Camels, Kitchens, and Executions

In most of the pictures I’ve seen, the camels look like they’re smiling.
I found this image at Wikipedia, and its rights for use say: Approval for the use of this photo can be found at Dubai construction update Part 7 Page 12 at Post 223. Imre Solt’s exact statement is: “I, Imre Solt, put all my images found on the Dubai Construction Update sites on the GFDL (GNU Free Documentation License). I agree to the terms that my images may be freely redistributed and used, that they may be freely modified (and modified versions may also be freely redistributed and used), that any redistribution must include the full text of the GFDL itself, that the work (and modified versions of it) must be attributed to me (the creator), and that the images can be re-used for commercial purposes (as long as the use is under the terms of the GFDL and that the full text of the GDFL goes along with the work). I acknowledge that I cannot withdraw from this agreement.” He gave this statement on 17 August 2007.
There, I’ve fulfilled his wishes, I think.  Thanks, Imre Solt.

The novel I’m currently working on screams for more information on various subjects, and not just in the sense of underlying metaphors, mythologies, or fairy tale roots.  The following are just a few of the things my book and characters insist that I’m woefully naïve about, need to experience, or better inform myself of.

  1. Sometimes the fact that I seem to have a passion for characters that live through disturbing circumstances leads me to grisly places.  Lately it’s taken the form of reading books like Public Executions and watching videos on the holocaust and other atrocities.  I find this simultaneously depressing and inspiring.  I also think my capacity for the morbid might be going out of bounds.
  2. Some experiences can’t be gained by reading about them, especially if one is seeking a novel description or understanding.  How does a camel’s fur feel or smell?  Do they have slitted eyes and how do their pupils respond to the light?  What does their gait feel like?  Do they yawn or have any other movements or expressions I should know about?  I know I can’t afford to put off my book until I can arrange an expedition across the desert, but the most I can summon from my “knowledge” about camels seems to be that they have humps for water storage and that having one spit on me isn’t desirable.  Then there are all those questions about the desert itself.  I lived somewhere that was technically desert once, but that hardly included miles of rolling sand dunes and blistering heat, and my family stayed in one place and had the bonus of running water and electricity.  The best I’ve been able to do in terms of authenticity so far is give myself a case of mild heat stroke at work before going home and writing the account of my character’s experience with it.
  3. Safran’s father was a culinary expert/genius in his time, and he passed his love for the craft and some of his knowledge to her.  This might be the stumbling block that breaks me.  Sure, I can console myself with my first hand experience of the way kitchen crews gossip and play, and the basic principles of how cooking works, but today’s kitchens and food stuffs are a poor representative for what I’m trying to create.  Think for a moment about the differences in food availability, storage possibilities, and wood burning stoves (I’m guessing) of long ago vs. the flat tops, gas powered burners, ovens, and fryers of today.  Also, how does one scrub a pan if a soup or sauce burns or crusts?  Would the scrubber use a piece of hide, some sort of brush or sponge?  What would the dishes and pans look like and be made out of?
  4. “Feral” children.  See my blog post A Perspective on Feral Children for a rambling explanation on why this is so important to me.  In brief, when I pursue this topic I feel I not only have to be aware of things like critical periods of development, the different circumstances which create feral children, their role in previous media, and not only the length of time the child was deprived of normal society, but when in their lifetime the deprivation occurred.

My list isn’t comprehensive.  These little issues are only the beginning, and I can’t even begin to express how much admiration I have for authors who actually write historical novels, science fiction, or thrillers with legal and psychological ramifications.  My mind boggles at the idea of writing a textbook.  How do you do it, writers?  I must confess I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.

A Perspective on Feral Children

“Contempt prior to investigation is what enslaves a mind to Ignorance.”

–William Paley

“Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.

–Albert Einstein

“Everyone is a genius.  But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

– frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, but this may, in fact, be false.

 

Safran’s first impressions of the girl were of a form shrouded in shadow; she named her Nyx, after the goddess of night.  The name is more of a reflection on Safran, and the place she was in when she encountered Nyx, than it is on the character of Nyx herself.

The goddess Nyx, daughter of Khaos (Chaos, air), is an imposing, if little known figure in mythology.  A quick purview of most texts on Greek or Roman (Nox) mythos grants little more than a few paragraphs, and most of that information is little better than a family tree.  She is listed, however, as one of the first gods; Homer claims that Zeus himself feared her, and from Homer’s account of the matter, we gain the insight that her rage is roused at a threat to one of her many children.  In this instance, the child was Hypnos (sleep), but Nyx also is reported to be the mother of the Fates, Furies, Thanatos (death), Hemera (day, dawn), among many other well and lesser known gods.

Nyx the character bears little to no similarity to her namesake.  She does not spawn sleep, death, or any other form of destruction, but holds instead a steadfast fascination for life and its nurture.  Still, for all the reader knows, Nyx might as well have come from chaos itself; Nyx is a “feral” child.

