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:

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.

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…

The Feast of Difference

I don’t read many children’s books anymore -my own children have long since had children of their own- but every so often I am reminded of how important books can be for them.

Whatever you may think of political correctness and its enthusiastic exhortations for sensitivity, or its celebration of differences, there are times when it can have demonstrably beneficial consequences. Sometimes it is helpful to advertise a spade as a spade -helpful to celebrate disparity and variation. Children’s literature is one example.

The article discusses the importance of the depiction of children with differences so they can see and recognize themselves in familiar situations -in this case, autism and autism spectrum disorder. ‘Fiction plays a significant role in shaping how people understand and respond to autism. And in this way, books are often used by both schools and parents to help children and young people understand more about autism.

‘But the limited and skewed portrayal of autism means it is often misrepresented rather than represented in fiction. For an autistic child or young person this can be extremely isolating and they are often unable to find a version of “themselves” in a book.’

‘Ultimately, every story – whether in life or fiction – has characters, and all characters are different. So given that autism affects more than one in 100 people, there needs to be more done to represent the outside world inside story books.’

The more I thought about autistic children seeing themselves as valid characters in books, the more I realized that the same applies to all children of difference -autistic, or with other challenges. We’re beginning to see more of this on TV and in movies now; books are merely an additional venue, a more portable and perhaps more easily referable source for a child to self-identify.


I had some time to kill between flights in the Sydney airport a while back. There never seem to be any seats where you can find solitude in an airport -no seats where you can simply sit and process your journey so far. Of course, an airport is not made for thinking -it is a temporary storage facility, a slowly moving conveyor belt that discourages sequestration whenever possible. Like a drain, it is designed to empty its contents.

But even in a warehouse, there are token concessions to personhood, albethey profit driven, and after what seemed an eternity of peregrination, I found myself in one of those ersatz stores that sell candies and bottled water next to the pop magazines and a derisory collection of books. It was relatively quiet in there, though, and I amused myself by thumbing through a few of the more promising titles. In this particular outlet, there seemed to be no particular order in their placement, however -although I suppose the alphabetic one by author that they chose made as much sense as anything else to the owners. But a Fiction was as likely to be shoulder to shoulder with a Biography or a History, as long as the author names were similar enough. It was quite an adventure, really -I could never figure out what to expect as I moved along the shelf, quietly mouthing my ABC’s.

Only Children’s books had their own section, and it was along the bottom row -no doubt a pragmatically commercial decision. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed, had it not been for bumping into an excited little boy with a book in his arms and a kneeling mother with a backpack.

I bent over and apologized to the child and smiled at the mother. But I don’t think the boy even noticed -he was so excited about the book.

“I’m in this book, mister,” he said to me with an enchanting Australian flavour to his voice.

“Are you?” I said, delighted both with his accent and the sparkle in his eyes.

I’ve never been very good at guessing ages, but he was very young -maybe three or four- and wearing his own version of his mother’s backpack.

She looked up at me but returned an embarrassed smile. I could see the obvious resemblance between the two of them, and yet her skin was a few shades lighter.

“Want to see…?” He said, still holding me in his gaze.

“Of course I do,” I said, and knelt down beside him so he could show me.

The book was one of those large, hard-covered children’s books that is made to be indestructible, but he had no difficulty manipulating the big, thick pages and opened it to one with a drawing of a little dark-skinned boy smiling as if somebody was tickling him. The resemblance to the little boy beside me was quite remarkable.

I turned to his mother. “Did you…?”

Her smile grew and her expression immediately warmed. “No… His aunt -my sister-in-law- is an illustrator for children’s books. We have this one at home, and Jorry saw it on the shelf here…”

We both stood up while little Jorry held the book proudly against his chest.

“He just loves the picture,” she explained. “We’re a mixed family in a white neighbourhood, and he doesn’t see drawings of aboriginal kids in books very often. But he feels special now and shows it to all his friends when they come over to visit.” She rested her eyes on my face for a moment. “It’s amazing what that picture does for him, you know…”

She immediately blushed, as if she’d said too much -disclosed too much- and then glanced at her watch. “We’ll be boarding soon, so we’d better go,” she said and touched my sleeve gently.

