On Beauty

The other day, as I was walking down the street on my way to a meeting, I saw a young man walking the other way that I thought was a person that works in my office. He works on another floor so I don’t often see him. I was about to say hello when I was struck with uncertainty as to whether it was him, and held my tongue. I ruminated for the next minute or so, and finally decided that it wasn’t.

Why did I find it so hard to work that out?

Part of the reason was that I’m not so good at remembering the faces of people I don’t see regularly. But that didn’t seem enough to explain my confusion. There are plenty of people that I don’t meet often, but whom I can still recognise fairly easily.

In the end I decided it was because the person in question has very regular features – what you might call ‘clean cut’. You know: symmetrical face, unblemished skin, non-knobbly nose, average size of all main features and dimensions (nose, mouth, eyes, ears, forehead, chin), not fat, but not very thin either. The sort of face that might appear in an ad for razors or toothpaste.

People whose faces have lots of symmetry, conformance to averages, and lack of blemishes and knobbles have fewer distinguishing features. Take it to the extreme and a face becomes a featureless sphere. Adding two eyes, a mouth and a nose reduces the symmetry somewhat but, since nearly all humans have those, it doesn’t narrow down the field much. It’s only when the characteristics or location of those features differ materially from the average that we find something worthy of telling the police artist – thin lips, broad nose, close-set eyes, high forehead. What would the Identikit officer do with information that the burglar had average lips, average nose and average eyes?

It is sometimes said that human beauty has much to do with symmetry. Does that mean the reason I didn’t recognise my colleague is because he’s good-looking? Perhaps. Supermodels seem to score highly in the bodily symmetry stakes. I don’t think I could name one for whom I could identify an asymmetry. Although, to be fair, that may be because I would have trouble naming any supermodels at all. On my scale of rating the hundred things that interest me most, they don’t.

But are supermodels beautiful? Or are they just pretty, and if so, is that because they are too symmetrical, too featureless?

The American actor Ryan Gosling seems to be a popular heart-throb at the moment. His features are mostly pretty regular, but there’s something unusual about his eyes. I’m not sure what. I think they’re either unusually close-set or a little asymmetrical – perhaps a combination of both. But is that slight irregularity part of the reason that he is considered so desirable? Would he be less alluring if his eyes were evened up and spread out a bit – more average?

When I think of women that were considered very desirable amongst my peers over the last few decades, I see images of people who all had something slightly unusual about their features: Nastassja Kinski (big mouth), Emma Stone (large eyes), Sophia Loren (long nose). In my recent attempts to get better at speaking French I have been watching many French movies, and have noticed that many of their female stars in romantic roles have unusual features, a disproportionate this or that, or asymmetric something elses.

Could it be that featurelessness is the key factor in mere ‘prettiness’, so that pretty people (perhaps including my poor, blameless work colleague) all look fairly similar, whereas beauty is a complex melange of (just enough) symmetry with provocative asymmetries, irregularities and other distinguishing features?

People seem to love looking at pictures and videos of cute fluffy cats and dogs on the internet. Generally these animals are symmetric and healthy. One rarely sees people cooing over a scrappy, moth-eaten old dog or cat. Yet if one has had a scrappy, moth-eaten dog or cat as a pet for a long time, it will have a much stronger pull on our heartstrings than a pretty puppy in a tissue commercial. The irregularities (some might say flaws) become markers of recognition and triggers for affection, rather than items of deficiency or regret.

I wonder whether this phenomenon also displays itself in the field of moral beauty. There’s am unfortunate culture trope about the girl who only goes out with boys that treat her badly, and has only contempt for the ‘nice guys’. Perhaps there are some such girls around, but I haven’t observed the phenomenon to be widespread. It seems to me that nearly everybody likes to be treated with at least a modicum of respect and affection.

