Nobody in Particular

Why do we believe something? How do we know that we are right? When I was a child, I was certain that the Fleetwood television set my parents had just purchased, was the best. So was the make of our car -and our vacuum cleaner too, come to think of it. But why? Was it simply because authority figures in my young life had told me, or was there an objective reality to their assertions? For that matter, how did they know, anyway? Other parents had different opinions, so who was right?

I was too young to question these things then, but gradually, I came to seek other sources of knowledge. And yet, even these sometimes differed. It’s difficult to know in what direction to face when confronted with disparate opinions. Different ‘truths’. Everybody can’t be right. Usually, in fact, the correct answer lies somewhere in the middle of it all, and it becomes a matter of knowing which truths to discard -choosing the ‘correct’ truth.

Despite the fact that most of us rely on some method like this, it sounds completely counterintuitive. How many truths can there be? Is each a truth, or merely an opinion? And what’s wrong with having a particular opinion? Again, how would we know? How could we know?

Nowadays, with social media algorithms selecting which particular news they report on the basis of our past choices, it’s difficult to know if we are in an echo chamber unless we purposely and critically examine whatever truths we hold dear -step back to burst the bubble. Canvas different people, and sample different opinions. But, even then, without resorting to mythology, or a presumed ‘revealed’ truth that substantiates a particular religious dogma, is there an objective truth that somehow transcends all the others? Conversely is all truth relative -situationally contextualized, temporally dependent, and ultimately socially endorsed?

Should we, in fact, rely on a random sample of opinions to arrive at an answer to some questions that are only a matter of values, but not about realistically verifiable facts -such as the height of a building, say, or maybe the type of bacterium that causes a particular disease? Would that bring us closer to the truth, or simply yet another truth?

Well, it turns out that the average of a large group of diverse and even contrary opinions has some statistical merit: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140708-when-crowd-wisdom-goes-wrong  ‘[T]here is some truth underpinning the idea that the masses can make more accurate collective judgements than expert individuals.’ The Wisdom of Crowds ‘is generally traced back to an observation by Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in 1907. Galton pointed out that the average of all the entries in a ‘guess the weight of the ox’ competition at a country fair was amazingly accurate – beating not only most of the individual guesses but also those of alleged cattle experts. This is the essence of the wisdom of crowds: their average judgement converges on the right solution.’

But the problem is in the sampling -the diversity of the members of that crowd. ‘If everyone let themselves be influenced by each other’s guesses, there’s more chance that the guesses will drift towards a misplaced bias.’ Of course ‘This finding challenges a common view in management and politics that it is best to seek consensus in group decision making. What you can end up with instead is herding towards a relatively arbitrary position. Just how arbitrary depends on what kind of pool of opinions you start off with. […] copycat behaviour has been widely regarded as one of the major contributing factors to the financial crisis, and indeed to all financial crises of the past. [And] this detrimental herding effect is likely to be even greater for deciding problems for which no objectively correct answer exists. […] All of these findings suggest that knowing who is in the crowd, and how diverse they are, is vital before you attribute to them any real wisdom.’

This might imply that ‘you should add random individuals whose decisions are unrelated to those of existing group members. That would be good, but it’s better still to add individuals who aren’t simply independent thinkers but whose views are ‘negatively correlated’ – as different as possible – from the existing members. In other words, diversity trumps independence. If you want accuracy, then, add those who might disagree strongly with your group.’

Do you see where I’m going with all this? We should try to be open enough to consider all sides of an argument before making a considered decision. Let’s face it, you have to know what it is that you’re up against before you can arrive at a compromise. And perhaps, the thing you thought you were opposing is not so different from your own view after all.

Even our values fluctuate. Unless we are willing to be historical revisionists, it’s obvious that people in the past often assigned values differently to how we do today -sexual orientation, for example, or racial characteristic and stereotyping. And who nowadays would dare argue that women are not the equal of men, and deserve the same rights?

There are some things about which we will continue to disagree, no doubt. And yet, even a willingness to listen to an opposing opinion instead of shutting it down without a fair acknowledgment of whatever merits it might have hidden within it, or commonalities it might share with ours, is a step in the right direction.

I’m not at all sure that it’s healthy to agree about everything, anyway, nor to assume we possess the truth. It’s our truth. I think that without some dissenting input, we’d be bored, condemned to float in the increasingly stagnant backwater we chose, while just beyond our banks, a creek runs merrily past, excited to discover another view that lies beyond and behind the next hill.

