Dazzle, Mimic, Blend

Recently, after writing for a long while on World War II, I was exhausted by the subject, which had become a joyless task—as it sometimes needs to be. But then, the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, my husband and I took our daughters to The Buck, a family-friendly motorsports park fifteen miles outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And there, among oily black clouds of exhaust and the guttural revving of engines, I felt again something like joy, as if I had freed myself from a decade and stumbled into a new era.

Our attendance at the derby was an accident, in a way. That Friday at 2 pm I had been at work when my husband texted Demolition derby at The Buck tomorrow nite? My immediate reply, Let’s go!!!!!, used more exclamation points than I typically permit myself in a month.

We had taken the girls to The Buck a few times before to watch monster truck and mud bog events; their favorite was the Tuff Trucks, which involves beat-up vehicles careening around an obstacle course. In rural Pennsylvania, this qualifies as prime and affordable entertainment: the nearest cinemas are far away, as are shopping malls, orchestras, and any live theater. Also, my husband has a friend who competes at The Buck, so our previous visits had been made in the spirit of support and curiosity. Because the girls had enjoyed themselves, my husband and I thought the derby, too, would be great entertainment. Or at least, that was the way I rationalized the trip at the time.

We were partially right about the girls’ reactions. Two minutes into the first demolition heat, our elder daughter was rapt. How old do you have to be to drive in that, Dad? When he told her sixteen, more than five years away, she frowned. Then she began plotting her future as a derby queen.

But our younger daughter, who was eight, was horrified. Why would they destroy all those cars?

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At the derby, the crowd wore camouflage. Camouflage ball caps, in particular, this being the end of August. And camouflage T-shirts for the boys, camouflage tank tops for the girls. Camo in all colors and patterns on all body shapes, sizes, and ages: blaze orange and pink, woodland camo and Realtree camo and chocolate-chip desert camo. I saw a camouflage backpack, too, and several pairs of camouflage short-shorts. While watching all those people I felt a sudden, chest-expanding sensation of superiority. Just as quickly, I tried to banish the emotion—it was wrong to feel that way—but the attitude came back: I’m better than that.

What the hell was wrong with me?

I don’t own anything printed with a camouflage pattern, perhaps because I’ve never thought it fashionable. My mother, always practical, purchased at the army surplus store camouflage pants for my brothers. Those pants held up longer than others; they hid dirt and were inexpensive. That sense of camouflage as utilitarian has stayed with me, but—rightly or wrongly—I’ve always associated camouflage with violence as well. What this translated to, when I saw everyone at the derby wearing camo, is that I viewed their clothes as a tacit acceptance of brutality, something I like to think I avoid. My attendance at the derby, however, suggests otherwise—and my blindness to that irony suggests there are other things about camouflage I’ve not thought through.

The history of camouflage is the history of survival by concealment, the history of natural selection: creatures with the best camouflage passed along their genetic material so that their offspring, too, would flourish. In this way, creatures in the natural world have evolved to the point where they can hide in plain sight.

Blending, the most familiar method of camouflage, refers to confusion between object and background. The other day, I went outside for a few minutes before my daughters came off the school bus. As I went to sit down in a weathered, gray Adirondack chair, I noticed a somewhat darker gray splotch on its back. My first thought was bird droppings, and I went to sit in a different chair. But I looked again, and the splotch was a moth, spotted and speckled and striated. Each wing possessed what looked like an eye, and its pattern was so complex I doubt it could be reproduced. If the moth had chosen to rest on a tree, I would never have seen it at all.

Blending, of course, is the strategy behind military camouflage, too, and not surprisingly Germany in the 1930s first mass-produced camouflage uniforms. And, to distinguish their elite force from the rest of the military, the Waffen-SS created its own sophisticated uniform patterns. Their warm colors and blurred focus are reminiscent of watercolor technique; the abstract designs combine impressions of moth wings, autumn leaves, and filtered sunlight. When I first saw these shirts in a book, the opening lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Pied Beauty” entered my head: “Glory be to God for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim . . .”

I don’t know what kind of heresy it may be to associate Hopkins with a Third Reich creation, but I cannot deny the visual beauty and innovation of the fabric. One Nazi shirt in particular evokes for me the natural world, conjuring the long, low rays of October light and how the sun in that month filters through ochre and crimson leaves.

