Travel as Distraction

I’m tired.  I’ve moved around a lot over the last five years, from Austin to Houston to Dallas to Boston to Madison back to Dallas to Lexington back to Boston and soon to Michigan.  In those five years I traveled to most of the fifty states; backpacked in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico; and spent Easter of 2011 on a hostel bunk in the place I grew up, Austin, TX.  All of this change and uncertainty, this not knowing what I’ll be doing a year from now, this mentality I can’t seem to shake that whatever I’m doing now will not last, has depleted me.  I would really like to just stay put for a while and learn to live without the distraction of moving and traveling.  Why have I so effectively avoided permanence in my life?  How did I become so addicted to traveling and constant movement?  

Millennium Park, Chicago

I travel because it keeps me busy and occupies my mind.  When I’m traveling I have less time to think about the future, to worry about what career to pursue or what school to attend, how I’ll pay off education loans or whether one day I’ll start a family.  All that matters is where I’ll walk today and what bus I’ll catch tomorrow morning, what cheap snack I’ll munch on, whether I’ve charged my camera batteries, packed my clothes, scribbled in my little journal, and secured my passport.  Nothing matters except these trivialities. 

Chicago

When I travel I get to meet strangers and for brief spells pretend to be the gregarious guy that I’m not.  It’s easy to find a stranger who will talk my ear off.  More often than not, all I have to do is ask someone a few simple questions and listen.  I think the strangers I meet believe that I’m more talkative than I actually am, maybe because they judge our encounter based on how long I spent listening to their story rather than on how much I actually said.  Which makes sense.  If the typical random encounter entails at best a smile and a nod, then one in which two people sit down and exchange even a few words lasts an eternity by comparison.  And since most people probably don’t feel like anyone really listens to them, a few minutes of conversation that they dominate could easily feel like hours of balanced give-and-take.

Millennium Park, Chicago

But I think there’s something more going on.  When a person I don’t even know puts his whole life on pause to sit down and talk with ME, of all the people in the world, I feel like he has approved of my existence.  He has seen me.  And in a world where I feel pretty invisible most of the time (to the extent that when I’m around a lot of people, stuck in traffic, shopping for groceries, odds are that none of them will know who I am or remember that they brushed shoulders with me in the cereal aisle or rocketed past me on the freeway), it feels good to be seen. 

Amtrak's Empire Builder, Lounge, somewhere in Montana

 The most contented I’ve felt over the last few years was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle, maybe because the train combined permanence with movement.  I was stuck on one train for fifty hours, slept in the same coach seat two nights in a row, and talked to the same strangers off and on for three straight days.  Yet I was also moving.  I was going somewhere.  The scenery outside the window was changing.  The urban density of Chicago gave way to the green farmland of Wisconsin, which gave way to the blackness of Minnesota at night and the void of sleep, until I woke up the following morning to sunrise over North Dakota’s golden wheat fields that undulate like a vast inland sea.  I saw the sun set over the snow-capped Rockies of Montana and rise again two hundred miles east of Portland, Oregon, where the Columbia River quivered and sparkled in the new dawn light.  I was stationary yet I was also in motion.  The train left me with only two choices: to stay on until it delivered me to the end of the long route or to get off somewhere in the middle of my journey.  That was it.  Life was simple.  Stay on or get off. 

North Dakota

Montana, approaching the Rockies.

Columbia River Gorge

Ferry and Space Needle, Seattle

Seattle Ferry and Olympic Mountains

Brainbridge Island, across from Seattle in Puget Sound.

Seattle Skyline from ferry.

Union Station, Seattle (no longer used as a train station).

It does rain in Seattle, though, interestingly, it receives only about 37 in. of rain per year, compared with 33 inches in Austin, TX and and 50 inches for New York City. The difference? In Seattle it drizzles year round. According to the National Park Service, the west-facing valleys of the Olympic Peninsula, just west of Seattle, receive 12 FEET of rain per year.

Useful information.

Puget Sound

Train Station in North Dakota on Amtrak's Empire Builder Route.

