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Archive for the ‘The Odyssey of Life’ Category

In attempting to explain the world to my two and a half year-old son, I have come to realise that human artifacts are divided into two very simple categories: “Tools” and “Toys.” It all seems rather obvious when you consider that things are either designed to enable one to complete a task, or simply to be played with for the sake of pleasure. These categories are by no means exclusive and, if one were to create a Venn diagram representing human artifacts, there would be a great number of items which shared the space where the circles overlapped; at least with regard to how they are employed.

The Oxford English dictionary defines a tool as “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function.” This seems a pretty sound definition, although we shouldn’t be too swayed by the use of “especially” into thinking that things not held in the hand are not actually tools. After all, considering this more broadly, we might categorise a table or chair as a tool, in that they allow one to carry out a particular function – whether it be sitting and eating dinner or standing upon either of them to change a light-bulb. Approaching the problem from this perspective brings almost anything that is useful under the same very large golfing umbrella. A car is a tool for carrying things, including oneself, between places; a book is a tool for conveying information; a towel is a tool for drying oneself, and so on. If it isn’t designed purely for pleasure and serves a functional purpose, then surely we might consider it to be a tool.

Toys, on the other hand, are defined as “an object for a child to play with, typically a model or miniature replica of something.” While the definition of a toy as something to play with seems right enough, I strongly dispute the rather limiting idea that they are merely for children. Irrespective of this, a toy ought to have no functional purpose beyond pleasure and play. A toy car, for example, isn’t much use for anything beyond the recreational, although I’m certain it could be used in a more functional manner under the right circumstances. Equally, one might say that a teddy bear cannot be classified as a tool, unless we wish to be very open-minded in our consideration of all possible situations and imagine that it might serve as a pillow, insulation, or, under extreme circumstances, a weapon. We might also define a teddy bear as a tool for helping get a child to sleep, but this does seem rather to push the reasonable boundaries of the definition. Either way, if we apply these broad definitions to such artifacts, then one can see that pretty well all objects are either tools or toys.

Of course it is possible to play with almost anything at all, whatever its original purpose, which is precisely why I have come to this realisation in the first place. My son far prefers to play with things that aren’t toys most of the time; screwdrivers, knives, kitchen sprays, drills, lighters, scissors, shampoo bottles and the like. Of course, it is the dangerous things that are most attractive to him, largely because they are interesting objects, but mostly, I suspect, because we constantly tell him that he shouldn’t be playing with these things and frequently confiscate them from his hot little hands. I have now become so boring about this whole business that he even repeats the mantra of “it’s not a toy, it’s a tool”, without in any way changing his behaviour. Yet, in being forced to define things in this way, the world has become quite sharply divided, not so much into things which are tools or toys, but into things which ought to be played with and which ought not to be played with. The degree of subjectivity one might bring to this is mindboggling, and I do harbour more than a little reluctance in suggesting, for example, that one can’t have a good time with a hammer. For my son’s sake however, perhaps I should be pleased that while he is successfully learning the categorical boundaries, this is not in any way limiting his desire to play with things that are not toys. It’s a tough one; I don’t want to stifle his creativity, but, as the Easter Road Toll song says “Fingers don’t grow back,” and I’d like him to reach adulthood physically intact.

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Considering his fascination with monsters, tunnels and dark places, I imagine that if we left our son Magnus to his own devices he’d probably develop a rich mythology, even a religion, within a few years. It is impossible to truly grasp what it is that he is thinking when he talks of these things, but the reverence, awe and fear with which he regards them exhibits the attribution of agency to natural phenomena that underlies our rather sorry invention of religion and superstition.

Recently his focus has shifted significantly to an obsession with tools and machines, which are his favourite objects and, more often than not, playthings. He certainly enjoys playing with toy cars, trucks and animals, but these are almost invariably trumped by a desire to play with or impersonate screw-drivers, Allen keys, drills, saws, scrapers, trowels, air blowers, chainsaws and whipper-snippers. Every day he begs us repeatedly to play with my tools, of which I own but a few and which, if such a wish is granted, leads to him making a buzzing, whirring, sawing or grinding noise, while pretending to fix things about the house.

His favourite “book” at the moment is a hardware catalogue from Mitre 10, which he flips through repeatedly while naming all the tools. On a recent morning, I took him for a walk through the wonderfully overgrown Newtown Cemetery before proceeding to the hardware store to look at tools, and now, having associated these two things, he asks me daily if I will take him “to the cemetery to look at the tools.” On a second visit to the hardware store, we were approached by a member of staff who quizzed him about the names of things, and Magnus was able to answer every question with impressive accuracy. I was especially proud of his response “that’s a measuring tape” when presented with arguably the most challenging question of them all; his use of the more formal title seemed to surprise his questioner considerably.

At the moment our house is undergoing renovations and we have been fortunate in staying at a friend’s house which is presently vacant. Initially Magnus was desperate to return home – as one might expect – but now he only really wants to go there to see the huge array of tools being used by the builders. “That’s an electric saw. That’s an electric drill…” It is almost impossible to stop him from trying to pick them up and examine them or play with them, and hence something of a concern with regards to his safety. At home, he likes to play with knives at every opportunity, which he sees as just another tool, and so these must all be kept high up out of his reach in the cupboards above the stove. His obsession with tools is such that he gets upset if we don’t stop outside the window of the crappy pawn shop on the corner of King Street, where a rather moribund collection of dusty and rusty screw-drivers is on offer. For him it is like visiting a shrine and, having made his obeisance, he is content to move on.

