I’ve been thinking lately about eccentricity. The word eccentric is from Greek astronomy; it describes a celestial object whose movements aren’t centered around the earth. The ancient Greeks saw the planets moving through the sky with no apparent direction and called them “wandering stars” (asteres planetai). No one could understand the pattern of their motion. The first eccentrics were Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were discovered later, by telescope.)
Of course, the planets are not wandering. They revolve around the sun, just as we do. It’s only our limited perspective that makes them seem like itinerant hobos.
In the same way, many human eccentrics follow a path that is not apparent to others. They revolve around a different center.
One of my eccentricities is talking to myself — especially when I’m in the house alone. Today, for example, I said: “I’m off to sub-Saharan Africa!” Here’s why: Seven months ago I started a therapy group with some friends. Lately we’ve been doing “dreamwork.” (I hate that term, incidentally: leave it to Americans to transform even dreaming into work.) At a recent meeting one person narrated a dream in which she was on a crowded train where everyone was singing “Frère Jacques,” led by an African man. “He wasn’t from northern Africa,” she explained. “He was from sub-Saharan Africa.”
I adore the phrase “sub-Saharan Africa” but never have occasion to use it. That’s one of the charms of speaking to oneself: one may use delightful phrases without cause.
Today at a Greenmarket in Manhattan I saw a young woman putting away her violin. She’d been playing near the monument to Mahatma Gandhi but now had to stop, because raindrops were falling. I dropped a quarter in her violin case. “I guess you must protect your violin,” I observed.
“Yes, I built it myself,” she answered. She’d studied with a violin maker in Vermont.
I suppose that’s where the violin makers are. In the early seventies many of my contemporaries moved back to the land and revived the lost crafts: violin making, beekeeping, cabinetry. Now young people travel to these places to study with them. Our experiment was a success!
I am part of this hippie diaspora. In 1967 most hippies were concentrated in San Francisco and New York. Since then, we have spread throughout the world. According to the most recent Hippie Census (conducted by High Times magazine in 2005), the largest concentration of hippies is in Santa Barbara, California.
I must confess that I made up the High Times census. But I’m a hippie. I’m allowed to invent facts.
In April 1951 Jack Kerouac had the idea to write a novel all on one long piece of paper. He taped together twelve ten-foot strips of architectural tracing paper and began to write. The finished book was titled On the Road. I went to the New York Public Library to see the original scroll, unrolled, beneath glass. Of course, there were numerous mistakes in the manuscript, including the first line: “I first met met Neal not long after my father died.” But even that mistake is beautiful, as if Kerouac were (unconsciously) announcing, “I didn’t just meet Neal Cassady; I met met him.” Kerouac’s discovery of Neal was twice as important as any ordinary social encounter.
Kerouac attempted a near-musical expression — a spontaneous jazz novel. In some ways he flopped. On the Road is the worst “great book” ever written. It’s hard to follow the plot (if there is one), and the prose is overly romantic and narcissistic. But, finally, On the Road succeeds. Of a hundred people who read it, ninety fall in love with it. Thirty or thirty-one are changed forever.
This afternoon I visited the International Center of Photography to see an exhibit by photographer and artist Barbara Bloom. She admires the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken ceramics are repaired using gold-laced lacquer. The idea is that an imperfect vessel is more satisfying than a spanking-new one. In the exhibit was a teapot Bloom had broken and repaired with gold lacquer. The line of the break, dictated by pure chance, is now a subtle decoration. The teapot displays a sacred humility.
I wonder if a writer could use this method. You’d have to break a paragraph and repair it — say, with a line from William Butler Yeats. Yes, Yeats is the gold lacquer of the English language.
Today I was sitting at my desk, looking at my e-mail, when I heard a sceee-rash! outside. Immediately I dialed 911 and told the operator there had been an accident. Then I walked outside to offer help.
A small group of people were standing by the street, looking bored. There was a Filipino family and a Chinese couple. Two young women were still in their vehicle, both talking on cellphones. It had been a five-car collision.
“Is everyone OK?” I asked a distracted-looking man whose car had been hit the worst and was bleeding a green liquid. He said no one was hurt.
It happens that the number-one movie in the U.S. right now is a street-racing film titled Fast & Furious, which is exactly how New Jerseyites drive. One reason for this is that New Jersey is ugly, but if you drive fast enough, it looks better.
