Sweet Flowers are Slow

 

 

It never ceases to amaze me what unfettered minds can discover. Sometimes I wonder how they do it. How they set out 180 degrees from the target and still end up hitting it. Of course, the world is full of answers scattered like flowers in a field, in plain sight for anybody who has learned to see them. It’s not the answers that are hidden, just the appropriate questions. But maybe that’s the point –questions are often like detours pointing away from where you think you want to go, and yet arrive you do, having learned unexpected things along the way –Frost’s Road not Taken.

Socrates, although he initially disavowed the Delphic Oracle’s apocryphal pronouncement that he was the wisest man in Athens, knew that Truth, like Wisdom, was slippery. He realized he didn’t possess all the truth and so he asked many questions, whereas others -those who never thought to investigate- were complacent about their knowledge, unpuzzled by what they experienced, content with their grasp, however tenuous.

Maybe that’s just the way we’ve been taught to interrogate reality, though: if A equals C, and B also equals C, then we need look no further –A, B and C are equivalent, or at least interchangeable and otherwise individually uninteresting. Perhaps it takes a Socrates to ask why that is –or at least why we are satisfied with our assessment.

An article in the BBC News about an unusual approach to decreasing the spread of malaria brought this to mind: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-40495958  While researchers are trying desperately to engineer a vaccine, there have been many interesting attempts to ameliorate the prevalence of the disease. Some are relatively high tech –like genetically altering mosquitoes to produce genes to prevent the development of the malarial parasite within themselves and therefore stop its transmission to people when they bite; some are more humble methods, more attainable in the short term -such as pyrethroid-treated mosquito netting around beds. I suppose the boundaries between discovery and invention are fluid, but even so, either of them can lead to uncharted territories. New possibilities.

Still, until we do have an effective and safe vaccine, we need to use as many other methods to decrease the ravages of the female Anopheles mosquito as possible –however indirectly they may achieve this. Sometimes you just have to try stuff. Sometimes, you have to think inside the garden.

‘Gardening could be a powerful weapon against malaria, culling mosquito populations by cutting off their food supply, say researchers.’ The idea is to starve the mosquitoes before they get a chance to pass on the malarial parasite. A pilot project in Mali, West Africa, found that ‘Removing flowers from a common shrub appeared to kill off lots of the older, adult, female, biting insects that transmit malaria. Without enough nectar the “granny” mosquitoes starve, experts believe.

‘These Anopheles mosquitoes carry the malaria parasite in their salivary glands and pass it on to people when they bite and draw blood. The infected person can then infect other younger, biting, female mosquitoes – which are looking for a rich blood meal as they become fertile and make eggs – because their blood now contains the parasite. It takes about 10 days for a newly infected young female mosquito to become contagious to humans. By the time she can transmit malaria, she’s pretty old. Although she will feed on blood, she also relies on flower nectar for energy to stay alive.’

So, ‘Experts in Mali, along with researchers from the Hebrew University of Hadassah Medical School, Israel, and the University of Miami in the US, set up a horticultural experiment to see if removing the flowers from this plant might help kill off local mosquitoes. […]Villages where they removed the flowers saw mosquito numbers collected in the traps fall – the total number of mosquitoes across these villages decreased by nearly 60% after removal of the flowers.’

Admittedly, as the researchers concede, although it was an appropriate technique in a place like Mali, ‘it might not work so well in lush tropical regions where nectar-rich plants are in abundance.’

I suppose one of the reasons why this approach intrigued me so much, was that it seemed like a rather simple –albeit laborious- technique for mosquito control. Much like removing standing water that has collected in puddles or old tires where the mosquitoes can lay their eggs, it could be a community-led project that requires no additional external resources. But even more than that, as Professor Jo Lines, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has observed, ‘”It appears to show that by changing the landscape, not using insecticides or drugs, we can make a difference.”’

What a thought –changing, not destroying something to achieve an aim. Being clever and asking the right questions about what was already in front of the eyes of anyone inquisitive enough to actually notice. Curious enough to ask ‘what if…?’

So, back to Socrates who, in the end, conceded that perhaps the Delphic Oracle had been right all along about him being the wisest man in Athens. He was still searching for knowledge, still questioning the completeness of what others had already decided was necessary for them to understand. He was still unprepared to pretend that he knew something he didn’t. To the end, he refused to accept that there weren’t always more questions to ask.

After all, it’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see; it’s not what you hear, so much as what you understand… The rest, as Hamlet said, is silence.

