Eternity Gazing at Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Presume Not that I am the Thing I Was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Venus Figurine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Phone her,” I said.

And she did –right there in the office.





The Feast of Fools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, What Men Dare Do!

There seemed to be an inordinate amount of talk about polygamy last year –perhaps because of the long-awaited trial of two offenders from the town of Bountiful in British Columbia. In Canada, polygamy is a criminal offence under section 293 of the Criminal Code, but prosecutions have been rare. Polygamy must be differentiated from Bigamy, of course. With both of them, there are multiple partners (usually women) but with polygamy the marriage partners are presumably willing and knowledgeable about the other partners, whereas with bigamy, there is an attempt to deceive. Or, in a more legal framework, bigamy is the crime of marrying while one has a spouse still living, and from whom no valid divorce has been obtained.

I have to admit that I didn’t know that ‘polygamy’ was gender neutral –or, rather, it was nowhere near the apex of the pile of words I figured I’d look up some day. But, now that I mention it, I wonder if I’d stopped to think about the etymology, I would have known something was up –at least in our increasingly multi-gendered society… Although, in fairness to me, it’s roots are clear: gamos means something like ‘marry’ or ‘union’ in Greek. In fact, the term can be either ‘polygyny’ –many wives, or, I suppose, ‘polyandry’ –many husbands, but we don’t usually need to be so specific. As Claudio says in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, ‘Oh, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!’

The origins of polygyny –sorry, polygamy– are nested in the depths of time, but according to a 2010 article in the Independent,, ‘It is most common in places where pre-colonial economic activity centred around subsistence farming […]Africa being a prime example. High levels of infant mortality may be a factor; when many children do not survive past the age of five a family needs more than one child-bearer to be economically viable. Then there is war. When a lot of men die, having more than one wife boosts the population most swiftly.’

But of course, times change, and so do economic and political pressures. Interestingly ‘Some anthropologists believe that polygamy has been the norm through human history. In 2003, New Scientist magazine suggested that, until 10,000 years ago, most children had been sired by comparatively few men. Variations in DNA, it said, showed that the distribution of X chromosomes suggested that a few men seem to have had greater input into the gene pool than the rest. By contrast most women seemed to get to pass on their genes. Humans, like their primate forefathers, it said, were at least “mildly polygynous”.’

It’s certainly not the norm nowadays, and often illegal. And yet, remember that in 2010, the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, ‘married his fifth wife in a traditional ceremony at his remote homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. His first wife, whom he married in 1973, was there to see him wed a woman 30 years his junior. His second wife stayed home to prepare the reception. He had two other wives but he divorced one in 1998 and another committed suicide in 2000.’ And the article went on to suggest that ‘he has not finished yet. The other day he paid the traditional dowry for his sixth fiancée [the article was published in 2010].’

‘In 1998 the University of Wisconsin surveyed more than a thousand societies. Of these just 186 were monogamous. Some 453 had occasional polygyny and in 588 more it was quite common. Just four featured polyandry.’ The study is obviously an older one, and societies and their mores evolve. According to an article in Wikipedia (last edited in July 2017), ‘Polygamy is [now] legal in 58 out of nearly 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of them being Muslim-majority countries situated in Africa and Asia. In most of these states, polygyny is allowed and legally sanctioned. Polyandry is illegal in virtually every state in the world. In India, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Sri Lanka polygamy is only legal for Muslims. In Nigeria and South Africa, polygamous marriages under customary law and for Muslims are legally recognized.’ That said, however, it is relatively common still in many Arab nations; among the Bedouin population of Israel it stands at about 30 per cent, according to the Independent.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. At the very least, it’s confusing -and not only for me, I suspect. What about at the state level for those countries in whom polygamy is illegal, like Canada and the U.S.A.? What are they to do with immigrants with two or more wives who seek asylum from persecution or war in their home countries? Should they be refused entry under all circumstances even if their needs are compelling and otherwise would have been candidates for acceptance?