After all, remember what happened to Caesar after Shakespeare had him boast: “I am constant as the northern star, of whose true-fix’d and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament.”

Just saying…

 

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Make not your thoughts your prison

 

What can we do with those who flout the laws of the land or openly disrespect the prevailing mores? The usual answer is to punish -to retribute, either by restricting the offender’s rights, or their freedom. And sometimes, depending on the crime, even ending their lives.

Prisons have traditionally been the means to rid ourselves of the problem -out of sight, out of mind. Until they’re not, that is -because unless we intend to keep convicted offenders incarcerated and off the streets forever, there will come a time when we will have to deal with them again.

Of course, this uncomfortable inevitability was not lost on everybody, and through the ages there have been sporadic attempts at rehabilitating people once justice had been seen to be done and they were scheduled for release -more recently, things like parole in which the prisoner could be conditionally released into the community before the sentence had been fully served; or even indeterminate sentencing where the duration of incarceration lies somewhere between a minimum and a maximum time, depending upon the behaviour and signs of presumed rehabilitation exhibited by the prisoner.

Unfortunately, recidivism rates have been high and this has frustrated continuing reformation in various countries. So many things are not as they seem, not as we would hope. Even in this age of algorithms and Wikipedia, the reasons are not always forthcoming -at least, not the ones we expect. Maybe that should not be a surprise, though: we are not omniscient, nor, more importantly, are we prescient.

An article in BBC Future series on criminal myths addressed an aspect of the problem that had not occurred to me. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180430-the-unexpected-ways-prison-time-changes-people  As the author, Christian Jarrett, put it, ‘Day after day, year after year, imagine having no space to call your own, no choice over who to be with, what to eat, or where to go. There is threat and suspicion everywhere. Love or even a gentle human touch can be difficult to find. You are separated from family and friends. If they are to cope, then prisoners confined to this kind of environment have no option but to change and adapt. This is especially true for those facing long-term sentences.’

‘In the field of personality psychology, it used to be believed that our personalities remain largely fixed in adulthood. But recent research has found that, in fact, despite relative stability our habits of thought, behaviour and emotion do change in significant and consequential ways – especially in response to the different roles that we adopt as we go through life. […] Particularly for anyone concerned about prisoner welfare and how to rehabilitate former convicts, the worry is that these personality changes, while they may help the prisoner survive their jail time, are counter-productive for their lives upon release.

‘Key features of the prison environment that are likely to lead to personality change include the chronic loss of free choice, lack of privacy, daily stigma, frequent fear, need to wear a constant mask of invulnerability and emotional flatness (to avoid exploitation by others), and the requirement, day after day, to follow externally imposed stringent rules and routines. […] [T]here is widespread recognition among psychologists and criminologists that prisoners adapt to their environment, which they call “prisonisation”. This contributes towards a kind of “post-incarceration syndrome” when they are released. […] The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others.’

The article reports on a large number of interviews on prisoners done in the UK by Susie Hulley and her colleagues at the Institute of Criminology. The prisoners described a ‘process of “emotional numbing”. […]  “As the long-term prisoner becomes ‘adapted’ – in the true sense of the term – to the imperatives of a sustained period of confinement, he or she becomes more emotionally detached, more self-isolating, more socially withdrawn, and perhaps less well suited to life after release,” they warned.’

In another paper, led by Jesse Meijers at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, it was felt that ‘the changes they observed are likely due to the impoverished environment of the prison, including the lack of cognitive challenges and lost autonomy.’

So, what are we to do with those individuals who have broken the law and for whom society demands retribution? Does the loss of freedom and privacy necessarily engender adaptive personality changes? ‘The current evidence suggests that the longer and harsher the prison sentence – in terms of less freedom, choice and opportunity for safe, meaningful relationships – the more likely that prisoners’ personalities will be changed in ways that make their reintegration difficult and that increase their risk for re-offending.’

Well, from a distance at least, it seems to me that prisons should be the solution of last resort -merely getting offenders off the street has consequences. Some, no doubt, would be a continuing threat to public safety if they were to remain at large, but some -maybe most- would not, and they are the ones on whom changes in our idea of retributive justice should perhaps be focussed.

