There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

If I’m brutally honest with myself, I suspect I side with Goldilocks in her preference for the just-right-baby-bear stance: not too hard, not too soft. I have always been more comfortable in the middle of the Bell Curve with lots of wiggle room on either side; I’m not really cut out to be an extremist. And I was always taught to be sensible and use things wisely: buy good quality and look after whatever I bought so it would last. But times change, I guess, and as the price of goods declined with improved production, and fashion began to favour frequent change, the temptation to buy and replace increased.

Still, making-do was what my parents did, although perhaps it was easier in the days when planned obsolescence was just an economic dream. Unfortunately, now I replace things more often than I reuse them -and more often than I really need to, as well. As the months slip past and the years pile up one upon another on the shelf, I fear I have also become a creature of things. A collector of more than just Time.

And yet I have always harboured a suspicion that new is not necessarily better, nor is more always preferable to less. I would probably make a rather poor salesman, with the menace of the sharp needle of conscience only millimetres away -although I have to confess to feeling the thrill of buying a new and different watch each time the 5 year battery runs out. I justify it by assuming I’m assuring that someone will have a job -and anyway, I’m keeping the economy afloat… Aren’t I?

Dichotomies like these make it difficult to choose sides, though, don’t they? Sometimes it helps to step back far enough to see both sides of the street, and an essay by the author Nick Thorpe in Aeon put things in a rather intriguing perspective for me: https://aeon.co/essays/we-should-love-material-things-more-than-we-do-now-not-less

‘We’ve got used to the transitory nature of our possessions, the way things are routinely swept aside and replaced,’ he writes. ‘It’s one of the challenges facing the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, whose chief scientific adviser, Professor David MacKay, in January bemoaned ‘the way in which economic activity and growth currently is coupled to buying lots of stuff and then throwing it away’… According to data aggregated by the Global Footprint Network, it takes the biosphere a year to produce what humanity habitually consumes in roughly eight months.’

One could try to avoid consumer goods altogether of course, and yet things do wear out. Things do break. And some things become sufficiently outmoded that they no longer function in the rapidly evolving technosphere. So I suppose we have to persevere ‘with what the British psychologist Michael Eysenck calls the ‘hedonic treadmill’, holding out the unlikely hope that the spike of satisfaction from our next purchase will somehow prove less transitory than the last.’ But as Thorpe observes, ‘If Western consumer culture sometimes resembles a bulimic binge in which we taste and then spew back things that never quite nourish us, the ascetic, anorexic alternative of rejecting materialism altogether will leave us equally starved.’

The answer, as Goldilocks knew all along, lies in compromise. It’s not that we value things too much, but rather that we don’t value them enough. ‘The challenge is to cherish our possessions enough to care about where they came from, who made them, what will happen to them in the future.’

We seem to be innate categorizers, more addicted to the hierarchies of price than cognizant of intrinsic value. And yet, with only a slight shift in perspective, wouldn’t it be valuable to ‘retain the pulse of their making’ as the British ceramicist Edmund de Waal put it? Much as a gift wears a different aura, and adds a different value to the object than is merely contained in its function, consideration of its history and its craft may well do the same.

In the modern world we are too far from the source to marvel at the genius of its production. I am reminded of one of the novels of Mark Twain –A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court– in which an American engineer from Connecticut sustains a head injury and awakens in the medieval English court of the mythical King Arthur. It hadn’t developed the processes and gadgets we take for granted nowadays, so it fell to the engineer to develop them from scratch.

I tried to imagine making a working bicycle and the need to fashion it from whatever raw materials were at hand. And had I succeeded -which would have been well beyond my skill- I certainly would have viewed it in a different light than nowadays. The same had I built a clock, or fashioned reading glasses, or even devised a flashlight… My midden would not have required weekly removal.

Still, it’s not just keeping everything you’ve ever bought -that would be hoarding- but in valuing the item enough to repair it and continue using it: Repair, Reuse, then Recycle. Thorpe writes about a growing trend (at least in his part of the UK) of repair shops, and about an absolutely delightfully named social enterprise ‘‘Remade in Edinburgh’ [which] is one of a growing network of community repair shops dedicated to teaching ordinary people to mend and reuse household goods.’

Of course, the ability to avail oneself of this sort of thing is dependent on the initial quality of the item, as well as the opportunity to avoid the planned obsolescence of a technology wrapped in its own hubris. It also requires role models that we can all admire and emulate -people -and things- of proven worth.

Much as we tend to look up to sports heroes, say, or famous scientists, perhaps we need look no further than ourselves, and our biology’s long evolutionary history of successful strategies to reuse what we already have. Sometimes there is no need to develop new genes, or even new organs, to increase our success: existing equipment can be repurposed. Exaptation is the word that the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and his colleague Elisabeth Vrba proposed in 1982 to describe a new function for which an organ, say, was not originally intended. An example might be that of feathers on dinosaurs -in that instance, they may have been helpful for warmth, but were obviously not originally intended for flight as in their later descendants, birds. Or another example, drawn from my own specialty (Obstetrics), but drawn to my attention in an essay in Livescience by Wynne Parry: ‘All vertebrates have sutures between the bones of their skulls to allow for growth, but in young mammals these sutures have acquired an additional use easing birth by allowing the skull to compress as it passes through the birth canal.’

