18 May 2006

That restless frontier spirit

I am drawn to the topic of reinvention not only because it describes me but also it describes how I got here (well, except for the bits of Cree Indian and African, which add up to about 1/16th of me and have been subsumed into the mostly European whole so that I have fair skin and freckles and moles that the dermatologists like to look at every year or two now). If people weren't trying to break free of their circumstances, the United States would not exist as we know it.

If people didn't believe that something bigger and better was available if they would just change their immediate surroundings and circumstances, I would not be here. My family has certainly exemplified that. A late great-grandfather toured Alaska and became an expert who gave lectures about his adventures. My grandparents were all travelers: My father's parents as members of the upper class, my mother's parents as bohemian artists. Then my parents were travelers, rejecting what their parents were offering to search northern California for their own answers in the late 1960s. And I've gone to live in Europe and have a sense of what that dislocation is like and both how easy and how difficult it is to truly reinvent yourself.

Here's a concept described in 2005's "Year in Ideas" issue of the New York Times Magazine:

The Hypomanic American: For centuries, scholars have tried to explain the American character: is it the product of the frontier experience, or of the heritage of dissenting Protestantism, or of the absence of feudalism? This year, two professors of psychiatry each published books attributing American exceptionalism to a new and hitherto unsuspected source: American DNA. They argue that the United States is full of energetic risk-takers because it's full of immigrants, who as a group may carry a genetic marker that expresses itself as restless curiosity, exuberance and competitive self-promotion - a combination known as hypomania.

Peter C. Whybrow of U.C.L.A. and John D. Gartner of Johns Hopkins University Medical School make their cases for an immigrant-specific genotype in their respective books,
American Mania and The Hypomanic Edge. Even when times are hard, Whybrow points out, most people don't leave their homelands. The 2 percent or so who do are a self-selecting group. What distinguishes them, he suggests, might be the genetic makeup of their dopamine-receptor system - the pathway in the brain that figures centrally in boldness and novelty seeking."

So what do I mean by reinvention, after all? Did the frontierspeople, the pilgrims from Europe, decide to remake themselves in a new place, or did they just want to get rich? Are they the same thing? Did Diablo Cody reinvent herself, or just decide to be herself? Is she the perfect example of the hypomanic American? Did she do it for the money? (Can't go wrong with that.) Cody describes herself as a devout Catholic kid growing up, sheltered and on the predictable path of such a person as an adult. She was a cute kid and then a cute, literate geek with a fashionable job but not much more.

So she decided to crank her life up a notch when she walked into a strip club with the intention of getting a job there. And not only did she succeed, she also pushed herself far along the path, to some of the highs and lows of the oldest profession. But she is quite savvy and charming, and I get the feeling she knows exactly what she's doing, since now she's got her book published and three Hollywood deals going and is happily married with her sweet artist husband in Minneapolis. She didn't even have to move to L.A., like everyone insists! She may look like a cookie, but she's sharp! Has she been on Oprah yet?

My mom was somewhat alarmed that I was so enthusiastic about Cody. My mother, who can swear like the best of truck drivers, I think was a little horrified by the young woman's willingness to display her stuff in the way she did. Perhaps it's Cody's naivete, too. It often looks as if she's just doing it for the thrill because she spends appallingly little time acknowleding any larger context for her decisions to bare all for said thrill, fame, and fortune. She insists it's solely about her own desire to expose herself. That's Cody's weakness, if you ask me, but it's not that she's not aware of any other areas of inquiry. She just doesn't care. She's more interested in the most concrete answers to the questions "what is it like to expose yourself to others?" (and "what can I get for telling my stories?"). She's funny in the ways she objectifies herself. She posts seminude pictures of herself on her blog. She loves to say shocking things out loud (basically because no one else does, I think) and she enjoys describing in her books and interviews how her husband got to have a stripper for a girlfriend and how that elevated both of them in each other's eyes and among their peers. But I think she's cool because she's letting her quirks show (yet some might even argue she is letting herself be defined by her quirks). I just like her because she is funny, charming, smutty, and she seems like a fun person. And I admire the way she didn't follow any of the rules about getting a book or screenplay deal and now she has lots of them anyway. Ha!

So she fits right in with what I was writing about yesterday. It's all of a piece. And there are more pieces just lying there waiting to be picked up, like happening to watch The Tyra Banks Show yesterday, something I would never normally do.

Rock on. May you find your own pieces to pick up today.

No comments: