Wast thou o’erlook’d, even in thy birth?

That Age can do some funny things to the mind seems fairly obvious. The accumulation of years, brings with it a panoply of experience that, hopefully, enables a kind of personalized Weltanschauung to emerge -things begin to sort themselves on the proper shelves, and even if they remain difficult to retrieve, there is a satisfaction that they are there, if not completely codified.

Of course, admixed with any elder ruminations are the ever-present intimations of imminent mortality -but it’s not that Age constrains the thought process to memento mori, so much as a flourishing of its antithesis: memento vivere. Age is a time for reflection about one’s life with a perspective from further up the hill.

And yet, for all the experiential input, there are two time frames hidden from each of us -what happens after death, is the obvious one to which most of us turn our attention as the final act draws to a close, but there is an equally shrouded area on which few of us spend any time: what, if anything, was preconceptual existence like? Is it the equivalent of death, perhaps minus the loss of an identity not yet acquired?

I wonder if it’s a subject more understandable to the very young, than the gnarled and aged. I remember the very first time I was taken to a movie theatre, somewhere around two or three years of age, I think. When I say ‘remember’, I mean to say I have only one recollection of the event: that of a speeding locomotive filmed in black-and-white from track level, and roaring over the camera. It was very exciting, but I remember my father being very puzzled when I confessed that I’d seen it before. I hadn’t, of course, as he patiently explained to me, and yet it seemed to me I’d seen the same thing years before.

No doubt it was my still-immature neurons trying to make sense of the world, but the picture seemed so intuitively obvious to me at the time. And through the years, the image has stayed with me, as snippets of childhood memories sometimes do, although with the meaning now sufficiently expurgated as to be innocuous, as well as devoid of any important significance.

And then, of course, there was the Bridey Murphy thing that was all the rage when I was growing up in the 1950ies. I read the book The Search for Bridey Murphy in my early teenage years about a Colorado woman, Virginia Tighe, who, under hypnotic regression in the early 1950ies, claimed she was the reincarnation of an Irish woman, Bridey Murphy from Cork in the 19th century. I even went to see the movie of the same name as the book. It was all pretty well debunked subsequently, but I suppose it was enough, at a tender age, to make me wonder about what might have happened before I become me.

At any rate, I am puzzled about why the seeming non-existence prior to conception is not something we think about more often. True, we would likely have no identity to put into that side of the equation, nor, for that matter, the loss of anything like friends or, well, existence, on the other, but still it is a comparable void. A wonderful mystery every bit as compelling as death.

I suppose the issue resurfaced for me a few years ago when I had a very vivid dream about our three-score-and-ten of existence. I saw myself as a bubble rising through some boiling water. While I was the bubble, I thought of myself as singular and not only separate from, but possessing an identity totally differentiated and unique from everything else around me. My life was the time it took me to rise to the surface. And yet when I arrived there, and my bubble burst and disappeared, when the me inside dissolved in the air from which I started, it all made sense. In fact, the encapsulated journey itself was an aberration, as was the idea of identity…

The dream lay fallow for several years and then reawakened, Phoenix-like, when I discovered an essay in the online publication Aeon, by Alison Stone, a professor of philosophy at Lancaster University in the UK. https://aeon.co/ideas/thinking-about-ones-birth-is-as-uncanny-as-thinking-of-death

‘Many people feel anxious about the prospect of their death,’ she writes. ‘Indeed, some philosophers have argued that death anxiety is universal and that this anxiety bounds and organises human existence. But do we also suffer from birth anxiety? Perhaps. After all, we are all beings that are born as well as beings that die… Once we bear in mind that we are natal as well as mortal, we see some ways in which being born can also occasion anxiety.’

I don’t believe she is thinking of what it must feel like to be born, so much as the transition from, well, the nothing before sperm and egg meet, to a something -to a somebody. She quotes the thoughts of the bioethicist David Albert Jones in his 2004 book The Soul of the Embryo: ‘We might be telling someone of a memory or event and then realise that, at that time, the person in front of us did not even exist! … If we seriously consider the existence and the beginning of any one particular human being … we realise that it is something strange and profound.’

Stone continues, ‘I began to exist at a certain point in time, and there is something mysterious about this. I haven’t always been there; for aeons, events in the world unfolded without me. But the transition from nonexistence to existence seems so absolute that it is hard to comprehend how I can have passed across it… To compound the mystery further, there was no single crossing point. In reality, we don’t begin in [a] sudden, dramatic way… Rather, I came into existence gradually. When first conceived, I was a single cell (a zygote). Then I developed a formed body and began to have a rudimentary level of experience during gestation. And once out of my mother’s womb, I became involved in culture and relationships with others, and acquired a structured personality and history. Yet the zygote that I began as was still me, even though it had none of this.’ Wow -you see what I mean?

Stone seems to think that all this is rather distressing, but I disagree. All I feel is a sense of profound, unbounded wonder at it all. Reflecting on that time-before-time is not unweaving the rainbow, as Keats was said to have accused Newton of doing because he had destroyed its poetry by actually studying it.

In fact, I’m reminded of something the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote: And when you were a silent word upon Life’s quivering lips, I too was there, another silent word. Then life uttered us and we came down the years throbbing with memories of yesterday and with longing for tomorrow, for yesterday was death conquered and tomorrow was birth pursued.

I have to believe there will still be poetry in the world -with or without us…

Like madness, is the glory of this life

My grandmother was old when she died -very old, in fact: she died on the morning after her 100th birthday party. Her congratulatory letter from the Queen -or at least someone official claiming to speak for her highness- came the day before. I’m not so sure it was congratulations, really -more a recognition that a member of the United Kingdom, albethey an émigré, had still remained loyal to her majesty and her dominions for a century.

My grandmother seemed to enjoy the party we held for her -she was all smiles and although she also seemed a bit confused by it all, she was delighted by the letter. It spoke to her of another life, I think -one that whispered the secrets of a little girl growing up in an English seaside town with a shingled beach and an amusement pier that offered tempting glimpses of a world across the sea -a world she couldn’t know would become her own for most of her life.

We all have lives like that -the present we currently occupy pales in depth, in colour, and even in meaning to the worlds we have tasted in our incomparably longer past. It only seems appropriate that when our brains tire of sorting through the tyrannies of the moment, we default to the myriad memories of what we lived. The past can be a comfortable place to rest -familiar, at the very least.

I loved visiting my aging granny -even in the hospital where she spent her final days she was always full of stories, full of wisdom, and full of wonder. And although often confused about current events, or what she’d had for breakfast that morning, her eyes would light up when I asked her to tell me about, say, her train journey across the country when she and grampa first arrived in the boat from England.

