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The Writer's Life

Let’s Study Philosophy In Ireland…


My sister and I are as different as can be, with opposing values and political views. She cares almost exclusively for things and very little for ideas, unless those ideas can somehow be monetised. I grew up reading poetry and novels while she read business books and Vogue. She’s always considered me recalcitrant and spiteful because I value ideas more than money. I remember telling her that I was going to study English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard and she told me I should study economics as it was the only useful degree that Harvard offered.


I didn’t think economics was for me. This was the early 80’s before people like Tyler Cowen,  Tim Harford, and Stephen D. Levitt made economics so interesting that we are all eager for their next book or blog. I wanted to be a writer—she thought that was a bad idea. A dreadful idea. I didn’t disagree it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t really an idea at all. For me, writing was a portal into ideas, a means of engaging, of joining the conversation if you wanted to, or sitting in the audience as a reader if you did not.


As adults, my sister and I have gone our very separate ways, but I was reminded of her today when reading this Guardian article by Charlotte Blease. It’s about the result of Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, who has finally triumphed after a 3-year campaign to introduce the subject of philosophy into the school curriculum in Ireland. I am delighted by this decision, because I agree with Bertrand Russell that, while “philosophy bakes no bread”, nor draws definitive conclusions, it has a positive effect on those who take it seriously.


Let me start by saying my sister, like many Americans with her political beliefs, does not approve of reading the Guardian in the first place. I no longer receive reading advice from my sister, but on several occasions she has warned my daughter not to read The Guardian as it is way too left-wing. It has articles like this one, for example, that suggest that within the curriculum of secondary education we include philosophy, which at first glance appears far less useful than computer science, engineering and robotics. How is America meant to compete with China if all we do is consider useless, dusty old ideas?


I don’t mean to pick on engineering and robotics. I  just wrote a piece on big data, marketing analytics and robotics, as a matter of fact, and I kind of like the stuff.  I am not suggesting we ignore education that has practical applications, not at all. In fact, among my many contributions to the world of education is my singular tutorship of my second child, Nick, who is learning the programming language, Python. Let me make it clear: when it comes to learning stuff, I am game. I’m game to evolutionary biology, the history of science, psychodynamic theory, computer science, neuroscience, neuromarketing, politics, and linguistics…. I’m even game to game theory. If I can learn it, I want to learn it.


But here is the thing. I don’t consider art to be soft stuff. I don’t believe that intelligence can easily be measured on IQ tests (there are several good books on this topic) and I say this as someone who does well on those tests. I value my daughter’s ability to make make a film of a criminal bunny shooting vegetables in a market, and I value the syntax of required to code. It’s all good, in my book.


But philosophy is particularly amazing to me. As the Irish president, Michael D. Higgins said in November during a celebration of World Philosophy Day, Philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”


I don’t know that it is possible to monetise philosophy (though Derrida and Barthes managed to become rock stars somehow but I am delighted that Higgins looked beyond the immediate utilitarian notions of many in the field of education and understood that while we do, definitely need engineers, we need engineers who can think about something other than physics and computer models.


It is important to consider the question of the value of philosophy in view of the fact that many men under the influence of science or of practical affair, are inclined to doubt whether philosophy is anything better than innocent but useless hair-splitting distinctions, and controversies on matters concerning which knowledge is impossible.


I read this in Bertrand Russell’s 1912 book, The Problem Of Philosophy, on a page that discusses the apparent dichotomy between “the practical man” and one who considers ideas just as important, not because the ideas are of immediately material use, but because they change the one who considers them.


1912. Before Hiroshima and Nazi Germany and two world wars. In retrospect, we can see how philosophy, knowledge, the consideration of right and wrong independent of their expediency was so desperately needed then. Is it any less needed now?




A Broken Piano

My favourite piece of music is Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert, an hour-long piece improvised, as all of Jarrett’s concerts are, on a solo piano in front of a live audience. You know the story, right?


For the concert, he’d requested a particular piano, a Bösendorfer. The Bösendorfer originated in Vienna early in the nineteenth century. It is said to be the first concert piano able to stand up to the playing technique of the young virtuoso, Franz Liszt, whose tough, unforgiving treatment of the pianos he played destroyed them in short order.  Perhaps the Bösendorfer’s durability was the reason Jarrett requested one for the concert. The 29-year old jazz musician was known for his eccentric stagecraft, his improvisations played with enormous athleticism and physicality. It’s fair to say he is tough on an instrument, that he plays unconventionally, even wildly, racing over the keys, standing up, sitting, leaning, panting, moaning. His performances move him—and anyone listening—through the disorder and miracle of creative endeavour.  Watching him is watching genius itself, that raw work that is cleaned up only by its imitators.


In short, he needs a good piano.


January 24, 1975. Jarrett arrives to the venue the afternoon of the concert, He is presented with his Bösendorfer. He stands with Manfred Eicher, the man who will one day found ECM Records and who arranged Jarrett’s sell-out concert tour. The piano he has been given for the concert is a Bösendorfer, all right, but it is puny, ancient, totally unsuitable.


Jarrett taps a few keys and finds it is not only the wrong size, incapable of producing enough volume for a concert performance, but also completely out of tune. The black keys don’t all work. The high notes are tinny; the bass notes barely sound and the pedals stick.


Eicher tells the organizer, a teenaged girl named Vera Brandes, that the piano is unsuitable. Either they get a new piano for Jarrett, or there will be no concert.


In a panic, the girl does everything she can to get another piano, but she can’t find one in time. She manages to convince a local piano tuner to attend to the Bösendorfer, but there isn’t much they can do about the overall condition of the instrument.


In the end, Jarrett agrees to play. Not because the piano was fixed up to the extent that he felt comfortable performing, but because he took pity on poor, young Vera Brandes, just seventeen years old and not able to shoulder so great a failure as losing the only performer on a sold-out night.


So he performs on the dreadful instrument. He does what he has to do, not because he thinks it will be good, but because he feels he has no choice.


