What’s Montague?

They’ve got a name for everything nowadays. That’s how it should be, I guess, but sometimes I wonder if they just make things up so they can try out a catchy name –fleek springs to mind. I heard it on a bus, downtown, but from the looks the kids gave the person who used it, I think it had already passed its best-before date. But that’s the trouble with names isn’t it? Especially if what they name isn’t really there, or has already transmogrified. Or maybe worse, never was, and the name was, well, unconsummated.

So I am very particular about names. Nowadays, of course, they could be fake news, but there was always a danger. You had to source them carefully. Validate their lexical potential, lest you be accused of neologizing for kudos –itself an irregular transliteration of the Greek kydos. See what I mean? Names can become Möbius loops if you’re not careful.

As such, I was particularly wary when I came across misophonia as you can imagine. I suppose context has a role to play, though. If I heard it on the BBC, I would assume it had something to do with the mistreatment of microphones or something; in a mall in the suburbs, I would think I had wandered into the food court. As it happens, I overheard it on the CBC here in Canada. A neurologist was being interviewed on the radio about a condition in which specific sounds trigger negative thoughts and reactions in certain people -up to 20% of the population, apparently. Sounds like chewing, coughing, slurping, horking… well, you get the idea. Its cause is unknown, but sometimes identifiable on fMRI as demyelination –unwrapping, as it were- of certain neurons in specific areas of the brain.

Great! Naked neurons lurking in 20% of our heads waiting for a chance to expose themselves and embarrass us. Definitely not fleek. But it did command my attention –especially when I heard the trigger sounds they broadcast as examples. I don’t normally hit my radio, but sometimes you just have to do what’s necessary, eh? It got me wondering whether the condition –which has yet to have its accouchement in the DSM psychiatric bible- is really as prevalent as reported. And if so, could this account for various cultural differences in tolerance of table noise? Mutations in DNA, or, if it can’t be found that way, epigenetic modification by lowering the volume on certain genes? Sorry -I suppose I’m just being a scientific reductionist, but I need excuses. Idiosyncrasies become reclassified as exemplars of dementia at my age.

Time for another coffee shop experiment. I decided against the upscale, usually working age Starbucks in case somebody complained. Lenny’s seemed a more suitable venue, with its offer of free terrible coffee for seniors on certain days. I figured I could test them out without fear of reprisal.

My plan was simplicity itself. I would go in, sit beside a doddering group, and make table noises and see what happened. To randomize the groups, I could switch tables after a few minutes and, like doing a poll, get a representative sample of the population. Wow.

I googled the local Lenny’s –I didn’t even know there was one- and discovered that Tuesdays were the free senior coffee days. It didn’t define the term ‘senior’, but as soon as I looked through the window at the sea of gray, I knew I had chosen well. I walked in and obtained my free coffee from a bepimpled teenager who should have been in school, and sat next to a three-seat senior’s table in the corner of the room. I figured it must have been purpose-built because it had arm rests, and a large gap on one side for a wheel chair, I suppose –but in this case, at any rate, a place to lean their canes.

So far, so good, I thought, as I smoothed a paper napkin from the dispenser screwed on to the middle of my table to discourage borrowing. I thought I should record things and I didn’t want to bring a clipboard. Writing it on my phone or a tablet might alert the subjects and alter their unwitting participation. Subterfuge was paramount, I realized, and although I doubted it would pass strict ethical muster, I could always claim my noises were how our family always behaved around the dinner table.

They were all men at the table, and I have to say their voices were all rather fortississimoid and they used an inordinate number of hand gestures. I found it terribly annoying, to tell the truth. I realized why they were seated in a corner –or had been sent there.

I tried a tentative slurp with my coffee –this turned out to be easy, because its taste demanded a reaction. In fact, in those brief interludes between shouts, they were all doing it. The sound was actually a pleasant relief from the otherwise obnoxious cacophony. Nobody turned to stare when I tried it during one of the lulls. If anything, I felt accepted

Then the irritating discordance resumed with no paper-napkinable response I could record. And the replacement noise was becoming infuriating. Time for the coup de grace: my teenage version of the smoker’s hork –produced, incidentally, should the method ever need validation, by a soupcon of coffee percolated over the uvula and then coughed into a (different) napkin. Unfortunately, it went largely unnoticed in the fray -although one of the men actually looked over and smiled as if he recognized me before he resumed yelling at his friends. Maybe they were just deaf, I thought, rationalizing the failure of yet another promising experiment that might have quantified the syndrome enough to be used in a future DSM.

But all was not lost, I realized as I dumped the remaining coffee with its thin waxy cardboard in the waste bin and slunk out of the door. I had, in effect, validated the reality of the problem. Misophony was alive and as naked as a newborn in a fresh set of my own hitherto unsuspecting neurons. They continue to skulk, for the most part, I guess, but I don’t go in Lenny’s anymore for fear of exposure. Not that you’d notice in there anyway.

 

 

Indecorous Words

Okay, I have been known to utter indecorous words from time to time. I’m trying to cut down, though. It’s not that I have forgotten them –they still sound rather naughty- it’s more that they seem precarious now. Dishevelled… a different kind of dirty. And what they accomplish I’m no longer certain –if I ever was. But I suppose there is an expostulatory stage of Life which requires time on pedestals. Demands individuation. Brief moments of spotlight. But for most of it, I think watching quietly from the shadows and choosing an appropriate moment critique for action is a better plan than jumping into the raging current without a proper strategy.

