Mortality

[I know this is a really long post without a lot of pictures. If you do take take the time to read it, thanks!]
I’m staring across the table at this man. the first thing that strikes me is his teeth – precarious, almost fragile looking. unlike many Japanese, they’re aligned in a relatively straight row – the four I can see peeking out from the gap between his lower lip and the trembling twitching of the upper – incisors and bicuspids sort of standing jammed together side to side as if leaning on each other for mutual support. I can see a duality between the outer enamel shell, yellow egg albumin complexion – spotted coffee and cigarette stains marring the grooved surfaces, almost like imperfections in the side of a piece of sickly yellow quartz – and the crumbling interior core, crooked granules of white clumped into a shaky pyramid in the center. His lower lip juts out, and in the space between the smooth pink inner surface and his teeth I can see a small pool of saliva collect, his tongue briefly washing over it as he nervously licks his lips.
I wonder why he’s so nervous. his eyes are twitching back and forth without losing focus – pupils dilated and corneas tensed, flexing and centering on the question standing in the air between us as if he can see each individual enunciated syllable hanging off of the molecules passing from my mouth into the still studio environment. I notice the corners of his eyelids pulled back, the crows feet turning into deep channels and for a second, the tense bits of skin that strain as the temple muscles retract reminding me briefly of a dissection I did once in biology class.
Masaccio – Holy Trinity
Masaccio – The Holy Trinity 1425-1428, Fresco
In that moment I feel a rush of pity for the man sitting anxiously in the seat before me, and retract my previous inquiry. There is a brief moment of relief in his eyes as the pressure is removed, even if just for a moment and I notice that his deltoids have notably relaxed under the thick should pads of his brown worsted wool sport coat and his arms follow the droop downwards as his elbows sag slightly until they come to rest on the table before us, the joint slightly offset from the edge and his forearms folding in towards the center, liver spotted hands clutching each other in a tight clasp that has turned into a frozen wring at some point since he first sat down.
hands have always fascinated me – even more so than the intriguing cant of the hips as seen from the back as a person walks barefoot down a hardwood floor hallway, each motion, each vector, net newtons of force, flex of tendon and pull of muscle and sinew laid bare under rippling flesh and you can just see everything working its way up and down the amazing construction to floor and gravity and all the world in between – a tremendous unification of physics with every step.
hands are like all of that, but even more. if a person walking barefoot down a hallway is the macroscopic appreciation of the physics of the human machine, then hands are the microscopic embodiment of its artistic essence. Aged hands are doubly fascinating – the once nimble muscles and endlessly undulating starbursts of tendons now slack and loose under paper gray skin that moves independent of its structural underpinnings, brown liver spots passing over pale green veins and decades old scars as he anxiously rubs his fingers across the backs of his knuckles, thumb and forefinger moving inward with a pinching motion, the wispy stray strands of gray hair, grown to a point so long as to be unseemly if the hands belonged to someone younger, bending as his fingers form a sweeping arc over them, then springing back up as the radius draws to completion, sticking out in sparse tufts in the gaps between each swollen knuckle. when he pauses his fidgeting for a moment, I can see the tremble of age combined with the tremble of anxiety as his clasped hands send shudders down his forearms to the table upon which they’re braced. I wonder briefly to myself, as he resumes his fidgeting as he sees my mouth open to speak – how many things his hands must have touched in his life? How many faces? How many tools? How did he get the scar on his left palm he’s unconsciously scratching every few seconds?
“okay, let’s start over.” I say. “How are you?”
His hands begin to tremble again.
I look back up at his face, conscious of the slight-nod of frustration from the teacher sitting to my side. I blink, once, prolonged because my eyes are dry and the feeling is satisfying – squelching my eyelids tight to feel that familiar tingle as the moisture satiates the arid corneas and in the ghosting inverted image of the lights I see against the back of my eyelids, I recall the mismatched green knit polo shirt he has on – the small squares in the openings of the knit ragged from age, and the edges of the buttoned collar fraying, loose threads hanging offset to the side and draping on his sport coat. in the v-opening I remember the loose skin of his neck, leading up in a sagging fashion to the rough, sparse patches of hair covering his unshaven face that stretch down the sides of his neck on either side of his larynx, bobbing as he swallows and I can almost remember seeing the surface of the skin pulse as his vocal cords oscillate in time to the nervous noises emanating from his sunken chest.
