The Bookbat

People I sometimes identify with and wish I didn’t

January 31, 2010
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-Michael Scott
-J. Alfred Prufrock


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Lily, May, Edith, & points in between

January 24, 2010
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Yesterday, in a burst of unexpected creativity, I wrote a poem tentatively called “On Finishing The House of Mirth” (tentatively, because is that “On ____” construction a little pretentious?  It might be).

This morning, I opened for the first time a book of Maxine Kumin poems, which I bought this spring when I still lived in Texas because a) I like that woodchucks poem and b) it was cheap.  It fell open to a poem called “On Reading The Age of Innocence in a Troubled Time.”  I think the world and I understand each other today.

                                    “Look away,
May Welland!  Turn aside as best you can.
Even defended from life on the streets,
from all that was turbulent, ragged and rough,
even unacknowledged, May, history repeats.
You must have seen enough.”

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Inconvenient things.

January 20, 2010
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Here is a fact about me:  I cry.  A lot.  In public.  In really embarrassing situations.  I cry while walking and driving and flying—oh, especially flying.  I have cried slumped over my steering wheel in parking lots all over Denver, Colorado.  I cried on a stage once (in a rehearsal situation, not an actual performance, but still).  I cried in front of one of my freshman year professors on three separate occasions.  I cry in large crowds of people I vaguely know.  I have never had a job that didn’t make me cry at least once in the first week.  When I first started living in a dorm, I made a study of places to cry: under certain trees in the quad where people usually didn’t walk, in the private study rooms off of the sixth-floor reading room, in the shower stalls with the water on, and as a last resort, in the hall while pretending to talk on the phone so that people wouldn’t think I was completely insane.

So this is pretty fascinating to me.  Amanda Marcotte has a takedown of the underlying misogyny of this article, in which she points out that assuming that women are engaging in a pretty private behavior for the purpose of being observed is, in fact, really fucking stupid.  One woman quoted in the story says that there’s something “cinematic” about crying in public, which the author takes as proof that all of the women he sees crying are performing.  Looking for sympathy or attention, enjoying the way their mascara runs, whatever.

And pretty much everything Marcotte says here is true, in my experience.  I don’t have much control over crying—I can’t stop it when it’s coming on, and I certainly can’t cry on command.  I have never tried to get sympathy by crying.  I do not like being looked at (which is one of the reasons why large crowds of distant acquaintances freak me out and often make me cry!) and sudden inexplicable weeping is a good way to get a lot of stares (which makes the freaking out worse!).  The attention is not fun.  It’s upsetting.  And I try to keep the crying private, but sometimes I have somewhere to go or am at work or on an airplane and it’s just not feasible.  All of this is true.  Obviously.

But.  That word, cinematic, is striking a chord with me.  So, let’s talk about crying on airplanes.  There’s that engine hum that swallows up noise, so that, other than the person in the seat next to you, everyone seems to be in their own soundproof box.  It’s an amazing sort of privacy in a crowd, and it makes you feel like you’re on a crowded stage and the spotlight is on you.  And then there’s the vibration, and the image on the tiny TV screen of the plane trailing a blue dotted line across state boundaries that tells you you are somewhere in central Kansas, and you know that somewhere directly below you there are cornfields or convenience stores or whatever they have in Kansas, but the truth is that there is only you and the plane and the vibration.  Everything else just melts.  Again, much like being onstage—everything outside of the lights falls away.  And you (if you are like me) do feel watched, illuminated.  And you do feel that crying there counts, in a way that crying in your room with your lights off doesn’t count.  And this feeling of counting applies in other places, too.  Crowded streets, public bathrooms, and so on.

And so maybe you are (that is, I am) an attention whore.  Or maybe you are someone who has absorbed that feeling of being watched at all times.  I can only speak for myself here; maybe for some women the gaze is abstract and you only feel it when you look at American Apparel ads or watch action movies or whatever.  But for me it’s always there.  I am never not thinking about how I look.  And so feeling something in private, and neglecting to furnish it with the appropriate gestures—the folding-in shoulders, the fists pulling at the hair around my temples—never feels quite real.  I need to be seen.

And that’s the thing about living in a world that has misogyny at its foundations, isn’t it?  You internalize.  You want to please people—it is so incredibly difficult to not be what people expect you to be—and so you act for them, and acting for them becomes a part of who you are.  You learn to see yourself in double vision—as the subject of your own life, and as a decorative thing for the lives of others—and you can’t unlearn it, you can’t separate it from who you really are, because there is no who you really are other than the sum of your influences.  So you cry on airplanes and feel humiliated and emptied out, but also a little bit validated, and a little bit satisfied because this is how it’s meant to be, isn’t it?  You’re supposed to be slumped over crying with your head on the tray table and the earth thousands of feet below you, because it’s romantic and because if you were in a movie this is how it would be.

All of this is a way of saying: there is no uncorrupted self, somewhere out there (or in there), waiting for us to find it.  We are whatever came together to make us.  There is no easy way to excise the patriarchy, the myths we have learned about ourselves.  And so all of those terrible stories about women, much as we hate them, much as we want them gone, much as we know that they don’t have to be true, are a little bit true.

I am trying to live with integrity right now.  And I think one thing I’m going to have to do is admit things that are much, much more convenient to deny.  I am not a convenient person (as the frequent sidewalk sobbing bouts prove).  I am working on seeing my beliefs less as constraints that I have to fit into and more as a method of viewing the world, a framework for questioning.  And maybe someday I’ll be able to express this better, or at least in a medium other than overly-explainy-blog post.  We’ll see.

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I am the bookbat.

August 2, 2009
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“… when I read I am like a bat soaring and swooping through the night, skimming my way across the treetops to find my way through the densest forest in the darkest night.  I listen to the shining needlepoints of sound in every book I read.  I am no bookworm.  I am the bookbat.”

–Kathryn Lasky, Memoirs of a Bookbat

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"For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?" -Jane Austen