I think, therefore I speak

Have you ever been overtaken by a thought whose content seems indescribable, at least initially? Perhaps it happens to us all, but we are usually able to gloss over the difficulty and, by trial and error, attempt to describe it nonetheless. I wonder how often the problem in translation even rises to conscious awareness however. After all, are thoughts really verbal? And what about feelings? Am I only able to interpret things that arise in my head in the same way that a poem by, say, the German poet Rilke, with all its lyrical qualities and culturally specific idioms, can be rendered into English? Are the resulting contents always necessarily approximations?

Maybe I have been allotted too much free time in my retirement, and my mind keeps wandering off the sidewalk, but once I happened upon an essay by Eli Alshanetsky, a philosopher at Temple University in Philadelphia, I simply could not get it out of my mind. He asks what may seem like a simple, yet unquestionably profound, question: are you excavating existing ideas, or do your thoughts come into being as you speak? ‘The gulf between our solitary thoughts and the words that would convey them to others constantly confronts us all.’

https://aeon.co/essays/what-comes-first-ideas-or-words-the-paradox-of-articulation

How can I be sure that what I eventually describe is actually what my thought conveyed to me? As Alshanestsky observes, ‘In many cases, we articulate these thoughts in order to get clear on what they are; we wouldn’t bother making the effort if they were clear to us already.’ But, unfortunately, it would seem that ‘Philosophers of knowledge influenced by René Descartes have focused almost exclusively on cases in which our knowledge of our thoughts is effortless and instantaneous.’

I suppose this raises the question of just what is it for a thought to be clear? And how do we then make it clear -or is that even possible? Well, one observation sheds some light on the problem: ‘The philosopher Daniel Dennett in 1991 quoted E M Forster’s quip ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’, affirming that ‘we often do discover what we think … by reflecting on what we find ourselves saying.’

But, does what we might say really reflect the thought, or is it a reworking -a translation- of an idea that cannot otherwise be conveyed? Is it an example of the eternal problem of translators everywhere: unless the expression of a sentence, say, makes sense to others in a form they can understand and appreciate, the translation is unhelpful. ‘The words that immediately come out of us when we are struck by our thoughts (eg, ‘How outrageous!’, ‘What a mess!’) might hardly reflect what we think at all. They could come to us as a result of habit, their repetition by other speakers, or just our affinity for the way they sound… To succeed in articulation, we need to chisel away at imprecise formulations, while guarding against any words that would blur or change what we think… But it is hard to see how we could have a reason to accept or reject any words if we don’t already know which thought we’re trying to express.’ Remember, the thought likely did not initially arise in words, so how could we ever know whether or not we expressed its content accurately, or actually changed its meaning by superimposing words -translations- on it?

Nietzsche’s words from his Beyond Good and Evil go a fair way in articulating the problem: ‘I caught this insight on the way and quickly seized the rather poor words that were closest to hand to pin it down lest it fly away again. And now it has died of these arid words and shakes and flaps in them – and I hardly know anymore when I look at it how I could ever have felt so happy when I caught this bird.’

It might seem that ‘language functions not only as a medium for expressing thoughts but also as a means for developing them.’ And yet, ‘cognitive science increasingly reveals, our thinking doesn’t run on a single track, like a serial computer, but seems to be organised into a variety of facilities, or modes of thought, that loosely communicate with each other. The jagged nature of the interaction might be responsible for the sense of fissure within the mind, reported by many writers and thinkers. Language is just one mode of thought, with its own characteristic parameters and limitations. Though it uniquely affords us with a distanced perspective on our thoughts, it is only an imperfect instrument for capturing them.’

Hmm. I’m not sure that I’m any further along in my quest to adequately explain the occasional epiphany that my aging neurons have inadvertently fumbled together. Fortunately epiphanies are rare, and if ever I have something close to an inspiration I usually manage to stuff it quietly into an interior closet. I suppose I shouldn’t expect others to want to know all the clever things I think, but sometimes an idea is just too exciting to stay in a closet and it opens the door on its own when I least expect it.

I had what I considered was a profound insight about my relationship with Nature the other day; I was sure that for one beatific moment, I was finally At One with it, and since I happened to be in a forest at the time, that I also partook of the Spirit of the trees around me. I decided I just had to tell my friend Brien about it. He’s the one who spends the days sitting on his porch drinking beer and watching Sheda, his pet tree, waving at him in the wind.

I negotiated my way across the unkempt lawn he manages like his hair, and sat down beside him on the extra seat he always saves for me.

“Brien,” I started, “I’ve just had an epiphany about Nature: I experienced the Oneness of it all… especially trees,” I added, knowing his fondness for Sheda.

He opened a beer for me and sat back on his chair. “And…?”

I tried to recapitulate the revelation, but short of whispering “I felt One with Them” and throwing my arms out wide to indicate that I meant all trees, and not any one particular specimen, I found myself at a loss for any more explanatory words.

Brien stared at me for a bit, had a sip of his beer, and then leaned forward in his chair again. “Do they wave at you?” he asked after a further moment’s reflection.

I considered the question, and then shook my head after tasting my beer. “No,” I said, “I don’t remember that…”

“Or could you hear them whisper anything… sort of like they were sighing?” he explained.

I shook my head again, now uncertain whether I’d had an actual epiphany.

He rested his eyes gently on my cheeks for a second. “Then I don’t think they’ve realized you want to be one of them.” He placed his now-empty can on the floor beside him and reached for another. “Maybe if you hang around with them more, they’ll accept you, eh?”

I wasn’t sure if Brien actually understood what I was trying to explain to him, until I noticed Sheda waving at him like a friend, when he looked her way. There was not a breath of wind, and he glanced at me with a little knowing smile on his face. “Ready for another beer?” he asked, and sat back in his seat to stretch his legs.

Scaffolds

It’s exciting to realize that, despite my age, there are so many things that I have not stopped to think about: the seemingly random encounters with anonymous people in the course of a visit to a store or waiting for a bus downtown; inconsequential interactions with strangers on a sidewalk waiting for the light to change; overheard conversations at the next table in a Food Court in an otherwise unimportant mall. They are mostly forgettable, I suppose -background noise- and yet in retrospect, they ultimately form the invisible scaffolds of our lives.

