Fortune’s Fool

Health –what is it? The older I get, the more I wonder what I’m supposed to feel like. Is it merely the absence of something like sickness and incapacity, or are there positive attributes, whose presence somehow summons it from the vasty deep? There are official attempts to define it of course -the 1984 WHO revised definition of health defined it as ‘the extent to which an individual or group is able to realize aspirations and satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment’- but that’s about as solid as a cloud, and as useful as a stopped clock.

No, I want to know whether, apart from having survived long enough to have a history, I am hale. I figure I get sick as much as the next person, but insofar as I can determine, I am content… And yet I realize that’s not saying very much.

Anyway, I am always amused by those who claim they never get sick, and yet are unwilling to define their terms. An article in the Guardian newspaper renewed my interest: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jan/24/secrets-of-people-who-never-get-sick?CMP=share_btn_link and it reminded me of my recent trip to New Zealand. Many of those on the plane –well, at least those sitting nearby- had personal hand-sanitizers that they would brandish from time to time like crucifixes. I felt distinctly apostate, and not a little unprotected when I dared to eat the meal unconsecrated. At least it kept the person in the next seat off my arm rest, though.

But I mention the trip because a 14 hour direct flight demands entertainment other than movies, and creates opportunities that are otherwise impractical: it allows time to design and conduct scientifically rigorous observational experiments. The possible topics are, of course, legion, but I decided to measure Health –or at least, its simulacrum –as best I could from my aisle seat, mid-plane, and in spite of an elbow that kept poking me. Would hand-sanity prevent anything, I wondered –at least in the short term? And what would that be? The sniffles? Respiratory infections? Polio?

I decided I would do a simple comparative analysis. I could measure the difference in health between the beginning of the flight (before they served the dinner) and its end (in the morning before breakfast) -with maybe a few random observations mid-flight during the enforced sleep to validate the progression towards whatever conclusions I might draw as we landed.

I had a purpose at last, I realized with a sigh as I drew some columns on the pale and rumpled surface of an air-sick bag someone had re-stuffed in that little pocket behind the seat ahead. To wit: were hand sanitizers effective disinfectants -or merely proxy-deodorants that gave the impression they were eliminating something that they were only temporarily covering up?

In the interests of adequate and representative sampling, I decided on two study groups: those who initially hand-sanitized without symptoms -no use of tissues- (i.e. initially healthy -arguing that the act of wiping or blowing was likely purposive), and of course the comparison group -the healthy control group- were those who neither sanitized, nor were startup tissuers. I accepted the occasional sneeze in this group in appreciation of the accepted wisdom that we all sneeze from time to time. I wasn’t sure what to do with polite little coughs however, so I tabulated these in each group. Horky, wet coughs, of course, I immediately assigned to the already sick group and just made sure they were not doing it around me or anything –I figured that was fair. So, any change by the end of the flight, and Nobel’s your uncle.

As the flight wore on, I began to hope that this data might well be cutting edge research -New England Journal of Medicine stuff. I was concerned, however, that during those periods of turbulence when I was unable to write, let alone judge the intricacies of tissuing (simple wiping vs full-nose clearing), data compilation might be compromised -but of course both groups would be equally affected, so I decided it would probably cancel out nicely.

I began to have some doubts again during the lights-off section of the trip, however. For some reason, the absence of light and the difficulty of individual identification seemed to engender episodes of what I can only describe as spiteful rogue coughing and camouflaged blowing –the perpetrators obviously having waited for darkness in order to remain anonymous. But fortunately, the distribution was random –indeed, stereoscopic. The initial no-blow areas seemed to be contributing as much night noise as the areas I had previously thought were affected regions –although in the dim light, and ubiquitous ambient groaning of uvular obstruction, all my previously ascertained and meticulously mapped certainty seemed to meld together into unclassifiable lumps.

