The Feast of Fools

It’s hard to switch sides, isn’t it? Hard to cross the tracks. And even if you do, does welcome await, or merely sidelong glances and mistrust -or as Macbeth feared, curses not loud but deep, mouth honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not…?

It’s a brave person who crosses over –who dares to live the other life. But can one ever feel what one has only watched from afar? Would the experience be real, or only a tawdry simulacrum? A Halloween costume? True, only we know for sure how we perceive something, but we can intuit how someone else might feel –and realize that they might also have a different understanding of what happened. A different reality. So, are we unalterably barred from that room?

I ask this as a man peering over the fence and wondering about what I see. It always seems so… so like my side –so like the cover of the book I’m reading. I suppose that’s where it gets confusing. I know the story is different, and yet I don’t really understand why. But then again, perhaps I’m as naïve a reader as I am a contributor –or is that merely a pretence of innocence? An expected social conceit?

And if I were to attempt a disguise in a situation that even I could see might be demeaning for a woman, would that help me understand? Or would it merely seem weird, and elicit the confused and embarrassed reactions that cross-dressing usually does? Would it take me closer to the lived experience? Or would it be yet another variation of the male Weltanschauung?

An article in the CBC news on sexual discrimination in the workplace made me wonder: ‘The male staff decided to dress up after a CBC Marketplace story  […] on restaurant dress codes and found that many women felt compelled to wear sexy outfits —including high heels, tight skirts and heavy makeup — to keep their jobs.’

I have to say that at first glance, I was reminded of the Medieval Feast of Fools. This, as you may recall, was a festival usually held at the beginning of the new year (especially in France) in which a mock bishop or pope was elected, ecclesiastical ritual was parodied, and low and high officials changed places. And, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, by the 13th century these feasts had become a burlesque of Christian morality and worship. But nobody was fooled; everybody realized it was just a charade…

In the case of the restaurant, ‘The men lasted only an hour or two in the heels, which ran the gamut from red stilettos to cheap, black, strappy numbers. But aside from the physical pain, they also described feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable as they worked.’ And understandably so –they were pretending to be something they most decidedly were not. Everybody –customers and staff- knew it and no doubt played along. ‘”Guys were making comments, jokingly of course, because that’s what we were going for — to show light to it — but even those jokes that they were making were, after a while, still very uncomfortable to be faced with,”’ said one of the servers.

A few of the customers were women who also worked as servers at other restaurants with similar dress codes where they were told to look like they were going to a party, not coming home from it. One of them, who had recently quit one of those places after being sent home for not wearing enough jewellery on her shift, said: ‘”I came here tonight because I love the idea of reversing sexist dress codes required in some restaurants to male colleagues. Seeing them wearing heels and short skirts is really something. I wanted to come down and be a part of it,” she said.

‘”It reinforces how ridiculous it is. Seeing men walk by in tight miniskirts and heels really just hits it home how crazy it is to ask women to do that.”’

The consensus among the women servers watching was that within limits, dress should be about choice. If they felt comfortable with dressing like what they were seeing, that was fine. But many of them didn’t. The doctrine of contra proferentem might apply, perhaps, but I doubt that many of them would go so far as to hire a lawyer to press their cases.

So, apart from some interesting publicity and a bit of teasing, what did the cross-dressing actually accomplish? For guys, dressing like women and trying to balance on high heels they’d never been acculturated to wear -and never had the opportunity to practice on- can only give them the barest whiff of what many women have to endure on an ongoing basis. They weren’t women that night, just actors rehearsing a drama they would never get to play.

Clearly, what the article was pointing out was the tip of a very large iceberg. Highlighting this form of sexual exploitation was merely a way of hinting at the way women in general are regarded in our society –and maybe not just ours… You can legislate fair hiring practices, but it is far more difficult –impossible, actually- to legislate attitude.

It is true, however, that unless the issue is publicized in a manner that shocks people into seeing it, there is unlikely to be any change. Some are hoping the protest might go national, with similar events taking place in various cities across the country. But I worry that, although the cause is worthwhile, too frequent repetition of the burlesque, is also a way of making it seem just confrontational -turning a good idea into a parody, and losing the point it was originally intended to make.

As long as shareholders and owners of companies see profit in sexualizing young women –and men, for that matter- the battle for change will be an uphill one. We are already seeing a backlash against ‘political correctness’, to the extent that many of the gains made in the past few decades are being sidetracked, or even eroded. I suppose it was inevitable that direct confrontation with the status quo would be resisted as would any threat.