Of course, I’m older now, and arthritic in my tongue. It often hurts to swear when one is in one’s yellow leaf, and it does little for the tree. There are other ways to cathart. Other, more attractive,  purgatives -yet I must admit, at times they are not sufficient for the job. Swearing centres around taboos, I believe, and the frisson seems to come from flaunting the ability to flaunt the forbidden fruit. From uttering the unutterable. So the words tend to cluster around bathroom stuff, as well as religion and sex –only one of which holds much sway at my age.

But times change don’t they, and wanting to keep abreast of the ever roiling waters of verbal laxatives, I decided to pay attention to how the Young are currently phrasing things –to see if there are any new topics they’ve decided to disparage. New words. New codes.

I would not do it conspicuously, of course –it would be better to imbibe without actually tasting the waters, listen without seeming to listen.

I considered pretending to be asleep –it’s what is expected of elders, after all- but a venue that permits that also discourages the kind of youth interaction that would serve my purpose. And I’d likely have to sit in a coffee shop until the Apocalyptical Horsemen arrived and ordered donuts before I would get any useable results there. So I decided on a McDonalds outlet near a high school -and, since they all are I think, the choice was easy.

Now, even as a senior, you have to be careful when you’re sitting around for long in a location like that. First of all, it tends to encourage repeated purchases and there’s a limit to the number of coffees a bladder can hold. But more importantly, you don’t want to look unsavoury. Personally, I don’t think I do, but then again I’m used to me. Sunglasses –especially if they’re the dorky kind that fit over bifocals- stand out. And I think hats make you look suspicious so I decided not to wear my rapper cap or the toque my mother knit for me when I left home. I finally settled on a grey hoodie with matching jeans to allow me to blend in. And to allay any misgivings, and totally fool the kids, I decided to pretend to be doing a newspaper crossword puzzle. It’s what the elderly do in McDonalds to pass the time. Fly-on-the-wall stuff.

What I didn’t bank on was a boisterous group of teenagers from a nearby arts college out on a lunch break. There were three of them, all wearing sweatshirts and jeans, and two exhibiting the usual jockeying for status as the boys knocked shoulders with each other and vied for the attention of the only girl who had braved their company. She seemed unimpressed and the little jewel on her nose sparkled in the fluorescent light as she glanced around the busy room. But even so, there was a curious lack of the usual four-letter taboos I had expected to hear.

I have to admit to a certain thrill of anticipation, nonetheless. As if I were standing, curious, on a stile and peering into a new, greener pasture, I unholstered my pencil.

“Jeez, I don’t know, Stephanie,” one of the boys said. “I think you were definitely Harrising him…”

‘Jeez’? Come on guys -we were using that when I was a kid. I suppose he was nervous or something, but ‘Harrising’? We all misspeak, though… I smiled and pretended to add something to the puzzle in front of me as the girl –obviously named Stephanie- briefly rested her eyes on me en route to her accuser.

She shook her head playfully and giggled defiantly. I’d never heard a defiant giggle and realized I was breaking new ground but couldn’t figure out how to transcribe it in the puzzle margin. I squeezed the pencil for inspiration but the conversation continued without it.

“Look, Jako, he was dissing Carr, eh? I mean, like, ignoring her influence…”

Jako rolled his eyes and raised his hands as if in profound disbelief. “Mother Kahlo! Carr wasn’t even a member, Steph.”

‘Mother Kallo? That was a bit ambiguous, I thought, but I could hear the exclamation mark so it must have been a profanation… It seemed familiar, though.

“Yeah, sure, Jako, side with the men again, eh?”

“And you’re not polarized? Whoa, you wouldn’t even admit Thomson’s influence on the group…”

Stephanie shrugged. “If you’re gonna include him, then you have to leave the door wide open for Carr…” She seemed to pout for a moment. “At least she was still alive, eh?”

“Look, even Harris admitted Thompson’s influence…”

Stephanie crossed her arms. “Harris?” she said, like she were invoking the devil. “Have you even read his essay, Jako?”

It was Jako’s turn to sulk. “Oh, for Kahlo’s sake? Steph, we discussed it in class a zillion times.” I thought I caught him stealing a glance at me, but I could’t be sure.

He’d used ‘Kallo’ again; I improvised an approximate spelling and then double underlined it –maybe he was invoking the wrath of an obscure Grecian god that Stephanie was obviously fond of. Kids sure read a lot more than we did, I thought, shaking my head in admiration.

She smiled accusingly. “And…?”

“And no,” he replied, glaring at her. “Have you?”

“No, just Varley, Jako! What do you think, eh?” She uncrossed her arms and leaned forward over her Big Mac to stare at him.

‘Just Varley’ –now there was a new one! Probably a pseudonym for some unspeakably rude act, I decided as I scribbled it down and then underlined it as well.

“You’re just sore because we glossed over the Beaver Hall Group.”

“They had almost as much influence as the Seven…”

Yes! An obvious biblical reference to the Sins. Good. I wrote it in the margin.

“Yeah,” Jako said with a sneer, “When they had A.Y…”

‘A.Y’? This was going well, I thought -and although I had no idea what it meant, it was obviously a mean thing to say.

“And remember, Steph, all ten of them studied under Brymner…” said the other, smaller boy who’d been silently gobbling up his fries until Jako reached for some.