Were he to elevate his obsession into a religion, then I suspect that the chief deity in his pantheon would be a vacuum cleaner. Whenever he hears one, sees one, hears something that sounds like one, or sees anything remotely vacuum-cleaner shaped, he becomes immensely excited. Once, watching a TV show, in which a vacuum cleaner appeared very briefly, he spent the entire next ten minutes asking “Where is the vacuum cleaner? Where is the vacuum cleaner?” With his limited understanding of narrative, it might as well have been the protagonist. Nothing else mattered.

While vacuum cleaners might sit at the top of the pantheon, any kind of machine that cuts, digs, chops, sands or hammers comes close in status and respect. Recently the whipper-snipper came into vogue after a trip to a public park in Marrickville where the council were maintaining the lawns. Magnus uses the verb “need” in place of “use,” and, consequently, after witnessing the whipper snipper in action, he kept repeating: “Man is needing whipper-snipper. Man needs whipper-snipper.” From that day forth the whipper-snipper has featured regularly in his games. He will pick up anything, however unlike a whipper snipper it may appear, and walk around making a sawing sound whilst intoning “I cutting the walls” and “I cleaning the leaves.” He refers to my mother’s travel hairbrush as a  “whipper-snipper” and asks her for it almost immediately when she visits.

One very positive upshot of his obsession is that he loves the idea of cleaning things. Despite being far better at making a mess than cleaning up after himself, whenever any liquid is spilled on the ground, he heads for the bottom drawer in the kitchen to grab a tea-towel or swab and tries to join in the efforts to dry the floor. Upon every visit we make to the local supermarket, he wriggles out of my arms and runs towards the aisle with all the cleaning products, grabbing either a “sprinker” (his word for a cleaning spray) or one of the mops and brooms hanging from the rack. He will then proceed to clean the floor in the supermarket, leaving me little choice but to humour him or else risk a meltdown and tantrum that is best avoided. We can only hope that this obsession with and willingness to clean carries on throughout his youth, not merely because we’d like him to help around the house, but because recent studies have shown a close correlation between doing household chores during childhood and being successful in life. If his behaviour so far is anything to go on, then it looks as though he will be a very successful person indeed.

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My son Magnus is obsessed with “storm thunder”. Ever since he was first really conscious of thunderstorms, they have seemed fascinating and intimidating to him.

In the early days of his flowering awareness of the world, we went through a spell without any thunderstorms at all. It was not until he was already a relatively advanced little being that a particularly violent one struck. Quite naturally, he was terrified.

We were putting him to bed when the storm began. The low rumbles on the horizon hadn’t yet caught his attention, but when a very loud and much closer crack resounded, he was terribly startled and began to whimper.

“It’s okay, mate, it’s just a thunderstorm. That’s the sound of thunder.”

His face was distorted in a frozen cry of fear. Then, slowly, in a frightened staccato plea, he said, “No. More. Storm. Thunder.”

“No. More. Storm. Thunder.”

He repeated this several times, standing at the side of his wooden cot, arms resting on the frame, hands held by his parents. The poor little bugger was shaking and tears welled in the corners of his eyes.

“It can’t hurt you, little mate. You’re safe in here.”

His mouth curled in despair. It seemed as though all was lost.

“No more storm thunder.”

Since that night storm thunder has almost perennially been in his thoughts. Every day, when a plane flies over, he says: “Sounds like storm thunder.” When a heavy truck bangs its weight in a pothole, he says: “Sounds like storm thunder.”

At some point, on a daily basis, when he is walking around the house, or running around the play park, he will say “Don’t be scared storm thunder. Don’t be scared storm thunder.” He is reassuring himself; a personal reminder that loud noises are not necessarily a problem. On account of his pronunciation, however, it comes out rather more like “Donkey scared storm thunder,” giving his mild anxiety a humorous note.

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At night our kitchen is ruled by slugs. They start coming in around ten PM and spread out across the rooms downstairs. They come in droves; twenty, thirty, maybe forty slugs or more, some bigger than a middle finger, others smaller than a pinkie. One must tread very carefully when using the downstairs bathroom or foraging for a midnight snack. In the darkened loungeroom, if something is needed, it is best left until morning or risk the nauseating squishiness of a slug exploding underfoot.

In the early morning the slugs make their way home and by sunrise most have left. A few stragglers cruise slowly around the skirting boards and slide under the door during breakfast, late night revellers after a long and fruitful crawl.

Their principal food source is my two-year old son, Magnus. Since he was big enough to start dropping food everywhere, the slug population has exploded. Of course, we sweep and wipe pick things up all day long, but with the sheer volume of stuff that gets distributed around the house, sufficient makes it through to keep the slugs coming.

Magnus, with his flourishing vocabulary, though still unable to pronounce Ls, calls them “Sgusting shugs”. He is excited by their presence and comments often on their size:

“Ooh that’s a big one!”

“Just a baby shug.”

He is sensible about not touching the slugs, though he often hovers over them with mischievous intent. Those that are particularly in danger of being stepped on, we pick up carefully and put outside. Keen to help on this front, Magnus often goes straight to the cutlery drawer and grabs a teaspoon when he spots a stray one in the middle of the floor.

The slugs have clearly made a big impression on Magnus, as have most of the local fauna. Whether it is beetles, spiders, butterflies, moths or “hiding lizards” he is overcome with excitement at any sighting. Just a week ago, in the wake of great storms, we found a frog in the rain-filled inflatable pool in the garden. When I prodded gently it to see if it was alive, it darted off through the water, running circles round the rim of the pool. Magnus was so excited that I had to take him back into the house. In his enthusiasm to make it swim, he nearly whacked the frog with a stick. Fortunately, for its own sake, by the following morning, the frog had moved on.