She would chuckle when she told me of the pioneer stoves they used to cook their food enroute, and how each time the locomotive stopped to fill the water in its tank, everybody would make a mad dash from the railway coaches to find wood and occasional supplies from the little stations along the way. Her eyes would twinkle as she relived the flavours of whatever food they’d had, and she would laugh at the difficulty of cooking on the ever-moving stoves. She had no trouble remembering how everybody helped each other -she even remembered some of their names after more than eighty years.

So whenever she seemed confused at my visits or flustered by my questions about her health, I would smile and settle in a chair beside her and ask her what she remembered about ‘the old days’ as she decided to call them. After all, I think she lived there most of the time -it seemed a place where she was happy. At any rate, it seemed to calm her, and allow her to speak to me as if she were still in the summer garden she’d loved to show me on my visits years ago to the house she and her husband had built near Vancouver. There seemed to be no disorder in the garden, no anxious  search for a constantly fading identity, nothing forgotten there -just flowers all around us, and birds singing in the bower of trees she’d planted so long ago.

She loved to speak from there, and even then -especially then- I was happy to sit there with her in her past. I lived happily in the two worlds, and she enjoyed meeting me there; like lovers we would float from dream to dream, escaping from the bewildering clatter of a crowded hospital ward. Who would not prefer her floral ‘then’ to her sterile ‘here-and-now’?

The staff told me of the problems with her confusion, and how she would sometimes wander off looking, as she told one of them, ‘for the garden’. And all the while around us, there were often moans and shouts, and irritable reactions to attempts to tame the ward. Sanity lay somewhere in the past -their patients’ past- but the department seemed hastily conceived as a holding area until beds became available in community nursing homes. Hospital was perhaps the wrong place for most of the elders -they were not sick except, perhaps, for home… or for something that reminded them of home, at any rate.

I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to come across an essay on retrieving the autobiographical memory of demented seniors in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/the-self-in-dementia-is-not-lost-and-can-be-reached-with-care

It was written by Muireann Irish, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney. ‘Our autobiographical memory… seems crucial to weaving a life story that bridges past and present, and permits us to extrapolate how the future might unfold, all within a meaningful and coherent narrative. So what happens when the tapestry of memory begins to fray, and we lose access to defining memories from the past?’

There are many types of neurodegenerative loss -Alzheimer’s among them, of course- and it is progressive. ‘Gradually, as the disease spreads, more distant memories are affected, leading to patchy recall of self-defining events, such as one’s wedding day or the birth of one’s children.’ And without our memories, who are we…? ‘There remains a recalcitrant perception that in parallel with the progressive pathological onslaught in the brain is the inevitable demise of personhood, akin to a ‘living death’.’

But, viewing dementia like that is not only depressing, but incomplete, according to the author. ‘While the illness is devastating, not all memories are obliterated by Alzheimer’s, and much of the person’s general knowledge and recollection of the distant past is retained. There remains a vast repository of life experiences, personal history, stories and fables that endures, even late into the illness. At moderate to severe stages of dementia, activities such as art, dance and music therapy provide important nonverbal means of communicating and fostering social interaction even when, on the surface, many core capabilities might seem to be lost… As the disease progresses and their self-concept becomes more rooted in their past, people with dementia can feel increasingly divorced from their current surroundings, which no longer make sense or feel familiar. This is the catalyst for behaviours that are commonly couched as ‘challenging’, such as agitation, wandering, attempts to leave a care facility to ‘go home’.’

Irish suggests that instead of confronting the dementia with an enforced ‘now’, ‘a positive approach could be to create a ‘memory box’ in anticipation of the days to come. This could form a repository of photographs, keepsakes, newspaper clippings, objects with personal meaning, even fabrics and smells, that resonate with the person and provide an external memory store. Conversations regarding music and songs from the person’s formative years, and the memories that these tunes evoke, could inspire personalised playlists that foster social interaction and the springboard for reminiscence. For care staff, a memory store of this nature would be as important as taking a detailed medical history.’

As for my grandmother, I was happy to sit with her in her garden while she happily regaled me with stories of her past. And I’d like to think that after she received that letter from her queen, she retreated to the garden to read it again and again as her life washed over her like a cooling summer breeze, and the flowers whispered sweet nothings in her ear.

In scorn of Nature, Art gave lifeless life

Age is an artist that continues to paint experience after experience over the worn and tattered scenes that are no more. For most of us, however, the pentimento is obvious, and never quite disappears beneath the crust of what we insist on adding. And yet, we continue to paint in hopes we’ve got it right at last: that what we are now portraying is what we should have seen those many years ago. All the while, of course, the colours thicken on what we layered on before, adding nothing to our knowledge, only curtains that cast shadows on the canvas -the past no more than tricks of light.

And yet I’m beginning to suspect that there is more to Art than the depiction of long forgotten histories in words or canvas -far more, in fact. Art is the plaque in the cornerstone that reminds us of how things were, the figure-ground that taunts our hallowed view of present days -the stories that we have come to revere.

But we are, all of us, Art; we are the stories that we tell, and the ones that we have heard. We are what we have seen, however vaguely remembered, and parts of us are shadows that follow us around like memories.

So, it occurred to me that Art could function as a synergist: its effect is greater than might be expected from what it depicts. If nothing else, a painting -like an old photograph, perhaps- allows us to see what was and compare it with what is. Some difference is usually to be expected, I suppose, but if the change is sufficiently irreconcilable to our expectations, it may speak to those little ears within that are alert to dissonance. In other words, it may spur us to a conclusion, an action, that we may not have felt was either necessary or justified before: the past ‘screwing our courage to the sticking place’, to slightly paraphrase Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

I hasten to admit that my epiphany is far from original, but I was pleased to find a thorough examination of it in an essay in BBC Future written by Ella Saltmarshe and Beatrice Pembroke, the founders of the Long Time Project which ‘champions art and culture as a route to helping people think and act more long-term.’ https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190521-how-art-and-culture-can-help-us-rethink-time

‘For most of human history we haven’t needed to think long-term,’ they write. ‘” As futurist Jamais Casio puts it, “In a world of constant, imminent existential threats, the ability to recognise subtle, long-term processes and multi-generational changes wasn’t a particularly important adaptive advantage.” Yet today, the nature of risk has changed. We no longer live in a world of clear, local cause and effect, and the greatest threats to civilisation are happening on the timescale of decades or centuries.’ And yet, ‘While our minds might be not be wired to deal with long-term threats and priorities in the abstract, they are wired for two things that we can control: story and emotion… Art can stretch our time frames, helping us develop what geologist Marcia Bjornerud calls “timefulness”: the ability to locate ourselves within eras and aeons, rather than weeks and months.’

