Tuesday, December 19, 2006

City mouse, country mouse

Two trips to New York in three days last week. Saturday, after a quiet and enjoyable lunch at the Playwright Tavern and an insane half-hour inside Toys R Us, the Mannions hoofed it up to Grand Central Station where we caught the Number 6 train up Lexington Avenue, aiming for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

When we got off at 77th Street, the ten year old declared himself an official New Yorker.

"Because I've ridden the subway now."

The thirteen year old had declared himself an official country boy back in Times Square when the first wave of pedestrians coming his direction swept him up and carried him backwards half a block from the rest of us.

From that moment on he was officially having a miserable time and he began counting the minutes until we would be getting in the car to go home, which turned out to be 420 minutes later.

This was too bad, because he'd been looking forward to the trip. He'd wanted to see the Christmas decorations, visit St Patrick's, watch the ice skaters, re-visit the museum to see the armour and the Egyptian artifacts that he had loved on a class trip two years ago. But his last two trips into New York had been drive-in-drive-outs, the school bus depositing him at the front steps of the Metropolitian and our car delivering him into the basement parking garage of the Museum of Natural History.

He'd hadn't been in the City either time.

I felt, and feel, guilty about his having such an unfun time of it, because I should have known and planned accordingly.

He is hardwired to be allergic to big cities.

Since he was small, noise and confusion have overwhelmed him faster and more thoroughly than they do most kids. He has a hard time sorting through visual stimuli and choosing what he needs to pay attention to. This has made him a great observer, because he sees everything. But there's a point at which there is just too much of everything to see. Most of us just stop paying attention when our limit is reached. (For a lot of people that limit is one more thing than the thing right in front of their noses.) The teenager can't stop paying attention. He just keeps taking it in until his head explodes.

One average New York City block has more to see in it than our whole town has to look at in a month. You can imagine what happened inside his head when he looked down Broadway and saw Times Square's electronic goulash of lights, giant flashing images, animated billboards, and all the other garish and ghastly apparations in that neon, open-air cabinet of wonders.

And walking, still the only sensible way to get around New York, although I haven't tried the bicycle taxis yet, is a trial for him. He has bad feet and is supposed to wear shoes that provide good support and I forgot to check on him before we set out. He was wearing his favorite pair of zip up sneaks. As far as his arches were concerned, he'd have been better off in his bare feet.

Basically, then, we were torturing the kid by dragging him off for what was going to be for the rest of us a pleasant outing in the Big City.

We may get him back down there for a specific event, another trip to the museum, a ball game, a play, but he will want us to promise that that's all we're going to do, zip in, see the show, the exhibit, or the game, and zip out.

People change. Circumstances change. Life takes us places we never thought we'd go. We learn how to deal and how to cope. Experience teaches us to adapt and how to adapt. We look closer and see other ways around. We approach from different angles. Someday the teenager might find that New York is his destiny and he's up to the challenge.

But as things are now, if he has his druthers, he'll make his home in a small town far away from the noise and the crowds and the lights and the confusion.

I expect that he will know, however, not to boast about it.

People have a habit of doing that, boasting about lifestyle choices as if they were proofs of superior virtue, intelligence, class, taste, when it's often the case that their choices were quite literally a matter of taste...and smell and touch and sound and sight. We say that we "like" a thing or a place or an act, but in reality it's our bodies merely expressing a physical preference.

The music we listen to, the pictures we love, the movies we enjoy, the places we feel at home appeal to us sensually. That is, we sense them before we do anything about them. We say they touch something in us. But they are touching us. We touch them. And if we don't like the way they feel we don't "feel" like we like them.

What we don't like, what we despise, look down upon, turn our noses up at, wave away with a lofty gesture expressive our good breeding and sophistication, are often only things we can't physically tolerate because of how we happen to be put together.

The main reason I bothered to write about Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair essay last week was that it gave me a chance to express my skepticism for evolutionary psychology. The chance to dis Hitchens in the process was gravy.

It’s not that I don’t believe that evolution didn’t—doesn’t—play a role in our psychological make-up. It’s that I don’t think you can explain why people in America in the 21 st Century are the way they are by guessing what people were like as they hunted mammoths and gathered nuts along the retreating glacier’s edge at the end of the Pleistocene era.

My doubt increases whenever the guess tends to explain that the way the guesser behaves and wants to continue behaving is the way evolution designed people to be.

But the fact is we are biological phenomena. We are stuck inside bodies and can only be ourselves to the degree the bodies let us be.

More to the point, our self is what the body containing that self is.

I don’t know if we have a soul, but the mind that wonders about the soul’s existence is a pure product of a brain, an amazing contraption but unreliable, fragile, and so delicately calibrated that the slightest jar or tiniest chemical alteration will tilt it wildly out of whack.

We think therefore we are, but we think with brains and these brains depend on information gathered by eyes, noses, hands, ears, and mouths, and how well do those ever work?

About as well as the rest of the body they’re attached to.

“I don’t feel like myself today,” we’ll say when we’re coming down with something. Who do we feel like then? We feel like the person who inhabits the body that is sick. We are that person. The us we were doesn’t exist anymore. We are a memory of a body that was in better health and a hope that the sick body that is now us will get better.

You are who you are because you have good digestion or you don’t, because you are allergic to this and that or you are not. Your skin is over-sensitive or you have a hide like a rhino’s. Your ear is too well-pitched or you’re tone deaf. Your strength is as the strength of ten and so your heart is pure.

You are you and you like what you like and dislike what you dislike because that’s what the body you are is and likes and dislikes.

In other words, I wonder how many vegetarians really miss the taste of meat, how many nonsmokers have sinuses that are easily aggravated, how many city mice need the energy rush, how many country mice have sensory-integration disorders, and if you ever catch me making fun of people who like cats, remind me that not everybody’s allergic to them.

Whatever we are that isn’t an accident of nature is a result of nurture, but we got nurtured so long ago, at a time when we weren’t capable of understanding what was happening to us, that the only say we had in what our nurturers made of us was a purely physical reaction resulting from how compliantly or how reluctantly our bodies accepted and adapted to the nurturing.

All I’m saying is that self-knowledge is a tremendously difficult achievement. Self-discipline’s a struggle. Self-improvement’s a dream. But not an impossible dream.

We can compensate for our weaknesses. We can hone and refine our gifts and make the effort to use them for good and never for evil.

We can learn new tricks.

We can make allowances, for ourselves and for everybody else who’s stuck in a body and burdened by a past they can’t remember. We can try to understand. And we can forgive.

Meanwhile, the ten year old is a city mouse and can’t wait to get back. He’s up for it. He’s ready to go at a moment’s notice. We can take him anywhere.

Except to a farm.

He can’t stand the smell.


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