A snowball’s chance… where?

Remember when Goldilocks sampled the porridge in the three bear’s cottage? One was too hot, another too cold, but baby bear’s was just right. Well, when it comes right down to it, I think I am pretty well a just-right-baby-bear kind of person. In fact, until recently, I figured we all were… But, as it usually turns out when I declare my allegiance to one side or the other, I’ve just discovered I made the wrong choice. Again.

I mean, it just makes sense to split the difference, eh? Try to choose the middle of the Bell curve so you’ll have room to maneuver if -or in my case, when– you back the wrong horse. From the middle, you can always say you were actually leaning towards the winning side -which you can’t from across the room. I learned that as a child who was owned by a railroad family which moved every year or so to a different part of Canada.

When we lived in the Prairies, I tried to pretend I liked the cold, but apart from throwing snowballs at passing busses, or hurling myself down snowdrifts on a piece of cardboard, I actually hated winter -it was far too cold. And on each blizzard-filled journey to and from the neighbourhood school -we were expected to walk in those days, not be driven- I was bundled up in so many layers, and my face shrouded by a scarf wrapped around it a hundred times, I would sometimes trundle off in the wrong direction until my mother ran out to point me another way. I was quite young then, of course, and each time I hoped she was coming to tell me school had been cancelled; I soon realized that in Winnipeg, they only cancelled classes if one of the rivers flooded.

The summers were not much better there -but they were even worse in the parts of Ontario where we ended up on our next several migrations. Put simply, even if you discounted the mosquitoes, the black flies, and pollen, and were careful not to step on snakes, or wander through poison ivy, or for that matter, follow the dog through the bush and end up having your mother pull ticks off your arms and legs when you got home, it was far too hot. Far too muggy. We couldn’t have afforded an air conditioner in those days -even if they had been invented- so I had to fight my brother to sit directly in front of the household’s only fan; and never behind him, because, well, my brother smelled like a gym-bag when he perspired.

But, I had always felt there was a credible argument for compromise. And, let’s face it, with temperature, it’s probably easier to don a coat or a sweater if it’s a little chilly, than to start stripping down if it’s too hot. I mean, I know you can’t please everybody, but I always thought that my compromises could stand the rough and tumble of any contrarian opinion. Until, that is, I bumped into the article in the Smithsonian Magazine that reported on a study published in PLOS One by researchers Tom Chang and Agne Kajackaite: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/chilly-rooms-may-cool-womens-productivity-180972279

Their work suggested that ‘cold temperatures can negatively impact women’s cognitive performance.’ It would seem that ‘Temperature systems in many modern offices follow a decades-old model based on the resting metabolic rate of an “average male,” which is typically faster than a woman’s metabolic rate. Faster metabolisms also generate more body heat, which in turn means that women are often left shivering in the workplace.’

Now, we’re not talking Antarctic conditions in the room, or anything, and the performance differences measured were not Trump-resigns-under-pressure headlines, for sure, but nevertheless differences there were: ‘An increase in temperature of just 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit was associated with a 1.76 percent increase in the number of math questions that female participants answered correctly—which may not seem like a lot, but it is nearly half of the four percent performance gap that exists between male and female high school students on the math section of the SAT … Increasing the temperature by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit also boosted women’s performance on the verbal task by around one percent. Men, on the other hand, performed more poorly on the math and verbal tests in warmer temperatures.’

But wait a minute here. ‘[W]omen’s enhanced cognitive performance in warmer environments seemed to be driven by the fact that they were answering more of the test questions; the dip in male cognitive performance, on the other hand, was linked to a decrease in the number of questions answered.’ Uhmm… Isn’t that a little like equating absence of evidence with evidence of absence? (I always enjoy using that aphorism whenever I can fit it in.)

Anyway, I have no reason question the results and I have to say I was further softened by one author’s explanation that ‘the students might simply have felt better, which in turn prompted them to exert more effort.’ Fair enough -that’s something a Winnipeg kid would understand -it’s hard to concentrate with a scarf wrapped around your face, or wherever.

There may be a little more work to do in resolving the so-called ‘battle of the thermostat’, however.  ‘[T]he pool of participants [543 students from universities in Berlin], though large, was made up solely of college students. The research is, in other words, not representative of the age and education level of the general population.’ Still, ‘the study suggests that dismantling the “thermostat patriarchy” is about more than fostering women’s comfort—it’s also a question of productivity.’

Too bad they couldn’t have done a study like that during a Winnipeg blizzard when I was young and wrapped. But then again, the sample studied -male or female- would have been horribly biased: only those of us who actually made it to school would have survived to take the test. And, who knows anything about those whose mother’s weren’t watching the direction their little tykes were pointed when they left the safety of the house? Could we use the ‘evidence of absence’ thing again…?

