Something to Stare At.

Staring is rude –that’s what my mother always said when I was so foolish as to fix my gaze on one of her more outlandish friends sitting in our living room. She was never able to explain why –I’m not sure she even knew- but it has puzzled me all these years. What is it about a fixed gaze that is so dramatic? So… noticeable?

I am retired now, so I have time to stare. I was too busy to think much about it before, and any attempts were likely contextually driven. But as I aged, and the excuses withered, it occurred to me that the unadorned stare –the pure stare- unembellished with motive, unfettered from need, and divorced from curiosity could, in fact, be a thing unto itself. A causa sui, as it were. Or, as my friend Brien termed it when I tried one on him, an idiopathy. But more on that in a moment.

How does staring at a thing differ from staring at a person? If it is rude to stare at the latter, why isn’t it equally so to stare at the former? Well, I decided, a person knows she is the object of inspection whereas a pole, say, probably does not. But having said that, I have to admit that I feel the difference as well. It’s almost as if there were something magic about the fact of my stare being noticed that suddenly concentrates my awareness of the staree. As Wikipedia (sorry) describes Sartre’s Being and Nothingness: ‘During this time one can no longer have a total subjectivity. The world is now the other person’s world, a foreign world that no longer comes from the self, but from the other. The other person is a “threat to the order and arrangement of your whole world…Your world is suddenly haunted by the Other’s values, over which you have no control.”’

Of course, that is not entirely the case – I am sometimes suspicious that even poles have more awareness than we credit them, but nonetheless I take Sartre’s point. Maybe, in retrospect, my mother was a closet existentialist. Maybe she realized that she was more than a mother, more than her job. Maybe the exigencies of her existence demanded that she transmit this knowledge to me in the only way I would understand. Mind you, I think that if she’d thought about it some more, she might have found a more humane way of proselytizing her views than spanking. I respond equally well to food deprivation.

And yet, if nothing else, her continuing insistence on linking Theory of Mind with corporal punishment, lingered far longer than she did. She –and it– live on in my amygdala-driven conscience and I was determined to find out whether everybody shared her interest in these things. I was pretty sure she hadn’t read Sartre, although we did subscribe to Reader’s Digest, and it was always pretty well thumbed whenever I found it in the bathroom, so I can’t be certain. I decided to try a pure stare on someone and gauge their reaction. But I realized I’d have to be careful.

Staring incites suspicions in the staree that they have been singled out for some attribute or other that the starer finds compelled to inspect. It might be appearance, clothes, fashion, ethnicity, odour –any number of issues the recipient finds uncomfortable or inappropriate, any number of things to prompt retaliatory confrontation. I might, in other words, find myself lying bleeding in an alley, or worse, subject to public shaming. Who, after all, would believe that I was staring for absolutely no reason? And then there is the problem of selection –or should I say non-selection? Choices are often a manifestation, however disguised, of our own world views. We like the things that are mirrors of ourselves. Things that confirm our values. And random selection is just as likely as a carefully considered one, to involve some characteristic that the selected person will feel is being unfairly singled out. Even intuitive choices –choices that just feel right- suffer from the same Palinesque problems of truthiness

So, before any meaningful public staring trial, however covert, I would have to exclude a whole bevy of possible flash points, and, of course, I would need to have a list of excuses ready just in case. It seemed a hopeless task, but I guess Pure Science can be like that.

I am not one for confrontation of any sort, let alone ocular, but I have always blamed that on my size. When one grows up as the smallest boy on the playground, one learns to avert one’s gaze and only do clandestine, deniable peeks at those who might be in a bad mood. So, I perfected surreptition at an early age. But, I had the feeling that furtivity would not answer the question the experiment was designed to interrogate, namely the effect on someone of a totally innocent, unprovoked, naked stare –although I hesitate to use the latter adjective lest my motives be misconstrued: staring at a man might be dangerous; staring at a woman, embarrassing as well. Women, I have been lead to believe -mostly by my mother- do not trust scientific excuses for a male ogle. My mother, of course, was a woman of her time, but she left me with a lingering doubt that things would change any time prior to hell freezing over.

So, what was left? Brien was left, that’s what. At least I knew him. Brien, as I have described him in other essays, is a porch-person. This means that, like a turtle, he resorts to the attached house only as a last resort. It also means he is unusually easy to find.

Brien is also an adept starer; he spends hours staring at Sheda, his favourite tree. He knows all her moods, and lives for the days when wind rules his yard. It’s then when Sheda, acknowledges his attention with waves and coquettish flicks of its cedared hands. To Brien it’s a silent dialogic recognition of their separate and otherwise unbridgeable Magisteria. Me? I’ve stopped trying to convince him that he might benefit more from communicating with other life-forms. Or even going to a movie.

To tell the truth, I’m not really sure why I felt he would make a suitable candidate for my study –other than his availability. He barely looked up when I mounted the porch but he pointed at the only other seat. There was a bottle of beer right beside it, so I guess he must have been expecting me –he has no other friends.

“How’s Sheda today?” I asked, as his eyes flitted from branch to branch in hopes of a signal. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, actually.

He shrugged, clearly disappointed with her mood this afternoon.

“She’s probably busy photosynthesizing, I guess.” Why do I say these things? I should have remained quiet to see if he’d notice my staring, and then question him about it… But when you’re in a yard with Sheda, it’s like having your mother in the room –there are conventions that have to be followed.

Brien wasn’t fooled, however. “Why are you staring at me?” he said, suddenly throwing his eyes at me.

“Was I?” I replied, innocence dripping from my words like melting ice cream from a child’s cone.

“You’ve been staring at the back of my head ever since you came… The beer warm, or something?”

He suspected something, because he although he turned his head slowly, I could already feel the sardonic smile that was about to greet me. In fact, Brien must be part Cheshire cat, because he has the uncanny ability to smile from the back of his neck –well, something lipless does anyway.

I felt like a little boy caught with icing on his face. ‘Uhmm, well…” I decided to confess –Sheda would probably tell him with twig signs if I didn’t. “I’ve embarked upon a pivotal study on staring.”

He stared at me, his eyebrows puzzled, his lips now wry. “And why would that be?”

I thought for a moment. Brien was pretty basic. “To see what happens with a pure, uncalled for and uncaused stare.”

“Is it important to know that?”

I paused again. “I thought so when the idea first came to me.”

His eyes twinkled. “And now…?”

“And now I don’t think it’s possible.”

“Something I did?” He was toying with me now.

“There’s always a motive. There is no causa sui…”

He listened to the words carefully, and I could tell he was silently filing them away inside somewhere. “And do you know why that is?” he said his whole face twinkling now.

I shook my head, but I was sure he was going to bring Sheda into this.

“Because,” he said, letting the sibilance of the word dangle precariously from his tongue. “It would be an idiopathy.”

We both looked at each other for a moment –stared at each other, actually –and then smiled the smiles of collaborators in a successfully concluded project. “Need another beer…?” he said and drained his bottle.


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