A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How to be a Zero

Your Overall Performance…

Yes?  Yes?  I wasn’t sure I bought into the idea that this webpage was going to tell me anything non-bogus, let alone insightful, but I was kind of curious.  I mean, who wouldn’t want the scoop on their Overall Performance? 

No, this was not an I.Q. quiz.  Nor did it claim it would tell me what my patronus is, what video game character I am channeling, or how many  minutes I’d survive after the Zombie Apocalypse. The test at hand had been provided by the BBC’s Science and Nature department – not exactly peer-reviewed literature, but dorky enough to seem credible.  The purported goal of the survey was to provide “an indication of where you fall in the male-female brain continuum.”

In truth, the whole concept made me squirm.  What is “brain-sex”, exactly? I’ve always railed against the mindset that brought us Teen-Talk-Barbie (“Math class is tough!”)  I’ve always maintained that beyond the obvious hormonal and physical differences, the two genders aren’t as inscrutably alien to one another as we insist on pretending they are.   Women can change tires!  Men can change diapers!  Come on, people, trendy books notwithstanding, we are not actually from different planets.

Or… are we?  Being of an analytical mindset (how very male of me), I’ve never given much credence to joke-memes about male vs. female shopping habits, communication habits, and showering habits (except to note that I am invariably doing it wrong, and don’t own a loufa).   However, present me with a few salient facts about hemisphere dominance and the relative sizes of the inferior-parietal lobule, the limbic system, and the parietal region, and I start to take notice. 

It seems that researchers have found measurable differences in brain structure and function, which yield significant disparities in performance.  According to the BBC webpage, the average female respondent tipped the scales at 50 points in the “womanly” direction.  The average man leveraged fifty points on the opposite trajectory.  As I worked on the test, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering where I’d fall – and I couldn’t prevent my defensive pre-reaction:   Hey, whose inferior-parietal lobule are you calling “small,” buddy?

I’ve always felt justified in my knee-jerk reaction to gender rules.  After all, many of the cultural trimmings and trapping of male vs. female are so obviously arbitrary.  The color pink is not scientifically linked to estrogen.  George Washington and his compadres wore high heels.  Tailors and seamstresses do exactly the same job.  In some cultures, only women are allowed to go fishing.  And I do like a man in a kilt.  

Besides, I’ve known for a long time – forever, possibly – that I can’t cram myself into the mold of most female stereotypes.  I have no sense of fashion, I am terribly out of practice at crying, I studiously avoid shopping, and I sigh longingly over power tools, science fiction, and higher mathematics. 

Then again, male stereotypes don’t usually do it for me either.   Beer pretty much tastes like sump-water to me, and I don’t give a rat’s fundament what kind of vehicle you drive.  I enjoy reading aloud Shakespeare. I reserve the right to snuggle with cats and small children

I sometimes think I come across as a defensive boor in my all-female writers’ group; I keep trying to inject science and logical theory into other people’s Very Personal Essays, and I want the novelist to know whodunnit before she crafts the first three chapters of the murder mystery.  This group is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a girly bunch of females.  This is a split-your-own wood kind of crowd.  And yet I still feel, sometimes, a bit like an interloper.

On the other hand, not surprisingly, I also feel like an interloper when I’m part of a boys’ club, although (thanks to the good graces of some fantastic male friends) I’ve been there often enough.  Many years ago, I spent three summers working on a trail crew with a daunting gender ratio.  Despite my participation in wrestling matches, Tabasco-drinking dares, and farting contests, I never got male bonding 100% right.  I wrestled without first consuming cheap canned Budweiser, and I drew the line at eating horseflies on a Ritz cracker.

In other words, I screw things up in both directions.  I tend to think that when a woman tells me her problems, it’s because she wants me to solve them, rather than Just Listen.  Note to self: she doesn’t.  But when a good male friend tells me about his softball victories – or lack thereof – I’m not really there for him the way I should be, either. 

Could a BBC brain-quiz explain any of this? I had my doubts.

Whatever was up with my brain, I was pretty sure it was a congenital and permanent condition. As a kid, I adored climbing trees, making up stories, wrestling, giggling, playing checkers, and playing with dolls.  This mostly worked out fine; I made up stories in trees, giggled while wrestling, and played checkers with my dolls (yes, really).  In the years that followed, I didn’t mind being the only girl in the Huntington Public Library Dungeons and Dragons Club, and the only girl on the fifteen-person Metropolitan New York All-Stars Mathlete team… three years running.  (We were bused to Penn State to compete in the national championships.  We played bridge, discussed calculus, and did logic problems en route.  One year the bus caught fire in the middle of the night on the way home.  It was, in a word, awesome.)

On the flip side, I was also happy to attend all-girls sleepover parties and watch LadyHawke and The Princess Bride approximately eleventeen times.  Moreover, there was a goodly portion of my brain that deeply, secretly, shame-facedly, wanted Sweet Wesley to accompany my sorry little teenaged self through the Fire Swamp. I was pretty sure I’d be more use against the ROUS’s than Buttercup, but still… Farm Boy?  Fetch me that linear algebra textbook…

Such daydreams were clearly less-than-obvious to all the people who, over the years, implied -- or flat-out stated -- that I was most definitely a lesbian, or that I ought to be attracted to women.   What’s a butch straight girl to do? [Note: moving to Alaska helps]. Someone out there is probably cursing my flippancy, because being gay in our society – or any society – still is not piece of cake.  I know that.  I also know that it’s not a choice, one way or another, because it was never my piece of cake.

