In the middle of the day a man in winter garb — jacket, knit hat, and mittens — stands in his front yard facing a small leafless tree a few feet taller than he is, and performs a delicate tai chi posture, but with his hands gently touching the tree as if he were dancing with it. The man continues his freeform tai chi dance with his stationary partner, while people walk by on the sidewalk paying no attention at all.
He makes various gestures with the tree for a surprisingly long while before he pulls away, briefly disappears, then triumphantly returns, now strutting around the tree as if it were a Maypole: round and round he goes, enacting a springtime ritual on a winter day in front of everybody passing by his street in a Denver suburb.
I used to practice my saxophone in a spare upstairs bedroom in Kenmore, a Buffalo suburb, facing a window looking over my back yard and the adjacent back yard of the house one street over from mine. I didn’t know the people who lived there, but I spent hours every day staring at their place while going over this or that thing on my horn, and after a while the primate brain does what it does: (me, cleaning up sloppiness in my palm key fingering) “Looks like they’re getting mail”; (I’m playing overtones) “He must be off work”; (going over a pattern I want to get under my fingers) “Red Car Lady again, maybe somebody’s mom?”; (memorizing a tune) “New lawn mower.”
While I wasn’t Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair, there was strong Rear Window energy: I was a stationary observer watching the comings and goings of strangers and piecing together narratives about their lives based on that limited data set. I wasn’t really investing any conscious energy into these observations at all; they just appeared in my head unbidden, like faces in the clouds, while I busied myself with this or that exercise.
Now I find myself in Colorado, practicing a different horn, looking out a different window into a different back yard, and off in the distance is a different street. The vista here has also changed: I’m on a ground floor, and the arrangement of houses and fencing and whatnot means I see a much tinier slice of life one street over, and now it’s a front yard, and farther away.
But, whatever, because in that front yard is Tai Chi Man, and Tai Chi Man marching around his Maypole tree is unusual and compelling enough to directly pierce my consciousness, so that I pull the horn out of my mouth and make the age old observation, “What the fuck.”
The Maypole ritual ends, the tai chi performance is over, the man appears spent. He walks out of my view.
After a moment, while I’m staring and pondering, the tree suddenly comes brilliantly alive with lovely colored lights: he WASN’T tai-chiing, he WASN’T Maypoling, he WASN’T making a spectacle of himself on a busy suburban street — he was just putting lights up in his tree, and all at once this has turned into a budget tale of Holiday Cheer, God Bless Us, Everyone!