WHAT is this life, asked a poet, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare? So I've been staring at a beer can. Specifically, a can from Kirin, a major brewery in Japan.
I've been puzzling over its logo of a unicorn - the kirin - ever since a teacher told me that hidden inside is the word itself, written in the katakana script. This version of the kirin owes something to the Chinese unicorn, or the qilin (written with the same characters but pronounced differently). Accounts vary but the qilin is said to have the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the head of a lion and the hooves of a horse. (Opinion is split over the hooves; some people think they're cloven.)
Covered with green scales, the qilin is nothing like the pearly unicorns of the West.
Its name is a combination of qi, the male unicorn, and lin, the female. It is said that the latter has no horn although this tells you less about the qilin than it does about the people writing about it - and how they feel about females with sharp objects.
That single horn is something the qilin has in common with its Western cousin, which looks more like a horse, albeit one with a goat's beard, lion's tail and split hooves.
The traditional way of catching a unicorn is to use a young woman. The idea is that unicorns are drawn to virgins and, on finding one, will lay their heads in her lap and go to sleep.
Though this manoeuvre is described in mediaeval lore, it tells you less about unicorns than it does about the people writing about them - and how they feel about sleeping in virgins' laps.
It is actually not that hard to catch a unicorn. Hunters will tell you different, of course, but they have reasons of their own for doing so, reasons that have mostly to do with their lack of a pension and medical benefits.
It is true that unicorns have horns (yes, yes, even the female ones) but they rarely use them for defence.
So why have so few unicorns been captured, so few that most doubt they even exist? It is simple: They are not caught because they are not seen. Not invisible, just unnoticed.
Not possible, you say? Not possible for a creature at least as big as a deer, with a horn sticking out of its head, which may or may not look like a lion's, to be ignored?
If you ask Joshua Bell, he may say otherwise. One weekday morning in 2007, the award-winning violinist busked for 43 minutes in a busy Washington subway station.
His performance was organised by The Washington Post as an experiment in perception, priorities and public taste: 'In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?'
For the seven commuters who stopped to watch for at least a minute, it did. But for the rest - more than a thousand people - Bell and his Stradivari violin were either invisible or a nuisance competing with their mobile phones and iPods.
He made US$32.17 (S$48.50), not counting the US$20 given by the one person who recognised him. A bit of a comedown for a performer who can command as much as US$1,000 a minute.
But when he watched the video of the experiment - it was taped secretly - just one thing puzzled him. Not the fact that he didn't draw a crowd because people were, after all, rushing to work.
What stumped him was 'the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!'
Any unicorns present would not have been surprised. They know the human capacity to turn blind and deaf; they depend on it.
This capacity is honed as we grow older - as children, we are wide open. The tape of Bell's performance shows that all the youngsters who went past tried to stop and watch. And that all of them were hurried away by their parents.
You could argue that this is just how children are and they would have done the same thing if it'd been a beginner on the bongo drums rather than a violin virtuoso.
Even so, there's something to be said about a worldview that has time for both.
This is the real reason why virgins came to be used as unicorn bait. All the hunters needed was somebody who could still see things as they were. This usually meant someone young enough to spot any passing unicorns and point them out to the hunters. Virginity was just incidental - more to do with virginal perception than sexual inexperience.
The difference between seeing as a child and as an adult is time: You know that you're growing up when you feel like you never have any. So from the world that has robbed you of leisure, you withhold vision, hoarding your attention.This seems all the more necessary in cities, where sounds and pictures rush in like harpies that claw out your eyes and scream at you till you are deaf.
In self-defence, we blinker ourselves with tiny screens and stop up our ears with headphones.
But if we can teach ourselves not to see, we can teach ourselves to see.
I've been practising with a can of Kirin beer though you can start with something closer to hand.
You may, for instance, know someone who's a little distant, a little unworldly, a little odd. And if you learn to see what's there instead of seeing only what you expect to see, you may find that you've known a unicorn all along.
What happens next is up to you. But at least one expert suggests that it would not be tactful to mention virgins.(taken from the straits times jan 24 2009)
An unexpectedly sweet, snarky twist on the ageless call to smell the roses. I love the imagery, the cross-cultural references. And I think I've found a favourite local columnist.