The authors go on to document the ‘growing body of deep time work that locates us in the epic geological history of the Universe, evoking awe and wonder.’ And it seems to me that such an approach may help to bridge the ever-widening gap between indifference and despair: the unwillingness to confront the existential threats that seem to be confronting us at every turn -from the paucity new antibiotics able to deal with increasing microbial resistance, the growing mistrust of vaccines in the face of overwhelming evidence for their efficacy, to the elephant looming in the dark, stuffy room of climate change. We are often so frightened by these, and other things, that we turn our heads away, and like children hiding under a blanket, think we have found a refuge from the elephant and his kin. But somewhere inside, we know we have solved nothing, and if we turn again to look, we find that it is staring at us still.

Sometimes, when things seem too remote for action, too unlikely to affect us, or worse, too horrible to contemplate, we benefit from intermediaries we trust to explain what we have failed to understand and to guide us through the fear. Change is normal, but only when it doesn’t colour outside the expected boundaries -then it turns to chaos. In the words of Shakespeare again -this time King Lear- that way madness lies; let me shun that. So, as the authors write: ‘If we can work with art and culture to stretch our time frames so that we care about the long-term future, then hopefully as a species, we will have a future in the long term.’

And sometimes, it is also the little things changing that we’re reluctant to face.

“Is that where you used to live, Grampa?” My 4 year old grandson stared at the picture I had shown him with a doubtful expression on his face. “Can we go and see it…?”

I could only smile at his enthusiasm. I was a child myself when I’d lived there and my parents had long since sold the house to developers, but at the time it was on a quiet, unsidewalked street lined with trees. Now, years later, it was lined with multi-storied apartment blocks and parked cars.

“It’s changed since then, Cas,” I explained. “And our house isn’t there anymore…”

“Where’d it go?” he asked, his face now puzzled.

My answer was a little shrug. In truth, I missed the house with its wide wooden steps and covered porch. It had trees in the front and back, and a garden where my mother used to grow vegetables that she’d preserve for the long, protracted winter season. I’d told Cas about it many times, but had only just found the grainy photograph for him to see.

“Is the street like our street now?” He ran to the front window of the little apartment his mother and my son were renting while they worked their way up their respective corporate ladders. I had agreed to babysit for the afternoon.

I walked over to the window and looked out with him; I had to nod my head. “Yes Cas, very much like this street.”

He stared out the window for a while, and as I started to walk away, he turned to me. “Why did you let them do it, Grampa?”

The question caught me by surprise. “Do what, Cas?”

“Tear down your beautiful house and take away the trees?”

I had to sigh. “I suppose my mommy and daddy were getting old and needed to move to some place smaller that was easier to take care of…” In fact, they were both gone now.

He thought about it for a moment. “Did their new house have trees and a garden, too?”

Cas seemed so earnest that I didn’t want to disappoint him. He’d never met his great-grandparents; he’d never had to endure their gradual decay in the extended care home in which they  ended up. So I nodded. “Yes, they moved to a place with trees and a little flower garden.”

A big smile suddenly appeared on his face and his eyes twinkled with pleasure. “That’s good,” he said, with a sudden adult expression on his little face. “My daddy says we’re going to move to a place with trees…” He glanced out of the window again. “Trees are important when you get old, aren’t they Grampa?”

They certainly are Cas, I thought and nodded with a sigh. Trees will always be important.

A thousand times goodnight

Am I working against the grain? Or is it just that I’m getting older? Unable to assimilate new situations quickly enough to form a useful opinion? I’d rather think of it as the wisdom of Age, but, of course, I would think that, wouldn’t I? And yet, the realization that first impressions are often premature impressions is something only acquired through experience, I suppose, because it’s difficult to shed the initial suspicion that you may have discovered something really important.

I’m pretty sure I have never formed friends like that -friendship (as opposed to acquaintanceship) is acquired slowly, and over time. And as to something akin to ‘love at first sight’, I can only say that for those kinds of feelings to last -at least on my part- they have to be reciprocated. That, too, takes time. ‘Attraction at first sight’ is another thing altogether, though -it is more superficial, and probably less demanding. Love is a deep -dare I say, spiritual– thing, whereas I think attraction sits more tenuously on the rather slippery surface of our attention.

Still, I recognize that as the years slowly thicken around me, they may have dampened the restless partner-seeking vibrissae to which younger, thinner skin is so exposed. I’m not sure that I am completely disqualified, but at least my muffled needs have allowed me time to reflect before deciding -to breathe, before seeking to envelop…

And yet, I remain curious, if not vicariously attracted to the issue of first impressions, so I just had to read the BBC story that promised to unwrap it like a bedtime story from long ago: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190401-is-there-such-a-thing-as-love-at-first-sight

In an essay for BBC by William Park, he writes that ‘There is evidence that we are able to make an assessment of someone’s attractiveness in the blink of an eye, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that those assessments are accurate… It takes less than 1/10th of a second to form an assessment of someone’s face. These first impressions predict all kinds of important characteristics, not just attractiveness.’ And, ‘These impressions we make in a split second are not random; they tend to be shared by the majority of the people surveyed. But it doesn’t necessarily make them correct. “A first impression could be misleading,” says professor Alexander Todorov [an academic at Princeton University]… “We only make first impressions about strangers. So naturally they are superficial.”’

‘Whether our predictions are accurate or not, we make them quickly and we stick to them. Even if we are given more time than 1/10th of a second to judge the attractiveness of a face, we are unlikely to arrive at a different conclusion… There are three universal qualities that people infer from a face: attractiveness, trustworthiness and dominance. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Attractiveness is a mating cue, trustworthiness implies useful social characteristics, like being able to care for children, and assessing dominance is useful to avoid conflict.’

So far, so good, I suppose -if a bit reductionist. But the essay goes on to suggest that we prejudge facial photos using the same categories and ‘portraits taken from a low angle are more likely to be judged as dominant, which is positive for men and negative for women. Whereas the reverse is seen in portraits taken from a high angle.’ -so, my first clue as to what kind of picture to put on a dating site, I guess. But there is a catch: ‘In dating apps, it is a case of love at second sight. When asked to rate the attractiveness of potential partners, if the preceding face was attractive you are more likely to rate the next face as attractive and vice versa.’

Well, that confirms my suspicion that online first impressions are such stuff as dreams are made on. ‘First impressions are rapid but shallow and mutable if you have better information.’ You have to talk to somebody, engage with them to sustain something more than a passing interest. And then, of course, it is no longer a ‘first’ impression. But, I’m only reiterating what Todorov  believes: ‘“The only way to tell whether two people will really like each other – they have to talk. People don’t make good predictions for compatibility without talking,” says Professor Todorov.’

