You and Me

A face is very personal –it is what our friends recognize about us, and it’s what we get used to seeing in a mirror. It may not be beautiful and it may have some features we’d rather it didn’t, but at the end of the day, it’s still us. And apart from reconstructive surgery, or some terrible accident, we’re stuck with it. I wouldn’t have it any other way –I like to know what to expect in a reflection. I like to know just who I am shaving.

I suppose there are many ways to compare faces: ‘“Most people concentrate on superficial characteristics such as hair-line, hair style, eyebrows,” says Nick Fieller, a statistician involved in The Computer-Aided Facial Recognition Project. Other research has shown we look to the eyes, mouth and nose, in that order.’ http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160712-you-are-surprisingly-likely-to-have-a-living-doppelganger  And we tend to generalize similarities, even though side-to-side comparisons might not hold up, so unless a face is truly unusual, it could be mistaken for another. I was once mistaken for Steven Spielberg when I was visiting the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. I considered giving autographs, but I am neither Jewish, nor do I write very well. And anyway, I don’t think it was my face as much as the baseball cap I was wearing.

But that’s just the thing –if I’d been wearing a turban, nobody would thought to ask. Context is everything; you have to be lucky.

Edward was lucky –he was always being mistaken for somebody he wasn’t. And since he wasn’t really anybody in particular, he loved the opportunities it presented. Even I felt special if he came over to my usual table in the window of the local Starbucks. A tall man, with wavy  greying hair and impeccably dressed, he always carried himself like royalty. He looked like someone you should know. I’d known him since university when he was just a slob, though. I think that’s maybe why we used to hang out together –in those days he made me look good. Now, it was me who basked in his light.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, coming from the cold of a blustery day in February. It was snowing outside and I’d seen him hurrying by through the steamy plate glass window. “I need you to do me a favour…”

The way he said it made me suspicious. I’ve never trusted an ellipsis, and his was as obvious as a gravel road. I sighed, and reached for my wallet. “It’s not money again is it Eddie?”

His eyes immediately flew back to his face and his forehead, in a long-practiced sweep, suddenly appeared insulted. “No. Of course not… But, if you’re reaching for your wallet, I wouldn’t mind a coffee… Twenty dollars should do, I guess…” he said, eyeing the solitary bill inside.

Damn the ellipses. They were spilling out of him today. “Want your usual bagel, too?” I thought maybe if I were generous, he’d feel guilty about asking me to do something outrageous for him again. Last month, for example, he wanted me to tell a woman he had just met that I’d seen him in a movie.

“You can tell her you saw it a couple of years ago and forget the name of it now,” he’d said with his eyes holding out their little wings like they were pigeons begging on the street.

We’d arranged to meet right here as if by accident. But when he’d arrived at the assigned time, he was alone.

“Turns out she was married, and her husband came back early from his trip,” he said and shrugged, as if he couldn’t win them all. “But he saw me talking to her in the mall, and walked over and asked me if he’d seen me in a movie somewhere, though.” All was not lost. It never was with Edward.

I tried hard not to roll my eyes when he returned with a breakfast sandwich, a bagel and two chocolate chip cookies as well as a coffee –venti size, whatever that means. Oh, and a latte.

“Didn’t have time for breakfast today,” he explained. “And I have to meet Charlene again for lunch…”

“Again?” I could feel what was coming next.

“She’s the director of a small local film company and she’s looking for a lead male role –something about a guy who gets lost in a forest, or something…” He suddenly sighed. “I met her at a party last night, and we danced the hours away…”

“And?”

He smiled his best innocent smile. “And I told her I starred in a little Nigerian film about an explorer in the jungle a couple of years ago…”

“So where do I come in this time?”

He wasn’t so shy about rolling his eyes when the need arose. “So, it’s a foreign language film, and you saw it on TV when you were visiting Britain last year and you immediately recognized a person you hung out with at university. But you don’t remember the name of the film, however.” Then he winked –or at least he closed one eye as if it was practicing for another role. “And the name didn’t make any sense to me either, of course…”

“Of course.” But I still suspected something. This time it was the italics that gave it away.  “When are you…?”

Just then he looked up and waved at the window. “There she is. We decided to have brunch here…”

I allowed my eyes to roll for a moment. Charlene burst through the door, her glasses steaming from the sudden warmth. A beautiful, albeit short, blond she immediately recognized Eddie and hurried over to the table.

“Charlie,” Edward said, standing up politely to offer her his seat, “This is my oldest, dearest friend…” but before he could say my name he realized she seemed to recognize me already. In fact, her eyes were saucers.

“You never told me, Eddie,” she said, her eyes prisoners on my face. “Wait, don’t tell me your name. I’ve seen you in something…” She closed her eyes for a moment, scrolling through her mental celebrity list.

I could already see that Edward was annoyed. “No…” I said, self-consciously using the dreaded ellipsis in my embarrassment.