There have been attempts to work around this dilemma, of course. Until recently at least, the U.S. has denied immigration to polygynists (either the man or any of his wives) but under some circumstances, ‘a refugee who was practicing polygamy before he immigrated will be required by U.S. immigration law to designate one wife as his legal wife to accompany him to the United States. Years later, after becoming a U.S. citizen, he might divorce that wife, and marry the woman who was formerly his second wife, in order to petition for her to immigrate to the United States.’ ( -legal encyclopedia)

Okay, so there are ways around it, but in an already overcrowded world and especially in modern societies with safety nets for its more vulnerable citizens, it seems to me that whatever use polygamy once had –marrying widows to ensure orphans are taken care of, or maybe a way of quickly increasing a specific population, or even, of course, lessening the burden of work for a solo wife- is no longer necessary. One gets the distinct impression, however much disguised, that polygyny is merely an excuse for male sexual gratification dressed up as a tradition –another not so covert way of diminishing female authority and power.

I fail to see any way in which polygyny fosters gender equality, let alone female autonomy. And I would challenge any male who purports to believe that parity is possible under those circumstances, to argue as strenuously for polyandry. To accept that he would be as equal a partner as his wife and her other husbands… But of course, he could argue that polyandry is extremely uncommon and also illegal almost everywhere. That there must be a reason for that.

Gosh, I wonder what that would be…






Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

I’m puzzled –it seems to be happening a lot nowadays despite my age. But maybe that’s what retirement is for –to sort through things previously deemed obvious but which, on closer scrutiny, are not. Or, at least, not anymore… Same thing, I suppose.

The latest effort of digging roots seems to have arisen after telling a friend that I hadn’t visited a recent exhibition of a famous painter because I’d thought the admission price was a bit steep for something which I could admire in as much detail online. My friend, of course, was shocked and subjected me to an unwarranted rebuke for thinking the two modalities were in any way comparable.

I have to admit to a certain agnosticism in the matter of Art, but, as art is wont to do, it started me wondering. What qualities, if any, does the original of anything, have that is so special that it has to be experienced in person? But I’m not advocating virtual reality, or proxy visitations, so much as an explanation of what makes the thing-in-itself seem so valuable.

I’m reminded of a podcast discussion I once heard about an exhibition of a Viking long boat. To see the real boat, the host of the program said -even if it was displayed behind a rope fence- was like experiencing the boat pulled up on a beach in Lindisfarne in 793 A.D. when they first raided Britain.

“But some of the boat had to be restored,” the expert explained. “In the original style and using the same type of wood, of course…” he quickly added, lest the magic seem to slip away. “But you’re right, it’s a Viking boat that they used for raids.”

Then someone –another expert, perhaps, spoke up. “So… Just to add a note of caution here… Let me ask how much of it was restored?”

“Pardon me?” The first expert seemed aghast that it would even matter.

“How much…? I mean, if you restored, say six boards on the deck, but the rest was original, could you still call it the original boat…?”

“Of course,” the first man blustered.

“Suppose you replaced the entire deck as well as a few boards of the gunwale? Still the same original boat…?”

“Yes…” he replied, but hesitantly. He could see where these questions were leading.

“Tell me,” the skeptic said quietly. “At what point –at what board, if you will- does it cease to be the original boat?”

I don’t remember the answer now, so many years later, but it was an interesting point. What is it about the ‘real’ thing that fosters the awe? If someone had simply built another boat, even using the same techniques and period tools, it would be admired, I’m sure –but not in the same way. Something would be missing… But what? For all intents and purposes, it would be the ‘same’ thing as the original.

Upon deeper reflection, I am reminded of another concept that intrigued me as a much younger student: Plato’s idea of Forms –a simple example being that of, say, triangleness; all triangles are examples –manifestations- of this, but not the thing-in-itself which is unknowable. Or, perhaps more illustrative: boatness. How is it that we can recognize a thing as a boat, even though boats have many designs, sizes, and shapes? What is it about boatness that permits its attribution to something, even if we have never seen anything like it before?

I think it’s easy to get lost in this, especially for an amateur like me, but I suspect that what I am wondering is whether ‘original’ might capture some of this idealized yet still intangible feeling of Form.

I tried the idea out on a couple of friends one evening at a pub. It was probably not a great place to discuss anything as nuanced as Plato, or Viking boats, but I get excited about things.

“Why is it better to see the actual painting in an exhibition rather than a picture of it?” I had to yell, because there was a lot going on around us that night.

