Me, My Face, and I

You know, I’m getting a little worried about my face. I mean, it’s still there and everything –it’s just that I’m noticing stuff. Let’s face it (sorry), we see it every day in the mirror, so we kind of get used to it –the little bump beside the nose, the blotchy thing on the cheek… little asymmetries that we take for granted. They are us –or in this case, me. And from week to week, and month to month they stay the same –or maybe change so slowly that I inadvertently merge them into my still-evolving identity. I’ve always been given to believe that, absent catastrophic events, faces are like that.

And yes, hair changes –or goes away- so, although I like to keep a modicum of facial hair around for old time’s sake, I’ve taken to reducing the cheek-skin burden of late. I think it unduly tugs on already saggable features. Oh yeah, and mine, unlike its scalp brethren, has shifted colour for some reason and I’m not keen on flaunting the discrepant bicolourity.

But I’m not talking about hair –that’s an accessory; nor am I impugning blemishes. I see them as jewellery equivalents -facial earrings, if you like. No, I’m talking about the je ne sais quoi, if you know what I mean. It all started with my eyes, I think. First of all, it has always felt a little weird looking into my own eyes in a mirror, after all they’re reserved for others to drown in or whatever –like when I twinkle them. I used to practice winking in the mirror when I was a teenager, but found I couldn’t do it justice without blushing. I’m just not a winker, I guess. Also, I couldn’t seem to coordinate the movement to make it look unforced. Unepileptic. So I moved on to a compromise –twinking- which I decided was less blatant than an actual closure and yet more alluring. More mischievous. It was a look I felt would be more in keeping with my short stature, braces, and horn-rimmed glasses. It was an attitude rather than a seduction and, ultimately, eminently deniable. I got pretty good at it too. It’s best performed, I found through long tiring hours of practice, in profile –or at least it worked best in the mirror that way.

But lately I’ve found that my twinking powers are waning –although I will concede that so are the opportunities to use them. Twinking uses a lot of cheek and lip stuff and I wondered if its diminution might be symptomatic of a more global attrition, an end to my salad days, so I’ve been on the lookout. It’s not a thing one willingly concedes.

I decided, after much planning and soul searching, to subject my fears to scientific scrutiny. Of course, to detect discordant performance, one has to use firm guidelines, and creditably repeatable methods. Remember, there is a fairly universally accepted standard that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that the results –according to Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of Science- must allow the possibility of refutation (unlike ‘There is a God’, for example) to meet Scientific Scrutiny. Anyway, I devised a clever scheme that you could falsify over dinner if you were that type.

After much trial and error, I drew eyeholes on the bathroom mirror with (borrowed) lipstick, and a curve where my mouth should be. Then I bisected a line drawn between the eyes and dropped a perpendicular down to the mouth curve (I straightened it for purposes of mensuration), divided it into equal segments and voila, I could graph any changes. And yes, I maintained a standard distance of my nose to the mirror surface with a tape measure I kept on the sink. Of course I had to be careful not to smudge things with stray aliquots of toothpaste in the mornings when I am still tired, but I soon solved that by brushing with my mouth closed. I love the challenge of overcoming collateral damage; I think I would have made a fine politician, although perhaps a less than satisfactory marriage partner.

Over time, of course I mathematicised the criteria, substituting eye-circles drawn with lipstick, to geometric points on a matrix superimposed on the mirror surface and drawn with a fine-pointed indelible ink pen. My early lipstick-driven measurements I incorporated into a testable general hypothesis that I was later able to try to validate on the far more reliable mirror grid.

So what am I worried about, exactly? Well, I haven’t yet analysed all of the data points and the study is still ongoing for now, but preliminary data so far would seem to suggest that my nose is moving – at least with respect to several otherwise reliable landmarks. And of course, not wanting to draw undue attention to my face until I was sure, I have told no one.

At first, I attributed the anomaly to the difficulty of maintaining a ‘straight face’ –especially in the morning when I first wake up. It is incredibly difficult not to laugh at the lines on the mirror when all I want to do is find where to put the toothbrush. And anyway a crack-of-dawn face does not appreciate any additional lines. It is already attempting to deal with an existentially taxing Umwelt; it seeks the visual solace of lies –not lines.

But those trivia aside, the nose migration set me in mind of the constant play of evolutionary pressures –those that, for example, beset penguins to sacrifice their wings to create rudders. I began to wake up at three A.M frantically searching for my nose among the sheets, after terrifying dreams of Roswell. Fortunately, so far, even in the dark I have been able to find it back on my face when I am more awake.

I am beginning to see the mirror as the problem. It makes me wonder how scientists are able to deal with uncomfortable truths, things that make them question the validity of their data, that question the very Zeitgeist in which they were raised. It is no small matter to upset a prevailing paradigm; you have to be sure. You have to let the results be known and replicated to be confident it was not just a methodological aberration. A one-off.

I, however, have decided to bury the results; to soldier on with the unnerving suspicion I have discovered something that has been hitherto overlooked. After all, familiarity makes the eyes grow accustomed; inconsistencies repeated often enough become shrug-worthy. Unnoticed. Unstudied, perhaps until a new generation, untethered from the shibboleths of their parents, embark upon an uncharted journey of their own.

