I never considered the idea that I might be witnessing a physical manifestation of me –that speculative writers might call a doppelganger– in the form of a kid dancing on the dance floor. I did not expect this kid to take to a corner, open up an NFL preview guide and eat an entire bag of soda crackers, while listening to the rock band Kiss. I don’t know what I would’ve done, had that happened, as I had already reached a frequency of thought, just watching the kid, that I might never have reached on my own –thanks to that near impenetrable, crusted shell of good and bad memories that prevents, and protects, the human mind from seeing who we were when we weren’t paying attention. Spotting these similarities in the kid did require some effort on my part, and some interpretation, until I developed an unusual, momentary obsession focused on the idea that this kid might be able to help me unlock some unanswered questions from my own youth that plagued me.
I wasn’t watching him at first. He was the bride’s son, from a previous marriage, and as distant from my attention as every other participant in the wedding ceremony. He did little-to-nothing to stand out, in other words, until he took to the dance floor.
“Look at the kid,” I heard some of the wedding patrons whisper to one another. “Look at Kevin!” I heard others say. I was already watching him. I thought everyone was. How could you not? The kid was putting on a show.
There was a ‘something you don’t see every day’ element to this kid’s step that challenged each audience member to look away. He didn’t look out into the audience, he didn’t smile, and he made no attempts to communicate with us in a manner I suspect a well-trained dancer might. There was an element of showmanship in his step, however, that should not have occurred in a nine-to-ten-year-old’s “conform as opposed to perform” step.
The kid’s shoulders dropped lower than any of the other uncomfortable kids on the dance floor, his hand claps were a little harder than any of the others struggling to follow the beat, and his gyrations were so out of step with the rest of the participants that those of us in the audience had trouble stifling our giggles. This kid was dancing.
“Who’s the kid?” I asked my uncle.
“That’s Kevin,” he said. “The bride’s son.” His smile mirrored mine, and that of all of the whisperers watching.
I realized I was now one of those whispering and pointing at Kevin, after asking that question. My initial assumption was that those watching the kid, were watching him in the same manner I was, with one bemused eyebrow raised. The number of whisperers called to mind the first time I heard Miles Davis Kind of Blue. People, I knew, worshipped Miles Davis, and they proclaimed Kind of Blue, his masterpiece, his personal Sgt. Peppers. I listened to Kind of Blue, and I liked it, but the term masterpiece seemed to me a stretch? The structure, compared to his other works, seemed so simple. I discovered its simplistic brilliance after repeated spins, but I may not have listened to it a second time if group thought hadn’t conditioned me to believe that I was missing out on something.
It was this fear of missing out, FOMO in common parlance, that prompted to continue to watch this kid. I knew as little about dance as I did jazz, so I figured it was possible that there was something I was missing.
“Why are we watching this kid?” I asked my uncle.
“Because it’s cute.”
My Uncle gave me a look that informed me that the two of us shouldn’t be making more out of it than what it was. He then went back to watching the kid, and he even regained an appreciative smile after a spell.
There was no simplistic brilliance going on here, in other words, it was just cute to watch a young boy carry on in a manner that suggested he knew what he was doing. The kid didn’t know how to dance, most nine-to-ten-year-old boys don’t, but the effort he put into it was cute.
My guess was that at some point, someone, somewhere had informed him that free-form dancing has no choreography to it. You just get out there, lower your shoulders a bunch of times, throw your arms about, pick your feet up, and jiggle every once in a while. It’s free-form dancing. A trained chimp could do it.
When the kid made a bee-line to his chair the moment this obligatory dance concluded –a dance I assumed his mother had forced him to participate in– I imagined that some people may have been shocked at the manner he exited. I wasn’t. I laughed. I thought it added to the spectacle. I laughed loud, believing that my laughter would be shared by those that had laughed while he danced. It wasn’t. I was the only one laughing. I felt confused faces turn to me. They were not shocked by the idea that his bee-line exit proved so harried that he nearly knocked the chair over. They’d moved on. I tried to, but I was fixated on this kid.
I figured that some in the audience may have regarded this kid’s exit as a statement regarding what he thought of the art of dance. Most probably thought it had something to do with the fact that the kid hated being the center of attention. It may have been one of the two, it may have been both, but I thought it had something to do with the fact that this kid wanted to enjoy the show.