A police car pulled up. Clearly there was nothing I could do, so I went back inside.
Later I thought, I should have offered to make everyone lemonade.
Everyone has a “police officer” in their life — someone they fear who is always right. It may be their aunt Shelley or their friend Big Dave. Each person has a cop.
I see the first robin of spring, then another and another, in the woods behind my house.
I guess they flew back from Venezuela yesterday.
Robins don’t actually migrate! The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website says:
Although the appearance of a robin is considered a harbinger of spring, the American Robin actually spends the winter in much of its breeding range. However, because they spend less time in yards and congregate in large flocks during winter, you’re much less likely to see them. . . . Hundreds of thousands of American Robins can gather in a single winter roost.
Robins by the hundreds of thousands gather in the woods every year, unbeknowst to me. Can this be true?
I sat outside today, leaning against a Norway maple while making phone calls. After a few minutes, a thin young deer wandered out of the forest. She and I locked eyes, and she walked hesitantly toward me.
It was like a love scene in a Hollywood movie of 1942.
If coffee didn’t exist, most Americans would be asleep every day by 2 P.M.
My wife and I went bird-watching yesterday in our backyard. The birds were not part of our original plan. We just wanted to take a walk, but immediately I spotted a red-tailed hawk flying low, just above the trees. Next we saw a red-bellied woodpecker, which skittered up and down the trunk of a dead tree with kooky tenacity. Then a white-breasted nuthatch, flying swiftly in loops like a butterfly.
Of course, we can’t be certain our identifications were correct. Bird-watching is a lot like spotting celebrities. Once I saw Yoko Ono in Soho; she stared at me in terror, as if I were about to shoot her. Another time I saw actor Nick Nolte eating dinner at the restaurant Nirvana. But I’m not absolutely certain it was either of them. They may have been look-alikes. Nick Nolte doesn’t announce his identity at a restaurant any more than a thick-billed murre shouts, “Hi, I’m a thick-billed murre!”
I have been studying the Bible in Hebrew lately. Today I’m reading Genesis. If you recall, when God creates the world, living beings don’t appear until the fifth day:
God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” God created great sea monsters, and all the living creatures of every kind that creep, which the waters brought forth in swarms, and all the winged birds of every kind. And God saw that this was good.
Among the first beings created were sea monsters! What was God thinking?
My daughter, Sylvia, is sixteen and has begun writing on an electric typewriter: poems, plays, a journal. I woke up this morning and believed she was typing — until I realized the sound was rain pattering outside. So I composed this poem:
Tuesday Morning Do I hear typing? No, it’s rain outside, spelling nothing.
I learned today that when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, he carried a small piece of cloth from the wing of the Wright brothers’ airplane.
This is the Week of the Flowering Trees: ornamental pear, weeping cherry, magnolia. The streets of Teaneck, New Jersey, are filled with orbs of glowing pastel. (This is my first spring here.)
Am I the only person who finds “weeping cherry” a funny phrase? In a daring paradox, the Master Architect of the Universe designed these trees to flower before they even have leaves. It’s like holding the prom in the first week of classes!
While I was paying my bill at the dentist’s office, one of the women at the front desk was untangling a telephone wire. “This is your fault, Cheryl,” she announced to her co-worker.
Cheryl comically replied: “Sure, blame the blonde!”
This inspired me to tell them my favorite blonde joke:
Q: What did the blonde say when she saw a YMCA?
A: “Look, they misspelled Macy’s!”
The first woman laughed, but Cheryl looked down resignedly. She was a pretty woman in her twenties who’d had the misfortune to be born during the blonde backlash.
The recession is visible in American clothing. The T-shirts I see are aging. Yesterday one of the women at the dental office wore a NEW YORK CITY T-shirt on which the letters were weathered and cracked. A year ago one never saw that.
Today a woman on the bus had an American flag on her T-shirt, similarly distressed. No one can afford new clothes! (Or is this a hip new style I’m unaware of?)
It’s spring, and the student drivers are out. Three of them pass me as I wait for the bus. April is the perfect month to learn to drive.
Soon after I’ve boarded the bus, a muscular young man sits directly across from me. On his shoulder is a bright red tattoo of the word war; on his other arm, a tattoo of a submachine gun. Is he one of those killers who go to the mall with a rifle and mow down nine innocent shoppers?
