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I'm not a barber or hairdresser by trade so I don't spend much time looking at the backs of people's heads. But recently, at a two-day, and often tedious, training session, I had plenty of time to do precisely that. There was one head in particular that caught my attention.

The guy was older, probably around my age, and the swirl of white hair on his head looked like a satellite photo of a tropical storm. This spiral brought to mind not just the fury of a hurricane, but also the head of a sunflower and the interior design of certain seashells.

I can't explain nature's fondness for this shape. Perhaps the reason can be found in the spiral's ability to embody features as disparate as the power of a cyclone or the mathematical elegance of the nautilus. The energy that fuels a storm or the minerals that comprise a seashell are always out there, drifting about. The spiral is how they come together.

But then I thought of spiral not as a shape, but as a word and realized that we often use it to convey something quite different. We speak of "death spirals" or of "things spiraling out of control." It no longer defines how something is put together, but rather depicts how it falls apart.

The spiral is not the only example. The delicate and ephemeral bubble is a sphere, and yet when we talk about spheres of influence, we are describing something heavier and potentially more ominous. Even the playful bubble itself becomes the symbol of our most treacherous economic scenario. The triangle, as a physical structure, can be quite stable. But as the symbol of a particular form of human relationship, it is anything but that.


Of course, we don't use this imagery to express only our fears or negative feelings. Excitement ripples through a crowd, we feel waves of emotion. We are a species who makes tools, and none of these is more important than language. And so we take the shapes of the world and hammer and bend them to fit our purposes. It is one of the most important clauses in our poetic license.

With a Perspective, I'm Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco and works for a housing non-profit.