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.’ https://theconversation.com/toxic-masculinity-fostered-by-misreadings-of-the-classics-88118 -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.

 

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The Thousand Natural Shocks

I guess I should have seen it coming, but I am a creature of an epoch that craved the security of its boundaries, liked the certainty of its labels, the comfort of knowing where things stood. I am older now, and can accept the confluence of sides. I live in the wake of new ideas.

And yet, all around me, I hear echoes of Yeats: The falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. For goodness sakes, it’s just Fashion blinking once again.

Those of us of an age, still equate unisex clothing with the guerilla military garb of Latin American rebel groups –utilitarian, egalitarian in its camouflage if not its beauty. But these are the chains of another era, born of necessity, not fashion. Once only a whisper, a different voice now sings in the ears of a youthful culture tired of the constraints of gender, impatient with being assigned a role. And while I can’t say that I follow any particular clothing style, I suspect that I conform rather closely to the stereotypes to which I was exposed at a very early age. But I realize that nobody really cares what I wear; it is perhaps enough that I don’t object if people wear each other’s clothes.

And I don’t object, although in fairness, I can’t say I’ve really noticed. These things sometimes creep up slowly, as indistinguishable as shadows on a cloudy day. In fact, I only became aware of non-discrepant dressing a while back, when I found myself scrolling absently through an article on unisex clothing as an antidote to the troubling catastrophes that leave me sleepless in the night. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/sep/04/joy-unisex-gender-neutral-clothing-john-lewis

I won’t say it was a surprise –things evolve, and clothing is certainly in the vanguard. ‘The British designer Katharine Hamnett has a long history of exploring non-gender-specific clothing […]. She says that, in the past, when women stepped on to more traditionally male sartorial territory – wearing military-inspired clothing, for instance – this “was about appropriating male power”. Now, she says, a move towards equality means women “may be feeling more comfortable with themselves”; in other words, they may have the freedom to wear what they like. (It is still far less common for men to seek out traditionally female clothing.)’ Uhmm… Yawn… I almost stopped reading at this point –I don’t know how normal people can slog their way through stuff like this.

Still, the next paragraph did manage to snag me from torpor’s edge: ‘Chloe Crowe, brand manager for Bethnals, a London-based unisex denim brand, says that when they have run pop-up shops, men and women in couples have come in and bought jeans that they can share.’ Okay, coals-to-Newcastle perhaps, but it was a candle in a dark room that kept me scrolling.

Then, something caught my eye, something that even I have noticed over the years -the frustration of seeing some patterns or styles that I fancied, only to find they were destined for the female market. This was a view from the other side, though. ‘The shirt company GFW Clothing – GFW stands for Gender Free World– has three fits, designed to fit different bodies rather than the broad terms “men” or “women”’ and Lisa Honan, co-founder of the brand online said ‘“I’d look in the men’s aisle and see great patterns and short-sleeved shirts […]” The men’s shirts, she says, didn’t fit her “because I’ve got a woman’s body. It got me thinking why is [there] a man’s aisle and a woman’s aisle, and why do you have to make that choice?”’ I don’t buy many new clothes nowadays, but Amen to that, I suppose.

One day, not so long ago, I was on a trip in a foreign city, and happened to walk past a row of brightly-coloured clothes hanging outside a store on a rack on the sidewalk. A sign above the clothes shouted Sale! 50% -or more- Off. And just like that, I fingered my way through a few of the shirts, stopping at a pale blue one that had a white linen flower sewn on the chest near the collar. In fact, the collar was what intrigued me –instead of the standard sharp angles, it was rounded off like the railings of an escalator. But its treasures didn’t stop there –the cuffs were adorned with a row of brightly coloured decorative buttons like digital fasteners all in a little row.

It was then that I noticed the eyes. And heard the mouth. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it sir?” I traced the words to a stoutly built middle-European woman standing in the door of the shop. She looked pleased, but suspicious –there was not the usual fawning of a sales rep on commission.

