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With autumn waning into winter, the days of #HotNerdFall are fading away. In recognition of this, I wanted to compile and expand upon the tweet threads I started back in September. This was a series I entitled: The Hot Nerd in the Popular Imagination

Search “hot nerd girl” on the internet and you will get countless images like this of women in workout pants and crop tops.

IMG_3859What is “nerdy” about such women? After all, normally there is tension between nerd and jock, between a life of the mind and attention to the bodily form. What makes this apparent gym goer ostensibly a nerd? Glasses. Glasses, it seems, are the universal signifier, and only visual constant, in all images of hot nerd girls. Indeed, clothes are not, and cannot be, the signifier, since even in porn, the category “nerd” will yield you a lot of naked women, but all have glasses on.

There are not, it seems, any actual activities that universally signify nerd-dom. Not being on a computer, or holding books, though these tropes do commonly appear. Hot nerdness, then, is not dependent on a particular behavior; many hot nerds on the internet are, in fact, doing nothing at all, unless you count gazing suggestively at the camera as an activity.

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If, in fact, glasses make the nerd, what makes the nerd hot? Laying aside for now the prerequisites to hotness enforced by the culture (whiteness, thinness), it appears that hot nerds often wear glasses, but do not look through them.

The coy, indirect gaze is not hot nerd specific. It’s common across sexy pics of women of all genres, and has been seemingly forever–old timey women peep over the edge of a paper fan in engravings and drawings, never looking directly at a man. For the nerd, glasses are that prop.

The “looking over the glasses and biting on a pen” pose is a common one in depictions of the hot nerd girl. The irony, of course, lies in the kernel of truth in the nerd-glasses association. Nerds often do wear glasses, because they need them so desperately. Without mine, I cannot drive, or read, or even run, so altered is my depth perception.

If I were to gaze up at you over my glasses from the profundity of my myopia, you would be blurry edged, maybe doubled, unless I squinted like this:

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If glasses are critical to nerdness, then why are the hot nerds so often looking over them at the camera? The hot nerd in such pics has been interrupted, her attention fractured. She looks up, pen in hand, or mouth, because she’s a nerd and she was working, thinking, writing, but now she’s looking at you, because you demanded her attention, much as Dan Bacon, Dating and Relationship Expert for Men, and author of the blog post “How to Talk to a Woman Wearing Headphones” advised (you’ll need to scroll down a bit to get to the how-to bit, but it is absolutely worth it).

The interruption of focus is pertinent to interacting with nerd girls, because, after all, the nerdness of the nerd comes from an intellectual pursuit of some kind. A mind trained on an idea, or a task. Nerds at work will often look something like this, not at all interested in or aware of the camera:

 

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photo by Kristen Covino

Would a nerd dressed in a spiked skateboard helmet, a flower bandana, and a child sized yellow rain slicker who is scowling at a spring balance in the sun ever qualify as a #hotnerd? Maybe, but hot nerds are almost invariably looking at the camera. The exceptions to that rule are instructive.

What are the constraints on HotNerdGirl behavior? She can, presumably, do slightly more than bite a pen while looking over her glasses. Stock photos indicate that she can, for instance, look at a book. But what are the rules?

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If she does intend to read a book, it appears she must be just coming back from, or just about to leave for, an aerobics class. She should be having some thermoregulation challenges that warrant, for example, a combination of a hoodie or sweater, boy shorts, and leg warmers.

She must indicate, through some combination of gestures, that she is nonetheless aware of being looked at and admired. In this example, note the pointing of the toes, which signals this awareness since no person alone and unselfconsciously reading a book would adopt this posture.

If a Nerd previously deemed Hot decides to read in a posture less self-consciously hot, and does so in a wool sweater several sizes too big and a pair of jeans not ever worn outside the house, does she forfeit her hot status? When does the HotNerdGirl become merely a Nerd? In other words, if a NerdGirl reads a book without a man or a camera around to determine her hotness, is she still hot? Is hotness something bestowed by the beholder? Is hotness a state of being, or an activity? If an activity, is it a passive or an active verb?

There is another exception to the rule of needing to gaze at the camera/man for hot nerd girls, and that is the HotNerd, Gamer Phenotype. HotGamerNerdGirls, unlike other HotNerdGirls, do not have to wear glasses. I’m wearing mine here because I genuinely can’t see without them.

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Let’s search the image for familiar tropes. We see workout wear (crop top, leggings): the typical attire for any HotNerdGirl not in a plaid miniskirt and knee socks. Even a cursory internet search indicates that glasses are not actually required of this phenotype. Why this privilege granted to this particular type of HotNerd? I posit that, gaming does not require the myopic intellectualism of other nerd pursuits, while still demanding the flow state/focus/withdrawal from the world that defines the nerd.

This photo took many takes to properly imitate the originals. The combination of enough bodily display, while incorporating the controller into the frame, and making a facial expression that suggests concentration, but still a self-consciousness of sexily being on display was tough. If you look at the faces of people actually immersed in a video game, they do not look self-conscious. They look like this.

