The Thousand Natural Shocks

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

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

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

And I don’t object, although in fairness, I can’t say I’ve really noticed. These things sometimes creep up slowly, as indistinguishable as shadows on a cloudy day. In fact, I only became aware of non-discrepant dressing a while back, when I found myself scrolling absently through an article on unisex clothing as an antidote to the troubling catastrophes that leave me sleepless in the night. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/04/joy-unisex-gender-neutral-clothing-john-lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let Every Eye Negotiate for Itself

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

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

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

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

There was a delightful article I noticed a while back that managed to open my eyes again: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-38132503

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

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

‘Isabella took a different approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hills are shadows, and they flow

From form to form, and nothing stands;

They melt like mist, the solid lands,

Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

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

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

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

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

 

 

What’s Past is Prologue

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

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

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

I have to say that I would have assumed that thoughtfulness of this sort would have few major adverse repercussions for the employer –workers able to balance job and family equitably might well be better, more satisfied employees. After all, a reward given, is a debt owed. So, I was surprised to discover another side to this family-friendly benevolence as outlined in a BBC news item: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170814-how-to-say-no-at-work-when-you-dont-have-kids?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And does she live alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

 

 

Eternity Gazing at Itself

We see what we think others see; we see what the mirror sees. And yet, I prefer to see what Kahlil Gibran sees:  Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

Body image is such a mutable thing. So mood-dependent, so soul-laden, it sometimes seems to defeat all words and define us -despite our pleas for mercy, our hope for acceptance in a world gone mad with self. And beauty is what satisfies the fickleness of the group. There is no objectiveness to allure, no criteria to fulfil; it is a feather that flutters briefly through the landscape like a butterfly in the wind. “You are that vast thing that you see far, far off with great telescopes,” says Alan Watts. You are the magic that is you –unique, and special.

But for some of us, the strangeness of our difference is hard to bear. It is something to be hidden, not celebrated. A BBC article I found a while ago told the story of a woman’s courage to change –she couldn’t alter the permanent damage from a previous life-threatening accident, so, instead, she decided to change who she’d become in the intervening years. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-40862546

‘Sylvia had spent ‘most of her life trying to conceal the extensive scars which cover her body –the legacy of a childhood accident. […] at the age of 48, she decided it was time to stop hiding and come out into the open. […] My mum was boiling water in saucepans for our bath. She would pour the water into bowls and she put the bowls on the bathroom floor. We were just playing around, me and my siblings, and I ran into the bathroom and shut the door. We were told not to go in there. I went in there and my sister pushed the door, and that’s when I fell backwards into the bowl of boiling water, causing very bad burns.’

The scars from her third and fourth degree burns were extensive: ‘“There’s not actually any part of my body apart from my face that is normal. My burns start from the top of my neck all the way down to the top of my bottom, and then around the front of my stomach and down my left leg. And then on the rest of my body I’ve got lots of little pinprick holes all down my arms and my legs from where they took skin. […]I went into shock and was having fits. Then the ambulance arrived. They gathered my family together and told them that I wasn’t going to make it through the night. They baptised me and I had my last rites.

‘“When I was growing up a lot of people used to tell my mum, “Oh, she’s beautiful, she’s pretty.” But in my head I always thought, “Why are they saying, ‘You’re pretty’? I’m not. Underneath my clothes I’m burned.

‘I always felt ugly, so it’s affected me mentally as well as physically. Children would call me different names like “witch” and “snakeskin”, and they were really nasty. I was told that I would never have boyfriends, never get married, never have children. Showing my back was always going to be a negative thing.

‘I loved swimming – once I was in the water I was in a different world, it was great – but I was terrified about people seeing my body. When everybody got out of the water I’d wait until they went to change and be the last one to sneak out.

‘I got to a point where I was attacking everybody around me and it was the only way that I could deal with my emotions. I’d literally call people up, like my sisters, and be really nasty to them, a really vile, nasty, horrible person.”’

