They did make love to this employment

I never dreamed I would ever seriously consider the opinions of the 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Indeed, spelling his name was a challenge, let alone dissecting his contention that desire is futile: even if you succeed in achieving a long hoped for goal, then what do you do? Once the objective is realized, you can no longer anticipate the joy of its success: it is no longer a future target -you have, in a sense, destroyed something…

I used to feel that way about Christmas, when I was a little child. The thrill was in the wonder about what lay beneath the wrapping on my presents under the brightly decorated tree; the zenith was in tearing off the paper -the feeling just before I knew what each contained. I either loved, or tolerated the contents, but whatever, the real magic was over.

I suspect this realization is neither profound, nor unusual -it’s part of Life. Part of maturing. Dessert can’t last forever, even if you’ve been looking forward to it throughout the otherwise disappointing meal.

Perhaps what interested me in Schopenhauer, though, apart from the spelling, was an essay about him that purported to use his beliefs for dealing with, of all things, midlife crises. Usually, the name would have been sufficiently off-putting to discourage me from reading it, but it appeared in Aeon and I was curious why. It turned out to be written by a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kieran Setiya, and I am always intrigued whenever Philosophy attempts to be pragmatic -attempts to solve something, rather than simply play with it: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-schopenhauers-thought-can-illuminate-a-midlife-crisis

‘When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye… When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed.’

So, what about Schopenhauer? Well, according to Setiya, ‘Schopenhauer was wrong. In order to see his mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t… Adapting terminology from linguistics, we can say that ‘telic’ activities – from ‘telos’, the Greek word for purpose – are ones that aim at terminal states of completion and exhaustion… Not all activities are like this, however. Others are ‘atelic’: there is no point of termination at which they aim, or final state in which they have been achieved and there is no more to do. Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.’

I have to admit I had never thought of the distinction -although it certainly makes sense. So, ‘If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is [in] giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself.’

Clever. Unfortunately, I cannot remember ever having a midlife crisis -I somehow sailed into Retirement unscathed, with neurons blemished only with the expected accumulation of rust. And yet, as Setiya concludes, ‘We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now.’

I am impressed with his (not Schopenhauer’s) argument, even if I do feel a little disappointed to think that I missed something in my salad days. Maybe I was just too busy.

Or maybe I never found a reason to regret them. I was immersed in them -or, rather, swimming in waters I rather enjoyed. I realize this is not the case for everybody -or perhaps most of us- and yet, I wonder if it’s more in the perspective than the task. And, while listening to music or spending time with friends may offer some pleasure, it is evanescent. It cannot be what one does for more than a fraction of one’s time. It seems to me that the ‘meaning’ things like that offer, is far from satisfactory. Sitting in a movie theatre or visiting a candy store may feel good for a time, but is hardly a solution to whatever greets you on the street outside.

No, I think Schopenhauer was on to something when he questioned the value of aspiration. It’s like taking a shortcut along a forest path to visit a friend at her cottage. You can either dwell on the friend and perhaps the meal she will be preparing, or enjoy the walk. There are birds singing along the way, and wind softly whispering through the branches where they perch; there is the crunching of your shoes as they rustle through the fallen leaves, and the smell of cedar, or pine, or the fractured stump of a newly fallen tree; there is the easily missed creek nearby that burbles through the undergrowth and glints in the narrow splinters of sun that leak through the forest canopy -if you only took the time to look… And not just then, but always.

Life is a trail whose destination we cannot see; perhaps it was designed that way. Maybe we’re meant to look around a bit along the way. It’s just possible the foliage is supposed to enclose us like a bower -to be enjoyed, not to get us anywhere, or, at least, no place better. It’s the music that never ends.

The Me of Science

This is going to sound trite, but have you ever wondered about your role in Science? Really. I mean that of your consciousness in apprehending and interpreting that which is measured: the ‘Me’-ness which separates each of us from whatever we’re doing -or, rather, which joins us to it: joins us to the other?

I don’t mean to sound Cartesian here; I don’t want to get into mind-body stuff, and yet it comes down to whether or not we believe that the Mind is reducible to a bundle of interconnected neurons, or something more, doesn’t it? An emergent phenomenon -a synergism- or merely a synthesis: an entity wholly explainable in terms of its constituents.

Where, in other words, do I come in? And if I don’t, is there any proof -apart from my saying so- that I even exist?

Of course, why should I even care? I mean, cogito ergo sum, eh? I know I exist, and so I can investigate anything I want, acting in my own right as a valid agent. Science and I can look into any box and measure its contents… except, perhaps, reality itself -I can assume no God’s-eye view of that. I cannot absent myself from that box while I measure it -I am immersed in it. The box, really, is all there is.

I have to say, I was re-seduced into this type of thinking by a very perceptive essay in Aeon written as a collaboration between Adam Frank, professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester in New York, Marcelo Gleiser, a theoretical physicist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Evan Thompson, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia. https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience

‘In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature. Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception.’

So, ‘Elementary particles, moments in time, genes, the brain – all these things are assumed to be fundamentally real. By contrast, experience, awareness and consciousness are taken to be secondary.’ And yet, ‘We never encounter physical reality outside of our observations of it… [and] these tests never give us nature as it is in itself, outside our ways of seeing and acting on things. Experience is just as fundamental to scientific knowledge as the physical reality it reveals… The point is that physical science doesn’t include an account of experience; but we know that experience exists, so the claim that the only things that exist are what physical science tells us is false.’ Or maybe misleading.

‘Husserl, the German thinker who founded the philosophical movement of phenomenology, argued that lived experience is the source of science. It’s absurd, in principle, to think that science can step outside it.’ And Alfred North Whitehead, who taught at Harvard University in the 1920ies, ‘argued that science relies on a faith in the order of nature that can’t be justified by logic. That faith rests directly on our immediate experience… he argued that what we call ‘reality’ is made up of evolving processes that are equally physical and experiential.’ You’ve gotta love this stuff.

Anyway, I suppose the importance of all this palaver is to point out that ‘When we look at the objects of scientific knowledge, we don’t tend to see the experiences that underpin them. We do not see how experience makes their presence to us possible.’ However, let’s face it, without an observer -a measurer- the results are unacknowledged. Science is not science, if we are not there to do it and record it.

The whole subject is reminiscent of the discussions I remember from my university days when we would sit around for hours in a pub exploring our growing awareness of the world.
“I don’t know how you could say that,” somebody at the table -Brian, usually- would exclaim, throwing his arms up. “Science is about objects! It’s not at all comparable to religion…”

“And why is that?” someone else -usually Jonathan- would answer. “It just deals with reality a little differently, that’s all.”

“A little differently?” The arms again. “Religion is completely subjective! You can’t prove anything…”

“And does Science prove anything -or is it just the scientist who looks at the instruments who proves it? Somebody has to read the data. Experience them…” This was always Jonathan’s argument, I remember.

Brian was a little more excitable, and he would roll his eyes at the slightest provocation as disdain dripped unchecked from the rest of his face. “Come on, Jonathan! You don’t experience science in the same way as religion. You do science!”

“How do you read an instrument, or interpret a result without experiencing it, Brian? There has to be someone who looks at the measurement.”

Brian would always shake his head in disgust when Jonathan disagreed with him. “But the measurement was not created by the scientist, it was made by the machine, or whatever -and that’s about as objective as you can ever get.”

A little smile would always creep onto Jonathan’s face at this point. “Well, who designed the machine? Who built it for the purpose…?”

“Give me a break, eh? Once it’s built, it’s an object!”

“But the experiment -the question- which the object is built to answer, is subjectively constructed, is it not? And the results have to be formulated into a conclusion, don’t they? Accepted, or rejected, the results have to pass their way through a mind. Through consciousness… They have to be experienced!”

“And what is doing the experiencing? It’s just your brain -a physical, an objective, thing.” Then Brian would smile and sit back in his seat with his beer to deliver the coup de grace. “The brain is not a ‘who’ but a ‘what’ isn’t it?”

But Jonathan would like this part of the argument, I remember -it always took this turn. “If that which interprets data is an objective ‘what’, and if that which it is experiencing is also a ‘what’, then everything is a ‘what’ -Religion included; it’s doing the same thing… sort of like Science, eh?”

The arguments, fuelled no doubt by the effects of alcohol on inquiring minds, would go on in increasing complexity and implausibility until the pub closed, and we would all wake up the next morning with hangovers -but still friends, willing to take each other on again at the next opportunity. In a way, it makes me wonder what those authors of the Aeon essay were going on about with their questions about what role subjectivity and experience has in dealing with the world -its role as the Blind Spot. My friends and I -subjects all- don’t experience it as anything like a problem -not really. We see it simply as friendship. And that is the foundation for everything isn’t it…?

 

 

 

The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.

Religious writings usually serve a special function amongst their adherents -not the least of which is to convey the beliefs and principles in a way that allows them to be used as a reference. They may be regarded as sacred if believed to be divinely revealed, or merely special guides to expected behaviour. But whichever, they usually embody the fundamental assumptions of their divine source. And, although they may be summarized for the easier assimilation of their acolytes, the message is the same, no matter the simplified wording.

I am not an especially religious person, but I was brought up in the Christian Protestant traditions, with the Bible -amongst fervent believers, at any rate- a sacred book to be searched for clues as to proper comportment. It was a moral and ethical guide, if sometimes a little vague on specifics.