Old posts about the train trip I took from Boston to Seattle in 2009:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Minneapolis: City Within a City

Does Anyone Own a Smile? The Origins of Gestures

I get a sense that as I move through life certain character traits adhere to me and accrue over time while others flake away and lie strewn about the path I’ve left behind.  Where do new traits or pieces of identity come from and what happens to the old ones when they’ve fallen away?  I ask because when I’m at my most self-aware, I feel like certain personality tics and affectations–the way I raise my eyebrows when I’m happy, roll my eyes when I’m annoyed, sigh when I lose patience–don’t belong to me, but to someone else; and that if I set myself to it, I could trace them back to someone I once knew.  In whom do those raised eyebrows or that particular sigh originate?  Does anyone own a gesture?

My grandfather used to raise his eyebrows in moments of delight.  He would cock his head back so that he was looking at the ceiling, open his mouth wide, and explode with uproarious laughter.  He would spread his hands wide and then clap them together in slow motion while the joke he had heard coursed through his body like sound through a tuning fork.  Did these mannerisms belong to my grandfather?  Did I acquire any of my own mannerisms from him or my mother, who laughs in much the same way?  In a sense, do certain gestures exist apart from the people in whom they live, so that they’re like silent memes that spread through a civilization horizontally in the present and vertically from one generation to the next?  And if they don’t belong to anyone, but in a sense have a life all their own, why do we use them as markers of individuality.  Why do we say, “I love so-and-so’s laugh,” or, “she has the most beautiful smile,” when one person’s laugh and another person’s smile may have been repeated a thousand times throughout history?

Although none of these mannerisms may belong to any one person, maybe they are arranged differently in each of us.  My grandfather combined a multitude of common gestures in a way that was his own and marked him as an individual. I can imagine a man living two thousand years ago in ancient Rome cocking his head back the way my grandfather used to do when he would laugh.  I can picture some 19th century Russian peasant raising his eyebrows in delight just like my grandfather would do after hearing a good joke.  I can imagine a hundred other people throughout history adopting my grandfather’s mannerisms, but I can’t imagine all of their gestures coming together except in my grandfather.  It’s the symphony, not the instruments or individual notes, that gives rise to our individuality.

How Writing Helps Us See (and Photos of Fall in Boston)

I’m in Boston now and the trees are changing colors.  I love fall colors, especially as someone who grew up in a place where the use of the words “colors” and “fall” in the same sentence usually referred to a spectrum of ephemeral yellow hues sprinkled among forests of green cedar trees and darker green live oaks.  When I was in New England this time two years ago I was dazzled by the reds and yellows and oranges, the hills aflame, and the leaves that danced in the air on cold winds from the north as I rode the commuter train into Boston.  But this time, I’ve hardly taken note.  Why?  Because I lost the habit.  It happens that quickly.  I wrote hardly a word for two months and I forgot how to see.  Writing puts me in the habit of looking for what stands out in this world, or striving to see what’s beautiful and unusual in the ordinary things that surround me.  When I don’t write, I forget to notice the details.

Sailing on the Charles River

Since I stopped blogging a couple of months ago, I’ve come to realize the ways in which blogging changes how I think, what I attend to, and how I decide what to write about.  Take my post on Monday, about pain.  I don’t think I would have written that after having blogged for a month, because by then I would have returned to my old habit of trying to lace my writing with optimism and hope.  I would be thinking about how others would receive my words and not just about how I felt, and it would occur to me that maybe nobody wants to hear about pain and other such matters that have no simple resolution.  Maybe I would be wrong to make such assumptions, but I fall easily into the habit of obsessing over what I think other people would want to read.

Boston Public Garden

Is it OK to think about “audience”?  I think so.  It’s import to think about what other people would want to read, how they’ll react, whether my writing will brighten their day or trouble them—because if I think that the people who read my writing want to be happy, then I’ll try to make them happy, and in the process I’ll lift my own spirits.  If I think that they want inspiration, I’ll try to inspire them and so inspire myself.  If I think that they want to contemplate, then I’ll have to contemplate, too.  So yes, audience matters.  Thinking about audience helps me focus my thoughts and senses, to winnow the chaos that sometimes besieges me.

