Imagination bodies forth the forms of things unknown

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination.                                                                                                                   
Theseus, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Shakespeare had a keen appreciation of the value of imagination, as that quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream suggests. But what is imagination? Is it a luxury -a chance evolutionary exaptation of some otherwise less essential neural circuit- or a purpose-made system to analyse novel features in the environment? A mechanism for evaluating counterfactuals -the what-ifs?

A quirkier question, perhaps, would be to ask if it might predate language itself -be the framework, the scaffolding upon which words and thoughts are draped. Or is that merely another chicken versus egg conundrum drummed up by an overactive imagination?

I suppose what I’m really asking is why it exists at all. Does poetry or its ilk serve an evolutionary purpose? Do dreams? Does one’s Muse…? All interesting questions for sure, but perhaps the wrong ones with which to begin the quest to understand.

I doubt that there is a specific gene for imagination; it seems to me it may be far more global than could be encompassed by one set of genetic instructions. In what we would consider proto-humans it may have involved more primitive components: such non-linguistic features as emotion -fear, elation, confusion- but also encompassed bodily responses to external stimuli: a moving tickle in that interregnum between sleep and wakefulness might have been interpreted as spider and generated a muscular reaction whether or not there was an actual creature crawling on the skin.

Imagination, in other words, may not be an all-or-nothing feature unique to Homo sapiens. It may be a series of  adaptations to the exigencies of life that eventuated in what we would currently recognize as our human creativity.

I have to say, it’s interesting what you can find if you keep your mind, as well as your eyes, open. I wasn’t actively searching for an essay on imagination -although perhaps on some level, I was… At any rate, on whatever level, I happened upon an essay by Stephen T Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College in Chicago and his approach fascinated me.

‘Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become… We should think of the imagination as an archaeologist might think about a rich dig site, with layers of capacities, overlaid with one another. It emerges slowly over vast stretches of time, a punctuated equilibrium process that builds upon our shared animal inheritance.’

Interestingly, many archaeologists seem to conflate the emergence of imagination with the appearance of artistic endeavours –‘premised on the relatively late appearance of cave art in the Upper Paleolithic period (c38,000 years ago)… [and] that imagination evolves late, after language, and the cave paintings are a sign of modern minds at work.’

Asma, sees the sequence rather differently, however: ‘Thinking and communicating are vastly improved by language, it is true. But ‘thinking with imagery’ and even ‘thinking with the body’ must have preceded language by hundreds of thousands of years. It is part of our mammalian inheritance to read, store and retrieve emotionally coded representations of the world, and we do this via conditioned associations, not propositional coding.’

Further, Asma supposes that ‘Animals appear to use images (visual, auditory, olfactory memories) to navigate novel territories and problems. For early humans, a kind of cognitive gap opened up between stimulus and response – a gap that created the possibility of having multiple responses to a perception, rather than one immediate response. This gap was crucial for the imagination: it created an inner space in our minds. The next step was that early human brains began to generate information, rather than merely record and process it – we began to create representations of things that never were but might be.’ I love his idea of a ‘cognitive gap’. It imagines (sorry) a cognitive area where something novel could be developed and improved over time.

I’m not sure that I totally understand all of the evidence he cites to bolster his contention, though- for example, the view of philosopher Mark Johnson at the University of Oregon that there are ‘deep embodied metaphorical structures within language itself, and meaning is rooted in the body (not the head).’ Although, ‘Rather than being based in words, meaning stems from the actions associated with a perception or image. Even when seemingly neutral lexical terms are processed by our brains, we find a deeper simulation system of images.’ But at any rate, Asma summarizes his own thoughts more concisely, I think: ‘The imagination, then, is a layer of mind above purely behaviourist stimulus-and-response, but below linguistic metaphors and propositional meaning.’

In other words, you don’t need to have language for imagination. But the discipline of biosemantics tries to envisage how it might have developed in other animals. ‘[Primates] have a kind of task grammar for doing complex series of actions, such as processing inedible plants into edible food. Gorillas, for example, eat stinging nettles only after an elaborate harvesting and leave-folding [sic] sequence, otherwise their mouths will be lacerated by the many barbs. This is a level of problem-solving that seeks smarter moves (and ‘banks’ successes and failures) between the body and the environment. This kind of motor sequencing might be the first level of improvisational and imaginative grammar. Images and behaviour sequences could be rearranged in the mind via the task grammar, long before language emerged. Only much later did we start thinking with linguistic symbols. While increasingly abstract symbols – such as words – intensified the decoupling of representations and simulations from immediate experience, they created and carried meaning by triggering ancient embodied systems (such as emotions) in the storytellers and story audiences.’ So, as a result, ‘The imaginative musician, dancer, athlete or engineer is drawing directly on the prelinguistic reservoir of meaning.’

Imagination has been lauded as a generator of progress, and derided as idle speculation throughout our tumultuous history, but there’s no denying its power: ‘The imagination – whether pictorial or later linguistic – is especially good at emotional communication, and this might have evolved because emotional information drives action and shapes adaptive behaviour. We have to remember that the imagination itself started as an adaptation in a hostile world, among social primates, so perhaps it is not surprising that a good storyteller, painter or singer can manipulate my internal second universe by triggering counterfactual images and events in my mind that carry an intense emotional charge.’

Without imagination, we cannot hope to appreciate the Shakespeare who also wrote, in his play Richard III:

Princes have but their titles for their glories,                                                                                                      An outward honor for an inward toil,                                                                                                                And, for unfelt imaginations,                                                                                                                                They often feel a world of restless cares.

Personally, I cannot even imagine a world where imagination doesn’t play such a crucial role… Or can I…?


Does everything have meaning?

What is the meaning of rain? No, really -what, if anything does it mean? If we ask the same question of Life, we understand immediately the type of answer required, so what is different about rain? Both are processes, of sorts, although rain has the added advantage of also being a thing -both palpable and visible- I suppose. But should that disqualify it from having meaning?

Meaning is something that stretches beyond the thing described, and expands it in ways perhaps not obvious at first glance: beyond just descriptive definition, beyond attempts at capturing it with a synonym -those are mere tautologies and add little clarity beyond finding other words to say the same thing.

It would be all too tempting to resort to simply describing rain’s cause -its meteorological significance; or suggesting its value in the sustenance of Life -but these would only describe its purpose -what it does- not its meaning. There is surely more to rain than water falling from the sky, just as there is more to Life than growth, reproduction, and change.

No, it seems to me that meaning points to something else, and a grammatical equivalent might be something like a metaphor.

I suspect it was an essay in Aeon by Jeremy Mynott, an emeritus fellow at Wolfson College in Cambridge, that rekindled my wonder about meaning in the world around us:

As he suggests, ‘Sometimes you need to look at things from outside to see them more clearly.’ And history can do that for many things -birds, for example. Before the days of over-population with its attendant pollution and habitat destruction, the much smaller aggregations of humanity were more intimately exposed to the perils -and beauty- that surrounded them.

