Truth hath a quiet breast

What makes something ‘real’? For that matter, what does that even mean? Is a character in one of my favourite books any less real than what I remember of an uncle my family used to visit when I was a child? I used to wonder about that until I was old enough to be able to transition from pretending the space underneath the bed was a fort, to the understanding that it was somehow actually -and ‘really’- just a bed.

But imagination -so important to a child at play- assumes a different purpose as we age. It continues to offer an escape from the world around us perhaps, but in the cognitively unimpaired, begins to wear the patina of context -its potential seldom all-consuming, its boundaries identifiable.

And yet, for an adult living in a different perceptual Magisterium, the innocence of a child’s beliefs and the questions arising from them can be difficult to answer in kind. Once the heavy obligations of maturation have hardened the boundaries, even words may require translation, and unintended metaphors may have consequences.

I came across an interesting essay on this in Aeon in which a philosopher from Florida State University, Nathanael Stein, was wondering how to answer his young son’s queries about reality: https://aeon.co/essays/can-a-philosopher-explain-reality-and-make-believe-to-a-child

The difficulty seemed to be in deciding just what his son wanted to know. Was it simply a variation of the universal ‘Why?’ question, or something more deeply probing about reality itself?  As he notes, ‘there are surprisingly many ways of distinguishing what’s real from what isn’t. One of the most familiar contrasts we draw is between reality and appearance… reality is sometimes contrasted with what we might call mere appearance, like the motion we create on screens: pixels are turning on and off, and changing colour, so there’s change going on, but nothing that seems to be moving really is. This is different again from the kind of illusion of motion we get from certain patterns.’

We also distinguish ‘what’s real from what’s merely imagined or dreamt… what has existed at least at some time from what never has. Dinosaurs and ancestors are real in this last sense, but unicorns aren’t.’ His young son, though, was perhaps only trying to differentiate between what was ‘really’ real and what was only pretend-real, or make-believe.

Stein then goes on at length on discussing which of the several reality varieties his child was probably puzzled about, but ends up wondering if philosophy could ever solve the riddle for a non-adult. In fact, his concluding sentence seems to concede this point: ‘My son is only four, and by the time he’s able to explain what he means by Why?, he’ll have forgotten what puzzled him – if he hasn’t already.’

Stein’s difficulty in understanding the Lebenswelt of his son reminded me of a lengthy discussion I had many years ago with my similarly aged daughter.

“Daddy, what’s a ‘stralyer’?”

My daughter had a habit of coming up with sounds, part-words, and checking them out on me.

“You mean trailer, don’t you sweetheart? It’s a thing on wheels that you pull behind you…”

I could see a sly look come over her face as she prepared to correct me. “That’s a wagn, silly.”

Pronunciation was never a strong point with my children. “I asked you about a ‘stralyer’…”

Catherine was only about three feet tall then, so it was hard to look her in the eye without considerable effort. She also insisted on wearing at least one of her golden curls on her face -to hide behind if necessary. She wasn’t hiding, however, so I crouched down as best I could and tried to read her expression. Actually, I was trying to read her lips. She repeated the word with me about six inches away and nose level, but it didn’t help much.

“Where did you hear the word, Cath?” Sometimes you can trace these things.

“From Michael.”

I waited for an explanation, but Godot would have arrived before she caught on. “And what was Michael talking about?” I finally asked.  Michael is my son, and he was terribly precocious for nine, I think. His questions were worse, though, because I understood them.

Catherine looked at me as if I were inordinately dense. “About a ‘stralyer’, of course.”  Sometimes I saw too much of her mother in her, with her hands on her hips, one foot tapping impatiently, and an expression of utter condescension nailed to her forehead. Only with Catherine, it looked benign -comical, almost. They lived with their mother then, so I supposed neither of them would adopt any of my mannerisms.

Children are tautological creatures; they have the good sense to stick to their guns when all else -adults, by and large- fail them. “Ahh, you don’t happen to know what else Michael said, do you?”

