It was October 28, 1955. The planet Mars had just entered the sign of Libra, Venus was moving into Scorpio, and the Sun was in the Fifth House. I don’t know what any of that means. Honestly, I don’t think it means anything. All that seems to matter is that I was born one day late.
This doesn’t sound unusual or significant, I know. A lot of babies arrive after their mother’s due date. And breech births, in which the baby is turned around, occur about three percent of the time. But I arrived behind schedule and facing the wrong way (or “ass-backward,” as my mother described me to complete strangers on countless occasions). The combination appears to have produced a person who is constantly bumping into life and hitting the sharp corners with his elbows and shins. Sometimes I’m engaged in the correct activity, but my timing is off. Or my timing is good, but my sense of direction is weak. I tend to get lost a lot, which isn’t surprising when you consider that I somehow became disoriented during what should have been a straightforward trip through the birth canal.
* * * * *
On my first day of kindergarten, my mother made me take an empty schoolbag, the big beige fake leather kind with an enormous flap and a brass buckle. I cried. I didn’t even want to go to school. For one thing, I was sure everybody there was already friends with everybody else, a feeling I still get when I walk into a room full of people. For another, even at age five, I knew the schoolbag was lame. Sure enough, when I got to my classroom I was the only person carrying one, which served as a jarring introduction to the experience of being mortified. I went home that afternoon and told my mother that I didn’t need it. The next day, I was the only person in the class without a schoolbag.
Out on the sidewalks and in the playground, girls jumped rope to strange, rhythmic songs they all seemed to know by heart. They made it look easy, sometimes turning two ropes at once in opposite directions and running in and out of the jump without missing a beat. It was an amazing thing for the boys to watch, even while we pretended not to, and what kept us from taunting them about any perceived lack of athletic ability. I tried jumping rope with the girls once and ended up looking like a busted steer at the rodeo.
* * * * *
The day my driver’s license came in the mail, I was allowed to take the car and go to a friend’s house. It was my first time driving alone and I was jittery. At some point on the way, I passed a small park, and there was a man seated on a bench. I glanced over at him for just a second as I went by, and could tell that he was very old. When he saw me looking, he waved hello, but I didn’t react quickly enough. This was partly because I was focused on the other cars, but also because it was New York, and strangers only waved to you if you were driving a taxi, or selling hot dogs at a ballgame. I felt terrible that this elderly man had reached out for a moment of kindness and I’d seemed to ignore him. I drove around the block and came back up the same street, intending to get his attention so I could wave back. But when I reached the bench again, he was gone.
In college, a classmate invited me to play foosball one day. He said a few other guys would be playing, too. I assumed there would be others because I thought he had tried to say football, and that it had just come out a little funny. I did that a lot myself. But, no, he was talking about foosball. If you’re unfamiliar with this activity, as I was at the time, let me describe it. There’s a table about three feet high, and it has metal bars with handles running horizontally across the top. The bars contain rigid plastic soccer players that are evenly spaced and can be maneuvered either by sliding the rods back and forth or spinning them to effect a kick, or some combination of the two. Each team’s men reside on every other rod, so that in addition to the sliding and spinning, you also have to shift hands from one handle to another, depending on where the ball is. No one explained any of this to me. The other three guys were, I quickly ascertained, majoring in foosball, with a minor in obnoxious impatience for any novice who happened to be lured into the game through misunderstanding. I also figured out that the word foosball comes from the Greek phusbos, which means “Whatever you’re doing right now, you should have been doing that three seconds ago.”
* * * * *
This sense of being out of sync with the world is the same feeling you might have during a speaker-phone conversation, when both people start to talk at once, then both stop, then both talk again. It’s the maddening side-to-side shuffle we do when we encounter someone walking toward us and we try to get out of each other’s way. It’s the feeling we have that it’s Tuesday, when it’s actually Monday. Or the weird thing that happens when we’re walking down the stairs and we think there’s one more step, and there isn’t. When we trip over nothing, choke uncontrollably on perfectly good air, or search frantically for car keys that are jangling in our pocket. It’s what causes us to arrive at the bank five seconds too late and get stuck behind the lady who’s performing fifteen complex transactions, all involving thick file folders and rolls of nickels.
I am poised on the edge of these awkward or badly-timed moments during most of my waking hours, as well as a good part of my sleep. I frequently dream that I’m riding a tricycle on a major highway, against traffic. Or that I’m about to deliver a speech in Swedish to the UN General Assembly and I’ve forgotten to put on my shirt; I’ve also just remembered that I don’t speak Swedish.
There’s a natural rhythm to the world. Most people seem to sense it and ride the waves with little wasted energy. You can see these people cruising into the mall without breaking stride. And you can see me, slamming face-first into the automatic doors that never seem to open unless I stop dead in my tracks and wave my arms around like a fool. Sometimes I just wait for someone else to show up, and then follow them in.
I have stepped on my own hand, shot a staple into my leg (don’t do this one), and put a finger into my eye minutes after chopping hot peppers (really don’t do this one). I have closed a window onto my head and fallen through the ice into a river. I have locked myself out of my car and out of my house so frequently that I sometimes think I may need a CAT scan.
I’m still convinced that it all started back in 1955, when I showed up twenty-four hours late and a hundred and eighty degrees out of alignment. I’ve even considered staying in bed for an entire day, with my head down where my feet should be, in an attempt to reset my biological clock and re-orient my nervous system. But apparently Saturn has just moved into Capricorn, and now Mercury is in retrograde, so the timing may not be good. Plus, I’m afraid I’d fall asleep and dream about riding my tricycle through a park filled with foosball players jumping rope and old men with schoolbags waving to me from benches. And of course my mother would be there, too, telling me that even my dreams are ass-backward.
* * * * *
Here are some foosball players competing for a world championship. I do not appear in this video.