Tim Harford, the author of Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Lives, describes what happened next better than I can, so I will quote from his wonderful book. “The substandard instrument forced Jarrett away from the tinny high notes and into the middle register. His left hand produced rumbling, repetitive bass riffs as a way of conveying up the piano’s lack of resonance. Both of these elements gave the performance an almost trance-like quality.”


Jarrett overcame the lack of volume by standing up and playing the piano very hard. He stood, sat, moaned, writhed, and pounded the piano keys.  You can hear him on the recording, the agony of the music, his effort at creating any sound at all. He sweated out what must have been an excruciating hour, and he triumphed. The Köln Concert has sold 3.5 million copies and is perhaps the most beautiful, transformative piece of music I’ve ever heard. It makes me cry to hear it, especially if I recall the courage it took for him to perform in front of a live audience on an unplayable piano with that desperate girl in the wings, wringing her hands, hoping beyond hope that he didn’t rise from the stool and walk out. Hoping nobody noticed her great failure to produce the right piano for this most important occasion.


Describing his performances,  Jarrett says, “Solo concerts are about the most revealing psychological self-analysis imaginable.” I’m willing to bet that’s true, but I would suggest that being confronted with a child with autism (or any serious disorder) is similarly revealing. In the same way in which Jarrett’s solo performances require him to take an enormous risk that unfolds note-for-note in front of an audience of observers—some cheering him on, even loving him, others waiting for him to make a mistake about which they can later comment—the parents of autistic children are fully exposed as they embark on the most difficult of endeavours: raising a child with autism.


I don’t want to draw too much on the metaphor—obviously, my son is not a piano. I am not a musical genius. But since the day my son was diagnosed, I have been having to improvise in uncertain conditions.   I’ve been doing my best, as do the parents of every autistic child I’ve met, confronting the whole situation with a defenselessness and exposure that would be taxing enough if a child’s life weren’t at stake. Contorting myself, standing up, moaning, and trying to muster a little more every day, trying to help my son do the things that most ordinary children do with an effortlessness that astonishes me.


I’ve performed semi-publicly, sitting uncomfortably in meetings with doctors and school officials, presenting my son’s case. I have reasoned with, explained, begged, and argued on his behalf.  I’ve stated aloud almost every year that I am not entitled to make “deals” with the education authorities or barter away his rights.  When I am not in meetings I am with him, teaching him one-to-one, hour after hour, year after year, from age 3 forward.  In turns, I have been disparaged and congratulated, ridiculed and praised. Those who told me I was wrong or misguided or pathetic or unreasonable came and went. The ones who thought I was doing well (in truth, that Nick was doing well as that was our only important measure) were kind and encouraging but also went on their way elsewhere, back “to the world”, as I’ve come to call it. They filled in their forms and annual reports, performed their audits on his language and skills, and added their paperwork to the files that tracked my efforts and Nick’s achievements.


We started all this seventeen years ago. Some of the people who worked with him have left their jobs, retired or died. That’s how long its been. And I’m still here with my piano, which turns out to be a far more robust instrument than anybody imagined. And it plays something very beautiful if given the right circumstances, too.


Every so often, I listen to the Köln concert.


Jarrett is quoted as saying, “I was due to go onstage soon, we’d had so many hassles, and the piano was such a terrible instrument. And I hadn’t slept anyway. So I was in almost hell—” He was then served late at a restaurant and when the food came it was terrible. He went on stage exhausted and ill-fed and had to invent a way to make things work.


Which he did.


Which I did. And I am willing to bet anybody with a child with autism reading this has done, too. In the middle of the night, when they are frightened of something ubiquitous and unavoidable (birds is one example; my friend’s daughter is scared of birds), when they can’t write a sentence or speak intelligibly or find their shoes, pen, phone, money, ticket….and they are eighteen.


Jarrett expected a working piano. He didn’t get it. However, the concert ended up being perfect because of the piano and all its faults and idiosyncrasies.


Living your life with a child like mine, though not always easy, is a transformational experience. I’ve moved from the initial shock that Nick’s brain wasn’t “neurotypical” to getting to grips with helping him develop and learn in whatever way he could, to watching him do it all himself. A long time ago, we taught him, sound for sound, word for word, how to speak. In a diary I made columns for words he said that day and words he tried to say. I had columns for words he responded to, as well. To give you some idea of where we started, my first task for “receptive language” was to teach him to respond to his own name. Every day we made sure to repeat the words said, the words he responded to, then added some more. Progress was slow, then faster as he made the necessary connections between speech and controlling his environment. If he wanted a toy, he could say it’s name. “Thomas,” he said (or a near enough approximation), and then pointed to the train as we taught him to do. He got Thomas the Tank Engine. “Gul,” he said, his word for “milk”. And he got milk.


We taught him how to play by videoing ourselves playing with his toys and then showing him the video. It sounds crazy, I know. But we were dealing with his brain, an unusual instrument that preferred to learn in 2-D.


And then, he took over. I’m no longer in charge of developing his abilities, he is. I still work with him, but I recognise that my role isn’t so much about helping his mind to develop as helping him adapt to adult life. I have come to appreciate his mind with all its unique features and unusual movements of thought.  While still “on the spectrum” and demonstrating any number of obvious traits to that effect, he is nonetheless a sound thinker with an imagination. He watches the news in several languages, including Chinese and Arabic, produces videos and comic strips, stays in touch on-line with people all over the world.


It’s “the world” that I am worried about, however, his transition to independence, if that is even achievable, that worries me. I am hoping that I live long enough to finish the work here, to watch him live a life of his own, as happy and fulfilled as can be reasonably expected of any person. He’s so close, you know. Autistic people vary greatly, with some being considered “low functioning” and some being considered “high functioning”. But it seems to me that there is one hell of a difference between “high functioning” and able to live an independent life.


I’m hoping he makes the leap. I tell myself to be brave, move forward boldly and with confidence. After all, I’ve already seen him achieve greatly despite his many challenges, and he’s not done yet.


