THE NOSE KNOWS

“When I want any good headwork done, I always choose a man, if suitable otherwise, with a long nose.”             Napoleon Bonaparte

We are so civilized today that our senses do not get the same workout they used to when we were wearing loin cloths and carrying spears. A case in point is our sense of smell. When was the last time you heard anyone bragging that they could smell you fifty feet away?

This now underutilized sense has a long, long history. In fact, they say smell was the first sense to develop. While we were scarcely out of our amoeba and paramecium rompers, our wiggly feelers were following aromas to food and sex. Not much has changed in that department.

But compared to other mammals, man’s sense of smell is weak. For example, a dog’s nose is a hundred thousand to a million times more perceptive than a human’s. If you happen to be escaping from a chain gang that bloodhound on your trail has a nose a hundred million times keener. But most of us have day jobs that do not require a lot of sniffing.

Today the nose has other responsibilities. It is the weather vane, if I may be so bold in my comparison, of our mental and emotional states. For example, wasn’t that whiff of expensive perfume the tip off to old George’s perfidy? And didn’t you turn up your nose to his protestations of innocence?

And how about the time you just knew something was rotten in Denmark. You may claim it was intuition that led to the double set of accounting books. I say it was your nose. After all isn’t the seat of the nose near the forehead and isn’t the pineal gland located just behind the third eye, and you know what Lobsang Rampa has to say about that. I rest my case.

At cocktail parties when we want to get away from boring people talking about themselves, we say we’re going to powder our nose. When we’re overworked we have our nose to the grindstone which in some cases might improve the profile. If the nose is the first to arrive at your destination it may be profitable in a horse race but not at a dance

Then there is that gruesome picture of revenge and reprisal that is a result of cutting off our nose to spite our face. Does this have anything to do with the rise of rhinoplasty?

So the next time you look in the mirror and notice the old proboscis, don’t pay attention to that big pimple or those hairs sticking out. Don’t duck and cringe when somebody says, “oink, oink.” Get a mirror and admire that profile. It’s the face on the coin of your personal kingdom.

ASIDE:

Today our nose is less a direction finder and more of a memory trigger. For example, when I smell the scent of Sweet Allysum I travel back in time to when I was four years old sitting in my sand box next to my mother’s flower garden. This association naturally leads me to consider other memorable aromas stored in my proboscian archives, the ones instantly recognizable that call up names and faces, times and places, the bouquet of my memories.

  1. coffee perking on the stove in my grandmother’s kitchen
  2. sitting under a blossoming grapefruit tree in southern California
  3. baby powder on new bathed skin
  4. sitting on a log in the snow smoking a cigarette as the sun rises
  5. new mown grass on the day the carnival came to town when I was 9
  6. opening the cedar chest to take out the winter clothes stored in moth balls
  7. bread baking in my mother’s oven
  8. the smell of earth and worms in March as I dug new flower beds
  9. clouds of incense filling the church during high mass on Sunday morning
  10. the sharp metallic tang of mercurochrome when I skinned my knees 

What are your favorites? What scents and aromas take you back to an earlier you?

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TAME ME

We are having an exceptionally mild winter here in Northern California, almost like Arizona with its bright blue sky days and cool, comfortable nights. I go to the nearby park around lunch time most days just to sit on a bench in the sunshine and watch the world go by.

Part of this world is a scattering of squirrels, which is like a flock only zanier. These little creatures are in a constant state of agitation, high on adrenaline for the least hint of a threat from leashed dogs walking down pathways to small children running recklessly across the grass.

I push out the thought that squirrels are part of the rodent family and instead enjoy their darting and climbing and sniffing. Even when their bodies are frozen in attention, their fluffy tails are in constant motion, signaling like semaphores to each other and the world at large.

The other day I picked up a bag of peanuts at the grocery store and now as I sit on the bench, I make chirpy noises to attract their attention. First, I toss out a few peanuts for their delectation. They circle warily but finally succumb to the nutty aroma. Slowly, I lure them closer and closer.