Advertisements

Different Flavours

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy –so says Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I suppose as one ages, there is a tendency to become, if not indifferent, then less surprised at the plethora of variations that exist when they are sought, less amazed at the range of combinations just waiting for discovery. Like ice cream, the world does not come in only one flavour.

But perhaps it is not just the array that so bedazzles, but that we could ever have presumed to define what is normal in anything other than in a statistical way. A Bell Curve distribution confronts us wherever we look –reality is a spectrum no less than the rainbows we all profess to admire. So, then, why is it that in some domains we are less than accepting of mixtures, less tolerant of difference? Why is there the overwhelming need to categorize things as either normal or abnormal? Natural, or unnatural? A macrocosm of only us and them?

Is it just the benefit of retrospection that allows me to notice that no one of us is the same? Or a corollary of Age that lets me thank whatever gods may be that it is like that? That not only do we differ in our tastes and thoughts, but that the discrepancies in our appearance, if nothing else, allow us to recognize each other?

At any rate, I have to say that, as a retired gynaecologist, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover a world I thought I had left behind –intersex. It was an article in the BBC News that caught my attention: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-39780214 In my day, however, we still hewed to the label ‘hermaphrodite’ if both male and female gonads were present, or even more insensitively, to something like ‘disorders of sex development’, with the medical community taking it upon itself to assign and surgically ‘correct’ the anatomical features at variance with some of the more prominent features of the melange. All this often before the person was able to decide whether or not to identify with either or both traditional sexes. I don’t for a moment believe that this was done malevolently, however, and I think we have to be careful not to apply current sensitivities to another era. Historical revisionism is always a temptation…

But the spectrum of variation is so wide in both anatomy and physiology, not to mention time of discovery, that assignation of gendered roles is fraught. For some, the worry has been that of acceptance –acceptance of any divergent anatomy, any dissonance, by society at large, but also acceptance by the individual themselves (even pronouns become problematic –assigned as they usually are by gender).

It is common nowadays (UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) to use the (hopefully) neutral term of intersex to define people who ‘are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all.’

Of course attitudes are as disparate as societies themselves. Not all have been as tolerant or accepting of difference as one might hope. The BBC article, for example, describes the attitude in some rural areas in Kenya that a baby born with ambiguous genitalia should be killed. ‘Childbirth is changing in Kenya. Increasingly, mothers are giving birth in hospitals, rather than in the village. But not so long ago the use of traditional birth attendants was the norm, and there was a tacit assumption about how to deal with intersex babies. “They used to kill them,” explains Seline Okiki, chairperson of the Ten Beloved Sisters, a group of traditional birth attendants, also from western Kenya. “If an intersex baby was born, automatically it was seen as a curse and that baby was not allowed to live. It was expected that the traditional birth attendant would kill the child and tell the mother her baby was stillborn.”’ The article goes on to say that ‘In the Luo language, there was even a euphemism for how the baby was killed. Traditional birth attendants would say that they had “broken the sweet potato”. This meant they had used a hard sweet potato to damage the baby’s delicate skull.’

‘Although there are no reliable statistics on how many Kenyans are intersex, doctors believe the rate is the same as in other countries – about 1.7% of the population.’ But the thrust of the article was really to discuss how  Zainab, a midwife in rural western Kenya defied a father’s demand that she kill his newborn baby because it was intersex. She secretly adopted the baby –and indeed, even a second one a couple of years later. ‘In Zainab’s community, and in many others in Kenya, an intersex baby is seen as a bad omen, bringing a curse upon its family and neighbours. By adopting the child, Zainab flouted traditional beliefs and risked being blamed for any misfortune.’ But she represents a slow, but nonetheless steady change in attitudes in rural Kenya.

‘These days, the Ten Beloved Sisters leave delivering babies to hospital midwives. Instead, they support expectant and new mothers and raise awareness about HIV transmission. But in more remote areas, where hospitals are hard to reach, traditional birth attendants still deliver babies the old-fashioned way and the Ten Beloved Sisters believe infanticide still happens.’ But, ‘It is hidden. Not open as it was before’.

I suppose it is progress… No, it is progress –however slow, and frustrating the pace may be, as long as there are people like Zainab there is hope. But it still leaves me shaking my head.

For some reason Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, springs to mind, in a paraphrase of its last verse: I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a yellow wood and she, she took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference

Please.