The very idea of ‘punishment’ needs to be revisited for many crimes, I believe. But the strange need for vengeance is so thoroughly stamped in our minds, that even the idea of anything other than the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ code of Hammurabi, seems unthinkable. Unjust. Of course there should be consequences for actions -but commensurate ones. Prisons and jails have too long been places where troublemakers could be warehoused and essentially forgotten. But, as we are realizing to our dismay, the problems do not go away -they often merely fester, albeit out of sight. For a while…

I don’t have any truly heuristic solutions to crime, or the wages of evil that seem to follow us through the ages. I was not granted an epiphany in my long journey amongst the ever thinning years, but I do suspect that the answer does not lie in punishment alone. We are missing something that perhaps our genetic atavism will simply not allow us to see.

And yet, perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of it, however opaquely, those many years ago: The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together: our virtues would be proud if our faults whipped them not; and our crimes would despair if they were not cherished by our own virtues.

Beggaring All Description

Beauty is many things, I suppose, and attempts to define it are fraught. It seems to vary between societies and eras, with some cultures deciding it is appearance, and some opting for demeanour. One such view, influenced by the Greek diaspora following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Koine Greek, used an adjective for beautiful: horaios, which derives from the word hora -or hour. There was a delightful description of this in (sorry) Wikipedia: ‘In Koine Greek, beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful.’

I find this useful, because it suggests that beauty -at least in a person- resides in being recognized for what one actually is -not what artifice may try to disguise. Admiration, in other words lies in more than appearance. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’

And yet, whose eyes -one’s own, or that of others? How we see ourselves is almost as important as how we are seen. Think of the agony than can be inflicted by acne in the teenage years -a time when self-identity is often linked to group identity, and self-esteem is dependent on the approbation of one’s peers. It is a time when we are defined by others, because we have not yet defined ourselves.

Memories of my own speckled past were awakened, Phoenix-like, by a short article in the Conversation on the beauty -or not- of skin: https://theconversation.com/beauty-is-skin-deep-why-our-complexion-is-so-important-to-us-91415?

As the author, Rodney Sinclair, Professor of Dermatology, University of Melbourne observes, ‘We’re all attracted to a beautiful face. We like to look at them, we feel drawn to them and we aspire to have one. Many researchers and others have investigated what we humans identify as “beautiful”: symmetry, large evenly spaced eyes, white teeth, a well-proportioned nose and of course, a flawless complexion. The skin is of utmost importance when people judge someone as beautiful.’ There may be an unintended bias on his part, of course. A dermatologist would see the world through a lens of pores and complexions, but I suspect he is merely tapping into the current ethos -one that seems characteristic of an era of Snapchat, and Facebook posts where ‘Even the best facial structure can be unbalanced by skin that is flawed.’

I’m not certain I agree with some of his views about how much we value complexion. For example: ‘When choosing a mate, men rank female beauty more highly than women rate male appearance. Female beauty is thought to signal youth, fertility and health. Beauty can also signal high status. People with “plain looks” earn about 10% less than people who are average-looking, who in turn earn around 5% less than people who are good-looking.’ I suspect there has been a bit of cherry-picking of studies that bolster his opinions, although I suppose we all do that.

But his point about the importance of the cosmetic industry nowadays certainly seems spot on: ‘People spend a lot of money in attempts to regain their youthful appearance. The global cosmetics industry is worth about US$500 billion. Sales of skin and sun care products, make-up and colour cosmetics generate over 36% of the worldwide cosmetic market. We use foundation makeup to conceal freckles and blemishes, moisturisers and fillers to hide dryness, concealers to disguise broken capillaries and pimples.’

And yet, I find myself inexorably drawn to that Greek idea of beauty residing more in ‘being of one’s hour’, than in forcing one’s time. Accepting the ineffable allure of the moment in which each of us lives.

Many years ago, I met Dora, a woman with quite visible facial scarring from long-ago acne. She was probably in her early thirties, and was employed as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. But she was so gregarious and friendly, I had ceased to see her face whenever I had occasion to visit. A warm smile would emerge like a puppy bounding from the woods and greet me from across the room. Her eyes were alive, and sparkled even under the unremitting glare of the overhead fluorescent lights. But she would have lit a path to her desk even in a power failure.

So overwhelming was her presence that I would never have remembered what she was wearing, had I been asked. Everything was subordinate; she ruled the room like a queen and the radiance lingered even when she was on vacation, or had taken a sick day. It was as if the empty the space was holding its breath. Or so I thought.