Uhmm… I have to say that I began to lose interest at that point. I began to wonder, as I pointed out earlier, whether the essay was more about attraction, than love. It’s easy to get them mixed up in the soup of hormones in which we swim. In many ways, the article was a ‘how to’ for the young and restless. I was more intrigued by something  Park points out in the dying embers of his article when he quotes a professor of psychology from California State University, Los Angeles, Karen Wu. ‘Wu studies dating behaviours in Asian-American communities who put a different emphasis on certain values… “Western cultures value individual goals more than group goals. Collectivistic cultures might value niceness more because you’re interested in group benefits rather than individual benefits.”

In other words, ‘Considering this, it is a miracle that we ever find someone who is as attracted to us as we are to them. The conversation your potential partner had directly before meeting you, their general mood, their cultural background, the angle at which they are looking at you, whether they deem themselves to be more popular than you – all these factors could influence whether you hit it off seems endless.’

So, is it any wonder that Age seems like a vacation at the cottage? No compulsion to drive somewhere, and then get up the next day and drive someplace else. No need to worry about the angle from which you take your selfies, or whether the next individual who wanders past is judging you by the standards of the person with whom they last talked.

These all seem like minor things in the bigger picture, and yet they loom large in the quest for partnership, I suppose. Attractiveness, trustworthiness and dominance -is that what we’re expected -okay, designed– to glean from the first glance without even needing to break the ice with a smile or a kind word? Biologic atavisms, if you ask me… although I am seldom canvassed for that kind of opinion anymore. I’m not sure why.

Death, Thou shalt Die

Just when you think that Age has afforded you a full panoply of experience, another one comes along that you are forced to fit into the bookcase. It may be sufficiently unique as to require an entirely new shelf, but more likely, it will be something so obvious that you’re embarrassed you hadn’t thought of it before, and can squeeze it in beside another thing you’ve already read.

The internet does stuff like that -to me anyway. Permutations and combinations of issues I had always believed were immutably fixed in time and space unravel at warp speed making me question the wisdom of any assumptions it was thought safe to trust when I was growing up.

Like Death, for example. It used to be that after someone died, all that remained were memories, and perhaps a few of their possessions. ‘Dead and gone’ was a relatively intuitive reality in those days; ‘Dead and present’ was an oxymoron. Now, most of us have digital feet that continue to walk the screen no matter our corporeal substance. And, apart from the nuisance algorithms that track me from app to app, I had not given those footfalls much thought -until, that is, I came across an article in the Conversation on digital grieving by Jo Bell, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Hull: https://theconversation.com/how-the-internet-is-changing-the-way-we-grieve-100134

She writes that ‘These days the dead are now forever present online and digital encounters with someone who has passed away are becoming a common experience. […] Each one of us has a digital footprint – the accumulation of our online activity that chronicles a life lived online through blogs, pictures, games, web sites, networks, shared stories and experiences. When a person dies, their “virtual selves” remain out there for people to see and interact with. These virtual selves exist in the same online spaces that many people use every day.’

When I first thought about this -the idea of inadvertently coming across someone, or something from whoever had died- I worried about the effect, and how I would react. But, as the author reports, ‘Yet for some, these spaces have become a valuable tool – especially so for the bereaved. An emerging body of research is now looking at the ways the internet, including social media and memorial websites, are enabling new ways of grieving – that transcend traditional notions of “letting go” and “moving on”.’

I was, of course, aware of the concept and probable value of memorials, but I have to confess that I hadn’t thought of them in terms of lasting online tributes. To be sure, I was weaned in another epoch when, apart from an obituary notice in the local paper, or flowers on a tombstone, there were precious few options to show that you remembered someone. But, of course, people today use the modalities they are used to.

Suicide is a devastating act, not only for the victim, but especially for those who are left behind. It makes sense that the friends would need to process the act as best they could. ‘For many mourners, the most important motivating factor seems to be the need to stay connected to the deceased and to “keep them alive”. And keeping a Facebook page going by actively maintaining the “in life” profile of the deceased, or creating a new “in memorial” profile, allows users to send private or public messages to the deceased and to publicly express their grief. […] The use of social media in this way goes some way towards answering the question of where to put one’s feelings – such as love, grief, guilt – after a death. And many people turn to the same sites to promote awareness raising and fund raising for various charities in memory of their loved ones.’

‘Unlike sentimental objects, social media pages and online spaces allow people to explore grief with others from the comfort of their own home. Talking to people online can also help to free up some of the inhibitions that are otherwise felt when talking about loss – it enables forms of uncensored self-expression that are not comparable with face-to-face conversations.’ Indeed, as they evolve, perhaps ‘online memorial sites and social networking spaces help the bereaved to see how events in the past can continue to have value and meaning in the present and the future.’

I was sitting in a dark corner of my usual Starbucks a few weeks ago thinking more of shadows than of death, when a couple of middle aged women sat down at the next table. Normally, I wouldn’t have paid them much heed, but one of them, a rather buxom lady was wearing a loose white turtle neck sweater that kept snagging one of her hoop earrings. Still waiting for my sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwich to cool, I have to admit I was searching for a divertissement, and her ear seemed as good as any.

‘I visited Krissy again today, Helen,” she said matter-of-factly to her similarly attired and equally Rubenesque friend.

Helen looked up from her still steaming espresso macchiato “That’s nice, dear. Anything new?”

Her friend shrugged and cuddled her cinnamon dolce latte in two serviettes folded to dissipate the heat, I suppose. “Well, a few others must have visited her earlier, because I saw some collars, and a milk bone…”

Helen nodded, but she sat back a little in her chair and left the macchiato to cool in front of her. I could see her staring at her friend, even in the dim light. “Julie, it’s been, what, two months since…”

“Seventy-eight days,” Julie interrupted her with an intensity that made me wonder if her latte had just burned through the napkins.

Helen nodded sympathetically and reached over the table to stroke Julie’s free hand. “I know dear… but…”

“But Krissy loves the attention, don’t you think?” Julie sighed at the thought.

“Loved, Julie. Loved…” Helen corrected her gently, and I could see her begin to stroke her friend’s wrist.

Julie’s face suddenly winced as her earring grappled with her sweater once again.

Helen seemed to think it was more than a simple entanglement. “There comes a time when you have to let her pass, dear,” she said, and squeezed Julie’s hand before letting it go.

“You mean take it down, don’t you…?” There was a look of desperation in Julie’s eyes, although in the shadows it was difficult to be sure. “But people are still leaving bones…” She was almost pleading now.

Helen smiled and reached across the table again, but Julie was already standing up.

“I… I need some air, Helen,” she said stiffly and began to walk away.

Helen shook her head slowly, gulped down her macchiato, and rose to follow her out of the door.