Magnus especially loves butterflies and has a poster from the Australian Museum on his wall filled with green, blue, orange, red, yellow and black butterflies. He frequently stands and studies this, and, as with the slugs, remarks upon their size or colour.

“That’s a blue one!”

“Very big butterfly.”

One night recently, when Magnus awoke crying, his mother went in to see what was the matter. Sitting up in his cot, reaching out for a comforting hug, he cried “Sgusting butterfly!”

While he had seemed in distress in initially, now that his mama was present, he shifted into a more enthusiastic mood. “Sgusting butterfly,” he repeated, unable or unwilling to articulate more. “Sgusting butterfly.”

The idea that Magnus should find butterflies disgusting seems at odds with his love of them, and he must have had a nightmare of sorts. The following day he mentioned the “sgusting butterfly” several times and has continued to talk about it since. Just last night he awoke in the early hours, clearly distressed. When we entered his room, he was standing in his cot saying “sgusting, sgusting!” No doubt the lingering impression of another such dream.

Though Magnus is naturally upset at this recurring nightmare, V and I are also excited about getting this rare glimpse into his imagination. His thoughts are certainly on display much of the time as, like most children, he offers a running commentary on all his play activities. Most of the time, however, his imaginations on this score seem more mundane.

“Car car going the shops get milky.”

“Horsey fall down in the water.”

The sgusting butterfly is something else altogether.

Lying on the couch one morning, I tried to visualise this dream of his and found myself imagining a giant slug with butterfly wings. Perhaps this is what he saw that night, some strange agglomeration of these two very different creatures that are ever-present in his life. Did the Sgusting Butterfly monster him? Did it chase him? Did it speak? Did it take him by the hand and lead him to the promised land? Who knows. Yet we will forever cherish this unique, if somewhat unsettling window into his young mind.

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Tunnel Dark

All toddlers have their own highly idiomatic and original way of speaking, and my son Magnus is no exception. From the very first time he said “dog” – his first word – we have eagerly watched every slow but sure step in the process of language acquisition. When he first began to learn the names of things, however mispronounced they were, it opened the door to many rewarding, if still frustrating exchanges. “Milky,” “Mama,” “Dadda,” “Miaow miaow,” “Car car,” “Bottle,” “Bathy,” “Beddy” – his vocabulary inevitably reflected his context and the daily needs and simple pleasures around which his life revolved. Being able to name things meant he could request them, just as we could more easily offer them and gain his enthusiasm for the thing.

It was curious to note how, without prompting, Magnus developed the common tendency of saying the name of each thing twice in a row or adding an “ie / y” ending to words, particularly if the word only had one syllable. It took until he was perhaps eighteen months old before he really began to string two different words together to link nouns with verbs, for example, or to attach adjectives: “Mama gone,” “Dadda running shoes,” “Big building,” “Yummy dinner,” – as modest as this progress might seem, having doing the hard slog with a complete linguistic newbie, this conceptual leap was extraordinary to behold and it is nigh impossible to convey the excitement we felt at his expanding ability to interact with us and the world.

In many ways the advancement of his language has moved in close relation to his increasing mobility and dexterity. As one might expect, the greater his ability to negotiate and navigate the world, the greater his sense of ownership and mastery over it, the greater his capacity to handle, manipulate, reach and examine objects, so his vocabulary has grown. In recent weeks, being taller and longer legged and able to step up whole stairs without leaning on the walls or holding the bannister, being able to run with real speed and accuracy in his strides, his language has taken even greater leaps forward. It was perhaps only four or five months ago, in the weeks before his second birthday, that he began to construct entire sentences which again opened a whole new level of communication. “Where is it?” “What are we doing?” “Where mama gone?” “Going to beachie?” “Many big buildings down the city,” (he always says “down the city”). The satisfaction from these exchanges seems almost exponentially greater than that which came before, because it meant that at last I could really explain things to him. Now I can say such things as, “Today dadda has to go to work, so Granny-ma is coming over after your sleep and she will take you to see the boys ,” and he will understand me. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he likes what I tell him! He hates it when I go to work, for example, which is funny considering I feel exactly the same way about it. Indeed, his sense of separation anxiety seemed to increase with his ability to communicate his dissatisfaction.

One of his favourite expressions is “tunnel dark”, which, as you might imagine, is pretty contextual. Whenever we go through a tunnel in the car; whenever he sees one, either in life or on television; when he looks under the coffee table or couch; when he crawls under pillows or beneath the bedsheets, and whenever we are in the bath and my legs are arched so that a sort of cove has formed in the dark, bath-sloshed space beneath, he says “Tunnel dark.”

In many ways these two seemingly simple words are both a story and a poem. For him the words are rich in connotations and narrative elements. From the nature of his play and the things he says in relation to “tunnel dark”, it is clear that he imagines being afraid; that he feels the presence of monsters (or “mosters”, as he says); that he considers being lost, or something else being lost, and he often talks a lot about “hiding”. Most of these ideas are derived from play we have engaged in, though his mother and I were initially baffled as to where he got the idea of monsters, as we had deliberately avoided creating any unnecessary fears in him by mentioning such things. Yet, of course, he spends time with others and watches some television, though most of the shows contain few scary elements. Either way, “Tunnel Dark” is the most evocative window into his vivid imagination and it feels like a privilege to witness this kind of nascent, raw escapism.

