Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Observer

Observation has been a large part of your life for as long as you can recall.  Well before the notion of spending your life trying to acquire the skills that would make you a writer, you were advised to watch various individuals and their mastery of such things as how to hold a fork, how to tie your shoes, how to comb your hair with its riot of cowlicks.  

You had an ensemble cast of your parents' friends' children to observe and dislike because of their skills and techniques.  There was some solace in learning from some of your cousins that they were tasked with observing you, but for the longest time, you were made aware with some regularity of a notable and admirable trait of one or more contemporaries of yours.  From such background propaganda comes a useful profile of persons to avoid or associate with.

Last Saturday evening, while you were settling in to watch the performance of a play, some of your past came back to haunt you.  The man sitting directly in front of you settled a long, narrow, spiral-bound-at-the-top notebook on his knee.  From years of experience, you knew this was a reporter's notebook.  With scant logic, you understood this man would be taking notes for the review of the play he would right.

You couldn't help observing the man, wondering each time he wrote something if you and he had experienced the same or different observations.  The only thing you could do was wait until the review appeared.

Of course you also began entertaining notions of the man not being a reviewer at all, instead taking notes for another project altogether.  And yes, this thought caused you to consider tapping the man on the shoulder to ask if he'd caught a particular nuance you'd seen.  Additional of course; this was a warning to you that, once again, you were being distracted by your own imagination, all because you were observing yourself in the act of observing someone else.

At about the time you began making your own notebooks, you began carrying them about in case you had notes to make from something you'd witnessed or observed.  The operant word here is observed.  When you were at this starting-out time in your career of observation, you were probably invisible.  Who would notice a small boy unless he were doing something noteworthy? 

To put the matter in another perspective, What would a small boy have to do to in order to be noticed?  You were frequently unnoticed when standing at the serving counter of the delicatessen on Wilshire you were sent to for such items as "A loaf of rye, sliced, please."  Sometimes, in the frustration of being passed over for adults, you'd raise your voice.  "A roaf of lye, please."  This brought immediate embarrassment and the felt need to move to another area of the counter for a fresh start.

More likely than not, if anyone questioned what it was you were observing, it would be your mother.  In retrospect, you can read her curiosity at your behavior as wondering if you were displaying any learning or development issues.  

Given your reading habits and the additional factor of your mother liking you to read things to her when she was ironing or cooking, your retrospective take was secure knowledge she did not think you slow or not engaged with the contents of whatever printed page.  Different, but not slow.  You have recollections of her saying in a tone uncluttered with disapproval, "You are a very moody boy."  And your reply was bound to be "Not moody, observant."  Which led to one of your favorite conversations with your mother, beginning, "What are you observing?"

You were not yet at the place where you could tell her you were observing yourself in the act of observing.  Nor could you speak to the embarrassment of being caught with a notebook and pencil at the ready, yet with nothing to put in it.  Thus began a series of what you would later learn were improvisations, phenomena made up in haste.

With the passing of time, you'd begun to read about writers whose work was thought to be based on their ability to observe.  "X grew up on a farm, thus his ability to draw convincing portraits of animals."  "Y's mother raised show Collies, thus her ability to portray a plausible portrait of canine behavior."  At the time, your parents had a pleasant enough dog, a Pekingese, fobbed off on them by your mother's younger brother.  You spent time observing that dog, but could never seem to put your observations to any use, thus your decision not to write about animals unless it was necessary.

For what seemed like a required slice of your early life, you made a Herculean effort to observe and keep up with the statistical implications of sports events, your closets filled with pitch-by-pitch accounts of Pacific Coast League baseball games, of the outcomes of horse races at the major California race tracks, of USC and UCLA football games, and to the exploits of the Dodgers before they came to Los Angeles.

You observed the Dodgers when they first arrived, seeing in person the men who were only statistics in your mind, looking at the ugliness of the right field fence erected in the Coliseum before the Dodgers moved to their new permanent home.

This effort to observe sports did not erode, it seems to have stopped completely one day, when you sat in a friend's home, watching the televised football game played by a group of individuals who were well on their way to becoming multimillionaires.  Some inner voice--you aren't sure which because there are so many--told you in so many words that you would rather participate than be a passive observer.

"Where are you going?" your friend called out after you.  "There's the whole second half to watch."

You were tempted to quote the last line from Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man:  “Welcome, O life! I go forth to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”  It was a last line you knew well, having thought of its implications.  At the time, such an opportunity would have suited you.  Instead, you thanked your friend and said you were going home to create some Reality of your own.

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