Probiosis

Bacteria, by and large, have received a bum rap (pardon the pun). Ever since they were discovered, there was a sense they were up to no good. Why were they always hanging around sick people, it was asked? And why did foul smelling things –the miasma (you gotta love these words)- always have bacteria skulking about in the background? There must have been some reason why -since the beginning of time, we have instinctively avoided rotting meat or putrescent items… Could it be the bacteria?

Of course, this eventually caused people –okay, Scientists– to wonder why our intestines are full of these malevolent creatures –and therefore why we weren’t all dead, or at least always ill on their account. The further paradox was when it became murkily clear that if this same intestinal effluvium were mixed with drinking water, we would be –very ill, that is.

So, how can you have your cake and eat it, too? Could it be that there was some sort of balance of good guys and bad guys in our guts that kind of neutralized each other in there? And maybe the balance wasn’t the same in the water near the sewage pipe?

And for that matter, because there were so many of them inside us, maybe it was for a reason? Even thinking like that seemed anathema to doctors –and companies- who had made their fortunes out of fighting them. And then, slowly, as the moon slipped quietly behind some clouds on the horizon, came the dawn. The paradigm shifted and it became acceptable to speculate that at least some bacteria might be on our side in Tennyson’s ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. Helpful bacteria living in secret bowel-caves, like traitors imbedded behind the enemy lines, were diligently hunted. And myriad uses were ascribed to their families. I even wrote about this a couple of years ago:

https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2014/05/15/the-human-microbiome/

So it was only a matter of time until those who had hitherto persecuted all microbes, were persuaded to alliances -marriages of mutual convenience. Helpers of helpers were proffered: probiotics.

Probiotic –even the word has come to inspire hope. And its etymology: pro –on behalf of- and bios –life, nails it, don’t you think? I’ve touched on the subject before in my essays, as well:

https://musingsonwomenshealth.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/miasmatics/

But I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here, nor seduce you into re-reading my old essays. I am, however, still interested in the subject and was therefore somewhat disappointed in an article in the BBC News that seemed, at first, to denigrate the concept of probiosis: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/may/10/probiotic-goods-a-waste-of-money-for-healthy-adults-research-suggests There is a link in the article to the original meta-analysis paper in Genome Medicine.

I suppose it captured my attention the way any attack on my Confirmation Bias might: once I have been converted to a point of view, I take umbrage at any attempts to desecrate it… No, actually, that’s not true –I pay attention to the detail of the contention and see whether it could be refuted -what Carl Popper believed must be an essential component of all good Science.

This paper –a review of seven randomized, controlled trials (admittedly small numbers in each) of probiotics in healthy adults- concluded that there was ‘a lack of evidence for an impact of probiotics on fecal microbiota composition in healthy adults’. Fair enough, but contrary to the headline that might have attracted people to the article (Probiotic Goods a ‘waste of money’ for healthy adults, research suggests), buried near the end of the piece is the admission that ‘the real impact of the probiotics may have been masked by small sample sizes and the use of different strains of bacteria and variations in participants’ diets, among other factors’.

And the author of the Danish study, Oluf Pedersen, admitted: ‘“To explore the potential of probiotics to contribute to disease prevention in healthy people there is a major need for much larger, carefully designed and carefully conducted clinical trials.

“These should include ideal composition and dosage of known and newly developed probiotics combined with specified dietary advice, optimal trial duration and relevant monitoring of host health status.”’

So I think the final word on probiotics is still to come. It would make sense that one might not notice much of a change in fecal microbiota composition in those who are healthy and presumably already in possession of what Goldilocks described as ‘Just right baby bear’ stuff. But whether it could be further improved is the point at issue. There seems to be some evidence that it can be improved in those who need improvement –but at this stage, even that claim is contentious.

But it’s early yet, and as Robert Frost observed when he stopped by woods on a snowy evening: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep… And so do we.

 

 

 

Unregarded Age in Corners Thrown

I worry too much; I didn’t used to, but it kind of crept up on me along with my aches and pains over the years. Age is something that has always been fraught with tensions as we stumble through the calendar first wanting more, then less and then, I suppose, trying to forget about it altogether -ignore it when it clearly needs to be addressed. Demands recognition.

Age –especially old age- is one of those concepts that is very much contextually driven. Age-driven, in fact: where one sits on the spectrum very much influences age perception. An elder would live many fewer years if it is a teenager, rather than a senior who is canvassed.

