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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Be A Lert

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.

24 comments:

The mad woman behind the blog said...

Shoes, the great equalizer, I say. You can tell a lot about a person by looking at their shoes. Mine say "I'm a mess, don't follow me, I'm lost and I know how to have good time."

Actually I never say that.

Pearl said...

You may not, but your shoes do! :-)

Sam Liu said...

Your dad sounds great. And he's right, the world needs more lerts (love that word, by the way). Observers, masters of the subtle, wizards of perception. The slightest thing reveals so much about a person.

Kevin Musgrove said...

A good, old-fashioned, salesman could tell you the life history of generations by two minutes' small talk at a garden gate. These days they struggle to tell you the name of the product they're trying to sell you.

furiousBall said...

you should see how freakin' fancy my shoes are. let me just say this. they are fancy.

Lisa said...

I want to be like that too. Super observant. Like Sherlock Holmes.

a Broad said...

Right now my shoes are saying, stay home, stay warm, let the husband do all the walking.
And I am listening to them.

Your Dad sounds like a Treasure .. and you sound like the sort of daughter he would have <3

Rene/ Not The Rockefellers said...

Pearl, your Dad reminds me so much of my own..whom I miss terribly.

I would love to see you as a gumshoe, Pearl, one in the style of Columbo.

Rene

Madame DeFarge said...

Your dad sounds ineffably cool. I watch people and what they do too. Maybe some people would call it stalking, but I'd call it being aware of your surroundings. Just in case.

Cheeseboy said...

Does intuition in the truest sense really exist? Isn't intuition just a collection of conclusions based on circumstances and situations and people's shoes?

At any rate, your pops sounds like a smart man.

Sweet Cheeks said...

It's your attention to detail that irritates Liza Bean Bitey (of the Minneapolis Biteys) because you're always 'lerting' about.
=]

Douglas said...

What are shoes? I am either in sandals or "sneakers". Well, or golf shoes. But if I have shoes on, I feel dressed up. It's a Florida thing...

Christine said...

I'm so bad at noticing the details. Your dad sounds like a special person.

Jolene Perry said...

Cool story. I love to people watch. Airports especially and then in our short time living in Las Vegas - there was never an end of odd shoes there.

dirt clustit said...

your dad sounds like a contortionist. The type that would piss off John Dee Irvington for re-veiling that he also writes unfiction...

lunamother said...

I've only been following (stalking is such a negative word) your blog a few weeks, and I'm very much enjoying it.
you have a wonderful way with a story :)

De Campo said...

Why on Earth do you want to be a young English boy again?

Tamsin said...

This reminds me this: http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html

Beta Dad said...

Being alert to the little things can have its drawbacks. I'm always pointing things out to my wife about the parade of freaks that is Planet Earth. "Did you not even notice that she was a tranny?" I'm constantly remonstrating. Meanwhile I forget the destination at which I'm supposed to be aiming the car, or the main point of the conversation I'm supposedly involved in.

Jon in France said...

I've just come back from the shoe cupboard wondering what your father would make of my sorry collection of footwear. "Must try harder" comes to mind.

the walking man said...

I always look to see what kind of coffee they drink and whether they take it black or mixed. The spy always drink espresso slowly, until there is a last little wash in the bottom of the tiny non American mega cup. Then they gulp and rocket away from the table, but then that could also be caused by the caffeine kicking in.

I'd start looking at shoes but everyone wears the same Asian made thing, except convicts. They make theirs at discount.

Gaston Studio said...

You had a very wise father, as I'm sure you know, and what a grand legacy he's leaving with you.

Jocelyn said...

Yours is the book I'd like to have on my bedside table right now.

Pat said...

I love it that your dad taught you to notice things--details about people and your surroundings. That has served you well in your writing.