Deliver your words not by number but by weight

Even though my periodic conceit is that of a feuilleteur, I find I am still drawn to occasional texting. Sometimes there is simply no need for verbosity -the information that I am late but enroute, does not require an essay to explain. And yet, even the word ‘sorry’ prefixing the text, may fail to express the feelings of regret or embarrassment. Without waxing prolix, how then to express the emotion succinctly?

The usual answer, and the one to which I have usually resorted, is an Emoji (from the Japanese, meaning something like ‘picture word’). Although I confess that I am never totally sure of their meanings, I have tried to err on the side of simplicity. A smiling face, for example, means just that, and the one of clapping hands means congratulations -obvious and unambiguous messages… Or so I thought.

I suppose that most of us get caught up in our own values, though -it’s hard not to view the world through a cultural lens. We sometimes forget that each society sees the world a little differently. Like it or not, we live in a time of different Weltanschauungen -or at least have become more aware of it in this epoch of population displacement.

I did not fully appreciate the effects of the disparity until I came across an article in a BBC Future article on Emoji:

It seems that what I had assumed would be universal in its meaning -or at least the emotion would be interpretable in much the same way by everybody- was mistaken. Perhaps I would even have agreed with ‘linguistics professors such as Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code: The Linguistics behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, would soon declare to be “incontrovertibly the world’s first truly universal form of communication”, and even “the new universal language”.’ But, as Keith Broni, a business psychology expert explains, ‘emojis do not and cannot by themselves constitute a meaningful code of communication between two parties. Rather, they are used as a way of enhancing texts and social media messages like a kind of additional punctuation.’ Their intent seems to be to substitute for body language, and facial expressions, that might otherwise be difficult to convey in a short text message. So, ‘without the accompaniment of a smile or sympathetic tone of voice, a one-liner message runs the risk of being misinterpreted as negative, bossy or even rude.’

The problem, however, is in the interpretation, and although there is a range of Emoji on a smartphone, mine has no authoritative Oxford Dictionary, or whatever, underneath to mold each one into a universally agreed-upon meaning. So unintended interpretations are possible, depending upon the audience.

For example, ‘While the thumbs-up symbol may be a sign of approval in Western culture, traditionally in Greece and the Middle East it has been interpreted as vulgar and even offensive. Equally, in China, the angel emoji, which in the West can denote innocence or having performed a good deed, is used a sign for death, and may be perceived as threatening. Similarly, the applause emojis are used in the West to show praise or offer congratulations. In China, however, this is a symbol for making love.’

And then there is the smiling face, something I would never have dreamed might not be universally welcomed. Well, in China again, ‘the slightly smiling emoji is not really used as a sign of happiness at all. As it is by far the least enthusiastic of the range of positive emojis available, the use of this emoji instead implies distrust, disbelief, or even that someone is humouring you.’

We all see our worlds through the lens of our traditions -an amazing kaleidoscope of colours and textures paint each facet of our lives. And yet, woven into the fabric is a confusing chiaroscuro of meaning that may obscure the intended pattern.

I have a friend who is equally aged, but perhaps less enthused than me with the digital world. She has a smart phone though -but just for emergencies, she continues to assure me whenever I catch glimpses of it snuggled obtrusively in a pocket.

We meet occasionally for coffee, and since I normally take public transit, there are often unavoidable, and usually unpredictable delays. “Wouldn’t it make sense if I could send a quick signal to alert you that I am going to be late?” I usually tell her when I arrive.

Her eyebrows inevitably head skyward at my not so subtle wish to text. “You can phone me,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s why I carry it -for emergencies,” she adds, making sure I notice the italics.

“That’s difficult on a bus,” I reply. Then, I usually point out how annoying it is to hear others speaking loudly into their phones so they can be heard above the ambient noise.

And that’s where the disagreement sat until one day, the bus was inordinately late and I found her fuming at the restaurant. We sat in silence for a few moments after my abject apology, and then she aimed her wrinkles at me and smiled -but not in forgiveness, more in capitulation. “Okay,” she said through taut lips, “You can text me if you’re going to be late next time.” I could tell she saw it as a major concession, so I merely smiled, and sighed quietly to myself.

And sure enough, the very next week, I found myself standing on a crowded bus caught in traffic -a perfect opportunity for my virgin text. Unfortunately I was being jostled about in the aisle as we stopped and started unexpectedly, so I had to improvise a short, but clever message to let her know I was on my way. ‘Bus caught in traffic. I’ll be there in 15-20’ sounded pithy, yet polite. My time estimates were completely made up, though -I really had no idea when I’d arrive. I pushed ‘send’, and waited for a reply that she’d got the message.

