Back in New Jersey, I knew a guy; we’ll call him Barrett. He was a friend of friends, a heavy metal guitarist with long blond hair and a sweet face and a gravelly, low, affectless yet strangely calming voice. He seemed (or maybe just was) perpetually high, and is a man of contradictions that are either incredibly profound, or profoundly meaningless. He once got so drunk that he set himself on fire, AT A BAR. He seemed incapable of holding a conversation on anything other than the minutiae of grindcore vs. mathcore, but also once visited my apartment and complimented its exposed brick walls, telling me, “They really add to the home.” Music is his life, yet he moved to the Berkshire Mountains to study cabinetmaking.
You can find him at any heavy metal show in Brooklyn, or in the dictionary under “Odd Duck.” I’m not sure he exists in the same dimensions as the rest of us. He is a gift.
One night, I was hanging out with a few friends and Barrett. Everyone was drunk and/or high except me, so I got to be the designated driver who took everyone to Quik Check when they started whining for snacks. As I was pulling up, navigating a parking lot full of other sober suckers with inebriated carloads of twenty-somethings in desperate need of 2AM convenience store hot dogs, Barrett looked out the car window, took a deep breath, and said, with more genuine emotion than I’d heard from him before or since, “Quik Check! I wonder what we’ll find there.” As though we were about to walk into Narnia instead of a poor man’s 7-11.
Ever since, I aim to approach new experiences with one-tenth of the open-minded wonder and joyous anticipation of a stoned metalhead at a Quik Check. I wish I could say I succeed more often than I do.
* * *
This marks Day 6 of a three-month paid sabbatical from work for me. Today, I consumed nothing but iced mochas and read two books from start to finish; it was beautiful. In another two days, I leave for the Limpopo province of South Africa, where I’ll spend a month volunteering at an animal rehabilitation center working with injured and orphaned animals and re-releasing them into the wild, and caring for those who can’t be released. They say November through February is baby season, and while I would prefer that no animals end up orphaned because of poachers, I’d love to skritch a baby rhino behind the ears.
I was on my way home from the gym a few days ago, and when I get all endorphin-y, it makes me want to sing. As I studiously avoided singing The Cranberries out loud on the streetcar, I wondered if the animals I’ll soon be working with would like being sung to, and if so, whether they’d enjoy my rendition of “Zombie” or find the theme too heavy.
(I think they’d be okay with the subject matter, but probably the yip-yodel-y bits would be alarming from a wild animal point of view. “My god, why did the cheetah attack? He never does that.” “She sang ‘Zombie.'” “Ah. That’ll do it. Damn Gen-Xers.”)
This thought was immediately followed by, “Well, it doesn’t matter, because I don’t sing out loud in front of other living creatures.” This is not because I don’t sing well; I do. I’m just too scared. So for 40 years, I have very firmly been an I-Don’t-Sing-in-Public person.
But you know… the animals don’t know that I’m an I-Don’t-Sing-in-Public person. No one in South Africa knows that. They don’t know that I’m a Terrible-at-Small-Talk person, or a Hate-Public-Speaking person, or an I-Don’t-Dance person, or a Loves-Shakira-But-Only-Privately person.
(Maybe the cheetahs would like Shakira? Because I can totally sing “La Tortura” in Spanish, despite otherwise possessing no Spanish-speaking ability.)
These are all things I believe very firmly about myself; some of them even form core parts of my identity. I’m Italian, I’m a feminist, I wear glasses, I’m awful at public speaking. FACTS. But these aren’t actual facts, they’re things I put on myself, out of some perceived need for self-protection: no one’s ever told me not to sing, or that I’m an embarrassing public speaker, or that Shakira-love dare not speak its name.
I put these things on myself, and I reify them by defining myself in these ways for others. Now it’s not just that I think of myself as an I-Don’t-Sing-in-Public person — it’s how those who know me think of me. These identities are reflected back at me, and that gives them the patina of objectivity. They’re reinforced in a vicious circle and eventually become incontestable truths, just like the fact that exposed brick really adds to a home.
* * *
The honey badgers whose enrichment programs I will soon be designing don’t know any of these things (nor, by definition, do they care). Neither do any of the people working at the reserve, or any of the other volunteers. They are tabulae rasae, vis-à-vis me, with nothing preëxisting* to reflect back at me. I’ll also probably never see any of them again, so it doesn’t really matter what they think of me; if a bunch of gap-year kids from Australia end up remembering me as that fat lady who loved to sing to the cheetahs but good god she was awful, who gives a shit?
It’s not very often that you get to sing to a cheetah. It’s not very often that you get to have an experience so far outside the norm of your everyday life. It’s not very often that you get the chance to redefine yourself from scratch for a prolonged period, but with no long-term repercussion.
I can be any person I want. I can try on new identities like costumes. I can play. I can see what I feels like to step outside the constructs I’ve spent 40 years building, to see what happens, to see which parts are structural and which parts only cosmetic.
I wonder what I’ll find there.
* I wanted to see what it felt like to be a uses-umlauts-like-the-New–Yorker person. I’m not gonna lie: it feels like being a pretentious jerkwad.