The Cloth of Words

Sometimes I wax nostalgic. Sometimes communication itself seems drab, with none of the makeup, none of the panache that identifies it as the look of someone I have grown to know.  Emails, like strangers in standard-issue suits, knock at my door then talk from the other side of the threshold, neither wishing nor invited to enter. They were hired for the job -messengers only; they do not expect a handshake or a hug, only an acknowledgement of delivery. And whether or not you are thankful for their service, or acquiesce to whatever their graphemes convey, is nothing to them.

It is everything to me, however. Often, if I cannot look into the eyes of whoever writes, I do not know their thoughts -there are too few clues to allow me into their head. A typed sentence, however thoughtfully composed, can disguise a world of difference, hide be-clothed thoughts, and without a face, is no more helpful than a dictionary.

Perhaps it is just my age that asks for more than words… and yet maybe there is more to know about a word than how it is defined, or whether it is polite. I do not care so much about the grammar or whether it is properly spelled, as I do about its intent. Information is more than message; it is often more than just the tapped collection of recognizable phonemes strung together across the screen. ‘Words, words, words’, Shakespeare’s Hamlet answers when asked what he is reading by Polonius. There are times when that’s all they are -hardly more.

But at least in those days, they were likely handwritten in cursive, marred by hasty smudges, the ink itself affected by whatever visible trembling the message caused. Readable as much by appearance as by content, in other words. That the writer actually touched the page as they felt the emotion they’ve conveyed, is one of the ineffable attributes of a handwritten note.

Recently, while cleaning out a cardboard box stuffed in the corner of a little-used closet, I found a wrinkled envelope written with now-faded ink in a hand that made a chill run down my spine. It was a letter written to me just after I first went away to university a thousand years ago. The writing was unmistakably my mother’s, with her carefully tailored ‘b’s and precisely dotted ‘i’s, the loop of her ‘q’s a set distance below the line to precisely match those of her ‘y’s and identical in length to the downward stroke of the ‘p’ -Grade school exactitude, like she had taught me and her students so many years ago.

In those days I had required lines to guide me horizontally across the page without any hint of slope -it’s how we were marked. It’s how she marked, at any rate. But, of course, she no longer had need of lined paper after so many years… and yet, lines were how I remembered her notes to me. I always assumed they were reminders of proper form: Address at the top right hand side of the page, and then the ‘Dear’, one line below that on the left (or sometimes two lines, as if she were granting me that styles were changing).

Maybe that’s why this letter was so unusual: it was unlined, and her customary measured loops and dips were erratic, although still readable. At times they seemed hurried -like she needed to get to what she wanted to say, but had to prepare things first. Prepare me

She had surrendered to custom and was using a ballpoint pen by that time, but even though the ink flowed freely from its tip, I could see areas on the page where she had dug it more deeply into the paper as if she had been tempted to underline a word for emphasis, but had thought better of it.

I suppose anyone else simply glancing at the page would have judged it neat, and yet I could tell as soon as I opened it that there was something wrong. Everything was in the correct order, and in a quick peek at the bottom of the page, I saw the reassuring ‘Love, Mom.’ in its designated place, but with far more than the requisite number of ‘xo’s lining the space below the ‘Mom’.

And she still used my childhood nickname, but it looked forced, artificial -as if the news she was about to tell me demanded an adult name, an adult tone. I was, after all, a grown-up now in university, and no longer living at home. I sensed she hesitated over her choice, but wanted –needed– to maintain a mother’s reassurance to her little boy. We were still a family, no matter where I lived.

‘I tried to phone you several times,’ it started, ‘but I suppose you are at evening classes a lot, and there’s been nobody around to answer the phone in your room. So I decided to write.’ Her words were becoming hurried, I could tell, because the spaces between them were decreasing. She even forgot to dot an ‘I’ which, as I’ve suggested, is almost anathema to her.

I raced through the letter, more and more distressed by what I saw.

‘You know how much we all loved Boots,’ was when it hit me, and the tears started. The past tense! The dog I had grown up with, slept with, taken with me on innumerable walks, the dog who was as much ‘me’ as my reflection in the mirror, whose warmth I could still feel, whose eyes forgave me whatever I’d done -the dog whose tongue I can still feel all these many years later… Past tense!

‘He had been slowing down, remember, sweetheart? You used to carry him up the steps to bring him inside.’ There was something resembling a smudge on the page, but I couldn’t be sure -ballpoint ink doesn’t readily smear- but nonetheless, I remember touching the page in that spot just to check.

