A Plague on All Your Houses



I still remember a seminar I went to years ago in university. It was part of a nebulous course on ‘Health’ that some of us took as a soft route on the way to a bachelor’s degree. It was reputed to consist of essays and a true or false final examination. Also, because the class was small, it was amenable to division into even smaller numbers for several interactive sessions.

There were five of us and a teacher’s aide at the one I remember so well. We were all fresh from high school and, at least in those faraway days, used to being lectured at, rather than actually contributing to the subject matter. The topic that day was Disease, and I remember being mildly interested, but expecting only a list of the usual culprits, complete with causes and treatments -memory fodder for later regurgitation, I suppose.

“What is disease?” the TA started, as soon as we were seated around a rather small wooden table.

One of us -I don’t remember his name now- rolled his eyes and smiled. “Sickness,” he answered, rather smugly.

She smiled in return, as if he’d fallen into her trap rather too easily. “Okay, but haven’t you just used a synonym -defined it in terms of itself?”

He stared at her for a moment, obviously confused. “Well… then, how about saying disease is an abnormality of an organ or a system caused by germs -probably particular germs depending on the disease.”

Her face relaxed and her smile broadened. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” She leaned forward on the table. “Let’s get more specific for a moment. Let’s take tuberculosis… Anybody know the cause for TB?” She glanced around the room, determined to involve us all, apparently.

I looked up at the wrong moment, and she brushed my face with her question and pinned me to my seat with another smile. “Do you know the cause of TB…?” she said, locking eyes with me.

There was no escape. “Uhmm…” I felt embarrassed at being singled out, but the question seemed fairly straightforward. “It’s the tubercle bacterium, isn’t it?”

She sat back in her chair, and shrugged nonchalantly. “Is it?” She said, softly and with just a hint of gentle sarcasm. But her eyes were still sitting on me, and I could tell they meant no harm.

“Tubercle bacillus?” I corrected myself, remembering that people sometimes called it that.

“So…” she glanced around the table again, lifting the weight off my shoulders. “Would you all agree that TB is caused by a bacterium -a bacillus?” she added, looking at me once more. Everybody nodded.

“But don’t some healthy people have a positive skin test for it -the Mantoux test?” she continued.

We all nodded, most of us unwilling to show that we hadn’t known what the test was called.

“So, why is that?” She paused to see if any of us had an explanation, but when nobody said anything, she continued. “If the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis is present…” she slowed down even more for effect. “… if some of us have it… and it causes TB… then why don’t those people have TB?” She straightened in her chair and leaned on the table with her elbows as she searched our faces for the answer.

But she was greeted by blank, albeit confused expressions around the table.

“If disease is caused by the acquisition of a bacterium, then what stops some people from acquiring the disease?”

This was new territory for us, and yet, her eyes stopped at me again. “Our defense mechanisms -the immune system…?” I suppose it wasn’t exactly a scholarly response -even in those days we’d all heard of vaccinations and antibody production.

She started nodding. “Okay, but what makes the immune system strong enough to resist?”

“VSG?” someone said, and immediately blushed because he had obviously taken a leap in the dark with the initials.

She smiled reassuringly. “BCG -Bacille Calmette-Guerin, to give it its full name?” He nodded, presumably relieved. But even in those days, there was some doubt as to its effectiveness, so she merely shrugged again. “But the person may never go for the skin test and so never know she has the bacterium…”

She stared at me again, for some reason. “Well, suppose they’re in good condition -healthy, I mean?” To tell the truth, I didn’t really know what I meant.

“But doesn’t ‘healthy’ mean free of disease? Isn’t that another tautology…?” She walked around the table with her eyes again, but this time more slowly. “So, might there be other causes of disease -apart from the infecting agent, I mean?”

I remember some of us looking at each other, as if we were beginning to understand where she was going with this.

“Where -or maybe under what conditions- do we see a lot of diseases like TB?”

