EINSTEIN: The lake was as smooth as a sheet of glass. Not a breeze stirred. Who would take their sailboat out with nary a breeze to stir a nostril hair? Einstein. He said, “I like the challenge.” I would suppose that’s how new solutions unveil themselves to attentive minds. An attentive mind he surely had. Einstein didn’t utter a spoken word the first four years of his life until suddenly during dinner he broke the silence and declared to everyone’s surprise, “This soup is too hot!” Someone at the table asked why he hadn’t spoken before. He replied logically, “Because up to now, everything was in order.” For all his brilliance, he grew into an adult that had no use for cars. He never drove one. He walked or rode a bike. He loved walks and on one of them was once observed picking up a grasshopper, popping it in his mouth and eating it. A peaceful man, Einstein loved bird watching and was himself a rare bird indeed. Music lulled him; brought him to tears. He was a man of great accomplishments who hated the paparazzi; often sticking out his tongue to ruin pictures. It’s perhaps because of his dyslexia that he was pulled out of school early and was plagued by insecurities his whole life or maybe we can blame his mother who would often say to him, “Albert my dummy…”
NICOLA TESLA: He developed radio, did early X-ray experiments, held 278 patents, and laid the groundwork for the AC generator. Tesla had photographic memory and eidetic memory ( total recall of images, sounds and objects.) He also had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It got so bad that he couldn’t touch jewelry. He couldn’t touch round things. Imagine how he must have cringed at the sight of pearl necklaces! Now that would’ve been a double whammy! Every day he flexed his toes 100 times. He had this odd fixation for walking around a block exactly three times before entering a building. So what did he especially like? Well, he was a loner who never married, unlike Einstein who by comparison was a virtual Casanova, a real ladies man! But Tesla was drawn to pigeons. He really, really, liked them; especially white ones… Tesla liked numbers. Numbers divisible by three. For example he liked 18 napkins to polish his silver; no more or less. It’s said that Tesla “cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene.” Wow, he was a serious, stinky, brilliant sort of fella’, wasn’t he? They say he was born during a rip roaring lightning storm. Maybe that was all the excitement he could take for one lifetime.
LEONARDI DA VINCI: He drew up blueprints for the armored car, the helicopter, cannon, machine gun, parachute (before the airplane even existed!) robots, and other modern inventions and this is in the 15th and 16th centuries. He was a master painter, architect, engineer, sculptor, scientist, musician, anatomist, (he dug up corpses and studied them) geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. How is this possible? It seems superhuman. In a way he was. He slept just 20-30 minutes every two hours. This is called polyphasic sleep. Many animals do this. DaVinci said it helped with “brainstorming” and “vivid dreaming.” DaVinci wrote backwards more oft than not, also known as “mirror writing.” He actually was a left-handed dyslexic, which may or may not have something to do with his backwards writing. Paper was hard to come by back then and DaVinci is known for cramming in every available niche and cranny of the paper with drawings and mirror writings. Some people believe this ‘backwards writing’ of his was done to keep his thoughts secret. Because he lived so long ago there can only be speculation as to what made him tick. We do know some things for sure; although not too much personal information was recorded. We know he had trouble finishing projects. He was a big time perfectionist: he took ten years to finish Mona Lisa’s lips! Apparently DaVinci was not only talented, but a man of great character too. You see, he was known for his love of purchasing caged birds. So he could set them free.
