Posts Tagged ‘perception’

I was in high school when I realized that being observant was not just a talent or trait – that to be observant, you had to know what to observe.

I made this discovery because I had decided that, if I were going to write poetry, I needed to educate myself about traditional verse. Armed with a rhyming dictionary with a good prologue, I set out to learn about metric feet: iambs, trochees, anapests, and dactyls, along with outliers like spondees. Through repetition, reading, and practice sonnets, I learned to recognize each foot in a way that I never had naturally (although I had heard of them long ago). I learned that what you could consider an accented syllable varied with the sounds around it, and how some syllables could count as accented or unaccented depending on how you pronounced them. I learned, too, that free verse was not an absence of meter, but an absence of consistent meter (a subtlety that escapes three-quarters of modern poets, and how the whole idea of metric feet did and didn’t fit the way that English was used.

For a while, I became so obsessive that I went around mentally scanning everything that I and people around me were saying. I don’t think anyone noticed the inevitable slowness that crept into my speech, but I was relieved when I finally shook off the obsession. I soon found myself publishing my first poems, and left with a means of perception that most people lacked.

Much the same thing happened in grad school when I realized that, if I were going to teach composition to students, I needed to know more about essay structure. Accordingly, I summarized the sections of essays I admired from people like George Orwell or Gloria Steinhem, making notes of the tactics used. What were the different ways of starting an essay? Of concluding? How should points be arranged? When should opposing views be mentioned, and how should they be handled?

A few years later, I did the same with fiction, both short stories and fiction. Then, as I started exploring graphic design, I did the same with font selection and layout – so thoroughly that I still sometimes walk down a commercial street critiquing the signs. Usually, there’s a lot to criticize, since, to say the least, our culture is not exactly graphically literate.

Each of these circumstances left me with a different way of seeing from most people. Or, rather, I perceived the same things as everyone else, but I understood what details mattered. I could understand, too, how well what I perceived fit together. Instead of a generalized reaction, I could go into detail (usually more than anyone else wanted to know) about exactly what created my reaction.

Some people might argue that I have lost my spontaneous reaction as a result. They might say, for instance, than I can no longer watch a badly written movie, because I can anticipate what is going to happen and, sometimes, when the script writer has become especially lazy, even what the characters are going to say and what will happen to them.

To some extent, that claim might be true. However, my self-taught expertise can tell me to avoid the movie, which I consider an advantage. Or, depending on my mood, I might watch it anyway with a two-track mind, one responding as an uncritical consumer, and one running in parallel observing what doesn’t work and why.

Far from losing anything, I believe that I have gained from acquiring expert vision of selected fields. Because of my efforts, I not only respond, but can articulate why I respond the way I do. In looking for greater knowledge of what I was experience, I have also gained knowledge of both myself and others – and that’s never a fact that I’ll regret.

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Usually, I don’t worry much about what people think about me. Oh, I like most people, and want them to like me. And I know that I can be regarded very differently, depending on what others have seen of me and the baggage they bring to their observations. Yet, except in specific circumstances like a job interview, in the past, I haven’t usually agonized over other people’s perceptions, although whether this attitude is confidence, arrogance, or self-defense, I have no idea. In recent months, however, events have made me more conscious than usual of others’ opinions.

One reason is that I heard from someone I went to school with, who discovered me on the Internet. We were never close, although the circles we moved in overlapped until she moved away in Grade 10. She wrote to me:

“I happened to be talking about you the other day. I’m not really sure how you came up but I was relating a childhood memory to a friend. I said something along these lines: “There was this boy in my elementary school who was painfully shy and awkward. He was brilliant, that much was obvious, but I doubt many people bothered to get to know him because of his shyness. But. When he would run, he was magic!” It went on from there while I described not knowing you as a person, but cheering my ass off for you at various track and field events and how you probably never knew that there were people like me who thought you were magic.”

Well, I cop to awkward; that’s what usually happens when you grow up left-handed. But painfully shy? I thought of myself more as brash and apt to blurt out the wrong thing in misplaced confidence. Nor did I lack friends, or an awareness that I had an easy ride through adolescence because I was a bit of a sports star.

The description seemed so incongruous next to my own memories, so deflating in places and so out in left field in others that I had to laugh. I sent my conflicting memories back, and my correspondent found the differences hilarious, too, so now we exchange emails once or twice a week.

Another reason for thinking about how others see me is that I was widowed a few months ago. Soon after my partner’s death, I became aware that everyone I met seemed to be staring at me as if I were a Prince Rupert’s Drop that would shatter if mishandled for even a second. I could see people visibly making an effort to edit their sentences, unsure whether they should mention Trish, or talk about her, and hesitating even more over asking if I wanted company or had any plans about how I was going to live now (I didn’t, and still don’t, for the most part). Suddenly, people were always watching me – and judging me, too. Most of them were well-meaning, but they were still judging me, far more than they would have in other circumstances. Or, possibly, I simply noticed the judging more.

At any rate, I started receiving pity-invitations. Acquaintances started inviting me to events because they had concluded that getting out would be good for me. Friends invited me out to dinner, or to parties for the same reason.

They were right, and I understand that they meant well. But, although I’m sure that people judge me all the time without me knowing, I’m not used to being so obviously judged. I feel like a specimen at the aquarium, living out my life behind a pane of glass beyond which everyone stood waiting to see what I could do.

I am aware, too, that they mean to help me. That, in itself, is hard to take – not because of any misplaced sense of macho, but because, after twelve years of taking care of someone in failing health, I am far more used to helping than being helped. Although I still accept most of the invitations, a self-consciousness has entered my dealings with friends and relatives that leaves the simplest of interactions seem forced and false as I try to ignore it.

The third reason is hardest to describe, because I want to keep most of the circumstances private. Perhaps it is enough to say that I let someone I admire and who could have been a friend think me unstable at best or a player of head-games at worst because I believed that doing so was the right thing to do for everyone.

I still think that way – on alternate days. The truth is, when I’m not feeling ashamed of trying to manipulate someone’s perceptions of me, I’m wondering exactly what those perceptions are. Most likely, I’ll never know, yet I wonder all the same. The result is that, once again, I find myself spending far more time thinking of other people’s perceptions of me than I am used to doing.

Perhaps this newfound awareness is only natural. A marriage – at least, a happy one like mine – is a filter for other relationships. Now that I am a widower, those relationships have to be renegotiated for the first time in years.

Under these circumstances, perhaps spending an inordinate amount of time thinking of other people and how they perceive me is a natural stage that I just have endure until it passes. But, meanwhile, I am getting weary of feeling like my mind and body is one continuous rib-bruise.

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