Writing begins with the meticulous gathering and cataloging of the world’s oddities.  In this sense, all writers are collectors—of thoughts, feelings, experiences, memories.  Their function, more than to write, is to see what most of us don’t have time to see and to tell us about it.  Nothing helps me to see better than to think about the people with whom I want to share my tiny collection of oddities.

Boston Public Garden

The Old Trinity Church at Copley Square, Boston

Boston Public Garden

Along the Charles River, Boston

Along the Charles River, Boston. Who doesn't like ducks?

ALSO along the Charles River, Boston

*All pictures are from Fall 2009.

 

The Tyranny of Pain

For more than a decade I’ve grappled with the task of describing the experience of pain.  Because, as they say, all pain is private.  It is silent, stealthy, generally unverifiable, yet it is the force behind much of human behavior.  To do pain justice I would have to mix a thousand metaphors and mangle the English language to the point of nonsensicality.  Intense pain renders grammar and vocabulary useless because pain itself has no grammar.  It speaks in the language of chaos itself.

So I’m going to approach this task in a roundabout way.  I won’t talk about where I hurt and I won’t rate my level of pain on any kind of scale.  To do so would be meaningless to anyone who is not me.  Instead, I will describe the ways in which pain traps me and limits me, the way it controls my thinking, complicates relationships, and impedes action.  I’m doing this for selfish reasons but also because people everywhere experience pain of some sort, and I would like to think that I can help translate their pain into words and metaphors that anyone might understand.   I won’t focus on any one kind of pain because pain exhibits as many different temperaments as the people who experience it.  But all pain—whether psychological, emotional, physical or spiritual—is at bottom tyrannical.

I used to think of pain as a prison that trapped me within its impenetrable walls.  But I realized that this was a false analogy.  Pain doesn’t trap me from without; it traps me from within.  I feel as if I’m connected to an unbreakable chain that tugs at me.  I may struggle against the chain.  I may lunge outward in an effort to break it and free myself, but always the chain yanks me back.  I may clasp it in my hands and pull until I cry tears of exhaustion in hopes of wrenching the chain from the pain that anchors it.  But again I fail, because the chain issues from pain that is like an invisible black hole that contains the mass of a million suns.

I image that the chain, the singularity of pain to which it is attached, and I are all suspended in an infinite space.  People, places, ideas, and potential courses of action populate this landscape.  Were I not chained to my pain, I would be able to roam freely about this space, interact with whomever I wished, and experiment with the possibilities of life in all of its abundance.  I would run and jump and swim and laugh as I did when I was a boy.  But I can only venture as far as the chain will allow.  If I aggregated the totality of the things I’ve done since I became yoked to my pain, these actions and experiences would describe a perfect sphere whose radius would equal the length of the chain that tugs at me whatever I do.  I may travel far in physical space, but my experiences will always reside within this limiting sphere.

The chain not only limits my freedom of movement, thought and action; it shrinks with time and pulls me closer to the pain that anchors it, so that when I engage with people I can never quite be fully with them.  Even as I struggle to close the gap that separates us, the pain pulls me away.  Pain covets the people whom it afflicts.  It thrives on their loneliness.  It consumes them from within.  It stretches and contorts the soul, bends reality until it cracks and only the tyrant of pain remains.

When I think, I must always fight against the force that yanks me away from the object of my thinking.  Pain mingles with my thoughts and refuses to leave me alone with them.  Pain sabotages reason, patience, and focus.  It manifests itself in a stutter here, a pause there, a wince that an interlocutor might mistake for an expression of annoyance or disinterest.  Pain sometimes turns me into a jerk without my even knowing it.

When I move, when I walk (because I can no longer run), when I chew the juiciest slice of steak or when I plunge head first into a crashing ocean wave, the pain tugs on the chain and snaps me back to the reality it has configured for me.  Pain grows jealous of any sensation that does not include it, and, like the guest at the party who must always be the center of attention, it screams and drowns out the more pleasant feelings as they politely try to redirect the conversation.