It never arrived, of course, and as time passed and my estimates seemed bound to fail, I thought I’d better send her a follow-up apology. It’s hard to concentrate while standing in a crowded aisle with people bouncing off you, so I improvised and just sent her an Emoji – I used the upside-down face to suggest that things were not as I had hoped and that I was still uncertain when I’d arrive. I have no idea whether that’s what the little face meant, but it made sense at the time.

Suddenly my phone rang, and as soon as I answered it, I could hear her usually soft voice speaking loudly and indignantly in my ear. “What do you mean you’re not coming?” she shouted. “I’ve been waiting here for over half an hour!”

I tried to speak softly, but the noise around me made that difficult, although I found myself trying not to match her volume. “What are you talking about, Judy?” I said, my mouth as close to the phone as I could.

“The face,” she yelled into her phone, and I could see the smiles on the passengers standing next to me.


“That upside-down thing that obviously means you’ve changed your mind!”

I hurriedly apologized, then glanced out of the window and assured her that I wouldn’t be much longer. I’m not sure she caught the last words, though, because her phone went silent before I finished.

I was just putting my phone in my pocket when a young woman standing next to me turned her head and blinked. “I use the upside-down face sometimes -it has a lot of meanings- but you have to be careful who you use it on. The Emojipedia says it can mean you’re being sarcastic, or maybe don’t really mean what you said…” She smiled a helpful smile then turned back to her partner.

I didn’t even know there was an Emojipedia…



Oh coward Conscience, how dost thou afflict me!

Every once in a while, buried in all the fake news and confirmation biases, I find something that rings true. Something that transcends the routine moral admonishments that usually find me wanting. It’s not that I don’t aspire to morality, or whatever, it’s just that I’m sometimes not very good at it: I forget things from time to time, and yell at other people, or the dog.

And anyway, being good only exists in contrast to something else so it’s important to keep other stuff around so you know where you sit. I do not know any moral saints, you understand -they must run with a different crowd- but then again, I’m not sure we’d get along as friends. The American philosopher, Susan Wolf, defines these ‘saints’ as people whose every action is as morally good and worthy as possible, and she writes in her eponymous essay Moral Saints: ‘I don’t know whether there are any moral saints. But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them.’

It turns out that her essay is the subject for another essay, this time by Daniel Callcut in Aeon, rather than The Journal of Philosophy so I felt less of a stranger in a strange land in reading it:

Wolf seems to be suggesting that the moral saint would likely never give you a break if you weren’t constantly altruistic, so I enjoyed Callcut’s paraphrase: ‘The problem with extreme altruism, as Oscar Wilde is reported to have said about socialism, is that it takes up too many evenings.’

‘If you don’t have enough time for friendship or fun, or works of art or wildlife, then you are missing out on what Wolf calls the non-moral part of life. Wolf does not mean to suggest that non-moral equals immoral: just because something doesn’t have anything to do with morality (playing tennis, for instance) it does not follow that it is therefore morally bad. The point is that morality is, intuitively, focused on issues such as treating others equally, and on trying to relieve suffering. And good things these are: but so is holidaying with a friend, or exploring the Alaskan rain forest, or enjoying a curry. Moral goodness is just one aspect of the good things in life and, if you live as if the moral aspect is the only aspect that matters, then you are likely to be very impoverished in terms of the non-moral goods in your life.’

I am taken with Callcut’s take on Aristotelian ethics: ‘Aristotle most notably, held views of ethics that encouraged neither selfishness nor selflessness: the best kind of life would be concerned with others, and involve pleasurable engagement with others’ lives, but it would not require impartial dedication to the needs of strangers. Ethics is more concerned with the question of how to be a good friend than it is the question of how to save the world. And, as with good friendships, ethics is both good for you and good for other people. At the heart of Aristotle’s ethics is the ultimate win-win. The best ethical life simply is the most desirable life, and the fulfilment of our social nature consists in living in mutual happiness with others.’

However, some of Callcut’s arguments -and especially Wolf’s- go deeper than what most of us non-philosophers would likely accept, let alone understand. What I took from the essay was that ‘a line has to be drawn between what is morally required of you and that which is morally praiseworthy but not morally required… Morality doesn’t require you to have no other interests besides morality.’ And ‘The fact that you are not morally perfect doesn’t make you a bad person.’ Most of us walk the middle ground.