But Sylvia did eventually find a loving partner, and yet her fear of others seeing her scars persisted. One day, after being photographed at the swimming pool with her mother like an animal at the zoo, they decided to leave and go to the beach instead. But her mother seemed so upset, Sylvia decided to do something she’d always been afraid to do.

‘At that moment something just clicked in my brain and I decided that I was going to draw a line and make her happy. I took my dress off and I walked down to the edge. People were looking at me and I looked at my mum and I smiled, and I went, “Mum! Look! Look at me!”

And she started to smile. I put my hands on my hips and I started to pose on the water’s edge and she was so happy. I went over to her and I said, “From now on I’m going to let people take pictures, and every time they do I’m going to smile and I’m going to pose.”

‘I think that moment on the beach was just a turning point where I realised that no counselling, nothing on Google, was going to help me. It was time for me to help myself. I went out and bought a swimming costume – it had a big hole in the back – and then I set up my swimming classes at my local pool in Highbury, north London. I invite people with disfigurements to come and swim. When I’m in the water and I’m swimming I just feel at peace, I feel calm, and I can think of lots of wonderful things. […]

‘It’s been such a long journey. It’s like taking off a coat and saying, “This is me now, and I don’t care what people think.” I’ve noticed a big change in my life and I’ve been able to accept the way I look.’

As Jean Cocteau said, ‘Mirrors should reflect a little before throwing back images.’ And so should people. It seems to me that there are at least two types of courage. The first, and most obvious, is the type that risks bodily harm –soldiers in combat, firefighters, and so on. It’s the one we can all see, the one that makes newspaper headlines, and wins awards. Medals. Accolades… And yet perhaps that’s really just the outward trappings of the other type –the inward struggle to overcome the fear that we are not who we want to be –need to be, with whatever hand Fate has dealt. Both require bravery –and while one may confront an external challenge, the other, no less brave, defies far more nebulous and malicious ghosts.

But the triumph over unseen odds, however unfortunate they may have been to the recipient, is seldom met with applause, or acknowledged with praise. It is an inner contest, a silent war that few can see, let alone appreciate. It is an unrecognized philanthropy of self to self, and so perhaps its rewards are even greater, although they may pass, unnoticed in the larger scheme of things. The determination to act, and the bravery to succeed, need no commendation really. It is enough to have succeeded in accepting oneself, and reveling in the affirmation of all around. It is no small thing, although it may seem so.

Sylvia may never receive a decoration, nor mention on the local evening news, but in a way, she already has her medal –she can wear herself on her lapel at last.

To measure you by the smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam – Khalil Gibran again.

Presume Not that I am the Thing I Was.

We are all stories, aren’t we? But as I slip further down the years, I wonder about my story. Some of it I suppose I don’t remember, and yet what I do might still be suspect –a revision I make even as I think about it. Memory doesn’t reproduce the past so much as create it. And therein lies the problem. There was a time when historical validity was only accredited to its witnesses –a first-hand account told by someone who was actually there, someone who experienced it. But we’re long past that now…

When we are dead, we become fictions; when we can no longer speak for ourselves, what we might have thought, what we might have been, is merely interpreted, as the historical fiction writer Hilary Mantel has said. And even modern historians, scrutinizing the same evidence, will often differ in their explanations of the past. Who is to choose among them –and why?

So, history isn’t fixed, as we often assume, and it certainly isn’t static –it changes with new evidence, or transmogrifies according to the prevailing Weltanschauung. As Mantel sees it, history is not the past –it’s a method we’ve evolved to organize our ignorance of it. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.

I think that what occasioned this reminiscence was a short feature in the BBC news about a fifteen-year old toilet sign found in Italy at a farmhouse B&B: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40936110. The sign was attempting to use emojis to indicate that the toilet was not restricted to any particular sexual orientation. It had three symbols –one of a man, one of a woman, and one of a gay person. Unfortunately, the latter is depicted as a rather flouncy individual who is clearly neither male nor female, but rather an amalgam of them both, I suppose. Why it was felt necessary to suggest that ‘gay’ belonged to neither group is unknown. At any rate, the LGBTQ community reasonably complained of the sign’s confusion of sexual orientation with gender identity and the (new) owners obligingly removed it, even though it had apparently been covered up when they bought the property, and had remained so. They had meant no offence.