She nodded her head vehemently, convinced she was getting somewhere at last.

“Well..?”

She just looked at me. Sometimes I wondered if she was really four, or whether she had forgotten something somewhere around two and a half.

Finally, she got the idea. “He said it was under something.”

That’s what I like about Catherine: just like her mother, she remembered only things that stick out: a flower outside a thousand year old French cathedral, the smell of Machu Pichu, the colour of the mud in Manaus… Context, for her, was merely the background against which the really important things were displayed.

“I don’t suppose he happened to mention what it was under, did he?”

She was silent for a moment -no mean feat for Catherine- and then a smile lit up her face and her eyes grew large. “Under the water, I think…”

There are only so many things that sound like trailer and are under stuff -especially water. I took a stab at it. “Australia?” I said in my best adult voice.

“That’s it, Daddy… What is it?”

“Well,” I said, not entirely sure how much she wanted to know, “it’s a country.”

“But we live in a country…”

“Yes.” I also nodded, to give it added strength.

I could see her playing with it for a while before leaving it on whatever shelf she filed such things -Catherine’s face was a movie screen sometimes. But after a minute between shows, I could see a new thought growing. “How many countries are there, Daddy?”

That’s a good question, actually. Does anybody know? I was so relieved that she hadn’t asked me what a country was that I offered to look it up. “Have you ever seen an atlas, Cath?”

A new word! She perked up immediately. “Anatlus? Nope… Is it what reindeer wear, Daddy?”

Where do kids get their ideas nowadays?  “Antlers are what reindeer have, Cath. Atlas is what I’m going to use to count the number of countries,” I said, but I don’t think it stuck. I think she liked the idea of finding countries on reindeer heads.

“But don’t the reindeer have to know where they’re going?”

“Huh?”

“You know. On Christmas eve.”

Actually the thought had never occurred to me. I guess I just figured they did it by the stars, or that Santa kind of navigated by instinct, or something. Kids aren’t satisfied with the old stories anymore. “Ahh, well maybe if you looked at the atlas you’d understand what I mean.”

Her eyes positively sparkled. “You mean you have some reindeer here?” She looked wide-eyed around the room, expecting to see a nose pop out of a closet any moment, I’m sure.

“Cath, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Just wait here, okay?” I went into the den and rummaged around for the atlas. It was an old Reader’s Digest variety -you know, solar system in the front few pages, then what each country does for a living and how many did it, at least in 1969. The rest was a smorgasbord of colors and names that brought back painful recollections of Miss Pleasance in Grade 4 or 5 and having to pronounce them in front of the whole class by memory. I could never say ‘Afghanistan’ and everybody would wait for it and laugh. Not Miss Pleasance, though. It’d just get me another turn the next day. I hated geography.

When I returned, Catherine was prowling through the cupboards and sniffing. I didn’t ask why. “This is an atlas, Cath,” I said proudly, holding it in front of me like a jewel.

She took one look at it and her face lost interest. “That’s just another book, Daddy,” she said, her voice pleading with me to say I was kidding.

“Just another book?” I pretended to be hurt. “Catherine, this is a genuine, nothing-else-is-remotely-like-it Reader’s Digest version of the world.”

Her eyes resumed their dinner-plate imitations and her mouth fell open. “The world! In there?” I had the sinking feeling that I’d lost again. “Lemme see,” she said grabbing the book firmly, but reverently from my hands.

I was pleased to see that she at least started from the front, but she whipped through the solar system at a breakneck pace and was half way through the gross national product of the Netherlands before she slowed down. “Awhh…” She leafed through a couple of pages of countries outlined in their pale reds and yellows, crammed with lines and unreadable letters and put the book down gently on the table. She looked at me -sadly, I thought- and shook her head. “Daddy,” she said slowly, and carefully, sounding for all the world like she was choosing her words carefully so as not to offend me. “Daddy, did you pay a lot for the anatlus?”

