Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Ethics of People Watching

One of the reasons I love the city of Chicago is the variety of people I see everyday. And I admit: I'm an avid people-watcher. I'm not talking about checking out hot guys. I'm talking about noticing people move through their days - usually oblivious to the fact that I'm noticing them.

I never gave much thought to the "ethics" of this, for one, because I never stare. And two, what else am I supposed to do as I walk down the street? Stare at the sidewalk? Look at my reflection in the windows? Constantly window shop? Plus, come on, it's interesting watching people -- especially when they think they're not being looked at.

But what do we do when we people-watch? (C'mon, I know the few of you reading this like to people watch. Don't we all, on some level? So, do comment on this posting, let me know what fascinates you about people watching... )

For me, I look not only for the unexpected but the apparently mundane; I like learning the different ways people navigate their world. Here's just a sampling of things I've noticed lately:
* A big black woman outside a Bank of America, hawking StreetWise through hog calls
* A woman in a suit prancing down the sidewalk instead of walking
* A woman ambles down the sidewalk, mindless of the morning commuters. Suddenly, she turns and bows to a guy who rushes by her. In her hands, she holds a picture of Jesus.

I also notice things:
* A smoldering cigarette butt precariously sitting on the edge of a sidewalk grate
* Every morning on the corner of Daley plaza, a man holds a sign that reads: "Senator OBAMA, SAVE my only SON, PLEASE" (I have yet to figure out if this is about Iraq or something else)
* A red diamond sign near the corner of Madison & Wacker that reads, "You are beautiful" (Oh, how I love seeing that sign on my way to work.)

One of my most favorite times to watch people is actually on my way to work, whether I'm walking or riding the bus. This moment of the morning seems particularly unappealing and uneventful, considering the way people scurry, attempting to make it through a crosswalk before the flashing orange hand stops, and also considering the way people are focused on the walk ahead, barely looking around them to admire where they are (which says so much about them - especially considering the tourists I see daily outside my apartment, who are all about stopping and looking around, even if it means cutting you off and being totally unaware of all the people around them). Plus, it's 7:30, 8:00 in the morning; people seem intent to get where they're going - whether Starbucks or work - and don't seem to do much other than this. Which is exactly why when I do see someone doing something out of the ordinary, it's all the more interesting.

Not too long ago, I was on the CTA bus, riding to my temp job, hurtling down Madison before the bus screeched to a stop every couple blocks, and I couldn't help but almost be dismayed at the similarities I saw everywhere. People had the same set expressions on their faces, amplified by tired eyes. They streamed down the sidewalks. Everywhere I looked, the same.

And then, we stopped near the corner of LaSalle, and a couple stood nearby, and I couldn't help but imagine that they were simply saying their goodbyes before heading off to work -- just something simple, normal, something everyday. But then I noticed the body language, how one of his arms pulled her close to him, how his other hand cupped her face. And then she tried to turn away, her eyes scrunched up, her face red.

I suddenly felt as if I was intruding on something I shouldn't have seen, an intensely personal moment that I couldn't understand from just a simple glance. It could be about anything - she could be upset about someone who recently died, or they could have just broken up, or she could have just learned that he'd cheated on her. No matter what the "possibilities," I felt like I was doing something wrong, even though this moment was occuring on the intersection of two very busy Chicago streets.

People kept walking by, paying no heed to the couple, and the bus pulled away from the stop. And then I was back to all the people with the similiar expressions, scurrying off to work.

I still like to watch people, don't get me wrong. But that one moment, that split second, made me realize that we can guess and wonder all we want about people's lives -- but that doesn't mean we understand them any better than we did before.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Best Writing Advice Ever

The best writing advice I’ve ever heard sounds pretty simple: write down at least 10 things that you notice every day. And “notice” can be broadly defined—everything from something that catches your eye, like a piece of clothing, to the way a person walks across a crosswalk.

But, if you’re like me, it’s not so easy—you search for something you don’t normally see, and, at first, that can be hard. You want to be inspired by the world around you. You search for the extra-ordinary in the ordinary. And the more you search, the harder—you realize—it is to find.

Trust me, though. Start writing down the things you notice, strive to make it up to ten things a day, and if you keep it up, day after day, it’ll become easier. You’ll become more attuned to those pieces of extra-ordinary in the world.

And why is this the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received? Because, it is often the “things” that I notice that end up being the impetus for a story; from one image springs an entire character’s history, as well as their current dilemma. For example, in my short story, Anatomy of a Heart, Lisa struggles with the recent breakup with her boyfriend, who is now in a coma after being in a car accident. As she drives away from the hospital, a heart drawn on her car windshield catches her eye, and she begins to imagine that this “heart” is his last gift to her. The story began with the image of the heart on the windshield.

Or take my novel-in-progress as an example. I learned about Charlotte Corday in a footnote in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. From those short two sentences sprung a curiosity that has driven the past year and a half of research and writing that is resulting in Through Charlotte's Eyes.

Granted, from these images, from these “noticeables” as I like to call them, I don’t always get a story, nor can I ever predict where the image will take me. But then again, that’s the nature of “noticing”—you never know where it will take you.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Day in the Life of a Temp

Recently one of the managing directors approached my receptionist desk. “Liz, do you have a few minutes to spare this afternoon?”

Considering that my afternoons are usually spent sorting mail, answering phones, and searching for something to do, I happily said yes.

“These four keys,” he said, dropping them onto the desk, “can you find out where they go?”

Luckily, my many over-qualifications for this temp job proved useful. Instead of trying all the doors, cabinets, and any other number of locations, I realized that each key had a number etched onto one side. In less than a minute, I matched them to the keys at my desk.

Mission accomplished?

Not quite.

The managing director insisted I try each of the keys to “make sure.”

So I did, and I was right about every one of them—including the three for the men’s bathroom.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

One Take on the Financial Crisis

I will never claim to totally understand the financial crisis, nor will I claim that I totally understand the bailout bill, and that’s why I read a bunch of articles. Here’s one article that I found enlightening regarding why this crisis affects us all, whether or not we have stocks, investments, etc.:

This part particularly interested me: “We’re all connected. As others have pointed out, you can’t save Main Street and punish Wall Street anymore than you can be in a rowboat with someone you hate and think that the leak in the bottom of the boat at his end is not going to sink you, too. The world really is flat. We’re all connected. “Decoupling” is pure fantasy.”

I think this attitude is too often ignored—and not just in regards to the credit crisis. All actions we perform affect other people’s actions. What we all say and do does matter.