Saturday, February 10, 2018


WEIRDNESS     February 10, 2018

          Deep in Venezuela, at a village called El Dorado, my wife and I ran into a film crew from the BBC who were about to climb, and film, among the tepuis to the south, those mysterious mesas rising from the jungle floor some 3,000 feet and forming little ecosystems of their own. After an evening in the local cabana with the film crew drinking Jamaican rum, my wife mentioned she only knew one person in London, a jazz photographer named--well, forget the name. Ah, said the producer, I used to date his secretary.

          A few years ago my wife and I were in the village of Shrub Oak in upper Westchester County in New York where my daughter now lives and I used to live with my first wife. The house we lived in then was quite old and very beautiful, and I was curious about how it had fared since I left, so we drove over to the churchyard that it backed onto and tried to peer around the vegetation. At that point the owner came out to call his dog and my wife approached him and mentioned my connection and he invited us in to take a look. He hadn't done much to the house except take out the garden, and I told him what I knew about its history and the work I had done on it, and then we parted, but not before exchanging business cards. My name, of course, is Brandt. His name was Abrandt.

          My first wife and I went to Nantucket for our honeymoon and stayed at a place called the Cliffside Inn, or something like that. My second wife and her first husband met in Nantucket and worked together at the Cliffside Inn as staff after they got married, but twelve years after we had been there. The Inn has since burned down.

          My first wife and I and our children toured southern England in the late 1960s and wound up at a little place called Lynton overlooking the Welsh coast across the Bristol Channel, and it was a lovely place, English rural, and I sat a long time on a boulder just gazing at the water as the light faded in the late afternoon and into the evening. Back in London, we went to the Tate Gallery and found a watercolor of the scene. A little later I bought a copy of Henry James's English Hours, about his travels in England and his visit to the same hotel we stayed at, and how he sat on a boulder in the late afternoon and watched the light fade. At the time, Henry James was my favorite author. I wrote my senior thesis on him in college.

          Nowadays the people who teach writing to would-be authors advise them to avoid basing plots on coincidences at all costs. But coincidences are not uncommon. They occur to us all. Schopenhauer thought that life was structured this way, on hidden connections, like the joists under the floor you don't see but walk over constantly, and that when these connections emerge into the open like those above they lend meaning to lives that otherwise seem in the daily welter of things organized only on chance. Dickens defended himself against critics who attacked him for relying on coincidences, knowing how common they are. Yet no one has ever attacked Sophocles for the coincidence Oedipus Rex is based on, when Oedipus, trying to escape the fate the oracle at Delphi foretold, that he would kill his father and marry his mother, heads to Thebes rather than home to Corinth, has an altercation with a man at the crossroads where "three roads meet," kills him, solves the riddle of the Sphinx belaboring Thebes at the time, comes into the city a hero, and marries the Queen, whose husband has recently been killed at a crossroads. He only learns when things turn really sour that he has inadvertently killed his own father and married his mother--all because they had tried to avoid the same prophecy by ordering their son to be exposed to the elements in the mountains. Their son, an infant, soon to be named Oedipus by his adoptive parents. One of the world's greatest plays, is it not? But think of it. Five minutes earlier or later--even thirty seconds--he would never have met his father at the crossroads.

          Of course statisticians belittle all this. Citing the Law of Large Numbers, they argue that coincidences, even the strangest, are bound to happen, with millions of people doing billions of things all the time, coincidences are inevitable; it would be impossible that they not happen. Maybe they're right. But the night before I came to Sag Harbor for the first time I dreamt I would be staying in a house where I could not stand up straight because the ceiling would be too low. The next day I walked into the house where I would be staying and could not stand up straight. The house was very old, and the ceiling was only about six feet high. I was six two then, before I got old and began to shrink.

          The statisticians can have their say. But there's a quiddity about these events, a feeling that they're intensely personal, that you can't shake. In the end, I prefer that my world remain weird. Because the world is weird, and we do not fully understand it.