Sapere audi

Sapere audi – ‘Dare to know’, as the Roman poet Horace wrote. It was later taken up by famous Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it seemed like a suitable rallying cry as I negotiated the years that led from youth to, well, Age. Who could argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge? That understanding something, better facilitates an informed decision about whether to believe or reject? To welcome, or close the door?

Admittedly, knowledge can be a moving target, both in time and perhaps in temperament as well. Whatever ‘knowing’ is that determines the appeal of a particular political philosophy, say, is not immutable, not forever carved in marble like the letters in Trajan’s column. One could start off in one camp, and then wander into another as the years wear thin. Perhaps it is the gradual friction of experience rubbing on hope that effects the change- but however it works, exposure can alter what we believe. If nothing else, it speeds adaptation, and enables us to habituate to things that we might once have shunned. And it is precisely this ability to acclimatize that may prove worrisome.

An essay by the philosopher Daniel Callcut drew this to my attention a while ago: https://aeon.co/ideas/if-anyone-can-see-the-morally-unthinkable-online-what-then

‘There are at least two senses of ‘morally unthinkable’. The first, that of something you have no inkling of is perhaps the purest form of moral innocence. Not only can you not contemplate doing X: you don’t even know what X is. This is the innocence that parents worry their children will lose online… Then there is the worry that if something becomes thinkable in the imaginative sense, then it might eventually become thinkable in the practical sense too… If virtue depends in part on actions being unthinkable, then the internet doubtless has a tendency to make unvirtuous actions all too thinkable… The idea that being a decent person involves controlling the kinds of thoughts you allow yourself to think can easily be met with resistance. If virtue depends on limits to what is thinkable, and a certain free-thought ideal celebrates no limits, then the potential conflict between freethinking and virtue is obvious.’

Of course, one of the several elephants in the room is the pornographic one -the ‘public discussion of the internet’s potential to undermine virtue focuses on the vast amount of easily accessible pornography… Porn, the research suggests, has the tendency to encourage the prevalence of thoughts that shouldn’t be thought: that women enjoy rape, and that No doesn’t really mean No. More generally, it has the tendency to encourage what the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970s dubbed the ‘male gaze’: men staring at women’s bodies in a way that bypasses concern for a woman’s consent.’ And, not only that, there was the intriguing suggestion that ‘Liberals, worried about potential censorship, can sometimes find themselves defending the implausible position that great art has great benefits but that junk culture never produces any harms.’

As Callcut writes, ‘What we imagine is not inert: what we think about changes the people we are, either quickly or over time – but it still changes us.’ So, ‘If the image you are looking at is disturbing,’ he asks, ‘is it because it is explicit and unfamiliar to you, or is it because it is wrong? When are you looking at a problem, and when is the problem you?’ There is a definite tension ‘between virtues that by their nature restrict thought and imagination and the prevailing spirit of the internet that encourages the idea that everything should be viewable and thinkable.’

In other words, is it better not to know something? Is Sapere audi anachronistic, inappropriate -dangerous, even?

I find myself drawn back in time to something that happened to me when I was around 13 or 14 years of age. There was no internet, in those days, of course, and word of mouth, or naughty whispers with subtle nudges were sometimes how we learned about adult things.

A somewhat duplicitous friend had lent me a book to read: The Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, I think it was called. His parents had given it to him when they’d found his stash of overly-suggestive magazines hidden in a closet. I wasn’t sure what to make of the loan, but at that tender age, and in those pre-social media days, there was much about life that remained mysterious and hidden from me. I hadn’t yet given much thought to girls; it was still an innocent time.

I remember being embarrassed even handling the book -especially since it didn’t look as if it had even been opened. My first instinct was to hide it somewhere my mother wouldn’t find it. Obviously the closet hadn’t worked for my friend, so, since it was summer, I decided to put it at the bottom of my sock drawer where I kept the ones I only used in winter. She’d never need to burrow down that deeply.

But, oddly enough, a few days later, I discovered the book had acquired a folded piece of paper in the ‘How babies are made’, section. ‘Read this,’ the note said in my mother’s unmistakeable cursive.

The next morning at breakfast I could hardly look up from my plate, but to her credit, she acted as if it was just another summer’s day: the radio on the shelf was playing some music softly in the background, and my father was buried behind his newspaper.

But the discovery triggered an embarrassing walk with my father who had obviously been delegated by my mother to deliver the Talk, as my friends termed it in those days. And although it turned out well, I couldn’t help but think I had crossed a line in my life. And judging by the gravity with which he approached it, I had just been initiated into a hitherto forbidden club.