But a good case can be made that age is not a mono-dimensional concept. Chronology does not come in one flavour; not all eighty year olds, say, are tied to the same constraints. Age might better be considered as a quartet with the other members consisting of Biological –we all age differently, Psychological –some aged people retain their faculties better than others, and Social –some elderly people, whether by fiat, or necessity, no longer work outside their homes and are no longer as connected to social networks. Indeed, in times past, ‘old’ might well have been related to usefulness rather than chronology.

http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34465190

So there we have it: usefulness. Purpose! Self-worth. All contingent concepts to be sure. And retirement, despite the positive connotations that Society has tried to foist upon it, is still a denouement –however it is rationalized. However many cosmetics are applied. Wallpaper may fool strangers, but it is still wallpaper…

So, you see why I worry. It is not that there might not be new opportunities available in retirement -new venues- but simply the realization that it is a final chapter of a thoroughly read book. An epilogue.

But I digress. It is something of a fool’s errand to attempt to encapsulate Retirement under one banner. It is a chapter as yet unprinted, and at best only sketchily conceived. There are also portions of it written, even if unwittingly, by someone else.

There is a store I visit every so often to buy dog food. It is a large and perhaps corporately criticized chain, but my dog is fussy and became addicted when she was only a puppy to a brand only they seem to offer. To tell the truth, I enjoy the store; I enjoy wandering the aisles and feeling -what? – pride at resisting things I do not need and casting a cold eye on those I do not want. It is a juvenile thing, I suppose, but maybe that’s the point: a recapitulation of past temptations seen through different eyes. Different years…

But on my way in, I saw a face that seemed familiar. It wore the uniform of the store and yet it seemed out of place somehow. A bush growing in a patch of vegetables –or more aptly, perhaps, a tree standing all alone in the middle of a field of wheat. Staid and stolid, watching, bemused, the tender stalks waving frenetically around her feet.

It was not so much her age that separated her from those around her as her composure, her calmness in the Storm of Store. In the eye of the hurricane of shoppers intent on their own missions, her smile was like a shrine erected at the doorway, a refuge offered, but seldom taken. Seldom noticed: the store was not a temple –just another place to visit when the need arose, a series of shelves to inspect. There were no sacred places here, no altars, no need to reflect on the meaning of it all. The store fulfilled a function, not a curb-side meditation.

I have to admit, the face was so unexpected, so completely out of context that I passed it by with barely a thought, although I did stop halfway down a nameless aisle and wonder why. And it was there that it –she– caught up with me.

“Doctor?” she asked tentatively, clearly uncertain from behind at least, that it was me. And when I turned to face the voice I remembered somewhat shakily from the past, she smiled broadly. I could see it was all she could do to refrain from hugging me; instead, she proffered a bony hand, its skin replete with veins and the brown patches of age.

“Doris!” I somehow managed to retrieve the name from a long closed memory drawer -although not without an awkward pause because it was not the Doris I remembered, but an older, frailer model. Doris had been well into her seventies when I had last seen her in consultation but this face, this figure, was a worn and crumpled copy of that older woman I had once filed away.

Her smile looked painful it was so wide and welcoming, but it was her eyes that immediately captivated me. Like delicate pale blue figurines trapped behind the glass of an old cabinet, they begged for release, and when she opened their cages they flew to my face and rested there. “It’s so nice to see you again, doctor,” she said with her joy so evident I was almost taken aback.

Her frailty dissolved as I watched, and the younger Doris emerged as if it had been hiding all the while. I remembered her now as the vibrant woman who had quoted poetry to me when I was trying to take her history. Who had dismissed the referral from her GP as ‘misguided over-concern’ from a young doctor uncomfortable in dealing with a patient older than his grandmother. And as a result she had brokered the compromise of seeing an older specialist. When I also agreed that she really had no cause for concern, she’d bonded with me and even showed up at the office the next week with flowers. I suppose we all like our judgements to be validated.

But on that occasion it had led to a discussion of age, and whether or not to succumb. Whether, as Dylan Thomas had written, to go gentle into that good night. Or to… Rage against the dying of the light. She most emphatically was with Thomas, whereas I, in an uncharacteristic disclosure, had expressed uncertainty as to whether with identity obscured and purpose thwarted, I would be forced to go gentle into whatever the good night hid in retirement.

“Nonsense!” I still remembered her saying that, her face fierce, her eyes locked on mine. “Is ‘Doctor’ your last name? Age and function do not change who you are –just what you do…” Then her expression softened and her eyes unlocked from me and twinkled when they had returned to her face. She got up from her chair with an enigmatic smile and turned to me as she was walking out of the room. “Do not become what Shakespeare called Unregarded age in corners thrown. I would be very disappointed.”

