Back to (Ab)Normal

So we’ve had International Women’s Day and other celebrations of the normally uncelebrated major part of humankind, the brouhaha is over, it’s non-alcoholic hangover time, and I find myself haunted by the unlovely word “misogyny”, meaning hatred of women. That sounds too harsh; to me it can mean a wide range of milder negative feelings and possible put-downs, for instance appreciating a new achievement but minimizing the role of the woman behind it.

A perfect example of this comes from the obituary of a Russian-American woman, Evelyn Berezin, who died recently at the age of 93. The obituary credits her with having changed office life forever by inventing and launching the first word processor in 1971, freeing millions of secretaries and copy typists from retyping whole documents because of a few small errors. Eventually it also swept away most of their jobs, as an unexpected side effect that Berezin deeply regretted.

Her photograph shows a plain, slightly overweight smiling woman at her keyboard, friendly but forgettable. Her achievements are all the more memorable: in the 1950s she became the only woman in the team of engineers working for the US Defence Department, and later produced a series of new sophisticated computerised systems. In 1960 she began work on the word processor and created a machine that she called the Data Secretary. From there on her career moved from one dazzling result to the next, and her company grew from having nine employees to 500. No need to spell out her other achievements –

Or is there? Not that it would do much for her. The obituary ends with these words:

While her role in the digital revolution has not been much recognised, her machine, the Data Secretary is on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.,”

It’s idle to wonder whether her role in the digital revolution would have been more recognised if she had been a man;  at least, unlike her memory, her machine has a safe future in a museum.

“It’s difficult not to write a satire”, wrote Horace  in Rome in the first century BCE.

Quite so.

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Shrink, shrank, shrunk

Now that’s a promising subject to research, or – less pompously – to ponder: the phenomenon of shrinking, both individually and collectively. Consider how old ladies are automatically qualified as “little”, yet that’s not how they’ve always been. Blame the shrinking of their intervertebral discs (“a layer of cartilage separating adjacent vertebrae in the spine”) which starts some time around fifty, with wide individual variations. It’s a quiet, insidious process, leading to major changes. For women, their midi skirts gradually become maxis, and the opening and shutting of windows and cupboard doors above a certain height grow more strenuous. Men don’t escape, either: “I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled,” laments J. Alfred Prufrock in T.S.Eliot’s great poem in which the discs, although not mentioned, play a role in the sad hero’s “Love Song”.

One’s area of mobility also shrinks. I’m full of admiration for intrepid people of advanced age who undertake highly uncomfortable journeys for no commanding reason, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Looking up at an airliner flying over my garden where I am sweeping up leaves, I recall the many occasions when I went off at short notice to Sri Lanka, the Yang-Tse or Reykjavik, just so, because I felt like it;  yes, it was fun, and cheap air travel has certainly shrunk the world, but now I’m happy to spend time sitting on a riverside bench and watching the Thames flow by. What with gulls, moorhens, acrobatic gulls and the occasional haughty swan, there’s plenty to see.

Less pleasurably, one’s circle of friends also shrinks. Some die, others move to the country and become rare visitors. To make up for these losses, e-mail and Skype bring closer some far-flung friends and acquaintances, although not with the closeness of a real face-to-face meeting. Ah, but “that was then. this is now”, I remind myself, applying this irrefutable antidote to fruitless nostalgia.

Yet it’s not all shrinkage and loss. Far from it. What expands is one’s ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, one’s true values from some trendy rubbish; to laugh at one’s own idiocies and accept those of others with a friendly shrug. To become flexible rather than rigid and not start sentences with “I always…” or “I never…”Quite a lesson to learn rather late in life, but – what’s the hurry, anyway? One’s individual future may seem rather brief, but it can be full of goodies.

One more thing that is expanding very slowly and gently is the distance between my front door and the corner shop.

 

Going, going, gone

There is nothing like an old address book to demonstrate the impermanent nature of most things. According to a wise Hindu saying, “The world is a bridge, cross it but build no house on it”, yet a longing for permanence is part of human nature,  and hence a guarantee of disappointment. My address book is barely ten years old, yet turning its pages is like looking at an old battlefield full of casualties, namely crossed out entries, corrections, additions and a few mysterious squiggles which must have meant something when I made them but don’t do so any more.

Some deletions are tinged with sadness: a cross on the margin means a death. Others refer to the ending of an old  friendship or a disappointment in a new acquaintance who seemed fine at first but then proved to be the opposite. Each one evokes a  story complete in itself and makes me wonder about the functioning of memory: why does it preserve unimportant details with crystalline clarity but refuses to produce their important framework? The French refer to “un trou dans la mémoire”, a hole in the memory (which is probably bottomless), and that’s as good a metaphor as you can wish for.

