It's been a while since my last navel-gazy post, right? I feel like I need a navel-gazy tag.
As part of my ongoing quest to figure out what makes my brain tick, and get as much ability to hack it for my own ends as possible, I had been left in the last couple years with a major question mark: where did the wanderlust come from?
I had gotten as far as saying that it's an "arational" hobby, in that it's not irrational as in harmful, but not rational as in derived from my values and commitments, aside from the fact that I think people should do what makes them happy if it doesn't actively harm other people.
Now, I readily acknowledge that all my interests and passions are at some level arational. Being an intellectually driven individual may keep me and my family fed and prosperous, and may make some small positive contributions to the world, but I could have been driven by some other passion, like landscaping, and been really good at it and made people happy and fed my family. Many people live rich and rewarding lives without ever cracking a book for pleasure, and I respect that (more than a lot of bookworms, I think). I think education is important for a number of reasons, but if you want to treat it as a means to an end and only get what you need for the purposes of being a veterinarian and devoting your whole life to your passion for animals, more power to you.
My brain happened to give me passion for learning, and I'm fine with that. I value learning, and my passion feels very ego-syntonic.
But while I can tie a lot of my interests and preferences together under an "intellectual/living inside my head" umbrella, I couldn't fit wanderlust into that umbrella. It's an obvious outlier.
To the point where on the drive through Alaska last year, I was telling my travel buddy that I can sit for hours in a car quite happily doing nothing, as long as the car is moving. And I am someone who can't stand to sit around doing nothing, I have to be mentally occupied at practically all times. It's why I have such a low tolerance for casual social interactions.
This navel-gazing came out of reading and watching famous free climber Alex Honnold, so I'm going to quote here from Alone on the Wall to give you an idea:
Recently a journalist asked me if I could stop climbing for stretches at a time.
“Sure,” I answered.
“You mean you could go for, say, a month without climbing?” he asked.
“Hell, no!” I blurted out. “Not a month! I thought you meant three days.”
That's pretty much exactly how I feel about reading/writing/learning. Actually, three days is pushing it, but I suppose I've managed it when I'm severely sleep-deprived or injured.
Unless I'm on a road trip. If I'm in a car and the car is moving, and my basic food+water+restroom needs are met, a month of not being intellectually challenged wouldn't be hard. Yet traveling isn't that important to me at a deep passionate level. It's just something I've found I enjoy doing, to the point where it's how I like to spend my couple vacation weeks a year.
Much to my surprise, because all my historical and art historical interests are in Europe and I have *no* interest in the United States, I discovered in the last few years that I would actually choose a North American road trip over a European tourism trip. Yes, it's cheaper, yes, I plan on going back to Europe (and in fact had a British Isles trip lined up last year before I had to cancel it), yes it's largely about the relative ease of getting those food+water+restroom* needs met in a country where I speak the language and am familiar with the options, but a huge component in my willingness to invest in a road trip through the States is that, when you factor in the stress levels of navigating an unfamiliar location, the value of sitting in a car surpasses the value of getting excited about any particular destination, which is why I've been to 49 states and still haven't been to Greece (okay, as a semi-classicist, I'm sort of ashamed of the Greece thing, but I will get there eventually, promise).
* I'm not saying Europe is short on these things. In fact, they're often superior to ours. The problem is that I have extremely many food constraints, and have gone entire three week road trips eating at IHOP literally every day, and that made the trip a million times easier, and Europe doesn't have IHOPs!!
So why the *hell* is sitting in a moving car such a big deal?! It's such a big deal that when my boss and the sysadmin and I were driving up to visit another company office, I really just wanted to ask if we could keep driving nowhere in particular, not because I didn't like work, but because I really just wanted to keep sitting in a moving car. I am someone who will desperately try to get out of company social events because I'd rather be working! (I dislike attending social events than anyone I know.)
But moving car!
What the hell, brain?
