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.














For two scents…

Okay, full disclosure: I’m a guy -uhmm, I suppose that has been apparent for years… But before I am relegated to just one of the many gender allocations now so readily available, I have to admit that when I was growing up, there were only two choices and actually they were assigned and not open for discussion. I have no issues with that; I am very comfortable in the clothes I have been expected to wear; and had I to start all over again, I would no doubt self-direct myself to the same side of the tracks.

And yet there is one thing… A very tiny thing perhaps –nothing comparable to the disrespect and outright inequity so often foisted upon other gender roles, of course, but nonetheless troublesome when you get right down to it. No, perhaps irritating describes it best… Actually, come to think about it, I’m going to go for disgusting. Sorry.

I’m referring, of course, to odour –male, exercise odour. Gym bag malfeasance. Male locker room fetor. Naturally I have been somewhat limited in my olfactory experiences given that I have never been sufficiently athletic to be selected for any team that might be expected to sweat excessively, and I’ve never been awarded female locker room privileges. But it has always seemed to me that males have been alone in their allotment to the spoor-bearing section. Hormones, I figured -testosterone, eh?

I can’t say it has been a burning issue all these years; it’s something you learn to put up with –something guys tell each other. I was warned never to leave a hockey equipment bag in the back seat if I was going out on a date. And always wear lots of aftershave even if you don’t –shave, I mean. At the very least it would make them think you were old enough. At the time, I never asked for what, but I have to assume it was about paying for the movie.

Body odour has always been a source of embarrassment to me, but being an only child I naturally believed that it was only a guy thing. Girls usually smelled of flowers and were probably not allowed to sweat. I don’t mean allowed, really –but obviously their hormones enabled them to control it somehow. Women are from Venus; Men are from locker rooms –anyway that made sense to my finally-deepening voice.

I was shocked when, in my later years, I came across a book by Katherine Ashenburg called ‘The Dirt on Clean’ and realized that our species had a rather chequered past with regards to both cleanliness, and odour. Bathing seemed to have gone in and out of favour as did techniques for disguising the stench that attended each person who happened along. But I guess if everybody smells, you don’t have to worry as much. And it wasn’t that grooming was on the endangered list or anything –fleas and lice were quite fashionable, so inspecting and picking at each other’s hair was probably what you did on first dates.

And hey, you didn’t actually have to wash –linen was believed to clean your skin without the danger of opening up the pores and letting bad stuff in. I’m not actually sure what linen is, but hopefully it came in nice colours.

But, naïveté aside, it did get me wondering if there was such a noticeable sexual difference in gym bag bouquet back then. Did they learn to stuff them with linen, or something? Of course, I suppose women weren’t picked for many of the hockey teams in those days, so we may never know. And I think only guys got to fight with swords and whatever… maybe that’s how the folklore about male body odour got started…

Finally, in my declining years, I have been given a clue of sorts –an explanation, maybe. It’s an acknowledgement by the BBC, previously undisclosed and carefully obscured: women have not escaped as unscathed as I was hitherto taught to believe. They also -well, dare I say it?- smell. It’s the bacteria, not the person though, okay?

But when you think about it, our perspective on the world is not only our measuring tape of others, but sadly, also of ourselves. Who would have thought that the Theory of Mind –i.e. our ability to realize that others may have different thoughts than our own- might apply equally to smell?

And yet, I have to admit that I am more than a little unprepared for this sudden equivalence. I mean, if men and women both smell the same after exercise –if we’re all subject to the same deodoral constraints- then what separates us? Apart from the more noticeable anatomical bulges, how are the sexes meaningfully different? On what grounds could we ever decide which would make the best or most efficient hunter? If Power smells the same in each, if hard work is olfactorially undifferentiable, what’s left to choose between us for anything? Why, exactly, did they put in a glass ceiling? Maybe they should simply mandate different coloured linen handles on gym bags.

But it’s just a thought though, eh?



Excuse Me?