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My Pet Baby

I’ve had some pretty interesting pets in my time – not so much for variety, we’re talking dogs and cats – but insofar as they had very entertaining and distinct personalities and lived to ripe old ages. We tend to anthropomorphise pets, seeing distinctly human traits in their behaviour, and, ironically, in return, they zoomorphise us, reminding us that we too are animals. This anthropomorphising is hardly surprising with dogs, considering they are humanity’s first experiment in selective breeding and have co-evolved with us from a species which already lived in social groups and understood social dynamics. Cats, on the other hand, are largely wild and transit between the domestic realm and the night-time hunt with ease. We still tend to humanise them, but they are too independent to be anything other than selfish parasites much of the time and, whilst they can be loving and loyal in their own way, it seems largely to gravitate around their own gratification.

It has been almost twenty years since I last had my own pet and have, in the meantime, had to make do with the cats at my parents’ house, or stolen moments with other people’s pets. Recently, however, around fourteen months ago, my partner V and I got a rather special kind of pet – a human baby. We acquired him by fairly traditional means – insemination, gestation and then, nine-months later, birth, and he is, without a doubt, far and away the most interesting pet I’ve ever had.

Magnus - dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Magnus – dangerously cute infant Homo Sapiens

Never before have I had the opportunity to observe, up close, an infant primate – an animal, just like all the other pets I’ve ever had, but one with the potential to do quite incredible things – including rocket science. Let’s face it, however cunning our old Poppy might have been, she was never likely to create an ap or design a new form of propulsion for interplanetary probes. Not that Magnus has done any of these things yet, and, of course, he may never do. But so much is possible, and the possibilities, when contrasted with the present period of utterly dependent infancy, are a constant reminder that Homo Sapiens is, far and away, the most sophisticated animal on the planet – and, initially, the most helpless.

Before Magnus was born, before we even knew his sex, I jokingly referred to our child as ES1 – Experimental Subject  # 1. Because, despite being a very small sample size, I knew that what awaited me was a fascinating opportunity to study a human baby and get a truly intimate sense of how skills and knowledge develop, and to see the process happening before my eyes. This has been one of many saving graces over the last year and a bit; gaining detailed first hand knowledge of something I only understood in an abstract manner.

It is, however, a frustratingly slow process. For the first month he just lay there, moving his mouth like some automated grub, whose only form of communication was to indicate that he wanted feeding. Both V and I were unprepared for how animal-like he was – his eyes even seemed blank, like there was no one home.

7499 Magnus

Hello, anyone in there?

I’ve heard that some people refer to this period as “the fourth trimester”, as though the baby is still, in effect, in the womb and undergoing an extension of gestation. He certainly didn’t seem human and it was a little alienating, though we loved him to pieces and felt nothing but the deepest care and affection for him. Once he began to smile, after roughly a month, he acquired a whole new level of humanity that had been sorely lacking.

From that point forward, it has been a long slog of small milestones. Yet, whilst it is amazing to see him display new skills: Babbling, laughing, holding things and putting them in his mouth, rolling on his side, crawling, standing – there are such long gaps between these developments that one starts to focus on how long it takes for him to realise how to do something very simple. It is a very longue durée approach and I often find myself wondering why the process is so darn slow. At the moment, when playing with one of those toys where one places different shaped blocks through different shaped holes, despite three months’ practice and a couple of very patient teachers, he still doesn’t really get it. Humans are celebrated for their skill at pattern recognition, yet Magnus hasn’t quite grasped that only the triangular block will fit through the triangular hole, the square block through the square hole and so on. He occasionally gets it right, but this seems more random chance than anything else, a lucky hit. It’s also possible that he just doesn’t see the point, yet that doesn’t explain the bashing frustration he sometimes experiences when it doesn’t fit.

He has another toy, which took him about a month to master – a simple wooden triangle with three round holes in it. This came with three round wooden pegs in the primary colours which could be pushed through the holes. If I placed the wooden peg in the hole, he would push it through, no problem.

Pushing through...

Pushing through…

But, when handed the peg and left to do it himself, he continually tried to push it through the wood where there was no hole at all. In fact, he seemed to have the idea that the pegs had special properties which allowed them to be pushed through anything, because he tried for a long time to push them through the floor, through the wall, and, indeed, through me. This experimentation is admirably human, sure, yet the length of time it took him to understand that the pegs went through because there was a hole there already was surprising.

There is, apparently, no cause for alarm with any of this, as it seems most babies are pretty slow at picking some things up. Rather, it is simply the case that with so many complex fundamentals of the world painstakingly learned in our own infancy, we forget how many concepts need to be understood to make sense of something like this.

What's it all for?

What’s it all for?

The only thing I have to go on as to how bizarrely naive Magnus’ view of the world must be, is my own inability to understand basic physics when I was a child. One of my earliest memories, which I have mentioned before, is of being in the bath with my father, around the age of three, possibly slightly younger. When he stood up to get out, naturally the water level went down. Yet this made no sense to me and I asked him why it went down when the water now had so much more room to move around in. My father explained Archimedes’ principle to me and I remember having to really think about this to adjust my understanding. What that memory tells me is that babies, and indeed, toddlers, have almost no innate understanding of physics and geometry. I don’t mean complex maths, but rather, very basic stuff like gravity and motion, shape, mass and the like. They just don’t get it, and it takes at least a couple of years for them to work much of it out. We worked it out so long ago in that early automatic phase, that we forget we had to learn such things at all.

Of course, it would be unfair to focus only on these slow-burns when there are areas which he has mastered much more quickly. He worked out how to swipe touch screen phones to unlock them in a jiffy; it took him just two goes to learn to turn the light switch on and off, and he patiently taught himself how to remove and click my camera lens cover back into place in one session.