‘The Mediterranean world of 2,500 years ago would have looked and sounded very different. Nightingales sang in the suburbs of Athens and Rome; wrynecks, hoopoes, cuckoos and orioles lived within city limits, along with a teeming host of warblers, buntings and finches; kites and ravens scavenged the city streets; owls, swifts and swallows nested on public buildings. In the countryside beyond, eagles and vultures soared overhead, while people could observe the migrations of cranes, storks and wildfowl. The cities themselves were in any case tiny by modern standards – ancient Athens, for example, had a population of about 120,000 at the height of its power in the 5th century BC.’

Things in nature impressed their physical presence on people’s daily lives to a degree now hard to imagine. ‘Not surprising either, therefore, that they also populated people’s minds and imaginations and re-emerged in their culture, language, myths and patterns of thought in some symbolic form.’ Some things -birds in his essay, at least- acquired a meaning beyond their mere physical presence.

Because Mynott is writing about the ‘meaning’ of birds, he goes on to describe how they became metaphors -there is ‘a simple progression from a descriptive fact about a bird (swallows migrate here the same time every spring), to a human comparison (that’s when we change what we wear, too) and then, in a natural and almost imperceptible segue, to making the bird represent something other than itself (a sign of spring, a reminder to start gardening, a valued guest). That is, a metaphor, something that ‘carries us across’ from one dimension of meaning to another.’

I think there is a very obvious parallel with other aspects of the natural world, too -rain, for example. And where he supplies examples of proverbs to bolster his contention of how the idea of birds has migrated into the realm of metaphor: ‘One swallow doesn’t make a summer’, there is certainly an equivalence in rain proverbs that do the same: ‘You need to save for a rainy day’, or ‘Rain does not fall on one roof alone’.

Metaphors work by having one thing stand symbolically for another, and by so doing, achieve a meaning far larger than the original.

When my children were young and beginning to learn the intricacies of language, they sounded very literal -so much so, that at times it was difficult to explain things to them without endlessly searching for another word to use for clarification: definition again. And yet, often they seemed to be searching for something more than description -and the perpetual ‘Why?’ questions that dog every parent are testament to that. No matter the skillfulness of the answer, it is seldom enough to satisfy their inner quest.

I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily indicative of children’s innate need for meaning so much as simple curiosity born of insufficient exposure to the world -or perhaps incipient mischievousness- but it is interesting that it seems to be a search for more than just a cursory explanation. Perhaps it is a developing awareness that there is more to reality than surface -an early, and tentative, exploration of Philosophy.

“Why does it rain, daddy?” my little daughter once asked. I remember the question because of her drive to understand more about rain.

“Well,” I started, unsure of the answer, to be honest, “… you know how sometimes the air around you feels wet in the summer?” I was on shaky ground already, but I pressed on when she nodded her head enthusiastically. “And sometimes if you look really hard you can see little water droplets on the window glass?”

I have to admit I was making it up as I went along, but her little face seemed so eager for more, I embellished it a bit. “Well, those drops appear when wet air touches something cool like the glass in the window. It’s called condensation,” I added, but more for my sake than hers, I think.

“So, is that where rain comes from, daddy?” She was obviously confused that windows didn’t usually rain.

“Uhmm, no but it was just a way of explaining that wet air sometimes condenses on cold things, and it’s really cold way up in the sky…”
“So…” I could almost see her processing the information behind her eyes. “So, are there windows up in the sky…?” That didn’t seem right to her, I could tell.

“No, but there are little particles of dust up there, and they’re really cold, so water droplets condense on them. And when there are a lot of them, you see them as clouds…” I was way beyond my depth, so I rather hoped she’d be satisfied with that. But I could see by her face that the machinery inside was still churning.

“So, clouds are rain before it falls…” There, I had told her all I knew about rain -more than I knew, in fact.

Suddenly, a large smile grew on her face, and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “You’re just kidding me, aren’t you daddy?”

My heart sank. We were walking along a trail in the woods at the time, and had stopped to rest in a little clearing; I hadn’t thought to bring an encyclopedia. I can still remember the flowers peeking through the grass like children thinking they could hide in plain sight and I shrugged to hide my embarrassment. “What do you mean, sweetheart?”

She grabbed my hand and looked up at my face. “There’s more to rain than clouds, daddy…”

I tried to look like the wise parent, but she was having none of it.

“Why do you say that, sweetie?” I said and held my breath.

She sighed and rolled her eyes like she’d seen me do so often. Then she pointed to an enormous fluffy cloud that was floating lazily just over our heads. “Miss Janzen at kindergarten says that rain happens when clouds cry…”

I didn’t know whether to nod in agreement -it was a kind of vindication of my explanation- or stay still, in case it was a trap.

She suddenly blinked and stared at the cloud. “You can tell that cloud doesn’t have any rain in it…” I smiled and waited for the explanation. “It looks happy, doesn’t it…?”

I’m not sure, but I suspect my daughter already knew about metaphors, even if she’d never heard the word… and perhaps she’d grasped the meaning of rain, as well…

Does Beauty live with Kindness?

I don’t know how many times I’ve written about beauty, but it continues to intrigue me. Not so much about what it is -its constituent parts, its definitions, or even its historical and sociological roots- but more its ability to morph -mutate, if you will- from something that is to something that isn’t. How, in other words, can beauty -or its antonym, ugliness- change to its opposite without materially altering anything about its appearance?

To be sure, the duality has not gone unnoticed in historical philosophy (the appearance vs the charisma of Socrates), literature (think of the handsome Dorian Grey and his increasingly ugly portrait), or even in fairy tales (Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling), but its seeming capriciousness only adds to the mystique, I think.

For years, centuries, indeed millennia, we have sought to decipher beauty, and yet apart from vague generalizations like youthfulness, proportionality, or perhaps, symmetry, it has eluded our grasp, and slipped through our fingers like slowly moving mist. The most apt description for me, comes from Koine Greek, where beauty was associated with being of one’s hour -not trying to appear older or younger: authentic, I suppose. And yet even here, beauty remains a moving target, doesn’t it?

Amongst the many attempts to pigeonhole the concept, I am always on the lookout for seemingly unique approaches -although I fully recognize that over the centuries, pretty well every perspective has likely been canvassed. At any rate, I found myself drawn to an article in Aeon by the British philosopher Panos Paris:

His opening sentence certainly captured my interest: ‘Have you ever thought that someone is far from attractive – perhaps even ugly – only to later come to find that person beautiful?’ For sure this would not be a unique experience for any of us, and yet it made me wonder how such a perceptual change could happen -was it merely that we had come to know that person better and so ignored their outward appearance, or was there an actual phase-change somehow?

Paris links our perceptions to moral qualities: ‘[B]eauty and morality, and ugliness and immorality, are intrinsically linked. Specifically, the moral virtues – honesty, kindness, fairness, empathy, etc – are beautiful character traits, and the moral vices – their contraries – are ugly.’