Hah! ‘Brymner’. I started to write down the word and then erased it. No, I decided, that’s just somebody’s name.

“Meaning what?” Stephanie was not backing down. “That, like, men had to help us? That without their help we would still be in the kitchen cooking for them…?”

“Carr again, eh? That’s not what I’m saying…” The quiet boy suddenly stood up and grabbed his tray, risking a quick glance my way. “Anyway, we’re gonna talk about Frida this afternoon, remember?”

‘Carr’? I was beginning to suspect something here. Was Carr the new deprecation? I was sure I’d heard that word before…

Stephanie rolled her eyes and stood with the rest of them. “Tokenism! Frida’s just a way of introducing bloody Rivera.” She said the name with an ill-disguised snarl.

Hah! ‘Bloody’ –that’s more like it. But I wasn’t sure if it was the invective, or merely an adjective describing the ‘Rivera’ thing. Either way, I wasn’t certain it was what I was looking for. Neither was ‘Frida’, for that matter.

“What’s wrong with murals?” Jako asked, taking her tray to carry for her.

“I’m not into Big, eh?” she said, grabbing the tray back from him.

Ahh, now ‘big’ may be a double entendre, and I wrote it down excitedly. I was beginning to feel like an ethnolinguist at first contact, listening to sounds that had no meaning.

As they started to leave, I slipped into camouflage and pretended to write something down in the puzzle as if I’d finally thought of a word for it. I smiled at my clever ruse but I felt someone standing next to me and looked up.

Stephanie was smiling too, and her face seemed about to laugh. “I saw you looking at us, sir,” she said. “Hope we weren’t too loud,” she added, her smile growing by the second.

“No,” I said, blushing. “I was just thinking of words for my crossword, I guess…”

She glanced at the words I’d written in the margins beside the puzzle for a moment and nodded. “Well if it’s asking for a five-letter word for a feminist Mexican painter, it’s spelled K-A-H-L-O… not K-A-L-L-O.” Then, for some reason, she winked at me.

Where do they learn this stuff I wondered and smiled to thank her, realizing with a sigh that I’d never make it as a kid nowadays.

 

 

 

 

 

For two scents…

Okay, full disclosure: I’m a guy -uhmm, I suppose that has been apparent for years… But before I am relegated to just one of the many gender allocations now so readily available, I have to admit that when I was growing up, there were only two choices and actually they were assigned and not open for discussion. I have no issues with that; I am very comfortable in the clothes I have been expected to wear; and had I to start all over again, I would no doubt self-direct myself to the same side of the tracks.

And yet there is one thing… A very tiny thing perhaps –nothing comparable to the disrespect and outright inequity so often foisted upon other gender roles, of course, but nonetheless troublesome when you get right down to it. No, perhaps irritating describes it best… Actually, come to think about it, I’m going to go for disgusting. Sorry.

I’m referring, of course, to odour –male, exercise odour. Gym bag malfeasance. Male locker room fetor. Naturally I have been somewhat limited in my olfactory experiences given that I have never been sufficiently athletic to be selected for any team that might be expected to sweat excessively, and I’ve never been awarded female locker room privileges. But it has always seemed to me that males have been alone in their allotment to the spoor-bearing section. Hormones, I figured -testosterone, eh?

I can’t say it has been a burning issue all these years; it’s something you learn to put up with –something guys tell each other. I was warned never to leave a hockey equipment bag in the back seat if I was going out on a date. And always wear lots of aftershave even if you don’t –shave, I mean. At the very least it would make them think you were old enough. At the time, I never asked for what, but I have to assume it was about paying for the movie.

Body odour has always been a source of embarrassment to me, but being an only child I naturally believed that it was only a guy thing. Girls usually smelled of flowers and were probably not allowed to sweat. I don’t mean allowed, really –but obviously their hormones enabled them to control it somehow. Women are from Venus; Men are from locker rooms –anyway that made sense to my finally-deepening voice.

I was shocked when, in my later years, I came across a book by Katherine Ashenburg called ‘The Dirt on Clean’ and realized that our species had a rather chequered past with regards to both cleanliness, and odour. Bathing seemed to have gone in and out of favour as did techniques for disguising the stench that attended each person who happened along. But I guess if everybody smells, you don’t have to worry as much. And it wasn’t that grooming was on the endangered list or anything –fleas and lice were quite fashionable, so inspecting and picking at each other’s hair was probably what you did on first dates.

And hey, you didn’t actually have to wash –linen was believed to clean your skin without the danger of opening up the pores and letting bad stuff in. I’m not actually sure what linen is, but hopefully it came in nice colours.

But, naïveté aside, it did get me wondering if there was such a noticeable sexual difference in gym bag bouquet back then. Did they learn to stuff them with linen, or something? Of course, I suppose women weren’t picked for many of the hockey teams in those days, so we may never know. And I think only guys got to fight with swords and whatever… maybe that’s how the folklore about male body odour got started…

Finally, in my declining years, I have been given a clue of sorts –an explanation, maybe. It’s an acknowledgement by the BBC, previously undisclosed and carefully obscured: women have not escaped as unscathed as I was hitherto taught to believe. They also -well, dare I say it?- smell. It’s the bacteria, not the person though, okay? http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37220208

But when you think about it, our perspective on the world is not only our measuring tape of others, but sadly, also of ourselves. Who would have thought that the Theory of Mind –i.e. our ability to realize that others may have different thoughts than our own- might apply equally to smell?