Things change. Sensitivities change. And signs are expected to reflect that… I, too, am caught up in the current ethos and find the sign unfeeling, and ill-informed, but things were different then, I think. The world was a different place for sure; the Umwelt itself was less evolved. But nonetheless, it makes me wonder whether we can ever understand the lived-world of another era. Whether even I can ever understand my own historical self, and so continually amend what I can remember of him –and continually rewrite the story…

I was waiting for a bus on the outskirts of town the other day, and sought the tiny shade afforded by a small wooden bench. Two older ladies arrived and seemed more in need of shade and rest than me, so I offered them the only gift I had –the bench. But it was in a covered structure and under a tree, so I stayed nearby in its cooling shadow.

They were both in their eighties, I would think, and both wore loose floral-print cotton dresses like I think my mother would have favoured. They wore their hair like her, too –short and manageable under almost identical blue hats. In fact, the more I looked, the more like her they seemed –they could all have been sisters, although my mother was an only child and died many years ago. It’s strange how often older women seem similar. Men do too, I suppose, but I notice the women more. Age homogenizes their faces, and memory standardizes their appearance… Blends them together into vague familiarity like apples in a crate. Fish in a tank.

I contented myself with leaning against the tree and staring idly down the street lost in thought… Okay, I was listening to them; I can’t resist an argument and they’d been going at it even before they sat down –some sort of family thing.

“You have to admit that father was ahead of his time, though, Thea…” The only difference between them I could detect was the colour of the flower pattern on their dresses. It was the red flower who was talking.

Thea, the blue-flower, sighed loudly. “What on earth makes you say that, Flo?”

Flo promptly crossed her arms and glared at her sister. It was hard to tell from where I leaned, but I think she rolled her eyes because it pulled her lip upwards and something rattled in her mouth. “Remember? He encouraged her to work outside the home, and told everybody about how women should have the same rights as men. Nobody thought like that in those days.”

“What house did you grow up in, Flo? He wouldn’t even let me work in that restaurant, remember?”

Flo shrugged at the memory. “You were too young, Thea. He was protecting you…”

“Then why didn’t he protect Ronny? He had a paper route when he was even younger.” Thea seemed pout for a moment. “And anyway, he didn’t encourage mom to work until he lost his job that time. And even then, she had to clean the house and cook the dinners for us when she got home.”  She stared at Flo. “That’s not equal rights and it’s certainly not ahead of the times…”

Flo stared at her sister with a slight tilt to her head. “Well, how about when Ronny came out? Father welcomed him back into our house…” I could sense that Flo was a bit hesitant to speak about her brother, though.

Thea sighed loudly again, but this time contemptuously. “Only after five years, Flo! And even then, it was because mom kept phoning Ronny and inviting him over. Father had nothing to do with it! And remember, the only reason Ronny agreed to come was because it was a family dinner –their anniversary- and yet, Father wouldn’t even speak to him at first. He totally ignored him at the table.” She shook her head sadly and looked at her sister. “Ronny was so hurt. Remember he even left the table and went to sit in the living room until mom convinced him to come back? And then, years later, Father had the gall to tell everybody that he’d never harboured any grudges against homosexuals? That he’d always accepted them?”

“Father’s last boss was a homosexual, wasn’t he?”

Thea glanced my way and her eyes strayed onto my face for a second, as if fleeing from her sister’s naïveté. “Father always pretended to move with the current, Flo. But deep down, he was a man of his time. That was the way things were when he was growing up. There’s no sense in applying today’s values to another era. It took slow and painful steps to get here…” She touched her sister gently on the shoulder. “It’d be like blaming the doctors in his day for not having discovered penicillin.”

Flo looked down the street and saw the bus approaching. “You certainly remember a different Father from me, Thea…”

Thea shrugged as she fished around in her purse for the fare. “We’ve always seen the world through our own eyes, Flo. It’s a puzzle, eh?” she added as they both boarded a bus that was not mine.

