Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Or would you rather be a bat?

The two gents who wrote the breezy cautionary tune, "Swingin' on a Star," back in 1944 presented the consequences of moral laxity in bestial terms: you might grow up to be a mule, a pig, or a fish.  I wonder if they considered the bat. It lends itself so well to the lyric:

A bat is an animal that comes out at night,
A mammal that somehow mastered flight.
Its wings are webby and its eyes are weak
It maps its echo every time it squeaks
But then if staying up late is where you're at
You may grow up to be a bat.

We should celebrate bats. They did it--the only mammals granted true, unpowered, gravity-defying flight! But how do we define them? Leathery fingerbone wings, a face like a gargoyle, a preference for dark and clammy, and a creepy image somewhere between scorpions and dragons. What's the deal? Jealousy?

We were talking—a phrase that always reminds me of George Harrison's "Within You Without You" and how I vaguely envied the intimacy of that we, but if you're lucky you acquire your own we, in this case a circle of friends conversing around a homey table in upstate New York. We were talking about bats. But it didn't start out with bats...

(segue to the aforementioned conversation and its consequence, as follows:)

I. Prologue

We were talking about the knowledge of computers vs. humans, using bats as an example—how computers know the facts about bats: the sonar, the diet, the colonies, the structure of the wing, etc., but they don’t know what it feels like to be a bat, and they don’t really want to know.  Whereas people—at least some people—do want to know, and keep trying to get there.


Because we know something is happening there but we don’t know what it is.
Because at some time in myth or history we became separated from the company of nature and it became mysterious and opaque. And we’re looking for inklings and messages.
Because we suspect (or hope) that in some way bats R us and what we really want to know is what it feels like to be a person, by way of a bat.
Because we like battering closed doors.


II.  Approaching the Bat


They nest in your hair.
They suck your blood.
They hang upside down by the millions in dark, dank, clammy caves.
Sometimes they get in your attic and then in your house, flying round and round your room and you have to open a window and hope it finds its way out or else throw a towel over it but watch out it doesn’t bite you because those things carry rabies and if you get it you foam at the mouth and die horribly or have to get seven shots in your stomach with a gigantic needle.

Secret Identity:

“I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a…a…. A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen…I shall become a bat!”
       — Bruce Wayne, 1939

Flying Mammals:

When pigs fly * 
The cow jumped over the moon.*
Rocky the Flying Squirrel *
Real flying squirrels and certain lemurs  *
Flying Tigers *
Winged Monkeys *
Icarus *
astronauts, pilots, plane passengers  *

Selected facts:

The Congress St. Bridge in Austin, TX has become a major tourist attraction because of an estimated one million Mexican free-tailed bats that take to the air at sunset each day from spring to fall.
Congress St. Bridge

One little brown bat can eat 1000 mosquitoes per hour.

Six million bats have died due to the fungal scourge known as white nose syndrome.

Other associations:

Bats in your belfry
Bat out of hell
The old bat
Batwing saloon doors
Die Fledermaus (Johann Strauss)
“The Bat-Poet” (Randall Jarrell)

 “The Bat” (Theodore Roethke)

By day the bat is cousin to the mouse.
He likes the attic of an aging house.

His fingers make a hat about his head.
His pulse beat is so slow we think him dead.

He loops in crazy figures half the night
Among the trees that face the corner light.

But when he brushes up against a screen,
We are afraid of what our eyes have seen:

For something is amiss or out of place
When mice with wings can wear a human face.

III. First attempt to feel what it’s like to be a bat

It’s like holding a dual citizenship.  It’s channeling Merlin or Ovid or Carlos Castaneda.  Maybe even Kafka. Close your eyes, metamorphose, and hope for the best.

From the bat’s point of view, it’s a home invasion. It’s John Cusack inhabiting John Malkovich.

Used to more or less vacating the premises in hibernation, the bat lets the human tenant assume its identity while it goes out of body like a bored Annie Hall having sex with Alvie Singer.

Occupant: So, what do I do?

Voice: Feel what it’s like to be a bat.

O: I’m hanging upside down. Except, no! It’s right side up, just gravity-friendly. Hey, this must be the bat’s idiosyncratic perspective! Far out!

V: Try to let go of your human predilection for labeling.

O: Right. No labeling. I am one with the bat.
I am completely batty.
Just kidding….

V: Okay, that’s enough for today.

O: But I didn’t get to fly!

IV. Another attempt   


world in motion,
balanced on
the fulcrum of
falling and not falling, moving
in tangents, caroms,    

shooting sounds
that come back as pictures:
tree (avoid)
skeeter (eat)
owl (shit!)

bat in mad motion
a blacker blot in the big dark

skintight wings
a gift from the

back to a hole in a roof,

folding in
like a leather hanky.

V.  Final attempt

We share DNA and mammalian ancestry, our common granny probably some kind of giant arboreal shrew. But empathy can only go so far. We have left our lower brethren behind. Computers may already feel that way about us.

Maybe I’m overthinking.

Imagine a kid, age four or five. Point out a bat flittering in the smoky twilight. Ask: What does it feel like to be a bat?

The kid runs around, arms outstretched, dashing this way and that, making peek peek peek sounds and loopy polygons in the yard, gets dizzy, and falls down laughing.

Close enough.


Anthropomorphic virtual-reality fantasy tourism notwithstanding, it's undeniably fun to climb into the identity of a critter, be it a mule, pig, fish, bat, trilobite, or mastodon. Computers may yet learn to play.