The stock photos of HotGamerGirls lack this quality of immersion, which is what defines the nerd, and the subjects in the photos look like maybe they aren’t playing video games at all–like maybe the controller isn’t even connected to anything. There’s a joke in these images, like, “would you believe a girl is gaming?!” Is the girl in on it, or is it like the line in Mad Men where Freddy refers to listening to Peggy think as, “Like watching a dog play the piano.” Clearly not done well, but the very idea is astonishing.

Regardless, we have now run into the fundamental tension in the phrase “Hot Nerd.” A nerd is inward facing, consumed and concentrated, in a flow state, heedless of the regard of others. Hotness seems to require acute awareness of another’s gaze, and an attentiveness to it. Perhaps that’s where the absurdity at the heart of HotNerdGirl stock photos comes from; the incompatibility of the two modifiers. So, is it actually impossible for ANY nerd to be hot? Can that needle be threaded? Can it be threaded by women?

If you search not “hot nerd girl,” but simply “hot nerd” you will get a gender mix but not much racial diversity. Megan Thee Stallion, who originated the hashtag #HotNerdFall appears for that reason, but the images are otherwise dominated by white folks. John Oliver features prominently, and so does Chris Hayes. Most of the non-famous, stock photo HotNerd guys are well muscled, in tight fitting oxford shirts and sweater vests, thick-framed glasses settled above their aggressively angled cheekbones. The silliness, and the tension here is in our perceptions of how nerds allocate their time. The conflict lies between how much effort and hours at the gym would be needed to sculpt such a body, and the intellectual rigor that defines the nerd. Of course, we should ask ourselves, why couldn’t the toned specimen on the treadmill next to yours who is one careless flex away from tearing every seam in his clothing be listening to a recording of Hadley Wickham’s “A Layered Grammar of Graphics” or an audiobook of de Tocqueville on those earbuds?

At least for men, there might be some room for a conception of the hot nerd as one with appetites both mental and physical. Scholar-athletes, philosophical warriors, virile poets; history holds such men in high regard. But what about women?

In her essay “Women, Race, and Memory,” Toni Morrison writes, “rigorous intellect, commonly thought of a male preserve, has never been confined to men, but it has always been regarded as a masculine trait.” This seems contradictory. Male, and masculine, but not seen only in men. Where then, outside of a man, can we find rigorous intellect? Women throughout history have possessed it, but in Morrison’s construct, these women have been definitionally excluded from traditional femininity. Once a woman demonstrates fierce intelligence, she is cast outside the pale. She is, to put it another way, “not like other girls,” and is, in fact, not like a girl at all. She is engaging in men’s work, and committing a transgression.

Nerd-dom, the state of immersion, the training of a formidable intellect on an object of complete focus is inward-oriented. It is a looking-away, a loss of awareness of the body. The stock photo HotNerdGirl looking into the camera, and at the presumptive man behind it, reflects the joke at the heart of it; she can’t be a nerd and be looking at you like that. The nerdness and the hotness cannot exist in the same place and time for a woman. The amplitude of the two waves are opposite and cancel each other.

I tried to make a photo of myself in a genuine state of nerdiness. I set my camera on a timer and set it beside me while I worked so I would forget it was there and see what I look like when I am not aware of being observed. I clothed myself in the layers of corduroy and wool and fleece that I choose when I am home alone in winter, heedless of the opinions of others. But still, there was a trace in each photo that I was conscious of the lens. There was the faintest trace of a smile in all of them, that classically female social signal. I know my face at rest, alone, focused. To most people it looks mad, bitchy. But that is my flow state, my immersed intellect. It is inherently anti-social, and, it would seem, not entirely compatible with being a woman.

 

 

 

The 25 year mark

I have a pair of jeans in my closet from the mid-90s. Heavily patched, and in the faded wash that was popular then, they weren’t always mine. They were handed down to me by my boyfriend when he outgrew them. I thought of myself as an adult at the time, fifteen years old or so, and he the same age, but the fact that he was still getting taller argues that we were both, literally, not full grown.

I kept journals then, and still do, a habit I started when I was seven and have mostly maintained since then. These journals are silent on exactly when I met Christophe, twenty-five years ago when we were in high school, aged fourteen. That fall, I didn’t know a soul at the prep school I had been admitted to on scholarship with very little understanding of what a prep school was. My journals indicate a frenetic leaping from crush to crush, some on teachers, some on students, some appearing to last only a day or two, though I did not date any of the entries, so it’s difficult to know. I don’t remember meeting Christophe, and the event was not remarkable enough to make it into the journal. Some days or weeks later, he appears, in a passage reporting, “I stayed overnight at school and we went to see Jurassic Park. I have decided to like Christophe. He’s nicer than [name redacted].” My reasons for liking him? “1. Extremely intelligent, 2. Devout Democrat, 3. He even likes Star Trek.” Entry after entry exists in a timeless agony of wondering if he likes me, wishing he would like me, deciding I don’t like him after all, declaring that I love him. Then, we become again anchored in chronology at the line, “I have never liked any one person for this long before; it’s been a week!” It ended up being longer than a week. The elder of the two children we now have together is far closer to fourteen years old than we are. Listening to that child talk about his interests and plans, I sometimes feel at a far remove, observing him from the outside with his mix of adolescent fanaticism and grown up plans, the obsessive, shifting fixations of childhood, but the creeping in of adult understandings of limitations—of time, of money.