In this case, fortunately, the not-yet imagined realm was discussed sensitively and, with many blushes on both our faces, placed in a realistic context -and with what I would later realize was a sensible perspective…

Despite my age, and after all these years, I continue to be naïve about many things I suspect, and yet I still feel there is a need to defend the ‘Dare to know,’ exhortation. Virtue does not depend on actions never considered, nor on a drought of as-yet-unimagined things; decency does not simply require controlling what you allow yourself to think, any more than pulling the covers over your head at night protected you from the bogeyman in the room when you were a child.

Virtue -morality- isn’t the absence of temptation; there is, and probably will continue to be, an allure to what we do not know -to what is kept hidden from us. There will always be a struggle, I imagine, and the more you know about it -and about the world- the more you enable yourself to understand context. I still wonder what type of adulthood I might have wandered into had my mother not found that book and realized there was an opportunity.

Sapere audi, I almost wish she had written instead, in that note to her already nerdy child -I think I would have loved the Latin.

Do you play crib?

I’m afraid I was a user, but long ago, you understand -before I really knew what I was doing. At that age, you have to depend on your parents, I suppose, but we all know what a lottery that is… At any rate, so the story goes, I escaped unscathed when the contraption I was using tipped over in the parental bed during the night.

It was a crib my father had built and carefully re-sanded so his youngest son would not suffer the same splinters his older child had gathered in his cheek from the same container. Even parental beds are inherently unstable and tippy -a property he felt would work in his favour to rock the baby and insure a modicum of sleep for my exhausted mother… and him, of course.

It was a clunky thing though, I’m told. It had high walls to prevent inadvertent crawl-out, but no breast-holes for ease of night-feeding. It also failed to position its center of gravity low enough to counter any endogenous, let alone exogenous activity, and apparently all three of us were, well, active in the depths of night. The result was predictable: the crib and I spent the rest of my useful infancy on the floor near -but not too near- the bed.

I was reminded of this autobiographical detail from my early life by a delightful article written by Christina Szalinski in the Smithsonian Magazine about novel ways of conquering the nocturnally insomnial tendencies of babies: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/history-cribs-other-brilliant-bizarre-inventions-getting-babies-to-sleep-180972138

‘Throughout history parents have invented places for their babies to rest—rockers, hammocks, swings, carriers, cribs and more… The original baby rockers were likely hammocks. Wooden cradles came later, and in the nineteenth century, metal became popular for hygienic reasons.’ But, of course, rocking required work -repetitive work- and a person would get tired, not to say bored after a while so ‘turn of the twentieth-century inventors added cogs, spring motors or hand cranks to cradles so they could rock, at least for a while, on their own.’ And, as technology and catchy labels evolved, new and improved models soon took over: ‘Now we have the Bluetooth-enabled 4moms mamaRoo 4 swing that “moves like you do,” the Graco Sense2Soothe swing with “Cry Detection Technology,” the SNOO Smart Sleeper bassinet with “calming sensations of the womb,” and Ford’s Max Motor Dreams crib that was made to mimic a car ride (however, this one was never sold to the public).’ No need for sanding -my father would have loved them.

But I can’t help but think he didn’t do much in the way of historical research into his project. As a matter of fact, for years the only books I remember in the bathroom library were Reader’s Digests. Szalinski tells us that ‘A half barrel with all but three slats removed, one on each side and one on top, was probably the world’s first device designed for nighttime sleep. Called an “arcuccio” or “arcutio,” Italian for “little arch,” this seventeenth-century creation was put on the mother’s bed with baby inside, allowing a mother to sleep and breastfeed throughout the night without the possibility of rolling onto her infant, or having her infant roll out of bed.’

But, in a way, I’m glad my father was who he was -a no-nonsense, practical inventor who was unswayed by neonatal fashionistas- because there was an American pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt who wrote a book called The Care and Feeding of Children. In it, he said he believed that ‘“fresh air is required to renew and purify the blood” and that “those who sleep out of doors are stronger children.”

We lived in Winnipeg in those halcyon days, and exposing me to the whims of a prairie winter would have been counterproductive (I was born in December); mind you, the summer recourse to which city dwellers apparently resorted was to ‘put baby in a cage suspended out the window, much like an air conditioning unit.’ Apparently, writes Szalinski, ‘Eleanor Roosevelt used one in their townhouse window for their daughter, Anna, until a neighbor threatened to report her for child cruelty.’ We only had a one-story house at the time, so my plight might have gone unnoticed for weeks… Okay, hours…

The crib that I found a bit creepy, though, was one invented in 1944 by the experimental psychologist B.F. Skinner (of Skinner Box fame, for studying animal behaviour using -amongst other things- operant conditioning ). His baby box, which he called the ‘air crib’ was ‘a completely enclosed crib with three solid walls and a ceiling, and a safety glass front, that allowed both temperature and humidity to be controlled for baby.’ He was apparently concerned that ‘being bundled up meant a child’s self-directed movement would be inhibited.’ But -surprise- what with his widely publicized animal experiments, the  crib seemed a little too familiar  and never caught on -especially amongst his lab associates.

