Question the First: What do you do if you can’t fit under the desk?
The problem with understudying is that your position is, by definition, expendable. Not you, yourself, no. And not actually the position of understudy, either. But in the most perfect world, in the best case scenario, you would never show up for your job and you would never be missed because, ideally, you are never needed.
This is why no one wants to be a professional understudy.
There’s a poem by Michael Dumanis called “Professional Extra” that makes me think I should write a poem about a professional understudy. His poem encapsulates the pathos of someone whose job it is to be the eternal also-ran, who fleshes out the cities of our lives, those people we brush past on the sidewalk, who fill our airports, who, in this case, populate our movies so that they look like living, breathing reality.
Any poem I would write about a professional understudy would underscore the pride that person must take in their job – to always be ready to go on, to know all the lines, to be perfectly the character that no one else will see. There’s sadness there, to be sure, in never being the one whom the audience wants to see, but also simple acceptance of a necessary, a crucial job.
What is the understudy for? To make sure that the show goes on.
Question the Second: How many people can you be at once?
Current psychological trends have it that we are always different people. That, essentially, we are never ourselves (plural both grammatically awkward and tonally correct) because whenever we are confronted with a different person, we present a different side of who we are.
Of course, the sense of having different sides implies that there’s an object being defines. Just as the elephant in a dark room is a creature with skin like bark OR a snake-like monstrosity OR a pointy, hard-shelled crustacean, so are we, this theory would have it, a single person who can only be seen in bits and pieces.
But it seems to me that that idea is a hopeful fallacy. If we are always presenting only parts of who we are to the people around us (a different me to every individual person; further, a different me to every possible combination of people) then we are never truly ourselves. Even when alone.
As I write this, I’m alone in our apartment and so more closely myself than with anyone around. But even here I’m writing to YOU and YOU are defining, in a very real sense, who I am. Not by your actions, obviously, but by who I imagine you to be and through how I want you to perceive me.
Like atoms, we are determined by observation. Without someone to look inside the box, there’s no telling whether we are alive or dead. Without someone gauging where we’re going, there’s no telling where we are. Without someone to listen to us, there’s no telling what we sound like.