Remembering Forgetting

We have to be careful, don’t we? Sometimes, we have to force ourselves to step back for a moment. When we want something –need something- to reassure us that we will be okay despite signs to the contrary, it’s all too easy to believe. All too easy to slip back into the warm, reassuring arms of a parent who tells us what we want so desperately to hear: that everything will turn out all right…

And I suppose that each of us has her favourite skeleton. However farfetched it may seem to others, it is a source of undue angst whenever the subject is broached, albeit innocently. With my mother, it was her curls. She lived in the sure and certain knowledge that when she got old, her hair would turn as straight as hay. It didn’t, but then again, I was never privy to whether or not her hairdresser was an accomplice.

My father, on the other hand, worried about God –but only, it has to be revealed, after I began to bring home my university textbooks on Philosophy to try their arguments out on him. At the time, I think I felt I was sharing my newfound freedom of ideas, but in retrospect I realize it was unkind.  His background religious beliefs had not prepared him for the convincing effectiveness of rhetoric in destroying what clever minds had decided were untenable arguments. He had not learned to step back; he had not learned to consider the source. Nor had I, for that matter…

It is why I have to be careful. It is one thing to cherish words and venerate ideas, and another to be convinced by those which foster only those with which I have formed an allegiance. Perhaps that’s unfair not only to me, but to the ideas, and yet there is something distinctly unsettling about pernicious change. It’s why, throwing critical thinking to one side on occasion, I revel in reassurance. I want to believe in good-news experiments that cradle me, however briefly, in their arms.

There was a brief summary in a CBC News Second Opinion section with the title ‘Remembering forgetting could be a good thing.’ Now, how could that not attract the attention of someone whose bête noir is just that? Someone who chafes at the declining powers of a once proud memory? Someone who wants to blame it on age, and yet dares not –and whose mind, scrabbling among shards of memory, is persistently reassured that it can still remember the lament of Macbeth before his battle with Macduff at Dunsinane: ‘My way of life is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, and that which should accompany old age, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have, but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.’ Some things burrow deeply into the unguarded psyche, however irrelevant.

But the article, reporting on a study published by Dr. Philip Gerretsen (a clinician scientist at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry: said that ‘Using brain imaging data and other clinical information from more than 1,000 patients with early cognitive decline, his new study suggests there’s a relationship between a person’s level of awareness of memory issues, and their risk of future disease.’ I cling desperately to fragments like this. ‘”Most intriguingly it’s the patients that seem to be hyper-aware of having some cognitive problems relative to their caregivers that actually don’t go on to develop dementia,” Gerretsen said, adding that those people might be suffering memory loss for other reasons, including anxiety or depression.’

And not only do I derive some satisfaction from his findings, I’ve also learned a new word that I hope to sprinkle surreptitiously into a conversation if I can actually remember it long enough: anosognosia — a neurological term for not knowing that you’re sick. Not realizing, in other words, that you’re forgetting things. ‘Gerretsen says there’s a suggestion that Alzheimer’s disease might be affecting the brain regions involved in illness awareness.’ I’ve decided that’s what I now think, too. It’s another straw to grasp, I suppose.

And yet, true to its etymology, the concept of anosognosia is not very well known. I was in a hospital elevator one afternoon on my way to the subterranean parking lot after visiting a friend. Normally crowded, there were only two older, but tired-looking nurses huddled in the corner of the little chamber leaning heavily on the walls, and one was shaking her head slowly. “I get so annoyed with myself, Fran,” she continued, hardly noticing the novelty of my presence.

Fran, a stout woman with short, messy hair, managed to raise her eyes enough to rest them on her friend’s face. “Why’s that, Judy?” She didn’t really sound that engaged in the conversation –just polite.

Judy, equally stout, but perhaps because of her bright red dress, looking the more refreshed of the two, sighed. “I always forget where I parked the car.”

The thought seemed to perk Fran up a little. “Happens to me all the time… I guess we park here so often, one space seems just like any other.”

“Yeah, but I really tried this morning… I did something or saw something I was sure would help me remember…”

Fran chuckled, more fully awake at the thought. “And now you can’t remember?”

Judy shook her head, smiling. “Worrisome, eh?”

They were both silent for a moment, and then Judy rescued her body from the wall in preparation for leaving, and glanced at her friend. “Do you think remembering that I’m forgetting things is a good sign…?”

Fran thought about it for a moment. “I would think that forgetting that you’re forgetting things would be worse…” she said as the elevator door opened and the two of them got out, giggling like schoolgirls.

Maybe some things are intuitive. Maybe hope is one of those things.


Is Whispering Nothing?