But there’s another trope out there – especially in movies and literature – about the person who feels repelled from their partner because they (the partner) are too good. The argument often runs along the lines that the partner is impossible to measure up to, and often makes the protagonist feel morally inadequate – bad. The kinder and more tolerant the way in which the ‘good’ partner reacts to this, the worse the divide becomes. I saw another example of this just last night – the character played by Gillian Anderson in the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’. Her husband, working as an MSF-type doctor in a grossly under-resourced rural Ugandan hospital, was such a kind man that she felt tempted towards infidelity simply because she felt she couldn’t live up to the level of virtue exemplified by her husband. Be not distressed though, dear reader. So far as I know, Ms Anderson managed to resist her impulses, and her relationship survived the danger. But I can’t be sure, because I was unable to watch the second half of the movie for fear of the cruel violence that I knew would engulf most of the characters once the murderous Idi Amin got into his stride.

I have made no more observations of this in real life than of the other trope. There are very few true saints around, and I think I have met hardly any of them. But it somehow feels more plausible than the other trope. It just seems to me that, while nobody wants to live in the constant presence of cruelty and contempt, perhaps many, without even realising it, value the (hopefully fairly minor) character flaws of their partners and friends, and are even quite attached to them.

Or maybe not. I wrote this while on holiday and it is all just idle speculation.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, May 2018

 

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The Violence of Movement

Roads in English towns and cities seem so much safer to me than their equivalents in Australia. They also have less deep kerbs, as a result of which cars can easily park with two wheels on the footpath (sidewalk) and two on the road, an opportunity they often make us of on roads that are too narrow to accommodate normal parallel parking.

Yet I feel safe.

Why do not I, as a pedestrian, feel threatened by having a more permeable barrier between the cars and the pedestrians than I am used to? Why doesn’t it make me feel less safe on an english footpath than on an Australian one?

Perhaps it is this: barriers work in both directions – they prevent things coming in but also prevent them going out. Skin protects infectious agents from getting at one’s innards (which is why cuts in the skin often lead to infection), but it also prevents the innards from losing moisture and other precious bodily fluids – from dessicating. And it is as important for prison walls to keep people out – who may be carrying phones, drugs, weapons or escape tools – as it is for them to keep inmates in.

So what does the kerb, as a barrier, prevent from going which way? The obvious answer is that it deters cars from going onto the footpath. A secondary answer is that it makes pedestrians think twice before stepping onto the road. But on an emotional level, it also acts as a barrier between the peace of the footpath and the violence of the cars on the road.

Because cars are violent. Moving a ton and a half of metal at speeds of 60-100 kilometres per hour is a violent activity. One does not notice this so much when one is sitting inside the hunk of metal. They are specially designed to mask the violence, to provide an illusion of serenity. They do this by sound-proofing, vibration-damping and engine-quietening. That’s why ads for luxury cars are often shot from the perspective of inside the cabin, to a soundtrack of blissful classical music: “See, there’s no violence here. It’s all beauty and grace”.

But the illusion is shattered when the car whooshes past a pedestrian or cyclist too closely or worse, when it collides with them, or with something else. The classical music appropriate to that is not so much Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which, for the non-classical music lovers, was considered so shockingly violent when it premiered that the audience rioted in protest).

Indeed, the fast movement of heavy objects is unavoidably violent.

A brief digression: a visceral demonstration of this violence can be obtained by getting off a train in Europe at a station which high-speed intercity expresses pass through but do not stop. One has to take a non-express train to get there (or a bus, or walk or cycle) but it’s worth the effort. The express trains come past at speeds between 200 and 300 kilometres per hour, and the experience of having those thousands of tons of people and metal rush past only a metre or two away is unforgettable. Although they are not supersonic, one does not get much of an audible warning before they are upon you. Then there is a slam into a scanty few seconds of thunderous rush as the long line of carriages zooms by. The tail zaps by, you then dare to peek out over the track after it and there it is, already far away, dwindling into the distance at an amazing rate. The thought of what such a juggernaut would do if it struck something doesn’t bear thinking about.

Cars are neither as big nor as fast as express trains. But they still make an awful mess of a human body when they collide with one at any speed over about 30 km/h. The road is indeed, relative to the footpath, a place of great violence.

