Category Archives: Waffle

Strangers who want to talk about macho bullshit, and why they annoy me

When I was younger I went through a spell of bunking off school and going to sit in old mens’ pubs. I would hang out there for hours, nursing half-a-lager (that I bought with my dinner money) and reading a book. Escaping from stuff. I chose these run down, smoky old pubs because my school was in a town centre, and I reasoned that these were the least likely haunts where I would run into any of my teachers.

Watching Stephen Fry’s programme about his manic depression years later, I found out that he used to do the same thing, except instead of smoky old dives he went to the Ritz and ran up huge bills on his father’s credit card.

As often as not, one of the other people in the pub would strike up a conversation. It was usually a man, middle-aged, lonely, sometimes alcoholic. I must have looked young, despite appearing somewhat older than the age I actually was. Predictably, some of these men were just trying to chat me up. But a surprising number of them just wanted to tell someone their story. I heard some extraordinary stories. A man who had spent 17 years in prison for murdering his wife. Another man who said he slept with his mother every Christmas, denying this was abuse, convinced that it was a perfectly normal thing that nobody talked about. It’s always amazed me, how some people are prepared to confide their darkest secrets to a complete stranger. (Or, more worryingly; perhaps these things weren’t their darkest secrets.)

Getting approached by strange men who just want to talk isn’t that unusual, if you’re a woman on her own in a pub or cafe or some other public place, of course. One thing about Japan is that it just doesn’t really happen so much to me here. This is probably due to a) my foreigness and the language barrier b) different social norms and c) the fact that those functions are somewhat outsourced, to the ubiquitous hostess/snack bars. The other thing (getting approached for obviously sexual reasons) happens, but also much less often, and is surely mitigated by the same reasons as above.

There is one thing I’ve always wondered though. Have you ever been speaking to some guy in a pub who, apropos of nothing, decides to start telling you about the ways people can be killed with TWO FINGERS? And then proceedes to go on about it for at least twenty minutes? I must have had this same conversation with various wierdos at least ten times. Once even in a gay pub. Sometimes even with people who seemed fairly normal until they started on about it. It’s been a fairly consistent pub topic for years. I promise, I have never brought up the subject with anyone…nor have I encouraged it. And it’s not that I don’t have ANY interest in methods of murder, it’s just this whole “bare hands, TWO FINGERS!!” thing that gets a bit tiring after a while.

But what is it? Are they just trying to be menacing, albeit in an indirect (and rather ineffective) way? I never got the ‘vibe’ of underlying menace, I must say – it was always more of a “listening to someone on a hobby horse” pub bore/boy scout effect. Are these just men who were rejected from the TA? Or – as I have occasionally wondered – is there, in fact, a secret network of recruiters for a real-life James Bond spy agency, working undercover in seedy watering holes? Perhaps I have always, without realising it, failed the recruitment at the last hurdle – a lack of interest in fatal death grips. Or perhaps there’s just something about my face that says I want to know about such things, at great and excruciatingly boring length. WELL I DON’T.


Pets & Anthropomorphism

Still on the animal-consciousness thing today. I was thinking about the way we treat, or don’t treat, animals as deserving of rights/responsibilities, and how this ties in with our anthropomorphic tendencies. Anthropomorphism, being the “attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behaviour to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena”, is often seen as a Bad Thing, inasmuch as it reveals either self-centredness or a patronising attitude. But the tendency that gives rise to anthropomorphism may also spring from the tendency towards empathy: it all depends on how you look at it. I don’t think its such a bad thing, if it encourages empathy, understanding or kindness.

Maybe it’s wrong to anthropomorphise animals; but this is what most people do when they have pets, and if it helps us to empathise with animals, is it such a bad thing? Most people acknowledge that animals have consciousness, even whilst disagreeing over which animals, and what extent of consciousness. Many have pointed out that we may not be able to understand, in human terms, what that consciousness is. Wittgenstein famously said that if a lion could speak we would not be able to understand it. It seems the danger of a solely anthropomorphic viewpoint is not only that we might lose sight of the probability that there are worlds we cannot understand, but that we end up only using animals as a comparison, as a way to understand ourselves. Like the MIT experiments on rats’ dream patterns, most experimentation on animals is done with the express purpose to aid our understanding of ourselves. Surely, though, to try and understand animals is a good aim in itself, whether there are ramifications for the study of humans or not; it may lead to knowledge and – who knows? – more kindness. Historically, a deeper understanding of animals has been necessary to lessen their suffering at the hands of humans; I’m thinking here of the extinction of entire species through Man’s ignorance, like the dodo, or the Baiji Yangtze Dolphin. However this understanding can only be communicated (however partially) via a translation into the human terms, human language, which is why to my mind anthropomorphism is inevitable. I think so long as we remember that we are talking about equivalents, not direct correlations, it is the best we can do.