That seemed a little too simplistic a view, but it was enough to make me read further. He qualifies it almost immediately: ‘Of course, the kind of beauty or ugliness in question is independent of physical appearances – it belongs to characters and actions.’ He calls it the ‘moral beauty’ view, and further qualifies it by saying ‘This view is rather unfashionable today. Contemporary philosophical and lay orthodoxy construes the realms of aesthetics and morality as distinct. It regards theories such as the moral-beauty view as signs of past conceptual immaturity that we have since thankfully shaken off our intellectual shoulders.’

But then he points to diverse historical languages and how many of these (admittedly cherry-picked examples) conflated beauty and morality. ‘In Ancient Greek, kalon meant both beautiful and good, while the [African] Yoruba word ewa normally translated as ‘beauty’, is primarily used to refer to human moral qualities.’ Or, more recently, ‘Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) that ‘benevolence bestows upon those actions which proceed from it, a beauty superior to all others, [while] the want of it, and much more the contrary inclination, communicates a peculiar deformity to whatever evidences such a disposition’.

And, Paris explains, this conflation was not because of linguistic poverty. ‘[T]he Enlightenment philosophers did have the terminology to distinguish not only between beauty and goodness, but also between natural and artistic beauty, inner and outer beauty, and so on. Thus, their acknowledgement of an aesthetic dimension in morality, far from evincing confusion, seems to me to have reflected ordinary experience.’ This seemed a bit of a stretch to me -a mistaking of metaphor for prose, perhaps- but I pressed on nevertheless.

‘[W]hen people encountered others who were morally virtuous or vicious in their everyday life or in art… they felt, respectively, the sort of pleasure and displeasure evoked by other beautiful and ugly objects, and this phenomenon found its way into their language and thought.’ But with time, this view of beauty began to fade, and various detractors criticized the old approach -people like ‘Edmund Burke, who in 1757 considered it a ‘loose and inaccurate manner of speaking, [that] misled us both in the theory of taste and of morals’.

So, ‘beauty was thought to be mostly a matter of pleasure in the form of an object, and ugliness of displeasure in deformity; and form was limited to the visible or aural properties of an object. By contrast, goodness, and traits such as honesty and kindness, or selfishness and cowardice, are not like that; they are imperceptible, psychological traits, the goodness or badness of which stems from adherence to or violation of rational principles… Moreover, while the good is, or should be, desirable for its own sake, the beautiful is desirable because it’s pleasurable. So linking beauty and goodness might lead to a corruption or degeneration of moral motivation by encouraging the pursuit of goodness for its beauty.’

I began to lose interest at this point in his sign-wave and ultimately reductionist type of historical approach to beauty. I mean, let us suppose that beauty is largely subjective whereas, morality, because of the duties and obligations associated with being moral, is more objective… What does that mean? Is it an important distinction…?

Or… are we merely throwing everything into the pot in our frantic need for definition? Are we so desperate for a word, for a concept, that describes the pleasurable sensation of encounter, and engagement, that we flounder in the stew ourselves? Could it be that all the while, beauty was simply a metaphor -a way of saying we are pleased, and that what we are really struggling with is a way of expressing this?

And could it be why the word metaphor is so apt? Not to over-emphasize the need of delving into etymological derivations whenever we are stuck for something to say, its component morphemes are instructive: phore meaning ‘bearer of’ and meta designating an analysis at a higher, more abstract level. Personally, I think the famous 18th century French writer, Stendhal defined beauty the best: he called it la promesse de bonheur (the promise of happiness).

Do we really need more than that…?

Lying down in green pastures

I suppose I should admit something from the start: I’m not particularly religious, and I certainly do not have anything but the most superficial knowledge of Biblical writing. Still, I have come to appreciate the glory of metaphor and how it is able to transmute otherwise ineffable concepts into words. Feelings. Poetry, of course, aspires to that, but so do many of the texts in the Bible -especially the in ‘Old Testament’, apparently.

And yet, except for a very few of the more memorable lines I was taught in Sunday school as a child -parts of Psalm 23 spring to mind- I can’t say I was ever able to differentiate the poetry from the -what?- commands: the instructive reverence with which I was intended to regard the message. But, it seems to me that by its very nature, poetry, through metaphor, simile, and even word play would be particularly helpful for some of the ideas the Bible is trying to describe -things like lamentations, or hymns of praise where it would make sense to draw on the emotive powers of poetry to make a point.

In my adult years, on those rare occasions when the subject of biblical poetry has arisen, I have usually attributed my wonted tone-deafness to translational problems. Cross cultural, not to mention cross-temporal issues mean that some figures of speech, or clever puns in the original language do not have much chance of making the same impact on us as they would have on the recipients when and where they were originally composed.

Even nowadays, the European poems of Schiller (German), or Baudelaire (French), for example, are difficult to translate into English and preserve their same emotional intensity -and they were written as recently as the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively. Imagine the difficulty of attempting to render the writings of people living more than 2000 years ago into meaningful word-pictures that would resonate in today’s modern world. And, given the sacred nature of the Bible, any attempt to change the wording, or render the sentences into something like their original poetry, risks immediate condemnation.

The very idea that someone was willing to take the risk intrigued me. It would require impeccable credentials in ancient Hebrew with an equivalent temporal knowledge of the customs and literary devices used so long ago -and an ability to maintain the intended meaning without trivializing the message.

Of course, I have no way of knowing how well any translational skills succeeded in walking that  obviously difficult path, but some of the word-play involved in the effort was explained in an article in Aeon by Robert Alter, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley:

‘An essential fact about the Hebrew Bible is that most of its narrative prose as well as its poetry manifests a high order of sophisticated literary fashioning. This means that any translation that does not attempt to convey at least something of the stylistic brilliance of the original is a betrayal of it, and such has been the case of all the English versions done by committee in the modern period.’ True, the Hebrew Bible is basically a religious text, and yet, ‘If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.’

So how, after millennia, can one ever hope to express this language from the depths of time into relevant, let alone evocative English phrases? The accuracy of the message is one thing, of course, but conveying it in anything like the clever style of the original so the reader can still appreciate the poetry is another. ‘One small but telltale manifestation of the artistry practised by the biblical writers is their fondness for meaningful word play and sound play.’ However, ‘translation… entails a long series of compromises because full equivalence is rarely an option.’

For example, ‘The prophet Isaiah, like any great poet, commands a variety of formal tools – powerful rhythms, striking imagery, pointed literary allusions (in his case, to earlier biblical texts). Isaiah is particularly fond of sound play that verges on punning. In order to convey with force the perversion of values in the kingdom of Judah, he often juxtaposes two words that sound rather alike but are opposite in meaning… The Hebrew writers repeatedly revelled in the expressive possibilities of their medium, working inventively and sometimes surprisingly in their stories and poems with rhythm, significant repetition, narrative point of view, imagery, shifts in diction, the bending of language in dialogue to represent actual speech or the nature and location of the speaker.’

