The Newness of it All

You know, by now you’d think I would have seen it all; tasted all the flavours on the menu; touched at least the edge of the weft and weave the rainbow has on offer. But there is always something new, I find. Something fresh. Something unexpected. And just when I decide the day has run its course, a new one dawns inside my head.

Perhaps I expect too much of sleep –too much of the waning light. Maybe there is no refuge from the New: the message in the cricket’s song; another way to feel the dark… A different voice in memory’s store.

But is it all a mirage –an oasis dream in the parched wasteland of my aging brain? Is it neural loss or neural gain that facilitates my reinterpretation of the Old and makes it garden-fresh? Or have I discovered, in my dotage, the elixir of youth that forever eluded Ponce de Leon: the art of seeing like a child?

I awoke one morning with that dream still coursing through my head and so I thought I’d run it by my friend Brien. The world always seems a wonder to him.

Each time I visit him on his porch, new surprises tend to bump me like people passing in the mall. Sometimes it’s his hair –it is a cherished and precious commodity, divided into separate pastures with which he is constantly inventive. Like farmers with their fields, he has a rotating system of combing that rations which section he will use that day. Sometimes I even think he pencils in any discrepancies -but fallow, he never leaves it.

On other, all be they rare occasions, he will seem to have mastered the button system on his shirt, and neither one too many, nor one too few will greet the final hole. There will be other anomalies to compensate, to be sure, but he faces them as everything else, with equanimity, and a beer. You have to take things as they come with Brien. Life moves at a different pace on a porch.

It is perhaps why Brien is a large man, and although I accept that there may be a chicken-or-egg component to the observation, I’ve always thought he seemed specifically designed for porch-life. Everything about him says ‘veranda’; every change is contextually driven, every surprise adaptive.

I found him on the porch as usual, legs extended from his lawn chair, staring at his favourite tree. It’s always awkward greeting someone who doesn’t see you from a porch –a form of ocular trespass perhaps, so when he finally mustered his eyes I smiled and sat on the steps for a moment. You have to give him time to adjust.

He glanced at his watch. “Wondered where you were,” he said finally, as if I were late for a meeting neither of us knew about. But at least it was an acknowledgement, I suppose, so I dived in.

“Brien,” I said with the enthusiasm of a child at recess, “Do you ever wonder whether it’s possible to run out of New as we get older?” I immediately realized I had phrased it poorly –he does not see the world in metaphor.

He tore his eyes from the bottle he was holding, and I almost heard them ripping off bits of label as they left to walk up and down my nose like a sidewalk. “You mean so we have to go to the store more often?” Brien was nothing if not well-hardened concrete. I shook my head but his face had already turned inward for a moment as if it was looking for something it had missed. Finally, it emerged triumphantly. “No,” it said with conviction, even though the rest of him didn’t seem so sure.

Then one hand flew up like it had another idea in class. “Oh, like new words?” He considered the fresh possibility with a forehead muscle I’d never noticed before. “No,” he said, this time with some emotion. “There are still plenty of sounds left…” He stared at his bottle for a second. “I mean that’s how they made up words in the old days.” From his tone, he made it sound like he was quoting from Wikipedia.

I had no idea why he thought I’d been talking about words. I felt like I had wandered into a class on non sequity -if that’s a word. But, curiosity got the better of me. “How on earth do you figure that, Brien?” I said dismissively.

He shrugged and looked at me as if I had sustained some sort of head injury. “Put a couple of sounds together, point at something, figure out how it should be spelled, and bingo, a new cave-word,” he said smugly.

“That’s not how it was done, Brien!”

“Sure it is!” He tends to dig in his heels once he’s decided something; I should have known.

I sighed rather dramatically, I’m afraid. “Okay,” I almost shouted, “Give me an example of a random sound that is also a word…” It seemed like a suitable challenge under the circumstances and for a split second I thought I had him.

He shrugged. “Dog,” he said and smiled.

That caught me off guard, I must admit. “The word probably has deep historical roots,” I mumbled staring at his now empty bottle for a moment. “And anyway, nowadays we tend to adapt old words for new purposes…” I realized I was on pretty thin ice here. “…And besides, we wouldn’t just make up new words with any old sounds…”

His smile grew alarmingly large. “Yes we would.”