Indeed, so important was the Bible, that Martin Luther felt that it, not the Pope, should be the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from and about God. He also translated the it into German making it more available for any of the laity who could read.

My point is that the Bible has been considered the foundational book for the Judeo-Christian tradition, and its wisdom, I assumed, undisputed until relatively recently. Altering it or questioning its teachings was anathema, and anyway, unthinkable. So it was with considerable surprise that read about the changes made to it by British missionaries in the Caribbean: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/heavily-abridged-slave-bible-removed-passages-might-encourage-uprisings-180970989 Today, just three copies of the so-called “Slave Bible” are known to exist. Two are held in the United Kingdom, and one is currently on view at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

‘When 19th-century British missionaries arrived in the Caribbean to convert enslaved Africans, they came armed with a heavily edited version of the Bible. Any passage that might incite rebellion was removed; gone, for instance, were references to the exodus of enslaved Israelites from Egypt… The abridged work was first printed in London in 1807, on behalf of the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves. The missionaries associated with this movement sought to teach enslaved Africans to read, with the ultimate goal of introducing them to Christianity. But they had to be careful not to run afoul of farmers who were wary about the revolutionary implications of educating their enslaved workforce.’

‘That meant the missionaries needed a radically pared down version of the Bible. A typical Protestant edition of the Bible contains 66 books, a Roman Catholic version has 73 books and an Eastern Orthodox translation contains 78 books… By comparison, the astoundingly reduced Slave Bible contains only parts of 14 books.’

I must admit that I don’t recognize many of the omitted texts, but I can see that some of them might induce some anxiety in the slave holders and, no doubt, some inspiration in those who were enslaved. For example, ‘Exodus 21:16—“And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death” -they cut that one out, but of course, were happy to leave ‘Ephesians 6:5: Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.’

I suppose an obvious point about leaving things out of Biblical text needs to be made here: Luther, and what he decided to do with his translations. Because he believed in Sola Scriptura -in other words that the scripture alone was adequate to define Doctrine- he decided that some of the other (opposing) apostolic traditions of the existing church weren’t appropriate. The book of James comes to mind. Luther felt it disagreed with his Sola Scriptura, so in his ‘Protestant’ Bible he put it, and a few others, in a separate section, the Apocrypha.

I’m certainly not a Biblical scholar, so I have to admit I’m obviously floating on the surface here, but my point is that one might well argue that rearranging the text, as did the Society for the Conversion of Negro Slaves, does not set any precedents. What it does do, however, is change the entire thrust of the Biblical message by not merely rearranging it, but by expurgating it. It ends up as different information -a different spirit.

It is a variety of historical revisionism -history is written by the victors, after all: the most powerful. And the winning side not only gets to control the propaganda, it also gets to interpret the outcome, doesn’t it? Views change as history moves on I suppose, but sometimes we can only contextualize things in retrospect. At the time, it’s only too easy to cave in to vested interests too comfortable to omit the inconvenient truths.

With the egregious omissions of the Slave Bible, the intent is fairly obvious, of course, but there seems to have been no effort to adhere even to Luther’s stringent changes, and at least from the article, I’m not convinced that the Christianity promulgated was of much comfort to the enslaved workers either.

Unfortunately, we often rationalize the means to whatever end we have convinced ourselves is right -whether it be for the good of Britain’s overseas empire that enriched the home country establishment, or for the benefit of the government closer to home. After all, in Canada, we decided that the aboriginal owners of the land we appropriated would be more manageable if they came to accept our Old World -largely European- values. So, we stole their children and forced them into Residential Schools with or without parental permission and attempted to interdict their native languages and inculcate standards entirely foreign to them. Although we all pretended it was for their own good, the reasoning was an opaque attempt at domination. And the irony, in Canada at least, was that it was done both with the blessings, and under the aegis of the Church.

Plus ça change, eh? We have learned little over the years, I think. There still seems to be a need to convince anyone who will listen -and perhaps especially those who won’t- of the righteousness of our beliefs. Of our cause. And yet, a hundred or so years in the future, if there’s still anyone left, they will study us and sigh. ‘What were they thinking?’ they will ask, and then shrug and read their own zeitgeist into the story.

Is your wisdom consumed in confidence?

How do we know what we know? It’s a question I used to think was obvious: if we cannot investigate the answer ourselves, we turn to others –somebody will know. Even the polymaths of old relied on other people for the groundwork on which they built. Nobody can know everything -knowledge is a jigsaw puzzle, the integral pieces of which make little sense on their own. We have to know what fits, and where.

But how do we know who to trust? How do we know who knows? If the foundation on which we construct is badly planned -or worse, wrong– the building will not last. Think of Ptolemy and his epicycles that became hopelessly complicated in a vain attempt to explain celestial movements and maintain earth as the center of the universe.