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By early in spring semester of our first year in high school, Christophe and I were going out, boyfriend/girlfriend. What the adults at the time called “going steady,” which confused our generation because we had no model of casually dating from which going steady would be an intensification. We had three categories of people: just-friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, and hook ups. They were mutually exclusive, and I spent pages fretting over whether I might be relegated to the just-friends land of no return. I can read my journal only in short stints because, through the delightful hilarity of listening to my young self, the cringes make little stabs at my heart and they accumulate. I have no doubt my journal is very like the journal of any other smart, introverted fourteen-year-old girl writing mostly about her boyfriend, occasionally about math class. I’d thought I might find the early signs of the unusual profundity of our connection, indicators of how different it was from everyone else’s comparative paucity of emotion, but in fact, everyone who falls in love believes she’s the first, perhaps the only, person on Earth to do it. It wasn’t in its origins that our story was any different, or in the special chemistry in our brains, or in the fervor of our pledges. It was in what happened after. How we stayed.

In vet school, we learned a lot about how scientists had a learned a lot from knockout models of mice. I have a drawing from a class where I sketched a sexy mouse Jessica Rabbit style in a slinky dress with a high leg slit and the words “knockout mouse model?” above it. I passed my notebook to the friend beside me, and she wrote back, “Way out of my league. It’s like she doesn’t even see me.” The back and forth went on for pages. I took very little by way of actual notes in vet school, but I did glean that the real meaning of a knockout model is a clever one: find a region of DNA you think might be related to some function, remove or disable that piece of DNA, and see what changes about the mouse in its absence. If the heart malfunctions, then the missing piece had something to do with heart function. It’s a crude tool in a way, since the effects of each gene are entwined with so many others, augmenting, or downgrading, calibrating, interfering, catalyzing. When I tell people I am married to the boyfriend I had at fourteen, I realize I have told myself a story of our unusual maturity and advanced emotional capacity at the time, and we had those, but if I want to claim those parts of myself, then I have to claim the whole. I was probably the more typical of our age, between the two of us. Christophe’s maturity was preternatural, a level of calm and reason that only now is beginning to seem age appropriate, nearing forty. Lacking the ability to articulate my insecurities and genuine bewilderment that he loved me, I repeatedly pretended I was breaking up with him just to watch his reaction. I was running him as a knockout mouse model, able to understand the effects of my attention and affection only by rescinding it and seeing what happened after. I used to do something like it to my parents, once hiding for a long period at night and listening to them get increasingly agitated over my absence. It was self-absorbed, cruel, and typically childish. I would outgrow it eventually, and Christophe was still there.

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I tried on the jeans the other day. They were always much too big for me, baggy, and with sedimentary patch layers of calico in the areas of heavy wear at the seat and the knees. I keep them at the back of the same closet where my old journals are stacked. They are unwearable for both their size and their style, impractical as an item of clothing, but with a meaning greater than the sum of their parts.

We were on a long trip this summer, listening to music for hours. There was a song that compared the singer’s lover to a firefly. I thought it was beautiful, but something about it bothered me, and sat in the back of my head for days. I thought about fireflies that, at that time of year, were still streaking through our yard at night. They use the light to attract mates, but also to obscure. They will blink their Morse code for a meter or two, and then go dark, sometimes suddenly changing direction at the same time so predators will keep chasing in a straight line and lose them. They balance all the time the need to catch the attention of a mate with the need to evade death, and, above all, their season is brief.

In my old journal, I record a question a friend asked me about Christophe—bemused that I reported not tiring of him even when all we did was “talk for six hours straight.” I, in turn, was bemused that she found it strange. Six hours easy. I remain susceptible to extended conversations: long, deep-diving ones that turn, and double back, and grow convoluted and threaded through with ideas on ideas. There have been others besides Christophe who have engaged my head this way, until, hours having passed unnoticed as the talk turned and burrowed and leaped subjects, I have recognized that feeling again, a synesthesia that makes me swear the lights in the room just pulsed brighter, and then know it’s the incandescent current in my own mind livening to another.

There are always people who ask the questions out loud, and the politer ones who ask it only in their heads: “Then, you two, you were each other’s first? And only? This whole time?” Never a mis-step, they mean, romantically, or sexually, never a vague period where we were sort of broken up and other people stepped into the breach of murkiness and lack of definition? There never was, but neither was there the presumption of step and mis-step, of toeing the line, of guarding against infidelity.