Anyway, speaking of dealing with the very young and their undeniable penchant for rocking, Szalinski brings us up to the simple, why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-before, bi-gendered methodology of my own parental era: wearing them, of course. I mean, how hard is that?

And yet, ‘Babywearing fell out of favor in the mid- to late-nineteenth century in European and U.S. cities when roads were paved and strollers became a status symbol.’ Nevertheless, I can remember many a hike I took with my son comfortably strapped to my chest in a Snugli. I suppose I was lucky, though –first of all because, so far as I remember, neither my wife nor I tripped very much, and ‘because attachment theory shifted parenting attitudes in the 1970s and 80s. Warm, sensitive care and physical contact was no longer seen as a threat to a baby’s development of autonomy (like it was from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s)—you could hold your baby (again) without “spoiling” them.’

I’m trying to remember whether or not I was spoiled. I don’t recall ever being carried around, nor, except for the crib-episode in those proto-Anthropocene, Snugliless days, ever being dropped, so I guess it all worked out. My father never taught me any carpentry, though.

Bad Samaritans?

I suspect this is an incredibly naïve, not to mention unpopular, opinion, but I suppose in these times of plague, I should be grateful we have borders -fences that keep them out, walls that keep us safe. But I’m not. I’ve always mistrusted borders: I’ve always been suspicious of boundaries that artificialize the denizens of one region -that privilege residents as opposed to non-residents, friends versus strangers, our needs compared to theirs.

Call me unworldly, but what makes me special, and you not so? It seems to me the italics I have used to mark differences, are as arbitrary as the differences they mark. We are all the same, and deserve the same consideration.

That said, we seem to be stuck with countries determined only to look after their own -even with the global crisis in which we find ourselves in these special, but frightening times. In a desperate attempt at historical recidivism, we are attempting a re-balkanization of the world.

But what is a country, anyway? And does it have a special providence -or provenance, for that matter? I happened upon an interesting essay by Charles Crawford, who once served as the UK Ambassador to Sarajevo and Belgrade discussing much the same thing: https://aeon.co/essays/who-gets-to-say-what-counts-as-a-country

As he writes -‘There are only two questions in politics: who decides? and who decides who decides? … Who gets to say what is or is not a country? For most of human history, nation states as we now recognise them did not exist. Territories were controlled by powerful local people, who in turn pledged allegiance to distant authorities, favouring whichever one their circumstances suited. In Europe, the tensions in this system eventually led to the Thirty Years’ War which… ended in 1648 with a thorough revision of the relationship between land, people and power. The resulting set of treaties, known as the Peace of Westphalia, introduced two novel ideas: sovereignty and territorial integrity. Kings and queens had ‘their’ people and associated territory; beyond their own borders, they should not meddle.’

Voila, the modern idea of states, with loyalties only to themselves. But embedded in the concept were at least two principles -two problems: ‘The first is self-determination: the idea that an identified ‘people’ has the right to run its own affairs within its own state. The other is territorial integrity: the notion that the borders of an existing state should be difficult to change.’ But borders soon spawned customs and attitudes that were different from those on the other side –theirs were different from ours, so they must be different from us. An oversimplification, to be sure, but nonetheless a helpful guide, perhaps.

Borders can change, of course, but not easily, and often not without considerable turmoil. Think of ‘the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 [which] claimed up to a million lives… Ambiguous ceasefires can drag on indefinitely. Taiwan and its 23 million inhabitants live in a curious twilight zone of international law, recognised by only 22 smaller countries and the Vatican.’ Examples of each, abound.

And not all borders were established to reconcile linguistic, ethnic, or religious differences. There are many examples, but perhaps the most egregious borders in modern times were those largely arbitrary ones in the Middle East drawn by two aristocrats Mark Sykes from Britain, and Francois Georges-Picot from France in 1916. As Wikipedia describes: ‘it was a secret agreement between Britain and France with assent from the Russian Empire and Italy, to define their mutually agreed spheres of influence and control in an eventual partition of the Ottoman Empire.’