Of course, I guess it’s tempting to dismiss most of these encounters -and anyway, there are far too many of them to remember, and they are far too numerous to catalogue let alone ponder the significance of each. I would feel overwhelmed if I had to remember the details of everything that happened to me in a day; I feel blessed that no one asks; it is not a requirement for old age.

And yet, I sometimes wonder if those forgotten contacts with the world form the hidden webs that bind me to reality: Occurro ergo sum, as it were. They have obviously decreased in our pandemic lockdowns and social distancing of late, but they are all around, if you watch for them. I still have trivial conversations with those lining up the requisite three feet away in the grocery store; I still feel a compulsion to interact with flowers in the woods and I continue to follow mysterious and partially hidden trails to see where they lead. I still attempt to understand the yawp of crows scattered in the forest as they try to stay in contact with their flock; and if our eyes engage, I still smile -masked or not- when I pass a person I don’t recognize on the sidewalk to show them I also am a member of their flock. How else to honour an otherwise forgettable stranger? How else to make sense of my life?

*

An elderly man (I try not to look for comparisons with my own misuse of years) apologized to me for coughing as I sat beside him on a bus a few weeks ago. He was wearing a mask above which, by chance rather than intent I suspect, his nose was almost entirely visible. He clearly had not entirely mastered the art of masking, because one ear also stuck out like Mickey Mouse from the pressure of the straps, and there was a rhythmic indentation of the fabric with each of his laboured inhalations.

“Damned thing keeps making me cough,” he ventured, as he apologized with his eyes and re-buried his nose. “But I’m double-vaccinated,” he hastened to assure me in the same muffled tone as his apology.

And that was that. Two streets later, he got off after stroking me with his eyes as he left -for tolerating him, I suppose.

*

A woman passed me carrying her tray to the drop-off box in the mall’s Food court to which I’d been travelling on the bus. I was sitting, unmasked, at a socially distanced table eating a bagel and lingering over my coffee, when she accidentally bumped into me, dropping a napkin onto my arm as she tried to avoid stepping on her little boy. Her eyes immediately registered horror -partially at the incursion into my space of course, but mainly for the fomitic napkin that had landed on my arm. I imagine the fact that she had also forgotten to don her mask after finishing her meal suddenly occurred to her as an added and unforgivable crime as well.

Ordinarily, I suppose this would have elicited no more than an embarrassed apology, but in this pandemic age, it seemed to her to have been an egregious trespass. “Oh my God, sir,” she muttered sotto voce, so as not to incur the antagonism of the otherwise uninterested patrons. “I’m so sorry!”

I smiled at her as a sign of forgiveness, and merely blew the napkin off my arm and onto the floor. I hoped she would see this as yet another sign of absolution, but she merely blushed, picked up the napkin and hurried off, while looking around the room to make sure no one else had noticed.

*

Much later, I was about to enter a popular pathway leading to the trail around a local lake when a dog rounded the corner. I like dogs -no, actually I love them and stop to pet every dog who will let me, leashed or not. I walk the trail several times a week, so by now, I suspect I know every dog I pass -or is it the other way around? At any rate, the dog I met that day was one I didn’t recognize, and it was attached to an ownerless leash. It was a black Labrador, I think, and as is the custom of every lab I’ve ever met, it started wagging its tail furiously and trotted up to me to say hello.

There’s something incredibly endearing about the look in their eyes as they poke their noses into strangers as if they were long lost relatives; it’s impossible not to recognize that there is something intelligent and curious staring out at you and requesting a pat.

I, of course, can never resist, but before I could reach out and touch its head, the owner came puffing around the corner and screamed at me. “Don’t you pet that dog,” she yelled, her eyes not at all as welcoming as her dog’s.

“He came up to me wagging his tail,” I explained, not a little put off by her attitude. I didn’t recognize the wrinkles I could see on her face above her mask, either; she was obviously not a local.

Her eyes narrowed and her forehead rumpled at my explanation as she grasped the leash firmly in two hands and pulled the dog away. “Dogs can catch human diseases, you know,” she added, shaking her head irritably.

The dog glanced at her and then back at me; I could swear his eyes apologized to me for his master’s rudeness and I could almost see him shrug, as he trotted reluctantly away realizing he had no choice in the matter.

I can only hope he realized that I was left without a choice as well…

When is Then?

I am sometimes amazed with the outlook that Age affords. Maybe it was there all along, and I was too busy to give it much attention, or maybe as the years wore thin and the leaves began to fall away, there was a better view of things around me, but whatever the cause, I started to realize just how tiny now really is -how small a space in time I actually occupy. It’s a perspective that didn’t seem terribly applicable until recently. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I wonder how I could not have noticed it’s relative size before.

It’s interesting to think about temporal, as well as spatial awareness in Art, for example. The first known picture to use geometrically fashioned perspective, and its famous ‘vanishing point’ is usually thought of  as being created by an architect from Florence, Fillipo Brunelleschi in 1415. In fact, however, perspective was apparently tried for theatrical scenery around the 5th century B.C.E in Greece, and then much later in various frescoes in Rome and even in a Villa in Pompeii, although with apparently little awareness of the value of a so-called vanishing point. What I’m saying, however, is that once it re-emerged in art all those centuries later, it became an essential ingredient for a realistic portrayal of reality. Something that would be missed if it were absent or done incorrectly.

So can we think of Time as, in a way, analogous to Art? And is there a way of projecting ourselves into the future towards a similar vanishing point to envision how the present should look? I mean, we do it to the Past all the time: we criticize decisions made long ago for problems we now have to try and solve. Think of both the advantages the petrochemical industry offered its citizens and the current problems it has created for us and our climate as the years have unfolded. So we were, in fact, colonized by a past thinking no further ahead than its needs at the time.

