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February 16, 2005

Cultural Vertigo

All is not what it seems. It seldom is. What we think we experience is often very, very far from what is actually taking place in the real world around us.

Physical Vertigo:

Every workday morning, I have a ten minute walk from the bus stop at the local train station over to my office. The buildings in the area are connected by a series of walkways built at the second floor level. The owner of each building is responsible for the walkway in front of their building, and each of them had their architect design their section of the walkway to match their building. Taken individually, the result is quite beautiful, and there is definitely a sense of harmony between the buildings and their associated walkways.

Unfortunately, since each of the buildings has a different design, their walkway designs are also very different. As a result, when you actually use the walkways for their intended purpose - i.e. walking through the complex - the experience is almost jarring. So much so, that every morning on the way to the office, I experience a brief moment of vertigo. Logically I know what's going on - it's totally predictable. Yet, at a gut level there is nothing I can do to control it or avoid the experience short of finding another path to walk to the office.

Here's what happens-


In the morning I walk along the walkway in the direction of the bottom arrow. Where the two walkways join, I have to make a slight turn to the left, take a step or two, then immediately turn back to my right, negotiate the curve, and proceed forward. That might be okay if it wasn't for the fact that the architects selected very different tiles, and had them laid in different directions. So as I transition from one walkway to the next, my eyes are drawn by the mismatched tile patterns, and for an instant I loose all physical orientation. It's a minor irritation. Most people probably aren't even aware of it at a concious level. If it was any more significant, I would stop taking that path. I probably notice it because I am prone to motion sickness.

In the evening, on my way back home, I take the curved turn (to your left in the diagram) and don't experience any vertigo or disorientation at all.

Cultural Vertigo:

Every few months my wife and I treat ourselves to brunch at a local hotel. The food is excellent, the service is superb, the staff knows us well and greets us by name, and the setting is perfect down to the last detail. We have always had a great time, and look forward to the next occasion.

Last Sunday we went over to the hotel to enjoy brunch, but it just wasn't the same. I felt totally uncomfortable, uneasy, irritated. I felt my blood pressure rising. The food was great, as usual. The staff was helpful and attentive. I knew something was wrong - my body kept trying to tell me something was wrong - but I just couldn't figure out what it was. Normally I would just brush it off - forget about it, but this had me worried. Our infrequent brunch treats mean a lot to us, and I didn't want to lose that. The rest of the day I kept replaying the brunch back, over and over again, in my head - trying to figure out the puzzle. What was wrong?

It turns out that it was my parents. My parents? How could that be? They weren't there that Sunday morning - it was a physical impossibility since both of them are long since dead. But although they weren't there physically, they were definitely there emotionally.

It turns out that there was a tour group from another country also enjoying the buffet. Families, lots of them with young children. Since we're not that far from Tokyo Disneyland, the hotels in our area often host tour groups. And this particular group was definitely enjoying a lot of new experiences. What my eyes were seeing, but my brain wasn't conciously aware of in the moment, was their child like behavior. Stirring their coffee with a knife. Talking with food in their mouths - and having some of it fall on their shirt. Pouring half a bowl of sugar onto their cereal. Playing games with their food...

There was absolutely nothing wrong with their behavior. They didn't make a mess, spill things on the floor, or disturb the other patrons. But, in my mind's ear, sotto voice, my parents were talking to my subconcious saying "behave yourself", "sit up straight", "that's too much salt", "don't play with your food" ... And, obviously, my subconcious and my body were listening to everything my parents had to say. For a few hours on Sunday morning, I was a little kid again being lectured by my parents, and I didn't like it one little bit.

More importantly, if I hadn't been taught to recognize when things like this occur, I might have let the experience taint our favorite brunch treat, or have it spoil the rest of the day, or worse yet, I might have blamed my bad experience on the visiting tour group. The next time it happens, if it ever happens again, at least I'll know what's going on. I can cut to the chase - put my parents out of my head, or take some other action to keep from ruining our pleasure.

February 16, 2005 | Permalink


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