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…


The Last Laugh

I can’t say I expected to wear my life like an unwashed shirt, or laugh so hard I’d wake the dead and startle babies in their cribs; I didn’t wish for endless sunny days, or nights so full of stars I could barely breathe. I am as content to live with rain, and wind that bends the forest trees; they all surprise me like the dawn each day –that they are each and always different is the delight. The wonder.

I am old now, and that, too, amazes me as much as finding laughter still waiting where I least expect it… ‘With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come.’ But who am I kidding? I’ve always chortled at the slightest mischievous glance and roared with glee with the roll of an eye. We all do, really… We think we only laugh at intentional humour, and yet most of us giggle or laugh spontaneously -incongruously even- to diffuse a situation, or to foster social bonding, perhaps… that you needn’t worry, there is no threat; it’s all just play:

There may be no rhyme or reason for it, so should we always call it laughter? Or something else? It is clearly not a form of speech –the tongue is quiet; the jaw is still- and yet there is a message in it. A purpose. It is a primitive, not a rational response; it was not snuffed out in the mutational race for adaptation. Evolution saw fit to keep it. Even rats can laugh –but quietly, I think; they have a lot at stake…

And yet, the thought that ‘One study found that people laugh seven times for every 10 minutes of conversation’ got me wondering. What, exactly, were they counting? Criteria are important here. When does a smile become a laugh? When does a sudden exhalation count? Or an unexpected expression? Do you always need the same pattern each time? I couldn’t find the original study –was it a joke? An attempt at creating yet another urban myth?

I decided to do a pilot project of my own to see if there was enough evidence to pursue it further. But, rather than exposing my clipboard in malls across the city, I figured I’d start with Brien on his porch. And my criteria would be strict: a laugh would have to involve a kind of dance –either of the face, or the body; it would have to be non-threatening; and it would have to make me want to follow suit. Not leave.

But then I also decided there should be some eye action because you can tell a lot from the eyes. I added a few additional columns to my chart to include extra stuff that might crop up. I knew I didn’t have to worry about counting random smiles with Brien –they were not part of his social vocabulary- but shrugs were. In fact, he proffered shrugs like most of us extend our hands in greeting. So I added a thin little column for shrugs at the edge of the page. He was probably not the best person to enlist for a laugh study, but you have to start somewhere. And in science, you’re not supposed to pick subjects just because they will support your hypothesis. The fact that I didn’t actually have a hypothesis yet, was a bit of a worry, but I decided to create one if Brien went well.

“Hey Brien,” I yelled from the sidewalk in front of his little house. He was, of course, sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his favourite tree. Usually, it is alive in the wind, and he likes to watch the waving motion of the branches and bob his head in time to the rhythm. I’m sure the neighbours think he will need to be moved to a Home in the foreseeable future; in fact, Brien is just easily amused. And harmless. But I could see a worried face inspecting me through an upstairs window in the house next door. I decided to leave the clipboard in my backpack.

He looked up as I approached and his eyes twinkled before his face spoke. “Why are you wearing the knapsack? Not trying to get me to go for a walk again are you?” But I barely heard the words –I was trying to decide whether the twinkle could be counted as a subspecies of laugh. It occurred in a jesting situation… Well, for Brien anyway. And he had kind of snortled when he said it.

I laughed in response. “No,” I said, a little too defensively, when I recognized my own laugh and glanced at my watch.

“You don’t usually wear one of those,” he said, this time shaking his head as if he knew something was afoot. “And there isn’t usually a clipboard sticking out of it when you do…” His face crinkled merrily and he would have reached for my pack if I hadn’t quickly moved it out of his reach with a short giggle. That unleashed a short “Ha!” on his part that caught me unprepared for his second and successful lunge for the offending board.

“Want to mark that one down, Brien?” I said as he examined the columns I had drawn and labelled. “I figure the ‘Ha’ probably counts…”

He chuckled. “What time do I put?” He wasn’t wearing a watch.

“And there’s another one, while you’re at it…”

He smiled and chortled softly to himself as he extracted the pen from under the clip. “This is almost as much fun as the tree.” He glanced at me. “Whoops, there goes another one.”

I had to join the giggle when our eyes met.

He handed the clipboard back to me with a little flourish, his eyes, positively dancing with delight. “Here, it’s your study,” he said. “Laughter Frequency Study?” He rolled his eyes and then shrugged. “Couldn’t you have come up with a more… clever title…?” He stared at his tree to see if maybe it could help.

I sighed stertorously, but with a smile on my face –a laugh…? “Like?”

Another shrug and an impish, mobile movement of his chest.

