Sunday, December 4, 2011

Essay by a Witness to Signs on the Quad

Essay by Will

People in Seattle are boring -- I'm convinced.  When looking for reasons to think otherwise, I feel like the survivor of a zombie apocalypse.  Surrounded by drones hooked to iPods, life itself is on life-support.  If there's a future here, it's defined with nine to five drudgery.  Wife and two kids.  SUV and mortgage loans.  Picket fence and suburb of sterility. Cleanliness.  Complacency.  These are the babies pulled kicking and screaming from the womb only to spend their entire lives seeking to replace the lost comfort.  The unconsciousness. 
The only acceptable excitement seems to come from a glass bottle two days a week.  On other days, it's the TV.

Then I hear something strange.  Someone doing something different.  A weird guy standing under a tree with a sign bearing cryptic messages.  At first I think it's a joke.  Maybe an advertisement or corporate stunt in a society where creativity is either exclusive to profit or illegal.  Regardless, I'm curious.

I decide to talk to this guy.  Turns out he has a name, Kevin Smith -- known by only a handful of people.  What's he selling?  Nothing.  What's he doing here?  Turns out he's more interested in why I'M here.  Not something I'm used to.  Instead of blabbing about himself like a 2D TV personality, he's breaking the third wall.  He's interested, and there's depth here.
"Do you live in Seattle?  I ask.
"No.  Russia."

So he doesn't live here, still, what makes him do this?  He's been standing under the same tree at the University Of Washington for two and a half months with a different sign almost everyday.  And it's cold.  

Today the sign says, "There is no time.  Yesterday is still here… Tomorrow is already."  I shiver as I read it, and I eavesdrop on Kevin's conversation with another guy -- a college student.  
"I'm interested in what words of wisdom you have."  The student says.
"I don't think there's anything I could say that hasn't been said before." Kevin responds.  "As they say, there's nothing new under the sun."

After the guy leaves I ask Kevin, "So what made you want to do this?"  He tells me he's in between jobs so he's visiting Seattle.  He used to go to school at the University Of Washington, and he's got family in the area.  He says, "I was only here three days until I got so bored, I had to do something.  So I started this."
I ask why he was bored.  It seems he's got a few reasons, but mainly it's the people.
"Are people different in Russia?"
"Oh yes.  And it's not hard to start conversations with anyone."

I'd never been to Russia, but knew he was probably right.  I think back to my own travels in far-off places.  Specifically, San Blas, Mexico.  There was this plaza I'd sit in where people hung out like prime-time TV didn't exist.  Children played soccer, women crafted together, teen guys walked by with keys hanging from their pockets like they owned a car.  San Blas is only fifteen blocks wide, but the giggling girls seemed to fall for it…

I snap out of it and look at the quad Kevin and I are standing in -- bleak in comparison.  People walk through like the quad is an obstacle to get past.  It's such a contrast to my memory of Mexico.  When there, I felt I could talk to anyone despite the language barrier.  Here, we all speak English, but no one's talking. 
Kevin looks at his watch and says, "This rush'll last another ten minutes."  The few people looking our way either seem offended, or too frightened to approach us.

A few days later Kevin has a more controversial sign.  "Beat Women".  And in small print underneath: "calling on men to outdo (beat) women in cultivating the beauty and the wisdom of the eternal feminine".  Basically a pro-women sign, but it would take a closer look to realize that.  A guy walks up and takes the time to read the sign, but doesn't get it.  He seems angry.  "Why would you show a sign like this?"  He asks.
Kevin replies, "Well, I'll tell you.  But first I'd like to hear what it means to you."
"What does 'Beat Women' mean to me?  Why would you show that?"
"I'm interested in hearing your thoughts."
"Yeah?  Well you have a nice day."
The man storms off.  

Although Kevin tells me most interactions with students are positive, only a small percentage of people actually talk to him.  This makes me curious how many people don't want him here, so I get the idea to start a joke petition.  I'll collect signatures in favor of banning Kevin from campus, then we'll do the math.  But after thinking more about it, we shoot it down.  It would be too pushy and biased.  I decide a better idea is to simply walk up and ask people what they think.  The responses:

"Beat Women?  Yeah, he must be a real Gentleman…  I wouldn't talk to him."
-Girl 1

"He seems creepy.  I don't want to talk to him.  He probably has a God Complex."
-Girl 2   

"I never noticed him before.  I usually just keep my head down when I walk through here."
-Girl 3

I get the impression that fear is literally choking the life out these people.  Why anyone would be too afraid to speak with anyone in broad daylight while surrounded by crowds of people is beyond me.  It's easier to dismiss the man as creepy and keep walking.  And sure, Kevin is only a small possibility for social interaction -- they could have good a reason not to talk to him -- but there's a dangerous mindset here.  If every assumed opinion must be agreeable in order to have a conversation with a stranger, how will people challenge themselves?  When they walk through life dismissively with their heads down, what will they learn?  

