Last week I suffered a rather shocking experience: I learned something new.
I know, I know: so what’s the big deal, right? Some people learn new things every day without going into panic.
The problem is, I should have known this years ago!
What was this startling information? Well, that’s not really the point, but I suppose you’ll be distracted until I tell you, so I’ll just get that out of the way: there is an international distress call, “Pan-pan,” that is one grade short of “Mayday.”
Pan-pan denotes an emergency situation which does not require immediate assistance but which has a significant risk factor for the caller and alerts others to the potential for escalating advisories. For example, a vessel that has a fire onboard but has it under control.
So what’s the big deal? Just this: this seems to me to be an item of fairly common knowledge, even important knowledge, but here I am, over 60 years into my learning curve, AND I DIDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT IT!
How is that even possible?
I watch PBS and Discovery and History and Learning. I’ve been an avid reader ever since I learned how. I have seen well over 3000 movies in my lifetime (‘cause that’s how many I’ve rated on Netflix, of course). I even picked up the pan-pan bit while watching an educational video (yes, on Netflix) about foul weather boat navigation—and I don’t even care for boating that much. So how has this knowledge escaped me?
What’s worse, this isn’t the first time this panic has cornered me.
I remember the first time. I was 28 years old. I was reading a book and was amused to discover what I thought was a misspelling of the word "dilemma." But, to be safe, I decided to look it up in the dictionary, because, all of a sudden, the way I thought it was spelled didn’t seem to make sense.
For some reason—perhaps from another misspelling I’d seen, perhaps from some forgotten head trauma or, I don’t know, maybe a lightning strike—I thought dilemma was spelled with an “mn” instead of an “mm.” Go figure.
In any case, after discovering my error, I remember being awash in acute embarrassment, the kind that makes you want to glance around furtively to see if anyone is watching. I immediately began to catalog, in my mind, the number of times I might have used the word in print so far in my life, sweating each possible faux pas. Fortunately, the occasions to use dilemma were few and it was just slightly possible that a reader might have missed even those supposed uses—I hoped.
The point is, I was many years too old to have something so basic and commonly known escape my attention!
And yet here I was, more than 30 years later, and still these junctures of knowledge and panic continue to occur.
So why is it so scary?
Only because of this: what else don’t I know?