There were five of us in that house. It was my first living arrangement after college, and I was anxious to keep my costs in the basement while I was setting up my studio. So, that’s the room I got: in the finished basement with the ceiling clearance about 4 inches above the crest of my head. And I didn’t really seem to mind the low ceilings: most of my time down there was spent sitting, hunched over a laptop, slowly developing a mild case of scoliosis and spit-shining my near-sighted eyes to have a beautiful, bleary patina.
I was the creative one out of all of us. The “art student.” After knowing the guys for long enough, you knew that clearing your throat and correcting them to say “Actually, I studied design,” didn’t really make much of a difference. These were resourceful, responsible, broad-shouldered, logical men, not terribly interested in my atrophied upper body, malignant sleep habits, or right-hemisphered shenanigans. They were back-slappers and knee-slappers, and they sincerely meant it too. If they laughed at your joke, it was funny. They’ll probably all hold some sort of office some day. If they liked you, they truly liked you, even if you were the creative, sensitive type, prone to distress, over-rumination, and not handling your swill very well.
They were all getting their MBAs at the university, and they were kind, and fun, and good friends, willing to answer my stupid questions about supply chains when I got in over my head with gigs doing illustrations for business magazines. They were really good at explaining things to me that were going to be terribly important to them in a few years, and of no importance to me in 3 days once my deadline had passed. They were great guys.
But they had tin eyes. One Sunday afternoon I got home from my errands and walked through the front door to see them all gathered around the television enjoying lunch and watching the game. But I noticed. “Where’d the horse painting come from?”
They cocked their eyebrows and swiveled their heads on their necks. They had no idea what I was talking about. “The horse painting on the wall over there above the sofa. Who put that up there?” Lots of confused stares between all of them, pauses in chewing, then shrugged shoulders. Over the next few minutes, we sussed out that, yes, all of them had been home all day. Yes, they had been in that room watching TV for both the games that afternoon. No, the painting wasn’t there yesterday, and no, they hadn’t noticed it today. Once we accepted that this abomination was truly in our home, no one fussed up to putting it there. I suppose if I brought this in and hung it up, I wouldn’t have claimed that painting either. It was ugly as hell, like some sort of degenerate find from an estate sale by a person who took up occupancy at a ratty Motel 6 on Interstate 55, somewhere between Litchfield and Pawnee.
But who ever put that canvas there either really liked that horse painting, or really disliked us. There were four sinker nails, one in each corner, fastening it to the wall. I don’t know how the guys didn’t hear the hammering. There was no way to remove it without mutilating the painting. Yes, it probably would have felt good to ruin it, like exorcising some sort of demon from the house, but we were renting, so you tend to be overly cautious with your home improvement projects. You don’t want to lose your $600 deposit. The painting was ugly, but it had a story, even if we didn’t know the whole thing. So it stayed there. We never did figure out how the painting got in the house or who owned it. It was our very own Rita Hayworth poster: hiding something, but on display for all to admire.
It’s hard to sympathize with tin eyes, but I know the observant people are in the minority. (Everyone thinks they’re observant, whether they are or not. Me included.) As my friend Ward says, “Thrown head-first into the throes of this world, and cursed to notice the details.” The odd thing is, these guys weren’t morons: they’re incredibly competent in every other sense. But, no matter how good your sense of taste is, no matter how strongly you may respond to a radiant song, having tin eyes is a bit like living with a bag over your head. It’s pretty much using your sight just to make sure you don’t bump into the furniture.
We take things for granted, visually speaking. It’s hard to learn how to look. It’s even harder to learn how to see. That’s why I’m so envious of good photographers. They look, then they see, then they frame. They get little mementos of the things they saw to remember them by. But most of the time, either we notice nothing at all, or we tend to see the things we see in terms of something else. It’s kind of like stopping in front of a Van Gogh and only seeing it in terms of money. “How much did this one cost?”
Songs can stir feelings in us, a great meal can make us salivate, the scent of perfume can trigger a whole memory. What would happen if we used our sight and noticed more? Alan Fletcher said, “Most people’s lives are like sitting facing forwards on a train where everything rushes past in a blur, instead of sitting with their back to the engine in visual comfort to let the landscape roll by.” What if we softened our eyes?
Maybe the guys would have noticed the painting if their backs were to the television. Or maybe not. But still, that painting stayed up on the wall for the two years we lived in that house. Because, everyone knows that it’s good to have a little mystery in your life. Or at least in your living room.