You know, by and large I’m pretty content with being old… Well, not old as in wrinkly and cane-bound -more like calendarially acquisitive. However, there is one thing that I have lately discovered that greatly inhibits my social intercourse –a design flaw, I think: hearing.

It’s not that I can’t hear things –I am very attuned to volume and the background melee in which they seem invariably embedded -it is more the interpretation thereof. Indeed, the backcloth seems to swallow words, and dissolve them into a meaningless pap that I am forced to process later at my leisure like a cow. You would think that Evolution would have issued ear-cuds, or something, but I suppose Darwin couldn’t think of everything.

Evolution takes time of course, and yet I’ve learned it sometimes also takes short cuts; that gives me hope. Exaptations they’re called –the use of a pre-existing mechanism for something other than its original function. Jury-rigging it. Feathers, for example, which once-upon-a-time probably served only for thermoregulation and maybe sexual attraction, were then adapted, as time and circumstance allowed, for flight –a kluge. Why design something new, eh? So, given that I didn’t get in on the feathers, I figured maybe I’d be up for second prize.

I realized quite recently that most of my trouble with interpretive hearing loss tends to be self-inflicted, however -it seems particularly bothersome when I wander into people-infested areas. Starbuck’s springs to mind… Brien, too -when he’s not receiving visitors on his porch, he consents to meeting me for a coffee every so often. But although he is a man more comfortable with grunts and head nods, I still have trouble making those out from across the table in the noisy room.

So I decided to exapt. I’m actually kind of embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it before. And nothing very complicated, or anything –I think it’s better to go basic when you first try something. Sort of feel your way around. The concept I settled on was proximity –if you can’t decipher what someone is saying over there, go over there. I hadn’t counted on Brien’s reaction, though, and as I leaned closer to his face to decipher the sounds, he countered by receding. His back was to the wall, and when he finally realized there was no more room to recede, he pushed me away with a vigour he’d never demonstrated on his porch even when he thought I was reaching for the biggest cookie.

I immediately grasped the fact that not all exaptations succeed –or at least not at first. Proximity needed a little work. But as I thought more about it, I reasoned that since mouths form words, and lips can be seen from a distance, maybe I could fashion my own kluge: translipping, I suppose you could call it -lipping for short. The added advantage is that from a few feet away at least, the person observed thinks you’re really looking in his eyes. This makes him feel you are actually paying attention. I’ve come to realize that it works better with a gender imbalance, though, because when I tried it with Brien in the crowded Starbucks venue a few days later, he again backed away and kept turning his head. He needs to get out more.

But when I was lipping, it seemed to help a bit. I think consonants work best, though – probably because of the need for larger and more demonstrative lip excursions. It reminded me that originally, the Hebrew alphabet was an abjad­ and consisted only of consonants. Maybe they used to have hearing problems in those days too, so they figured they’d make it easier for people in the bazaars, or whatever. Brien didn’t think that was right when I told him my theory, but neither of us are Jewish, so we left it there.

There was some progress, however, so I thought I’d expand the potential and try distance-lipping. Brien encouraged this; he said it would feel like he’d got his face back.

“Try it on that woman over there,” he said, pointing like a child in a supermarket when we were next in Starbucks. His target, when I eventually grabbed his arm and lowered it, was an attractive brunette with long shiny hair and curls that danced on her shoulders each time she laughed. Her eyes were almost as alive as her full, red lips, and every so often I’d earn a hint of sparkling white teeth when she looked with growing concern in my direction. She’d started out with the expected balance of fricatives and labiovelar articulations, but as she began to glance my way, I noticed an increasing frequency of velars and labiodentals. Her eyes, too, began to harden. Soon, I had four lips to practice on, because her boyfriend –I didn’t notice a ring- began to velate. I was right on the cusp of decrypting their meaning when he stood up and swaggered over to our table. Brien pretended to have dropped his little paper napkin on the floor, so he missed the eye-boxing I received.

“Why were you staring at my wife?” the man said angrily.