As it occasionally happens in the leisure time imposed by retirement, I discovered an essay by the public philosopher Roman Krznaric, apparently a research fellow of the Long Now Foundation, that seemed to address some of my questions. His opening sentence immediately captured my attention: ‘Humankind has colonised the future,’ he writes. ‘We treat it like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk and nuclear waste – as if nobody will be there.’ It is a  perspective that invites -no demands– further consideration. https://psyche.co/ideas/future-generations-deserve-good-ancestors-will-you-be-one

Interestingly, he goes on to compare the British colonization of Australia, ‘which was based on a legal doctrine today known as terra nullius or ‘nobody’s land’, in which the continent was treated as if there were no indigenous people there when they arrived,’ with what seems to be the current societal attitude of what he calls ‘tempus nullius’. ‘The future is seen as ‘nobody’s time’, an unclaimed territory that is equally devoid of inhabitants… ours for the taking.’

I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of the future like that, but merely as a ‘then’ where I did not live, and where might never take more than a few hesitant steps. It remained for me more of a terra incognita, free entry into which was forever barred by the present. And yet, as Krznaric points out, ‘our political systems disenfranchise future generations in the same way that slaves and women were disenfranchised in the past… Future generations are granted no political rights or representation. Their interests have no influence at the ballot box or in the marketplace. This leaves them vulnerable to multiple long-term threats, from rising sea levels and AI-controlled lethal autonomous weapons to the next pandemic that lies on the horizon, whether naturally occurring or genetically engineered.’

But, with political systems that concentrate on short-termism, how can we ever hope to convince those in power -not to mention those who put them there- to change? Were they to come up with a plan for the next day -after a fire, say- yes of course we would think that was reasonable; a plan for next year -a new school perhaps- well, that would probably be a good idea, too. But how far ahead are we willing to plan? Most people have trouble saving enough for their retirement a few years away, so how (and why) would they plan for even further afield? Should we be willing to sacrifice anything for unknown generations to come? Things are difficult enough now aren’t they? Let them deal with it, just as we are forced to do now.

Krznaric has come up with ‘three compelling reasons why we should commit ourselves to protecting and promoting the interests of future generations far more than we do now. The first has to do with ‘Scales’ -comparing the number who have ever lived on earth, with the number who will do so over the next 50,000 years: ‘around 100 billion people have lived and died in the past 50,000 years. But they, together with the 7.8 billion people currently alive, are far outweighed by the estimated 6.75 trillion people who will be born over the next 50,000 years… Even in just the next millennium, more than 135 billion people will be born. How could we possibly ignore their wellbeing, and think that our own is of such greater value?’ Something to think about, for sure.

He calls his second argument the ‘Arrow’. If you shot an arrow (or a bullet) into the air and it injured someone far away, are you not still responsible? Think of the same issue with our attempted disposal of radioactive waste…

And then the ‘Baton’ -a rewording of the Golden Rule reminding us that ‘we have a duty not to impose harm or dangerous risks on future people that we wouldn’t be willing to accept ourselves… a Golden Rule passed on from one generation to another – a golden baton.’

I like that idea, if only because I know my parents sacrificed for me; they’re my example of why caring for the future should be important to us all. It’s not a distant neighbourhood, just an unoccupied house right next door. And our children, and their children will be living there. The future is not really ‘then’ is it? Its roots are buried here; neither now nor then are empty…

Did you say something?

There is often a lot more to conversation than meets the ear -hidden things, unstated things- but for some reason, we usually still understand the message. I’d never really thought about this, to tell you the truth, although I was an unwitting acquiescent, I suppose. It’s  easy enough to assume that everything is context driven… until it isn’t, that is. So, sometimes an explanation of the rules can be helpful.

How, or why I stumbled over an essay by the philosopher Maria Kasmirli from the University of Sheffield, I’m not certain, but I was fascinated by the subject: conversational implicature: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-we-say-vs-what-we-mean-what-is-conversational-implicature

Maybe it was the idea of implicating someone in something without their knowledge or consent that intrigued me, although to tell the truth I was just curious about the process rather than the crime. I really had no information on the nature of conversational implicature.

Kasmirli starts off with an example of a letter of reference that merely suggests that the applicant is a nice person. It does not say whether or not they would be suited to the job. The dilemma that this raises for the interviewer then, is whether the reference deliberately avoided mentioning whether the applicant was suitable (because he wasn’t), or whether, in fact, he was. The inference was, of course, that he wasn’t suitable; the meaning of this indirect message is an implicature.

This term was apparently coined by the British philosopher Paul Grice who ‘distinguished several forms of implicature, the most important being conversational implicature... [which] depends, not on the meaning of the words employed… but on the way that the words are used and interpreted… conversational implicatures arise because speakers are expected to be cooperative – to make contributions appropriate to the purpose of the conversation in which they are engaged. More specifically, they are expected to follow four conversational maxims: (1) give an appropriate amount of information; (2) give correct information; (3) give relevant information; and (4) give information clearly.’

‘According to Grice, a conversational implicature is generated when an utterance flouts one or more of these maxims, or would do so if the implicature weren’t present. In such cases, we can preserve the assumption that the speaker is being cooperative only by interpreting their utterance as conveying something other than, or additional to, its literal meaning, and this is its implicated meaning.’ That makes sense, I suppose…

So, in the example of the letter of reference, ‘the information she (the letter writer) gives is obviously insufficient, flouting the maxim of quantity. Hence, we infer that she is trying to convey something else, which she doesn’t wish to say directly, and the obvious conclusion is that what she’s trying to convey is that Smith [the applicant] is unsuitable for the job.’

Unfortunately it sometimes suggests something else, though: ‘sometimes an implicature arises in order to prevent a flouting. Suppose you need petrol and someone tells you: “There’s a garage around the corner”… If the speaker did not believe that the garage was open, then their reply would violate the maxim of relation, so to preserve the assumption that they are being cooperative we must assume that they do believe it is open.’ Context is everything, I suppose. And anyway, ‘conversational implications can always be cancelled by adding a further statement.’ Like, Smith is not only a nice person, but he is also well qualified for the job. There could also be some legal implications if you equivocate, or deliberately don’t mention something of course.

I imagine that most of us have an intuitive grasp of conversational implicature however, although I suspect that much of it is probably culturally driven. Grice’s approach is also much more complicated and disputed than was evident in Kasmirli’s essay, but nevertheless she simplified the concept enough that non philosophers (like me) could understand the basics.