About the Köln concert, Keith Jarrett said, “What happened with this piano was that I was forced to play in what was — at the time — a new way. Somehow I felt I had to bring out whatever qualities this instrument had. And that was it. My sense was, ‘I have to do this. I’m doing it. I don’t care what the f*** the piano sounds like. I’m doing it.’ And I did.”



Vaccines and the Spectrum of Illness


Last night, yet another person told me I was deluded to imagine any adverse effects on my kids after their childhood vaccinations. I hadn’t gotten two sentences into expressing my concerns before he stopped me. As though I was a tiresome burden to his superior intellect, he said, “Marti, I’m telling you!” Wagging his finger, shaking his head. He told me I was wrong, illogical, superstitious–essentially stupid.



It will be some time before I forgive him, though he is on the spectrum and I feel it my duty to try.



I make the admission up front that I may be somewhat paranoid about vaccinations. My experience prejudices me toward worry. There is an old saying in the medical profession that when you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. In other words, don’t let your imagination run away with you. But what if you have experienced zebras–that wildly unlikely thing that was never supposed to happen? When you next hear those hoofbeats, to what should you attribute the sound?



Both my children were affected by vaccinations, whether the earlier baby vaccinations or the MMR. Like clockwork they developed some sort of new throat or ear infection within a week or two of their jabs. They spiked crazy temperatures requiring trips the the hospital, scaring me half to death. These were not vaccine reactions, as such, just slow declines until, at last, I ended up at the doctor’s office.



Every time it happened, the GP said I was only imaging a connection. Being a sensible woman I thought perhaps the qualified doctor knew a little more about childhood health and the relative safety of vaccinations, so I kept vaccinating my children on the schedules prescribed at the time.



It was a strange cycle of illness.  Things would go along okay and then–boom!–we’d be back to a crying child, a climbing fever. My house grew sticky with throat syrup and amoxicillin.  Calpol and Ibuprofen, hourly temperature checks, cool baths, phone calls to the doctor. What was motherhood like for me? Magical bliss between cyclones of fear while the baby I loved more than I’d known it was possible to love anything, became floppy and despondent.



Both of them were like this–the one that developed autism and the one that did not. And notice how I am not claiming the MMR caused my son’s autism. I am claiming my children were unusually ill after their vaccinations but that only one become autistic, and the change that occurred in him began long before the MMR.



Imo’s illnesses were always much more dramatic than those of Nick, my second child.  The worse time was when I was 30 weeks pregnant and she raged with a temperature that was moving skyward from 104. I paced the hospital with my big belly and my toddler daughter over my shoulder. They wanted to do a lumbar puncture but I told them not to because I knew–I’d seen before–that temperatures like this could be controlled with enough medication and that she’d be okay in about twelve hours. But this time the temperature was barely being controlled and they wanted her on an IV drip. I began to doubt myself. Perhaps she really did have meningitis. I spoon-fed her water every fifteen minutes all night long; I worried she might die.



Writing this, I can almost feel her infant body, the furnace of heat that radiated from her wet hair, her fiery chest. Her cheeks were prickly and red, her feet like ice.  She looked so solemn in the weird hospital light, calmly trusting, exhausted. She wanted me to hold her over my shoulder and walk, but they asked me not to walk her in the hall. “The other children,” the nurse said, gently. I realised all at once they’d given us a private room because they were concerned she’d infect the ward. So I paced the room, avoiding the equipment lining the walls.    It felt as though we’d been annexed from the world.



By the morning, the temperature had resolved, climbing down to 104 to 103 to 102 where it stayed for a while before disappearing altogether. I fell asleep in the chair beside her crib bed, curled around the ball of my belly, relieved that the illness had arrived and retracted as it always had, disappearing with the night. I felt triumphant and very grateful. I checked that Imo was breathing, that the baby inside me (Nick) was still moving. I slept on and off as nurses checked Imo’s temperature with an ear thermometer. I watched blearily as they acknowledged her improvement.



I wanted my husband to come and soothe me. I wanted to tell him, too, that we were safe again. The storm of her illness had resolved. We could celebrate, or at least rest.



Imo was unusually antisocial until about age four. She refused to go to toddler groups or meet new people or interact with children. The health visitor, attempting to enter the house for her three-year check, was met by a child so hysterical at the notion that a stranger was coming through the front door, that she had to retreat. I was advised to take Imo for a psychiatric evaluation.



But Imo was not autistic. In the same way she eventually shrugged off the illnesses that dogged her early years, she grew out of her social isolation, her hatred of other children, her terror of strangers. She went to nursery school. Admittedly, she started off very poorly at school, impressing none of the teachers at either the nursery or primary classes she attended. However, she showed an uncanny ability to draw so we put it down to artistic temperament.



We were right. By the time she was at senior school she was a very confident kid with tremendous gifts and social skills. She went onto to be the president of theatre club at University of Durham, then to an art college to study animation. I think she is the most socially adept, well-rounded, sunny young woman I know. Did her vaccinations have anything to do with all those illnesses?  Maybe, maybe not. They certainly didn’t cause her to become autistic. Even so, I remember that health visitor and how she looked at me with a mixture of pity and disdain. “You need a psychiatric referral right away!” she insisted. Lumbar punctures, psychiatric referrals. I ignored such advice–should I have? I believed in my children’s ability to bounce back. I believed that things would be okay.



And they were, until they weren’t. Nick deteriorated markedly from about 19 months until 36 months at which time  massive intervention helped him begin to acquire language and play skills. I spent years on the floor with him, showing him the great fun of crashing his cars “Crash!” I’d say, encouraging him to try the word. “Go!” I’d say, waiting for him to repeat me so I could blow bubbles through a wand.



