My wife was the person that revealed to me where cobwebs come from. I was 35. They come from spiders.
I'm very used to hearing her telling the story now, at any social gathering involving the few remaining people who have never heard it. She says: "Greg used to think cobwebs come from old things." She's told it so much that it's basically a cornerstone of how we relate to others as a couple.
Still, even now years after my wife's initial revelation and a private follow-up Google search proved me wrong, it feels to me like my original belief is the more plausible explanation. A spiderweb has a distinct, spidery pattern that appears most commonly in places where there are spiders; while a cobweb is a thick, matted jumble that appears most commonly in places that are old.
My mum had presumably protected me from the truth, at whatever age I was when I had first asked her about cobwebs, because of my reasonably crippling arachnophobia. I guess that she had just told me some lie and I had never thought to challenge it until, for some reason I can't remember, it became clear to my wife that I didn't know the truth.
I'm not ashamed of this fact. Not really.
Thanks to the global explosion of honesty that has arrived as a result of the confluence of the internet and therapy culture, we now have quite a lot of public accounts of this type — people holding beliefs that are surprisingly stupid.
For example, the excellent weekly podcast This American Life, had an episode on this exact topic a few years ago. It featured a story about a woman who asked in a group conversation at a party about whether unicorns were endangered or extinct.
Then there's the guy who told the story on Reddit — which was then picked up by media around the world — of how he discovered that his lifelong habit of sitting on the rim of the bowl to poo was not normal. This led to an explosion of online discussion about odd toilet behaviour, including very bad wiping practice, all of which can be found on Reddit.
Locally, there's the story of a television host who was about to interview Rob Waddell, the New Zealand Olympic team boss or "Chef de Mission" for the London Olympics. In the ad break before the interview, the host reportedly asked his co-host why they always interviewed the team chef.
It turned out that he had prepared a whole bunch of questions about food and nutrition. It was only the late intervention of the producer that prevented one of New Zealand television's most embarrassing moments.
I cast my net wide for this story, wider than for anything I had written before, looking for personal stories of this type of thing. I asked friends, acquaintances, relatives, colleagues and others to contribute their most embarrassing moments, asked them to get their friends, acquaintances, etc, etc, to share their stories with me. Only a few people came forward and even fewer came forward with anything genuinely embarrassing.
One colleague reported that when he was a child his dad had told him that animals could commit suicide. He reached adulthood without ever thinking to question it, and when he later mentioned it to a girlfriend, she laughed in his face. Nevertheless, he says he still sort of believes it.
It's a touching little story, but not really embarrassing, I think. Science says it's wrong but it feels like a defensible philosophical position, that animals could give up on life, because they're heartbroken over the death of a mate or something like that. It's definitely the type of thing that you could imagine being on Oprah.
A few other people I know reported stories of misunderstanding or mishearing words which had led to some minor embarrassment — using "erotic" instead of "erratic", for instance — and a couple of people reported the same type of thing happening to "family members" or "friends".
Then there was the person — a journalist who I have chosen to protect with anonymity even though she did not request it — who wrote to me the following very short and evocative email, which I loved: "I recently learned ponies are not baby horses."
I thought that was a pretty stupid thing to think, although not egregiously so: the type of thing that might warrant a small titter at a party of pedants or an Olympic equestrian competition, but not much more than that. After I wrote back to her thanking her for her input, she replied:
"For an extremely long time I thought the saying 'in the wars' was 'in the walls', which made equal sense to me. And up until last year I was pronouncing 'misled' as 'my-zild'."
She went on, unprompted: "When I was writing election copy, I also had to Google such things as, 'difference between Parliament and Government', 'how MMP works' and what a Cabinet Minister was."
Impressed by the extent of her candor, I wrote back to her again and discovered she was not yet done: "ALSO, when I was doing the paleo diet I was eating potatoes left right and centre but then discovered that they aren't even considered to be a vegetable. I was feeling so smug about having hash browns for breakfast."
What compelled her to reveal so much ignorance is hard to say. At one stage, I wrote to her, "I suspect that these examples might also be only the tip of the iceberg for you, am I right?" to which she replied, "Look I'm just trying to be helpful, okay?"
I don't think this series of stupidities makes her less intelligent than all the people who claimed, explicitly or implicitly — through their silence — to have nothing particularly embarrassing to share. In fact, she's probably smarter than all of them. By not hiding our embarrassments, but owning them, we transform them into stories of our true humanity. We are all idiots, but the public acknowledgement of that fact contains real power. Through our shame, we will be set free.
A couple of years ago, I was telling my wife and a friend a story in which I used the word "segue". I pronounced it "seeg", which I was soon to learn was not the correct way to pronounce it.
Fair enough. I'm probably not the only person in the world that has ever pronounced that word wrong — it's a weird word. But when my wife challenged me about my use, I began a long and condescending explanation, which I'm pretty sure was an explanation I had used before, probably more than once, possibly with complete strangers, about how the word "seeg" is the verb form of the noun "segway".
"A story might contain a segway between two ideas," I told my wife and friend, "but in telling the story, you seeg between those ideas."
My friend had not long before completed her PhD and she just listened silently through my long and obnoxiously wrong explanation. I persisted, to the end, like the very worst sort of person in the world.
They didn't laugh at me or anything. My wife just said, "Oh, that's not right, honey" and my friend agreed, then they changed the subject and I left the room to google it.