“Feral” children isn’t a term I particularly care for, hence the quotation marks.  Certainly the phrasing implies that the child has grown without the care of society or cultural influence, and while this is true, it also infers the unpleasant image of a hirsute, scrambling, animalistic “raised by wolves” individual, who is only waiting for the right specialist to come along and reform the unfortunate “creature” into an “acceptable” human being.  We, as “civilized” beings, seem to decry the idea that these people cannot be simply molded at whim into gross approximations of ourselves.  After all, how can anyone know the true definition of happiness, if they have not experienced our version of happiness for themselves?  Aren’t we doing them a favor?

I doubt it.

The depiction of feral children in fiction and film has often been dramatically removed from reality.  It seems inevitable that the child, who is usually somehow lost or abandoned in the woods, only to be raised by some animal group or another (wolves, anyone?), will be stumbled across by some well-meaning companion who will strive for, and eventually secure, their assimilation into society.  Few authors bother with that pesky “critical period” of language development, where any child not exposed to speech before the age of seven becomes increasingly unlikely to be able to string sentences together, especially in a grammatically correct or complex way.  I prefer to believe that this is a result of the brain’s plasticity, or the ability of the human mind to shape itself to its best advantage for survival in any given environment.  After all, if a human loses a finger, then the brain will eventually incorporate the space used for the mobility and sensations of that finger to add increased support for the other four fingers on that hand.  So, when a child is not exposed to language within a reasonable time span, they use the brain space for other, more pressing, environmental concerns.  Whatever the case, profoundly abused and neglected children, such as Genii, to name a famous example, display dramatically different results on tests of brain activity from those of normal children.  How is a child, or even an adult in such a circumstance, to appear normal?

Should we even strive for that?

Hopefully, if one is a parent or mentor of a child that is different, either from mental illness, some cognitive “impairment”, or other disorder that may impact the ability to act in line with social norms, one attempts to do their best to ease the child’s struggles, to give them the best hope of a normal life, and to give them the tools to achieve happiness in spite of the fact that the child is unconventional.

At first, I didn’t understand Nyx at all.  I tried to force her to be what she was not; I did not bother to see who she was as a person, or who she was meant to be.  I’m ashamed to say that I bullied her, that I cajoled, and screamed, and begged, all in the name of turning her into something she was not, and will never be.  I loved her in my own self-serving way; I told myself I wanted her to be whole, and “normal”.  She could grow and change, all to fit my whims and needs.  I did not think to embrace her strengths, or to offer her the nourishment to become the best version of herself.  I tried to beat her into the shape that fit a common mold.

For a very long time, I missed a valuable lesson.  Maybe it is a truth.

When I discovered that Nyx fit the label of “feral child” I sought more information on the topic.  I was horrified to discover how they had been described, viewed, and designated throughout history; I was traumatized by their fates.  The picture painted was far from rosy, even if humanity sometimes viewed them in a tragic romanticized haze.  What galled me the most was the “scientific” view of the differences in brain activity.  It was one thing to use feral children (“the forbidden experiment”) as an argument for nature vs. nurture, but quite another to argue that they were mentally deficient, either as a result of their circumstances or because they were plunged into said circumstances because their parents resented their handicaps in the first place (I say it’s a shoddy excuse for abuse or neglect, and the parents’ excuses unverifiable, and probably hogwash, at that).  The implication placed in the tone and phrasing of these reports was that feral children were somehow less, simply because their talents and skills did not expand to the scope of linguistic skill.  Yet few of the children in the videos and texts displayed a lack of intelligence; they seemed, to me, to learn at a remarkable rate.  One child, purportedly, indicating a disdain for cooked food when it was placed in front of him, jumped in a nearby water supply, and caught his own supply, tool free, in less than five minutes.  He offered to share.  Some children displayed astounding climbing, running, and jumping abilities. In fact, most humans living in a first world country today would stand a scant chance of survival if placed in similar conditions to those that these children lived in before their discovery by neighboring townspeople.  If you’re wondering, none of these children were adopted by animals, although they might have learned some skills by observing them.  Does that strike you as lacking in intelligence?

What is intelligence anyway?  I’ve yet to see a test that accurately measures intelligence.  It seems, honestly, as if the tests measure how well we’ve adapted in an educational sense to a particular culture and society in relation to our age.  There are other ways of viewing the world, of adapting to it, of interacting with it.  Those of us who “fit in” may have difficulty understanding the perspectives and actions of those who are different from us, and comprehension becomes an even more demanding task when others cannot communicate with us in the way we are accustomed to.

All of us are a little bit different.  Sometimes, if we are lucky, our differences are seen as skills rather than deficits.  Can you imagine an environment or situation where schizophrenia, or Asperger’s, or any number of other supposed issues might be positive adaptations?  Do you think there might be skills or thinking patterns associated with depression or other conditions that may actually be helpful in certain fields of study or activities?  Or perhaps, aren’t there things that these people teach us, ways in which they make us better simply by existing and being themselves?

I no longer want to force Nyx into that mold.  The way she sees the world is unique and beautiful.  I refuse to propagate the idea that there is only one right way to be.  Barring certain unsociable acts (e.g. murder), individuals, even cultures, who are different from us broaden our scope of thought and perception.  They grant us new lenses from which to view the world, and enlighten us as to the variability, adaptability, and resilience of humanity, and in fact, life itself.