Inventions are seldom wasted in nature; why should we think our own artifacts need be an exception? There are so many obvious precedents that should encourage it -maybe would encourage it- if they were more widely known.

Okay, I’ll admit it’s quite a stretch, and perhaps unduly naïve to think that it would have much of an effect on the average person. But sometimes I think it’s important for us to believe that we have permission to rethink our obsession with novelty, and to realize that we are here today largely because of repurposing. Reusing. And then, ultimately, being ourselves recycled so we can all begin anew…

They did make love to this employment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Me of Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The expense of spirit in a waste of shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fine balance -just like Lenore said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frederic shrugged in embarrassment.

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

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

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

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

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

We all nodded in unison. Some things never change.

When I was at home, I was in a better place

I am a railway child -or, more specifically, I am the child of a railway father. And as a result the family was transferred to a new location every few years; I have lived in almost every province of Canada at one time or other, so home for me was always a shifting target -a work in progress. Even now, if anyone asks me where home is, I have to think. Is it where I live right now? The place I lived the longest? Or maybe my favourite house…? You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult; I don’t imagine it is for most people, and maybe that’s why they ask. Home, according to the English anthropologist Mary Douglas, ‘is always a localisable idea. Home is located in space but it is not necessarily a fixed space… It need not be a large space, but space there must be, for home starts by bringing some space under control.’ I suppose I’ve controlled many spaces, but it’s just that I’m being asked to choose.

The idea of Home has always been elusive for me; I have usually felt orphaned -or perhaps  foster-homed would be a better way to describe it. I lived with loving parents in pleasant houses that, just as I was beginning to feel ownership, were snatched away along with any roots I had put down or friends with whom I had shared some time, however briefly.

I mention this because of an essay in Aeon.com that caught my eye: https://aeon.co/essays/what-does-home-mean-if-your-bed-is-on-the-pavements-of-paris It was written by Johannes Lenhard, a research associate and coordinator at the Max Planck Cambridge Centre for Ethics, Economy and Social Change. He did two years of ethnographic research on people living on the streets of Paris who had no fixed abode. As such, one would assume that they had no place they regarded as ‘home’, and yet that would be wrong.

As Lenhard writes, ‘homelessness is very much the product of the malfunction of social, economic and welfare systems, paired with life events such as mental or physical illness, divorce, death and domestic violence. But what might surprise outsiders is that the people I met on the street often didn’t think of themselves as abject or suffering.’ Often, in fact, they ‘were actively struggling to make homes on the street, both literally and symbolically, not simply sitting still. Focusing on the negative and stifled experiences of the homeless invariably produces an incomplete picture, and obscures the creative and resourceful practices that people deploy to deal with their situation.’ Those people ‘on the streets of Paris were striving – in their own ways – towards being better selves’ and Lenhard ‘came to understand the activities, processes and routines that they [the street people] engaged in – begging, making a shelter, accessing temporary housing, etc – as practices of the self geared towards a better life, as practices of homemaking on the street, as practices of hope.’ And, as the French philosopher Michel Foucault said, the self is ‘not given to us … we have to create ourselves as a work of art’.

The hardest thing, I suspect, is imagining how a person living on the streets month after month, year after year, could still be aiming for a fulfilled life -for a home. Lenhard quotes something the American anthropologist Cheryl Mattingly wrote in her book, The Paradox of Hope, about chronically ill people in the United States. Interestingly, it applies equally to the so-called homeless people of his study: ‘Hope most centrally involves the practice of creating, or trying to create, lives worth living even in the midst of suffering, even with no happy ending in sight.’

Home, therefore, could also be somewhere, not in the present ‘but about one’s hopes, about making home [in] an imagined place where one has not yet arrived.’ Home making, then, is a process, ‘involving the material and the imaginative, social connections and mundane acts. Routines, habits and rhythms – often as simple as regularly visiting certain neighbourhoods, shelters and food kitchens…’ That can be home.

Maybe that’s why the young man who always seemed to be sitting with his dog on a busy street corner near my office, seemed so surprised one day when I asked him where his home was. Every day when I walked past him, he smiled at me like we were old friends. I suppose we were, really. For months, I’d made a point of putting any loose change I had in my pocket into the little tin at his feet -and yet he’d smile even when I didn’t contribute anything. He seemed as happy that I even noticed him each time I passed -most didn’t, he told me one time.

I suppose I was as intrigued by his dog, an old black lab that always wagged his tail at me, as I was by the boy. Anybody who can care for a dog is someone I can care for, so we sometimes talked. Nothing too personal, of course -I didn’t want to embarrass him- but both of us were curious about each other, I could tell.

We knew each other’s names: his was Brian, and his dog was Jeffrey -not ‘Jeff’ mind you, Jeffrey. He was quite adamant about that -he never told me why, nor why he’d chosen the particular corner where he sat, for that matter, although I suspect there are rules. Territories. Spaces available that are controllable for a while -until they aren’t… I never asked about that.

