of Self-Forming Through Auto-Identification with Otherness
Recently I came across a journal entry from my adolescence. I am living a lie, it said.
How truly, truly sad.
Chapter One. Beginnings.
I never fit in with my family, kind as they were. As a youth, I never really found
friends. Acquaintances, perhaps, but no one I could consider my soul mate. I had a dark
imagination; I came to a nihilistic outlook too early to express my thoughts properly. Or
perhaps I should say an existential outlook, for although I was painfully aware of
mortality, I did not reject the idea of truth altogether. I felt that there was a truth
for myself that I dared not examine the stakes of self-examination felt much too
high for me at that age. So I crawled about with a black haze around me, speaking as
little as possible, refusing to participate in any of the social customs that seemed to me
then a desperately thin patina of etiquette in the face of our inevitably animal natures.
While my sister made friends and started to attract males, scampering about coquettishly,
I developed a battery of nervous tics and obsessive-compulsive rituals. These included
winking constantly, picking at mites that were not there, and cocking my head side to side
three timesit had to be leftright-left, not right-left-right. If I
accidentally cocked my head right-left-right, I had to do penance by crawling about with
my tail pressed down against the ground so that it would drag behind me instead of
standing up perkily, normally, proud and fluffy.
One day, while I was degrading myself thus,
wandering aimlessly with my limp tail collecting dust and mud, I happened to glance behind
myself (I'd heard a nut fall somewhere in the distance), and a shock wave ran through
mea jolt of energy, a moment of what I call auto-frisson, a hint of at least the
possibility of pleasure. The accidental sighting of my dirty, bedraggled tail gave me a
glimmer of hope that there was a fuller life to be led.
About the same time, I began wandering away from the
neighborhood. You must understand, my family occupied the most sleepy, protected area of
the park, acres and acres away from dog runs, paved footpaths, broken glass. I'd heard
stories about other places, but only in the form of cautionary tales: little Billy who got
lost without a buddy and met some sadistic children with a Swiss Army knifethat kind
of thing. But where we lived was far from the reality of the dangerous outer rim of the
park. In our enclave, happy families ate together, sang happy songs, and slept long and
restful sleeps, dreaming of the delicious nuts they would gather the next day, and the
next, and the next. The next area over, down the hill, toward the edge of the field, was
where the chipmunks made their home, and though we did not share society with them, we
regarded these speedy little fellows with humor and respect. That was my sheltered
world... until I began my explorations.
Chapter Two. Discovery.
By the summer after I first saw my bedraggled, limp tail, I was taking long
perambulations, circling out in wider and wider circumferences away from home. My father
frettedhe'd scratch himself nervously, blinking, and tell me to make sure to start
home before the sun was even close to the western ridge. My mother would just sigh and say
to him, "Pavel's a big boy now, Piotr, we can't rein him in, he must get this out of
his system. He's like my brother, so restless as a youth, but now look, with Sonya and the
quadruplets, who would've thought he'd become such a model father."
I let them talk. Uncle Kristoff with his big
belly and thinning whiskersshe compares me to him? I thought. I cocked my head
left-right-left and looked behind myself at my tail. Inside I knew that I was different
and that I needed to explore, explore, explore.
I can remember with perfect kinesthetic awareness the
feelingoh, indescribable, flooding feelingthe first time I saw itthe sighta
large, steel-mesh basket, full of an array of objects from the world, broken
umbrellas, newspapers, deflated rubber balls . . . and more important, also containing
napkins saturated with rancid mayonnaise, apple cores, bottles with a little Yoo-Hoo still
inside, folded pizza boxes. I stood staring at this monument, knowing I had discovered
something important, but not knowing why. In a minute, my question was answered.
I was watching a greasy paper bag which seemed to be
shaking in the wind. But there was no windmy whiskers were perfectly still. I was
watching, and wondering, when He emerged in all his glory.
He was dark gray, almost black in places, with sharp,
quick eyes and alert, fanlike ears. But best of all, and last to come out of the bag, was
his taillow, sleek, serpentine. The tail I should have been born with. He was what I
should have been. What was this otherworldly creature? I was without fear, so enrapt was I
with this, the apparition of my true nature, the vision of what I should have seen in a
puddle instead of perky brown eyes, little ears, and my obscenely fluffy baroque tail. I
approached the creature, half disbelieving that a real animal could be so perfect, and
asked Him, "What are you?"
He looked over at me, squinting shrewdly. "What
do you want?"
"I only want to know what kind of creature you
I formed the syllable for the first time, spoke it as
an answer to myself, "Rat."
"Yeah. And this is my bin, so you better back
I returned to my home in the trees that night feeling
hope for the first time. I kissed my mother, scratched father behind the ear
affectionately. It wasn't their fault their son was born the wrong species, I thought.
