The Observer Effect

August 18, 2017 § 22 Comments

080317 mug shotBy Shelley Blanton-Stroud

I watch and record unobtrusively from a hard leather chair just behind them, invisible in my middle age, which I believe I have turned into an advantage.

They look like they’re thirty, like college acquaintances, graduated maybe in 2008, into the great recession, re-gathering at this brick Denver hotel for a wedding weekend, I guess, making up for lost time, re-introducing themselves. I’ve done okay. All of us have. Haven’t we?

I focus on one pair, seated awkwardly close on a low, cow-hide sofa. One is bunch-muscled, compact, thickly side-parted. I write that he is wearing a speckled ivory, v-necked sweater over a white tee and dark blue jeans, with heavy black glasses, and that he’s nodding earnestly.

I write that the man at his side is lanky, his knees jutting up higher than his belt on that sofa built more for looking at than sitting on. I record his roguish brown hair and manicured beard, his round wireless glasses, his blue, slightly western-cut, though not exactly western, shirt, buttoned to the throat. His jeans are snug—could they be tailored, I ask my notebook.  A messenger bag of waxed canvas and leather sits on the floor near his artfully distressed boots. I hear the man in the v-neck say, You’re married? Congrats, man.

It gets noisy so I miss a few sentences and when I hear their voices again, they’re talking about an idea. Not people. Not an event. I’ve missed the beginning; I have no context. They say concept and arbitrary and economic and presumption and aversion. The clusters of people they know from college (are they friends, exactly?) use similar words, wearing clothes that are not the same as theirs but which might be sold on the same block as the store where Western Shirt shops, expensive stores, but casual, emphasizing conspicuously humble fabrics.

Then two women exit the elevator and cross the lobby with lowball glasses, icy brown, cherries at bottom, stopping in front of the others, saying outfit, boots, drunk. This stops the other conversations for a couple of minutes until a subgroup cracks open to fold in the fresh arrivals, and they too slowly begin using the right abstract words and begin to look uncomfortable in their not-quite-right-for-the-occasion clothes, one in a shiny backless black jumpsuit and the other in a slick skirt half an inch shorter than her Spanx control slip.

I take notes in a pink moleskin, Uniball blue marring creamy pages. I feel free, every now and then, to look up at one or another of them and then to continue recording. They don’t see me. As I said, I’m invisible. It’s my superpower.

I’m dressed for the evening in cat-burglar black. I got ready early, an hour before I was to meet my colleagues, in order to capture this time, after the work of the conference, before the work of evening networking. This is my golden hour, notebook time.

I am in the habit of using my notebook to hide in over-stimulating environments, not unlike the way I disappear into my kitchen during a party to enjoy the noise, the music, the buzz going on outside, while I’m safely cocooned, refilling a water pitcher, rinsing glasses, drinking my Pinot alone. The spot at the edge of at story is comfortable, fulfilling.

I tell myself I get out my notebook at times like this—in a hotel lobby in the break between activities at a professional conference—to stay fluent, to feed the flow. Also, I say to myself, I’m sharpening my observations, recording the words and movements of people I see in public to make sure I know how people really behave. I tell myself that.

I finish a sentence and look up to see Western Shirt staring at the notebook in my lap. I look down again and keep writing as the skin on my neck flushes, my fingers tingle. How rude, his staring.

Two minutes later, his voice rises and his words become even more abstract—privilege, dysmorphic, consciousness—his language creating a kind of contagion. The clusters of others advance the abstractness of the words they use now too—epistemological, Aristotelian, feudalistic.

Now this is boring. It’s almost time for dinner. I sigh and lay my pen down and look up to see Western Shirt register my frown.  I look down and write that.

Then I hear him say in a much louder voice, I used to be so into you, which causes the others to hush. I stop recording to watch.

Jump-suit’s mouth drops open—Bullshit!

The group laughs, eyes shifting left to right.

V-neck sweater says, But you guys hooked up? Sophomore year? Right? 

Only the once, Western Shirt says.

Tittering from the group. 

Well there’s always the reception, Jumpsuit says, pink-cheeked, head tilted.

The group laughs, relieved. This is a joke. They reshape into new tiny formulations, invigorated for more concrete talk—who did what, when, with whom.

I’m still watching when Western Shirt turns away from them, toward me. He salutes, two fingers flicking out from his forehead, head nodding in a tiny dip.

I drop my pen.

The observer effect—I learned it in college for a test, quantum mechanics. Observing a situation changes it. Instruments of observation always alter the state of what they measure. If you check the pressure of your car tires, you can’t help letting out some of the air. You change the pressure of the tires whose pressure you aim to check.

Tonight the object of my observation has seen my pen, my notebook, and has chosen to perform for me, improving on reality for the benefit of my notes. What will happen to him this weekend because of that? What will happen to his wife at home?

I am not invisible. I have no superpower.

I do not see the world as it is. My recording it changes it. My Uniball turns everything blue. I do not record reality. I create it.

Shelley Blanton-Stroud teaches college composition at California State University, Sacramento, coaches workplace writing, and labors over an infinite revision of her first novel and the first draft of a second. Her essay, “The Bourbon Cure,” appeared last year in the Brevity Blog. Other work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, Eunoia Review, Mamalode and Soundings Review. She lives with her husband and two dogs in Northern California, where she serves on the writers’ advisory board for the Belize Writers’ Conference and on the Slow Food Sacramento board of directors.

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