A Mouth by any other name.

Hands up everybody with bad breath. It’s one of those great unknowables that have shadowed many of us since we first became aware that others might be aware of us. It starts out in early childhood when the youngster begins to suspect that others not only can think, but that those thoughts may be different from his own. This is often called the Theory of Mind.

Only much later does the child –now a teenager trying to fit in with the pack- develop an analogous awareness: that the breath of others may be different from his own. I call this the Theory of Mouth. The degree to which it is manifest is obviously difficult to measure with any precision, and anyway it varies a lot depending upon the situation, but it certainly has an effect on self-confidence. In extremis, of course, it can lead the child along a path to isolation and troglodysm; more usually, however, the child becomes an adult who continually speaks into the cuff of his shirt. They are easy to spot.

In the old days, though, things were different. There were no breath counsellors then, and most of the GPs I ever visited had terrible breathes themselves, so offered no hope of redemption from either the adolescent pimples for which I had originally visited, or the breath concerns I had thought I could sneak into the therapy. Nobody older than eighteen seemed to care, quite frankly –or, having already found partners for themselves, they had their own coping mechanisms. Their own subterfuges.

So, I was intrigued when I happened upon an archival Guardian article on breath problems the other day: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/may/16/bad-breath-oral-hygiene-halitosis  When you become an elder, it is important to keep up with the past, so you can accurately relay it to a younger generation in case it helps.

I used to think I was so clever to breathe into my hand so I would, well, know how I smelled. We all relied on that in those days. And if it revealed a concern, or if we wanted to be sure, there was always Sen-Sen –the ‘breath perfume’ candy, we all carried in our pockets to the high school dances. In the scary days of the Sock Hop, the girls would all line up on one side of the gym and the boys on the other, so actually finding a partner to dance with required a lonely, soul-searching journey across a battlefield of writhing bodies. And if you were going to run the gauntlet, you had to be really sure about your breath, eh? It was a long way back.

I couldn’t actually dance, but that was hardly the point. It was a courage thing –a rite of passage and hence a breath thing.

I suppose the major difference nowadays is that it really doesn’t matter if your breath is fetid when you interact on Facebook, or chatrooms. Even online dating sites do not require breath attestations in the profile; it’s only if things progress to actual, uhmm, physical encounters, that one has to be wary. And nowadays there are no end of things you can put in your mouth to pretend it’s user friendly.

Anyway, Science seems to be catching up as well. War, or at least threat of war, has always been a big stimulus for breakaway products for the consumer. Think of the helmet, and the flashlight, as examples. If it hadn’t been for the need to deal with dangerous people hiding in the dark, we’d still be wearing baseball caps and carrying candles.

Breath was important, too –for obvious reasons: bad breath is a real giveaway in the dark. So they had to find ways of making it better. Not too nice, or anything –that’s a giveaway too. You can smell a mouth with a Sen-Sen in it a good kilometer away. No, breath prophylaxis became the watch-word… well, words. As the article points out, 85% of the problem originates in the mouth, so soldiers were taught to keep their mouth shut. That also was found to help with keeping stuff secret, so again, the public benefitted.

Also, when bacteria were discovered hiding in the mouth, Scientists became really excited. No longer could they simply blame constipation for the problem; no longer, in good conscience, could they hold garlic and its relatives for ransom; they even soft-pedalled onions for a while –although I suspect the farm lobby had a large role to play in that. ‘It’s the bacteria, stupid’ was the new mantra. We needed not so much an explanation, as something to blame. And then, only when ‘I told you so’ ceased to satisfy us, a treatment.

But come on –plus ça change, eh? Deep down, we all knew that. We all knew it wasn’t our fault. And we realized from the time of our first cavity, that you had to brush your teeth and carry some sort of breath mediator in your pocket before a date, or it’d be your last. About the only real advance in mouth fitness was tongue-brushing and maybe chlorhexidine -and even they only lasted until you knocked on the door to pick her up. I’m not sure why, although maybe I’m too old to do it correctly because I always gag. Like computer-savvy, however, some things are probably best acquired when you’re young -partners, too, I suppose.

Now that I am retired, though, I no longer have to speak to people, but old habits die hard, and I do run into friends occasionally in Tim Horton’s. I only use my hand with the women, however.