I started to shake my head vigorously but he held up a finger like a Philosopher King as a mild rebuke of my childishness. “Bling,” he said and went into the house to get us both a beer.

Maybe the Ponce should have talked to him…

The King of Infinite Space

We are truly enmeshed in a web of life. I suppose I’ve come to this realization rather late in my own process, but serendipity seldom runs up to greet you –it peeks around corners first, daring you to approach. You don’t even see it -at least I didn’t.

The evening started off as usual; I was taking the lid off the garbage can where I have to store the dog food to keep it away from whatever has taken up residence under my woodpile, when I noticed a magnificent spider web sparkling in the phonelight. One strand was attached to the lid, whether because of engineering considerations, or because it had just moved into the neighbourhood, and didn’t know I had to feed the dog every day is unclear- but its spans reminded me of the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and I stared at it, entranced.

Until, that is, I noticed a huge rainbow-coloured spider in the epicenter staring at me as if I were the motherlode it had been praying for. I suppose I should have been flattered at being appreciated for something other than the clothes I wore or the phone I carried, but it just felt creepy. Nevertheless, I opened the lid very carefully and managed to destroy only one of the stanchions that anchored its office. It still managed to stare at me –I don’t think they can turn it off- but with new respect I’d like to think.

But, given a fresh lease on its career path, by the next evening it had reattached the recalcitrant span to the lid and watched me approach with unnerving calm. I tried to get at the dog food without destroying the web strand, but alas I am clumsy and I could feel the exasperation from those eyes. My dog only shrugged; she was hungry too. One has to apportion loyalties appropriately; collateral damage has to be factored in as an unfortunate consequence of taking sides, I think. Yes, I felt guilt –who wouldn’t? But at least I had arrived at a workable compromise: I didn’t bulldoze its house or anything; it still had a decent storefront and I think the sign in the window was still legible. Of course I don’t read spider.

By the third evening, however, having mulled the matter over, I decided to see if I could reattach the offending strand to something else and mitigate both the inconvenience to the spider and my not inconsiderable guilt. I arrived with what I hoped would be appropriate tools –tweezers, a wearable headlight, and a magnifying glass. I also dragged out a chair from the kitchen realizing the rescue effort would probably drag on into the early hours of the night. It’s like surgery –you can’t rush unprepared, willy-nilly into the unknown. But, unlike the multitude of textbooks describing operative techniques to which I was privy during my salad days, there was precious little on repairing spider webs in the common sources. There was the usual talk about sticky and non-sticky threads and so on, but to a non-arachnid, it was like reading an insurance policy –full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.

And yet, as I approached the lid under the spider’s watchful, anxious gaze, I was reminded of what Oppenheimer said after witnessing the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo; he quoted Vishnu from the Bhagavad Gita: ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’. Stuff like that runs through your mind when you are attempting something really outside of your species training. I suppose its natural enough, although I did wonder what the spider would do if our roles were reversed.

In fact, I felt a bit embarrassed; I fervently hoped no one would come up the driveway, or stare curiously from the road as I sat, tweezers poised, with the narrow beam of my light focussed on a garbage can but otherwise alone in a dark garage. People have been put on medication for less. And yet, I was convinced of the importance of my mission. I have always wanted a cause. I have always wanted to travel abroad and fix wells and nail schools and things. I think we all have that innate need to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I never made it to Africa or Asia, but sometimes charity begins at home. Sometimes we are blind to the needs of those around us -the silent ones who cannot complain. I girded my courage, swallowed my doubts, and sat down in front of the web.

But occasionally we underestimate the ingenuity of those we do not fully understand. Give someone a fish, and they eat for a day; teach them to fish and… well you know how it goes. I felt like I would be building a home –well, repairing it at least- and he could take it from there; I felt good about that. Sometimes we just have to swallow our mammalian chauvinism and get on with it.

The only problem was that I couldn’t find the silk rope that he’d been so faithfully gluing to the lid. I tried changing the angle of the light and even tried gently shaking the can to see how well that affected the rest of his web. Nothing. The spider just sat there, king-of-the-castle, chewing his cud and smiling. He’d decided to attach his kingdom somewhere else I suppose, but for some reason I felt diminished. Offended. I had offered succour in a time of anticipated need, and yet I and all my vaunted preparations had been spurned. Made to feel foolish. Unnecessary.