Embarrassed at being caught riffling through the clothes, and determined not to be pressured into buying anything, I merely smiled at her and withdrew my hand. Then, I shrugged and walked away a few steps until she disappeared through the door again. But there was something about the shirt that appealed to me so I turned around and pulled it off the rack. I think it was the little flower, to tell the truth. It seemed so… alive.  I couldn’t find the size, so I pressed the shirt against my chest like I’d seen people do to decide if it would fit. It seemed about the right size.

“Something for the missus, sir?” a now-familiar voice said softly, almost in my ear.

I turned my head suddenly and found a pair of eyes clinging to my face; I think I blushed. “No… I, uhmm, I think maybe…” I finally noticed the sign above the door, Plus One it said, and I wondered if it meant it was a two-for-one store, or something.

“I understand, sir,” she said with a big smile and what might have passed for a wink as she studied me and then let her eyes float up and down my face. “Would you like to try it on?” she added with a practiced, friendly expression and ordered her eyes closer to home base, finally satisfied with their assessment. She glanced at the rack. “I think that green one next to it would look good on you, too…”

So, it was two-for-one, I thought, happy that I’d found the rack.

“Try the blue one on first, and I’ll let you know what I think,” she said, hurrying over to one of two flimsy change room doors but found it locked. She looked at me and sighed. “You can use the other one. Some people just can’t make up their minds,” she whispered, and rolled her eyes. “That’s why they ask for my opinion.” She smiled innocently, as if she really would tell them what she thought.

I have to say that the shop had a sweet fragrance -as if someone had just shampooed themselves in a corner somewhere- and I was about to compliment her on the ambience, when the rickety door opened and a very large woman emerged. She was wearing a rather masculine-looking olive-coloured pant suit, complete with vest and a wide red necktie. It didn’t look like the stuff from the rack outside, but apart from some obvious strain on the fabric, I thought it really looked very nice on her.

“I don’t know, Helga,” she said, eyeing me suspiciously as she spoke to the saleslady. “I wonder if the colour is right for me.” She glanced my way again, obviously embarrassed.

Helga was already shaking her head, and I could see the disappointment on the large woman’s face. She really liked the outfit -and I kind of fancied it as well.

I put on my warmest smile. “I think it looks very nice on you, ma’am. The colour goes beautifully with your complexion, and I think it highlights your eyes. It’s a man’s opinion, of course…” I thought it best to issue a disclaimer.

Suddenly the woman blushed and a grin that almost split her face in half emerged. “I’ll take it, Helga!” she almost shouted, and disappeared behind the door again.

“And I’m gonna take these as well,” I said, handing them to Helga. “I don’t need to try them on… Two for one, are they?” You have to clarify these things.

Helga looked momentarily surprised but then slowly nodded. “Ever think of going into retail?”

You know, I’m beginning to think that someone like me would do very well in the burgeoning field.

A Plague on Both Your Houses

The plague –nothing conjures up death quite like that word -after all, the bubonic plague wiped out half of Europe in the 14th century. But there have been others of its ilk –and all probably caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. Although the yet-unnamed infectious agent was identified in the 1890ies by the bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin -working at the time in the Pasteur Institute on plague samples from an outbreak in Hong Kong- the name was initially misattributed… Never work for somebody really famous when you discover something important. Personally, I preferred its previous name of Pasteurella pestis because that’s the name I was first taught and I liked the alliteration. But never mind.

The plague has three different presentations, depending upon the organs infected: bubonic plague, from infection of the lymphatic system and localized as buboes (swellings of infected lymph nodes which may become necrotic and turn black in their attempt to defend the body); pneumonic plague –infection of the lungs, presumably from aerosolized droplets from coughing or the like; and the rarest and likely most fatal of the three, septicaemic plague, which is an infection of the blood stream. All are carried by fleas, which are carried by rats, which then carry them to us.

Although we tend to associate the word ‘plague’ with the infamous ‘Black Death’ of European fame -not least because of the shock value of its name, I suspect- there have been several plagues throughout history. The first was originally thought to have been as early as 430 BCE in Athens, but a study published in the journal Cell in 2015 suggests that it began long before that –about 5,353 years before, actually. But perhaps a more assimilable article that outlines the background is found in a BBC news report, also in 2015: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-34603116

‘Samples taken from the teeth of seven bodies contained traces of the bacterial infection in the Bronze Age. They also showed it had, at the time, been unable to cause the bubonic form of plague or spread through fleas – abilities it evolved later.’ You have to love this kind of information, eh?