I've got this...

I’ve got this…

It took him about a week to work out how to replace the plug in the bath after having removed it. He went about teaching himself this with admirable determination; practising positioning and balancing himself in the water so that when he bent down, his face did not become submerged. Once he got it right, he continued to do it, over and over again, until he was completely confident in his new skill. Now when I say “plug, plug” he will crouch down carefully and pull the plug out – most of the time.

What impresses me most of all with all this is the sheer diligence and determination with which he will approach these tasks. Sure, he doesn’t have much else to do, but when he is determined to learn something, he will go at it for literally hours on end. This was the case with learning to go downstairs backwards. He mastered going upstairs in no time, clambering from step to step like a crazy crab. Yet, as with mountain climbing, coming down is the hardest and most dangerous part. Magnus applied himself to this task admirably and after a week or so of patient training and dedicated effort on his behalf, he nailed it.

Stair champ

Stair champ

As with adult learning, often the best results come after one has gone away and slept on the problem. This was certainly the case with the stairs. One morning after we got him up, he crawled out into the corridor and, first thing, without being shown, just turned around and went down the stairs backwards. Go synapses! For several weeks after that we just walked up and down the stairs, following Magnus while he improved his climbing techniques, poised like wicket keepers to catch him if he slipped and fell.

These achievements all mark great cognitive leaps; seemingly simple ideas such as that things have a place, that things can be pushed two ways, that some things bounce and some don’t – these are pretty radical concepts, especially when your operating system doesn’t come pre-packaged with software and has to write itself. To extend the analogy, Magnus is like an automated unit that crawls around hoovering up data, then processing it into functional software that enables him to perform basic tasks.

I can crawl!

I can crawl!

Another thought that has come to mind in observing Magnus is how, at this stage of life, without any understanding of the trappings of human culture or its meaning and purpose, the developed world in which he is growing up is just another environment. It might be very different to the forests, savannahs and shores of his ancestors, yet, without language, and without any sense of the origin of things, the world must, to him, bear no distinction between the natural and the manufactured. In this sense, his way of interacting with his environment is probably no different from that of Homo Sapiens children of a hundred and fifty thousand years ago. He crawls around, puts things in his mouth, babbles nonsense, picks things up, examines them, throws them, tries to eat them a second time, and then moves on to the next thing. I don’t doubt that this is precisely what human babies have done since our species first assumed its present form. We’ve hardly evolved since then at all – just a few tweaks like lactose tolerance – instead, our culture has evolved and we have shaped our environments.

What's this? Fruit?

What’s this? Fruit?

This morning I was letting Magnus wander about in the front yard, playing with the neighbours’ cat, Oliver. Magnus pulled the gate open – he’s nailed that – and crawled out onto the pavement. Oliver followed, and this cute little pair of quadrupeds drifted about, followed by me, an adult ape. They seemed somehow an appropriate pairing; roughly the same height when on all fours, yet there was no doubt which one of them understood his environment more intimately – the cat. Oliver, who has lived with a human baby already, is very patient with Magnus and follows him around like a world-weary feline chaperon. It seems almost unfair that one day soon Magnus’ intellect will far outstrip his, that he will eventually wield so much more control over his environment than a cat could ever hope to do. For now, however, the cat definitely has the edge on the ape. A strange inversion of what is, let’s face it, the perfectly natural order of things.

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commitment1

What is it about discussions of commitment that brings up so many thorny interpretations? When we talk about commitment, more often than not it is in the context of relationships, marriage and children, though of course, the word also applies to other contexts – commitment to work, to a cause or ideal, for example. In the former sense, commitment is usually characterised as something women seek and which men are either reluctant or unwilling to engage in. There is a long established narrative in which adult males are pilloried for a variety of reasons – immaturity, promiscuity, insincerity, instability, fear of the loss of freedom, inability to love unconditionally – it’s a long list that leaves them seeming like anything other than adult males in the wash up.

When women hold off from marrying men, we call it independence. When men hold off from marrying women, we call it fear of commitment.

– Warren Farrell

Commitment is, of course, a complex matter and has a wide variety of conditions and consequences for everyone, and fortunately, the situation has changed dramatically for men and women in recent decades, especially so far as individual freedom of choice and acceptance of alternative situations is concerned. Yet whilst reality might reflect far more variables than the predominant narratives, those narratives still persist in the oppressive and obsessive promotion of partnering up for life – as though not doing so makes one’s life meaningless and empty. It also seems part and parcel of what I consider a wholly mistaken premise about the way people are expected to be – that men or women should act in a way that satisfies the expectations, desires and goals of the opposite sex. Why do something that is so contrary to one’s nature? As Steve Jobs famously said:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

In a recent article in the Guardian, Chris Mandle writes:

the problem with having women tell us (men) how to be men is the implication that we should be doing these things for the benefit of women. That if we make ourselves into better men, women will like us. Naturally, this isn’t an aspiration all men will strive towards…

The same applies for women, far too many of whom spend their time trying to accommodate men. But why, why do we bother trying so hard? Mandle’s argument, quite rightly, points out that what is most important is to be a considerate and decent human being, but anything beyond that is a choice. If you feel you have to compromise so much for the sake of commitment, then don’t commit. It’s as simple as that, and, similarly, if we expect people to change to suit our expectations, then we are being entirely insensitive to the other person’s nature. Is that not the ultimate selfishness? To try to have things the way we want them, even though the other person’s inclination is not the same? Why should men feel guilty about not wanting to have children at the same time as their partner? This does not make them villains. They are, after all, different people with different desires. Of course, accepting another person’s agenda is precisely what compromise is, but too many people accept unworkable compromises because they think it is the right thing to do. Well, you don’t need me to tell you that it isn’t always the right thing to do.