‘Dad put him on his blanket a few nights ago, and he must have died in his sleep, because he was gone when we woke up the next morning.’ Then she started a new line, so I’d understand how important it was. ‘His face was wonderfully peaceful, and he looked the way he used to when he had just fallen asleep as a puppy: relaxed and happy that things had gone so well.’

Even now, reading the wrinkled note, I felt the tears welling up again. Some things you just can’t help. Some things are more than just the words. More than just the message…

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When I was at home, I was in a better place

I am a railway child -or, more specifically, I am the child of a railway father. And as a result the family was transferred to a new location every few years; I have lived in almost every province of Canada at one time or other, so home for me was always a shifting target -a work in progress. Even now, if anyone asks me where home is, I have to think. Is it where I live right now? The place I lived the longest? Or maybe my favourite house…? You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult; I don’t imagine it is for most people, and maybe that’s why they ask. Home, according to the English anthropologist Mary Douglas, ‘is always a localisable idea. Home is located in space but it is not necessarily a fixed space… It need not be a large space, but space there must be, for home starts by bringing some space under control.’ I suppose I’ve controlled many spaces, but it’s just that I’m being asked to choose.

The idea of Home has always been elusive for me; I have usually felt orphaned -or perhaps  foster-homed would be a better way to describe it. I lived with loving parents in pleasant houses that, just as I was beginning to feel ownership, were snatched away along with any roots I had put down or friends with whom I had shared some time, however briefly.

I mention this because of an essay in Aeon.com that caught my eye: https://aeon.co/essays/what-does-home-mean-if-your-bed-is-on-the-pavements-of-paris It was written by Johannes Lenhard, a research associate and coordinator at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change. He did two years of ethnographic research on people living on the streets of Paris who had no fixed abode. As such, one would assume that they had no place they regarded as ‘home’, and yet that would be wrong.

As Lenhard writes, ‘homelessness is very much the product of the malfunction of social, economic and welfare systems, paired with life events such as mental or physical illness, divorce, death and domestic violence. But what might surprise outsiders is that the people I met on the street often didn’t think of themselves as abject or suffering.’ Often, in fact, they ‘were actively struggling to make homes on the street, both literally and symbolically, not simply sitting still. Focusing on the negative and stifled experiences of the homeless invariably produces an incomplete picture, and obscures the creative and resourceful practices that people deploy to deal with their situation.’ Those people ‘on the streets of Paris were striving – in their own ways – towards being better selves’ and Lenhard ‘came to understand the activities, processes and routines that they [the street people] engaged in – begging, making a shelter, accessing temporary housing, etc – as practices of the self geared towards a better life, as practices of homemaking on the street, as practices of hope.’ And, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault said, the self is ‘not given to us … we have to create ourselves as a work of art’.

The hardest thing, I suspect, is imagining how a person living on the streets month after month, year after year, could still be aiming for a fulfilled life -for a home. Lenhard quotes something the American anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly wrote in her book, The Paradox of Hope, about chronically ill people in the United States. Interestingly, it applies equally to the so-called homeless people of his study: ‘Hope most centrally involves the practice of creating, or trying to create, lives worth living even in the midst of suffering, even with no happy ending in sight.’

Home, therefore, could also be somewhere, not in the present ‘but about one’s hopes, about making home [in] an imagined place where one has not yet arrived.’ Home making, then, is a process, ‘involving the material and the imaginative, social connections and mundane acts. Routines, habits and rhythms – often as simple as regularly visiting certain neighbourhoods, shelters and food kitchens…’ That can be home.

Maybe that’s why the young man who always seemed to be sitting with his dog on a busy street corner near my office, seemed so surprised one day when I asked him where his home was. Every day when I walked past him, he smiled at me like we were old friends. I suppose we were, really. For months, I’d made a point of putting any loose change I had in my pocket into the little tin at his feet -and yet he’d smile even when I didn’t contribute anything. He seemed as happy that I even noticed him each time I passed -most didn’t, he told me one time.

I suppose I was as intrigued by his dog, an old black lab that always wagged his tail at me, as I was by the boy. Anybody who can care for a dog is someone I can care for, so we sometimes talked. Nothing too personal, of course -I didn’t want to embarrass him- but both of us were curious about each other, I could tell.

We knew each other’s names: his was Brian, and his dog was Jeffrey -not ‘Jeff’ mind you, Jeffrey. He was quite adamant about that -he never told me why, nor why he’d chosen the particular corner where he sat, for that matter, although I suspect there are rules. Territories. Spaces available that are controllable for a while -until they aren’t… I never asked about that.