The meditation practice I follow ends with this convention: after watching the mind for a period, and not trying to constrain or control thought, but nonetheless noting when it wanders, we are finally invited to abandon all focus on the breath or any other work of meditation, and instead let the mind be free to do whatever and go wherever it wants. At those moments, perversely it seemed for a while, my mind would go utterly blank. It could not think of a thing to think. It was like gray static, emptied of all the anxieties, and lists, and frettings that had plagued it a moment before. The mind that had been straying, straining at its harness so hard that my neck muscles were tensed trying to keep it in the room, now slumped against the wall. Free to do whatever it wanted, it ceased to want anything at all. The questions people pose, about twenty-five years of what they suppose is a clench-jawed, white-knuckled monogamy, have at their core a model of fear, of scarcity, of loss. It isn’t that there have not been other desires, other longings, that there have not been dreams some nights of other people that tinge the whole day after that color, that there has not been melancholy, sometimes. But the acts I did not perform, the bodies I did not touch, the minds I could not fully know, were constrained by circumstance, imprudence, a risk of harm to others I would not assume. They were never constrained by fear, or threat of loss. And when there is nothing to strain against, you find the line goes slack, the mind slips the hook and goes free.

There have been some who have stitched a bright thread in the darkness, whose paths are luminous and beautiful, but whose seasons are brief. When I come home at the end of the day, a weary introvert doing work that requires my angled intellect to contact and be worn and abraded by the world, he patches the threadbare places again and again. He is not only his intelligence, his politics, or his love of Star Trek, as it turns out. He is more than any exhaustive list of virtues, though I could make one. He is no firefly, nor only a tailor making patient repairs. He is not to me what I thought he would be when we were fourteen, though the outline was already there, sketched with our simple implements in the space between us. What he has been, for decades now, is my gravity, my courage, and my freedom.

 

The White Mountain Milers Half Marathon is an end of summer race technically, but a shoulder season one this far into New Hampshire. The weather is unpredictable. Two years ago, I’m told, it poured. Last year, it snowed. This year’s race fell on a day with temperatures pushing eighty. I run races to keep my husband, and now my son, company. They both are drawn to organized running events for different reasons: one for a source of motivation and a reason to get off the couch, the other out of a deep competitive drive that goes almost rabid sometimes. He doesn’t like to be beaten, and for now, I am still faster than he is–a dry crust that sticks in his throat, I can tell.

We ran together, all three of us, for the first six or seven miles until I began to pull away. On a long run, you find a lot of things to keep you going, shifting sources of purpose, small mental games.  A few miles in, I often get a wave of conviction that I cannot, in fact, do this. Or that I do not want to, or that there is no point to it. It happened this time as I made a sharp turn that led into a minor climb. I thought suddenly of a picture I’d taken of myself after a workout. Holding my phone up to a mirror, I was naked from the waist up, looking straight at the lens, a sheen of sweat on my sternum catching the bathroom light. I had sent it to my husband, but since then, had pulled it up for myself half a dozen times. I thought, as I ran, “you’re doing this so you can look like that,” but the thought sounded hollow, like no reason at all, and I left it alone.

fullsizeoutput_2238The race course is familiar to me, and I have run and biked the route before. I got through a couple hundred yards cataloging all the times I have traversed certain sections of road, remembering particularly the time I got lost while cross country skiing and emerged from the woods five miles from home without my phone. I walked back in my boots, my skis over my shoulder as the light died and I tried not to get panicky. I could see that scene so vividly that I looked across the road at where I’d slogged in the gritted gray snow, and I nodded to my own ghost.

I don’t generally have any particular time goal for my races, or any plan to try and place. I just see how hard I can push myself and stay this side of vomiting by the end. Around mile eight though, I realized I had started to try and pick off certain runners, targeting and then passing them. There was a theme to it. I passed plenty of male runners of all ages without a thought. One I followed for a while, a fit, sixty something guy I named Baldy McCalves in my head. I passed him too. I passed women my age and older, but was indifferent to those. It was the young women, uniformed in capri leggings or Nike shorts, halter tanks over cute sports bras with complicated strap patterns, shoulder tattoos. I began to invent a complex social hierarchy among them, with status indicated by the height of their high ponytails. They are known by many names: “VSCO girls,” “basic bitches.” They are an age and type familiar to me in my work as a college professor. One after another I passed them, imagining them as my quarry. Then I had one in my sights, a hundred yards ahead, who I took for their queen. She’d elevated her pony so high she’d instead made it into a messy bun. She wore heathered gray tights and a matching sports bra. I gained on her, closing the distance, and then passing, noting, and inexplicably hating, her neon yellow earbuds. I left her behind, not looking back, and her footfalls faded behind me. The runners were strung out across the remaining miles and there was no one left within sight to pass. Feeling sheepish about the elaborate and weird campaign I’d waged against a bunch of young women all out doing exactly the same thing I was, I thought about something that the voice in my meditation app had said a day or so ago. I was meditating on difficult relationships, on people who grate, and aggravate, and the man said that often, these feelings come from noticing something in someone else that we recognize, and dislike, in ourselves.