I briefly fantasized about tearing down his entire web and punishing him for his hasty improvisation, his unsuspected initiative. And then it occurred to me that he had learned from my clumsy destruction of the evenings before. Imagine that –a primitive animal proving it could be self-sufficient. That it was as good at surviving in its world as I was in mine…

There’s probably a lesson in that, but I just fed the dog and hurried into the house before it started to rain. I’m pretty confident there will be other spiders to help, though. You just have to watch when you dust.

Socks and the single pensioner.

Okay, I know losing socks in a clothes dryer is the stereotypical single man trope, but when you add Age into the picture, it hints at perceptual problems and presumes, well, cognitive declination. That which, in my salad days, was merely assumed to be an idiosyncrasy, has now become part of the entrance exam for the Home. The sock has become a sort of washable Rosetta Stone to interpret otherwise puzzling psychological conundrums.

I suppose it’s understandable; it’s natural to seek resolutions to ambiguities –no matter how banal. But algorithms for more efficient sorting of socks? It’s supposed to be a Radix algorithm, or something, so I looked it up in Wikipedia (of course): ‘radix sort is a non-comparative integer sorting algorithm that sorts data with integer keys by grouping keys by the individual digits which share the same significant position and value’. I didn’t understand a thing, but anyway it seemed like a waste of math.

You don’t get to my age without solutions, so socks are a mere piffle. When I sort them into pairs and stuff them into each other, if they don’t exactly match, so what? Who would lift my trousers to check to see if the socks are the same length, or shine a light on them to see if the colours exactly match? The trick is in the pant length, so all these years I have managed very well without an algorithm, thank you. But the very idea that someone might want to make a name for himself in the sock-sorting world intrigued me.

Brien has always had problems with his socks and I thought he might be interested in the approach outlined in the BBC article. He gets all his information from television or the old newspapers stores sometimes still wrap stuff in. The latter is not strictly ‘news’ in the etymological sense – but, as Brien always says when I see the yellowing, crumpled paper near his chair, “You have to learn from the past -it explains a lot of what they say on TV.”

Anyway, I found him dozing on a lawn chair on his porch, a woolen blanket covering everything but his head and feet. Even before I climbed the steps, though, I could see a sock colour discrepancy, but there was a certain symmetry to them, too: they both had big-toe holes. You have to admire his logic.

One eye opened as I mounted the wooden steps, and both feet disappeared under the covers.

“Cold today,” he said, his arms obviously stretching out under the warmth of the wool.

“Brien, it’s November. Why would you sit outside?”

“I didn’t know you were coming over,” he said and rolled his eyes as if that explained everything except why I was there.

“I just read an article about socks.”

“Why would you do that?” He shook his head slowly. I was a complete puzzle to him.

One foot surfaced for air from under the blanket and I pointed at it before it disappeared again.

“Private socks,” he explained. “The holes match, so I figure they’re good to go when I’m not expecting company.

He wasn’t clear on why he’d wear them on a porch so near a sidewalk, though.

“They’re different colours, Brien.”

He sat up straighter in the chair and pulled the blanket tighter around him. He still managed an indifferent shrug, nevertheless. “Lost the brother sock to each, so I matched something different… That’s gotta count,” he whispered irritably to himself. Then he ventured a glance at my face. “So what’s the article say counts as a match?” He sounded unwilling to accept the advice of a mere ‘article’, however.

I thought about it; Brien had a point. If we match lengths, colours, and patterns –even textures and materials- then why not holes? I brought the article up on my IPhone to check. They talked of sorting things into categories but there was nothing in it that disqualified holes as a group…

“What’s wrong with matching holes?” I could hear him muttering. “Why just colours? Seems like a waste of the rest of the sock…”

I put the phone away and smiled my best conciliatory, pedantic smile. “You sort for what people notice –what they see, Brien.”

He rolled his eyes again at my dull-wittedness. “You were the one who advised me about the pant-length trick.” He shook his head slowly and sighed. “Now, I’m going to advise you about the under-reported footwear trick.” He screwed his eyes into my face like he was going to hang a picture. “I’ll bet there are hundreds of guys walking around with hidden holes in their socks, as we speak. Thousands, maybe… How would you know?”