Back then to the barrier between peace and violence. In England, the barrier is less than in Australia, so why do I feel less afraid? I think it is because, rather than the violence of the road invading the pavement, the peace of the pavement starts to permeate the road! This is not an airy-fairy, metaphysical sensation. It can be measured objectively in car speeds and driver behaviour. The cars rarely drive faster than 30 km/h, are generally cautious and alert for, and respectful of, pedestrians and cyclists, and rarely use their horns. One just feels fairly safe, walking down an English street, including when one crosses the road. It is as if having only a flimsy barrier between pedestrians and motorists makes the motorists more aware of the violence of which they are capable, and influences them to be more cautious and respectful than they would be if the barrier were greater. In contrast, Australian drivers tend to accelerate to 60 km/h at every opportunity, regardless of whether that is a safe speed or even of whether it would shorten the expected journey length.

I am not suggesting that the flimsy barrier is the sole reason for the difference. I expect cultural norms built up over many decades, perhaps aided by laws that place greater responsibility for safety on motorists, contribute as well. But what is undeniable is that the urban terrorism of Australian motorists just doesn’t seem exist in the England, and maybe not even in most of Europe.

It makes walking or riding around town just so much more pleasant. I suspect maybe it makes driving more pleasant too. It is sometimes nice to feel one is not in a war zone.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, March 2018

PS The featured image for this essay is a shot from the 1974 Australian horror comedy movie ‘The Cars That Ate Paris‘. Get hold of a copy if you can and watch it. It sounds brilliant!


Thought Association

I was jogging on the beach, trying to think of something else because the last couple of days had been rather upsetting. I settled on thinking about an essay I am trying to write about The End of The World. Very soon I found that I had the REM song It’s the end of the world as we know it running through my head on repeat.

After a while I noticed somebody running along next to the concrete promenade, where the sand is softest because it is furthest from the water and almost never gets wet from the sea. The sand was pretty soft where I was, about halfway between the promenade and the water. But maybe it was softer over near that other guy. In any case, we’d had heaps of rain recently, so if water makes sand pack together harder, presumably where I was would be just as water-hardened as next to the promenade.

But then maybe seawater has a different effect. Perhaps it makes the sand stick together better than rainwater does. If so then the sand next to the promenade really would be softer, unless the sea ever gets up to there.

That led to me wondering about whether, in the wildest sorts of weather, the sea ever came all the way up to the concrete wall below the promenade (about fifty metres from the high tide mark).

Thinking of stormy weather made me think of the scene in the movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman where the female lead stands at the end of a long jetty in a storm, only a metre or two above the rough sea – a precarious position, deeply evocative.

That led me to wonder whether it is sexist to refer to the character as somebody’s ‘woman’, thereby seeming to suggest ownership. That led to my thinking about the reverse phrase ‘somebody’s man’, which led me to think of the Tammy Wynette song Stand by your man.

And without any conscious decision to do so, there I was, jogging along the beach, mentally humming Stand by your man instead of It’s the End of the World as we know it.

Thought association.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2017

Featured Image is from the 1981 movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman, showing the jetty called ‘The Cobb’ at Lyme Regis UK.


About smiling

George Orwell said ‘At the age of fifty, everyone has the face s/he deserves’.

I first heard that saying decades ago and for some unknown reason remembered it. I was never very confident about exactly what Orwell meant by it, but I have always interpreted it to mean that if you spend your life being cross you will end up looking like a cranky old wo/man. But if you spend your life smiling kindly, you will look like a kind old person. It goes along with that other old saying, that your face will get stuck with whatever expression you are wearing when the wind changes (or does that rule only apply if you are making a face at somebody?).

If it were true, it’s bad luck for those that suffer a lot of pain or grief in their first few decades. They would end up looking permanently in pain or sad.

There’s not much we can do to avoid pain or grief, but we have at least some control over whether we scowl or smile on those around us.

Orwell’s saying came back to me at around the age of forty. I didn’t remember what the cutoff age was but I remembered that you had to watch out if you didn’t want to end up like Mr Wintergarten or any other fictional old person the neighbourhood children avoided in fear.