I suppose the greatest disappointment, however, was with the innocuous, albeit large man seated next to me –the one who had ceded the armrest. It wasn’t so much his sleeping head constantly sliding dangerously close to mine before it mercifully underwent a miraculous gyroscopic correction, nor the gurgling that -in the absence of sufficient light- reminded me of the pebbled creek that burbled and bubbled behind my house. No, rather it was his surreptitious experiments in clandestine wiping and foxy rasping, hitherto undisclosed. Who would have thought that an experimental subject that I had, in good faith, enrolled and randomly allocated to the hand-sanitizer healthy arm, would go over to the dark side? I felt betrayed. But not only that, it made me realize just how porous my categories had become. How similar to Matryoshka dolls were even the best dressed passengers. How they will all ‘round a varnish’d tale’, as Shakespeare could have had Othello say, but didn’t.

So, in the dim, inadequate glow of floor lights, and amidst a symphony of unheralded respiratory dissonance, I decided to suspend the as-yet embryonic study before arriving at the statistically verifiable conclusions for which I had striven. And yet I suppose that with the current penchant for counting simple trends as signifiers, and given observations that were unable to reach even the firm ground of bullet points, let alone a satisfactory level of corroborable validity, I can say with words Shakespeare did write -this time for Banquo: ‘The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles.’ So, despite a bout of violent turbulence when the lights came on again, I began tabulating the trends with shaky arrows on the sick-bag until a pale-green shoeless man grabbed it as he torqued past me down the aisle.

I can therefore offer only a shadowy recollection of my findings. First: hand-sanitizers clearly do not work in the absence of light (which serves to let nearby people know you have one); second -people who only cough at night are hiding something; and finally, but even more startlingly, herd immunity becomes herd acquisition on a plane -flagrant plagiarism that begs for further studies.

Me? I didn’t resort to tissuing until the third day of my trip, and even then it was desultory –I’m really not very good at sickness. I did find that I developed an inordinate proclivity for washing my hands, though. That’s healthy isn’t it?

 

 

 

 

 

Previously Frozen

The thought occurred to me the other day that I’m in danger of becoming a Red Queen –you know, needing  to run faster and faster just to stay in the same spot. I doubt that Lewis Carroll had my particular concerns in mind, and yet there are probably many parallels with 1871 when he wrote the story. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, you simply can’t keep up with things.

To be clear, I’m not referring to anything as technical as Moore’s Law and it’s observation that things like computer technologies seem to double every 18-24 months –although that’s certainly too fast for someone my age. Nor, for that matter, can I even claim confusion about the vicissitudes of celebrities, or the vagaries of fashions –I simply can’t be bothered. And anyway, even the most cursory glance at Facebook would likely glut my already overburdened vessel –a surfeit of trifles is seldom healthy.

Except when it is. I often wonder how the important things –albethey in fine print, and sometimes far beneath the purview of the average progressive lens- escape relatively unexamined.

I’m referring, of course, to one of those items of the consumer society that we would not ordinarily include: food. Well, at least I wouldn’t have. At any rate, food slipped in unawares. I thought I knew food; I buy it, I cook it and then I eat it. I didn’t think I needed to study it as well… But when someone who did told me that a fish I kind of liked, orange roughy, was once called slimehead I nodded as if everybody knew that. I now pretend the reason I no longer buy it is that it was also deemed an at-risk species. You have to try to keep up with this stuff.

I read labels –they’re usually pretty big and tarty so they can wink at you from the shelf, but by and large, they don’t tell you much. So I usually search for the much smaller Nutrition Facts rectangle to see how many calories they say there are in one of whatever the package offers… Then I multiply it by the number I figure I’m going to need to eat to feel the effects of why I bought it in the first place. They always try to trick you unless you figure that out.

It’s the same with the Best Befores. I’ve discovered there is a difference between a Best Before, and an Expiry Date… You can die or something if you ignore the latter, whereas you’re allowed to put the former on sale a day before the date and make people think they are getting a deal. They probably won’t die. I Googled a reference to make sure: http://www.cbc.ca/1.3006858

But it’s sometimes hard to stay up to date with food things -the Previously Frozens, for example. I suppose it makes sense that if a food is properly frozen two days before its Best Before date, it should be edible for another two days at the start of the thawing process. But I can never remember when I froze it -and the labels are all covered with frost, anyway.  Definitely Red Queen material.