Today one is brave enough to come and take the peanut out of my hand. His tiny paw is so thin, his long nails like little dark needles. While the other squirrels frantically dart back and forth in indecision, he places his paw ever so lightly on my finger, then delicately takes the nut in his mouth – then runs away.

The exchange reminded me of the passage in “The Little Prince” when the fox explains to the Prince how to tame him and when I came home I dug out my book to refresh my memory.

“You have to be very patient,” the fox answered. “First you’ll have to sit down a little ways away from me, over there, in the grass. I’ll watch you out of the corner of my eye, and you won’t say anything…. But day by day, you’ll be able to sit a little closer… If you come (every day) at four in the afternoon, I’ll begin to be happy by three. The closer it gets to four, the happier I’ll feel. By four I’ll be all excited and worried; I’ll discover what it costs to be happy! But if you come at any old time, I’ll never know when I should prepare my heart….”

Even after all these years that part always brings a tear to my eye. Isn’t there a part of all of us that wants to be tamed, that wants to trust, to transcend the fear that living can bring. Remember that old saying, the first cut is the deepest. All of us at some point – maybe in our childhood, maybe in our teens – first experience the reality of life. We discover the cost of happiness.

Perhaps it is the betrayal by a close friend, the loss of a parent or a loved one, the injustice of an accusation. All future pain finds its way back to that original one for that is when we lost our innocence. Until then we were the golden child and naively believed we would never be hurt.

Because we didn’t want to be surprised or disappointed by life again, many of us withdrew a little from it, put up a shell so that arrows would not go in so deep. We loved but not completely, we trusted but had a back-up plan, just in case. Like the fearful squirrels at the park we edged into life, then retreated, edged forward, snatched, retreated.

In our insecurity we sought to be the tamer rather than the tamed. We wanted others to trust us, to love us, to make us feel safe. We wanted to be the one who could leave rather than risk being the one who was left. But being the tamer has its own price. “Men have forgotten this truth, said the fox. But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”

The people we ask to love us, the children we bear, the confidences we invite, the promises we make, the gifts we accept, the trust we encourage … all of these actions which make us happy require repayment in the form of responsibility. We must be trust worthy.

Now that I have started to feed the squirrels it is only a matter of time before I tame them. I will follow the advice of the fox and come everyday at the same time so that they will look forward to my presence. When they see someone sitting on the bench they will be reminded of me.

“Wheat fields say nothing to me which is sad. But you have hair the color of gold. So it will be wonderful, once you’ve tamed me! The wheat, which is golden, will remind me of you. And I’ll love the sound of the wind in the wheat…”

 

Picture from The Little Prince

IN PRAISE OF LITTLE BOOKS

There used to be a time when I would search out big, fat books; books that would take a week or even more to read; books that would admit me to their world and quietly draw the curtains around it while I lived within its dream. But now, as I am older, I find most big books tedious and seek out the small, short, thinner volumes for these I know will most likely come to the point, say what needs to be said and depart like a friend who knows when it’s time to go home.

I search out these smaller books on the library shelves. Before I used to go to the fiction or non-fiction or mystery books sections and look for favorite authors or intriguing titles. Now my eyes scan the shelves for the little ‘cousins’ and ‘maiden aunts’ hidden between the upright, study spines of more responsible and weighty family members.

These smaller books are like haiku. More than a short story but less than a novel; more than a sonnet and less than an epic, they glide with grace over thoughts and emotions, dipping deeply enough to evoke a response but lightly enough not to be tragically morose or extravagantly dramatic.

I have also eschewed novels about passion and desire; about struggle and revenge. This, I’m sure, is a direct result of my aging. Those emotions and motives do not have the allure they once did, either as an instructional treatise or as entertainment. I do not care to read or experience second hand the emotions of love lost or found; or desire thwarted or fulfilled, for I have come to realize that neither state is preferable which has certainly removed envy and concupiscence from my emotional vocabulary. Was it Oscar Wilde who said that the only thing worse that not getting what you wanted was getting it?