Since I was young I’ve been obsessed with order.  I’ve always needed the world and my actions to mean something, to lead somewhere and to have purpose.  I have striven to locate my pain in some kind of structure, but no matter what I build around it, the pain sucks it inward and the whole edifice collapses in on itself.  Pain is a singularity that can’t be contained.  It turns the world inside out and makes a mess of life.

Of course, it is impolite to speak of one’s pain in the company of others.  Such talk is usually met at best with incomprehension, at worst with the sort of skepticism most people reserve for things like magic, or dragons, or depression.  So please forgive me.  I won’t speak of pain again.  But I thought I would take my one shot at saying something meaningful about it, even as I know that to do so is ultimately impossible.  I can no more describe or explain pain than I can describe or explain the whole of creation.  If I sometimes doubt the utility of language, it’s because to this day I’ve failed to find the right words for this thing that troubles me most about the world.

Who Am I? Who Are We? Friendship, Relationships, and the Roles We Play

Michelle (skippingstones) recently posted an essay on honesty and openness.  Her post got me thinking about how my relationships with friends differ so much, why some friends know some things about me while others know entirely different things, and why I don’t feel like the same me all the time.  Then it occurred to me: it happens organically.  When I first meet a person, of course I’m consciously making some decisions about what to share with them and what to conceal, but mostly I’m going on autopilot.  My habits are making decisions for me.  Past experience is determining my present interactions with people who are at first strangers.  All of the subtle cues I get from them about who they are also influence how I behave around them.  I think carefully about some of these things, but most of my behavior arises from somewhere deeper, beneath my intellect.  Emotions drive much of what I do.

Then, one day, I pause, and I wonder why I feel like either a slightly or a wholly different person depending on whom I’m with and my relationship with them.  At first I’m inclined to think that over time I’ve chosen to hide certain things from certain people and reveal other things to other people and that these were rational choices, made so methodically that if I had perfect memory I might follow them one by one back to my first encounter with each person I know, as if it were a question of Newtonian physics: reconstruct the entire chain of causes and effects and I might arrive at the creation event itself, the beginning, moment one.

But then I see the truth: It just happened.  At first we were strangers, then, over time, we became friends.  We grew together and we changed together.  None of us knew what was happening until it had already happened.  We didn’t choose to be one way or another with each other.  We didn’t choose to hide this and reveal that.  It just happened.  Our identities and lives became entangled, and out of the complexity of this entanglement relationships formed, all of them different, all of them special, none of them perfect.  Only in hindsight does it seem that I chose to be open with this friend and a little more reserved around that friend.  The fact is that each of these relationships is different because the people involved are different.  I can’t be the same me around everyone I know because everyone I know is different, which means that my relationship, my entanglement, with each of them must also be different.

Dishonesty, openness, concealment certainly have a place in the formation of relationships.  I concede that.  But now I see that what I thought of as “roles” I was playing depending on whom I was with were actually manifestations of mutual relationships that were all unique.  I’m not the same around everyone, but I’m still me.  WE, however, are different when we’re around each other.  Together we’re something more, though we can’t be everything to each other.  And that’s OK.

Reign of the Gadgets: The Illusion of Personal Choice

The gadgets that keep me company—the iPhones, iPods, tablets, laptops, and TVs—poke at me from every direction.  “Listen,” they say, “look at me.  Stroke my keys, brush the dust from my screen.  Please, please use me, need me, and never put me down.”

Whenever I choose to leave my apartment to spend a few hours reading and sipping coffee at the bookstore, I cast a glance at my iPad and wonder if I ought to bring it with me.  “Of course you ought to,” the iPad says to me.  “You need to check e-mail and Facebook and you must know in real time whether anyone has commented on your blog.”

Owning the iPad has created in me a need to own an iPad and hover over my virtual self with a compulsion that borders on obsessive.  Of course, this argument is with myself, not my iPad.  I wanted to go to the bookstore to occupy what Shirley Heath, Stanford social scientist, calls an “enforced transition zone” into which the outside world not only does not, but cannot intrude.