The youth scowls at me, an aging pacifist with a white beard. I take out a box of whole-wheat matzos and begin to eat.
Suddenly Mr. War’s pocket beeps. He whips out a walkie-talkie and tells someone, in a surprisingly high voice, that he’ll meet them by the dry cleaners in about ten minutes.
“Is that a walkie-talkie?” I ask, after he has pocketed the device.
“It’s a Boost Mobile phone,” Mr. War explains. “You get unlimited calls, plus unlimited walkie-talkie, for fifty dollars a month. I like to use the walkie-talkie because it never breaks up.”
“But the walkie-talkie can be heard by everyone,” I say.
“Yeah,” Mr. War agrees, “and it can actually get quite loud.” There is a pause. “Why are you wearing a winter coat?” Mr. War asks me.
“I live in an old house, and we don’t turn on the heat,” I explain. “I dressed for the weather inside the house; then I walked outside and said, ‘Oy, it’s warm!’ ”
I have reached my stop, and Mr. War and I say goodbye. What a sweet young fellow, I think. Like me, he’s curious about his fellow passengers.
My wife and I are now “friends” on Facebook, which seems ethically wrong.
Yesterday it rained, and today the leaves burst out on all the trees — tiny and green, as sudden as a marriage proposal.
My friend Marx, who grew up in Union City and Tenafly, told me today: “In New Jersey, we don’t say, ‘Dunkin’ Donuts.’ We say, ‘Dunkin’ Donut.’ ”
New Jerseyites avoid any frills, even the letter s.
Remember the early days of e-mail, when getting a message was like receiving a coral necklace?
Last night I stayed at my parents’ house in Brooklyn. This morning my mother asked me, “Would you like a charm to keep away the evil eye?” Her friend Joy had brought a small ceramic trinket back from Turkey.
“No, thanks,” I replied.
My guru opposes all superstition. In fact, he counsels his disciples to deliberately walk through cemeteries and defiantly commit other “unlucky” acts.
In the afternoon my wife, Violet, and I sat outside under the Norway maple. The tree’s tiny flowers were falling like green sleet. Violet had just returned from her first day of orientation for the U.S. Census. She will be an “address lister,” which means she’ll walk up to each house and check the address.
Approximately 1.4 million people are working for the census, Violet said. Who would have guessed so many? A significant proportion of the census will be government workers interviewing each other.
It’s eighty-seven degrees outside: nakedness weather. I’m about to take a bath when I remember that the millet is still on. I walk downstairs to turn off the stove, pleasurably naked. Why did I even wear clothes today?
I’ve been listening to conservative radio pundits, all of whom believe President Obama is a dangerous socialist. The price of gas will double, they predict, because of his “global-warming hysteria.” Today, in response, I wrote this bumper sticker: SOCIALISM AIN’T SO SCARY.
What is the opposite of a “dysfunctional family”? Surely the term can’t be “functional.” It’s revealing that Americans have found no need to invent a word for a healthy family.
I’ve been listening again to the right-wing radio grouches. They’ve adopted the word socialist for Obama like a mantra.
And what does the president’s “socialism” consist of? Giving billions of dollars to the banks, which use the money to pay their irresponsible executives giant salaries. In outrage I have written another bumper sticker: IF THIS IS SOCIALISM, I’M READY FOR COMMUNISM!
When I was fourteen years old, I learned a phone number that would make the phone ring. I’d call that number and quickly hang up; then my own phone would ring. It was magical and slightly devilish.
I wish I knew that number now. Does it still work?
In the highway next to my house is a traffic island. Since we moved here in September, the island has been uninspiring, but today the little tree in the middle — which I hadn’t noticed before — is all pink blossoms.
Which reminds me: recently, I’ve been puzzling over the burning bush in the book of Exodus:
And the angel of the Lord appeared unto [Moses] in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. . . . God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses.
Arguably this is the central event in the Old Testament. But why did God speak to the hesitant Moses from a flaming bush? Why would God live in a bush that’s on fire?
Today one interpretation comes to me: the flowers of spring are a living miracle. They resemble an unquenched fire. God speaks to us through the cherry trees, the flowering azaleas.