Friday, July 27, 2007

Flight or Invisibility?

Would you rather fly like Mr. Incredible or be invisible like his daughter, Violet? Images from

There's a famous "This American Life" episode where John Hodgman puts the choice "Your superpower: flight or invisibility?" to people, and analyzes what their response says about them. Evidently, men and extroverts choose flight, and women and introverts choose invisibility. Is that because our culture encourages strong, active men and passive, quiet women? Still, this doesn't square with the fact that most people who choose invisibility say they'd use it "to spy on naked women." Somehow I feel that men want to spy on naked women more than women want to spy on naked men.

Besides, I always felt like an exception to these patterns: I'm a female introvert, but my instinctive choice was Flight. I liked the idea of soaring carefree--very "I Can't Be Bothered Now":
I'm up above the stars
On earthly things I frown
I'm throwing off the bars
That held me down
Flying also offers a convenient way to get out of my suburban neighborhood, going as-the-crow-flies rather than following the twisty streets. Invisibility, I decided, was for dishonest, sneaky people who find strength (surreptitiously spying and gathering information) in weakness (not being noticed). Flight has no such moral ambiguity.

But today, as I slipped by one of those ubiquitous signature-gatherers in the Pearl District, silently praying he wouldn't turn around and try to engage me in conversation, I was reminded again of flight vs. invisibility. I realized I'd probably use invisibility a lot more, if I had it. I'd sneak past all those friendly young people who exhort me to donate to Save the Children. Or those poor (homeless?) guys who hang out on Burnside, try to talk to me, and when I walk away without responding , say "That's a hard-headed woman." Rather than being morally ambiguous, invisibility would save me the ethical angst of not knowing what to do in these situations situations: these people are human beings and deserve my respect and attention, don't they? But I am usually in a hurry and Can't Be Bothered Now!

And, if I were invisible, I could sneak into any Broadway play, movie premiere, or exclusive event that I chose. I'd certainly learn a lot more from invisibility than from flight. I mean, don't you sometime wish to hear what people say about you when you're not around?

The main reason to fly is to be free, to soar untethered, to see beautiful vistas and marvel at them. I wanted the exhilaration of it. But I know that a lot of people get that feeling from athletics--the runner's high--and I hate running. Flying is the jock option, isn't it? Then again, I could also use flight in many situations where I planned to use invisibility--to escape attention when I'm trying to go somewhere in a hurry. But I still feel like I wouldn't actually use it.

As "This American Life" says, accepting invisibility means accepting your guile or deviousness or antisocial sides. No, it's not as simple as introverts versus extroverts, men versus women. It's thinkers versus doers, figureheads versus powers behind the throne, those who accept their dark sides versus those who wish to suppress them.

I just caught sight of Book Six of Harry Potter, which I am currently rereading. Harry has both flight (via broomstick, etc.) and invisibility (via cloak)--which helps him most? Invisibility gives him access to crucial information, but often the information is misleading or confusing. And in the grand climaxes, flight plays more of a role than invisibility. But since I have more use for gathering information than battling nasty wizards, this proves, again, that I might not use flight if I had it. Invisibility it is! At least for the moment.

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