But her face turned coy as soon as her eyes flew back to their little cages. “You guys are so protective of your privacy, I know. I won’t say a thing,” she added with a little theatrical gesture as her finger flew to her lips to ensure me that my identity was safe with her. She turned to Edward and blinked. “You never told me you knew him, Eddie…” she said, blushing, and then stared at me with eyes that flushed not so much with recognition, as worship.

Sometimes words are unnecessary; I decided to bask…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin

The chin. Now that’s something we don’t spend much time on nowadays. Unless they are unusual, they go largely unnoticed. And yet, human chins are unusual –all of them. In fact, according to a delightful article in the BBC :  http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160204-why-do-humans-have-chins?ocid=ww.social.link.email ) we are the only primates –including our extinct relatives- who have chins. ‘[…] our chin is the protrusion of the bone that appears below the front wall of the human mandible (lower jaw). […] chimpanzee and ape jaws slant inwards for instance. Even our closest extinct relatives such as Neanderthals did not have them.’ Nobody seems to know why, though. Various theories have been proposed, but none of them would seem to be adequate explanations. For example, ‘[…] it has long been proposed that our chin may help us chew food. The theory goes that we need the extra bone to deal with the stresses involved with chewing.’ But, ‘If we were to protect ourselves from the stresses of chewing we would need more bone on the inner wall of the jaw near the tongue, not beneath our jaw.’ –that’s what you see in chimpanzees and macaques. And anyway, ‘says James Pampush of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has been studying our humble chin for several years, we don’t have a very tough time chewing in the first place.  Much of the food we eat is soft, especially cooked food. “That’s why the chin is not an adaptation for chewing”’.

Okay, what other function could it serve, because it does seem to have weathered the rigours of evolution? Well, it has been argued that ‘[…] our chin helps us to speak, that our tongue needs reinforcements from extra bone below our jaw. We are the primates with the most extensive speech repertoire.’ But speech doesn’t seem to justify the need for a chin: ‘[…] we don’t need much force to speak, so it’s not at all obvious why we would need extra bone to help with the process. And if we did need any extra bone, just like for chewing it would be far more useful to add it to the inside of our jaw, closer to our tongue, rather than tagging it onto the bottom of our jaw.’

A third idea is that ‘the chin doesn’t have an immediate function, but that it has been chosen by sexual selection. It is our equivalent of large-flanged orangutan faces or a male elk’s large antlers.’ The only problem with that answer is that it is a feature found in both sexes in humans… Who is selecting whom?

So, if it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose, why has it been preserved? The article suggests the chin may be a spandrel  -a ‘”non-adaptive trait” that arises as a by-product of something else.’ This is a concept proposed by, among others, Stephen Jay Gould. A spandrel is ‘the name given to an architectural feature below some church domes that is often so ornate it looks as if it was the starting point for the building’s design. In reality, spandrels only exist because they help support the dome above them. In other words, spandrels – both biological and architectural – are a by-product of a change happening elsewhere.’ They are almost-exapts –our faces are apparently shrinking, so the spandrel has become more obvious…

I suppose, but the answer seems a bit of a reach, don’t you think? Sometimes I wonder about our need to explain everything… And then I cave in and realize I can’t resist either, and find myself scanning crowds for chins. Their variety is truly astounding when you actually look. Inevitably, I hearken back to first year medical school when we learned about the ‘gnathias’ (from Greek gnathos –jaw): too big, or too small. And then that always reminds me of the story of the Three Bears with baby bear’s stuff being ‘just right’…

And why that story in particular? Well, because apart from the hands, the face is the most likely part to be involved in intimacy. So, I wondered, would different chin sizes have any effects on, say, dating behaviour? I know my braces did when my parents decided my teeth weren’t perfect -I became a liability in the dark. Had my chin been longer, or as unpredictable as the metal on my teeth, would I ever have been able to negotiate anything other than a goodnight handshake? The issue, I realized, had existential overtones.

I needed to subject the matter to scientific scrutiny. At first, I thought perhaps I could do an online survey, but I realized that the type of people who responded might feel the need to exaggerate their own chin prowess –sort of a variation on the Napoleon syndrome- which would muddy the waters. And anyway a chin is a personal thing, like nostrils or Dumbo ears, so any imagined offence to any of them, real or imagined, would be a threat to the owner. I didn’t want to be the unwitting victim of hate blogs, or some vigilante group assembled with the express purpose of ridding the net-waves of people like me. And then, of course, there was Fake News to contend with.

I decided to do an eye-contact survey on my friends. Unfortunately, not only do I not have a large cadre of friends, but the only one I have did not strike me as particularly gnathically challenged. Brien was perhaps corporeally overly abundant and had a penchant for porches, but otherwise wasn’t unduly compromised by his chins. I use the plural because when he held his head just right, he seemed to have two of them. As a matter of fact I’m sure I counted three one time. So, I figured he would be like interviewing three chins and maybe I could extrapolate the results a little better on a graph.

