The secret life of humans

Brattleboro Reformer
The secret life of humans
Posted: 02/26/2013 03:00:00 AM EST


True confession: I’m a Bette Midler fan. Wait! Stay with me for a moment I’m not referring to Midler’s sappy “Wind Beneath My Wings” phase. (I couldn’t get through her “Beaches” period without a shot of tequila, and even then it was difficult.) I mean the unpolished Midler of the New York City bathhouse days: Sophie Tucker jokes and outrageous costumes like giant hotdogs and mermaids performing choreographed routines in motorized wheelchairs. Irreverent. Unpredictable. Creative. Edgy. Simply put: Great fun! You can’t tell from looking at me that I will always carry a torch for that bawdy 1970s torch singer.

When I told my eighth grade English teacher that I intended to do my year-end biography project on “The Divine Miss M,” Mrs. Edwards’ eyebrows shot to the ceiling. She muttered, “Well, we’ll just check with your mother about that.” To my mom’s credit, she’s always appreciated my eccentricities. After a brief interview, she ascertained that I was absolutely serious, so we went to the bookstore. She found a biography of Midler that didn’t seem to have too many questionable sections — but, honestly, how do you clean up the story of the gay men’s bathhouses in disco New York? — and she seemed just as excited about the project as I was. Who doesn’t love a singer dressed as a giant frankfurter? My mom, the Kung Fu-Fighting Grandma has her own idiosyncrasies. She’s equally comfortable wielding a fighting fan or singing with her choir at Carnegie Hall.

In my 20s, I hit a rough patch and was feeling somewhat lost. My brother invited me to go mining for Herkimer diamonds — double-terminated quartz — in central New York. We packed up his tools, including an immoderately-sized sledgehammer, and off we went. On a tiny plot of land that served as his refuge, he showed me the brute force — and tender finesse — required to coax one from the rock.

The beautiful metaphor of it all only now hits me; my brother has spent his entire life tending to diamonds-in-the-rough. That day was a revelation. The light refracted ever so slightly and revealed a facet of my brother that had gone undetected for far too long. I hold the memory of that day in reserve for those times when I need a touchstone for the essence of my brother. The sunlight, the clink of the tools on the rock, the syrupy scent of wildflowers and goldenrod at the edge of the property — all instantly recall a time when I unearthed a deeper truth about this kind and complex man.

Sometimes the secret life of humans reveals itself in daily rituals; you simply need to watch for it. There’s a group of women at my gym. I call them “The Amazons.” They gather together at dawn to put their bodies through a ghastly drill of weights, contortions and grunting — all infused with uproarious laughter. Thinking myself fit, I joined them for several weeks last year. But I simply could not keep up. Their “woodchopper” move — in which you swing a perversely heavy weight between your legs — just about did me in. Squatting, I found out, is an absolutely necessary move in one’s life. So now I watch them, and gain inspiration, as I clock the miles on the treadmill behind them.

These gutsy gals gather folks to them; their energy is potent. Although I don’t know their day jobs, I imagine them as “Insurance Adjusters by Day, Amazons at Dawn.” How many co-workers know of their secret fitness cabal? How many colleagues know they dance with iron before the sun has properly shown herself?

I recently learned that a dear neighbor of ours who died this winter was a secret poet. I heard one of his poems at his memorial service; it tickled me that this diehard Yankees fan tucked a touch of the romantic beneath that worn baseball cap. Another neighbor lives for his hunting camp in the Kingdom but harbors a deep and abiding passion for the Beatles. It is the unexpected that brings to light those profound alcoves in which our whole selves dwell. This is the marrow of life.

When I taught undergraduate history, I assigned a book by Philip Deloria (son of famed Indian activist Vine Deloria, Jr. and history professor at the University of Michigan) called “Indians in Unexpected Places.” Deloria’s book invites us to expand our sense of what makes an Indian an Indian. He deconstructs archival photos of such seemingly incongruous images as Geronimo sitting in a Cadillac or a traditionally dressed native woman perched under a hairdryer at the beauty salon. Deloria challenges our notions about Indians and their relationship to modernity. He asserts that, like all Americans, native people have their own “secret histories.” Far from being anomalies, Indians who engage with modernity and fashion it to their own purposes are simply claiming their right to be complex, fascinating Americans who flirt with the unexpected.

When we are honest with ourselves, we all want permission to explore, to yearn, to seek, and to find beauty in the unexpected. And when we share these hidden aspects of ourselves, we offer up an authenticity that is both captivating and comprehensive.

Don’t hate me because of my Midler fetish; see it for what it is: An affirmation that our incongruities are actually the very core of our humanity.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at

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