I open my eyes again and stare at his face – drooping jowls, rough skin, white saliva crusted on the edges of his mouth, small yellow specks on in the corners of his eyes – eyes that are nervously shifting every other way, cowering under thick bushy eyebrows that meet in the center of his furrowed brow, wrinkled forehead extending up on either side of his long-ago receded hairline, liver spots visible beneath the wisps of fine gray hair laying in a disheveled fashion upon his head. his lips are trembling and the noises I saw working their way up his esophagus are now emerging from his mouth in spattering, sputtering staccatos, and from the bottom of my eye I unconsciously track a fine droplet of saliva as it leaves his outward curled bottom lip and is carried on the gust of the phonic-less enunciations uttered from his mouth and travels in a near parabolic path to disappear on the faux-gold-spotted white Formica of the desk before me.
I want him to succeed, though I and the JTE sitting to my right clearly know he will not. His stammerings die down, and I can hear myself telling him not to be nervous. I draw in a breath, and repeat the question, to no avail. He attempts to stammer out a response, but what emerges again is a mishmash of random utterances until he finally gives in with a sigh, and with a quavering voice, admits to us in Japanese that he doesn’t understand the question. Turning to the side, I meet the eyes of the teacher conducting the entrance interviews with me, and with a brief nod, he opens his mouth and begins to address the old man sitting in front of us.
The man acknowledges his failure with a nod, preparing his body to stand up ever so slightly as my JTE explains that his level is not sufficient enough for our class, and politely suggests that he consider applying next year after a period of self study – yet he and I both know we will never see him again. Bracing his arms on the table, he shifts his weight forward so that his center of balance lies over his bowed-out elbows and with a combination of his legs and arms, pushes himself upwards in a hunched-over manner that almost lets me see gravity challenging him for every centimeter and then thusly recollected, bows deeply and politely – first to the other teacher, and then to myself as I offer him the kindest words of encouragement I can think of.
With that he turns to the side, pushing in the chair, and then shuffling away towards the door, shoulders hunched over and slippers jutting out from the sides of his inward-turned feet. I watch his stooped figure as it makes its way forward, examining the profile of his back and the slump in his posture, trying to absorb the attitude of an individual who has just resigned themselves to the fact that they will not learn English in their lifetime. The English is not important – rather I wonder how it must be like when you grow to the age when rather than postponing personal goals, you have to start accepting that you will never accomplish such things before you die?
What sort of finality is that, to wake up in the morning saying to yourself “today I’m going to learn something new” and then two hours later, having failed the entrance interview to the adult continuing education English class, shuffling your way to the door to return home?
When he woke up that morning, could he have foreseen the fact that that day he would realize yet another thing he would never experience before dying?
I am reminded briefly of autumn leaves swirling all about me in the quickening twilight of a brisk October evening, the last rays of sunshine vainly streaking out from the shimmering orange globe submerged in the distant faint horizon, filtering through the moir・patterns of silhouetted tree leaves cascading gingerly down from gray branches, bark seemingly thickened in preparation for winter and the crisp crunch of leaves in all shades of greens, oranges, yellows, browns and earth beneath my feet and covering the scraggly clumps of green grass between the gnarled twisted roots of the great oaks that arch cavernously over me in the north woods.