I stopped on the sidewalk that led to his porch to see if he was awake. He’s always grumpy if I wake him up. Sometimes you can’t tell with Brien until you get really close, though, so it was a Sophie’s choice.

“Careful with that second concrete slab,” I heard a voice warn me. “The pizza guy won’t come any closer… It’s my guard slab, eh?” he added with a grin. But Brien knew I knew, so I could tell he was in a good mood. I could feel his eyes following me like a CCTV, though –he is very possessive of his porch, even with me.

I picked up one of the beers at his feet and sat on the only other chair beside him. As I stooped to pick it up, I tried to memorize his top chin. Interestingly, he had something I’d never noticed before: a chin pit –well, that’s what one of my Iranian classmates called it; it’s really a sort of dimple, a cleft chin, actually. It is a recessive gene of variable penetrance -meaning there is often a variation in how it appears. The only other thing I could remember from that class so long ago, was that it was considered a sign of beauty in Persia and the term ‘chin pit’ –or ‘chin well’- my classmate informed me, was so named because a lover might fall into it and become trapped.

I felt I was in no danger of that, but my eyes must have lingered a little too long on the area and Brien noticed. “Admiring my face?” he said and smiled good-naturedly.

Damn! You can’t get away with anything with Brien.

“My mother used to show her friends my chin, you know. She was quite proud of it –apparently I was the only one in the family with anything like it.” He quietly walked his eyes over to my face to see if I thought he was being vain. “Uhmm, the upper chin,” he snorted, almost too quickly. “I only had one in those days.”

Great, I thought, maybe some lover had swooned and fallen in. There was a chin story there -I could feel it. “Did…” I hesitated, trying to think of a neutral way to ask that wouldn’t make him decide to exaggerate.

“Did it affect my dating behaviour, you were going to ask?”

Now how would he know that? I shrugged, as if I wasn’t -but that if he was going to tell me anyway, I’d listen.

He smiled, and took a long sip from his beer. “Nope…” He took another sip and finished off the can. “My mother thought so, though,” he continued after opening yet another one. “She said that having one of these…” he added, pointing to the chin dimple, “…would get me into no end of trouble.”

“And did it…?” Perhaps I was too quick to question him because he just winked and shook his head.

“What’s past is past, eh?” he said and sent his eyes to scout out any changes in Sheda, his pet cedar tree at the far end of the yard. “And anyway, I only needed to take the medicine for two weeks…”

I nodded; chins can certainly be a problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evolution of the Clap (blush)

Exaptation­ –I’ve loved that word from the first time I heard it. Mind you, I don’t hear it very often and that may be what keeps it so special. Even its sound is pedantic though, don’t you think? Exaptation is a process by which an organ or feature acquires a function for which it was not originally evolved. It was first coined in the early 1980ies (by palaeontologists Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague Elisabeth Vrba) to replace the word pre-adaptation, a word that suggests teleology –purposive directionality- and therefore not random Darwinian selection of the most effective traits on offer. There are legion examples out there, but perhaps the most easily understood one is that of feathers. They started out as heat regulators (on dinosaurs), then served for sexual display (although as yet we have no pictures of dinosaurs doing this), and finally for use on birds for flight.

But a rather unusual example that has lately intrigued me is that of clapping. Who would have thought, eh? It was first brought to my attention by a BBC radio podcast (The Why Factor): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04y3ywf – play

Bipedalism may have encouraged clapping the hands, or whatever you call them on non-humans, by freeing them from the mud. Chimpanzees apparently slap the ground –of course maybe that’s simply because they can; I find it difficult to get down that far unless I’m actually lying on it, but you take my point, I hope. Clapping the hands is a great way to make noise and attract attention without yelling. It can be done in large crowds where its mood can be conveyed by the intensity or tempo of applause, and where individuality is subsumed and effectively represented by the collective. Roman emperors used it as a kind of unofficial poll of their popularity, and so hired clappers to infiltrate crowds in stadia to, well, encourage clapping.

There are many variations of the clap and I won’t go into them at this time except to say that rhythm, cadence, intensity, and type of noise produced all convey unique and recognizable  signals. Much like the contagiousness of a yawn on an elevator, clapping can be infectious, especially if someone else starts it –a form of social permission, I guess.

Clapping varies according to culture or convention –clapping at church, for example, is usually frowned upon even more than falling asleep. You are allowed to clap after an operatic aria but not after the end of a movement at a symphony. Why? Uhmm, you just have to know these things, apparently.

So where, does exaptation fit into the act of clapping? And what, exactly, is being exapted? Well, it would take a rather bold leap to suggest that hands evolved for clapping any more than the knees did. Granted the hands make more noise and everything, but it’s still a stretch. Hands made it through the evolutionary mill because they can grab things –first, branches I suppose, and later, the salt shaker across the table. Fingers persisted because, among other things, they can point at stuff and indicate whether it’s the salt or the pepper you want –co-opting different hands, in other words.