But the solution, it seems to me, lies not in confrontation, but in changing what we accept as normal –as proper. And it is already being done with some success nowadays through both social media and advertising strategies. Just look at the change in attitudes about, say, smoking in restaurants, or driving home after a night at the pub. There are already recent, albeit tentative steps in various TV and internet-streamed programs –sitcoms and the like- to portray women less as sexual objects, and more as equal partners in their dealings with men. Some episodes have even attempted, as did those male servers in that Ottawa restaurant, to depict the humiliation that men would experience were the roles reversed. And people are watching and getting used to the idea because the characters on the screen are making it seem, well, normal. Accepted, not contentious. And certainly not antagonistic.

Nothing happens overnight, of course, and although we are understandably impatient for more progress, change that is too rapid often leads to rebellion -especially if that change is precipitate. Unexpected -or worse, abnormal!

“How poor are they that have not patience!” says Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello. “What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”


Oh, What Men Dare Do!

There seemed to be an inordinate amount of talk about polygamy last year –perhaps because of the long-awaited trial of two offenders from the town of Bountiful in British Columbia. In Canada, polygamy is a criminal offence under section 293 of the Criminal Code, but prosecutions have been rare. Polygamy must be differentiated from Bigamy, of course. With both of them, there are multiple partners (usually women) but with polygamy the marriage partners are presumably willing and knowledgeable about the other partners, whereas with bigamy, there is an attempt to deceive. Or, in a more legal framework, bigamy is the crime of marrying while one has a spouse still living, and from whom no valid divorce has been obtained.

I have to admit that I didn’t know that ‘polygamy’ was gender neutral –or, rather, it was nowhere near the apex of the pile of words I figured I’d look up some day. But, now that I mention it, I wonder if I’d stopped to think about the etymology, I would have known something was up –at least in our increasingly multi-gendered society… Although, in fairness to me, it’s roots are clear: gamos means something like ‘marry’ or ‘union’ in Greek. In fact, the term can be either ‘polygyny’ –many wives, or, I suppose, ‘polyandry’ –many husbands, but we don’t usually need to be so specific. As Claudio says in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, ‘Oh, what men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do, not knowing what they do!’

The origins of polygyny –sorry, polygamy– are nested in the depths of time, but according to a 2010 article in the Independent,, ‘It is most common in places where pre-colonial economic activity centred around subsistence farming […]Africa being a prime example. High levels of infant mortality may be a factor; when many children do not survive past the age of five a family needs more than one child-bearer to be economically viable. Then there is war. When a lot of men die, having more than one wife boosts the population most swiftly.’

But of course, times change, and so do economic and political pressures. Interestingly ‘Some anthropologists believe that polygamy has been the norm through human history. In 2003, New Scientist magazine suggested that, until 10,000 years ago, most children had been sired by comparatively few men. Variations in DNA, it said, showed that the distribution of X chromosomes suggested that a few men seem to have had greater input into the gene pool than the rest. By contrast most women seemed to get to pass on their genes. Humans, like their primate forefathers, it said, were at least “mildly polygynous”.’

It’s certainly not the norm nowadays, and often illegal. And yet, remember that in 2010, the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, ‘married his fifth wife in a traditional ceremony at his remote homestead in KwaZulu-Natal. His first wife, whom he married in 1973, was there to see him wed a woman 30 years his junior. His second wife stayed home to prepare the reception. He had two other wives but he divorced one in 1998 and another committed suicide in 2000.’ And the article went on to suggest that ‘he has not finished yet. The other day he paid the traditional dowry for his sixth fiancée [the article was published in 2010].’

‘In 1998 the University of Wisconsin surveyed more than a thousand societies. Of these just 186 were monogamous. Some 453 had occasional polygyny and in 588 more it was quite common. Just four featured polyandry.’ The study is obviously an older one, and societies and their mores evolve. According to an article in Wikipedia (last edited in July 2017), ‘Polygamy is [now] legal in 58 out of nearly 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of them being Muslim-majority countries situated in Africa and Asia. In most of these states, polygyny is allowed and legally sanctioned. Polyandry is illegal in virtually every state in the world. In India, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Sri Lanka polygamy is only legal for Muslims. In Nigeria and South Africa, polygamous marriages under customary law and for Muslims are legally recognized.’ That said, however, it is relatively common still in many Arab nations; among the Bedouin population of Israel it stands at about 30 per cent, according to the Independent.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. At the very least, it’s confusing -and not only for me, I suspect. What about at the state level for those countries in whom polygamy is illegal, like Canada and the U.S.A.? What are they to do with immigrants with two or more wives who seek asylum from persecution or war in their home countries? Should they be refused entry under all circumstances even if their needs are compelling and otherwise would have been candidates for acceptance?