My breakfast sandwich seemed pleasantly warm in the sudden silence, so I took an experimental bite and sat back in my chair to enjoy it. For some things, I realized as I chewed contentedly, memory is enough. I felt no need to Facebook the disappearing sausage and egg…

 

 

 

 

The Centre Cannot Hold

Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…  Remember that poem by Yeats? I thought he was exaggerating. Using poetic licence to make a point. But sometimes things can feel like that. Sometimes the world turns on its head and the expected order is reversed.

I dread the tidal bore of malls, the rushing mass of strangers pushing and shoving, strutting and fretting their times upon their internal stages; I hate the food ‘courts’ in malls even more, though. I’m not sure if it’s the smell of cheap food, or the Brownian movement of those who treat the ceremony of meals with disdain -but, like some parts of the city, they are places in extremis. Waypoints for some, perhaps -abrasions for others…

And yet, when all the usual shopping center seats for tired old men in the busy causeway are occupied, the courts are a form of sanctuary, if not salvation, I suppose. At any rate, the other day, exhausted by an already hard swim against an increasingly turbulent current of shoppers as noon approached, I found myself beached on the shores of a particularly chaotic food court.

I tried not to examine it too closely -I was only seeking temporary refuge, after all- but it is difficult not to be drawn into the drama constantly evolving all around it. Like the old woman with the grocery bag precariously balanced on the seat of the walker she had wrapped in front of her like a shield. She pushed it in little steps, presumably intent on threading her way through the roiling masses to one of the food stalls, but with little progress through the flotsam that surrounded her. People all around her waded past, seemingly blind or just indifferent to her distress, and I could see the frustration on her face as she made it beyond the boundaries of my seat.

Dressed in purple pleated slacks, and a white frilly blouse, she had draped a long black coat over a portion of the walker near her groceries. I imagine she was hot, because I could see little beads of sweat glistening on her forehead but her short silvered hair was still neatly combed and barely disturbed, and she continued pushing her way through the crowd with arms of steel.

I was about to offer her my seat, when an unexpected space materialized in front of her and she jogged into it like being sucked into a vacuum. Suddenly, someone else with the same idea knocked the groceries off the walker and the contents rolled onto the floor in all directions. A few feet noticed and hands picked up an apple here, or an onion there, but by and large, things disappeared like mice in a forest. The person who’d caused it, a middle-aged woman with in jeans, and a soiled grey sweat-shirt, was clearly embarrassed at blundering into a frail old lady in a walker and dropped to her knees to retrieve what she could, apologizing profusely.

The table right beside mine cleared, and the two of them sat down at it as the older lady restocked her bag and the younger scanned the floor for remnants.

Still concerned that she might have injured the elderly woman, she blushed and seemed uncertain how to make amends. “I’m so sorry, ma’am. I…” she stammered.

“Leslie,” the older lady interrupted. “It’s Leslie, and thank you for your help. Some of these walkers have design flaws, don’t you think?”

“Mine’s Denise,” the other woman responded, obviously relieved. Then she looked at the walker and laughed. “I’ve never really seen one of these up close,” she added. “Quite the invention, eh?”

Leslie glanced at her new friend and smiled. “The physios put you in one of these if you break your hip and they figure you’re too old for crutches. They think everybody over eighty has balance problems… Anyway, I only use it when I come to the mall.”

Denise looked at her with new respect. “You broke your hip?”

Leslie shrugged. “Stuff happens, eh?”

“Look, you stay right here and I’ll get you something at the counter.” She rummaged around in her pocket with a worried look on her face. “What do you want?”

Leslie smiled, guessing her friend was probably between pay cheques. “Oh thank you,” she said, in obvious appreciation. “I was just going to have a cup of tea,” she said and pulled a $20 bill out of the little purse hanging from her shoulder. “And you get yourself something, too, Denise.”

I watched Denise thread herself expertly through the tumultuous crowd like an otter weaving through storm-tossed seaweed. I thought Leslie was being a bit too trusting, but then again, I was interested to see what Denise might buy for herself -if she returned.

She did return, though, and she made it back to the table in record time, balancing a cup of tea with its little tale tell string hanging from the lip, a soft drink and two huge slices of pizza on a tray. Impressive really.

Leslie reacted to her arrival as if there’d never been any question of return. As if she’d merely sent a friend on a mission.

“Thanks, Denise,” she said as the tray arrived.

“I… I didn’t know whether you liked pizza…” She looked down at the two slices, and handed Leslie the change. “I got two different kinds, so you could choose,” she said hopefully.

The smile on Leslie’s face grew. “Thank you dear. That was sweet of you, but I had a big breakfast this morning before I left. You go ahead and eat them both if you’d like.”

Denise was obviously hungry, but I could tell she was trying to pretend she wasn’t. She gulped down the soft drink, though -as if she couldn’t really help herself.

Leslie sipped her tea, pretending not to notice her friend’s discomfort. “Please eat. Don’t mind me. I’m just enjoying my little rest.”

A little hesitantly Denise chose the lumpy slice, but once it neared her mouth, she couldn’t restrain herself, and it quickly disappeared. She was about to repeat the performance when she suddenly gasped and her face began to turn blue. Her eyes looked as if they might even leave their sockets as she fought to take a breath.

Leslie was on her feet in a moment, and dragged Denise upright from behind. She reached around her waist, compressed her abdomen just below the ribs and squeezed. Denise coughed once and took a deep, stertorous breath.

By now, people had gathered around them, not certain what to think, but it was a classic, perfectly executed Heimlich maneuver. I could see the onlookers glance at each other in admiration.

When Denise had recovered enough to breathe normally, and the people had dispersed, she stared at what she had thought was a frail old woman with a surprised look on her face. “What did…?”

“Once a nurse, always a nurse, Denise” she interrupted, as if it didn’t really require an explanation.

“But…”

Leslie stopped the question with a smile. “She hath borne herself beyond the promise of her age, doing, in the figure of a lamb, the feats of a lion.”

“What…?”

Denise seemed confused, but Leslie merely shrugged and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “Never mind me, dear -I’m just misquoting a line from Shakespeare…”

Denise thought about it for a moment, and then a smile suddenly appeared on her face.  “It’s from ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, isn’t it…?”

The two of them giggled like little girls.

I couldn’t help but chuckle with them, and I remembered another line from that poem of Yeats: the ceremony of innocence is drowned

Life would not yield to Age

There are times I think I’ve missed out on a lot. It seems to me that in my day, if a man re-chose a woman, he would almost always go for someone younger than himself. The reasons were obvious even then: overweening hubris, and expectations beyond capability. Indeed, dating sites online still seem to confirm my impression, and often -if not usually- the man’s eyes prove bigger than his stomach and the meal seldom lasts.

But retrospection is a stew of disappointments often sprinkled with only the barest soupçon of hope. Age is, well, age after all, and things happen as we get older. So, especially if one partner is significantly younger when they meet, the inevitable will occur -and worsen- in the older, and so you can guess who will become the default caretaker. Despite the best and most honourable intentions, this strikes me as unfair, albeit easily predictable by anyone watching from the sidelines.