One day, when I arrived for my appointment, the office seemed smaller. Duller. It had been more than a year since I had been there, and so I couldn’t immediately decide what had changed. Dora was not there, unfortunately -I had been looking forward to seeing her again, but I assumed she had taken a few days off.

As I approached the desk –her desk- I was tracked by a set of razored eyes as if I had inadvertently chosen the wrong door. The wrong office. There was a smile, of course, but it was cool, and applied like the makeup on the rest of the obviously impeccable face. Long blond hair fell in ringlets to her shoulders onto a dark blue silk blouse -a very attractive person to greet the entrant, I suppose. But it was not Dora.

I forced a smile onto my lips and introduced myself. The woman immediately checked her computer screen and her face marginally softened at what she found. I took this as an opportunity to ask about Dora.

I could see her pupils momentarily contract and something tensed in her cheek.

“Dora no longer works here,” she said with a forced affability, and as if she were tired of having to explain.

I couldn’t hide my disappointment, I’m afraid, and the woman noticed.

“The doctor thought she was a bad advertisement for his practice,” she said with an obviously rehearsed face.

“Oh…” was all I could think of to respond.

The face perked up briefly. “He did offer to help…” she stared across the empty room for a moment. “But she said she was happy with who she was –‘with who she’d always been’, was how she put it…”

And then, although she tried to disguise it, she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Anyway,” she said, unrolling her eyes and resting them on my cheeks, “she decided to resign.”

But when I continued to stare at her, she shrugged, as if everybody was better off with Dora gone. “He gave her a good reference, though,” she added at the persistence of my disappointed expression, and shifted her attention back to the screen in front of her with a little smile.

 

 

 

 

Should You Wish Upon a Star?

I’m of two minds about magic. On the one hand, it seems too good to be true -too naïve and unexamined, too much like Santa Claus; but there’s a part of me that wants to believe in another world where faeries dance on dew-soaked blades of moonlit grass, and bird song fills the dawn forest as a paean to the aborning light. In a place -or was it a time– where anything was possible, because no one had proven that it wasn’t.

Unfortunately, I grew up and found an adult proof -or thought I had. I suppose most of us do, though. It’s not even a choice -as we wend our ways through the interstices of everyday life, we shed those things which impede our progress -like a shirt on a hot day, unregarded magic is in corners thrown, to paraphrase Shakespeare. Our route is littered with it, if we cared to look. But we don’t anymore. We can’t be bothered.

And yet, in my darker days, when I find myself staring into the ordered chaos that encloses me like a cape, I sometimes wonder if it was all a mistake. Perhaps we were meant to keep a little in reserve. A curtain we could peek behind in times of need. In times when we realize that what we have is not enough… or, rather, too much.

In one such mood, I happened upon an article written by Frank Klaassen, an associate professor of History in the University of Saskatchewan, entitled The Magic of Love and Sex, who characterizes himself as a scholar of medieval magic. I have to admit, that anybody who purports to be able to unmask the most mysterious trappings of an enchanted, faraway age has got my ear -or in this case, at least, my eyes. https://theconversation.com/the-magic-of-love-and-sex-91749

He says that ‘[…] passing the magazine stand at the checkout counter is like stepping back in time.’ Both the men’s and the women’s magazines promise to divulge secret methods of procuring unattainable things we all want, yet could only dream of: sex, power, influence… ‘Bronislaw Malinowski [a Polish-born British social anthropologist] says that the function of magic is to ritualize optimism, to enhance “faith in the victory of hope over fear.” By this he means that when we perform magic, we ritualize our hopes, even if that ritual itself produces no effects.’

‘There is a massive modern industry that leverages our vulnerabilities. Hundreds of scientifically unproven techniques offer not only power over love and sex, but health, wealth, good luck, influence over other people, improving appearance, intelligence and public speaking, assuring happiness and protection of self and family.

‘Modern books on magic like Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and New Age handbooks like Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization have become classics over the past 40 years and have sold millions of copies. They cover pretty much the same ground. With few exceptions, the goals of medieval magic were identical to these personal growth manuals from the 1970s, and fulfilment in love tops the list.’

But interestingly, similar to today, Klaassen says that scholars back then were also critical of magic and superstition. ‘Medieval philosophers expended a lot of ink demonstrating how seemingly miraculous things were just natural effects […] To respond to these attacks, writers of medieval magic books often did exactly what their modern counterparts do —they tried to make them look like they were scientific. They used scientific ideas and language.

