Monday, December 22, 2008

The Loupe

This originally appeared in the literary journal Shenandoah. It was later listed as a "Notable Essay" in Best American Essays 2006. If you look in the back, you'll see my name in tiny little type.

I haven't figured out the technical aspects of this blog yet, so my paragraphing might seem off in places. Sorry about that.

The Loupe

One of my favorite possessions is smaller than a chicken’s egg, and similar to a common egg in that it’s inexpensive but invaluable – to me, anyway. It’s a jeweler’s loupe, a simple thing, used professionally by horologists (watchmakers) and by jewelers in evaluating diamonds. Mine says TRIPLET on its outer body, designating that there are three lenses joined together to create one compound lens. Also inscribed is 10X, which indicates the loupe magnifies ten times. The last number is 18 mm, the size of the lens. Mine’s called a folding loupe, because its outer shell, of metal, folds out, creating a convenient hand-piece. By holding the grip to my cheek and the lens to my eye, I can take a close-up look at feathers, wood grain, skin – anything I want to magnify. When I’m done, the outer piece folds back over the lens, protecting it from dirt and damage. The contraption is further protected by a small, oval-shaped leather case. Some people like to hang the loupe from a cord so that it can be worn like a pendant, allowing quick access. I don’t use mine every day, so the brown case with its satisfying metal snap is just right for safekeeping. It’s compact – smaller than a golf ball -- and light enough to carry in a jacket pocket.

My favorite subjects for observation under the loupe are creatures – birds, lizards, insects. Since, in order for serious study, these must be cadavers, I have to take what I can find; I won’t intentionally kill even a mosquito solely to look at it. It’s not unusual, however, to find dead ants, spiders, and bees in the yard, as well as cicada casings and dragonfly wings. Shells and rocks are excellent subjects, as are bones. I have a few animal skulls, some of which look “bone-white” to the unassisted eye but, under the loupe, are pocked with dirt (and, one might surmise, dead skin). One small bird skull still has a few tiny feathers attached, as well as the remnants of an eyeball, which appears to have decomposed from the inside out. Some of the skulls harbor clusters of sharp, filthy teeth. I haven’t yet examined a human tooth; my own hair, however, is endlessly fascinating. Magnified, the dark hairs look as tough as broom bristles, while the blonder hairs look like filaments, as though an electric current illuminates them from within.

Regular window screens are well worth examining with a loupe. They appear formal and architectural, like a wall of windows drawn by an unsteady hand. All of the lines are slightly wobbly, but the symmetry of the grid forms a perfect backdrop for the debris inevitably caught in the screen. The debris – mostly dust and dirt – looks like delicate scrollwork. Bits of detritus and grime become a free-form overlay, juxtaposing swirls and curves against the more exact screen pattern. If I had a better eye, or perhaps a stronger loupe, I could probably discern sand from soil, ash from skin, cinders from sawdust. But I don’t, so it all just looks like an abstract pen-and-ink drawing. And, to my relief, when I put the loupe down the screen looks clean.

I’ve done a kind of meta-looking by observing my reading glasses through the loupe. Even after cleaning, they tend to be covered with small hairs, dust, and sweat or oils from the skin – in a word, disgusting. I’ve also tried to look at my own eyeball, by holding the loupe to my eye and peering into a mirror. The results are beautiful – deep greens and browns, a shimmering of gold – but initially confusing, for there are hundreds of small bubbles visible amidst the colors. I’m not sure if the bubbles are imperfections in the mirror glass, if they’re part of the loupe lens or if – my secret hope – the bubbles are in my eye. (Later, while studying a piece of green glass, I see similar bubbles. My heart sinks a little, suspecting there are, in fact, no bubbles in my eyes. But I vow to look at my friends’ eyeballs – as soon as they’ll let me).

Through the loupe, my white computer screen is made up of bright red, green, and blue dots. A plain brown envelope looks like an aerial view of a furrowed wheat field. Things are not what they seem.

Ink on paper is exquisite. Simple lines take on dimension and definition or, depending on the paper, lose a bit of definition. A glossier paper tends to allow for crisp lines, while a softer, matte paper, viewed under the loupe, shows ink spatter, bleeding edges, and the slight indentations caused by the writer’s hand pressure. Letters and words viewed close-up – one’s nose touches the paper at times – is ineffably lovely. One begins to understand graphology; it seems that character is truly revealed in these characters.

I like to examine my own hand; magnification changes the ordinary into the extraordinary. Fingertips look like raw salmon steaks, and knuckles look like elephant skin. Freckles I can barely see take on form and definition; gradations of color and distinct shapes are obvious. Even after scrubbing my hands with the devotion of a surgeon I can see all sorts of specks beneath my fingernails, as well as the fine ridges in each nail. Dry skin around the edges of the nail can look horrifying under the loupe. One vows to get a manicure, or at least start massaging some cream into the hands.