I suppose I remember the seminar so well, because she kept looking at me when nobody else answered. “You mean if somebody’s poor, or living in unfortunate circumstances? Poverty…?” I managed to mumble, hoping that was what she was after.

I still remember her smile.

It was a seminal moment for me, and maybe one of the reasons why I eventually went into Medicine. But it all resurfaced when I happened upon an article in the CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal) from January 22/18 with the rather long and certainly uninviting title, Effect of provincial spending on social services and health care on health outcomes in Canada: an observational longitudinal study: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/190/3/E66

Its thesis, was that spending on health care is escalating so significantly it will soon be unaffordable. The question then, was what to do about it. The study ‘used retrospective data from Canadian provincial expenditure reports, for the period 1981 to 2011, to model the effects of social and health spending (as a ratio, social/health) on potentially avoidable mortality, infant mortality and life expectancy.’ And after using various methods to analyze the figures that I didn’t even try to understand, like ‘linear regressions, accounting for provincial fixed effects and time, and controlling for confounding variables at the provincial level.’ decided that ‘Population-level health outcomes could benefit from a reallocation of government dollars from health to social spending […].’ Or, as they worded it more succinctly in their concluding paragraph: ‘The results of our study suggest that spending on social services can improve health. Social policy changes at the margins, where it is possible to affect population health outcomes by reallocating spending in a way that has no effect on the overall government budget.’

It made me wonder, though, why, if I learned the same thing many years ago, did it still need investigation? Were we so wrong back then? So naïve…?








Overmastered with a piece of valiant dust?

I am by no definition an athlete. As a child in frigid Winnipeg, I played pickup hockey on an outdoor rink with wobbly skates, held upright by the stick I used mostly as a cane. The part I enjoyed most, though, was sitting in the little community center building after the game as my frost-bitten toes tingled gratefully in the warm sweaty air. I was never a particularly good skater, and I remember -even in those faraway times- the kidding I took for being knocked down by the one or two brave girls who always managed to be chosen for the other team. The same two girls showed up each Saturday, and they were tolerated, partly because they were as strong as the eleven or twelve year old boys around them, but mainly because they were such good players.

We moved further East from Winnipeg when I was fourteen, and the opportunity to play pickup hockey thankfully withered, although not only because of decreased opportunity, but, more likely, directly proportional to my size and talent. And there, any credible aspiration for sports fame withered in the already harvested field.

In the dying embers of middle age, I confess I tried rollerblade hockey in a local gym, but by then it was too late. It attracted people of my age, to be sure, but mainly those who had already played hockey for years, so it did not go well. There was an interesting parallel to my childhood experience, though. Although no gender restrictions were ever suggested, it was entirely an old-boys club –until, that is, two younger women who had played for a women’s ice hockey team showed up. The results were predictable; they outclassed the men so completely, the larger, older men began to exhibit their frustration by unfair physical contact –shoving, bumping, slashing with their sticks- all, no doubt, to compensate for their lack of prowess. But the women never showed up again.

At any rate, I began to wonder why there wasn’t some way of allowing gender mixing in sport. Clearly, there would have to be guidelines to even out the rink, as it were -maybe size, or weight, say, in sports like hockey, and coupled with a change of rules to discourage aggressive and disruptive behaviour. Other sports like track and field could perhaps be integrated even more easily…

I suspected these thoughts were likely the early signs of an impending dementia, though, until I came across a truly inspiring article in the Conversationhttps://theconversation.com/why-it-might-be-time-to-eradicate-sex-segregation-in-sports-89305

It was an article by Roslyn Kerr, a senior lecturer in Sociology of Sport, Lincoln University, in New Zealand. She argued that ‘[…]one way to move beyond problematic gender barriers is to eradicate sex segregation completely and replace it with a system similar to that used in Paralympic sport.’ As she points out, ‘Historically, women have been required to undergo humiliating sex testing procedures in order to compete in sport. More recently, such testing has been suspended owing to the lack of consensus about which traits make someone male or female. […] In 2012, several women underwent surgery in order to meet the requirements to compete in the women’s events at the Olympic Games, even though they had always identified as women and externally appeared to be women.

