I have been thinking more and more about traveling and how it changes the human mind, indelibly, and usually, I believe, in very positive ways. For example, recently, a simple break in my daily routine (in NYC where I attend a programming retreat) led to a rather curious, and quintessentially New England trip. In what would have otherwise been a relatively uneventful bus ride to my Uncle’s for dinner in Willington, CT, I made a decision, last minute, which ended up weird and worthwhile, simply by cutting the journey up across two days, and staying overnight in New Haven, the home to Yale University.
My journey had me arrive on a fine fall day in the clustered little city, and I was struck by a few things. Though economic segregation in the US is usually already noticeable, it was still incredible how segmented the college seemed from the surrounding area–these borders usually run along geographic markers: major avenues, train tracks or rivers; here in New Haven, the stark border was only just a radius of a few blocks around campus. The firmly planted dorm buildings, decorated with slate-colored bricks and gleaming glass entryways quickly gave way to deteriorating single-family homes and broad unfriendly highways, flanked by crumbling sidewalks. Not unexpectedly, the campus looks and feels much like Harvard–it’s simpler to understand their supposedly notorious sports feud now, as they appear to me to be so closely related to be almost siblings, and with that relationship comes not infrequent infighting. Perhaps the original debate started as to who had the best Gothic architecture, an only slightly more compelling premise.
The comical rivalry even showed up briefly in conversation during a guide in the basement of the Cushing Medical Library as I observed, in a temperature controlled room, a collection belonging to the library’s namesake. The miscellany of Harvey Cushing (a progenitor of the entire field of neurosurgery) was built up over many years of his professional work. He had, as he neared retiring, attempted to grant it to Harvard, one of the many universities he studied at or received honorary degrees from. Yet the blood was apparently bad enough between him and the conceited Cantabrigian institution that Harvey made his way back to Yale in order to bequeath upon them his entire life’s work. The collection itself–along with ephemera such as the skeleton of a patient afflicted with gigantism–a rapid and painful overgrowth of bone due to an issue with pituitary glands–consisted largely of Harvey’s 500-odd human brains, preserved in jars of formaldehyde.
Though the collection languished for years in the basement of a dorm building, Yale had eventually mustered up enough nerve to build a special room for the creepy brain jars, although the health risk must have been another compelling reason for their new home, considering the several drunkenly cavalier student break-ins. What was striking to me beyond just the fact that all this (gray) matter had made its way into this library of morbidity underneath the least conspicuous building on campus, was the incredible collection of photographs of the patients whose literal minds lived on in Cushing’s legacy. Photography of the time was still a green technology, and as the equipment had improved, it still seemed there was a certain authenticity to the trade un-graspable now; one taking a photo now is now greeted with a room full of people who have been posing practically since they have been able to hold their heads upright, smartphones having flashed endlessly at their furrowed baby brows. We must remember that candid photography was, back then, the default, not the exception.
I’m reminded of some of the early amateur street photographers, like Vivian Maier, whose work would simmer in anonymity until coming to light many years after her death. These photos enchant us with how people so long ago (granted, only maybe a century, but it seems somehow further) could show us a personality, a side of these earlier generations, that we assumed would be somehow foreign to that age, some distinct candor and authenticity, uncanny to modern viewers. Looking at these pictures in Cushing’s collection, usually of patients afflicted with life-threatening conditions that were barely survived at the time, I was taken aback by how serene they seemed, their contorted spines or bulging foreheads the only indication of their pain and suffering to come (or that had previously gone), their faces a tender mix of bemusement and ennui.
Then I wandered through the darkening night, through downtown to Cafe 9, a hole-in-the-wall I’d read there’d be live music every night. The band I saw reminded me of an alternate universe where I’d somehow continued to play music without ever holding back, all of these guys 60 years old and by some misfortune, placed in front of me, a former “player”, thus a cynic and critic–I selfishly thought that my presence was no consolation to their obscurity, though imagined it was self-effacing, even silently projecting it onto them–pitying that they should be “wallowing in” said obscurity. Nevertheless, it took only a few minutes to realize they were having way more fun than it should be legal to (in most states), and that I ought to be grateful that I was one of a handful of people show up to some tiny club for them while they poured their guts out on the the stage.
I had a brief moment afterwards to chat with that band, and to share a shortlist of my own influences and the imagined possibilities I heard in theirs, about as much as one should compare a club musician to a more well known act without coming across as sycophantic or sarcastic. Yet they truly had some badass music, so it was hard not to geek out a little. Later, listening to their old demos online, I realized I wouldn’t have had anything close to the reaction I did if I had heard these recordings first–and this perhaps has to do less with fidelity (or lack thereof) than it does with the issue that it is incredibly, incredibly difficult to capture authenticity in a record of any sort–auditory, visual, any media, you name it. Hell, you can even try to preserve a brain, but then if your formaldehyde is no good, it will fog the glass, or deteriorate slowly into something that looks a bit more like deli meat shavings than the our vision of noble circuitous pathways of our gray plasticities.
Why is authenticity that hard? I’d think its because authenticity itself is the enemy of planning. The bands fight, the music changes, people get bored, people change their tunes (literally and metaphorically), the tour bus gets a flat, the motel has bed bugs. We can’t fight that anymore than we can stop the tides–but it does take a bit of spontaneity, to jump out of one’s normal rut, to really see those patterns–most of the time we’re caught up in something way more granular or way more abstract. Without pausing and looking at others, and learning from them, we have no internal barometer as to what is passing or washing over us from underneath the hull of the ship.
Ultimately, I think travel ties to authenticity in at least one important way–the journey, no matter how short or long, belongs to the traveler. As the traveler passes, they give a little more and they take a little more than usual from their surroundings. They leave behind a resonation, a rippling shape of themselves, whatever “they” are in that place, and they take a little bit of what other people are with them too. Through the contrast of new waters, one can see themselves more clearly, their own blurry edges, refocused, sharpening and reflecting at new angles under the surface, a snapshot of who one is at some given time–and we learn, most importantly, that we cannot capture it the same way we take photographs blithely on our phones or even leave our thoughts behind for others. Thus what we take becomes stories, notions, anecdotes and lenses to see our own actions as an unbiased actor, to reach a new “us” at the end of the trip.