There have been attempts to work around this dilemma, of course. Until recently at least, the U.S. has denied immigration to polygynists (either the man or any of his wives) but under some circumstances, ‘a refugee who was practicing polygamy before he immigrated will be required by U.S. immigration law to designate one wife as his legal wife to accompany him to the United States. Years later, after becoming a U.S. citizen, he might divorce that wife, and marry the woman who was formerly his second wife, in order to petition for her to immigrate to the United States.’ ( -legal encyclopedia)

Okay, so there are ways around it, but in an already overcrowded world and especially in modern societies with safety nets for its more vulnerable citizens, it seems to me that whatever use polygamy once had –marrying widows to ensure orphans are taken care of, or maybe a way of quickly increasing a specific population, or even, of course, lessening the burden of work for a solo wife- is no longer necessary. One gets the distinct impression, however much disguised, that polygyny is merely an excuse for male sexual gratification dressed up as a tradition –another not so covert way of diminishing female authority and power.

I fail to see any way in which polygyny fosters gender equality, let alone female autonomy. And I would challenge any male who purports to believe that parity is possible under those circumstances, to argue as strenuously for polyandry. To accept that he would be as equal a partner as his wife and her other husbands… But of course, he could argue that polyandry is extremely uncommon and also illegal almost everywhere. That there must be a reason for that.

Gosh, I wonder what that would be…






When Thou Liest Howling

There are some things we just don’t want to acknowledge aren’t there? Some things that we would rather not hear, not so much because we don’t think they’re important, but because they embarrass us… Or maybe offend us. Sexually transmitted diseases are prime examples.

For some reason, many of us find them difficult to talk about. Admittedly they require rather special venues, and the very subject casts long shadows on the interlocutors no matter how discreetly it is introduced. Rather than appearing as an intimate trust issue, the very fact of its being raised in the first place tends to arouse suspicion -accusations by proxy.

At first, I wondered if this attitude might be a generational thing. I was raised in an era when the most feared unintended consequence of premarital sex (as we called it then), was assumed to be pregnancy; VD -another time-specific term for sexually-acquired disease- was confined to clearly recognizable and therefore potentially avoidable people. This naïveté, of course, didn’t prepare us for the inevitable consequences of our wide-eyed ignorance and even nowadays, those of us still around could yet be dragged, aged and surprised, into the vortex as I outlined in an essay elsewhere:

The initial solace of antibiotic treatment also proved too good to be true. Throughout history, sexually transmitted infections were a scourge –the wages of sin as they were considered then. But with the advent of effective treatments, those debts were forgotten –although clearly not forgiven.

Syphilis, gonorrhea, and the more recently characterized chlamydia exacted a terrible toll on fertility and long term health, but until recently, all were fairly amenable to antibiotic therapy –albeit a necessarily changing one. Gonorrhea, however, seems to be particularly adept at developing resistance to the various antibiotics thrown at it.

There are various mechanisms by which a bacterium can become antibiotic-resistant but a common and easily appreciated reason is inadequate initial treatment. Even if an antibiotic is effective, there will usually be some bacteria that are less sensitive to it for whatever reason, and hence require longer antibiotic exposure for it to affect them. People tend to continue treatment only until they feel well –in other words, until the number of bacteria infecting them has fallen below whatever level was required to cause the symptoms. Unfortunately, the few bacteria that remain, are the less sensitive ones that weren’t so easily killed off at the beginning.

Physical barriers to the acquisition of sexually transmitted infections –condoms, for example- are certainly helpful, but men don’t tend to wear them with oral sex, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned:  This has led to an increasing problem with throat infections according to the BBC News article. ‘Gonorrhoea can infect the genitals, rectum and throat, but it is the last of these that is most concerning health officials.