‘[…] Women are not the only group who receive a poor deal in sport. While weight classes in some sports allow smaller athletes a chance at success, there is no such consideration for other traits, such as height. This means that shorter athletes never have a chance in events such as high jump, volleyball and basketball.

‘Other athletes are lucky enough to have advantageous traits that do not lead to a ban. For example, they have greater aerobic capacity or stronger fast-twitch fibres (which contract quickly, but get tired fast). But it is not considered unfair for other athletes to compete against them, as it would be if their weight were too high or they were men rather than women.’

But, ‘Paralympic sport has been forced to deal much more closely with the issue of classification owing to the range of bodies that compete. In the 1990s, the classification system changed to one that was based on functional ability rather than on medical conditions. It continues today, where rather than labelling athletes as having a particular medical condition, they are placed in a racing category based on the movements their body can perform, related to the sport they compete in.’ So she suggests that ‘in able-bodied sport, it would similarly make sense to remove the label of male or female and replace it with categories based on the ability of bodies to move in that particular sport. In sport, movement is based on physical ability, which is not necessarily linked to sex. In each sport, it would be possible to identify the characteristics which make up successful athletes and create categories based on those rather than on sex.’

She gives some examples that might help with the integration: ‘[f]or example, for a 100m sprinter, the ideal athlete would perhaps be made up of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres. Therefore, rather than classifying by sex, sprinters could be classified by their level of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres. In another example, in sports such as high jump, volleyball and basketball, athletes could be classified according to muscle mass and height. Finally, in an endurance sport, athletes could be classified according to muscle mass and lung capacity.’

I realize that this may still be a hard sell to many. Egos are on the line I suppose, and privilege –sacred male traditions might be trampled underfoot. But things are changing –too fast for some, no doubt- and yet no amount of wishful thinking will bring back a Past that is not served by the Present. A past that was never exposed to current technology, current expectations.

But the integration of gender in sport makes sense. There are women fire fighters, paramedics, police officers –there are even women soldiers in combat, for goodness sakes. Come on guys…!

And what do we risk by trying it in a few sports to see how it unfolds? That people might actually enjoy it? That a day might come when children, perhaps yet unborn, will wonder how and why we ever separated the sexes…?

I can’t help but think of the words of Beatrice about men in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? A bit harsh, I guess, but she’s got the right spirit, don’t you think?

In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130423-is-race-perception-automatic?ocid

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…

Forked Tongues

“Suppose I were to tell you that I’m really disappointed in you,” she said, bending her head slightly and glaring at me over the tops of her glasses. The two of us were sitting in a little pub near her condo.

I have to say I don’t know Susan very well, but I’d seen her buying groceries in one of the local grocery stores that dot our little community and we began to talk about our various choices in vegetables. I have always confined myself to the more readily available frozen varieties –namely, the Big Three: peas, corn, and beans –with an occasional foray into carrots.

But Susan, it seemed, was into Fresh, and although I do wander into the produce section in summer, I have tended to avoid it in the off-seasons. “What do you do for salads?” she asked, when she saw me picking up a package of frozen broccoli which I only grabbed by mistake when she bumped into me in the aisle.

“Pardon me?” At first, I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me -it certainly wasn’t the salad bar.

Her eyes were mischievous, and pointed right at my face. There was no mistake. “Do you eat salads?” Her lips were smiling, but her eyes began burrowing into my cheeks… Or maybe I was blushing.


“Because I’ve never seen you buying lettuce, or looking at the selections in the salad bar.”

It seemed a rather personal thing to say –something my mother might have done. I was forced to return her smile in self-defence and I couldn’t think of a clever reply. “Maybe I do that when you’re not around, Susan.” As soon as I’d said it, I regretted it –I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She’d always been friendly to me, always said hello and smiled in passing. It’s a small community, after all.