I’ve also been thinking about the deep attachments between pets and pet owners. Was talking to S, who has always had pets since he was little (I was never allowed) ranging from stick insects, to giant millipedes, to cats, to a parakeet called Higgins. In The Best American Essays 2006 there is an essay called ‘Death of a Fish’ by Adam Gopnik; he discusses the view (expressed by developmental psychologists) that having a pet fish causes children to develop intuitive theories of biology. He also goes further and says it informs a child’s sense of consciousness, or rather it is a symptom of a child’s conception of pan-consciousness:

“They [children] believe in conciousness more than the rest of us; their default conviction is that everything might be able to think, feel and talk…We begin as small children imagining that everything could have consciousness – fish, dolls, toy soldiers, even parents – and spend the rest of our lives paring the list down, until we are left alone in bed, the only mind left.”

Gopnik sees this in his five-year old daughter’s grief for the death of a (to his mind) mindless, zomboid betta fish.

I don’t think it’s just children who feel this way. Nor does it signify, to my mind, a lesser regard for humans (kindness, empathy, love not being a zero-sum game). There are people who would scoff at other’s grief over the death of a pet; there are arguments that pet owners are exercising a terrible luxury to even spend money on vet bills when there are starving humans in the world. It seems to me though that there is something wrong with this argument. I don’t have a biased axe to grind or anything; I don’t have a pet, though I don’t rule out having one. Maybe, centuries from now, the idea of keeping animals in cages at all for our pleasure will seem barbaric and cruel (limiting rats to dreams of cages rather than not interfering in the ‘epic dreams of subway rats’). The arguments that might convince me are all weighted on the side of the animal’s perspective. Yet arguments against pet-owning are often focused on the owners. The argument that loving and caring for a pet is taking up the time that one might spend on loving and caring for humans is surely a false one. I think people can be improved by having pets in various ways. The capacity for feeling, if a person can love without being afraid, seems to increase the more you exercise it. I think there are lots of studies to show that it’s relaxing and so on to own a pet; good for stress etc. Gopnik’s essay also brings up the idea that perhaps it is also an aid to developing empathy for other beings; the crucial ingredient needed for us to be galvanised to action, to help alleviate the sufferings of others, of whatever species.

In the same book is an essay called ‘George’, about a dying dog; it’s a sad story by a man called Sam Pickering who talks about the emotions he experiences after having to have George put to sleep. He says:

“The nineteenth-century English painter Edwin Landseer got relations between dogs and people backward. In “The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner,” Landseer painted a sheepdog grieving for his dead master…The truth is that people grieve for dogs, not dogs for people. Landseer should have painted an ancient shepherd standing at the edge of a field, bent over his crook, a single tear sliding down his left cheek, at his feet a nondescript mound, the dirt brown and fresh, a handful of crow feathers scattered yellow over the clods.”

I remember the one semi-pet I ever had; a cat, Thomas, who belonged to a sprawling family on the estate where I lived once. He was, I think, a little neglected in that family (who seemed to have Shameless-style dramas at least once a week) and decided to practically move in with us – gradually at first, then extending his stays to overnighters, days and nights at a time. Of course one never really owns a cat, it is indeed the cat that owns you, or rather plays you for food etc. Thomas, no doubt, had his providers all over the neighbourhood; he was an old-style tomcat with a playa’s sensibility. Although I in no way felt that I owned Thomas, I remember the fierce fury I felt when one day he came in with petrol on his back fur; where had this petrol come from? To be more specific, who had done this to him and why? It was possible he had accidentally found himself under the wrong car (he was fond of hiding under parked vehicles) and had himself an unwanted bath; possible too that he had narrowly escaped a kitty-burning from some psycho. I remember feeling powerless but imagining that, if I ever saw any person, man, woman or child tormenting Thomas I would rush over to them with abandoned ferocity and commit an act of violence without being able to stop myself. Curious, this is the same emotion I can imagine feeling if my family were physically threatened, except, if possible, even more so: the idea of the animal as so defenceless and innocent was breaking my heart. Thomas wasn’t defenseless and innocent in his own world – he was a predator; the innocence I mean here is the idea that he would not know anything of the reason for his pain. The cruelty of such torture is often predicated on the sadistic knowledge that the person or animal does not understand; bullying is the same impulse. S pointed out this morning in our discussion about the effect owning a pet fish might have on a child that one famous cliche about psychopaths/serial killers that is often luridly described is the adolescent or childhood cruelty to animals, which is usually taken to highlight a lack of ability to empathise.

I don’t exactly know how, but I have a suspicion these things are connected.

Rat dreams – how come nobody told me?

I mean, what’s with all the secrecy over this??? Yes, my rat-owning friends…this means YOU. How come it never came up in general conversation over the years that rats have dreams?

This morning I awoke with the question, what do dogs dream about? How come they don’t get confused when they wake up? Do they recognise that they dream?…and other related questions regarding animal consciousness and so on. It prompted me to go online in search of the answers to these questions and to my astonishment, I discovered that researchers at MIT have been doing studies into rat dreams that seem to prove that not only do rats remember but they also learn from dreams…and it’s likely they dream in pictures…reports on the latest research is here and the original study here.