Sometimes I randomly accede to the frivolous demands of boredom, but more frequently I am goaded, and approach not of my own volition, but like Don Quixote, hoping to right some wrong. At those times I am, I like to think, teleology’s servant. I assume that it is the purposes they end up championing, rather than the initial inciting events that deserve my interest. After all, Curiosity is the lust of the mind, as Thomas Hobbes reminded us.

So, when I happened upon an article questioning whether women were less important than cows in India, I was intrigued: I claim no omniscience of societal customs –not even of my own, perhaps- and I have to admit that my background is in Gynaecology, not Anthropology, but nonetheless I couldn’t resist the allure of a sociological pentimento. Is a mask really meant to deceive, or merely illustrate a reality that is otherwise hidden? Unnoticed when undisguised?

‘The striking photos are the brainchild of Sujatro Ghosh, a Delhi-based photographer, who believes that Indian society values the lives of cattle more highly than the lives of women. In order to call attention to endemic misogyny that he feels disfigures cultural life in India (where authorities, Ghosh says, are more likely to punish the mistreatment of a cow than the abuse of a woman or a girl), the photographer invited his female friends to pose for photos wearing a cow mask […].’

The idea of metaphor to illustrate perceived inequity whether social or gendered, is certainly not new of course –not even in art: ‘Ghosh’s photos echo earlier efforts by artists to expose the sexist instincts of cultural institutions. Preferring the visual pun provided by gorilla (as opposed to cow) masks, members of the all-female collective known as the Guerrilla Girls have, for the past three decades, been committed to raising awareness of issues of gender (and racial) bias in the international art world.

‘Relying on street art to communicate their message, the anonymous activists are perhaps best known for a series of arresting posters from the 1980s that have become as recognisable as any works of contemporary art from the period. […] The Guerilla Girls’ provocative poster was rejected by city officials from display on New York transport on the grounds that it was too risqué. The banner satirises French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s lounging portrait of a concubine, La Grande Odalisque (1814), slipping an ape mask over her head and turning the image into one that is impossible to ignore.’ In fact, the striking metaphor has not been lost in other venues, either: ‘Placed alongside Ghosh’s viral photos from this week, the Guerrilla Girls’ memorable poster corroborates a recent claim made by another incognito icon, Banksy: “If you want to say something and have people listen, then you have to wear a mask.”’ (Banksy –to quote Wikipedia- is ‘an anonymous England-based graffiti artist as well as a political activist.’ His ‘works of political and social commentary have been featured on streets, walls, and bridges of cities throughout the world.’)

I suppose we are all inclined to read between the lines at times. To wonder why a particular thought needs to be portrayed covertly. There is a thrill in deciphering a metaphor, I think –first of all in knowing that it is indeed a metaphor and not really meant to trick the wary… More to beguile them. But more importantly perhaps, the ability to peek behind the curtain suggests membership in a cadre of like minds. Or at least an awareness that someone else has noticed something that is often masked. Something usually hidden by equivocation or, to use a word I can rarely justify, sesquipedalianism –obfuscation, in slightly less confusing terms.

Sometimes we need to be jolted by the unexpected, the unusual, to even notice something. We are, by and large, creatures of context; it is where we feel most comfortable. Incongruity is unsettling and, as in harmony, we feel a need for a resolution of any dissonance. But whereas in music we can passively await the adjustment, in art there is a need to actively pursue accommodation. To decide what it is that makes us feel uneasy and why. It is a goad that brooks no turning away.

It’s no accident, that art has been with us from the beginning of Time, I suspect. That we have been compelled to draw things on whatever surface was available, speaks to our need interpret whatever we felt was important. Whether it was animals in motion, the beauty of the sky, or the mysteries of pregnancy, a visual representation seemed as necessary and important as the thing itself. And as full of meaning. Who knows what metaphors hide within the Palaeolithic paintings in the caves at Lascaux, or in the Venus of Laussel?

The risk, I suppose, is the temptation to view every creative act as serving a purpose other than the sheer joy of craftsmanship, the ecstasy of virtuosity, the fulfilment of imagination. And yet, to assume the cause might be merely one of portrayal, or even propitiation, is to denigrate the accomplishment, I think. We all see the world through our own eyes, naturally, but it is the ability to share our view and allow it to seep silently into other eyes, that is the gift of art. And if that opens minds –or, perhaps, even alters them- then maybe the circle is complete.


We Know Not What We May Be

There are times when we only seem to hear in sentences, and forget that their meaning and colour is dependent on the words –it’s like ignoring the rivers that feed a lake. It’s like assuming that the story of a wall is written in the bricks we notice, not the mortar we don’t. History can become like that, too: a sentence, a reality -until we parse the words that is. Each word.

Take, for example, women in the workforce. Until relatively recently, their collective contribution was both underestimated, and definitely undervalued. In fact, if there was anything for which they were eminently suited other than family matters or, perhaps, a subordinate role in cleaning and food preparation, it was seldom apparent in the prevailing ethos. But, like the image on a developing photograph, it was there, but blurred. Hard to see… and yet there, however indistinct.