‘Dr Wi [from the WHO] said antibiotics could lead to bacteria in the back of the throat, including relatives of gonorrhoea, developing resistance. She said: “When you use antibiotics to treat infections like a normal sore throat, this mixes with the Neisseria species in your throat and this results in resistance.” Thrusting gonorrhoea bacteria into this environment through oral sex can lead to super-gonorrhoea.’

The problem is that a throat infection with gonorrhea may be relatively asymptomatic and hence more likely to be inadvertently transmitted to someone else. And ‘It’s hard to say if more people around the world are having more oral sex than they used to, as there isn’t much reliable global data available. Data from the UK and US show it’s very common, and has been for years, including among teenagers.

‘The UK’s first National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, carried out in 1990-1991, found 69.7% of men and 65.6% of women had given oral sex to, or received it from, a partner of the opposite sex in the previous year. By the time of the second survey during 1999-2001, this had increased to 77.9% for men and 76.8% for women, but hasn’t changed much since.

‘A national survey in the US, meanwhile, has found about two-thirds of 15-24 year olds have ever had oral sex. Dr Mark Lawton from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV said people with gonorrhoea in the throat would be unlikely to realise it and thus be more likely to pass it on via oral sex.’

And apparently there are only ‘three drug candidates in the entire drug [development] pipeline and no guarantee any will make it out.

‘Prof Richard Stabler, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Ever since the introduction of penicillin, hailed as a reliable and quick cure, gonorrhoea has developed resistance to all therapeutic antibiotics. In the past 15 years therapy has had to change three times following increasing rates of resistance worldwide. We are now at a point where we are using the drugs of last resort, but there are worrying signs as treatment failure due to resistant strains has been documented.”’

So, we’ve got a potentially untreatable, possibly asymptomatic, and very definitely prevalent infection out there, and a societal reluctance to talk about it… Perhaps it’s time for another approach. Fortunately there is an active search for a gonorrhea vaccine –and a serendipitous observation may have suggested a possible route –although, in retrospect, it seemed an obvious place to start.

‘The vaccine, originally developed to stop an outbreak of meningitis B, was given to about a million adolescents in New Zealand between 2004 and 2006. Researchers at the University of Auckland analysed data from sexual health clinics and found gonorrhoea cases had fallen 31% in those vaccinated.

‘The bacterium that causes meningitis, Neisseria meningitidis, is a very close relative of the species that causes gonorrhoea – Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It appears the Men B jab was giving “cross-protection” against gonorrhea.’ This is very early in the work, however, and it seemed only to be effective in a third of those vaccinated. But it is certainly encouraging.

Be that as it may, however, I can’t help but worry that if there is development of an effective vaccine against gonorrhea, it will once again fool us into forgetting about the other diseases potentially transmissible by oral sex, including viruses such as hepatitis, herpes, and HPV (for which, thank god, there is also an effective vaccine), not to mention the bacterially-caused ones like syphilis, chlamydia, and many others that don’t make for salacious headlines.

But I’m not advocating for the formation of a Temperance League to combat a practice that is likely as old as humanity, nor do I have any religious or ideological objections to its persistence in our society, but I do believe that the Past informs the Future. I think that it would be prudent to ensure that all participants –newcomers to the field, as well as those who have already passed through and are merely nibbling at memories- have a working knowledge of those risks that should not be placed, as Shakespeare put it, on the windy side of care

I just wonder if those who are entrusted with sexual education nowadays would put it so beautifully.












Fairness Which Strikes the Eye

Sometimes it seems we cannot help ourselves –the pull of the tide is just too strong to resist. And sometimes an argument, when considered too quickly, too uncritically, captures us with its ostensibly intuitive wisdom. We have no need to question it. No need to probe the basis of its logic.

The rhetoricians of old were well versed in this form of argument –the art of persuasion and how to best achieve it. Aristotle, for example, suggested three essential features of a convincing argument: ethos –the credibility of the contention; pathos –understanding the needs and emotions of the audience; and logos –the patterns of reasoning and the words chosen. His wisdom, although modified and woven into the contemporary tapestry, has not been lost in modern times.

What could provoke a greater sense of outrage in a population than the 1% contention? That is to say, in at least one of the iterations fostered by the Occupy Movement, that in the United States, 1% of the population controls 40% of the wealth. And to many, that unequal distribution of wealth, is symptomatic of what is wrong with Capitalism. It certainly resonates with those of us in the 99% who hear it. It begs for remonstrance; it demands rectification.