Of course so is my friend Brien; he has a thing with food but I’m never really sure if he’s serious about his ever-changing opinions on the topic. One moment he will wax eloquent, describing a science article he’s read on Facebook, and in the next breath, descend the staircase into some nutritional hodgepodge he’s found with clickbait. He has that unique gift of being able to hold two or three contradictory notions at the same time and understand none of them.

Take the Previously Frozens –the PFs as Brien calls them. He was sure the term just meant that since they had been frozen once, they were capable of being frozen again –that the PF acted as a kind of endorsement for the freezer, unlike, say, eggs –which are never labelled PF. Or lettuce, which he keeps in the very bottom compartment as a kind of memento mori… a reminder of the diligence required in the absence of any warning labels.

Even with the presence of warning labels, Brien is hyper-alert to the dangers of the post-truth era in which we are embedded. He suspects that False News has crept into the labelling industry as well as Facebook. It was his favourite topic for weeks, until he found a label he said he could finally trust.

I often pass his house on the way into town, and I saw him sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his tree. It was a brisk fall afternoon and the wind was mussing the needles and making the branches wave at him. Brien needs to get out more. At any rate, I thought I’d join him on the porch for a while. That’s when we started talking about the value of really knowing what we’re eating. Of actually reading the labels.

“I’ve started to eat Ancient Grains,” he said, proudly, pointing at a crumpled plastic package at his feet.

“That’s nice,” I responded, not sure what else to say. “Why?”

He looked at me through his eyebrows and slowly shook his head at my naiveté. “It’s what the Neoliths used to eat,” he replied slowly, pronouncing the unusual word carefully in case he got it wrong. When I didn’t congratulate him immediately, he seemed disappointed. “Do you even know what Ancient Grains are? What they do?”

“I’m still working on Neolith,” I said.

He rolled his eyes. “The Grains were what our ancient ancestors decided to eat…” –he hesitated briefly, obviously a bit uncertain about the really early days- “It was when they were changing from hunters into gatherers…” He glanced at Sheda for inspiration. “Anyway, the Grains were growing in a big field so they started to gather them…” He stared at my blank face briefly. “The Grains are thought to be what drove human Evolution.” He sat back in his chair, smiling like a professor who has just explained a particularly difficult concept to a rapt class. “They made us who we are,” he added, reverently.

“I thought it was meat.”

“Huh?”

“You know, the extra energy from meat is what made our brains grow. It’s why we’re so intelligent.”

Brien likes new ideas, but he seemed genuinely puzzled. He thought about it for a moment. “Then why don’t lions walk upright, eh?”

I stared at him and blinked. I had the feeling I was being led somewhere. “Uhmm…”

“Because the Grains have lots of omega-3 which wildebeest carcasses don’t,” he said smugly, confident he’d solved the mystery for me.

I have to say I didn’t know that, and picked up the crumpled package to see if that’s where he had found these words. And sure enough, as authoritatively as Wikipedia, and written in what I assume Big Agro thought would be ancient cursive, there was Brien’s argument brightly embossed beneath the label. “So, has it worked yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you evolved more intelligence?” I said, pleased at my cleverness, and put the empty package back on the floor as respectfully as I could. Unfortunately, at that moment, a gust of wind blew it over the railing before I could stop it.

Brien looked at me and mounted a wry smile. “Well,” he answered, pointing at the package now scurrying over the grass, “it never blows away when I put it down…”

 

 

 

Cultured Questions

What is acculturation? I mean really? Or, more to the point, is it necessary to acculturate to the culture which you have adopted -and how would you know if you have? A friend recently asked me what accepting a foreign culture meant and, given that it is not a word that I find myself having to use on more than a multi-annual basis, I responded with what I could remember from, well, Sociology 101, I suppose – a long time ago. “It is,” I ventured, “something like normalizing and maybe practicing some, or all, of the cultural characteristics of another group.” I figured it would be better to sprinkle my definition with equivocations in case he was trying to trap me.

He was no Socrates, however, and he seemed quite needy in his pursuit of my opinion.

“But,” he continued, focussing his eyes on my mouth for some reason, “What is culture actually?”