I took a long hard look at her, standing in the aisle with her uniform proudly displayed and I smiled. “You’ve certainly taken your own advice, Doris. Not too many people your age would have chosen your path. You look happy.”

“Have you ever read any Robert Frost?” she asked after observing me quietly for a moment.

I nodded, suspecting what was to come.

She closed her eyes and a beatific expression emerged as if she were about to pray.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

There are forks in every road. Maybe she was praying -praying for me…

The Gyne Phone

The iconoclasts were people who destroyed religious icons for various reasons. It’s a practice that began thousands of years ago. And somebody’s messing with the icons again -but this time, it’s the  iconoplasts

The icon has ancient roots and the word derives from the Greek word eikon meaning ‘likeness’ or ‘image’. Originally, it was usually a religious depiction of a god, or saint, but destruction of icons (iconoclasm –clasm deriving from the Greek word Klan, meaning to break) gradually morphed into destructive acts against the status quo. However, given the ubiquity of the computer, icons today usually refer to representative symbols on the screen of different options or programs.

Before written traditions gained a foothold, the dissemination of information or tribal history depended on oral transmission –i.e. on memory. But this presented some problems in terms of the sheer volume and accuracy of what needed to be passed along. Addressing this issue, Wikipedia (sorry!) notes: “Without the use of writing systems to transmit information through time, oral cultures employ various strategies that serve similar purposes to writing. For example, heavily rhythmic speech filled with mnemonic devices enhances memory and recall. A few useful mnemonic devices include alliteration, repetition, assonance, and proverbial sayings. These strategies help facilitate transmission of information from individual to individual without a written intermediate…”

Then, with the advent of written transmission of information, one can imagine a gradually increasing dependence on this and perhaps a decline in the need for the enhanced memory techniques so necessary before:  http://www.historyofinformation.com/narrative/oral-to-written-culture.php  At the time, I suspect this phase would have been fraught with objections from those traditionalists concerned about the atrophication of memory itself. Change is worrisome; it can have unintended consequences…

Well, the Phoenix has once again been aroused: http://www.bbc.com/news/education-34454264  It seems that since most of us carry instantly –and ubiquitously- available information around with us in the form of smart phones or tablets, there is little need to memorize phone numbers or even addresses. And even less incentive, since we might remember them incorrectly. Egad!

I’ve noticed the transition over the years in my practice. At first, the patients would come in with lists –questions written on usually irretrievable little pieces of paper stuffed into their purses. Of course if they couldn’t find the lists, some of them then made desultory attempts to remember what they had written, but often to no avail. I became quite skilled at offering clues as to what they might want to ask, but alas, that too atrophied as time and computing advanced. It’s a two-way street, I guess. Use it or lose it.

But my younger patients (of course) appear to have taken it to extremes –or at least, so it seems to me… Judin was the most recent example, I think. She was a twenty-something woman of Persian extraction and she had come to me because of abnormal pap smears. Otherwise healthy, she sat proud and unmoving like a marble goddess in the chair opposite my desk. Her eyes tiptoed to my face and sat there like curious birds. She was dressed casually in a pale blue sweat shirt and white jeans, and as she moved her head from time to time, her earrings tinkled like little bells hiding inside her long, dark gleaming hair. Her phone lay dormant on her lab, but I could see her right hand clutching it like another equally precious jewel.

I commented on how beautiful and unusual I found her name and she smiled serenely, tossing her hair nonchalantly back and over her shoulders. “It’s the name of a village in Iran where my cousin was from. She came to live with my parents but died before I was born.”

“A village near Tehran?” I have to admit I was approaching the limits of my knowledge about Iran –my knowledge of its geography, at any rate.

She shook her head and the tinkling started again. “No, it’s in a very dry and poor region of the Sistan and Baluchistan province in the south east corner of my country -by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea,” she added helpfully, but she could read the confusion on my face. “Tehran is quite far north near the Caspian Sea.” She stopped for a moment to smile. “Judin is in the middle of nowhere.” Her eyes twinkled this time instead of her earrings. “Honestly!”

Judin –the woman- was obviously well versed in geography and family history, and I would have loved to pursue it further, but I realized, as did Robert Frost, that ‘I have miles to go before I sleep’… I had to press on with the consultation.

Some of the questions were background issues –housekeeping data that I needed to acquire to ensure I would not miss any other information that might be relevant to her abnormal pap smears. “When did your last period start?” I asked, assuming this would be a good place to start.

