1. A fanciful creature of undefined nature. – Collins Dictionary1
2. Man, Julie Andrews really took that “the hills are alive with the sound of music” thing to heart. – The Nut
One of my favorite books of all time is a novel written by Julie Andrews.
Yes, that Julie Andrews.
I actually own two of her children’s books, The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles and Mandy, both published under her married name of Edwards, and I read them religiously as a child. Both focused, in their own way, on escape and imagination, two themes which resonated very strongly with me as an only child living in a large, quiet house under the all-seeing eye of an overprotective mother.
But while Mandy was charming and sentimental, almost a plaintive cry of a story which made your heart ache ever so slightly, Whangdoodles was a call to action.
You! the pages shouted at me. Yes, you there. What on earth are you doing sitting in your room feeling bored when there are worlds to be explored? How can you plant yourself in front of the TV for hours on a weekend morning when there is an entire universe in your backyard that you have yet to fully discover?
Those were very good questions, ones which demanded enough re-readings that my copy would eventually be held together only by a combination of duct tape and sheer will.
Whangdoodles starts out with three bickering and slightly ungrateful children grumbling about their mother giving them money and shuffling them off on an unsupervised visit to the zoo.
After they get over the unfairness of it all, they start to enjoy the excursion despite themselves, and are deeply engrossed in a discussion about unusual animals when a local Nobel Prize winner happens by and joins in.
Only one of the children seems to harbor any kind of suspicion about the intentions an over-friendly, eccentric older man might have with three young people, but his caution is immediately overruled by the talkativeness of his younger sister, Lindy, so they all continue chatting until it’s time for them to leave. As the professor escorts them back to the bus stop, it begins to rain, and he opens a clear plastic umbrella patterned with yellow butterflies which Lindy the Motormouth is promptly compelled to comment on.
The professor’s response would leave an imprint on my mind that remains to this day.
“I bought it because it’s cheery and it makes people look up. Have you noticed how nobody ever looks up?” The man’s voice was suddenly irritable. “Nobody looks at chimneys, or trees against the sky, or the tops of buildings. Everybody just looks down at the pavement or their shoes. The whole world could pass them by and most people wouldn’t notice.” (Edwards 11)2
As true today as it was then; just replace “the pavement or their shoes” with “their smartphones.”
Thirty-six pages later, after much story development resulting in the children being established as the professor’s protégés of sorts, the professor would elaborate on his statement.
“There aren’t many people in this world who really know how to look. Usually one glance is enough to register that the grass is green and the sky is blue and so on. They can tell you if the sun is shining or if it looks like rain, but that’s about all. It’s such a pity, for there is texture to everything we see, and everything we do and hear. That’s what I want today’s lesson to be about. I want you to start noticing things. Once you get used to doing it you’ll never be able to stop. It’s the best game in the world.” (Edwards 47-48)
I was always told I was an observant child. If you asked, I could tell you what kind of buttons were on each of my mother’s fancy blazers, or how many spindles each of our house’s banisters had. I could draw the upholstery pattern on our living room sofas from memory, or recall the exact tone of each chime of our grandfather clock.
But I, too, had been ignoring the finer nuances of things I considered to be mundane. I had thought trees trunks were just brown, hadn’t I? And grass was just green. Flowers were pretty, but still just ordinary old flowers. And everywhere my parents and I went together, I stared down at my feet, skipping over the cracks in the sidewalk or playing elaborate stepping games on patterned tile floors.
I was just as guilty of not looking as anyone else.
I resolved to start playing the professor’s game. I began to study my world more closely. I pried up rocks in the garden to see what lived underneath, and watched spiders wrap up their prey. I made a point of noticing the way the color of our lawn changed in the light and through the seasons. How the weathered cedar shingles on our roof shone like carved silver in the moonlight.
I began listening more closely too. I tried to figure out what made one person’s voice sound different from another’s. I analyzed accents and speech impediments and practiced recreating the more unfamiliar sounds alone in my room, making observations that would later prove invaluable as I took on more languages in school and eventually stumbled onto the field of linguistics.
While the professor and the children were taking their first steps together into the fanciful realm of Whangdoodleland, discovering rivers that made music and flowers that smelled of freshly baked bread, I was busy finding new beauty in the ordinary. I had thought my world small, but there was more in it than I had ever known.
Eventually I began to try and capture some of this newfound wonder with my old film camera, which, as it turned out, wasn’t quite up to the task. Perhaps to spare themselves the cost of processing roll after roll of blurry, underexposed, and just plain odd photos, my parents gave me a digital camera for one of my mid-teen birthdays, and that’s when the photography bug really started to take hold.
In the beginning, I didn’t think of photography as much more than an occasional hobby, but after about ten years of making the best of point and shoot cameras, I realized I had become frustrated by their limitations. Knowing this, Nutty Hubby bought me my first DSLR for Christmas when I got home from grad school. I shelled out for a few good quality lenses to accompany it, and at long last I was finally able to record and share the nuances and details of everyday life the way I saw them.
But it wasn’t long before the professor’s words would come to serve as a warning as well as inspiration. One of the downsides to owning a professional-looking camera is that people somehow feel free to approach you with all kinds of questions and comments, and not all are well-intentioned. To this day, for every person who comes up to me with a technical question or simply a curious enquiry about what I’m photographing, there will be someone who stages a full-on confrontation, demanding to know exactly why I would take a photo of something they view as a total waste of my time.
I remember the very first time someone came up to me while I was out with my DSLR. I was photographing a tree on a street corner at dusk. The yellow cast of the streetlamp above gave the upper leaves of the tree a stunning golden orange glow in contrast with the bluish-black of the branches below, and I had set about finding the best way to capture this gilded crown on film, so to speak.
As I alternately snapped photos and adjusted my settings, a woman paused on the corner to watch me. After a moment, she wandered closer and asked, frowning, “What are you taking pictures of?”
I looked at my camera, which was clearly pointed up at the tree, and then at the woman. “This tree right here.” I resumed fiddling with the camera.
There was a pause.
“Um, because it’s pretty and I like the way the light is hitting the leaves?”
There was a longer pause, and I thought she might leave it at that, but then she shook her head and addressed me again.
“But why this tree?” Her tone was accusatory, barking the words at me now. “What’s so special about this tree? Couldn’t you find a thousand more just like it around the city?”
People were starting to stare at us. “Well, yes, probably, but this one is here, and so am I, and it’s the one I noticed.”
She turned her attention to the tree then, and looked it up and down, but I could tell by the way her eyes were boring angry imaginary holes into its trunk that she wasn’t actually looking, not really.
Then she turned on her heel and left, stomping away like a stubborn child. I heard her mutter, “You could see that anywhere,” as she went.
I watched her go, silently thanking Julie Andrews for teaching me the best game in the world, silently sad for those who would never learn to play it.
Today’s blog post was brought to you by the letter W, the number 3, and the AreYouWatchingClosely? Challenge, AKA the Blogging A to Z Challenge.
1 “whangdoodle.” CollinsDictionary.com. Collins Dictionary, 2015. Web. 27 April 2015.
2 Edwards, Julie. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles. New York: HarperTrophy, 1989. Print.