And it’s this memory that fills my mind as I startle back into my body, staring down at the water swirling down the drain between my feet. I reach over to shut off the shower, the harsh yellow light of the single plastic-encased incandescent bulb that illuminates my bathroom bouncing off the fully sealed and washable plastic walls, slight parallaxing belying the faint hints of soap scum on the surface I probably should do something about. As I stare at my feet and the rivulets of water wending their way around them towards the drain, I watch drops of water fall down parallel to my line of vision from the hair hanging down on either side of my face, draping, thin strands sticking obnoxiously to the my forehead, and across the bottom of my chin, watching the water pool into big fat drops dangling precariously on the ends of thin curled strands, until finally, growing too big, gravity overcomes the cohesive force of surface tension and they release their adherence, dropping straight downwards towards the tub floor with a splat, the hair, released of its burden, spring back up even as more water begins to pool along its length.
I run my fingers through my hair to shake out the last major drops of water and as my fingers reach the ends of my hair, I shake them free, and fling them slightly towards the floor to release the strands of hair tangled between my splayed fingers. They fall free with a slight twitch and tumble their way to the bottom of the tub where they join the thin mass of hair matting the grate covering my bathtub drain.
“my, that’s a lot of hair”, I think to myself, watching them collect in the center with some anxiety.
Stepping out of the tub, I repeat a ritual that I have been doing more and more often in this past year – taking a corner of my towel, I wipe a clear spot in the spotty haze covering my bathroom mirror. Leaning in, I tilt my head forward, and with my right hand, reach up and pull back the mop of wet hair tussled every which way on my head, eyes looking upwards as I peer through the few stray bits of hair that manage to escape and hang down in front of my field of vision, bobbing each way as I focus past them onto my reflection in the rapidly-rehazing mirror. I let go, reach up to re-wipe the fog, the pull back my hair again, tilting my head downward and to the right, to take a long, hard look at what I know is waiting for me.
I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that I’m starting to lose my hair. I know I’m more fortunate than many guys – a couple of the grad students I knew back in university were completely bald by the time they turned 26. “Hopefully,” I think to myself as I turn my head to the left so I can look at the bad side , “I’ll be more fortunate than them”.
I’ve always been blessed with an abundance of hair on my head – long, thick, sturdy hair – one hairdresser pinpointed my ancestry simply by assessing the texture of the mussed mess on my head – fortunate for me, because I’ve done so many things to it in the past – dyed it, bleached it, braided it, slathered it with product, let it run uncombed and unkempt for months on end – exposed it to the harshness of Wisconsin winters and the heat and humidity of the Panamanian sun. Through it all, it never flinched and never faltered – whereas my fairer skinned and finer haired friends found themselves running to the salon in a panic with split ends galore after they just looked the wrong way at a comb or spent a fortune on expensive conditioners to try and preserve fragile strands of over conditioned hair – my lovely, naturally curly mop did little despite all I did to it except maybe just grow at an exceptional rate and with a mind of its own.
Staring deep in the mirror, squinting through the creeping haze, I try and asses how far up the temples the hairline has receded. It’s hard to tell – things like this move ever so slowly, in increments, that each day seems the same as the next until you look in the mirror all of a sudden and say “my goodness, that’s sure a lot farther back than I remember it!”.
I had first noticed the slight creep around my temples as early as 3 years ago – at the time, it seemed like little more than a passing concern – after all, I thought, I was still 21 – still a child, really. I mean, who starts losing their hair at 21!? No one – I was too young, I assured myself, to have to worry about such seemingly far-off concerns of mortality as losing one’s hair. Nonetheless, I would occasionally give it a furtive check as I passed by glossy department store windows – Japan, of all places, the land of the superficial, the land of fashion, the land of the narcasistically self-obsessed – is not the place where you want to start losing your hair – especially not with all the young, fashionable Japanese males running around with their full heads of thick, black, glossy hair – I wonder what it is about Japanese men that keeps them from losing their hair like we do in the west?
Somebody had told me way back then, when I first asked one of my friends about it, that it might have something to do with diet. Red meat, in particular, they noted, was reputed to clog up your pores and make you go bald – given the relatively small amounts of red meat versus fish consumed by modern Japanese, this might be why they seemed blessed by the non-recessed, almost feminine hairlines that follow closely along their foreheads rather than the more typical recessed-at-the-temple hairlines seen on most western males (even those not losing their hair). I don’t remember if I ever actually took the time to look that up and confirm it or not.