A famous quotation that encapsulates the attitude was that of Sykes: ‘At a meeting in Downing Street, Mark Sykes pointed to a map and told the prime minister: “I should like to draw a line from the “e” in Acre to the last “k” in Kirkuk.”’-a straight line, more or less.

Crawford’s essay was intended to explain the continuing tensions in the Balkans, but it raises a pertinent question for these times -namely, ‘Should nations stay within their historical boundaries, or change as their populations do?’ Or, put another way, should boundaries remain impermeable to needs outside what I would term their arbitrary limits?

With the current pandemic, there are, no doubt, many reasons that could be offered for being selective at borders: family-first ones, by and large. We need to close our borders to support our own economy, feed our own people; in the midst of a global epidemic, it is not the time to sacrifice our own needs by offering altruism to others. Actually, it seems to me that the underlying belief is that migration -legal or otherwise- is a large contributor to the spread of the infection. But once a communicable virus is in the country, its own citizens also become vectors -and they far outnumber the number of refugees or migrants.

Rather than being focussed on borders and exclusion, efforts would likely be more intelligently spent on things like temporary isolation of any who may have been in areas where the epidemic may have been less controlled, and enforced social separation (social-distancing) of everybody else. Consistent, and frequently publicized advice and updates about new developments to educate the public -all the public- is key to managing fear. And epidemics -they have a habit of evolving rapidly.

And testing, testing, testing. Unless and until, we know who might have the infection and be a risk to others, we are essentially blinkered. It’s not the strangers among us who pose the risk, it’s those who are infected and either have no symptoms or who are at the earliest stages of an infection that has not yet had time to declare itself.

The World Health Organization (and others) have pointed out that travel restrictions not only divert resources from the containment effort, they also have human costs. ‘Travel measures that significantly interfere with international traffic may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak, as they may allow countries to gain time, even if only a few days, to rapidly implement effective preparedness measures. Such restrictions must be based on a careful risk assessment, be proportionate to the public health risk, be short in duration, and be reconsidered regularly as the situation evolves. Travel bans to affected areas or denial of entry to passengers coming from affected areas are usually not effective in preventing the importation of cases but may have a significant economic and social impact.’ And, as all of us realize -and expect- by now: ‘Travellers returning from affected areas should self-monitor for symptoms for 14 days and follow national protocols of receiving countries.’ Amen.

Turning away migrants often has some desired political effects, however: diverting attention away from the receiving country’s possible lack of preparedness and foresight. It’s seldom about the Science and more about Nationalism -further stoking fears of the other.

I think that at the moment, we are forgetting, as was immortalized in that ancient Persian adage that, This, too, will pass. The pandemic will exhaust itself, and likely soon become both amenable to a vaccine and other medical therapy. And those affected will not soon forget -nor will those denied entry in their time of need. As our economies rebuild in its wake, we -and they- will need all the allies we can muster. Best to be remembered as a friend who helped, than someone who turned their back.

We really are all in this together. As one of my favourite poets, Kahlil Gibran writes, ‘You often say,I would give, but only to the deserving.” The trees in your orchard say not so… They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.’

Mind Trips

Does your mind ever behave as if you weren’t getting enough fibre in your diet? Does it ever seem to plug up with loge -or whatever the noun form of logy is? Mine does that whenever it doesn’t get sufficient exercise, I find -not enough thinking perhaps. On the other hand, even when I think of something to think, keeping it on track is more like trying to keep a cat on a trail: every time something passes by or rustles in the bushes, it’s off. I love the adventure, mind you, and yet I can’t help but wonder if it’s supposed to wander like that. I mean, is it a design flaw, or a sign of trouble in the pipes somewhere -a detour around a badly maintained section of road? Frankly I’m tired of trying to balance loge with rogue.

Of course, although it’s sometimes a problem in the dead of night when my eyes are unable to distract it, by and large it doesn’t care what’s going on around it, or in what direction it was originally pointed. My mind has a mind of its own.

But maybe all minds are like that; maybe we all have a naughty homunculus (or perhaps, a gynuncula) that sits at the steering wheel somewhere inside and veers from road to road with merry abandon. An insightful essay by Jamie Kreiner, from the University of Georgia, pointed out that the problem was also common amongst medieval monks: https://aeon.co/ideas/how-to-reduce-digital-distractions-advice-from-medieval-monks Who would have guessed?

‘They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else… Their job, more than anything else, was to focus on divine communication: to read, to pray and sing, and to work to understand God, in order to improve the health of their souls and the souls of the people who supported them… The ideal was a mens intentus, a mind that was always and actively reaching out to its target.’

