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Perfect Exhilaration and a Manual Transmission, by Meg Holden

by Meg Holden

Bridget learned to drive a manual transmission automobile in Parachute, Colorado, just after dawn at the end of May. The two of us had already been on the road for four days, on our way from New York City to Monterey Bay. Finally, the east was fully behind us, along with its interstates lined with outlet malls and touch-the-sky fast food and motel signs. This was the beginning of the part of our cross-country road extravaganza we had been waiting for. The speed limit went up; we slowed down. I shut up and gawked. Bridget got quiet, too. Until Tonepah, Nevada, Bridget mostly just spoke up to say how worried she was about the clutch. But not long after Parachute, Bridget, who had been waiting for this trip for what seemed to her a lifetime, fell asleep. We had created a little front seat ceremony of cheers and open windows for every state line we passed, but Bridget could not be awoken when we crossed the Colorado state line into Utah. The last thing I heard from her in Colorado was, "You're sure I didn't wreck the clutch-oh my gosh, it's so beautifff . . ." And she was out cold.

Bridget was born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey. She grew up looking at the New York City skyline from any number of the freeways where she spent so much of her time, and she felt thankful both that the city was there and that she was not. Bridget had one dream: to swim with the dolphins, and damned if she was going to achieve her dream by paying some Florida tour guide fifty bucks. At last, Bridget was going to California to work toward meeting the dolphins, her way.

Bridget would be the first to admit and to list all that she had missed by growing up in Rutherford, but her response to the overwhelming experience of driving for the first time through Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California proved that she had learned one fairly critical skill. Her body had learned to deal with overwhelming experiences. By shutting down and sleeping, she was able to cope, not only with the dull and unsatisfying suburban life she had led in New Jersey, but as well with the unmetered excitement of cruising dreamily straight toward her goal.

As for me, Bridget's companion on this journey into the narcoleptic unknown, I was newer to the urban jungle than to the west coast. I had moved to New York City that year, crossing the country from British Columbia. I had done so to follow my own dreams, unfortunately less clear than those of Bridget. I had agreed to accompany Bridget on this road trip because she is my friend and because her invitation-"Meg! I got a job at the Monterey Aquarium! Do you want to drive cross country with me?"-seemed to me a clarion call for escape. For my own escape, as in, "Meg! I found a way out! Will you join me?"

I had come to New York to crack its code for success, I have to admit, although I didn't know particularly how to go about doing that, nor exactly what success would look like on me. I settled on simply doing as best I could what I saw others around me doing. I played the City routine; yet I didn't quite get it. I practiced asking people questions without saying please or thank you, yet still I looked them in the eye too long for their comfort. I tried getting coffee from the corner deli but I couldn't enjoy drinking out of a paper cup, walking or standing up, and I have never been able to get the knack of plastic lids. Diner food unsettled me and the better restaurants were mostly too expensive. I stayed out late. I learned to strut. I sped up my speech. But still I felt the need to rise early, to sit for long spells in the park and on my roof, and to listen carefully to what everyone tried to say to me. I wanted to be a New Yorker in the sense of going for the gold and the power-seizing it, using it, saving the world with it-but at the same time I wanted to be me, an aspiring naturalist who knows a little tai chi and likes to laugh and write poetry. It worked for the first little while. Then, when things got hairy, as invariably they do in New York, the pre-existing me lost out to the part that fit my environment, and the older me got cooped up, and drained out in the form of an undiagnosable disease.

My disease was my body's much less elegant adaptation to the sensory overload of my New York lifestyle. Whereas Bridget knew she was overwhelmed when she found herself losing consciousness, I didn't consciously know that New York was overwhelming me. I knew that I seemed to be doing well and earning respect in my new school, I was taking advantage of all the opportunities New York has to offer, I was learning to live in the greatest city on earth while staying true to my slower, gentler, greener west coast scruples. I also knew I was being driven dizzy by a full body itch and drawing blood in my scarce sleep with my own fingers. I called it demons-demons under my skin, battling to burst out and daring my fingernails to enter in. The doctors guessed names from syphilis to scabies, lupus to parasites, but couldn't say anything more helpful than, "Gosh, this skin thing is...  Biblical!"  Or offer anything more helpful than 60 mg a day of prednisone. With the prednisone, I felt I was achieving my dreams, living out the city; I felt my decision to take it all on and come to New York was a God-given fate; I felt I could live out my days in New York and die an old, sophisticated, urbane woman. Without the pills, I came very close to conviction that I would surely die in New York another, much quicker way. And the prednisone could only be a short term, stop gap solution, before the side effects-like permanent skeletal damage, edema, and thinning of the skin-kicked in. 