But I was curious about where they went at night. It wouldn’t be a safe space then, nor, for that matter was it ever sheltered in the rain. Brian and Jeffrey had not been there the previous winter, and on rainy days there was a space open on the concrete where they weren’t…

And yet when I asked him about his home he merely smiled, hugged his dog, and looked up at me as if the very question meant I could never understand: I had never lived like him -like them. They were a Magisterium apart. But, as I watched the two of them together, happy in the moment, I think I finally understood what Foucault had meant. Brian, I think, would be happy with that, too…

Is Everybody a Petard?

Sociology is certainly interesting; it turns out that none of us are normal -well, perhaps more revealingly, there is no normal ‘us’. We are, at best, data points spread out on a rather amorphous Bell curve, vaguely generalizable depending on the homogeneity of the group chosen, but often unrepresentative of populations further afield.

And yet, why should that be a surprise to anybody who has vacationed in a different hemisphere -or, for that matter, simply walked through a poorer section of their own town? Or mingled with members of another ethnic community? Or even talked to a different age group…?

We seem enamoured with reducing people to numbers -statistics- as if by accumulating and analyzing them appropriately, we have proven something… Undoubtedly we have demonstrated something, but what? And how applicable is it over time and culture?

I have to admit that I have long felt that the generalizations were overdone, and in the current era of rapid dissemination of ideas that seem as stable as clothes in a washing machine, not terribly relevant. But the idea was reintroduced to me in an essay in Aeon.com by Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago: https://aeon.co/ideas/what-happens-to-cognitive-diversity-when-everyone-is-more-weird

His contention was that ‘On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling… This marks a major change of course for our species. For tens of thousands of years, as we fanned out across the globe, we adapted to radically different niches, and created new types of societies; in the process, we developed new practices, frameworks, technologies and conceptual systems. But then, some time in the past few centuries, we reached an inflection point. A peculiar cognitive toolkit that had been consolidated in the industrialising West began to gain global traction. Other tools were abandoned. Diversity started to ebb.’

The toolkit he is referencing is the use of WEIRD -an acronym meaning the use of Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic students as fodder for the studies that were being published in the sociological literature. He references a famous paper published in 2010 led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia entitled ‘The Weirdest people in the World?’ https://aeon.co/essays/american-undergrads-are-too-weird-to-stand-for-all-humanity

And in that paper, Henrich claimed, ‘researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.’ They were definitely not representative of the world at large, and yet since this type of group was being referenced constantly, the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania, felt it might be how otherwise disparate groups were beginning to see themselves; where he found cross-cultural differences, ‘they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging.’

One example, as I have mentioned, is our obsession with numbers to quantify and measure things. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, and yet it does represent a unique weltanschauung that ignores other, no less valid, ways of engaging with everyday reality.

Another might be our fixation on Time -that artificial construct we append to every action, whether actual or impending. Again, for those of us who are tied to schedules it seems not only appropriate, but also necessary. How else could we survive and prosper in the life in which we are enmeshed?

There are other examples of the stamp our culture has had on far flung peoples, but the one that intrigues me the most is language. The currently evolving Lingua Franca (a strikingly ironic oxymoron) could reasonably be argued to be English. And why might that be important? ‘English is an egocentric language whereas most others are allocentric: English-speakers describe objects’ location in relation to themselves or other people, and not to other objects (for example, ‘the bike is five metres to my left’ rather than ‘the bike is next to the fire hydrant’).’

I had never thought of my language like that, I must admit, but if the contention is valid, the ramifications are interesting and it affects the kinds of studies that are carried out. ‘Our cultural bias means that not only do we ignore concepts that might be important in other countries – such as face, caste or honour – but that you often end up testing for an English-language concept (‘shame’, for example) which might have no direct equivalent in another society, or have different connotations.’

Henrich argued that ‘what we think of as science is all too often ‘WEIRD’ science… Between 2003 and 2007, 96 per cent of experimental volunteers in the leading psychology journals were WEIRD; 68 per cent of papers relied exclusively on US subjects; and in the prestigious Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67 per cent of total subjects were US psychology students. ‘Many fields have a model organism that they study… A lot of medicine is done with mice, a lot of genetics is done with fruit flies. And in psychology, the model organism is the American undergraduate.’ Perhaps things have changed since those statistics were collated, and yet, I’m sure fiscal constraints still limit both the amount of diversity attainable and the ability to replicate and validate whatever conclusions were obtained.

But, apart from paring off a few charming idiosyncrasies, and allowing -forcing?- strangers to adapt to how we in the WEIRD west view the world, is there any harm done? It’s still valuable information, right?

All information is no doubt valuable, but is it useful? Cooperrider summarizes his concern at the end: ‘For much of human history, one of our most distinctive traits as a species has been our sheer diversity.’ So, is that something we can afford to lose?

Not that I have any realistic say in the matter, but now that I understand the trend, I have to ask myself if I really want to live in a vanilla ice-cream world -one with no lumps in it. No mysterious colours, no fireside tales of how each of us came to be.

Are we not such stuff as dreams are made on?