In the “enforced transition zone” I regain my freedom.  I’m allowed to become lost in myself rather than in the collective of the connected world, where temptations dangle in front of me and images, ideas and suggestions lodge themselves in my mind from moment to moment.

I don’t feel like I chose to buy an iPad, or to join Facebook, or to own a cell phone.  They chose me, and they marshaled the “decisions” of a billion people all over the world to inveigle me into making a choice that no longer feels like a choice.  These devices and services are part of the fabric of reality, and to abstain from them would be to pretend that I don’t walk on solid earth, that I don’t breathe air like the rest of humanity, that I exist on an island and that I have no need of human contact and community.  I can’t choose to opt out of life itself.

The Geography of Identity; Where Blue Bonnets Paint the Hills

My sister, Becky, and me in a field of Blue Bonnets near Barton Creek Square Mall, on the edge of the Texas Hill Country

I’m returning today from a trip to Texas.  I went to Texas intending to find a job there and to return there permanently.  In other words, I changed my mind.  I no longer wanted to live in Kentucky.  I wanted to live in Texas.  But things didn’t quite work out how I had hoped they would.  So now I find myself in a hotel somewhere in Arkansas, about halfway to Lexington.  Leaving Texas is always hard, because I’m leaving home.  I’m leaving memories and people and places that cling covetously to little pieces of my identity.  I considered writing for my blog a piece titled “The Geography of Identity” in which I would map out where I’ve left different versions of myself.  The child “me” is in Austin.  He still clambers up trees, builds tree houses, catches snakes and frogs, scorpions and spiders.  His hair is still blonde and it still hangs to his shoulders.  I can still see him sitting on a hill of Blue Bonnets next to his little sister, Becky, one Easter weekend when he was four years old; meanwhile his parents are still snapping photos of them both for memory’s sake.

I remember that when my sister and I sat on that hill I was worried about crushing the Blue Bonnets.  Actually, I was more than worried.  I felt terrible.  I also remember feeling silly sitting next to my sister, holding a blue Easter bunny and posing for a picture whose significance I would only understand decades later.  What isn’t clear in the picture is that the hill on which my sister and I are sitting rises up from Loop 360, one of the busiest stretches of highway in Austin.  Even twenty-six years ago cars streamed down that road nonstop.  I was aware at the time that we were posing not only for my parents, but also for hundreds of drivers and passengers as they shot out of town into the folds of the Texas hill country or made their way to Austin’s newest mega-mall: Barton Creek Square.

Everything outside of the picture still exists.  The four lane highway carries more cars today than when I was a boy, but it looks exactly as it did almost three decades ago.  The mall has changed very little on the outside.  A few apartments have risen on nearby hills with glorious views of downtown Austin and the thunderstorms that roll in from the east every Spring.  Everything in the picture, however, has disappeared.  The hill remains, of course, but Lady Bird Johnson and her army of Blue Bonnet enthusiasts stopped seeding that hill soon after my sister and I posed on it for my parents.  It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that, in the interest of public safety, the city itself forbade parking on the shoulder of the highway to take pictures.

So now, at any given time of year, in any season, if you venture to the hill along Loop 360 you will see neither Blue Bonnets nor little children posing for their parents.  Instead, you will see pointy cedar bushes creeping down toward the highway.  But in my mind I see something different.  The blue bonnets still paint the hill azure, my sister and I are still sitting next to each other among the forest of flowers, and my parents still futz around us with their cameras, always just a moment away from taking a picture that today recalls a moment grown more poignant with time.

*I’m going to keep blogging, but I’ll probably post about once a week from now on.  I love sharing the world with anyone who happens to read these miscellany.  I’ll keep commenting on other blogs, of course.  Thank you for your time and conversation.  It means the world to me.

