Modern Camouflage

Optical Illusion: Kehinde Wiley Shoelaces for PUMA and the UN Environment Programme

This past weekend I was running around the track at Beverly Hills High School while listening to Deadmau5’s “Raise Your Weapon” and trying to avoid stray lacrosse balls – an epic experience in its own right. One side of the track faces lush green treetops and rows of two-story fairtyales that slightly graze above the black tarp fence. 500 yards or so later, just beyond the tennis courts of Clueless fame, lies Century City and its tapestry of steel-and-glass buildings, whose height and weight pierce the cloudless sky with their runway-ready proportions.

Against the Architectural Digest backdrop to my 3-mile pick me up, a lone bird wavered back and forth, hiding in front of gauzy black-blue windows. It would reappear every couple seconds between buildings, only to disappear again into the skyscraping white-collar abyss.

The whole interlude struck me, not only because it was a reminder of how seldom I look up, but also because I felt a strange possessiveness over the scene that was accessible to all yet noticed by few (a la American Beauty plastic bag loop). It was a moment of “modern camouflage,” in which nature and civilization collide in stark, artfully constructed terms.

Maybe because it’s spring and the soundtrack to my wandering thoughts is no longer, “I hate winter, why don’t I live in California,” I’ve noticed a few of these scenes recently. The classic example familiar to many underworld-bound New Yorkers is the less-than-beautiful scurry of the dark brown rat across the subway tracks. (I am told the subway rat’s dusty brown coat has evolved via a process of natural selection to avoid the wrath of MTA officials and teenage deviance.) There is also the famous story of world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell, who went unnoticed for nearly an hour during the DC rush hour in a Washington Post social experiment.

A more understated scene took place on a bleak morning on the corner of 69th and 3rd Avenue. There stood an old woman whose shrinking stature might compel even the less well-mannered pedestrian to ask if she needed help crossing the street. Before the light changed, while others, myself included, fiddled with their technological devices, she reached down into the puddled remnants of May showers to pick up stray sheets from that morning’s AM/PM and Metro. A couple days later, when walking down 14th Street, I had to look back twice to discern whether the man curled up amid piles of jet-black garbage bags was actually a man, and then to confirm he was sleeping and not unconscious, or worse.

What worries me (although I’m always worried about something) is the pervasiveness of negligence enabled by modern camouflage, or the ease with which we ignore both greatness and great need because the pattern casually blends into the background. This is nothing new, as demonstrated by the adage “history repeats itself” or the excuse that the news is too repetitive and can thus be ignored for increasingly long stints. The trend also creeps into public discourse, as loud opinions are mistaken for constructive, well-reasoned perspectives.

Aside from squinting to offset the trickery of the optical or auditory illusion, what defenses do we have against the ease of ignoring these snippets of understated humanity? As a first step, we can look up more often, and perhaps minimize multitasking when possible (i.e., “be present”). And for the adventurous among us, we might even try to consciously see the world as an artist of the green and brown patterns.

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