The smaller book does not have the time or space or energy to deal with these big emotions and big problems but instead focuses more on the mundane and everyday; the people one meets and lives with, the small problems whose solving does not cause sleeplessness at night; the emotions that touch poignantly not drain energy.

These smaller books also seem to pay more attention to typeface and format. Their covers are less vulgar and attention-getting and more delicate and fine. And since the books are smaller, they fit nicely in the hands. My fingers and wrists do not grow tired holding them up or balancing them on my stomach when I read in bed.

When I read about the characters in a story, I find I would like to know them; in fact, I sometimes feel I already do. Rather than characters to be adored or feared they are friends to be met and with luck, cherished. The emotions they draw forth are manageable and familiar. They remind one of childhood or good times or even sad times but without the tragedy.

One such story I recently read was titled, “Quite a Year for Plums,” by Bailey White. One chapter relates the approaching death of an old horse named Squeaky. Roger, the horse’s owner, erects a very large Styrofoam shed out in the field where the horse waits for the end.

“Then, suddenly … she realized why Roger had made Squeaky’s house so big. It was so that when the old horse finally pitched over, there would be room for him to fall without crashing into the flimsy walls of the house, and his last thought in this world would not be one of panic as the Styrofoam panels and poles of the dying house collapsed on top on him.”

A “Gone With the Wind” or the “Fall of the Roman Empire” or a “Harry Potter” could not contain such an observation because those pages would be too big and too dramatic for such a delicate observation. So my forays among the stacks at the local library for now will focus on the small, dusty and overlooked; in return I shall be charmed.

From 2010

 

HAIR-RAISING!

Ah! What’s that! My tongue flicked out and probed the corner of my mouth and upper lip. A tingling prickle. My finger left the keyboard and began an exploratory mission. Hmmm. Nothing. It must have been my imagination. I returned to work.

But a mere moment later an unthinking but stealthy lick of the lips again alerted my ever attentive tongue to an intruder. This time both thumb and index finger pinched and plucked. Damn! The tongue never lies. It was the tickling prickle of a wild whisker in the corner of my mouth.

Where had it come from?  There certainly wasn’t anything there last night, or this morning, or even an hour ago! I rushed to the bathroom, pulled out the magnifying mirror that shows me things no woman should ever look at – crow’s feet, enlarged pores, sagging chins and a wild hair.

Yes, there it was … lurking in the corner of my mouth, curled up along the crease some euphemistically call the laugh line only nobody’s laughing. Long, black and mean-looking like Lee Van Cleef without the cigar. My tongue probed it again. It bit back. “Exterminate! Exterminate!” resounded the Dalek mantra in my mind.

I rummaged through the drawer, pulled out my trusty tweezers and turned the make-up lights to their highest wattage. When I focused through my bifocals I was too far away. When I took them off I was too close. Nevertheless I plunged in. Ouch! I flashed the mirror at different angles to discover a more effective approach.

Grrrr! My eyes steely and my resolve unflagging I pounced again. Ouch! Success! I held the tweezers up to the light and viewed the now submissive whisker. A dark and menacing energy seem to emanate from its glistening length. My God! That sucker was at least an inch long! How did it grow so fast? Is it the steroids I’m taking for the arthritis?

Alarmed by this unsightly spectacle, I launched an intensive investigation. I pursed my lips, pulled my cheeks this way and that, then checked both double chins. All clear for now. Somewhat chastened, which is like woebegone only sorrier, I returned to my desk. My cat Sweetie Pie looked on in sympathetic understanding as I pondered.

What’s up with hair as you get older? Once the essence of come hither, hair has become elusive, unreliable, undisciplined and, in particular, migratory. It disappears from where it is supposed to be and has been for sixty plus years, and then turns up unexpectedly where it should not be and never was before!