The article was particularly relevant to me as I reminisce about the many letters of reference I was asked to write for my undergraduates over the years. I am a retired Ob/Gyn now, but looking back, I’m not entirely sure that I grasped the importance of all of Grice’s conversational maxims; I’m sure that I inadvertently flouted more than one of them on occasions. Of course, I always tried to respond truthfully, but as to clearly… Well, sometimes I felt it more appropriate to approximate my assessments of the candidate’s credentials, but gently, and carefully, so as not to negate them. Of course, neither did I wish to unleash someone on the public that the program would regret. Sometimes it’s a fine line…

I can still recall one inventive student in his final year of training who always seemed to be trying to find unusual ways of practicing the specialty in order to resolve some of the obvious difficulties inherent in a male having to understand, let alone solve, female issues. It caused no end of puzzled smiles whenever he entered a patient’s room as they wondered how he would try to ingratiate himself and his gender with them. These were harmless, if not actually humorous attempts, but the nurses, who were used to dealing with a new batch of trainees rotating through their wards every few weeks, were concerned that he would be misunderstood and complained to me. And yet the patients, when I saw them in my office after their discharge from hospital, were more sanguine about him -amused more often than not.

So, when he asked me for a letter of reference after successfully passing his exams a few months later, I was unsure what to write about him. His theory and OR credentials were satisfactory, but apart from his obvious enthusiasm, whether I could honestly recommend him, given his behaviour with patients, was more difficult. In my opinion he was competent to practice my specialty, and I saw no deficiencies in his knowledge -it was just… well, his interpersonal skills were unusual.

I decided to waffle -perhaps that’s why I still remember a lot about how I phrased the letter I wrote to his prospective hospital.

‘Dr. James [I have changed his name, for obvious reasons] has successfully completed his training from our program and in my dealings with him, I have found him to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic. You will realize, of course, that as is usual in Residency programs, I was his supervisor for only a limited time.

During the time I worked with him however, he proved to be very competent in the operating theatre, with a quick grasp of newer techniques he learned from my younger colleagues who were also responsible for his instruction. And if I seemed puzzled, he was quick to revert to my more traditional surgical approach without complaint.

And he was also quick to respond to any post-operative problems whenever they arose, and explain them to the patient with knowledgeable clarity and what seemed to be heart-felt empathy.

He was also able to adapt to changing moods and preferences in the birthing rooms, while continuing to adhere to strict best-practice guidelines. The case room can be an emotionally fraught region, but he usually managed to assuage most of the conflicts between the demands of what he felt was required in the circumstances and the birth plans of either mother or midwife.’

I remember that I was quite proud of the letter but not sure how to end it, so I just left it like that. Thinking about it now, it seems to me that I had more or less covered Grice’s four conversational maxims and I don’t think I flouted, but I’m not sure what the implicature was that I conveyed. I’ve not heard anything bad about my referenced candidate, or whether he actually got the job -but neither did I receive a thank you letter from him. Maybe that isn’t expected for conversational implicatures, though.

At any rate, he didn’t ask me to write another of those letters, so I have to assume the best.

Eenie Meenie Miney

I’ll be the first to admit that I have been left far behind in the vocabularic peculiarities that are now used to describe non-normative sexuality. Perhaps it’s Age, but more likely naïveté, that has led to this deficiency rather than lack of exposure.

I entered medical school in the mid-sixties when the youth were beginning to out themselves, and when some of the gloves were starting to come off -or maybe there was a growing awareness that a few of them had actually been wearing gloves. At the time -at least in my  school- Medicine seemed bicameral and only accepted two genders, male and female, with perhaps the door held slightly ajar for babies born with ambiguous genitalia or other genetic syndromes that made classification difficult.

For some of us, at least, it was a simpler time. Gender and sexual assignation were one and the same; preference as to which was really which was non-negotiable. But times and self-designation began to change; Medicine and the Law limped behind until the rift started to expose the consequences of their inaction.

I’d like to pretend that I saw these coming but, alas, I had no idea of the scope of the issue. In fact, in my mind, this straying from the norms was at best a marginal fashion. Anatomically, at least, we were what we had been assigned, and I assumed that perhaps the fullness of time and the machinations of society would iron any deviations into the acceptable crease. I had not reckoned with the discontent that enforced conformity might produce. When one has not experienced qualms, when one accepts the way the chromosomal dice have landed, it is not easy to grasp the uneasy restlessness of those few who will not play the game… or were not willing to join either team.

I say ‘few’ because I did not know; I did not understand. In time, of course, the discrepancies became too obvious to ignore in practice. At least in my gynaecological practice…

At first, there was confusion, I suppose -mine at first, perhaps- but theirs too. Not about their role, but mine. Initially, my lack of training forced me merely to listen, to empathize and then to help when and where I could. And, naïvely, I thought that was likely all that was required -and maybe all that they could reasonably expect. There was much psychological turmoil and disbelief that there was so little I could do, and yet I was relieved that I had heard them without disparaging their distress, or trivializing their problems.

But it soon became apparent that the eventual ramifications of their choices had the potential for far deeper consequences than either side had anticipated. And I’m not sure that I even appreciated the extent of the consequences of this disparity until after I retired. Only then, for example, did I come across an essay in the BBC Future series that touched upon some of the problematic issues. In an essay, Zaria Gorvett, a freelance science journalist for BBC, addressed the problem of why transgender people are ignored by modern medicine and what that might mean for their health: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200814-why-our-medical-systems-are-ignoring-transgender-people

‘[T]here are thought to be nearly a million transgender people living in the US… Rather than devising new ways to cope with changing social norms, transgender people are often shoehorned into inappropriate boxes instead.’

And the example she starts with is ‘a transgender man – he identifies as male but his biological sex is female. He has been living as a man for around 20 years… he is registered as a man on all his legal documents, from his passport to his medical records.’ All along, he had been taking small doses of the male hormone testosterone, but he suffered kidney failure and his condition deteriorated, therefore necessitating a kidney transplant. The criteria, for consideration of transplantation, however, differ between men and women and he lost valuable time in sorting out what criteria would apply to him.

As Gorvett points out, ‘When you factor in the large data gaps in everything from the average life expectancy of transgender people to the right dosages of medications for their bodies, along with the widespread lack of knowledge among doctors about how to address them – let alone treat them – and the high chance of them being refused treatment outright, it soon becomes clear that transgender medicine is in crisis.’