And yet, come to think of it, she always seemed to be smiling when she saw me. But I know that’s a very arrogant thing to think. A very undeserved, and probably unfounded, observation. I suppose I am fair game to someone who is also fair game, though -also divorced… But I keep to myself; I’m a rather private person. I do not invite relationships, or start random conversations –I would not even know how. People like me are happy just glancing through the window at the passing crowd.

But Susan appeared determined to engage me in dialogue. “Maybe you don’t eat as many salads as you should…”

She seemed to leave the thought open, but I just shrugged. To tell the truth, I was a little embarrassed at the attention.

“I tell you what, G, since I’m going to make one anyway…”

She left it open again -an obvious invitation- but I just blushed and stared at my feet in confusion.

“Come over at six for salad and some wine.”

I had to think quickly. “That’s really sweet of you Susan, but I’m afraid I’ve already  thawed some meat for my dinner, and…”

It was her turn to look embarrassed. “I’m sorry, G, I didn’t mean to seem so aggressive.” She propped a large quivering smile on her face and fidgeted with her shopping basket.

I realized I had committed a major social gaffe, and I touched her sleeve. “Look, why don’t we go for a glass of wine later? I’ll have my dinner and meet you at the old pub by the park?” Her face perked up. “About, what, eight o’clock?” I added, now fully committed.

What had I got myself into? But, on the other hand, it was something to do –something different- so that evening after a rushed dinner, I hunted around in the closet to inspect my wardrobe. The choice was old, though -dated. The last time I had even thought about dressing up was four or five years ago when I was married, but I remembered my ex had always thought I looked good in black for some reason. Who was I to argue?

At least it was easy to find black in there. I chose a black turtle neck sweater and black jeans and stood in front of the mirror. I looked pretty good, I thought, and headed out the door.

And so I found myself sitting beside her at the pub, and eventually, the inescapable object of her gaze. I could tell she’d already had a glass or two before I arrived, but I figured that would make it easier for me to find something we could talk about. She was sitting at a little table in the corner where it was so dark I almost missed her. The place was pretty busy for a Thursday, though, so maybe it had been the only table she could find.

“You look really nice tonight, G,” she said as soon as I sat down. Fortunately, the shadows hid my embarrassment. “I’ve never seen you dressed up before.”

I wasn’t sure what she was getting at, and I didn’t know what to say. “Well, it would be wasted in the grocery store,” I finally mumbled, managing somehow to mispronounced ‘grocery’. She giggled at that, and I immediately dropped my eyes onto the table as if I couldn’t manage those either.

I could see her expression soften, and she reached across the table to clasp my hand. I think she was just trying to reassure me, to let me know that she knew I was nervous, but she didn’t let go for the longest time. For some reason, I felt trapped, although I knew she was simply being friendly. It’s hard to describe, actually -it should have felt comforting, but when she leaned across the table to look into my eyes, I felt I had to close them. I moved back. I tried to do it slowly, so she wouldn’t notice, but she did. And when I opened my eyes again, she was smiling.

“For god’s sake, G, I wasn’t trying to kiss you.” She shook her head slowly and sighed. “Let’s have some wine.”

She ordered a litre carafe of white, but I have to say that she polished off most of it herself. Despite that, she wanted to order another carafe. She had decided to tell me more about why her marriage had failed, I think.

I shook my head and checked my watch. The conversation had been pretty one-sided, and I was tired of sitting there politely listening to her. And anyway, she was beginning to slur her words, so I thought she’d probably had enough. I offered to walk her back to her condo.

“Good idea, G,” she said after thinking about it for a moment. “You can come up for a drink.”

I smiled and shook my head. “A wonderful idea, Susan, but I’ve got to travel into the city early tomorrow.”

She leaned across the table again, grasped both my hands and kissed me on the lips.

I was so surprised, I jerked my head back rather suddenly. I realized it was rude, but I thought I’d already made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t interested in that kind of thing. Well, not yet, anyway. I have to get to know somebody first. She was rushing it.