And yet there are usually many sides to a story –or at least this one, at any rate. There are times  when we need to move back a step or two in order to appreciate the different perspectives. Even so, I have to admit that an article in the BBC Future series came as an intriguing surprise: It allowed me to entertain an alternative that I had not even considered.

As they tease at the beginning, ‘Some researchers argue that income disparity itself may not be the main problem. The issue, they say, is not the existence of a gap between rich and poor, but the existence of unfairness. Some people are treated preferentially and others unjustly – and acknowledging that both poverty and unfairness are related may be the challenge that matters more […] While many people may already view inequality as unfairness, making the distinction much clearer is important.’

They go on to say that ‘In a paper published in April in the journal Nature Human Behaviour called ‘Why people prefer unequal societies’, a team of researchers from Yale University argue that humans – even as young children and babies – actually prefer living in a world in which inequality exists. […] Because if people find themselves in a situation where everyone is equal, studies suggest that many become angry or bitter if people who work hard aren’t rewarded, or if slackers are over-rewarded.

‘“We argue that the public perception of wealth inequality itself being aversive to most people is incorrect, and that instead, what people are truly concerned about is unfairness,” says Christina Starmans, a psychology post-doc at Yale who worked on the paper.

“In the present-day US, and much of the world, these two issues are confounded, because there is so much inequality that the assumption is that it must be unfair. But this has led to an incorrect focus on wealth inequality itself as the problem that needs addressing, rather than the more central issue of fairness.” And as Mark Sheskin, one of the co-authors remarks, ‘“People typically prefer fair inequality to unfair equality”’.

In a way, a lot of the argument hinges on definitions. There are, after all, several ways to look at inequality: equality of opportunity, equality of distribution of benefits, and of course, equality of outcome. Must all of them be addressed, or is there a priority? Is the existence of a super-rich 1% the problem, or would it be more helpful ‘ to concentrate more on helping those less fortunate, who via a lack of fairness, are unable to improve their situation’?

‘Harry G Frankfurt is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. In his book On Inequality, he argues that the moral obligation should be on eliminating poverty, not achieving equality, and striving to make sure everyone has the means to lead a good life.’ Poverty, in other words, is the problem; it is unfair…

I suppose, when considered practically, it would be unrealistic and unduly Utopian, to think that we could ever dispense with at least some degree of income disparity. People ‘don’t typically work, create or strive without the motivation to do so’. It seems to me that the unfairness does not lie in the money fairly accumulated for work done, so much as in the fact that ‘not everyone is afforded the same opportunities to succeed, even if they put in that hard work.’

But, on the other hand, it’s not all simply a matter of the equality of opportunity, nor even of equality, per se. Fairness is something different. The issue of fairness is in a different Magisterium altogether. I’m Canadian, and I believe that no one should have to live in poverty. Not everyone has the skills, or indeed, the capacity to hold a job, even if an opportunity presents itself. Some are disadvantaged by appearance, or gender; some are discriminated against by virtue of their origins, or life-style; some, even, have succumbed to past failures and have given up trying… It is unfair to give up on them –any of them- simply because of the lotteries of birth or circumstance.

Fairness, it seems to me, is universally available and accessible health care. It is a living wage that allows even the poorest to feed their family. It is safe and obtainable shelter. It is the respect afforded even to those we do not understand. It is toleration of difference, even when the rest of us may not understand, or agree with it.

It seems to me that inequality, by itself, is not what drives revolutions. Inequality is not what causes societies to weaken and their moral fabric to unweave. Inequality is just the chipped and discoloured veneer most easily visible on the surface. What festers directly underneath, sometimes only detectable when the surface weakens or is pulled asunder, is inequity. Injustice. Unfairness… Poverty, unlike wealth, offers little protection. And that is the iniquitous thing.

For some reason, I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s King Lear: Through tattered clothes great vices do appear; Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.

Prove me wrong…


She wears her faith but as the fashion of her phone.

Everything is a matter of time, isn’t it? Everything changes. Like the apocryphal monkeys typing away infinitely, everything will be written. Everything will be transmogrified somewhere. Some time. Somehow. I suppose that should be a comfort, but I can’t escape the nagging feeling that there is something unrequited in all that: an imbalance between now and then -no bridge to mediate between what is, and what some nebulous future may unfurl for our children’s children.