Indeed, in the UK, ‘“You can register as male or female, but you can still only choose between these two options – you can’t say if you are transgender or non-binary,” explains Kamilla Kamaruddin, a doctor who works for the National Health Service (NHS) and transgender woman. “So that’s quite difficult.” Or, if gender issues seem irrelevant to the visit, the patient may choose not to mention it, because of perceived stigma.

And, ‘The gender you’re registered as also dictates which screening tests you are invited to, meaning that thousands of transgender men could be missing out on potentially life-saving cervical (Pap) smears and breast exams, while transgender women could be missing out on abdominal aortic aneurism check-ups (or prostate cancer screenings, if they live in the US).’

Male and female physiology are different and many medications behave differently in each. ‘Females also have more sites for certain drugs to bind to, and are therefore more sensitive to them. They tend to clear them more slowly, so they are more susceptible to overdoses.’

Perhaps because of the stigma and subsequent lifestyle, ‘The group has higher rates of heart disease, certain cancers, mental health problems, suicide, smoking, and substance abuse than the general population – as well as an HIV prevalence which is  up to 42 times the national average. Transgender people are not only more likely to get sick, but less likely to seek treatment when they do.’

Still, I think we’re beginning to understand the problems they face. This gender dysphoria is an ancient condition, though, and actually gender fluidity may go back farther still. Gorvett writes about more enlightened recent attempts at assisting both with surgery and with hormonal replacement. The problem, however, is in the continuing stigmatization of those who are not mainstream. Those who do not fit neatly into societally condoned roles.

Maybe my age is tempering my reaction, or clouding my judgment, but I do wonder why there continues to be such marked antipathy to those who do not look like us, behave like us, or (gasp) think like us. Are we so insecure in who we are that we are threatened? And is it redress for the difference that we seek, an expectation of contrition? Do we really demand repentance, or is it homogenization?

I, for one, have come to think that the world would be a poorer place if we -the cis creatures- and we alone, were all that was on offer…

A shoe for your thoughts

I have often wondered about shoes. Not their styles, or colours, of course -I am indifferent to fashion- but rather about the protection they afford. The benefits they offer. Although I no doubt toddled around the floors barefoot when I was too young to know any better, and even if I nowadays relish the feel of grassy lawns or sandy beaches on the unshod skin of my tender feet, I am still on guard, lest I feel too much.

Feet are like that, though: pampered and protected from the world beneath them. On them sits the heavy responsibility of moving through the world; on them resides the ability to investigate what hides around the corner or what lives beyond the hill ahead. On them rests the weight of being.

I suppose I could have treated them differently from the start, eschewed (sorry) their comfort at least wherever society did not mandate their use, but I saw things differently then –felt things differently then. There are likely reasons why evolution gifted us with soles as sensitive as fingers; in our ape days -our chimp days- it was no doubt a valuable resource in our daily arboreal quest for food and mates, but times moves on. Gravel exists, broken glass and thorns adorn our paths, asphalt heats up like the barbecues we often use; it is the ground on which we move; it is not a tree world, anymore.

And yet, sometimes I wish it had been different. Sometimes I yearn to caress the ground beneath me like a face, but I realize I have left it too late. It would be painful now. But I can dream, and hunt for stories of those who have lived life differently -or at least, like me, have had adventuresome thoughts. Life lived in imaginative worlds is, after all, why we read.

I stumbled, quite by accident, upon an essay by a fellow traveller who had considered the zeitgeist of shoes with far more intellectual rigour than I could ever have hoped to achieve. Randy Laist is professor of English at Goodwin University in East Hartford, Connecticut, and his essay, entitled What do shoes do? immediately attracted my long-dormant curiosity on the subject: https://aeon.co/essays/why-shoes-act-as-a-symbolic-foundation-for-human-identity

He, too, was forced to confront the existential crisis of hope meeting reality: ‘My feet, blissfully shoeless, arrive at the curb to meet a jagged expanse of sun-baked asphalt, gravelly pebbles and the remnants of smashed beer bottles.’ It is a challenge we would all face in an unshod world -an unfair choice. But there is no doubt we have left something valuable behind. ‘As Shantideva, the 8th-century Buddhist monk observed, with the leather soles of just my shoes, it is as though I covered the whole earth in leather.’

And as Laist adds, ‘This leather planet, the world created by shoes, is different from the barefoot world: detached, abstracted, insulated. It is a world less concerned with the topography of the ground and less attentive to its objects and textures. It is ‘duller’ and less ‘sensitive’. At the same time, this artificialised condition releases me from the grip of my physical circumstances and lets me ‘transcend’ the physical world toward my own desires… The most fundamental thing about my shoes is not the way they look or what they do, but how they affect my mobility, my freedom and, therefore, my being. They act, even if at a subconscious level, as the literal foundation for my understanding of myself, specifically as that understanding informs my sense of where I can go – what kinds of projects are within my sphere of possible futures.’ The choice nowadays is, in essence, a Hobson’s choice.

‘The shoe, one of the oldest forms of human technology, is the prototype for all other technologies, a catch-all term for instruments and procedures that allow us to break ‘the surly bonds of earth’ and proceed into unnatural or unwelcoming environments.’ Laist then waxes even more poetic. ‘Vehicles such as cars, boats and rocket ships are like shoes writ large. Spacesuits, hazmat suits and vaccines are like whole-body shoes. The media of language and art can also be thought of as technologies in this sense; like shoes, they also separate us from direct experience to provide us with a new, ‘heightened’ reality.’

I like that thought -that I have perhaps, only traded worlds: one movie theatre for another. My son, in the way of most very young children, saw that from the start, of course. And yet, I wonder if he was seeing a different movie from me, even if I still feature in it. It was a very much less complicated life when he was young, and I still remember one incident as if it was yesterday.

Michael used to watch me, study my every move, and then try to copy it. I’d noticed, for example, that when he prowled the back yard behind the house, he grasped his hands behind his back like me as if he was considering something important. And if I happened to be wearing a hat that day, he wanted his, too. Our children are us in more than genetics.