And yet, I have to admit that I am more than a little unprepared for this sudden equivalence. I mean, if men and women both smell the same after exercise –if we’re all subject to the same deodoral constraints- then what separates us? Apart from the more noticeable anatomical bulges, how are the sexes meaningfully different? On what grounds could we ever decide which would make the best or most efficient hunter? If Power smells the same in each, if hard work is olfactorially undifferentiable, what’s left to choose between us for anything? Why, exactly, did they put in a glass ceiling? Maybe they should simply mandate different coloured linen handles on gym bags.

But it’s just a thought though, eh?

 

 

Gumbo Diplomacy

I have been thinking about prairie gumbo ever since I visited Saskatoon recently. That such an interesting word with its obviously gastronomic overtones could occupy my thoughts days after I have left its realm is, in itself a gumbo, don’t  you think? At any rate, casting aside any tautological ramifications, I would like to focus on its more relevant aspects. Like what it does to peoples’ psyches -their Weltanschauungs, not to put too fine a point on it.

Strictly speaking, it is a curse –nothing religious, you understand. It does not seek to undermine whatever gods may be, nor does it pretend to be other than what it is: sticky, nonporous and horribly adhesive wet soil that had previously lived a rather mundane existence as, well, dirt. Rather Jekyll and Hydey, in a way.

I first encountered it as a child in Winnipeg, and then promptly buried it where I hid all my other transgressions, deep within the collective unconscious of a million other six year olds. All it took was earth –better known as clay in those days- and a soupçon of moisture, and suddenly you had heavy shoes that transported mud from field to house better than a wheelbarrow. Every door had a scraper and a mother that stood guard over her linoleum like a jinn. The proper disposal of one’s gumbo was conscience’s teething ring. It was how every prairie child learned to cope with being yelled at from an early age without developing ego dystonia. Without dialling 911 from the neighbourhood phone booth citing child abuse. Things were different then…

I have to admit that I had neither seen nor thought about gumbo since I moved to the west coast more years ago than I can remember. But I suppose all expats deserve a flashback now and then, eh? Something that awakens their latent post gumbo stress disorders –that urgent need to find a scraper before getting caught, that fear of awakening in the deep of night with heavy feet. It is an under-reported affliction here though -a region of the country where waves roll onto the shore with other news from other places. The world everywhere else is messy too, and with far more serious things to worry about; gumbo is simply not a bête noir out here.

And yet, despite the West Coast’s famous solipsists, there are prairie waves that lap silently at its back door mountains that cannot be ignored for ever. Saskatoon is whispering at the window.

I didn’t hear it, though, and drove blithely Eastward like a compass-blind settler, hypnotized by a land sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans… Sorry, but it was like driving over a stained and wrinkled tablecloth, green to the horizon, infinite in all directions –I’d forgotten that, too. It’s amazing how we can sublimate entire childhoods.

I’m not sure what I was expecting really. A pancake city? Or maybe a sudden 3D concrete oasis glued to a piece of unfolded green wrapping paper like one of those little fake houses you put on a monopoly board? Well, it was not like that; Saskatoon was beautiful –a warren of deep-green trees lining the South Saskatchewan river with the city snuggling into it like a cheese into rind. I loved it, despite the faint whiff of Mother that greeted me at the door of the little B&B I had booked. There were signs everywhere requesting –no, demanding– the removal of footwear before proceeding inward –prefixed, of course, with an ample dose of Canadian politesse: Please was ubiquitously on display. But I still felt like a child at a kindergarten class forced to walk around in socks, carrying his shoes and pretending not to mind.

There were no scrapers, though, as if their very presence might grant an insufficiently scraped shoe entry into the sanctum sanctorum. A synecdochical Prairie might appreciate the transgression, but no one else –especially one in need of lodgings for the night. It had rained that morning, apparently, so the matron (is that what you call the woman who greets you at the door with a fake smile?) was on Defcon 3, her eyes, trained falcons each waiting for its little hood to be removed. Hoping for prey.

Apart from an atavistic hardening of the hairs on the back of my neck and a frisson of anticipatory guilt, I hardly noticed, however. After the long, and may I say soporifically boring trip across both an unending and untitillatingly naked land, I needed to stretch my legs and don my Adidas for a run along the river trails -a run through the pseudo forest. Mother eyed me suspiciously, but Canadian to her roots, she only smiled at my foolishness.

I am no forest virgin, however; I am a mountain trail runner, used to roots and creeks and hills with obstacles a Prairie could only dream of. I had no fear of running in flatland.

The trail started well: a brief sprint across some rather sparse grass, still sparkling in that just-washed fashion which only partially hid the nourishing soil, and then, only moments away, a gravel trail that begged for some company. However, by the time I reached the trail I was exhausted. I wondered if it was the altitude –maybe the prairies are above sea level… I mean they must be, or they’d be one huge and even less interesting puddle. I took it as a thought experiment, a koan requiring meditation as I ran –and yet, I couldn’t. My feet felt logy –driver’s feet. I decided to fly next time.

I slogged a few metres down the trail and sat on a little bench obviously provided by some NGO for aging people with heart trouble. It didn’t look out on the river, or anything –just the sparkling green grass. But maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do when you get old: sit and watch plants grow.

