The letter opened on an ominous note. “Dear Max,” wrote the manager. “I wanted to let you know the result of your interview.” Without further ado, she let fall the axe: “We met another candidate that we feel is the fit that we are looking for, so we are going to proceed in that direction.”
Then her tone turned conciliatory, even sweet. “We all really appreciated you and your thoughtful answers and your obvious talent and interest in our company,” she wrote. “We all express how we would love to sit and chat with you and learn from you in a different atmosphere.” She concluded: “You are very intriguing.”
The job would have paid me decent money to write promotional web copy, something I already do for pretty close to peanuts. Naturally, I felt sorry for myself. But for a moment or two I felt sorrier for the manager. She obviously hated having to deliver the bad news, and seemed worried about how I might take it. The letter arrived in my box right at the close of business on Friday, which suggested she’d put off writing it all afternoon.
She needn’t have worried. The moment I sat down at the table across from her and the two other interviewers, I knew I had no more chance of landing the job than I had of being appointed gonfalonier of the pope’s army. All three of my interlocutors wore the bemused, slightly alarmed look of people watching an amputee unstrap a prosthetic limb. By now I’m used to it, just as I’m used to fielding compliments like “intriguing,” which are really euphemisms for “weirder than hell.”
One winter when I was about 10, I developed a cold sore on each corner of my mouth. They felt enormous, and I imagined them growing until they sealed my mouth completely. To prevent this from happening, I took to opening my mouth as wide as I could, the way I did while yawning, but with extra violence. It became a habit, which survived both the cold sores and the winter and earned me the nickname “Pac Man.”
At some point before puberty, I managed to outgrow the tic, but I’m convinced the damage was already done. Somehow, by gobbling all those phantom energy pellets, I’d tweaked my aura permanently. Even without mossy teeth or bad breath or an age-inappropriate passion for Pokemon cards, I have, ever since, given the impression of being off by a few vital degrees.
If there’s a pattern to my eccentricity, I’ve never been able to spot it. All I can do is cite discreet instances where I crossed some invisible line. One day in grad school, I was sitting in the front row of a lecture hall with my knapsack on the table in front of me. A woman took the seat next to mine; figuring she’d need space for her books, I swept the knapsack off the table and onto the floor. Behind me, I heard muffled laughter. It was my friend, Changeez. When the lecture was over, I asked him what, exactly, was so goddamned funny.
“Brother,” he said. “You looked like Billy Dee Williams in that Colt 45 commercial, the one where he yanks the tablecloth out from under the bottles.” So my sweeping gesture was too gallant for a 500-level class in media law — how was I supposed to know?
Being an oddball has its advantages. I’ve never been bullied. A close relative of mine, who spent 10 years in the Florida penal system — including a stretch at the maximum-security prison where Ted Bundy met Old Sparky — once told me that the most brutal, nihilistic inmates turned suddenly shy around anyone they suspected of being crazy. But no mistake, my weirdness has confined me to an occupational ghetto. Lacking both people skills and any Temple Grandin-level technical gift, I’ve been stuck doing jobs that, for good reason, most sensible people avoid. If JFK could call himself a Berliner, then I can say with at least as much justification, “¡Soy Mexicano!”
It now occurs to me that this sense of myself as an irredeemable, largely indigestible kook is what’s really keeping me Catholic. Catholic culture is varied and intricate, and my experience of it is still too limited to admit of any bold pronouncements. Still, it should be obvious that the Church attracts people who are willing to devote their spare time, perhaps their careers, to pursuits that will never get them rich or laid. Normal this ain’t. Mastering many of these pursuits — in particular theology, canon law, and liturgy — demands a degree of detail orientation that falls somewhere between fussiness and obsession. This is a space where geeks tend to gather. Of course, not all geeks are weirdos; nor are all weirdos geeks. But there’s enough overlap that I feel less of a marked man among liturgists than I would in the company, say, of investment bankers.
I’ve heard that certain Russian Orthodox mendicants used to style themselves yurodivye, or fools in Christ. I won’t pretend to understand the requirements of the role very well, but I think the basic idea was for a person of normal intelligence to scorn the world’s expectations by acting as though he suffered from some developmental disability. Maybe no similar tradition exists in the Western Church, but I’d bet that the examples of canonized goofballs like Ss. Francis and Joan of Arc, together with good, old-fashioned charity, encourage Catholics to read a positive spin into quirky behavior.
On Holy Saturday, the year I was serving as an RCIA sponsor, I woke up late. That Lent, i’d sworn off booze, and indulging for the first time in six weeks, at the end of a day of fasting, had knocked me flatter than an Escalade squashes a jackrabbit. Remembering I was supposed to join the candidates and other sponsors for a morning retreat, I drove hell for leather to the Montessori school where the retreat was being held. Anxious as I was, I walked through the wrong door, tripping the alarm.
But I noticed this only later. As soon as I passed through the school into the grassy, tree-shaded playground where the retreatants were waiting, my attention was diverted by a tortoise penned up with a bowl of water and a plate of lettuce. The thing was huge, probably ancient, and the sight of it so stunned and absorbed me that I just had to take a knee and murmur a greeting.
My candidate was absolutely tickled. “You’re, like, this…random vector!” he told me, beaming, after I apologized for my tardiness. The word Franciscan, as a descriptor for a personality type that combines a fascination for animals with a general flakiness, had not yet entered his vocabulary. But I got the impression that if it had, he’d have used it on me.
Anyway, one thing the Church definitely does offer us flakes is material with which to construct a rich inner life — about as good a substitute for upward mobility as any. Arriving at the office for my interview, I was greeted by one of the veteran writers, a pale blonde wearing Spanx leggings either despite or because of the advanced state of her pregnancy. Straight off, in my mind, I painted her in red, flanked by Magi. As associations go, that’s got to rank a notch above “Hey, it’s Gwynneth Paltrow!”