‘In comparison, one would think that modern people would be far less interested in magic, particularly given our advanced sense of how the physical world functions and the scientific educations we all get in public school.’

But, I think the crux of his point is to compare the two modes of thinking, and whether things have changed all that much over the years. ‘[…] it challenges the idea that scientific thinking somehow banishes magical thinking. Clearly, it doesn’t.’

‘[…] Modern science may have helped us live longer but it hasn’t made illness and death any less inevitable. It certainly hasn’t made it possible to make ourselves more wealthy, desirable, charismatic, intelligent or successful in love.

From one perspective, love magic is biological. We are biologically programmed to try anything that might help us reproduce ourselves. Skepticism would just get in the way of that. Hope, on the other hand, keeps us creatively trying things out and doing whatever it takes: The perfect clothes, the right music, giving flowers, perfume, beautiful words, … or magic.

From another perspective, as Malinowski suggested, magic springs from human qualities that we all value very highly: Optimism, hope and creativeness. Where would we be without those? If our ancestors only stuck to the tried and true, things they knew would not fail, we’d still be in the trees. We’d certainly have no love songs.’

I like the idea that magic is hope. And hope is no less real because what we wish for hasn’t yet happened; there may not be faeries dancing on the lawn at night, but if I want to believe that if I hid out there under a blade of grass one night I would see them, should you lock me up? Or put me on medication? All of us hear stories, some more fanciful than others -and not all of them are as we remember. We colour our narratives with almosts and often sneak in a few might haves to spice the tales. The rest of us wink at the clever interpolations, and then add our own when it’s our turn to speak. Who’s to say what really happened -what might have happened?

There is a ragged border between fact and fancy sometimes, and maybe your misspeak is my magic -or at least my hope. Would you really want to take that away from me… and should you? Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I want to believe there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…

With mirth and laughter, let old wrinkles come

“Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled. Be not disturbed with my infirmity”, says Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest. But at what age does one become old? And if we could answer that without resort to comparisons would it be a useful thing? Or does it, in fact, require perspective to sort it out? The famous passage in the King James version of the letter Paul wrote to the biblical Corinthians declares, ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Really? I’ve always thought of the journey through the years as more the chiaroscuro in a painting. I can still see shades of childhood, despite my age, in the bright colours of a laugh, or the shadows of a memory. Indeed, I’ve come to see my life as a pentimento -nothing wasted, nothing forgotten, merely painted over as best I could.

I am drawn, therefore, to others who recognize their own plasticity and smile when the veneer of time is chipped. The patterns underneath persist -or would, if encouraged with a little wipe. It has become fashionable to talk of today’s ‘seventy’ being our parents’ ‘fifty’, although, again, a comparative rather than an established fact. A trope, rather than a datum. But, there are hints that this is changing, as an article in the BBC reports: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-43308729

‘Doing lots of exercise in older age can prevent the immune system from declining and protect people against infections, scientists say. They followed 125 long-distance cyclists, some now in their 80s, and found they had the immune systems of 20-year-olds.’ As a long-time runner, and avid cyclist, I am happy to hear this kind of thing.

‘Prof Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, at the University of Birmingham, and co-author of the research, said: “The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and, potentially, cancer. Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70- or 80-year-old, it means they have added protection against all these issues.”

‘The researchers looked at markers in the blood for T-cells, which help the immune system respond to new infections. […] They found that the endurance cyclists were producing the same level of T-cells as adults in their 20s, whereas a group of inactive older adults were producing very few. […] A separate paper in Aging Cell found that the cyclists did not lose muscle mass or strength, and did not see an increase in body fat – which are usually associated with ageing. “You don’t need to be a competitive athlete to reap the benefits – or be an endurance cyclist – anything which gets you moving and a little bit out of puff will help.”‘

A few months ago I was driving back from a day of cycling along some forest trails in the mountains, and feeling rather smug that I had managed to avoid the rain now pounding down on the car. I was still on a narrow, pot-holed asphalt road winding through the trees, and even though my bike was securely fastened to the rack on the trunk, I had to drive slowly. Visibility was limited because of the meandering road in the rain, and more than once I confused a tree, waving its limbs in the wind, for someone standing along the side of the asphalt wanting a lift.