Sometimes, when you research a war, what you learn in the daylight likes to linger after you close your eyes. I see now that I grabbed on to that Friday night at The Buck as a way to escape what I knew about war, particularly the chaos of its immediate aftermath. But even more than that, I think I wanted to escape responsibility: the responsibility of knowledge, yes, but also the responsibility of what it meant to play the roles of my life (writer, teacher, mother, wife) that felt like too much to carry. I was sick of myself and wanted to be someone or something else for a while. This isn’t to say it’s wrong to take a break from reality; that’s why vacations exist, and I needed one. But this time, instead of longing for a quiet beach or a Krakow cafe, I wanted to become what I wasn’t, wanted to melt into a great mass that could take me away. I chose a crowd that watched fire and smoke, thrilled to the sharp crack of metal on metal, and cheered for vertebrae-rattling collisions.

I wanted, for escape, the public distracting display of ruin.

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Camouflage at The Buck happens through more than fashion, in that the demolition derby offers several levels of illusion. Devastation is cheered and given cash prizes, but it’s also made safe—or at least as safe as each driver can be while crashing around in a ton of gears and metal. That Friday night, my husband pointed out to our daughters the way hoods were chained shut, and everything glass—windshields, windows, side-view mirrors, headlights, and tail lights—had been removed. The drivers wore crash helmets. And, he explained, small fuel cells in the backseat took the place of gas tanks (which would be bombs, really) beneath the car.

Meanwhile, as the drivers gunned their engines and careened from one corner of the racetrack to the other, race officials in red shirts stood sentry alongside the barricades and watched for illegal hits: no head-on collisions, no hits to the driver-side door. The red shirts waved their arms when a fuel cell ruptured or an axle broke in half, but they gesticulated most wildly when a car went up on two wheels and threatened to flip. Meanwhile, we in the crowd cheered, begging Roll over, roll over! in the backs of our minds.

We do, after all, tend to exalt the greatest spectacles: the loudest crash, the loudest engine, the car spinning its stuck wheels so fast they steam and spark and just might burn.

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I love fireworks, no matter the occasion, and another reason we had gone to The Buck was that its intermission promised a display. As the colors lit up the sky, I watched women cradling babies, Amish men in beards and suspenders, a few kids speaking Spanish. We all looked up at the fireworks with the same enrapt awe, as if the fire in the sky were what we had really come for, and in our adoration of explosion and destruction and colored lights we were finally made whole, one country of absurdly different people under a night sky.

Such unity hadn’t been in evidence during the singing of the national anthem at the beginning of the evening. We had been late—standing in the ticket line and craning our necks to find empty seats in the stands—when the music started. The crowd stood, the men took off their hats, and some people sang. But others looked at the sky or their hands or, like those of us at the ticket booth, shrugged and moved forward in line.

But the fireworks. I wish I knew why togetherness doesn’t seem to happen among many groups in quiet and constructive moments, why we are so in love with the perceived beauty of explosion, why we come together most powerfully when things break apart.

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When I later told my friend Margaret about this observation, that we could all get behind explosions but not the national song, she was skeptical. You’re looking at this through a certain lens, she said (meaning my war-and-politics lens). She suggested some people might be uncomfortable with the national anthem, or at least parts of it, or they aren’t sure how to participate, the way some people are uncomfortable walking into church, to say nothing of staying for a service. But, she continued, we can all appreciate the beauty of fireworks. Maybe it’s not about destroying things. Maybe beauty is what really unifies people.

Because I’m a sucker for fireworks, and because I want to believe people can rally around gorgeousness, I’d like to say Margaret’s theory resonates. But I’m learning to mistrust things I think of as visually stunning. There is always another side to beauty, something I haven’t considered, especially when that beauty is predicated on destruction.

The purpose of a firework, the reason it is created, is to explode. What does it mean when we create something whose purpose is to shatter, when we use innovation to unmake, to undo? This thought reminds me that innovation, like beauty, is neither intrinsically good nor bad, though much language surrounding innovation these days makes it sound like a savior. Innovation is the transference of camouflage from the natural world to military use; it’s the first firework. It’s the shift online from language to image, image to pixel, until what was once whole is in pieces and producing new beautiful and awful depictions.

Fireworks, unlike a national anthem, require no words; they are visuals without dogma or doctrine. They crack and boom, and we wait for the loudest punctuations of sounds, the ones that precede enormous bursts of color and rattle our stomachs and ring our ears. I don’t know about other people, but I crave that physical reaction to the loudest crack and awe of a firework, even if it makes my stomach clench and release. All sight and sound. Sensory. Primitive, even, in its wordlessness and reliance on instinct.