And it’s not as if Scientists are always reliable anyway. Consider the disappointment of Fleischmann-Pons’ claims that they had produced ‘cold fusion’ -a nuclear reaction occurring at room temperature? More ominous by far, however, was Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet that claimed that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, rubella) caused autism. The paper was retracted by the journal in 2004, but by then, the damage had been done.

My point is that if we are not careful about the source -the reputation- of our information we may be led astray. It’s an almost trite observation, perhaps, but in this era of ‘Fake News’, one best kept in mind. I was again reminded of the importance of this in an essay by Gloria Origgi, an Italian philosopher, and a tenured senior researcher at CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research) in Paris. She was writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/say-goodbye-to-the-information-age-its-all-about-reputation-now

As she observes, ‘[T]he greater the amount of information that circulates, the more we rely on so-called reputational devices to evaluate it. What makes this paradoxical is that the vastly increased access to information and knowledge we have today does not empower us or make us more cognitively autonomous. Rather, it renders us more dependent on other people’s judgments and evaluations of the information with which we are faced … we are moving towards the ‘reputation age’, in which information will have value only if it is already filtered, evaluated and commented upon by others … reputation has become a central pillar of collective intelligence today. It is the gatekeeper to knowledge, and the keys to the gate are held by others. The way in which the authority of knowledge is now constructed makes us reliant on what are the inevitably biased judgments of other people, most of whom we do not know … In the best-case scenario, you trust the reputation of scientific research and believe that peer-review is a reasonable way of sifting out ‘truths’ from false hypotheses and complete ‘bullshit’ about nature. In the average-case scenario, you trust newspapers, magazines or TV channels that endorse a political view which supports scientific research to summarise its findings for you. In this latter case, you are twice-removed from the sources: you trust other people’s trust in reputable science.’

So how do we ever know whether we are building on sand or rock? Let’s face it, few of us are competent to judge the raw data of a scientific study, let alone repeat the experiment to verify the results. And how many of us would be inclined to repeat it even if we could? No, some things we simply have to take on trust.

Even so, Origgi offers us another option: ‘What a mature citizen of the digital age should be competent at is not spotting and confirming the veracity of the news. Rather, she should be competent at reconstructing the reputational path of the piece of information in question, evaluating the intentions of those who circulated it, and figuring out the agendas of those authorities that leant it credibility.’ As the Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, an Austrian economist and political philosopher wrote, ‘civilisation rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.’

I’m trying to learn from Origgi, though. I’m trying to pick my filters carefully. Figure out their agendas. Sometimes you can even do that by listening.

I was sitting in my favourite dark corner of Starbucks the other day when two women sat down at the table next to me. I’m not sure they even noticed my ears in the shadows because they seemed to be in the middle of a conversation about technology as they each held their phones in front of them like crucifixes warding off the devil.

“I got a new running app, Fran,” said a tall thin woman with short curly dark hair and attired in expensive looking running gear.

“Which app you using, Dor?” her friend responded, equally attired and reaching for Dor’s phone.

“It’s a new one,” Dor said, holding it out of Fran’s reach. “Supposed to be the best at approximating calorie expenditure. Takes account of your weight, leg length, and then adds in changes in altitude on the run, as well as the time taken.” She looked at it again. “Even asks for a picture so you can post.”

Fran smiled benevolently. “Your IP address and Email, too?”

“Huh?”

“Privacy, Dor. Privacy.”

Dor stared at her quizzically for a moment. “I just figured they were being thorough, eh? More accurate… Anyway, they know all that other stuff nowadays.”

Fran stared back, and then sighed. “I suppose they do, but I refuse to make it easy for them… Sometimes you’re so naïve, my friend.”

“But…”

Fran shook her head. “I’ve just got a simple running app. And they didn’t ask for my picture.”

Dor blinked -rather provocatively I thought. “The more info, the more accurate the assessment, don’t you think?”

Fran rolled her eyes. “Well, we’ve just run together this morning -let’s see if the calorie count is the same.” She glanced at her screen. “I’ve got 725 cals. And 5K. for distance. How about you?”

“1100… and 4.85 K” Dor smiled. “I like mine better.”

Fran leaned across the table and peeked at the other screen. “Your app looks pretty well the same as mine… Yours play music?” Dor nodded. “And give verbal encouragement?”

“Uhmm, well I don’t turn on all the audio stuff… But I had to pay to download this one so it probably does.” She started tapping and then turned the screen so Fran could see it. “See? It won some sort of award for excellence.”

Fran sat back in her seat, her expression unreadable. “You paid? Mine’s free…” She began a similar tapping frenzy. “Mine won an award, too… Who makes yours?”