THOMAS EDISON: He was born with a rather larger head compared to his peers. He was described as “hyper” in the classroom, so much so that he was withdrawn from school and homeschooled by his mother who insisted he wasn’t “scrambled and addled” as they said he was but rather, he was big-headed because he had promise! He went on to invent the telegraph, the battery for an electric car, the light bulb, the principles of mass production, the phonograph, the motion picture camera and many other inventions (he held around 1,093 patents). He was working on a “spirit phone” to allow communication with the dead, which he never got to finish before his death. I can’t help but think of the popular ghost hunting shows of today that use EVP recorders (electronic voice recorders) to capture ghost voices. Was Edison onto this in 1920? Edison the inventor was interesting. What about Edison the human being? Like DaVinci, he too believed in power naps. Edison liked to snooze upright in armchairs with marbles stacked by his elbows. Apparently he’d inevitably shift in his sleep, the marbles would hit the floor; make a racket and wake him up. We all know the longstanding intimate relationship and subsequent offspring Edison had with his slave Sally Hemings. Sadly it was commonplace then. I’m appalled that Edison electrocuted dogs in his experiments but these things aren’t for me to judge. What sustained the man who gave us the light bulb? It is said that the only liquid Edison would drink was a pint of milk every three hours. His wife Mina is quoted as saying this about him in an interview: “Correct eating is one of his greatest hobbies.” This statement is all the more interesting given the fact that Edison died of complications from diabetes. By the way, if you’re up for some sight-seeing, Edison’s last breath is reportedly contained in a test tube at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan. Wanna’ go there and see it? (I’m passing.)
BOBBY FISCHER: Fully consumed with and by chess. He “beat the Russians” in 1972! Bobby is gone from us now but in his day, he was the eleventh World Chess Champion and a best-selling chess author. He modified chess timing systems and proposed a new variant of chess. A chess legend, he won eight U. S. Championships from the time he was 14 yrs. old. He then became the youngest candidate of the U. S. Championships and the youngest Grandmaster. Bobby fixated on the types of chairs he sat on in tournaments. This is no joke. If these demands weren’t met, he would not play. And millions of dollars were on the line here. Fischer had to drop out of school as it limited his playing time. Fischer was labeled “eccentric,” a “mere computer,” and “Robot Boy,” among other things. He was sensitive to the lighting at tournaments and argued over the TV cameras, especially when he felt they were too close. Some people called this “psychological warfare” and others called this “mental illness.” After Fischer totally obliterated one tough opponent, the losing opponent was quoted as saying, “Well, I still have my music.” Bobby Fischer’s I.Q. was extremely high. It was in the “Super Genius” range of 180 (only 1% of all people have an I.Q. of 135 or higher) When he wasn’t playing chess, Fischer was stirring things up. He wrote an entire book defending the authenticity of several crude photographs of tiny winged fairies taken by two little girls. Fischer has been described as a loner; angry, profane and demanding to the degree that one of his games ended up being played in an isolated room the size of a janitor’s closet (a game he won). Imagine that: getting the paparazzi to not only back off; but getting his demands met and playing his tournament his way; in essentially a broom closet. At the end of his life, Fischer’s beard was long and his teeth were not the best. Fisher had a low opinion of doctors and dentists. He had all the metal fillings in his teeth removed because he thought radiation from them was injuring his health, or perhaps American or Russian enemies were causing the harmful radiation from his molars. Fischer seldom changed his clothes or removed his baseball cap. After his death in 2008 at age sixty-four, he was buried late one night near a tiny church in Iceland. A brief, shabby funeral was attended by a Catholic priest he had never known.
CHARLES DICKENS: He’s endured because we can’t forget his characters. He was the bomb of the Victorian era! He also couldn’t pass by a mirror without combing his hair and liked to practice hypnotism on his wife and children to “cure” them of their ailments. Incidentally, he called one of his kids “chickenstalker” and one of them “skittles.” So apparently he liked nicknames. He referred to himself as ‘The Sparkler of Albion’ (Albion is an archaic name for England). He also had a thing about due North. He had to sleep facing North. That is to say when he managed to sleep, because he suffered from insomnia. His writing desk was positioned facing north and he carried a compass around to keep track of where North was at all times. I’m not sure of any documented ailments this guy had other than the insomnia (although he is known to have had epilepsy and in fact many of his fictional characters did as well) although OCD is a safe bet! He apparently liked to touch everything three times for ‘good luck.’ He had a sense of humor though. He liked to entertain people as an amateur magician. Dickens had a secret door in his study lined with fake books. I wonder what was behind it. Sounds like a whimsical guy. When Dickens’ favorite cat Bob died, he had one of his claws made into a letter opener. Hmmmm. In closing, I just want to say, wherever you are Charles; thanks for Scrooge. A character almost as colorful as you are.
