WE'VE all heard stories of children's rare powers of observation - tales about the way they notice little dancing rainbows through a beveled edge of glass, for instance, or patterns in the upholstery, things that we grown-ups miss for being too tall, or in too much of a hurry, or too oblivious. Who knows how long a toddler could be fascinated by her own flip-flopped reflection in a drop of dew, this thinking goes, or by the swirls in the dust that collect under a radiator?
Even though I'd heard these stories, I always figured that my attention level for odd detail was as highly developed as any munchkin's. Having never seemed to have arrived as a grown-up, I figured I simply hadn't outgrown my pint-sized view of the world. But, predictably, it took a child of my own to make me see the fun in the bricks and mortar of our neighborhood.
Think of it - when was the last time you laughed out loud at a building? My Ian does this on a regular basis. And not because he's down on his ankle-biter level while I'm walking around with my head in the clouds. It all started with him strapped in the backpack, our eyes on the same plane.
Granted, we live in a neighborhood where a touch of whimsy, if not a downright case of the sillies, seems to have gotten into a whole cartload of architects. For starters, there's a set of life-size bronze rhinos, Great Indian in variety, not two blocks from our house. They stand guard at the entry of Harvard's biological laboratories, and serve as sentinels to intimidate all non-science types from faking passage through their gates. Something in their sleepy yet watchful eyes lets on that they can tell who among us knows our species from our genera. Despite the fact that we will probably never be found worthy of entry, Ian has loved their every bump and fold, leathery and supple as a bronze behemoth can be, since we made our first introductions last spring.
OK, so I'd lived here for 10 years and knew they existed but never actually set eyes (or soggy mittened fingers) on the fabled Bessie and Victoria until I had a child of my own and the excuse to roam my neighborhood with his interests in mind. It was a mere coincidence, I thought. I now know better.
Around here, there aren't just critters lurking outside our buildings; there are beasts literally growing out of our neighbor's gutters. Memorial Hall, the great Gothic Revival tribute to Harvard's Union casualties in the Civil War, boasts bug-eyed monsters with languishing green tongues that drool copper-laced rainwater on the roofs below. I always knew they were up there, and had gotten into the habit of pointing them out to friends and relatives when we passed by, even if I didn't tend to give them mu ch thought between tourist visits.
But now, with Ian ever in tow, the monsters in the tower are impossible to ignore. We cannot walk, backpack, stroll, or bicycle by without looking skyward, pointing, and making the same hissing noise up at them that we're sure they're making down on us. I can't remember when it began, or how, but this repartee is required with every passage we make. And, even if we miss them during the day, the Memorial Hall monsters have become part of the nighttime ritual. I admit it: I have given written instructions to babysitters that have included a bedtime hiss goodnight to the tower creatures (glowingly lit after dark and visible from Ian's room) before tucking my own little monster in.
But our favorite real-estate-come-to-life is not festooned with bestial guards or mythical gargoyles. Just across the way from our favorite playground, hardly even a detour on our walks home from the swings and sandboxes we love so well, is the centerpiece of the Harvard Law School campus, and a hoot to my Ian's funny bone. Austin Hall is the type of building that architectural textbooks adore for its Richardsonian stylistic elements, its mature use of color and texture, its Romanesque symbolism. Ian lov es it for the goofy faces and tiny animals that live atop the stout entry columns. There are pouty faces and sleepy faces, tiny owls and miniature crabs, creatures and characters of every variety. More than any of our favorite buildings, this one demands fervent "Where's Waldo?" inspections and rewards careful study with a guarantee of new treasures, every time.
I admit it - my eyes were not as open as I once thought they were, and my little man has improved my sense of delight by making me rediscover the limestone angels and wrought-iron lions around our block and beyond. So far, I'm the one doing most of the pointing, and he's the one doing the giggling, but I doubt it will be long before he starts showing me faces and figures even I've never noticed. Together, our architectural acumen will grow, and our collective view will be the best in town.