Dor started scrolling down her screen and then turned it towards Fran again. “Can’t pronounce it, but here…”

Fran showed her own screen. “It’s the same company, Dor!”

They were both silent for a moment. Then Dor smiled contentedly. “You get what you pay for, I guess, eh?”

I smiled to myself, still hidden in the shadows, and wondered what Origgi would make of the effort of these two mature citizens of the digital age. At least they were trying -and after all, they had pretty well figured out the intentions and agendas of their source…

Lord, what fools these mortals be!

I have to admit that I’d never heard of cute-aggression until the other day. Or at least, perhaps with my ageing ears, I’d been hearing acute-aggression all this time and assumed it was just anger flaring out physically during an argument -well, something unexpected anyway. But now that it has been clarified, I feel embarrassed at my naïveté. I hate confrontations, but I fear aggression even more -be it acute or chronic. Belligerence in any form is abuse on the part of the instigator, no matter how well matched the opponent.

So I was somewhat relieved when I discovered that cute-aggression was more benign. More loving. It’s apparently the almost overwhelming urge to cuddle and caress ‘cute’ things like, say, puppies, or babies. At first glance this doesn’t seem even the least bit aggressive, but as with all reactions, there is a spectrum of responses – extremes where some of them fall on a Bell curve. The ‘aggression’ part is an attempt to describe the intensity of emotions some people feel when confronted by cuteness: wanting to squeeze, or even bite the object of their admiration.

As unlikely a subject for rigorous scientific enquiry as it sounds, there are few vacuums in research, and sure enough one of the first scientific studies would seem to have surfaced in 2013 at Yale University. The then graduate students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragón actually coined the term ‘cute-aggression’. Subsequent studies have helped to define it further, including a neurological investigation by Katherine Stavropoulos at the University of California, Riverside in 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2018/12/cute-aggression-its-so-fluffy/577801/ She discovered activity in the neural reward system in the brains of people who say they feel almost overwhelmed by seeing a cute baby or animal.

But, because the expression was only relatively recently coined, doesn’t mean that the feeling wasn’t noticed before. Languages are not perfect; some have distinct words that describe conditions that require others to resort to circumlocution. For example, Sarah Sloat, writing in Inverse:  https://www.inverse.com/article/10043-the-science-of-cute-and-why-you-want-to-bite-this-baby-red-panda  ‘[I]n English there isn’t a word for an aggressive reaction to cuteness, there is, however, one in Tagalong [sic]: gigil. This Filipino phrase essentially translates to a feeling of trembling, or the gritting of teeth, in a situation of overwhelming cuteness.’

In fact, Sloat describes an even earlier study from Japan in 2012 -this time not on the aggression associated with cuteness, but rather on kawaii (a Japanese word meaning ‘cute’) which ‘had study participants complete a fine motor dexterity task before and after looking at pictures of puppies and kittens or dogs and cats. The subjects were more successful performing the task after viewing the baby animal pictures — their attention actually became more focused after viewing the cuter pictures.’

Am I missing something here? I mean I don’t want to seem obtuse or ungrateful, but if I apply even one of the filters of critical thinking, I feel compelled to ask why it is important that I approach the subject of cuteness in this fashion. Further, are its conclusions consequential, or merely data points that have silted around the name – idiosyncratic responses like one might expect on any value-laden emotion, interesting even though they may not be representative of the majority reaction, but otherwise merely Facebook fodder?

Okay, perhaps that is a little harsh. Science is still science when it is not goal-directed -indeed, curiosity often leads in interesting and ultimately significant directions. Discoveries are sometimes more serendipitous than intended.

A few days after my chance encounter with the still puzzling concept, I happened to find myself in what I’ve come to regard as the senior section of one of the larger malls. These are the breakwater seats planted as foils in the middle of the corridor to break up the current of people flowing in either direction. Old people accumulate on them like moss on the grates of drains, and I sometimes enjoy watching the flotsam.

I noticed a middle aged woman who seemed to bubble out of her seat every time somebody pushing a stroller passed by. Dressed in a fading long red coat, a blue baseball cap, and what looked like rubber boots, she would sidle up to each stroller and inspect the contents with obvious delight. Her soprano oohing and singsong greetings ensured the hasty departure of each carriage, coupled with suspicious expressions on virtually every young mother.

But the poor woman seemed either not to mind, or not to notice the rebuffs, and she would return from each foray with a satisfied smile.

After a few of these reconnaissance missions, I decided to talk to her.

“You really seem to enjoy little children,” I started, trying to project some admiration into my voice.

At first she seemed startled that anybody would speak to her, let alone notice her fascination. Then, when she decided that I wasn’t being critical, a little smile crept across her face. “Babies,” she answered. “Mainly babies…” Suddenly, a cloud drifted across her face, and she glared at me. “Why are you asking? You the police?”