The kid’s elbows went out on the table before him, after he sat. The person seated next to him, whispered something to Kevin. He gave no reaction to that whisperer beyond looking at them after the whisper. He had settled in. He was ready to watch. The disappointing aspect to this, was that Kevin proved to be the only somewhat entertaining thing to watch in this otherwise routine wedding reception. He didn’t appear to be the least bit embarrassed dancing in front of other people, so why would he prefer to watch?
Psychologists state that we have mirror neurons in our brain that seek enjoyment from another’s perspective, and that that enjoyment can be so comprehensive that we may reach a point where we convince ourselves that we’re the ones doing that which we’re watching. Others describe it as a frequency of thought, or a through line to a greater understanding of being: being funnier, more entertaining, and better in all the ways that an insecure, young man thinks that those around him are better. Honing in on this frequency is something that TV watching, video game playing nine-to-ten-year-olds know well. It goes beyond the joy of watching others make fools of themselves, for the sole purpose of being entertained by it, to a belief that when watching others attempt to be entertaining, we’ve achieved that level ourselves without having to deal with all the messy details involved in the trials and errors to get to that point.
I knew, even while I was doing it, how odd others might find it that I was paying so much attention to a nine-to-ten-year-old boy, in such an innocuous moment of that boy’s life, and I made several attempts to look away, but every time a member of the wedding party made a joke, or a foolish error, this kid would laugh harder than anyone else in the room. My guess was that that raucous laughter was fueled by the relief that he wasn’t one of those in the position to commit such errors. Every time a joke was told, I would to look over and watch this kid laugh loud enough to be heard above all the other laughers.
“He’s attempting a crossover,” I thought.
“What’s that?” my uncle said.
“What?” I said. “Nothing.”
My uncle’s ‘What’s that?’ was preceded by a pause in the manner that most ‘What’s that?’ people ask for the expressed purpose of ridiculing another for talking to themselves. If it wasn’t that, my uncle’s ‘What’s that?’ had something to do with the fact that he couldn’t place my comment in the current situation, and his curiosity was genuine.
Whatever the case was, I hadn’t intended for that thought to be verbalized. I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed that I was so caught up in searching for this nine-to-ten-year-old’s motivation, and prognosticating his future moves in a way that I wanted on the record if it panned out in the manner I thought it would.
What I would not tell my uncle, for fear of being deemed one that is far too interested in self-serving minutiae, was that this ‘crossover’ is considered the Houdini Milk Can maneuver by observers. The initial stages of a crossover are not a difficult to achieve. Anyone can shout out comments, or laugh in an obnoxious and raucous manner that garners attention, but the reason that making the leap from observer to perceived participant is that it’s difficult to avoid indulging in the benefits derived from initial success. Overdoing it, may lead to the intended audience saying something along the lines of: “We know you were there. You wouldn’t shut up about it,” and this may lead to your role as an observer being more prominent in any stories that follow said event. The perfect crossover requires a tightrope walker’s discipline and balance to leave the seed of an impression that storytellers will hopefully enhance regarding their participation in the events of the night.
“He knows what I’m talking about,” the groom, acting as the emcee of the event, said at one point. He was alluding to Kevin, and Kevin’s over-the-top laughter.
This recognition granted the kid an excellent first step, if in fact he was attempting a crossover. It may have provided the kid an unfair advantage, based on the fact that the man that said it had presumably spent the last couple years trying to have the kid accept him as an eventual step-father. If the kid used it, however, he could complete a total crossover and have those in the audience incorporating him into the event, in after-party stories, regardless the kid’s actual participation in it. It dawned on me, then, that I would never know if the kid was successful, as I had no familiarity with those that would tell the story of this day.
The reason this kid named Kevin drew my attention a number of times probably had something to do with the fact that he was a beacon in a fog of otherwise boring people completing routine events of a wedding, but to this point in our remote connection, I was not obsessed with him. Everything I’ve written about this moment thus far, occurred as a result of reflection. The acute focus that some could call an obsession, based on a personal connection I would develop with the kid, did not happen until Kevin’s mother, the bride, called upon him to participate more in the festivities.