“Atlas,” I corrected as gently as I could. “No, not a whole lot. Why?”

“Well… I think you got gypped.”

“Huh?”

She stared at me and sighed with a little shake of her head -just like her mother used to do. “I saw the world on T.V. and it’s different.”

She was right, you know. And I’ll bet they pronounced Afghanistan correctly, too.

In sweet music is such art

I like to think I have had a long history of music, although I’m fairly certain my mother didn’t play Mozart to me in her womb -a lot of yelling maybe, but nothing with staves. And yet, even in those early proto-Holocene days, there was a general recognition that, at a minimum, music was probably helpful for calming down young children. So in pre-Flood Winnipeg, we all had to take piano lessons and all my friends complained about having to practice. Mrs. Burns was the piano teacher in our neighbourhood, and she was a stickler for scales, I remember. We all tried to fool her with our mastery of C major because it didn’t involve any tricky black keys, but if we caught her in a bad mood, she’d assign us a difficult minor one -C# minor comes to mind. Sometimes childhood can be fraught, although in truth, I’ve never regretted the music.

There has been a fair amount of research into the value of learning it in childhood, and I recently came across an article discussing that in the Conversation.com -an app on my phone: https://theconversation.com/learning-music-early-can-make-your-child-a-better-reader-106066  It was written by two Australians, Anita Collins, adjunct assistant professor, and Misty Adoniou, an associate professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, both at the University of Canberra.

‘Music processing and language development share an overlapping network in the brain. From an evolutionary perspective, the human brain developed music processing well before language and then used that processing to create and learn language. At birth, babies understand language as if it was music. They respond to the rhythm and melody of language before they understand what the words mean. Babies and young children mimic the language they hear using those elements of rhythm and melody, and this is the sing-song style of speech we know and love in toddlers.’

It makes sense when you put it all in context, although I worry that it’s a bit facile. Still, ‘Fluency includes the ability to adjust the patterns of stress and intonation of a phrase, such as from angry to happy and the ability the choose the correct inflection, such as a question or an exclamation. These highly developed auditory processing skills are enhanced by musical training.’ -I left in the link as an attempt to exculpate my tentative credulity…

Oh, and ‘Children should also be taught to read musical notation and symbols when learning music. This reinforces the symbol to sound connection which is also crucial in reading words.’ I mention this, because although very few of us went on to sterling careers in academia, and I can’t name even one of us in the neighbourhood who ended up as a famous novelist, most of us that made it through Riverview Public School were at least able to read, so that’s got to count for something.

But in those days, we all had music classes in school, no matter whether or not we had to go home and practice scales for Mrs. Burns. In fact, I think the lessons she taught had far reaching tentacles. Remember her C# minor scale -the Punishment Scale? I suspect I must have been subject to more than my fair share of extracurricular discipline in those days, because I remember practicing the scale with my fingers on any flat surface -garbage can lids, fence posts, and garage doors in the lane on my way to her house- just in case. I got so I could recognize the scale anywhere, anytime, but especially on the piano.

Years later, when my family moved out to Quebec, I suddenly came face to face with Mrs. Burns’ prescience. I was in a music class at an Anglo High School in Lachine when the teacher decided his class was getting a bid rowdy and needed some retributive justice: a shaming.

The class was thoroughly bilingual, whereas I, the foreigner-from-away,  could barely hold my own. Fortunately -or maybe because of me- M. Honneur decided to put us down musically and after glaring at the class menacingly through truly startlingly unkempt eyebrows, sat down at the piano, turning his head only slightly to smirk at us.

“We’re going to play a little game,” he said, his eyes twinkling mischievously. I want you to name the piece…”

The first three notes -the A, then G# and finally the C#- gave it away, however. He didn’t need to play the rest, although I remember he worked his way through several bars to help us further.

Then he stopped and looked at the now totally engaged class. Apparently he had done this before -well, before my time there, at any rate.

