Thoughts on Dislocation
I spent the weekend walking the streets of New York with an out-of-town friend who had a surprising affliction: tall buildings gave him vertigo. This being New York, we were obliged to walk from one place to another much of the time, and you could see how it exhausted him. His face became fixed in a grim look of concentration. He asked to walk on the inside, near a single building, rather than out toward the street where you could see them all. He kept his eye on his feet, and actually asked if he could carry my computer bag—which, loaded with books and everything else, was probably twenty pounds. He told me it grounded him.
I’m less concerned with the diagnosis of my friends’ vertigo—is it psychological or some quirk in his inner ear—than I am with the curious fact that he is also, by temperament, one of the most big-city people I know. He would thrive in New York, at least in part because it’s home to both musicology research and to a still-around goth scene, both of which are part of his dissertation. You’d be hard pressed to imagine any small town, or even a middle-sized burg with low-slung buildings, that would be apt to meet his needs better. And yet he has vertigo too. He’s kind of screwed.
This is only the most recent example of something I’ve been fascinated by for years: the ways in which we seem dependent on our environments for our happiness, and the ways in which something inside us seems to act independently of wherever we actually are. I don’t just mean people with Seasonal Affective Disorder who can only be happy in sunny climes and for whom Seattle could be the equivalent of a death sentence. Nor do I mean even more obvious things like how working in a noisy factory will make you become an irritable bastard, and getting a promotion to a cubicle instead could actually save an employee’s entire family. I’m talking about the truly weird stuff.
I got started thinking about this because of a video that’s been making the rounds lately: an NPR interview with two families, both of whom are dealing very differently with the fact that their child feels like the wrong gender. It’s challenging to both the traditional left and the traditional right: the right because they tend to believe (with religious binding) that gender is uniform and that falling from the gender of your birth is a sin and if it’s not your fault, it’s certainly your parents or someone nearby who needs a lesson. It’s not a morally neutral belief. And on the left, the fact that a person’s—even a kid’s—body can be the wrong gender for his or her mind strikes a knee-cracking blow to the idea that gender is a mere social construct. Boys who feel like girls will genuinely enjoy dressing up and playing with dolls. Girls who feel like boys won’t. Granted that there’s a bunch of flexibility either way—I speak as a guy who hates sports and prefers to hang around bookstores (70% women in there) –it’s funny that the total break, the kind of disconnect that leads to gender reassignment later in life, expresses itself in stereotypes. To be a regular boy is to play sports AND house without necessarily being scarred. To be the wrong gender is to be a boy who finds even boy clothing completely intolerable.
On a core level, I think it’s natural for those of us who inhabit our own sex unproblematically to find this utterly baffling, and to assume there’s insanity at its core, no matter how polite or sensible this gender-ambiguous citizen might be in all the important respects. Those of us who wake up male and not only do it easily, but find it as part of our core identity, will only naturally wonder how anyone can find this difficult at all. There must be something horribly wrong with them, like a hormone deficiency or a tendency toward depression. Gender reassignment, some say, might be exactly the wrong solution, like building the tumor a breakfast nook.
But I have family experience that speaks otherwise. Not in the area of gender, but in the area of mental perversity. My twin brother spent his late teens and early twenties basically at sea. He had never found anything he was particularly interested in, and had never developed a passion that could eventuate in a job-related skill. And then, one day, while he was living in a trailer with my dad and working unhappily in the call center of a major software company, a call came down: would someone like to help out on a project that would improve the script program? My brother, who had been frustrated with the script (that’s the flow chart that call center people follow so that they know what to say even when they don’t understand your problem), volunteered. It was written in a relatively simple text language, and my brother learned it...and discovered that he really liked it. Over the course of the next few months, he taught himself three computer languages, and he’s now a programmer at this same company, promoted several times over.
It’s a story that makes me very happy, but I’ve always wondered: What if my brother had been born before there were computers? What the hell would he have done?
Similarly, I have a nephew—the son of my sister—who, like many boys, has an obsession with trains. Even when he was two, my sister reports, just seeing a toy train made his eyes goggle, his jaws drop, his posture intensify. And I’ve always thought, What is it about boys and trains? Because it’s such a crying shame: all these boys growing up with toy trains, dreaming someday of being a conductor, and yet the Age of Rail is well behind us. Will boys still dream of toy trains even when we teleport things everywhere? And what happened to all the boys in the past who had (presumably) the same brains to see the world with? Did they get really excited about windlasses and catapults? Or did the train gene just lie there, a dormant racial obsession waiting to be uncorked in the fullness of time? And for that matter, if there really is a tendency for little girls to obsess about horses (the way little boys often go for sharks and dinosaurs), how is this expressed in cultures where there aren’t any horses? Do Bedouin girls draw camels flying through rainbows? Do Indian girls beg their daddies for My Little Elephant? Or is it just a potential obsession that has to wait until the girl sees her first DVD of National Velvet?