And yet, an article I found offers some hope that I might have missed the entr’acte, missed a vital link in the ever lengthening chain of progress –or at least underestimated its importance. I’m talking about the smartphone. I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled, as T.S. Eliot wrote –that, at least, may be a suitable mea culpa for my inattentiveness, perhaps.

I should have seen that with all of the changes occasioned by the phone, other subtle philosophical alterations might well hide within its shadow. ‘He wears his faith but as the fashion of his hat; it ever changes with the next block’, as Beatrice says in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Who would have thought that religion itself might live the same fate? The mobile phone Bible seems to be replacing the book Bible –at least with many of the younger religious crowd. And the result may have been a loss of context –no thumbing through the pages looking for something, just an arrival at whatever nugget was requested –like looking it up in Wikipedia. In other words, an information Christianity, a virtual religion. ‘“A new kind of mutated Christianity for a digital age is appearing,” says Phillips [director of the Codec Research Centre for Digital Theology at Durham University in the UK]. “One that follows many of the ethics of the secular world.” Known as moralistic therapeutic deism, this form of belief is focused more on the charitable and moral side of the Bible – the underlying tenets of religion, rather than the notion that the Universe was created by an all-seeing, all-powerful leader.’

Although I hold neither religious affiliation, nor any particular interest in the Bible, I have to say I am intrigued by the philosophical machinations the smartphone seems to be engendering –the moralistic therapeutic deism, as it is increasingly being referred to. The results of interviews with three thousand teenagers were summarized in (sorry) Wikipedia, and seem to establish the tenets of this theism. First of all, ‘A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.’ And ‘God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.’ But what I found particularly interesting was the idea that ‘God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.’

And why do I find this  so-called ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ so interesting? It seems to me it may be the early phases of an evolution of religious thought engendered by the way we are beginning to assimilate information. Or perhaps I should say they are –the millennials. I suspect that we elders –or should I say just ‘olders’- still adhere to the belief that data does not necessarily spell knowledge.

But, as the article points out, ‘[…]a separate strand of Christian practice is booming, buoyed by the spread of social media and the decentralisation of religious activity. For many, it’s no longer necessary to set foot in a church. In the US, one in five people who identify as Catholics and one in four Protestants seldom or never attend organised services, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre. Apps and social media accounts tweeting out Bible verses allow a private expression of faith that takes place between a person and their phone screen. And the ability to pick and choose means they can avoid doctrine that does not appeal. A lot of people who consider themselves to be active Christians may not strictly even believe in God or Jesus or the acts described in the Bible.’

I doubt that this phenomenon is exclusive to Christianity, either. Any religious doctrine which has a credo that can be digitized, is susceptible -nuggetable into bite-sized digestible portions. Wikipediable.

I think that is what two girls were talking about at the bus stop a few days ago. Both wearing delightfully colourful hijabs, they were huddled around their smartphones giggling.

“Where did you find that?” the taller of the two said shaking her head. She was dressed just like any other teenager –running shoes, jeans, and a bright orange leather jacket- but a dark blue hijab seemed almost tossed onto her head and barely draped over her shoulders. Perhaps it was the wind, but the almost-studied disarray was charming.

The other girl, stouter and wearing a long black coat, also sported a red, hijab-like scarf that barely covered half her head despite her constant readjustments. “It’s Al-Quran [an app, I later discovered],” she answered as if that should have been obvious.

The taller girl tapped on her screen for a moment and then nodded her head. “But, you know that’s not what Abbad said…”

The other girl just shrugged. “He always thinks he knows everything, Lamiya.”

“Well…” I could see Lamiya sigh, even though I was trying not to watch them. “He usually gets it right, Nadirah… I mean, don’t you think…?”

I couldn’t help but smile when Nadirah rolled her eyes. “He only gets it right when you don’t know! If you don’t check on it…”

Lamiya seemed to pout. “I just, like, took his word for it…”

“You can’t do that blindly, Lami… Not anymore.” She made another attempt to readjust her hijab in the biting wind. “Not when you can look it up!” She shivered deeper into her coat and I could see her breath whenever the wind died down. “Things just aren’t what they used to be for our parents… We can actually, like, check,” she said as their bus pulled up and they got on, leaving me still informationless in the cold.