But I was curious about where they went at night. It wouldn’t be a safe space then, nor, for that matter was it ever sheltered in the rain. Brian and Jeffrey had not been there the previous winter, and on rainy days there was a space open on the concrete where they weren’t…

And yet when I asked him about his home he merely smiled, hugged his dog, and looked up at me as if the very question meant I could never understand: I had never lived like him -like them. They were a Magisterium apart. But, as I watched the two of them together, happy in the moment, I think I finally understood what Foucault had meant. Brian, I think, would be happy with that, too…

In fair round belly with good capon lined

Once an obstetrician, always an obstetrician. I am recently retired, admittedly, but I nonetheless carry with me the joys and expectations of those days -everything from a mother’s sudden, relieved smile, to the first cry of her baby as it emerges wet and glistening from her birth canal. No less, the gradual changes in the woman herself as she evolves from Girl to Mother as the being she carries develops in the inexorable way of life. A time when her self-image expands to an us-image, and the mirror -once no friend, perhaps- becomes a welcome calendar of change: a map on the journey.

None were more surprised, I think, than Julia. I had first seen her, in my dual role as gynaecologist, for various adolescent challenges as she worked her way through her formative years. She was always an attractive, although excessively thin woman, and yet she continued to worry about her figure. In fact, I worried she was teetering on the edge of an eating disorder, and each successive time I saw her, she seemed to be staring even more intently into an abyss. Eventually, despite multiple attempts at specialist referrals, she disappeared from my practice for several years.

She resurfaced one summer, a changed woman. Now in the mid-trimester of her first pregnancy, she glowed with the prospect of motherhood, and seemed delighted in her new and ever-changing shape. No longer the angular stick-figure of her early years, gently flowing curves now softened her hips and rounded her growing abdomen. Each time I saw her, the smile on her face had grown as well.

“It’s all very interesting, don’t you think?” she asked me, one time as she neared her delivery date.

“What’s interesting, Julia?” I said, as I measured her abdomen and checked the position of the baby inside.

“The roundness…”

I smiled. “The baby, you mean?”

She shrugged. “Everything…” Her voice trailed off as she thought about it some more. “I used to like all of the angles in my body. I used to think it was beautiful to see my hip bones when I was in a bathing suit…” Her smile enlarged and suddenly she giggled. “Interesting, eh?”

I suppose we’re all biased against one thing or another, aren’t we? At my age, though, it’s hard to keep track anymore. I seem to blunder into something whichever way I turn, no matter my intent. I have no quarrel with political correctness, or anything -I am quite happy to be correct- it’s just that, well, some of this stuff is invisible at first or even second glance. Effectively camouflaged in the background of my everyday life, it’s a Where’s Waldo that’s getting harder and harder to solve.

Maybe I should watch more YouTube, or follow the news on Facebook more closely, because (blush) I do neither. Of course, that’s how you learn about what’s trending in the biasphere -if you really care, that is. I suspect I don’t. I just try to be polite and considerate to all and sundry; only occasionally does my naïveté surface to any noticeable, and hopefully harmless, extent.

So I have to confess, to being caught amidships with an essay in the BBC Future series that somehow makes its way unaided to my inbox from time to time: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181115-anti-fat-bias-round-shapes-are-sold-to-overweight-customers It would seem that we all have cleverly disguised anti-fat biases -and were I a salesman, I would apparently be less likely to meet the eyes or smile at someone of that persuasion.

And, believe it or not, ‘An undercover shopping experiment has now shown that this  bias even extends to the shapes of products that customers are recommended: customers of a greater weight are encouraged to buy rounder items… the researchers found that when wearing [a] prosthesis [to make the actor seem obese], the actor was recommended rounder watches and rounder bottles of perfume… Online experiments with study participants who weren’t shop assistants confirmed the bias Vallen [the study author Beth Vallen, a researcher at Villanova University in the US] and her colleagues measured in the real-life setting. Participants were shown a picture of a potential customer and asked to recommend products, selecting from pairs of images that were either round or angular. “We wanted to show that this was a bias that reflects the thoughts and decisions processes of all people, not just sales people,” says Vallen. This turned out to be the case: they found the same effect of matching rounder products to people with a higher BMI. It also held across different types of products – from watches to mirrors, lamps and candles. And it happened whether the imaginary customer was male or female.’

I must live in a protected bubble, I guess. My watch, for example is round -I didn’t think they came any other way, to tell the truth. Anyway, ‘The bias goes beyond an urge to match people of a particular body type with a particular shape of product… it is the stereotypes associated with the product and the people that are at play. In particular, one stereotype is that overweight people are friendlier. Rounded shapes are also seen as friendlier.’ Come on, eh? ‘actors were recommended more rounded products when they were smiling than when they were stern-faced – an effect that held whether they were wearing a body prosthesis or not.’