The article offers a few examples of Alter’s clever compromises to restore the music of the text, but I suspect it is intended more as a kind of a proof-of-concept than as a detailed slog through each Biblical book and chapter; it was both tantalizing and yet mercifully short. Still, it was enough to alert me to the things I never appreciated in my Protestant Sunday school. In fact, I don’t recall them ever mentioning anything about Biblical writing styles -it was the message they were trying desperately to inculcate in our young minds, I suppose.

But lest readers of my humble feuilleton suspect that in these penultimate years I am finally succumbing to Pascal’s wager and conceding that even though the existence of God may be unlikely -and at any rate unprovable-  and that the potential benefits of belief far outweigh shuffling off unshriven, let me assure them that any quest for hidden beauty need not involve ulterior motives. In the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran, Beauty is life when life unveils her holy face.

Sometimes it’s enough to know what one’s education may have missed without having to read the whole of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. No, Alter stirred my interest enough to allow me to finish his essay, but, sadly, not enough to make me want to retrain as a biblical scholar. I’m happy the Bible is poetic, but not, well, overjoyed, or anything…

Is Everybody a Petard?

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

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

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

I have to admit that I have long felt that the generalizations were overdone, and in the current era of rapid dissemination of ideas that seem as stable as clothes in a washing machine, not terribly relevant. But the idea was reintroduced to me in an essay in by Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago:

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

The toolkit he is referencing is the use of WEIRD -an acronym meaning the use of Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic students as fodder for the studies that were being published in the sociological literature. He references a famous paper published in 2010 led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia entitled ‘The Weirdest people in the World?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are we not such stuff as dreams are made on?

Memory Vaults

After a certain age, many of us have concerns about our memories. Nothing much at first, of course -just things like forgetting why you went into the kitchen, or where you put your keys. Later, it can progress to having to write down a phone number immediately after you hear it, say, rather than trusting that you will be able to recall it correctly a minute or two later. Often, it’s easier to remember things if you use little tricks, mnemonic aids, although sometimes you forget to use them, too. But why? Are things just wearing out? Are some neurons in the brain short circuiting, or actively being culled? And why such a variation in people -and, apparently, in different populations?

As one might expect, there is intense research in this field, given the demographics of an aging population base. But have you ever wondered why you don’t have many -or any– early memories of when you were a young child -especially when you were very young: a baby, for example? Surely, the brain is a sponge at that stage, and the neurons and neural connections are propagating like mad to help you learn about the new world you are encountering for the first time? This is a puzzle that has always interested me, but perhaps even more so in my dotage when I finally have the time to reflect more thoroughly on the mystery and its possible ramifications. An article in the BBC Future series written by Zaria Gorvett, helped to shed some light on the mysterious gap:

I am reminded of a blurred black-and-white memory of my brother holding me in what seemed like a flower garden when I was a baby. I often refer to it as my first memory, but the faded and black-and-white characteristics suggest that it was more likely hewn from a photograph than any still inchoate proto-memory. But as the above-linked article suggests, ‘On average, patchy footage appears from about three-and-a-half.’ And that, of course, reveals another fascinating thing about what we think we remember: ‘Even if your memories are based on real events, they have probably been moulded and refashioned in hindsight – memories planted by conversations rather than first-person memories of the actual events.’ But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Why can’t we remember being a baby? As with many aspects of brain function, nobody seems to know for sure, but the article discusses several theories that might explain it. One such attempt suggests that ‘Our culture may … determine the way we talk about our memories, with some psychologists arguing that they only come once we have mastered the power of speech. “Language helps provide a structure, or organisation, for our memories, that is a narrative.  By creating a story, the experience becomes more organised, and therefore easier to remember over time,” …  Some psychologists are sceptical that this plays much of a role, however. There’s no difference between the age at which children who are born deaf and grow up without sign language report their earliest memories, for instance.’

Then there is the possibility that ‘we can’t remember our first years simply because our brains hadn’t developed the necessary equipment.’ The hippocampus, an area of the brain that is important for dealing with memories, is still developing new neurons for the first few years of life, and it is only when these additions begin to slow down that our first memories emerge. This adds another layer of mystery to the hippocampus, though: ‘is the under-formed hippocampus losing our long-term memories, or are they never formed in the first place? Since childhood events can continue to affect our behaviour long after we’ve forgotten them, some psychologists think they must be lingering somewhere.’

There is another hazy memory that also haunts me; I would be pretty sure that it’s real, except for my brother again. It was in the days before seat belts or infant car seats; my father was driving and I was sitting on my mother’s lap in the car so I would be high enough to see out of the window. We were somewhere in Manitoba on the way to the Winnipeg Beach for the first and only time -it’s on Lake Winnipeg, I think. Apparently we normally went to Grand Beach on the railway my father used to work for, so my brother remembered the year. I would have been about two and a half or three years old.

My brother, who must have been around twelve or thirteen at the time, had the back seat to himself, but I think he was mad that he couldn’t sit in the front so he kept reaching over the seat and pulling my hair. My mother, never the patient one, finally had enough and suddenly threw out her arm to smack him. Unfortunately she hit my father and the car swerved off the highway before he could stop it. None of us were hurt, but it really scared me and I began to sob unconsolably. My parents tried everything to stop me, and finally, my brother -now chastened- told me to look out of the window because there was something out there that I’d never, ever, see again. I remember his emphasis on the ‘ever’, but I also remember not wanting to obey him.

At any rate, many years later, I asked him if he remembered that time we drove up to Winnipeg Beach with our parents.

We were sitting in a little coffee shop and he put down his cup and nodded, a faraway look in his eyes. “You were a little brat then, remember?”

Actually, I thought he’d been the brat, but I supposed he meant my crying. “But you were pulling my hair, remember?”

“And you kicked dad so hard, he lost control and the car swerved off the road…” he said before I interrupted.

“That was mom who knocked his arm accidentally because she was trying to get to you.” I was absolutely clear on that. “Maybe you couldn’t see her well enough from the back seat, though” I added, trying to be diplomatic.

I remember my brother staring at me at that  point. “I was sitting in the front seat, too,” he chided. “The old cars had those big wide front seats, remember?” A wry smile appeared on his lips -he still knew how to stir me up. “And, you were having one of your usual temper tantrums and kicked out with your feet. One of them hit the hand dad was driving with and the car skidded off the road… I think it might have been gravel, or something.”

I shook my head vehemently at his pentimento, and he began to laugh like he used to do when he was taunting me. Apparently he, too, was invested in the memory. And yet, how can you verify your recollection of something that happened that long ago? I suppose I sulked for a moment or two, and then it came to me. “Ron, do you remember that I was crying even worse after the accident?” He nodded graciously, content to grant me a little face. “And do you remember that you tried to get me to stop, by telling me to look out of the window? You said if I didn’t look, I’d miss something I’d never, ever, see again?” I tried to emphasize the ‘ever’ like I remembered he had.

