Light beyond the surface this way comes

Have a meal at any of the restaurants lining the sidewalks of South Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills, and not only will your digestive juices flow, but you’ll be forced to focus on at least one more conversation than the one you may be having with your tablemate(s). Even at this slightly peripheral area to its see-and-be-seen neighbor, people seem to seek a meta-audience while their own personal interlocutor is listening to them, sometimes with rapt attention and without even once checking their iPhone. Along with the wafting food smells from various plates, their words will gather around and settle in your ears, which unlike your eyes are bereft of lids.

Our counterparts in the great capitals of Western Europe have perfected the art of the murmur so that when your elbows practically touch those of your cafe/bistro neighbor you’ll be able to identify what perfume they may be wearing, but you still won’t hear what they might be speaking about. Stateside, however, whether willfully or subconsciously, voices rise high over the din of tableware and cutlery enveloping the rest of a restaurant’s patrons in the ebb and flow of their waves. Often, what’s said is mundane and uninteresting. Sometimes, however, there will be a word or a phrase that may lodge itself in your head, or if you’re really lucky, give rise to thoughts of your own.

This effect can and does become enhanced when you’re eating alone, as I did a few days ago. The couple who chose to sit at the table next to mine was markedly vociferous. She was Chinese, slim, and trenchant.  He was older, pampered, and as their conversation led me to discover, Jewish. Both were in their early forties, well groomed, discretely yet unmistakably brand-name clothed, with manicured hands and excellent table manners. They talked incessantly, knife and fork in hand, wrists resolutely brought back to rest at the table. Neither ate much. They were ex-spouses and she had asked him to this decidedly non-family-style lunch to discuss private schools for their daughter. There was also an invisible participant in their conversation, referred to as Mother – his, naturally – who seemed to have the distinct advantage of controlling among other things also the purse strings.

While the greens in their salads wilted under their dressings, she presented him with point after adamant point in favor of not sending their child to some Jewish academy, reminding him that their daughter lived with her and that it would be inordinately inconvenient for her to drive all over town, twice a day, only so his mother would get her way, while there was a highly rated Catholic school practically next to her house and why couldn’t he, a lawyer, convince his mother to pay for their only child’s education at a place of their, and not his mother’s, choosing. He was very adroit at fencing off each point without even bothering with direct rebuttals. He was ever so polite, yet unapologetic and unresponsive. As she become more strident, he didn’t lose any opportunity to remind her of how well she looked, how admirably she seemed to have adjusted to her new life, and well, how obstinate Mother could be – you do remember, dear, don’t you?

The sparring continued and after he’d reminded her to eat her salad a few more times – a suggestion that she’d brush away with yet another dissenting opinion – he finally told her that he had many things to do, and he’d better get going, and yes, he’d heard all she had said, and he was happy to have seen her and talked to her again, and that he could certainly promise her that he would reflect on what she’d said. When she realized she wouldn’t get what she wanted from him, she stopped talking almost instantly and got up and left. He soon followed.

That last statement of reflecting upon what had been said resonated in the wake of their departure. Thinking became a little bit easier and the restaurant was perceptibly quieter. Reflecting, both in noun and verb forms, had been on my mind lately. Originally, the idea had seemed to be rooted in photographs, my own and those taken by others. I’d also looked up the word to see if there were any hidden meanings that may have been elusive at first glance. Then, last week, upon having published my tenth post, WordPress must’ve publicized my blog (I’m assuming), and a few (previously unknown to me) bloggers had taken a look and “liked” it. When I visited their blogs in turn, I noticed that one of them had photographs of images and their reflections on shiny surfaces.

Are we perhaps more receptive to registering things we’ve been thinking about ourselves? Could be, right? An analogy of planting a seed in previously tilled and fertilized ground may indeed bear better fruit, come to reflect upon it.

The etymology of the word reflect comes from old French in the 14th century, meaning divert, turn aside, or deflect. How apt, then, was the ex-husband’s statement in response to his ex-wife’s repeated requests.  And how clearly had she recognized it.  Had she continued scrutinizing the word, she may have understood his intended action to be one of bending back or turning back his thoughts on the subject. Of course, she who knew him intimately must’ve also been aware of his inflexibility when it came to bucking against his mother’s wishes, realizing that he was acting just like a polished surface, shining back the mother’s ideas on how to properly help develop their child’s identity.

Judaism: a world of stories

“Judaism: a world of stories.” Photo by drhenkenstein Henk Kosters.

That hoped-for identity itself could’ve been a reflection of what was being desired. A desire that continuity be deliberately nurtured, at least from the grandmother’s inexorable perspective.  For that matter, this Jewish grandmother could’ve as easily been an Armenian or a Magyar or Sioux or a member of any other minority attempting to safeguard a grandchild’s identity within the fold of its own culture.  Isn’t any nation ultimately a world of stories onto itself? My table neighbors had wrangled over the issue of their daughter’s school location while altogether sidestepping this national/cultural aspect, maybe deliberately so. Their bickering, despite being couched in tonalities of waspish politeness, had been most annoying.  In retrospect, I (almost) wished they’d stayed longer and discussed this issue further.

The next day, post gym workout and driving back home, I was waiting at the red light on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and North Bedford Drive.  The view of Julien’s Auctions‘ building facade (below) advertising the sale of property from the estate of Les Paul, an American jazz and country guitarist, caught my attention. Besides the two huge guitar posters, there were new flowers, abloom and beautiful, come to replace the overgrown poppies of last week. However, it was only once I was back home and looking at the photograph one more time that I started seeing more of the details caught in the glass panes.

You too can do the same if you spend a few moments looking at it more closely. After seeing the reflection of the red streetlight, you may spy the two pairs of pedestrians on the sidewalk, as well as the Saks Fifth Avenue sign on the building across the street. Seeing these and other such details will certainly give you a better feel for the flavor of that street corner at that time, helping you dive deeper into the scene, beyond the flowers and even the frankly quite imposing pair of guitars.

That this can happen via a reflection which is otherwise a most shallow and superficial surface phenomenon makes it even more interesting. It could be that by obfuscating and masking the obvious, the relative dimness of a reflection forces the viewer to engage further and within the scene.  This may allow one to find more meaning than it would’ve been possible had everything been presented with the same depth. In other words, the discovery of newer, deeper meaning may be in direct proportion to the effort expended on finding it. Sort of like reading a sketchier-than-the-norm book or watching a less-structured-than-most movie which both ask for more engagement of their audiences and in the process give rise to a deeper enjoyment of having penetrated into the meaning potentially lurking between the lines or between the scenes… or even among the thoughts of the attentive reader/viewer.

If attention could be defined as the cognitive process of focusing on a selected aspect of one’s surroundings at the expense of ignoring all other aspects, then wouldn’t you agree that reflection will further focus that selection inward?   This refocusing itself that can then become an introspective attempt to delve deeper, probe further, and understand more.

I’ll leave you with another photograph I shot last year, near the Place de L’Odéon, in Paris. It is the window of a trendy clothing shop (below). Take a closer look and you’ll definitely notice the felicitous (at least in my opinion) happenstance of the quasi-conjunction of the mustache-fingered model’s right ear with my left one, as well as other details of that Paris street. I still think I should’ve bought this t-shirt, by the way, to proclaim its message of somewhat Daliesque sensibilities if and when the mood struck me. Maybe I’ll get it next time I’m there. If they still carry it. If I still want it then. Or if life’s still a joke. Or a reflection of one.

Note:  I’ve been sifting through my photographs, in search of the more representative of the reflective genre. As soon as I’ve had a chance to organize them, I’ll include them in another post. So stay tuned.

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