Jorry carefully replaced the book on the shelf and looked up at me. “It’s a good drawing of me, isn’t it?” he said in a very adult voice and grasped his mother’s waiting hand. “We have to catch a plane,” he added, turning his head away like someone who needed to help his mother to the proper gate.

We are all stories, in the process of being told, aren’t we?



Overmastered with a piece of valiant dust?

I am by no definition an athlete. As a child in frigid Winnipeg, I played pickup hockey on an outdoor rink with wobbly skates, held upright by the stick I used mostly as a cane. The part I enjoyed most, though, was sitting in the little community center building after the game as my frost-bitten toes tingled gratefully in the warm sweaty air. I was never a particularly good skater, and I remember -even in those faraway times- the kidding I took for being knocked down by the one or two brave girls who always managed to be chosen for the other team. The same two girls showed up each Saturday, and they were tolerated, partly because they were as strong as the eleven or twelve year old boys around them, but mainly because they were such good players.

We moved further East from Winnipeg when I was fourteen, and the opportunity to play pickup hockey thankfully withered, although not only because of decreased opportunity, but, more likely, directly proportional to my size and talent. And there, any credible aspiration for sports fame withered in the already harvested field.

In the dying embers of middle age, I confess I tried rollerblade hockey in a local gym, but by then it was too late. It attracted people of my age, to be sure, but mainly those who had already played hockey for years, so it did not go well. There was an interesting parallel to my childhood experience, though. Although no gender restrictions were ever suggested, it was entirely an old-boys club –until, that is, two younger women who had played for a women’s ice hockey team showed up. The results were predictable; they outclassed the men so completely, the larger, older men began to exhibit their frustration by unfair physical contact –shoving, bumping, slashing with their sticks- all, no doubt, to compensate for their lack of prowess. But the women never showed up again.

At any rate, I began to wonder why there wasn’t some way of allowing gender mixing in sport. Clearly, there would have to be guidelines to even out the rink, as it were -maybe size, or weight, say, in sports like hockey, and coupled with a change of rules to discourage aggressive and disruptive behaviour. Other sports like track and field could perhaps be integrated even more easily…

I suspected these thoughts were likely the early signs of an impending dementia, though, until I came across a truly inspiring article in the Conversation

It was an article by Roslyn Kerr, a senior lecturer in Sociology of Sport, Lincoln University, in New Zealand. She argued that ‘[…]one way to move beyond problematic gender barriers is to eradicate sex segregation completely and replace it with a system similar to that used in Paralympic sport.’ As she points out, ‘Historically, women have been required to undergo humiliating sex testing procedures in order to compete in sport. More recently, such testing has been suspended owing to the lack of consensus about which traits make someone male or female. […] In 2012, several women underwent surgery in order to meet the requirements to compete in the women’s events at the Olympic Games, even though they had always identified as women and externally appeared to be women.

‘[…] Women are not the only group who receive a poor deal in sport. While weight classes in some sports allow smaller athletes a chance at success, there is no such consideration for other traits, such as height. This means that shorter athletes never have a chance in events such as high jump, volleyball and basketball.

‘Other athletes are lucky enough to have advantageous traits that do not lead to a ban. For example, they have greater aerobic capacity or stronger fast-twitch fibres (which contract quickly, but get tired fast). But it is not considered unfair for other athletes to compete against them, as it would be if their weight were too high or they were men rather than women.’

But, ‘Paralympic sport has been forced to deal much more closely with the issue of classification owing to the range of bodies that compete. In the 1990s, the classification system changed to one that was based on functional ability rather than on medical conditions. It continues today, where rather than labelling athletes as having a particular medical condition, they are placed in a racing category based on the movements their body can perform, related to the sport they compete in.’ So she suggests that ‘in able-bodied sport, it would similarly make sense to remove the label of male or female and replace it with categories based on the ability of bodies to move in that particular sport. In sport, movement is based on physical ability, which is not necessarily linked to sex. In each sport, it would be possible to identify the characteristics which make up successful athletes and create categories based on those rather than on sex.’