And then I saw him -or rather it: a figure walking slowly along the side of the road with its head down. It didn’t acknowledge my approach, and I couldn’t really tell if we were heading in the same direction. The figure was sodden in the driving rain and walked with a pronounced limp. Wearing a rather thin jacket and a toque, it slogged doggedly on as if it didn’t mind the weather.

I don’t usually offer rides to hitchhikers, and especially not here in the wilderness, but sometimes conscience beats down harder than rain. I slowed, and rolled down my window enough to shout at the bedraggled figure. On first glance he appeared to be a thin man, but as I stared inquisitively I could see long grey hair streaming across the face, almost covering a pair of bright, but suspicious eyes inspecting me.

“Do you want a ride?” I yelled, trying to be heard above the din of rain pounding on the metal of my car.

The eyes, alternated between wariness, and disinterest as they inspected first me and then the car. And finally, when I could see them resting on the bike on the trunk, they suddenly softened. “Yes… Thank you,” said a very female voice.

We were both silent for a while as we wound along the endless sinuous road, each of us waiting for the other to speak. Finally, my curiosity won out. “So, why were you walking along a lonely forest road, so far from town?” I asked. She was probably in her nineties and certainly not dressed for the weather.

Her eyes made the trip to my head at last, but danced about trying to find a place to settle. Finally, they chose my cheeks. “I try to go for long walks each day…” she said slowly, obviously trying to decide how much to tell me. She was, after all, a vulnerable elderly woman, in a car with a stranger.

I smiled. “I was out for a rather long ride today myself,” I said, trying to open up the conversation further.

She smiled in return and stared out of the window at the rain for a while. “My husband and I used to ride our bikes every day -even in the snow…”

She trailed her sentence off again, like she didn’t know how much she should reveal to me. “And now you walk?”

She nodded and I could see her sigh with the memory. “My husband had an… accident,” she said, looking out the window again.

“I’m sorry.” It was the right thing to respond, I suppose, but it sounded so anemic, so empty, in the full fury of a May storm.

She looked down at her lap, her face contorted for a second before she wiped her cheek with a damp sleeve.

I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye as I drove slowly and carefully along the bumpy road through the increasing fury of the wind-driven rain.

“We didn’t mind the rain,” she began again. “It was a challenge to see how far we could get before one of us noticed the other was tired. Neither of us would ever admit we were, of course.” She sighed again, this time deeper -as if it was a relief valve for things that were building up inside her. “But we always looked out for each other.”

I was concentrating on the road in the worsening conditions, but I could tell she was watching me carefully.

“We were always like that,” she continued, as if she had to let me know. “We’d ride until we were exhausted.” I could feel her eyes poking at my cheeks like little birds. “In our younger days, we’d take a tent and strap some supplies on the bikes and just take off. It didn’t matter where… Just to be together on a new adventure, not knowing where we’d end up…” She sighed again -this time loudly. Then she was quiet, as we both listened to the rain on the windshield and the wipers pretending to help.

“I really miss him,” she said suddenly, her voice barely audible as the car visibly shivered in a gust of wind. “It will be a month tomorrow since he died…”

I risked a glance at her. Sorrow was written like a paragraph across her face, but her eyes were resting on me in a coda of gratitude, and I think I blushed.

She took a slow deep breath and exhaled it softly. “I wasn’t going to turn around, you know,” she said, suddenly. “I was just going to keep going…” A gentle smile slowly formed on her lips and she closed her eyes and sat back on the seat, relaxed and relieved that she’d been able to talk about him. “Then I saw your bike…” she sighed again. “He had one just like it.”

And then uncertain quite what to do, she reached out and touched my arm. “I know he was telling me to turn around…”

A Sympathy in Choice

‘As you are old and reverend, you should be wise.’ –so Shakespeare’s Goneril, King Lear’s evil daughter, advised her father. Her advice was deceptive -hostile, even- but there are times I feel that my judgement, too, has being unjustly impugned. Positions that I feel have been reasonably based and cogently argued, are attacked and maligned as if, because they dared to question the prevailing ethos, they are dangerous -or worse, should not even be heard. Should be retracted and the author forced to recant.

Some people are sensitive like that –so wrapped up in their own causes, they fear that anything similar, but more controversial, might detract from their not-yet successful endeavours. Understandable, perhaps, if they fail to thoroughly examine the merits and deficits of the other approach –refuse to consider how the one may complement the other, and vilify it to make those who would adopt it seem apostates.

