Observations, speculations, and things that go without saying

A regularly updated collection of musings about science, culture, and everyday minutiae, sometimes sincere, sometimes facetious, sometimes I can't even tell.

Pedro Mendes /Flickr

It's now been six months since I split from my partner of six years. That's six years of living together, doing our bachelor and honours degree together and even having the same job together for a little. That amount of close-contact is a fertile breeding ground for the types of 'couply' idiosyncrasies that others love to hate: pet names, manners of speech, and in-jokes reiterated over years that no one else will ever understand and whose origins are untraceable. These are superficial quirks that don't amount to much, natural byproducts from two minds spending that much time together. 

These 'quirks' become second nature and, like so many aspects of our personalities, go unchallenged and fall into our blind-spot of awareness. We forget that we call each other pet names like 'muff' that mean other things to the rest of the world. We forget that it's not so normal to shorten every other word and have code-words for thousands of things that others aren't privy to.

If we imitate those we respect, and we hold the partner up above all else, we imitate every aspect of them scrupulously. And if they too are imitating you with similar vigour, and they are a version of you, they become a reflection of you, which you in turn imitate for them to pick up and reiterate. In time, and not much time, the two people's internal worlds and external expressions cascade, becoming a united exaggeration of a single emergent entity — a millipede reflected in recursive changing room mirrors. It doesn't make much sense to anybody, neither part of the couple, and certainly not to those on the outside.

These expressions of affection become muscle memory. Be they cutesey voices projecting animals' internal monologue, impish faces pulled after a joke, a motion of brushing hair behind the ear, they're there to stay.

After a few weeks of seeing someone new, I started noticing something when we'd kiss. We'd be kissing passionately and then she'd pause, move her lips slightly out of reach while looking me in the eyes — and then dart in for a quick peck. Again — eyes still locked, they studied mine as she moved her head slowly back before darting in for another quick peck, a small smile too.

This game was created before me. I didn't write those rules. I wasn't there the first time she pretended to withhold her kisses before loosing them back in those cute little pecks. It wasn't me who returned the motion with amused affection. This is a game co-developed with a past love, a game borne from collected hours of intimacy and subtle exchanges of love.

It was existential for me, being on the receiving end of a delicate and idiosyncratic expression of love developed for kissing someone else. It was almost as if I were a vicarious other man, an embodied voyeur. I felt like I hadn't earned the right to enter the sanctum of their relationship, which now is just an archive that exists only in memories and vestigial kissing games. 

I might be entirely wrong. She may have developed it then, specifically for me. She may have done it her whole life, regardless of the other person. And then I noticed my vestige.

Lying in bed with my left arm under her neck and around her shoulder, my right arm is free. It moves autonomously, caressing her bare arm. My hand and fingers are limp as they start their route from her upturned fingertips. My touch meets hers. My fingertips drift from hers, down each segment to their base. They trace the lines in her palm, around the thumb. They move from her hand to her wrist. They pause to count the tendons before moving on. They travel up her silken forearm feeling the fine almost imperceptible hairs under their heightened touch. Moving up the softest path of her forearm they reach her inner elbow where they make an infinitesimal pause to feel her freckle there. The freckle can't be felt, only smooth skin. Their caress falters for a flash as they continue their journey up her arm. Where was the freckle my fingertips, my entire being, had come to anticipate?

It was on the inner elbow of a different woman, the only arm they'd known, the arm they'd spent hundreds of hours tracing up and down mechanically, just them. My fingers thought they were somewhere they weren't. Some parts of me don't know that something has changed. Some parts of me have adapted, some parts linger. March 2016.



The acknowledgement gambit (for platonic acquaintances)

Flirting is expressing interest in someone, but not so obviously that you can't retract it if it isn't reciprocated. Flirting's a gambit of emotion that needs to be subtle, subtle enough to deny, but firm enough to spark the attention of the other and tease out whether they feel the same. 

A similar thing happens between acquaintances in the same area that haven't acknowledged each other. There's a platonic flirt to make mutual eye contact, but no one will take the plunge.

Two scenarios describing the same thing:

Scenario one: I'm standing at a bus stop and spot an acquaintance that I don't particularly want to talk to — not because I dislike the person, but purely because I don't want to interrupt my own silent equilibrium. Judging by their stance and aspect, they've likely seen me too. 
The outcomes are these: a) Approach them first, disrupt their peace, and appear more outgoing than I am, b) They approach me for pleasantries-exchange, or c) Both pretend to be oblivious of each other, and let the ebb and flow of queues and shuffling commuters determine whether we're forced into recognising each other's existence. This is the worst outcome because both parties have been aware of one another for ten minutes, pretending to not have noticed, idly gazing around (with a 70° buffer zone as if with blinders), and now that they're foisted onto each other, they have to pretend that neither has been playing that same charade — AND, that ten minutes of suppressing awareness has built such tension that both people inevitably over-compensate with a deeper breath, higher eyebrow stretch, and higher pitch.