I was still puzzled with myself however, although that soon turned to an embarrassed wave as a younger, more beautiful specimen ran past, sporting thighs of varnished ivory and a compassionate smile that positively oozed pity. I am an athlete too, I thought, and while I am burnished with wrinkles not alabaster, I felt I should also be in the race.

I wracked my brain for a reason I felt so fatigued. Prolonged ennui? Car-lag? Maybe I had a new, hitherto undescribed condition that could be named after me… I brightened at the thought. Maybe sitting for long periods of time in a car with only endless lines of telephone posts for company, reduced to naming the innumerable gravel roads that branched from the highway like ribs, and watching the wind carve lines through the still-young crops, was enough to inflict worrisome damage to the unwitting driver. Maybe that’s why pioneers went mad…

Still, as I sat on the bench feeling sorry for myself, and also wondering if it was time to sell my car and find a Home that specialized in disability, I struggled to understand the speed with which the fatigue had arisen. I thought you were supposed to get a warning about these things –chest pain, or bladder leakage… Something. I got nothing. No excuse for my sudden demotion, not even a headache.

Shame heightened as I saw an old man –okay, an older man- hobbling up the trail swinging his cane jauntily like he was in Vaudeville. As he got closer, I noticed he was smiling. I thought that was odd –who smiles to himself on a trail? Perhaps he’d escaped from somewhere –a local Institution maybe- although he looked harmless enough. Anyway, when he reached me, he stopped and his smile broadened.

“Lovely day for a sit,” he said, chuckling at the word. “I see you’re not Prairie,” he continued, inspecting me from foot to head. His tone of condescension was unmistakable.

“Why do you say that?” I answered, nodding politely, and wondering how he’d guessed.

He shrugged as if the question was a silly one. “Ran across the grass, eh?” he added and inclined his head towards the little field behind him.

I nodded again, and tilted my own head at his local knowledge. How did he know that? “Yes…” I said tentatively, afraid to commit myself to something that might get me in trouble.

His eyes twinkled merrily at my admission. “How far did you get before you had to stop and walk…?”

“Excuse me?” I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or insulted.

He smiled a devil’s smile and pointed his cane at my shoes. “Gumbo,” he said softly and reverently. “Gumbo and grass,” he added, shaking his head disparagingly, as he turned to continue his walk. “They should put up signs…” I heard him mutter as he trundled away nodding his head as if he intended to attend the next municipal meeting and suggest it.

My long-buried guilt returned with a shiver and for some reason, I felt as if I’d been caught in flagrante delicto. Deeply ashamed, I vowed to sit in the bushes and check my shoes the next time. Anyway, now more on guard, I made sure nobody was around, then quickly scraped my gumbo off on the bench seat. But there were traces of mud there already and it dawned on me I was not alone. There were obviously others who’d been caught begumboed. Others who’d probably also had to expose their inadvertent podiatral transgressions to an old man with a cane.

It suddenly dawned on me that we – the others- are simply a more brazen variety of the many patterns that are woven into Saskatoon’s quilt. So, finally realizing that I am an essential part of the societal matrix, I decided to catch up to that girl with the ivory thighs, and wave again.

 

 

 

A Rosé by any other name…

Uhmm, am I grasping at straws here, or is there really a Bacchus? Or, for that matter –not wishing to offend anybody- a Dionysus? http://vinepair.com/booze-news/sommelier-brain/?xid=soc_socialflow_facebook_fw  -is a rather superficial summary of an article published in Frontiers in Neuroscience from the Cleveland Clinic suggesting that smelling wine may make you resistant to Alzheimer’s disease. The very thought that my guilt may have been misplaced all these years is redemptive. And yet… Why does it all seem so counterintuitive? Why does it splash in the face of what I was taught to believe was beyond question? Indisputable? The prohibitions around alcohol in my youth were akin to a religion whose apostasism spelled painful parental sanctions and, of course, the dreaded brain death.

But, the older I get, the more I realize that I am able to shed, penalty free, some of the family shibboleths that I assumed were societal wisdom, not tribal folklore otherwise unknown beyond the kitchen table. That oak trees were the preferred cradle for ticks –an ancestral favourite- I was able to discard one year at summer camp when, dangling my toes in a pond near an oak, I escaped unticked. Not unleeched, however, thus making me wonder if my mother had actually tapped into something more atavistic than she realized. Or am I just making excuses for her because, well, she’s my mother after all?

Of course parents do that –they set impossibly vicarious limits on their children, and glue mores to them like post-it notes. There would be no guilt without parents. Maybe no religion, either. Far be it for me to suggest that both seem to have their roots in an uncritical acceptance of source material, but there you have it. I want to believe that smelling wine would be good for my neurons, and also the extrapolated corollary that therefore drinking it must be even better. Apparently the authors of the summary were also extrapolists –as Shakespeare said, ‘Let every eye negotiate for itself…’

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Perhaps, but I thought I’d run it by Brien, anyway. He’s always been a reliable advocator for beer, although I doubt that he smells it much. And I’m not sure whether, even though beer and wine both contain alcohol, the conclusions of that study would still apply. Mind you, I read somewhere that the perceptual loss of certain smells –peanut butter is the only one I remember- had something to do with Alzheimer’s, so maybe strengthening your nose is important somehow…

I found Brien sitting on his porch staring at his cedar tree as usual. I asked him about that once, and he just shrugged and admitted in a whisper that he liked to see the branches dancing in the wind. He made me look at them, I remember, and I kind of enjoyed the show; it was like watching the conductor of a silent woodland orchestra, but I never admitted it. You have to be careful about agreeing with Brien because then he figures you owe him something.

