From the Outside Looking In

By -

Years ago, in high school, I took Latin as my second language. I took it for four years, and although I didn't learn as much as I might have, I do remember the infinitive speculare – from which we get the word speculate – means "to observe."

I have been cursed with noticing things all my life. Perhaps it comes from being an overly visual person, or maybe it's just that I was born an outsider. I have experienced life from the outside looking in, and I have chosen a lifestyle which only exaggerates this circumstance. That is, I have no commute, I don't attend any meetings, I have no reports to submit, no presentations to make, and no peer reviews to write. I just chart, trade, blog, and tend to my family.

Given this, I tend to watch other people much like an alien visitor might (without seeming too intrusive). Most of the time it makes me sad for the human condition. (And this is in Palo Alto; God help me during those rare chances I wind up in a place like Las Vegas, which compels me to find the highest tower I can and leap from it).

Tonight was such a night. Our family schedule is somewhat complex, and it required us to have a profoundly early dinner (4 p.m.) at The Fish Market. Folks who eat dinner at 4 p.m., let's face it, or going to be a little unusual (present company notwithstanding, of course).

I noticed an old woman walk in. She had that quiet dignity and poise of an older woman who, even when eating by herself, wants to look nice for dinner. Soon thereafter, a couple of a similar age (lots of seniors eat early) came in and sat at the table near hers. The gent left for the bathroom, and the woman blew her nose loudly and lengthily.

The man came back to the table. There were two things that struck me about this couple. First, their utter silence. Not a word was exchanged between them. They didn't seem mad at each other. They simply had run out of things to say. Utter, unending, agonizing silence.

The second thing was their facial expressions. The man looked extraordinarily uncomfortable. He rubbed his face with his hands; he stared off in the distance; it seemed he wanted to be anywhere but there. And the woman seemed to keep her eyes closed most of the time. I'm not sure if she was sleepy and resting her eyes, or if she couldn't stand to see the silence. They looked right past each other, and although I can understand not having a lot to say to someone you've known for forty years or more, the consistency of the pained silence could have been made into a full-length, black & white picture called Despair.

Not too long after this, a large woman waddled in to the restaurant. And by "Large", I mean the kind of person who shops at a store whose sizes are:

+ Husky

+ Extra Husky

+ Oh My God, It's Moving Toward Us

She was by herself, and the waitresses showed her to her table. She did not sit down, however. After the waitress left, the woman pulled the entire table away from the bench, made sure the space was wide enough to accommodate her, and then plopped down onto the padded cushion (nearly sending my son, seated farther down the same bench, almost through the ceiling), finally pulling the table yet again toward her. Mission accomplished. Time to eat.

She got out her People magazine and – unpredictably – a canister of some kind of artificial seasoning like Butter Buds or Molly McButter or something along those lines. Why anyone would want to sprinkle dry chemicals onto freshly-made food in order to enhance its flavor is beyond me, but there you have it.

And so this completes the scene. Next to us, the Giant People-Reading, Butter-Buds-Consuming Woman from Another Dimension, and one more table out, the Silent Couple That Winces and Despairs. And I'm able to take all this in without anybody noticing.

If there is a God – and I've lived my life believing there is – I've got to believe he spends a lot of his day disappointed. I don't make these observations out of criticism; far from it. I cringe at many of my own actions, inactions, and self-created circumstances. But I do know there's a reason I've never been tempted to do drugs; my brain is messed up enough as it is. If I turned on, tuned in, and dropped out any more than I already do, I don't think I could make it.


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