This was getting too complicated; there weren’t enough columns, I realized. Not enough criteria…

“Oh, I don’t know… How about…uhmm, ‘Titter-Totter’? Or…” But I could tell from his expression that he was more curious about why than what. He stared at me for a moment or two –examined me, really. “Why did you want to count laughs?” he finally asked, after an involuntary snuffle through his nose that was instantly defused with a toothy smile and a friendly shake of his head. “Thinking of doing Retirement standup comedy?” he said, looking at me suspiciously out of the corner of his eye.

I shook my head, embarrassed.

“Good,” he continued. “Never work, you know.”

“Why?” I said, suddenly defensive, as if he was trying to deny my sense of humour.

He shrugged again, but this time shaking his head and pointing at the clipboard as if he were confused. “You’ll never know if they’re laughing…” And then he actually laughed, and his whole body shook.

Sometimes, I think you can tell…






An Apple a Day

I am really puzzled by those whom I see beavering away on their laptops in coffee shops across the city –across the world for all I know. I suppose it is actually a hydra-headed quandary: where they do it; how they do it; but more to the point, why they do it. The act of being voluntarily immersed in a cauldron of noise while attempting to produce a meaningful result on the screen strikes me as similar to trying to remember a shopping list while being water-boarded. I had nothing but disdain for those who pretended to be productively engaged while a cup of steaming hot coffee sat just centimetres away from their Apples on noticeably rickety tables.

But now that I am retired and have had time to reflect on such weighty matters, I have begun to wonder if it was just envy that had led me to discard such ostentation as mere affectation. I decided to subject the practice to Scientific Scrutiny and set about designing a randomized single-blinded controlled experiment to establish once and for all, whether those nattily-dressed dandies in their expensive suits and overly-decorative ties could actually accomplishing anything worthwhile in Starbuck’s. I’m trying to remain neutral; I have no confirmation bias worth mentioning, I don’t think…

I am, by all accounts, though, a one-burner chef, and I suspect congenitally maladapted to multi-tasking anything more complicated than eating in front of the television set. Sequentiality, not omniality –assuming that is actually a word- has defined my existence, but retirement is a time for change and renewal. A time to discover the potential stored away after a life of presumed productivity. A time to prove I was right all along…

First, the experimental design. I pretend to write short stories, so the Control part was easy: write different parts of the same story both in the quiet of my den at home, and at Starbuck’s in the hubbub of the morning rush. I could sort of Blind it as well, by copying down the first sentence and putting either an S or and H beside it, then filing it away until I analyzed the data. And, Randomizing it was simple, of course –I don’t like the noise so I didn’t go out for coffee on anything like a regular basis. So, there you have it: Retirement Science in action.

I was really excited on my first day in Starbucks, and like buying a new collar and leash for the mandatory dog you are supposed to bring to be tied up outside, I’d polished up the outside of my MacBook Air so it gleamed in the overhead lights. I hoped it would make up for the lack of dog.

The tables in my local Starbucks are really small, however, and because the laptop occupied most of it, I wondered what to do with the coffee. I started out by putting it on the other side of the screen, but I soon discovered that this is a practice that is frowned upon. I would forget that it was there, and people walking by would keep tapping the computer to tell me it was about to fall off the edge. I ended up storing it in my lap between my legs. I really don’t know why they insist on putting those silly little holes in the lids.

My first day there was pandemonium. The high school is nearby and soon after I had scored a little table in the middle of the room, the Starbuck’s immediately filled with teenagers who had either escaped or had bribed the janitor to let them out for recess. And then the shopkeepers arrived, and the mothers taking their toddlers to preschool or obedience classes… It was all Brownian motion and crowd noise –Babel on a jet engine scale. Snippets of conversation surfaced and then submerged again in the gestalt. Screams, when they are relatively constant, despite the stochastic pitch and volume, are easier to ignore than words, and I noticed I was following different strands of people’s lives as they wove themselves in and out of the weft of comprehensibility. I found myself wondering why the woman standing in the line in front of my table, was still living with her husband, and how the teenager at the next table had actually made it home after the party on the weekend. I even sympathized with the mother at a nearby table who had forgotten the nappies for her crying, malodorous baby in her rush to discuss child care tips with her older, and presumably wiser mother-in-law. Sitting at my table was like treading water on somebody else’s Facebook page.

I attempted to get back to my experiment, but I felt as if I was imbedded in stucco; the words weren’t mine, nor were the ideas. I tried desperately to focus but it was like trying to follow raindrops in a storm, so I closed my laptop and stood up to leave. I had decided I would have to revise the study design somehow, but as I concentrated on just how, I felt a warm trickle in my lap and I realized that Science would be immeasurable enhanced if I tried it the next time without coffee. Potato chips would fit nicely on my thigh and maybe even help drown out the other noise as I chewed. Of course, I’d miss a lot…