Sometimes ideas are such good ones, I have to wonder why I hadn’t thought of them before. Evolution is one of them of course, but right up there and sitting in the front seat, is exaptation. What a great use of resources –waste not, want not. It makes me realize what a wonderful exapter my mother was –a woman clearly ahead of her time. Who else would have thought to use her hands, not to pick things up, make noise, or climb trees or anything, but to spank? Okay, the exaptation did not originate with her, but she was one of its most vigorous proponents.

I therefore like to think I am not only a genetic repository for her hands, but also their broker. It occurred to me that I could perhaps make use of the idea to fulfill a life-long dream: time on the pedestal -allow others to notice me as much as the mirror does.

Clapping is contagious, remember –but once it starts, you’re just another pair of hands. Stop clapping and nobody would notice. But start the clapping… Then you become the index case -the cause, the instigator, the powerful one. The idea of starting an epidemic like that was intoxicating. Even if there were no credits, no mention of it in social media, I would know. I could even do an anonymous post on Facebook using an avatar of a hand: the sound of one hand clapping, perhaps -the Phantom Clapper.

I decided to start off small -hone my skills. There is often a man playing a guitar on the sidewalk across the street from the Starbucks I sometimes frequent. He’s not very good, and I’ve never seen anybody putting money in his little tin, but sometimes people do stand around –usually at a distance- and watch, hoping he’ll get better, or maybe because they’re just embarrassed for him. Anyway, it seemed like a perfect place to begin.

I practiced my clapping for a couple of hours at home –you have to do the right clap, eh?- and then sidled up to listen from across the street. Two people were smoking at a little table outside the Starbucks, and a group of teenagers, seemingly oblivious to the guitarist, were gathered around a lamppost laughing at something. Nobody seemed to be paying the slightest attention to him, however. It is incredibly weird to start clapping about something nobody even realizes is happening, so I decided to buy a coffee and a cookie-in-a-bag, come back outside, lean against a wall so everybody could see me, and wait.

Unfortunately, by the time I came out again, the guitarist was arguing with the teenagers who had now crossed the street to bother him. He was shaking his fist at them and shouting something that, even at a distance, sounded obscene; it was definitely not a clappable moment. Then I saw him kick at one of the kids which, although he missed, I suppose it was another exaptation –the world seems to be full of them.

I leaned back against the wall and sighed, disappointed at my failed debut, but I decided to attempt a little mini-clap at the venue anyway and then go practice my technique at home again. Unfortunately, though, my hands were full. Even so, I did identify one more exaptation that would have made my mother proud: ever hold a bag between your teeth?

 

 

Who Will Floss the Dog?

You gotta love the bus! It’s like going to a movie, only cheaper. There are as many programs as there are seats, and with the old people, you sometimes don’t even have to be sitting near to them.

Buses provided some of the first equal opportunity stages, I think. I had a look in Wikipedia, hoping for a theatrical link, but alas, it seemed drawn to the more pragmatic aspects. It told me that ‘Bus is a clipped form of the Latin word omnibus. The first horse-drawn omnibus service was started by a businessman named Stanislas Baudry in the French city of Nantes in 1823’, and that ‘Regular intercity bus services by steam-powered buses were pioneered in England in the 1830s by Walter Hancock and by associates of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, among others, running reliable services over road conditions which were too hazardous for horse-drawn transportation.’ It doesn’t say anything about when buses became travelling entertainment salons, however. Or maybe I’m just easily amused…

For example, last week I decided to respond to a politely-worded summons from my dentist. Apparently he figured I hadn’t been around in a long time and thought his dental tech might need to do a little scraping and filing, or something. He didn’t use those words, exactly, but I’ve known him for a while and could sense his concern that my flossing might not meet current standards, nor the toothbrush they gave me last year still doing something more than merely shoving the food around. I chose to ignore his subtle but sublingual hint that my visit might also help with his vacation plans. I hoped the bus might afford me some distraction.

The bus was sparsely populated and eerily quiet when I boarded it at its terminus, so I had an unexpected mélange of seats. Much like a hockey arena, the seats on a bus can be graded. There are the rafter seats –right at the back and usually over something that vibrates and rattles worryingly. Then, of course, the midrange variety where entertainment is rife, but often cacophonous and conversation lacks the normal cohesion and sourceability that permits useful comprehension. I usually try for what would pass for the seats-behind-the-bench at a game –a few seats back from the senior’s area, but with a row of seats interposed between for the women with children… or suitcases, rickety boxes tied with strings, overstuffed shopping bags –clunky stuff that reeks of the unusual and a need to tell somebody about it.

As luck would have it, there were only two people –a middle aged man in a fedora, brown overcoat and scuffed shoes, sitting with an older woman wearing a long pink coat and a speckled grey pig tail that didn’t go at all with her age. But there were no bizarre boxes anywhere in sight in the coveted area, so I settled in for a long and disappointing ride, condemned to travel inwards, undistracted, and filled with all the anticipatory dread that only dentists and Proctologists can inspire. But it can’t always be ribbons and Disneyland, I guess.