I used to sit on the porch overlooking the lawn when he was out there, but since it was an old wooden structure, and rough enough to have splinters, I usually wore shoes. This frustrated him, I could tell -he liked to run around on the grass without shoes or socks- and I remember he asked me about it one day.

“Daddy,” he asked, standing on the lawn next to the porch, “You said you liked to walk on the grass in your bare feet…”

I smiled and nodded. “I’m not on the grass right now, Michael.”

He kind of nodded his head as he thought about my answer for a moment. “But you could be…”

I smiled again. “I’m afraid I might get splinters when I stepped back on the porch, if I had bare feet though.”

He tilted his head at that, clearly puzzled. “What’s a spinter, daddy?”

I had to chuckle. “A splinter is a little piece that pokes out of the wood and sticks into your skin.”

“Does it hurt…?”

“Well,” -I didn’t want to frighten him about the porch- “sometimes, I guess, but you have to pull it out of your skin before it goes in even further.”

I could tell by his face that he was processing the information inside somewhere. “Is that why we always wear shoes on the sidewalk and stuff?”

How do you explain societal customs to a 4 year old? “The skin on your feet is pretty sensitive, don’t you think?” He nodded, trusting I wouldn’t try to fool him about that. “And you don’t know what else you might also have to walk over, do you?”

He thought about it some more. So far it seemed to make sense to him. “So you have to guard your skin, Daddy?” He wasn’t really asking, I don’t think -just working his way through the idea. Then he raised his head to look straight at me. “But my feet like the feel of the grass and it’s soft…”

He walked away from me with his hands behind his back. There was a lot of thinking to do, obviously.

That afternoon after we had lunch, I told him he could play out in the yard again, and I would be out on the porch in in a few minutes.

“Maybe we can play catch, Daddy?” he asked, hopefully.

I nodded and went to look for a big ball we could throw around. When I came out, I sat down on the edge of the porch and removed my shoes and socks to make him happy. But I didn’t see him at first –I suppose he was playing in the bushes at the end of the lawn. “Michael,” I shouted. “I thought you wanted to play catch…”

He suddenly emerged from behind a tree at one corner of the yard, wearing his thick red winter socks. “I’m ready to play catch now, Daddy,” he said, running over to the porch.

I have to say I must have stared at his socks, because his face broke into a broad smile when he noticed my surprise.

“Whadya think, Daddy? Good idea, eh?” Then he noticed I was barefoot. “You don’t have to take everything off to feel the grass, you know…” he said, staring at my feet. “I’ve got my soft shoes on…”

Michael never stops teaching me things.

We came crying hither

I have to wonder about myself nowadays. I used to be a typical, societally conditioned male who seldom shed tears; I kept my grief tightly wrapped, and only unexpected pain, or major anguish was able to wet the cloth. Nowadays, though, I find myself weeping at the strangest things -and not all of them sad. Compassion or forgiveness from strangers often makes me well up. The other day on the TV news, the sight of the head of state hugging a woman, who only moments before had been screaming invectives at him from a crowd was enough to have me sobbing. The trusting eyes of an injured dog is too much for me to watch; even the minor key of a Rachmaninoff prelude is often enough to make me wipe my cheeks.

Apart from being oversaturated with years, I’m not sure what has changed in my life; maybe I’m just top-heavy with the time, I have been allotted. And yet, I don’t mean to speak of tears as undesirable, or somehow a weakness. In fact, if anything, they make me feel more in touch with… well, with things out there -things outside my body. Things that were not obviously linked to me -until, that is, I realized they were. To paraphrase, the work of the 17th century poet, John Donne, ‘Nothing is an island entire of itself; everything is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… the death of anything diminishes me, because I am involved in the world.’

Anyway, it seems to me that’s how I feel, and it manifests itself in tears of recognition with some long-lost connection I’ve stumbled across; I am an old man finally digesting his years, cataloguing them and putting them in some semblance of order, finding meaning in the never-ending chaos of Life. So, yes, it is a sweet sorrow, but how, or why, the feeling is connected with tears has remained as much a mystery to me as the relief -or is it satisfaction- I experience from the episode.

I happened upon an essay the other day by Thomas Dixon director of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University in London whose title seemed to promise some answers:  https://aeon.co/essays/read-it-and-weep-what-it-means-when-we-cry

He starts by suggesting that ‘Since ancient times, philosophers and scientists have tried to explain weeping as part of a shared human language of emotional expression. But, in fact, a tear on its own means nothing. As they well up in our eyes, or dribble down our cheeks, the meanings of those salty droplets can only be tentatively inferred by others, and then only when they know much more about the particular mental, social, and narrative contexts that gave rise to them.

‘We cry in sadness, grief and mourning, but also from joy and laughter. Some are moved to tears of pity by human suffering; others have wept the enraged tears of the oppressed. A tear-streaked cheek might be produced by nothing more than a yawn or a chopped onion.’ 

But, he soon gets waylaid by other, less noble ways of viewing them: ‘Theories of tears have always struggled to do justice to their threefold nature, as secretions, symptoms and signs. Are tears to be treated like urination, like a rash, or like a work of art? Does their interpretation require the expertise of the physiologist, the physician, or the metaphysician?… Those who object to public weeping often refer to it as a kind of ‘emotional incontinence’.’ I find it hard to view tears that way; I have to hope it’s more of a cultural thing -and yet it explains nothing to me.

Nor am I particularly enamoured with the mid 20th century psychoanalytical approach, attributing tears to either ‘repression [or] regression. The first implies that tears are a kind of overflow or discharge of previously repressed emotion, while the second presents the phenomenon of adult weeping as some sort of return to infantile, even prenatal, experiences and emotions.’ A bit too contrived, I think.

Darwin had a similar penchant for the laboured explanation of tears: ‘Tears, for Darwin, were never more than a side-effect of some other, useful behaviour. He started from the observation that the reflex secretion of tears was initially caused by ‘the irritation of any foreign body in the eye’. He then hypothesised that in cases of loud infant screaming, during which the eyes were closed tightly, that same reflex could be brought into action by pressure on the lachrymal glands. Over many generations, Darwin speculated, the association of tears with infant screams of pain and hunger gradually became extended to painful mental states of all kinds, so that tears could be produced even in the absence of irritating foreign bodies, or of screams.’ Uhmm…

Nobody seems to have come even close to a consensus, and as in previous considerations of the inscrutable, I am reminded again of St. Augustine’s likely apocryphal observation about Time: What then is Time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

And, despite the autumn of my long list of years, I’m not sure I know what to make of tears, either. I suppose I’m not even certain what questions need to be asked, but then again, maybe I’m looking in the wrong place. Asking the wrong people.