I took advice, sought help, paid for consultants, and studied everything available about how to foster language and play skills in a non-verbal autistic child. There wasn’t much but this message was clear: interact with the child every waking hour…take them progressively through the steps of development they hadn’t acquired. Be gentle but tenacious. Reinforce, backward-chain, chunk everything down and teach in sequence. Little step, little step…



Do I think there is a connection between vaccinations and autism? The experts say not. As for me, I can only report what I saw: vaccinations seemed to make my kids sick, but maybe they would have been sick anyway. Of course, measles might have killed them and they didn’t get measles. Why? Because nobody got measles.  Vaccines prevented it, you see.  A case of measles would be like the zebra hooves you weren’t likely to hear. Rare, unlikely. Like autism.



Eula Biss the author of On Immunity quotes the historian Michael Willrich, saying, “Perceptions of risk–the intuitive judgement that people make about the hazards of their world–can be stubbornly resistant to the evidence of experts.”



Am I being stubborn even to relate the story of my children’s babyhoods and illnesses and the schedule of vaccines I followed, though I grew increasingly concerned? Is it impossible for me to both suspect that the vaccinations may have been involved in how frequently they were ill while simultaneously agreeing wholeheartedly that  vaccines save lives? Must I be in one camp or another? Must I deny what I saw?  Will I be imagined as part of a “movement” for writing about what my family experienced? Should I be bullied into silence?


I made an doctor’s appointment for my son to get a vaccine he missed during secondary school because he’d been ill when they were vaccinating…so, it isn’t that I don’t try to go along with things.



Perhaps it is simply a measured, mature view to be able to hold two opposing thoughts in tandem: that vaccines save lives; that vaccines may have been implicated in the relentless illness both my children suffered. I’m not talking about autism, though one is autistic and so that fact, among the others, must be included in the story.






The Insider’s Guide to My Celebration of Ganna


Five years ago, I took my son, who was then aged fourteen, to a Greek Orthodox Church, dropping him off at 11:15am and then hiding among closed Sunday shops in Reading until half an hour before the service was due to end at 1pm.


When I returned, I found him standing full attention in the church, listening intently as the priest blessed all sorts of things, but mostly the holy water because it turned out that today was the blessing of the holy water festival…or something I didn’t understand, not being Greek or Greek Orthodox, and having window-shopped a closed Monsoon, a closed Waterstones (and a closed Paperchase, Next, Whittards, and Thorntons) for the entirety of the service.


Or what I imagined was the entirety of the service. Apparently, this particular church felt a service scheduled to end at 1pm should go on for several additional hours because of the blessing of the holy water or whatever the task was. You’ll have to ask Nick why exactly as I spent most of that time reading the back of the shirt of a man in the front of me, who was wearing an orange turban and did not look like he was a Greek Orthodox, but something else that combined a number of religions including Sikhism. His t-shirt had all sorts of stuff on the back about Jesus, Sikhism, and a youtube channel I could not quite make out in the church spotlights, and he looked as displaced in society as I was.


I’ve had a feeling of unbelonging that began just prior to Nick’s diagnosis and is still going on today, and I felt this man’s presentation of himself, with his whacky shirt and inappropriate turban, was far more honest than the representation I chose to give in my oversized jumper and winter leggings. You couldn’t tell much about me, not with these pearl earrings, and clean boots. Not with this fashionable haircut. You would never guess I spend most days trying not to lose my mind, imagining my son’s future.


Everyone was very nice. They gave me a candle. There was a long procession. Once in a while an ambulance passed and we heard the siren above the choristers and prayers and chants and moments of sermon. The siren reminded there was an outside world and that, through doors provided, we might escape. But Nick didn’t want to escape. Autistic kids are supposed to have short attention spans and hate crowds and become agitated at too much stimulation. But the church was full of ornate brass thuribles with their smoking incense, crowded worshippers, gleaming saints and gargloyes and scary images, echoes and coughs and the sense of being pushed around in a throng of people. If anyone was finding the experience difficult, it was me not him.


Today, we are not going to the Greek Orthodox Church (I hope) but last night we did celebrate Ethiopian Christmas. Please remember, this wasn’t my idea either. I didn’t even know that Ethiopia had a particular day (January 7th) during which Christmas is celebrated through the festival they call Ganna. I thought the reason my son wanted to go play air hockey at the local bowling alley was because he’d finally decided to do something kids his age like to do. It felt to me that air hockey was a signal of some new milestone for him. I got excited—could it be that soon he’d decide to meet up with friends or have a drink at the pub or talk about career aspirations or get a driver’s license? Was air hockey the beginning of a new turn in which he began to engage in life newly neurotypical?


But no, air hockey was the best he could do to emulate Ethiopian Christmas. On the morning of Ganna the people dress in white, which explains why he showed up last night in his white summer trousers though it is winter. During Ganna, the people of Ethiopia play a game that is also called ganna, which involves curved sticks and a wooden ball, not unlike our hockey. That was why we had to play air hockey on January 7th, as part of another culture, not ours.


While there was no Ethiopian church available of us to attend (thank Christ) there was the fantastically colourful Global Cafe, a restaurant run by an Ethiopian chef named Tutu, and to which we arrived to eat wat, a tasty lentil stew, and injera, which is like bread but much worse. Nick loves it, loves all things Ethiopian, and I’d like to say we had a fabulous family dinner together except that he insisted upon listening to Ethiopian music through his earphones most of the time. So it was my husband and me on one side of the social wall, with Nick on the other.


Anyone looking at us would see quite a familiar picture: a middle aged couple with their newly adult son, who is happy enough to accompany them (and dressed nicely in white trousers, as it happens) but really interested in his own stuff, the music on his iPhone, the food on his plate. The couple talk together and every so often try to engage their son who is polite, but really only wants to return to his music.


This is normal, right? All of you out there experience the same? It only looks normal on the outside, which is how autism so often presents itself. To the observer, everything is typical and fine, even quaint. But it is this disconnect of which I am acutely aware and that I look at the way one might a massive geographical obstacle that needs traversing. I want to cross that divide. Nick will allow me to so–he never tells me to get lost.  If I want to learn Amharic (as he is) or learn all about ganna, which is his current passion, he will help me.


