Columns » Boomer with Attitude

In Praise of Weirdos

A holiday salute

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I come today in praise of creative weirdos, oddballs and eccentrics. In honor of Independence Day and American ideals of freedom, let's toast the courageous misfits, dreamers and visionaries who have helped make this one of the most interesting nations of all time. It's especially important to honor our all-American eccentrics during these unnerving times when some supposed Americans would love to shove us all back into a retro-50s (or earlier) cultural straitjacket.

No doubt about it, America is home to a lot of weirdos — which is to be expected when you advertise that your doors are open to those who long to breathe free. After all, some folks' idea of freedom has less to do with getting rich than with being able to follow their own idiosyncratic ideas and ways of life.

Weirdos have shaped America since day one. Who could be more eccentric than the Pilgrims, leaving everything they'd known in order to re-create Eden in a wilderness way across the ocean? After them, many other oddballs have influenced the nation, people like Walt Whitman or Woody Guthrie.

Having attended college in the late-60s/early-70s, I encountered my share of serious weirdos. At the time, my tolerance ranneth over but, as happened to many baby boomers, the practical demands of adulthood wore away my patience for oddballs. Don't get me wrong, I still give a couple of bucks to ragged buskers on a city street, but more often than not I'm also thinking, "Ever tried a real job, pal?"

Luckily, now and then I'm reminded of our more eccentric fellow Americans' contributions to loosening the culture and shining a revealing light on our petty everyday conventions. That's what happened to me a couple of weekends ago.

The daughter of some old friends was getting married, and my family and I attended the wedding. One of those friends' brother — the bride's uncle — is an eccentric whom I'd heard much about over the years, although I'd never met him. My friend told me that her brother, let's call him Dale, was coming from out of state for the wedding and I can't say I was looking forward to it — I wondered if he'd cause a scene, upstage the ceremony, decide to get naked, or what?

Oh, I forgot to mention: Dale is a nudist. In fact, he's the only person I know who has attended clothing-optional car shows (this is for real) — you see, he's also an excellent mechanic who's obsessed with old cars. How obsessed? Well, a few years ago he acquired a 60s-model Ford with the money he'd been saving to purchase dentures. So much for chewing, but the car was just too cool.

Dale, who is 54, has also been taking LSD for, oh, 30 years now. In fact, on his last birthday, his son gave him a sheet of blotter acid. There's one thing about Dale that is very normal — he likes women; in fact, he's married three of them. He likes women so much, he prefers wearing women's clothes (when he's wearing clothes at all). He explains his complicated personal life this way: "All my men friends were going gay, all my women friends were going lesbian. But I like women, so I decided to be a lesbian."

In other words, this guy is wide open. Like I said, I was apprehensive. Before I could get downright tight-assed about it, though, something happened. I met him at the wedding. Nicest guy you'd want to meet — friendly, sincere, smart — and funny in that eye-twinkling, subversive way that helps everyone let their hair down after a formal event — even if he was wearing shorts and flip-flops.

Later at the reception, Dale sat at our table and although he definitely had an edge about him, he evinced an innocent delight in the occasion that put everyone at ease. Well, that and the gin and tonics. Later, on the dancefloor, only a few brave souls got up to shake it. Until Dale got involved, dancing with anyone who'd go along for the ride. The men in suits and the women in gowns would see Dale on the dancefloor, look at each other, then just smile and join the crowd. He had that kind of effect.

So, long story short, the guy I'd been uneasy about was the life of the party, and I got a big reminder of how weirdos can shake things up in a good way. We had to leave a bit early, but on the way out, we looked in on the dancefloor. There was Dale, his hair and arms flailing joyfully, a big smile on his face. With lots of other smiling dancers all around him.

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