The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.
- Name: Cowboy Dave Dickerson
- Location: New York, New York, United States
I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!
Monday, June 30, 2008
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Favorite Sentence I've Written Today
I understand the urge to make fun of greeting cards. Greeting card writers do it all the time, since after all, having to write greeting cards is sometimes one of the unpleasant aspects of the job.
Answers to the Greeting Card Theme Code Quiz
Netflix Wants Me to Suffer
"Because you liked Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling For Columbine, we think you'll like Dan Rather Reports.
Dan Rather Reports
Starring: Dan Rather
Customer Average: 2.0 stars
Our best guess for David: 1.4 stars"
Note to Netflix programmers: before you send out a Recommendation, send the Recommendation over to the Best Guess's house and let them chat a bit. Thanks.
Labels: humor and whimsy
Isssn't it ju t the way?
I'm ready to finissssh my book in one more day,
And my Sssssssss key
uddenly turnsss pe ky.
(In other news: 130,000 words! I'll be done with the cleaned-up draft tomorrow. Then maybe I'll answer those quiz questions and go see Wall-E.)
Saturday, June 28, 2008
This American Life Update
Also, I'm on the last chapter or so of the book, so I'll soon be free to blog more frequently again.
I don't think, however, I'll be getting my money in time to make it to the National Puzzlers League Convention, alas. Expect to see me at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament instead.
Labels: Dave Update
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Another This American Life Appearance Pending
I have printed out the book and am fixing it up both nicely and quickly. One quarter of the book is in pretty much final shape (give or take minor fact-checking), so I'm now predicting completion in six days or so--comfortably ahead of schedule.
Friday, June 20, 2008
A Dave Fun Quiz: Greeting Card Theme Codes
Greeting cards are organized by "theme codes" (or were, back in the fin de siecle). They were normally four letters long, and were supposed to tell you the general overall point of any given sentiment. Sometimes they were about the punchline (GGAG stood for "gift gag"--a joke where you promise a gift on the outside, and there's some twist when you open the card), but mostly they were designed for serious cards (such as SELD, for "seldom say"--"I love you all the time, even though I only buy you cards on our anniversary." Very popular in male captions.)
Here are ten greeting card sentiment theme codes. Can you suss out what they stand for?
5. TOY or THOY
6. QLIF or QLIFE
Answers later. I'm a little busy right now.
(Greeting card people who participate will, of course, face a much steeper grading curve. Even if you worked at American Greetings and not Hallmark, I still assume you know Hallmark's theme codes. After all, American Greetings copied everything else...)
UPDATE: I've posted the answers here.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Bar Napkin Cartoon 58
(Had to buy a new printer-scanner, and found this never-published Bar Napkin Cartoon on the old scanner I was tossing. And it was on an actual bar napkin! Click to enlarge and see how that works.)
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Overheard on Religious Radio
The subject was a discussion of Revelation 11:14, and whether Harold Camping sees that as talking about an eternal hell or if it can be part of an annihilationist interpretation. Camping is apparently an annihiliationist (no hell; at the end of time, bad people are just extinguished rather than tortured), but that's not even the point. He said--in passing mind you--the following sentence:
"This verse is talking about October 21st, 2011, when heaven and earth will both pass away..."
My suggestion: find out who listens to "Open Forum," and buy their houses. I think you'll find them motivated to sell.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Words Younger Than John McCain
So here, for your enjoyment, is a partial list of words that entered written English after 1936 (McCain's birth year) and before 1940. These concepts all had to be invented after he was born. (And, to be fair, after my dad was, too. My dad would make a fine President.)
WORDS YOUNGER THAN JOHN MCCAIN
two cents (as in “put my two cents in”)
UPDATE: Hey, I just got linked to the Official Site! I feel so honored! Go visit today!
LATER UPDATE: I just found out that apparently many of Merriam-Webster's dates are flawed. Damn. For now, though, and until they have a coolly searchable OED, I'm standing by my collegiate, quomodocumquizing be damned.
Whitey No More
27 Dresses (Review)
27 Dresses (2008; three stars [out of five])
A likable romantic comedy that feels like it was only one rewrite away from greatness. On the plus side, Heigl and Marsden are terrific, and, as romantic comedy plots go, the goings-on here are mostly plausible and the characters are full human beings. What a relief!