A quick search on the net under the topic of commitment brought up some rather ludicrous soundbites, many of which are designed to make us feel that commitment is something to strive for and achieve, a worthwhile life goal, but which actually make it sound like a terrible chore. Having spent some time recently musing on the idea and entertaining myself by reading some of the nonsense that people write about commitment, it’s fair to say that there is an almost unfathomable amount of rubbish written on this topic, some of which I would now like to shred. Here’s a few samples.

The American writer, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that:

 If we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not, as many people think, a rejection of freedom; rather, it demands the courage to move into all the risks of freedom, and the risk of love which is permanent; into that love which is not possession but participation.

Which seems at best confused, and at worst, illogical. Firstly, the idea that “if we commit ourselves to one person for life, this is not… a rejection of freedom” rests largely on the attitude into which people enter a commitment. In most cases they choose to do so, and in most cases their motive is unlikely to be a desire to “reject freedom”, but this does not mean that they haven’t actually rejected freedom, for, let’s face it, they have denied themselves the freedom to have sexual relations with other people, to engage in romantic adventures, and to do as they please without checking in with another person’s agenda. As to the rest of this rather garbled statement, exactly what she means by “the courage to move into all the risks of freedom” is not entirely clear, unless one accepts that somehow, illogically, commitment is one of the risks of freedom. It strikes me only as a “risk” of freedom, should one accidentally, for example, become committed to someone in the process of enjoying one’s freedom – an unexpected pregnancy and a partner unwilling to terminate, for example, or a prison sentence incurred in the pursuit of pleasure. As to “love which is not possession but participation”, this is purely semantic trickery. What is, after all, more possessive than an expectation of permanent commitment? And how is a non-committal relationship characterised more by possession than participation? One does not own one’s fuck-buddy after all, and nor is there a legal document to say otherwise.

Here’s another cracker by Criss Jami, lead singer of the band Venus in Arms and a published poet:

To say that one waits a lifetime for his soulmate to come around is a paradox. People eventually get sick of waiting, take a chance on someone, and by the art of commitment become soulmates, which takes a lifetime to perfect.

Another load of bollocks. “By the art of commitment become soulmates?” pull the other one. You are either soulmates (not that I believe in the existence of the soul, that too is bollocks) or you’re not. What he’s actually saying here is that ultimately everyone accepts a compromise, ends up with someone who isn’t their ideal choice, and then, with all the phlegmatic zeal of a defeatist, learns to put up with them over a period of decades. Clearly I’m not sold on this one either – it’s about creating a comfort zone, not a thrilling, happy life or something to be truly excited about, but what psychologists call, behaviourally, mood reinforcement. It’s a kind of habit-based sedative that is, we are told, better than continuing the quest for perfection, or an engaged and committed loneliness. Not the most convincing quote, I have to say.

We have to recognise that there cannot be relationships unless there is commitment, unless there is loyalty, unless there is love, patience, persistence.

This quote comes from Cornel West, a man who has written important work on race, gender and class in America. If it appears here out of context, then that is because I found it presented to the world out of context on a site brimming with these nonsense quotes about commitment. Reading this, one can’t help but ask: Really? What kind of relationships are we talking about here? What actually is a relationship? Can you not have a perfectly good relationship with your fuck buddy? Does the absence of “commitment” and “persistence” (god that sounds dreary) invalidate every human connection?

Define loyalty. The only loyalty I understand is to the set of conditions that govern a relationship, and that might include the freedom to sleep with other people. In that case, loyalty is wearing a condom when you fuck around. Patience, sure, is important, but there is a limit. If someone pisses you off too much, why bother with them any longer? And as for love, what is wrong with a basic, decent level of mutual respect? Love is really going too far for most human relationships, and no one seems to be able to define it adequately anyway. Is it an idea, a fantasy, an overdose of oxytocin leading to an irrationally high level of trust and empathy? This quote sounds rather exclusive to me, and not especially helpful in understanding the range and complexity of relationships that exist for people in the real-o-sphere.

Marriage is those two thousand indistinguishable conversations, chatted over two thousand indistuinguishable breakfasts, where intimacy turns like a slow wheel. How do you measure the worth of becoming that familiar to somebody—so utterly well known and so thoroughly ever-present that you become an almost invisible necessity, like air?

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Committed: A skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Wow, talk about a wet blanket. Is this some kind of nightmare she is describing – a recurring dream or groundhog day? The slow wheel of intimacy sounds more akin to the wheel of pain featured in the original film version of Conan the Barbarian. If the conversations are indistinguishable what is the point of having them? Is there any value in a situation entirely devoid of stimulation and excitement, a little unpredictability? Does anyone want to be so familiar to someone as to be reduced to an “an invisible necessity”? Not that I like surprises in the morning, but two thousand indistinguishable conversations sounds a hell of a lot like another fine example of mood reinforcement. Give me the comfort zone, or give me death. And nothing is more disquietingly smothering than the comfort zone. Looks to me like making peace with marriage had the same effect as a life-time prescription for Prozac.

Real love has little to do with falling. It’s a climb up the rocky face of a mountain, hard work, and most people are too selfish or too scared to bother. Very few reach the critical point in their relationship that summons the attention of the light and the dark, that place where they will make a commitment to love no matter what obstacles-or temptations- appear in their path.