Of course, even with the best intent, their minds strayed; something had to be done about it. ‘When the mind wanders, the monastic theorists observed, it usually veers off into recent events. Cut back your commitments to serious stuff, and you’ll have fewer thoughts competing for your attention… Most Christians agreed that the body was a needy creature whose bottomless appetite for food, sex and comfort held back the mind from what mattered most.’ You can see where they’re going with this.

But there is a limit to the extent to which you can deprive a body, and so, ever mindful of the goal, they decided to turn the problems into solutions -well, sort of… ‘Part of monastic education involved learning how to form cartoonish cognitive figures, to help sharpen one’s mnemonic and meditative skills. The mind loves stimuli such as colour, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations.’ So, ‘if a nun wanted to really learn something she’d read or heard, she would do this work herself, by rendering the material as a series of bizarre animations in her mind. The weirder the mnemonic devices the better – strangeness would make them easier to retrieve.’

The act of producing these memory aides was supposed to enable concentration and avoid distracting thoughts. Of course, as Kreiner points out, ‘caveat cogitator: the problem of concentration is recursive. Any strategy for sidestepping distraction calls for strategies on sidestepping distraction.’ I used to hate cleaning my teeth when I was a child, so my mother, no doubt fearful of the dental bills she would have to pay, asked me to try not to think of a puppy while I was brushing them. The idea was so bizarre, I’d end up inadvertently finishing the trip around my mouth while trying desperately to forget about the puppy… Uhmm, well maybe the medieval monks were not supposed to use distractions to fight distractions, but then again, my mother wasn’t running a religious institution, just a bathroom.

Anyway, as Kreiner also describes, ‘A more advanced method for concentrating was to build elaborate mental structures in the course of reading and thinking. Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualise the material they were processing. A branchy tree or a finely feathered angel…  The point wasn’t to paint these pictures on parchment. It was to give the mind something to draw, to indulge its appetite for aesthetically interesting forms while sorting its ideas into some logical structure.’

Kreiner even teaches these medieval cognitive techniques to her students. She thinks that ‘Constructing complex mental apparatuses gives them a way to organise – and, in the process, analyse – material they need to learn for other classes. The process also keeps their minds occupied with something that feels palpable and riveting. Concentration and critical thinking, in this mode, feel less like a slog and more like a game.’

So, I thought I’d give it a try. I’m currently trying to learn coding -computer programming- and my mind, not understanding a thing about what I’m reading, tends to wander off. The whole thing seems so alien to an older person like me who was brought up on the words and metaphor of poetry that I despaired of ever being able to create stick-figures in it, let alone finely feathered angels -even from the Coding for Kids book I eventually digressed into.

There is, however, an ever-repeating figure that sticks with me from the book. The code I’m learning is called Python and helpfully, the figure that keeps greeting me is a smiley snake wearing a baseball cap. Just thinking about the smile and the cap, helps me to relax -makes me smile- even though if I saw it slithering across the table, my concentration would likely refocus on my legs, not its cap. But safely confined to the book, I find it centers me. It holds my attention like that puppy I had to try to forget. And when it’s hiding somewhere, I can hardly wait for it to reappear, because you never know with snakes, eh?

As for helping me focus on the code, well I can remember it’s called Python, at least… I mean, that’s something, right?

When beggars die there are no comets seen

When I was growing up, Death was a word I rarely had to use. I suppose that’s the thing about nuclear families: they sometimes privilege the unit at the expense of others in the kin. Occasionally, a distant relative I had never met succumbed, or there would be a report on the news of casualties somewhere from disaster or conflict, but mostly they happened there, and I was here -two very different places. I had no problem coping with it; apart from sadness, there seemed little else that would result –could result- from no longer being able to see the person in the flesh. Of course I felt devastated with the death of a pet, but in time, even that faded as other life unrolled around me. Sadness was an ache that healed.

I don’t mean to sound unfeeling, or indifferent to the suffering of others, it’s just that human Death wasn’t something I had to deal with in my youth. It was only later, with the death of my parents, that the full haze of sorrow descended like a cloud and persisted long after the ceremonies for each. I try to remember them as they were, and still trace events throughout their lives until they were no more. Neither funeral was the end of my memories about either of them, of course -each rite was just another marker in a book I could open any time. The ceremony was important, though: we all need an epilogue, a final demonstration that we mattered -a recognition that, in all of time, we did exist for a while.

Perhaps it’s a gift of Age, but what I’m only now coming to realize, is how devastating a person just disappearing without a trace can be. A thoughtful essay by Andy Owen brought thoughts about Death to my attention once again: https://aeon.co/essays/a-missing-person-is-like-a-story-without-an-ending

‘People aren’t meant to just disappear,’ he writes. ‘Disappearance can expose an existential fear in those left behind – what could make you question your self-esteem more than the knowledge that you could just go missing without a trace? This is why some states and armed groups have deliberately ‘disappeared’ those seen as their greatest threat.’