He thought about it for a minute. Clearly it hadn’t been a big thing for him at the time -more a trick to silence me. Then, his face brightened up. “Yes… Yes I think I remember…”

“And what was it?” I asked, leading him into my trap.

He smiled in the same smug way he always had when he was in possession of something I wanted but didn’t have. “There was a huge eagle sitting on a tree near the road. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before in the wild.”

I nodded my head pleasantly, as if he’d finally solved a mystery that had been nagging at me all those years. But I knew he was lying… No, that’s unfair! I knew he thought he was remembering what really happened back then, but he was wrong -I’d peeked. There was no eagle, and in fact we were almost at the beach and there weren’t even trees anywhere near the road. I’m sure I would have seen something that big. And yet… And yet, the eagle has been my favourite bird ever since I was a child…










Let Virtue be as Wax

We are all products of our era, and often unbeknownced to us, our language is to blame. Words become signposts that reassure us that we know where we are headed. Where we came from. And yet they can be as lost as us –especially in the domain of sexuality. Even the word ‘sex’ itself –a seemingly self-defining concept- can be misleading. It’s origin, commonly attributed to the Latin verb secare –to divide, or cut- presumably to explain the physical difference between men and women, does not necessarily entrain the psychological divisions. Or behaviour.

To paraphrase Socrates at his trial, the unexamined word is not worth using. That ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ were so inconsonant I had not suspected. Sex, quite obviously, is a physical assignation; sexuality on the other hand, is the more psychologically -the more erotically- imbued preference. Indeed, the concept of heterosexuality did not exist as such in the past. Nor did homosexuality as an article by Brandon Ambrosino in the BBC News pointed out:  ‘One hundred years ago, people had a very different idea of what it means to be heterosexual.’ In fact, ‘The 1901 Dorland’s Medical Dictionary defined heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted appetite toward the opposite sex.” More than two decades later, in 1923, Merriam Webster’s dictionary similarly defined it as “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t until 1934 that heterosexuality was graced with the meaning we’re familiar with today: “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal sexuality.”’ It would seem that ‘all of our sexualities are “just there”; that we don’t need an explanation for homosexuality just as we don’t need one for heterosexuality.’

‘“Sex has no history,” writes queer theorist David Halperin at the University of Michigan, because it’s “grounded in the functioning of the body.” Sexuality, on the other hand, precisely because it’s a “cultural production,” does have a history. In other words, while sex is something that appears hardwired into most species, the naming and categorizing of those acts, and those who practice those acts, is a historical phenomenon.’ Or, to put it another way, ‘[…]there have always been sexual instincts throughout the animal world (sex). But at a specific point on in time, humans attached meaning to these instincts (sexuality). When humans talk about heterosexuality, we’re talking about the second thing.’

And as well, ‘[…] sexual desire was situated within a larger context of procreative utility, an idea that was in keeping with the dominant sexual theories of the West. In the Western world, long before sex acts were separated into the categories hetero/homo, there was a different ruling binary: procreative or non-procreative.’ So sexuality is the desire and although the act may be categorized as procreative (different-genital intercourse), or non-procreative (it doesn’t matter), with erotic desire -in the past at least- the intention was not further categorized. It was the act that was noticed. The act that was labelled. ‘Something […] happened with heterosexuals, who, at the end of the 19th Century, went from merely being there to being known. “Prior to 1868, there were no heterosexuals,” writes Blank [the author of Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality]Neither were there homosexuals. It hadn’t yet occurred to humans that they might be “differentiated from one another by the kinds of love or sexual desire they experienced.” Sexual behaviours, of course, were identified and catalogued, and often times, forbidden. But the emphasis was always on the act, not the agent.’

And yet nowadays, we seem to require labels –as if the words were themselves expositors and not mere descriptors. ‘Debates about sexual orientation have tended to focus on a badly defined concept of “nature.” Because different sex intercourse generally results in the propagation of the species, we award it a special moral status. But “nature” doesn’t reveal to us our moral obligations – we are responsible for determining those, even when we aren’t aware we’re doing so.’

The difficulty of negotiating this landscape had occurred to me long before I read the article, however. A few years ago I walked over to a downtown bus stop, tired after having a rather long day at work. I’d left the office early, and I thought I was the only one there until I noticed two teenaged girls sitting on the little bench in the bus shelter in passionate embrace. I didn’t want to embarrass them, but I did feel the need of sitting down. Unfortunately they had both put their backpacks onto what little remained of the seat on either side, so I thought I’d wait until they’d finished, as it were. I kept glancing at them, but their fervour seemed unending and I eventually resigned myself to standing.

Suddenly a head disentangled itself from the osculatory machinations and stared at me accusingly.

“Got a problem, mister?” it asked, while a hand deftly extricated a piece of overly-chewed gum from its mouth.

I blushed, but did manage a conciliatory smile hoping to defuse the tension. “Sorry,” I said, when I could find the words, “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I was hoping I could sit down…”

The other head opened its eyes at the sound of my voice and managed an embarrassed smile while convincing its hands to leave her friend and move the pack from the seat. “We didn’t mean… We didn’t know anybody was standing there…”

The first head dropped its eyes to the pavement in obeisance. “Yeah, I didn’t mean to be rude…” She picked her eyes up again and sent them softly to my face before she looked at her friend. “It’s just that, like, some people get… You know, like, upset when they see us kissing.”

“Yeah, as if we were, like, tards, or something,” the second girl said as they both moved over on the bench to make room for me.

The word  tards seemed to offend the first girl. “She just means that, like, some people go strange when they see us being so… involved, I guess.” She looked at her friend and whispered something I couldn’t hear. “Like we’re pervs, or whatever,” she continued, after elbowing her gently.

“Yeah, the other day, one old guy walking by even, like, spat on the sidewalk when he saw us cuddling.”

“Yeah, as if he never cuddled with his partner…” the first girl giggled.

“He probably never had a partner, Joni!”

Joni shook her head. “Maybe not, but I don’t think he was, like, jealous or anything, do you?”

Her friend smiled. “He was just looking for a label, sweetheart. Some are easier to find, I guess.”














Non-Binary Gynaecology

There was a time when I thought I had a handle on gender, but things change: it’s no longer constrained by only two choices. And then I thought I understood the variations on the theme of sexual preferences. I even learned their names. Now I’ve discovered that no less an authority than the New York Times has decided to recognize that the use of ‘they’ might, at times, be acceptable in referring to a person without disclosing the sex (and therefore prejudicing the choice)–as in, say, ‘When the leader of the delegation announced the agenda, they did so in English.’