The first doctor I went to see about my problem took a long look at me. When she got over her shock and confoundment, I started to ask her questions, about hormones and organ systems and nutrition and toxicity. She kept shaking her head, and finally said, "You're looking for an-Aha!-And  I can't give it to you. You need to see a specialist."

The specialist took a shorter look at me, rolled me over onto my side, cut a core out of my shoulder, and burned the blood vessels clean. When I sat up again, I started asking her questions, too. She listened a little less patiently, shook her head, and said, "Until we get the test results back, I can't tell you anything. You need to take something." She scribbled on her prescription pad and handed me a sheet, which I didn't read. I knew what it would be. "This will take away your pain," the specialist told me.

"What else will it do," I muttered back, knowing that she knew I was helpless, that I would take the pills, because I had no choice, regardless of what else it might do.

"Nothing," she replied quickly, almost defensively. "Nothing for the amount of time you'll be on it. Except you'll feel like a human being again. Which you haven't done in five months."

I couldn't argue with that.

What does it mean to feel like a human being, and does it feel different in the city than in the country or the wilderness? I entered the city with all the excitement befitting a young, promising student with many interests, projects, and ideas. And the city defeated me, as if I had never been strong and self-sufficient, as if I had never traveled abroad by myself and learned a new language, never chopped and split a cord of wood to keep my cabin warm, never traversed the rugged British Columbia outer coast. The city made short shrift of me. It made me wonder how people like Bridget had been able to tolerate it, and how come it was the landscape of the West that overwhelmed her own body. The different way that Bridget handled herself in the city-by dulling her senses, narrowing her vision-as well as the different way that she reacted to being overwhelmed-by falling asleep-suggested an explanation. Not to suggest that either one of us is more human than the other, only that the places we come from have given us different kinds of sensitivities, and different kinds of savvy.

I grew up affiliated just as naturally to the Pacific shore and forests as Bridget was to the many numbered highways of New Jersey. When I started reading philosophy, I needed no one to translate for me the kind of exhilaration that many of the world's great thinkers have found in nature. Passages like this from Ralph Waldo Emerson, for instance, rang true and clear to me:

    Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith . . . In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets and villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

I knew this to be true because I, too, had experienced similar exhilaration. At the same time, I knew that most people, particularly those of my generation, are drawn to cities in search of their personal exhilaration. So I took at face value the idea that the city must offer comparable inspiration and stimulation, and I resolved to immerse myself in it and find its perfection as I had immersed myself in nature and found the joy offered there. Fewer writings were available to prepare me for the different kind of exhilaration I expected to find in the city. Still, I got a glimpse, for instance, from Claude Levi-Strauss, who idolized New York City as "a new kind of city: an artificial landscape in which the principles of urbanism no longer operate."  Levi-Strauss offered rhapsodies on the city like this from Tristes Tropiques

    Cities have often been likened to symphonies and poems, and the comparison seems to me a perfectly natural one: they are, in fact, objects of the same kind. The city may even be ranked higher, since it stands at the point where Nature and artifice meet. A city is a congregation of animals whose biological history is enclosed within its boundaries; and yet every conscious and rational act on the part of these creatures helps to shape the city's eventual character. By its form, as by the manner of its birth, the city has elements at once of biological procreation, organic evolution, and aesthetic creation. It is both natural object and a thing to be cultivated; individual and group; something lived and something dreamed; it is the human invention, par excellence.

This type of tirade didn't ring bells in me naturally, but I set out to find such an experience, just the same. I lived in New York with my eyes peeled for the people and places and events that would transcend the merely natural and the merely human and produce something greater than both. When I met real New Yorkers and began to participate in real New York lives, however, any disproportionate exceptionalism among them eluded me. The moments on the street that made me pause and smile were not moments in which the synergistic effects of New York on the advancement of human civilization shone through. Instead, they were moments that struck me as evidence that the vestiges of basic human civility could remain, despite the all-encompassing hedonism and mechanism. They were the moments when I witnessed the little Jewish lady who runs the First Avenue laundromat leave her post to prod at a man passed out on the sidewalk, urging him to get up, to get a grip on himself, to come inside for coffee. Or when I saw two cops do the same to a drunk lying with his head propped on somebody's tire, only they didn't try to force him up, only tried to laugh with him, asking if he, too, had been celebrating because the Rangers had won.

