September 5, 2004

Is Everyone Batty Out There, or What?

By: AFF Editors

Something has been on my mind. Whenever I talk to my wife about it, we lower our voices. The subject is not something I discuss with many people.

So, come close.

Do you know anyone who’s not a little batty these days?

If you ask me, just about everyone’s going–or has already gone–batty right before our eyes.

I feel like Lisa Simpson in a never-ending episode of The Simpsons.

I’m not talking about the guys who tune in Cubs’ games on their molars, or the woman in army fatigues at the mall with Osama Yo’ Mamma tattooed on her forehead. Let’s also rule out kleptomaniacs, alcoholics, coke or dope freaks, the batty cat lady, hat lady, and the No-Trespassing-On-My-Grass lady.

I’m talking the people all around us–at the health club, in the supermarket, on the elevator, at the dry cleaners, the busybody at the lunch counter peering your way as you read this.

I’m talking about the people you work with. The guy down the hall. The woman on the fifth floor. Your boss. Your boss’s boss. Your best friend. Your former best friend. Your sister. Your cousin. Your father. God forbid, your husband, your wife.

At least two are batty. Am I right?

A colleague of mine won’t shake anyone’s hand. Sort of like Donald Trump. He’s deathly afraid of germs, and keeps a pair of latex gloves in his car for emergencies like toll takers or parking-garage attendants.

My former boss, when he’d get angry, would pound his head against the floor so ferociously that the walls would shake.

Another colleague whistles all day long.

Ray, a journalist friend, has found Jesus. Woe to any-one who gets Ray going. I saw The Passion of The Christ but Ray would be the last person I’d admit it to.

There’s the egomaniac in my department who makes Ralph Nader these days seem like Mother Teresa. Harry will come into my office at the university where I teach and talk for hours. I tried removing the extra chair, but Harry found my cabinets a great prop for leaning. Harry has even followed me to the bathroom, chattering away as I sought refuge in a stall. Last week I resorted to asking the secretary to call me 10 minutes after Harry ensconced himself in my digs. When the phone rang, I covered the receiver and whispered to Harry, “It’s my urologist. You know . . . last month’s infection.” Harry split, but how many infections do I want to cop to?

Even my best friend is driving me batty. Joe, bless his soul, is married and childless. That doesn’t give him permission, though, to talk to every child he sees under the age of 8 and play like he’s Barney. I’ve cautioned Joe not to touch these kids–no high-fives, no patting on the head, no super-d-duper. “You’re liable to get arrested. Or smacked by the kid’s mother.” Joe thinks I’m crazy.

I could go on. There’s the local “executive” with no known address who putters around town in threadbare seersucker suits and Birkenstocks on a gas-powered bicycle, holding “office hours” at the local java house; or the student who, at the drop of a hat, strips for an impromptu guerrilla-theatre performance in the nude.

Another student wrote a story for my nonfiction-writ-ing class about how she’s taken up devouring insects because, now that summer’s here, they’ve invaded her apartment.

My own family’s certainly not immune to being batty. Like Ray, my sister has found religion. Whenever we talk on the phone, it’s a monologue about raising money for her synagogue. At the mention of three words, the capital campaign, she’s off and running.

A cousin of mine is chronically (three or four hours) late for everything. Another cousin dresses in a burqa in her Midwest town to show solidarity with ALL Afghan women. My nephew is heavily into Burning Man, Avatar, and pyramid schemes. His father has been in three-times-a-week therapy for 30 years. How good could his shrink be, if he hasn’t cured Bernie yet?

Another cousin (on my wife’s side) has four dogs, two tortoises, a parrot, four snakes, and so many geckos slithering around his house he’s lost count. Plus, he’s got two toddlers and a wife who plays the accordion. Not to mention a Coke machine that’s been sitting in his driveway for six years.

My neighbor, a fiftysomething bachelor mathematician, just got a puppy and has fallen hard. The pooch, who is named Skooggles, does nothing except defecate and bark. It is beneath my neighbor’s dignity, of course, to break from Pythagoras to pick up after Skooggles. My hope is that Skooggles will take a fancy to the French poodle down the block whose owner dresses her pooch in a matching Burberry-plaid raincoat and booties. Maybe they’ll defecate and bark together somewhere else.

My wife’s oldest friend is loaded–a portfolio worth millions–yet she buys her shoes at Payless. I’m not saying she needs Manolos, but if a woman can’t spend her well-earned loot on shoes, then what good is having it in the first place?

Recently, a rotund colleague with an ample belly was holding some papers and trying to open his office door at the same time, when he suffered an embarrassment of the first order: His pants slipped beneath his belly, and slid all the way down to his ankles.

My colleague’s experience was not unlike that of my aunt whose wraparound skirt got unwrapped and fell off as she was carrying the bird to the dinner table last Thanksgiving dinner.

At the BP station last week, a woman lit up a cigarette just as she was about to pump gas into her Caravan minivan.

So, are you convinced?

The question that I keep asking is this: Have there always been so many batty people out there? Not stupid, not self-absorbed. Just batty.

Maybe it’s not that there are more out there, just more out-of-the-closet batty men and women, unashamed–or unaware–of how batty they really are.

Of course, to call someone on his or her batty behavior is to ask for trouble–lawsuits, road rage, a poke in the eye, the end of a friendship. So, the meek among us just shake our heads (to ourselves) and motor along.

Actually the more you know about someone, the more apt you are to know the person’s potential for batty behavior. And maybe that’s the point.

Maybe that’s what family, friends, colleagues, and my aunt are all about. In a strange, sublime way, it’s their batty behavior that makes up who they are, and through their off-the-wall antics, they add flavor to what otherwise would be Baskin-Robbins vanilla.

I don’t know if I want to go this far, but maybe instead of condemning these weirdos, we ought to celebrate them.

Perhaps all these batty folks are are just wacky eccentrics, defying the cookie-cutter mold I fit in. Maybe that’s the way we ought to look at them.

Just as long as they don’t get too close to me.

Stephen G. Bloom is professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa. He is the author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America.