The bad moments come mostly when characters are forced to do generic comedy relief of a broader sort--Heigl yelling the "F" word and discovering she's standing in front of an anniversary party; Heigl falling after a dramatic (and totally uncalled-for) leap off a dock onto a boat; a recurring reference to "Benny and the Jets" that is forced to mean more than it probably should. All of these moments feel artificial, and the movie isn't quite comfortable with them.
Chief culprit here is Malin Akerman as Heigl's head-turning model sister, who is not only simply unbelievable (she's too short to be a model and, though pretty, is hardly plausible competition for the otherworldly Heigl), but is saddled with the most cartoonish character traits: saying "Hola, Paco!" to a Hispanic kid who has just spoken Brooklyn English to her face; not knowing what "shagging flies" means at a baseball game, and worse. How any sane businessman like Ed Burns could fall for her act beggars the imagination, and when this same ditz turns out to be the voice of mature reason--for one climactic paragraph and never again--it rings unusually hollow.
But the main story is smart, the premise is lovely, and if you like weddings, the 27 dresses are hysterically bad. Not a bad date movie all around, and I've got my fingers crossed that Heigl and Marsden will both do better next time around. In the meantime, I crossed my fingers all the way through, and basically I feel like my brain survived.
Labels: movies and TV
Monday, June 16, 2008
Stray Thought That Amused Me
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Soccergirl and Ryan P., or Why College Towns are Great
(Above: some guy I don't know, Soccergirl, and Ryan P., at a podcasting/new media con in 2006.)
I've been doing a surprising amount of my writing at The Black Swan in Tivoli. I'm not sure why it works, but I've been able to write up to 1,000 words an hour in the deafening clamor there after spending an unproductive day all by myself in the peaceful and distractionless environment of a country cabin. But sometimes I get to Tivoli a little early, so the other day I found myself at a restaurant called Santa Fe, and I started chatting up the bartender/server.
I mentioned that I was a writer, and she said, "I'm a writer too." Turns out she's famous! Not as a writer (yet) but as a podcaster. She's "Soccergirl" of Soccergirl Incorporated and--does it get sexier than this?--she's a pioneering figure; one of the first women to actually make a living by podcasting a solo show. (Sure enough, if you download some of her podcasts, you see actual advertisements for BBC America. Hott!) We just wound up talking and talking, and--long story short--I had dinner a few nights ago with her and Ryan P., her partner of six years. And it turns out Ryan is ALSO funny and brilliant and great company.
Just when I'd written off this part of the country as tedious and backwoodsy, and was just marking my time until my escape, along comes this pair of great people, and all of a sudden I have someone to celebrate reaching 100,000 words with. I expressed wonder at this, and Soccergirl pointed out, "Well we are right near Bard College. So actually, there are lots of smart fun people here." I keep underestimating the Hinterlands. College towns are great.
Oh, and you know what else? Because it's a college town, The Black Swan is open until FOUR. They don't even do that in Chicago. And it's very useful for folks like me if I've had, say, a slow start and haven't begun writing until 8 or 9. I still get many hours in and, therefore, a happy ending just in time for bed.
Anyway, I just had to share the following fact. Ryan P. told me that his favorite word, which he came across in the OED, is "quomodocumquise" (or, presumably, quomodocumquize in America), which means "to make money any way one can." Unfortunately I haven't been able to confirm this word myself (I'm away from all my references), but if he's represented it properly, I am totally writing a vocabulary poem on it, even though it violates my general "New International Second Edition only" principle.
No, I don't know why they're not National Puzzlers League members. Ryan is even a library sciences grad student, which is practically a prerequisite. I'm working on it.
AFTERNOTE: This reminds me of a story. One day during grad school while I was feeling really stuck and alone in Tallahassee, and in an arrogant mood, I said to a friend of mine, "I just feel like I should be in a big city or something. I mean, what are the odds I'll meet my match in a little town like Tallahassee?" And she said, "Well, you're here..." Touche. I should stop being judgy.
(P.S. I've got a storytelling gig today that'll take a lot of driving, so I can't get much writing done anyway. This has been a planned one-day hiatus, and with any luck I'll post an actual cartoon or poem or something.)