The invisible is all around us –like the nuns. And, as an abstract from a 2005 issue of Women’s History Review informs us, ‘Despite their exclusion from historical texts, these women featured prominently in negotiating the boundaries of religious life […]Prescriptive literature gave one model of womanhood, married life, with a second model, single life, clearly an inauspicious alternative. Women religious provided a different model and created a religious, occupational and professional identity that varied from the prescriptive literature of the day.’ –the workplace, in other words. We see the world but through a glass darkly, indeed; maybe change is the only constant. There are none so blind as those who will not see. A BBC article forced me to look again:

‘Becoming a nun [was] not often associated with women’s emancipation. But it did offer an interesting career option for women. […]But Catholicism in the 20th Century saw the world of work as fraught with dangers for women, and could only reconcile female professionals with the notion of them entering professions in a wider spirit of religious charity and sacrifice.’

It would be too much to expect that their rewards would be commensurate with their worth, but rewards come in different forms. ‘Revelations of women being paid less than men for doing the same job make it clear that society has a serious issue when it comes to valuing women’s work. Nuns offer a unique insight into how work is divided between the sexes and rewarded accordingly.’

In fact, in spite of the widely held belief in the subordinate and often inadequate abilities of women at the time, ‘The testimonies I [the author: Flora Derounian] collected shared many commonalities, the most striking of which is the contrast to the existences of most other women living in the epoch between 1947 and 1965, otherwise known as “the era of the housewife”.’ So, for example, ‘[…] interviewees had founded communities in rural Burundi, housed victims of civil war, and set up pharmacies in the Pakistani desert. Many others had taught in schools, cared for the elderly, worked with drug addicts, or given communion and comfort to the dying.’

The article reminded me of  the time I found  myself sitting beside a nun on the bus a few weeks ago. I didn’t know they even took buses, but maybe that’s because many of them nowadays are like unmarked police cars –you don’t know until they catch you unawares. Anyway, I don’t know that I was so much caught as observed, staring at the Bible she was reading. Well, more likely the spreadsheet under it on her lap. The combination seemed jarring.

I could see her smiling as she noticed my interest. “Is it the Bible, or the spreadsheet that caught your eye?” she said with a mischievous grin. A short woman with even shorter auburn hair, she was wrapped in a dark grey raincoat, and except for the oversized briefcase at her feet, looked like any other person on the bus.

I have to admit I was embarrassed at the question and I think I shrugged. “Oh…” I tried to think of a quick answer. “… Is that a Bible?” Stupid thing to say, and my face immediately reddened.

I could swear she winked at me before I hastily withdrew my eyes, though.

“I prefer the King James, but my Order decided to go modern over traditional…”

“So… what…?”

“New Jerusalem Bible…” She watched me for a second. “Less literary, I’m afraid, but more literal… Maybe they chose it because it’s also more gender neutral. Anyway, I use it for work now and then.”

I allowed my eyes to hover around her face for a moment and then called them home.

“We like to believe we were the first feminists, but…” she studied my reaction with a steady, almost practiced gaze, and then relented. “… It depends on the motherhouse, of course. I was fortunate, as it turns out.”

“Oh? And why is that?” I said, hypnotized by her eyes. And her voice was so soft and reassuring, I couldn’t help smiling. She could have sold me tundra in the far north and I would have felt honoured.

“We’re allowed to work in the world at large, as long as we donate our salaries to the Order.” I could see her watching my eyes hover above the spreadsheet. “I find it’s easier to work with this,” she said, touching the paper, “rather than booting up my computer on the bus.”

“I see,” I said, pretending I actually did. “So… Are you an accountant, or…?”

Her eyes twinkled and she giggled softly. “Why don’t you try to guess?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. An office manager? A bookie…?”

We both laughed. “Nobody gets it right,” she said and shrugged as if it wasn’t all that mysterious nowadays. “I started a company with a group of my sister nuns…” She glanced out of the window to see if the bus was approaching her stop. “We’re a compassionate order serving single moms and homeless or troubled girls in the city and we -okay I– thought maybe we could be more proactive about it. Should be, in fact…”

I sat up straighter in my seat as she pulled the cord for the next stop. “How, can you be proactive about that?”

A mischievous smile gradually surfaced and she winked again –this time for sure- as she stood up to squeeze past me. “I’m the CEO of an online dating service,” she said and squeezed my left hand naughtily as she reached the aisle. “No ring, eh?” she whispered, and handed me her card.

I glanced at it as the bus pulled away again. There was just one word, Inundate, superimposed over a picture of a large crowd. Clever.

