Mouth Honour

Now that I’m retired, people don’t quite know how to talk to me. They’re curious, but cautious –after all, they’re talking to an old man. Retirement is a kingdom far away and over a fence for most people. It is a land cloaked in eternal shadows, a place where people talk loudly, and canes, not swords, hang on the coat rack beside the faded pictures of those long gone. A realm where memories are indistinguishable from reality. A place of unhurried rest. I hate that.

But I suppose that’s what I saw when I was living prairie-like as a younger man and looked at the mountainous horizon ahead, full, not of peaks so much as troughs –valleys in which, once entered, I would be forever trapped. Well, I see it differently now, and although there is a certain sense in which I find myself confined, it’s a verbal prison, not one of steep cliffs.

The voice is like a muscle –it atrophies without constant exercise. Even its children, words, get lost if they’re not chaperoned, or at least analyzed at the table. There’s an unanticipated vacuum lurking in retirement for some of us. Unseen and largely unmeasured, it steals upon the unwary like a cirrus cloud on a winter’s day: adialogia. Okay, I just made that word up, and anyway, even for me, it’s only hypodialogia –I do speak occasionally to the cat, and in periods of exceptional verbal drought when the cat is out playing with mice, I speak to wrong numbers on the phone.

What this does, of course, is weaken the cords. I mean it’s not like I can talk very long to the mirror without running out of stuff to say –especially when the other guy keeps interrupting. And it’s not like at the office, where I had to be an active listener and an even more athletic answerer –people expect answers, if that’s why they came to you in the first place. So in those days, I got my exercise at work; these days, my voice is becoming obese –or whatever happens when it just sits around and lollygags its way through a rainy day.

But humans have not evolved this far without an uncanny ability to cope. To improvise. If the mountain will not come to the senior, why then, the senior must go to the mountain. Of course, even though there are a lot of mountains near where I live, I’d still be doing a monologue with the trees. I decided on Starbucks instead.

Even there though, it’s location, location, location. And similar to the housing market, you can’t always get what you want when you want it. Ideally, a table smack in the middle would allow a multi-quadrant exposure to potential ears, but one must adapt. Wasn’t it Camus’ Étranger, Meursault who said he could adapt even if he were lying in a hollow log looking up at the sky? Well, anyway, I thought that was what he said until I couldn’t find it.

At any rate, I decided to take whatever table I could find as a trial run, and then figure out an exaptation. And, of course, as luck and the morning addiction would have it, I was relegated to a table in a dark corner near the washrooms. I suppose it was a bit pathetically fallacious, though, because I decided to splurge on a Venti, dark (with room for milk) -I didn’t want to run out of coffee before I found someone to talk at… sorry, talk to.

The problem with too much coffee, apart from the obvious –which I figured I had aced- is that it shifts word production into overdrive, and I found so many wandering around in my mouth that I just had to let some of them out. There was an older woman sitting at the next table glancing every so often towards the door as if she were expecting somebody. She had enough napkins on her table for a bridge game, so I realized I had an opportunity.

“Excuse me,” I said, with a desperate smile on my face, “I seem to have forgotten to get a napkin. May I borrow one of yours?” Weak I suppose, but words were pounding frantically on my teeth to be let out.

She turned her head and examined me for a moment. “Borrow?” she finally said, her face trying to achieve some form of equanimity, while her fingers sorted through the pile to find one that wasn’t already soiled with spilled coffee. “Here,” she added when she happened upon a relatively dry one. “But I want it back when you’re finished, eh?” Her eyes twinkled at the thought, and a row of spotless dentures surfaced briefly.

I hadn’t expected the ‘eh’ for some reason and it threw me off. The only thing I could think of was a brief lip-wipe, and then a rapid redeployment of said napkin back onto her pile. “Thank you, ma’am,” I said, trying to make my now-clean lips appear grateful for the shine. But I shouldn’t have let my guard down, and a few more words burst out as if I hadn’t screwed the cap on quickly enough. “I really should have brought a few more over to my table when I got the milk and sugar so I could have returned the loan with interest…” I managed to stem the flow briefly, before some more spilled out. “Of course, if I had my own, then I wouldn’t have needed to borrow from your stash, so…” I had a quick sip of what was left of my Venti to discourage another prison break.

First she glanced at the barely-soiled napkin returnee and then turned the full force of her eyes on me. “But then we wouldn’t have been able to engage in this intriguing conversation either… Would we?” Her face softened and she unhooked her eyes from my cheeks and let them fly back to the door again.

But my words were milling around inside still, now excited that some of them had been able to escape. I could almost hear the vowels begging for a ride on the consonants so they wouldn’t be left behind if the doors opened again. I decided to go for it. “Well, if there’s ever anything I can do for you to return the favour, just look for me at this table, eh?” When I saw her eyes narrow, I immediately regretted my choice for parole. Of all the words banging around in there, why did I let that group out?

I have to say she did smile –well sort of. It was more the kind of expression you see on politicians’ faces when somebody heckles them at a rally. A kind of polite dismissal. The words inside suddenly fell silent and I could hear them taking their seats again, embarrassed at their usually well behaved colleagues’ improprieties. They weren’t going to be accused of Aspergering their way out. For a while, anyway.

And in the quiet that followed their abashed capitulation, I became aware of another voice from another region, gesticulating silently for my attention. I smiled and touched her sleeve as a sign of apology and headed for the washroom. But when I returned, I found that my table had already been taken by two other women, both talking to my new friend. They all fell silent when I reappeared, however, and their eyes bespoke a certain trepidation –like children wondering if they’d been overheard.

“I’m sorry, sir,” my lady said, pretending surprise, then glancing at her friends as if to say they would probably need the rest of her napkins. “I thought you’d left…”

I bowed slightly and smiled a weak acquiescence. My lips were more comfortable now but I thought maybe I’d order a cookie-to-go from the counter. Perhaps the barista would listen to me for a while if I took some time to choose…




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.’  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…”


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 : ) 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): – 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?