Revisited: The nose knows

The human nose is a magnificent creation. It helps us appreciate our environment by allowing us to smell it. It filters out toxins and humidifies the incoming air. It tells us who’s beautiful (the pert-nosed), who’s ugly (the big-nosed) and who owns a chimp (those who’ve had their noses ripped off).

What we do with our noses has entered the common lingo as an indicator of how well we’re interacting with others. Keeping your “nose to the grindstone” means you work hard, as shown by the abrasions on your upper lip and cheeks. Being a “brown-noser” is one who kisses certain nether regions in hopes of pleasing bosses or other connoisseurs of posterior worship. Those who “powder their nose” go to the bathroom to snort cocaine.

“Keeping your nose clean” has more to do with being on good behavior than it does with any maintenance of nasal hygiene, though there are cleaning processes that have to be done. Because it sticks out so far from our face, there’s little we need to do to keep the outer surface shiny and unsoiled. It tends to be naturally cleansed by the rain. At most, you have to buff it with a shammy.

The inside of the nose is another matter. We’ve developed several techniques as a species to scour the interior regions, supposedly way evolved beyond what our primate brothers do by inserting sticks into their faces.

A build-up of congestion in the sinuses is easily cleared with a firm honk into a dainty, monogrammed handkerchief, making it one of the most civilized expulsions of bodily fluids we’ve devised. Why such a practice is freely done in polite company still escapes me. I’ve always tended to side with the young children who typically misinterpret the instruction from their parents as being a noisy inhalation instead. They know innately that it’s wrong to unleash their mucus into the public sector, and that it would make more sense to suck it farther into the skull for eventual removal by surgery, which can be done in private.

The more involuntary ejection of nasal debris is what we call the “sneeze,” and it is truly a blessed event. Though I’ve always tended to suppress mine, others revel in the opportunity to draw attention to themselves. The various grunts, groans and shouts that accompany the sneeze serve no real purpose in more efficiently expelling the irritant, and yet people do it anyway. My theory is that they’re trying hard for the notice that escaped them as a baby, when their parents (understandably) put them into storage for hours at a time without so much as a “gesundheit.” Now that they’re free and working in the cubicle next to me, it’s time to put on a Shamu Show every time there’s a little nose tickle, roaring out a tumultuous explosion that elicits blessings, sympathy and requests for ponchos from their neighbors.

Certain types of nasal rubble can’t be easily expelled with compressed air, and for these we have a whole different set of societal rules. As the mucus moves from a plasma to a more solid state, it can be maneuvered into the outside world with a series of snorts and spurts, but these rarely work. And when they do, the exhaled matter tends to end up on your shirt pocket looking like some kind of primitive coat-of-arms. When all else fails, we need to sneak off to a stairwell, a bathroom, or the southbound lane of the interstate doing 80 m.p.h. to pursue our excavation tasks.

I had hoped there was a more technical term for this act than “nose picking,” which doesn’t capture how elegant the booger selection process really is. Wikipedia wasn’t much help, offering only the term “rhinotillexomania” to describe the psychiatric condition of extreme nose-picking. (Seems that at a certain point even the craziest psychopath would realize there’s nothing left to pick, short of burrowing into their cortex, but who can account for the actions of the insane?) I did learn that nose-picking is a “common, mildly taboo habit” and that, confirming what my mother always told me, can lead to the spread of infections, nosebleeds and self-induced perforation of the septum.

As for it being “mildly taboo,” I think we’d all disagree with that. Something that can’t be done by the Queen of England at a state dinner is mildly taboo, though for some reason if she’s up to her elbows in her purse instead of her nose, that’s okay. Nose-picking instead crosses over into the realm of a horrific abomination, qualifying for banishment to the nearest atoll. Rubbing, stroking or pulling at your nose is fine, but once that fingernail disappears from view, you better start packing your Hawaiian shirt. And, please, for the benefit of the airport security guy who’ll go through your luggage, wash your hands first.

If you think about it, you realize that this practice is one of the last shameful public displays we have left in these liberated modern times. It’s perfectly acceptable to comb your hair, kill someone, or pee in the public square, yet any exploration into the center of your face is strictly verboten.

I think it’s time to change some of these puritanical attitudes, and I think, like everything else today, we need to turn to science for a solution. I’m imagining a device that incorporates microcircuity and other aspects of nanotechnology into a probe the size of a pen. On the tip, you have a video camera, a light, a scraper, a suction mechanism and a trimmer. If there’s any room left, include a GPS unit that will bounce the tip’s position off a satellite and allow you to navigate with precision. Then, with all this data at your fingertips, you can conduct self-surgery with complete confidence.

I hereby offer my proposal for the NEED: the Nasal Electronic Excavation Device. (Slogan: ** YOU NEED THE NEED **)

It’s the very sexiness of this tool that will finally bring nose-picking out of its ignominy and into the bright sunshine of public acceptance. Remember, it was only a few short years ago that hanging a large piece of electronics from your ear would’ve labeled you as old and deaf, and now you’re considered Bluetooth-enabled. With iPhones and Blackberrys and netbooks everywhere you look, why should a whirring wand inserted into your nose be seen as anything less than fashionable? Especially if someone can come up with a strong enough battery so that I can eliminate the 30-foot-long electrical cord from my preliminary designs.

I’m not much of an engineer, so I’m offering my idea here on the Internet and asking all the technophiles out there to make the NEED a reality. Slobs and misfits can be easily transformed into with-it hipsters. Mouth-breathers can close their stinking maws and once again enjoy the feeling of a fresh breeze coursing through their nostrils. Everyone — young and old, male and female, big-nosed and small-nosed — can be freed of the shame of being caught in mid-irrigation, and can instead be proud of their efforts to create a cleaner world right in front of their eyes.


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