I’m tempted to send in a profile…

The Tresses of Her Hair of Gold

I wish I could tell for sure, you know. I’m even afraid to compliment my friends on their hair nowadays for fear of getting it wrong –the colour, I mean. I’ve never been very good at colours, though; to me, hair is red, brown, black, or blond… and grey, of course –although I seldom see that except in roots anymore. Words like ‘auburn’, ‘chestnut’, ‘strawberry’, or ‘caramel’ are wasted on me. And, apart from the obvious camouflaging appeal of a foreign word, I confess I’m not sure why a brunette doesn’t just have brown hair.

Be assured that I appreciate the rich palimpsest available today, it’s just that I can never remember the names –or, except in some of the more fluorescent hues, know if it is their cheveux de naissance. And, yes, I share with Longfellow, a delight in the gold of long blond hair: Her cap of velvet could not hold the tresses of her hair of gold, that flowed and floated like the stream, and fell in masses down her neck. But I have to say that for me, at least, beauty has never resided in hair length, or presumed intelligence or desirability in hair colour. All these things are mere adjectives to the noun of personhood.

And yet, I say this as a retired, older man, unplugged from the business world, and I accept that from the other end of the spectrum, things may seem different –perhaps are different, for reasons I no longer have to accept. Take the case of Eileen Carey, a successful 30-some year-old CEO in Silicon Valley who, naturally blond, now wears glasses and brown hair:

‘Carey was told that the investors she was pitching to would feel more comfortable dealing with a brunette, rather than a blonde woman. “I was told for this raise [of funds], that it would be to my benefit to dye my hair brown because there was a stronger pattern recognition of brunette women CEOs,” she explains. Pattern recognition is a theory which suggests people look for familiar experiences – or people – which in turn can make them feel more comfortable with the perceived risks they are taking. […] “Being a brunette helps me to look a bit older and I needed that, I felt, in order to be taken seriously,” Carey says.

‘”People are more likely to hit on me in a bar if I’m blonde. There’s just that issue in general. “For me to be successful in this [tech industry] space, I’d like to draw as little attention as possible, especially in any sort of sexual way.”’

Forgive me, I don’t wish to appear unduly benighted about this –I’m just trying to understand. Just trying to put it in some sort of context, albeit probably an outmoded one. Is the need to dye one’s hair similar to the need for a man to don a shirt and tie for a successful interview? And would going in blond be like arriving in jeans and sweatshirt? Just how are people –women, in this case- judged? Unless she was auditioning for a waitress job at the Cactus Club, how could the otherwise successful possession of whatever criteria were advertised for the position be invalidated by hair colour? Come on!

Of course, if she freely chooses to dye her hair, and decides she prefers glasses to contacts, then that is a different matter, but it seems suspiciously akin to changing your name on an application form to disguise your nationality –or skin colour… or even sex– just to get through the door, no matter your qualifications.

It reminds me of something that Janice, a family doctor once told me about hiring her secretary. She was just opening her medical practice in a new city and had advertised for a someone to work at the front desk and answer the phone. She wasn’t having much luck, apparently. She’d asked for a résumé from each candidate before their interview, and none of them seemed to invite further consideration, until she received one from a Gerri Coland who, at 27, had apparently been trained as a social worker, and although she’d already worked at it for several years, felt it was time for a change. She still wanted to engage with people and help them whenever possible, she had written, but without needing to take their problems home with her each night. Perfect, Janice thought.

The résumé had arrived via Email, so Janice replied immediately with a request for an interview the next morning, if Gerri could make it. But she didn’t receive a reply, so the next day, Janice phoned the number provided. A very pleasant man answered.

“Hi, this is Dr. Janson,” she said. “Is Gerri there?”

“No… actually Gerri’s at work right now. Can I take a message?”

“Well, she sent in a résumé to my office and I wanted to interview her for the job.”

There was a slight hesitation before he answered. “Well, I’m Gerri’s partner, so I’ll pass the message on. When is the interview?”

“Would nine o’clock tomorrow morning work for her? I know it’s rather short notice, but I’m trying to start up my new practice as soon as possible.”

He chuckled into the phone. “I’m sure tomorrow morning will be fine. Gerri’s only filling in for someone right now…”

The job of a secretary in her office, Janice informed me, would merely be to greet and register the patients, and organize appointments over the phone. But it was an important first impression of the office. So, she needed someone pleasant, understanding, and able to cope with the different attitudes and moods patients often staple to their illnesses.

The next morning, ten minutes early, a smiling young man arrived at the office dressed in grey slacks, and a dark blue sports jacket over a pale blue shirt. Janice assumed Gerri was in the washroom, and smiled at the friendly man who was fairly obviously Gerri’s partner.