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: 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


Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind

There is a time, a dark time, when normal daylight thoughts are banished. A time when what remains are skeletal shadows, atavistic remnants of ancestral fears, unbidden fragments of anchorless dread which in the fullness of a sunlit day, are sheer cotton. -translucent at their best. It is when doors are left ajar and watchmen sleep. It is a time when filtering is impossible, and  vetting unreliable. It is the time of night when even the moon is asleep, or hiding…

And normally, so am I, but age and diet sometimes conspire to rearrange diurnal rhythms –shuffle the deck- and if I allow the shards of my imagination any attempts to organize unsupervised, the resultant patterns are not ones I would recognize in the light. Nor accept. It is an existential angst, a dark time of the soul.

A few weeks ago, I awoke sweating, and in the nocturnal silence of a moonless night, seemed trapped in an airless blanket of dread. I couldn’t see, and everything around me was still. Unmoving. Mute. If it had been preceded by a dream, I couldn’t remember it; all was numbed by the intensity of the terror, and I was helpless in the current swirling noiselessly around me. Suddenly, the sure and certain knowledge that I would be blinded from complications of impending cataract surgery gripped me like the jaws of an unseen, unexpected predator, and the ensuing silence convinced me of the extent of my coeval deafness. I was, and would be for all time, trapped in a silent darkness -solitary confinement on the authority of cast dice.

Of course the feeling passed, and my daylight remembrance of the event was suitably tailored in the sun, but the feeling lingered. What would it be like to be forever trapped in both silence and darkness, I wondered? What would be left of life? And for that matter, what would be the use of a gift I could no longer use? No longer experience… except as a living, solitary hell?

I suppose I’m being overly dramatic about a highly unlikely confluence of events, but even the possibility makes me shudder -makes me fearful about the fragile egg-shell in which I am encased, and the delicacy of the components it is charged with protecting. It is perhaps a wonder that we as a species –and more specifically, I as an individual- have survived at all, let alone this many years.

With this in the back of my mind, I am surprised I had not heard of Usher syndrome before, although perhaps my specialty of Obstetrics and Gynaecology quarantined me from an extremely rare condition that results in both blindness and deafness as well as a host of other non-gynaecologic impairments. But it was the subject of a BBC article that caught my eye and quickly brought back the horror of my panic attack:

It’s the story of a young girl, Molly, who ‘was born severely deaf and learned to lip read. But, at the age of 12, she was diagnosed with Usher syndrome, a degenerative disease which causes sight and hearing loss. Now aged 22 she has just 5% of sight left in one eye.’ The eye condition is called retinitis pigmentosa which progressively affects peripheral vision and results in night blindness as well.

And, as if deafness and blindness were not enough, she was also a teenager struggling like every other teen, to negotiate the serpentine interstices of social life. She did receive speech therapy, so communication was possible, but as she admits, ‘”I have to strategise everything I do. I am night-blind and so when I go out I would often ask to hang onto a friend. I will only go out with the close friends who do not make me feel a burden.”’

There are also mental health issues with Usher syndrome, not surprisingly, and Molly has a bipolar disease which can complicate her ability to cope with her disabilities at times. Also, ‘Her experiences are often dictated by the support she receives. While she says college restored her faith in humanity, she left university early due to a lack of assistance. “Lecturers didn’t have the time to understand my condition. Training and awareness sessions were set up for staff and nobody turned up. I just needed materials to be made accessible – large text, for lecturers to wear a radio aid that connected to my hearing aids – it’s as simple as that.”’

Some people are truly special, aren’t they? I suspect I would have sunk into an irremediable depression and yet ‘Molly has set up her own charity – The Molly Watt Trust – to support others with Usher and has spoken at prestigious institutions including Harvard University and the House of Commons [UK] outlining how capable people with Usher are.’

But perhaps the spirit soars, even in captivity –or maybe especially in captivity. I’m reminded of Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning and his thesis of ‘tragic optimism’: ‘How […] can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects? After all, “saying yes to life in spite of everything […] presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable. And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive. In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. […]an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment […] and deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.’

I suppose that it is difficult to judge a response like Molly’s from the outside, though; I suspect that true empathy –experiencing something through another’s mind- is nigh on impossible for most of us in her case. After all, it would require relinquishing all of that which we have come to accept as normal –sight for as many years as we have lived, and the sounds that have accompanied us through the years… An existence unimpeded -until now, perhaps- by significant impairment. The contrast between then and now would be overwhelming, I think.

And yet, as Helena says in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, ‘”Oft expectation fails, and most oft there where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest, and despair most fits.”’

Thank you Molly!