I smiled disarmingly and raised my hands in a shrug. “Far from it, ma’am. I’m simply noticing that you are fascinated by the little creatures…”

Her expression softened immediately. “I’m sorry,” she said and then added, “Some people think I’m going to hurt their child… You know, that ‘cute-aggression’ thing you read about,” she added, as if everybody was conversant with the topic.

She scanned the crowd for strollers, and then, satisfied she could continue to talk to me, she explained: “I do it for safety.”

When she noticed my raised eyebrows the smile returned. “I almost lost my baby a few years ago.” She stared at the tiles under her boots for a minute, trying to decide how much to divulge. “Well, actually they did take her away from me when they put me in the hospital.” She chanced a look at my face to see if I was really interested, and then, reassured, she continued. “But Jesse almost died…” Her eyes fluttered over mine for a second, and then returned to her face.

“I was really sick in those days, and I didn’t know it… Well, yes, I did, but…” She sighed and checked the skin on the back of her hands for some reason. “Anyway, I was wheeling Jesse along East Hastings in an old pram that somebody had lent me. She was only 7 months old then, and it was cold so I had wrapped her up good. Only her face was showing, and I remember her eyes were closed and she was quiet… Too quiet, maybe -she usually cried a lot…

“The street was pretty empty, except for the occasional drunk, so I felt pretty safe. Then, I noticed a nicely dressed woman walking down the sidewalk towards the carriage, and she peeked in at Jesse as she passed. But the thing is, she hadn’t gone more than a few steps when she turned suddenly and ran toward the carriage. I could hear her feet pounding on the sidewalk. ‘What’s wrong with the baby?’ she screamed.

“I didn’t notice anything wrong, but the woman seemed to panic and called out for someone to help her. She started to do -what’s it called? CVR?- and the next thing I knew, the ambulance was there. And the police.

“Never did find out what was wrong with Jesse, but anyway, they wouldn’t let me have her after that.”

The woman sighed again, then suddenly noticed another woman in the distance, pushing a stroller towards her through the crowd. She touched me briefly on the arm and waded into the tide of people. “So I have to make sure it never happens again,” she shouted at me over her shoulder, and disappeared in the turbulence, her head just another log being swept away in the current.

I never saw the woman again, but as I sat there, watching the ebb and flow of faces bobbing past, it occurred to me that an over-attraction to babies may not be as anomalous as I had first thought. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

 

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

Why do we always think of our era as special, or at least particularly enlightened? Are we really so advanced that all other times are primitive in comparison? Are we actually different from those on whose shoulders we stand? Did the peasants in the Middle Ages have dissimilar genes? Unrecognizable urges? Hormones that were unlike our own?

I have only recently retired after more than forty years as a gynaecologist, but I can still remember one of my first patients after I opened my consulting practice. I was obviously much younger then, and still a bit uncomfortable about delving too deeply into the sexual practices of my patients to address the complaints for which some of them had come to me.

Lenore was having none of it, though. An elderly lady with uterine prolapse -a condition in which the uterus is unable to be maintained in its usual position in the pelvis and so travels down, and sometimes out of the vagina with the slightest increase in abdominal pressure- she was not at all shy about her problem.

“My husband is afraid to touch me anymore,” she explained. “He thinks I’m too much like him now,” she added with a wink. And then she giggled like a little girl. “For god’s sake, doctor, stop blushing. Sex has always been like that; it’s often a fine balance between pleasure and problem.”

Sometimes our view of the past is conditioned by our own Weltanschauung: we are who we are in spite of it as much as because of it. A good example of our naïveté was illustrated in an essay in Aeon by Katherine Harvey, a medieval historian and a Wellcome Trust research fellow in the department of history, classics and archaeology at Birkbeck University, London: https://aeon.co/essays/getting-down-and-medieval-the-sex-lives-of-the-middle-ages

As she puts it, ‘In the popular imagination, the history of sex is a straightforward one. For centuries, the people of the Christian West lived in a state of sexual repression, straitjacketed by an overwhelming fear of sin, combined with a complete lack of knowledge about their own bodies. Those who fell short of the high moral standards that church, state and society demanded of them faced ostracism and punishment.’

‘Many prevailing presumptions about the sex lives of our medieval ancestors are rooted in the erroneous belief that they lived in an unsophisticated age of religious fanaticism and medical ignorance. While Christian ideals indeed influenced medieval attitudes to sex, they were rather more complex than contemporary prejudices suggest. Christian beliefs interacted with medieval medical theories to help shape some surprising and sophisticated ideas about sex, and a wide variety of different sexual practices, long before the sexual revolution.’