I closed my eyes and tried to position my head in the balance position –something on which seasoned bussers pride themselves so their heads don’t end up on their laps drooling when they drift off.

“So glad I got that dental plan for Mara,” I heard the woman say as the bus started up.

My ears perked up. Maybe dental angst was more widespread than I’d thought.

“You got a dental plan for her, Lizzie?” It was the man’s voice, and he sounded surprised. “How much did that set you back?”

I imagined a shrug. “Well, she’s had bad teeth for a few years, so I figured it was worth it…”

He chuckled. “Why do you always encourage her to eat what you eat?”

“And what’s wrong with that, Jim? I’m still healthy, you know.” A defensive tone had crept into her voice.

There was a momentary hesitation before he answered, sotto voce, “You told me you have false teeth, Liz…”

“Well, that’s not why, Jimmy. And besides, she’s eaten my kind of food ever since the adoption… Never heard a complaint, either!”

Silence followed –well, the usual bus-rumble anyway- and I was just drifting off into the all-forgiving arms of Lethe, when Lizzie spoke up again. “Do you have one for Keg?”

It occurred to me that either she was a sales representative for dental plans and was trying to sell a policy to Jim for his grandson, or maybe just a well-meaning grandmother that was used to giving advice.

“Keg’s doing okay, Martha. Probably his diet though, eh?” he added with a chuckle.

“He’s, what, five now…?”

Jim didn’t answer right away. “Uhmm, yes, I guess somewhere around that…”

“Somewhere?” She sounded indignant that he wasn’t sure. “When’s his birthday?” she said, each word a needle.

It was getting interesting so I opened my eyes. She was frowning at him like a mother at her son when he comes in late on a Friday night, her mouth a serpent’s grin.

“You mean the actual date?” He looked puzzled at her distress. She nodded her head sternly and glared at him as he tried to deflect her chagrin with a boyish smile. Then he shrugged and tried to bluff it. “June… I’m sure it was in June…”

She sat back in her seat, obviously only partially mollified. “I’ll find out from Sally,” she said after shaking her head as if to say that men shouldn’t be trusted with anything important anyway. “She’ll know.”

“Yes, maybe she will… But remember, we’re just taking care of him on those days our daughter is away at school. Janice didn’t want to leave him alone in her apartment.”

Her eyes snapped towards him suddenly as if he just admitted to child abuse. “Well… he’s still going to have dental problems -if he doesn’t already. You have to start flossing him. Just being male doesn’t protect him, you know. You wait and see…” She reached back and pulled the cord for the bus to stop, and hurried out the door after telling Jim she’d be sure to phone Sally.

I could see him roll his eyes, and he noticed me watching so he shrugged again. “I’ve never heard of a cat needing a dental plan, have you,” he said, laughing at the thought.

I shook my head, but what did I know? “And Keg is…”

“My daughter’s dog… And no,” he added when he noticed the relief on my face. “I’ve never tried flossing him…”

Suddenly, my dental needs seemed to slip into a different gear.

 

 

Fortune’s Fool

Health –what is it? The older I get, the more I wonder what I’m supposed to feel like. Is it merely the absence of something like sickness and incapacity, or are there positive attributes, whose presence somehow summons it from the vasty deep? There are official attempts to define it of course -the 1984 WHO revised definition of health defined it as ‘the extent to which an individual or group is able to realize aspirations and satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment’- but that’s about as solid as a cloud, and as useful as a stopped clock.

No, I want to know whether, apart from having survived long enough to have a history, I am hale. I figure I get sick as much as the next person, but insofar as I can determine, I am content… And yet I realize that’s not saying very much.

Anyway, I am always amused by those who claim they never get sick, and yet are unwilling to define their terms. An article in the Guardian newspaper renewed my interest: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/24/secrets-of-people-who-never-get-sick?CMP=share_btn_link and it reminded me of my recent trip to New Zealand. Many of those on the plane –well, at least those sitting nearby- had personal hand-sanitizers that they would brandish from time to time like crucifixes. I felt distinctly apostate, and not a little unprotected when I dared to eat the meal unconsecrated. At least it kept the person in the next seat off my arm rest, though.

But I mention the trip because a 14 hour direct flight demands entertainment other than movies, and creates opportunities that are otherwise impractical: it allows time to design and conduct scientifically rigorous observational experiments. The possible topics are, of course, legion, but I decided to measure Health –or at least, its simulacrum –as best I could from my aisle seat, mid-plane, and in spite of an elbow that kept poking me. Would hand-sanity prevent anything, I wondered –at least in the short term? And what would that be? The sniffles? Respiratory infections? Polio?

