The photograph in Sierra magazine caught my eye — a cute baby panda bear nestled between two adult bears cuddling and feeding him.
Then I noticed that the adult bears had human hands.
My eyes fell to the caption beneath the photo explaining that the big bears with human hands were actually scientists at a research center Wolong National Nature Reserve in China. They wore panda costumes to reduce human influence on a 4-month-old cub that would be released into the wild.
Below the photo was a quote by Kurt Vonnegut: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
The confluence of Vonnegut’s quote with an unexpected and wonderfully long phone conversation I then had with my college roommate of more than 45 years ago, seemed to slip together like pieces of a puzzle.
Ann had called to ask if she and her husband might visit us on a road trip they were planning to New England. After the disappointing realization for both of us that it wasn’t going to happen because of a trip we had planned that couldn’t be changed, we settled into an hour-long phone conversation.
Other than living together for a semester at school in Illinois, where we had somehow bonded in a relationship that has lasted a lifetime so far, Ann and I had visited each other over all these years perhaps half a dozen times.
I stayed with her family outside of Chicago a couple times, meeting her parents and five siblings. She was in my wedding. My husband and I went to Virginia to stay with her when both of our daughters were toddlers. Years later, she came to Boston on business and managed a couple days with us when our kids were teenagers.
Sometimes years passed when we exchanged only Christmas cards. Once in a while, I’d write a five-page, typed, single-spaced letter and she’d answer it 10 months later. I wrote my letters fast, not stopping to weigh my thoughts, which were forthright, heartfelt and honest. They raced across the page, more daringly fluid than my speech might have been, and still rarely is.
Ann always was, and remains, a strong person, perhaps the first in my then young life away from home, that I “let in” without pretense. There would be my husband, of course, and my best friend Grace. Others would follow, too, as I became more confident, mature, and hopefully insightful.
Vonnegut’s quote, true to his ever clever, caustic, humorous, but still often tender writing style, begged self-examination. Was he poking fun at us, suggesting if we pretend to be something better than we are, we might inadvertently fall into the role, expand our world, reach beyond our abilities? It would be just like him to do that –make us trick our own selves!
Initially, I laughed out loud at the men in their panda bear suits. Then I thought of how few people we let into our lives without some measure of pretense, without those self-imposed protective barriers.
Vonnegut knew we all sometimes color ourselves, write ourselves into a role; pretend to be happy when we are sad, seem brave when we are instead terrified, pretend to be wise when we fear we are lacking in intelligence and don’t measure up.
And there is always that nagging, human insecurity that, even if we put on a panda suit, somebody still might notice our human hands, might take us for simply a poser.
Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.