So I not only passed 100,000, I left it in the dust and kept going for several hours. This is a great thing, because it all but guarantees that the editing of my book will be a function of the relatively swift process of cutting, rather than the longer process of beefing up what's lacking. I suspect I'll be over 125,000 before I'm through with the submission version of the manuscript.
Ever since I've become obsessed with word-counting and time-keeping, I can't help but notice another thing: I was at 83,292 words at the end of Monday. So I've written 20,000 words in four days. If I can sustain this speed--and I have to say, I'm finding it exhilarating--then I could, in theory, write a 100,000 word novel in a single month, and still take time off on weekends.
This seems superhuman, so I'm hoping there's something wrong with my math. Because honestly, the writing itself doesn't suck, so I'm sure it's not that. (It's probably not optimally thought out at this speed, but I still keep coming up with phrases I like and jokes that startle me happily.) All I know is, if my agent is right and the market can't absorb more than one book from a single author every two years, I might have to take on one or two pseudonyms to market fiction under. Any suggestions? I like Thursday Cox, for a very silly puzzlemaker's reason that maybe someone can suss out on their own. Bear in mind I'm writing this at 3 a.m. Whew!
Friday, June 13, 2008
Another Simple Dave Fun Quiz
Yesterday I was listening to a particular Greatest Hits CD, and I noticed that this performer-or-band had an interesting quality: The performer-or-band's name, as well as three of the tracks on the album, consisted of only two or three letters, often repeated many times. [Hint: One of the songs was NOT "I Me Mine" (4 letters) or "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm," (1 letter) even though both titles have a similarly small number of letters in them.]
What performer-or-band, and which songs, was I listening to?
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Quick Status Update
1.) I received the contract in the mail on Monday, signed it and returned it. So my freedom to leave here will arrive in a few weeks! Presumably shortly after I finish the book.
2.) The book itself is proceeding just swimmingly. I have only four chapters to write now (out of 24) and the rough draft of the book is already 85,000 words. It looks like I'll be finished on or about the 18th, which should give me two weeks to go over everything with polish. Perfect timing.
3.) The show "The Ten Commandments" just reran this past weekend on This American Life, and it looks like a theme is developing: every time I appear on This American Life, I get three fan emails. If this keeps up, before you know it, I'll have, like, 33 new fans. Not bad, especially since I think at least some of them are superdelegates.
4.) There was a fascinating post and discussion (linked to from Andrew Sullivan) about what an atheist religious service might look like. I have some definite thoughts about this, but--alas--no time to write them now, what with the pending book and all. But when I come back, boy howdy. Prepare for an essay!
Gotta go finish more writing now.
Labels: Dave Update
Sunday, June 08, 2008
7,351 Words, and a Dave Fun Quiz
Here's the Question: Which of these words doesn't belong, etymologically?
As usual, the answer is in Comments.
P.S. I now know how to get the maximum writing done. 1.) remove the wi-fi card (duh), and 2.) start writing first thing in the morning. You can exercise later, after the first two or three thousand words.
Thursday, June 05, 2008
A Temporary Blackout Planned
The other news: I have to finish my book by July 1st. That's in the contract.
I was already planning to do this, and was on schedule to finish in another two weeks. But something about the fact that it's now here, in contract form, with money in the balance, makes me as nervous as I felt right before my doctoral defense: I knew I'd pass, I was well ahead of schedule...but I suddenly became hypervigilant about anything going wrong.
Therefore, in order to maximize the attention I have to give to the book in the next two to three weeks, I'm about to rip out my wi-fi card and only use it once every 10,000 words of decent text. That'll be maybe every two or three days. So I probably won't be blogging much (after a day filled with lots of writing, you don't necessarily want to unwind with more writing), and you can expect hiatuses in my email correspondence. So if you really need to contact me, either call me at my new number (email if you don't have it, I guess) or...well, try not to need to contact me in a hurry.
Labels: Dave Update
The Banana Guard. Really.
Here it is. My question: can this possibly be real? And what word could Gmail have seized on to make it think, "someone reading this email will probably want to guard their bananas"? (All the email said was, "I'd like to put together a little mini-meeting of puzzlers in the area, and would you show up?")