Too Good to be True

There had to be a catch –there’s no free lunch. We should have known that by now, don’t you think? By ‘we’, I mean ‘them’, by the way -I want no part of this.

Once upon a time, in a land only temporally removed, there was a fear of babies –a dread of babies. And so great was the terror, that myths sprang up around them: guardian myths. Progenitive myths. So pervasive were these, that they clung to us like cobwebs across a morning trail. But even when Science, that elusive Parent, absolved us of one guilt, it only whispered of the others that were there all along: cohabiters, co-conspirators –and we jumped, unknowing from the cooling kettle, into its roiling water, still thick with steam.

A generation mad with relief but thrown unwillingly into the ring like aging gladiators carrying their unexpected loss instead of clothes, they forgot what tricks had saved their lives when they were young. And they awoke to carnage, not laurel wreaths, disease, not the victories they half-remembered.

I knew it was coming; like Retirement, and false teeth, it was just a matter of time: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/sexually-transmitted-infections-seniors-1.3607533

Jacob didn’t look happy when I passed him on the street. We used to hang out together in a different time and I thought I knew his moods. In fact, the last time I saw him he was bragging about the wealth of prospects out there with online dating. The victim of two divorces as he put it, he felt his time had finally come. The profiles, the pictures, the promises –he could hardly believe his luck. I was almost too good to be true. But he looked so unhappy that day on the street, we agreed to meet later that week for a coffee.

I arrived to find him huddled inconspicuously at a table and facing the wall in the furthest corner of a room bright with sun streaming through its two massive floor-to-ceiling windows. He had managed to find the only shadow and I had to search carefully to see his table.

I sat against the wall opposite him; he didn’t look up at my greeting.

“You hiding, Jacob?” I finally said when he only grunted hello.

That caused his eyes to jump to my face from my coffee where they’d roosted. “Why did you say that?” he asked suddenly, as if I had outed some secret he thought he’d concealed under the table.

I shrugged. “Because you were sitting facing the wall in a dark corner of the room?” I figured by phrasing it as a question he’d think I was only guessing.

“I was just thinking…” He sat up a little straighter in the unforgiving wooden chair, grabbed his own coffee aggressively, and then, as suddenly, put it down again with a splash. “It’s worse than it used to be, you know.”

I raised an eyebrow in response.

“I mean we should have learned something by the time we’ve made it to our age, eh? There was a time when we knew everything,” he flung an arm out either to indicate the world outside the window, or those of us trapped inside –he wasn’t specific. “And then we grew up and realized how naïve that was.”

I decided he wasn’t talking about those of us in the room, so I nodded.

“And then, when we got even older…” My god! The Three Phases of Man: the Sophoclean Riddle of the Sphinx. I perked up immediately; it was just like the old days at the pub after a hard day of classes. “When we got even older, we forgot everything we’d worked so hard to learn.”

Huh? That’s not how it went. I felt a little disappointed that he wasn’t going to celebrate our golden years. “What did we forget, Jacob?” I said, and immediately steeled myself for his pessimistic observation with a sip of my coffee.

“That you can’t trust anybody.”

I felt that was a little hyperbolic, so I continued sipping my coffee, as if I were sipping his words and tasting them. Digesting them. But I mean I trusted him. I trusted the barista…

He grabbed the now-empty cardboard cup and crushed it as if it were one of those anybodies he didn’t trust. Jacob is a large, albeit aging man, with a faded tattoo of a skull on his right forearm –you don’t want to get on the wrong side of guys like him.

I looked at him for a moment, studied his face, and waited until he’d put the remnants of the cup safely back on the table. “What happened?”

I shouldn’t have asked –not then. His face wrinkled into a glower, and I thought I could even hear his teeth grinding –but maybe his dentures were just loose, or something. He riveted me to the wall with searchlight eyes and somehow managed a deep, hissing breath through tightly closed lips.

“You remember how excited I was about the online women?” I nodded –but carefully. I didn’t really want to commit myself in case he thought I’d encouraged him. “I decided to switch to a senior site because nobody on the younger sites seemed to want a man my age unless he was rich.” He rolled his eyes, as if to comment on the opportunity they’d missed. “So, I put in my search parameters –like, I wanted a woman around fifty, thin, and with good skin. I hate it when it’s all greasy or pock-marked with liver spots, don’t you?”

I had no idea what liver spots were so I opened my mouth to ask, but he didn’t wait.