I remember when my daughter was still very small, and largely innocent of the ways of her elders. One summer’s evening, while I was reading on the porch, I saw her sitting quietly on the grass behind the house, just staring at the trees that guard us from the traffic on the distant road. The wind was riffling roughly through the leaves, and a robin was complaining about another bird that had just flown onto a neighbouring tree. Catherine seemed to be listening intently, rocking her body this way and that, obviously enjoying the branches swaying in the wind as if they were conducting an orchestra.

She looked so at home out there, so totally enmeshed in the moment, it seemed removed from time; the yard was an enchanted faerie ring. I put my book aside, swept up in the awe of the scene and walked over to feel her magic.

At first, she didn’t hear me, but when she turned her head I saw her face was streaked with tears.

I put my arm around her and hugged her. “Cath,” I whispered, so as not to break the spell. “Are you all right, sweetie?” But her eyes were calm, and her expression was enraptured. Beatific, almost.

She looked at me for a moment before answering, and I could see a puzzled look slowly forming on her face -as if she could not quite understand the question. Then she smiled, as if she suddenly realized my confusion.

“I wasn’t crying, daddy,” she said, stroking my cheek with her little fingers. “I was just emptying my eyes…”

I should have known, I suppose…

Rage, rage against the dying of the light

Hypomnematamania

I wouldn’t exactly call myself a hypomnematamaniac, or anything. Actually, I just discovered the  concept of hypomnemata quite recently -a few days ago, in fact. I had a bit of time on my well-washed, socially distanced hands, I suppose, and the thought occurred to me that I had never read all of Plato’s Republic, nor had I ever completely conquered Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, although I had heard interesting things about him when I was in university. Imbued with the same spirit, I thought I might even tiptoe past the first page in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and see how far I could get.

But let’s face it, even assuming I had been able to accomplish these things, and that any of my friends had ever heard of the authors -or actually cared- would I be any better off? Sometimes, even if you’re terminally bored, you just don’t want to read the entire 2000 word magnum opus by some philosopher with an unpronounceable name -especially when, with a little luck, there’d be a three or four sentence synopsis of their thoughts in Wikipedia. You don’t always have to confess your sources to impress people…

At any rate, it got me wondering about the primacy of message over methodology. Do we enjoy poetry for its information or its enchantment; Shakespeare for instruction, or pleasure? Is there, in other words, something greater than plot -the messenger looming as large as the message?

There was a pre-internet time, millennia ago, when a younger me was enamoured of the précis. It first occurred to me when a friend reminded me that we were supposed to hand in a book report the next day on some assigned reading in my first year university English Lit course; I had been busy with other of my own reading. She recommended her copy of the Classic Comic Book version that managed to reify the story. Why in the world would I try to read something as unreadable as Spencer’s The Faerie Queene when somebody had already done it for me -even if it was only Book 1? It was my first hypomnema, I suppose -although it was not really a series of notes, or observations on the story, as much as a plot summary… Okay, a cheat-sheet. But any port in a storm, eh? And anyway, you have to start somewhere.

But the years have changed me -or perhaps it’s merely my reading material; I am now as impressed with the presentation as with the point it’s trying to make. The realization that I am the messenger of my own story is sobering. And, as with most stories, there are parts of it that might themselves be singled out for further study, lessons that could be learned even while the narrative continues apace. In fact, analyses of these snippets might well presage the conclusion -point to where it might all end up.

Indeed, the rather pedestrian thought occurred to me that these clues are embedded in most stories -it’s how they progress. So it was with some relief to find that I wasn’t alone in this line of thought -although in a way I hadn’t anticipated. In his essay, Andrew Hui, an associate professor in literature at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, suggests that much of the historical development of philosophy may be reducible to a series of short aphorisms describing their tenets:   https://aeon.co/essays/aphorisms-tell-philosophys-history-as-fragments-not-systems

He rather likes the tidiness of aphorisms and asks ‘What if we see the history of philosophy not as a grand system of sustained critique but as a series of brilliant fragments?’ Why indeed? Much as I enjoyed all of my university philosophy courses, there were only so many insights I could take home with me each night. Only so much wisdom I could store, let alone retrieve over the years.

So, the packaging was important; aphorisms are only lightly wrapped. And after all, even ‘science turns what is a mere aggregate of random thoughts into something coherent.’ But you have to start with the thoughts, the ideas, the intuition before coherence develops. And they may not all overlap. We, the beneficiaries can only hold so much.

I suppose I took what I thought was important from all and sundry: Descartes, no matter how many other fields he influenced, started me thinking with one simple aphorism: ‘Cogito, ergo sum’. Or Socrates: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’; Plato: ‘Time is the image of eternity’; Aristotle, Plato’s pupil: ‘What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies’; Thomas Huxley: ‘Logical consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.’ But, although the list seems endless, whatever I quote still requires examination -the aphorism is merely the gate to a further field of thought -the fence only holds the idea, it does not describe it. That is the recipient’s duty. ‘Good aphorisms demand to be interpreted. And in their interpretation is an invitation for the readers to engage in their own philosophical enterprise – to do philosophy themselves. Aphorisms, then, are at once before, against and after philosophy.’

And yes, I imagine there is certainly a benefit for someone disciplined enough weld these pithy statements into lengthy profundities -organizing them much like putting similar essays in one box. I cannot argue that. But how much of that discipline would accompany me through the years? Only the wisdom, probably; only the succinct observations.

There was, of course, a time when I was closer to the source -a time when I was still in university and trying to decide what to do with my life. I had been asked to consider an academic career, and I think the idea probably went to my head; Margaret was not pleased, to say the least. At any rate, it resulted in the woman with whom I’d been in a rather tenuous relationship deciding to leave me. It was the 60ies, and the second wave of Feminism was crashing into the Vancouver beaches. I’m not sure whether that played a role in her decision, but she quoted Simone de Beauvoir at me on that fateful night in a West End restaurant, I remember.