That was unfair –I mean he wasn’t wearing a ring, or anything. “I…” Actually, I was so alarmed, I couldn’t think of an answer that would defuse the situation.

“He’s almost deaf,” Brien replied for me, coming up from under the table au moment critique. “He’s learning to lip sync..”

“Lip-read,” I corrected him. Sometimes you probably shouldn’t be too pedantic.

The man stared at Brien for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well… practice on somebody else, eh?” he said and walked back, somewhat subdued.

I risked a quick glance at them after he’d sat down again. Their faces were huddled together, but I was pretty certain I could make out lip for ‘handicapped’ before I hurriedly tore my eyes away.

“You’ve got to get a hearing-aid,” Brien said, as soon as they left, but he said it slowly, as if I were foreign to the language, and he opened his mouth like he was singing in a choir and made his lips over-perform with each syllable. I hate that.

Anyway, I’m okay on his porch when the only other sounds are Sheda, his tree, rustling in the wind, and the occasional rattle of his dentures when he eats cookies with nuts. So a hearing aid seems over-kill.

I’m waiting for the ultimate kluge that I read about in the BBC news. I found an article on the brain’s solution for making sense of speech in a noisy room:  I didn’t understand it really, but I gathered that scientists have found the area of the brain that not only processes sound, but is able to focus on different parts of noise to make it more intelligible. There must be a way of exercising it, I figure -maybe doing purpose-built Sudokus, or being strapped into a specially equipped seat in Starbucks or something. Brien is all for it.

Put a Sock on it!

We’ve had a particularly snow-filled winter this year it seems to me. Okay, nothing like the blizzards I remember from my childhood in Winnipeg when even the snowbanks on the constantly plowed roads would rise far above my ten-year-old head, and when we routinely built snow-caves in drifts along the river dikes. But that was Manitoba, three time zones and a half-century way. And I do live in the lower mainland of British Columbia, for goodness sakes –a land where rain is queen, and snow discouraged everywhere except on the North shore mountains for tourists to photograph.

Vancouver does not like snow; there are too many streets that become luges, too many people in Lycra on bicycles -there’s an image to maintain after all. But every five or six years, we have to endure the derision of the unfortunately-located Eastern provinces who seem to think Canadians deserve snow and that Vancouver is somehow unpatriotic to settle for mere rain in the winter. And so whenever we do find ourselves saddled with a white Christmas, it’s suddenly national news about the weak-link, profligate rain-queen finally having to pay her dues -like we’re being audited or something.

Anyway, we’re all unwitting hostages to those Jekyll and Hyde twins el Nino and la Nina that seem to alternate every five years or so. Last year we apparently endured the intemperate clemency of an el Nino so I suppose we were about due for his colder sister to usurp the throne:  All fine and neatly retributive, perhaps, but it does wreak havoc on those who have never experienced a prairie winter, or on those who have but don’t want to anymore. Vancouver is the fabled Lotusland of Homer’s Odyssey and our tourists expect it. So do I.

But, like Brigadoon, the snow is only a once-upon-a-time here: a bedtime story told to naughty children, an advertising gimmick to sell ski passes for the nearby mountains. What we have more frequently is a thin veneer of ice masquerading as asphalt, or clinging like tired bats to the cables supporting major bridges. It hides, sidewalk-savvy, near retirement homes, waiting for un-caned feet, and walker-less arms; it preys on those whose eyes are wrapped in memories of other times, or stomachs aching for a change of menu at the Home. It is a dangerous time for the unwary -ice takes no prisoners.

I know the problem Brien usually has in this weather. A large man himself, he claims he was brought up by cautiously obese parents who instilled in him an inordinate fear of falling. An oft-told family legend has it that a distant, even larger relative, froze to death up north when he slipped on some ice as he returned from a nocturnal visit to the backyard privy. Neither legend nor Brien seemed willing to explain why the great-uncle-once-removed didn’t simply get up again, but I suppose the family needed a cautionary tale to scare the children. At any rate, Brien lived in small town Saskatchewan, and he says his fearful parents made him wear outsized rubber galoshes with snow-tire treads to school. They also made him promise he’d never drink alcohol when he grew up. So, as a result he hates hockey, and only drinks beer on his porch.