“We were talking about Facebook news… How did art exhibitions get into this?” John, who was a recently retired lawyer, usually wanted to talk about politics, so I’m not surprised he was the first to notice my not so subtle segue.

In fact, I wasn’t sure what triggered the painting thing –maybe it was John’s insistence on going to the original news source and not relying on third hand copies. He had a point I thought, but I wondered if it also applied to paintings. And if so, why?

“But that’s a good example of why you go to the source, eh?” he added, smiling broadly at my perspicacity.

“With news, yes,” I yelled, as someone shrieked with laughter close by. “But why is it the same with a painting? Why isn’t it just as good looking at a high-quality photograph of it? They’re identical, aren’t they?”

Jason, a retired accountant put his empty glass on the table and tried to signal a waitress. “Are they?” he asked, turning to me when the waitress ignored him.

I shrugged. “I don’t know… that’s why I’m asking. Why are they different, Jason?”

He leaned over the table so we could both hear each other in the melee. “A photograph is just a copy.”

“Is what the painting contains –the image, the colour, the composition, and so on- not exactly the same in the photo?”

He thought about it for a moment, but started shaking his head. “I don’t know… somehow, there’s something missing in the photo, don’t you think?”

“What?” I was hoping he could narrow it down for me.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Maybe it’s that the painter –the creator– actually touched it…”

I smiled and had a sip of my wine. “Do you remember Plato from university?”

“I remember the allegory of the Cave… Loved that one…” John piped up, but quietly and Jason and I had difficulty hearing him.

I was thinking more of his Forms. Remember?” The blank looks on both their faces told me they didn’t. “Triangleness?” I offered as a hint.

“Oh yeah,” John said, obviously pleased at himself. “The ideal -of which something like any triangle you could draw would only be an example…”

“Didn’t Kant…” Jason was deep in memories. “… Something about noumena… Oh yeah, and the ‘thing-in-itself’ or whatever…”

“Uhmm, what I remember about his Critique of Pure Reason, I could write on a grain of salt,” John yelled to nobody in particular.

Jason mounted a condescending smile and launched his eyes on another search for the waitress.

“But I did love the Cave thing,” John continued, this time turning to me. “I always got it mixed up with the Forms, because I figured they were actually saying the same thing.” He leaned over the table so he wouldn’t have to talk as loud –I think he found the topic an embarrassing one for a pub. “I mean, think about it. All those prisoners in the cave chained so they can’t see the fire behind them, or the people holding up puppets that cast shadows on the only wall the prisoners can see. Naturally the prisoners think the shadows are the authentic world. And then one of the prisoners slips his chains and escapes to the sunlight outside and sees the real thing –not copies of it…”

Jason had given up by now and stared at John. “So, where do the Forms come into it…?”

It was John’s turn to look haughty as he rolled his eyes. “He sees reality, Jason. In a sense, he sees the Forms… the prisoners only saw the facsimiles –the copies, if you like!”

Jason just blinked at him. If I didn’t know him better, I would have thought he didn’t understand. “You know, this all started with G’s question about why it was better to see a painting in an exhibition than a copy of it somewhere else… How did we get to Plato’s Cave?”

“I think we just answered his question,” John said quietly, as we all leaned over the table to hear him in the noisy room. “It’s like experiencing reality, rather than the shadows it casts.”

“But…” I could see Jason was struggling with the idea. “…But couldn’t the prisoner just go back into the Cave and tell the others what he saw? That they were just looking at copies…?”

John smiled his best lawyerly smile. “Would they believe him if they hadn’t experienced what he had?”

I sat back in my seat with a big smile on my face and finished my wine. Sometimes it’s good to have a drink with people. Sometimes you just have to leave the Cave…




Frailty -Thy Name is Woman?

There seems to be no end in the struggle to differentiate men from women. You’d have thought that by now, we would have settled the boundary disputes, agreed on who owns what, and set up market stalls on anything remaining. It’s all shared territory anyway. Of course, maybe that’s naive. Maybe there are fundamental discrepancies that admit to only superficial comparisons. Relativities…We are, when all is said and done, different from each other not in terms of value, or worth, or intelligence -or anything like that- but physiologically. And there’s the wonder.