So as part of my quest to build an increasingly fleshed out but always oversimplified model of the human brain, I recently read that dopamine is what gets released when you travel and see new places. It's specifically dopamine because of that moving goalpost: the thing is exciting when it's new, but boring as soon as it's familiar.
Well, that was a huge click! for me. I have always been extremely dopamine-driven. I mean, humans are, but I'm pretty in touch with how my constant need for intellectual stimulation, the fact that I was singled out by a bunch of students getting a PhD as the "goal-oriented" one, and the way I can get absolutely in the zone when writing or coding or some such, is driven by dopamine. And the fact that I got much more willing to have casual chats with my wife when I started knitting, because even though I wasn't knitting anything in particular (because I'm unwilling to come outside of my head long enough to learn more than one stitch), the act of knitting was releasing just enough dopamine in my brain that I was able to talk about something that wasn't on its own stimulating enough. Also, there's a whole discussion to be had about the fact that my relationship with my partner is an extremely goal-oriented, dopamine-driven one.
So..."sit in car, car moves, brain releases dopamine" goes a looong way toward explaining what's up with my wanderlust.
But why car? Other people get their dopamine kicks from gambling, from substance addictions, from shopping, from all sorts of things. I happen to get mine from seeing new places.
Was getting dinner tonight, and I was asking myself this question *yet again*, and I was talking to myself, and I said, "I wasn't born with it, that I recall. I remember when it started, around age nine--"
And that's when the other penny dropped. What happened around age nine for me? My parents' parenting techniques started to feel restrictive, as right around the same time I started to feel intellectually starved as well as tied to the house and overprotected. I was going crazy from lack of dopamine. This is, I eventually figured out, twenty years later, why I started fighting with my parents around age ten, and didn't stop until I moved out and went to college. The ways in which you keep a six-year-old safe results in a much happier six-year-old than it does a ten- or twelve- or fifteen- or seventeen-year-old.
Around age nine/ten, I was ready to start doing things my parents weren't going to let me do until I moved out.
My very first memory of wanderlust was sitting at the school bus stop half a block from my house, and looking across the street at one row of houses, the small field behind the houses, the fence that marked the edge of the base, and the wooded area on the other side of the fence, and desperately wanting to cross the street and at least walk up to the fence.
I was not allowed to walk across the street on my own.
That was fine when I was six. When I had this memory, it was right before we moved back to the States from Japan. We moved a couple months before my tenth birthday.
My second memory of wanderlust was the road trip we did from Seattle, where we landed, down to our new home in New Mexico. Yes, I was going crazy sitting in a car with three younger siblings all driving me crazy. But I listed off the states we were going to travel through to my mom, and I deviously snuck Nevada in there, and when she agreed those were the states, I said, "Ha! Now we have to go to Nevada. No, you said those were the states we're going to!" Then I got a patient explanation of how my dad only had so many days off work to make this trip and we had to use them wisely. So we didn't get to go to Nevada.
Once we arrived in New Mexico, my childhood is one long memory of desperate wanderlust and wanting to escape and feeling trapped. It's the story of my next eight years of life, but perhaps most intensely the next four, because that's when I was most intensely intellectually starved.
This is also EXACTLY when I latched onto Tolkien. Right as we were leaving Japan and the house was devoid of entertainment for small children, my mother mentioned hobbits and told us to pretend we were hobbits. She gave me a vague explanation of what she remembered a hobbit as being. In the base library, we took The Hobbit off the shelf and read the first page, but we couldn't check it out because we were leaving imminently and didn't want to risk losing it.
Upon arriving in New Mexico, what should my fifth grade teacher be reading to us but The Hobbit? I read ahead during lunch, of course. Once the majority of our belongings got out of the storage unit where they'd been kept during our entire stay in Japan, my mother passed on her half-read copy of LOTR, and I read it until it fell apart, and then read it some more.