I had read an interesting, but silly article from New Zealand about wearing socks over shoes for walking on ice: and I thought I’d tell Brien about it. I even toyed with the idea of showing up in full kit, but after ruining two pairs of perfectly serviceable fancy woolen tube socks, I realized that nothing else in my drawer would likely fit over my rubber boots. A description of the article would have to do, and if he laughed at the idea, well, sometimes you just have to risk personal humiliation to help a friend.

It was a bitterly cold day (for the West Coast) in late January, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark and threatening rain. Snow still clung stubbornly to the lawns and roads however, refusing to budge until it had first turned to ice and choked the stems off any daffodils foolish enough to attempt a pre-vernal dash for sunlight. Some considerate neighbours had salted the sidewalk in front of Brien’s house, but the fragmented concrete slabs that led to the steps of his porch were tiny ice rinks, their slanting surfaces seemingly Zambonied in anticipation of my imminent arrival.

Brien was organized, too. Despite the cold, he was sitting on the porch bundled up like an Inuit with a large Hudson’s Bay blanket over his lap, and his parka hood fully deployed. His hands were thickened with fur-lined leather mitts with opposable thumb tabs so he could hold the Sunday afternoon beer bottle comfortably and securely. Brien is nothing if not prepared.

“Brien,” I said, waving at him as I skated warily across rink after rink on my way to the porch.

He lifted his bottle in silent recognition of my arrival, and studied my careful little steps. “Watch out for that last rink, eh? It’s my rental dog.”

I stared at him for a moment before attempting the crossing. “Huh? What do you mean?” I said, suspecting a trap of some sort.

He shook his head slowly at my thickness. “Dogs warn you of people coming, right? Well so do people on that final bit of ice.” I could see him smiling in the cavern of his hood. “Never fails.”

“Come on, Brien, you just don’t want to have anything to do with ice… like everybody else,” I said, a little bit irritably, and pointed to the ice free sidewalk that ran past the outside edge of his yard. Then, I realized I’d been a bit harsh, so I softened my tone. “You keep telling me about that uncle in Saskatchewan…”



“North West Territories,” he explained, as if I were an American.

“It changes every time you tell it, Brien…” I couldn’t help chuckling.

He shrugged in reply, I think, but it was hard to tell through all his clothes. “I never met him,” he said once I had gained the steps without barking. He nodded towards a nearby chair equipped with both a large woolen blanket and a bottle of beer.

Why would I even think he’d want to sit inside? “Anyway, I read an interesting article about walking on ice,” I said as his face disappeared once again into his hood. “No more need for the legendary winter-tread galoshes of yours…” I added, wondering if I sounded too much like one of those fast-talking salesmen on TV.

But I must have seemed really excited, because I could see his teeth glimmering in the depths of the downy cavern. “Haven’t used those in years,” he said, obviously amused at the memory.

But I was determined now. “This is about an exciting, revolutionary idea from New Zealand, Brien: wearing socks over your shoes. Apparently you get better traction on ice, and…”

I heard, or rather saw, him sigh as his head emerged from the depths and he pulled the blanket up to uncover his feet. It was hard to miss the bright red argyle pattern of the plus-size socks that covered his size 12 shoes. They stared at me as much as anything. “All the kids at school used to wear socks over their shoes,” Brien said, smiling broadly. “I just had to remember to take mine off before I got home.”

“Where did you get big enough socks? I thought you said you had to wear…”

“My parents gave me a weekly allowance…” he interrupted with a grin.  “In Saskatchewan it was important to fit in with the group, eh?” He eyed me suspiciously for a moment wondering why I wouldn’t have known that. Then he slipped the blanket back over his feet and took a sip of his beer.