Also, how do you know the banana-holder you've designed has a curvature that really is one size fits all? And shouldn't there also be a tomato guard? The more I think about it, the more my brain hurts.
UPDATE: Check out the Testimonials for some rather underwhelming praise. And it turns out that my curvature question is covered in their FAQ. So I guess they're on top of things.
Labels: humor and whimsy
Wednesday, June 04, 2008
We've Got Ourselves a Candidate!
And by the way, check out this bit of analysis from Washington Monthly: apparently, the best person on the VP ticket is Edwards--by a heck of a lot. Even so, I'm still pulling for Sebelius: since we're already being historic, why not let's go for an all-precedent-breaking team! I predict a total whomping of McCain no matter who the veep winds up being.
That being said, Hillary needs to just shut up. I never thought I'd say this, but after tonight's results, where we have a presumptive nominee and a real need for unity, Hillary's non-concession speech which called for further prolonged division, perpetuated the lie about her popular vote count, and refused to acknowledge even an inch of the electoral reality that everyone else has copped to, we're officially not friends anymore. Even if she finds a bit of class later on when it polls better, it's too late. And I hope she stays way the hell out of the cabinet, too.
UPDATE: And now, having said all that, I have to say that Hillary at least gives a great speech, befitting her own historical moment. After watching McCain's clunker of a thing in Louisiana, I'm thinking it's about time Republicans learned a thing or two about rhetoric again. I was in Tucson when McCain came to my high school during his first senate campaign, and I know he can be really magnetic in person. So I hope people don't judge him forever by the speech tonight, because he really can do better. For now, though, every time I want to cringe, I just remember that weak, singsongy refrain, "THAT'S not change we can BELIEVE in?" Retire this meme pronto.
...And Now Mel Ferrer
All I know about him is he's terrific in this film. Scaramouche has Stewart Granger on a quest in Enlightenment-era France to revenge himself on the man who killed his best friend--the incredibly snide Mel Ferrer, who is such a great swordsman that he can kill anyone he duels with, and can therefore dispatch people simply by taking offense at them and demanding satisfaction. On the lam after his friends' murder, Granger becomes a commedia dell'arte performer (Scaramouche--a good choice, since Pantalone doesn't quite have the same adventurous ring) and polishes his swordplay skills by day while performing at night.
Everything about the film works, if you're willing to give it a little slack for being from 1952. The cast is uniformly terrific, with the always-alluring Janet Leigh paired as romantic rival with the stunning Eleanor Parker. Don't know her? Neither did I. A word about that. Eleanor Parker, who never seems to have come into her own as a star, is so gorgeous that, although it's tempting to call her the poor man's Maureen O'Hara--same flaming red hair, same stubborn jaw, and (here) the same tendency to swing pots at her man before he picks her up, kicking and flailing in standard 1950's retro-caveman style--I think she's actually even prettier than Maureen O'Hara...and this film doesn't actually require O'Hara-level acting anyway. She was a really good choice.)
The plot is chock-full of amiable melodrama--mistaken identities, mysterious births, folks leaping off of balconies or galloping like mad--and there really isn't a dull foot of celluloid to be found anywhere. And, as any reference will tell you, it's absolutely famous for its six-minute climactic fencing scene, which has to be seen to be believed. (And don't let that distract you: there are seven duels in the film, and they're all great and all different.)
But for me, what makes the film most fascinating is its obvious influence on that other famously great swordplay movie, The Princess Bride. There are so many parallels it'll make your eyes cross--the guy working to train himself to defeat a great duellist; the battle where the characters talk about strategy while they fight; the way the bad guy stabs his victim in the left and right arms in the beginning, and how this is mirrored in the final battle. Even Mel Ferrer's face seems to have been borrowed by Chris Sarandon in an attempt to work in yet another allusion.
It's not a feminist film, and the humor is at middlebrow 1950's levels, but as a representative of the swashbuckling genre, I'd rank this at the very top, right next to The Mark of Zorro and The Sea Hawk. So find it somewhere tonight and enjoy.