I've been planning an entire post on just how desperately obsessed with Middle-earth I was, and I guess now's as good a time as any. I was so obsessed that no matter how obsessed you think I was, I was more so. I played jacks at this age. I had three bouncy balls for this purpose. I named them Thorin, Gandalf, and Elrond. AT NO OTHER POINT IN MY LIFE DID I FEEL ANY NEED TO NAME JACK BALLS. On the rare occasions during monsoon season when it looked like it might possibly rain, I pretended my umbrella was a sword and carried it at my waist like one. Not once, but every time I carried an umbrella for four years. No, I did not care how it looked.
I spent all recess, every recess, swinging on a swing pretending the swing was transporting me to Middle-earth, and while swinging I made up fanfiction in my head. All recess, every recess for two years until I went to a school that didn't have recess. During music class, I imagined Galadriel singing all the songs.
At age 11, I wrote in my diary about a boy I had a crush on. To keep his identity secret, I wrote his name in angerthas. When we did square dancing at school, and all the other kids were being silly and he wasn't, I wrote that night about how the other students reminded me of elves, while he reminded me of a dwarf, sober and grim (which I crossed out and replaced with solemn and grave). All four adjectives were words I had learned from Tolkien.
I had imaginary dwarves watching over my shoulder as I sat in class and did my homework, and I explained what I was doing to them. I had imaginary elves walking home from school with me. I had a dress that was an "elf dress."
Every year, the StarDome project came to my elementary school to teach us astronomy. Every year, I got excited that I knew that "Star Dome" was what Elrond's name meant, and that this was a word for the sky. (My indelibly inscribing this association into my brain led directly to my first Tolkien paper ten years later, because while I was reading up on Indo-European comparative mythology, my brain a reference to twin sons of Zeus (the sky god) immediately triggered a memory of the twin sons of Elrond (whose name means "sky"). The paper was published in Tolkien Studies.)
I turned my two younger sisters entirely off Tolkien. I used to make them play a game where I handed them my copy of The Hobbit, had them open to a random page, read a line of dialogue, and I would name the character who said it. They did not want to play this game, but I was a bossy older sister. On one memorable occasion, I made them re-enact the Rankin and Bass film with me. I had memorized the entire film, so I gave them their dialogue line by line and made them repeat it after me, and pose according to instructions, as we went through the film.
We lived near some mountains. Believe me, one of them was named the Lonely Mountain even though it was not remotely lonely. I wanted to go there *all the time*.
I am still deeply in love with Tolkien's works, but I no longer name everything in my life after his characters, nor do I relate every single thing in my life to his legendarium, nor do I pretend to be in Middle-earth at all time.
I toned it way down once I hit high school and while still very underchallenged, had at least a few more intellectual resources. Then I went to college and finally stopped imagining escaping every day of my life, and my love of Tolkien stopped being escapist.
But I still have this wanderlust, coupled with the fact that I see no need to ever leave my house, and I wonder how much of that was because at an age when I was starved for sources of dopamine, being in the car going shopping on Saturdays (or--heaven--occasional road trips when we lived in New Mexico) was like an oasis in the dopamine desert. And my brain formed this association between moving vehicles, new sights, and dopamine release.
And then I wonder what I want to do with this information. Do I want to retrain my brain and stop spending money on this? Do I want to limit my travels to places where there's some point to the destination? There are plenty of those, although I'm still convinced the travel=dopamine equation is the main motivator there. Do I want to accept that I have this arational neural pathway and keep pouring thousands of dollars into it, because we're all going to die someday and I might as well do something I enjoy with all that money? I've spent the last few years being torn between "Rationally, I spend 350 days a year in my house, and my family and I all agree we'd like a nicer place," and the way emotionally I keep coming back to my wife and saying, "But what I really want to do is travel."
I have not yet decided on that. I'm sure I'll talk it out with my partner the next ten opportunities, that's how we swing. :P But for now I'm happy to have an etiology for this outlier preference of mine.