And I do this. I enter in, but am I entirely right to enter in? How much should I ask that he step into the social world of his family and peers, however dull that might seem to him? I am willing to believe anything right now–that I am unfairly critical of my son, a natural anthropologist. That I should interfere with his flights of fancy or even consider pharmacological intervention. In short, I don’t know what to do. He is fine now because he can lean upon his fully functional parents. But what happens when we become ill, then die?


The government seems to think there is nothing wrong with him and he needs no support at all after we’ve gone. His diagnosis–autism–holds no sway with the bodies that are meant to support those with disabilities.


In short, he has no disability–and remember that picture I painted? Middle-aged couple, nicely dressed son with his iPhone? Who would imagine he needed any help? No one, but only if you look from the outside and not at what is really happening within. That must be ignored–by everyone, it seems. I, myself, participate in this hiding and concealment, painting a picture of what I imagine to be a perfectly normal family. At the restaurant, in the church, wherever we are.



Odd Ducks

Last month, I wrote about a cat in Ireland that adopted a nest of newly hatched ducklings and raised them with her newborn kittens. While normally she might have attacked the ducklings, the surge of oxytocin following her kittens’ births meant she adopted them into her family instead.

At least, we assume it was the oxytocin that temporarily blinded the cat to the fact she was mothering ducklings.

However, I revisited the question last night while reading Roger Fouts’ unmissable 1997 biography, Next of Kin, about Washoe, a chimp who was “cross-fostered” with a human family and developed the ability to communicate through American Sign Language. In addition to documenting Washoe’s extraordinary communicative abilities, Fouts incidentally describes a boyhood experiment with cross-fostering in which he placed eggs “under our old mother farm cat.”

When the eggs hatched, Fouts was astonished “to see the cat treated the little birds like they were kittens, cuddling them for warmth and licking their feathers.”

Fouts doesn’t describe the manner in which the ducklings nestled into the adoptive cat mother so I can’t say whether the story is exactly the same as the one in Ireland reported by Animal Planet. There is this one weird, possibly inexplicable fact about the ducklings adopted by the Irish mother cat: they were found latched onto the teats of the cat as though suckling.

The sucking reflex is common to all mammals, and not, as far as I know, part of a duckling’s developmental profile. Consider the facts: that mother ducks have no nipples, that ducklings have no lips. How could it ever be that ducklings would suckle like kittens?

Ducks are a precocious species. Unlike kittens, they are born with all sensory faculties intact and are expected to feed themselves immediately. Were they imitating the kittens?

I consulted Baldasarre’s book, Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America, and found this curious observation made by another naturalist back in the 1960’s: Their feeding was so vigorous that the noise of their bills sucking the water could be heard for a considerable distance (italics mine).

It turns out that dabbling ducks suck up muddy water at one end of the bill and squeeze it out at the other. Pink ducks do the same with plankton-rich water, the water squeezed fro their bills so yet retaining the plankton through laminae at one end. That may be more information than you’d like about ducks, but the point is that they can suck and that it is a trait they are born with.

Everything I read about pet behaviour as part of my course at COAPE explains why animals behave as they do, and how to understand more about them, if only to help those who can’t figure out how to get their dog to stop barking or their cat to stop peeing on their bed. Unusually, we are allowed–even encouraged–to talk about how animals feel, using the very same language with which we’d refer to a human.

I love science–but science both depends upon and recoils from conjecture. Remember Pavlov with his dogs? Pavlov hated psychological speculation of behaviour and wanted always to believe there was no subjective state of an animal that could be compared to humans. Perhaps that is why he was so keen on salivation, an unconditioned response that can only be elicited, but not learned.

What would he have said about the ducks sucking milk from a mother cat?

Perhaps it was an instinct, like sucking water. Would it be crazy to suggest they learned to attach to the teat through observation of the kittens?

Washoe, the chimp, learned how to sign through observation of humans around her. There were no discreet trials or structured learning–she wasn’t taught to imitate like a parrot but to learn like the emotionally sensitive being that she was. Her level of communication was amazing, human-like. What should we make of that? In my opinion, quite a bit.

It is worth mentioning that there was a similar, but much earlier experiment than the one conducted with Washoe. In the 1930’s two scientists, Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, reared a chimp named Gua like a child. They resisted any systematic teaching of Gua and treated it as they did their young son, Donald. The experiment was stopped abruptly, however. The chimp wasn’t learning verbal language and Donald, the Kellogg’s young son, began imitating the chimp with such precision–among other things, making food grunts at the dinner table–that his mother felt she had to abandon her efforts with Gua.

Blogs On Dogs

Dogs, Cats, and Descartes


I went to a lecture during which photographs of dogs and cats were presented on a screen and students were asked to state what emotion the animal was showing. It was easy enough with the snarling dog or the cat, ears back and fur standing on end, arching it’s back in the presence of a Rottweiler. Far more speculative were those in which subtle emotions–thoughtfulness, worry–were brought into possibility. Photographs of animals are deceptive as an animal’s face may coincidentally assume an expression we associate with human emotion and we, as masterful readers of human emotion, then impute our species-specific ideas onto the animal in question.


Anthropomorphic guesswork is fun. It’s what makes us spend hours laughing at photographs of cute puppies on the internet or watching (as I do) William Braden’s ingenious youtube channel, HenriLeChatNoir, during which we listen to the existential reflections attributed to Henri the cat, whose indifferent expressions are paired with such statements as, “None of the (Halloween) costumes are truly scary. No one dresses as crippling self-doubt.”


It turns out, however, that among the great array of people studying animals, a group that includes psychologists, neurologists, behaviourists, ethologists and zoologists for a start, the question of animals and emotions is greatly disputed. During the presentation we saw a clip from Animal Planet about a cat that adopts a clutch of newly hatched ducklings the very day she gives birth to her own kittens.


