Forked Tongues

“Suppose I were to tell you that I’m really disappointed in you,” she said, bending her head slightly and glaring at me over the tops of her glasses. The two of us were sitting in a little pub near her condo.

I have to say I don’t know Susan very well, but I’d seen her buying groceries in one of the local grocery stores that dot our little community and we began to talk about our various choices in vegetables. I have always confined myself to the more readily available frozen varieties –namely, the Big Three: peas, corn, and beans –with an occasional foray into carrots.

But Susan, it seemed, was into Fresh, and although I do wander into the produce section in summer, I have tended to avoid it in the off-seasons. “What do you do for salads?” she asked, when she saw me picking up a package of frozen broccoli which I only grabbed by mistake when she bumped into me in the aisle.

“Pardon me?” At first, I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me -it certainly wasn’t the salad bar.

Her eyes were mischievous, and pointed right at my face. There was no mistake. “Do you eat salads?” Her lips were smiling, but her eyes began burrowing into my cheeks… Or maybe I was blushing.

“I…”

“Because I’ve never seen you buying lettuce, or looking at the selections in the salad bar.”

It seemed a rather personal thing to say –something my mother might have done. I was forced to return her smile in self-defence and I couldn’t think of a clever reply. “Maybe I do that when you’re not around, Susan.” As soon as I’d said it, I regretted it –I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. She’d always been friendly to me, always said hello and smiled in passing. It’s a small community, after all.

And yet, come to think of it, she always seemed to be smiling when she saw me. But I know that’s a very arrogant thing to think. A very undeserved, and probably unfounded, observation. I suppose I am fair game to someone who is also fair game, though -also divorced… But I keep to myself; I’m a rather private person. I do not invite relationships, or start random conversations –I would not even know how. People like me are happy just glancing through the window at the passing crowd.

But Susan appeared determined to engage me in dialogue. “Maybe you don’t eat as many salads as you should…”

She seemed to leave the thought open, but I just shrugged. To tell the truth, I was a little embarrassed at the attention.

“I tell you what, G, since I’m going to make one anyway…”

She left it open again -an obvious invitation- but I just blushed and stared at my feet in confusion.

“Come over at six for salad and some wine.”

I had to think quickly. “That’s really sweet of you Susan, but I’m afraid I’ve already  thawed some meat for my dinner, and…”

It was her turn to look embarrassed. “I’m sorry, G, I didn’t mean to seem so aggressive.” She propped a large quivering smile on her face and fidgeted with her shopping basket.

I realized I had committed a major social gaffe, and I touched her sleeve. “Look, why don’t we go for a glass of wine later? I’ll have my dinner and meet you at the old pub by the park?” Her face perked up. “About, what, eight o’clock?” I added, now fully committed.

What had I got myself into? But, on the other hand, it was something to do –something different- so that evening after a rushed dinner, I hunted around in the closet to inspect my wardrobe. The choice was old, though -dated. The last time I had even thought about dressing up was four or five years ago when I was married, but I remembered my ex had always thought I looked good in black for some reason. Who was I to argue?

At least it was easy to find black in there. I chose a black turtle neck sweater and black jeans and stood in front of the mirror. I looked pretty good, I thought, and headed out the door.

And so I found myself sitting beside her at the pub, and eventually, the inescapable object of her gaze. I could tell she’d already had a glass or two before I arrived, but I figured that would make it easier for me to find something we could talk about. She was sitting at a little table in the corner where it was so dark I almost missed her. The place was pretty busy for a Thursday, though, so maybe it had been the only table she could find.

“You look really nice tonight, G,” she said as soon as I sat down. Fortunately, the shadows hid my embarrassment. “I’ve never seen you dressed up before.”

I wasn’t sure what she was getting at, and I didn’t know what to say. “Well, it would be wasted in the grocery store,” I finally mumbled, managing somehow to mispronounced ‘grocery’. She giggled at that, and I immediately dropped my eyes onto the table as if I couldn’t manage those either.

I could see her expression soften, and she reached across the table to clasp my hand. I think she was just trying to reassure me, to let me know that she knew I was nervous, but she didn’t let go for the longest time. For some reason, I felt trapped, although I knew she was simply being friendly. It’s hard to describe, actually -it should have felt comforting, but when she leaned across the table to look into my eyes, I felt I had to close them. I moved back. I tried to do it slowly, so she wouldn’t notice, but she did. And when I opened my eyes again, she was smiling.

“For god’s sake, G, I wasn’t trying to kiss you.” She shook her head slowly and sighed. “Let’s have some wine.”

She ordered a litre carafe of white, but I have to say that she polished off most of it herself. Despite that, she wanted to order another carafe. She had decided to tell me more about why her marriage had failed, I think.

I shook my head and checked my watch. The conversation had been pretty one-sided, and I was tired of sitting there politely listening to her. And anyway, she was beginning to slur her words, so I thought she’d probably had enough. I offered to walk her back to her condo.

“Good idea, G,” she said after thinking about it for a moment. “You can come up for a drink.”

I smiled and shook my head. “A wonderful idea, Susan, but I’ve got to travel into the city early tomorrow.”

She leaned across the table again, grasped both my hands and kissed me on the lips.

I was so surprised, I jerked my head back rather suddenly. I realized it was rude, but I thought I’d already made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t interested in that kind of thing. Well, not yet, anyway. I have to get to know somebody first. She was rushing it.

That was when she told me she was disappointed and glared angrily at me as if I had let her down, or something. After all, I’d asked her out for a drink. She grabbed her coat and stood up unsteadily.

