Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Art of People Watching

I have always enjoyed the art of people watching. For those unfamiliar, people watching consists of sitting in a fixed place and watching the world move around you. It quite literally is watching people, as if you were watching a TV show, or rather a time-lapse film. It is a great way to discover new things about the way people interact, and the state of the community that surrounds you. It is also very entertaining. I try to do a little people watching every day; it may be while I drink my coffee at the Evergreen, or simply while sitting on a park bench.

Before you grant me the title of “Grade-A Creep,” you have to understand that people watching is an art. You can’t let those you are watching know that you are in fact watching them. A proper diversion avoids people confusing your gazing with stalking. One can provide this to the suspecting bystanders by simultaneously reading a book, surfing the Internet, or chatting with a friend (conveniently, the people watching will naturally feed your chatting).

Believe it or not this process is great inspiration for meditation, creative essays, paintings, and, most importantly, self-reflection. Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years and Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty hold the art of people watching close. Bryson presents his newspaper column in a complete collection. Each week he presented a humorous commentary on his experience reliving American life after twenty years. In order to provide fresh analysis on our country, I believe he had to take on the same role of silent observer, that one does while people watching. Coming back to a nation that has completely evolved over twenty years and comparing that to what you used to know, and then again to the country you had been living in, gives Bryson the ability to see minute details about American life that its citizens may not realize. These miniscule details, the unnoticed nuances about our country, allow for unforeseen humor and laughter. I found myself either nodding my head in agreement, or laughing thinking, “I never thought of it that way, but he is right. We are absurd.” Through the small details we get to know our country better, as well as ourselves.

Kalman also uses observations, but she uses them to convey a constant stream of her consciousness. I was excited to see her name on the reading list. I knew of her illustrations prior to the class and love them. There is a quality about them, especially in this book, that reminds me of Degas and Mary Cassatt, not in the sense of style, but more so in composition and subject. Both Degas and Cassatt composed their paintings with the idea that the viewer of the painting was peering in on somebody, maybe someone that they shouldn’t be. They put everyone one that looks at their paintings in the position of a people watcher. Kalman does something similar. She places the reader within her brain, and lets us watch her train of though. By placing her illustrations with minimal words of context, she allows each image to build upon those before them. We feel her joy, and her sadness as certain images are recalled. She effectively transcribes her mind and memory on paper for the world to see.

The world is a vast array of people, places, colors, and shapes. To really understand the details that make each moment of life unique, we need to take the time to open our eyes and see them. Like Kalman we all have images within our memory that evoke emotion. Through out my life, community service has really contributed to this catalog of images. At CARES, I constantly have to remind myself to stop and look around. Between all the hustle and bustle, there are images that will remind me of humor, and joy for the rest of my life. The little details, like a child’s smile, or a woman’s tears are what matters, not how quickly I can reorganize the food in the pantry.

Life is full of surprises; don’t forget to take the role of silent observer. You will never know what will result from a little people watching. It may be as slight as a smile, but on the other hand it may be inspiration for a newspaper column or a novel. Regardless, no result is insignificant, as long is it encourages you think.

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