Annoyed at assumptions and generalizations, I tried to compartmentalize.  Gender differences were merely physical, I decided.  Brains were gender-neutral.  Brains were unbiased.  Brains were fair.  But the data was stacking up against me.  And now, here was a test purporting to measure – quantitatively! – mental traits that really do differ, on average, between the XYs and the XXs. 

What traits were they, exactly?

The results are based on the angles, spot the difference, 3D shapes, and words tasks.

Even as I worked my way through the test, I felt the scores slotting into place.  Angles?  That was probably a boy-task, but it didn’t seem too hard.  Words?  Oh, indubitably, I am an unrepentant logophile, girlishly besotted with perspicacious badinage.  Spot the Difference was a different story.  Women are supposed to notice subtleties – in shades of lip gloss, in friends’ hairstyles -- but I am the sort of person who permanently loses a pair of heavy-weight hiking boots in a thousand-square-foot home, and who once failed to notice when her housemate shaved off his full beard.  If asked to determine what items have been removed or rearranged from an arbitrary assortment of line-drawings of teapots, lawn chairs, and hats, my brain sneaks away to hide.  On the other hand, mentally rotating objects… well… don’t tell anyone, but I do it even when not completing online quizzes, just for kicks. 

Of course, life isn’t all rotating objects and missing teapots.  What about other purported differences between men and women?  What about the social, emotional, and communication stuff, the “He just doesn’t understand me!” stuff?  Truth be told, I’m even more leery of this kind of touchy-feely analysis than I am of Spot the Differences.  However, this BBC website wasn’t the only one I’d stumbled upon in my virtual perambulations.  The internet is always a great way to erode your sense of self and waste time, all in one simple step. 

Based on the fairy reputable Baron Cohen indices, I’d already learned that I “empathize” (that is, obsess about other people’s feelings) about as well as the average woman.  I “systematize” (which, as far as I can tell, means act like a cross between a train-spotter and a computer geek) about as well as the average man.   No mention was made of how either of these scores panned out in terms of diaper-changing and tire-changing, but I had my suspicions that whatever the mold was, I wouldn’t fit it.

And now, here was a moment of truth.  Your Overall Performance…

I scrolled down.

Your personal brain score: Zero.

Ah.  Well then. 

In a world of male 50s and female 50s, I was hanging at the fulcrum, in no-brain’s-land.  I was a Zero.  A Nothing.  A Nada.  And I wasn’t one bit surprised

In a way, it was relief to earn scores – scientific results! -- that so tidily matched my suspicions.  Still, the inevitability didn’t help me much in knowing what to do with my new label as the Null Set.  If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, was I out charting my own interplanetary orbit?  Did I simply not belong in anyone’s gravity well?  Was I likely to be evicted from my writers’ group?  Was I recalled with disdain by my trail crew friends?

Or… was there perhaps a role in this world for a Zero, after all?

As I pondered my Zero-ness, it occurred to me that in all-female groups I sometimes play the (annoying, but perhaps balancing) role of devil’s advocate.  What do you want with wilting flowers in the middle of February?  So what if he pees in the shower?  So what if he mentally rotates objects?  C’mon, it’s fine, all guys do it. 

And in male groups?  Well, I may not have gotten things 100% right among the Tabasco-drinkers, but maybe it was sometimes better to be a little bit wrong.  On trail crew, I was useful as a Giver of Backrubs.  Straight boys will not do this for each other, ever, no matter how long a day they have put in with a crowbar and shovel -- but they are so pleadingly grateful for a girl with strong, callused hands.  I also read aloud in the tent at night, like a peculiarly mud-splattered parody of a Cub Scout leader.  All those large, sweaty guys begged for just one more chapter of the Hobbit. 

I now realized another salient fact, too.  The bell-shaped curves of Normal Distributions being what they are, I am not the only Zero out here.  Yes, science shows that male and female brains differ, but they differ on average.  Even the BBC page admitted to the word “continuum”.  Statistics are meaningful at the population level, but they tell you nothing about whether little Susie thinks that Math Class is Tough.   Maybe Susie likes to mentally rotate objects.  Maybe – shocker – she’s a Zero too.  If so, I want to meet her.

When I find myself with other Zeros – suspected or confirmed, male or female – I feel a thrill of camaraderie.  When I encounter someone who mixes math-nerdery and word-nerdy into a single fruity cocktail, who sees no inconsistency in cracking raunchy jokes during a Serious Discussion of Feelings,  who gets wildly distracted by trying to explain an esoteric scientific principle to a small child snuggled on his or her lap… I get it.  We’re the Zeros.  We’re bilingual. We’re interplanetary.  We’re at once both total misfits and missing links.

I still get all edgy when too many “him vs. her” jokes clog my Facebook page.  I still want to eviscerate Teen Talk Barbie.  But I don’t need to deny the existence of Venus.  I don’t have to pout at the mention of Mars.  Even if I don’t inhabit one of those celestial orbs, I’m not adrift in space.  After all, there is a planet between the second and fourth rocks from the Sun… and I hear it has a way better atmosphere.

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