“So I opted for one that looked reasonable –you don’t have that much choice at that age, you know,” he added quickly. Actually, I didn’t, but he didn’t give me a chance to say anything. “Anyway, on the phone, she sounded interesting, so we agreed to meet for coffee…” He hesitated and checked over his shoulder then looked around for a moment. “Here, actually…”

I felt I had to apologize –I’d chosen the place- but he flicked his wrist at me to indicate that he meant me no harm.

“So…” Now he had me interested. I was going to ask him whether I should try the site.

“Well, she was no more fifty than I am,” he said in a disparaging whisper. He was my age: seventy.

I stared at him. “How old did you say you were in your profile?”

“At first I didn’t know what age to put down, but then I looked in the mirror and thought maybe I could pass for sixty. So I hunted around for an old photo and submitted that.”

“So, you said you were sixty, and submitted a fake picture?” I shook my head as if I were scolding him.

He somehow managed to over-crease his forehead to deny my accusation. “It was not a fake! It was a picture of me, but from about ten years ago…”

“Well at least the picture matched the age you entered.” I smiled to show I’d forgiven him the minor transgression.

He looked suddenly sheepish. “Well… Actually, I put down that I was fifty-five –just in case, you know.”

“And how old do you think she was?”

He shrugged. “Mid sixties, anyway, judging by the wrinkles and the spots.” His face brightened for a moment. “But she said she was on hormones… so everything worked, she assured me…” He shook his head sadly. “She seemed to be pretty sure about that.”

I didn’t want to ask what she’d meant. I just kept my eyes glued to the remains of his cup.

“Anyway, we both seemed eager… And besides, hormones are sort of like senior contraceptives, I figured.” His eyes suddenly opened wide and stared at me like I’d accused him of something. “I know she couldn’t get pregnant, but it felt better that she was on something, you know.”

I nodded as if to say I would have felt the same way. “Win-win,” was all I managed to comment before he pounded his fist onto the table.

Then he looked around the room again, this time embarrassed. “Win-lose…”

I chanced a brief glance at his face. “What do you…?”

“STI,” he interrupted with a whisper so soft I had to ask him to repeat it. He took a deep breath to compose himself. “It’s like VD,” he explained when I noticed my puzzled expression. “They changed the name for some reason.”

“Oh,” I whispered back. I thought about it for a moment. “But didn’t you…” I struggled for the words we used to use and then gave up -it was too long ago.

He shook his head slowly. “I mean, who would have thought I’d need one, eh?”

We both remained silent for a while –each of us a prisoner in our own head. And then curiosity won out –mine. “You gonna go back online dating again, Jacob?” It seemed important to ask.

He thought about it for a minute or two. “It was nice to have somebody to talk to again, you know. Discuss stuff. Trade ideas…” His eyes made the long, slow trip from table top, to crushed cup, over to my cup and then up to my face. “But I think I’ll join one of those chat-rooms people tell me about…” Then he nodded to himself and sighed. “Then at least I’ll know what I’m trading.”

He seemed pleased with his decision and was finally smiling, so I left it at that. Wisdom, if it comes at all, sometimes arrives late.


Identifiably Old

Who are we? No, really… I’m not talking Canadian, or Catholic, or even hominid –and certainly not the kind of who you’re expected to reveal at a party or perhaps on the long census form. And just what is an identity anyway? The word itself ultimately derives from the Latin idem: ‘the same’; or even identidem: ‘over and over’ –although that’s a bit of a convoluted etymology. The point, I think, is that identity is supposed to be something that is consistent –perhaps unique.

Unique, I realize, is easy –each and every one of us is unique. But if identity is an attempt to pin something on any of us that is consistent and the same, there is a problem.

George was sitting on his veranda as I walked by on the sidewalk in front of his house. It was raining lightly and wind was raking the yard and robbing the trees of what few leaves they still possessed. But he seemed entertained by the scene and sat serenely comfortable on a deck chair dressed in a heavy grey coat and blue toque. It wasn’t cold enough for a toque, but he’d knitted it himself and wore it at the slightest provocation to show off.

I tried to pretend that I was texting and didn’t see him, but he called out to me. It’s hard to pretend you don’t notice somebody when they shout your name and wave.

“Come on up, Goz,” he said when I raised my head. I forced a smile -it bothers me when anybody calls me the childhood nickname that I let slip late one night at a party.

