Tony Hiss was raised knowing the importance of public service and taught to look at the prices on the menu. Both lessons have served him well: he's a man who uses his position and intelligence, hopefully, to guide the rest of us to an appreciation of the everyday world around us.
He's written many books on many subjects: travel (train travel is a hobby), his beloved New York City (he lives in the Greenwich Village apartment where he grew up, though he credits his wife, writer Lois Metzger, for making the place their own), and giant pandas (a children's book). He's also written about his father in a stunning memoir: The View from Alger's Window (Knopf, 1999). But his seminal work is The Experience of Place: A New Way of Looking at and Dealing with Our Radically Changing Cities and Countryside (Knopf, 1990), which Hiss attributes to his growing up in New York "realizing that as the buildings change, people change. That book was a lot of fun to write," he says, adding that there was this tiny piece left over that nagged at him: "what about in between the places?"
He put the idea aside for 14 years. Now, Knopf will publish In Motion: The Experience of Travel. "Putting our bodies in motion puts our minds in motion," Hiss says. "But in what ways?" Thinking about this, he coined the term "Deep Travel" to explain the phenomena. Deep Travel is a way of using all our senses to take in everything at once, Hiss explains. "It's this remarkable ability that gives us a different perspective, a wide-angle, wide-awake awareness."
Hiss describes it as coming awake while you are awake, a vividness. In strange places, he says, it hits you whether you want it to or not, but at any moment it's something you can decide to do. "The point of this book is that this ability to experience the world is built into everyone; it's not just something that happens to me." To Hiss's mind, there are three ways of experiencing: the two we're aware of are daydreaming, when we're free-associating, and focused attention, when we are concentrating on something. Traditional schooling spends years taking us away from one (daydreaming) and getting us to do the other (focus). The third way is not even acknowledged: that's Deep Travel. Hiss believes that Deep Travel is an extremely valuable talent with many practical applications, such as how we lay out roads and train tracks, and design airplanes. "Getting from point A to Point B does not have to be a frustrating endeavor if we open ourselves up to the experience of moving from one place to the other. If you stop to listen," Hiss says, "the world is bursting with things to tell you."
According to Hiss, when we are in an unfamiliar setting—a foreign country, say, or simply "parking a car on an unknown street," Deep Travel kicks in. We have to notice everything around us in order to move forward, to insure our safety. Once we're comfortable, unless we "intervene to prolong the interval, awareness narrows..." Hiss refers to New York City during a blackout, when suddenly the familiar signposts are gone—how do you cross the street without traffic lights? But, he says, this forces people to be aware, to notice the traffic, the other pedestrians, and how everyone is moving in space. One has to be aware in a way that is unusual, he contends. This kind of awareness can enrich our lives and connect us more completely to the world around us.
In Motion is a fascinating, daydreamed yet researched work. Hiss employs fairy tales, urban planning, history, geography; nothing escapes his inquisitive and investigating mind. He ponders humans becoming upright, the experience of seeing the world as a two-legged rather than four-legged creature. He addresses plane travel, which has become such a chore: locked into a tube, plied with food and entertainment, hoping to sleep our way to our destination. What if the plane was a bubble? The whole journey would be an adventure. "We've allowed experiences to become so degraded," Hiss says, "that they are no longer experiences."
Hiss is on a mission, trying to help people reclaim what's already there, to be more comfortable with this ancient and marvelous part of our minds. "If we start to use this other part of our mind as a tool to evaluate and plan," Hiss says, "we can see where the gaps are. We have a lot of problems as a species and we need all our wits about us." Does he always tap into Deep Travel? Hiss admits he doesn't: "Sometimes I'm just in a hurry, but I always try because it just makes things more fun."