Stacey Jay, Juliet Immortal

Oh lord, this one’s a cracker. At least, however, it acknowledges an important truth, that “most people are too selfish or too scared to bother.” Or how about, too sensible, too smart, too aware of their own requirements and what actually makes them happy to commit to something that is bound to fail and make them hugely miserable? What, after all, is wrong with selfishness? Why do we frown on it so much? Of course, I don’t mean the kind of selfishness where we fail to care about the suffering of others in the world, don’t give to charity and vote for self-interest ahead of the greater good. But that’s not the kind of selfishness this vapid quote is referring to. She means the kind where we don’t sacrifice ourselves for someone else’s happiness in the vain hope that somehow we might get something “meaningful” out of it.

If it takes that much effort to “summon the attention of the light and dark” (lol) then maybe, just maybe, it’s not worth going there. And why are people scared? Because commitment through thick and thin is neither necessarily pleasurable or satisfying and does not by any means always produce a positive outcome. They have every right to be scared of being trapped, of stagnation, of claustrophobia, of a future of thousands of indistinguishable breakfasts all compressed into a nightmare of samey dullness… I pity my mother who has hung around with my father, hoping, for the last twenty years, that things might prove worthwhile, yet all she’s had is misery and disappointment to the point of disgust. Don’t climb that mountain unless you really want to. Be selfish – it’s your happiness that matters, not someone else’s.

Now, on a more positive note, I found a quote from Paulo Coelho which I rather liked, surprisingly, considering the mild contempt with which I regard his well-meaning light-on philosophising:

Freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose – and commit myself to – what is best for me.

– Paulo CoelhoThe Zahir

Hear hear. At last, someone talking some common sense. And what is best for you is what really matters, surely. Not what other people need or think or believe to be right, but what actually makes you happy. That commitment might be to anything – to hiking, exercise, reading, work, writing, self-education, computer games, drugs, casual sex, television… or all of the above. It only makes sense to commit to things that give you pleasure or make you happy in the long run. Of course, this is often classified as “self-indulgence”, but that is just a bullshit term applied by people who aren’t comfortable with devoting their lives to pleasure instead of some idiotic idea that we should be working all the time and producing “results”, whilst humming the industrial age’s “work, consume, obey, die” mantra – a minor improvement on the medieval “slave, worship, die,” singalong.

environmental_commitment_ssk_16585330

I sincerely hope that the future will be very, very different. Of course, we’re going to fuck up the entire planet and nothing can stop that now, but it would be nice if the human race could go down unburdened by an antiquated sense of “commitment.” The assumption that the ideal human state is one of monogamy, that deviations from this are in some way a problem, that we should feel sorry for people who are “alone,” is so past its use-by date that it looks more akin to something one might find in an Anglo-Saxon burial mound. Humans are now so complex and sophisticated that they can freely choose to engage in whatever level of relationship and commitment they desire. We are also, to my knowledge, the only species in the history of evolution which can overcome its biological imperative to breed. Sure, some species avoid having offspring during times of environmental stress, but humans can reject this desire any time and remain perfectly happy, occupying themselves with all manner of hobbies and pastimes. The desire to pass on genes, once rationalised, becomes a lifestyle choice – especially as this burden might easily taken on by close kin, and for me, genetically, near enough is good enough.

The human brain is, to our knowledge, the most sophisticated thing in the universe, why waste its capability on tiresome chores and obligations, social or otherwise, when it could be employed solving far more interesting and engaging puzzles, or merely indulging its innate curiosity? Why endure years of commitment to an unsatisfying job or relationship out of a sense of necessity or obligation? Why put up with people who make us unhappy, or feel like hard work, when we have absolutely no need to do so?

In a nutshell, commitment is a form of suicide. We murder one part of ourselves in the hope that another might thrive, yet it does not always work out. If you get married, you are killing the person who was free to sleep around, free to pack up and move to another country without having to discuss it with someone else. If have a child, you are killing the person who was free to sleep whenever they wished, or work as little as they liked for they had no dependents. That person is gone – replaced by someone from whom the law can demand money, time and effort, or punish for neglect. Only the wealthy can truly afford to avoid such commitment by walking away and paying whatever is necessary to cover the costs.

Fortunately, the nature of human relationships is rapidly evolving and many people are voting with their feet and avoiding the pitfalls of commitment, or its antiquated models. The relative freedom in the developed world to partner up with whomever one wishes is something to be celebrated, as is the freedom not to partner up. I recently read a piece by a bi-sexual woman discussing the fact that bisexuals occupied a difficult place between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Straight people tended to see them as promiscuous, while gay people distrusted them for a lack of commitment to homosexuality – as though they were flirting with something and not taking it seriously enough. These surprisingly negative attitudes are derived from the oppressive history of enforced commitment in society – the meta-narratological mantra that uniting with someone or something for life is in someway better than not doing so. With the degree to which bi-sexual people now feel free to inhabit their sexuality comfortably (in most of the developed world, that is) – a quick glance at OK Cupid will indicate just how many bi-sexuals there seem to be! – I’d like to think that we are progressing towards a society where this old idea that commitment to anything or anyone is a) normal and b) desirable is going out the window.

The old model of the family has been changing dramatically in recent decades and children are growing up in a wider variety of circumstances – some have two mums, some have two dads, many have unmarried parents or just a single parent, and many experience the divorce of their parents during their childhood. None of these situations is necessarily deleterious to the child’s upbringing or well-being. If the situation is highly acrimonious, abusive or neglectful, then yes, naturally, it will have a negative impact – but as someone scarred by the failure of my parents to divorce, and instead put me through years of ugly arguments and bitter acrimony – I place no higher value on the ongoing commitment between a mother and father than any other situation. In truth, I’m far more worried about children forced to endure a religious upbringing – their minds filled with bigotry, exclusivity and intolerance and made to feel guilty about pleasure, which is classified as sin. The only sin worth going to hell for is that of condemning people to a life plagued by guilt and hang-ups about their sexual activity or sexuality. Oh, and creationism. That shit is toxic. Evolution is a fact, read a book.