The story is remarkable because one would have expected the cat to kill and eat the ducklings, which is exactly what might have happened if her kittens had been old enough to consume solid food. Instead, the oxytocin surge experienced by all mammals upon giving birth was timed within this particular mother cat so that she extended her maternal drive to the ducklings and reared them as her own. The lesson for us students was that the cat, under the influence of oxytocin, showed specific behavioural patterns far outside what we normally attribute to this predatory species. But there were no emotions, as we humans understand emotion, behind its behaviour.


Oxytocin is huge part of all mammals’ lives, including humans. It has been demonstrated to reduce fight/flight behaviour, reduce anti-social behaviour , counteract the stress hormone cortisol , and predict bonding behaviour with young. It is also the thing that makes sex so important among human couples, as both men and women experience oxytocin surges that facilitate bonding during and after making love.


When dog ethologists wish to strip away the possibility of dogs having any real emotions they may go the route of Ray Coppinger whose 2001 book argues that what we assume to be emotions in dogs are genetically programmed motor reflexes or biologically-drive hormone surges. He tells a story about his dog, Lina, who gave birth to a puppy in a field and returned to her nest in the barn to deliver the rest of the litter, leaving the puppy alone and calling in distress. Even though the puppy was calling for her and would shortly die, Lina had not yet experienced the hormonal surge that follows birth, so did not feel the need to retrieve her pup (though Ray did).


He also tells the story about another dog, Tilly, who made no effort to attend to her puppy when it made a similar distress call at a few weeks old. Were Ray’s dogs heartless mothers? He argues that the retrieval motor pattern switches on following birth (but not during it) and switches off in the mother dog at around day fourteen of her pups’ lives. Pups can cry all they want outside of these times, but a mother dog doesn’t feel anything. She takes orders from her hormones, not her heart.


“Scientists are sometimes accused of not being aware that animals have emotions or can think. On the other hand, scientists warn people that they should not be anthropomorphic, giving animals human characters,” writes Coppinger, who does not believe a dog has “a mind”, but a kind of neurological control system preserving its life and whatever system will push its genes into the next generation.


So, what are we pet owners to make of this? Do we believe that our pets don’t care about us, but are only showing biologically driven responses to our care-giving? Do they not care about their own young, have absolutely no feelings about them at all, but are subject to whatever hormones are at play?


Scientists seem determined to shame us for imputing human-grade emotions on animals. It should make us all uncomfortable, however, to realize that many of the same arguments used by scientists (and farmers) to prevent us from having too much empathy for animals are similar to those advanced years ago about human children. Until late last century the same scientists that would have laughed at those of us who won’t eat animals (because animals have feelings) would have laughed at us for assuming human babies had feelings–even physical sensations–which is why operations were performed without anaesthesia on human infants until the late 1970’s.


Can we compare our human rationale for such barbarism toward our own infants to whatever is behind the thinking of stressed mother hamsters who eat their perfectly healthy newborns in an act of filial cannibalism? Probably not, as the hamster mother may not truly think about what she is doing as she is unlikely to have as developed a mind as we do. However, the fact that we would operate on infants without anaesthetic creates a problem for us–how can we claim to be more disposed to a cohesive way of thinking, believing, feeling and acting if in our history we have regularly cut open babies without giving them anaesthetic? Indeed, we might conclude from everything we do to one another and to the species and environment around us that our minds are clouded, our influences primitive.


The divisions insisted upon by scientists seem arbitrary. We know that the presence of noradrenaline in our brains is part of what makes you and me (as well as foxes and rabbits) feel anxious. We also know that a glut of glucocortisoids is a marker for when we feel depressed. I may be depressed because I am lonely–the same reason the dog left on its own for fourteen hours daily feels depressed. The dog and I may even share the presence of corticosteroids in our brains. But according to the scientists, we cannot compare our feelings. I have a “mind” but the dog does not.


It is easy to dismiss the emotional lives of animals because their range of display is not an exact match for our own and because it means those who eat meat can feel less guilty about consuming them as food. However, before we decide that animals’ emotional lives are absent, or so profoundly reduced that only silly people would compare them to that of humans, it’s worth thinking about how much of our own behaviour is governed by hormones.


I admit to having had no interest in babies before I gave birth to my daughter. At nine months pregnant, I looked at others’ newborns and felt nothing whatsoever, just as I have no interest in babies now that my own children are grown. Nonetheless, I gave birth, fell in love with my daughter, and have adored both my children ever since. Did the release of maternal hormones following my own children’s births give a temporary rise to patterns of maternal care until more complex social bonds could be established between us? Or do I just love my children? Or does it matter? We are separating out emotions from the presence of certain neurochemicals as though these things can be separated–is that wise?


The neuroscientist and author, Antonio Demasio, explains in his 2006 book, Descartes Error, that “Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it.” Descartes flawed legacy to us was in his argument that the mind and body are somehow separate, and that our minds drive our bodily behaviour.


Is the insistence of a separation between true emotions and the neurological processes governing them an analogous error to that of Descartes? Is it correct to imagine that neurotransmitters and hormones that influence the behaviour of animals are separate in kind from the emotions that govern human behaviour? After all, the brains of all mammals are remarkably similar in structure.


Damasio is not writing about dogs when he says, “Brains can have many intervening steps in the circuits mediating between stimulus and response, and still have no mind, if they do not meet an essential condition: the ability to display images internally and to order those images in a process called thought.” However, some might think this is a good summation of why a mother dog appears to love her young, but is only following innate motor patterns. I’m not going to take up the argument, but I will say that even if we conclude that the mother dog’s behaviour toward her pups was entirely instinctive and without any cognitive thinking, we cannot necessarily conclude that dogs have no “mind.” The logical extension of the observed behaviour in the mother dog (not picking up her puppy) does not explain everything about a dog’s “mind” any more than the influence of oxytocin on my behaviour as a young mother explains everything about my mind. It’s a little bit of observational data, not a conclusion in itself. And nobody ever tested me out with a duckling.