I decided I would do a simple comparative analysis. I could measure the difference in health between the beginning of the flight (before they served the dinner) and its end (in the morning before breakfast) -with maybe a few random observations mid-flight during the enforced sleep to validate the progression towards whatever conclusions I might draw as we landed.

I had a purpose at last, I realized with a sigh as I drew some columns on the pale and rumpled surface of an air-sick bag someone had re-stuffed in that little pocket behind the seat ahead. To wit: were hand sanitizers effective disinfectants -or merely proxy-deodorants that gave the impression they were eliminating something that they were only temporarily covering up?

In the interests of adequate and representative sampling, I decided on two study groups: those who initially hand-sanitized without symptoms -no use of tissues- (i.e. initially healthy -arguing that the act of wiping or blowing was likely purposive), and of course the comparison group -the healthy control group- were those who neither sanitized, nor were startup tissuers. I accepted the occasional sneeze in this group in appreciation of the accepted wisdom that we all sneeze from time to time. I wasn’t sure what to do with polite little coughs however, so I tabulated these in each group. Horky, wet coughs, of course, I immediately assigned to the already sick group and just made sure they were not doing it around me or anything –I figured that was fair. So, any change by the end of the flight, and Nobel’s your uncle.

As the flight wore on, I began to hope that this data might well be cutting edge research -New England Journal of Medicine stuff. I was concerned, however, that during those periods of turbulence when I was unable to write, let alone judge the intricacies of tissuing (simple wiping vs full-nose clearing), data compilation might be compromised -but of course both groups would be equally affected, so I decided it would probably cancel out nicely.

I began to have some doubts again during the lights-off section of the trip, however. For some reason, the absence of light and the difficulty of individual identification seemed to engender episodes of what I can only describe as spiteful rogue coughing and camouflaged blowing –the perpetrators obviously having waited for darkness in order to remain anonymous. But fortunately, the distribution was random –indeed, stereoscopic. The initial no-blow areas seemed to be contributing as much night noise as the areas I had previously thought were affected regions –although in the dim light, and ubiquitous ambient groaning of uvular obstruction, all my previously ascertained and meticulously mapped certainty seemed to meld together into unclassifiable lumps.

I suppose the greatest disappointment, however, was with the innocuous, albeit large man seated next to me –the one who had ceded the armrest. It wasn’t so much his sleeping head constantly sliding dangerously close to mine before it mercifully underwent a miraculous gyroscopic correction, nor the gurgling that -in the absence of sufficient light- reminded me of the pebbled creek that burbled and bubbled behind my house. No, rather it was his surreptitious experiments in clandestine wiping and foxy rasping, hitherto undisclosed. Who would have thought that an experimental subject that I had, in good faith, enrolled and randomly allocated to the hand-sanitizer healthy arm, would go over to the dark side? I felt betrayed. But not only that, it made me realize just how porous my categories had become. How similar to Matryoshka dolls were even the best dressed passengers. How they will all ‘round a varnish’d tale’, as Shakespeare could have had Othello say, but didn’t.

So, in the dim, inadequate glow of floor lights, and amidst a symphony of unheralded respiratory dissonance, I decided to suspend the as-yet embryonic study before arriving at the statistically verifiable conclusions for which I had striven. And yet I suppose that with the current penchant for counting simple trends as signifiers, and given observations that were unable to reach even the firm ground of bullet points, let alone a satisfactory level of corroborable validity, I can say with words Shakespeare did write -this time for Banquo: ‘The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles.’ So, despite a bout of violent turbulence when the lights came on again, I began tabulating the trends with shaky arrows on the sick-bag until a pale-green shoeless man grabbed it as he torqued past me down the aisle.

I can therefore offer only a shadowy recollection of my findings. First: hand-sanitizers clearly do not work in the absence of light (which serves to let nearby people know you have one); second -people who only cough at night are hiding something; and finally, but even more startlingly, herd immunity becomes herd acquisition on a plane -flagrant plagiarism that begs for further studies.

Me? I didn’t resort to tissuing until the third day of my trip, and even then it was desultory –I’m really not very good at sickness. I did find that I developed an inordinate proclivity for washing my hands, though. That’s healthy isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

 

Previously Frozen

The thought occurred to me the other day that I’m in danger of becoming a Red Queen –you know, needing  to run faster and faster just to stay in the same spot. I doubt that Lewis Carroll had my particular concerns in mind, and yet there are probably many parallels with 1871 when he wrote the story. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, you simply can’t keep up with things.

To be clear, I’m not referring to anything as technical as Moore’s Law and it’s observation that things like computer technologies seem to double every 18-24 months –although that’s certainly too fast for someone my age. Nor, for that matter, can I even claim confusion about the vicissitudes of celebrities, or the vagaries of fashions –I simply can’t be bothered. And anyway, even the most cursory glance at Facebook would likely glut my already overburdened vessel –a surfeit of trifles is seldom healthy.

Except when it is. I often wonder how the important things –albethey in fine print, and sometimes far beneath the purview of the average progressive lens- escape relatively unexamined.