Gender issues seem particularly vulnerable, maybe because they have recently been heavily exposed to public scrutiny. They are seen to be so fragile, that any attempts at critical analysis are often seen as foundational attacks, rather than efforts to better understand and underpin their framework. Comparisons are fraught, to be sure, but only when they can withstand the scrutiny of impartial examination, will they be accepted as mainstream -sufficiently natural to fade seamlessly into the Gestalt.

Of course, public confusion over terms (LGBTIQ, etc.), and the amalgamation of so many different communities of difference, makes easy and seamless acceptance perplexing for many who watch, bewildered from the edges, but progress is occurring nonetheless. Homosexuality, gay marriage, and adoption to gay couples are only the issues most recently being fast-tracked into conventional thinking. Not everybody agrees, of course, but then again what do we all agree on? Even religions and political parties still divide us.

But race (whatever that is) seems unduly stubborn. Despite the fact that DNA studies have consistently failed to demonstrate any genetic basis for racial categorizations, there seems to be an almost tribal requirement to allocate people into us and them –for othering, in sociology-speak. For seeking comfort and succour from those who most resemble us. Safety. Security. There is an assumed empathy in those who share the same assignation, an expected commonality of experience when compared with non-members. And there is not only an assumed history that unites, but also a presumed genealogy that ensures loyalty to whatever the group believes. Disavowal of what it does not.

And yet, it is a very social construct. What, for example, constitutes a valid pedigree? Any family membership in a group, no matter how far back in time, and whether or not it is inside the legal boundaries of wedlock? Or, suppose you do not look like your parents or their assumed grouping –or, conversely, you do, and yet were adopted? What if –more problematically, to be sure- you identify with another group, either because of outside influences, or a certainty within yourself, that you belong? What if you were mistakenly brought up as if you were a member, suffered along with it, saw the world through its eyes, but later discovered you had been adopted from another group? Does it make any difference? Are you somehow a less valuable member if you don’t carry the proper cards?

So, what if you decided you wanted to ‘be’ a member of another group –in the case in point, another ‘race’. Can one be transracial? And further, what might that mean? Does, ‘identifying’ with a ‘race’, qualify as anything? I have to say that I had never thought much about it until I came across an absolutely riveting article entitled In Defense of Transracialism, in the March 2017 edition of Hypatia, a journal of Feminist philosophy, written by Rebecca Tuvel, who teaches the philosophy of race and gender at Rhodes College.

I felt it was exceedingly well substantiated with cogent arguments, and compelling documentation, so I was dismayed when I discovered (in a piece from a different source: https://theconversation.com/i-wanna-be-white-can-we-change-race-78899?) that the article elicited ‘an open letter signed by hundreds of academics who demanded the journal retract the article.’ And further, that ‘the associate editors of the journal issued a long apology saying that the article should never have been published.’ I was only slightly mollified that the ‘Editorial Board responded with its own statement in support of the author’. The reaction of the academics merely underlined the unwillingness to entangle themselves in an equally scholastic attempt to explore the similarities between gender identification and the ability to racially identify. Tuvel suggests that there are many features in common, and although her argument is too long to easily summarize, I was willing to share her point of view by the end.

I suppose the most notorious case she discusses, is that of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of a local NAACP who was born to white parents but lived for many years as a black woman. ‘[…] Dolezal’s experience living with four adoptive black siblings since she was a young teenager coupled with her strong sense of dissociation from her biological parents, her later marriage to an African American man with whom she had a child, and her strong sense of familial connection to a black man named Albert Wilkerson, whom she calls “Dad,” all impacted her understanding of her own racial identity.’ That she did not officially qualify as ‘black’ and could therefore not possibly know what it meant to be black seemed unduly important to her detractors. Her duplicity alone disqualified her in many eyes and rendered her professed enthusiasm for her blackness a mockery. Invalid. White privilege…

Dolezal, became the unwilling focus of identity politics in which, perhaps understandably, the LGBTIQ community did not wish to become entwined. Any argument in her defense, it was suggested, does a disservice to the political context of transgender communities, and the violence of racism. And yet, in drawing parallels with those aspects of personal identity which are inherently fluid, Tuvel allows us to see that boundaries are also fickle, and over stretches of time, evanescent. Arbitrary. Even unstable.

But, loathe as I am to side with Shakespeare’s Claudius, and although taken out of context, there is something to his contention:

‘That we would do, we should do when we would, for this “would” changes and hath abatements and delays as many as there are tongues, are hands, are accidents. And then this “should” is like a spendthrift sigh that hurts by easing.

