April 1, 2007

What That Hippie Told Me


For the past several weeks, I’ve been listening to the audio version of Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel, and one that’s fast become my favorite. Running throughout its 1100 pages (or in my case, 42 CDs) are interwoven plotlines involving multidimensional mathematics, time travel, Nikolai Tesla, bomb-throwing anarchists, secret societies, spiritualists, familial revenge, political intrigue, Colorado mines, balloon adventurers, and impending doom.

     The book is populated with dozens of characters who are forced by circumstances to look at the world in a slightly skewed way. In so doing, they also need to confront the implications of having a few other dimensions lurking about the shadows which, on occasion, might poke into our own three (or four) to see what the deal is.

     It recalled a brief encounter I had many years ago with a fellow who, I think, was trying to confront some of those same issues, except he didn’t know it yet.

     It was about 10 o’clock on a warm, thick summer night in Madison. I was on my way back to my apartment after a night Latin class, walking down State Street—the university’s main commercial strip—when my steps began to slow.

     There on one of the benches which dotted the sidewalk sat a shabby looking hippie—long hair, beard, sandals and beads. A pretty common sight in that town at the time. Hippies were my mortal enemies back then, even if they weren’t aware of it. But there was something about this one that kept me from sneering or spitting. I think it was the cardboard sign propped up on the bench next to him.

     It wasn’t asking for handouts or explaining his plight as a homeless Vietnam vet. No, in hand-scrawled block letters, this one read “Ask Me About UFOs.”

     I’ve always been a sucker for things like that, from screeds about CIA implants to zealous religious pamphlets. If someone wanted to share some vital information with me concerning the unseen universe, I was willing to give them a few minutes of my time to lay out their case. I found UFO people particularly fascinating.

     I stopped in front of the hippie, and tossed what was left of my cigar in the gutter. “All right,” I said, “tell me about the UFOs.”

     It seemed to snap him out of some kind of reverie. “Oh! Yes!” he blurted. I got the impression not too many people had been stopping that night. He composed himself, then said, “There’s more to this universe than most people can imagine. Let me show you something.”

     He slid off the bench, then dropped to his knees on the sidewalk. “Come down here with me,” he said.

     “All right.” I lowered myself to my own knees in front of him. There were a lot of people on the street that night. I imagine we must’ve looked like one or both of us had just been converted. I didn’t care. As long as we were out in the open and there were people around, I figured things couldn’t get too weird. And if they started careening toward the weird (as they so often did back then), I figured he was vulnerable—I could just push him over and get on my way.

     He produced from his pocket six identical (if less than sanitary) drinking straws, and dropped them to the pavement in front of me. “Now,” he told me, “can you make four triangles out of those straws?”

     I had no idea what he was talking about. “You mean, at once?” He nodded. His eyes had grown much more excited than they really needed to be, I felt.

     “Okay,” I said, and picked up one of the straws, trying to imagine the various ways they could be arranged. Then it came to me. It was just a simple logic puzzle.

     I took three of the straws and formed a triangle flat on the pavement. Then I placed each of the remaining straws at the corners of that triangle, and connected the other ends to form a pyramid.

     (Thinking of it now, there are actually several ways to create four triangles out of six straws, but this is the one I came up with back in 1985.)

     “Okay! Right! Good!” he said, gathering the straws together in his fist and returning them to his pocket.

     I expected him to start in with the whole tedious business about the connection between UFOs and the pyramids, but he didn’t.

     “While you were considering the problem,” he said, the two of us still kneeling on the sidewalk, “you had an ‘A-ha’ moment, an insight that allowed you to look at the problem in a different way. You stepped out of the normal way of looking at things into a different dimension.”

     “Sure,” I said.

     “And that’s how we can begin to understand God.”

     God? I thought he was going to tell me about UFOs.

     “It’s what people need to do. To begin understanding the nature of God, they need to start looking at the universe in a different way. They need to step out of their typical ways of thinking.”

     I was starting to get the impression that he’d been one of those physics grad students who slipped a little too deep into the mathematical abstractions and lost his nut. I’d seen it happen to more than a few people when I was in the physics program at Chicago. One minute they’re talking about quarks and muons, the next they’re talking about God. It’s a quick and fatal step.

     “I see,” I said to my kneeling hippie friend. I expected him to go on, explain himself a little further, but he didn’t. That was the end of the show. Guess he was counting on a lot of turnover.

     He moved back onto the bench next to his deceptive cardboard sign. I stood, thanked him for his time, and continued on home, vaguely disappointed that he wasn’t a full-blown nut job. I began wondering if the whole set up was just a ruse—some kind of psych experiment to see who would stop, and who could solve the straw problem.

     Weird thing is, brief and ultimately innocuous as the encounter had been (well, innocuous for those strange, strange days), something about it stuck with me. There was a quiet value in it that had nothing to do with understanding the nature of God. It was simply a reminder that by looking at the world from a slightly skewed angle, things become much more interesting. A two block stroll to the grocery store can be an epic adventure. The news becomes really, really funny.

     And the novels of Thomas Pynchon and Louis-Ferdinand Celine are suddenly no longer the impenetrable beasts we’ve been led to believe.

     Of course looking at the world from a skewed angle might also lead to a diagnosis of “paranoid schizophrenia.”

     Maybe I’m giving that hippie a little too much credit, but something leaves me convinced that’s where he was headed, had he only stopped to think about it for a few minutes longer, instead of settling for stupid logic puzzles or something as simple as “God.”


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