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Ignorance and Confidence

sunken chain, with fishIt's about 1 A.M. Sleepless. A Mark Twain quote comes to mind: "He had the calm confidence of a Christian with four aces." Then another phrase starts breaking through: something and confidence blah blah blah. Something… what? Got it! "All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure"

The quote is rolling around my brain now. Is that my essential life lesson on this December morn?

Ignorance I've had plenty of. Just read my Pakistan Chronicles. I suppose if you're ignorant and you blunder toward your goal and you make it, then the confidence starts going up. Here's a thought: ignorance breeds confidence because if we depend on knowledge to make us confident ("Knowledge is power." "The truth will set you free.") our admitted lack of it will wear us down. We become afraid. It's easier just to do something and see what happens. How many times have I heard someone say, "If I'd only known how hard this was going to be, I would have never started it"? I was saying this about a quilt I made for a friend during the summer of ’75.

But I'm also thinking of my first scuba outing after I got certified. It was the summer of 1978 and Jim arranged a wreck dive in the St. Lawrence River. He was confident. I was ignorant but confident in him. It never occurred to me that some people restrict their early scuba activities to shallow depths and the warm, clear waters of the Caribbean. I was desperate to be one of the boys and to impress the hell out of Jim.

Growing up I was an avid Sea Hunt fan, but come to think of it, that was set in Florida. The Great Lakes are different. For starters, they are icy cold — requiring a full claustrophobic wet suit. And the water is dark because the northern sunbeams are too angled to penetrate beyond 30 feet or so. Add a swift current and you get the St. Lawrence River.

Our group went out in a World War II duck, an amphibious vehicle operated by a local guy not known (it turns out) for his reliability. It was raining. Out on the edge of the shipping channel, we dropped anchor. Jim and I suited up and plunged in. Our target was the Keystorm, a freighter that went down the same year as a the Titanic. It lay on an angle, its prow at 70 feet, its stern at 125. At 70 feet, it's dark. I didn't have a light. Jim had dived this wreck before, had a light and apparently a clear mental picture of the layout. I clutched his arm as he made a leisurely circuit of various pitch black holds around the shallow end of the ship. He was exploring. I was concentrating on not losing my grip.

During our ascent, we did the required "5-at-10" — a pause on the anchor line for 5 minutes at 10 feet to clear our blood of residual nitrogen. Hanging there, thrilled that I'd survived the darkness, I suddenly saw Jim give the out-of-air signal. My mentor, my guy with the light, had not paid enough attention to his pressure gauge. As he tried to grab the regulator from my hand, I also realized he'd forgotten the the rules about buddy-breathing. (Never let your air be controlled by some oxygen-starved idiot who couldn't keep track of his own.) After some gentle grappling and pointed gesturing, we got into the right sharing rhythm, completed our safety stop, and surfaced. I was exhilarated. Even when the duck's engine caught fire and the captain confessed to not having an extinguisher and made us use our wet suit helmets in a bucket brigade… even then, I was realizing I could do this scuba diving. All I needed next time was a light.

Confidence. That dive gave me more confidence than a year's worth of Caribbean reef dives.

Last Sunday in NYC we talked with a Japanese art dealer who had attended a conference at the Met on fakery in Chinese painting. He was complaining that the scholars focused endlessly on the technical aspects of distinguishing an "original" from later student copies and outright forgeries. For him, the overall aesthetic was important: an original work of art "jumps off the page" while a copy is flat and lifeless. He's made his living from these decisions for some 40 years. What is the secret of his success? "Confidence," he said. "Once a dealer loses confidence, he's out of the business."

That's what I'm thinking as I lie awake.