That was when she told me she was disappointed and glared angrily at me as if I had let her down, or something. After all, I’d asked her out for a drink. She grabbed her coat and stood up unsteadily.

I was about to join her, when she waved at a friend at another table and, after turning to wink at me, sat down beside him and rubbed his shoulder.

Maybe I am meant to live alone. Maybe I just don’t have the social skills to understand other people in the way they expect. And maybe there is something wrong with me, but I felt coerced that night. Exploited. And, although disrespected describes it best, I don’t think anybody would understand. Even worse, I don’t think anybody would believe me…



Much Rain Wears the Marble

I had just missed the bus, I know that now –but so had she, the little woman sitting by herself in the tiny shelter. It was an almost-dark evening in April, and I had walked for a few blocks along a darkened, tree-lined street because there was no shelter at the previous bus stop. It was perhaps a silly thing to do, but I didn’t fancy just standing in the cold. It was also raining heavily, so I took refuge under the first bus shelter I found. It had a low plastic roof and a small bench occupied by a middle aged woman. She glanced at me suspiciously and then buried her neck in her long black coat, staring motionlessly at her lap. Strands of long damp hair had escaped her blue woolen hat in places and hung limply on her shoulder like bits of tangled string. Although she was seated and trying to wrap herself like a package in her coat, her eyes made quick sorties in my direction -and even quicker retreats whenever I met them on their journey.

I could tell she was frightened, so I tried to stay near the edge of the shelter, but the fury of the rain pounding on the thin plastic roof soon drove me nearer to the bench. I smiled to put her more at ease, but the movement of my lips seemed to terrify her even more, and I could see her moving ever closer to the edge, ready to run if I so much as moved again. And yet, however uncomfortable, we were both trapped.

It seemed, though, that the longer I stood there, the more nervous she was becoming, so I decided to say something –anything- to reassure her.

“Sorry,” I started, “I’d wait outside, but the rain…” Her face almost disappeared inside the up-turned collar of her coat. Perhaps with the noise of the rain, she’d thought I was trying to flirt with her… I tried again. “Did we both just miss the bus…?” I suppose it didn’t sound very matter-of-fact, but it was hard to use a normal tone of voice to compete with the ferocity of the wind gusts and the incessant drumming of the rain. If she heard me, she was obviously too frightened to reply.

The wind was picking up and I was getting lashed with turbulent eddies of rain where I was standing, so I decided to sit on the opposite end of the bench she had clearly hoped would be hers alone. I had been carrying a cloth shopping bag with some take-out food I’d picked up for a late dinner, so I carefully placed it between the two of us like a wall. She was obviously at the extreme end of what little bench remained and I saw her eyes enlarge like a frightened doe as my bag seemed to close the distance.

I didn’t really know what to do; we both felt uneasy, so I decided to look away. Stare down the dark road, maybe -the bus shouldn’t be that far away. I raised my arm to look at my watch and I saw her flinch out of the corner of my eye. Things were getting serious.

“Listen,” I said, looking straight at where her face should have been, but seeing, instead, a knife. It was a tiny, dirty-looking folding knife, to be sure, but it startled me all the same. “I’m sorry I frightened you, but I’m just waiting for the bus…” I tried to sound calm.

She fastened two saucer-sized eyes on me so quickly I had to blink. They examined my soaked jeans, and then my equally sodden rain jacket. I wondered if perhaps it was the hood that had frightened her, so I slipped it off my head and smiled again. But her expression was still wary, still on guard -and so was the hand that held the little knife.

I shrugged, hoping to let her see I meant no harm, and yet she watched my every move like a wolf trying to estimate the threat I posed. I could have overpowered her easily, had she threatened me, but there was something about her excessive fear that tugged at me. It was more than fright, more than simple misgivings -it was terror. I wondered whether it was the way I was dressed, the isolation of the bus stop, or maybe a mental health issue. It was hard to judge anything about her appearance in the dim light, but who carries a knife to a bus stop?