For a moment I thought he was going to put his theory to the test and ask me to take off my running shoes to prove the point. But all he said was “What happens in the shoe, stays in the shoe, eh?”

He sat up fully in the chair, and slipped his holes into a pair of rabbit’s fur slippers. “Want a beer?” he said, and padded off into the house before I could answer.


Tall Trails

I’ve always felt a rather parental responsibility for trails. When you look down them at the start, they always seem so lonely, meandering off as if they hadn’t the slightest idea where they’ll end up. Like old men wandering from the Home, they seem to amble maplessly from hill to cliff, bush to tree, blind to direction, deaf to weather. You have to admire their courage as they head off day after day into that wild; but you also have to wonder why they do it…

In their enthusiasm for adventure, I suppose they’re more like children scampering off to explore the forest with reckless abandon as if it were their first day at summer camp. No particular agenda, no destination in mind – just a need to be in the moment. Perhaps trails are the child in all of us; they whisper about the mystery out there –the land behind the tree, beyond the mist… the sound of one hand clapping.

But a question came to me in a blinding flash one day as I stumbled through some bushes looking for a path I had somehow misplaced: what is a trail? I felt like Paul looking for Damascus. Is it really a trail if no one has ever been along it? Experienced it? Would it be a noun without a verb? Are we its Anthropic Principle -necessities for its existence? Its meaning? More than mere trail followers, the passive beneficiaries of Shinrin-yoku, are we, rather, obligate components: ingredients in the recipe –Gaians, charged with the maintenance of the machinery?

And so it is with the pride of an essential cog in that machine that I have become a Disciple, an Acolyte of the Way. I have assumed a responsibility hidden from most. Well, from James at any rate.

You remember James –that ex-military man still reliving his posting in Africa from who knows what war: “You take this stuff too seriously,” he said when I told him of my epiphany. “There is no meaning to a path. It’s just a way of getting somewhere.” We were sitting at a little table in the window of a suburban McDonald’s having a McCafe and he stomped his cane on the floor -for emphasis, I imagine. But he was in the habit of frequently banging the business end of it onto crumbs, bits of meat, or little insects in the general vicinity of the table to test his aim, so any new significance of the action was unclear.

Suddenly he screwed up one eye, and laid the cane across the table narrowly missing the coffees. “You’re not one of those environmental pantheists, are you?”

Pantheist? That caught me by surprise.  I wondered if he meant ‘pansy’. “What made you think that, James?”

The eye stayed screwed. “Saw you feeling that tree, remember…? Normal people don’t do that.” He made it sound almost dirty –like unwanted touching, or something.

I have to admit that sometimes I am so overcome by the sheer living bulk of a tree that I have an urge to stroke the rough texture of its bark. I’ve never thought of it as a molestation, though. Just an acknowledgement; ships signalling quietly in the night.

“Can’t you just hike somewhere?” he said, eyeing me suspiciously.

“I think it’s the ‘somewhere’ part I have trouble with.”

“You have to go somewhere,” he offered helpfully.

“That’s just it. Do you?”

He looked genuinely puzzled –like I had opened an unmarked door.  “Do you have to hike, you mean?”

I shrugged. This wasn’t going to be easy. “No, I mean ‘go somewhere’… The real purpose of a trail in a forest may not be to get you anywhere. It’s more the going. The process…” I sighed when I saw the blank look on his face.

“Ahh,” he said, nodding his head, “You mean the exercise.” I have to admit, he was trying.

“That’s part of it,” I said. I thought I’d better concede something.

“Come on!” he said rather testily and rattled the cane across the table. “You’re not gonna go all flaky on me, are you?” Then he thought about it for a moment.  “Or religious?” he added with a little hiss and rolled his eyes.

Maybe he had meant pantheist. I shook my head carefully, just in case. “No…” I searched for a different way to explain. “It’s just that there are many ways to look at something.”

He cocked his head and looked at me. “Your point?”

I thought about it for a moment. “Well, a trail can be a way to get somewhere, like you said…” He smiled at his own succinct description and nodded cheekily. “But it can also be a way to experience the forest; a way to escape from the city for a while; a time to listen to the birds and the wind rustling through the leaves…”

The smile faded and his eyes narrowed as if I was about to trick him. He removed his cane from the table and tapped it several times on the floor beside him. “You mean like a side effect?” he asked suspiciously, but obviously relieved that I hadn’t quoted scripture, or something.

