I like to look people in the eye. I mean, I really look at them hard. In conversation, upon being introduced to someone new, in meetings… I tend to stare. In polite terms, I observe. Always, I am in violation of the Cardinal Rule of Public Transit – do not, ever, under any circumstance, look at a stranger on the streetcar with the faintest intensity.
My sister, Eleni, has three words she uses over and again when we share a restaurant meal: “Maria, stop staring!” It makes her crazy that I like watching people, that my gaze gets caught up in how they do things. Have you ever followed closely someone’s movements – watched how he lifts a utensil, the way he switches off knife and fork, or how he places the napkin when he leaves the table? That we each cradle a water glass or clink to a toast differently? I love all these gestures, I get absolutely taken away in them, and I suppose this makes me a difficult dinner companion if you’re not used to either – a) intense observation, or b) someone whose attention is fixated on the table next.
I remember an ex from my university days, Alex. He had a subtle – barely noticeable – way of pushing his bang back in moments of quiet apprehension, when otherwise his body language would not betray him. Everything is right, but he’s pushing back his bang: something’s amiss. These years later, I see his cue everywhere in others.
It’s a lot to admit publicly that I live by watching people live their lives. I worry that it seems pedantic to treat observation with so much mental rigour: a scientist collecting her data. But – what it means to be here, the infinite ways to compose a day, and the tiny actions that lead to the mundane and sublime? I will spend years puzzling over this stuff.
I really – and initially, against my will – like a genre of writing known as “stunt non-fiction.” The label’s a bit unfortunate, mostly because of the connotations in the word “stunt” – falsity or something done for attention. The genre refers to the recent explosion of writing about an author’s quest toward some kind of self-discovery through a gimmick. A few titles you will recognize - Julie & Julia, The Happiness Project, The Art of Eating In or Living Oprah. Each has a narrowly-defined scope and time frame: for instance, attempting every recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or devoting an entire year to the study and living of “happiness.”
This type of reading provides me an easy, cheap thrill – the high someone else might experience from hours of reality television. The books aren’t complicated and the lessons aren’t profound, especially when they set out to be. The real meat is the 300-page glimpse into someone’s real – albeit, heavily edited – life. The minutiae within the less-considered bits make this genre exciting and infuriating. Powell’s puddle of woman and stuffed chicken on the orange and black checkered tile; quiet, keen bedtime observations from Rubin’s husband; or how Cathy’s experiment, to me, is a story about relationships, not avoiding restaurants.
It all comes back to the looking really hard at people: on the streetcar, at the table, through the words they write and omit, however uncomfortable… The individual bits often don’t say much. But in composite, our gestures are revelatory. Figuring out the lessons in each glance, each movement absorbed, each excruciating detail, and then comes the difficult part – using this bric-à-brac to some end, maybe to live better.
[Photo, with thanks, via.]