Ducks & Hopelessness

Across the street is a neighbour whose daughter has grown from mindless swearing and hanging out in cars with her boyfriends to having her own children, who she treats carelessly, or worse.  Even so, unless this young woman is verbally abusing or slamming car doors in the face of one of her young children, I try to be friendly.


The neighbour keeps ducks, or used to. She’s had other pets, too. Dogs that never were walked, fish that swam briefly in cloudy water. Recently, the ducks were waddling down the road and she came out and gave them that I am exasperated with you ducks look that she has honed and perfected. The same look she used to give the barking dogs that never left their tiny garden.


I watched the ducks lumbering down the road and the neighbour saw me watching and said, “Why do they keep getting out?”


I wished she asked me why her grandchildren are withdrawn or distracted or whiney or ill-behaved because I could have told her it was probably down to the humiliation and shame experienced regularly at the hands of her dingbat daughter, but instead it was about ducks. Why do they keep getting out?


I told her wings was the first clue. A place to swim was another.


She said, “What do I do?”


She is worried about being an incompetent duck owner. No, that isn’t it. She believes her efforts with the unmanageable ducks are heroic. Meanwhile, her grandchildren are shouted at publicly and, I imagine, experiencing worse behind closed doors. But I can’t discuss this with her. If I so much as give the violent daughter a glance she tells me to mind my own f*ing business.


So, I thought about how many difficulties I have faced, or watched in silence unable to change a thing, and gave the only answer that made any sense.


“Follow them,” I said.

Blogs About Dogs

Get Between The Barking Dog and The Moose

If you don’t like barking it is probably best not to have four dogs. My dogs are from a couple of vocal breeds: two shelties and two German Spitz. A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about their explosive bursts of barking, their frantic response to the doorbell and the possibility that they are barking a perfectly normal amount of time and that the real problem is me. I may have unrealistic expectations of this troop of benevolent noise-makers.

I study pet behaviour but I make a living as a writer. I write mornings in a quiet kitchen, the only noises being the hum of the fridge or the slow, hypnotic rhythm of the washing machine. The dogs lie in great clumps of fur at my feet, resting.

Everything is still and peaceful as I tap the keyboard until—oh heavens!— a car outside crunches over the pebbled driveway. Suddenly, an explosive bark from Winston and a shuddering stream of yaps from Tessa (who looks genuinely distressed). George thinks he might bark once and then go to sleep again. Pookey, aged thirteen and a half, throws in a couple barks to make sure we know she is still alive.

I say, “Shh” and they go silent. This looks so impressive—instant silence at a command. Except it isn’t clever at all. The same repeated blast of barking can occur four times an hour or more. The dog that always parks herself by the front door is probably anticipating the postman. Should I make sure they are never home when the postman arrives? Is that even possible? Turid Rugaas, an internationally renowned dog trainer and behaviourist, has a short book on barking in which she advises me to keep a record of my dogs barking. I’ve made a few casual notes since keeping this record and think it is correct to say the following:

  • Two of my dogs almost never bark outside the home.
  • One of my dogs will bark in excitement outside the home if we are playing.
  • One of my dogs barks in the car, though she can trigger the others to bark for a second before giving up.
  • My dogs bark far more often in the mornings than in the afternoons. They do not bark at night.
  • I can control their barking very easily if I am paying attention. For example, on Halloween night, groups of trick-or-treaters rang the doorbell, received sweets and left without hearing a dog bark even once. Why? Because my son gave them the sweets while I gave my dogs their own sweets.


Turid categorises barking into six types:

• excitement barking
• warning barking
• fear barking
• guarding barking
• frustration barking
• learned barking


I’ll return to this list in a future blog, but for now I want to look at excitement and guarding as an explanation for my dogs’ noise levels.

It is possible my dogs feel stress and therefore are barking in excitement. Admittedly, there isn’t much to stress about in my home. The dogs get walked at least an hour a day off the property and a can follow me down to the barn and fields anytime they wish. They have free access to the house, a great deal of attention from me, plenty of chews and play time—it appears to be a great life.

But maybe they’d tell a doggy shrink a different story. Maybe they are secretly stressed little dogs who need a way of calming down.

I seriously doubted they were stressed, but I increased their “hedonic budget”, a term used at COAPE to mean all the stuff dogs love to do: run, dig, chase, explore, play, eat. I also bought a thing called Adaptil, a device that plugs into the wall and emits comforting dog pheromones into the air. It’s a synthetic version of the smell of their puppyhood when they cozied up to their mother and felt safe. Would these measures make a difference?

Not. One. Bit.

Time to examine whether I am actually rewarding my dogs for barking—not that barking isn’t fun on its own. Barking can be a self-rewarding behaviour, a little like sniffing for rabbits. Even when no rabbit is caught, dogs feel good looking for one.

Turid makes the very good point that talking to, looking at, or touching the dog when it is barking can cause an increase in barking behaviour. I think I may be guilty on that score. When I say “shh”, they go quiet. But the point is, first I said shh.

Would ignoring the barking altogether be better?

Perhaps. But sometimes my dogs give a “warning bark” in which ignoring is the last thing I should do, according to Turid. The warning bark is a short sharp bark. My ten-year old sheltie is usually the one who give this singular, very loud bark. The book recommends that in these cases I stand up casually, get myself between the barking dog and the scary object (usually at the front door or windows), and give a casual hand signal to indicate that I’m dealing with the situation so there is no need to continue barking.

I got this, I say in body language. No need for you to defend us.

Turid lives in Norway and she tells a wonderful story about her own dogs troublesome barking.

Some time ago, her forest home was being visited nightly by a neighbouring moose. Several times a night she was woken by her dogs issuing warning barks as the moose got closer. Finally, she decided to get up and show them she was dealing with the problem. She stood in front of the dogs, facing the place they were indicating was a moose, and gave a casual hand signal to show she was aware of the situation.