‘In its early days, it could cause only septicaemic or pneumonic plague – which is nearly always deadly and would have been passed on by coughing. By analysing the bacterium’s genetic code through history, the researchers estimate it took until 1000 BC for plague to evolve into its more familiar form. One mutation – acquiring the ymt gene – allowed the bacterium to survive inside the hostile environment of a flea’s gut. […]Developing a separate gene, called pla, allowed the infection to penetrate different tissues and cause bubonic plague.’

But all things change, don’t they? Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold, in the unforgettable words of Yeats. And yet why would a pathogen evolve to destroy the very hosts on which it depends? Why burn the hotel…?

I suppose an easy explanation might be that of a game in which each side –host/pathogen- continually attempts to outsmart the other. More virulence in the invader leads to more defensive mechanisms in the invaded –things as overt as quarantine or antibiotics, to the more subtle, but hopefully preventative development of immune resources by vaccination or over the longer term, adaptation of endogenous immune defenses: survival of the fittest.

But for me, the intriguingly unanswered question still remains: why kill your host? Why not coexist as, say, a parasite –or even a commensal- in the gut, or create a chronic condition that might weaken the owners, but not eliminate them? Of course, some pathogens are just evolutionary dead-ends – fireworks that illuminate the sky briefly and then disappear as suddenly as they appeared, or maybe finally settle into a desk-job and plod along just under the radar. But I suppose even germs want some time on the pedestal, though. Nothing ventured, nothing gained… Ecological opportunities beg for exploitation –leave a window unlocked, and something will find it.

Of course there are other ways of making a living: attack and retreat to fight again… While not strictly analogous, I am reminded of the Champawat tiger of Nepal (and later in the Kumaon district of India) in the late 19th century. She used to attack suddenly and then disappear before anybody could do anything about her. True, she was finally shot, but not before she’d managed to kill almost 450 people in different locations and instilled fear of her return for years. Fear is like that –especially fear of what Donald Rumsfeld (a once upon a time U.S. secretary of Defence, remember?) oxymoronically called the ‘known unknowns’.

The plague has managed a similar trick over the centuries, flaring up in one region, only to hide, then reappear in a totally different region later –often much later. ‘The most recent plague epidemics have been reported in India during the first half of the 20th century, and in Vietnam during wartime in the 1960s and 1970s. Plague is now commonly found in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar, areas which now account for over 95% of reported cases (Stenseth, 2008)’ [https://www.cdc.gov/plague/history/index.html]

But, even those of us living in North America are not entirely safe -remember that Hong Kong plague that Yersin was studying in the 1890ies? A ship from there arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1899 with plague found among some stowaways, two of whom escaped and drowned in the Bay. An epidemic of plague hit San Francisco nine months later. Whether it was from them or from rats that swam ashore, is not known, but the disease has been with us ever since.

http://www.livescience.com/51792-plague-united-states.html  ‘Plague cases occur sporadically in the United States — between 1970 and 2012, an average of seven plague cases occurred yearly […] But plague cases don’t show up everywhere. Rather, most occur in rural areas in western states […] the CDC says. One reason why cases of plague are restricted to the West is that the rodent populations there carry the disease […] “Prairie dogs are one of the major rodent species that serves as a reservoir for plague, and they tend to be west of the 100th meridian” in the United States. For this reason, this line of longitude is sometimes referred to as the “plague line”.’

What, will the line stretch out to th’ crack of doom? asks Macbeth. I suspect that he would have found it fascinating that any of us would think we might be immune from history. And yet, despite all its bad press and the terrifying epithet of ‘Black Death’, plague cases in North America are rare. They can occur when people visit rural areas, says, Dr. Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Health Security, although ‘people are more likely to be infected with tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease, than plague.’

Uhmm, I’d be careful with squirrels in California, though…