Keep In Touch
One of the largest books on my bookshelf bears the title The Psychology of Winning. It’s sandwiched between NLP: The New Technology of Achievement and Change Your Mind: And Keep the Change. I love good self-help books – there’s something endearing about the way they distill a bizarre mixture of genuine human concern, hard facts, and total batshit craziness into 13 steps or less. I like to blame my lightweight obsession on Mr. Moore, the guidance counselor who opened every school assembly by making us repeat "I Like Myself" for five minutes, but it probably says something dark and unflattering about my character.
A few years ago when a friend told me about the Tactile Dome, a pitch-black geodesic maze allegedly designed to help people reconnect with their lapsed sense of touch, I was immediately drawn in by the smell of some top-shelf crank science. The Dome is a permanent exhibit in SF's Exploratorium, the beloved interactive museum that's part gymnasium, part high-tech science fair. Only slightly younger than the city's other dark dome (Audium, a "Theatre of Sound" with 176 speakers was built in the 1960s), the Tactile Dome is one of the longest-running exhibits in the museum, having outlasted the 4,000 pound Tactile Tree it opened next to in 1971 along with hundreds of other displays. Still standing as the Exploratorium grew around it, the Dome today looks like a big and blue dusty golf ball buried in the back of a closet – a mystical plywood crystal.
When I finally made it inside, all the buildup may have gone to my head – it was fun for a few minutes, but the only thing I learned after crawling through was that I have really bad knees.
Several years after my disappointment in the dark, my good friend Danilo was promoted to the position of Dome Technician (a rung above an Explainer, but below Scientist in Exploratorium-world) and offered to let me tackle the Dome alone for my 30th birthday. I remembered reading in one of my self-help books that every 30 years you have a personality shift, and sure enough, the new, more mature me was strangely amped to give it another go, this time with adequate preparation, of course.
The Exploratorium keeps a tight grip on its public image, so juicy stories from the Dome are usually only passed down from tech to tech in a kind of oral tradition – one of the perks of the job. Regardless, before I ask Danilo to divulge any of the Dome's secrets, I take a quick trip to the website to get the official story. It turns out that when academic August Coppola and architect Carl Day originally invented the Tactile Dome, it was the Tactile Gallery, an art exhibit designed as a response to the touch taboo: the idea that the world increasingly prohibits touching the things and people around us, and that this leaves us feeling disconnected. It still holds. In a city where most of us spend our precious touch-time pinching, poking, and flicking our iPhones, who’s actually getting their “eight meaningful touches” a day? Coppola, who died in 2009, was a San Francisco State University dean and founder of the San Francisco Film and Video Arts, but flew a freakier flag in his spare time. He penned The Intimacy, a pulpy romance about a man who praises the sense of touch above all others; in preparation for writing the book, he spent weeks walking around blindfolded. He also sired Nicolas Cage (yes, I believe the freak gene runs in a straight line).
Taking its hands-on mandate to an extreme, the Tactile Dome itself is notoriously grabby. In his two years as a Dome Technician, Danilo has wrested from its grasp a bounty of wallets, phones, wedding rings, and, in one strange case, pants. Likewise, the Dome can also be a magnet for bad behavior, especially in its only semi-lit space, the Red Room. Another Dome Tech, Andre, touts his ability, from his desk, to discern the sound of a beer can being popped within the Dome – an offense he handles by deploying the “Voice of God” over the intercom. Almost every local I've asked knows a friend of a friend who's gone inside with more…uh…romantic motivations only to be led out, blinking and confounded, by a tech through one of the numerous hidden entrances that reach almost every one of the 12 chambers.
On any given day, the space still plays host to any number of new age seekers like myself. One of the first Dome tales I heard from Danilo was of a Gestalt therapy group that makes a habit of visiting for its annual gathering. When they arrived, the tech on duty let a group of mostly 40-something men inside who promptly disappeared into the darkness and sat in silence for nearly half an hour. At the same moment the tech scanned the intercom system to see if there was a problem, all eight of them let out throaty primal screams in unison, launching the tech out of his chair and obliterating his hearing for days.
When Danilo and I meet up for one last story swap before my second traverse, he hands me a photocopied article by Richard Register, the primary builder behind the Dome’s construction. In the article, from a defunct pseudoscience monthly called Human Behavior, Register details his own Dome experience, explaining that the construction took dozens of students and volunteers weeks to complete, and toward the end of the piece proudly admits to having gone through "several times without clothes." I'm not quite ready to go through the Tactile Dome nude, but it occurs to me that it can't be a bad idea to get a little more practice activating my sense of touch.
In preparation for the experience, for the next few days I go about surreptitiously feeling everything. I grope the underside of the table at the coffee shop while writing, I fondle soap dishes in strange bathrooms, I rub up against sculptures at SFMOMA when security isn't looking.
Wading to the back of the Exploratorium through a sea of kids focused on their own brand of tactile indulgence, I spot the Dome's triangular placard, complete with a font straight from Rod Serling's late-night TV mindfuck, and let it lead me inside. Cubbies for shoes, bags, and coats line the interior of the small anteroom and a large sign reads "DID YOU FIND THE COWBOY BOOT?" Danilo is stationed behind a desk on which sit an intercom, a fuzzy lamp, and a lifelike hand made of clear rubber. He tells me that it's an early prototype for the new Tactile Dome, a massive undertaking soon to begin as part of the Exploratorium's relocation to Piers 15 and 17 in 2013.
Preparing for a long exploration – the dome's original press release bills it as a full hour and fifteen minutes to "feel, bump, slide, and crawl through and past hundreds of materials" – I take off my shoes and empty my pockets per Dome etiquette and trundle inside. Catching a whiff of the carpet up close, I flash back to the Mouse House at Chuck E. Cheese – not a good start. Trying to zone in, I get a moment of inspiration from one of my favorite books, something called a "state change." I raise my arm and whack myself upside the head. Astoundingly, it works. I forget all about pizza-crazed rodents and spend the next few minutes rubbing my throbbing forehead on a furry wall.
When I come to, I've stopped trying to visualize what I'm touching and am just letting myself feel for the first time. It’s awesome. My reverie is interrupted only in one room, when I grasp the links of a chain and become concerned that I've passed through a secret tunnel into the Power Exchange. As I exit the Dome's final chamber, the dim fluorescents rush in, and my eyes are open and squinting at the blue interior of the waiting room.
"How long was I in for?" I mumble. "About 50 minutes. How was it?" Danilo asks. I feel relaxed, skin loose and tingling like I'd just had a two-hour massage from a person in a velvet suit wearing oven mitts. I'm still not sure I know anything more about myself but I feel damn good. Danilo points to a carpet tuft drifting down the side of my face: "You've got Dome hair."
The Tactile Dome at the Exploratorium is closed on Mondays, but accepts reservations for five daily slots Tuesday through Sunday during regular hours and one slot during the museum's adults-only After Dark monthly. For maximum enjoyment, wear something thin enough so you can feel the surfaces all over your body, not just your hands. The Dome can be a fun date spot, but it's detonated more than one uneasy time bomb of a first date, so if you do Dome tandem, go with someone you know well.