I remember one cold day a few years ago when I was in town -fairly close to Christmas, I think. The street was full of shoppers, charity Santa Clauses, and on every block, Salvation Army volunteers with their little pots slowly filling with money. Unfortunately, the contrast with the street people among them was jarring -especially the old man and his dog sitting on a busy corner. Everybody passed the two of them without a glance. He had no cup, and he looked too cold to leave his hat down on the sidewalk for donations. Perhaps in his sixties, or seventies, he was unshaven and dressed in a torn, mud-stained grey-brown overcoat and was huddled close to his dog, his hands trying to find some warmth in his coat, while his feet sought refuge under the dog. A rumpled blue toque, obviously too small for him, was pulled over his head, but it wasn’t large enough to cover his ears, and he was visibly shivering.

I had just bought a few presents and could feel some change jangling in one pocket, and my conscience in another, so I decided to empty both of them in the Salvation Army pot nearby.

I glanced at the man and his dog as I walked over to the pot.

The volunteer saw me looking at the man. “I’ve tried to convince him to come to the shelter,” he explained, before I had a chance to empty my pocket. “But he won’t…”

“Can he bring his dog with him?” I asked. The dog was obviously important to him.

The volunteer nodded. “But, only to our shelter on the other side of the city, unfortunately -too far away from where he lives in the park.” He smiled at the old man. “He says he’s waiting for some friends, although I haven’t seen them in a couple of days…” We both stared at the old man. “He just got out of hospital -actually, I think he probably discharged himself. He was worried about the dog.”

“But look at him,” I said. “He’s cold now; he’s going to freeze tonight!”

The volunteer sighed. “He refuses to go back to the hospital, so I offered to drive him and the dog to the shelter in my van, but…” He shrugged.

“Let me talk to him,” I said and walked over to where he sat. I started to extend my hand to greet him, but the dog growled protectively.

“Is there anything I can help you with, sir?” I asked, being careful not to approach any closer.

A pair of sad, rheumy eyes slowly emerged from under the curtain of his lids and stared vacantly at me. His thin, chapped lips twitched and I wondered if he was talking softly to me. His skin was sallow and bruised; he didn’t look at all well. “Dog,” he seemed to be saying, although I couldn’t be sure. But even the effort of whispering seemed too much for him.

“Dog…?” I said, to help him out.

His head slowly nodded. “Dog,” formed on his trembling lips, and then his eyes receded again into his skull, and his head fell forward onto his chest.

I hurried back to the Salvation Army man. “He’s really sick,” I said, and dialled 911 for the ambulance. But before they arrived, the dog began to whine and lick the man’s face.

When the paramedics arrived, it was too late -the old man had died, but the dog wouldn’t let them take him away, so they had to call the SPCA to restrain him.

“What will happen to the dog?” I asked as the official bundled it into his van.

The SPCA man shrugged. “Usually put them down, eh?”

“But…” I struggled for words. “Can’t it be kept for adoption?”

“Too many of ‘em,” he explained, his eyes sad. “And this one’s a bit old…”

I stared at him with disbelief. “But… But the last thing he said to me was… well, he wanted to make sure the dog was taken care of, I think.”

The driver was obviously a kind man. “You can donate some money for a kennel…” he said, and produced a card with the phone number. “Who knows, maybe someone will want an older dog… It’s Christmas, eh?”

I nodded and took the card. The man smiled like he was relieved. “I hate it when we have to put ’em down,” he said, closing the door to the van. “Thank you, sir,” he said, getting into his seat behind the wheel. “I’ll tell them you’re going to phone.”

The Salvation Army man walked over to me as the ambulance drove away and the crowd that had gathered, thinned. “You know,” he said, smiling at me and shaking my hand, “That was the most meaningful donation I’ve seen this Christmas…”

And I think it was the most meaningful gift I’ve ever given…







Talking Heads

It has lately been brought to my attention that I speak differently than a woman. That wasn’t really a surprise, or anything -I mean, of course I do. I also dress differently, but that’s not what’s being pointed out -it’s just my speech, apparently. And yet, apart from the obvious pitch problems that I find myself unable to efficiently modulate, it was never my intention to discriminate. And I don’t want to stand out in a crowd -or, for that matter, create one either.

In fairness, though, the issue seems to stretch back into antiquity. Women have always spoken differently than their male companions: things like indirect or tentative answers, use of past tenses, or using questions as non-commands: the “Do you think we could…” or the “I was wondering if you’d mind if…” These, instead of “I want you to…” or “Have it on my desk before you leave!”