She smiled, and called her eyes back to roost while she lifted her phone from her lap like a religious icon. She tapped at it for a moment. “Just a minute,” she said sweetly enough. “Gotta find the app…” I could see her scrolling through the screen, her face intense, her body rigid. “Oh, here it is,” she said and glanced at me. “What was the question?”

“When did it start?” I prompted, fascinated by the effort she was making in her search.

I lost her eyes for a moment as they disappeared behind her lashes and then her lashes behind her hair as it fell forward when she lowered her head. “Well…” I could tell she was into it now: her voice seemed strained and I could see she was really concentrating. “…I’m having it now, and they only last 3 or 4 days since I started on the birth control pill…” Suddenly her face surfaced before she could restart a smile. “I don’t actually know… I guess I forgot to enter it.” She blushed and her smile disappeared. “Sorry,” she said, and looked at her phone again. “I’m going to say ‘yesterday’…” She thought about it for a moment. “No, it must have been the day before, or I probably would have remembered it.” She assumed the goddess pose again. “Yes,” she said, but more firmly now –more assertively. “Yes, it was two days ago!” She looked at me with an almost smug expression on her face that seemed to say “Isn’t technology wonderful?”

I nodded and entered the date in my computer –my substitute for her smart phone, I suppose. “And were your periods regular when you were not on the pill?” She looked at me strangely. “You know, once a month…?” I added.

She hoisted the phone once more and scrolled through it looking for the app again. It seemed to be taking a long time, so I pretended to bang my mouse against my coffee cup accidentally. “Yes,” she said hesitantly and without looking up. “But, you know I wish all months had the same number of days. Eyeballing the calendar to see if it’s the same would be so much easier.” She glanced at me, and then submerged her face in the phone again. “It’s easier to count the days I bleed than the ones I don’t.” Another glance to see if I was following her. “Fewer squares to count,” she added to make sure I understood.

“Maybe you should suggest that to the app-people,” I said, wondering if I’d used the correct word.

“You mean the IT people? The software engineers?” She smiled at me like a mother might to correct her young child. “What a great idea!” she said, when the idea struck home.

But I’d been skipping about in taking her history, and I thought I’d make sure I’d obtained the entire historical data before moving on to more pertinent issues. The age of menarche -or first period- can sometimes be helpful gynaecological information. “Do you remember how old you were when you first began to menstruate?” I could see a puzzled expression taking control of her face. I thought maybe English might be her second language and ‘menstruate’ might not be a word she would hear around the house. “When did you start your periods?”

The puzzled look disappeared, and a different one –an almost irritable one- replaced it. “Two days ago…” She cocked her head as if I hadn’t heard her the first time. But she was willing to forgive it, I could tell.

“No…” I paused for a moment, in order to figure out how to phrase it more clearly for her. “I mean you probably started to have your periods when you were quite young… Do you remember what grade you were in, or where you were living when you had that very first one?”

She nodded her head and stared at something on the wall behind me as if she was thinking about it. “I was young alright, but…”

I waited, for a moment or two and was just about to tell her to forget about it so we could move on when she suddenly fixed me with another puzzled stare. I could feel the weight of her eyes sitting on my glasses like two passenger pigeons that had already delivered their message.

“I can’t answer that question, doctor,” she said and sat back in her chair. My eyebrows must have moved because I could see her sigh in disbelief at my ignorance. “I didn’t have a phone then…” she said and shrugged. It was so obvious!

The Problem of Freedom

The rough, shadowed texture of a log fallen across a meandering stream, the scattered sparkles of the water as it murmurs briefly to a rock it passes, the deep, barely moving green of the leafy tunnel that shrouds the gently dancing blue beneath -these are what I know of freedom: permission to imagine, permission to believe… Nothing else –nothing, at least, that matters more… As Voltaire said, Man is free at the moment he wishes to be…

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to envisage when the topic arises as it does sometimes in the office. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say, or how I’m expected to react. Freedom is a charged word. A troubled word. It so often refers to an imaginary, or a that-which-is-not. It is contextually defined, and so often spiritually embossed. Like Goodness, or Happiness, it is something to which we are expected to aspire, and because we can never assure ourselves that we possess it, the search, like that for the end of the rainbow, is never done.