Writing is a Hopeful Act

Writing is a hopeful act.  Words assume that someone will read them, even if that someone is an older version of the person who put pen to paper in the first place.  Often we write to our future selves.  What else is the purpose of a journal?  Sure, we’re conversing with ourselves in the present.  But most of us write with the intention eventually of reading what we’ve written.  We want to know who we were when we were younger, so we record our thoughts as artifacts of our younger years to be excavated when we’re ready.  Despite the clarity of our thinking in the moment of writing, the words of our younger selves sometimes make no sense, and as with any excavation, we often are forced to guess at how the pieces of our younger selves fit together.  Sometimes we don’t recognize the person we were.  He is an alien to us.  He was meaner, more arrogant, maybe a little smarter, less jaded, more wide-eyed.

I steal often from my younger self.  He had ideas that would never occur to me now that I’m older and more set in my ways.  He had an open mind.  Mine is somewhat closed.  If things don’t interest me right away, I’m more likely now to give up on them than when I was younger.  Because I assume too often now that whatever seems new is really a dressed up version of something old.  Which is to say that I’m suspicious of everything.  Suspicion, taken too far, stifles thought and creativity.  Suspicion shuts the brain down.

My younger self recorded his ideas expressly so that older versions of him would be able to draw on them for inspiration.  So he has no right to become angry at me now for lifting his ideas.  I’m doing what he and I agreed to do.  We’re fulfilling our bargain.  But it’s still theft of a sort.  He and I share a name, but we aren’t the same person.  I’m not sure it would occur to me to write now what he wrote then.  He didn’t care that his thoughts were random and would impact no one, maybe not even himself.  It didn’t matter.  He had yet to feel that every action and every statement required an explicit purpose, a practical application, preferably one to which money was tied.  He just wanted to think, and that was enough.  Someone who shares my name but who was ten years younger wrote the following words:

A: What do you think of as you fall asleep?

B: I think about all the tasks I have to do the next day and I worry over those that I had to do that day.  Sometimes I preoccupy myself over weighing too much.  Other times, I wonder how I’ve performed in the eyes of my peers and I stress over the impressions I’ve made.  More than anything, I get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.  What do you think about?

A: Some of the same.  But I also spend a lot of time thinking about the distant past: people I’ve known, places I’ve been, occasions that I enjoyed. . . I wonder where those people are and how those places have changed with time.  I think of the distant future as well and long for a time when I’m older and life’s experiences have made me wiser.  Often I review the day that’s coming to an end.  I ask myself if I treated people with love and respect.  I note instances when my anger got the better of me or when I said the wrong thing and I vow never to make those same mistakes again.  I contemplate a book that I’ve been reading, toss ideas around in my head, imagine what’s happening in other parts of the world to people I’ll never know.  I dwell on the incessant pain in my back and neck, but then I remind myself that hundreds of millions of people have it worse.  Finally, I try every night to remember that it’s a beautiful world that we live in. . . Oh, and I also get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.

Plight of the Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

Sometimes all I want to do is point to the sky, lean toward you and whisper, “It’s blue.  Isn’t it wonderful?  For God’s sake, it’s blue.”  I want to tell you about one day in October when I was idling in traffic, stuck in a line of cars at a red light, and I saw a Monarch butterfly flit across the road, all six lanes of it.  In all of its black and yellow and orange, its general ignorance of where it was or how ridiculous its task, how pathetic its odds of crossing the thoroughfare intact, it zigzagged through the air.  It collided with a fender and only just caught itself before falling to the asphalt.  A light breeze whisked it over the roof of a red Camry, then yanked it back five feet so that again it almost fell to the pavement.  It picked itself up in mid-flight, bounced off of my windshield, and stumbled gracefully through the air until it arrived at the median.  It achieved grace in clumsiness.  I don’t know if it actually made it to the other side of the road.  All I know is that it survived three lanes of stationary cars and that the traffic lights turned green the moment it reached the median.

When I was a boy I used to chase Monarchs through fields of flowers in Texas.  I used to think that a single butterfly made the Spring migration from Mexico, up through Texas, and into various parts of the Eastern United States and Canada; and that the same butterfly made the return migration back to Mexico beginning in October.  In fact, the whole South-North/North-South migration requires four generations of butterflies, the longest-lived of which is the generation that winters in Mexico and swarms in Oyamel forests to the delight of tourists.