She did this for three nights and they stopped barking at the moose. Peace was restored, though her apple tree suffered accordingly. The moose had denuded it of its fruit. The dogs must have come to the conclusion that their eccentric owner did not mind such thievery.

A moose sounds so much more fun than the mundane outdoor sounds that trigger my dogs. It doesn’t make such a great story to say I got up three times a morning to put myself between my dogs and an out-of-sight car door slamming, but let’s hope the technique works anyway.

Meanwhile, back to my barking chart…


Blogs On Dogs

Less Barking, Please…!

 (first published by Huffington Post, October 25, 2016)

All dogs bark. Even the Basenji, a Central African breed known for its unusual silence, will yodel or howl.

Two of my dogs are the adorable, if loud, German Spitz. The other two are a recently adopted pair of Shetland Sheepdogs, a famously vocal breed. In days gone by, I might have attributed their collective noise levels to their breeds’ tendencies alone.

In fact, there isn’t a single, clear reason they bark so much. Dogs don’t necessarily bark because they are ill behaved or under-exercised or “highly strung.” They don’t always bark for attention or out of boredom or because they are distressed. They certainly don’t bark because they feel they are being dominant or “in charge of the pack”, though if you believe I am wrong about this, and that my dogs are trying to gain status, you might want to read this short article by Victoria Stilwell, or this book by Barry Eaton to give you a different perspective.


Dogs bark for a variety of reasons—all of which I am desperate to understand. Most importantly, however, they bark because they are dogs.

Puppies can begin barking as early as two weeks old and advance their repertoire of vocalizations into adulthood until different barks mean anything from greeting to distress to hunting, tracking, alarm, warning, excitement or a solicitation for play. Just to make matters more confusing, a barking dog may be trying to communicate more than one message at a time.

A study reported by E.L. Flint and her colleagues at Massey University in New Zealand reported that the average dog at home with an owner barks three times a day, with the duration of barking for each episode lasting just under a minute. We all know that if one dog barks, another is likely to bark. So if I have four dogs that each display perfectly average periods of barking, I should expect almost twelve minutes of barking a day. Twelve long, awful minutes. You might say that it would be unreasonable for me to expect anything less, in fact.

Punishing a dog by yelling at him or threatening him for doing a perfectly normal dog activity isn’t fair (anyway, force-free methods are more effective and kinder), but does this mean I have to live with a lot of barking?

Maybe not. I can modify the barking in two ways: reducing frequency and reducing duration. I may even be able to reduce both—and wouldn’t that be bliss?

A few things are working well for me right now and have definitely reduced the frequency or duration of my dogs’ barking over the past week:

  • I have abandoned dog bowls for Kong toys and they now have Kongs filled with a portion of their dinner several times a day. This keeps them occupied and their attention is less focused on noises outside the home. Result: happy, quiet, engaged dogs for 15-30 minute stretches of time.
  • I take them out of the house on walks when the postman is likely to arrive. Result: mornings are more peaceful and they get less opportunity to “practice” barking.
  • I reward them with high value food treats for going quiet when I say, “shh.” This was going great until one of them figured out that if he barked, then went quiet, he got a reward. I am modifying my training of this clever, back-chaining dog but the result on my other three: shorter duration of barking (down to a few seconds).
  • If I hear a noise outside, I throw treats onto the floor before my dogs have started barking. This diverts them from barking. Result: less frequent barking.
  • I practice ringing the doorbell and throwing treats onto the floor before the dogs start to bark. Result: less reactivity to the doorbell, itself, as a trigger for barking.
  • I drop treats onto the floor when the dogs are lying quietly and not looking at me. Result: they “settle” faster and stopped staring at me constantly, waiting to be rewarded for being quiet. The way you do this is nicely demonstrated by Emily Larlham in one of her early teaching videos here.


My next step is to enlist the help of one of the behaviourists at the Centre of Applied Pet Ethology where I am studying, because there is nothing better than an experienced dog behaviourist to help you think outside the box about your own dogs.

I am sure they will come up with even more effective ways of reducing the barking in my house. I may make a few mistakes and have to rethink, too. But that’s okay—it’s how we learn.

With Halloween just around the corner, you might wonder what I’m going to do about all the barking as children arrive to my door dressed in costumes. The answer? I’ll leave the sweets on the doorstep and take my dogs to the pub…

(Labrador photo by Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay)


Why Not Go To Trial?

Earlier this year, I wrote an article for Redbook in the US. I don’t know if I am allowed to post the whole thing on my blog now, but this is the beginning, with a link to the site on which the article is published…. 

A few months after we were married, my husband told me he had a terrible secret. If I’d known this secret, he claimed, I might not have agreed to marry him.

We were in South Wales, settled into a bed and breakfast among the great peaks of the Brecon Beacons, the bed so narrow it barely contained us. I’d never loved anyone as fiercely as I loved my husband — whatever the secret, it could not alter this fact. 

He could barely bring himself to tell me; the shame was so deep he struggled with each syllable. I waited for the awful confession, until at last he explained that when he was a child, he was sexually abused by one of the teachers at his prep school. He’d been eleven years old when it began.

Did he really think such a fact could change anything between us? Why on earth was he ashamed when he’d only been a boy? We talked about it, not all night. And among the many things that were said that night was that it was a very odd coincidence, if it were a coincidence at all, that I had been sexually abused as child, too, though not so young as he. 

“And that doesn’t bother you?” he said.

“It bothered me at the time,” I said. “Not now.”

He asked me how I wore it so lightly. I didn’t know. We’d just had the first of many discussions about what would turn out to be the biggest ordeal of my husband’s life, but I didn’t know that then. I told him it was all a long time ago. 

“Does that matter?” he said. “Don’t you ever want to kill the guy?”


“Don’t you want to see him in prison?”


“Did you want this thing that happened?”

“No,” I said. “Go to sleep.”

A dozen years later, my husband, Alastair, was a complainant in a Crown Court case against his former prep school teacher and won his case against the man who abused him. He served a short sentence, that was all. A year later he was free….Continued here