I had just attempted to congratulate myself for being considered for the academic invitation with a toast. Perhaps I initiated it too loudly, though, because several people in the restaurant turned around to stare at me. Margaret, clearly embarrassed, scowled at me, gathered her coat, and stood up to leave. When I stared at her, wondering what I had done, she wrinkled her face, obviously furious, and hissed at me – “Qu’est-ce qu’un adulte? Un enfant gonflé d’âge”. We were both in the same philosophy courses, so I recognized it as a Simone de Beauvoir quote from her Woman Destroyed: ‘What is an adult? A child blown up by age.’ It hurt, and yet, as sometimes happens with a remark made in anger, she was right…  How could I forget it?

I thought about her accusation for years after we parted company, even though I declined my professor’s offer and wandered elsewhere instead.

And so, along with the likes of Santayana, Spinoza and Sartre, the aphorisms of Simone de Beauvoir have also  accompanied me into old age. Not their entire oeuvres, mind you, just the important bits of their thoughts: hypomnemata -much like another fragment that has wedged itself in my head from the poet Robert Frost: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

I would not have it any other way…

Who’s there?

The past is prologue, isn’t it? Or at least it can help to explain how we now think about things -whether we accept the inevitability of uncertainty or flee from it like a pestilence. Of course, nothing can ever be completely certain: the sun may not rise tomorrow and yet we must act as if it will or accept that any plans or dreams we harbour are pointless. On the other hand, certainty itself is a spectrum…

I didn’t mean to bathe uncertainty in such an academic light, but it underlies an age-old schism of thought that I hadn’t appreciated until I happened upon an essay contrasting the views of no less personages than René Descartes, and Shakespeare. Written by Lorenzo Zucca, a professor of law at King’s College London, I felt at times I was attending a seminar on 17th century thought. https://psyche.co/ideas/much-ado-about-uncertainty-how-shakespeare-navigates-doubt   I suppose I was…

That Shakespeare lived in an age of uncertainty is well known; one of the biggest issues was religious conflict. Zucca sets the stage: ‘In the premodern world, religion provided absolute certainty: whatever we knew was implanted in our mind by God. We didn’t have to look any further. Once that system of beliefs started to collapse, Europe was left with a yawning gap. Religion no longer seemed capable to explain the world. René Descartes and Shakespeare, who were contemporaries, gave opposite answers to the sceptical challenge: Descartes believed that our quest for knowledge could be rebuilt and founded on indubitable certainties. Shakespeare, on the other hand, made uncertainty a leitmotiv of all his works, and harnessed its creative power.’

Take Hamlet, for example. ‘The whole play is marked by a deep doubt about how perception can mislead us… This sweeping type of uncertainty, let us call it philosophical doubt, has to do with the limits of human ability to know the world from a subjective viewpoint. How can we be certain that our beliefs are anchored in an indubitable perception? What if we are dreaming or hallucinating? Hamlet is a young philosopher who is incapable of making up his mind about anything.’

And then, of course, there’s Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum -the certainty that although he could be deceived about the truth of what he saw or thought, the fact that there was something that was thinking could not be denied. Certainty could, and did exist, even in the fog of uncertainty that cloaked much else.

But, can we even compare the visions of poetry with the logical assessment of philosophy? Is it merely pears piled on top of potatoes? Can we –should we- accept uncertainty?

Well, according to Zucca, ‘Shakespeare’s vision from uncertainty brings together the imagination of a poet, the judgment of a philosopher, and the creativity of a scientist. Being capable to stare into the abyss without being swiped away emotionally is a great attitude for whoever wishes to further our understanding of the world and the way we live in it.’ After all, ‘Moralising is another way of creating certainty out of chaos, and that would impinge on the view from uncertainty. It would require creating cardboard characters: villains with no redeeming features… Uncertainty makes freedom and creativity possible.’

Zucca asks us to imagine a life of absolute certainty –‘We would know our time and place of death, when we’d fall in love, and what our job would be. Who would be our friends and who the enemies.’ Would that be a life worth living? Maybe ‘Violence and conflicts arise from the confrontation of dogmatic, certainty-obsessed worldviews. The vision from uncertainty asks us to keep making sense of our life without imposing our values over one another.’

In a totally different Magisterium, I suppose, I am reminded of the days when I used to make up little stories to tell my daughter before she went to sleep at night. She loved the fairy-tales that I read from books, of course. She liked the idea that the words printed on the page magically contained the stories -as if pictures and ideas somehow hid inside them and my job was to unveil them for her.

Sometimes, though, she would fold her little arms over her chest and chide me for changing the words, or skipping over parts that she particularly enjoyed. But one time, when we were on a trip in my Volkswagen camper van and I’d forgotten our regular books, I decided to try something different.

“How good are you at imagining things in your head, Cath?”

She looked at me with the perceptivity of a three year old. “Did you lose the fairy book, daddy?” was her first reaction.

“Well, I forgot to bring it, I guess. But would you like to see if you can imagine a new story in your head?”

After looking around me to see if I was just hiding her bedtime book, she sighed theatrically and nodded her head -better a new story than no story was written all over her face.

So I made up a story about the adventures of a little girl, Dorothy, who lived in a bread-box and Catherine loved it so much that she asked me to tell it to her again the next night. But she questioned me before I began.

“Dorothy and I had a nice time last night, daddy. Does she do something different tonight?”

“Are sure you want her to, Cath?” Certainty had seemed her gospel with the fairy-tales. But maybe that was because it came with the assuredness of pre-printed words and pictures. There was an order to them that was hard to circumvent. Dorothy and the breadbox, though, was a different world -a world Catherine had begun to imagine and it was open. Uncertain.

She nodded her head, excitedly. “I can’t wait to watch something different in my mind tonight,” she said and settled as comfortably on my lap as the cramped little seats in the van allowed. And then she looked up at me with a wiser, older expression on her face. “It’s nice when there’s no picture on the page that tells me what to see,” she added, and waited with an expectant smile, eager for the night’s drama to unfold.