He glanced at his watch and stood up to shake her hand. “Sorry we’re a bit early, but my partner thought the traffic might be heavier coming across the bridge…” He glanced around the newly furnished office. “Wow, this is well-designed,” he added, walking up to the front desk after admiring a large Areca palm in an earthenware pot by the window. “I like the way the waiting room is furnished. The comfortable chairs, the pictures on the wall, and the box of toys for kids is so welcoming. So calming.” He allowed his eyes to rest on her face. “Did you design it, Dr. Janson?”

She nodded. I’ve always felt that the last thing a person needs is a sterile, airport-style waiting room when they’re already stressed with whatever problem brought them to the doctor.”

The man nodded in agreement and walked up to examine one of the pictures on the wall. “A Carol Grigg! I’ve seen some of her other work down in Oregon. She’s a Cherokee artist I think, isn’t she…?” But he seemed to be talking more to himself, than Janice.

This was a man who was obviously at ease with new situations, Janice thought, no longer caring, where Gerri was.

Suddenly the man stopped and looked at her. “Look, I’m sorry about this…” He stared down at his feet for a moment, and then rested his eyes on her cheeks as softly as small birds on a branch. “Perhaps there was a little confusion with my résumé… I’m Gerri.”

Janice broke out in a wide, reassuring smile, and touched him gently on the shoulder. “I was hoping you were…”






The Thousand Natural Shocks

I guess I should have seen it coming, but I am a creature of an epoch that craved the security of its boundaries, liked the certainty of its labels, the comfort of knowing where things stood. I am older now, and can accept the confluence of sides. I live in the wake of new ideas.

And yet, all around me, I hear echoes of Yeats: The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. For goodness sakes, it’s just Fashion blinking once again.

Those of us of an age, still equate unisex clothing with the guerilla military garb of Latin American rebel groups –utilitarian, egalitarian in its camouflage if not its beauty. But these are the chains of another era, born of necessity, not fashion. Once only a whisper, a different voice now sings in the ears of a youthful culture tired of the constraints of gender, impatient with being assigned a role. And while I can’t say that I follow any particular clothing style, I suspect that I conform rather closely to the stereotypes to which I was exposed at a very early age. But I realize that nobody really cares what I wear; it is perhaps enough that I don’t object if people wear each other’s clothes.

And I don’t object, although in fairness, I can’t say I’ve really noticed. These things sometimes creep up slowly, as indistinguishable as shadows on a cloudy day. In fact, I only became aware of non-discrepant dressing a while back, when I found myself scrolling absently through an article on unisex clothing as an antidote to the troubling catastrophes that leave me sleepless in the night.

I won’t say it was a surprise –things evolve, and clothing is certainly in the vanguard. ‘The British designer Katharine Hamnett has a long history of exploring non-gender-specific clothing […]. She says that, in the past, when women stepped on to more traditionally male sartorial territory – wearing military-inspired clothing, for instance – this “was about appropriating male power”. Now, she says, a move towards equality means women “may be feeling more comfortable with themselves”; in other words, they may have the freedom to wear what they like. (It is still far less common for men to seek out traditionally female clothing.)’ Uhmm… Yawn… I almost stopped reading at this point –I don’t know how normal people can slog their way through stuff like this.

Still, the next paragraph did manage to snag me from torpor’s edge: ‘Chloe Crowe, brand manager for Bethnals, a London-based unisex denim brand, says that when they have run pop-up shops, men and women in couples have come in and bought jeans that they can share.’ Okay, coals-to-Newcastle perhaps, but it was a candle in a dark room that kept me scrolling.

Then, something caught my eye, something that even I have noticed over the years -the frustration of seeing some patterns or styles that I fancied, only to find they were destined for the female market. This was a view from the other side, though. ‘The shirt company GFW Clothing – GFW stands for Gender Free World– has three fits, designed to fit different bodies rather than the broad terms “men” or “women”’ and Lisa Honan, co-founder of the brand online said ‘“I’d look in the men’s aisle and see great patterns and short-sleeved shirts […]” The men’s shirts, she says, didn’t fit her “because I’ve got a woman’s body. It got me thinking why is [there] a man’s aisle and a woman’s aisle, and why do you have to make that choice?”’ I don’t buy many new clothes nowadays, but Amen to that, I suppose.

One day, not so long ago, I was on a trip in a foreign city, and happened to walk past a row of brightly-coloured clothes hanging outside a store on a rack on the sidewalk. A sign above the clothes shouted Sale! 50% -or more- Off. And just like that, I fingered my way through a few of the shirts, stopping at a pale blue one that had a white linen flower sewn on the chest near the collar. In fact, the collar was what intrigued me –instead of the standard sharp angles, it was rounded off like the railings of an escalator. But its treasures didn’t stop there –the cuffs were adorned with a row of brightly coloured decorative buttons like digital fasteners all in a little row.