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The expression of someone interrupted mid-post-race-waffle.

I filed through the catalog of women I’d passed in their cute running clothes, as I’d sneered internally at them for wanting to be looked at. But hadn’t I done the same? Choosing the most fitted, scoop neck running shirt I own? Had I not considered how it might look in photos? Had I not also stood in front of a mirror taking naked selfies to send to a man? Of course, the voice in my meditation app was right. He always is. I thought again of that picture of myself, about the hollowness I’d felt in thinking about it as a goal in itself. To run, to lunge and drop into pushups a hundred times, two hundred, in a dank summer basement, only to be looked at, was shallow. But there was something else, something unshallow I felt whenever I looked at it. I admired myself aesthetically, to be sure: the shadowed declivity between my oblique and my hip bone, the corrugated ridges of my abdominals, the muscled shoulders held square to the mirror. It was an honest picture, taken to be looked at, but un-posed. I had not arranged myself to flatter or suggest, I had not taken and deleted several others first. I had looked dead on at myself and taken it as I stood.

At mile twelve, I had begun to fear I could not continue. A short but grueling rise had me briefly walking, hands on knees. Tides of bile rose and receded in my throat, and strange tingling rills ran up the nerves of my scalp. A race worker near the final turn pointed to a fit man with veined calves ahead of me and shouted, “Get that guy! Beat him!” The fit man made a vague wave backward as if to concede, and I passed him too, willing myself not to vomit. I thought of the picture again, only this time, I knew what it was for, the picture, and the body it depicted. I wasn’t running so that my body would continue to look like that. I was running because I had constructed my body to run. I look at that picture again and again to remind myself of my capacity, of the strength and speed in this beloved, maintained machine that almost always does whatever I ask of it. Until the final turn, I’d been following my own shadow, fuzz-edged in the slant morning light. But the chute to the finish line faced into the sun, and as I hit that straightaway, I cornered until I could not see my shadow image anymore at all, and crossed the line alone.

There is a picture in a book I read about the trail builders in the White Mountains back in the 1800s; there are women and men in the picture, the women in heavy woolen skirts, and they are taking a break from their labors, sitting on boulders and looking away from the camera. The book described the notorious steepness of New Hampshire’s trails, and explains this with a character commentary on Yankees. For them, work and play were, if not synonymous, then entwined. On these idylls away from Boston, the trail blazers tramped into the woods, and, seeing a summit they’d like to visit, cut trails straight up. Shortest linear distance, with no switchbacks or grades to accommodate horses, just a track from point A to point B, come streambed, come rock ledge, come Triassic syenite or volcanic bedrock. The building of the trails was their recreation, if not a pleasure. These Yankees sought strenuous exertion and usefulness. I am an heir to this regional culture, suspicious of hedonism, which I define as anything where personal enjoyment overbalances utility. Friends have recommended and invited me to spa treatments, massages, mani/pedis, but I have always declined. What I do instead is go to the dentist.

There is an outward similarity between the spa and the dentist: the reclining in a padded chair, the turning over of control, the quiescence and resignation to be ministered to. Someone will turn her whole focus to one part of your body, and the rest of you will recede while she labors. I went to the dentist for a crown. I’d never had one, and was unclear about what the process meant, or what the crown itself was. The dentist and the assistant passed things back and forth across the space above my face, and the side of my head pressed into his flank when he reached for something on the far side of me. There were clicking sounds, and the drill’s whir. Then he used a sort of camera that he dragged all around my teeth, and up on the computer screen beside me emerged a 3D rendering of my molars against a black background. The topography emerged pixel by pixel, as he maneuvered the camera into the cramped spaces at the back of my mouth. It was like watching a documentary of deep sea exploration, an abyssal plain and mountainscape glimpsed through the lens of a remotely operated submarine. There was something unnerving about the picture, my teeth and jaw with the cheek and tongue sheared away. There was a feeling of seeing something not meant to be seen, or only seeable once something has gone badly wrong. Like deep sea fishes dragged to the surface and deformed and disfigured by the pressure difference. Like the toad I saw on the sidewalk in winter after a brief warm spell that must have tricked it into emerging, and where it died when the temperatures dropped again. Someone had stepped on it, and its innards, pearlescent as the inside of a mussel shell, were extruded from its mouth. He’d literally been downtrodden, had literally spilled his guts and would never make any sound again, and what was smeared on the sidewalk were the parts that are only revealed when you’re dead. My tooth picture was like that. I lay in the chair thinking of the phrase “obtain her dental records,” blandly technical, but summoning the same kind of dread as “dragging the lake.”