So when I saw him this time, I thought I’d try to put him in my debt for a change. “Hey Brien,” I said calling to him from the sidewalk and waving.

He slowly summoned his eyes from the tree and let them walk over to me. “Hey,” he said when they had climbed up my legs and roosted a little shakily on my face. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious greeting, but I saw a can of beer in his hand and another one lying prostrate on the wooden floor beside his chair.

“I thought I’d come over and see how you were doing,” I said, playing the dutiful friend card.

He shrugged. “Not much wind today,” he answered and tugged his eyes back home. “We may have to stare at something else.” He sounded disappointed. Brien was a creature of habit. He had probably planned on an afternoon of tree and beer; he hated improvisation. Uncertainty wasn’t what he’d expected out of Retirement he once told me.

“I read a really interesting article, Brien…”

He glanced at the tree and then offered me a beer from an ice chest he kept hidden from passersby on the sidewalk. “What is it this time?” he said, shaking his head slowly. “Not more of that stuff on exercise I hope…” Brien is a large man, and as such, largely exerphobic –his neologism.

I shook my head, trying not to look too eager –that always makes him suspicious. “It’s about smelling wine…”

His eyes poked me rudely on the cheek. “I only drink beer.”

“I know that!” I said it rather forcefully, I have to admit -I had to keep his attention. “But I think it may work for beer, too…”

He lowered his head and looked at me as if he were a professor staring over the top of his glasses at an annoying student. “Did you say smelling wine, or smelling of wine?” He allowed himself a chuckle.

I decided not to take it as a rebuff and smiled. I felt a little like a Jehovah’s Witness bearing the Good News to his porch. “The article suggested that people who smell wine for a living…”

“You mean drink wine, don’t you?” he interrupted -a little irritably, I thought.

“No. I mean sommeliers –the ones who can tell the terroir from the smell… Wine experts,” I added for some much needed clarity, judging by his expression.

“They have smelliers for beer, too,” he said defensively. “I just don’t know any…”

Anyway…!” It was my turn to interrupt. “The point is that learning to differentiate smells, may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.” I saw disbelief beginning to creep over his forehead. “They both affect the same area of the brain, I think the article said. So it may mean that practicing smelling could be a way of strengthening the neurons in there.” His expression changed. “Makes them more resistant, I guess,” I added to shore up my argument. “… At least it works with wine…” I figured I should issue a disclaimer in case it went to court.

“You mean it’s an exercise I can do right here on the porch?” He was smiling now.

I nodded, not sure where this was going.

“I can already do two or three,” he said. His smile had grown so large he had trouble framing his lips around the words. Then he sat back in the chair and stared at the can he was holding. “You know, I guess my mother was right all along…”

I watched him curiously for a moment. He’d never mentioned his family before. “Mothers always seem to know things…” It seemed like the right thing for me to say.

He nodded pleasantly. “They sure do… She always told me I’d end up forgetting my own name if I just kept drinking beer…”

Who knew, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ministering Angels

I don’t know what it is about illness –everybody talks about it nowadays as if it’s their fault. As if they wouldn’t get sick they were really healthy. But seems to me that lifestyle and diet can explain only so much. Some of it just happens; check with any old person -it’s like asking someone walking off a train at a station how he got there…

We all get sick. After all, health is only possible if you have something with which to contrast it. Otherwise you might just as well be asleep. Or that other thing.

Not to dwell on it, or anything, but I have to say that the conversations that swirl around me at my age, seem to have inordinately large components of disease in them. And if not specifically referenced as such, bear all the facially recognizable hallmarks thereof. The only words not shouted so we can hear them, I find, are the affliction words of maladies -not loud, but deep- to paraphrase Macbeth. And, given that I have as well, perhaps, fallen into the sere, my yellow leaf, I would it were otherwise.

It is for that reason, I suppose, that I seek out tables near younger people in restaurants and coffee shops when I am allowed the choice. It is not hard to find those autumn-deprived souls, of course, so the opportunity is almost always on offer.

Allen, however, is of a different mind whenever we meet. He seeks to compare notes, I think –to wallow vicariously in the misfortunes of other graylings who are only too willing to remonstrate with each other in barely whispered shouts about how they, also, did not escape entirely unscathed. I think it cheers him up.

It was on one such trip that I remember we had our very own remonstrance. It took place in one of the lesser known franchises that were only able to stay open by offering discounts to seniors for coffee and doughnuts. So the air was awash with the clatter of dentures gripping tasteless pastry and overly-loud greetings once we cleared the door. Everybody seemed to have monosyllabic names like Fred and John, with the occasional Edward sprinkled in for acoustic exercise. Arthritic hands waved their slow salutes, and rheumy eyes squinted in the fluorescent glare as they fought to recognize the faces of friends they’d long since given up for dead. Or at least that’s how it seemed each time Allen dragged me there.

I was in the middle of bemoaning his taste, both of the company and the venue, when he suddenly tried to paste an impatient smile between the wrinkles on his cheeks. He seemed to have difficulty clearing enough room –his face was crowded with other issues at the time- but I suppose I shouldn’t have shrugged at his attempt.

“What is it this time?” he said, disdainfully. It was his favourite coffee shop and we had arrived in time for the seniors’ Happy Hour, so Allen knew they’d marked the doughnuts down even further. The place was packed and he’d been amazed we’d even found a table.