It was then that I noticed the eyes. And heard the mouth. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it sir?” I traced the words to a stoutly built middle-European woman standing in the door of the shop. She looked pleased, but suspicious –there was not the usual fawning of a sales rep on commission.

Embarrassed at being caught riffling through the clothes, and determined not to be pressured into buying anything, I merely smiled at her and withdrew my hand. Then, I shrugged and walked away a few steps until she disappeared through the door again. But there was something about the shirt that appealed to me so I turned around and pulled it off the rack. I think it was the little flower, to tell the truth. It seemed so… alive.  I couldn’t find the size, so I pressed the shirt against my chest like I’d seen people do to decide if it would fit. It seemed about the right size.

“Something for the missus, sir?” a now-familiar voice said softly, almost in my ear.

I turned my head suddenly and found a pair of eyes clinging to my face; I think I blushed. “No… I, uhmm, I think maybe…” I finally noticed the sign above the door, Plus One it said, and I wondered if it meant it was a two-for-one store, or something.

“I understand, sir,” she said with a big smile and what might have passed for a wink as she studied me and then let her eyes float up and down my face. “Would you like to try it on?” she added with a practiced, friendly expression and ordered her eyes closer to home base, finally satisfied with their assessment. She glanced at the rack. “I think that green one next to it would look good on you, too…”

So, it was two-for-one, I thought, happy that I’d found the rack.

“Try the blue one on first, and I’ll let you know what I think,” she said, hurrying over to one of two flimsy change room doors but found it locked. She looked at me and sighed. “You can use the other one. Some people just can’t make up their minds,” she whispered, and rolled her eyes. “That’s why they ask for my opinion.” She smiled innocently, as if she really would tell them what she thought.

I have to say that the shop had a sweet fragrance -as if someone had just shampooed themselves in a corner somewhere- and I was about to compliment her on the ambience, when the rickety door opened and a very large woman emerged. She was wearing a rather masculine-looking olive-coloured pant suit, complete with vest and a wide red necktie. It didn’t look like the stuff from the rack outside, but apart from some obvious strain on the fabric, I thought it really looked very nice on her.

“I don’t know, Helga,” she said, eyeing me suspiciously as she spoke to the saleslady. “I wonder if the colour is right for me.” She glanced my way again, obviously embarrassed.

Helga was already shaking her head, and I could see the disappointment on the large woman’s face. She really liked the outfit -and I kind of fancied it as well.

I put on my warmest smile. “I think it looks very nice on you, ma’am. The colour goes beautifully with your complexion, and I think it highlights your eyes. It’s a man’s opinion, of course…” I thought it best to issue a disclaimer.

Suddenly the woman blushed and a grin that almost split her face in half emerged. “I’ll take it, Helga!” she almost shouted, and disappeared behind the door again.

“And I’m gonna take these as well,” I said, handing them to Helga. “I don’t need to try them on… Two for one, are they?” You have to clarify these things.

Helga looked momentarily surprised but then slowly nodded. “Ever think of going into retail?”

You know, I’m beginning to think that someone like me would do very well in the burgeoning field.

Let Every Eye Negotiate for Itself

We are very attuned to patterns, aren’t we? We see them even when they aren’t there, filling in the lines, reading the shadows to complete the image. But does the face we see in the play of light on forest leaves, or the finger in the sinuous beckoning of the windblown grass really fool a mind that can do mathematics in its head? Or is it just a brief dalliance, a foray into a theatre for a moment or two? A titillating fantasy that fades when the eye moves on to other, more important, things?

A stereotype is a pattern too, but more deeply etched, and coloured so convincingly it is mistaken for the thing itself. Not recognized as a simulacrum, it is treated as archetypal, requiring few, if any, revisions –so self-evident it is almost a causa sui. And yet, hic sunt dracones, to continue the Latin –here be dragons- for stereotypes are, by default, fancifully-charted territories. Like incomplete maps filled in with imagined beasts, they are not reliable guides. They do not help.

And yet they are so prevalent, it is often difficult to recognize them, let alone extract them from the gestalt. So they persist, and like a Where’s Waldo face, only emerge from the background if we make a concerted effort to find them. But usually, there has to be a motivation to look –something that shakes us from our apathy. Our indifference.

It’s so easy to slip into somnolence, isn’t it? So easy to let things pass us by unexamined as long as they don’t threaten to disrupt our day. And yet, to escape the pastel hues in which our waking hours are often painted, it is sometimes an adventure to search for the chiaroscuro hiding in plain sight.

There was a delightful article I noticed a while back that managed to open my eyes again:

It recounts the story of a a 19-year-old woman from Guatemala who designs clothes for people with Down’s syndrome. The thing is, ‘Before she was an internationally-recognised designer, Isabella Springmuhl says she was rejected by two fashion schools in her native Guatemala because she has Down syndrome. “They said I would not be able to cope,” recalls the 19-year-old. But that rejection was exactly what Isabella needed to turn her life around […].’

