How to Look

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 33 of 100.


I am writing at Jarvis Beach. This is a tiny beach. It’s smaller than you’re thinking it is. It’s so small that it seems ridiculous — silly a little — that there is a lifeguard who has to be here every day, looking at the choppy waves and that seems like all — but there she stands.

I’ve thought a lot this summer about what it would be like to be a lifeguard on a Chicago beach. You have to just stand there and look. I’ve asked a few people if they thought that would be a nice job or a terrible one. There has been some flux in response. I am pretty sure that while being a lifeguard I would mostly think, “This is a terrible job.” But then years later I’d tell someone at a party, “You know, that was the only time in my life I’ve ever really looked at anything.” Because it is true that mostly we do not look.

I mean, we do sometimes. We look at car accidents even though we repeat to ourselves that we should not. We look behind the ears of the people we love and think thoughts like, “I am going to memorize this very freckle; this very soft area of hair.” It’s almost like it would be useful to prove to everyone that I AM THE EXPERT ON THIS PERSON’S NECK. There is practically something possessive about it when we choose to look. (I know I’m writing “we” here when I don’t really know about anyone else. I’m making a big assumption. You may really look at lots of things. I should probably go back and change it to “I,” but I don’t want to openly admit that I look at car accidents.)

This lifeguard is looking at me now. I’m the only one on the beach to look at who is a human person. Well, ok, no. There is also a man who has an Australian shepherd who is back there by a sleeve of sunflowers. But he’s about to leave. My parents have an Australian shepherd, and every time I see one I take it as a sign that I should call them.

There is also a seagull. Do you agree with me that a lot of times birds are very funny? This seagull — I want to tell you that I know the exact species of gull this is, but I don’t off the top of my head, and I am going to look it up and pretend like i knew all along* — is eating things it finds on the beach. It also picked up something plastic and round that didn’t fit in its mouth and it carried it to the water and it let it go in the waves.

Yesterday Luke and I went to the Brookfield Zoo, which at the end of the day was just a zoo. I have struggled with zoos since I was a little kid and first started to over-anthropomorphize animals. They seem sad at the zoo.

But I guess I’d heard there was an owl at this zoo, so we drove an hour to get there, and there wasn’t an owl that we could find. Still, there was a lot to look at.

It’s hard to think you should be still for a long time at the zoo because there are a lot of cool kids wearing cool backpacks and cool graphic tees who are insisting with their words and their actions that the entire thing about the zoo is that you should rush around and see everything you can and you should not be still really ever at all. That in and of itself was something to see.

The most interesting thing for us, unsurprisingly, was: There were two aviaries where the zoo had removed the fencing and birds were in there and they could, in theory, fly all around the whole enclosure of the room. They mostly stayed in their special bird place, but I did see a saffron finch fly out of the exhibit and land on a stick that was a part of a whole other exhibit. I loved that the finch was so willing and able to break the unspoken rule that the birds should stay in the bird place. It really inspired me.

Generally, I am a rule-follower. Or — and this may be a critical difference — it is essential to me that I appear to be a rule-follower.

There were photos near the bird spaces that told you what birds were in there. No one was staying long enough to find all the birds. A lot of the birds hid. But if you stayed still for a long enough time, they’d go from here to there, and it would be so worth it to have stood there, to have seen them, to have had a chance to watch them engage with leaves and air and each other.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it was sad. I tried to think it wasn’t, but it was. It was very exhilarating to me to see a tawny frogmouth in its small cage (he didn’t get to fly around like the aviary birds did), because the first time I heard of a tawny frogmouth I thought that it was unlikely it was really a real bird, and when I saw a picture I thought it was probably definitely a muppet, but in actual life, it is clearly a real bird making real decisions and living its life just like any of us.

The crown Victorian pigeon, too, was like a celebrity to me. I’ve been telling students for years about crown Victorian pigeons and I am not sure that I 100% believed that they were real pigeons. They are enormous and look more like small peacocks than pigeons, but they are pigeons and they are real and now I know that for sure.

By the way, a man just passed me by and said, “There’s not much Jarvis left, is there?” And then he kept walking. I was like, “Yeah.” I wanted him to move along and he could tell. But really, there’s a lot here on this tiny beach. I mean, I know he was trying to say, “Global climate change is real and the beach is eroding,” and that’s true, but also, there’s a lot here.

I’m writing now mostly in response to Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing.The chapter I am reading is about practices with attention. She wrote more eloquently some of what I am writing here, in better words. She used art historians and abstract paintings to inform her writing. I am using a seagull and a lifeguard and a zoo. And I am remembering, and wanting to put in writing, something I learned in a class taught by Chris Ware.

I do not know if someone did this in a class that Chris Ware took at some point in his life or if he invented this exercise, but it was so informative and it shouldn’t be born and die with the 15 people in his single comics class. (He only taught one and he said he will never teach another, so I do kind of feel like it is one of my life’s responsibilities to participate in passing along his wisdom.)

Chris Ware is a soft-spoken man and you never know when he is going to say something that will completely blow your mind, which made this lesson all the more terrific. Early in the day, a girl came in asking — I’m so embarrassed that I can’t remember exactly, but — asking if she could use or borrow or find something. Again: the details evade me. Chris said, “Oh, I think you’re in the wrong room.” This was typical. This could have happened in any class on any day. I am sure that similar things HAVE happened in other classes I have taken, and I simply don’t remember them.

An hour later, Chris said, “An hour ago, a girl came in here asking for something. What did she ask for?” Someone answered that question correctly. And then, “And what color was her jacket?” There was disagreement here. Someone thought gray, someoone else purple. Someone was sure that the girl hadn’t been wearing a jacket. He asked us for more details about her. It became clear she’d been a plant. He’d asked her to come in to prove something to us:

We aren’t actually, not really, paying attention.

This reminded me of a time that I heard the artist Sam Alden say that he liked drawing because if you go to draw a toilet, drawing reminds you that you actually have no idea what a toilet looks like. You really haven’t looked at a toilet. You’ve seen a toilet thousands of times and you have never once really looked at it. Not in any kind of way that would help you draw it.

The world does change when someone points this out to you.

Jenny Odell writes of seeing an Ellsworth Kelly series called Blue Green Black Red,

“I was completely caught off guard by a physical sensation. Although the covering was consistent and flat, the color blue was not stable: it vibrated and seemed to push and pull my vision in different directions. For lack of a better description, the painting seemed active.

If this idea of looking and seeing on a whole other planar level appeals to you, I recommend you read Odell’s book. She is incredibly good at describing this kind of attention.


If I’m being totally honest, writing has been uncharacteristically difficult for me lately. I am feeling a lot like I don’t know anything. What I have written here is just a book report, repeating ideas I didn’t come up with, focusing them through my own individual lens. There was initially a paragraph at the bottom here that summed up the point of this post very neatly. The final sentence was predictable and comfortable. But I did not feel comfortable when I read it back.

It is possible that those of us who write are just curators anyway, aggregating each other’s ideas and warping them a little until they seem like they are new or different ideas.

It is possible that this writing is only for me, and not for you at all.

And yet, here you are. Thank you for being here.

*European herring gull