My own temptation is to say that we have obsession-shaped brains, and that if there aren’t any horses around, some other nearby quadruped will fill in that imaginative biome’s niche. But then there really are cases of people who feel, not unmoored in time, or unmoored in gender, but unmoored in culture. Eric Weiner, in The Geography of Bliss, discusses this in one of his book’s many fascinating asides. Over and over again in his travels he meets Americans who have felt a spiritual kinship with some other culture instead—people who just GET Finland, white folks who FEEL spiritually Malaysian. I roomed for several years with a big white guy who was the most Hawai’ian person I’ve ever met. And I’ve certainly met folks from India and even Canada who vastly prefer American and think, act, and live like Americans. It happens. And when these people finally find the culture they’re at ease in, it must be unspeakably liberating, sending waves of calm sanity to clean up even tiny corners that have gone unnoticed for years. If they’d never traveled, the idea that their home could be different and better might never have occurred to them. This type of raisin in the sun doesn’t explode, it turns out, nor does it die; it just waits quietly for a change in the weather.
And so I wonder about the conventional Taoist-or-possibly-Epicurean wisdom that says, “Happiness is being content wherever you are, with whatever you have.” Good advice for a man trapped not only in a woman’s body, but in the seventeenth century (with its pre-Mayo medicine of leeches and imbalanced humours.) But by modern standards it feels a bit like capitulation. Is the Buddhist supposed to be happy with a cold, and not even reach for so much as a tissue? The Serenity Prayer seems a better guide here: if I can make a lasting change for the happier, I should at least give it a shot. And the more modern we get, the more changes we can realize. Today we really can change someone’s gender—not perfectly, perhaps (by one account I’ve read, men-to-women transsexuals get pretty lame vaginas), but certainly to a higher degree than was ever possible in history. Back a few hundred years ago, the same gender-unhappy person could hardly have even raised the money to move to a more enlightened town. The Armenian who was spiritually Malaysian would have probably had to content herself with books and the occasional knickknack; women haven’t always been free to move.
Which leads me to time travel. By far the people who seem the most pitiable, to my mind, are the ones who really do seem to be in the wrong century. I know a puzzle colleague whose favorite pastimes are writing madrigals and constructing French court verse, and who pines for the time when opera—a provably superior type of music—was also the popular art form of the day. There’s no money in either one of the first two these days (so what a shame that it used to be a profitable gig), and no chance in hell that modern pop culture, which lets any musically ignorant knucklehead vote for America’s next Idol, will suddenly embrace opera again. Whole swaths of lovely creative people I know would have been much happier in the 1930s and 1940s, when Ogden Nash really could make a living writing silly poems, and comics pages were constantly expanding, and ran in magnificent sizes. You can change your gender, and your country, and your job these days; but you really can’t turn back the clock.
And yet, I have some hope that in some possible future, virtual reality will really become so real that we can maybe fix some of this. There really are cartoonists who, in the absence of print venues, have turned their cartoons into online sources of profit. (The author of xkcd probably wouldn’t have been picked up by any syndicate, even in the newspapers’ heyday.) Because the small coterie of cartoon fans—the other folks, unstuck from the cartoon-hating world of the majority we live in—can find each other instantly, and send money with just a click or a tap. For at least the big common unmoorings from conventional life—like homosexuality or fundamentalist Christianity—we already have completely distinct online communities that allow people who are otherwise trapped by circumstance (of money, of geography) to find one another. And some people who play World of Warcraft (for one) have managed to turn their love of the game into real world money, by playing to obtain objects that they can then sell on eBay to people with lots of money but insufficient skill or patience.
So maybe someday my friend will be able to log onto a virtual New York City—one peopled entirely by the inhabitants of Little Gothtown—and he can meet other musicologists, and get actual gigs and conduct actual research—in a virtual city that will never cause him to get dizzy. I know it’s conventional to worry about the encroachment of the virtual upon the real. But the more I think about the ways in which all of us are sort of at odds with our environments—is anyone REALLY happy in an office job for all eight hours?—it seems like cause for joy. We are living in a world that’s practically inventing a thousand new ways to be happy. At least a few of them are bound to stick.
(By the way, this was another train essay, 2000 words written en route from Grand Central Station to Poughkeepsie. I hope it tides folks over, because as I mentioned in my last post, it may be a few days before I’m able to post so much as a smiley.)
(P. P.S. Sorry for the lack of editing or links, but I only have four minutes of battery life left.)