I paid careful attention to the way New Yorkers spoke about their pride for their hometown; I paid more attention as I became sicker and less able to raise my own enthusiasm for being there. The exhilaration that many people loved New York for came from the sensation of being in one of the toughest cities on earth and working and coping and making their way. I found this expressed in its purest form among the most motivated and fortunate few who had struck-or expected to strike-it rich and climb the city's success ladder. As great capitalists, in particular. I had found this type of exhilaration in writing about the city, too. Midas Mulligan, the richest investor in the country, personified this kind of exhilaration in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. In the story, Mulligan is described by a street vendor he encounters on a Chicago spring day:

    She related that he stopped and bought a bunch of the year's first bluebells. His face was the happiest face she had ever seen; he had the look of a youth starting out into a great, unobstructed vision of life lying open before him; the marks of pain and tension, the sediment of years upon a human face, had been wiped off, and what remained was only joyous eagerness and peace. He picked up the flowers as if on a sudden impulse, and he winked at the old woman, as if he had some shining joke to share with her. He said, "Do you know how much I've always loved it-being alive?" She stared at him, bewildered, and he walked away, tossing the flowers like a ball in his hand - a broad, straight figure in a sedate, expensive businessman's overcoat, going off into the distance against the straight cliffs of office buildings with the spring sun sparkling on their windows. 

The joy of success or the promise of success offered by the city is only one explanation for people's affinity to the city. Others I met loved New York for a nearly opposite reason: because it gave them the opportunity to slip through the cracks. In the big city is the chance to live one's life anonymously and as deviantly as one may chose. This type of New York devotion is expressed in the following excerpt of an untitled poem written as a last will and testament by Miguel Piñero, resident of the Lower East Side and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café:

    A thief, a junkie I've been
    committed every known sin
    Jews and Gentiles . . . Bums and Men
    of style . . . run away child
    police shooting wild . . .
    mother's futile wails . . . pushers
    making sales . . . dope wheelers
    & cocaine dealers . . . smoking pot
    streets are hot & feed off those who bleed to death

    all that's true
    all that's true
    all that is true
    but this ain't no lie
    when I ask that my ashes be scattered thru
    the Lower East Side.

Is this second kind of urban exhilaration some sort of pathological patriotism, the stubborn allegiance of the unfortunate to the only place they've known? I don't think it can be merely that; because the Lower East Side and other down-and-out New York neighborhoods are magnets also, for all the different kinds of people Piñero mentions in his poem, and then some. Although all these people seek to slip through the cracks of "normal society," they still hope to live their lives in the company of others who understand why they cannot fit in outside this deviant periphery and in an environment that feeds them, or at least where they sometimes can scrounge up some food. They still seek to relate as two-legged beings to the land on which they stand. This land is not a marvel for its beauty, but for its endurance, for its ability to persist and support its residents; although littered and disheveled, it is unpretentiously alive.

In both cases, that of the ever-aspiring capitalist and that of the social deviant, the people who appreciate the city most are those who wish to be alone. They want their voices to be heard or forgotten, respectively. They want to take the credit and the blame, respectively. They want to take from the cacophony all around them, but-apologies to Levi-Strauss-they aren't trying to contribute or turn it into a symphony. They only want to raise the volume of their own small voices, in the first case, in order to be heard and to receive the personal reward and joy; in the second case, in order to shout and be shouted at as loud as they please and yet still be drowned out and still be able to ignore normalcy. This, after all, is the essence of the "New York conversation"-a situation in which much information gets bantered about, many ideas are voiced, but very few actually get through to the other participants.

This is not to detract from the legitimacy of the kind of joy best experienced in the city but to differentiate this kind of joy from that available to those who immerse themselves in a more-than-human landscape. In both environments, people may pull in energy from their surroundings to propel themselves forward. In the city, this propulsion seems to be achieved at the expense of removing most if not all of the societal plug-ins that make people receptive to the world around and beyond them. The exhilarated urbanite tends to make the choice to go for her own success or other personal indulgence in a very specific area by accepting a spectator's role in the rest of what goes on, abdicating involvement in the other parts of life's symphony. This type of exhilaration is achieved by shutting down feedback loops and covering up imbalances. Thus the savvy urban body's response to sensory overload is to shut down and lose consciousness; thus the urban response to disease is to stifle the symptoms with drugs and not to attempt to find the root of the imbalance causing the disease. "Feeling like a human being" in the city is tied either to some kind of drug trick, in the case of the diseased and the deviant, or to some more subtle severance of mind and body that permits the ambitious to go for the gold in one direction while neglecting other aspects of taking part in humanity.