I moved to the bench, now in deeper shade, and thought about what Thea had said about their differences being a puzzle.  I remembered fragments of a thought Alan Watts, had written back in the sixties. It was something about there being a difference between puzzles and mysteries: puzzles are meant to be solved, but mysteries are meant to be enjoyed. Wondered about. Tasted. I think I’d prefer to think of the past as a mystery, you know. That we each taste the world with different eyes; there’s no one history that satisfies us all… And therein lies the wonder.

 

The Venus Figurine

Pregnancy has always had a sacred place in mythology. From the Palaeolithic Venus figurines, to the various stories of deities born from virgins, pregnancy has been cloaked in mystery and draped in awe –the curious interregnum separating being from non-being. That special state when the woman is suddenly not alone in her body, and then, equally suddenly not just a person, but a mother –a transformation that is as miraculous now as it was in millennia past.

It is still a source of wonder for me, even after 40 years as an obstetrician. But I think one has to be particularly careful in its blanket ascription to every woman –To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. For many women, it has been a rite of passage, a validation of their gender, whereas for others…

I am always on the lookout for popular articles on pregnancy and its resulting motherhood –not so much for resolution of the pro-life/pro-choice conundrum, but mainly to understand the current societal prescriptions for acceptable attitudes and behaviours of mothers. How intrusive is social media in moulding conduct and beliefs? There were a few clues in an opinion piece in the Guardian newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/may/30/detach-myth-motherhood-from-reality-future-generations But, judging from the tenor of the piece, it would seem difficult to avoid dissenting views.

The author, Angela Saini, introduces the topic by saying, ‘It’s hard for any woman to escape the expectation to be a mother. The maternal myth suffuses every human culture, from Catholicism’s Virgin Mary to Hinduism’s goddess mother. It’s considered the most natural state of womanhood, leaving the childless woman the object of pity. Let’s not even mention the woman who doesn’t want or like children at all.’ And then she imputes an opinion to a famous restauranteuse who was criticizing the UK prime minister about something –that ‘motherhood somehow makes a person automatically care about not only her own children but everyone else’s as well; and that women who aren’t mothers don’t have the same caring sense towards future generations.’ Fighting words, as they say.

Saini goes on to write, ‘But maternal instinct is not a switch that exists in every woman, ready to be flipped as soon as she smells a baby. Relationships between mothers and their children are frequently far more fraught than the myth leads us to believe. It shocks us that mothers can be selfish. […] There is scientific evidence to suggest that the maternal instinct may even be contingent on a woman’s circumstances. […] maternal instinct may sometimes depend on whether a mother has the support she needs. We’re not a species designed to cope alone. Indeed, we’re at our most social when it comes to parenting, often recruiting many people around us to help. It really does take a village to raise a child.’

Her point, obviously, is that maternal instinct is not an all-or-none phenomenon –it can exist in degrees, and like a flower, it may take a while to fully bloom. ‘[…] motherhood is not always an against-all-odds epitome of selfless caring. Sometimes it can involve emotional calculation, weighing the needs of both parent and child. We all assume that a mother always wants the best for her child, above her own needs. What we seem to deliberately ignore is that a child’s welfare can also depend heavily on the mother’s own needs being met.’

And so, ‘For the sake of both mothers and children, we need to begin detaching the myth of motherhood from the reality. It’s unfair of any society to expect women to be the best mothers they can be without economic or emotional support, just because they should love their children. Not all women are happy to be mothers.’

She concludes by observing that ‘Many mothers will know that birth doesn’t always signal a rush of immediate love. The maternal bond may build slowly over time. For a small few, it may never appear. And some never experience the urge to have children. We think of all these as unnatural exceptions, bucking the normal trend of how a woman is supposed to feel. But the scientific and historical evidence shows that none of it is strange at all. […]The most unnatural thing of all is forcing a woman into motherhood in the anticipation that she will biologically fall into line when a baby arrives.’

As an obstetrician, my responsibilities ostensibly end with the birth of the baby, and yet how can a duty ever end? Delivery is seldom the last time I see the woman and her baby, and it is certainly not the last time I hear their stories. We are all stories.

