Sunday, September 23, 2007


I have never for a millisecond been interested in surfing. Why try and balance on a little board above the water when you could be IN the water? Furthermore, why force your body to move vertically any more than it has to? Up-and-down is not a happy axis of motion. Side-to-side in a pinch. Also front-to-back, in-and-out, do-the-hokey-pokey. Anything, really, rather than endure your stomach's colloquy with your ears.

But then I read this article in the NYT about couch surfing.

Basically, folks offer their couches to "surfers" via the internet. Visitors get free housing and an insider's tour of their destination. Hosts get to execute a magical furniture switcheroo, transforming their davenport into a lazy susan of international friends.

Every cheap, nosy fiber in my being twanged. Free housing! Interesting people! And, best, a glimpse of the marrow -not just the skin- of another place. Traveling has always felt hollow to me, like slavering over an eggshell after the chick has hatched. To get a true sense of a place, you need to walk in it, sleep in it, wear it hard. You need to live in it. And if you can't do that, trying on someone else's life is probably the next best thing.

By the time I was halfway through the article, though, my enthusiasm had curdled. The focus of the piece shifted from the basic to the personal, profiling couch surfers who'd been atop the wave for six months, a year, three years. These people owned nothing, traveled light, stopped nowhere. They had no home.

They were, in short, the furthest extension of the current trend towards increasing geographic mobility. What's so scary about that? Well, to start, a person with no home has no portion of themselves bound up with a place, a context, or a permanent community. They're closed containers: every piece of what makes them up, what comprises their sense of "self," is crammed into their couch-abraded, waffle-branded skins.

But how can you travel if you have no point of origin? How can you move away if you have nothing to move away from? I'm troubled by the notion that we can be complete human beings without participating in the complex ecosystems -social, environmental, temporal- of place. Who we are exists -or should exist- not only within the limits of our body and mind, but in the way we reach outside ourselves, the long-term connections and relationships we form with where we are. If the whole of a person can be packed up and shipped across state lines, than we have grown small indeed.

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