Monday, August 13, 2007

Watch Towers


A vineyard in winter...
Flemish, c. 1520.
from Sylvia Landsberg's The Medieval Garden,
University of Toronto Press.

Many of the lookouts and observation platforms prominent in the past were for defensive purposes - coast watch, fire watch, vermin watch.

And, inevitably, people watch.

Today, that watch function has been largely replaced by the ubiquitous, unobtrusive bird's eye of the video camera.

I wonder if the medieval consciousness had a more profound sense of above and below.

Certainly we retain a proletarian suspicion and disdain for certain kinds of oversight. My academic infant's tongue-in-cheek phone tape once began with "You have reached the Ivory Tower..."

On the other hand, writers of non-fiction are particularly advised to consider platform - some structure that supports and raises them above the rest.

When diverted from inspection of their own interiors, writers watch people. It may be best not to do so from above.

The view from the balcony of the mind is foreshortened, distorted, and tends toward stereotype.

One may observe - besides a collection of bald spots, baseball caps and bad dye jobs - movement and pattern and traffic flow. Scurry. Ants.

But not faces, not people.

26 comments:

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I'm a consummate people-watcher. The interesting thing about watching from above (or with any distance) is that one is forced away from facial expression into body language. I find that fascinating.

Amy Lavender Harris said...

Heh! I had forgotten about the ivory tower phone message. Perhaps it's time to bring it back.

Steve G said...

Perhaps looking up would be a better angle.

Bernita said...

Distance may be hard to achieve in our busy world, SS, but body language - both basic and reactive - is interesting to observe and dissect.

Alway made me grin, Amy.

In my egalatarian way, Steve, and having no patience with idols, I prefer a level line of sight.

ERiCA said...

What a neat picture!

I wonder if the medieval consciousness had a more profound sense of above and below.

Hmmm, food for thought!

writtenwyrdd said...

As you say, perspective (or angle, in this metaphore) is everything.

I hadn't thought of literal perspective as a tool, but how your character looks upon others is a telling bit of characterization.

Dave said...

To listen and observe dispassionately and to record what actually happens - not an easy thing to do. It's hard work.

Good advice, Bernita, good advice on many levels.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Erika.
Hopefully, always food for thought.

So is the writer's, Written.

Thank you, Dave.
And interpretation of those observations is even harder.

Seeley deBorn said...

The only thing I liked about waitressing was the opportunity to hear those tiny bits of conversation. The body language of the diners as a meal is shared explains a lot about a relationship.

writtenwyrdd said...

overheard in new york website is full of those hilarious overheard bits. Great way to make your coworkers think you are nuts, because you'll be snorting coffee regularly.

Bernita said...

Seeley and Written, you remind me of a standard device in novels where bits of overheard conversation from different characters are strung together for comic effect.

Charles Gramlich said...

I often look down. I rarely look up.

December/Stacia said...

Yep, you have to get down in the mud yourself if you want to see how people react to filth.

So to speak.

Ric said...

I especially like the bald heads notation. People watching must be done at a much lower level, I agree. Little ones, toddlers are best observed from the floor - where they are. The perspective is so much different.

raine said...

I have a friend who writes occasionally. Fairly brilliant man, often keen insight, and very literary style.
The problem with his fiction writing (as I see it anyway) is the 'tone' of the voice he uses. Yes, he's witty enough, but comes across as considering himself above both the somewhat stereotypical people he writes about and his readers.

I don't think he ever really 'gets' either.

The Anti-Wife said...

I love watching people - especially in airports and restaurants. It really takes you away from yourself and causes your imagination to move into overdrive. Another great post.

Bernita said...

Pedestal complex, Charles?
Surely not.

So to speak, December!

Ric, children must be experts on knees!

Exactly, Raine. Too far above the maddening crowd.

Thank you, AW. You are right.They do.
Always carry a notebook.

Church Lady said...

Hi Bernita, Love observing those bald heads! Reminds me of one of Miss Snark's old descriptions on her side-bar--something about stepping on the tops of bald heads of vice-presidents. Just loved it!!

I like the observation from above once-in-a-while. I think it can give a sociological perspective (patterns of behavior and movement). Who ducks into doorways when it rains? Who lingers? Who doesn't mind being jostled in a crowd on a sidewalk? Who stops to listen to the street musician?

But I'm usually not on the floor with my kids. Usually, it's in the mud. And yes, December, there's plenty of filth to go around!

;-)

Chris

Bernita said...

Certainly, a change in perspective - even mud wrestling - is useful, Chris.

Scott from Oregon said...

You'd be surprised what one sees inside the hair cover from my vantage point.

I'd rather be looking there than up someone's nostrils, though.

Angie said...

I disagree that it's an either-or choice. I think the best people watching is done from a variety of perspectives, and that sticking with any single perspective, no matter how egalitarian, is inherently limiting.

(I kept going but it got very tl;dr. :) Going to clutter up my own living room.)

Angie

Bernita said...

I'm certain I would be, Scott.

Angie, I don't believe I ever said it was an "either/or," merely a preference.

LadyBronco said...

oh, the things one misses when one is perched upon their pedestal, forever missing the fundamental things that make us human.

I would be bored to tears sitting so high above others, never knowing what was going on directly below my nose!

Bernita said...

Not to mention the pigeons, Lady B!

SzélsőFa said...

I also like to watch people, merged into them without them noticing me...
I keep reading you advice.

Bernita said...

I only offer opinions, ideas, and perspectives, Szelsofa - none of them are absolutes.