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Read my lips

Babies learn to talk by watching lips as well as listening to us talk. They’ll briefly look into our eyes, then drop the focus of the gaze to our mouths. They listen, and watch, and babble back to us. To call it babble diminishes what they are actually doing. They are practicing,

“Mama,” we say, and the babies watch our lips come together and open, twice. Nice move, the babies think. They go off and try it by themselves 100 times a day. It’s so much easier to learn when you can watch the moves as well as listen to the music. Imagine trying to learn the moonwalk from nothing but a written description.

I’m pretty sure that many of us still depend on watching other peoples’ lips more than we realize. You can learn a lot about me by looking into my eyes as we talk, but eyes give us more of the overall or general sense of who that person is. Smart, disingenuous, generous, empathetic, narcissistic, fearful, distracted, dismissive, kind, or even crazy. Eyes just aren’t as labile as, well, lips.

Unless you are a TV presenter or an actor, your mouth and lips telegraph a moment by moment reveal of what you are thinking and feeling, even if you’re not talking. Without much trouble you can probably describe and list 10-15 or so specific signs, like hieroglyphs, we make with our mouths and what each means. Call them mouth emojis. Or don’t, because I detest emojis. ;-&

I’ve made three trips out of the house this past 14 days since flying back from California. The first two were curbside pickups of a couple of staples like whole wheat flour from the Warner Public Market. I went open-faced on those two jaunts.

My last trip was just a few days ago, to the NH liquor store. Uh, just in case we run out of rubbing alcohol to make wipes, right?

I have become a little more concerned this past week that the virus might be able to hang around longer in confined air spaces than the experts tell us, suspended as an aerosol. So for the first time in my life, I wore a mask in public.

There were only two customers in the store. One of them, a man in his 50s, thickset, with an aggressive way of walking, passed me in the aisle. I looked up and caught his eye, the way I’m used to doing in public, a slight tip of the head and that tight, friendly pursed lip smile most of us use to acknowledge a stranger in passing. But he couldn’t read my lips through my mask.

The look he gave me back, which, alas, I could see all too well, was cold eyes and the very slight lift of his upper lip which I translate as disdain.

I felt a sudden jolt of anger. What does this guy know of me and what assumptions did he just lock into place as he passed me.

Thinking about it now, I realize that we’ve reached a point where a lot of people see mask wearers the same way they see Prius drivers. It’s political, is it not?

But it’s also more than that. Walking around in a mask actually gives me one notch of power above a person with an open face. I can read them, but they can’t read me.

That troubles me. I don’t really know what to do about it.

OK. so what now

Shut in and self-quarantined after returning from the SF Bay Area on Monday, I find myself sitting in the studio thinking it may be time to bring this very old and dusty blog back online.

What can I say that won’t be swept into the past by the brooms of the next 24 hours? Give me another day to think about that.

Fractal #38: The Gentleman in Harvard Square

He sat in the cold on a dilapidated wheelchair, leaning heavily on his one good but crooked arm. As we walked by he caught Joan’s eye with an urgency that seemed beyond the standard panhandler’s flat appeal. From the way his mouth hung lopsided and slightly open I assumed the disability that twisted him had also garbled his speech. Whatever he was trying to say to Joan, though, made her stop in front of him. He pointed to an empty container of soup and plastic spoon on the sidewalk beside his chair, and then fluttered both hands towards a trash can. Joan picked up his empty bowl and tossed it in the can then turned back to him. He gestured for her to come back, come closer. She glanced at me, then approached. He gently took her gloved hand in his, and pressed his lips to the back of her hand.

The Hazards of Desire

Joan under a panama hat
What you see really is what you get. (click to enlarge)

To keep these ideas at a certain level of generality is the safest course. I mean to say that most of us are familiar with what we mean when we talk about desire. And it’s not the same as want or need, is it. It’s not just a deeper, or stronger, or brighter or heavier type of need. Desire comes from a place in the brain that is not necessarily driven by anything we can talk clearly about. If anything, desire is controlled by the breath, and in turn controls the breath. And that may be some clue to it. We don’t want oxygen, and to say we need oxygen is a bland way of saying that without it, our revels are ended. So as I breath, desire breathes me.

1982: An accident with the arrow

A dog, a baby and a boy. It was summer. Somebody thought he was an archer. (click to enlarge)
A dog, a baby and a boy. It was summer. Somebody thought he was an archer. (click to enlarge)

But one day in the summer of 1958 I was playing in the backyard with a bow and arrow. The arrow was a real one, with a sharp metal tip, a target arrow which I had acquired from another kid in the neighborhood as part of a carefully calculated exchange of trade goods. It was one of my most prized possessions. I would draw a target on a cardboard box and launch the arrow over and over again, increasing my distance from the box only after I was successful at hitting it consistently.

This particular afternoon for some reason I decided to shoot the arrow straight up into the air. Maybe simply for the thrill of it. Watching as it reached its apogee and faltered, slipping over on its side and then gathering back the speed it had lost as it streaked back down to stick with a satisfying crunch into the lawn. I did not know my grandfather had quietly walked out to inspect my mother’s flower garden. He was a gentle man, slight of build and bald of head. He was also deaf.

I launched the arrow, watched it rise, and then saw my grandfather standing on the lawn with his back to me. I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn’t shout. I closed my eyes, and in that moment probably came as close as I will ever come in my life to praying.

The arrow landed three or four feet behind him. I don’t remember anything else.