VINCENT VAN GOGH: Temporal lobe epilepsy? Brain lesions caused by prolonged use of absinthe (a popular but toxic alcoholic drink at the time)? Digitalis used to treat epilepsy which caused him to see yellow spots as a side effect? One of the reasons he loved this color? Lead poisoning? This can cause swelling of the retinas and cause someone to see halos around lights or objects. Think Starry Night. Van Gogh often drank kerosene and ate his paint. He nibbled at paint chips. Aspergers? Schizophrenia? Depression? Bipolar? Something else? Was it mania that compelled him to cut off his ear? Let’s agree on one thing: his genius and legacy. One thing we know is he had hypergraphia, the need to write. He wrote over 800 letters in his lifetime. I wonder what the need to paint is called. The paint was not even dry on his last painting “Crows Over a Wheatfield” as he lay dying from a self inflicted gunshot wound. Your paintings are sad but the colors are happy. You never sold a single one in your lifetime. Peace, Vincent.
PICASSO: Co-founder of the Cubist movement, infamous womanizer, and art socialite. His work looks simple. It’s strange. Distorted. Somehow appealing. To some people his creations look “warped and deformed” while others say he “transformed” them. “Reality must be torn apart!” he is quoted as saying. Interestingly, like Einstein, Picasso never drove a car, although he appreciated “powerful” ones. Art drove him continuously. Even when taking a rest or pausing to entertain his daughter, Picasso could not help creating art. “All day long while he worked, he smoked,” says his daughter. “The cigarettes came in little cardboard cartons and whenever he finished a packet, which was three or four times a day, he’d cut it up to make me a doll or a finger puppet or scribble a pencil drawing on it. He couldn’t stop himself.”
W.H.AUDEN: This brilliant writer was a conundrum of sorts. He managed to win a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and lived by an exacting timetable of early rising and precise order. Said Auden, ” “A modern stoic,” knows that the surest way to discipline passion is to discipline time: decide what you want or ought to do during the day, then always do it at exactly the same moment every day, and passion will give you no trouble.” He lived life according to a relentless timetable; eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival – all were timed to the minute. What did his schedule look like in part? A Benzedrine in the morning, which he called the “labor saving devices” of his “mental kitchen.” Coffee and tobacco throughout the day and work of course (writing). Cocktail “hour” at 6:30 p.m. sharp. Copious amounts of vodka martinis. Followed by wine. Seconal for sleep. He called this lifestyle “the chemical life” which he kept up for twenty years. He died in 1973. I shall read his chemical fueled writing with new insight!
KIM PEEK: He was the “real” Rain Man. Or I should say, the inspiration for the Dustin Hoffman film. When he was born, he had an enlarged head, with an encephalocele, according to his doctors. An MRI shows, again according to his doctors, an absent corpus callosum — the connecting tissue between the left and right hemispheres; no anterior commissure and damage to the cerebellum. Only a thin layer of skull covers the area of the previous encephalocele. I don’t know what all that means. I do know that Peek’s father was told his son should be institutionalized, probably based on the fact that Peek had trouble with things like dressing and brushing his hair; making eye contact and the like. At age 16-20 months young Kim Peek was able to memorize every book that was read to him. He is considered a savant mnemonist. His brain was making unusual connections. He could simultaneously read both pages of an open book. He retained 98 percent of what he read. He could provide driving directions between any two places in the world. Most of his days were spent in the library, just absorbing books. He read (and retain and totally recall forever) two pages in ten seconds. During the performance of a Shakespeare play, Kim Peek suddenly stood up and shouted out “Stop!” When an actor asked him what was wrong, he said: “You’ve missed out a word from that line.” The actor apologized and said he did not think anyone would mind. “Shakespeare would,” Peek replied. Peek was a human being who inspired people to rethink preformed opinions; he developed a wry sense of humor, had a knack for ingenious puns, was a unique and stellar wordsmith. Said Hoffman when he and Peek parted company, “I may be the star, but you are the heavens.”
Before you judge, know this: genius and strangeness often go hand in hand. Be open minded!