Thank you, Rebecca Tuvel; more than simply opening my eyes, you have opened my mind.

Within the Book and Volume of Thy Brain

Is it naive to mention that there is an almost magical bond between a mother and her baby? A bond that, while certainly not less in the father is, well, different? At first, I assumed it was probably related to the closeness of breast feeding –yes, the oxytocin and its effects on bonding, and the magic of skin-to-skin contact- but this seemed to be a very reductionist way of looking at it –a post hoc ergo propter hoc approach. No, the amount of head-swaying I would see, the purring of the sing-song words barely audible from across the room, the eye contact with the bundles in their arms… All this seemed more like the devotion of religious acolytes than could be reasonably reduced to simple biological cause and effect in the little carpeted area where my patients would sit, waiting for their postpartum checkups. I can’t help but think of Shakespeare: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy, as Hamlet observed under admittedly different circumstances.

I mention this decidedly apostatic thinking because it occurred to me that some things are difficult to fit into a satisfyingly rational, or secular framework. Many years ago, I remember seeing a woman -Lorraine was her name, I think- who, my day-sheet informed me I had delivered 2 or 3 months previously. Anyway, she was coming in to discuss contraception and she had brought her little baby with her. I could see her sitting on the other side of the room talking and nodding rhythmically to the little tyke. Even from a distance, I could see they were locked in ocular embrace. Then, slowly, she reached into a bag at her feet and pulled out what seemed to be a large picture book. She nestled the baby in one arm and held the book open with the other hand so the baby could see it. From where I stood behind the front desk, I couldn’t really tell what pictures the baby saw, but she was naming what I suppose were animals, and whatever else came up from page to page.

Perhaps the baby was paying attention, but it seemed entirely too comfortable in her arms, and her voice far too much like a lullaby for it to keep its eyes open.

When her turn came to talk to me in the office, she told me that she’d noticed me watching her with the picture book.

“I’m a first grade teacher,” she said, showing me a collection of children’s drawings carefully pasted onto stiff pages and stapled into a folder. “And when the kids found out I was going to have a baby, they all decided to draw pictures for me to ‘read’ to it.” She drew little air quotes around the word. “And I thought, why not? It’s sort of like reading, isn’t it? The kids thought so, anyway…”

I have to confess that, although I always loved reading to my children, I enjoyed it more when they seemed to understand the words. When they reacted to my play-acting voice that attempted incarnation of the characters, painting the scene in words, pretending we could see the story. I enjoyed the immersion as much as they did, I suppose –we were the story, in a way. Each of us.

Now that I think of those times, I feel vaguely guilty that the experience was as much about me as it was about the child sitting beside me on the couch, or lying on her bed with saucered eyes in a room lit only by the lamp beside my chair. Each of us was as hungry as the other to discover what the words would tell us, our imaginations primed and insatiably curious as our minds watched the movie being played behind our eyes.

Sometimes, of course, I would read a book of their choosing, but both my son -and later my daughter- seemed to prefer it when I made up stories for them. No pictures –just verbal descriptions that neither of us could guess beforehand. Word riffs.

But Time moves on, and so does our knowledge of developing brains. It would seem that certain content, particular themes and even types of books, may be more helpful at different ages. I can’t say that it came as a surprise that infants, too, benefit from being bathed in words –it’s how vocabulary begins, after all. What I remain somewhat agnostic about, however, is that there might be a preferred order of progression. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine hoped to disavow me of this skepticism, however: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/babys-brain-benefit-read-right-books-right-time

For example,  the author, Lisa Scott, Associate Professor in Psychology, University of Florida: ‘[…] found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood. […]These findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.’

I’m certainly not disputing the findings, nor offering any alternatives –I’m merely wondering whether or not it has that much of an effect on subsequent development of the child as it matures. As she points out earlier in the article, ‘Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development. Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.

‘Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their 4-year-old children.’

I suppose what I’m getting at is that perhaps the best message to get across to parents is the importance of reading to their child –interacting with the child- rather than getting them concerned that they’re not doing it the right way. That they’re using the wrong materials, or in the wrong order. Raising a child is hard enough at the best of times. Indeed, the author acknowledges this at the end of her piece: ‘It’s possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read.’

But, then again, maybe this is just preaching to the converted. Mothers already know most of this –Lorraine did, at any rate.