascination with trivia, often arcane and frequently inconsequential detail.[See EYF! starting on page 105 for more detail.]

i love trivia cup

How the Brain Stores Trivial Memories, Just in Case

The above is the title of an article about a new study “that suggests that a surge of emotion can make the old newly relevant.” New York Times, 1/22/2015 article by Benedict Carey. Shep would have loved it, especially the bizarre aspect of how the study was conducted: conducted at NYU, it consisted in part of people being connected to a “Pavlovian fear conditioning machine.” Yes. The article begins:

The surge of emotion that makes memories of embarrassment, triumph and disappointment so vivid can also reach back in time, strengthening recall of seemingly mundane things that happened just beforehand and that, in retrospect, are relevant, a new study has found….

The findings fit into the predominant theory of memory: that it is an adaptive process, continually updating itself according to what knowledge may be important in the future.

The new study suggests that human memory has, in effect, a just-in-case file, keeping seemingly trivial sights, sounds and observations in cold storage for a time in case they become useful later on.

trivia diagram cartoon

Trivia is not Trivial

“I’ll award the brass figlagee with bronze oak leaf palm to the first person who can tell me…”

010_Brass_Figlagee CROPPED

“Shepherd, with his pleasure in details, and his

insistence that there is often more to life

than most of us perceive, delighted in showing off

his knowledge and his ability to make

unexpected connections.”–[See my EYF! pages 106-110.]

Those doing the scientific study were lead by a postdoctoral fellow in cognitive neuoroscience. The study involved watching photographs scroll by on a computer screen and being subjected to shocks that were “uncomfortable but not painful.” The memory effect in humans is referred to as “retroactive consolidation.” I suggest that, had Shepherd become aware of such a study, he would have laughed/groaned, and would have been satisfied, rather than be a lab specimen subjected to uncomfortable–but not painful shocks–satisfied with his own un-induced “retroactive consolidation.”

“Now stop a minute here, madam, stop–these little bits of trivia–you begin to see that they do have a universality and some kind of a deep, sinister meaning.” Shepherd, March 3, 1961.




Shepherd many times commented on his delight in trivia and how it could sometimes be an indicator of more important matters.  Harold Bloom, in his How to Read and Why (2000), quotes Oscar Wilde telling a friend that the philosophy of his play, The Importance of Being Ernest was “that we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all serious things in life with sincere and studied triviality.”

importanc of being ernest

Sara Topham, David Furr, Brian Bradford in

“The Importance of Being Ernest.”

Regarding trivial pursuits, an older woman (shown above?) asks the young suitor of a sweet young thing if he has any bad habits. He says that he smokes, and she comments that a young gentleman has to have something to occupy himself.

Shepherd would undoubtedly have agreed with the first half of Oscar’s comment, although he might have decided that the second half was a bit over the top.  Time magazine’s Lev Grossman, in his September 25, 2006 review of Brainiac, the 2006 book by Jeopardy television quiz program champ, Ken Jennings, commented in a way that Shepherd would undoubtedly have approved: “There’s something touching about the world of trivia.  It’s a place where minutiae have a paradoxical grandeur and no fact is meaningless.”  It amused Shepherd that he remembered such seemingly unimportant information:

Is there anyone out there who can give me the name of the man—now why should I remember this—you know, my vast storehouse of garbage in my mind, the trivia, you know.  I see my mind sometimes as a wastebasket—full of all kinds of pieces of crumpled-up paper—with little torn pieces and little labels and stuff—all in there.  It’s just a big wastebasket.  It’s all full of this stuff.  And why do I remember this, man, I don’t know.  (July 6, 1966)

Only three weeks later (July 27), he again commented on his retention of such information, repeating the wastebasket metaphor and expanding it to “a garbage bucket, a city dump of total impedimenta.” A garbage bucket, where no fact is meaningless.

garbage dump

City Dump.

Meaningful facts–most everything

in this dump must have had meaning to the person or

organization before it became for them

of no use.

The sweet smell of decay–gulls like it.