I shook my head and shrugged. “Nothing, Allen,” I replied, pointing to the lineup at the till. “You go get us a couple of coffees and I’ll guard our table.” It seemed the sensible thing to do.

He wandered off, delighted in the line of canes that offered to vindicate his choice of time and place. Allen is short, slightly gnarled, and definitely tonsured in grey like his line mates, so he almost disappeared in the gestalt.

I had to squint to make him out, but I could see him touch one of the gaunt ones gently on his shoulder and smile a silent greeting as their eyes met. I could see their lips moving and Allen shaking his head while reaching out with his other hand to console him.

The two of them soon made their way back to the table, deep in conversation. Neither looked happy.

I recognized the other man as he sat down and smiled. “John lost his wife, last year,” Allen said, scarcely looking at me.

“Breast cancer,” John said, staring at the coffee in his hand.

“And now John has found out he has to have a prostate operation…” Allen said, shaking his head again.

“Just a biopsy… so far, at any rate,” John added for clarity. “Had my first cataract removed a couple of weeks ago, though, so the prostate apparently has to wait.”

Allen shook his head again.

John gazed at Allen now –it was his turn, apparently.

Allen sighed loudly enough to be heard over the ‘Pardon me’ shouts from various tables all around us, many engaged in listing off their respective ailments to each other at the top of their voices, and shaking their heads as necessary. “I suppose I’ve been lucky, John,” he said with false humility. “I’ve only had bouts of chest pain –especially when I walk,” he added, lest John think it wasn’t as serious as his prostate issue. It was news to me, and I was about to say something when I felt two predatory eyes stalking my face. “But my doctor reassured me after a few tests…” He recalled his eyes and dropped them onto the table in front of him. He was silent for a moment. “He plans on sending me to a specialist if it happens again, though… Or maybe to the Emergency Department.” I think he only said that to validate his claim, however, because he quickly picked his eyes up off the table again and hurled them at my face to silence any rebuttal.

John seemed relieved –although whether it was because of Allen’s reprieve, or his membership in the club I couldn’t tell. “You just don’t know from one day to the next, do you Allen?” He resumed shaking his head in response to the same from Allen. “I mean, who’s going to be next in line, eh?”

“I know what you mean, John…”

They both looked at me to see if I could better them. I didn’t know what to do with my eyes, let alone my lips. The only thing I could think of on the spur of the moment was a theatrical sigh and a little head nod. They each sat back in their chairs, first to listen and then commiserate. I could see Allen massaging his neck after all its unaccustomed exercise; but he appeared to be limbering up for another shake.

“I’ve been a little bloated lately…” I said, improvising as I went along.

“That’s worrying,” said John immediately, while Allen started nodding his head as the plot developed.

“I Googled it…” I continued, beginning to get into it.

“Good idea,” John whispered loudly -whispers are apparently more commiseratory.

“And I realized that I could be sitting on an explosive powder keg,” I said, casting my eyes about for reaction. They were loving it, judging by the speed and range of their heads.

“And did you go to your doctor?” John asked, totally engaged in my ailment.

I shook my head, this time; I’d learned the moves. “I think I diagnosed it online, John,” I answered. “Thought I’d first wait and see if the treatment from the site I looked at would help.”

John nodded his wholehearted approval. “We have to try lots of stuff first, don’t we?” he said with his lips, while ‘and then we’re sorry,’ was written all over his face, but I ignored that. He continued to stare at me hopefully. “So, how did it work?” He lowered his eyes to half-mast in anticipation of my answer.

I shrugged. “I feel fine now, thanks John.”

He slowly raised his eyes to check my face, but I could see he was disappointed in me. “Great,” he managed to say without choking. “What’d you do?”

I shrugged again. “Stopped eating kale… I only tried it because of Allen anyway… Hate the stuff…”

I could tell John didn’t know whether to shake his head or do a congratulatory nod. Instead of situating himself in either camp, he made a show of raising the sleeve of his sweater to look for his watch. He got the wrong arm at first, but I put that down to his jealousy about my health.

Once he found the watch, though, it wasn’t long before he excused himself and left the table without his empty cup.

Allen glared at me. “You just can’t fit in, can you?” he said, but with a different shake of his head this time -an angry shake. I could tell the difference.

I cocked my head, pretending confusion. “I talked about my bowels, Allen…”

“John wanted to share the serious health issues we’re supposed to have in common nowadays.” he said, his wrinkles unable to disguise his disappointment. “Real things that matter…”

“Like your ‘chest pain’ that didn’t show up on the tests?”

“I get twinges…” he replied and shrugged. But even in the fluorescent glare, I could tell he was blushing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A God by Any Other Name

Now I know I really am getting old –I’m starting to think about religion. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to single it out like that. Religion, or at least wonder about existence is such a part of the human Umwelt that, like the air we breathe, it is an appreciation that is tempered by its ubiquity. But I am reminded of a section of a poem written by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.’ It is a beautiful image, and although the entire poem is a bit too religious for my taste, the metaphor has a universal appeal that I suspect transcends even sectarian boundaries.