I tried to twinkle my eyes, but I’ve never been very good at that, so I settled for a slow, satisfied blink. “What is the side effect of a poem?”

The eyes narrowed again, and then he rolled them before his cane thumped. “Poem??” I could actually feel the two question marks. “What on earth do you mean?” he said, a little too loudly.

I shrugged. “Why do you read a poem, James? Is it to gather information, like in a textbook? Or is it for the description, the emotion, the feeling…? Pretend a trail is like that. A poem is not just an ordinary string of words, after all. So, the trail is the noun; travelling along it is the verb; and the rest are adjectives -pictures…” I kind of liked that description, but I might as well have been talking to a stump.

“What’s a poem got to do with trails?” James can be so concrete.

“Humour me, James. Meaning isn’t always apparent right away…”

He shrugged grumpily and rolled his eyes again –it must be a military thing. “Okay, I wouldn’t decide to read a poem, but if I did, it would probably be for all –no, most– of the things you mentioned…” He didn’t want to get trapped and he lengthened the last word; he was wary now.

“But could you read it just as you would a textbook…?”

He shook his head, certain he had me. “Then it wouldn’t be a poem, would it?”

“Or a trail…” I reached for my coffee.

But his puzzled look returned. “But a trail’s not a textbook either…”

After I smiled, I think I actually twinkled when I heard the cane thump.

The Body Politic

I’ve been hearing things lately –but not in the bushes, or coming from dark alleys. These are not threatening noises. Not really. They are more like old friends whispering to me. Roommates who know me inside out –literally. I do not always welcome their company –quite the opposite, in fact. I wish they would go away. Find someone else to bother.

But that’s the problem with bodies, I find: they stick together by and large. They’re more faithful than partners and even more likely to cheek you back. Play on your weaknesses. And yet the awkward thing is that they cannot be gainsaid –at least not without consequences.

My knees, for example. They constantly talk to me in quiet dismissive tones, hopefully inaudible to passersby. They mumble and grumble quietly as I go about my day, seldom dissolving into sympathetic commiserations each evening as friends might with the retelling of some breach of Elder protocol, or the decision to hike all the way into town in sandals. They operate more like evangelical religious syndicates that would think nothing of inflicting crippling parental guilt to extract obeisance.

But I am by no means unicellular; I am homogenate -there are many voices in the choir. And in the spirit of polyphony, on any given day I am want to celebrate the chatter of almost any region. I am a personal parliament, a country masquerading as a body.

And yet, even as a body politic, I seek to understand my boundaries. Remember the Aesop fable of the ‘Belly and the Members’, in which the feet complain that the stomach gets all the food and forget that they both have to work together? My brain says ‘walk’, my stomach says ‘eat’, and my tired knees say ‘rest’. I figured maybe it was time to seek consensus before the Horsemen of the Apocalypse arrive.

I decided to ask Brien what his parts were telling him. I found him, of course, sitting on his porch settling into his second bag of pretzels of the morning. Brien always looks so… rooted. I suspect he has no quarrels to mediate, no disputatious factions demanding disparate actions. He is already a large man who has obviously learned to curb some urges for the benefit of others: a benevolent autocracy. I had to learn his secret.

Of course, every country is loath to divulge too much; its sovereignty depends on its cloak; its strength on the power to convince its constituents they are acting in their own best interests. Brien was good at that.

I waved at him from the sidewalk, but I think he must have been asleep because his head was deep in conversation with his chest. I could hear them talking in that personal dialect bodies seem to evolve for themselves when they think they are alone. But as soon as it heard me on the steps, his head shot bolt upright and a momentary look of confusion –an unmediated legislative fracas- ran briefly across his face and disappeared somewhere in his admittedly thinning hairline.

“Why do you always stop by when I’m deep in thought?” he eventually muttered once he managed to pull his tongue back into his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Brien, but I need your advice.”

That immediately brightened him up. Brien feels he has a lot of ungiven advice stored away, and he once told me that whenever he is offered a chance to clear a shelf or two, he feels lighter, or something.

