When I was little, my dad used to read us Sherlock Holmes stories before bed. While my brother often took the opportunity to fall promptly asleep on his corner of the couch, the rest of us listened intently.
I remember the big leather armchair where my dad sat, holding the book out in front of him with one arm, the dancing flames from the fireplace reflecting in his black-framed glasses. I remember the rise and fall of his voice as the suspense mounted beyond all breaking points, and finally, finally, at long last the awaited solution, when it all made sense and I’d shake my head, just like Dr. Watson, and think, Of course; it’s allso simple now that he says it. I remember the smell of the pipe that my dad himself would smoke every so often, a fruity, earthy mix that made its way into the folds of the leather chair, and the outlines of the night through the curtained French windows. His pipe, of course, was ever-so slightly curved just like Holmes’s. And I remember that final slam of the book, the thick pages coming together between the crimson covers, when he’d announce, “That’s it for tonight.” And off we’d go – no matter how much begging and pleading we’d try and what sad faces we’d make– upstairs, up to bed.
And then there’s the one thing that wedged its way so deeply into my brain that it remained there, taunting me, for years to come, when the rest of the stories had long since faded into some indeterminate background and the adventures of Holmes and his faithful Boswell were all but forgotten: the steps.
The steps to 221B Baker Street. How many were there? It’s the question Holmes brought before Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia, and a question that never once since left my mind. As Holmes and Watson sit in their matching armchairs, the detective instructs the doctor on the difference between seeing and observing. Watson is baffled. And then, all at once everything becomes crystal clear.
“When I hear you give your reasons,” [Watson] remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”
“Quite so,” [Holmes] answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe.
The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are 17 steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
When I first heard it, on one firelit, pipe-smoke-filled evening, the exchange shook me. Feverishly, I tried to remember how many steps there were in our own house (I had not the faintest idea), how many led up to our front door (I drew a beautiful blank), how many led down to the basement (ten? twenty? I couldn’t even approximate). And for a long time afterward, I tried to count stairs and steps whenever I could, lodging the proper number in my memory in case anyone ever called upon me to report. I’d make Holmes proud.
Of course, I’d promptly forget each number I so diligently tried to remember – and it wasn’t until later that I realized that by focusing so intently on memorization, I’d missed the point entirely. My efforts had been doomed from the start.
What I couldn’t understand then was that Holmes had quite a bit more than a leg up on me. For most of his life, he had been honing a method of mindful interaction with the world.
The Baker Street steps? Just a way of showing off a skill that now came so naturally to him that it didn’t require the least bit of thought. A by-the-way manifestation of a process that was habitually, almost subconsciously, unfolding in his constantly active mind. A trick, if you will, of no real consequence, and yet with the most profound implications if you stopped to consider what made it possible.