Eyebrows that once would have made Frida Kahlo envious now have to be drawn on with grubby pencil named Maybelline. The once downy cheek is periodically sprinkled with unsightly stubble. I now have to use more eyeliner and less mascara. And the less said about hair brushes the better.

“But the very hairs of your head are all numbered,” said St. Matthew. Ask yourself if this is not a covert finger pointing to older women and the Red Hat Society. Consider hats and then ponder what they may or may not be covering. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure why older women also wear so much purple. It’s obviously a maneuver to draw attention from said toppers. Think about it.

So, where does all this disappearing hair go? Why to chins and upper lips and cheeks and noses. You have to be vigilant because these wild and crazy hairs pop out overnight like mushrooms and grow one – two – three inches while you’re still have your morning coffee.

Perhaps a study should be underwritten to study this phenomenon. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was tied into the phases of the moon like earthquakes are or are more noticeable in months without an ‘r.’ Is there is a Ripley’s Believe It or Not category addressing this kind of hair behavior? If not, perhaps there should be.

If only the energy involved in this rampant hair growth could be harnessed. For those surgically inclined, those impetuous and undisciplined wild hairs could be transplanted to the top of the head where they are really needed. Or, perhaps there is a way to reseed, so to speak, those hairs already lost. A careful and selective use of crazy glue comes to mind.

As a final thought consider the implications and etymological similarities between whisker, whisper, whistle and whiskey. It seems to me there is a lot of puckering involved. Can this really be natural?

How can I control my life when I can’t control my hair? Anonymous

THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE

I received an email this morning from my friend Susan telling me that a woman we both knew had died last Friday. Over the years Susan had kept me apprised of the highlights of this woman’s journey – the surgeries, the moves back and forth to her family, her struggle for independence. Although I had not known her well I was sad to learn she had died at just 66, not that old by today’s standards.

I remember both my mother and my Aunt Lucy telling me they never expected to live as long as they did – my mother to 93 and my aunt still going strong at 97. They had far surpassed the statistical norms of their generation. In 1911, for instance, the year my mother was born, the average life span for a woman was 50 years and 54 for men. Think about it – most women never lived long enough to go through menopause or see their grandchildren grow up.  Most men never retired.

When I was born in 1945 women had an average life span of 63; for a man, 68. I beat the bookies although there are many from my graduating class who are already gone. Like my mother, I may be surprised by living longer than I expect.

Life is uncertain and the fear of dying is the most basic of all, the hydra head from which all other fears twist and twine. Our western culture does not like to acknowledge the possibility, nay, inevitability of death and our best efforts are bent towards postponing rather than preparing for it.

Our religions promise us various forms and states of immortality and call upon the assertions of long dead saints to support their claims. But our current reliance upon the rational and material undermines belief in these possibilities. The gods of our fathers have been replaced by the gods of science and technology.

Since we no longer believe in life after death, we must prolong life as long as possible. The same science that brings us stem cell research, genetic manipulation and a sheep named Dolly also tells us that no energy is ever destroyed only transformed. And what is life if not energy? Only view a recently deceased person and you will immediately see the body is a mere inanimate shell. The animating presence, the energy, has left.

And what is that energy? Is it the individual essence that is you or me? Perhaps death is a mere blink of Brahma’s eye that triggers the star stuff inside and transports us to a new dimension. Is the God of Abraham and Krishna the same God that resides within Plank’s Constant and Schrodinger’s equation? If so, why is math so hard?

Heraclitus, a philosopher who lived 2,500 years ago and is best known for saying that the only constant is change, also said, “That which always was, and is, and will be everlasting fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away.” (translation by Brooks Haxton).

A fire that replenishes as it burns. No beginning, no end, no disappearance into a Great Abyss. Life is an ever-constant shape-shifting between thing and no thing in the cosmic furnace in which we are the fire and not the fuel.