Humans are highly adaptable and continually evolving, if the standard model of the family ultimately breaks down, then no doubt humans will adjust and ultimately accommodate to new circumstances. Since we first emerged from Africa as hunter gather groups, we have completely transformed our diet, environment, habits, lifespan, living conditions etc. Why do we think we can’t handle changes in group relations? There is an age-old concern that children will have difficulty forming permanent, committed relationships in the future should they come from a “broken home”, or an “unconventional” parental relationship, but why do we assume that they need to do this anyway? Why do we want to limit humans to an expectation of monogamous life-long commitment? If people wish to do it, then that’s wonderful, I wish them all the best, but to pressure people into thinking that it’s the only acceptable normal is not only grotesquely wrong, it’s dangerous. Who is to say that in the future we won’t do away with family-based child-rearing, that it won’t evolve into something more communal? Human evolution is occurring at a rapid pace as international connections stir the gene pool more vigorously than ever before and cultural differences and new technologies encourage us to consider alternative lifestyles. I don’t know where it will all lead, but to try to stamp the future with the models of the past is anachronistic. Valentine’s Day has much to answer for in its commodification of human relationships.

The way we read statistics is telling. Whilst divorce occurs eventually in just under 50% of marriages in Australia (the length of time before this happens varies considerably) unmarried couples are more than twice as likely to break up than married ones. This has been identified as a negative statistic, and used by those pushing for marriage as an example of why people should get married. But is it actually being married that changes things, or just the types of personality attracted to marriage in the first place? Did the unmarried couples choose not to marry because of a lack of commitment or because they think, as many do, that marriage is antiquated and unnecessary? Or was it simply that they were unsure about their capacity to endure each other for the rest of their lives and they got out once the negatives outweighed the positives? This seems very sensible to me, and in no way makes them bad parents, if, indeed, they were parents. It just makes them complex human beings like all of us, whose own needs might outweigh those of their child (yes, that is actually a reasonable proposition) and anyway, staying together might have been far worse for the child’s wellbeing in the long run. It takes courage to walk away, it’s not necessarily cowardice.

On a slightly different tangent, yet still on topic, is that response that is so often made by people who think a match has little likelihood of enduring. How often have we heard the expression “that’ll never last” or, “as if that’s going to work?” Well, let me tell you, if they’re having fun now and enjoying each other’s company, then it is working and that’s all that matters. If it doesn’t endure forever – who gives a crap? Honestly, does it really matter? The law of diminishing returns dictates that any situation is going to diminish in its pleasure-giving capacity – perhaps the relationships that “will never work” are ultimately more satisfying, precisely because they won’t live beyond a reasonable use-by date. Get in and get out while you can.

In this same light, casual sexual encounters are often trivialised as meaningless, as though their brevity robs them of any truth or significance. What could be more glorious than two people getting together for a night of pleasure? In those moments, when they are breathless with sexual excitement, exploring each other’s bodies for the first time – something most people not burdened by ludicrous levels of guilt, shame, inhibition or low self opinion find thrilling – there is a connection worth celebrating. If you come away from such a situation feeling remorse, then perhaps you shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. Guilt, after all, is a wasted emotion mostly derived from bad decision making. People talk of the “walk of shame” – heading home the following morning in last night’s clothes. Why is this not a glorious walk of proud success? Punching the air with a visceral love of life and the pleasures it can offer? Or perhaps it’s just the hangover. But seriously, what makes this connection any less “meaningful”, and why are we so obsessed with “meaningfulness” in a world functioning according to the laws of physics, which, whilst not entirely random on account of those laws, is, in effect, as random as anything can be?

It is also common for people to describe relationships as a waste of time, which seems oddly incongruous. They must have seen something in it to have been there in the first place, and if that wasn’t sustained and not giving them what they thought it ought to be giving them, then why, why, why, did they hang around waiting for a “result?” I accept that people find themselves in dangerous or abusive situations, where trying to leave is a serious risk, but it’s not those that I’m talking about. Why, without any pressure or necessity, stay in a relationship that isn’t working? Understandably, the relationship might go through a rocky patch and people will wait and hope for some improvement, yet surely it would have to be absolutely awful to constitute a waste of time, in which case, why stick around? And does the unhappy end to the situation immediately invalidate all the happiness and pleasure that were present at the beginning? Can we not just accept that most relationships have a use-by date? Does the rather plotless third season of Girls make season 1 total crap? Of course not.

The reason for this, of course, is that there is pressure – societal pressure, familial pressure, peer pressure – that relationships must produce “results”. Without a marriage or children, they’re too often considered a waste of time. Thankfully, judging by the wondrous promiscuity of young people these days, this kind of oppressive stupidity will not persist into the future.

As to commitment, take it or leave it, it’s your call. I’m not by any means against it, neither philosophically nor in practice, yet I am against pressuring people to value it above other levels of connection. Considering the range of sentiments genuinely available to humans and the freedom they have in many cases to pursue them, then commitment must only be considered a lifestyle choice. There are many, many people who would benefit from unshackling themselves from the pettiness of undesirable but constant contact with others. There must be millions, considerable millions of people in this world who would thrive if only they could be alone and commit themselves to their true interests. Just let it go, and do whatever the hell you want.

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