Stepping back from the mirror, I turn my head to the side once again, in the vain hope that double checking might reveal some initial mistake. The triangle by my temples – that area that should be covered by hair, but instead seems to be the sole dominion of just a few fine wispy strands and newly annexed portions of my forehead – seems larger than I recall it being the last time I checked, though of course, looking at the matting of hair drying on the grate of my bathtub drain certainly lends it an immediacy that I’m sure affects my psychological perception of the moment.
A lot of people will try and tell you that you should accept a receding hairline as a natural part of life – or that being bald is sexy, masculine, what have you. I think this is a load of bullocks – fine for them if they want to believe it – but I want to have hair – all my hair. Baldness is not something I foresaw in my future when I thought about it as a child.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. As I stand there, staring between the clumps of strands occluding my vision at the obfuscated shape nebulously moving in the hazy mirror before me, I can’t help but feel bitterness well up deep within me. It’s not bitterness, I don’t think – at this proverbial affliction of the male condition – not bitterness at the unfortunate genetics underlying my current predicament, not bitterness at the irony of nature that saw fit to exclude women from this cruel flaw of the human animal, not bitterness at the inability of modern science in all its glory to come up with a suitable remedy for the creeping at my temples.
Rather, staring at my receding hairline in the mirror, the tangled strands laying on the bathroom floor fated never to regrow, I grow bitter because I realize I was right before – I was too young to have to worry about things like going bald. Such things are the concerns of those in their middle age, fully engaged in the struggle with their own advancement in years, the first hints of the onset of changes in the human condition that marks the slow progression of one’s own mortality. But now, as I’m looking, I’m realizing what countless billions of men throughout the ages have realized before – I am no longer a child, and no longer am I young.
The current expected lifespan for an average American male is 73.5 years. Females, due to a combination of fortuitous genetics and a favorable positioning in society, tend to live 5 years longer on top of that, and “minority” males, a demographic of which I am a part, tend to live several years less than that, with the spread between the life expectancies for African American males and white females exceeding more than a decade, a gap which black males end up on the losing side of. Given that I’ve managed to survive the most lethal period of life for American males (adolescence to early 20′s), let’s say for the sake of argument that I can reasonably assume my life expectancy to be around 74 years.
My brief mental calculus serves to drive home the point that the plunging at my temples raised so directly – given that I can expect to live 74 years or so, that means that right now, I am more than 1/3 of the way through my life. I reach up to the mirror to wipe the fog away once again, and as I pull my hand back, I notice a few strands of my hair left behind, clinging to the moist surface. 1/3 of my way through life – through my allotted time on this planet – and I’m realizing – standing there naked in the bathroom, staring at my distorted reflection in a slowly clearing mirror – all the implications such a distinction carries. The carefree cavalier attitude of youth is slowly slipping from me – rushing in its stead are the ominous concerns of middle age – heart disease, watching my weight, job security, thinking about the future, finding a spouse, acting responsibly – even worrying about losing my hair. I wonder briefly what causes women to start confronting their own passage out of youth into middle age, given that they are spared the shock of staring at their hair laying on the bottom of the bathtub floor?
But more so than the physical signs of aging and their implications – increasingly watching what I eat, starting to go to the doctor for yearly physicals, having to know things like my cholesterol or PSA levels, worrying about if people are going to start calling me “sir” and think of me as that “creepy middle aged guy in the club” if I lose all my hair – more than that though, I begin to wonder how many of my dreams of youth have been left by the wayside? Hacking and bumbling my way, stumbling blindly forward in my path through life, I rarely looked back to see how many plans have been lost down that slow, seductively slippery slope to mediocrity. And now…. I wonder if this is the way the aging process goes for everyone. At what point do we just abandon all those fanciful dreams we used to have as kids and just accept that wherein we find ourselves? And if we choose to struggle and resist, try and hang onto that which we once hoped for… well, is that futile?