She gives some examples that might help with the integration: ‘[f]or example, for a 100m sprinter, the ideal athlete would perhaps be made up of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres. Therefore, rather than classifying by sex, sprinters could be classified by their level of muscle mass and fast-twitch fibres. In another example, in sports such as high jump, volleyball and basketball, athletes could be classified according to muscle mass and height. Finally, in an endurance sport, athletes could be classified according to muscle mass and lung capacity.’

I realize that this may still be a hard sell to many. Egos are on the line I suppose, and privilege –sacred male traditions might be trampled underfoot. But things are changing –too fast for some, no doubt- and yet no amount of wishful thinking will bring back a Past that is not served by the Present. A past that was never exposed to current technology, current expectations.

But the integration of gender in sport makes sense. There are women fire fighters, paramedics, police officers –there are even women soldiers in combat, for goodness sakes. Come on guys…!

And what do we risk by trying it in a few sports to see how it unfolds? That people might actually enjoy it? That a day might come when children, perhaps yet unborn, will wonder how and why we ever separated the sexes…?

I can’t help but think of the words of Beatrice about men in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? A bit harsh, I guess, but she’s got the right spirit, don’t you think?

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: 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.

Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie

I sometimes wonder if in another life I was actually a woman –perhaps in one of those what-if lands that we whisper to our children as they are nodding off to sleep. A place where roles are not so much reversed as fluid –changing as necessary, dissolving when needed. Not a perfect place –even a child expects some inequalities, some inevitable disputes- but a place where things even out in the end. Where disagreements are resolved, and fairness, like dust motes in a sunny room, coats even the darkest corners if you decide to look.

And why a woman? In this heavily gendered world, why would I espouse the mysterious side –the other side- when, for now at least, I find myself in an advantaged role? Why, if I have never entertained the idea in any but an intellectual sense, with no real desire to change my here-and-now, nor any wish to partake of other than a thought-experiment, would I think that in a once-upon-a-time story, I might have been what I am not?

I suppose, in part, it is because of the inequities to which many of us with a Y chromosome have so successfully adapted -swept under the carpet in our attempts to fashion the world in our own image. Like the sound of traffic that becomes barely noticeable to city dwellers, we have become myopic to all that isn’t immediately relevant to our own vicinity -our Lebenswelt. And it just seems so unfair.

I don’t want to sound too naïve in my jeremiad, too Pollyannoid in my expectations, but I do expect actions to be judged by what they achieve, not by who performs them. I do not expect a litany of excuses, or worse, a denial that excuses are even necessary.  As a recently retired obstetrician/gynaecologist, perhaps I am overly attuned to the denizens of my former world, but I find myself disheartened by examples of their contributions being overlooked, or at least undervalued. An article that I came across one day, outlined some of the problems:

It discusses the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in various countries –although this article specifically examines women’s NGOs and their work in India and Tanzania. ‘NGOs work with governments, community groups and the private sector — to develop and implement programs, monitor and evaluate their progress and help train people working on those projects.’ It would seem that these ‘[…]women’s NGOs played crucial roles in development projects, often mobilizing, organizing and building projects that otherwise would never have launched.’

In India, for example, ‘Women’s NGOs also conducted research to determine whether local communities could afford to pay for basic urban services. They negotiated subsidies, fair pricing and flexible terms of payment with utilities on behalf of marginalized people. They arranged access to loans from micro-finance institutions for households that could not cover the cost of water or electricity connections. And by insisting that water and electricity bills be issued in the names of female heads of households, women’s NGOs strengthened women’s access to property and housing.

‘The NGOs also educated stakeholders about the realities of life for the urban poor, and shared lessons learned in one urban area with NGOs in other cities in India.’