Words complicate things. I dated for several years a man who believed the complication of words to be a negative force. He said often, in frustration, Why do you always have to think? Why isn’t it enough for you to just feel? I couldn’t answer him back then, in my late teens and early twenties. In those years I wrote lengthy critical papers about literature and politics, and I analyzed to death my relationship with that man, too. Yet I couldn’t explain who I was. Now, though, I think all the words I wrote and spoke, and all the frustration I gave him, came from my mixed feelings, and the only way to sort them out was through words. Through thinking. He, on the other hand, believed that feelings shouldn’t be complicated, that our relationship didn’t need words.

Today, I especially mistrust blind happiness of the sort I felt when I cheered on the derby cars, then leaned back into my husband while watching fireworks and lost myself in his warmth. In that moment, I didn’t want to think at all. Instead, I wanted what my old boyfriend wanted: feeling without perplexity. Another word for that is sentimentality, which has all kinds of negative connotations these days; writers in particular deride the practice as “feeling without thought.” Lest you suspect I’m a steely curmudgeon, you should know I believe in the importance of happiness, of feeling an emotion so pure it runs over you like a waterfall—perhaps one of the most sentimental images I could use here, yet I’m sure you know what I mean precisely because you’ve felt that pouring of emotion over you, too. If the waterfall image is too honeyed, too syrupy, well, I get the same feeling when I look at a panorama of mountains, the ocean, or farmland. My heart leaps at the vast visual canvas that oozes a beauty full of hope and promise; I love feeling those things so completely. The sensation reminds me that the world isn’t always, in every moment, broken.

The problem is that, in wanting to go to the derby, an event predicated on a public display of ruin, I sought that same sense of joy. Of wholeness. I knew instinctively I could watch cars smashing and fireworks exploding—the opposite of the wholeness of panorama—and lose myself in a spectacle of rupture that would make me feel terribly wonderful.

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During World War I, camouflage protection from submarines, a danger below, became necessary, and the British painted the hulls of their warships with geometric dazzle designs. These thick and angular patterns of blue, black, and yellow worked differently from the blending approach of uniforms and moths. Dazzle’s bold lines, like a zebra’s stripes, made an object break up, visually, into unrelated components, rendering the ships’ outlines less comprehensible to submarines. The ships’ bold appearance so electrified public imagination that the Chelsea Arts Club held the Dazzle Ball as its first themed, postwar extravaganza.

When I think about dazzle I also think about fireworks—the way the explosive breaks into many parts, a display of audacious gorgeousness which elicits oohs and aahs from a crowd. The dazzle of fireworks renders us speechless, separates intellect—the part of us that enables language—from emotion. Dazzle allows the spontaneous overflow of feeling to sweep us away, and because what we see is spectacular, we believe in its goodness, which in the moment becomes our goodness, too.

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The third form of camouflage is mimicry, the creation of confusion between one kind of object and another. Consider the stinking corpse lily, which imitates the stench of rotting flesh to attract pollinators. In a less odiferous tactic, a katydid’s angles and curves allow it to resemble a leaf. The stick bug resembles . . . well, a stick. But perhaps most curious is that the human appropriation of camouflage is mimicry, too: our clothing, in particular, mimics the patterns of trees and animals. We’re not always interested in being ourselves; usually we’re interested in being something else, in changing who we are because we want to protect ourselves, to protect how we’re seen, to confuse others—and even ourselves—about what we are.

I have my own version of camo when I’m not sure what to wear, or how I want to be seen, and I wore it to the derby: dark jeans and a black T-shirt. I know that I am not the only one who turns to this pairing. At a family reunion a few years ago, every young mother wore the same uniform. We all noticed each other with wry smiles, offered explanations about hiding dirt and food and wiping away spit-up without staining a shirt yellow. And jeans—we’re forever on our knees, on the floor, changing diapers or stacking blocks or soothing a child’s bumped head. What none of us says and all of us know is that our uniform hides more than dirt and stains. Beneath our uniforms, there are jiggly thighs, stretched breasts, thickened waists. We hide in so many ways with our black shirts and denim pants, the camouflage literal and inferential.