The researchers are apparently trying to find out about human memory/sleep/dreams and how these things correlate neurologically, and so their analysis has tended to highlight the implications for the human brain. But in lots of ways I think it’s just as interesting if not more interesting to consider the implications for our understanding of rats and other animals. It seems that half the rat-dreams in the first (2001) study were dreams about re-running the mazes they had tested that day. What I would like to know is: what were the other half of the rat dreams about?

I couldn’t work out whether half the dreams meant half the rats dreamt about the maze while the other half didn’t or whether it meant that all the rats dreamt about the maze half the time. Without evidence, I prefer to think the former, just because its more fun to speculate about.

In a NY Times story (which goes into some more detail about the experiments) one of the MIT researchers from an earlier study 10 years ago says:

“It’s not necessarily that rodents have simpler dreams, but we limit them by restricting the experiences they have. It might be that a wild subway rat’s dreams are as exciting as our epic adventures in sleep.”

So, what sort of memory does a rat have? It can remember, in dreams, the maze …are the other dream-memories of the cage, or dinnertime (i.e. out of the cage) or rat conversations or rat sex it might have had, or might they be of long-time rat memories i.e. when it was a baby rat perhaps, its siblings, the struggle to survive and grow? I don’t get very far with this unless I anthropomorpsise in some way by imagining myself as a rat…As a human, I might dream about my new job by dreaming about the new workplace I had walked around that day, noticing the unusual painting on one wall, the browning thirsty plant on the corner by the lift, the echoing corridor on the way to the smoking room and the curious way the light slants in it, the dragon-faced receptionist etc. In a way, I can see how these sense and thought impressions are adding to my learning the actual, physical way around the place – the layout.

Obviously, the social layout is just as important in a new job, if not more so – I might therefore dream more symbolically about the place. Maybe the dragon-faced receptionist appears in my dream, except he appears as a scary-looking calendar made of fire. Only I know it is the receptionist, because I understand that a calendar represents time-keeping, the fire is a reference to dragons, and it’s scary-looking because I’m worried about my crap timekeeping affecting how I get on in the job (the receptionist being the person who has to keep an eye on latecomers).

If rats dream, then maybe they can dream symbolically. Maybe the ‘other’ rats were dreaming in this way.

So, what if the rats who show the pattern of the maze in their neuron dream sequence – those rats that subsequently the researchers found to be more successful in navigating the maze, and were thus classified as the cleverer, more successful rats – what if these were really the LESS evolved rats? Somehow the other rats, some of whom had figured the maze and its function without dreaming – maybe they’d already spoken to ex-lab rats* or heard the semi-mythical tales passed down orally from rat to rat, in their mother’s rat milk as it were – these were the rats who remembered these tales when they themselves were confronted with the maze (OK, they might have been lab-bred also, but are you telling me those rats were isolated from each other their whole lives, or that if they were, then the isolation cages were in rooms that were 100% secure from rodent-type invaders?) Imagine, then, that these are the cleverer rats, who dream symbolically about their life as a lab rat, who have maybe figured out that they might not need or want to be ‘successful’ in the maze. Maybe these rats, understanding that their lives are in some sense futile, try and fuck up the tests because they realise they truly are ‘working for the man’ – any rat data from these tests is incidental to the main topic, Man and Man’s brain, or worse, the data that shows stuff about rats, in a world that is largely unfriendly to them, will be actually used to exterminate the ‘vermin’ problem more effectively: understanding all this, rats say “Fuck YOU!”

Maybe they even get apathetic, thinking of suicide and a quicker death…yeah you can laugh at the idea of rats thinking philosophically or metaphysically but I say this: maybe SOME can. In evolution terms, these might not be the rats that survive to dominate the species, for the very crushing reasons I have just outlined, for the very awareness that one is often seen as nothing more than parasitic vermin… maybe that might persuade a rat to hurry along to the next life…

Yes this is all very far fetched. But then SO WERE FRIGGING RAT DREAMS as far as I was concerned yesterday.

*What do you mean there’s no such thing as an ex-lab rat?

Wet weather

I woke up this morning to a beautiful sound – the thrum and trickle of rain falling on the balcony outside the apartment window. The temperature had fallen to 27 and outside, the mountains on the horizon were swaddled in a duvet of mist. Does this mean the back of the sauna summer has been broken? I hope so… for the first time since late June, there’s no need for fans or air-con today.

I must admit to a prejudice in favour of wet weather – it’s my favourite kind. I love the rain. All kinds of rain. From the fine drizzle that’s more like a damp coat to the lashings of hurled water that accompany a thunderstorm. When I was a kid I used to sit with my legs dangling out the bedroom window, getting my toes wet and watching the night sky light up. In my opinion, almost any landscape is transfigured and improved by the rain.