He seemed so pleased with himself that I didn’t dare tell him I’d only ever bought candy with my allowance.

Mutatis Mutandis

For some reason, I am drawn to articles about brains. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and realize they don’t stock a lot of the original parts anymore. Or maybe I’m really hoping for a kind of Sears catalogue listing the upgrades available –anything that doesn’t begin with ‘Once upon a time’. And I’m tired of reading the words exercise and Sudoku over and over again like they were electricians with extra training in neuronal circuits.

I mean I’m okay with the one I got, but I keep thinking the newer models probably have more interactive apps; I think they were overly optimistic about our old ones. Somebody told me they were stamped with an update-before date, but mine didn’t come with instructions about where to look. And of course if they were hidden somewhere inside the reptile part, they knew I wouldn’t check.

But even the act of thinking about thinking, is in itself ‘conundral’ as Arden would put it; I actually prefer ‘labyrinthine’, but he would no doubt call that semantic needle threading. He usually tiptoed around big words, though, preferring his own creations where possible to avoid abstruse definitional, let alone pronunciatory gaffes. And yet it was Arden who first wondered aloud about our brains –well, his in particular anyway.

“What is all this stuff about big brains?” he blurted out one day as we sat on a crowded little bench in a downtown mall. People were breaking over and around us like surf, but Arden likes the challenge.

“You mean, as in intelligence, or just big people?” I asked. Arden can be so opaque.

For some reason he nodded, but just at that moment, a passing child poked his cheek with a straw, so I couldn’t be sure. “So big is supposed to be better, right?” Arden wouldn’t let a mere straw interfere with his chain of logic.

This time I was buffeted by a large, heavy shopping bag full of hard things, so my answer was probably lost in the expletive, but he smiled in acknowledgement nonetheless. “It can’t be just the size that makes us smarter than chimpanzees or whatever, though…” A group of chattering school children on some sort of a mall-tour passed by at that moment, so I had to ask him to repeat his observation although he was still talking  after they’d passed.

He glared at me for interrupting and then shrugged as if realizing he’d said it poorly anyway. “I mean, if size is so important, why don’t whales have cities, or elephants own stores?”

It made me wonder how he’d put it before. I decided to tell him about an article I’d read on brain size ( “Our human brain size was a mutation, Arden,” I said -rather too loudly I guess, because several other people on the bench lowered their newspapers, or raised their heads from their chests and surreptitiously glanced my way.

Arden nodded sagely, as if he’d already suspected that.

“Some gene mutated five or six million years ago, after humans split off from the chimpanzees,” I said pedantically, trying to remember the gist of what I had read. “Apparently it changed its function, or something, and made the neocortex grow.” I hoped there would be no questions, because I had already passed my comfort zone.

But Arden, fascinated by the new word, would not let it rest. He quickly surveyed the passing tide and waited for a break between the waves to talk. “What’s a neoCortes?…Or should I say Who?” he added, shaking his head at the word.

“Neocortex,” I corrected, scanning the crowd for another little boy with a straw, but a fresh wave was breaking over us as I spoke.

“Whatever!” he replied, shaking his head indignantly. “What’s a needleCortes then?” He stared at me for a moment. “Or is it Who? You never clarified that…”

I saw a group of bag-waving shoppers approaching, so I decided not to correct him again, and timed my answer to coincide with their approach. “It’s apparently a key brain region,” I whispered, so he’d be too embarrassed to admit he hadn’t heard me. He nodded again –a sure sign he’d seen my lips move.

We sat like spectators at a noisy hockey game, and the inquisitive bench-heads went back to their respective meaningless diversions. But I could tell Arden was thinking about something, because he nodded a couple of times more and then poked me with his elbow. “Isn’t it puzzling, though…?” he asked no one in particular, and the cadre of heads grew ears again. “I mean that a brain can wonder about itself!” He let his eyes soar up to the faux Tudor beams that crisscrossed the ceiling above us in a very un-medieval pattern. “Thinking about thinking is sort of like…” I could see him struggling to express the inexpressible, his face contorted in an almost religious agony of wonder. “…Brushing your hair without a mirror,” he finally chose, surrendering to the unutterable. The heads disappeared again.