It is also a partitioned concept, like being freed from a cage that is locked in a closet that is locked in a room that is locked in a house… To escape from one thing is always to be imprisoned in another –the escape from the innermost Russian doll only to be trapped within the next in line. Freedom, I had always thought, is simply where and when you are; it is a frame of mind, not a frame of circumstance. But I’m not so certain anymore…

This problem of freedom surfaced one day in the office, although I didn’t recognize it at first. The more curious of my obstetrical patients often wax philosophical at unexpected moments. I didn’t think Thira was one of those, I have to admit, but pregnancy –especially the first- has a way of changing a person. Opening them up like the petals of a flower in the morning sunshine. And Thira was a flower. A thin, short woman, she was a Greek with smiling eyes, and spoke with an accent that enchanted me each time we met. I think I sometimes asked her questions just to hear her talk.

But occasionally, she felt it was her turn to ask, and one day, midway through her third trimester, when talk of contractions and labour occupied most of our time together, she suddenly turned serious and her iconic smile disappeared for a worried moment. “Doctor,” she said after I had listened to the baby’s heart beat, “What does the baby’s movement mean?”

I was busy entering in my measurements and the heart rate in the chart, so I didn’t even look up. “What do you mean, Thira?”

“Well, she used to be so predictable. She’d kick after I ate dinner and then start rolling around about ten o’clock when I was in bed. Like she sort of knew what I was doing and was signalling me to say hello. Showing off…”

I looked up for a moment from the chart and smiled. “But you said, ‘used to’…”

The worried look resurfaced. “Well, last night she didn’t stop. She just kept rolling and kicking all night. At first I thought maybe it was the way I was lying in bed, but she kept it up no matter what I did. The kicking even got worse when I got up.” She took a deep breath and looked at the floor. “Okay if I ask you a silly question?” I nodded reassuringly. “Well… I keep thinking she feels trapped in there. I mean, it’s a pretty small space and she’s growing… Wouldn’t it be like being trapped in a small elevator when the electricity and the lights go off?”

I’d never actually considered whether a fetus would –or could- feel imprisoned before. My first thought was to wonder whether the baby, rather than feeling trapped, was actually feeling stressed for some reason –an accident with its umbilical cord, for example, or maybe a change in the placental circulation. I molded my facial expression into neutral so as not to alarm her. “Well, I would think that the uterine cavity space and the darkness is all she’s ever known, Thira. She must be used to it by now, don’t you think?”

She shrugged and painted an anxious smile on her lips. “I suppose… But what if she’s panicking because she’s just discovered she’s trapped? That after all this time, she realizes she’s not actually free?”

I said that before we assumed something like that, it would probably make sense to be sure the baby wasn’t telling us it was in trouble. I reassured her as best I could and sent her right over to the hospital for a non-stress test (NST) to assess the baby’s heart rate in response to its environment; its own movements for example would be the equivalent of someone doing exercise and should raise the heart rate briefly. If there was no change in the rate, or worse, a fall in the rate, it would be unusual and unexpected at the very least. It might signify fetal distress.

The NST was fortunately completely reassuring, as was a bedside ultrasound we did to visualize the umbilical cord and the amount of fluid around the baby. Thira still seemed concerned, though. “I still think she was telling me something, doctor.”

I sat down on the bed beside her. “Well, we can’t find anything wrong, so what do you think she is trying to tell you, Thira? What does she want?”

A weary smile appeared from nowhere. “Freedom, doctor. She wants her freedom.”

I was struck by Thira’s use of the word ‘freedom’ all the time. She didn’t appear at all surprised that there didn’t seem to be any problem we could find with the baby: no umbilical cord around its neck, no decreased amniotic fluid around it, no worrisome changes in the NST. And when I once again reassured her about the findings, she responded with another shrug.

“How can any of your tests measure the need for freedom, doctor? I’m sure most prisoners have normal heart rates, normal responses to exercise…” She stopped talking and looked in my eyes for a moment. “It’s only when you look in their eyes you can tell something is missing. Freedom can’t be tested, I don’t think…”

I had to process that for a moment. “But…  But you’re only 34…” I had to look at the chart I was holding. “34 weeks and 4 days pregnant. Your due date isn’t until 40 weeks… Surely your baby is far too young to appreciate such an abstract thing as Freedom.” I was proud of that response; I thought I had her.

Her face wrinkled in curiosity at my explanation. “I can calm my baby down by talking to her. She seems to respond if there’s music in the room… That’s pretty abstract, don’t you think?”

I blinked. I couldn’t think of another response. But I wondered if this was really cause and effect, or maternal attribution.