Kevin waved her off. He waved her off in the manner I waved off so many of my own calls for increased participation. I attempted to regard this as a normal boy that doesn’t enjoy dancing, and doesn’t care to be the center of attention, but I found myself frustrated with Kevin. I was frustrated in a manner that any person that has regrets witnesses others go down the same road without gauging the consequences for it. I wanted to say things to the kid that I wish someone would have said to me at the time. I was caught in spiral of emotions that led me to recognize that my own preference for observing events went deeper than I ever considered prior to that moment. I realized –while stifling what I wanted to call out to this kid– that my preference for observing those that participate, over actual participation, was so entrenched that I regarded any attempts to have me do otherwise as a reach beyond my character. I could not remember any specific incident, but I knew that I had waved people off in my youth, in the same manner Kevin had, as an obnoxious distraction from my desire to observe the event.
That’s me in the corner I thought watching the mother give up after one futile, symbolic attempt that she appeared to know would fail. That’s me in the spotlight, losing my sense of belonging.
‘You were just integral to the party,’ is what I wanted to shout out to that kid with such vigor that I would’ve revealed myself as something more than just an obnoxious person. ‘Why would you prefer to sit on the sidelines of your mother’s wedding?’
Could it be that this preference for observing has something to do with the idea that we’ve all been participants and observers in the audience at various points in our lives, and we’ve all learned that the memories others have of these roles are somewhat interchangeable? Unless the participant is so over-the-top funny, entertaining, or in all other ways memorable, the observer has the opportunity to be viewed as an equal to all participants, if they know how to enhance their role as an astute observer.
When one displays some athleticism, for example, the members of the audience may cheer their athletic exploits in ways that display that they’re proud of any connection they may have to that athlete. When that athlete commits an error, or underperforms in any way, the lone association the audience will have with that athlete is through vicarious definition of themselves through that athlete. They may not disassociate themselves from the athlete, depending on the error, but the error allows them to believe that put in the same position at the time of the error, they would not have committed it. ‘All you had to do was catch the ball,’ is something they may say, ‘and it was hit right to you.’
Some may view the desire to view an activity, as opposed to partaking in it, as a bit of a cop out. It may have been a cop-out for this kid, just as it may have been for me, but I do have fond memories of various events that I refused to participate in, in the same manner this kid might have of his mother’s wedding. I laughed with my fellow party goers, as we all recalled the events that took place with fondness, and I did offer funny anecdotes to those conversations, but my role was often limited to that of an observer. Actual participation in these events, was the furthest thing from my mind.
If this kid shared as many traits with me, at nine-ten-years-old, my guess was that he was already documenting stories that he would retell for years. Some of these stories might involve slight exaggerations regarding his role in them, but my guess is that few listeners would have the temerity, or the memory, to dispute him. Some of his versions of the story may offer interesting insights, and if those little vignettes are said in a creative, entertaining manner, they might be repeated so often that listeners may join him in making the leaps to re-characterizing his actual involvement.
If this kid manages to accomplish this, and he gets so good at it that others start corroborating his version of other events, he may make the leap to an almost-unconscious discovery of a loophole in his interactions that provide him a future out on all requirements of participation.
If he does this on a conscious level, and few of us do, and his evolution is so complete that he’s already choosing vicarious participation over actual participation on a conscious level, then that is where the similarities end. I thought he was too young for all that however, but I did consider the idea that he might be slipping into an all too comfortable position where he is neglecting the importance of participation on purpose.
The problem that I foresaw for him, a problem I now see as a result of watching him act out a page in the first chapter of my autobiography, was that he was learning what to do and what not to do through observation alone, in the same manner he did while watching too much TV and playing too many video games, with all the same vicarious thrills of victory and dissociative feelings of failure. I also thought that he would come to a point where he had problems learning the lessons, and making the vital connections, we only make by doing. If I would’ve been in a position to advise this nine-to-ten-year-old of the lessons I’ve learned, but did not heed at his age, I would’ve shouted:
‘Get back on the dance floor kid! I don’t care if you were already out there. Get out there and do it, and do it again, until you tailbone is on the line, and you’re making an absolute fool out of yourself. And when that obnoxious observer steps up to laugh at you for making such a fool of yourself, you can turn on them and say, At least I was out there. Doing it! What were you doing? Sitting on your can watching me!’