Sunday, October 22, 2006

A stretch of river XXIII: Curious things; curious about things

UPDATE: Welcome to those of you visiting from Ariel's blog, Bittersweet Life. I hope you'll find the trip here to have been worth your while, and that you'll stick around and . . . maybe even come back again sometime.

One of the things that, despite its routine, keeps me looking forward to the sunrise walks with Scruffy is the possibility of seeing something that gives me pause. Here's an off-the-top list of things I have seen along our regular route over the past 14 months of walks (some of which I've blogged about in the past) that I just have no explanation for. As you peruse the list, keep in mind that, with one exception, these objects remained where I saw them for at least 2 consecutive days:

*an unpainted but carefully-made wooden cross made out of 2x4s, the crosspiece machine-mitered to fit over the support. It stayed where it was for the better part of a month.

*a mostly-intact store-bought cake sitting on a bridge railing (this is the ringer in the list; it stayed where it was "just" for most of one day).

*on another bridge railing, a well-worn paperback Bible. It stayed where it was for the better part of a week.

*about a dozen paperbacks located underneath one of the wooden decks along the path, a place where homeless people occasionally sleep. For the couple of weeks they were there, I wondered if they belonged to someone in particular or if they constituted a sort of lending library. They were completely exposed to the elements; they got rained on a couple of times before they disappeared.

*various times, various places: tied-up plastic shopping bags, set out in plain view (usually on benches), that clearly contain Something. Once, I saw a man looking inside a bag that had been sitting on a bench for a few days, and it took a fair amount of will to keep from going over to see what was in it. There is something about the places where they appear that tells me, This isn't for you, but which tells certain others that they are theirs for the rummaging.

And now today's addition to the list: a wineglass, turned upside-down and sitting on the railing of one of the decks.

There is a story, of course.

Back on Friday morning, Scruffy and I came upon a broken wineglass on the path. I didn't think too much of it, even though the more-expected sight would have been a crushed beer can or two, or--especially lately--small, empty bottles of cheap vodka. I imagined a couple had been out the previous evening, enjoying the sunset over the river, and, as things will, something accidental happening to the glass in a fit of passion and/or wine-and-sunset-induced giddiness. At any rate, yesterday morning, I was surprised to note that, as nearly as I could tell, not a single piece of the glass remained on the path. Instead, as though the broken one had reassembled itself, another glass now appeared on the railing of the deck, as though the imagined couple had been there again and, this time, just forgot this glass when they retired for the night.

This morning marks day #2 for the glass. Given the heavy frost this morning, the firt thing I thought today was that whomever it belongs to had left it out so it would chill for a nice chardonnay or pinot grigio. (But so early in the morning?? Some speculations, you see, don't bear too much scrutiny.)

The glass itself isn't especially remarkable: it appears to be of the sort that you can buy 4-to-a-box at Wal-Mart or Target. This morning I almost picked it up to flick it with my fingernail to see if it was leaded crystal; but, as with the Bags with Something In Them, I know that the glass is not for me.

Perhaps this is an absurd thing to think about objects left so plainly out in public view, but I feel a strong sense of voyeurism as I look at them, the same feeling I get when I glance into a window along my walk for more than a few seconds. The sense I have is that, like the contents of rooms not my own, these objects are there for a reason and thus invite speculation, the construction of narratives that cannot help but be mine, seeing as I so far know about these things only what I see. In my narrative economy, wineglass signifies romance signifies couple. Those sorts of narratives, if one puts the most benign spin possible on them, are simply attempts to make sense of what one sees in one's world. But "making sense," we could cynically say, is really just a polite way of saying that one wants to control what one sees and derives pleasure from that control. Voyeurism.

So. These curious things--these intrusions of the private and personal into the public space that is the park--at once invite speculation and cause me to feel a bit of guilt as I do so. What I'm curious about now, and which I encourage those so inclined to address in comments, is whether this is "just me" or if this, like, a human-being thing.


Camille said...

"its as if you looked into my brain!"

As for it being a "human being" thing, I don't know. But I spent the better part of an afternoon once scouring the creek bed for the entire contents of a person's wallet. I found her hostel card, GAP cards, ATM cards, credit cards and student body card. I was able to divine her name, the college she went to, her ethnicity, age, her penchant for international travel, and, with the help of Google, her phone number. I called her up and told her I had the contents of her wallet. I might have scared her, but, having already cancelled her credit cards, she wasn't interested in seeing her stuff again.

There are quite a few of us narrative-happy, imaginative folks out there. We write the novels, the myths, we make the movies, we tell the stories, write the histories and we hope that we aren't alone in the world. "We tell ourselves stories to situate ourselves in a larger context," says El Caballero.

Most normal people have better things to do with their time. You would probably like my submarine comic, because I tell the story mostly through still-lives, snippets of conversation and most people don't like it because the reader has to do the bulk of the work.