I started paying occasional attention to my facial expressions, noting when I smiled. I was somewhat relieved to find that I smiled quite often, partly because my children, who were all below ten years old at the time, often made me laugh or smile at their antics. ‘Thank goodness!’ I thought. I would be safe from ogredom and the neighbourhood children would be free from my future reign of terror.

There are two special occasions when I do my best to smile – they are when riding my bicycle on public roads, and when jogging.

The reason for the jogging smile is that I heard that a famous American public intellectual and wit said something like ‘If I ever see a jogger smiling I might try it‘. For a long time I thought Gertrude Stein said that but now the internet tells me it was actually the comedian Joan Rivers in 1982. I don’t know if others would count Joan Rivers as a public intellectual, but I like to think of Public Intellectuality as a broad church. Anyway, I resented the implication that joggers were a miserable bunch that hated jogging and did it either because, like banging your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop, or because like an Opus Dei monk wearing a cicatrice, they felt that the pain they were suffering was somehow accumulating points for them in their heavenly bank account.

Fie on you Ms Steinem (yes I know, I get Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem mixed up – pathetic isn’t it) I admonished her inside my head. I don’t suffer when I jog. I quite enjoy it most of the time, and sometimes I even love it. But I had to admit she had a point about the smiling. Joggers didn’t tend to smile, perhaps because they were too busy trying to breathe.

So I determined to set the world to rights. I became possibly the world’s first ever smiling jogger. I didn’t smile all the time. It is quite tiring on the facial muscles to maintain a smile for minutes at a time, as any games show barrel girl will attest (some people think that catwalk models look so sulky these days because they are perpetually hungry, but I think it may also be because it is more relaxing to maintain a vacant gaze than a beaming smile). But as soon as a passer-by hove into sight, I lit my face up like a Christmas tree, so they could see just how much fun I was having.

This led to some peculiar looks, and mothers shepherding their children anxiously away from me with worried expressions on their faces.

My campaign of smiling on a bicycle was for a different reason, and met with rather more success. There are a bunch of nasty ‘shock jocks’ in my city that anathematise anybody that expresses any concern for the environment as a Luddite, anti-democratic communist. They save their most virulent hatred for refugees and bicycle riders, in both cases, apparently because they clog up the roads and thereby interfere with the God-given right of every right-thinking person to drive their Land Cruiser down any street at 60km/h plus, unimpeded.

While most people, fortunately, are not influenced by this outpouring of bile, it does have some spillover effects and it did tend to generally increase the degree of hostility between cyclists and motor-car drivers. I thought that if I smiled at motorists that I encountered (or, at least, at the ones that hadn’t just nearly killed me by turning in front of me, cutting me off, passing too close and fast or just blaring their horn at me so close as to make me nearly fall off in fright) I would be doing my little bit to rebuild cordial relations.

I am pleased to report that this little strategy, unlike campaign Joggers-Can-Smile-Too, met with unexpected success. I received plenty of return smiles, waves and other gracious, heart-warming gestures. So, take that, Alan Jones!

For some reason it is also easier, and feels more natural, to smile when riding than when jogging. It might be because riding is after all more intrinsically fun than jogging, because of the whizzing. We all love to whizz after all, and not many of us are capable of jogging at whizzing speed. I used to be able to, but have not been able to for a long time now. Plus, every time one’s foot hits the ground (which is about eight-three times a minute, in case you were wondering), one’s facial muscles all get wobbled about by the shock-wave, making it more than usually hard work to maintain a smile. If you don’t believe me, look at a slow-motion replay of the 100m race in the Olympics and watch what the faces do. Ignore that famous sideways smile photo of Usain Bolt at the Rio Olympics. That was in a semi-final, so he wasn’t really running very fast (for him).

There’s also the fact that, because the air is rushing towards you quite fast on a bike, you don’t need to open your mouth into a big fat O shape to get enough air in. A sweet smile leaves more than enough opening for enough of the rearward rushing air to find its way to the lungs.