I thought I was keeping up. I thought I finally understood the intricacies of gender politics, but I realize that I am still challenged. I am still floundering in the choppy waters of an incoming tide. I’m going to have to stop reading the BBC news online:

Okay, I realize that having to use the ‘he/she’ device in the interests of universality (biversality?) makes for some tough slogging for the reader and makes an article, or a story, almost unreadable. But, in my naiveté, I assumed this was just a way of being inclusive: a way of recognizing that past generations had assumed the use of ‘he’ as a universal designation was a convention that was not meant as an exclusion –more like an unthinking shortcut that nobody had challenged.

So I have to say that I was certainly not expecting ‘they’ to evolve so rapidly into the demand for non-binary pronouns; the concept of American universities embracing signs like ‘Ask Me About My Pronouns’ caught me completely off guard. As the BBC article attests, ‘The alternatives to “he” and “she” are myriad.’ Indeed, ‘A linguist at the University of Illinois, Dennis Baron, has catalogued dozens of proposed gender-neutral pronouns, many – including “ip,” “nis,” and “hiser” – dating back to the 19th Century.’ Who would have thought…?

Fortunately –for me, at any rate- ‘[…] Baron calls the gender-neutral pronoun an epic fail and reckons that new pronouns such as “ze” may not survive. But both he and Sally McConnell-Ginet, a Cornell University linguistics professor who researches the link between gender, sexuality, and language, think the singular “they” – as used for example by Kit Wilson – has a chance of success.’

But languages change; preferences and acceptabilities mutate: ‘…English has a precedent for a plural pronoun coming to be used in the singular – the pronoun “you”. Until the 17th Century a single person was addressed with “thou” and “thee”. Later “you” became perfectly acceptable in both plural and singular.’ And then of course, the obverse ‘you-all’ (or the highly recognizable ‘y’all’ in some southern U.S. states’ dialects) -a merging of singular and second-person pronouns.

Now I suspect that much of my confusion at all of this probably stems from my perspective at the night-robed end of the age spectrum. From this spot, there is a tendency to view change as either unnecessary, or spurious -change for the sake of change. I admit my hesitation to embrace the need for even more twigs on the already-gnarled and pot-bound grammatical family tree which is nonetheless in desperate need of pruning. Perhaps it requires another pot entirely. Maybe that is what is intended.

I suppose I should have been prepared, though; I think I had a foretaste of it several years ago in my office.

Lynne and Elin were so alike, they could have been twins. Both sat entwined like ivy in a shadowed corner of the waiting room. They weren’t conspicuous or inappropriate, just, well, close. As I busied myself at the front desk with some forms I had to print, I noticed others waiting nearby stealing glances at them while pretending to be absorbed in some magazine or other. Both with short dark hair, identically-coloured light blue shirts, unbuttoned at the neck, and loose black jeans they scattered no useful gendered clues to the increasingly curious audience.

They both shook my hand when I approached, and both quietly accompanied me down the corridor to my office. I encourage patients to invite their partners to come with them to the consultation, but in a gynaecological practice, embarrassment –or a desire for privacy- often limits the participation of one of them. But not with these two. It was like inviting the flower without the stem.

Even when they seated themselves in front of my desk, I was still uncertain of their identities. Who was Lynne, and who was Elin was only part of the puzzle. I suspected that Elin might be a male partner, but when I heard him/her speak, I couldn’t be certain. Then I entertained the possibility that they were indeed twins –although more likely not identical ones- and that, like many twins, they did things together, whatever their gender.

It was Lynne who had been referred, however, so trying to be respectful of their homogeneous appearance, I stared intently at my computer screen to avoid their eyes, and asked which one of them was Lynne.

A knowing smile passed between them, and the one on the left put up his/her hand like she/he was in a class. “I’m Lynne, doctor,” she said, looking amused. “And this is my partner Elin,” she added, looking proudly at him/her and then reached for their hand.

I was speechless for a moment, but I tried to hide it with a smile and then a nod in his/her/their direction. “I see,” I finally managed and then, looking at Lynne, promptly crossed some sort of a line when I continued with, “I glad you invited her to be with you.” I said it to be polite and inclusive, but I suppose I also said it as a way to establish Elin’s gender. They both stiffened immediately.

“Elin does not recognize gender identity, doctor,” Lynne said in a tone that brooked no contradiction.

“Nor does Lynne,” Elin tossed at me.

“I don’t want to be limited in who I am,” Lynne chimed in. She wasn’t trying to be provocative I don’t think, but I know she realized the effect it would have on me, because her eyes hardened and her forehead wrinkled like a professor introducing a new concept to a fidgeting, skeptical class. “Sometimes I’m both, and sometimes neither… I am what I am in the moment.” She said that with such fervour that one eye actually closed with the effort.

I think she was daring me to question the possibility of a modern-day Janus -the two-faced god of transitions. Instead, I was intrigued and I could see it surprised both of them.

I nodded in acceptance, smiling to myself all the while. I’d never considered the idea before, and I found it fascinating. “So, if I may acknowledge my naiveté in such things, may I ask how you would refer to Elin –in conversation, for example? Which pronoun would you use –masculine or feminine, or…?” I left it open so she/they could offer her/their preferences.

“Well,” Lynne started after a long look at Elin, “we considered ‘ze’ as kind of a neutral pronoun at first, but it sounded sort of… weird. Then we tried ‘ey’ –sort of a slurred mixture of the conventional choices- but everybody seemed to think we had just mispronounced ‘she’ or ‘he’ and tried to clarify it for us.” Lynne shrugged and squeezed Elin’s hand. “I hate binaries,” she added as a sort of postscript.

“So we’ve decided just to use our names instead of other gender-obfuscating pronouns,” Elin said and smiled, satisfied that using the word ‘obfuscating’ somehow deposited the problem behind them. “I mean, if you think about it, even the concept of ‘binary’ suggests that there are only two choices: male and female. We know that is no longer the case,” he/she/they/ey/ze concluded. And I suppose for them (I am allowed to use ‘them’ apparently), it wasn’t.

Lynne suddenly looked at her/their watch and glanced at Elin. “I’m so sorry doctor, but we have to catch a bus to the airport to meet Elin’s mother. I didn’t realize the appointment would take so long…” It was obviously a lame excuse – an escape mechanism, they’d probably used before, but I let it pass. Whatever Lynne’s gynaecological problem, she/Lynne/they felt it could clearly wait for another visit.

Actually, I didn’t think it had taken any time at all –I hadn’t even asked her/them/Lynne why she/they/Lynne thought she/Lynne/they been referred. But I guess pronouns are slow-moving beasts, so I just smiled and asked her/them/Lynne if she’d/Lynn’d/they’d like to schedule another appointment at a time when Lynne/they/Elin could stick around a little longer. I didn’t say it like that, of course –it would have taken far too long and they/Lynne/Elin were obviously in a hurry.

Lynne/Elin/They smiled at me when they/Elin/Lynne left so Elin/they/Lynne obviously didn’t feel they/Lynne/Elin were not heard. And I, at least, felt I’d taken the pulse of a new and perhaps metastasizing condition; I had learned something new about the world. I have two regrets however. One of them is that I never saw them/Lynne/Elin again so I couldn’t pursue my gender education any further; but mainly, I never was able to discover whether Elin was male or female… not that it would matter to either of them, I guess.