A friend of mine has a charming fantasy about her brain: it’s a big hall full of filing cabinets chock-a-block with knowledge, all precisely sorted and referenced, and there is a little man rushing around at lightning speed, producing the correct file which the owner of the brain needs in order to recall a particular memory. It’s all beautifully organised and highly efficient, but in the course of time the little man begins to age, he loses speed and sometimes puts stuff into the wrong file or even loses half of it, causing the owner of the brain much frustration. Now that’s a fantasy I can wholeheartedly share.

There are some puzzling entries in this modest spiral-bound address book, the names and particulars of  people whom I cannot identify for love or money, but who must have seemed important enough to be recorded for future reference. Do my name and data suffer the same fate in other address books? Who is this person in Nicosia, in the Algarve or in an unpronounceable Polish town whose name consists of nothing but consonants, whom I can’t remember but at one time intended to contact? Search me.

Oh, never mind. There are the others, close friends, dear people who don’t move house for decades, who keep their mobile numbers and e-mail addresses unchanged and represent a kind of permanence in this shifting world. As a matter of fact I know their data by heart, but it’s good to have them anchored in writing, just in case that hole in my memory grows a bit bigger. Beyond a certain degree of maturity (no, there are no old women, only mature beauties) one needs the mental equivalent of belt and braces.

I take enormous care of my address book. It’s got to last as long as I do. Once I’ve moved on, leaving no forwarding address, I hope it’ll end up in a recycling box, not in a rubbish bin – although by then even that won’t matter very much. But now just let me marvel at exotic passwords and wonder whether a close friend will ever stop moving residence, forcing me to record her new addresses over the best part of a page.

It’s all good fun, with a gentle philosophical undertone. Just enough to remind me to cross the bridge but build no house on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tut-tut, CRUK!

CRUK stands for Cancer Research UK, and it’s a widely known charity with shops in many High Streets all over the land. I have mixed feelings about its negative attitude towards alternative therapies, but then, as a semi-official body, it obviously has to toe the conventional line of cancer medicine. And that’s a pity, because medicine is supposed to be a science, and the motive force of any kind of worthwhile science should be curiosity, the quality Einstein warned us never to lose, the kind of unbiased sharp curiosity that asks “What if…?” and doesn’t tire of looking for an answer. In view of the dismal global cancer statistics, any promising alternative approach should be researched and tested, instead of dismissed sight unseen. (Having myself recovered from Stage 4 metastasized malignant melanoma 35 years ago on a nutrition-based alternative therapy, I know what I am talking about. But that’s another story.)

However, right now what I object to is CRUK’s choice of slogans. To put it mildly, they are inept. “Against breast cancer” is one of them, combined with a pink ribbon to wear on your lapel. Against, sure —- is anybody for it? You might just as well be “Against climate change” or “Against knife crime” for all the good it’ll do. The other daft slogan invites us to “Beat cancer sooner”. Sooner than what? Is there a deadline for the ultimate victory? Based on what? Why don’t they tell us?  And that’s not all: the imagery used on some posters is also worrying. I remember with distaste a photo of a scientist in a white coat  intently gazing into a microscope in his laboratory, while next to him stands a woman in an overcoat, holding an armful of second-hand clothes presumably donated to the charity. Not exactly hygienic, to say the least, but at last  something real to be against.

However, what preoccupies me at the moment is what I heard recently in a radio news bulletin, namely that according to some researchers the growing incidence of male breast cancer might be linked to more men using deodorants and antiperspirants. Of course  women have been using the same products for a long time and yes, there is plenty of breast cancer among the female population, so that’s worth pondering.  After all, deodorants are applied to the underarm area which is full of lymph nodes, so that anything toxic is promptly absorbed, so near to the sensitive breast tissue. This was truly alarming.  I immediately moved to CRUK’s web page and found, among many things, the following: “2006-03-10-little-scientific-link-between-deodorant-and-cancer-says-cancer-research-uk”. The inveterate researcher in me wanted more details – how “little” is that scientific link, for instance? who funded the research? did the researchers have any connection to the cosmetics industry? – but when I found another link, promising information on “causes-of-cancer/cosmetics-and-toiletries#” and clicked on it, up came the reply:  “Sorry – the page you are looking for can’t be found.”  That seemed odd. I would have expected CRUK, recipient of huge donations and great public support, to be better organised. Or maybe somebody wasn’t looking very hard for the answer?

Undeterred, I went over to “http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/”, only to be fobbed off with “This page can’t be displayed.” Really? Well then, where on earth can a bona fide interested party get some reliable information about a topic that concerns us all?