After a while, it just became a habit to smile when I was riding my bicycle, at least, when I wasn’t climbing a difficult hill or negotiating a particularly dangerous traffic situation.

So, in between the child-induced smile, the jogging smile and the bicycling smile, it seemed that my face was probably doing what was necessary in order to meet Mr Orwell’s challenge.

Now I am well past fifty, so I suppose I am out of danger. My face has, I suppose, become set in whatever configuration it is to maintain from here on in. The only expected future changes are ever-increasing numbers of wrinkles, perhaps sun-spots and scars from removed skin lesions and a gradual loss of teeth and hair. But can I be sure of that? After all, while Mr Orwell’s skill as an author is beyond question, his expertise as a gerontologist is comparatively unknown. Could he have been mistaken? What if it is sixty, seventy, or even eighty? One cannot be too careful. Perhaps it is too early to stop smiling.

Which brings me to the topic of this essay (better late than never): adolescent and young-adult offspring just don’t seem to compel beaming, helpless smiles from adults in the same way that two year olds do. Of the positive emotions that adolescents can generate (we’ll not dwell on the negative ones), there are affection, pride, sympathy and a number of others but “Oh my goodness that’s so adorable!” is not usually one of them. I presume this has something to do with evolution. We are programmed to find almost every utterance and action of a two-year old adorable, because they cannot fend for themselves and, if we didn’t find them adorable, we might not be inclined to fend for them – which wouldn’t do at all, not if we want them to grow up to be Prime Ministers. But above the age of about sixteen, the fending skills of the human species appear to be adequate, so evolution decided to ease off on the adorability spell. That may be all very well – after all, many adolescents prefer to spend time in any company other than that of their parents, and parents are easier to shake off if they are not following you around with adoring grins on their faces. But how are we to meet our smiling quota in the absence of such an influence? I have a feeling that now I may spend less than half the amount of time smiling that I did ten years ago. I can put some of that down to my mid-life crisis, but I think the partial maturation of my children has to bear some of the responsibility.

What, then, is to be done? One has to find other things to make one smile. But what? That will have to be the topic of another essay.

Ian Dury knew though. He made a list, in his song Reasons to be Cheerful (Part 3).

Ian Dury
Here’s a picture of Ian Dury showing he had not much to smile about, with his grim environment and the after-effects of his childhood polio on display. And yet…….

Dury smiling

 

 

 

 

 


I think my spaceship knows which way to go

Miss Honeychurch piano

I am re-committing to memory my old piano repertoire which, 25 years ago, comprised somewhat over an hour of music.

Playing complex piano pieces from memory amazes me. Any form of memorised material is impressive, but piano seems weirdest because one doesn’t have to just memorise a melody, but all the chords and counterpointal parts as well. There are usually three to eight notes being played at once, so superficially it sounds as though one has to memorise three to eight separate parts and play them simultaneously. It’s not really that hard (unless it’s a five-part fugue by JS Bach, and I haven’t memorised any fugues yet) because while there may be three notes in an A major triad in second inversion, they are not just any old three notes. They are three notes that nearly always go together. So one can just remember that there’s a triad there, rather than remembering three separate notes.

But still, there’s an awful lot of stuff to remember. I think concert pianists and Shakespearean actors are the most impressive to me in terms of memory feats.

I find it astounding to what extent the fingers – after a fair bit of effort at memorising – just know which notes to play. If you asked me what the next chord was, I could play it, but I couldn’t tell you beforehand what it was. I might even need a run-up to play it, because it seems that playing the chords leading up to it set the context that enables my fingers to ‘know’ what comes next. I know this because if I get lost and have to get re-started, there are only certain points in the piece from which I can start cold.

I have read that it’s really the Cerebellum that ‘remembers’ what to play, not the fingers. But it feels like it’s the fingers.

One can commit a piece to memory either consciously, so that one can say out loud what comes next – what chord it is, which notes and perhaps which of passages A, B, C or D it is in a Rondo structure – or unconsciously, by just playing it over and over from sheet music until it gets programmed into one’s subconscious.

I think it is safest to learn both ways.