He straightened a bit in the recliner. “We can do it on the porch though, eh?”

I stared at him quizzically for a second, and then relented. Brien has rules.

“Last time you wanted to discuss something while we walked…” he said, deciding he should probably clarify. “I don’t multitask.”

I had a feeling that he wasn’t going to be very helpful, somehow, but I tried to segue into the topic anyway. “Do you ever wonder about functional demands, Brien?”

One of his eyes half-closed itself, as if it was girding itself for a trick. “Huh?”

“I mean how do you deal with conflicts of interests between your parts?”

“Excuse me?” he said as if I were inquiring about bathroom issues.

I thought that perhaps it might be better to frame it with reference to myself. “You know…” I replied, trying desperately to think of something. “If were really tired after a long walk but knew I still had to cook my dinner because it was late and all the stores were closed…”  I didn’t feel totally comfortable with that example.

He smiled at the naïveté of my non-question and then shrugged as if the resolution was almost too obvious for words. Suddenly a grin appeared from nowhere. “Did you just use a subjunctive on me?”

I nodded. “I suppose so. Why?”

“You don’t usually talk like that…”

My turn to shrug. “I was merely indicating that it was a hypothetical…”

He stopped me with a rapid stun-and-retreat foray with his eyes. “So you weren’t sure about using my kitchen…?”

I sighed, but evidently not loudly enough.

He shook his head and withered me with an akimbo glare. “Is that the conflict of interest you were talking about?”

Actually, with all the Socratic-like repartees, I’d forgotten what I’d been talking about. When I looked confused, he decided to help me out. “Parts problems –you were talking about some organs arguing with you… About what? About music?” He sniggered at his wit. And then he turned suddenly serious. My parts obey. “I eat lots of fibre and avoid cabbage.” Then, obviously remembering something: “Corn can be a problem, too.” He raised his hands as if in prayer. “So I don’t eat them if somebody’s coming over…” He stared at me for a second and then, satisfied that he’d given nothing away, sat back in his recliner again, certain he’d been of some help.

But his eyes never strayed from the second now-empty package lying at his feet so I got up off the step and went into the kitchen to get another bag. You know, it really is amazing –after visiting with Brien, all my concerns seem to recede into the background. He’s always good to talk to about stuff that really matters.




The Garden of Age

I have to be careful here –I don’t want to sound cerebrally damaged, or as if I’ve just escaped from a special-care Home- but I love Age. The leisure to perambulate at will through the overgrown garden of my life; the time to wander along unsuspected paths unencumbered by youthful boundaries; to sit where I will, and sample what I choose –these are the autumn fruits that Age lays before those who choose to walk the meadow.

And although I realize my life has been no more special than the rest, it has always seemed special to me. Unique. Memorable. And given the chance, I would not change it –although I wouldn’t mind being a little taller. A bit more talented… Oh yes, and the glasses… I would not choose to be chained to them from childhood again, thank you. But those peccadillos aside, I am content.

Swept up in this epiphany of Age, and consumed with a secular sort of Agape, I happened upon Brien sitting morosely on his porch. How long he had been staring at the tree in his front yard I couldn’t tell from the sidewalk, but the plate of cookies on the table beside him was largely empty, and so were a few bottles of beer that lay conspicuously on their sides. It was a warm autumn afternoon so he was in no danger of hypothermia; ennui seemed a greater risk, so I waved and invited myself up his steps.

“What trouble are you going to try to cause for me today?” He said before I even sat down.

“Only a wander through the garden,” I said, filled with my vision. It was a mistake.

“I don’t have a garden,” he grunted, and pointed at the tree. “Just old Sheda here.”

“Sheda?” My god he was starting to name stuff. Next thing it’d be his porch and then maybe the garbage… Caught off guard, I must have hit him with my eyes.

He felt the blow. “Yeah, I decided the way to get to know things better was to name them. By the way, you’re sitting on Florence,” he added. Fortunately, he pointed at the deck of the porch so I was safe on the chair. “Made a world of difference, too,” he added, after giving it some thought.

I have to admit that I did scrunch my face up a little when he said that. You never know whether he’s serious or letting slip a little unguarded cognitive dissonance. I decided to take the middle ground. “Stuff to talk to, you mean?” It’s always easier to talk to something with a name.