But, the success of their interventions often led to the marginalization of the NGO’s role in whatever successes they’d achieved. ‘[…] women’s NGOs had made vital contributions to the success of development projects, but they were easily marginalized and trivialized once those projects got off the ground. In India, after the success of the pilot projects, the other partners declared that they would “go it alone” and no longer involve the NGO partner in delivering basic urban services.’ Of course, the idea is to encourage self-sufficiency so the NGO can back away, but in many situations, their contributions, as women, were minimized in favour of the usual power brokers. ‘Although the contributions made by the women’s NGOs were critical to the existence and success of the initiatives, they were often dismissed as supplementary and dispensable by the other partners. Because the NGOs’ role of organizing, mobilizing and helping local communities participate in development initiatives was seen as a “natural” extension of women’s care-giving work, it was easy for other partners to diminish and dismiss their contributions. And because the other partners did not fully appreciate the contributions of the women’s NGOs, they were unwilling to share credit for the success of the project.’

The authors -Dr. Bipasha Baruah, Professor & Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues, Western University and Dr. Kate Grantham Research Associate, International Development, McGill University- suggest  some strategies ‘to strengthen and validate the role of women’s NGOs in development partnership projects: A memorandum of understanding (MOU) that defines the specific roles and responsibilities of each partner should be an essential requirement for multiple-stakeholder projects. The lack of such formal agreements entrenches the perception that the role NGOs play is not particularly valuable.’

Call me naïve, but it is dismaying, to say the least, that such formalities are required to validate a helping hand -almost like requiring a contract be drawn up before helping someone cross a busy street.

And yet, as the authors point out, ‘It’s unfortunate they must “justify” their long-term involvement in such initiatives, but it may be incumbent upon them to make their contributions to the project more visible to the different partners and to the development community at large.’ And perhaps more especially, ‘[…] the specific challenges and opportunities that NGOs working on gender equality, or those that define themselves as feminist NGOs or women’s NGOs, face — when participating in multiple-stakeholder projects.’

Okay I understand, I guess. Let’s see… Outside agencies have to help women help each other, because otherwise the communities will forget who helped them. No, that can’t be right… Okay then, outside agencies have to publicize the fact that women are able to help… Uhmm, no? Well then, how about the agencies claim credit for facilitating the things that women have been doing for millennia…

I’m clearly getting old and cloistered in my years. Many of those things I had once assumed were self-evident, I now find were merely wide-eyed hopes -inexperienced beliefs, as devoid of truth as the fairy-tales I told my children. I have obviously not tasted all that I am supposed to sample despite my age –and yet, I still believe that help knows no gender. Goodness is not biased, nor is succour credited only to those crowding around and pointing at themselves when the patient is finally ready to be discharged.

But, perhaps I read too much poetry, too much Kahlil Gibran, when I was young; perhaps you cannot believe poetry; perhaps it is simply not enough –even if it speaks truth to power:
‘there are those who give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; they give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space. Through the hands of such as these God speaks, and from behind their eyes He smiles upon the earth.’












Is Man a Piece of Work?

You see it all the time, don’t you –portrayals of great male warriors triumphing over equally determined rivals, their muscles rippling with sweat, their eyes scanning the crowd daring any others to step forward. It is a classic scene, presumably so reminiscent of the glory days of yore when men were really men –a classic depiction of a decidedly monolithic world where pursuit of power alone determined ethics and values. Where might was not only right, it was also appropriately so. What else could drive a nation, a culture, a belief, to success?

And what about those of us not favoured with bulging muscles who either could not, or would not compete in the marketplace of war? We wore the yoke –the etymological root of subjugation.

Although largely undisputed, I have always felt that this view of history was probably a victor’s view: partial, and likely doctrinaire. Perhaps even unrealistic. And yet a reading –or nowadays, more likely a movie portrayal- of the classic heroes would do little to disavow this opinion. Every so often, though, there seem to be other, quieter voices crying in the growing wilderness of masculine insecurity that cast doubts on the impenetrability of the foliage. Voices that find paths hidden in the woods.