I was about to join her, when she waved at a friend at another table and, after turning to wink at me, sat down beside him and rubbed his shoulder.

Maybe I am meant to live alone. Maybe I just don’t have the social skills to understand other people in the way they expect. And maybe there is something wrong with me, but I felt coerced that night. Exploited. And, although disrespected describes it best, I don’t think anybody would understand. Even worse, I don’t think anybody would believe me…

 

 

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The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley

Two steps forward and one step back –isn’t that  always the way with progress? Reward coupled with unintended consequences? The Industrial Revolution with worker exploitation? Nuclear power with the Bomb. Nothing, it seems, comes without a price. Even religion, the great leveller, once established brooks no rivals. Life itself, is a succession of survivors outcompeting the other contenders.

But simply to focus on the successes is to miss the important lessons to be learned from the failures. In biology the difference between winning and losing might hinge on a single change in a single gene, or more instructively, on an adaptation of an existing organ for another, more useful function in a different environment –an exaptation. Arms and hands for wings, in the case of bats, or for fins, in the cases of aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.

In the early days after the discovery of X-rays, their ability to see through things was thought to be miraculous, and many possible uses were suggested. It was not until much later, after countless reports of cancers, burns, hair loss and worse, that the dangers of its careless use were acknowledged. Then, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of its many unwanted side-effects, grew carefully investigated treatments like irradiation for tumours, CT scans for internal visualizations, or fluoroscopy for placement of medical kit like stents, anti-embolism balloons, etc.

Unfortunately, even nowadays, the sundry complications of progress are often inadequately predicted in advance, probably because most things are multifaceted and changing one parameter has a knock-on effect on the others. Clearing forests for agriculture changes the animals that can survive in the changed ecosystem; monoculture to maximize demand for a particular variety of crop, say, increases the likelihood that the plants –previously diverse- may not be able to withstand the onslaught of a disease or infestation that would otherwise have only affected a small portion of their number. Evolution would normally have winnowed out the susceptibles, leaving only the resistant plants to reproduce. But all of this is Grade 9 biology, isn’t it?

What led me to think about this was an article in the Smithsonian Magazine discussing the effects of making friction matches on the women and children involved in their manufacture: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/friction-matches-were-boon-those-lighting-firesnot-so-much-matchmakers-180967318/ – 6ZQ6WshMH2Ghpoys.03

‘Like many other poorly paid and tedious factory jobs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, match makers were predominantly women and children, writes Killgrove [in an article for Mental Floss]. “Half the employees in this industry were kids who hadn’t even reached their teens. While working long hours indoors in a cramped, dark factory put these children at risk of contracting tuberculosis and getting rickets, matchstick making held a specific risk: phossy jaw.” This gruesome and debilitating condition was caused by inhaling white phosphorus fumes during those long hours at the factory. “Approximately 11 percent of those exposed to phosphorus fumes developed ‘phossy jaw’ about five years after initial exposure, on average”. The condition causes the bone in the jaw to die and teeth to decay, resulting in extreme suffering and sometimes the loss of the jaw. Although phossy jaw was far from the only side-effect of prolonged white phosphorus exposure, it became a visible symbol of the suffering caused by industrial chemicals in match plants.’
So much so, that by 1892, newspapers were investigating the problem. ‘“Historical records often compare sufferers of phossy jaw to people with leprosy because of their obvious physical disfigurement and the condition’s social stigma,” Killgrove writes. Eventually match makers stopped using white phosphorus in matches, and it was outlawed in the United States in 1910.’

Civilization is the steady accumulation of successes over failures. Trials and errors –mistakes which perhaps seem to have been largely anticipatable in retrospect- summate to useable compromises. It’s how a child learns; it’s how evolution learns.

But the point of this essay is not so much to highlight the exploitation of workers in the past as to suggest that there can be sociological as well as biological evolution. After all, the etymological root of the word is the Latin evolvere –to unfold.

Occupational Safety and Health -as a distinct discipline, at least- is a relatively recent development stemming from labour movements and their concern about worker safety in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. As Wikipedia explains it: ‘The Industrial Revolution was the transition to new manufacturing processes in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system.’

Although this provided jobs and undoubtedly improved many aspects of living standards, the driving force was production, and in its early stages, had little regard for worker safety or health. Enter the labour movements in the early 19th century, along with great resistance to their demands. In many instances they were seen as antithetical to progress –antithetical to Capitalism, for that matter. And yet, in the fullness of time, the benefits of a healthy workforce to economic success evolved from an initial, grudging pretense of acceptance in some countries to a legal framework of protection in others.

There is certainly a long way to go along this path to be sure, and exploitation still seems a default that is all too easy to overlook. Especially since it is the poor and vulnerable who are usually the victims –people with little voice of their own, and even less power to resist.

But are things actually changing? Does knowledge of exploitation make a difference? We know slavery is still practiced; we know that refugees are still being brutalized and abused in places like Libya; women are still being kidnapped and sold into prostitution despite the best intentions of agencies like the World Health Organization.

So, do the gains experienced in some areas, offset the tragedies in others? We cannot appreciate the broad sweep of History in the few years we are allotted, and evolution –even social evolution- can be deceptive and disheartening. But remember the words of Khalil Gibran:

You are good when you walk to your goal firmly and with bold steps.
Yet you are not evil when you go thither limping.
Even those who limp go not backward.

I have to hope he saw something that I missed along the way…