The Mistaken Identity

Communication is a fascinating thing. It enables descriptions of the world in different sounds, different gestures, different expressions. A shrug of indifference in one culture is a greeting in another. A nod can convey a myriad of intentions -context is everything. Only the smile seems a common currency. As a gynaecologist, I am ruled by boundaries, beyond which I dare not venture without, at the very least, the permission of a smile.  It is a sign hung upon the face that needs no words -the Rosetta Stone that unlocks the mysteries of culture and walks the unfamiliar language like a bridge.

My office is a tiny United Nations, with a rainbow range of clothes on display, and skins to match. The waiting room is impossible to ignore, but equally difficult to understand. Words are encrypted by language, and intent masked by the panoply of expressions encoded in millennia of habitual use. It is a place of pleasant noise. Expectant. Pregnant, if I may say, with expectations both imminent and anticipated. Now is just a passing fancy; it is the future they await: a baby, a diagnosis, or just the reassurance that they are in not imminent need of help. It is a place of smiles, both nervous and shy -signals that they understand their different reasons for sitting side by side.

But it is sometimes a more confusing world once they have entered my consulting room. Words matter there. Meanings are crucial, explanations need context, symptoms require a modicum of description. Except for the more flagrant and visible aberrations of bodily integrity, diagnoses require detail. Language. And patients who are adept at simple conversations in English often struggle with words they would not encounter in the home. What is hidden from sight, is usually hidden from discussion: there is seldom a need to talk about an ovary nor, for that matter, a vagina -even in their own language. It is more often passed over with a blush, or an anxious smile.

I tell the referring doctors to ask their patients to bring a translator with them if they think it may be a problem, but too often it is a family member with similar language skills who accompanies them -a daughter who is too embarrassed to say the words, or a husband in front of whom she is ashamed to admit the problem. Everyone smiles, but often with incomprehension or discomfort.  I love the challenge.

Sometimes the challenge is of a different sort, however; sometimes it is me who is embarrassed.

There were just two of them in the waiting room -sisters, likely, and not too far apart in age. As I walked into the room to greet them, they were huddled together whispering loudly about something and didn’t notice me until I was standing right beside them.

“Wei?” I said in a rather tentative voice, reading the name off the referral letter that was written on a piece of paper, but not certain I had pronounced it  correctly.

I was immediately greeted by a smile -two smiles- and they both stood up. Neither made eye contact, but they followed me down the corridor to my office -normally a good sign. I felt confident that one of them was Wei.

“Wei, you sit in this chair by the desk,” I said, addressing the space between them, and hoping for clarification in the assigned seat. But instead, they seemed confused and I could almost feel the mental flipping of coins as to who sat where. I addressed the Wei seat first. “Wei?” I said, to cement the relationship.

They both smiled -nervously, I thought. The Wei seat answered for them both. “Wai,” she said -by way of correction I assumed. Even though I’d taken conversational Cantonese many years before, I never mastered even the rudiments of the many variations of pronunciation, let alone meanings of words that seemed otherwise identical. But I was happy at the confirmation of identity and smiled my acknowledgement.

“So why are you here today, Wai?” I said, careful of my pronunciation. And careful to differentiate her from her sister. Apart from the name, the referral letter was illegible.

They exchanged glances, apparently trying to decide who should answer. Obviously one of them was better at English, and they wanted to make sure I understood. It was Wai in the assigned patient chair who answered. She seemed pleased that she was able to speak, but she, too, seemed to need to clarify the situation before proceeding any further. “She my sister,” she said pointing at the other chair.

I smiled and nodded at the information. “How do you do?” I said to each of them. Clearly there was a series of preliminary introductions and small talk that were deemed necessary. Polite. I decided not to rush things, but after conferring briefly with her sister, she got right to the point.

“Me?” she said, pointing to herself. I nodded in assent. She smiled broadly and looked at her sister. Proudly, I thought. I could see her struggling to find the correct words. “Baby,” she said, and her smile almost split her face in two. “First baby!”

I could tell this was going to be a difficult. Her sister stayed quiet, merely nodding whenever Wai said anything. “Do you speak English?” I said, politely turning to the sister. Hope springs eternal. But she shook her head smiled. “Only little,” she added after a moment and an inquisitive glance at Wai.

It was Wai’s turn. “I the good English,” she said confidently and not without an ill-disguised condescending glance at her sister.

I wasn’t really sure how to proceed. Taking an adequate history was impossible -even finding out if there were problems with the pregnancy so far seemed remote. But Wai appeared so enthusiastic and happy, I thought I’d try for a few basics. “So, when is the baby due?” I immediately regretted the word ‘due’ because her face fell. I decided to try a more basic form: “When baby come?” I felt embarrassed to say it like that -it too, seemed condescending- but Wai understood and smiled again.

“Seven,” she said, holding up seven fingers.

Encouraged, I considered pressing on with more detail. I thought I’d try for the date of her last period -that would  help me plan what to do next in terms of ultrasounds, blood tests, and so forth. “When did your last period start?” I said as slowly as I could without sounding silly. But I quickly realized I’d framed it poorly. “When last bleeding?” I tried, blushing at the clumsy attempt.

Again the smile. “June one,” she said, this time holding up one finger confidently.

Great, I was getting somewhere at last.  But when I then tried to ask her if she’d had an ultrasound yet, it became immediately apparent that I had reached the bottom of the well. I shrugged and put on my best smile. “I’m going to need more information…” I sighed to show I knew how difficult it must be for her. “You’re going to need to bring an interpreter next time, Wai…” She looked disappointed, so I think she understood. She turned unexpectedly to her sister and quickly said something to her that sounded like she was confused. They both looked at me for a moment, and then huddled together in quiet conversation, occasionally risking a puzzled stare and then submerged themselves in words again.

“So, you not talk to Wei?” she said, pronouncing the name as I had in the waiting room and pointing to her sister.

“Are you not Wai?” I said, confused at the pronunciations, then glancing at my watch.

She nodded vigorously and smiled. “I Wai; my sister Wei,” she said, touching her sister gently on the arm. Then they both began to laugh. “You make mistake..?” said Wai -I think it was Wai; I was becoming quite confused. But I have to admit I blushed all the same.

I managed to chuckle along with them; they seemed quite amused by the whole encounter.

“Not problem,” said Wai, glancing at her watch. “We come back.”

And so began another day at the regional section of my own United Nations Gynaecology division… Do you see why I love what I do?

The Crown Jewel


Ahh, those were the days! The days when naivete reigned. The once-upon-a-times when my practice was young and everyone around me seemed old. They spoke a language I had not anticipated in my training; they seem to have subscribed to different dictionaries, or the words were smudged so they did their best with what they could make out. I began to wonder if my background in the prairies had hidden me from modern descriptive English. Cloaked me in innocence. After all, it was the place where I was assured by a teacher in grade three that Winnipeg was the only place in the world where we did not speak with an accent.