Perhaps what we do when we wear camouflage, whether a black T-shirt or a patterned ball cap, is acknowledge with our clothing a central truth about what it means to create an identity. The practice of mimicry allows us to appear to be something else, but it’s not always possible to construct and maintain a full second identity. More easily achieved, perhaps, is the ability to hide the edges of who we are, as in camouflage’s blending approach, which color theorists in the early twentieth century called “disruptive pattern”: areas of dark and light placed next to each other as a means to break up shape and outline. The goal of the camouflaged creature is to create confusion on the part of the observer, who can’t easily distinguish the conflicting tones from the creature itself. As humans we—or at least I—want it all: to be an individual, an observer of others, but also to blend in and belong. But then it becomes difficult for us to tell exactly who we are: the creature who is looking or the creature who is hiding. In this way, identity itself is a kind of camouflage: as a human constructs a persona that allows her to move through the world, she is also concealing parts of herself—but at what price, and to whom?

For instance, part of the reason I have not purchased military camouflage is that I like to think I stand apart from the stereotype of the ugly American: I appreciate education and refinement, civilized discourse and behavior. Contradictorily, my desire to separate myself from the group to which I supposedly belong makes me feel that I am an individual. And individuality, in America, is what we are supposed to aspire to. We, or many of us, are raised to believe that anyone, as long as she works hard enough, can lift herself above the teeming, tired crowd, or out of a particular kind of past or background. Yet, to rise above is to be unprotected and alone. When I was in college, at an enormous urban university far from my home and family, I felt naked and adrift, utterly uncamouflaged. That was the first time in my life I felt I could be whoever and whatever I wanted. The circumstance sounds liberating, but in reality it was terrifying. A few years into my studies, when I went abroad on a ship, traveling the waist of the globe, I saw (or thought I saw) how culture and ethnicity knitted people together.

This attitude, of course, was a kind of camouflage, too: I was an outsider, so I couldn’t see the many different pieces that made up a culture, and I hadn’t read enough or thought enough to consider the conflicts running beneath language, ritual, and culinary delights. In my nostalgia, I came back from that voyage determined to build for myself an ethnic identity, one that would connect me to something larger than myself and help me feel less alone, less exposed. I enrolled in Polish language classes, added to my major a program in East European studies, spent a summer in Krakow, and met for the first time my relatives in Poland. Looking back at all this, I’m reminded of the closing lines from Robert Hayden’s poem, “Those Winter Sundays”: “Speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished my good shoes as well. / What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?” The poem is full of regret and gratitude, a meditation on how, as children, we cannot know about the depth or hues of a parent’s love. But it’s also a greater reminder that when we begin anything, we feel our way blindly. We go on emotion—instinct—because we don’t yet have knowledge or experience. I chose a Polish American identity because I loved my family’s Polish traditions and food, and away from home I missed the sound of my father and grandmother when they spoke Polish. I didn’t examine, at the time, why I loved and longed for home and family. I just knew I felt it. And that feeling was good and safe, not unlike the feeling of watching fireworks at the derby.

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The camouflaging of both identity and object is known to fail, especially when incomplete. One of Hitler’s most ambitious projects tried to conceal Maschsee, a large artificial lake in south Hannover, the city where my grandparents and father lived for two years after the war. Because Maschsee was a prominent landmark for Allied pilots on bombing raids, the Nazis wanted to obscure the lake with painted canvasses and fake landscapes, all secured to wicker rafts. Foreign forced laborers, though not my Polish Catholic grandparents, began and completed the monumental effort. But Allied planes photographed the project during construction, and in October 1943 the bombs that decimated Hannover also shredded the enormous quilt that floated above the lake. My attempt to wear a Polish American identity, in time, faced similar collapse.

Part of the pride I felt about my heritage stemmed from my desire to tell anyone who would listen that I was the child of a man born in a forced labor camp. I realize now that I was caught up in, and attracted to, a narrative of suffering. For some reason, some people—my younger self included—feel better, even superior, when they say they have come out of a place of misery. Perhaps this is linked to our love of redemption stories: to own the pride that is enabled by redemption, one must have experienced great tribulation beforehand. But there are so many problems with redemption. One is that the story of human strangeness never really ends; we choose an ending so that we have a tidy frame, but redemption is temporary. In the real world beyond this white page, suffering and survival comprise a pattern of disruption, of dark and light smashed against each other at uneven intervals. To believe that redemption is a final outcome is false: we’re awful, then we’re good for a while, then we’re awful again, and so it goes.

A related problem is that when I claim a historical story of redemption, I implicitly embrace the suffering of the past—even like it, approve of it. When feeling good about ourselves today is predicated on others’ past suffering, on the fact of a war, in some ways we have said that the past suffering and devastation were valuable. That they had meaning.