Love the post! Keep looking and telling stories! That is what God put us on earth to do. :)

Winston said...

It is comforting knowing that I am not alone in my sometimes off-the-edge observations of oddities, anomalies, things that are different and/or out of their normal place or context. I would not generalize this trait to being a human-being thing, since my observation is that many, if not most people stumble or glide through their days in a daze, oblivious regarding the external world. Perhaps it's an internal focus (them) vs. more of an external focus (us).

Those of us that do notice and engage with our environment probably have many different interpretations of what we encounter. I am not an expert in such matters, but it occurs to me that each individual's reaction may be a blend of basic personality type and current mood/frame of mind and needs at the moment. What you analyze and rationalize as voyeurism, may be absolutely dead-on for you at this time. This would imply your intrusion into someone else's world. I, on the other hand, tend to think of these things more as opportunities to observe anomalies in my environment, my world. The wine glass is equally fascinating to each of us, but we each put our personality and flavor on the story we conjur about it.

Great post! One of your best, IMHO.

R. Sherman said...

There are always stories, most of which we never know. There are the persons behind the wine glass; you and Scruffy encountering it; the plastic bags filled with whatever.

Some of us look at these things and see trash or a man with a dog and move on. Others wish to stop and find out "What's going on here."

You really need to collect these river musings into a single volume, BTW.


Ariel said...

The sense I have is that, like the contents of rooms not my own, these objects are there for a reason and thus invite speculation, the construction of narratives that cannot help but be mine, seeing as I so far know about these things only what I see.

I really like these musings on your "narrative economy." As I walk down the alley behind our apartment building, there will often be items left out conspicuously, presumably for the homeless people who regularly patrol the area. I sometimes pause and wonder if there is a prior relationship between the donator and the benificiary...

Your Stretch of River posts rock!

dejavaboom said...

Did someone leave 'the cake out in the rain?'

Observation and speculation--we try to teach this, but I wonder (after so many years of pushing it to students)can it be taught? Your entry here is a great model of not only snapshots, but also some curiosity and insight as to reasons-behind/contents, etc.

I have a running entry of similar roadside odditites. When we used to pick up trash (for beautification, not punishment) we would find the most amazing articles in the ditch. Sometimes, the findings would make the effort more one of archeology than ecology.

Interesting stuff, and I second the idea that you should compile your musings.

John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for your gracious comments. I tell my students who worry about whether anyone will be interested in what they have to say that if they are interested in something, someone else out there will be as well, that the job is to effectively convey that interest through their writing. But there are times when the imparter of advice benefits from being reminded of the truth of that advice, so I'll just say that your responses indicate to me that I must be doing something right. Thank you for that.

To those of you who suggested it: thanks for the encouragement to set up some sort of one-stop place to read the Stretch of River posts. I'll work out something.

Alas, it seems as though you may have missed this post from the spring. I would hate for you to miss it. Indeed, this is yet another argument for gathering in one place these posts. How CAN I live with myself, knowing that some of you--indeed, knowing that generations yet unborn--might miss these flashes of insight so blinding that they leave those weird lavender blobs on the mental retina long afterward?

Tom Spann said...

I completely identify with your post. Ever since I was a kid delivering newspapers, I've had a fascination with the narratives undergirding other people's lives. At times, you can almost see how close the web of their lives and social connections/interactions comes to your own.

Truly, I don't think I've ever escaped this fascination. Perhaps the great writers of the world have all been "voyeurs" in some sense. It is those who are truly awake to their surroundings and the wonders of the human space who are able to capture characters realistically, to encapsulate our struggles in a simple narrative, to distill all life into an extended metaphor that just rings with truth.

For a writer to stop observing is to die.

Anonymous said...

It's a human being thing. I’m no childhood educator, but your entry reminds me of one of those which-of-these-things-doesn't-belong exercises in a pre-schooler's workbook. Also, the Curious George children's stories.

I don't have a blog. I just read 'em. So does that make me a voyeur?

Found you by way of R. Sherman's blog (don't recall how I found R. Sherman's blog) and just finished reading/enjoying your "A stretch of river" entries. Thanks for sharing a bit of your spiritual journey.

- Carol
Comstock Park, Michigan

John B. said...

Thank you for visiting and, especially, for clearing up for me the mystery of who it was from Michigan who was visiting so regularly these past few days.

Your comments are intriguing. I hadn't thought of my posts as being especially child-like in nature, but I can see that now. I learned much from my children when they were wee tykes, but one of the most important things was also the saddest: how much visual data we filter out as adults, to the point that that data doesn't even register . . . until or unless my children made me LOOK at stuff. I make no claims as to my powers of observation, but I like to think that being a father has encouraged to be a bit more attentive to what is around me and ponder what I see.

So: thanks again for visiting and commenting. I hope you'll visit again.