It was this fire I felt when I read that the great Russian author, Anton Chekov, who, even as he was dying of tuberculosis, had a new home under construction. My heart responded to this victory of his spirit over the reality of matter. He was not denying the inevitability of death but asserting that death held no dominion over life. I applaud his spirit.

While on one level I may fear death I also admit to a certain curiosity when I contemplate the uncertainty of the journey that lay ahead, that plunge back into the great cosmic furnace that some have called the Sacred Heart.

ASIDE: 500 BC was an extraordinary era. Contemporaries of Heraclitus (535 to 457 BC) included Pythagoras, Buddha, Confucius and Lao Tse.

THEM THAT GOTS

There’s lyrics to a song that goes “them that gots is them that gets, and baby, I ain’t got nuttin’ yet.” Those are the words that ran through my head the other day when I read an article in our local newspaper that said Want Ads are now stating that “jobless people need not reply.” In other words, don’t bother sending in your resume if you don’t already have a job.

I had heard about this new trend and was dismayed to realize it was becoming a national phenomenon. In fact, New Jersey has passed a law banning such advertisements, legislation is pending on the federal level, and in California a bill is in the Assembly that would prohibit discriminating against the jobless in hiring.

Isn’t the whole reason you look for a job because you don’t have one? I found myself scratching my head and before I knew it had entered the domain of Non Sequiturs which is like the scissors you use to prune rose bushes but not as sharp. So I began to ponder.

Given the fact that you don’t have a job now, should you be excluded from ever having one again? I could see how this might appeal to some. Or is the time period involved be the critical factor. In other words, is it okay to look for a job if you have been unemployed for less than one month but not okay if more than three?

Perhaps the reason you are out of work should be considered. Is it permissible to be unemployed because of a corporate takeover but not because of incompetence? On the other hand, is it okay to be jobless because you moved to a new town but not because your boss didn’t like you?

Then I pondered more. Maybe the jobless question was being approached from the wrong direction. Instead of discouraging you from applying for a job, perhaps you should be penalized right from the beginning – to whit, at the time you were fired or laid off.

An Unemployment Fee might be appropriate. Because we believe in democratic principles, fees would be assigned on a sliding scale. The high paying job you lost, the higher the fee. That seems fair. Instead of extracting payment, perhaps withholding had more advantages. Would you not be spurred to greater industry if unemployment compensation was terminated – which many people believe just encourages you to laze about watching the soaps and drinking beer?

If our prisons were not so overcrowded, other alternatives might arise as they did during the Victorian Era with workhouses. In the good old days poverty was seen less as a social condition and more as a result of moral turpitude (why does this sound familiar?). It was thought that poor people had low moral character and deserved what they got, which was very little. Maybe that is what is at work here (pun intended).

Obviously, we cannot ignore that being out of work sets a bad example to others. This immediately led me to a whole new train of thought which I ruthlessly pursued. Were the millions of people now out of work due not to corporate greed and malfeasance combined with political incompetency but instead to an insidious ‘monkey see, monkey do’ factor?

I reluctantly put this tantalizing conjecture aside for deeper contemplation on a rainy day and took a cognitive step to the right to regard rapidly multiplying implications. Concurrent with this employ-ability trend is the growing practice of running a credit check on potential employees. If, for any reason, your credit report doesn’t pass muster, it will count against you at hiring time. In a twisted sort of way this can also make sense.

If you can’t balance your budget and pay your bills now, why should you be trusted with a salary that will enable you to continue this behavior? Just because banks can declare bankruptcy for bad decisions is no reason why that courtesy should be extended to the unwashed masses (see moral turpitude above).

The more I thought about this ‘them that gots is them that gets’ philosophy, the more examples that sprang to mind. For instance, you can’t get a home loan unless you don’t need one. And how about you only meet eligible people when you’re already in a relationship. And the granddaddy of them all, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

This brought to mind the parable in Mark’s gospel about the servant who received one talent and hid it under the floor. His master was angry with him for not investing the money and said, “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”

That parable has always bothered me. Is it promoting the banking industry – or something equally nefarious (which is like taking a ride on an Italian cruise ship only riskier)? Was that poor servant being punished for caution or for lack of originality?

