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Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Reflection on Being Public "Like a Frog"

Emily Dickinson is in the top five on my list of treasured poets.
Like all of the poets I appreciate, Dickinson created pieces that are
specific about themes but allow a lot of room for interpretation. It
is because of this characteristic of her poetry that one of her poems
came up recently when I had a debate with a friend about how much we
should share publicly. He is a very private person. I consider
myself to be moderately private. My friend argued that I am very
"open" because I have a blog, use Twitter, post on Facebook, and post
photos on Picasa and Flickr. Okay, I understand why my friend might

I explained that everything that was shared about me on the internet
was shared because I chose to share it. To me, privacy is getting to
chose what is made public about my life. Given my profession (high
school teacher) I have to be selective about what I post online
anyway. He responded with three lines from Dickinson: "How public
-- like a Frog -- / To tell one's name -- the livelong June -- / To an
admiring Bog!" I think my friend understood privacy to mean something
closer to anonymity.

The reference to Dickinson caused me to go back and reread this poem
and think about how I interpret it in light of this privacy question.
Was I really like a frog singing to no one except an "admiring Bog"?

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody -- Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise -- you know!

This first stanza is delightfully rhythmic and frustratingly vague.
For a long time, I identified with this stanza because the angst of my
late teens/early twenties caused me to latch onto the notion of being
a nobody. However, at that time, I didn't think about this as
"anonymity." In fact I understood this poem to be a message from
Dickinson herself, another soul screaming out to be heard. She was
lamenting the fact that she had no one to share with just when she
discovers that there actually is someone else out there like her. Now
the pair of them can be nobodies together. But she maintains her
privacy. "Don't tell!" A great, childlike, excited whisper to an
instantly trusted new friend.

And of course you have to be worried that someone would try to
capitalize on the fact that there are a pair of nobodies. I
understand this line to mean that these nobodies would be put on
display like side show oddities. The other sense of the word
"advertise" that implies that these two nobodies would now represent a
marketable demographic is anachronistic and far less satisfying an

How dreary -- to be -- Somebody!
How public -- like a Frog --
To tell one's name -- the livelong June --
To an admiring Bog!
The second stanza presents a continuation of the topic but introduces
a new layer to the metaphor. It of course could be "dreary" to be put
on display against your will. To be "Somebody" is to be completely
out in the open and naked like a frog. Yet, the frog in the last two
lines of the poem is not seen but heard. But the same message is
repeated here. The frog sings not because it wants to but because it
has to in order to attract a mate, identify its territory, and
communicate with other frogs.

Since June is specifically mentioned it is not a stretch to imagine
that Dickinson was focusing particularly on the aspect of a frog
calling to attract a mate. You don't have to watch too many nature
shows before you learn that attracting a mate can be difficult as
mates are often extremely picky and will choose some other frog simply
because he can croak for a little longer or at a lower tone. So, in
another sense being "somebody" means that you are forced to be on
display because you are on the hunt for a mate. This too can be a
dreary way to spend time.

So, in Dickinson's assessment it is much easier to remain a complete
nobody rather than suffer the risks of being known.
Fortunately/unfortunately most people cannot remain as separate from
the people around them as she could. Most people today are "public --
like a frog" simply because of the necessities of modern life.

Yogi Berra was onto this when he said, "Nobody goes there anymore;
it's too popular." When a place becomes a "destination" it quickly
losses its charm. The quiet cafe with the attentive waiter becomes an
unrecognizable box of chaos filled with a loud, obnoxious mass of
people once it becomes popular. Regardless of how I feel about their
employment and buying practices, I love to go shopping at Walmart at
about four in the morning. The giant box of needless crap bouncing
with morons at five in the afternoon is transformed into a fantasy
land of treasures when there are no other people around to get in my
way. I love individual people but a mass of humanity is almost always
intimidating and scary because they represent the ones who would be
viewing us like those naked frogs on display or expecting us to
perform on demand. The truth of the situation is that most of them
probably don't even notice or remember my presence; but, the mind's
delusions are powerful motivators.

No one wants to be put on display or forced to perform in public.
Using two metaphors, Dickinson explains that not having a choice about
what to make public and when to make it public is a burden. The
conclusion I come to is that it is important to hold onto the right to
choose what is made public. Perhaps my friend is onto something; in
choosing to share as much as I do I might be opening the door just
enough to have it ripped out of my hands and flung open wide. On the
other hand, even the frog gets an occasional uplift from having his
call responded to. Shouldn't it be okay to be at least as social as
the frogs?

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