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…


Fortune’s Fool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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






Atheism for Seniors

I don’t know why, but sometimes I get into arguments with my friends –sorry, discussions– about the strangest things: things neither of us know anything about. At our ages, you would think we would know better… Or maybe more, I suppose. But there you have it: the ravages of Age writ loud.

Sometimes it’s politics –often it’s politics, actually- but the other day, surprisingly, it wasn’t. Now there’s not much that either of us know less about than politics, so I think we both figured we were pawing at new ground here –rutting over ideas without the benefit of antlers. But it’s like that when you get old, and hard-earned habits solidify into convictions that we toss to the young as wisdom. And Alistair figured that his beliefs about religion and its progeny should qualify.

“You can’t be an atheist, you know!” he said out of the blue one morning, with that air of certainty I knew so well from our political discourses. All the while, he was staring at me as if he’d been mulling the matter over for quite some time.

I returned the stare somewhat defensively, uncertain whether he was suggesting that the concept itself was inherently flawed, or that I was. Of course, given the omniscient way he was propounding it, I accepted neither. “And why is that, Alistair?” I said with what I hoped was a condescending tone of voice.

We were sitting on his porch having a Sunday morning coffee; neither of us were even considering going to church.

He sat forward in his recliner and put his coffee cup on the little glass table we shared. “Because ‘atheist’ –the word- comes from the Latin, a –or ‘without’ and theos, – ‘god’…”

“Greek,” I corrected.


Theos is the Greek word for god. Deus is the Latin one…”

He reached for his coffee again, sipped it –desperately, I thought- then glared at me for a moment, probably more upset at losing his train of thought, than his etymological one.

“You were going to crush the concept of atheism, Alistair,” I said to help him out.

He put the cup down again and smiled. “To deny the actuality of a god, you must first accept the concept of god… Or you wouldn’t even have a word for it,” he said, smirked, and picked up the cup again to give me time to digest the profound revelation he had granted me.

I tried not to roll my eyes. “So, does that mean that if there’s a word for something, then it exists?”

He shook his head, but carefully, as he tried to figure out whether I was trying to trap him. “No, but would you accept that unless it’s a deliberate nonsense-word, it does refer to something?”

My turn to be careful. I nodded cautiously. Alistair isn’t known for his logical prowess… But then again, neither am I.

He sat back in his chair and stared out at the trees, their arms waving slowly in the breeze. For a while the only sound was the souffle of wind tousling the leaves. “So, are you…?” he said, finally, after scouting my face with his eyes.

“Am I what?”

“An atheist.”

I hate it when I’m confronted. “You mean am I someone who denies a concept that by its very negation proves its a priori existence?”

He took a moment to work that through and then nodded. “I think so…” But he didn’t sound at all certain of his work.

I like to think of myself as more of a fence-sitter on the question of god –an ‘a gnosis’ kind of guy. If we can’t know, then how is it we can be certain? I thought maybe I’d sit on the fence with my answer as well, to be logically consistent. “Is anything in life either fully black, or fully white?”

A mischievous smile suddenly appeared on his face. “So you’re a greytheist?” he said and laughed.

I had to admit it was clever. “How about you, Alistair?”

He shrugged. “I’m a catholic.”

“Small ‘C’?”

“What do you mean?”

“The word means ‘universal’ –as in ‘all embracing’…”

He smiled. “Yeah, I think that would pretty well cover it. I embrace all religions…” But when he saw one of my eyebrows wrinkling my forehead, he amended his catholicism somewhat. “I mean, people can believe what they want, eh?”

“That go for atheists, too?”

His previous smile of agape was suddenly replaced by a wry one. “What do atheists believe –if not in no god?”

He had me there. “I don’t know –the word just refers to what they don’t believe in, doesn’t it? I guess that leaves a lot of room for other things, though…”

He nodded and was silent for a while, staring into space as the relentless wind still played with the leaves. “Pretty hard to prove or disprove a negative, though, don’t you think?”

“You mean the old saw, ‘Absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence?’”

He nodded again, and I could see something hardening in his face. I had the impression I was being led. “How can you prove something isn’t? Even the Scientific Method –which relies heavily on inductive reasoning: deriving general principles from observations- contains uncertainty, doesn’t it? If I only see white swans, that doesn’t prove that all swans are necessarily white. One black swan disproves the conclusion. Disproves the principle…”

Alistair must have been reading up on this –I only vaguely remembered it from university. But I nodded anyway, deciding I’d adopt his catholic approach: when in doubt and sitting on someone else’s porch, agree with them.

“Deduction, on the other hand, works from the top down –from general principles to predicting what the observations should reveal. So… if your general principle is uncertain… and you can only prove that with observations…” He hesitated, obviously stumbling down a path he didn’t recognize. “Either way, in everyday life, we are forced to draw conclusions from limited experience, so we may get it wrong…” He stared at the trees again.

“Alistair what are you talking about, for heaven’s sake?”

He chuckled, but he looked embarrassed. “Uhmm, I thought I was going to disprove atheism…”

“Can we maybe go back to politics next Sunday, Alistair?”

He shrugged, nodded, and then stared at his coffee cup. “I was pretty sure I was on to something, though…”



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…