But maybe there is some critical tipping point at work in these examples (I’m sorry to bring up such a touchy pun again). It seems as if we must have X before we can enjoy XX. So drilling down to the nub of the question – how to get that original X? And then it came to me – under what spot do pirates always bury their treasure chests! Yo, ho, ho!

Check it out  –  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbGthv-dJp4

HINDSIGHT

Hafiz, there is no one in this world

Who is not looking for God.

Everyone is trudging along

With as much dignity, courage

And style as they possibly can.

I discovered Hafiz, a 14th century Persian poet, a few years ago and was astonished by both the beauty and timelessness of his poetry. He was a Sufi mystic and much of his work expressed his longing for union with God. The short segment quoted above is part of a poem titled “I Follow Barefoot.”

I was struck by the ‘modernity’ of the lines – that under the circumstances, we are all of us doing the best that we can. As I look around the world in which we live those circumstances can seem quite dire. We now not only have the power to destroy each other but to destroy the very planet and its creatures.

How many millions of years have passed since man developed his intellect; how many great civilizations has man founded and then destroyed. The power and greed evident in history is the same thirst I see today. Do we never learn?

But in pondering that ever-returning cycle of advancement and destruction I realized that I was perhaps measuring our progress with too short of a stick. If we look at mankind not as an infinite number of individuals or races or civilizations but as an evolving species a different picture can emerge.

Over the millennia we have created beautiful, elegant bodies, developed inquisitive, powerful intellects and formed emotions capable bonding. It is our spiritual dimension that is now under construction and it is the spiritual canon we are now learning.

When we choose power and greed over love and cooperation, we must suffer the consequences of our unwise actions – again and again. In many ways we are still children who know the rules but are too immature or too stubborn to play by them.

I see now that I have been naïve in thinking that the 21st century will be different from the past simply because it is further down the temporal line. I have been naïve to think that the horrors of war of the 20th century would automatically enlighten us. Our sophisticated technology and knowledge base is not enough to make a difference unless our spiritual intelligence keeps pace.

While an individual lifetime may be long enough to transform a man or woman, it is not long enough to accommodate the evolution of a species. Socrates, or was it Plato, said that man always chooses what he thinks will make him happy. It’s easy in hindsight to say we should have done this or done that. But we always do the best that we can at the time.

And mankind today, as a whole, is also doing the best it can – in spite of those immature and selfish individuals who have the power to mislead. The only intelligent response to mankind’s floundering is forgiveness and patience. Meanwhile, it is our personal responsibility to live our own lives as consciously and as conscientiously as we can.

This planet is a living, breathing organism from which all creatures have come. We are the children of Earth just as the rocks and streams and trees and tigers are her children. In fact, all that is Earth is in some way our kin and we are still learning how to be a family.

 

SIDEBAR:

  • While Hafiz was in Iran writing his songs to God in the 14th century, Europe was just emerging from the 900 year period that Petrarch, the founder of humanism, named the Dark Ages.
  • During the 14th Century, the Great Famine (1315-1317) and the Black Death (1347- 1351) killed 30% of the European population.
  • In the field of statecraft, Charles V was King of France and Robert the Bruce of Scotland won the First Scottish War for Independence. The Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 marked the beginning of the end of feudalism in England. Edward III of England started the 100 Years War with France in which Joan of Arc played a starring role.
  • Osman the 1st founded Ottoman Empire; Mongol rule ended in China and the Ming Dynasty began; the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan in the valley of Mexico.
  • Hafiz’s contemporaries included Dante who was composing The Divine Comedy, Boccaccio who was writing The Decameron and Chaucer who was penning The Canterbury Tales.