And yet, although I concede that I am a creature of my era, I am still willing to be a witness to the triumph of hope over experience, so I was drawn to an article written by Gary Karantzas, an associate professor in Social Psychology/Relationship Science, at Deakin University (Australia) in the Conversation online magazine: https://theconversation.com/mind-the-gap-does-age-difference-in-relationships-matter-94132?

‘Across Western countries, about 8% of all heterosexual married couples can be classified as having a large age gap (ten years or more). These generally involve older men partnered with younger women. About 1% of age-gap couples involve an older woman partnered with a younger man. About 25% of male-male unions and 15% of female-female unions demonstrate a large age gap.

‘But what these trends tell us is that the majority of the population is likely to partner with someone of similar age. This largely has to do with having social circles that generally include peers of similar ages and being attracted to others who are similar. Similarity entails many things, including personality, interests and values, life goals and stage of life, and physical traits (age being a marker of physical appearance).’

If the article had stopped there I imagine I would have learned nothing new, and I might have remained an insufferable avocat du diable at dinner parties. But, fortunately for both me and my friends, I read further. ‘Many people assume that age-gap couples fare poorly when it comes to relationship outcomes. But some studies find the relationship satisfaction reported by age-gap couples is higher. These couples also seem to report greater trust and commitment and lower jealousy than similar-age couples. Over three-quarters of couples where younger women are partnered with older men report satisfying romantic relationships.

‘A factor that does impact on the relationship outcomes of age-gap couples is their perceptions of social disapproval. That is, if people in age-gap couples believe their family, friends and wider community disapprove of their union, then relationship commitment decreases and the risk of break-up increases. These effects appear to apply to heterosexual and same-sex couples.’

‘Another factor at play may have to do with the stage of life each partner is experiencing. For instance, a ten-year gap between a 20-year-old and a 30-year-old may bring up different challenges and issues than for a ten-year gap where one partner is 53 and the other is 63. This is because our lives are made up of different stages, and each stage consists of particular life tasks we need to master. And we give priority to the mastery of different tasks during these distinct stages of our lives.’

And he concludes that ‘The success of a relationship depends on the extent to which partners share similar values, beliefs and goals about their relationship; support each other in achieving personal goals; foster relationship commitment, trust and intimacy; and resolve problems in constructive ways. These factors have little do with age.’

I think I witnessed something like that once. I don’t normally sit on benches, especially occupied ones, even though they’re usually long enough to support a small family. Of course, maybe that’s the idea, because they often have little plaques commemorating someone who has died but used to sit there. So I feel a little uncomfortable sitting beside people who might be related to the deceased. And anyway, the act of sitting on a bench at my age makes me think I should be finding an unplaqued one so my own family can have one printed up.

But, I was tired and the bench that overlooked Vancouver’s English Bay was seductive, even though two people had already discovered it for a rather snuggly chat. They were both gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes and speaking softly to each other. I sat at the far end of the seat so I wouldn’t disturb them. I don’t think it bothered either of them particularly, although one of them, an attractive woman, probably in her early sixties, leaned even closer to her friend to whisper something when I sat down. I have trouble judging ages, but I would think he was  ten or fifteen years her junior, and yet equally enthralled. Anyway, both of their eyes were so entangled I might as well have been a bird sitting on a branch nearby for all they seemed to care.

And then, perhaps thinking they were being rude, they both sat back and stared at the waves breaking on the nearby rocks for a moment. Finally, the woman turned to me and smiled. “Isn’t it a beautiful day?” she asked, as if she suddenly felt a need to welcome me to their bench.

I nodded pleasantly, and we all sat in silence for a while, listening to the cry of a group of seagulls that had landed on the rocks. “I hope I didn’t disturb you,” I suddenly blurted out, embarrassed at choosing an already occupied bench, I suppose, although perhaps more concerned about admitting to myself that I had needed to rest.

The man leaned forward and his eyes circled around my cheeks like butterflies about to settle. “Not at all. We were just reminiscing about how we met on this very bench fifteen years ago -fifteen years ago today, in fact.”

“I’d just finished running around the seawall, and I think it was a bit too far for me, so I needed to sit down… And I happened to see this bench,” the woman said, squeezing his hand as she spoke. She glanced at her friend. “Jeff was…”

“I was sitting at the far end of the bench reading a book when Alice arrived, and…”

“And that was the beginning of a wonderful life,” she finished for him.

It was sweet the way they both finished sentences for each other -like they were completely comfortable being inside the other’s head.

“It’s our fourteenth wedding anniversary today,” he added, and kissed her gently on the cheek.

“We come to this bench each year to remember,” she said snuggling closer to him and sighing contentedly.

“Welcome to our bench, eh?” he chuckled, and winked at her as they both stood up and stretched.

“I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t…” I started to say, but she reached out and clasped my hand, her eyes twinkling in the sunlight for a moment.

“It’s the meeting bench,” Jeff said, hugging her as he spoke, then grasping her free hand he stood quietly with her for a moment, the wind tussling their hair like another hand.

And as they started to walk away, Alice turned towards me and her eyes softened as they rested on my face. “I hope someone sits…”

But just then some friends further down the seawall waved and yelled at them, and her smile caressed me briefly before she shrugged and walked away with Jeff to grace some other lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Texting LIVE

You know, I love being old -you get to learn so many things. For example, I found out that you should probably not admit you’re old at parties because it leaves you open to stuff, and not all of it is nice. Personally, I go in disguise, although we all have to find the door we fit through, eh? But, let’s face it, most elders don’t get invited out much anyway, so except for maybe the occasional funeral, we don’t have to say anything about our ages.

Unfortunately, camouflage doesn’t seem to work for me online. For some reason, everybody knows I’m not one of them. At first, I thought maybe it was because I spelled words correctly and used punctuation. I capitalized the first letter in a sentence, and so everybody could be sure my thought was completed, ended with a period. It was when I decided to text my son instead of Emailing him, that he responded with a chastisement to put me straight.

“Ur gonna get trolled if u keep writing SAs dad everybodyl no” Well, it looked sort of like that, but I can never remember his abbreviations. At any rate, I was being warned about the rules. It was some time around then that I ran across a semi-explanatory article online in the BBC culture section, discussing LIVE (Live Internet Vernacular English): http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180618-will-we-stop-speaking-and-just-text

I’d obviously never heard of it, but I’m learning that there’s a lot out there that nobody thinks to tell us. Well, not us, at any rate. ‘Texting may be closer to speech than formal written language. […]  in its loosely structured live interactivity, internet slang […] is closer to speech than text. But it has its own conventions, some of which defy saying out loud. It’s a substitute for speech.’