My inability to feel like a human being in the big city is related to my (more rural) body's lack of a shut-down response to sensory overload. Rather than shut down, my response to the overwhelming experience of being immersed in a New York lifestyle was to try to maintain all connections, involvement, routes to participation in the life of the urbanite, ignoring signs of fatigue, until systems begin to malfunction, one by one-eventually coming around to shut-down just the same, if I didn't cover my symptoms up with drugs. Essentially, my disease can be understood as one of trying to maintain too many connections and retain too much awareness in an environment designed for a million special interest groups, deadly for a generalist. By taking drugs to suppress such an illness, the kind of human being one is able to feel like once again has lost some measure of the generalist's sensitivity for balance and a perspective of a person's role in the more-than-human world. In order to experience urban exhilaration, we seem to need to let something of our human nature fall by the wayside. Feeling good, in the city, slowly and often imperceptibly narrows down into feeling not too much, or not in too many different directions. One can feel like a facsimile of a human being, and, if focussed enough, one can even feel fantastic, but only by giving up the role that feedback has to play in making one fully human, in a more-than-human landscape. The sense of exhilaration offered by wilderness experiences comes precisely from the recognition of such feedback. Like Emerson crossing the bare common or deep in the woods, one can be stuck, of a sudden, by one's connectedness with a continuum of life in which one takes part, and sometimes makes things start, and finish.

I'm fairly convinced, from my meager personal experience, that the search for this kind of exhilarating experience is a recipe for breakdown of some sort in today's city.

My implication is not that to find wonder in the city one must be a dull or dulled person. However, something about the way people appreciate New York, the way my friend responded to overwhelming excitement, and the way my own unhabituated body could not respond, suggests to me that deep appreciation of the city comes from a different place and through a different pathway than deep appreciation of the more-than-human world. In order to be a devotee to the city, one must somehow, in a deep way, reach consensus with all vital organ systems that one wishes to be a spectator of the mystifying human show. To be a lover of nature, of the world that supports but largely goes on around and behind the scenes of the city, a different perspective and full-body adaptation is required-one that aims to take part in whatever comes our way, not to block out the inapplicable and go it alone.

Neither city nor wilderness offers the promise of any less pain, per se. What the city offers is a place and the means to mask one's pain and go forward as if pain were not a requisite part of existence. What the wilderness offers is the chance to learn to treat pain as a way to become more involved, more reciprocally related to the surrounding world, human and non-human, and to one's self, fully. Naturalist author Barry Lopez, in Crossing Open Ground , conceptualizes the offering of exhilaration through wilderness this way:

    The living of life, any life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the Inner Gorge the pain trails away from us. It is not so quiet there or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to; that comes later. You can hear your heart beat. That comes first.

In this context, my illness has been a divine gift-divine because no one could give it to me, I had to find the cause in myself, and divine because no one can take it away, regardless of specialist expertise. Because pain, like love, like beauty, like perfect exhilaration, is out of human control, tied to what is within us as well as that which is beyond us. And this has taught me the most important lesson I could learn from the City-which is what the City cannot teach me. It cannot teach me to listen to or to learn from myself. It cannot teach me to take responsibility for my own health, let alone for the reciprocal relationship of my well being on that of everyone and everything around and within me. I've learned that reciprocity, responsibility, and a broadening sphere of understanding are things from which I derive my own exhilaration and that these may not make me ideally suited for an urbane existence.

Bridget and I made it safely to Monterey Bay. I stayed with her a few days until she woke up and I calmed down. I was feeling better, relying less on prednisone, and soon enough felt the tug to return to New York. I had a strong hunch that returning would mean the end of feeling better, but I had responsibilities that I could hear calling my name. I told Bridget I had to go back. I said I would leave the car with her. When she protested, I launched into a quasi-philosophical explanation of how I believed in lying in the bed I made for myself; of allowing her to follow her own dreams without hijacking them for my own; of testing my body's limits in order to know how far I may go; of the benefits of working against hostility as a way of keeping my enemy close by on faith that my friends will take care of themselves.

Bridget let me finish. Then she said, "I'm just worried about the clutch." She smiled at me, broadly. I nodded back.


Meg Holden is a doctoral student at the New School for Social Research in New York City.  She has published scholarly writing in the Journal for Planning Education and Research and popular non-fiction in Orion Afield, Canadian Dimension, and an upcoming Pigiron Press anthology.  Ms. Holden also writes short stories and poetry.
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