Scenario two: I don't go to the gym often, but nonetheless I'm a member. The entry to the gym is a ramp that passes down past the glass-walled office of the staff, staff who smile and wave by default. I can't see if people are in the office unless I conspicuously turn to look in. This engages me into yet another micro social transaction. Not looking is rude, because there may be friendly staff watching me, waiting for me to turn and wave back and I'm knowingly ignoring them. Looking is awkward, because chances are they are looking down, thus forcing me to a) stare expectantly as I walk by like a nutjob waiting for them to look at me, or b) quickly look away, which often coincides with them looking up to catch my head now turning away. They then look at me, waiting for me to look back, which then starts the minute cycle up again.

There are too many instances of this phenomenon, and I'm sure you get the gist. In fact, it happened to me just now writing this, sitting in the garden in my underpants. My landlord, who shares the space, walked past (with magic blinders on), he did his thing and only at the last second decided to stop and recognise me. "That's the life," he said grinning. Indeed it is. February 2016.



Stand-up comedy as an analogy for natural selection

Stand-up comedy as an analogy for natural selection whereby the lines of a stand-up routine are the gene pool of a species, and the audience is the environment.

Starting with a comedy routine (a population of organisms), there are certain lines that will elicit laughs and others that will not. On paper, the comedian does not know which lines will go well and which will not. The lines have already done well enough to persist in the current set, but that's it. They must be run past successive audiences.

The audience (nature/environment) will quickly determine which genes/jokes will work well and which won't.

The lines that elicit laughter will get into the next performance (the next generation), the mediocre lines that aren't so funny may get into the next generation just because they don't harm the performance, while the jokes that explicitly damage the show will instantly be selected out by the audience.

Sometimes jokes/genes can be affected by unrelated factors. Some evenings, the same material can go differently depending on the environment/the audience. Sometimes average jokes might get lauded more than they deserve, and some great jokes may go poorly due to other factors. Similarly, some useless animals survive because they live on islands, while some well-suited animals such as Tyrannosaurs get wiped out by stochastic causes like asteroids. Bombing.

Sometimes a glitch in the comedian's delivery, a mistake or an ad lib line, might get huge laughs. This is a mutation. Most mutations will indeed be mistakes, deviations from the ideal line delivery — and these will not make it into the next set. Sometimes, however, the glitches will be funnier than the original material and will thus proliferate and potentially get more lines/setup in future sets.

Some comedians' routines are specialised — they evolved in particular environments with particular audiences and can only survive there. A show delivered to drunken adults can be a bit crass or tongue in cheek; the same show delivered at a child's party or at a corporate event may not be so good. This is like popping a penguin in the Sahara.

Alternatively, there are more generalist comedians that can perform their material all over the place. This is the equivalent of a generalist cosmopolitan species like humans. Particularly incisive comedians touching on universal themes will thrive. The analogy converges. January 2016.



Grooming compounds humility

I learnt this lesson a long time ago, maybe even before adolescence, but I remembered it recently and jotted it down: "I don't like putting any effort into how I look — especially my hair and facial hair — because if I ever embarrass myself while looking nice, every minute I've put into grooming is converted into as many extra pounds of humility/shame." 

A few hours after I wrote that down, I had a rather traumatic relationship debacle. The issue ultimately stemmed from me being thoughtless, which resulted in emotional pain for someone else. I was standing in a train carriage, comforting the person, feeling guilty and small, when I caught my reflection in the darkened window. The sight of my face repulsed me, a feeling I hadn't felt for some time. I hadn't committed any time to my outfit or styling my hair, which slightly lessened my shame.

I've noticed a similar thing happening if you slip or trip over. The amount of teeth-clenching embarrassment increases proportionally with the flare of the clothing. I'm not sure why this is so, or whether it's an internal insecurity or if the audience registers the same fall from grace. Just an observation. January 2016.



Social media-influenced phrases

If it hasn't already happened, I imagine we'll soon develop cliche phrases to describe personalities, based on people's social media habits. I.e. Instead of describing someone by saying "they wear their heart on their sleeve" or "they're an open book", we'll say "they have a full wall" or "they're a heavy tweeter". December 2015.



Auto-correct's future impact

I imagine in the future, words which are often replaced by auto-correct will become synonymous with their replacements, such that they are used interchangeably. Duck will be a swear word, as in you can be a real duck face sometimes, or let's have a quick duck in the pool while no one's home. And words that don't appear in spell-check dictionaries like 'flimflam' will be superseded by their replacements 'glim glam', as in stop talking so much glim glam. December 2015.