That we complement each other seems so adaptive, so perfect… And yet, do others that interact with us -microorganisms, for example- see it the same way? Are infections as unbiased, fair and equal as we are striving for in our societal evolution? Human laws be damned -do they see us as the same, or do their rules change depending on our sex? Do they discriminate?

We’ve all sniggered about the unequal fury of ‘man colds’ and the like, but whatever evidence supported or rejected this contention has always been subject to the confirmation bias of those studying it. An article in the BBC News seems to have uncovered yet another layer of the Matryoshka doll:

They have reported on a 2016 article in Nature Communications by Ubeda and Jansen which suggests that ‘Viruses can evolve to become more aggressive in men than in women’. This has usually been attributed to hormonal differences, and the effects these might have on the immune response, and no doubt this does play an important role. But suppose one were to examine this from a different perspective?

‘Viruses have ways of spreading that are unique to women – such as to a child in the womb, during birth or breastfeeding.’ From the invading organism’s point of view, this is important. ‘Scientists at Royal Holloway University in London used mathematics to model whether this altered the way viruses behaved. Their findings suggest there may be an advantage to infections being less aggressive in women as reducing the risk of killing the mother increases the chance of infecting the child.’

They’re not meaning to suggest some form of microbial intelligence of course -other than that those who happen upon a better way to survive and more successfully propagate their kind will be able to continue passing on their genes. ‘”Viruses may be evolving to be less dangerous to women, looking to preserve the female population, the virus wants to be passed from mother to child, either through breastfeeding, or just through giving birth.”’ The Selfish Gene kind of thing -survival of the most adaptive.

All this is very interesting, but for me, it also raises the question of the nature of intelligence, and whether we have truly cornered the market. Without becoming unduly tautologically entangled, how should we define intelligence -and therefore decide who, or what, possesses it?

I suspect it is no longer sufficient to equate mentality (to use an obviously autological word) with brain size, and neuronal density… Or maybe even neurons –trees, for example, have interconnecting root systems, often associated with fungal networks, that are able to communicate after a fashion. Trees and plants are also often able to signal to each other about threatening insect infestations, allowing the production of defensive chemicals. But they live in a different Magisterium almost -they cannot run or hide, so another mechanism was required for survival in an ever-changing environment.

Humans, with our recently evolved Weltanschauung, tend to frame the capacity of other organisms in terms of our own, and their intelligence by what we judge they have accomplished in their own environment. The fact that they have been successful at survival has often been seen as irrelevant to the discussion. Whether an organism can reason –if we can ever peel away the inbuilt hubris implied by the word- is surely another way of saying, ‘learns from its mistakes and adapts appropriately’ -even if that is only in terms of the next generation enabled by the survivor. We have adjusted in our fashion, and they in theirs.

Still, I don’t mean to attribute our characteristics to microorganisms who could care less what we think. Sometimes, it is enough to survive and create the next generation; sometimes adaptation-whether over time and generations, or in one lifetime- can be seen as a goal achieved. So, is it too much to believe that there may be an effective strategy that is gender-modifiable? And is it too much to call it a strategy? Is this such stuff as dreams are made on…?

However much we hesitate to anthropomorphize an issue, a change of perspective is often heuristic. It may well lead to a new understanding and hence a novel approach to a hitherto unsolvable problem. Although this is purely speculative at this stage, the researchers in that article suggest ‘that eventually it may be possible to use drugs to trick viruses into thinking they were infecting women in order to make them less aggressive.’

What an exciting prospect that we may no longer feel a need to completely ignore gender in our dealings with the world -that we may finally be able to shed the guilt of being unable to meld the two into a seamless fabric, and feel embarrassed that, like a poorly executed pentimento, traces of the discrepancy continue to persist.

Recognition and concession of difference does not imply censure or stigmatization -rather, it invites a celebration of the unique patterns each can offer. A realization that a recipe with only one ingredient is uninteresting and bland. And, given the conjecture in the Nature and Communication paper, it’s an awareness of something suspected since antiquity: that our remedies oft in ourselves do lie.

Sometimes, like Robert Frost we just have to take the road not taken:

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.