I was raised to be alert.
“Be alert,” my dad always said to me. “The world needs more lerts.”
I was expected, as a child, to pay close attention to the details.
“Where do you think he’s going?” my dad would whisper to me, his eyes darting to a man crossing the street. “Why’s he in such a hurry?” Or, “Look at her shoes. What do you suppose she paid for those?”
This wasn’t speculation for the sake of conversation. My father was a student of human behavior, a negotiator, a logician.
He was a salesman.
Everyone liked him, and I took all my cues from him. He was the first in the room to pick up on accents, no matter how slight; the first to catch the nuance. He was a clever man made cleverer by use of intuition. He saw what made other people tick and would offer them the cues they needed to say what needed to be said. When I caught him at this, that is, when I saw that a conversation was proceeding in a manner and time of his choosing, I would catch his eye, raising an eyebrow. He would wink at me, followed, sometimes, by him tapping the side of his nose with his index finger, a nod to our shared knowledge.
Physical alertness is where all of us start: Look both ways. Watch your step. Listen for sirens.
But my father also stressed intellectual watchfulness. He had a thing about history and was always concerned with the idea that history was being rewritten, that the people in control were planting seeds of false history in children.
“Watch,” he’d say, “someday there’ll be a movie about Hitler: Oh! He wasn’t a bad guy! He was just misunderstood!”
My father’s eye challenged me to notice, to witness. I watched faces, watched eyes and mouths for clues. The set of the lips, the shifting and blinking of the eyes, what did they mean? Why does that man look like that? Does he have a tic? Is the sun in his eyes?
I was fascinated by a story I read about a child, set in England during World War II. The boy had told the police about a suspicious man based upon the unusual shoes the man was wearing. The child had never seen shoes like that before. The man with the suspicious-looking shoes was detained by the authorities and later revealed to be a spy.
That’s the kind of person I want to be.
And I’m still watching for a pair of unusual shoes.