I have to say, I’ve never thought of gendered dialogue in those terms before, although they’re often readily apparent if you listen for them. I gather that not many other people have noticed, either -until recently, that is. In fact, it would seem that one of the first linguists to notice and study it was University of California Berkeley Professor of Linguistics Robin Lakoff (now Emerita) who published a book Language and Woman’s Place back in 1975.

I suppose that we habituate to things that seem commonplace around us, things that have always been the way they are until somebody, a stranger maybe, wonders about it.

We have grown so accustomed to the difference that when it is employed by the ‘wrong’ side, the disparity is glaring -and for some, annoying. Irritating. It’s almost as if there is a class structure in play with one side expected to behave deferentially to the other. And if they don’t, there are repercussions: assumptions of undeserved usurpation of authority, frequently alluded to in hurtful, gendered epithets, or sexual innuendoes. There are, it would seem, glass ceilings in both communication and social structures.

I have to admit that I first heard about this in a CBC Ideas podcast. The host, Paul Kennedy was interviewing Dr. Laura Hare on her PhD thesis about female speech patterns in the original text of the Hebrew bible (Old Testament). It would seem that women then used words and language patterns that were deferential to men. Probably the most flagrant example in that text of a female crossing the boundary by using decidedly male language was Queen Jezebel. She, of course, was characterized as evil and killed. The very fact that an important woman had violated convention no doubt contributed to her story being included in the Bible -as a warning, perhaps; certainly not as a role model.

But her example merely opens the curtains on a previously dark room. A solitary prisoner escaping from Plato’s cave.


You can learn a lot about yourself on a bus you know. Conversations are sometimes inevitable, although uninvited. I had managed to find a seat next to a window on a rapidly filling bus when an elderly lady plumped herself down beside me guarding an enormous blue canvas purse that she held prisoner on her lap. She wore a long, fading red coat and her greying hair, although at one time likely bobby-pinned in place, was now in regal disarray.

I tried not to notice, but the dimensions of the blue sack demanded a considerable overlap into my space. The woman, though, seemed not to notice its trespass and proceeded to rummage about in its innards on exploratory dives, surfacing every so often both for air, and to warn me off.

Finally, when I felt something hard in it knock me in the waist, I felt I should at least acknowledge her search with a forgiving smile. But she was unrepentant, and grilled me with suspicious eyes.

“That’s quite a purse,” I said, more to break the ice than anything.

“It’s where I live,” she muttered after a more thorough raking with her cold brown eyes.

I thought her metaphor delightful and broadened my smile, but that only hardened her expression. “I’m sorry,” I managed to say under the unremitting glare of her face. “I didn’t mean to…”

“Forget it,” she mumbled and dived back into her purse again like an otter. This time she seemed determined to find whatever it was and constantly knocked something against my leg.

I tried to move strategically out of the way of her constantly moving fingers, but they continued to gnaw away at something inside the bag no matter my efforts to escape. Finally, my patience wearing thin, I sighed and stared at the moving blue creature that seemed intent on encroachment. “I was wondering if perhaps it might help if we traded seats, ma’am,” I said as politely as I could.

She stared at me for a moment, considering the offer. “No, you stay there… or, actually, just squeeze over towards the window for a moment so I’ll have more room to search,” she added imperiously. No please, or thank you; I had been effectively commodified. Livestocked.

I didn’t like the way she said it, but I was on a bus, and trapped in a window seat that had only a limited squeeze range. “I’m not sure I have much room left. Do you think you could try turning the bag over, or something -redistribute the contents maybe…?”

I watched her eyes drift towards me like crinkled leaves floating on a slowly moving stream. “I’m looking for something, mister,” she said, impatiently. “Just be patient.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“I’m getting off at the next stop anyway,” she interrupted. “Pull the cord for me, will you?” she added, pointing to the little wire running loosely above the window.

I did what I was told, of course -anything to get the lumpy bag off my leg- and for the first time she smiled. “It’s a big heavy bag,” she muttered grumpily as she gathered it into a more carriable form.

“Hope I didn’t get in your way too much,” I said, trying to sound conciliatory, and thinking she had perhaps made a feeble attempt at apology. “I hope you find what you were looking for…”

She got to her feet, her smile now a sad remnant on an aging face lined with hardship, and I watched her hobble to the door, trying to manage the unmanageable bag as best she could.

It occurred to me then just how differently we speak to each other across the divide, although I’m not sure which side I’m standing on anymore…



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…

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 that caught my eye: 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: 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:

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:

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…