We’re such strange, fucked-up creatures—masochists, really—wanting to embrace the pain of others as imparting a greater meaning to ourselves, and to believe that an attachment to the history of pain makes us different from, even superior to, those others. I’m afraid that making an identity for ourselves out of others’ suffering might camouflage our own predisposition for perpetrating similar suffering in our own age.

There is another reason I wanted to take on a Polish American identity, though it involves a more difficult and delicate topic, one I’ve always wished to keep hidden: I wanted to feel in some way closer to my father’s mother. By the time I was in college, she was living in a nursing home and suffering from dementia. I had never been close to her, for reasons of age, language, and culture, but she is who I think of when I need to get through something difficult. When her father, a Polish peasant, refused to pay for her schooling beyond eighth grade, she left home at age fourteen to earn her own wages. Later, in her early thirties, she survived forced labor, the birth of my father in wretched conditions, and the chaotic, nearly unspeakable aftermath of World War II. Then, despite an alcoholic and wayward husband, she raised four children in refugee camps, arranged the family’s emigration to the United States, and served as her children’s rock while they made sense of their strange new home. Her story inspires me, and I want my grandmother, with her independence and resolve, to be a person from whose memory I draw strength.

But, tangled up in that memory is my grandmother’s anti-Semitism, something I didn’t know about in my early twenties. I suppose I had assumed back then, because I wanted to hold her up as someone to admire, that she could not possibly have been a racist. Instead, I assumed that because she had been enslaved she must have felt a kind of kinship with the other people enslaved in Nazi Germany, including the Jewish women who labored with her in a munitions factory. All of these assumptions were based on my desire to feel love, connection, and even superiority through her story. But the truth is that during World War II, throughout Europe and especially in the concentration and forced labor camps, bitterness among all ethnic groups spread like the plague it was. Even among people from the same country, divisions grew: in my grandmother’s barrack, the Warsaw women banded together against the Krakow women, particularly when it came to stealing necessities, such as underwear, that were in short supply.

In recent years I’ve learned that my grandmother did not like Jews. My father says it was a complicated dislike, and that although she had few kind words for Jewish people, she voiced a grudging respect for the Jewish values of education and fiscal discipline. I find myself wanting to concentrate on that grudging respect, even telling myself that my grandmother’s racism is somewhat explainable by who she was (a peasant) at a particular time (the first half of the twentieth century) and in a particular place (rural Poland). But when we try to explain racism, what we are trying to do is make sense of hatred, offer it logical reasons, justifications that make hate seem less hateful. But there is no logic to hate; it grows out of unexamined feelings such as jealousy and fear. Unexamined feelings also include that spectacular yet unfounded sense of fulfillment I sought from watching fireworks or a demolition derby.

I hadn’t fully considered the connections among unexamined feelings of all kinds until I read James Baldwin, who called sentimentality the “mark of dishonesty” and explained, “the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.” Though I’ve often thought of sentimentality as a somewhat benign, greeting-card-aisle shortcoming, and at most a warning to check myself for unfounded happiness or love, it’s deeply troubling that one’s propensity for sentimentality can suggest callousness, and even viciousness, toward other people. This darkness rested beneath my inability to address my grandmother’s racism, and it suggests that my desire to escape into positive emotions at The Buck is linked to my need to escape uncomfortable things—not only the horrors of war, but my tendency to excuse, and therefore perpetuate, racism in subtle yet devastating ways.

Acknowledging my grandmother’s anti-Semitism also means acknowledging the history of anti-Semitism in Poland, which Poles and Polish Americans aren’t keen to do. The reluctance is understandable, hate being something many people like to keep hidden, out of mind, because it is unsavory and often linked to violence. Squirreling away such pieces of ourselves, of our histories, makes it easier for us to construct a surface identity we admire, just as it’s easier for me to admire my grandmother when I rationalize her racism.

The cruel doubleness of identity is that it helps us learn who we are, even while it hides other pieces we would prefer not to acknowledge. The hard part is that there are many pieces of ourselves we can conceal, but cannot get rid of—just as an alcoholic is always an alcoholic, even if she hasn’t had a drink for twenty years. We each hold so many selves that one identity is too small to encompass who we are, and this can be a comfort—that we can change and reinvent who we are. But in some ways, the camouflage can always fail because it is a covering, a disruptive pattern in shades of light and dark that prevent us from seeing ourselves fully.