Committing the piece to conscious memory is a safeguard against a crisis of faith or a sudden disorientation. Playing unconsciously relies on context to know what comes next and it needs faith so that one trusts one’s fingers to do the right thing. As soon as one loses context or faith – easy to do when under pressure in a performance – one can lose the ability to let one’s fingers do the work.

It is like the art of flying in the fourth HitchHiker book (‘So long and thanks for all the fish‘) or a Roadrunner cartoon where Wile E Coyote accidentally runs over a cliff but only falls when he looks down and realises where he is. You only lose the ability to fly when you remember that it is impossible. Then you suddenly plummet.

There is a very long trill in a Chopin Nocturne that mixes me up because it covers three notes and is more complex than an ordinary trill. I can play it fine, and very fast, as long as I don’t think about it. But because it’s long, I usually end up inadvertently thinking about what my fingers are doing about halfway through and then getting muddled. The last few times I have succeeded in playing it right through without mistake by looking around the room as I play it, focusing on things I see – keeping my mind occupied by anything except what my fingers are doing.

My fingers playing music are like me doing maths. They are very good at it as long as nobody is watching. But as soon as somebody is watching it turns to mud. Young children enjoy tormenting me by sidling up to me and asking me something embarrassingly easy like ‘differentiate x squared!‘ and then staring at me intently so that my brain won’t work (like a watched pot).

But if one also knows consciously what comes next, one can silently tell oneself to play an E flat diminished chord in the second inversion, or to reprise theme B, one octave higher. One knows how to do that, so one does it – no faith required. The conscious brain acts as scab labour to supplant the striking union of the unconscious fingers.

Although both conscious and unconscious memory always have a role to play, I feel that this time I am learning a lot more unconsciously than I did 25 years ago. I can see how much conscious involvement there was in 1991 because some of the scores still have the pencilled notes I wrote on them to help me categorise and memorise the thematic and harmonic structure of each piece. It’s more enjoyable learning subconsciously. But it’s higher risk to do only that, if one has to perform.

I have been finding that, once one has committed a piece thoroughly to memory, it is quite peaceful and meditative to play without thinking about the notes one is playing. One thinks about the music, because one puts the feeling into the piece by variations in loudness and pace, but not about the microstructure of the notes. That is beyond one’s gaze, being taken care of by the fingers/cerebellum.

It is important to keep one’s mind on the music though, otherwise the relentless, angst-ridden chatter of the modern monkey mind comes in to disturb the peace. I can remember occasions of playing pieces in the past, whether from sheet music or from memory, with my mind completely oblivious to the music and instead working philistinically though every grievance, anxiety and obsession it could find, re-running past conversations and projecting future ones at a rate that would make a Boddhisattva wince and that could generate material for at least three psychology PhD theses.

I wonder what concert performers do – whether they do both, or just one and if so which one? Or does it vary between performers?

In case anyone is interested, here are the pieces from the 1991 repertoire, showing which ones have so far been re-learned:

  • Beethoven Pathetique Sonata, all three movements (2nd and 3rd re-learned so far)
  • Mozart C major sonata, all three movements
  • Beethoven Moonlight Sonata First movement (the famous one)
  • Beethoven Fur Elise (re-learned)
  • Debussy First Arabesque (re-learned)
  • Debussy Clair de Lune
  • Chopin Nocturne in E flat major (re-learned)

Mr Beebe would say ‘Too much Beethoven‘.

Mr Beebe3.jpeg

But I will never be able to competently play the fiendishly difficult Opus 111 sonata whose crashing rendition by the troubled Miss Honeychurch prompted those immortal words.

I have vague aspirations to extend the list if I manage to re-learn all of it. I have in mind to do one of Faure’s three lovely impromptus. Given my comment above, I am tempted to also take up the challenge of attempting to memorise a Bach fugue. I probably shall. Sadly, nobody in my circle of friends and family seems to really like Bach fugues. Perhaps he really wrote them for the enjoyment of the performer rather than for the listener.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2016

Miss Honeychurch piano 2