A big, surprised smile suddenly surfaced on his face and he nodded his head quite vigorously. “You do that too?”

I ventured a tentative nod in reply, trying to let him know I understood, but at the same time not wishing to fertilize any ungerminated seeds of dementia. “Uhmm, I name some things I guess… sometimes… I mean if they’re alive and moving around… sort of.”

“I shouldn’t have named the porch, you mean?” He sounded hurt.

I shrugged to buy some time to think of something. “Well, I suppose it –she– serves a purpose, and it’s probably a useful thing to differentiate one purpose from another…” As soon as I said it, I realized it was weak, but Brien seemed to perk up at the idea.

“Never thought of it like that. I mean I could name the table, and maybe the cookies…”

We sat in silence for a while. “I’ve been thinking about Retirement, Brien,” I said, to change the subject as his hand inched carefully and slowly across the table towards an as-yet unnamed cookie.

“Again? What is it this time? Pensions? Rest Homes…?” He was about to name a few other topics when I held up my hand.

“Something new,” I said, but slowly, to build up the suspense. I have to say I was a little discomfited by his evident disparagement of past topics, though.

The smile on his face said it all: there was nothing new about Retirement.

“I have come to look upon my life so far as an overgrown garden!” I said, proudly.

I’m sure he could feel, if not actually see the exclamation mark, because he immediately sent his barn-swallow-eyes out to flit around my head. “Why a garden?” Epiphanies were wasted on him. So were metaphors, for that matter.

I shook my head to ward off the embarrassing reception my insight was being accorded.

“Think of it, Brien,” I managed to stammer. “Those things you tended and planted throughout the years, finally bearing fruit. Finally maturing for the autumn harvest…” I stared up at the sky as if I could see it manifest in the clouds. “Fruit that you can share with the world… Seeds that will grow, and spread throughout the…”

“You should name it, then.” he interrupted before I could expand even further on my vision.

I had to blink in surprise. “Pardon me?”

“Name the garden!” He rolled his now-captive eyes at my obtuseness, as if I hadn’t been listening. “The fruit probably already has a name,” he added for clarity.

I felt embarrassed for a moment. “It’s just an idea, Brien…”

“You figure it’s going to escape, though.” His expression suddenly turned serious, but of course he could have been trying to distract me from the cookie. “I think we really need to know what to call it -before the seeds spread everywhere, I mean.”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when he’s just playing with me; I decided to join in. “Okay then…” I stalled for time. “How about I don’t know… Demeter, the Greek goddess of Harvest?”

He shook his head and grinned. “Where do you find this stuff?”

His stare made me uncomfortable. “Maybe I’ll try another name…”

He chuckled at the thought. “You’ll just make up another one I’ve never heard of.”

Now I knew he was toying with me. “Got a better name?”

“Matter of fact, I do.” He grabbed the cookie in a fit of pique and took a large bite out of it. “I was going to use it on the trash can, but it’s yours if you want.”

I tried not to look like a teacher who had lobbed a question at a kid sitting in the back row of the class. I pretended to look eager and thankful for the help. “And that would be…?”

“I was going to call it Pandora.” He sat back, and munched contentedly on the cookie.

Sometimes, I think Brien sits nearer to the front…

Dog Days

The dog is probably one of the most important inventions in the history of civilization. More than just another thing, it has been a protector, a hunter and -when push came to grunt- a way of getting us out of the cave for exercise while our partner tore strips of meat off the mammoth for dinner. And unlike cats –which, in those days, probably wouldn’t have waited for you to open the bag of kibble- the dog was quite happy to lie quietly at your feet until you fed it scraps. Also, they have never messed around with purring; if the dog purrs, it inevitably does so with bared fangs, so you know where you stand.

Over the millennia, however, dogs have evolved. Some of them don’t even look like dogs anymore –they’ve been specialized -some for scratching, some for licking, and some, I blush to say, merely for vanity –ours.

My dog, Rugal –don’t ask for the etymology (I was a gynaecologist before I retired)- has managed to avoid all of the breeding pitfalls by being the scion of my border collie, and a ship passing in the night that jumped over the fence and seduced him. Penniless, and gravid, said inamorata sought shelter in the neighbourhood kennel and in a burst of filial loyalty and tainted with a soupçon of guilt, I rescued one of the cuddlier results. And, cleverly anticipating the ascendancy of non-binary dogs, I opted to have her sterilized before another passing ship could persuade her otherwise.

