19 August 2008

Weird ... and wonderful

Three children from my acquired extended family came to stay the weekend. This means that I had to be reminded, afresh, that I am "weird".

Weird isn't a bad thing or a good thing, so far as I can tell; just a value neutral fact.

I am weird, for example, because on Sunday morning I had a banana and dried fruit with (vegan soya) ice cream. This is weird because (a) ice cream is a dessert and may only be eaten after dinner, (b) bananas should not be sliced, they should be eaten whole and (c) dried fruit is an ingredient in cooking, not something that is eaten other contexts. (Curiously, the vegan soya nature of the ice cream does not seem to be weird; interesting, yes, but not weird.)

"Weird" is something that affects other people too. USAmericans, for example, are weird because they say "ocean" instead of "sea". Their weirdness in calling trousers "pants" and shirts "vests" is compounded by the fact that both words refer, in the UK, to items of underwear and are, therefore, smutty and humorous to small and prepubescent boys.

"Weird", in other words, is just an expression of that old human xenophobia which starts at ones own skin: "t'whole world's queer 'cept thee and me, and thee's a bit odd". I explain in vain that everyone is different, that USAmericans might think the three of them (the boys) weird for giggling at what they (the Americans) consider perfectly normal words – this explanation, in itself, just confirms my own weirdness.

Isolated Australian and USAmerican vowels or inflections fossilised in my speech arouse curiosity. More seriously weird, wherever I go, is that I "think too much". This is a characteristic which I recognise in myself, though I dispute the "too much" part of it.

It is possible to think too much, particularly within a particular context. Thinking at any length about the evolutionary physiology of obligate carnivores as components in the carbon cycle, for example, or their psychosocial place in mythic iconographies, can be detrimental to survival when being pursued by a tiger. Less dramatically, I have found that musing on the universal dominance of right handed screw threads can considerably slow down the laying of loft flooring. In general, though, I believe that most of us, most of the time, would tend to benefit from more thinking rather than less.

I'm lucky that the love of my life is also inclined to think too much. We can while away many an hour pursuing multiple meanings, shadings and etymologies of a word through a conversation mediated by multiple dictionaries, while the game of Scrabble which started it all sits patiently waiting for our return. Even she, however, is occasionally to be found watching me with quizzically amused eyes as I return from some particularly circuitous train of thinking aloud. I have learned to recognise the bemused expressions on faces of academic colleagues (small children, oddly enough, are more likely to follow these destinationless fugues with me) which serve as warning that I am displaying weirdness.

It's recognition of this same tendency to take eclectic flight just for the joy of it, Jonathan Livingston Seagull style, that appeals to me in blogs to which I regularly link such as Apothecary's Drawer , JSBlog, Thinking through my Fingers and Unreal Nature.

Anyroad ... what was my point? Oh yes ... it was with all of this in mind, as I set off with the three boys for a Saturday afternoon at a water park where they would splash in the wave machine and whirlpool while I sedged on the side keeping a redundant half eye on them, that I pulled from the bookshelves my battered copy of Calvino's Mr Palomar. (Musing on why inhabitants of a seaside town never go in the sea but choose, instead, to travel thirty kilometres and pay money to swim in artificial waves in a building in an inland town would, of course, be further evidence of my weirdness. So I won't do that.)

Mr Palomar, the eponymous character whose reflections on the world about and within him form the series of essays in this book, is clearly a way for Calvino to gently poke fun at himself. Palomar and Calvino also "think too much", but Calvino is better than I at critically observing himself as he does it. In particular, the first section ("Palomar on the beach") seemed appropriate for an afternoon sitting by water – especially the first title in that section, "Reading a wave". A book of short sections also better survives intermittent attention as I follow the movement of three children amongst a hundred and fifty others.

In mentioning blogs to which I frequently link and refer, above, I left out Dr C. This was for good reason: I had him in mind for this spot from the beginning.

Information learned doesn't always go in, or stay in. Other times, information does go in, remains, and informs one's life, for years before becoming specifically recognised and personalised. This latter case applies to Dr C's observations on the electromolecular impossibility of free will: while the particulate information in his series of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 excellent posts was in my memory stores, I shall now forever mentally associate assemblies of it with Dr C. By extension, I shall never be able to read Mr Palomar without thinking of Dr C, either especially the third essay, "The sword of the sun", which contains passages such as:

"All this is happening not on the sea, not in the sun," the swimmer Palomar thinks, "but inside my head, in the circuits between eyes and brain. I am swimming in my mind. [...] This is my element, the only one I can know in some way."

Palomar swims though territory which would have been familiar to minds as diverse and Susan Greenfield and George "If a tree falls in the forest" Berkeley ... but will always, now, be for me the preserve of Dr C.

Weird people, thinking too much everywhere: thank goodness for you.

  • Richard Bach, (illust. Russell Munson), Jonathan Livingston Seagull. 1970, New York: Macmillan. (More recently 2003, London: Harper Element. [978]0006490340, but without the original translucent illustration page sequences.)
  • Italo Calvino (English trans. William Weaver), Mr Palomar. 1986, London: Picador. 0330290924. (Originally Italian language, Palomar. 1983, Torino: Einaudi. 8806056794.)
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