They tried various names, and his smile grew. “Sounds… Slavic, or something,” someone said, as Honneur’s head shook triumphantly.

“It’s in a minor key…” This from a rather smug girl in the very front by the piano.

“How about Beethoven,” another person piped up, but everyone groaned at that, and it quickly slipped into the anonymity granted a voice hidden in the middle of a crowd.

I could hardly believe it. Honneur was playing a kind of Rumpelstiltskin game with them and nobody could guess. I suddenly felt embarrassed -was I the only one in the class who knew the answer?

Honneur’s grin was becoming unbearable, though, and I realized I needed to make my move before he surrendered the answer, so I timidly held up my hand. Everybody went silent and stared at me.

“It’s obviously the Prelude in C# minor,” I blurted out before he could acknowledge my gently waving arm.

He stared at me, in disbelief, and it took a second or so before he said, “By…?” Honneur seemed a bit miffed that I had called it out, and his tone of voice suggested I had cheated, somehow.

Now that I had everybody’s attention, I think I blushed. “By Rachmaninoff, of course…” I’m not sure why I added the ‘of course’, except that it had been one of my favourite, albeit unplayable pieces, from my Winnipeg days.

His eyes retracted a little with my ‘of course’ and then his expression turned playful, teasing. “Very good, young man…” he said, drawing his acknowledgement out slowly, “But can you spell it?” He thought he had me -and so did the class. The silence was electric.

I stood up, and spelled it out slowly, carefully, so I’d get it right: R-A-C-H… M-A-N…” The next part was tricky, I knew: “I-N-O-F-F… although it’s sometimes spelled with a V instead of the two F’s, at the end… To account for the Russian spelling, or something, I guess,” I added triumphantly.

The class and Honneur actually applauded, I remember.

So, despite my initial suspicions about the value of early music training as outlined in the Conversation article, perhaps it did do me some good. If nothing else, it helped cement together les deux solitudes -as Quebec and the rest of anglophone Canada were beginning to be referred to around that time. Mrs. Burns was ahead of her time; maybe she should have run for political office… Of course, since everybody in the neighbourhood knew her, maybe she did.

The Serpent’s Egg

We all see the world through our own experiences, paint it with our own colours, fly our own flags. They seem real to us –unique and even necessary to our identities. As if it’s enough to be simply what we wear; as if we are only what we’ve been taught to show. But sometimes we need distance to understand that there are other equally compelling ways of defining ourselves. Other less travelled roads.

I say this, of course, as an unwitting member of a large club in which I was enrolled without being required to read the rules. But I guess most of us say that, don’t we? Male privilege –it’s something that’s hard to see if it’s all you’ve known. Easy to deny –and certainly easier to excuse- if you’re the privileged one. Especially if you can’t even understand the claim; to a sock, everything is a foot. It’s why we have them…

I worry that it is a learned attitude, however –like assuming all girls want to play with dolls, and all boys want to play with cars. A self-fulfilling prophecy if it’s taught early enough –valid only because we know it’s how it should be. Harmless, perhaps, if it does not disadvantage either side, but untenable unless dispassionately assessed. Unfortunately, we all tend to bring our own agendas to the analysis. Our own talking-points. Our own pasts…

A state in Australia is making a brave attempt to bring some historical context to the issue, and create some early awareness of the challenges of gender perspective and gender stereotypes: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-37640353 ‘Students will explore issues around social inequality, gender-based violence and male privilege.’ This is not to suggest that Australia is any different in its treatment of women, but it is a welcome departure from many countries that don’t even acknowledge the problem. ‘Primary school students will be exposed to images of both boys and girls doing household chores, playing sport and working as firefighters and receptionists. The material includes statements including “girls can play football, can be doctors and can be strong” and “boys can cry when they are hurt, can be gentle, can be nurses and can mind babies”.’ And it doesn’t stop with primary school education. ‘A guide for the Year 7 and 8 curriculum states: “Being born a male, you have advantages – such as being overly represented in the public sphere – and this will be true whether you personally approve or think you are entitled to this privilege.” It describes privilege as “automatic, unearned benefits bestowed upon dominant groups” based on “gender, sexuality, race or socio-economic class”.’ Good on them!