I haven’t mentioned it to my kids yet, though. Just in case…

 

Barbery

I have great respect for barbers –I mean you have to, eh? Who else is going to do it? Animals groom each other for a reason –stuff gets stuck in there. Unpleasant things that, except in times of starvation or mental illness, should probably not be examined. Should not be itemized.

All this makes barbers special, of course. Throughout history, they have had a special role to play in society -nobody wants messy, flyaway hair; nobody wants it hanging in their soup. So whoever could stomach the life was accorded special status; everybody from priests to surgeons signed up to cut hair -or was it the other way around…? I forget.

Anyway, hair –or the lack of it- has always been important to us, probably because, as well as clothes and length of sword, it revealed a lot about the person wearing it. Hair is usually pretty evident as soon as someone walks in the room: it’s either displayed, peacock-like, or disguised beneath a helmet with horns or something. These are important signs that people have learned to watch for over the years. Just by looking, you can learn a lot about other things, too: religion, social status, cleanliness… And barbers have to know all this stuff before they start.

But I mention all of this as a prelude to a momentous discovery that is likely only possible after Retirement: you can cut your own hair –assuming, of course, that you still have some thick enough to see.

I used to go to a barber, near my office. Admittedly, I was an infrequent visitor, and only when specifically forced to by my secretary, but nonetheless, it was convenient. Rain or snow, I could walk proudly into the shop after work with Mick Jagger curls and sneak home looking like I was about to hand out religious pamphlets door to door. Like Samson shorn, I felt vulnerable. Noticeable. Socially cubby-holed. And I knew that I would continually be the object of scrutiny for weeks until it had grown sufficiently that women wouldn’t shield their children’s faces from me and drivers wouldn’t point and honk as they passed.

And yet Retirement piled still another impediment on that humiliation: distance. I live no where near the barber shop, nor do I have any excuse, desire, or motivation to visit it again as a tourist. But I see it as a cruel irony that, despite the abysmal shearing, I have grown to trust them, much as one might trust, say, the leash on the dog not to break as it growls past on the street. Life is so different now…

First, there are few people who would dare criticize an older man with hair –no matter what it’s doing. I can wear it with pride in any weather. I’ve also found that we seniors are expected to deviate, however slightly, from accepted norms; it’s what we do; it’s who we are. So, even if the light was flickering over the mirror, and a slight tremor afflicted me au moment critique, the ragged edges and eccentric contours are excused –welcomed, even, as fitting into the expected stereotype. It seems to me there is nothing more disturbing to an younger man, than seeing an elder disguising himself as someone he is not. Or at least should not be.

But there is one group that does not hold back its criticism –a group from whom I would have expected unconditional support and understanding: my own.

“Cut your own hair again, eh?” Jeff said, as I sat down at his table at the local MacDonald’s.

At first I thought he was impressed at the job, because I mistook his expression for a smile. “Yeah, it was getting a bit unruly around the sides,” I replied, a little surprised that he had noticed. I’d taken particular care to avoid nicking my ears this time, and was quite proud of the way I’d left a tuft on each side to curl around them. Actually, I wasn’t sure where my ears were hiding, so I didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances.

“Ever thought of trying a barber?” he said, with an earnest expression stapled firmly on his face. I think he assumed he was being helpful.

“Used to use one,” I said with feigned levity -Jeff really seemed concerned as he scanned my head with eyes that seemed to flit from curl to curl like sparrows in a tree. “But they never did a very good job. Took almost a month for it to grow back enough to seem natural…”

He nodded thoughtfully, as he continued his inspection. “How long do you figure this time?” he said, his eyebrows marking the lower edge of a series of furrows above.

I took a sip of my rapidly cooling coffee and carefully placed the cup on the table as if there were a specifically mandated spot for it. “Does it really look that bad?” I almost hated to ask.

He shrugged and attacked his own cup to dampen the tension. “No…” he said, choosing his word very carefully. “Just… noticeable, that’s all.”

I hate it when people use audible italics. “I thought it looked okay,” I said, in a brave attempt to save face.

A faint, and exculpatory grin managed to crawl unwillingly onto his lips. “Sometimes it’s the mirror,” he said, although I could tell he didn’t for a moment believe what he was saying.

I wasn’t sure where to go with this; I was beginning to feel embarrassed. It was almost like the first time I’d heard my recorded voice played back to me on a phone and hadn’t recognized it –myself as others hear me. Now it was a visible estrangement… “So… You think I should go to a barber?”

He stared at me for a moment and then chuckled. “Well it’ll even out eventually… I guess after all these years I just notice things…” But he didn’t really sound convinced.

I think I blushed. At any rate, I tried to cover it by sipping at my coffee again and peering at him over the rim. I’d only known him for a few months, and we always met here, so I wondered if his judgment had been clouded by an otherwise-disguised cognitive decline. I pretended to sigh, but actually I was wondering how many other people had noticed and been too polite to say anything. “No,” I said, “I think you’re right. It’s not as easy as I thought… Hard to see around the back.”

He smiled benevolently but I got the impression I was just digging myself into a deeper hole.

“Know any good barbers around here? Good ones, I mean -I don’t trust a lot of them, do you…?” Might as well ask.

The smile grew on his face like a flower opening. “My shop’s just next door,” he said, shaking his head and winking at me. “I’ll give you a deal if you let me finish my coffee,” he added, chuckling merrily at something.