By the way, the next movie in line is 1948's The Three Musketeers, and it looks like everyone in the cast is already dead--Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Gig Young, etc.--with one exception: Angela Lansbury. Let's hope this connection between my Netflix queue and the Entertainment-section morgue notices is just a coincidence. If I wound up killing Angela Lansbury, I'd never forgive myself.
P.S. The DVD of Scaramouche has a little overview of the film given by Mel Ferrer, so that's not a bad bonus in light of today's news. He aged very nicely.
Tuesday, June 03, 2008
Things I Love About New York: The New York Public Library
Since I doubt they were meaning to insult Breakfast at Tiffany's or Ghostbusters, I can only assume they were talking about this film.
Bar Napkin Cartoon 57
Fake Breasts: An Inquiry
In the meantime, I thought I'd open for discussion a fact--or possibly a factoid--that's been diverting me lately. In The Geography of Desire, Eric Weiner talks a lot about the things he's learned about happiness research in the years he's spent studying up for the book. Among these is a fact that I'd read before elsewhere: that a study of recent lottery winners and recent amputees showed that, although their happiness changed temporarily (lottery = up; amputation = down), within a year, both groups of people had reverted to their normal level of happiness. The obvious lesson--and the reason this stat gets quoted a lot--is that happiness is inside you, and your external circumstances won't actually improve your lot in the long term.
So far, so simple. But Weiner adds an additional note: the research, he says, shows only two exceptions to this rule. The first is noise: people who live in, or work in, an oppressively noisy environment NEVER report high happiness until the noise is removed, whether it takes a year or ten. The second--are you sitting down?--is fake breasts. Women who have had breast augmentation really do report increased happiness that doesn't go down even years later. What's more, he notes, this same effect has not been observed for any other kind of plastic surgery: not lipo, not Botox, nothing. Just fake breasts.
I'm trying to wrap my head around this and I haven't quite succeeded. The easiest thing to do would be to simply dismiss the study. It's quite possible that Mr. Weiner made a mistake, or possibly cited as fact a study that's been discredited since. But assuming that he's being honest (which seems the only charitable assumption in the face of his wonderful book), what else might account for this?
Another obvious way to think of it--and the reaction I've often gotten when I've mentioned this at parties--is "those women must be really shallow, and it's such a shame." But I resist this interpretation for the exact same reason I'm assuming the best of Mr. Weiner: it doesn't seem charitable. A LOT of women get boob jobs; it would really be amazing if they were ALL shallow idiots, wouldn't it? I'd like to think better of women in general, no matter what sort of surgery they choose. Any explanation that says "Everyone's stupid except me" smells extremely fishy.
So this leaves the question still open, and I thought I'd ask if anyone has a theory. Not only am I not a woman, but I really don't much like fake breasts (bad ones look like airbags that went off; it's as sexy as fondling a Mylar balloon), and I have, in fact, a historic fondness for incredibly small breasts, as a look at a few of my ex girlfriends would verify. (If I ever date a woman with fake breasts, I'm sure I'll learn to love those too.) So I don't really have a dog in this fight. My hope is that this gives me a helpfully dispassionate perspective, at the cost of some measure of ground-level understanding.
Anyway, my suspicion is that women really are judged by their breasts every single day of their lives, in a way that they're not judged by their faces, their butts, their hair...and in a way that men never get judged at all. And unlike the face and hair, which really can be significantly altered with makeup and styling, breasts are either there or they're not -- at least, when things get to the bedroom. And they contribute to a woman's overall shape at what is basically eye level. And so I suspect--suspect, mind you, and I'm willing to learn differently -- that the breasts a woman develops is sort of like a more extreme version of a man's height: whatever size your genetics endow you with also, in a way, foretells your future. Tall men are generally more successful with women, are generally assumed to be smarter, richer, and endowed with every other positive manly quality. And a woman with larger breasts will (our culture assumes) get the guys, get the jobs with the money, and seem to be more womanly all around.
(I should add, of course, that this is true only up to a point--say, right around a D cup. When you get into double-letter bras, I presume peoples' estimation of your intelligence drops, which is one reason why large-breasted actresses only rarely win Academy Awards. I know at least two women who got breast reduction surgery for this same reason, and they, too, were thrilled with the results even years later.)