He turned toward me and shrugged at the ineffability of the process. “It’s a hall of mirrors,” he added, although whether as an amendment or an explanatory postscript I wasn’t sure. “A mutation, eh?” he continued, shaking his head in appreciation of the epiphany. “Makes sense, though… I mean because otherwise religion would never work would it?”

Eyes, and the occasional mouth in the dormant heads flew open.

I stared at him for a moment, wondering if I’d missed something. “How do you mean, Arden?”

He rolled his eyes at my obtuseness. “If brain size means intelligence, then…?”

I suppose he thought he was feeding me with clues, but all I could do was blink. I made a stab at it, though when I saw the disappointment on his face. “You mean that more intelligent beings would…?” But I had to stop there, because my idea collapsed.

He started nodding his head, as if he thought I had finally grasped the profundity of his thought. “I mean they’d have to redesign everything, wouldn’t they?”

“You mean…?”

“Yes,” he interrupted, a knowing smile capturing all the available space on his face. His eyes glowed with a rapture I’d never seen before, as he considered just how lucky we were to have mutated in time. “Stuff really does work out, doesn’t it?” And he nodded to himself again as the myriad possibilities that could have been, slowly receded into the dark corners of his fortuitously modified neocortex.



That I might touch that cheek…

I’ll admit to being a child of my era –okay, an elder of the era- but I have to confess to a grudging appendage –a questionable attachment to something I was taught in high school. Well maybe it was only hinted at, but certainly no less sticky for the methodology. No less disappointing to an adolescent hungry for acceptance. In fact, it makes me wonder how some of us survived our youth.

And what was the terrible insight that so impressed me in my youthful innocence? So shocking that my memory has played it over and over again like an ear-worm? It was the surreptitious intelligence about the other side… a kind of whispered Malleus Maleficarum. Things even my mother didn’t seem to know –or at least was unwilling to divulge to an outré like her male child. Important information: secret handshake stuff. Things like women being consummate networkers –members of a clandestine female guild with a complicated, yet untraceable matrix of vast global reach. Words were unnecessary for them –just a certain look sufficed, a partially closed eyelid, a smile that really wasn’t meant, and yet conveyed reams of data were it ever to be trusted to hardcopy. It’s why we males, weighed down by guilt and testosterone as we were, didn’t stand a chance. I mean it sounded reasonable when I was sixteen, and I never doubted it as the prevailing wisdom until I came across an article in the BBC News a while back. It’s comforting to know that some people at least dare to question societal mores –even ones that seem so self-evident:

The article reports on a study by Professor Joyce Benenson from Emmanuel College and Harvard University and published in Current Biology in which ‘The team looked at recordings of tennis, table tennis, badminton and boxing involving men and women from 44 countries.’ And in these, ‘Researchers examined the aftermath of same-sex sporting events and found that men spent longer talking, touching or embracing their opponents than women. These efforts to patch things up ensure the males can then co-operate more successfully in the future.’ This, even though ‘In society generally, data indicates that physical contact between women is equal to or more frequent than it is among males. But across the four sports observed, men spent significantly more time touching than females, in what the authors term “post-conflict affiliation”.’

Whoa! I went to the original study to check, and as they put it in their summary, their ‘[…] results indicate that unrelated human males are more predisposed than females to invest in a behavior, post-conflict affiliation, that is expected to facilitate future intragroup cooperation.’ I mean how could I have missed that all these hugless years?

But I wondered if I was the only one who hadn’t heard about this, or whether it was just an age-thing and for some reason, I didn’t have the new app on my phone. It was certainly so life-changing, and so potentially ethos-altering, I felt I had to clarify and even validate the findings and, if necessary, embark upon a retirement dedicated first to a critical analysis and then, maybe, to proselytism.