It felt like we were teenagers sitting around a campfire at night, solving the eternal mysteries with deeply probing questions. No, actually I felt more like St. Augustine when asked about the nature of Time : ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ I decided to be less abstruse. “Culture…” I answered slowly, choosing my words carefully “…Culture… is the sum of most of the customs, behaviours, and beliefs of a group… At a particular time.” I added, to provide myself with a loophole in case he challenged me.

But he didn’t. John was someone I had known ever since he’d moved into the neighbourhood a few years ago, and we had just joined the same checkout line at a market when I saw him. But that wasn’t when he asked me -he was too polite for that. Too embarrassed. We started out speaking banalities, the kind of things one says upon running into a friend unexpectedly. Actually, we were talking around a woman with a load of vegetables in her cart. She had a tired, housewife Vegan look about her as she examined first my purchases –steak, eggs, and a round of packaged sausages- and then John’s basket of lamb chops and some kind of cheese I didn’t recognize. I don’t think she did either, and although she did not look pleased, I decided perhaps that was because we kept darting our heads around hers to talk.

I suppose I should have let her go ahead of me, but her cart was so full, and mine so empty, that by widely accepted market etiquette, it would have been neither reasonable nor was I likely to let her. In fact, now that she knew what John had, she should have stepped aside and let him pass. But I could see by her eyes that it would only happen over her dead body. So, as I see it, she deserved our ocular peregrinations.

It was only when we had left the store and passed the woman who was glaring at us from the doorway, that John dared the questions about culture.

At first he merely shrugged, at my answers, glancing nervously over his shoulder at the woman, but as the distance increased, he relaxed a little. “Do you know that lady?” he finally asked, his face serious and his expression concerned.

I looked back at her; she was still staring at us. I shrugged. “Never seen her before. Why?”

He sighed and then shook his head. “She came over to me at the meat counter.”

I waited for him to continue, but it seemed too painful for him, so I probed. “Did you get the last lamb chops, or something?” I immediately regretted making a joke of his discomfort.

He shook his head, obviously trying to remember. “No… She just stared at me.” His eyes jumped onto my face for a moment before flying home.

John is of Middle Eastern extraction -a tailor back home, I think- and looks perpetually tanned, even in the dead of winter. He is unusually tall, with curly black hair, but apart from his height, the most striking feature about him is his eyes. Brown, curious, and constantly asking questions, they seem like couriers, homing pigeons, always busy carrying messages to and fro. And he was usually smiling, like he was glad to be alive.

“I thought maybe I’d dropped something and she was returning it, but when I looked at her, she just stared at me with accusing eyes that seemed to crawl over my face, then slide down my body.

“She followed me over to the deli section and watched me look for cheese. I was trying to find some variety of the Shanklish we used to get back home… They sometimes have a version of it here.” he explained, when I looked puzzled.

“You’ll have to do better than that, John,” I said and then chuckled. “What is Shaklish?”

“Shanklish,” he corrected me. “It’s a cheese made from sheep or even cow’s milk… They make it into little balls to age,” he explained. “Smells, terrible to most people over here, even though it has a nice mild taste…”

“So, why was she…?” I didn’t know what he thought, so it was hard to frame a question.

He sighed deeply and stopped. “At first I thought maybe she was just curious about me or something.” He smiled and suddenly held his head high. “I am rather tall, you’ll have to admit.”

I nodded. He usually stooped when he was around shorter people -so he could see their eyes more easily, I suppose.

“But I could hear her whispering –hissing, almost.”

I had to look up at him, so he stooped a little again. “Whispering what…?”

He shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter, but I could tell it did. “Well, I couldn’t actually hear –whispering isn’t supposed to carry, is it? That’s why it can be rude…” A weak, forced smile appeared on his lips. “But I distinctly heard ‘You people!’ and then ‘culture’ or something -I couldn’t be sure. She sounded really angry.

“What did I do?” he said in an anguished voice, his shoulders slowly sagging.

I watched his suffering with sad eyes that I soon withdrew and confined them, instead, to the sidewalk. His agony was too immediate. Too real. I was going to mention that the woman wasn’t pleased with me either, but his face told me not to. That I could never know. Could never stand in his shoes… Not here.