The other possibility that occurs to me is that maybe this isn't true of all breasts--maybe it's just something that women with smaller breasts are constantly made acutely aware of. It's impossible to find clothes that fit; you never feel comfortable at the beach, et cetera. One operation would, at a single stroke, remove a dozen daily irritations at once; the breasts that were a barrier to the rest of the world have become instead a helpfully-sized bridge. If this is the case, then it would make sense if the women who got breast enhancement would be unusually happy with the results. If you didn't care, you wouldn't get the surgery in the first place.
Which leads me to another thought: For years now, I've wondered what human culture would have been like if evolution had done something silly like make men's penises grow from their foreheads. Obviously, men would have to cope with their unmentionables being in constant public display, and you'd see men engaging in all the behaviors that women do: stuffing their head-underwear (I've always imagined head-underwear in this fictional scenario, since a world with everyone wearing turbans would be too easy and would spoil the point of the thought experiment), covering their accidental erections with books or hands (just like today!)...and being ready to pay any price for a surgery that would make them at least average, to get that first unfavorable comparison out of the way. (And by the way, surely women in this world would be expected to learn to maintain polite eye contact and not treat guys' foreheads like pieces of meat.)
I guess what I'm suggesting is that perhaps women who get breast implants aren't shallow so much as they are incredibly frustrated: that their opting for surgery says less about them and more about our culture, which has always tended to demand that women be sexy first and whatever else they are second. But I also suspect that our culture itself does this, not necessarily because it's trying to be sexist, but a little more unconsciously, a little more helplessly, because of the evolution that has a.) made breasts sexually desirable, and b.) placed breasts where they are, in plain view of everyone. Men with penis-foreheads would, I imagine, face much the same pressure to conform to beauty standards, and for much the same reason: because although we tell ourselves, and even know for sure from experience, that looks don't matter, our eons-bred instincts leap to judgment anyway if we don't determinedly hold the reins, and it's one of the first things anyone can't help but notice, much like skin color. If we weren't mammals who fed live young from milk, this issue would never even have arisen.
I realize I'm walking into a minefield here, and it's tempting to list my own feminist bonafides in self-defense. But I won't do that, trusting in my optimistic way that I'm just thinking out loud here and don't mean any harm. I've just got this data point that seems quite evocative, and I refuse to believe that women who get implants are all twits; if they really are happier for years afterward, the cost-benefit ratio must be quite intense. I'm just curious to know in what non-shallow place this happiness lives, and what, if anything, we can do to make everyone happier without surgery. Because if lasting happiness is one surgery away, then lasting happiness is only for the wealthy, and I don't want to believe that life itself actually works that way.
As a final note, I just want to say that thinking about this topic has made me think about how exposed women are, by virtue of having breasts, to the world as a whole. Their breasts, which are sexually sensitive and therefore must carry some portion of private sexual identity with them, are compromised in hundreds of little ways: in hugging someone, in getting jostled on the subway, in occasionally being visible due to bad bra design, or a poorly chosen blouse, or the vagaries of cold weather. Small wonder that women really do seem more comfortable, on the whole, with the airing of emotions and the sharing of intimacies. (Women buy 80% of the greeting cards all over the world.) You've got no choice; you have to get brave and comfortable or you'd never go out at all. (Or, god forbid, go around in burqas.) In this sense, at least, a surgical procedure makes all the sense in the world. That way, at least some part of your identity, and the way you get interpreted, can be under your control. I'm not sure that explains all of the happiness, but it definitely feels like a start.
Monday, June 02, 2008
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.)
Sunday, June 01, 2008
The Fates Mock Me Further
Thank goodness I'm ready for it. Because I just got a call and it turns out that, in a new wrinkle on my stay, they need to take the car. I'll be completely carless until late Wednesday. The same thing will happen next week too. So in addition to having no Internet and no cell reception, I'll also be unable to buy any groceries or...well, really anything at all. If it's not in the house, I'd better not need it. (Either that, or prepare to hop a bike and cycle twelve miles in each direction.)
Among other things, this is obviously going to play hell with my blogging, so I'm afraid you can expect a few days of enforced silence unless a miracle happens. When I return, I may have a delightful anecdote about hitchhiking to share. Let's hope not, though.
Look on the bright side. If you're reading this, you're not me.
Labels: Dave Update