I’m referring, of course, to one of those items of the consumer society that we would not ordinarily include: food. Well, at least I wouldn’t have. At any rate, food slipped in unawares. I thought I knew food; I buy it, I cook it and then I eat it. I didn’t think I needed to study it as well… But when someone who did told me that a fish I kind of liked, orange roughy, was once called slimehead I nodded as if everybody knew that. I now pretend the reason I no longer buy it is that it was also deemed an at-risk species. You have to try to keep up with this stuff.

I read labels –they’re usually pretty big and tarty so they can wink at you from the shelf, but by and large, they don’t tell you much. So I usually search for the much smaller Nutrition Facts rectangle to see how many calories they say there are in one of whatever the package offers… Then I multiply it by the number I figure I’m going to need to eat to feel the effects of why I bought it in the first place. They always try to trick you unless you figure that out.

It’s the same with the Best Befores. I’ve discovered there is a difference between a Best Before, and an Expiry Date… You can die or something if you ignore the latter, whereas you’re allowed to put the former on sale a day before the date and make people think they are getting a deal. They probably won’t die. I Googled a reference to make sure: http://www.cbc.ca/1.3006858

But it’s sometimes hard to stay up to date with food things -the Previously Frozens, for example. I suppose it makes sense that if a food is properly frozen two days before its Best Before date, it should be edible for another two days at the start of the thawing process. But I can never remember when I froze it -and the labels are all covered with frost, anyway.  Definitely Red Queen material.

Of course so is my friend Brien; he has a thing with food but I’m never really sure if he’s serious about his ever-changing opinions on the topic. One moment he will wax eloquent, describing a science article he’s read on Facebook, and in the next breath, descend the staircase into some nutritional hodgepodge he’s found with clickbait. He has that unique gift of being able to hold two or three contradictory notions at the same time and understand none of them.

Take the Previously Frozens –the PFs as Brien calls them. He was sure the term just meant that since they had been frozen once, they were capable of being frozen again –that the PF acted as a kind of endorsement for the freezer, unlike, say, eggs –which are never labelled PF. Or lettuce, which he keeps in the very bottom compartment as a kind of memento mori… a reminder of the diligence required in the absence of any warning labels.

Even with the presence of warning labels, Brien is hyper-alert to the dangers of the post-truth era in which we are embedded. He suspects that False News has crept into the labelling industry as well as Facebook. It was his favourite topic for weeks, until he found a label he said he could finally trust.

I often pass his house on the way into town, and I saw him sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his tree. It was a brisk fall afternoon and the wind was mussing the needles and making the branches wave at him. Brien needs to get out more. At any rate, I thought I’d join him on the porch for a while. That’s when we started talking about the value of really knowing what we’re eating. Of actually reading the labels.

“I’ve started to eat Ancient Grains,” he said, proudly, pointing at a crumpled plastic package at his feet.

“That’s nice,” I responded, not sure what else to say. “Why?”

He looked at me through his eyebrows and slowly shook his head at my naiveté. “It’s what the Neoliths used to eat,” he replied slowly, pronouncing the unusual word carefully in case he got it wrong. When I didn’t congratulate him immediately, he seemed disappointed. “Do you even know what Ancient Grains are? What they do?”

“I’m still working on Neolith,” I said.

He rolled his eyes. “The Grains were what our ancient ancestors decided to eat…” –he hesitated briefly, obviously a bit uncertain about the really early days- “It was when they were changing from hunters into gatherers…” He glanced at Sheda for inspiration. “Anyway, the Grains were growing in a big field so they started to gather them…” He stared at my blank face briefly. “The Grains are thought to be what drove human Evolution.” He sat back in his chair, smiling like a professor who has just explained a particularly difficult concept to a rapt class. “They made us who we are,” he added, reverently.

“I thought it was meat.”

“Huh?”

“You know, the extra energy from meat is what made our brains grow. It’s why we’re so intelligent.”

Brien likes new ideas, but he seemed genuinely puzzled. He thought about it for a moment. “Then why don’t lions walk upright, eh?”

I stared at him and blinked. I had the feeling I was being led somewhere. “Uhmm…”

“Because the Grains have lots of omega-3 which wildebeest carcasses don’t,” he said smugly, confident he’d solved the mystery for me.

I have to say I didn’t know that, and picked up the crumpled package to see if that’s where he had found these words. And sure enough, as authoritatively as Wikipedia, and written in what I assume Big Agro thought would be ancient cursive, there was Brien’s argument brightly embossed beneath the label. “So, has it worked yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you evolved more intelligence?” I said, pleased at my cleverness, and put the empty package back on the floor as respectfully as I could. Unfortunately, at that moment, a gust of wind blew it over the railing before I could stop it.