Not finding these responses surprising, I walk back and tell Kevin the results.  He's not surprised either.  But truthfully, during his three months of this experiment, I've only known about it for the last few weeks.  I'm just seeing a slice of the bigger picture, so I can't say how many thought provoking conversations have been sparked by these signs.      

What I can say though, is he might be on to something.  What I saw those last few weeks was a good example.  One we could all follow.  One that says we should speak with integrity -- say what we mean instead of resorting to gossip.

We need to stop taking things personally.  Nothing others do is because of us.  It is a projection of their own reality, not ours. When we're immune to the opinions and actions of others, we cease to be their victims.

Finally, Kevin's experiment reminded me of something even I forget at times:  we should stop making assumptions.  We need to find the courage to ask questions and express what we want.  Communication kills misunderstanding and drama.

So I take back what I said Seattle.  If you live here, you're not boring.  I just wish you'd stop acting like it.

A Response to the Essay by another witness to Signs on the Quad...

Will, this is a very interesting and well-written narrative. I can't say I fully agree with your point that "fear is literally choking the life out of these people," though. The fact is, as interested as people may be to start a conversation with Kevin, I'm going to guess that a vast majority of students walking through the Quad are heading to their next class. If it's a fear they harbor, it's not a fear of Kevin being dangerous, but a fear of not being able to live up to societal expectations. Missing lecture results in a lower GPA, which can result in later financial instability or lack of a degree, which can lead to lack of a girlfriend, family, grandchildren, and all the other things we're taught to desire. So why sacrifice 10 minutes of lecture, which amounts to actual dollars, to better my mind and have a real intellectual conversation?

I also noticed that you interviewed three girls. Why not ask a guy? Women are particularly vulnerable, and have been taught to be wary of creepy men in black jackets doing strange things. If Kevin was an attractive model, do you think more women would approach him? Hell yes they would. Fear is not "literally choking the life out of these people," but choking the opportunity for all females to develop their intellect. A girl can have as happy a life as humanly possible without ever taking a chance to have a conversation with a creepy stranger (no offense, Kevin).

Asking people to stop acting boring is akin to asking people to stop conforming. Any time and any place, in Mexico, in Russia, Seattle, whatever, people do what other people do. It's a fact human nature. Just because the people here are consumed with petty concerns, is it really reasonable to ask them to sacrifice their innate desire to belong to the community they live in for the sake of developing a more idealistic and vibrant one? Who could possibly pioneer a change in this society? Kevin? You? Me? It would take something beyond a thousand essays on societal criticism, and a thousand thought-provoking, controversial signs, to change the way people think and behave. Until that change happens, your work and Kevin's speaks to developing the minds of those who have not yet fully been consumed by "the bore."


Here is Will’s response:

To answer some of your questions:  I interviewed three girls because we already knew the guys' thoughts on Kevin's experiment. If you're interested in seeing those, Kevin has tons of RAW conversations written down on this blog.  Very few of those share a female perspective.  I tried to get more of that.  Sorry, I didn't make that more clear in my essay.

Also, I think you've got a bad perspective.  Kevin might be odd, but that doesn't make him creepy.  Despite what the news says, women are NOT vulnerable in a well populated area in broad daylight.  But for this argument, let's say Kevin really was looking to hurt someone. In that case, women would be LESS vulnerable than men.  If Kevin attacked me, no one would help. Actually, it might even attract a crowd to enjoy the spectacle. So what would happen if a woman got attacked?  Do you think people would stand and watch?  No, Kevin would most likely be severely beaten by several chivalrous males.

Now, I'm not saying this would be the same in, say... an empty parking garage.  But if Kevin WAS in an empty parking garage, would it matter if he looked like an "attractive model"?

Sure, some people might just be going to class.  Nothing wrong with that.  But to think you "can have as happy a life as humanly possible without ever taking a chance" to have a conversation with a stranger, or push yourself in any way, will definitely lead to a boring uninteresting life of sweatpants and watching movies on the couch.  Insisting on maintaining a victim mentality will make it worse.

Your question:  Is it reasonable to ask people to sacrifice their innate desire to belong to the community they live in for the sake of developing a more idealistic and vibrant one?

My answer:  A community supports its members.  In our existing community, what happens when you lose your job, your house, or your health?  What happens if you don't have insurance?  How do we treat our elderly, our veterans, or our poor?  These are the uncomfortable questions we don't like to think about.  And its because of the answers to those questions, I find it hard to even call this a community at all. Community is something we have to create and maintain.  We have to look out for each other.  We have to communicate with each other. And we have to be aware of what's going on around us. Problem is, that's not happening.

So who could possibly pioneer a change like that?  All of us.  I wouldn't expect anyone to solve world hunger and poverty.

I'm just saying one thing:

Live like you give a damn.