I must confess that I had never thought much about medieval sexual beliefs, let alone conduct, until I came across the article -a title like The Salacious Middle Ages coupled with a rather puerile drawing of a naked woman riding a two-eared, grinning phallus is hard to ignore. And as Harvey explains, ‘Medieval people feared death by celibacy as much as venereal disease, and practiced complex sexual regimens.’ Although that sounded a touch New Age to me,  I was enticed headlong into the essay.

But why would we be surprised to discover that they had similar proclivities to our own? Yes, they were wrong about the sexual transmission of leprosy,  but their concern may have stemmed more from guilt than suspicion. And anyway, they did correctly recognize the risks of other sexually transmitted conditions: ‘a set of regulations from 15th-century Southwark banished women with a ‘burning sickness’ (probably gonorrhoea) from the local stews (brothels).’

Actually, physicians of the time were concerned as much about the amount as about the  the act: ‘Conventional wisdom held that several noblemen died of sexual excess.’ In those days, though, physicians saw the world through the lens of humours. There were four of them -blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile- each one corresponding to the four temperaments: Blood, or sanguine (social, or active), Phlegm (apathetic), Yellow bile (aggression), and Black bile (melancholy). And the idea was that health required each of them to be kept in equilibrium. Illness resulted from imbalance.

‘Humours were balanced, and good health maintained, through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. Regular sexual intercourse was thus part of a healthy life for most men, but moderation was key. Too much sex would leave the body depleted; in the most serious cases it could have fatal consequences.’

And women didn’t escape the tyranny of the humours either: ‘According to contemporary medical theory, both sexes produced seed that was necessary for conception – and just like semen, the female seed needed to be expelled from the body during regular sexual intercourse. In a woman who was not sexually active, the seed would be retained within her body; as it built up, it would cause suffocation of the womb. The symptoms of this condition included fainting and shortness of breath, and in the most serious cases it could be fatal. For women, as for men, the best way to avoid death by celibacy was to get married and have regular, Church-sanctioned intercourse with one’s spouse.’

‘For women lacking regular sexual relations, they offered a variety of treatments … Such treatments were particularly suitable for women who were suffering from suffocation of the womb.’ Although I won’t mention all of the treatments prescribed (both for males and females with similar sicknesses), I will say that ‘The 14th-century English physician John of Gaddesden thought that such a woman should try to cure her condition through exercise, foreign travel and medication.’ I think that still works.

So, despite the obvious historical gaps in what and who has been recorded, and despite the many different lenses we have used to understand the past, it’s hard to believe that people have changed very much through the years. Sexual activity of some kind is probably necessary for most adults, and it often continues to wear the same patina of guilt or shame. As Harvey points out, the problem is still how to preserve the vital bodily equilibrium without exposing ourselves to either disease or sin. ‘Discourses about sex still revolve around conflicting demands of health, social pressures and personal inclination. As it was in the Middle Ages, sex in the 21st century remains both a pleasure and a problem.’

A fine balance -just like Lenore said…

Let it not be so, lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe.

I was recently reminded of a seldom-heard song from years ago. Not only is the distance from the immense responsibility of parenting a melody of the past, but so too are the subtle layers of guilt: the silt that accumulates from the leaking floodgates of those early years. I’m not sure why I failed to notice it at the time, although I suppose it was a topic that was seldom broached in those days. It was too shameful to admit to oneself without reproach, certainly too dangerous to confess to anyone else.

Uncertainty and vacillation is frowned upon when it comes to our feelings about our children. ‘As developed by psychoanalysis, ambivalence refers to the fact that, in a single impulse, we can feel love and hate for the same person.’ So writes Edward Marriott, the psychotherapist author of an essay in Aeon entitled When a Bough Breaks: https://aeon.co/essays/we-need-to-admit-that-parents-sometimes-hate-their-children ‘It’s a potent, unpalatable idea; and in the grip of intense ambivalence we can feel overwhelmed and confused, as if a vicious civil war is underway inside us.’

‘[W]e live in a society in which shockingly high levels of violence are inflicted on children… And, if we acknowledge that we, too, sometimes have less than loving feelings towards our children; if we, too, sometimes have the wish to hurt, even if we are able to restrain ourselves, then does this mean that we too could be abusers?’

Part of the pressure is cultural, of course -especially on the mother who ‘is expected to have an uncomplicated and adoring relationship with her baby; who is expected never to tire of playing with Lego.’ And as desperately as a pregnancy may be pursued through years of unsuccessful attempts, or require expensive reproductive technologies, it’s difficult to adequately prepare for the changes engendered by the growing child. Each of us is different.