The hand holding it shook slightly, but her fingers were so thin and boney I suspected she was unwell. “Are you okay, ma’am?” I asked, but gently, and only when I felt I could sit back against the thin wall of the shelter without alarming her further.

For a moment, she turned her whole head towards me, and it seemed as if she was going to answer me, but she merely blinked, and the movement of her lips faded. Her face, and what I could see of her neck, was as gaunt as her fingers, her cheeks hollow, and her lips cracked and unhealthy looking. The coat was clearly too large for her, but I don’t think that’s what made me sad. It was more her eyes: they seemed too large for her face –or rather, her face appeared to have shrunk around them.

I could see some tiny headlights far down the road, and I put my hands on my lap where she could see them. The bus would be here in a moment anyway. “Are you hungry?” I said –the words just sort of appeared at my lips and slipped out before I could think much about them.

She seemed surprised, and her eyes briefly softened, before going back on guard. I could see the knife shaking more now, as she watched for any trick I might be playing. But I caught the quick glance at my shopping bag, although I pretended not to notice.

“It’s not much, but there’s some take-out stuff in there…” I felt almost silly saying that, because the smell of Chinese food had hardly been dampened by the wet bag. “Oh, and there’s some veggies, and…” To tell the truth, I had forgotten what I had bought -or maybe I was embarrassed at what I had to offer.

Her eyes were beacons now, and her face had somehow moulded around them. There were only eyes, in fact, until they blinked. And, as the almost empty bus pulled up, I thought I saw a tear in one of them.

I left the bag on the bench, but she sat motionless and watched me get on the bus, watched me sit in the window seat, and as the bus began to pull away, I saw her mouth move and her hand wave before she reached for it.

I’m sorry now that I hadn’t bought anything more nourishing that night. Something more worthy for a gift…


They didn’t ask for it

Sometimes, you just have to take a stand! Sometimes, enough is enough! How many times do we read about lawyers –or even judges- wondering about the effect of clothing on sexual assaults?

And it’s not just the criminal justice system that asks the question; I fear that it is a question that floats just beneath the surface of many a speculation –voiced or silently implied.

Blame seems to be a requisite component of justice however, and although it often is a focus for vengeance –sorry, punishment– it is always more satisfying if a reason for an action can be found. After all, an effect requires a cause, does it not? And post hoc, ergo propter hoc makes it even sound erudite. But, although it seems a logical outcome, it is a spider’s web that can be terribly difficult to disentangle unless we are motivated to take the counterintuitive step back from the seductive fallacy.

Admittedly, there are cultural differences that play a role in a society’s willingness to accept or at least tolerate excuses for behaviour, but in terms of the reasons for sexual assault, I would suggest that they are less cultural and more gendered. Excuses, not reasons. And, in these cases,  it is the action that must be examined, not the justification.

I found myself drawn to an article reporting on a woman in India who found an innovative way to draw attention to the issue: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-42408844 ‘Indian artist-activist Jasmeen Patheja collects clothes donated by victims as testament to the fact they are not to blame […].’  Her project is called I Never Ask For It. And while the collection may seem a bit creepy, she maintains, ‘”It’s got nothing to do with what you’re wearing, there’s never any excuse for such violence and nobody ever asks for it. […] The project wants to contain and hold space for our collective stories of pain, and trauma.”’

It was a time when ‘[…] street harassment was being dismissed as just ‘eve-teasing’, something that boys do and girls must experience. It was being normalised. There was an environment of denial and silence around the issue, which made it okay to continue it. […] harassment in public places is all too common and almost every woman has experienced catcalls, lewd remarks, touching and groping. And anyone who questions it is told that the fault actually lies with them – she may have done something provocative, she may be wearing clothes that showed skin, she may have been out late at night, she may have been drinking, she may have been flirting: in short, she may have asked for it. “Girls are raised to be careful, we are raised in an environment of fear which is constantly telling us to be careful. We are told if you’ve experienced assault, then maybe you’re not being careful enough, that’s the underlying message we’re given.”