Jennifer sat in my office crying inconsolably. It started out as most other visits start, as I remember. She was seeing me for her post-partum checkup, six weeks or so after the normal delivery of a healthy baby boy. It was her first pregnancy and everything had gone well in hospital. She had left smiling, if a little stunned at the rapidity of her labour.

When she came into the office she was the picture of contentment, although I did wonder why she hadn’t brought the baby. I don’t deal much with babies, but the mothers usually bring them to show them off. It’s always nice to see how they’ve changed since birth, and marvel at the almost constant eye contact between the two of them. Usually, I get the impression the mother is only half listening to my questions –she is completely involved in a world I cannot really enter.

But when I asked Jennifer how the baby was, her face changed. “Jonathan was marvelous for the first day or so…” she said, her voice trailing off. “But I was so amazed at him, so involved in his every move, of course he seemed perfect.”

The first tear slid down her cheek and she stared out the window behind me for a moment, as if she were afraid I’d ask her more. Then, she grabbed for a tissue from my desk and wiped her cheeks. “Doctor, he never sleeps! I feed him, I burp him, I change him, I rock him… And so does Tony, but it only works for a while, and then he starts again. We took him to the pediatrician, but she just smiled and reassured me. Some babies are like that, she said. It’s not colic, it’s not something Tony and I are doing wrong… And it will settle.

“But it hasn’t! Neither of us are getting any sleep and now Tony and I are fighting… I wish we’d never decided to have a baby…” She stopped talking and suddenly stared at me in terror as if she’d admitted to some unspeakable crime… And to the doctor who’d seen her excitement for her entire pregnancy…

She began to sob. “I don’t think I’m a very good mother, doctor. My friends seem able to manage with their babies… They don’t need any help!”

I waited to hear her out, but she just sat huddled in front of me weeping inconsolably. “Did your mother stay with you?” I said softly. “I remember she was with you in labour.”

She shook her head sadly. “Tony and I figured we could manage.” She wiped her cheeks again and grabbed another tissue. “She wanted to stay and help, but I’ve always been her independent child.” She sighed with a deep stertorous gulp of air. “I was kind of embarrassed to admit I might need some help, to tell the truth…” She stared at me with wide red eyes, like a doe peering out of the woods.

I smiled and sat back in my chair. “There’s an African proverb I’m sure you’ve heard, Jennifer: It takes a village to raise a child. I think it also takes a mother to help her child…That’s what mothers are for, isn’t it…?”

She stared at me for a second or two, a weak and wobbly smile fighting to control her lips. “You mean…?”

“Phone her,” I said.

And she did –right there in the office.

 

 

 

 

The Feast of Fools

It’s hard to switch sides, isn’t it? Hard to cross the tracks. And even if you do, does welcome await, or merely sidelong glances and mistrust -or as Macbeth feared, curses not loud but deep, mouth honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not…?

It’s a brave person who crosses over –who dares to live the other life. But can one ever feel what one has only watched from afar? Would the experience be real, or only a tawdry simulacrum? A Halloween costume? True, only we know for sure how we perceive something, but we can intuit how someone else might feel –and realize that they might also have a different understanding of what happened. A different reality. So, are we unalterably barred from that room?

I ask this as a man peering over the fence and wondering about what I see. It always seems so… so like my side –so like the cover of the book I’m reading. I suppose that’s where it gets confusing. I know the story is different, and yet I don’t really understand why. But then again, perhaps I’m as naïve a reader as I am a contributor –or is that merely a pretence of innocence? An expected social conceit?

And if I were to attempt a disguise in a situation that even I could see might be demeaning for a woman, would that help me understand? Or would it merely seem weird, and elicit the confused and embarrassed reactions that cross-dressing usually does? Would it take me closer to the lived experience? Or would it be yet another variation of the male Weltanschauung?

An article in the CBC news on sexual discrimination in the workplace made me wonder: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/workplace-sexual-discrimination-men-heels-union-613-1.3483305 ‘The male staff decided to dress up after a CBC Marketplace story  […] on restaurant dress codes and found that many women felt compelled to wear sexy outfits —including high heels, tight skirts and heavy makeup — to keep their jobs.’