“When do babies start to think anyway?” she asked and scrutinized my face. Then she paused for a moment. “Only as soon as they’re born –freed?” she continued after she could see I wasn’t able to answer. “And what about the increasing number of studies showing the abstract conceptual abilities of even young babies?” I must have had a blank look. “Have you read that book: The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik…?” I hadn’t, actually. “There are others, too,” she said, reading my expression.

“But…” I shook my head slowly in -what? Desperation? Frustration? Or maybe in fascination at something about which only a mother could be convinced.

“If babies only a few months old can demonstrate a sense of injustice or fairness in the studies researchers do with them; if they can be seen reacting to things that seem to them to be unusual or unacceptable, then why would it be so hard to believe they could also have a simple concept of Freedom?”

I have to admit that I didn’t have an answer for Thira, although she certainly opened up a few questions that still trouble me -a Pandora’s box. Is the desire for Freedom innate –like curiosity, the desire to learn, or the impetus to find and create Beauty? Is it so abstract that it doesn’t even exist outside the mind as I said at the start? And is it so integral to our existence, that we need to manufacture it when we don’t think it’s there? There is a problem with Freedom I think: knowing what it is… and where. But maybe Robert Frost got it right: ‘You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.’  Maybe it’s as simple as that.

Age Prejudice

I suppose I should have seen it coming. I suppose I should have laid down firmer tracks, taken a more trodden path. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so influenced by Robert Frost’s poem, the Road Not Taken. But I was… ‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.’ Well, at least I think I did -I didn’t mean to, or anything; it’s just something that, as I look back through the years, turned out that way.

All our paths are unique, to be sure, and it is likely the conceit of many of us to think that we, alone, have chosen singularities for ourselves –things, if not incomparable, then at least extraordinary: signatures for which only we could have been responsible.

So it is with some dismay that I came across a BBC News article describing a paper by William von Hippel, a professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland, in Australia in which he suggests that ‘although many people remain unprejudiced throughout their lives, older adults have a tendency to be more prejudiced than their younger counterparts.http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33523313

Older folks? Now wait a minute… As someone who did not suspect his way of life had ‘fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf’, I feel almost blind-sided. Of course I didn’t see Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman coming either. I have been a life-long admirer of Atticus Finch –someone whose name I even bestowed upon a cat I once had- and Lee’s previous book To Kill A Mockingbird was always a beacon in troubled waters for me. Something that let me believe that we were more than our fists. That we could, if we chose, rise above the curses and anger that so frequently filled our streets. But even her older Atticus slipped beneath those waves it seems…

So is this how the path to maturity -the grinding road to wisdom- ends? An abnegation of all the tolerance that we have learned to espouse? An abrogation of all those principles we fought so hard to enshrine in law? A foretaste of the dark night of the soul that lurks, still hidden, behind the shadowed corners of our ever-increasing ages?

In fairness, if you read the original article in Psychological Science https://www2.psy.uq.edu.au/~uqwvonhi/S.vH.R.PS.09.pdf it attempts to frame the problem as a sort of neurologic deficit, suggesting –that age differences in implicit racial prejudice may be due to age-related deficits in inhibitory ability- perhaps absolving us elders of ultimate responsibility. As in dementia, it’s not our fault. Certainly not our wish… Some things, like grey hair or wrinkles, are merely part of the geography of age the trail runs through. But is increasing prejudice a town along the way, or a detour we didn’t have to take? A ghost town, sporting a few boarded up stores and nobody we recognize on the streets? A place we visited years ago, then left because we didn’t feel at home despite the friends we made?

The BBC report neatly summarizes von Hippel’s neurological hypothesis: The frontal lobes are the last part of the brain to develop as we progress through childhood and adolescence, and the first part of the brain to atrophy as we age. Atrophy of the frontal lobes does not diminish intelligence, but it degrades brain areas responsible for inhibiting irrelevant or inappropriate thoughts. Research suggests that this is why older adults have greater difficulty finding the word they’re looking for – and why there is a greater likelihood of them voicing ideas they would have previously suppressed.

Whoaa! I’m not sure I like that… I’ve always had irrelevant and probably inappropriate thoughts. I’ve always been a loose cannon. And now, I suppose, I should be worried that there is a threshold I might some day cross in which my age would shift me from being considered merely eccentric to a diagnosis of mild dementia –frontal lobe atrophy, no less- by default. Or maybe I should have worried about those mysterious frontal lobes all along –maybe I got a damaged pair from the outset.

Hmm, and I always figured it was the result of getting lost on that less-travelled road. It was, after all, ‘grassy and wanted wear’…