This rather idiosyncratic finding seemed to take the researchers by surprise: ‘“We don’t find any evidence that overweight people themselves prefer round products, or that normal weight people prefer angular products,” says Vallen.’

So is this telling us anything important -other than that grant money must be getting easier to come by? It made me remember the Julia of so many years ago, and I wondered whether or not Vallen might be on to something -something so ancient that it was locked, like Bluebeard’s secret, in a room we had not dared to enter in all these years. When I think of Julia, I can appreciate what Vallen may have inadvertently uncovered. But, far from the horrors of Bluebeard’s skeletons, it may be an atavism that can speak to us in modern times: maybe rounded shapes are somehow friendlier…

Words without thoughts never to heaven go

I don’t very often get involved with ‘causes’. It’s not that I don’t believe that some things are sufficiently important that they deserve special attention, I think it’s more that my enthusiasm tends to get in the way if I’m not careful and obscures the ultimate goals I’m seeking to achieve.

It first became obvious in my undergraduate years in University when I took it upon myself to raise the membership of the chess club to which I belonged. There were only about ten of us in the club, but it became so stratified that the really expert players stopped attending our Wednesday night games because the rest of us were so easily beaten. And as the numbers dwindled, so did our Wednesday night meetings. Eventually, only three of us could be counted on to attend.

It was in those awkward days before the Internet, and so I decided that the three of us should make some posters advertising the club and tape them up across campus. I was taking some courses in psychology at the time, and I thought we could take advantage subtle behavioural manipulators like colour and shape to attract interest. I decided we should use a deep-purple paper because it is usually associated with royalty, and a really large, flesh coloured pawn to show that even the least of us were important -I thought that featuring a bishop or a knight would just confuse people who weren’t acquainted with the game. And over the pawn, written diagonally in huge dripping blood-red letters, the word ‘CHESS’. To me at least, the symbolism was obvious and jarring: chess was a way to become powerful and exact revenge, even if in real life, you were actually a milquetoast. And, at the very bottom of the poster in tiny but bright yellow lettering, I added neatly printed instructions as to when and where we held our meetings. We put the posters up all over the campus -especially in the cafeterias where the freshies seemed to congregate.

I was really proud of my effort: it was both succinct and visually commanding. All three of us met the following Wednesday, each bringing our own chess sets from home to meet the expected demand.

I suppose it was a bit of a success –three new people showed up, although one of them said she’d just been walking by and wondered why all the lights were on in the usually dimly-lit lounge. A six-person club was an improvement, I guess, but I still couldn’t understand why the posters hadn’t commanded more interest. A few weeks later, one of my non-chess playing friends happened to mention seeing the posters, and I asked her what she thought of them.

I remember she hesitated before answering. “Well…” she started, obviously choosing her words carefully. “It attracted my attention, but…” A worried look crept over her face.

“But…?” I tried not to look hurt, but I’ve never been very good at disguising my emotions.

She attempted a little embarrassed smile, but I could see that she was sorry she’d brought up the subject. “Well… I thought that the way the word ‘chess’ was written suggested…” Another hesitation. “Uhmm… violence.”

I softened my expression, and then tried to smile as if I wasn’t offended.

“And that flesh-coloured thing -Judy told me it was a pawn, or whatever- but it looked more like a…” She suddenly glanced at something on the wall behind me, hoping I wouldn’t notice she was blushing.

“You’re saying I didn’t make my point?” I chuckled at how she’d read it.

She finally rested her eyes gently on my cheek, and reached across the table for my hand. “Well, it didn’t make me want to join, or anything…”

It made me realize that merely attracting attention was not sufficient. Nor was the assumption that creating an emotional response would necessarily entice people who were otherwise busy with their own lives.

A while ago, I remember listening to an audio podcast on the CBC Ideas program hosted by Paul Kennedy, that featured the well-credentialed environmentalist Graham Saul. His thesis was that despite the gloom of an impending global climatic catastrophe, there seemed to be little decisive action being taken to prevent it. He wondered whether or not the problem was one of messaging: that, unlike other successful movements, there seemed to be no single coherent message around which people or the media could rally. With the women’s movement, for example, equality is perhaps the dominant theme -a word that expresses the hopes and expectations of half of the world’s population. It’s much like freedom as the rallying cry for the abolitionist movement, or independence for the many anti-colonialists factions.