Given what I take to be our omnipresent awe about life, I have to suspect that other sentient beings –alien beings- would have a similar acknowledgment of the Mystery of Being, and wonder about the unknown… Or does wonder suggest insecurity, and mystery, merely challenge? Would omniscience, if such a thing could ever exist, necessarily preclude curiosity? Belief? Reverence? Late night questions, to be sure…

I suppose the BBC article that I stumbled across a while back fell upon fertile soil: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161215-if-we-made-contact-with-aliens-how-would-religions-react?ocid=ww.social.link.email Just how important is it for us to believe in something? To have questions?

Maybe there are no answers, but it reminded me of a heated discussion I heard one evening in a coffee shop that I visited after a movie. It was quite busy, as I recall, and I found myself sitting beside a group, deep in conversation. All four were leaning over their table, heads together, bagels long consumed, and coffees no longer steaming. They were young –in their early twenties, I would guess- and the only woman, a short-haired blond with horn-rimmed glasses and a black Rasta sweatshirt, was gesticulating with her finger to make a point. She seemed so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help listening.

“Archetypes? That’s so Jungian, Aaron…”

“And what’s wrong with that? How else could we explain it if we don’t assume some sort of a Collective Unconscious, Natalie?” Aaron was another bespectacled youth, with messy short brown hair.

She threw her arms up in mock protest. “You haven’t explained anything, though. I don’t accept that God is a black hole, let alone that She happens to be the one at the center of our Galaxy…”

“Can we please ungender the concept, Nat? How about it, or they, or something?”

She turned to the speaker, a large heavy man in a black leather full-length coat. “Fair enough John. Whatever we use is weird, however –especially gynaecomorphizing a neutral abstraction.”

“Love the word, though, Nat…”

She smiled at the third man, the only one with long hair. “Thank you Jag –makes me sound academic, eh?”

“But, come on folks,” Aaron was on a roll. “Just think about it, okay? The myth says God is outside of time, right? A black hole is outside of time…”

Outside of time…?

“Well, if time is infinite inside a black hole, then it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?”

There were a few seconds of silence while the others considered the idea, so he developed it further. “And where is the timeless Heaven the various religions talk about?”

Jag rolled his eyes. “You’re doing the same kind of thing that Zukav did in that old book The Dancing Wu Li Masters…”

My coffee was getting cold; I felt I should be taking notes.

“Come on, Jag –that book was about quantum stuff… And I’m not invoking Buddhism, or anything eastern like that.” He leaned further across the table. “No, you go to a black hole, you exit time. It fits with the biblical heaven, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think the Buddhists even believe in God, do they?” John said this as he stretched and then leaned back on a wooden chair already creaking under his weight. “Or heaven, for that matter…”

“They believe in Samsara –that cycle of rebirth thing I think…” But Natalie didn’t seem sure, so John dropped his objections.

Jag attempted a sip at what was left in his cup, and put it down as soon as he tasted it. “But Aaron raises an interesting point, though…”

“I finally broke through, eh?” Aaron smiled and tried to high-five Natalie, but she just stared at him.

“What do you mean, Jag?” she said, caressing his face with her eyes, and blushing. She seemed obviously attracted to him. Maybe they were a pair.

“Well, let’s suppose Aaron is on to something here, and there is somehow an awareness of a power to which we are all subject. I mean the stars in our galaxy are all rotating around the central black hole, aren’t they? So, if there are other inhabited worlds out there in the galaxy, maybe they’d experience the same awareness, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe the black hole exerts some kind of force or field on the galaxy that our earth calls spirit, or god. It gets interpreted differently, of course –we all have different cultures, and different surroundings –different exigencies… So perhaps aliens would have their own explanations for this force…”

John sat forward again and leaned into the table. “Do any of you realize how teenage this all sounds?” He glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

I guess they knew I was listening. Of course I’d been staring at them one by one as they talked. Natalie tore her eyes from Jag and stared at me like a teacher would at a student that was interrupting. But she wasn’t angry –just surprised that I was listening. “Sorry, sir. We really get into these post-pub discussions…”

I smiled and sat straighter in my chair. “Please don’t apologize. I’m intrigued by your arguments…” I leaned forward on my table again. “Especially your God of the black hole,” I said, looking first at Aaron and then at Jag. “And I’ve often wondered how our terrestrial religions could accommodate such different creation myths.

“I’m from the Carl Sagan era, don’t forget –remember the Pale Blue Dot photograph by Voyager 1 from 6 billion kilometers away? It kind of emphasized just how un-special we and our precious sun are in the galaxy, let alone the universe…” They all nodded politely, but I had to be careful -I was the alien in their midst… “But like Aaron and Jag suggested, maybe what we call religion is just an evolutionary balm for a consciousness that demands identity in the midst of cosmic anonymity.”

I sat back in my seat, rather pleased with my obfuscation. Memories of my university evenings flooded back.

“Whoa,” Aaron said, staring at me -puzzled that I even had an opinion, perhaps. “You make it sound so… I don’t know… depressing!”

Natalie glanced at Aaron and then stared at me for a moment. Her eyes were soft and reassuring, but I could tell she was once again the patient teacher, hoping not to embarrass me, the older, slower student in the back row who would probably never understand. “Not depressing, Aaron,” she said turning away from me with an encouraging smile- “Hopeful…” And she reached out and squeezed Jag’s hand.

Whether it was a secret message to him, I couldn’t tell, but I felt acknowledged at any rate. Comforted, if not accepted -I was from a different time than them, after all.

‘Age considers, youth ventures,” as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote. It probably never occurred to them than I was like them… once.