Let’s take a step back for a moment. ‘Written language was created to give a record of spoken language. Not that written language is just the frozen form of speech. Over the centuries, it has gained features such as exclamation marks and italics to convey spoken features such as tone, but it has also evolved to convey things that speech doesn’t: the etymological traces carried by our spelling, the structure of thought conveyed by paragraphs, the aesthetics of fonts and other design elements. […] But live internet text is something new. When we tweet or send text messages, we are merging the fixed visual means of text with the immediate live performance of speech. It is as vernacular as speech, and it draws on vernacular speech.’

A while ago, I discovered emoticons and emojis at the bottom of my phone’s keyboard, and so I started using them -apparently incorrectly. I tried the yellow circle one with the straight mouth and the two eye-dots on my son in response to a text he’d sent me. I meant it as a sort of noncommittal shrug, but he thought I was upset with him. I wish I’d seen the article first. ‘Several studies have found that their [emoticons and emoji] primary use is not to present the speaker’s emotion but to help smooth out interpersonal relationships and to convey features such as irony. They are not about how the sender feels so much as how the sender wants the receiver to feel.’ Who knew?

As I sank deeper into the interstices of the article, I began to see how somebody writing like I do might be easy pickings for a troll. ‘Live is like a sci-fi story where people’s tongues and vocal cords have been replaced by keyboards and screens, and they have to learn to work with the potentials and constraints of their new anatomy. You don’t have volume, pitch, rhythm or speed, so what do you do? Skip using the Shift key and punctuation to show haste (sorry cant chat rn got an essay due) or casualness (hi whats up). Make a typographical error to show urgency or heedlessness – teh (for the), pwn (for own, as in dominate or defeat), zomg (for OMG because Z is next to Shift), and hodl(for hold in online currency trading); these all originated with errors but became fixed forms that are simultaneously more intense and more facetious than the originals.’

And yet, as I’m sure my Grade 12 English teacher would have signalled with her eyebrows, LIVE merely seems to be an excuse for sloppiness, although a proper linguist might have an opinion closer to that of James Harbeck, the article’s author: ‘But it’s all language, and language is always a performance that refers back to previous performances and helps show what you know and what group you belong to. Live is an idiom of a certain social set – or, by now, several different social sets.’ In fact, it seems to me that LIVE is a hybrid -almost a pidgin, a form of communication between people -especially elders, perhaps- not sharing a common language.

‘Live is affecting other forms of English, spoken and written, because we borrow from it and refer to it. Some Live is just not sayable, but you can hear people say “L O L” and you can see emoji in ads. Is it slipping into formal writing by younger people as they grow up using it and become adults? Studies have shown that it’s not. They learn how to write like grown-ups when they have to, just as we all have: we don’t use the slang we learned as kids in our annual reports.’

I have to try to remain open to change, I realize; I have to learn to give Youth and their technology a chance –‘When in Rome…’ as the old aphorism goes. But, as interesting as LIVE may be, and as pragmatically as it may function, I still can’t bring myself to strip the skin off words or destroy the surprise of a beautiful homonymic metaphor with the bones of a skeleton. But perhaps that’s what my son was hinting at when he told me to stop treating texts as essays -sorry, ‘SAs’. I suppose we don’t expect poetry in a phone conversation either, do we? And yet… and yet wouldn’t that be a gift?

In choice, we are so oft beguiled

It’s interesting just how important categories are in our lives, isn’t it? I mean, let’s face it, often they’re just adjectives –subordinate to their nouns. Add-ons. And yet, they can frame context, colour perception, and even determine value. Some, like, say, texture or odour may be interesting but trivial; some –size, or cost, for example- may be more important although optional in a description. There are, however, categories that seem to thrust themselves upon an object and are deemed essential to its description, essential to placing it in some sort of usable context. To understanding its Gestalt. These often spring to mind as questions so quickly they are almost automatic. Gender is one such category, age, perhaps another. And depending, I suppose on the situation, the society, or even the category to which the listener belongs, there may be several others that are deemed necessary to frame the issue appropriately.

The automaticity of a category is critical, however. If the category is felt to be of such consuming importance that it needs to be established before any further consideration can be given to the object, then that object’s worth –or at least its ranking- is contingent. It is no longer being evaluated neutrally, objectively. It comes replete with those characteristics attendant upon its category –intended or not. Age, for example, wears certain qualities, incites certain expectations that might prejudice acceptance of its behaviour. Gender, too, is another category that seems to colour assumptions about behaviour. So, with the assignation of category, comes opinion and its accompanying attitude.

One might well argue about the importance of these categories, and perhaps even strategize ways of neutralizing their influence on reactions, or subsequent treatment. The problem is much more difficult if knowledge of the category is so necessary it is intuitively provided as part of what is necessary to know about, for example, a person.

I suspect that in my naïveté, I had assumed that foreknowledge of many of these categories was merely curiosity-driven. Politeness oriented. Important, perhaps, so that I wouldn’t be surprised -wouldn’t embarrass the person at our initial encounter. But I am a doctor, and maybe see the world from a different perspective. A piece in the BBC, however, made me realize just how problematic this automaticity had become. How instinctive. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130423-is-race-perception-automatic?ocid

The article dealt mainly with its effects on racism, and the difficulties of countering it if we accept, as some evolutionary psychologists seem to believe, that it is basically intuitive. Evolved for a reason. Wired-in. ‘[…] if perceiving race is automatic then it lays a foundation for racism, and appears to put a limit on efforts to educate people to be “colourblind”, or put aside prejudices in other ways.’ But, as Tom Stafford, the author of the BBC article puts it, ‘Often, scientific racists claim to base their views on some jumbled version of evolutionary psychology (scientific racism is racism dressed up as science, not racisms based on science […]). So it was a delightful surprise when researchers from one of the world centres for evolutionary psychology intervened in the debate on social categorisation, by conducting an experiment they claimed showed that labelling people by race was far less automatic and inevitable than all previous research seemed to show.

‘The research used something called a “memory confusion protocol” […] When participants’ memories are tested, the errors they make reveal something about how they judged the pictures of individuals. […] If a participant more often confuses a black-haired man with a blond-haired man, it suggests that the category of hair colour is less important than the category of gender (and similarly, if people rarely confuse a man for a woman, that also shows that gender is the stronger category). Using this protocol, the researchers tested the strength of categorisation by race, something all previous efforts had shown was automatic. The twist they added was to throw in another powerful psychological force – group membership. People had to remember individuals who wore either yellow or grey basketball shirts. […] Without the shirts, the pattern of errors were clear: participants automatically categorised the individuals by their race (in this case: African American or Euro American). But with the coloured shirts, this automatic categorisation didn’t happen: people’s errors revealed that team membership had become the dominant category, not the race of the players. […] The explanation, according to the researchers, is that race is only important when it might indicate coalitional information – that is, whose team you are on. In situations where race isn’t correlated with coalition, it ceases to be important.’