But what is a word that could unite the hydra-headed segments of the environmentalist movement -let alone draw attention to the need for urgent action on climate change? I’ve appended a link to his talk: https://metcalffoundation.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/2018-10-10-Environmentalists-what-are-we-fighting-for-web.pdf

As he said, words matter. ‘Great social movements use powerful words to sum up their ultimate goals— words like freedom, equality, liberty, and independence. People participating in those movements take many paths and approach the issue from many directions, but these words, and the ideas that they represent, are like north stars leading society out of the ethical fog and guiding people in a common and righteous direction.’

He interviewed 116  leaders in their fields who were either directly or indirectly involved in the environmental movement. When he ‘asked interviewees to sum up the ultimate goal of past social movements there was overwhelming consensus on the words as well as agreement that words played a very important role in helping the public understand what those movements were fighting for.’ But, ‘ When [he] asked interviewees to sum up what environmentalists are fighting for, the answers were far more diverse and people were generally unsatisfied with their answers. Most did not think that their own choice of words would clearly convey, for the general public, the goal of the modern environmental movement… There was no one word or expression—like equality—that clearly dominated the answers. The three most frequently mentioned concepts were survival (22% of respondents), sustainability (14%), and justice (9%)’ All the words are undoubtedly important, of course, and yet somehow -like my long-ago poster- failed to encapsulate the overall need, the universal importance -in short, they failed to resonate.

And it’s not just in the verbal realm that resonance is required. I was interested to learn that photography could also cause a very visceral stimulus to action, but only if it, too, captured more than mere curiosity -more than simply rubbernecking an accident as we surfed through the pictures: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20181115-why-climate-change-photography-needs-a-new-look

As the  author of the article wrote, ‘Climate change has an inherent image problem. While you can clearly visualise plastic pollution or deforestation, climate change has a less obvious mugshot: the gases that cause global warming, such as carbon dioxide and methane, are colourless, while impacts are slow-paced and not always visually striking.’ And traditional climate images just aren’t that compelling -even skinny, lonely-looking polar bears on shrinking icebergs.

So ‘psychologist Adam Corner, director of Climate Visuals, a project that aims to revitalise climate imagery’ commissioned an online survey, as well as convening panels in London and Berlin. The conclusion was that ‘people were more likely to empathise with images that showed real faces – such as workers installing solar panels, emergency respondents helping victims of a typhoon or farmers building more efficient irrigation systems to combat drought. It also helped when photographs depicted settings that were local or familiar to the viewer, and when they showed emotionally powerful impacts of climate change.’

Interestingly, the chess club didn’t ask me to do any additional advertising for them. As a matter of fact, the three new members convinced us that we didn’t really need more than six in the club -and would we please take down the posters?

I still think the pawn was clever, though…

Cry Baby

Every once in a while on my journey through the years, I stumble over something that is so commonplace it is invisible -well, not invisible maybe, but at least so common we ask the wrong questions about it, if we ask at all. Crying, for example; why do we cry? Is it a way of diverting our own attention? A catharsis? Or, to be crass, a manipulative device? Whatever the reason, it’s sufficiently universal, that I would have thought we would have discovered whether or not it serves some physiological purpose by now.

Not that everything is attended by a purpose, of course, but we do feel better when we find one… Okay, I feel better when I think something is doing it to keep me healthy, or at least has an evolutionary explanation, however atavistic. So it was with great expectations that I jumped into an essay in the Conversation by  Leah Sharman, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Queensland (Australia). She, I hoped, was going to answer a question I never thought to ask before: why do we cry? https://theconversation.com/no-crying-doesnt-release-toxins-though-it-might-make-you-feel-better-if-thats-what-you-believe-106860

I mean what would prompt me to ask? I laugh, I cry -I seem to know why it happens, but do I? Or am I just extrapolating from the circumstances when it occurs -making the all too easy assumption that association is the same as cause? I entered the article with my hat in my hand and my breathing held in reverent abeyance as I might on entering a grand cathedral. Unfortunately, I heard no organ playing, and whatever echoes reverberated through the nave, were produced by disparate voices, not the stirring lower registers of majestic pipes.

For example, the rather banal observation that, ‘Studies show, on average, adult women  tend to cry two to three times in a given month, and men only once. Although research is limited, it suggests crying frequency is highly influenced by social and cultural factors, our beliefs about the value of crying and how it is evaluated.’ Followed by ‘This is particularly exaggerated in many Western countries, where women report crying more often than those from non-Western countries. And in non-Western countries the difference in crying frequency between men and women is smaller. In some instances, it’s non-existent.’ Imagine that.