“Don’t call me Goz, George. It’s not my name.”

He sighed over-elaborately and pointed to a seat beside him on the porch. Sometimes  it wasn’t just his toque that was annoying. “I’m sorry, I was just teasing. I like the name…” he added to mollify the expression on my face.

“My father liked it, too, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” I explained -it seemed to encapsulate my feelings. I hoped he wouldn’t press it any further.

He smiled broadly at my biblical reference. “Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, isn’t it?” George is an emeritus professor of Philosophy who took an early retirement and I think he likes to keep in practice.

I had no idea where the phrase came from, but I shrugged as if to indicate that it was common knowledge. I probably shouldn’t have used it around George, though.

“Names are like adjectives, don’t you think? They describe the noun.” He wasn’t going to let the nickname go without a fight.

“Described, perhaps,” I said, attempting to emphasize the past-tense of the word.

“We all change, I suppose,” he said, trying to be conciliatory, and pausing briefly to let me enjoy the reprieve. A gust of wind swept a parcel of leaves onto the deck and he studied them for a moment. “But sometimes I wonder just how much…”

“How’s Retirement, George?” I had to change the subject before it got out of hand.

He looked up from the leaves and smiled with an expression that said his mind had been miles away. Then, he sat back in his chair and stared at an empty tree across the road for what seemed an eternity. “It’s given me time to think,” he said, finally breaking the fast of his silence.

“Think…?” Good I thought -it worked.

“Those leaves,” he continued, pointing at the dreary, sodden lump near his feet. “They’re not where they used to be…” He paused as he thought it through. “And they’re not doing what they were designed to do on the tree…” He looked up at me. “I suppose they’re fulfilling another function in nature now… But they’re still called leaves.”

I had a feeling this was not going where I wanted. I decided to shrug. “It’s a generic descriptor, I suppose.” A weak response, but couched in big words. I hoped it would suffice.

He stared at the tree again, considering my answer. “There’s been a change -I’ll concede that, if you like- but the name is still apt nonetheless, don’t you think?”

I studied his face for a moment. I had the uneasy feeling I was being led into a kind of Socratic trap. “George, I’m not the same person that ‘Goz’ described, if that’s the trap you’re trying to entice me into.” I felt pleased with that –especially when he sent his eyes out to perch on that tree again. I was a bit concerned about the smile, though.

“Who are you, then?” he said, still examining the tree. “A rose by another name…?”

I hate it when people use Shakespeare against me; it almost seems sacrilegious to argue the point. “I just don’t like the name…” I might as well put it on the table, I figured.

His eyes flitted to my face for a moment and then withdrew to their assigned cages. “Because you’re not the same person, you said?”

I could feel the door closing on me. “No, I’m not the same person I was when I was ten. Neither are you,” I added, hoping to salvage something in the argument. Anything, actually.

His eyes were twinkling now, although he was trying to disguise them by sending them back to the clump of leaves to hide. “Neither is the tree, I suspect…” He freed his eyes briefly to sample my face.

I took a deep, somewhat stertorous breath -I also dislike losing arguments. The funny thing was, I wasn’t actually sure that I had. Hope springs eternal, I guess.

The rain had stopped and although it was still windy, I could see some blue sky beginning to accumulate in little patches. “I was just heading for a coffee,” I said, rising to my feet. “Want to join me?”

He smiled and nodded his head. “Actually, I could use an espresso this morning…”

“Still coffee, though, isn’t it?”

He looked at me and laughed. Sometimes friends have to let each other win…

Dog Biscuits

There is something deeply redemptive about walking a dog. It’s not that I feel in particular need of absolution, or anything, but like paying off a mortgage, every little bit counts. Just the feel of the empty leash in your hand, the wind in your hair and the little recyclable compost bag in your pocket in case you get caught is truly freeing -not to mention exhilarating.

I’m fortunate to live near a forest that is almost empty of decorum, so neither I nor my dog pay much heed to protocol. Not for us the urban fences and posted restrictions; we roam the trails like pioneers, exulting in the freedom to do whatever we wish, as long as nobody is watching. My job, of course, is to make sure.