But I think we have to be careful to walk the middle path. Accusations are seldom neutral; they often engender anger and even retaliation from those accused. So, perhaps predictably, in Australia ‘a report on a 2015 pilot trial accused it of presenting all men as “bad” and all women as “victims”.’ It’s one thing to illuminate the entire stage for a play, but still another to spotlight only one particular area. Decontextualize it…

*

Jeannette seemed like a fairly typical young woman as she sat relaxed in her seat and talking to several other women in the waiting room. Her long auburn hair danced lightly on her shoulders when she laughed, and her eyes sparkled as she leaned over to accept a toy from a little boy who had toddled over to her on a whim. Dressed in a loose grey sweatshirt and faded jeans, she wore a fresh, newly-pregnant smile that every woman in the room could see. And even the older ones followed her with their eyes –memories of bygone years. Her joy, theirs to enjoy -if only vicariously, and for too brief a time.

But her smile faded as soon as she sat across the desk from me in my office. Her eyes were predators shackled for the moment, the cage doors open nonetheless.

“I understand congratulations are in order, Jeanette,” I said, looking at my computer screen, and missing the change in her face. “Your family doctor says this is your first pregnancy…”

“The father doesn’t want me to keep the pregnancy,” she said tersely, her lips thin and tight, and as I looked up, she sent her eyes to savage my smile, and her forehead seemed to pucker as they left.

I had never met Jeannette before, although I had apparently seen her mother as a patient several years ago. That was all the GP said  -maybe it was why he had sent her to me for her pregnancy. I took a deep breath and leaned forward in my chair. These are always difficult conversations. “And how do you feel about that, Jeannette…?”

I could see her face relax a bit, as if my response had caught her by surprise. “I… I don’t think it’s fair!” She searched in her pockets for something, and then grabbed a tissue from my desk and dabbed her cheek. “I mean he’s blaming me for getting pregnant…” She took a deep, stertorous breath and sat back on her chair. “He refused to wear a condom –he said it would show I didn’t trust him…” I could see her squeezing her hands. “I didn’t, actually… I mean we’d never slept together before, but we were good friends… and…” Her eyes had softened with tears so she dropped them onto her lap and grabbed a handful of tissues. “Well, we were both drinking –he kept filling up my wine glass and…”

I remained silent and waited for her to continue.

“And he doesn’t even believe it’s his anyway… I was too easy he said!” Her face hardened again and her eyes dared me to agree. “I got really angry. ‘You were pretty easy, yourself’, I told him. And that’s when he punched me in the stomach and left…”

I have to admit that my mouth fell open. “Did you report him, Jeannette?”

She looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face. “He’d just deny hitting me, doctor!” she said through gritted teeth as if it were obvious. “And he’s already telling my friends it was consensual sex…”

I took a deep breath and tried to keep my expression neutral. “Did you tell your GP all this?”

She shook her head. “He wouldn’t understand. I just said I was pregnant…”

I sat quietly for a moment, wondering how to proceed, when she suddenly smiled warmly at me. “Can I ask you something, doctor?”

I nodded with a smile –sometimes it’s all you can do.

“If I were your daughter, what would you say to me?”

I thought about it for a bit, then looked at her and sighed. “When you do dance, I wish you
a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that.”

Her face brightened even more and her eyes sparkled in the sunlight from the window behind me. “That’s from Shakespeare’s ‘Winter’s Tale’ isn’t it?”

I nodded, surprised both that I quoted that line of all things, but also that she knew what I meant.

“Better start filling in that antenatal form on your screen, don’t you think?” she said, barely able to contain her face.

And we both laughed. Sometimes poetry has the privilege, I realized –not gender…