Legs can be fun to examine, in particular, the hairs, which tend to be coarser than most other hair. The dark roots can be seen beneath the surface of the skin – each hair looks like a sliver of splinter. A few millimeters of calf skin take on the appearance of a tray of seedlings; my knee looks as though it has been planted with microscopic rhubarb. A nearly faded scar looks like a battle wound; in fact, any kind of scratch or cut appears alarming when viewed at close range. Initiates to the loupe might be well-advised to brace for surprisingly garish images – even a mild scrape or a paper cut appears to have violent origins. The body, at close attention, becomes tender and dramatically vulnerable.

Flowers, which can be erotic under almost any circumstances, become nearly painfully sexual when scrutinized. A random collection of wildflowers taken from the yard yielded microscopic droplets of dew and pollen, a beautiful sheen on the petals, and a look into the depths of the flower that is so intimate one almost can’t help licking the specimen. Each must be held or stationed literally an inch or two from the eye – there’s something about detecting the barest hint of softness in the palm, coupled with the ability to peer inside the small flower that makes one feel like a giant, or a god.

I am brought back to earth when I examine a crushed ant which moved, just slightly, as I studied it. It probably doesn’t have quite the same shock value, but it reminded me a little of a human body moving during an autopsy. I jumped. Later, I whap a yellow-jacket that speeds through the open front door then slams against a window screen. It doesn’t seem overly aggressive – just aggressive enough. I hit it again, and kill it. Dead, or dying, it continues to move, quietly inflating and deflating for several minutes. Although I felt nothing but determination as I killed it, my heart breaks when I see it through the loupe. As I quietly and insufficiently repent, against the window – from the outside – another bee tap, tap, taps, a witness to my murderous act. He wants in, and he wants revenge. I am ashamed, but also curious. My dead bee’s head appears tarred and hairy. The wings are intact but the hindquarters are bent and broken. Look what I’ve done.

A friend, who grew up to be a painter, wrote the word “Look” in crayon on the walls of her parents’ farmhouse when she was a child. She sat on the bottom stair of the hallway and carefully outlined the word, then proceeded to the next stair and wrote it again – all the way up the staircase, until the hall displayed an ascending, repetitive series of the command or entreaty – Look Look Look Look Look.

There is value in the art of observing which goes beyond the aesthetic, although aesthetic pleasure, I think, is essential to daily life. It seems no coincidence that watchmakers use the loupe to manipulate the works of timepieces. I like to imagine they are looking into time itself, using the eye glass to maneuver the gears into precise alignment. When I look inside a flower so small I can balance it on my fingertip, or inside the skull of an animal, or when I study the complex surface of a white rock, I can’t help but think that things are not what they seem – they are so much more. We are limited, fallible creatures, and we have wreaked havoc on this earth – but look how it shines. If we can’t find redemption in that, if we’re incapable of genuine awe, genuine consideration and restraint, then we are nothing.

My neighbor, on the rural road where I live, is burning wood. I want to look at an ember close up, see that fire as I feel its heat near my skin. I want to take the loupe into the yard and peer into a luscious, just-bloomed iris. I want to take the loupe to my lover’s body, examine every inch, including the small tattoo on her hip. I want to see it all.

In June of this year, a rare astronomical event: Venus passed before the sun. Observatories set up telescopes so that those interested could scan the heavens. Like the loupe, it’s just another way of looking – a way of bringing the visible closer – but it’s also a way of measuring distance, comprehending, seeing the big picture. Sometimes I think we spend our lives like that, negotiating intimacy and distance, pulling things – or people – close, pushing them away. I missed the transit of Venus – the heavens rarely accommodate my schedule – but regardless of whether anyone saw it or not, a small dark body floated across the larger brilliance of the sun. The world sometimes feels like layers and layers of images, like those transparencies in medical textbooks – one sheet for the circulatory system, one for the bones, yet another for the muscles – we understand in increments, we try to make sense of the connections.

I have a dark spot that floats across my left eye – it’s the closest thing to my eye, the absolute nearest – yet I can hardly see it at all.

Before I put my loupe away, I follow a brief ritual; I polish the lens and clean the body. I wipe fingerprints from the metal, fold the two halves one inside the other, set the loupe in its leather case and snap the buckle. I can’t help but notice that it’s a hard devise, all metal and glass; there’s no give, no suppleness to it at all. Even the leather case is sturdy. This will sound sexual rather than intellectual, but maybe it takes a certain hardness to probe what is soft. Maybe that’s just arbitrary – I don’t know. But it’s not difficult to see why the act of looking, of gazing, has metaphorically been compared to rape. No permission is granted; none, in fact, is asked. All of this looking I do – along with its corollary, writing – is an odd privilege. I do it, in part, because I can. And because I can, in a sense, trespass – look where I please, write what I please – my attendant thankfulness can feel paltry.

A teacher once said, to a room full of nonfiction writers, that other people sacrifice their lives for us – our friends, families, lovers, acquaintances, students – they live, they work and love, they mind their own business – and we steal their stories. I’d expand that list to include animals, flora, the whole natural world… For this essay alone, I’ve used a half-dozen plucked flowers, the treasured story of a good friend, the very bones of creatures. Am I a thief, have I committed a criminal aesthetic act, stolen what is not mine? Or do I simply want to share what I see? Look look look look look – and once you do, you might be in it as deeply as I am. The reader is the willing accomplice to the writer.

Close up, nothing’s what it seems.

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