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Michael’s Musings

Let's Hear it for the Eccentrics

Let’s Hear It for the Eccentrics

After more than 40 years of toiling at the writer’s trade with only middling success, I’ve learned that the absence of anything resembling a bestseller on my résumé may be due to my lack of idiosyncrasies. Caprices seem to be inherent with people who have attained artistic, literary, scientific, or entrepreneurial eminence. According to David Weeks and Jamie James in their book Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness, eccentrics are more creative, productive, and happy than those of us with no discernible quiddities.

For example, among Oscar Wilde’s unorthodoxies was his habit of strolling the streets of Oxford with a lobster on a leash. Salvador Dalí consumed massive quantities of Camembert, believing it would enable him to dream more vividly and more weirdly. And the crotchets of Albert Einstein included collecting and smoking discarded cigarette butts.

Whether such quirks in personality or behavior contributed directly to artistic, scientific, or entrepreneurial ascendancy may not be ascertained, but vagaries are more commonplace among high achievers than with the conformist majority.

Wally (not his real name) is the most prominent of the preternatural persons of my acquaintance. We had been out of contact for nearly ten years when he surprised me with a phone call. He’d been contemplating the global warming issue following the emergence of leaked e-mails that seemed to indicate collusion among warming adherents to quash data that didn’t support climate change, and he wanted to talk about it.

I first met Wally 30 years ago and found him a rich vein of offbeat opinions, and I occasionally quoted him in magazine articles I wrote when a divergent view seemed appropriate.

“What you need to know,” he began, “is that we’ve been cutting down too many trees, and their roots anchor the crust of the earth to the tectonic plates. So when the trees are cut, the roots wither and die and can’t hold the crust in place. What’s been happening is that the crust broke loose from those tectonics and the crust is sliding south, where it’s warmer. I bet in another 500 or 1,000 years Minnesota will be geographically situated about where northeastern Missouri is right now and somewhere down the road Rio de Janeiro will be in Antarctica, and kids will be able to ice-skate on Ipanema.”

While I wouldn’t reference this theory in anything I’d submit for publication, I don’t think Wally is entirely out of bounds. Scientists are in agreement that excessive cutting of timber has a negative ecological impact, though not quite in the manner Wally describes.

It was hard to take Wally seriously all the time, but now and then his rants appeared in letters to the editor sections of local papers. During our last conversation he also said he was completing a novel and had an agent eager to market the book for him.

Until this novel-writing revelation I’d viewed Wally as a harmless oddball. But, as Weeks and James assert, “Eccentrics are essential for the health of the social organism. They provide the variety of ideas and behavior that permits the group to adapt successfully to changing conditions. All intellectual evolution depends on new ideas; they are the essence of science, of exciting new art, indeed of all intellectual progress.”

Few of us would desire that our children exhibit mannerisms well off the boilerplate. But our culture of conformity may hinder the happenstance of genius rising to solve problems or begin engaging enterprises.

On the other hand, would I have realized literary celebrity if only my parents had gotten me a lobster instead of a fox terrier when I was a kid? I don’t know, but I’m forced to conclude that my lifelong adherence to societal norms has produced few notable achievements.

So in the future should you hear an older gentleman lustily singing along with the music piped into the supermarket and dancing with his wife in front of the meat display, don’t scowl and usher your children from his presence. It could be an unheralded genius processing his thoughts. Or it might be yours truly.

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