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the difficulties of seeing
september 3, 2000
I was reminded the other day of how difficult it is to see something unless we already know what it is we're looking at.
A good example of not seeing what we don't expect to see happened to me in the early seventies, when I was living in an apartment in Fairfield, Connecticut.
I woke up in the middle of the night, needing to urinate. As I stood above the toilet, watching my stream break up the surface, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye.
The hallway outside the bathroom stretched from kitchen to bedroom, with a side doorway leading into the living room, which itself had an open doorway leading into the kitchen. In other words, if you could throw a true curve ball, you could throw it facing the bedroom, and it'd curve into the living room, out the other side into the kitchen, out the other door of the kitchen into the hall, and hit you in the back of the head.
I watched the small section of hall outside the bathroom doorway, still urinating.
Nothing. Just darkness and carpet.
I looked back down. Something sped through the hallway again.
I stood there, urinating, head turned completely left, facing the doorway, watching the hall. Nothing, and then, incredibly, something sped through the hallway again, so fast I couldn't tell anything about it, except its speed.
I finished urinating. Stood where I was, facing the hallway, because if there really was something out there, I didn't want to step in front of one of its speed-throughs.
It sped past again, and for the first time I realized it was racing by not along the carpet, but in mid-air.
A bird. Somehow, it had gotten in the apartment, and was flying in an endless circle through hallway, living room, kitchen, hallway. It had taken me so many passes to see it, because who expects to see a bird fly past your bathroom in the middle of the night?
I waited until its next whoosh past, then walked quickly back to the bedroom, pulled on some pajamas and opened a window, ready to help it get back outside.
I clicked on the bedroom lamp, looked up, and saw a large brown bat bouncing along the ceiling, spreading its wings.
My mind hadn't been prepared to see anything, and when it needed to, had only been prepared to see a bird.
The other day Mary and I were driving home on 75 Central, an eight-lane highway running north and south through Dallas, when I realized there was something other than a car on the road up ahead. I was expecting to only see cars, so it took me a moment to realize it was a huge bundle of cellophane, rolling and bouncing from lane to lane.
As we got closer to it I slowed down, trying to anticipate when it was going to roll our way again, to avoid it. Which is when I realized there was a motorcycle caught up with the cellophane, both of them tumbling over and around each other, but now a motorcycle helmet also appeared, and what was left of the cellophane turned into a human body, tumbling literally head over heels over and over again down the highway, sometimes above, sometimes below, his motorcycle, until both landed for the last time on the lane.
Just as I pulled up alongside the body, braking to keep the cars behind me from running him over, he bounced to his feet, looking confused. A young Latino, fortunately with his helmet still on. His only apparent physical wound was a long, ruby abrasion on his left forearm, which he must have thrown up as he hit the pavement and started bouncing at fifty miles an hour down the road. I asked him if he were all right. He stared through me, going into shock. A woman raced over from where she had parked in the breakdown lane, said she was a nurse, looked him over quickly, then walked him over to the shoulder, watching where his feet stepped.
I don't know what caused his accident. I don't know if a car hit him, or if he looked in the passing lane, saw nothing, and started passing, colliding with, for example, a straight-backed chair lying in the middle of the lane, where it wasn't supposed to be, and where it was, therefore, not-seeable.