The dentist worked for a while, and then took another topography. The tooth needing the crown startled me. It was ground down, a burred nub, shortened to a squared off bolt in my jaw. The tooth itself had been drilled away, atomized, floating in submicroscopic bits around the room. I didn’t realize this was what a crown meant–replacing the whole top part of the tooth with a porcelain facsimile, shape and color matched to the original, while the original dissipated in a spindrift of saliva and rinse water.

I was left unattended for a while then, my mouth propped open on a plastic wedge, while some kind of cement dried. A timer counted down the minutes, and the dentist went to check on another patient. I thought about my ground away tooth, and my missing atoms, and about Democritus, the ancient Greek who proposed that everything, humans included, was just a temporary assemblage of particles that would eventually fall away from each other again, lose form, and dissipate. I contemplated this until, alone in the chair with no one wielding a suction tube, my saliva began to pool at the back of my throat. I could not close my mouth to swallow. I turned my head to the side, trying to keep my airway clear. Panicky, I pictured my larynx slowly subsumed by the rising tide. I pictured Tiger Lily tied to an anchor on the rock in Peter Pan as the water lapped and overtopped her. I sat up and pulled out the wedge and spat and alarmed the assistant who peered in and cried, “You can’t close your mouth!” I dutifully laid back, replaced the wedge, and calming again, thought how desperately, how dearly, I hold my atoms together. How, when threatened, keeping this assemblage of particles gathered in the form that is recognizably me draws all my focus and attention, until I am barest, narrow, instinct. No one’s teacher, no one’s friend, no one’s mother, no one’s wife, just a collection of matter around the endangered breath, and fear.

The dentist came back and popped the temporary crown in place over the ground down nub. He told me to be careful of it for the next few days, to treat it gingerly. That there’d been a fracture in the tooth that he’d repaired, but that the jangly nerve beneath would remember for a while. I would need to come back in two weeks for the permanent crown, which would be crafted in a lab somewhere to look just like my old tooth. He turned me loose and I went home and over the next hours the numbness gave way to an ache and heat in the jaw, and I avoided that side whenever I ate, and I was a satisfied Yankee, sore and tired, having spent useful hours doing something that needed to be done.

The permanent crown is in now, and it is a reasonable facsimile, though smoother and glassier than my real tooth was. The scan of my jaw is stored as bits of data on the dentist’s computer system until someone calls it forth, if they ever do. His little camera turns its light on some other person’s dental arcade, their seafloor trenches, and then afterwards what is meant to stay in darkness returns to darkness. But I remember the picture, my teeth with their cragged surfaces gray and cold as the moon. Only everyone has seen the moon, pocked and pitted, distinguished by its damage. My tongue seeks out the side of my lab-built tooth, sleek, impervious to decay, a shade brighter than the old one, and I wonder where my atoms are.

Free, solo

Once a year, in June, I hike up Mount Isolation in New Hampshire to survey for the Mountain Bird Watch. It’s a citizen science project, so we are all volunteers contributing sightings, and sometimes I think it’s because you couldn’t pay anyone to do this work. Isolation lives up to its name in one respect: it’s seven miles from the nearest road, which is pretty far in New England wilderness terms. Last year, I took that shortest route in, but this year I opted for the longer Davis Path. I was seeking the brain calming effects that ten solitary trail miles usually brings.

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For the first couple of miles, the trail is well used, leading to a spur at Mt. Crawford with good views of the Presidential Range. Most of the men I met along the way felt compelled to ask me questions that were so consistent and predictable, it seemed I was auditioning people who had studied a common script: “Camping out overnight? Are you alone? Where you headed?” Some asked out of curiosity, some bewilderment, some from concern, but it is universally creepy to be asked details on these things by men I don’t know. The people who would need to know where to look for my body have already received my itinerary, so I offer evasive or misleading responses to these men. Some go on to offer advice, which I benignly accept, despite my extensive experience in the wilderness. I did aid a father and daughter who had wandered off trail onto the ledges in finding their way back, listening to the aggrieved man bewail the lack of trail markings. I refrained from explaining that wilderness areas have deliberately limited signage, and at the next trail junction, we parted ways.

The last group I encountered before I passed into the farther reaches of the wilderness beyond the popular trails looked to be made up of four or so women in their 60s and 70s. As I stepped aside to let them by, I heard a reedy male voice from the back of the line saying, “and then the market collapsed, just like the market for sheep in New England back in the 1800s…” and so on. The women “mmmm-hmmmmed” and “really?”-ed along ahead of him. One of them, seeing me, almost said “good morning” and then stopped and said, “No, it can’t STILL be the morning, can it?” “Oh no,” I told her, “You are well into it now.” She smiled, and they all paraded past, his voice uninterrupted.

After that, I walked seven more miles to my camping spot without human contact. The trail gets vague in places, and wandered down a stream bed a while before realizing my error. I circled around, retracing the trail, searching for the broken end of it, briefly bushwhacking through a spruce stand before I picked up the trace again. In other spots, the ungroomed trail would disappear straight into a wall of balsam, becoming less a trail, and more a faith-based initiative in plunging in and through, hoping to set my feet invisibly right.