‘There are some common themes across time and cultures that make what Boss [U.S. psychologist Pauline Boss, who started working with the wives of missing US airmen in the 1970s] calls ambiguous loss – the loss of the missing, a loss that has never been fully confirmed – so difficult. One is the inability to perform the appropriate rituals or rites that help us manage loss.’ Another, of course, is not knowing whether or not the missing person is dead. Whether or not the relatives should mourn, or keep hoping…

‘In The Sense of an Ending (1967), the British literary critic Frank Kermode investigates our need to make sense of our lifespan with fictional stories that have an origin, a middle and an end. ‘What puts our mind at rest,’ he writes, ‘is the simple sequence.’ We are, all of us, stories with a universal grammar; it is not followed -not possible- with the missing. The ending is important in a story, it makes sense of the narrative. And if the ending is not there, we are sometimes forced to make one up.

Owen tells of the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami in Japan in which almost 20,000 people died or went missing. ‘Survivors of the disaster soon began seeing and feeling ghostly presences; people dressed in warm clothes at the height of summer, hailing taxis and then disappearing from the back seat.’ Stories need endings.

When I was still a child in a Winnipeg public school I had a friend named Russel Vásquez. He and his mother  had moved from somewhere in Mexico, I remember.

Russel, like me, was shy and although he didn’t talk very much at school, we lived across  the lane from each other and I would see him sitting by himself in his backyard pretending to read. I could tell he was pretending because he never turned any pages. It was as if a book gave him an excuse to sit by himself.

One day just after school had finished for the summer, I walked across the lane and called out his name. He smiled and put down the book and stood up to greet me. I don’t think he’d made many friends at school, but he seemed happy to talk to me. His English was heavily accented, and although at first he looked embarrassed, we soon realized we had a lot in common and became the kind of friends only children of that age can be. Before long we began trading information about our parents.

His mother was an teacher, like mine, but although I mentioned that my father was an accountant, Russel didn’t offer to tell me about his. Only when summer fully matured, and we had become best friends, did he admit that he didn’t know what had happened to his father. Both his parents had been involved in something that involved a lot of phone calls, and they got mad at him if he asked about it. One night after he’d gone to bed, Russel heard someone banging on the door to their house, and then what sounded like a fight. His mother had come running into his bedroom a few minutes later and told him somebody had taken his father so they had to leave right away.

“Didn’t your mother phone the police?” I asked.

He just shrugged. “Many gangs in my country, and I think some of police are work for them.”

“But did your father join you later?” I was aghast at what I’d heard -it was nothing like Winnipeg.

Russel shook his head slowly and I could tell he was on the verge of tears. “My mother no say it, but I think he probably dead… We no heard from him since he left,” he added in a soft voice.

“But…”

Russel stared at me for a moment. “We no talk about it now… Okay?”

I realized then that there are some things that even best friends can’t discuss.

But one day at the end of August, I remember Russel running excitedly across the lane when he saw me coming. “I see him today,” he yelled.

“See who?”

“My father!”

“Where?” It sounded too good to be true.

“With some people in the Eaton store,” he said, lowering his voice and looking around furtively. “But when I call him, maybe he no hear, and he disappear in the people again. I try to find him, but…”

“So what did your mother say?”

His face wrinkled. “She outside on a bench waiting for me, and when I tell her, she don’t believe me at first. And she look more worry than happy, you know. She tell me I can no have see him…”

Just then I heard his mother calling him from their back door and he shrugged apologetically. “She think I see things,” he explained. “That I see…” he searched for an English word, then gave up and shrugged again. “…fantasmas…” We both knew what mothers were like, so I just rolled my eyes.

I was too young at the time to understand, but Russel and his mother suddenly moved out of the house across the lane before school started that fall, and before he could even say goodbye.

I never heard from him again. Stories need endings…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A rarer spirit never did steer humanity

Okay, here’s a seemingly obvious and probably self-evident question: What constitutes personhood? I mean I assume that, until recently, it was something only bestowed on us -humans, that is- but what, exactly, is a person? And does the reason we were its exclusive possessors have anything to do with the fact that we are the bestowers? In United States law at any rate, a corporation -in that it has certain privileges, legal responsibilities, and is able to enter into contracts- may be considered a legal person. But even so, it is us that have granted it that status. We, alone, seem to be the arbiters of who gets into our club.