‘Homer’s Iliad has been used by some men to hail the virtues of traditional masculinity in the 21st century. Typically, the famous work of literature serves as a sort of manual of manliness. […] Aside from longing for the (grossly misunderstood) glory days of a triumphantly Christian Europe that traced its heritage to the Greeks and Romans, the new champions of the West obsess over an idealized version of the past that bears little resemblance to the real Greece and Rome.’ -This from an article in the Conversation.

‘The classical world furnishes us with examples of manhood, masculinity and heroism that have inspired some men to react against the supposed feminizing of Western culture, especially in the university setting.’ But, as one might expect, the reality was likely far more nuanced than its adherents would have us believe.

The article’s author, Matthew Sears, Associate Professor of Classics & Ancient History, University of New Brunswick, uses Homer’s Iliad, a classic tale about the Trojan War, as an example. He says that when he first read it, ‘[…] the final showdown between the opposing heroes Hector and Achilles [was] an utter letdown. Hector, in fact, runs away rather than face his opponent. Only after Achilles has chased Hector around the walls of Troy three full times does Hector turn to fight, and only then because the goddess Athena tricks Hector into thinking that a Trojan ally would be by his side.’

This seems to glorify the strength and reputation of Achilles, of course, but also denigrates Hector, the Trojan hero. But more interesting –to me, at least- ‘By using different Greek words for manliness, Homer distinguished between Achilles’ toxic masculinity and appropriate expressions of manliness.’ I’ve left the link in for readers who may wish to pursue this further. ‘Readers do, however, tend to recognize in Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior, a far more sympathetic figure, embodying classical manhood by fighting bravely and selflessly for his city and family against impossible odds and an implacable enemy.’

And yet, this is still a masculine trope, albeit a different variety, isn’t it? No, Hector doesn’t win, but he fights for what he believes in against impossible odds… A real man, although not a victor like Achilles. But wait -the complexity increases! ‘Not only does Hector’s nerve fail him at Achilles’ final approach, […]the Trojan prince waits outside the safety of the walls not because of any higher principle or courage. Rather, he waits because he has made the mistake of not ushering his soldiers into the city much earlier, which would have spared countless men a grisly death at Achilles’ hands. Hector must therefore save face lest some lesser man chide him.’ –Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, in the immortal words of Yeats.

‘Before fleeing, Hector also ponders whether he should lay down his arms and attempt to strike a deal. Instead of fighting to the death, Hector considers offering Achilles not only Helen and the treasures she brought to Troy, but every last ounce of treasure in every last household in the city, effectively selling out all the Trojans instead of facing death himself. Only after deliberating over these two options does he turn to run.’

But doesn’t that make Hector more of a person, not less of a man? As Sears puts it, ‘Aren’t we all guilty of taking a stand when it’s easy and when we’re among friends, yet balk at the chance to speak out when there might be real repercussions? […] From the gut-wrenching fear and indecision in Hector’s breast, to the plaintive laments of his father, Priam, as he begs his son to come inside the city walls […] the heroes of Greek epic are terrible fodder to use to justify […] toxic masculinity.’

It seems to me that there is a current of fear raising the hackles of many men nowadays. In this age of mirror-speak, many fear not seeing what they expect. What they deserve. Every unwelcome reflection is too easily mistaken as historical revisionism –that the attribution, for example, of the relative lack of contribution of women in history, is related not to its suppression, but rather to its absence. And for many, I fear, that the recording of history has largely been the preserve of men, seems unimportant. Merely an excuse, to delegitimize the world view it wishes to espouse.

So, have I become a modern day Judas, selling out my side, if not for money, then out of weakness? Someone not ‘man’ enough to oppose the feminizing of Western culture, to speak out against political correctness –or worse, who agrees with it? I suppose the answer lies in how the question itself is framed. I do not understand the various gender divides as competitions, or as assignations of unequal resources or restricted abilities. Nor, for that matter, do I see us as equals –of course there are physical differences, different aspirations, different Weltanschauungen- but so what? Everybody is different from everybody else. We are not clones. No one is actually ‘equal’.

I think that the time has come to forget about the ever-changing definitions of equality and rejoice in what makes each of us unique. What we need to espouse is fairness –in every interaction. All the rest is poor translation.