Do You See What I See?

Posted on February 9, 2011


There’s an old saying that “Seeing is believing.” As with other old sayings, such as “Live and learn” and “Practice makes perfect,” this one doesn’t seem to apply to me. Or maybe I believe too much. Sometimes I see things, ordinary things that my mind refuses to leave ordinary. My tendency is to enhance the mundane, turning it into either soul-stirring wonder or something involving imminent catastrophe. The vast middle ground of daily life holds little interest.

I’d be reluctant to admit any of this, but Heidi Turner of The Happy Freelancer recently had the courage to write about her own special worldview, which her annoying non-writer friends describe as an overactive imagination. Personally, I think her friends have been sent here from another galaxy to short-circuit our creative spirit with invisible laser beams emitted from their eyebrows; but that’s just my opinion.

* * * * *

It was early evening on a late summer day in Florida. I was standing outside the Mexico pavilion at Epcot. The pavilion had a dining room that was half indoor and half outdoor, but had the feel of an open-air restaurant. It sat several feet below sidewalk level, allowing passersby to look out over the heads of the many people eating their chimichangas and enchiladas, the evening’s quiet interrupted only by the occasional clinking of fork against plate. The sunset was breathtaking. Purple and orange clouds seemed to float motionless under a sky splattered with red, pink, and more shades of blue than I’d ever seen in one place. I stood transfixed for several minutes, soaking in the experience, really living in the moment. I felt exuberantly alive. Then I realized there was a woman standing beside me. She too was looking out over the crowd. I turned to her, then back at the wondrous scene above us.

“Have you ever seen a sunset like this?” I asked. She looked up for about two seconds, then back at me.

“That’s the ceiling,” she said.

I looked closely and for the first time noticed what appeared to be air vents and heating ducts among the clouds. The sunset was a mural painted onto the restaurant ceiling, which neatly explained why nobody else was looking at it. I said goodbye to the woman and headed over to the Chinese pavilion, hoping they hadn’t painted fireworks on their walls.

* * * * *

I was at my desk in the office at home. During a short break, I happened to glance out the window and there in the grass under the old hickory tree was a beautiful bird. Its feathers were shades of red and brown. As it sat near the trunk of the tree, the bird rested with its head curved down and away from me and its tail pointing straight back.

A full minute passed and the bird hadn’t moved, so I left my chair and went out the back door to check on it. Maybe it was sick, or had been attacked by the neighbor’s cat. I approached and found that it was neither sick nor hurt. Actually, it was a piece of wood. I picked it up and examined it, realizing that a broken branch from the hickory tree had fallen. The sunlight reflecting off the bark and the resulting shadows had given it the appearance of a brightly colored bird. I had once again gone from this exquisite sense of oneness with the universe to feeling like a moron.

* * * * *

I was driving southbound on the Bronx River Parkway, in New York’s Westchester County. At some point I looked off to the left and saw what appeared to be a man, sprawled on his back halfway down the hill. This was a small highway, with two narrow lanes in each direction and no place to pull over. I was on my way to a fundraising event I’d helped organize, a thought that still perplexes me, as I have trouble organizing my underwear drawer.

The fundraiser was moving along smoothly. It was a dance-a-thon or skate-a-thon, or something. I didn’t really need to be there, and the more I stood around trying to look instrumental, the more my mind flew back to the scene on the parkway. I had spotted a dead body. I was sure of it.

I did the only rational, responsible thing there was to do: I sneaked away and called the New Rochelle Police.

“I think there’s a dead body on the Bronx River Parkway,” I said, trying to sound serious, sensible, urgent, and sane, all at once.

“How do you know it’s a dead body?” the police department person asked.

I said I didn’t know, but that was what it looked like. I told him exactly where I saw it, between two exits on the northbound side. He said they’d have a look, and thanked me for calling. I felt like an upstanding citizen. But still, my curiosity was twitching and I needed to see for myself. The next day, I retraced my route, this time taking a friend along for the ride. And for the corroboration.

There was little traffic, and as we approached the spot I slowed almost to a stop, and pointed.

“There. What is that?”

“Right there?” she asked.

“Yeah, right there. What does that look like?”

“A bag of leaves.”

I glanced at the road, then back to my left. I squinted. It was a large plastic bag of leaves, tossed down the hill and broken open. Some of the leaves had spilled out in different directions and the spills looked like arms and legs. But now that I knew what it was, a broken bag of leaves, I tried to see it as a dead body and I couldn’t do it.

Driving through New Rochelle, I was careful to stay just under the speed limit. I also wondered if the police had any way of tracing a call made from a pay phone.

* * * * *

One late summer evening, while driving a few blocks from home, I looked up and to my right and saw a shiny oval object hovering in the darkening sky. It was silver and was about the size one of those helium-filled party balloons would appear to be if it were forty or fifty feet above the ground. I did some mental calculations and decided this thing must be a thousand feet up, and about the size of a small airplane. It floated motionless for seconds, then drifted left or right, seemingly without aim. No vehicle originating on Earth had the ability to move like that, especially while hanging in mid-air. As it changed direction so did I, steering the car with one eye on the object and the other on the road. My heart was pounding.

Minutes passed and I wondered why no one else was paying attention to this strange thing above them. Ignoring the familiar feeling of humiliation now taking shape in my brain, I pulled into a shopping center parking lot, turned off the engine, and got out. Looking straight up, I could now see that the object was exactly what it appeared to be. It was one of those helium-filled party balloons, hovering forty or fifty feet above the ground. Recognizing a chance to appear normal, I headed into the store and picked up a bag of carrots, which were on sale and which my mother had always said would help improve eyesight.

To tell you the truth, I’ve been eating carrots all my life and I don’t think they affect eyesight one bit. Where do people get these crazy ideas, anyway?