They were innocent little creatures with neither the scope nor the vision to understand
the transformation that was beginning inside me.
Chapter Three. Friendship.
For the next three mornings, I woke up early, said a cheery "Bye!" to the folks,
and returned as speedily as possible to the rat's garbage bin. I waited there for him, in
silence, in shadows, under the cover of a juniper bush. All I wanted was to observe; I did
not care, for the moment, if he accepted me or not. He'd slither up from a grate near a
narrow footpath, then sidle over to his bin, each paw crossing in front of the last in a
lovely demonstration of economy. Every motion fulfilled unanswered questions I'd always
silently asked: Why must we scamper? Why must we eat nuts year in and year out? Why must
we clean ourselves so often?
His single-minded scavenging was magnificent. The
way he found crumbs of muffins, bits of gristle, rawhide shoelaces with a twitch of his
finely tuned nose fascinated me. At home, in bed at night, I'd try to twitch my snubby
nose in imitation of his sharp one.
Before I continue with my story, let me digress
momentarily to share with you some ideas that started to take shape during those days of
Watching and have come to inform my later work. Much has been written about the so-called
gaze; we all know that to Look At something or someone is an act of ownership and
objectification. However, I put forth that another aspect inherent in all Looking At is a
projection into the object, that is, we make ourselves into the Looked At thing, and that
is the path of ownershipacquisition through becoming, one might call it. And this
acquiring happens only through a losing of parts of the whole original self of the gazer.
In some ways, therefore, the one being Looked At, the "Gazee," comes to own the
Gazer, as the latter must give up some wholeness in looking (what else, if not this, is
the process of seduction?). So for example when I watched the rat, I was becoming him by
Now I shall return to my story
There I was, watching, watching, when I felt a tap on
I turned around (glancing out of habit at my
bedraggled tail) and found myself looking at a most unusual character: it was feathered
and had two wings and two skinny little legs. But up front, where you'd expect a beak,
there was a snout formed of gray felt with a little black button sewn on. And behind it,
where you'd expect to see just a feathery tail, was attached a long gray piece of yarn. On
its head was a sort of headdress, upon which two tiny cardboard ears were fastened.
I backed up further into the shade of the juniper
bush, so that I was side to side with the creature. I was obsessed, I hated to be
interrupted, but I gathered that if I didn't acknowledge it politely, it might blow my
"May I help you?" I whispered.
"I think I can help you," it chirped
quietly, its voice muffled by the felt snout.
I looked it up and down. "How can you help
The creature chirped, "I'm a rat. I've been
"What do you mean you've been watching me?"
It cocked its head, whistled once, then chirped,
"You're a rat too, you just don't know it yet."
I squinted back through the dark green foliage, trying
to get a glimpse of my object of obsession. Then I turned to the creature again. "I'm
not a rat, unfortunately," I said, "and neither are youyou're a
two-bit sparrow dressed up like a rat."
"I'm used to hearing that kind of thing," it
chirped. "I was accidentally born into this body, feathered and be-beaked, but my
soul is a rat's soul, my mind is a rat's mind, and my heart is a rat's heart."
Now, years later, I have to laugh when I think of how
I met Donna; then my heart aches from sorrow at what was to be her fate.
"How do you know so much about me?" I asked.
"I know about you because you're like me,"
she said, "and I remember."
Chapter Four. Coming of Age.
It was a remarkably brief time before I came to accept Donna as a rat almost completely. I
rarely remembered she was physically still a bird. We spent all our time together, but I
couldn't tell my father and mother about it. They were only grateful that my spirits had
perked up. They asked no questions. My perfect sister, on the other hand, seemed annoyed
by my cheer. She'd complain about me at the dinner table: "Pavel's not normal."
"He's perfectly fine," my mother would
"No he's not, 'cause if he was, he'd want to mate
with me when I'm in heat," my sister would say.
"She's right," my father would say, looking
"I'm fine," I'd say, "I just don't like
the way she smells."
They decided I was a late bloomer and left it at that.
They were partly right; I was a late bloomer,
though my awakenings were of an unusual nature. I was blooming into the rat I was . . .
and still am in a way.
Donna helped me by shaving my tail down to the gray
skin with a sharp-edged stone from the stream, and she filed my teeth into little points.
She taught me "the walk," low to the ground, paw across paw, and "the
talk," direct, monosyllabic. At first I wasn't ready to try meeting any biologically
born rats. I was happy in myself, and that was plenty.
One afternoon that I remember clearly (bright high sun
directly overhead so the meadows were shadowless), we found an unclaimed garbage bin and
plundered it. After we'd eaten a stale jelly donut and some baby formula, we lay on our
backs looking across the lawn of the park.
