Everywhere I go I’m being watched by security cameras. They monitor cars running red lights, count pedestrians to determine the number of potential shoppers along a certain street, and watch train passengers. Most of the time I don’t notice, but when I am aware, I wonder, who’s back there looking at me? In movies, we usually see a bank of screens in a darkened room showing feeds from multiple surveillance cameras. The security team seems bored and easily distracted, and they often miss the most important event. What could I possibly be doing that is worthy of having “eyes on”?
Does having a camera on me make me act differently? I’m sure we all respond differently when we know we’re being observed. I might check my posture, postpone scratching my nose, pat my hair into place. Public safety proponents say that cameras help deter criminals. If they know they’re being observed on a train platform or bus, they’ll think twice before raising a ruckus or stealing your iPhone. Critics decry the surveillance state, pointing out that crime still happens, caught on tape or not.
When I was growing up, I imagined that there was a movie camera following me around, tracking my daily movements. Here I am going down the stairs to the basement, here I am chopping vegetables for dinner, here I am dusting the furniture! Our family never made home movies, yet, somehow I was struck with this idea that one day, when I became famous, people would be interested to know the details of my childhood. I can remember talking – out loud – to myself explaining some of the things I was doing, so future viewers would understand. Looking back, it seems like I was in my own reality show.
Though I imagined others would be interested in my life, maybe the actual archived images will be used one day to better understand life way back in 2016. Look at those cars and the clothes they’re wearing! This was when people still walked and could breathe the air! Grainy, black-and-white pictures of me crossing the street, passing an office building, entering a revolving door. Future history students are watching. I should wave.
It’s the first day of spring! In Chicago that means 37 degrees, bare tree limbs, and flower shoots just starting to push up out of the ground. In short, underwhelming. I can blame the fact that this is the earliest first day of spring in 120 years, or that spring rarely measures up to the warm vision retailers present when they show Easter clothes and outdoor egg hunts. We want winter to be over.
Extreme weather occasionally gives us 80 degrees in February – one day to shed our coats before we go back in the deep freeze. But once the calendar says it should be spring, we all become more impatient for its arrival. It seems to start with St. Patrick’s Day when folks gather by the Chicago River to see it dyed green. Such a pretty spring color, and in contrast to the still gray city. The days have already gotten noticeably longer, then daylight savings time gives us more afterwork light. Along Lake Shore Drive, the ritzy condo buildings have huge tulip plantings. The embankments along the highway brighten with daffodils. Winter coats and boots are put away, people start wearing shorts, cars are lined up at the carwash, and our neighbor starts grilling.
Easters of my youth combined the pride of wearing my new spring dress with the frustration of having to cover it up with my winter coat. Snow regularly fell on the new crocuses. Tree limbs full of blossoms were sometimes snapped off when covered in wet snow. Still our hope for spring is persistent. We can control our indoor temperature, so why not outdoors as well?
Of course the surest sign of spring I’ve found in Chicago is when the restaurants set up their outdoor dining spaces. Urban eateries with just a sliver of sidewalk space have carved out a bit of outdoor seating, bordered by planters that will soon be filled with blooms and trailing vines. Space heaters are used for a while. No matter that you’re 6 inches from an idling car or a sweating biker. I guess, for a city with a limited number of weeks of warm weather, we want to take advantage of every day of it. Even if we have to start in March with a little snow on the ground.
Some days on the train another rider stands up to offer me a seat. How polite! Then it dawns on me – they think I’m old. I smile and decline their offer, noting to myself, “I’ve already done my pull-ups, push-ups, and squats this morning at the gym, so I’ll be just fine, thank you, standing up for this train ride.”
While trying not to dismiss good manners, I wonder, do I look tired? Am I out of breath? Are my clothes woefully out of date, or does the mere color of my hair make me look like a fossil? Were they just being nice, or have they made an assumption about me?
I am the culmination of all my years and experiences. I can’t be summed up as one thing. Sure, I’m a baby boomer, but I want to be known and understood for all of the different things I am. I guess people have been making assumptions about me my entire life, though I wasn’t always aware. Those assumptions don’t pinch when they’re positive, but quickly become uncomfortable when they’re negative. Is it because I’m a woman that people may think I don’t know how to buy a car or drive one? Is it because I sound southern that people think I’m unsophisticated?
As quickly as I jump to deny false assumptions about me, I also need to consider the assumptions I make about other people. Leaping to conclusions based on very little information may be expedient for some broad generalizations, but it certainly isn’t fair. The woman in the grocery who has lost her patience with her toddler isn’t a bad mom. The man in the car who nearly mowed me down in the cross-walk may have a legitimate emergency. I try to remember this quote: “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” (attributed to John Watson)
I’m new to my work team, conscious that they don’t know me, but hoping I can replace any initial assumptions they have with real examples of who I am and what I can do. I think about what I want to be known for, and choose actions that support that positive personna. I’m not inventing a new me, just trying to deliberately demonstrate those qualities. And I want to extend the same courtesy to others. Don’t let one bad day color my impression of that person – look at all of the things they do. Be generous. I hope others can see that in me.
I rounded the corner at work and saw my father standing at the copy machine. Momentarily frozen in place, I thought, “but he died 10 years ago.” Then the copier repairman turned slightly, confirming my mistake. A woman on the train seemed to have stepped out of my high school hallway. She was the girl whose fashion bravery I envied. But it couldn’t be her. A familiar face, posture, or movement sparks recognition for me, even if there is no possibility I am correct. Sometimes I see ghosts. Not the scary, haunting kind, but people I know. Walking down the street, on the train, in the library. A familiar gait or posture. People who have no business being there, and yet they are.
Maybe those people are on my mind – I’ve run across a picture or they appeared in a dream – and it prompts me to connect that thought with someone I see. I’ve read that the ability to find similarities is an important skill we carry over from our early human days. Seeing similarities can be a shortcut to understanding the world around you so you don’t have to go through a lengthy process each time you meet someone, or assess a situation. If it looks like something you know, you can respond quickly (friend? foe? danger?).
Although I’m not sure what wilderness I’d have to roam where this ability would come in handy, it pops out in an annoying way when I watch movies or TV. An actor is immersed in a role, but I’m thinking I recognize him from something else. Two different times I was watching old movies and was startled by the same person. Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is surrounded by adoring male dancers and one of them looks so familiar. Then Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas, and there was that dancer again. What? Then it hit me – he’s the leader of the Sharks from West Side Story! Though my discovery is not unique, and is documented in IMDB, it’s how my brain works. Almost everyone can look like someone, or remind me of someone, and occasionally, it’s true.
Maybe those are loose threads in my woven memory that need to be tucked back in. Or it’s how I make sense of the sensory overload in the world around me. Any day I set out I wonder what memory will accompany me. People far away, or passed on, they can still come along and will give me a unique perspective on the people I see.