I don’t know… To me, this type of experiment seems so desperate to appear to be wearing a scientific mantle, that it comes across as contrived –kludged, if you’ll permit an equally non-scientific term. But I take their point. If there is some way of diffusing the automaticity of our categorizations –or at least deflecting them into more malleable descriptors –teams, in this case- perhaps they could be used as exemplars –wedges to mitigate otherwise uncomfortable feelings. Placeboes –to put the concept into more familiar language for me.

Stopgaps, to be sure, and not permanent solutions. But sometimes, we have to ease into things less obtrusively. Less confrontationally. A still-evolving example -at least here in Canada- might be gender bias in hockey. Most Canadians have grown up exposed to hockey, and might be reasonably assumed to have an opinion on the conduct of games, players, and even rules. And yet, until relatively recently, the assumption was that hockey players –good ones, at least- were male. For us older folks, it was automatic. No thought required; no need to ask about gender. But no longer is that the case. For a variety of reasons, there is still no parity, and yet it is changing –slowly, perhaps, but not conflictually. And so, despite any initial challenges, is likely to succeed.

Am I really conflating success in the changing mores of hockey with gender equality? Or basketball teams and how we view their members, with racial equality? Am I assuming that diminishing discrimination in some fields leads to wider societal effects? Yes, I suppose I am. A blotter doesn’t care about the kind, or the colour, of the ink it absorbs; it’s just what it does. What it is. And, in the end, isn’t that what we all are, however vehemently we may protest? However much we may resist the similarities that bind us in relationship for fear of losing our own identities?

But if we step back a little, we may come to appreciate that the correlation need not be like that of a blotter -need not involve a team, or a marriage… I am reminded of the advice from one of my favourite writers, the poet, Kahlil Gibran: Love one another, but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

It’s the way I prefer to see the world, anyway…

The Feminist Egg

Once upon a time, I suppose that one of the characteristics of Age was its hubris. After a certain age, it was easy to dismiss most new things as mere variations on time-tested themes –additions, clever perhaps, intriguing even, but still accretions. Ecclesiastes lived in old minds: The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. And yet nowadays, even the quickest peek over the shoulder calls that into question. Maybe it always did, but without the publicity it now entertains.

New things –truly new things- are often the hardest to accept, especially if they fly in the  face of cherished beliefs sufficiently entrenched as to be regarded as not merely true, but obviously true -common sense, in fact. It took generations to accept evolution –and now it seems only sensible that the random acquisition of those traits that help survival will be the ones selected for in the next generation. It was not an upwardly purposeful spiral that inevitably led to homo sapiens; evolution doesn’t change cows to humans –it just eventually creates cows better able to survive in whatever milieu they find themselves. And randomly –the unfit are still granted existence, but if they are not suited, they pass on little benefit to their progeny.

It’s true that animals –mammals, especially- do attempt to influence desirable traits in their offspring by choosing healthy partners exhibiting those characteristics. Hence various mating rituals and dominance contests amongst the males; hence elaborate male bird plumage, presumably a proxy, recognizable by a receptive female, as indicative of a primus inter pares. And yet it was probably regarded as curious in premodern societies that a female would be accorded any important choice, let alone that of selecting what she wanted in a partner. Although there has always been a cadre of women who have made their marks throughout recorded history, the examples are sadly limited –curtailed no doubt, because it was usually men writing about what they felt was important to document.

Fortunately, times are changing, as is the realization that each side of the gender divide is equipotent. Just how fluid the roles are is a constant source of wonder to me. Even in these days of Darwin, I am amazed at the still unsuspected porosity of the envelope. And while it no longer seems unusual or unlikely that an information-processing organism like, say, a bird might be able to select an appropriately endowed mate based on observable clues, it is still surprising –to me, at least- that selection duties might be conferred on a more microscopic scale: on an egg, for example.

I first encountered this idea in an article from Quanta Magazine: https://www.quantamagazine.org/choosy-eggs-may-pick-sperm-for-their-genes-defying-mendels-law-20171115/  I have to say it reminded me of Hamlet’s rejoinder to the sceptical Horatio on seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

The competition in sexual selection was thought to be pre-copulatory –‘After mating, the female had made her choice, and the only competition was among the sperm swimming to the egg. This male-oriented view of female reproductive biology as largely acquiescent was pervasive, argued Emily Martin, an anthropologist at New York University, in a 1991 paper. “The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey but passively ‘is transported’…along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, ‘streamlined’ and invariably active,” she wrote.

‘Beginning in the 1970s, however, the science began to undermine that stereotype. William Eberhard, now a behavioural ecologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, documented all the ways that females can affect which males fertilize their eggs even after mating.’ For example, ‘Internal fertilizers have their own methods of what Eberhard dubbed “cryptic female choice.” Some female reproductive tracts are labyrinthine, complete with false starts and dead ends that can stymie all but the strongest sperm. Some females, including many species of reptiles, fish, birds and amphibians, that copulate with more than one male (which biologists estimate are a vast majority of species) can store sperm for months, even years, altering the storage environment to stack the odds to favor one male over another. Many female birds, including domestic chickens, can eject sperm after mating , which lets them bias fertilization in favor of the best male.’

The plot thickens. These strategies seem only to select whose sperm to allow access to the precious as-yet unfertilized eggs. But even sperm from the same individual can vary. So, are things just left to chance? Are we still talking Darwin here? And are the combination probabilities proposed by Mendel that depend on randomness still in the picture?

It would seem that the egg itself may have a say in which sperm it uses, and that unlike the voting system in many democracies, it may not be just the ‘first past the post’ -the marathon winner- who gets the prize.

The article presents several theories as to how the egg may be able to ‘choose’, but as yet there seems to be no clear indication as to whether it always happens, or whether it is just able to weed out some potentially damaging or clearly unsuitable ones by the signals they emit –or fail to emit… Sometimes, anyway. Mistakes clearly occur; abnormal genes do manage to slip through, leading to abnormal embryos –some of which are unable to develop enough to survive.

But that there may be yet another layer of protection built into the system –another unsuspected surveillance system- is what intrigues me. And that, once again, it seems to invest the power of a truly critical decision with the female is a cautionary tale for those who cling to the shredding coattails of androcentrism. It is simply another piece of evidence, if more were needed, that Life and all that it enables, is not a zero sum game. It is not a contest between genders, but a journey together. Still…

Let there be spaces in your togetherness.                                                                                      And let the winds of heaven dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but each one of you be
alone – even as the strings of a lute are alone though the quiver
with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows. –Kahlil Gibran –

I couldn’t resist.