So, instead, her mother took her to a sewing academy that would accept her. ‘While learning how to sew, Isabella was asked to design outfits for worry dolls – traditionally hand-made dolls originating from Guatemalan and Mexican folk traditions. The tiny dolls are usually put under children’s pillows in the hope that they will take away their sorrows while they sleep.

‘Isabella took a different approach.

‘”Isabella didn’t want to design clothes for… finger-sized dolls,” says Mrs Tejada [her mother]. “She created life-sized dolls and dressed them in the colourful embroidered jackets and ponchos that she’s now famous for.”

‘Isabella moved from designing for dolls to people, and soon enough produced a collection that gained the attention of the fashion world. Earlier this year, she became the first designer with Down’s syndrome to take part in London Fashion Week.’

But it didn’t stop there. Isabella points out that her main inspiration for designing arose after a struggle to find well-fitting clothing for her body type.

“It was difficult for me to get clothes,” Isabella says. “We have a different body constitution; we are shorter, wider, or very thin. My mother always had to fix the clothes she bought for me. So I decided to design clothes that fit people with Down’s syndrome, plus I really love Guatemalan textiles and the diversity of colours and textures they represent.”’

Wow! I get a shiver down my spine when I think of the odds that Isabella was willing to tackle. But, I wonder if she ever thought of them as odds, or merely as challenges that needed extra effort each time they arrived. Not only are there rivers to ford as a young person hoping to succeed in a highly competitive field, but the water sweeps all but the most determined, the most talented, downstream with barely a ripple.

But what am I? asks Tennyson, An infant crying in the night, An infant crying for the light, And with no language but a cry. I doubt that Isabella ever thought of herself like that. From time to time, there arise those exceptional people who do not understand the concept of failure. Who do not doubt or lose their way. Who are so confident in themselves, no matter the circumstance, that they press on and build on what they know they have, and are ingenious about what they don’t.

Stereotypes fail these individuals, as they do anything unique. How can you epitomize a Caesar, or cage a Churchill? How can you oversimplify a courageous person? How to paint the journey of a cloud? Tennyson, again from In Memoriam A.H.H:

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

And so, how to stereotype a syndrome? In Down syndrome, or trisomy 21, there is an extra (part or whole) chromosome 21, which causes an assemblage of physical and intellectual features, including a characteristic, recognizable, but variable facial dysmorphia. It is the latter that may prejudice unthinking employers into feeling that they couldn’t cope, that the individual could never fit in, or perform like the rest of their employees –or other students, in Isabella’s case. But they were wrong.

Creativity knows no boundaries; we all fit somewhere on a spectrum –individuals with Down syndrome included. And imagination, like courage, does not stop at the edge of a chromosome.

Let every eye negotiate for itself, says Shakespeare’s Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing, And trust no agent, for beauty is a witch against whose charms faith melteth into blood.

I think Isabella is a beautiful person, don’t you…? And how do you stereotype that?



What’s Past is Prologue

Sometimes it’s hard to get things right; sometimes it’s hard to get things even sort of right. We pride ourselves on foresight, on our ability to anticipate the future results of our decisions, but it’s often more hubris than skill. Unintended consequences have a way of interpolating themselves like bushes in a forest while we, so focussed on the trees, see only empty spaces –shadows- in between.

Examples are not hard to find. Just think of the well-intentioned introduction of cane toads to Australia from Hawaii in 1935 to control the cane beetles. Unfortunately, the toads contain a toxin that is deadly to many animals so they have escaped effective predation and their numbers have skyrocketed.

But unexpected problems can also arise at work with employers’ attempts to adapt to the domestic problems that occur from time to time in employees with families. Things like needing to take a child to the doctor, or having to pick her up from day care don’t often happen with childless singles in the office.

I have to say that I would have assumed that thoughtfulness of this sort would have few major adverse repercussions for the employer –workers able to balance job and family equitably might well be better, more satisfied employees. After all, a reward given, is a debt owed. So, I was surprised to discover another side to this family-friendly benevolence as outlined in a BBC news item:

‘Colleagues with children were […] prioritised when it came to taking their preferred vacation dates, […] while fellow single or childless workers struggled to get time off to care for elderly relatives or were asked to go on more frequent business trips.’ It’s obviously a challenge to separate envy –or resentment- from genuine favouritism and ‘While it’s tricky to nail down concrete statistics that prove how much singles might be being indirectly penalized in the workplace, a recent UK study of 25,000 workers found that two thirds of childless women aged 28 to 40 felt that they were expected to work longer hours.’