Clearly, not from the obvious source. I have long felt that acquiring knowledge must be a grassroots effort, largely individual, but hopefully becoming a spontaneous group effort, so that the more of us ask the right questions, the greater the chance of getting the right answers.

Sorry, CRUK, the way things are at present,  I am not impressed. In return, don’t be surprised if I stonily ignore your innumerable demands for donations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks, thumb!

I was chopping vegetables when the knife slipped and made a small but deep gash in the top of my right thumb. Quick action: disinfect, slap on sterile plaster, cover with waterproof finger stall, carry on cooking. Except that without my invalid thumb which responded with sharp pain to the slightest touch, things had become rather difficult. Didn’t know thumbs were so important, I thought, but then of course,  monkeys and apes apart, only we humans have thumbs we can bend across our palm, enabling us to hold things, write, paint, cook and carry out innumerable tasks from vegetable chopping to the finest art work. One might claim that without the human thumb civilization would still wait to be established, since  all  other members of the animal kingdom have to use their paws, claws, teeth, beaks and tentacles to cope with infinitely simpler tasks.

To spare my sick thumb I started using my left hand and was embarrassed by its clumsiness. But then it has never had a good press. The left-hand path is that of black magic. Less ominously, when I was a child and broke or dropped something, my mother invariably accused me of having two left hands. Now I just wanted a single competent one, even if I had to bring it up to – ouch – scratch. But how?

Minimal research yielded plenty of advice. I was to draw simple shapes – circles, triangles, squares – with my left hand, then write down the alphabet with both small and capital letters. Wear my watch on my right wrist for two weeks. Throw and catch a table tennis ball with my left hand, and finally  use a tin opener and a corkscrew with same. To master these skills was to yield the additional bonus of simulating my imagination and creativity, since hands and brain hemispheres are diagonally connected, and the dictatorship of right-hand-left-brain needs to come to an end.

Oh dear. What I wrote with my left hand might have been the work of a young monkey with learning difficulties. To cheer myself up, I moved my watch to my right wrist –  but invariably looked at the left one every time I wanted to check the time. As for using a tin opener with my left hand, I didn’t even try after attempting to peel an apple with same: the apple won with ease – or should I say hands down…

Back to theory, the last refuge of the impractical. I discovered that nearly 80% of humanity is right-handed, the rest left-handed, except for a tiny minority that is ambidextrous. And this isn’t exactly new: on the skeletons of our remotest ancestors the right shoulder and arm are always stronger than the left, suggesting that the cavemen threw their lance or boulder from that side. Even language confirms this distinction: “right” is positive in its several meanings, while left is negative. This is especially true in Arab countries where the left hand deals with physical functions and therefore is regarded as unclean.

I was beginning to feel sorry for my left hand. As if it weren’t enough that it can’t write properly or catch a ball, it’s also supposed to be inferior. But then, by way of instant consolation I found a new report claiming that the number of left-handed people is growing rapidly and many of them are outstandingly gifted, successful people. Perhaps, as usual, Nature will have the last word, and if the proportion of enviable left-handers increases sufficiently, their reputation will also improve.

What a wide horizon has opened up over and beyond my chopping board!  The temporary uselessness of my sore thumb notwithstanding,  sometimes it’s quite rewarding for the kitchen knife to slip.

 

 

DIY – or rather not?

I have a soft spot for Google. The very name is endearing – to me at least it smacks of the nursery, belonging to a slightly battered  favourite toy. More importantly, the programme itself is the greatest ever time-saver and tracker of references, providing information for which in pre-Google days (feels like the last Ice Age) one had to traipse to the reference section of the nearest Public Library and painstakingly dig out the needed data. So I follow all news concerning Google with interest, which is how I came across the following information (quoting from memory):

Google’s voice-activated Assistant Duplex can carry out entire phone conversations by itself. This technology has been worked on for many years and is still being developed, to help consumers do daily tasks, such as booking hair appointments or making restaurant reservations.

Eh? But surely consumers have been coping with those tasks ever since hairdressers and restaurants have existed, or more precisely since we’ve had telephones. What difference will it make whether I or Duplex books my much-needed hairdo? Actually Duplex could make a total mess of this simple task, as – unlike I – it can’t check other entries in my diary. The whole idea is a no-brainer, and to hear that many years of hard work have been invested in its development sounds depressing. “Mountains are in labour, a ridiculous small mouse will be born,” Horace wrote over 2000 years ago, and a better metaphor could hardly be found. Are there no other tasks for our awesome technological skills to carry out?