‘She set up the Blank Noise collective in 2003 to “confront” that fear. […]The first step to confronting any fear, Ms Patheja says, is to start a conversation around it and one of the things that Blank Noise does as part of the “I Never Ask For It” project is to gather testimonials from women. […] Almost all women chose to describe what they were wearing at the time of the assault and, Ms Patheja says, that’s what gave them the idea about the museum of garments.

“We found women often wondering about their garments. They’d say, “I was wearing that red skirt’, or ‘I was wearing that pair of jeans’, or ‘I was wearing that school uniform’. So it became a deliberate question at Blank Noise and we began asking, ‘so what were you wearing’? [..therefore..] we ask people to remember their garments, bring them in because they have memory, and in that memory it’s been a witness and it’s your voice.”’

I found that article very moving –especially that the clothes women had chosen to wear with pride at the time of the assaults had become forever tainted by the attacks –that those colours, fabrics, and even styles now made them feel sick. Guilty… Ashamed. They had expected admiration, approval, compliments, for how they dressed –or maybe hadn’t even thought much about their clothes beforehand. But, planned or not, a simple smile would have sufficed to indicate that they, too, could be beautiful. We all have a need for more than the mirror can say; most of us not only dress for ourselves, but in hopes our tastes will be vindicated. That we will be vindicated.

Yes, we often dress for effect, innocent or otherwise, and yet does the first chirp of the stirring robin cause the sun to rise? Are we looking at it the wrong way? Does attraction necessitate response? License behaviour? Does it even necessarily modify it? For some men, that is a vexing question, no doubt –and yet there it is. It has to be confronted. It is not enough for the man to say he was beguiled. That her clothes spoke for her –said what she chose not to say. That they told him all he needed to know… That they asked him and he merely accepted the invitation. Really?  He felt not only that entitled -that privileged- but also that omniscient? Stuff and nonsense!

Of course, how silly it all sounds divorced from the situation. After the fact. Even to other men, it would be difficult to argue his ability to know that he had been granted permission to violate someone else. To be assured that he could really see the world through his victim’s eyes…

As the Scottish poet, Robbie Burns put it: O wad some Power the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!

Because, no, they didn’t ask for it. And they certainly didn’t deserve it.

Hi, Heels!

I find it interesting that I can be so blind to something I see every day. How it can fade so completely into the Gestalt, that it is invisible. Not there.

Is it just me, or do we as a species, always attempt to accommodate to that which is constantly present –block it out like persistent odours- to make room in our heads for other sensations that may be more important for our survival? And yet, we don’t seem to be able to block all things out –patterns for example. We see patterns everywhere –we even invent patterns where there aren’t any- so it strikes me as odd that we can afford to ignore other things which might be even more malevolent. Is it just a matter of getting used to them, once we decide that they mean us no harm? Or, like taking off a pair of glasses, do we simply defocus them so they blur into the background with everything else?

It’s the unpredictability that bewilders me, I think. Why do some things persist, perhaps with only minor variations, while others seem to feel the need to change attire at the slightest whim -or even jump ship entirely? Disappear so thoroughly from sight that what once was common becomes laughable on review? Creepy –until, Phoenix-like , they rise again from their still-smoldering ashes, and mutton-chop sideburns, bell-bottom trousers, or even Afro haircuts are flaunted as if they were newly invented, and we get used to them all over again.

But do we ever get tired of beauty? Or does it have to dress itself up in constantly changing fashions to get our attention? So we don’t take it for granted? So we still regard it as having beauty? Is fashion just a trick to keep us on our toes? And, when is fashion no longer fashion? Is it just when we fail to notice anymore? Then what is it…? Invisible again? There’s something suspiciously circular in that. Suspiciously desperate. Meaningless.

Do I seem petulant about this –or at least leery of being clasped in fashion’s capricious arms? Perhaps it’s my age –although I seldom succumbed to the siren call even in my youth- but I remain genuinely puzzled at its grasp. Some things –like the styles of dresses or ties, as examples- seem sufficiently banal or entertaining to accept with little more than an inquiring glance and perhaps a shrug, while others… Others verge on the bizarre, the dangerous –all, no doubt well-intentioned, seemed-like-good-ideas-at-the-time inventions, and yet in the often unkind light of retrospect, unwise.