‘During research for his book Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University interviewed hundreds of single people in Europe and America and discovered “there was widespread perception that singles became the workhorses in corporate offices”’

‘Bella DePaulo, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, explores the phenomenon in her books and studies, and coined the word “singlism” to pin down the stigmatisation, negative stereotyping and discrimination against singles that she believes is widespread in the workplace and society at large. She argues that many many employers are missing a trick when it comes to single employees, who, far from being lonely and isolated, are actually more likely to be actively engaged in their communities and have strong relationships with friends who “feel like family, even if they are not family in the traditional sense”’.

Unfortunately, the issue is hydra-headed. ‘“There’s a difference in perspective between people who are parents and people who aren’t. If you aren’t a parent, you really can’t see how that changes your life and your priorities,” says Jonas Almeling, a former entrepreneur turned Head of Innovation for a Sweden’s export and trade agency, who is a father-of-one. “I would definitely not have the same flexibility for someone saying ‘oh sorry I am off kayaking’ compared to someone doing a pick-up from kindergarten,” he argues.’

And yet, both parents and singles can be tempted to abuse the kindness –or naïveté- of a forgiving boss. Many years ago, when I was in my salad days and green in judgement, I started my obstetrical specialty practice and hired a young single mother as secretary on the recommendation of a friend. We got along well, and she proved a reassuring presence for my freshling patients. But she seemed to get a lot of ‘colds’ and migraines, however, and often I would only know about when I found a strange woman, a friend of hers usually, standing somewhat befuddled behind the front desk and wondering just who I was when I walked through the door.

I have to say in Martha’s defense, she certainly had nice friends and they all did admirable fill-ins, but I spent as much time coaching them on their duties as I did with the patients. I knew from my training that new mothers had a lot to cope with and, I supposed, especially single parents, so I would usually just shrug, smile at the new receptionist, and introduce myself. After a while, I got to know some of the replacements, and the office got easier. In fact, when change is common, it no longer surprises, and to tell the truth, I normalized it in my mind.

But one of my new obstetrical patients didn’t, and because of some early pregnancy problems she ended up seeing me weekly for a while.

Normally bubbly and talkative, one day Janice was unusually quiet as I led her down the corridor from the waiting area to my office, and before she sat down, she carefully closed the door behind her. “Who is it this time?” she said, and promptly placed a fake smile on her face.

I didn’t understand the question at first and merely raised an eyebrow in response.

“It was Helen last week, and Brava the week before… Come to think of it, I think I saw this one a few weeks ago…” Her eyes hovered over my face for a moment before landing.

“Martha, is supposed to be my fulltime secretary,” I explained. “She seems to call in sick a lot… Single mother, stuff, I think.”

A sardonic smile replaced the fake one. “Have I met her yet?”

I tried to remember, but couldn’t. “She has short, blond hair, and often wears a blue ribbon around her neck, I think…”

Her eyes slid down my face and stopped at my lips –to see if I was serious, I suppose. “I’m a single mother, doctor,” she said and shook her head slowly. “Well, I will be at any rate, I hope…” She sighed and glanced out the window behind me for a second or two. “And even with all the vomiting, I manage to go to work most days.”

I smiled and shrugged. “Martha shows up a lot…” But Janice could see I was struggling with the defence.

She glanced at a picture on the wall. “How old is her child?”

I shrugged again, this time to cover for the fact that I couldn’t remember. But I think Janice understood. “Uhmm, somewhere around 3 or 4 I think…”

“And does she live alone?”

I did remember that –her roommate sometimes filled in for her. “No, she shares a condo with a friend…”

Janice’s eyebrows both crept upward and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Ever phone to find out how she’s doing?” She blinked as she suppressed a word that I could see being pulled back into her mouth in the nick of time.

I shook my head. “You almost asked ‘to find out what she’s doing’, didn’t you…? No, I trust her.”

Janice laughed. “Sometimes an employer phones because he’s concerned about his staff. Trust has nothing to do with it.” Her face brightened even more. “And by the way, I’m feeling a lot better nowadays. Maybe I can go back to monthly visits, eh?” she added. “I’ve been missing too much work lately.” And then she winked at me playfully. “Phone her, eh?”

But I didn’t, you know. I think I was too embarrassed; I liked Martha, and I suppose I didn’t want to catch her in a lie. Anyway, she resigned a few weeks later, and sent me a little potted areca palm for my desk to thank me for my patience with her.

The next month, when Janice saw it on my desk, she asked about it.

“Present from Martha –my former secretary,” I figured I’d better explain ‘former’. “She sent it as a thank you present when she resigned.”

Janice was quiet for a moment. “You didn’t phone her, did you?” Her eyes interrogated me briefly – but they knew…

I shook my head.

Then she sighed, and the slightest wisp of a smile surfaced for a second beneath those wise, experienced eyes.