I am intrigued by the insight offered through an example given by Marriott: ‘The paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who spent a lifetime working with children and families, understood why the scales of ambivalence might tip more towards hate than love. The baby, he wrote, ‘is a danger to her body in pregnancy and at birth’, he ‘is an interference with her private life’ and he ‘is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave’. He ‘shows disillusionment about her’, he ‘refuses her good food… but eats well with his aunt’; then, having ‘got what he wants he throws her away like orange peel’. He ‘tries to hurt her’, and, ‘after an awful morning with him she goes out, and he smiles at a stranger, who says: “Isn’t he sweet?”’

And then there is the possible difficulty of the new child on the couple’s relationship -or the hope that a child may heal a fractious partnership. However, perhaps the modern couple may be more aware of the risks, and indeed the Feminist movement of the 1960ies ‘overturned long-held received wisdoms that designated motherhood (in the words of the social researcher Mary Georgina Boulton) as ‘intrinsically rewarding and not problematic’ and refocused attention on women’s actual experience of motherhood.’

But Marriott wonders if we are still blinkered, and ‘we continue to enter parenthood blindly, relieved and proud that our genes will survive, and oblivious to the unrelenting demands ahead, or that we have unwittingly signed up for a job for life, with no training, pay, prospect of sabbatical leave, change of career or get-out clause. It’s a job that will require endless investment and patience and, if all doesn’t go too badly, one in which we are finally made redundant.’

And yet, ‘The problem is not that we feel ambivalent towards our children, but that we try to deny it. If we do this, then before long we cease to know what is appropriate anger towards our children, and what is dangerous hostility.’

Armed with this insight, I thought I might discuss it with the guys at our usual Wednesday morning meeting at the local Tim Horton’s coffee shop in the mall. I figured maybe we could look back on those early days in our lives with the survivor smugness which only age can authorize. We usually just complain about the weather.

But when I arrived, Fred -sorry, Frederic, as he insists on being called- was already bemoaning a family issue.

“Sometimes he’s just rude, you know,” he said, with a little nod to acknowledge my arrival, and a deft pinch with lightning fast fingers to liberate the edge of my doughnut of some icing. “I mean I went all the way down to the museum to meet him…” He glanced at me. “My son, James,” he explained to bring me up to speed.

John’s face puckered into a wry smile as his eyes peeked through the bars of his lashes. “Come on Frederic, you only live two blocks from the museum…”

“Three,” he interrupted, to clarify it for the other two at the table.

John’s smile enlarged and his eyes, freed of the curtains he sometimes pulled over them, seemed to laugh. “I’m just pointing out that you really didn’t have to go very far, Frederic…”

“That’s hardly the point, John. It’s that he didn’t show up. I waited there for almost an hour…” He glanced at the sceptical faces around the table and then amended it to a more precise estimate of time. “Okay, maybe half an hour -or whatever… But anyway, he didn’t show up.”

John shook his head rather merrily I thought, and I could tell he was trying to disguise a little sigh. “I thought you said you were bored at always having to meet him at the museum.”

Frederic shrugged and had another go at my icing. “He likes to go there -he says he’s always been curious about old things…”

“Did he ever explain what he meant?” Andrew asked, barely able to keep a straight face.

Frederic missed the subtle humour though. “I used to read books about history to him when he was a little boy. We used to pretend we were sitting in the throne room of a castle, or watching a battle from a hilltop along with the generals…” I could see his face relax with the memories. He was clearly fond of his son.

And then, as gradual as a cloud floating over the sun, his face changed. “He texted me and apologized the next day -said he forgot about our meeting… texted me, for god’s sake! Anyway,  he asked me if I could meet him there today.” He shook his head in disbelief.

John smiled. “See, he’s trying to make up for his mistake, Frederic.” We all nodded in agreement.

“I told him I was busy,” Frederic said, still shaking his head.

“To teach him a lesson?” John’s face looked shocked, or maybe ‘sad’ describes it better.

Frederic shrugged in embarrassment.

“James is almost forty, Frederic,” Andrew added softly in the silence that followed. “I think you should phone him and meet him there, don’t you? Tell him, you’ve rearranged your day so you could meet after all…”

Frederic looked down at his coffee for a moment and then smiled as he picked it up. “Actually, I waited for a few days to answer… And I finally decided to text him back,” he said, glancing at his watch and then slowly standing up. “I’m already late,” he explained, sauntering unhurriedly towards the door. “See you guys next week, eh?”

As soon as he was out of the door, John began to chuckle. “What a pair, those two. How many times has this happened?”

“Think James will wait for him this time…?” Andrew asked, although mostly rhetorically, I suppose.

We all smiled and tackled our doughnuts as we leaned forward in our chairs. “Hope this rain stops soon,” Pete said between bites, finally coming out of his contemplative silence. “It’s getting rather depressing, don’t you think?”

We all nodded in unison. Some things never change.