For nearly forty years, I’ve called this animal a buffalo. Somewhere along the way, I learned it’s also called a bison–American bison, to be exact. But that didn’t make it any less a buffalo, it just now had two names–interchangeable, like pig and hog.
At Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, the part near Cadiz, Kentucky, I’ve driven through the Elk & Bison Prairie numerous times, once even having to stop the car completely, because buffalo–er, bison–had surrounded us (I was with my dad). It was a transcendent moment, having these beasts on all sides, who could end us with one toss of the head, these icons of the American plains.
There are cities named after it; there are national brands with the word in their names; the animal is used in countless folk and Americana songs. But I learned, not too long ago, that to call this furry behemoth a buffalo, is to call it the wrong thing. After all these years, I decide to look it up, to see if there’s a difference between the two terms. What I discovered surprised me. It turns out the only true buffalo are in Asia and Africa (think water buffalo). What we have in America is actually only a bison. Though it’s no less majestic, it’s also no more a buffalo.
Imagine all the names of things that must be changed now, things integral to the very culture we inherit, and that we hope to pass on to our kids and grandkids! Doesn’t this revelation make you wonder if everything we assume to be true is really just made up? Or that we’re making it all up as we go?
Okay. I might be overreacting. But now, when I see Blue Buffalo dog food in the grocery store, with a little blue bison leaping on the logo, I think, “Your brand’s a lie!”
Fads are often silly from the start, and yet they grow even sillier with age, some of them degrading entirely to pure nonsense (think tight-rolled jeans). One of the sillier fads I embraced as a kid was the lifeguard tank top shirt. It must’ve been about 1984, give or take a year–the start of a period which, spanning the entire second half of the eighties, I’m realizing was seminal in the development of who I am. The seeds of lifelong interests were sown in those roughly five years. Memories I have from that time rank among my favorites. There was a magic in that long corridor between ages eight and thirteen that I didn’t identify then–though I certainly felt it–that is becoming clearer with age. An innocence on the verge of experience. The mystery of girls deepened, resulting in some killer crushes. Music became a vehicle for any emotion or memory I might have had, and it did so with increasing intensity–any music I was into, in fact, from Huey Lewis and the News to 3rd Bass to Guns N’ Roses. What I now know to be a budding self-consciousness, was to me then an expansion of the horizon itself, and the awkwardness and heartbreak were as necessary as the triumphs and thrills.
At that age, I also became increasingly image-conscious, which sounds a little shallow to the present me, but at the time, it somehow fit: blissfully ignorant of social class, the idea I could wear a certain shirt and be part of a certain group held a charming simplicity. I didn’t know any better then; I see the folly of that view only in reflection. What I did know was that the world (for me) was getting bigger; that the teenage years looked exciting and grownup; that things were now either “cool” or not, and to be “cool” was everything. Even if it meant traipsing sunburnt down Panama City Beach in a tank top with the word lifeguard printed on it in red letters.
This is what life feels like: out of the four or five different roles I play in a given week, two distinct minds arise most often: that of the experienced man who’s endured a few roadside ruts, and who’s ever tempted by cynicism; and that of the optimistic-leaning kid who feels the burden of life to be light and its outcomes mostly good. The older I get, the more the cynical man shuts out the optimistic kid, but I did notice a tendency toward the latter while staying up late last night watching Fred Armisen on the Netflix comedy special, Standup for Drummers.
Armisen is more endearing than outright funny, and I found that I wanted to keep watching him the same way I’d want to keep listening to a quirky and amusing friend. It was obvious the room where he performed was feeling it, too. The audience’s faces reflected affection rather than incredulity (like what you might find at a Dave Chappelle show, where the common reaction is “I can’t believe he said that!”). Where many comedians depend on outrageousness, Armisen exudes friendly irony; he could be Kurt Cobain’s mild-mannered and sanguine half-brother–just as capable of snarling social commentary, but with a delivery that wouldn’t be out of place on NPR.
Fred Armisen analysis aside, there was a feeling I had watching him (not exactly sure why) that felt like youthful optimism–a feeling that people are generally well-meaning, that there is still room for civility and lightheartedness among those who may not agree on everything but still place one another’s humanity first–first before, even, the need to be right, and while respecting each others’ capacity for figuring things out themselves. But then waist-deep in this blog, the old man (my other mind) comes slogging through, grumbling about the impossibility of this fragile scaffolding we call society. And all I can do is turn up my music and stare at the clouds.