That we are both enamoured of our rank, and also the adjudicators of the contestants is a fine point, perhaps, And yet, there you have it: it’s our ball, so we get to decide who plays. We have decided it has to be a thing that can interact (with us), that has a sense of identity (as a self or as an entity), and that, presumably, can assume and accept responsibility for its actions.

Fair enough, I suppose, although I continue to wonder if those criteria are not a little too restrictive, their legal usefulness notwithstanding. I continue to suspect things like corporations and their vested interests getting the nod, whereas trees, or dogs, say, do not. I think it’s reasonable that some entities that seem to have some personal interest to me, and with which I interact, however indirectly, should qualify as something close to personhood at times: a tree that I pass each day and whose leaves I enjoy seeing dance in the wind, perhaps, or the peak of a mountain that I use to reference my location.

Okay, I realize those examples might be over-stretching the idea of personhood and diluting the whole purpose of the concept, but what if I have named each of them -given them an identity that draws them out of the background, and allows them to interact with me by fulfilling some need, however mundane or whimsical? And no, I don’t imagine the mountain peak whose position is guiding me out of the woods has any consciousness of itself or its purpose any more than an inuksuk in the barrens of northern Canada; it remains what it is: many things -or nothing- to whoever sees it. But, a potentially useful entity nonetheless. And for that matter, so is a corporation with which I have no dealings in another country, I suppose…

They are, each of them, metaphors in a way: things regarded as representatives or symbols of other things. Beneficial items whenever we might need them. And yet, are they persons?

The etymology of ‘person’, although complicated and disputed, is revealing, I think: the Online Etymology Dictionary describes person asa mask, a false face, such as those of wood or clay worn by the actors in later Roman theater. OED offers the general explanation of persona as “related to” Latin personare “to sound through” (i.e. the mask as something spoken through and perhaps amplifying the voice).’ Non-living entities, in other words, that in some situations pretend to be us.

I don’t mean to go overboard in my assignations of personhood, though -I suppose I only wish to defend my penchant for seeing agency in Nature. I recognize that I am inextricably entangled in its web and point out that it is me as much as I am it… So it was with some considerable relief that I discovered that I may not be sufficiently unique to necessitate a mention in the psychiatric DSM-5 bible. Thank you Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/a-rock-a-human-a-tree-all-were-persons-to-the-classic-maya

In an article for the online magazine, Sarah Jackson, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University  of Cincinnati in Ohio, wrote that ‘For the Maya of the Classic period, who lived in southern Mexico and Central America between 250 and 900 CE, the category of ‘persons’ was not coincident with human beings, as it is for us. That is, human beings were persons – but other, nonhuman entities could be persons, too… the ancient Maya experienced a world peopled by a variety of types of beings, who figured large in stories, imagery, social and ritual obligations, and community identities.’

She asks the intriguing question, ‘Do nonhuman persons need human beings to exist?’ For the Maya, ‘the answer was no. Nonhuman persons were not tethered to specific humans, and they did not derive their personhood from a connection with a human… In a Maya way of thinking, personhood is a resource in the world… The Maya saw personhood as ‘activated’ by experiencing certain bodily needs and through participation in certain social activities.’

But Jackson is careful to point out that for the Mayans it was not a magical world in which all of the things surrounding them were talking, or dispensing advice. ‘Rather, the experience would have been one of potentiality’ -rather like my mountain peak, I imagine. ‘they were prepared to recognise signs of personhood in a wide variety of places, and to respond appropriately when nonhuman entities signalled as such to them.’ Interestingly, ‘There’s one other element to consider, in blurring the boundaries of personhood. Personhood was a nonbinary proposition for the Maya. Entities were able to be persons while also being something else… they continue to be functional, doing what objects do (a stone implement continues to chop, an incense burner continues to do its smoky work). Furthermore, the Maya visually depicted many objects in ways that indicated the material category to which they belonged – drawings of the stone implement show that a person-tool is still made of stone.’

Jackson suggest that this idea is certainly of interest nowadays. ‘Challenging ourselves to illuminate assumptions about personhood (and its associated responsibilities and mutual obligations) sheds light on our own roles in constructing and deconstructing people, and the social and political consequences. Environment, race, immigration, civil discourse, gender identity, #MeToo: all of these topics link in some way to whom, or what, we value in comparison with our own experience of being a ‘person’, and our norms of what shared person-status means for action and interaction.’

Boundaries are porous -I like that; things are multifaceted, not forever confined to one identity -nothing need be either this, or that. It can shift, according to context, and perspective. According to need. My favourite mountain peak is a sleeping bear, by the way. I see it whenever I’m on the ferry and travelling from the island where I live to Vancouver. I miss it when I’m away…