Herb told me once that he wanted all descriptions of him to include references to the season and weather of the day being recounted. “I’m part of my environment,” he said. “I want to be a line in a haiku–not the elementary school exercise of counting syllables, but the real deal.” By “real deal” I took him to mean traditional and Japanese. I clearly remember a dry sunny day in June when he referred to himself as Senor Senryu (Haiku without seasonal reference)and began lecturing me about Americans being too caught up with counting to capture the essence of certain types of Eastern poetry. At any rate, Herb considered himself connected to everything around him, including the temperature.
Sometimes the connection was positive, mentioning on a particularly warm windless evening that he and the world were at rest together. Windy days would result in more negative comments like “my thoughts are being blown into each other, and I want to get out.” The most perplexing, the most Herb-like, reaction to the weather I can recall took place on an eerie day in January. The temperature plunged in a short period of time from an unusually mild 60 degrees to 20. The air felt as if some of it had fled south in fear. Purple-greens overtook the sky. On that day, Herb told me he was a platypus.
If you want to know exactly what he said, here it is: “I’m a platypus.” There you go.
Herb had a fleshy nose, but I wouldn’t describe it as platypus-like. Over the next hour or so, I pieced together what I think he was alluding to. The platypus stands out as strange in the animal kingdom, not so much for how unusual or inside-out it appears, but how it yokes together unlike parts. It captures our imagination as an impractical conglomeration of duck and beaver, mammal and bird, swimming, walking on land, looking all furry yet laying eggs. It is a creature seemingly invented by the ancient Romans or Persians, an addition to their mythical world of half-lion and bird-headed gods.
“I fit nowhere and fit everywhere,” Herb said. “I’m an odd duck, and the oddest of all ducks is a platypus. I’ve picked up parts from all sorts of pieces. I don’t like to stick to the same stores for information or philosophy.”
“That makes sense,” I said. Herb hated nothing more than when I used that expression. He took it as a personal affront. His purpose was never to say something that settled so readily into someone’s head so it could “make sense”–at least right away.
He took the conversation and platypus purport a different direction, perhaps as a counter-punch to my unfortunate statement. “You know, if you want insight into how something like the platypus evolved, take a look at liquor laws.” I didn’t pretend what he said made sense. That seemed to please the old man. He walked into his little kitchen and reappeared with two jelly glasses of bourbon.
“Ah, liquor,” he said. “The magic of the internal hum.” After observations about taste, quality, and the amount of yeast killed from neglect, Herb finally said something about laws. “If you want to find the strangest, least consistent and cohesive laws, look to liquor. You can buy such and such at this time or that, get something at this particular place but not that one, get it cold beer at noon in grocery stores but non-refrigerated only at smaller stores, and not at all on odd Saturdays. Talk to a bar owner and ask about the laws they are supposed to obey. They tell you how much you can serve, what price you can sell it for, and what constitutes serving. So, if you set up some drinks on a table in the back, you need a separate license. Nothing makes sense.”
All I could say is “uhuh” or something guttural, which was good, because it kept him talking. He asked me if I knew why the liquor laws were so strange, and before I could venture a guess, he told me it was because of cross purposes over time. “You’ve got this religious group influencing one part of the law, and then they lose power so part of it changes. Not all of it–since it is hard to change a restriction into a free-choice without looking like a supporter of the choice some don’t like. Then another group comes along and gets part of it changed to benefit themselves financially. Moral folks, greedy folks–the usual sorts that want laws to control what the rest are able to do.
“And over time, little bits stay, little bits are added, and what exists isn’t the result of a master planner, but just contradictory purposes and minor changes over time. You end up with platypus sort of laws. That’s how evolution works for some. In other cases, the purposes remain about the same, and the conditions only change a little, so the result doesn’t look much different than its ancestor.
“I’m the result of all sorts of contradictory purposes, and over time, I too have become a platypus.” He drank deeply, and then advised me to consider finding an environment that would force me to grow a bill.
“Of course, I might be wrong about a bill being good for you,” he concluded.