And where better to start, than with a friend? I decided to ask Brien if he knew about it. Then, because he wouldn’t –he only read the TV- I’d tell him what I’d learned even though he was dead set against any form of evangelism and had been known to play recordings of large-dog barks when he heard unsolicited footsteps on his porch. Fortunately for me, he is usually on his porch whenever I visit, so I never get the barks. Still, he guards the veranda like a fort, and even though he usually pretends to be watching Sheda, his favourite tree, his eye-corners are ever vigilant. There is no moss on Brien.

But he wasn’t on his porch, and as I navigated the difficult parts of his sidewalk on my way to the steps, I heard the barking start. He’d chosen the Yorkie version –the dog-lite, back-off-eh signal he used for children selling cookies or the sponsor-me-to-camp kind of missions- but it was still annoying. The big-dog-growls only started when my feet hit the porch. I’ve never figured out how he does it; there is a rumour in the JW community that he has CCTV, but I suspect he just watches through the curtains.

Well, at least this time, because the door opened even before I reached it and an angry-looking face glowered at me from the shadows. “You said you weren’t coming till this afternoon,” it said petulantly.

“Brien, it’s one o’clock…” I countered irritably, glancing at my watch to be sure. I don’t like it when I’m challenged about things like that.

“Well, I’ve always thought that ‘afternoon’ starts at three. Stuff before that is ‘middle of the day’…” He paused for a moment, thinking of a coup de grace for me. “Or, even clearer: ‘around noon’!”

“Think of the words, Brien,” I growled. “after and then noon! What could be clearer?”

He folded his arms across his chest defiantly. “Explain how three isn’t after noon then, eh?”

I couldn’t believe we were arguing about this. “Since when have you been such a semantic stickler, Brien?”

“What?” he shouted theatrically and threw his arms above his head as if I had insulted him onstage. More probably, he hadn’t understood the words, though.

I felt sorry immediately -he’s actually a very good friend- but I couldn’t very well back down from the implied threat of a yelled ‘what’. “You’re being so…” I had to search for something that would register my indignation, but not inflame things further. “…So concrete!” A perfect amelioratory word, I thought, unduly proud of my clarity in the heat of battle.

His eyes hardened and his face scrunched at the idea. “Who had to resort to a rather weak etymological explanation for ‘afternoon’, eh?”

Rather than out-harden him, my eyes actually enlarged. ‘Etymological’? I suddenly realized I had gravely misjudged his vocabulary. Gravely misjudged Brien, for that matter. I do that sometimes… I started to shrug as a sort of testosterone apology but realized that it, too, might be inadequate. “Okay, then you were being more… asphalty.” I have no idea where that came from, but it just sort of slipped out.

His eyes softened, and the folds over his forehead flattened like venetian blinds. In fact, he couldn’t help chuckling as he reached out and touched me gently on my arm. Then, suddenly realizing what he’d just done, looked at his hand and then squeezed my arm as he withdrew it.

Me? I pretend-punched his chest -just a tap, really… I mean you have to do something, don’t you?

“A two-guy apology, eh?” And he smiled warmly. “Let’s go sit on the porch and have a beer,” he said, draping his arm over my shoulder and leading me outside. “So,” he continued when we were comfortably settled, and staring at Sheda, “What was that new study that you couldn’t believe…?”


High Intensity Retirement

I like exercise –if for no other reason than when I’ve finished, it makes me feel like I have expiated some ill-defined atavistic, yet autogenous guilt that I nevertheless like to blame on my mother. I suppose it borders on the masochistic to enjoy feeling that muscle groups everywhere are self-destructing, but there you have it –a modus vivendi. It’s not for everyone, I realize; not all of us require the degree of atonement bred so cleverly into my genes –okay, into my mother’s.