Some trails permit an easy rhythm of steps, and let the mind wander, but the Davis Path depends strenuous attention. The rigors, though exhausting, were what I craved. My mind has trouble staying where it is, instead slipping forward into the potential catastrophes of the future, or sliding backward to lament past acts. It lurches and wobbles like a person learning to roller skate. Hard trails dictate presence of mind. At the higher elevations, there was still, intermittently, snow pack, and places where moose had traversed it and punched through the crust with their enormous hooves. Mud pits and snowmelt sluices soaked my feet and legs to the calves.

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Davis Path in June. No way through but through.

I planned a stop on Mt. Davis to see the views and eat something, but the moment I stopped moving, I was beset by black flies. They filled my ear canals and nose, and lodged in the canthi of my eyes. I could feel them in my hair and crawling up under my shirt cuffs. I scarfed my food and bolted back down the spur trail and kept moving. It was only five o’clock when I pitched my tent and crawled in seeking respite. For hours, I read and listened to the drone and pelt of insect bodies against the nylon.

The Mountain Bird Watch survey protocol requires a start time well before sunrise, so by 3:30 am I was on the trail again. At my first survey station, the dawn filters into the space left by a massive blowdown of trees that happened several years ago. All in the same direction they lie prostrate toward the east. Too dark to see much at that hour, I mainly listen for the birds. A white-throated sparrow announced itself and received a reply from a rival. A hermit thrush called at the very edge of my hearing. A Swainson’s thrush called close behind me and as I noted it in my data sheet, I heard a thrum of wings and felt wings brush against my pant leg. I turned around to see the Swainson’s on a branch ten feet from my head, one leg thrust in front the other, still, and staring at me, as I was at him, neither of us quite having expected the other.

x0Gi64HOSjePvCBBL5cMqQThere were five more stations to survey after that, and by the time I was done, it was past seven and I started back down the trail to go home. I mostly moved fast enough to keep ahead of the flies, but in the wet places the mosquitoes would rouse themselves at my passing. Their whine sometimes sounds like a suggestion of human voices, and I calibrate my time away from society by what feeling that elicits. Early in my hiking trips, the thought of engaging anyone in conversation, however briefly, fills me with tiredness, or sometimes dread. After a day away, I handle the prospect with more equanimity. Every time I mistake mosquitoes for people talking, the last line of Prufrock springs into my head, “Till human voices wake us, and we drown,” and then I puzzle over that line for a quarter mile or so.

The way back out is as long as the way in, but I was tired, and fly-bitten, and my thoughts mostly  narrowed to, “Can someone come and carry me?” But there were times when the trail was easier, where it was dry, where the thin veneer of glacial soil had worn away off the bedrock under decades of human traffic, and where the trail is like that, I think I am walking on an enormous skull with the skin split open and I am in the wound. I remember a fragment of a poem a student a year ahead of me in high school had written. It was left on a table in my English classroom, and it was about the goddess Athena. I remember only one phrase, “gray-eyed Aegean girl” and nothing else, except my astonishment that a girl my age had written her own poem, that she had dared to, that she claimed herself a poet, and written about this wise goddess born straight from the mind of Zeus, a headache from the very beginning.

KS2jCOksSMKmW95+5oDwwwThere isn’t much of that easy sort of trail on the Davis Path, and I was relieved to get back to the lower miles where I began to encounter people again. I could gauge my proximity to the trailhead by how dirty and tired people looked, so when I met a family, a man, a woman, and a teenager, looking utterly crisp and chipper, I knew I was almost done. The man stopped me and asked about the bugs. “Pretty bad,” I told him, and his face fell. “The moment I stopped to take in the view, I was under siege. It happened on the nice sunny ledges too.” He frowned and said, “That’s not what I read online on the trail reports. Online people said the bugs were bad on other trails but not this one.” He stared at me, and I shrugged. My face, I would discover later, was streaked with blood, and there were raised welts around my neck and along my jaw. My ears were swollen twice their normal size, their whorls and helices looking shiny and rubbery red, like a poor first attempt at balloon animals. My hat where it had been in contact with my ears was bloodstained. “I don’t know what to tell you. They are really terrible. Disfiguring, in fact,” I said to him. His wife was silent but looking more and more concerned. “Well, online no one said anything about that.” He questioned some more, and I told him where I’d been, and how long I’d been out. Finally I said, “I wish you the best, but it is the flies’ time out there. We are only interlopers.” The wife’s eyes tracked me, almost pleading, as I turned to go.  As I walked away, I felt the calm surety that always comes after exhausting myself in the wilderness. Whatever that man said or thought was not my concern, and could not trouble me. I existed fully in the moment I inhabited, sore, bloodied, blistered, but with my mind at ease, neither in front of me nor behind, and with my skates fully under me now.