But perhaps I should scrutinize the true motivation behind the invention of Duplex. And the first thing that springs to mind is that according to C.G.Jung, the human being’s greatest passion is idleness. Now it’s safe to assume that Jung knew what he was talking about, but even so his view is confirmed by a somewhat downbeat text I once saw in a collection of international folk wisdom:

“It’s better to sit than to stand, better to lie down than to sit, better to sleep than just lie down, better to be dead than just asleep.” Well, that seems a trifle drastic and we can safely ignore it. What remains is the lasting love of idleness – workaholics, please stop reading – and its immediate result: the need to find someone or something that’ll do the necessary work instead of us. To achieve that should be enough for the average idler, but there’s the added pleasure of superiority, of having Duplex – or Alexa or the increasing army of electronic slaves – to do our bidding.
The more I ponder this, the less attractive we people sound, even if having electronic slaves instead of human ones sounds a great improvement. Also, the principle of “use it or lose it” chimes in a warning. Just imagine, if we gradually transferred all useful activities to Duplex-style electronic assistants , becoming unskilled in the process, and one day the global supply of electricity would run out (as we are told it will ), we would quickly perish from sheer helplessness. Which might be a chance for the Duplex lot, boosted by Artificial Intelligence, to take charge of the world.
But hang on! All that passivity and idleness is only half the story.  Put against it the lasting popularity of DIY in home and garden, the innumerable brave and often calamitous attempts to make one’s personal world a better place, and the gloom begins to rise. Personally I’m immune to any such ambition but still  remember my amazement when a highly erudite friend boasted to me of his greatest ever achievement – replacing some cracked tiles in his bathroom. The way he sounded, he might have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Perhaps it’s time for me to revise my set of values.
So here we are, passionately idle and passive on the one hand and hyperactive and creative on the other. No advanced version of Duplex will ever combine those two opposites. We are a crazy mixed-up lot, and I just love it.

 

Beware of the Glass Floor

“Upskirting” is the latest addition to the English language, proving its ability to  condense a complicated process into one snappy word. It means nothing less than “taking a photo of underneath a person’s skirt without their consent, often in public places”. The official definition gains extra gravitas from the added warning, “This can cause emotional distress for a long time after it has happened”. Well, there is an alternative to distress. Surely if an ill-advised male came sufficiently close to me to commit this idiotic act, he would also be close enough for me to kick him into flight. No, I’m not a brutal amazon, just an ordinary female getting tired of  women complaining when they could take positive action.

I know what I am talking about. Many years ago one fine summer evening around 8 p.m. I was walking home in a respectable part of  West London when a man leapt out from behind a tall garden wall and dragged me into the garden. He was Scottish, he was very drunk, and he kept muttering about the so-and-so who’d done him wrong, all of which made my prospects dim. So I talked to him and maintained eye contact, as instructed by self-help manuals, until he began to cry and asked me to take him to the police station. This, I felt, was not my job and ran home fast.

The next day I enrolled at a self-defence class for women. There were ten of us of all ages and sizes and the instructor was a very capable girl. I was paired with a six-foot-tall Frenchwoman who lifted and swung me over her shoulder as if I had been a shawl. We went on for a few weeks, but then the group shrank until it was no longer viable and the few remaining members were offered to train with a men’s group. Three of us volunteered. The men treated us with the utmost tenderness; for the only time in my life I felt like a piece of priceless china; this also meant that we didn’t learn any self-defence skills, and that was the end of that. Nowadays I carry a little alarm gadget that utters a sound as shrill as a police siren. I fear its effects on my hearing, never mind that of my attacker.

Upskirting is an illegal offence in Scotland, not in England or Wales, but likely to become so under the heading of voyeurism or indecency. And so it should be. There are enough camera phones around to justify a little censorship. Anyway, this seems to be a camera-mad time, with selfies spreading like an epidemic and highly resistible family photos trailing every other e-mail. However, I’ve just come across a story from the 10th century BCE which cheered me up enormously, because it shows that a version of  upskirting was practised already then, moreover by the wisest and most powerful of men, namely King Solomon himself.

When a visit from the Queen of Sheba was due, Solomon had a glass floor laid from the entrance to his throne. The Queen mistook the glass for water and lifted the hem of her dress, uncovering her legs which, to Solomon’s consternation, were as hairy as that of a goat; worse still, the Queen had one normal foot and one goat’s hoof. Solomon actually reprimanded his visitor for this anomaly; this, to my mind, was not only unwise but very rude and unfeeling as well. All right, Solomon had up to 20 main wives and 80 to 100 secondary wives, numbers which obviously lowered the value of women, but surely a visiting Queen should have received special treatment.

However, I shouldn’t have worried, because despite all the above in due course the Queen of Sheba gave birth to Solomon’s son, called Menelik, which means “son of the Wise”. So this 3000-year-old ancient scandal of the upskirting glass floor ultimately led to a happy outcome.

Of course these days women have to worry about the glass ceiling, not the glass floor.  But that’s another story.