Monday, December 19, 2005

Evolution's Bones Showing Through the Skin

SOMETIMES, WE GET ABRUPT reminders of our simian roots. We are only a few million years into this form in evolutionary terms, a mere spit in the broad ocean of genetic trial and error. Maybe I was in the frame of mind to notice such links because I took in King Kong this weekend, which I enjoyed greatly. I found myself wondering, during the film, how much work the filmmakers had done with primatologists and in observing gorilla behavior to get the big guy's movements and actions correct. (I subsequently learned that Andy Serkis, who did the motion-capture work for Kong, went on his own to Africa to study gorillas directly.)

So assuming my primitive primate radar was twitching today, I regarded the following scene in those terms.

I boarded the train this evening at nearly the last minute. It was also short a car, so I didn't find seats until I reached the front car. There, I sat down next to a red-haired woman who was reading a book. She took notice of me as I stashed my coat and a loaf of bread on the luggage rack. Natural red hair, glasses, freckles. Nice outfit. Boots were a plus. I took all this in at a glance, then dug my own book out of my bag and awaited our departure.

As I read, I noticed her playing with her hair. With a sideways glance, I saw her twirling the fingers of her right hand through the longish red hair as she continued to read. I didn't read anything into this. I have read that, if a woman does this during conversation, it indicates interest. I don't know if this opinion came from someone with any sort of psychological degree — or, perhaps more pertinently, an actual woman — and besides, we weren't talking, so I didn't invest the theory with too much credence in this case.

I focused back on my book, but couldn't help noticing she was still twirling a skein of hair in her fingers. Perhaps she was trying to work out a knot? Not having had hair that long since about 1991, I don't have too much immediate experience with the problem. Only she seemed to have some serious knotting, if this was how long she needed to disentangle it.

I also noticed she was chewing a nail or a cuticle now and again. I watched her hand once, and noticed she wore her nails man-short, and had a half-healed nick on one knuckle. Now she struck me as someone who had a lot of nervous energy. Maybe she felt caged in. Perhaps she didn't like her job, or was somehow unsettled with her home life, and this tension was spilling out via these behaviors. Animals in close confinement will exhibit stereotypy — repeated behavior or motions — when they are understimulated. Parrots, for instance, will pull out their own feathers when in unexciting environments. Again, I'm no psych major, but this is what crossed my mind when I noticed the repetition of her hair and finger motions. And true to the pattern, she returned to her hair play after she finished with her nail, or cuticle, or whichever (I couldn't see directly because her hair curtained her face, and I didn't want to make her feel self-conscious).

This lasted for a good 15 minutes. The only people with hair this tangled are Rastafarians and Rob Zombie. I made as much of a sideways study as I could, not being able to read because I could see her fingers twirling, twirling through what wasn't even to my side enough to be considered peripheral vision.

This is what I learned:
  • She was pulling out individual strands of hair;
  • Some of them she smoothed out with her other hand, studied, then dropped;
  • Some of them she brought up to her mouth and chewed on — whether it was root first, I'm not sure.
The term trichotillomania is not one to be used — or, as you can see, spelled — lightly. I first encountered the word in a print interview with director John Waters, where he and the writer discussed various psychological disorders. In this case, the term describes obsessive pulling out of one's own hair, be it scalp hair, facial hair, or other (:::shudder:::). I began to wonder if this was a mild case of that problem. She had a full head of hair, no question . . . no bald spots or missing eyebrows. But she was definitely eating something that she was taking from her head.

At this point, the mental image I had was of two primates preening each other and crunching down on any found bugs. It crossed my mind to move, but insofar as she seemed fairly clean — and let's face it, not hard on the eyes — I decided not to make her feel any more self-conscious than she already did by gathering my stuff and taking another seat.

On the other hand, she might not have even known she was really doing it. She was still balancing a book on her knees as she preened. Maybe this behavior had settled so far into the background of her consciousness that she did it without regard for public space or needing to divert a lot of attention to it.

Either way, I hope she was just unkinking some knots and was not grappling with any deeper conditions, other than those that, in times of idleness, might peek through any of our refined fronts and give a window across millions of years to a time when instinct and impulse were all that ruled us.

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