On noticing

On the Schoodic Peninsula, north of Mt. Desert Island in Maine, we went to a bakery that a man runs out of his house. He sells his goods in the sunroom. We bought coffee and bread, and then he offered us the Sunday New York Times, missing only a few sections, which a customer leaves with him every week, and which he never has time to read because of all the baking that needs to be done. We took it, and drove to the sea.

IMG_1564At the shore, there were some white people, rich, generations safe and clear of any laboring past, who had given their children agrarian village names like Thatcher and Mason. The family gathered by the water, and someone tried to herd the kids who were pelting each other with rose hips. I watched three dolphins cruise by in the shallows, unnoticed.They were close enough in to hear the chuff of their exhalations when they surfaced. A herring gull flustered up and pounced into the water five times before coming up with the crab. An eagle crossed the cove. A friend of the family rearranged the grouping, had everyone shuffle just left a little, angle toward me. Cadence’s attention was flagging; get her to look up. This would be the Christmas photo card, and it would be admittedly lovely, no one could deny that. It reminds me of Bruegel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” I have wide gaps in my education, and art history is one, so I had never seen the painting before I read about it in Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I looked the painting up with Auden’s gloss already in mind, and searched for anyone in the painting who might have noticed Icarus drowning. The people are all looking away, and even the sheep are inattentive. Only one bird, holding a hunched, maybe alert, posture on a branch overlooking the sea seems to maybe notice the legs disappearing into the water, and if she did, it was probably only long enough to realize that the shape plummeting down was not a falcon in stoop, but a boy falling through the air.

1280px-Pieter_Bruegel_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_IcarusWhy does any living thing notice the things it notices? There have been studies done on shearwaters to investigate how they find their way across a featureless ocean. Suspecting it was by scent, researchers began testing this by dousing the birds’ nasal passages with zinc sulfate, which renders the birds temporarily anosmic: deprived of the ability to smell. The birds are then released and followed with tracking devices. Some activities are not impaired by the lack of smell; the birds can generally find food and gain weight, and some do eventually find their way home, even after being dropped off hundreds of miles away, but their way-finding is altered. If they are near shore, they stay close to it, using features of the coastline to orient, like a visual tapping of a white cane. Species that usually migrate at night might shift to day time travel to better see these landmarks. But many birds wander aimlessly for the duration of their scent-blindness. I think about these birds all the time, released after the rinsing, their mental maps blanked out. What is in their minds? A gray static where the knowledge used to be? An urge for home, but no idea how to begin heading back to it? Panic?

D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Self Pity” reads in its entirety,

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

The first time I ever read this, it seemed true, and noble. But I have been among birds long enough now to find it absurd. What would make anyone think this? How would he ever know? Because birds don’t have expressive eyebrows that pinch together in a cartoon expression of anguish, we conclude they are either too stoic, or too dumb to their own suffering to understand it?

The literal disorientation of the shearwaters strips away one of the ways they make sense of the world. Eventually, the destroyed cells lining their nostrils are replaced and they can sense again. I wonder what that return feels like. It must come bit by bit, as each cell matures and links up into the brain pathway, until the map is fully restored. Does the shearwater even notice it returning? If there was fear, when does the fear recede? If there is relief, does it flood in all at once?

Farther inland on the peninsula, we went for a walk along old dirt carriage roads. A bird darted out of the shrubs and flew straight towards us, only veering left at the last possible second. A garter snake saw us, and tensing in fear, dipped its tongue toward the grass, startling an inattentive grasshopper. I love these chains of inattention, of failing to notice. I have watched a 30 second video of a black bear startled by a grouse over and over again. The bear saunters along, and then, as the grouse explodes from the underbrush, the bear jolts backward and you can see her haunches quiver for a second after the rest of her goes still and, head back, she stares at the departing bird. What is in these creatures’ minds in the moments before their attention snaps to the present?

The Schoodic Peninsula is a good place for an introvert. There aren’t many people around. When people are around, and I have to speak to them, I feel a bit like the shearwaters after the nostril rinse. I am blinkered, self-conscious, unable to fully process what is happening. I cannot noticewhen I am interacting. My second son is the only extrovert in our family. You can see his craving for contact as he roams the house and prods the rest of us, each in turn, to talk to him. The three of us peer out at him, molluscan, from our shells, observing, bewildered, exhausted. He asks me, if I could have a choice of superpowers, what would I choose: telekinesis, mind-reading, or invisibility? Invisibility, of course, I tell him.

At the oceanside, the family finishes the photo shoot, and the dolphins have moved on.  The shot was well-framed already, but may need further cropping and finessing at home to show them all in their best light. If it were Bruegel’s painting, it would be foreground to the exclusion of what is left of Icarus. There would be no sign of him.

My son asks me again about the superpowers. This time the choices are flying, teleporting, or invisibility. Invisibility, I tell him again. I want to be able to be in the world without anyone knowing I’m there. He is incredulous that I would not choose flying, but it all ends the same in the long run. Ask Icarus.