Then, a hint of teleology: ‘Scientists have long speculated why we cry and what happens in our bodies when we’re doing it. Some have suggested crying may be expelling chemicals that are built up during feelings of distress, or that crying causes a  chemical change in the body that reduces stress or increases positive feelings.’ But again, a hush: ‘But we don’t actually know that much about crying and most of the studies out there are based on self-reporting.’

‘The most pervasive idea about crying is that we do it because it’s helpful in some way; perhaps it provides relief or catharsis. But the research on this is mixed, with crying sometimes showing an improvement in mood and sometimes a worsening… Despite the overwhelming perception crying is useful at a personal level, most research suggests crying is more of a social phenomenon. Crying is an extremely effective signal to others that something is wrong and that you may be in need of help and comfort.’ Not terribly surprising, I suppose, but it seemed to be getting into more of the meat of the process.

That is, until I read further: ‘But before you go crying in front of others for support, just remember other studies show doing so may actually lead to feelings of shame and embarrassment.’ Okay, then, pick your study…

But in fairness, the article did get better -did attempt some evaluative science. ‘Crying seems, at best, to do not much at all, and, at worst, to increase our physiological arousal.’ For example, in the author’s lab, they ‘attempted to test whether crying reduces or interferes with the levels of the stress hormone (cortisol), and whether it may be able provide some other physical benefit, such as numbing, which could explain why we cry when we are in either emotional and physical pain. We found crying had no effect on stress levels and people weren’t able to withstand pain more readily than those who did not cry. But those who cried were more in control of their breathing rate. This suggests people may hold their breath during crying in a bid to calm themselves down, and perhaps use the crying behaviour to initiate the calming strategy.’

For the most part, though, it strikes me that the article merely ran through a checklist of unremarkable sociological parameters that left me no further ahead than I would have been had I confined myself to the confirmation biases on my Facebook. As an example, she says, ‘Crying is a personal process. Whether you cry, and how often, may be related to your culture, gender, and emotional expressiveness.’ Uhmm… well, yes I suppose so, eh?

Now that Sharman has raised the subject, however, I would still be interested to know if other mammals -primates, say- do, or even can cry. In other words, is crying an evolutionarily derived mechanism to serve some purpose, or is it an exaptation of something else, now exclusive to homo? Sadly, I did not find out, despite my suddenly piqued interest.

Fortunately, there is Google, and after scouring -sort of- the entries on crying, I did find a naively non-academic one that seemed to cover most of the bases -a 2013 article by Amanda Smith in The Body Sphere: https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/bodysphere/features/4837824 It’s titled ‘Why are humans the only animals that cry?’ I’m not sure it even answers its own question, but at any rate, it did attempt some interesting explanations of why humans cry that I hadn’t heard before. It included this rather innocent and dewy-eyed one: ‘Darwin’s own theory of tears claimed that ‘in our evolutionary past, babies would close their eyes very tightly to protect their eyes when they were screaming for their mothers,’ says Dr Thomas Dixon, director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. ‘The closing of the eyes very tightly would squeeze the lachrymal glands and bring out the tears,’ he says. By a process of association thereafter, any kind of pain or suffering became connected with tears.’

I know, I know, it’s a sort of kludgey explanation, but in a touching way, it’s kind of uplifting, don’t you think? Soothing, almost…

Love, which alters when it alteration finds

I’m not certain I understand why, but I am being led to believe that Love can be described mathematically using Bayesian Probability Theory… Okay, as a start, I have no idea what subscribing to Bayesian probability theory might entail, except maybe a club membership, and a considerably manipulated personal profile to attract some interest. But, ever alert to new (or any) social possibilities, I decided to read the essay by Suki Finn, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton in the UK writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/beyond-reason-the-mathematical-equation-for-unconditional-love

It starts with the not unreasonable premise that there are two basic types of love: conditional, and unconditional. Then, she dips her toes into some background to convince me that Thomas Bayes’ probability theorem is flexible enough to improve my social life.