Of course, since then I have lived in many places, and my vocabulary has expanded accordingly -but it is the jargon of common things by and large: words we might use with a person in the office, or a friend at a coffee shop. Every day things… Doctors generally do not unwrap their esoteria in public, and their user-unfriendly descriptives for particular bodily parts or conditions go largely untranslated. Unappreciated in the main. And anyway, most people have their own names for the stuff.

But when you’re first starting and building a practice, the world is freshly scrubbed and terminology an adventure. I quickly discovered that patients are wont to try new doctors in a never ending quest for clarity –someone whose explanations they can understand. Someone who doesn’t have to resort to pointing at the area in question. We are all under somebody’s microscope.


It was only my second month in practice, and I wasn’t very busy.

“Doctor, I hope you can help me,” the olive-skinned woman said as soon as she sat down. Her long black hair was carefully pinned on her head, but as she gestured, little strands would escape and cross her eyes like windshield wiper blades. Far from annoying her, she hurried the transit in a trained fluid sweep of her head as if it was an integral part of her everyday speech.

She was a heavy woman, but dressed in a stunning green blouse and black jeans, she wore her weight, like her height, as a gift. The most striking feature about her, though, was her eyes. Intense and brown, they prowled the room in search of prey, then fastened upon me like a cat, and once engaged, stapled me to my chair.

I struggled to disengage and tried to focus on her chart for a moment. Usually there is an explanatory referral letter, but there were only three words scrawled in pencil –hurriedly, I think, because they were almost undecipherable.

My face must have fallen, because she unlatched her eyes, scanned the upside-down letters, and said, “Dr. Edwards is a man of few words, eh?”

I looked up, embarrassed at my inability to decipher the letters, and turned the page so she could read it. “Any idea what it says?”

She studied my face to see if I was kidding. “He was kind of puzzled by my stuff, so he told me to explain it to you… Anyway, it says ‘something quadrant pain’ –whatever that means.” A mischievous look snuck onto her face and her body shivered ever so slightly, the movement slowly descending like a wave. “I’ve got pain in my parts… My private parts,” she added quickly, concerned that fancy might draw me to more public venues.

“And when do you get pain… there?” I asked, hoping for more clarity.

She thought about it for a moment. “Well, mostly during my monthlies I suppose, but occasionally during his act.” I must have looked blank, because her eyes dropped briefly as she searched for a more apt description. “You know,when he… walks through the door,” she said, and sat back in her chair convinced she had simplified the term.

She struggled through her history with a litany of words I had never heard before. Things like ‘tweenie-legs’ and ‘bloaty-stuff’ surfaced briefly, then sank just as quickly after I’d made a stab at translating them into something I could dictate to her doctor.

But when we’d plodded through the symptoms and I’d had a chance to examine her, it seemed likely that she had endometriosis –a painful condition where some of the endometrial cells that normally line the uterus and are expelled during menstruation, are forced back through the Fallopian tubes into the abdominal cavity where they can grow.

The condition is usually diagnosed and treated with a laparoscope –a telescope inserted through the belly button under an anaesthetic. Pretty standard stuff. But this seemed to worry her more than the condition itself. “I’m kinda worried about my crown jewel,” she said, her brown eyes watering.

I smiled and assured her that I would not be taking anything out of her. I had heard the expression ‘crown jewels’ before but always in the plural, and never referring to women. But, summoning up a vague memory of trash talk in the YMCA locker room, I assumed it was a code for ovary and not wanting to become entrapped in another of her semantic vortices, I left it at that.


The last thing she said to me in the OR before the anaesthesiologist put her to sleep was “Careful of the crown jewel, eh, doc?” I touched her shoulder reassuringly and watched her close her eyes as the medication took hold.

“What was that about?” the scrub nurse said as she was prepping her adomen.

I shrugged. “I was hoping I was the only one who didn’t understand…”

Belly buttons are interesting areas, I have come to realize. They exist in all sizes and shapes. Their contours run the gamut from vertical alignment to transverse and since the laparoscope has to be inserted through it, the incision has to be similarly tailored so it is inapparent after it heals. Hers was distorted, however, so I found I had to be creative. I ended up cutting a short horizontal line about as long as my little finger nail on its lower edge much to the surprise of the resident doctor who was assisting me.

“I’ve only seen it cut vertically,” she said with some hesitation evident in her voice. It wasn’t exactly a criticism –residents don’t usually criticize their staff- but I could hear the implied judgement in the tone. I smiled beneath my mask, and said something to justify my decision. But it was a bluff; I recognized my heresy all too clearly. If it healed with a ridge, or a scar, there might be complaints. It made me all the more determined to leave her ovaries unharmed.

And then, after dealing with the endometriosis, and dictating the operative report, I promptly forgot about the navel issue. Until, that is, she returned to see me several weeks later.


She sat down opposite me as she had that first time, but her eyes were so intense I could barely see her face. “What did you do, doctor?” she said in an accusatory tone before I could even open her chart.

“Do you still have the pain?” I asked carefully –almost shyly, given the spotlight of her eyes. I felt naked in their allegation. Like I had done something wrong.

She turned down the wattage and I could finally see the smile that had been in possession of her face all the while. “No, of course not…”

‘Of course not’? I took a deep breath as the memory of her umbilical incision rose slowly and painfully into my chest; my resident had been right.

“How did you do it?” she said a little too loudly, her eyes firmly grasping my head. “My friends all noticed; everybody’s been commenting.”

“I’m sorry,” I managed to mumble, my cheeks no doubt red with the effort. “I don’t underst…”

“The belly button!” She interrupted and then almost jumped across the desk in her frenzy. As it was, she leaned so far she was almost touching me. Then she relented and retreated slowly into her chair. “You know what I do, don’t you?”

Actually, I didn’t –in those days I rarely noticed if a profession was written on the chart- but I could hear the word ‘lawyer’ humming softly in the background.

“I dance professionally,” she said. “I specialize in the danse du ventre, to use my favorite description.” I think I must have accidently raised an eyebrow, because she rolled her eyes impatiently and added “A belly dance!”

“I still don’t…”

“My crown jewel,” she said, carefully enunciating each word as if speaking to a slow child. “I wear a ruby in my belly button as part of my act.” My face stayed blank. “It always falls out unless I glue it in. Those kittens are heavy, you know. Especially when you’re moving everything around.”

“So..?” I didn’t know where she was going with this, so I tried to stay neutral. Sensitive.

“So whatever you did worked… Sits in there like a baby in a blanket now.”

I allowed myself a smile.

“The girls in the troupe are all impressed,” she said, positively beaming. “I told them to pretend they had pain in their parts so they could get to see you.”

Well, I guess it’s a start, eh?