But each time I walk past Brien’s place and see him sitting motionless on his porch staring at his favourite tree, I wonder whether his mother had been a little too lax in her parenting. Too light on the guilt. Of course he’s retired now, as he is so fond of reminding me, and he feels he’s earned his sloth –although he prefers to refer to it as lassitude because he likes the word… I had to look it up.

Anyway, I am always on the alert for shortcuts to fitness for him. I have, in fact, made it into a kind of evangelistic vocation, so it was with no little frisson of excitement that I decided to tell him about an article I’d found in an old edition of the BBC news on the subject: And it’s rather cleverly disguised by what seems to be an encrypted acronym, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) which is a plus –it would at least get me onto the porch.

“Hey Brien,” I said, waving at him from the sidewalk in front of his house. He always likes a warning salvo before the trespass.

“Hey,” he said, sounding as if I’d just wakened him up. Brien is a man of few words. He claims it’s to conserve energy, but I’ve been trying to encourage him to lengthen his sentences as a kind of warm-up thing.

“I found another article for you to read,” I said, threading my way with care over the cracked and broken concrete slabs that led to the porch. He used to tell me that he thought they discouraged thieves, until I pointed out that those kind of people would probably walk over the lawn to sneak up more quietly.

Even as I approached, I could see him rolling his eyes –his version of a stretch, I suppose. “Exercise again?” he asked with a yawn. He once called me an Exercise Witness, but I think he’d forgotten the right name. Anyway, I don’t hand out pamphlets or visit anybody else in the neighbourhood.

“Just fifteen minutes a week, Brien!” I thought I should italicize it, even though I knew he wasn’t very good at picking up those sorts of subtleties.

His eyes had stopped rolling by the time I reached the porch and were now wandering over my face as if they were hunting for something –the catch, probably.

“As a matter of fact, just 5 minutes at any one time…”

The eyes suddenly jerked upward to fence with mine. “Thought you said 15…”

His eyes were now embedded like fishhooks, so I smiled to disarm him. “Five minutes, at a time, three times a week on different days.” I thought I’d better clarify it for him.

“So that’s three days, you mean?” I nodded. “I have to spread it out…?” I nodded again, although I was beginning to wonder if I’d got it right.

He walked his eyes over to the tree again and hung them there for a while. Suddenly they returned with another question. “If you only need to do 15 minutes in a week, why can’t I get it all over with in one go, so I won’t have to worry about remembering it all the time?” It occurred to me that it might have been the longest sentence I’d ever heard from him.

I thought about his question for a moment. I couldn’t recall anybody in the BBC asking about that. I suppose the idea was that most people don’t have the time to do the 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week that they claim is usually recommended. “Well,” I started, sewing together my argument as I spoke. “It’s actually five bursts of 60 second exercise, each followed by 90 seconds of rest… I imagine it’s kind of tiring…”

“Hah!” he announced with a truly athletic show of eye-rolling. “Knew there’d be a catch.”

I sighed theatrically to indicate my frustration. “But that’s why you get to rest after each exercise!” I think I wasted the exclamation mark -they just seem to bounce off him like commas. “And you get to rest five times!” I wondered whether also adding two italicized words in a row might win him over instead, but I could tell by his confused expression that I’d squandered those as well.

“I’m not arguing about the rests,” he explained, obviously trying to be patient with me. “More about the need…”

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “We have to keep fit when we get older, Brien.”

He rested his eyes on my cheek and left them there until I cooled down. “Fit for…?”

That was unfair. “Fit… So we can…” But I was stuck, and although the smile that crept onto his face gave him away, he waited quietly for me to say something so he could refute it; I decided on ‘health’. “…So we can be healthy.”

His smile grew until it split his face into two halves. “Which means…?”

His use of the ellipsis was beginning to bother me –I hate it when people copy my grammatical stress relievers… “Which means… I don’t know… That maybe that we can continue being able to do what we want.” It was weak, but it was all I could think of with his eyes sitting on me.

“I am…” He was just playing –he knew he had me. He summoned his eyes and sent them off again to roost in the tree. “Isn’t that what retirement is for…?”