‘Degrees of belief are called credences. These credences can be given numerical values between 0 and 1 (where 1 is being completely certain), to demonstrate how strong that degree of belief is. Importantly, these values are not forever fixed, and can change when given reason to do so… But how do you rationally alter your credence, and figure out how strong it should be, given the information that you have? Cue Bayesian probability theory to calculate conditional credences. A credence is conditional upon information when it is evaluated with regard to that information, such that the strength of the belief is sensitive to that information and is updated on the basis of it… But what if my credence is completely irresponsive to such evidence? … This is what it is like to have credence 1, in other words, a belief of certainty, which could not be any stronger and cannot be updated. It cannot be updated in either direction – it cannot get stronger because it is already at maximum strength, and it cannot get weaker on the basis of evidence because it was not built on the basis of evidence in the first place.’ Uhmm… easy, right? And these are the rational changes to credence. ‘When your strength of feeling is sensitive to information about how things are, a philosopher would call it rational, as it develops in accordance with that information. Such is loving for a reason: with more reason comes more love, and when the reason goes, the love goes. This type of conditional love is an analogy to rational credences between 0 and 1 (not including the extremes), which change on the basis of evidence.’

Still with me…? I mean with Suki, because I’m not in any way with her…  Okay then, ‘Alternatively, unconditional love is love that will not change according to any information, as it was not built on the basis of information in the first place. This is love without reason… This type of love has an untouchable and irrational mind of its own. As with credence 1, it can change only irrationally – it does not abide by any Bayesian law and so cannot be updated… You fall in and out of unconditional love at the mercy of love itself… This is loving in spite of everything, rather than loving because of something, and so appears unaltered by reason… But this does not make the love stable. It is simply out of your control, and can literally go away for no reason!’

It seems to me that the author is saying that conditional love is probably more predictable, or maybe controllable than unconditional love, because it is not subject to random (uncaused) fluctuations. It’s not as liable to be indiscriminately, or inadvertently snatched away. Nice. But have I learned any non-obfuscatory take-home lessons? Is it readily transferrable to any situations other than amongst rhetoricians? Could I use it in the car on the way home, in other words?

Sometimes the grandest ideas fall short of the mark in actual combat… sorry, relationships. How, in practice, and when you’re just getting to know somebody, can you possibly profess conditional love? And why would you? It sounds like a sort of one-time stand thing. It is of course, but normal rules of courtship require hyperbole. Metaphors -as in: ‘My love is as constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, but there’s but one in all doth hold her place.’ As long as she doesn’t know you’ve cribbed the lot from Shakespeare’s Caesar, and you don’t mess up the words, everybody wins.

People are attracted to metaphors -they conjure up sincerity without linking it to unconditionality. Without requiring the intrusion of credences into an otherwise emotionally friable situation. It seems to me there’s nothing but trouble in store for anyone who decides to numerically assign emotional attachment parameters on the way home from a lovely dinner in an expensive restaurant.

Anyway, Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister, and heaven only knows what that entails in terms of the slideabilty of relationships. I mean, their Regulative principle of worship (according to Wikipedia, at least) ‘specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.’ I’m therefore not entirely convinced that he would approve of the commandeering of his theorems in the somewhat tottery realm of Love, whether or not it is entwined with the idea of worship.

Of course, on the other hand, I suspect he would no doubt denounce any effort to charm with untruths, or at least equivocatory declarations. I certainly admire Suki Finn’s attempt to clarify intrinsically opaque emotions, but I’m afraid it will not do. And to revert back to Philosophy -her specialty- for a moment, there are just too many perils for any practical attempt at a Kantian Categorical Imperative application here, either.

It seems to me that I blundered into a more satisfactory solution to the declaration of Love: metaphor. It does not require any numerical assignations that might confuse or even spoil the moment; it does not even require positioning the feeling along a Bell curve for comparison with other loves you might have had. Nope, at the party -after you muster up the courage to ask her to dance- you merely say: ‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that’, or in the car on the way home, you just have to come up with something like, ‘O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day which now shows all the beauty of the sun…’ and let it go at that.

 

 

 

In sweet music is such art

I like to think I have had a long history of music, although I’m fairly certain my mother didn’t play Mozart to me in her womb -a lot of yelling maybe, but nothing with staves. And yet, even in those early proto-Holocene days, there was a general recognition that, at a minimum, music was probably helpful for calming down young children. So in pre-Flood Winnipeg, we all had to take piano lessons and all my friends complained about having to practice. Mrs. Burns was the piano teacher in our neighbourhood, and she was a stickler for scales, I remember. We all tried to fool her with our mastery of C major because it didn’t involve any tricky black keys, but if we caught her in a bad mood, she’d assign us a difficult minor one -C# minor comes to mind. Sometimes childhood can be fraught, although in truth, I’ve never regretted the music.

There has been a fair amount of research into the value of learning it in childhood, and I recently came across an article discussing that in the Conversation.com -an app on my phone: https://theconversation.com/learning-music-early-can-make-your-child-a-better-reader-106066  It was written by two Australians, Anita Collins, adjunct assistant professor, and Misty Adoniou, an associate professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, both at the University of Canberra.