Michelangelo – Pieta
Michelangelo – Pieta 1498-1999, Marble
Within the Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy lies a painting of considerable importance in the history of the Italian Renaissance. Completed sometime between 1425 and 1428, Masaccio’s fresco “The Holy Trinity” is famous for many things, among them its sophisticated usage of the new techniques of linear perspective (stunningly visible in his depiction of a barrel vaulted ceiling which seemingly merges with the actual physical surroundings of the church), mathematically consistent foreshortening and remarkably accurate anatomical proportions. Of course, as was the trend at the time, there exist countless versions of the holy trinity – there’s hardly a notable artist from the period who hadn’t addressed the topic at least once in his career. But just as Michelangelo’s Pieta exceeds all other interpretations of the subject matter to embed itself so deeply in the mind that all others pale in comparison, so too does Masaccio’s Holy Trinity strike an emotional chord that ensures it a special place in the heart.
For many, it’s the passionate depiction of a savior borne out in the hands of his father, head turned downwards towards the upturned eye of the viewer. For others, it’s the piety clearly visible in the clasped hands of the two faithful kneeling down on either side of the majesty of heaven present before them. For myself, however, the true power of Masaccio’s creation and the reason it has stayed in my mind while countless others have come and passed, has nothing to with religion, but rather the small altar painted in the lower third of the piece, upon which the skeletal remains of Adam lies quietly. A close-up view of the skeleton laying in its sarcophagus reveals an ancient warning in clear letters:
“I WAS WHAT YOU ARE AND WHAT I AM YOU SHALL BE.”
These words echo in my head as I step back from the sink and pull my hand from the top of my head, letting my hair fall back across the front of my face. As it falls down on both sides of my field of vision, I think back on the old man from the other day, and his face as we told him that he had failed the entrance interview – the resignation as it crossed his face, the slow sigh as he exhaled, the slumping of his shoulders as he straightened up from the desk, the hunched appearance as he shuffled his way out the door. I can’t help but think how quickly the past 25 years of my life have passed – and how much more quickly they must pass until it’s me pushing myself away from a desk, realizing that there’s one more thing I’ve run out of time to do in this world.
Masaccio – Holy Trinity (skeltal detail)
I’ll tell you what. When I woke up this morning, I hadn’t expected to come face to face with my own mortality.
8:37 am

2 Reactions

  1. codi who

    your writing is really beautiful. not too long, acctually was not long enough :) and no pictures needed, your words painted more of a vivid description than any picture could.
    i don’t even know how i ended up here and reading, especially someone’s blog (no offense) is not something that i am particularly interested in doing…but that’s just because i lack the ability to pay attention and focus on one thing for more than 2 seconds…ok…i’m a scatter brain!! incase you couldn’t tell :p what was my point?
    oh ya… so as i was about to click [X] i caught a glimps of like 2, maybe 3 words, (i don’t even know what they were) but they stole my attention. then when i saw that were describing this man’s teeth with that much passion…that was it, ya got me. hehe. the details and interests that i like to express in my art, you are able to put into words. i am in ahh.
    crap, i was supposed to be doing homework.

  2. Michaelpanda

    @Codi: thank you so much for your lovely comment. I’m glad you enjoyed this post… I wrote it many years ago (wow, checking the date tag, I see it was written 6+ years ago!!)
    The work by Massacio was (and still remains) one of my favourites. It’s definitely the inscription on the tomb that does it for me – I remember a chill going through my spine the first time I read those words, sitting in the library, thinking about blowing off an exam the next day – suddenly it put everything into sharp relief for me.
    I actually alluded to this same work earlier this year (though I’m afraid not quite so eloquently, for years in Japan have conspired to ravage my linguistic acumen) when I encountered an old man in a hospital bed (there’s something about old Japanese men that makes me think about my mortality hahaha):
    http://www.michaelpanda.com/potd/archives/masaccio.html
    Good luck with your homework, by the way! You mentioned you do art…? What kind of art do you do?