The butterfly I saw in October was a member of this hardy generation, charged with reaching Mexico and surviving for the next six months so that come Spring, it could join its peers in journeying northward to ensure the survival of the entire species.  It represented one leg of a long-distance, multi-generational relay.  A six-lane road must have been among the least of its obstacles.  A gleeful little boy may have been its worst enemy.

Image Credit: Lone Star Junction

Pedicures for Men and Ice Cream for Toddlers: Thoughts on Stereotypes

The discussion about stereotypes comes after the dialogue.  I just wanted to show how a random conversation got me thinking about stereotypes:

 I was sitting alone in McDonald’s this morning, catching up on the news with my e-reader (for which I needed the internet), when from a neighboring table I heard a woman say, “Honey, you’re not supposed to be sad.  It’s a treat.”  I looked over and saw a woman with short, curly grey hair holding a small plastic spoon to the mouth of a two year-old boy.  He had blond hair that dangled down to his blue eyes.  A tear traced down his cheek. The boy turned to me and raised his eyebrows, as if wondering where I had come from.

“I’m trying to get him to eat ice cream,” the woman said, “but he’s having none of it.”

“Has he eaten ice cream before?” I asked.

“I’m not sure.  I’m his grandmother.  I’m trying to ruin his appetite before I give him back to his parents.”  She smiled.  “That’s what grandparents are for.”

“You’ve got that right,” said a woman at another table.  She laughed, and added, “And we love them for it.”  This woman sat across from a boy who looked to be around twelve years old and who had the broad shoulders of a middle-school linebacker who would likely fill out to become a giant in just a few years.

The grandmother coaxed two spoonfuls of vanilla ice cream into her grandson’s mouth.  He raised his hand to the plastic spoon and helped his grandmother guide it toward him.  Now he smiled.

“I’m taking my son to get a pedicure with me,” said the woman with the twelve year-old.  “We get them together.”

I wasn’t sure if she was joking or serious, so I said nothing.

“More men are doing that nowadays,” said the grandmother as she raised another spoonful of ice cream to her grandson’s mouth.

“It’s true,” said the mother.  “His friends on the football team tease him, but he tells them they don’t know what they’re missing.”

“I know a few guys who get pedicures, or at least manicures,” I said.

“You should try it,” said the mother.

“She’s right,” added the grandmother.  “It’s relaxing.”

I do know men who have gotten manicures and pedicures, but sitting in McDonald’s, contemplating whether or not I would seek out either of these services myself, I didn’t know how to respond.  We all confront moments when we’re asked to lift something from an old category and place it into a new one.  I think of getting a pedicure as something women do, but for most of human history no one got pedicures, so why not men, now?  Because it’s not “manly,” but manliness is another quality that we define differently over time.  A lot of men file their nails and style their hair.  Does that make them unmanly?

This whole conversation just got me thinking about the power gender stereotypes exert on our lives, how they influence who we become, what we do, and what we think we’re capable of doing.  A study was conducted several years ago in which two groups of college students took a math test.  To one group the proctor read the standard instructions for most standardized tests.  Think SAT or GRE.  To the other group the same proctor explained that men and women typically perform equally well on the test they were about to take.

In the first group, the men outperformed the women.  In the second group, the men and women performed equally well.  What’s the difference?  The hypothesis (pretty well borne out) is that women in the first group went into the test with deeply internalized stereotypes about the supposed superiority of men in all things mathematical.  Anxiety springing from the stereotype itself impaired performance.  Women in the second group were told that the stereotype was false, thereby alleviating their anxiety and removing it as an inhibiting factor in their performance on the test.

These kinds of studies have proliferated over the years.  Many of them tackle racial stereotypes and reveal them to be as harmful and distorting as gender stereotypes (which seems pretty obvious).  I’m sure I summed up some combination of various studies here, but the general point remains: stereotypes affect us in ways we’re not always aware of, and the worst stereotypes have a way of sneakily contributing to the result they predict.