Brien looked at me and mounted a wry smile. “Well,” he answered, pointing at the package now scurrying over the grass, “it never blows away when I put it down…”

 

 

 

Cultured Questions

What is acculturation? I mean really? Or, more to the point, is it necessary to acculturate to the culture which you have adopted -and how would you know if you have? A friend recently asked me what accepting a foreign culture meant and, given that it is not a word that I find myself having to use on more than a multi-annual basis, I responded with what I could remember from, well, Sociology 101, I suppose – a long time ago. “It is,” I ventured, “something like normalizing and maybe practicing some, or all, of the cultural characteristics of another group.” I figured it would be better to sprinkle my definition with equivocations in case he was trying to trap me.

He was no Socrates, however, and he seemed quite needy in his pursuit of my opinion.

“But,” he continued, focussing his eyes on my mouth for some reason, “What is culture actually?”

It felt like we were teenagers sitting around a campfire at night, solving the eternal mysteries with deeply probing questions. No, actually I felt more like St. Augustine when asked about the nature of Time : ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ I decided to be less abstruse. “Culture…” I answered slowly, choosing my words carefully “…Culture… is the sum of most of the customs, behaviours, and beliefs of a group… At a particular time.” I added, to provide myself with a loophole in case he challenged me.

But he didn’t. John was someone I had known ever since he’d moved into the neighbourhood a few years ago, and we had just joined the same checkout line at a market when I saw him. But that wasn’t when he asked me -he was too polite for that. Too embarrassed. We started out speaking banalities, the kind of things one says upon running into a friend unexpectedly. Actually, we were talking around a woman with a load of vegetables in her cart. She had a tired, housewife Vegan look about her as she examined first my purchases –steak, eggs, and a round of packaged sausages- and then John’s basket of lamb chops and some kind of cheese I didn’t recognize. I don’t think she did either, and although she did not look pleased, I decided perhaps that was because we kept darting our heads around hers to talk.

I suppose I should have let her go ahead of me, but her cart was so full, and mine so empty, that by widely accepted market etiquette, it would have been neither reasonable nor was I likely to let her. In fact, now that she knew what John had, she should have stepped aside and let him pass. But I could see by her eyes that it would only happen over her dead body. So, as I see it, she deserved our ocular peregrinations.

It was only when we had left the store and passed the woman who was glaring at us from the doorway, that John dared the questions about culture.

At first he merely shrugged, at my answers, glancing nervously over his shoulder at the woman, but as the distance increased, he relaxed a little. “Do you know that lady?” he finally asked, his face serious and his expression concerned.

I looked back at her; she was still staring at us. I shrugged. “Never seen her before. Why?”

He sighed and then shook his head. “She came over to me at the meat counter.”

I waited for him to continue, but it seemed too painful for him, so I probed. “Did you get the last lamb chops, or something?” I immediately regretted making a joke of his discomfort.

He shook his head, obviously trying to remember. “No… She just stared at me.” His eyes jumped onto my face for a moment before flying home.

John is of Middle Eastern extraction -a tailor back home, I think- and looks perpetually tanned, even in the dead of winter. He is unusually tall, with curly black hair, but apart from his height, the most striking feature about him is his eyes. Brown, curious, and constantly asking questions, they seem like couriers, homing pigeons, always busy carrying messages to and fro. And he was usually smiling, like he was glad to be alive.

“I thought maybe I’d dropped something and she was returning it, but when I looked at her, she just stared at me with accusing eyes that seemed to crawl over my face, then slide down my body.

“She followed me over to the deli section and watched me look for cheese. I was trying to find some variety of the Shanklish we used to get back home… They sometimes have a version of it here.” he explained, when I looked puzzled.

“You’ll have to do better than that, John,” I said and then chuckled. “What is Shaklish?”

“Shanklish,” he corrected me. “It’s a cheese made from sheep or even cow’s milk… They make it into little balls to age,” he explained. “Smells, terrible to most people over here, even though it has a nice mild taste…”

“So, why was she…?” I didn’t know what he thought, so it was hard to frame a question.

He sighed deeply and stopped. “At first I thought maybe she was just curious about me or something.” He smiled and suddenly held his head high. “I am rather tall, you’ll have to admit.”

I nodded. He usually stooped when he was around shorter people -so he could see their eyes more easily, I suppose.

“But I could hear her whispering –hissing, almost.”

I had to look up at him, so he stooped a little again. “Whispering what…?”

He shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter, but I could tell it did. “Well, I couldn’t actually hear –whispering isn’t supposed to carry, is it? That’s why it can be rude…” A weak, forced smile appeared on his lips. “But I distinctly heard ‘You people!’ and then ‘culture’ or something -I couldn’t be sure. She sounded really angry.

“What did I do?” he said in an anguished voice, his shoulders slowly sagging.

I watched his suffering with sad eyes that I soon withdrew and confined them, instead, to the sidewalk. His agony was too immediate. Too real. I was going to mention that the woman wasn’t pleased with me either, but his face told me not to. That I could never know. Could never stand in his shoes… Not here.