I have to say that at first glance, I was reminded of the Medieval Feast of Fools. This, as you may recall, was a festival usually held at the beginning of the new year (especially in France) in which a mock bishop or pope was elected, ecclesiastical ritual was parodied, and low and high officials changed places. And, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, by the 13th century these feasts had become a burlesque of Christian morality and worship. But nobody was fooled; everybody realized it was just a charade…

In the case of the restaurant, ‘The men lasted only an hour or two in the heels, which ran the gamut from red stilettos to cheap, black, strappy numbers. But aside from the physical pain, they also described feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable as they worked.’ And understandably so –they were pretending to be something they most decidedly were not. Everybody –customers and staff- knew it and no doubt played along. ‘”Guys were making comments, jokingly of course, because that’s what we were going for — to show light to it — but even those jokes that they were making were, after a while, still very uncomfortable to be faced with,”’ said one of the servers.

A few of the customers were women who also worked as servers at other restaurants with similar dress codes where they were told to look like they were going to a party, not coming home from it. One of them, who had recently quit one of those places after being sent home for not wearing enough jewellery on her shift, said: ‘”I came here tonight because I love the idea of reversing sexist dress codes required in some restaurants to male colleagues. Seeing them wearing heels and short skirts is really something. I wanted to come down and be a part of it,” she said.

‘”It reinforces how ridiculous it is. Seeing men walk by in tight miniskirts and heels really just hits it home how crazy it is to ask women to do that.”’

The consensus among the women servers watching was that within limits, dress should be about choice. If they felt comfortable with dressing like what they were seeing, that was fine. But many of them didn’t. The doctrine of contra proferentem might apply, perhaps, but I doubt that many of them would go so far as to hire a lawyer to press their cases.

So, apart from some interesting publicity and a bit of teasing, what did the cross-dressing actually accomplish? For guys, dressing like women and trying to balance on high heels they’d never been acculturated to wear -and never had the opportunity to practice on- can only give them the barest whiff of what many women have to endure on an ongoing basis. They weren’t women that night, just actors rehearsing a drama they would never get to play.

Clearly, what the article was pointing out was the tip of a very large iceberg. Highlighting this form of sexual exploitation was merely a way of hinting at the way women in general are regarded in our society –and maybe not just ours… You can legislate fair hiring practices, but it is far more difficult –impossible, actually- to legislate attitude.

It is true, however, that unless the issue is publicized in a manner that shocks people into seeing it, there is unlikely to be any change. Some are hoping the protest might go national, with similar events taking place in various cities across the country. But I worry that, although the cause is worthwhile, too frequent repetition of the burlesque, is also a way of making it seem just confrontational -turning a good idea into a parody, and losing the point it was originally intended to make.

As long as shareholders and owners of companies see profit in sexualizing young women –and men, for that matter- the battle for change will be an uphill one. We are already seeing a backlash against ‘political correctness’, to the extent that many of the gains made in the past few decades are being sidetracked, or even eroded. I suppose it was inevitable that direct confrontation with the status quo would be resisted as would any threat.

But the solution, it seems to me, lies not in confrontation, but in changing what we accept as normal –as proper. And it is already being done with some success nowadays through both social media and advertising strategies. Just look at the change in attitudes about, say, smoking in restaurants, or driving home after a night at the pub. There are already recent, albeit tentative steps in various TV and internet-streamed programs –sitcoms and the like- to portray women less as sexual objects, and more as equal partners in their dealings with men. Some episodes have even attempted, as did those male servers in that Ottawa restaurant, to depict the humiliation that men would experience were the roles reversed. And people are watching and getting used to the idea because the characters on the screen are making it seem, well, normal. Accepted, not contentious. And certainly not antagonistic.

Nothing happens overnight, of course, and although we are understandably impatient for more progress, change that is too rapid often leads to rebellion -especially if that change is precipitate. Unexpected -or worse, abnormal!

“How poor are they that have not patience!” says Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”