My aunt Maureen has a quality that I absolutely envy. Actually, the word envy might not be quite accurate. I would probably agree to give up a few small body parts in exchange for this ability…..not any major part, but probably a pinky or maybe a baby toe.
I wasn’t fully aware of this quality until recent months, in which my aunt and I have been spending more time outside walking around town together. I’ve noticed that everywhere we go, she seems to spot someone she knows out of the corner of her eye…..an old neighbor, childhood friend or classmate, former coworker, etc. She can be walking next to me, looking directly at me while we talk, engrossed in our conversation, and in less than a millisecond, she’s waving wildly, greeting someone. 15 feet away. Across the street. By name.
It’s as if she possesses some kind of magic.
One evening we were sitting on some steps overlooking the river in our neighborhood, chatting, and she glanced behind her and called out, “Hey Fred, how’s it going?” to this man passing by with his dog. He was wearing a hat and sunglasses, and he was like, “wow, I’m surprised you recognized me after all these years since we lived down the street from you.” I don’t know how many years it had been since she had seen Fred, but I sat there drooling over her witchcraft.
In all honesty, my aunt is probably just a little more outgoing and slightly better with faces and names than the average fully sighted person. But to me, who probably wouldn’t even notice the man walking by with his dog, much less distinguish him from the dozens of people walking along. She’s like one of the Incredibles, and her superpower is spotting acquaintances.
I wish for this same superpower on a daily basis. Living in the same town I grew up in, having 2 daughters in a nearby school and being a Wehrli (one of the oldest, largest families in our community), I know a fair share of people. Statistically, I should be running into familiar faces almost as much as my aunt does. So where are they? Probably all around me, amid my 176 missing degrees.
Sometimes people spot me and call my name. Actually, my Wehrli cousins, Annette and Marylou, are the very best at this. Sometimes I am able to locate the person or voice and wave back. Other times I am not. I have a hunch that there are numerous people who spot me and have probably given up trying to wave. This wouldn’t be an issue at all if I were a hermit and didn’t enjoy connecting with people. But the problem is, I really do love socializing, and I really don’t love feeling like I’m missing out on a huge part of social interaction. People like to be recognized, and they appreciate being called by their names. While I sometimes manage to greet someone by name via sheer luck, I have also developed a few skills that have been helping me out more and more these days.
One of my newfound skills is peripheral hearing. Not to be confused with eavesdropping, this is a refined art that involves semi-focusing on one activity while also picking up adjacent sound bytes. Here’s an example from a recent trip to the pool:
I was sitting on a towel at the large, man-made beach near our home, reading my Kindle while my daughters were in their swim lessons. I was focusing on my book, but I soon became vaguely aware of a woman’s voice, walking nearby. There was something familiar about her voice, so I perked my ears up a notch. I heard the woman directing her voice downward, obviously addressing a child, “Andy, look at how high the water has gotten after the rain.” In a flash, the recollection of the name “Andy” combined with the familiarity of her voice clicked. Jackie! A friend of my sister-in-law’s, who I’ve talked to at my nephews’ birthday parties. I then shot out of my seat, and was able to focus on the back of a figure with long blonde hair walking away. I was about 90% sure if was her at this point, but since I didn’t know for sure, instead of following her, I just called out, “Jackie”. If it was her, she’d turn around. Right? Well, she actually didn’t turn around Just as I began to doubt myself, an older woman came up behind me and said, “Oh, are you trying to get Jackie’s attention?” and then began calling her name, to which Jackie turned around. I ran over and gave her a hug and proper greeting, and the older woman turned out to be Jackie’s mother-in-law. Mission accomplished. I spotted someone! With my ears!
Perhaps my greeting wasn’t as immediate or timely as my aunt’s would have been. But I got to be the initiator, which just feels good to me for some reason.
I started doing this at my kids’ school last year as well and hope to get better at it come fall. Instead of standing in the large crowd of parents waiting by the doors for their children to exit, as I had done in previous years, knocking into people and half waving without eye contact if I heard my name called, as i struggled not to mow over toddlers and dogs, I began waiting at the corner down the street from the school.
At my quiet, roomy corner, where my children know I will be every day, I am able to focus on the voices passing by without worrying about walking at the same time. When I begin to hear a familiar voice, I look up and greet the person. With distinct voices, I greet them by name with 99% accuracy. If the specific voice is less obvious but still sounds familiar, I do a “hey, how’s it going?” I know I could theoretically say “hey, how’s it going” to every parent that walks by, but you can only do that so long before you begin to feel like one of those church greeters assigned to repeatedly greet every person who walks through the front doors, often sounding monotonous and insincere after awhile.
Using peripheral hearing techniques really helps me connect with the world around me, even if it’s not the most ideal.
I do still envy aunt Maureen’s super spotter skills, but I’m glad to have found a superpower of my own!