Despite our salad days, she’s now rather long in the tooth so our runs have become limps, or at least dawdles. She gets confused at forks in the trail, and like some aged senior wandering away in confusion from the Home, she needs supervision. And time –lots of it. So I thought it might do Brien some good to accompany me on our slow perambulations from time to time. He doesn’t live in a Home, or anything, but he seldom strays from the porch of his house unless I arrange to meet him at a coffee shop, or offer to buy him lunch. He’s stubborn like that –and abnegative, a word that could have been coined in his honour…

Brien has a lot in common with Rugal, I think –they’re both obese and both walk slowly, and probably would be even slower unless enticed. I sometimes put a few dog biscuits in my pocket for Rugal, but I quickly discarded the idea of bringing beer for Brien, because I’d have to carry it. And although Brien walks too slowly in malls, and tends to wander off like the dog, I figured I could keep an eye on them both. Besides, Brien likes to argue, so I would always know where he was. He also has bad breath, so that helps, too.

With that in mind, I wandered over to his porch one fine and sunny spring morning after 11 AM, ever mindful of his circadian rhythm, and there he was, dosing on a recliner as clothed as an Inuit on a December day.

“Brien,” I yelled from the sidewalk, not wanting to alarm him by sneaking up beside him on the porch unannounced. I had to shout several times and then bang on the bottom step because his ears were hidden inside a hoodie.

I could see a pair of eyes glaring at me like watchful falcons from within the shadows of the oversized hood. And then, once I had been ID’d and vetted, a head emerged from the cavern and the body sat up. “’Bout time,” it said in a gruff voice. “I wondered when you were going to come by.” He extracted a meaty arm from under a blanket and checked his watch. “What’s this great idea you were going to discuss with me?”

No ‘How are you anyway?’, or even a ‘Hello’. Brien never bothered himself much with preliminary conversational niceties, he merely ploughed straight into the meal. And he didn’t consider it at all rude to resume whatever he had been doing once he had obtained the relevant information. Words were tools and the fewer used, the more skilled the craft. Metaphor was wasted on Brien.

“I thought you might need some exercise.” I felt I should explain –no, justify– it further, but before I could even begin my carefully engineered argument, his eyes hurried over to stop my tongue, mid-wag.

“And why did you think that?”

“I was just about to ex-…”

“You know I hate hiking,” he interrupted irritably.

“Rugal walks slowly, Brien. Really slowly.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

I stared back at him, but kindly –like a parent. “I’m trying to tell you that you need more exercise, and walking with Rugal is a good way to start.”

I could feel his eyes walking back and forth across my face.

“You were a gynaecologist, not a trainer.”

He says that all the time and it usually quells my enthusiasm, but this time I had prepared a coup de grace and practiced my disdain in front of the mirror while I cleaned my teeth -it’s all in the forehead. “I was also an obstetrician, Brien -lest you forget!” That was the disdain part.

“So, you’re wasting your time on me.”

I had anticipated that. “Ahh, but I’ve coached women on the need to be in top physical form for delivery.” Actually, that was the midwives and the antepartum instructors; I just caught the baby, but I figured he wouldn’t know that.

“I’ve seen it on TV,” he said, somehow managing to sneer verbally. “All you guys do is sit there and make sure the baby doesn’t fall on the floor.”

He was good, I have to hand it to him. “That’s what it looks like on TV, I suppose, but just like a finely tuned athlete makes what they do look easy, it requires a lot of preparation and training beforehand.”

“You want to teach me Kegel exercises, or something, then?”

Damn! He’d been reading again. I hesitated, unsure how to proceed. In the end, I decided to call a spade a spade and skip the rest of my now-thwarted argument. “No, I just want to invite you to walk with Rugal and me.”

He promptly threw off the blanket and I saw he was dressed in a sweatshirt, track pants, and a sturdy pair of walking shoes with woolen socks. “Thought you’d never ask,” he said, all smiles. “Where’s the dog, by the way?”

I just knew I’d forget something.