At the same time, camouflage is necessary. Walking around all day acknowledging our capacity for destruction, overzealous self-preservation, and hatred would be too difficult. Camouflage keeps us from terrible bleakness; without camouflage, how and why would we rebuild after a war? Camouflage tells us that we can be thinkers, writers, creators, or builders, but it reminds us, too, that underneath we can be much, much worse: destroyers and killers who allow emotion to carry us to a place from which return is nearly impossible, a place always filled with horror and regret.

Even as I see now the fraught reasons why I became interested in my family’s ethnic roots, the history of what my father and his parents lived through will not let me go. It clings to me because, at my core, when life becomes overwhelming and I am afraid, I don’t fight my fear by facing the thing that stalks me. Instead, I give in to that fear and hide beneath my clothes, and within a group, ride the safety of collective emotion. Within the group I am stronger, and my place in it entitles me to survival and others to less.

This is what the crowd did for me in the grandstand. We were surviving, we were the fittest, and we cheered the destruction below. Not by accident is the grandstand high above the track, shining silver to the track’s dirty brown. No accident that the crowd wears camouflage and black T-shirts while the referees wear red, no accident that lights shine on the entire event, all the better for us to see. The more the cars below crumple, the more our collective power grows.

That Saturday night at the derby, I was so filled with the urge to escape my life that I ignored my younger daughter’s dismay at what she was witnessing, my daughter whose room full of books and rope swing under a maple tree are the places where she is most at home, and most herself.

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Another way to think about the many facets of camouflage is this: concealment was, and is, used as much for its ability to improve morale as for its ability to conceal. According to Peter Forbes’s Dazzled and Deceived, in World War I military leaders didn’t believe camouflage improved outcomes on the battlefield or at sea, but reports concluded that soldiers and sailors felt braver and more protected when camouflaged. And so, the armed forces continued to invest in the art of concealment in part because the illusion of safety tamped down fear.

What is the line between individuality and belonging? And where do belonging’s mirrors, fear and concealment, begin?

Perhaps those are the wrong questions; perhaps the construction of identity isn’t about lines and mirrors, objects with certain edges and clear images. Perhaps what it means to be an individual and to belong, and what it means to be afraid and to hide, are always changing, the boundaries shifting, fog-like, so that from day to day a source of comfort and home might morph into an instrument of anxiety, distress, or terror. Perhaps in response to such uncertainty, we need to distinguish ourselves as different from, or superior to, others as a matter of survival, of protecting ourselves from potential emotional and physical harm. I have sought, and still seek, to set myself apart because I, like every other person, carry a multiple nature, no matter what I choose as my ethnic identity, profession, or entertainment. In the end, I simply want to be more. More than a plain, flawed human like everyone else, even though I and nearly everyone else know that’s impossible. But rather than acknowledge the futility of our search, we continue to bash our heads against it, struggling to differentiate ourselves, when really all we want when individuality is too much to bear is to blend in, even if that means casting another out.

We can never be one thing, nor should we try to be such. Consider the large-scale use of military camouflage, which began well before World War II with the invention of the airplane. Once aerial reconnaissance began early in the twentieth century, armies had to consider how they might conceal weaponry and equipment from above. At the outset of World War I, England and the United States initiated camouflage corps into which many painters, sculptors, filmmakers, and zoologists were conscripted, even recruited, for their expertise. Surrealist artists in particular helped develop patterns and textures that ultimately became tarps and netting, and those fabrics obscured armories, entire encampments, and lone gunners. It’s fascinating to consider that artists, those we think of as humanists, developed successful military camouflage. We humans can hum, make music, make art, develop ourselves in infinite ways. Yet we overlap with creatures because a piece of us will always lack civilization. Our animal nature isn’t something to decry, just as I can’t and shouldn’t decry innovation, demolition derbies, camouflage. Those things, on their own, have no inherent value, evil or good; a human must ascribe their quality. But this beast, this other part of consciousness, is something for me to be wary of, to recognize, when on an evening I seek the consolation of destruction, safe among others in a crowd that simultaneously allows me to scream, celebrate, and hide my darkest self.

 

Cate Hodorowicz’s essays and reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming from the Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Southern Indian Review, Arts & Letters, Hippocampus, and The Rumpus. She has been a Peter Taylor Nonfiction Fellow at the Kenyon Writers Workshop and a Pushcart Prize recipient.