The Victoria era corset springs readily to mind. Worn by both sexes to slim the waist, it is better remembered as a device to mould women’s figures into some arbitrarily ideal hourglass shape. And in extreme cases, or with extended use, had deleterious effects on health by restricting the diaphragm, and unduly constricting the abdominal organs. Fortunately, in Western societies at least, they now seem to be confined to museum manikins labelled and planted behind glass like old photographs. Lesson learned…

And yet we may not have learned. There is another fashion as accepted as the corset in its time, and unless exaggerated, as invisible. As unremarked. I refer, of course, to heels –high heels. Once in the exclusive domain of men, they shifted into that of women, as I learned from a CBC article: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/high-heels-health-and-popularity-1.4458020

‘[..] high heels have been popular for centuries, and were originally worn more by men than by women. “I dated the origin of the heel as far back as the 10th century in Persia,” said Elizabeth Semmelback, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “They seemed to have been invented to keep the foot in the stirrup,” she said. “It allowed men on horseback to wield heavier weaponry, to be more successful at warfare, and so they really were a military tool.” From soldiers, the high heel eventually became the footwear of kings. But by the end of the 19th century, the style became fashionable for women only. Over the decades, high heels, and especially stilettos, became synonymous with sexuality […].’

There are those who might defend their use as a way to even out uncomfortable height discrepancies –my first date to a prom with an even shorter girl, for example- but by and large they are just a fashion statements. They are expected in certain circumstances, impractical in others.

But ‘Long-term wearing of high heels can have long-term medical effects for the entire body, said foot specialist Kevin Fraser, a pedorthist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.  “Wearing high heels is going to force us to flex our ankles downward, a downward direction, straightening our knees as well as extending the back,” Fraser said. “That can create a whole host of complications within joint levels in the back all the way down to the feet.” People can experience problems ranging from bunions to osteoarthritis, he said.’

I suppose the reason I was even tempted to read an article on high heels stemmed from an incident on a bus –or, rather, off a bus- a few days ago. I was coming home from an evening meal at a downtown restaurant and it was raining quite heavily so people on the sidewalks were being careful about where they stepped. Sidewalks can be dangerous even at the best of times, especially for the elderly –there are cracks and uneven surfaces lurking in shadows cast from street lights at night, or under puddles in the rain.

My particular bus travelled past a seniors home in a posh neighbourhood, and that evening there must have been a concert that had lured several elderly ladies downtown in the evening despite the weather. The bus was noisy and unusually crowded for that time of night, so there were no seats available -the only place I could find to stand was in the aisle opposite the door.

There were two especially well-dressed women seated beside me, chattering excitedly about the music they’d heard, when one of them noticed they were near their stop. As they got up to leave, the bus was still moving, and I noticed one of the ladies wobbling as she stood. From her expression, I don’t think it was alcohol, so much as her unfamiliarity with the length of the heels she had chosen to wear. I suppose they were fashionable, but she seemed rather unstable in them, so I reached out to steady her as she exited the bus onto the curb. As soon as I let go, however, her ankle seemed to give out at an odd ankle and she fell, screaming into her friend.

Unfortunately the door to the bus closed at that point and the bus began to pull away, despite my efforts to notify the driver and keep it open. I was left watching through the window at her being picked up by her friend, unable to put any weight on her foot.

The point of the CBC article was to point out discriminatory dress codes in workplaces such as restaurants that require their female employees to wear high heels. They are considered a sign of being ‘dressed up’, and so prevalent that it is usually unquestioned. Like a tie on a man, the heels on a woman may be an expected accoutrement in some circumstances. Fair enough, I suppose, and yet I wonder if that poor woman on the bus might now have second thoughts about what should be deemed appropriate… I think I would.