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.
A landmark and lonely moment is when you realize you’re invisible. The cliche, “hidden in plain sight,” implies a conscious decision to remain hidden (or at least that’s how it’s mostly used), so it’s not that. By contrast, the invisibility of which I speak is the necessary symptom of an introspective and artistic life. Here’s what I’ve come to believe: the more a person moves about in the interior shadowland of his own mind–a space resembling, but not replicating, the physical world–the more that person feels a disconnect between what resonates as reality for him and what those around him seem to accept as the same. The invisible man’s reality is mostly within and is, therefore, closer to the heart. A general understanding of the world, like what close-knit communities often share, becomes nearly impossible for the primarily inward-living person. In the gap between inner and outer, values misalign. In fact, values originate altogether differently.
Probably the disconnect happens for everyone to varying degrees, maybe more for the introvert than for the extrovert. Yet it happens even more for the artist, and here’s a theory why: the artist is obligated to believe in his inner world. There’s no dismissing his most secret thoughts, writing them off as daydreaming or zoning out. Dreams, desires, memories, fantasies, imagination–all are raw materials; all are source material for origins.
I fear I’m viewing this conviction of invisibility solipsistically, though. Because I’m a writer, maybe I’ve accepted things about myself I’ve merely made up–a functioning self-delusion, in which I’m guilty of believing a problem unique to a few that is really the existential dilemma of many.
Regardless what’s true or imagined, the feeling of being invisible occurs at distinct moments–moments which I could list, if time permitted. That’s why this post is a “Part 1,” because I might return to this idea and try to work through it. That is, unless I decide to just keep it all inside–to keep it invisible.