‘Music processing and language development share an overlapping network in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain developed music processing well before language and then used that processing to create and learn language. At birth, babies understand language as if it was music. They respond to the rhythm and melody of language before they understand what the words mean. Babies and young children mimic the language they hear using those elements of rhythm and melody, and this is the sing-song style of speech we know and love in toddlers.’

It makes sense when you put it all in context, although I worry that it’s a bit facile. Still, ‘Fluency includes the ability to adjust the patterns of stress and intonation of a phrase, such as from angry to happy and the ability the choose the correct inflection, such as a question or an exclamation. These highly developed auditory processing skills are enhanced by musical training.’ -I left in the link as an attempt to exculpate my tentative credulity…

Oh, and ‘Children should also be taught to read musical notation and symbols when learning music. This reinforces the symbol to sound connection which is also crucial in reading words.’ I mention this, because although very few of us went on to sterling careers in academia, and I can’t name even one of us in the neighbourhood who ended up as a famous novelist, most of us that made it through Riverview Public School were at least able to read, so that’s got to count for something.

But in those days, we all had music classes in school, no matter whether or not we had to go home and practice scales for Mrs. Burns. In fact, I think the lessons she taught had far reaching tentacles. Remember her C# minor scale -the Punishment Scale? I suspect I must have been subject to more than my fair share of extracurricular discipline in those days, because I remember practicing the scale with my fingers on any flat surface -garbage can lids, fence posts, and garage doors in the lane on my way to her house- just in case. I got so I could recognize the scale anywhere, anytime, but especially on the piano.

Years later, when my family moved out to Quebec, I suddenly came face to face with Mrs. Burns’ prescience. I was in a music class at an Anglo High School in Lachine when the teacher decided his class was getting a bid rowdy and needed some retributive justice: a shaming.

The class was thoroughly bilingual, whereas I, the foreigner-from-away,  could barely hold my own. Fortunately -or maybe because of me- M. Honneur decided to put us down musically and after glaring at the class menacingly through truly startlingly unkempt eyebrows, sat down at the piano, turning his head only slightly to smirk at us.

“We’re going to play a little game,” he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously. I want you to name the piece…”

The first three notes -the A, then G# and finally the C#- gave it away, however. He didn’t need to play the rest, although I remember he worked his way through several bars to help us further.

Then he stopped and looked at the now totally engaged class. Apparently he had done this before -well, before my time there, at any rate.

They tried various names, and his smile grew. “Sounds… Slavic, or something,” someone said, as Honneur’s head shook triumphantly.

“It’s in a minor key…” This from a rather smug girl in the very front by the piano.

“How about Beethoven,” another person piped up, but everyone groaned at that, and it quickly slipped into the anonymity granted a voice hidden in the middle of a crowd.

I could hardly believe it. Honneur was playing a kind of Rumpelstiltskin game with them and nobody could guess. I suddenly felt embarrassed -was I the only one in the class who knew the answer?

Honneur’s grin was becoming unbearable, though, and I realized I needed to make my move before he surrendered the answer, so I timidly held up my hand. Everybody went silent and stared at me.

“It’s obviously the Prelude in C# minor,” I blurted out before he could acknowledge my gently waving arm.

He stared at me, in disbelief, and it took a second or so before he said, “By…?” Honneur seemed a bit miffed that I had called it out, and his tone of voice suggested I had cheated, somehow.

Now that I had everybody’s attention, I think I blushed. “By Rachmaninoff, of course…” I’m not sure why I added the ‘of course’, except that it had been one of my favourite, albeit unplayable pieces, from my Winnipeg days.

His eyes retracted a little with my ‘of course’ and then his expression turned playful, teasing. “Very good, young man…” he said, drawing his acknowledgement out slowly, “But can you spell it?” He thought he had me -and so did the class. The silence was electric.

I stood up, and spelled it out slowly, carefully, so I’d get it right: R-A-C-H… M-A-N…” The next part was tricky, I knew: “I-N-O-F-F… although it’s sometimes spelled with a V instead of the two F’s, at the end… To account for the Russian spelling, or something, I guess,” I added triumphantly.

The class and Honneur actually applauded, I remember.

So, despite my initial suspicions about the value of early music training as outlined in the Conversation article, perhaps it did do me some good. If nothing else, it helped cement together les deux solitudes -as Quebec and the rest of anglophone Canada were beginning to be referred to around that time. Mrs. Burns was ahead of her time; maybe she should have run for political office… Of course, since everybody in the neighbourhood knew her, maybe she did.