Sunday, October 31, 2010

Episodic imagination

I've read an essay recently by a philosopher Galen Strawson, in which he argues that people differ in ways they experience self in time. The two polarities are Diachronic and Episodic self-experiences, where a Diachronic person imagines self "as something that was there in the past and will be there in the future," while an Episodic person "has little or no sense that the self was there in the past and will be there in the future, although one is perfectly well aware that one has long-term continuity considered as a whole human being." I strongly identify with this second type of experience, the Episodic.

An example: I can never pack right for the weather. I look at the weather forecast, I estimate how much hotter or colder it is than San Francisco, I advise Dave (or whomever I'm traveling with) what would be, theoretically, the right clothes to bring, and then I go on to pack my own suitcase with completely random stuff that has no relationship to what I'm going to need on the ground. I don't do this intentionally. At the outset, I firmly decide to break the pattern, to plan the trip right, to pack for all eventualities. And I always end up with the wrong clothes, trip after trip after trip. I seem to be simply unable to project myself into the future, cannot imagine ever needing or wanting to wear anything other than what I'm comfortable with at the moment.

Here, in China, I ended up with a bathing suit and sandals I haven't used once, and without a proper jacket for the low 40F temperatures in the evenings. My suitcase is filled with tank tops and summer skirts, and only three long-sleeved shirts. I did pack an umbrella and several scarves, but I didn't bring a single sweater. I'd worn my favorite sleeveless vest on the plane -- and this was the warmest piece of clothing I had with me. So one of the things we had to do in Hangzhou -- before we got to the supposedly cold Beijing -- was to buy me a jacket.

This is pretty much how I get most of my shopping done. I end up in various parts of the world without necessary articles of clothing and have to improvise. My previous jacket, I got two years ago when I ended up in Ireland over New Years without warm clothes (what kind of a person would show up in Ireland in January without a good jacket? An Episodic, unable to imagine self in the future). And last year, in Israel, I bought two skirts and a dress, because Israel in January was quite summery. In the past, I'd had to buy boots in Spain and T-shirts in Germany. The only reason I rarely buy new clothes in Russia is because I can always wear my mom's stuff there. And also, she has a tendency to plan for me and buy me clothes whether I need anything or not.

My wardrobe is a hodgepodge of uniquely patterned, brightly colored articles from all over the world (but actually probably all made here in China), most of it bought at the time of need and in a rush. A lot of it has been acquired even without my presence. Few articles fit me well, and the notion of matching is unthinkable. Even if I can wear my Israeli skirt with a plain black shirt, it's never going to look right with my purse made of complex geometrically patterned material in moss green, brick red, pale yellow and other colors, a purse I cannot give up because my mom brought for me from Armenia (even if it had been made in China or India, so what).

Here's what happened in Hangzhou. Our friend David had brought the report that Beijing was having a cold spell, that the temperatures in Beijing approximated 0 degrees Celsius (32 F). I was already feeling uncomfortable in my vest (a birthday gift from my mom several years ago, she'd mailed it to me from Israel) worn over a pair of long-sleeved shirts -- and we were still in Hangzhou, where the temperature climbed to 15 degrees Celcius in the daytime. The prudent thing to do was to buy the jacket before we left Hangzhou, especially since we had time to shop after dinner.

David and Cici took us to a few clothing stores -- luckily, they were all on the same street (did I mention I hate shopping? I blame my Episodic imagination for my inability to select what I would actually ever want to wear). Nothing fit right. Everyone was advising me to try larger sizes -- in China, the sizes are marked based on height; I am 164 cm tall, and the sizes range 160 - 165 - 170 -- and I did try 170, but it was no use. I must've tried on ten different models of sweaters and jackets, and it all just felt wrong. This is part of the problem with buying clothes in foreign countries: I never know what the right models for my body type are. The clothes were too tight and too baggy at the same time; one jacket seemed to fit fine but then it had a hood lined with bright orange fur, and even I could tell that I would never wear something like this in San Francisco.

Finally, at what I was determined to make our last stop for the night -- the exercise was getting ridiculously stupid -- Dave pointed to a nice looking men's pea-coat, just for the hell of it. "Try this." The first one I tried on was it. The shoulders were the right breadth, the sleeves the right length, I had enough room in the chest to button all the buttons and still be able to move my arms up and down. The material was thick enough for cold weather and the plain gray color classy enough to look good even when I picked up my crazy purse. The only thing about it, being a man's coat, it buttoned on the right side. I figured, I'd get used to it.

We bought the coat without further ado, and I walked out of the store wearing it instead of my old vest. Will I be able to wear it in San Francisco? I don't see why not -- but of course, I've said so about many things that are currently gathering dust in my closet. Being gray, this coat seems pretty easy to match with a lot of things -- if I were suddenly to take up matching as a hobby. The coolest part about it is the story that goes with it: Hangzhou, hanging out with David and Cici who seemed to get a kick out of the fact that the only thing that fit me right was a men's jacket. Also, the company I bought the jacket from -- Meters/Bonwe, a local chain -- is one of David's clients, and this added to the fun of the experience.

These kinds of stories are the best part of my wardrobe, the reason why I have such a hard time emptying my closets, donating anything to Goodwill. Being an Episodic, I don't have ready access to my memories as a Diachronic person, perhaps, might: to imagine (Diachronics would say "remember") myself in the past, I need the physical objects to prompt the memories. So I insist on wearing my random clothes, even if they make the task of getting dressed in the mornings extremely challenging.

Happy Halloween, everybody :)


  1. Yeah, if you've ever watched that show Hoarders it will inspire you to give everything to Goodwill immediately. Try it and see :)

  2. All this about packing, shopping and keeping - wonderful. So funny and I no longer feel like a lonely freak.