When I was about 10 or 12, I passed a lot of time one summer by watching forensics shows on the Discovery Channel. This was before the local cable company carried any channels that showed CSI or similar.
The fact that the police could solve crimes using the imprint of a doodle on a (falsified) note or based on whether a victim's hash browns had onions the morning he died just blew me away. I was so fascinated by these shows that I even wanted to become a forensic scientist when I grew up, but I think an adult told me that forensics in the Philippines was nowhere near as advanced as the stuff I saw on TV, so that ambition got stabbed in the neck, stowed in a trunk, and pushed off the end of the farthest dock at the port. Perhaps, if someone had encouraged me to try and be a pioneer in the field, I would be in a lab right now, matching an insect found in somebody's ear, but life turned out different.
Anyway, one sunny day, I saw something on one of those shows that has stayed with me to this day. It wasn't a bloody crime scene photo, a picture of a murder weapon, or a still-innocent victim's face. It was a comparison of the corners of a criminal's lips. There was a portrait photo of the guy — white American male; clean-looking, mid-20th-century type with a sort of crew cut and thick-rimmed glasses — taken at around the time he'd committed the crime, and there was another portrait of him 10 or 20 years later, after he'd moved, married, and had a family, and before the law finally caught up with him.
In both portraits, the man hadn't smiled; he'd simply looked right at the camera. The scientist or the host explained that, genetics aside, the way the corners of the man's mouth turned up while he was young meant that he'd been quite happy with his life and confident. Then, when he was older, the way the corners sloped all the way down meant that he hadn't taken life well and didn't have much to be happy about.
I don't even remember why they were discussing the shape of this guy's mouth, but the conclusions struck me. Until then, I'd thought it was impossible for someone to commit a crime and then go on to lead an average life. But I was even more amazed that, though the guy professed no guilt, his face showed that all he'd gained after his crime seemed to have done little for his ultimate happiness.
I didn't actually think anyone would analyze my portraits over the years, but I resolved that day to never let the corners of my mouth go down. Maybe that was the day I learned that life could take a toll on you, and you wouldn't even notice until you were old. Defeat would be there on your face, every time you looked in a mirror, and there might even be nothing you could do — I don't think I'd known about plastic surgery yet — to change it.
I remember checking my mouth in the mirror and being dissatisfied with its shape, a curve that just fell away from the center. But — ! The curve still turned up at the ends, where it mattered. There was hope for me yet. I could still do all I could to be happy, and when I got old, the proof of my good life would be there on my face.
It feels silly to write that, knowing that I now check my happiness level by looking inside myself and not in a mirror — and knowing that scientists today might already have dismissed mouth corner analysis as hooey. But still, if the corners of my mouth catch my eye in a reflection, the vague memory of that guy's two portraits comes floating up, and I check how my own curve is doing. Still upward? Good, then.
I let my facial muscles yank at both ends of my mouth to relax it, and then I briefly twitch the corners up into a smile. Sometimes, I do this even when I'm not looking in a mirror — when, for whatever reason, I suddenly become conscious of the way my face is set. It's a quick and quiet way to tell myself, Remember to be happy.
This is probably the best thing I've learned from a forensics show.