And Donna told me the story of how she'd flown away
from her mate, Mark, and their nestlings one day, and had found herself at the dump. She
was looking at her reflection in an oily pit, despairing that she felt absolutely nothing
anymore, when all of a sudden bubbles appeared on the surface. She grew very quiet when
she told me this and I prompted her to continue.
"And then what?" I asked.
"Then She emerged," chirped Donna
breathlessly "and I realized..."
"Yes, yes!" I exclaimed.
"She wasn't about being sweet and little, she
wasn't about dainty sand baths and pretty songs. She wasn't nurturing. She was elemental.
And I saw what had always been wrong with my life. I saw what I needed to be. Rat. Raw
Power. I am rat."
Chapter Five. Autumn.
Time passed. My sister mated and moved a couple of trees over. My mother was delighted
with her grandchildren. To me they seemed dopey and boring, but I was glad everyone else
was glad. It was autumn again, and my father was very busy with the nut gathering. My
family had learned not to ask questions about the changes in my appearance.
I now knew every inch of the park. I knew every
puddle and tuft of grass. Donna would get frustratedhopping along behind me while I
slithered on my belly. It was easier for me to "be" a rat, and this was an
underlying source of tension in our friendship. She'd show off, eating things I couldn't
possibly stomach to prove she was truly rat, more rat even than I was.
Once or twice I asked her to show me her flying, but
she refused. She said she had completely divorced herself from her bird past, and would
make digs at me about how I had to leave my family if I wanted to really be a rat.
On the other hand, I was the one who craved contact
with born, biological rats. I wanted to know them, not just observe them. I wanted to hear
their thoughts, tell them mine. Donna and I would come across thema single rat, like
my first, guarding a stash of garbage, or a pack of ratseven the young were
beautiful and fierce. But Donna was too scared of being laughed at and refused to approach
them with me.
I still turn that cold afternoon over and over in my
mind, wishing it could have been different, wondering what I could have done.
It was late autumn. All the leaves were off the trees;
the air bit at the exposed flesh of my tail. My breath made steam puffs, and my paws were
numb on the frosty earth. Donna had backed out many times before, but this time she
promised to go through with it: We would speak to a biological rat (we
never used the word real for we had a tacit understanding of how it would negate
our true ratness).
"Please," I had said as we parted the day
before, "we'll find one alone, and be straightforward, like the rats we are. We'll
ask it if we can have a word with it. Why not try?"
There had been a long pause. "Okay," said
Donna, "this time I'll go through with it."
She arrived in a quiet mood; she had slept in a sewer,
as usual, but it was getting cold down there. She'd had bad dreams. I remember I noticed
that her felt snout needed mending.
We wandered slowly looking for the perfect rat to
meet. We saw a pack of violent-looking young ones, and a pair rutting. Then finally after
hours of searching, toward the western edge of the park, near the big footpath, I saw the
perfect candidate: a little white around the ears, blind in one eye, and the other eye
twinkling with sharpness and humor.
"He'll talk to us, I bet he'll like us. Come
on," I said to Donna.
We started toward him, and we got a yard away from
where he was tugging at a piece of gum embedded in the bark of a tree trunk. He paused and
looked at us and started to smile when Donna turned and ran, sobbing.
I stayed my ground. "I'm a rat," I said to
"So you are, so you are," he said in a
I was accepted. It was all I wanted. I smiled back at
him, and cocked my headleft, right . . . when I heard it: a terrible roar
and excited, terrified chirping underneath.
"Donna!" I yelled. I turned and ran in the
direction of the noise. In a cluster of five bare maples, Donna was running in circles,
her two tiny feet clawing at the dirt, while after her came a huge, black beast with
bulging eyes. It barked and growled and yelped, and Donna screamed.
"Fly," I shouted. But she kept running on
the hard autumn ground.
"Fly, goddamnit, Donna," I yelled. She was
tiring, and the dog was gaining on her. In the background I heard someone calling,
"Hector, come Hector!"
"Fly, Donnait's your only hope!" I
shouted, even as the dog reached her yarn tail.
And Donna, dear Donna, she turned and looked right at
me. "You just don't understand," she said, and collapsed.
A minute or two later, there was the call again,
"Hector, puppy come along!" And from where I hid behind a dead fanshaped fungus,
I watched the dog trot away licking its lips, feathers sticking to its nostrils and its
As I have said in previous, less autobiographical works, definitions are prisons;
divisions are useful only on the level of great populations, not on a personal level if
one ever hopes to align one's philosophy with the quotidian. I now say, "I am neither
squirrel nor rat. Neither dog nor tree. I am nothing, and I am something called Pavel, and
what that is I'll never know, and if I ever tell you I knowshake me, shake me hard,
for the finality of self-naming is as dull as death.