On Gender, or "Ladies be travellin' like this, and bros be travellin' like . . ."
Reading De Botton's piece, I found myself experiencing some minor feelings of frustration in that I think in his writing about travel, he often comes to points and ideas which I think are not about the experience of travel, but the experience of being a human being and a thoughtful being. There is of course the obvious point: that's his goal, to show the universality of the experience of travel and its applicability in our lives, but I think he often becomes complacent to simply lead a reader to the edge of an idea, as though it were a canyon, point out the miraculous view of it, and then turn around and go back to the trail of his original topic, instead of going rogue explorer, as would be so appropriate considering what he's writing about, and climb down into that canyon and start exploring the crevices, fault lines, and unknown depths of the idea he has arrived at. He doesn't get the bottom of things, is basically what I'm saying.
In particular with On Habit, what I thought was: isn't this the key to being 1) a writer or artist of any sort, and 2) a happy individual? As a writer, my constant inner monologue when consulting something is, what is in front of you? What can you see here, what can you recognize, what significance, that you could bring to someone else's attention in your work and as a result contribute positively to their lives? This is what art is, the selecting highlighting of elements that otherwise go unnoticed. And, as anyone who's ever seen an american romantic comedy can tell, happiness is falling in love, and falling in love is having some quirky girl show up just as your getting fed up with your boring job and slubby friend and shake things up by making you pay attention to the world around you (Audrey/Doris/Barbra/Diane/Goldie/Meg/Julia/Winona/Reese/Kirsten/Drew, I'm looking at you). But seriously, doesn't life play that out? When you feel great, doesn't it feel as though you're seeing everything for the first time, and when you feel awful you feel a million years old and incapable of being surprised by anything? I just felt like what he was getting at was pretty standard, pretty obvious, unless you push it into deeper territory.
What he's suggesting, at its heart, is that travelling is a mental exercise more than anything else, and can be simulated simply by greater attention to detail. But what are the implications of this? In thinking about this, I recalled an article I had read a few years back, one of those freak-the-crap-out-of-parents magazines put out now and then (I believe this one was Time). The cover read, "What's Wrong With The Boys: why our nation's young men are dropping out of school and ending up in jail" (Oh sensationalism, is there nothing you can't make seem terrifying?) The article of course had much less to report than the title suggested, and took a decidely limited point of view. It pointed out that there has been a slight spike, starting in the nineties, with prison rates among young men (even though the prisons have always been crowded, and young men have always comprised the largest number of inmates,) and that young women are now performing better in school grade-wise than young men and getting into better colleges in slightly larger numbers. (Nevermind that we are as a country now 51% female, so having a 51% female graduating class at most liberal arts colleges shouldn't be that surprising, or that fact that as a culture we are much faster to demonize female criminal behavior than male, or that the majority of politicians, doctors, lawyers, and CEOs remain male, so it's pretty hard to argue the American male is in trouble.) The article also tried to allege a connection between the increase in diagnoses of ADHD and Asbergers, two disorders which are more common than men, (although the increase in diagnoses in both genders has been proportionally the same, and the prevalence among males is easily explained by basic genetics) with the mild hike in prison rates, which makes no sense and is borderline offensive. So, in short, it was a very poorly written article, ad wasn't helped by it's oldschool boys v. girls gender politics. But one thing I read in it did catch my attention. A sidebar described a school for boys in Texas which had recently implimented a new discipline policy which has dramatically decreased the number of behavior problems they had with some of their more troubled students. The school had adopted the policy that, whenever there was an altercation between two male students, (which apparently had become a very regular problem) two aides would immediately remove both boys from the classroom and take them for a walk around the neighborhood while the boy was allowed to talk through what happened. Only once both students had described the incident thoroughly and calmed down were punishments allotted. While it seems fairly logical that allowing children to work through their problems aloud one-on-one would help significantly in preventing the problem from reoccuring, what the article really emphasized was the walking. It appeared that the strategy of making the boy change location and move while thinking majorly improved the kids' capacities to explain their thoughts and feelings and even improved the quality of their memory. The results were so immediate and overt that a local psychologist and neurosurgeon teamed up to investigate, and found after doing a test group experiment involving brain scans from children from different school of both genders, that high rates of testerone seem to create a link between the parts of the brain that controls movement and mechanical observation (sidestepping a puddle, things you do almost subconsciously) and the part that controls critical thinking, empathy, and communication. (This study had not been substantiated at the time of publication, and I didn't check to see if it has been since.) The exercise of physical movement and adjusting to new surroundings facilitated quicker and more direct evaluation of self, others, and the past.
The article decided to stick to such banal applications as sports, saying that it seemed boys were more suited to play baseball and basketball because they could strategize better while running, (ignoring the fact that testosterone levels, especially in children, fluctuate so quickly and differ so much on an individual basis that there is more variance within the sexes than between them.) But I thought that, as an idea, the implications were rather astounding. Historically, it goes almost without saying that explorers were men. Isabelle Eberhardt, Jane Franklin, Helen Thayer, all notable in their own way, were never permitted to go anywhere their male counterparts had not already explored, and were considered incredibly eccentric and suffered under enormous social pressures in their day. I personally am somewhat critical of overly psychological and physiological approaches to behavioral study, preferring to side with nurture and sociology over the preconceptions of nature, but regardless of where you side it is fascinating to consider how much the history of the exploration of the world was reliant on masculine identity, the social demanded (or biologically instilled, if that's your preference) need to travel, to escape, just to process, while women were shut up and home and, trapped without means of travel, provided the audience needed to facillitate the invention of the modern novel. I thought of "My Own Little Corner" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and wondered if de Maistre was getting credit for a technique women around the world had been using for years to maintain their sanity, and if this technique, to force one's mind to reconceptualize one's surroundings, was new only for men unhabituated to it and now increasingly needing it, having run out of continents to explore everytime we have a crisis.
So I leave it out there, because I don't have an answer: does gender change the way you travel?