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…


A God by Any Other Name

Now I know I really am getting old –I’m starting to think about religion. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to single it out like that. Religion, or at least wonder about existence is such a part of the human Umwelt that, like the air we breathe, it is an appreciation that is tempered by its ubiquity. But I am reminded of a section of a poem written by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.’ It is a beautiful image, and although the entire poem is a bit too religious for my taste, the metaphor has a universal appeal that I suspect transcends even sectarian boundaries.

Given what I take to be our omnipresent awe about life, I have to suspect that other sentient beings –alien beings- would have a similar acknowledgment of the Mystery of Being, and wonder about the unknown… Or does wonder suggest insecurity, and mystery, merely challenge? Would omniscience, if such a thing could ever exist, necessarily preclude curiosity? Belief? Reverence? Late night questions, to be sure…

I suppose the BBC article that I stumbled across a while back fell upon fertile soil: Just how important is it for us to believe in something? To have questions?

Maybe there are no answers, but it reminded me of a heated discussion I heard one evening in a coffee shop that I visited after a movie. It was quite busy, as I recall, and I found myself sitting beside a group, deep in conversation. All four were leaning over their table, heads together, bagels long consumed, and coffees no longer steaming. They were young –in their early twenties, I would guess- and the only woman, a short-haired blond with horn-rimmed glasses and a black Rasta sweatshirt, was gesticulating with her finger to make a point. She seemed so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help listening.

“Archetypes? That’s so Jungian, Aaron…”

“And what’s wrong with that? How else could we explain it if we don’t assume some sort of a Collective Unconscious, Natalie?” Aaron was another bespectacled youth, with messy short brown hair.

She threw her arms up in mock protest. “You haven’t explained anything, though. I don’t accept that God is a black hole, let alone that She happens to be the one at the center of our Galaxy…”

“Can we please ungender the concept, Nat? How about it, or they, or something?”

She turned to the speaker, a large heavy man in a black leather full-length coat. “Fair enough John. Whatever we use is weird, however –especially gynaecomorphizing a neutral abstraction.”

“Love the word, though, Nat…”

She smiled at the third man, the only one with long hair. “Thank you Jag –makes me sound academic, eh?”

“But, come on folks,” Aaron was on a roll. “Just think about it, okay? The myth says God is outside of time, right? A black hole is outside of time…”

Outside of time…?

“Well, if time is infinite inside a black hole, then it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?”

There were a few seconds of silence while the others considered the idea, so he developed it further. “And where is the timeless Heaven the various religions talk about?”

Jag rolled his eyes. “You’re doing the same kind of thing that Zukav did in that old book The Dancing Wu Li Masters…”

My coffee was getting cold; I felt I should be taking notes.

“Come on, Jag –that book was about quantum stuff… And I’m not invoking Buddhism, or anything eastern like that.” He leaned further across the table. “No, you go to a black hole, you exit time. It fits with the biblical heaven, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think the Buddhists even believe in God, do they?” John said this as he stretched and then leaned back on a wooden chair already creaking under his weight. “Or heaven, for that matter…”

“They believe in Samsara –that cycle of rebirth thing I think…” But Natalie didn’t seem sure, so John dropped his objections.

Jag attempted a sip at what was left in his cup, and put it down as soon as he tasted it. “But Aaron raises an interesting point, though…”

“I finally broke through, eh?” Aaron smiled and tried to high-five Natalie, but she just stared at him.

“What do you mean, Jag?” she said, caressing his face with her eyes, and blushing. She seemed obviously attracted to him. Maybe they were a pair.

“Well, let’s suppose Aaron is on to something here, and there is somehow an awareness of a power to which we are all subject. I mean the stars in our galaxy are all rotating around the central black hole, aren’t they? So, if there are other inhabited worlds out there in the galaxy, maybe they’d experience the same awareness, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe the black hole exerts some kind of force or field on the galaxy that our earth calls spirit, or god. It gets interpreted differently, of course –we all have different cultures, and different surroundings –different exigencies… So perhaps aliens would have their own explanations for this force…”

John sat forward again and leaned into the table. “Do any of you realize how teenage this all sounds?” He glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

I guess they knew I was listening. Of course I’d been staring at them one by one as they talked. Natalie tore her eyes from Jag and stared at me like a teacher would at a student that was interrupting. But she wasn’t angry –just surprised that I was listening. “Sorry, sir. We really get into these post-pub discussions…”

I smiled and sat straighter in my chair. “Please don’t apologize. I’m intrigued by your arguments…” I leaned forward on my table again. “Especially your God of the black hole,” I said, looking first at Aaron and then at Jag. “And I’ve often wondered how our terrestrial religions could accommodate such different creation myths.

“I’m from the Carl Sagan era, don’t forget –remember the Pale Blue Dot photograph by Voyager 1 from 6 billion kilometers away? It kind of emphasized just how un-special we and our precious sun are in the galaxy, let alone the universe…” They all nodded politely, but I had to be careful -I was the alien in their midst… “But like Aaron and Jag suggested, maybe what we call religion is just an evolutionary balm for a consciousness that demands identity in the midst of cosmic anonymity.”

I sat back in my seat, rather pleased with my obfuscation. Memories of my university evenings flooded back.

“Whoa,” Aaron said, staring at me -puzzled that I even had an opinion, perhaps. “You make it sound so… I don’t know… depressing!”

Natalie glanced at Aaron and then stared at me for a moment. Her eyes were soft and reassuring, but I could tell she was once again the patient teacher, hoping not to embarrass me, the older, slower student in the back row who would probably never understand. “Not depressing, Aaron,” she said turning away from me with an encouraging smile- “Hopeful…” And she reached out and squeezed Jag’s hand.

Whether it was a secret message to him, I couldn’t tell, but I felt acknowledged at any rate. Comforted, if not accepted -I was from a different time than them, after all.

‘Age considers, youth ventures,” as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote. It probably never occurred to them than I was like them… once.