I often walk with a friend for extra eyes –my dog is old and sometimes gets confused if she happens upon a scent that beckons more seductively than my own. Deaf, cataract-laden, and hip-restricted, I should probably be taking her in a wheelchair, but some of the trails are not equal-opportunity accessible. And anyway, she seems to enjoy padding along behind, engrossed in an olfactory experience those of us with clothes have long ago eschewed.

But there is an awkward moment of encounter at least once on any trail when I am asked her name. I know people are just being polite; I know they are really asking me to ask them their dog’s name so they can show off some clever celebrity sobriquet. But, even though I am now retired and expected to immerse myself in a popular culture I am too old to understand -the culture I am relegated to appreciate by proxy, I suppose- I do not enjoy the thrill of surrogate intimacy with the rich and famous.

I was by trade, a gynaecologist, and I fear my epithetical leanings are definitely gynaecological. So, in the case of my dog, I am constantly confronted with the need to explain the embarrassing anatomical coordinates of the name. The same with my cat, actually, but it saved me undo mortification by running away. As you read this, it is probably in protective custody somewhere, living under an alias. But to each her own. My dog seems to like her name, and back when her ears worked, actually perked them up when I called.

My friend, however, seems convinced that she is suffering from a type of psychological stress-deafness akin to Freud’s hysteria. Either that or, I am assured, she just ignores me in the throes of humiliation. I honestly don’t know why I continue to walk with this person.

I’ve kind of solved the deafness issue, though. Although she can’t hear me yelling at her, there are politer solutions on offer -loud whistling, for example. While I can do a fair, albeit rather sibilant, rendition of the first few bars of Ode to Joy, and have, on occasion, won praise for my thrilling, but unrecognizable version of Rachmaninoff’s prelude in C# minor, I am congenitally unable to produce anything louder than a soft hiss in the whistle department -certainly nothing that would command any attention, let alone respect. I did try one of those dog whistles in a pet store. The sign said it was supposed to use a higher frequency than humans can detect, and I couldn’t hear a thing when I blew it. I took that as a good sign. Mind you, my hearing is not what it used to be either, and I can certainly sympathize with presbycusis in the dog. Still… it didn’t do what the sign assured me it wouldn’t, so I bought it. Unfortunately, the first time I used it, my friend claimed it was both audible and painful, so I had to put it in my pocket. I still bring it with me, however, because although the dog can’t hear it, I figure it might come in handy if my friend wanders off.

The method I find myself using to attract the dog’s increasingly apparent attention deficit disorder, is the clap. Not to be confused with the dated, and highly derogatory alias for the condition that used to get you sent to the nurse’s office in high school, I am referring to the simple, yet forceful meeting of the hands. The dog seems to respond to clapping, although to get her attention, it has to be repetitive -as if I were applauding something terribly interesting in the trees that nobody else can see. People nearby avert their eyes as they approach, or scan the woods in search of the performing squirrel or wind ensemble that may be hidden somewhere they hadn’t noticed. I usually try to explain as they hurry past, but like the apocryphal tree falling in the forest when nobody is around, I get the distinct impression they’d rather not hear it.

I have recently come to the reluctant conclusion that my dog is entering a phase of cognitive decline, however. I see in her bouts of decision paralysis, hints of doggie dementia. She will, on occasion, sniff the same rock twice, as if she’s forgotten the olfactory message and her own contribution to the gestalt. She seems perfectly happy with the result, and I suppose I shouldn’t read too much into it, but as a fellow mammal, I worry. It’s a cross cultural thing, I guess.

Confusion is a big issue in a society based on obedience like ours. It is imperative that you know who to obey for a start –the rule of law depends on it. And it’s no different for a dog. Befuddlement is probably the heaviest weight I have to carry –not mine, you understand, although my friend sometimes has to fetch me if I wander off the trail thinking I see my car in the bushes. But that’s just when I’m tired and I don’t think dogs can use the same excuse. So when she disappears, I worry it is because her GPS is broken and not, like in my case, that she has just forgotten to turn it on.

I take her deficit personally t00, because I see it on the menu for us all. And if, in some uncharted time ahead, I should happen to wander off down another trail, or follow someone strange thinking it is myself, I hope my keepers will not be unduly distressed, or feel I have betrayed their trust. As with my dog, I hope they will be patient with my errant ways. And in the end, if clapping doesn’t work, there’s always the leash.

The Escape

Retirement has many benefits I suppose, but one of them is the ability to escape from, well, Retirement. I don’t mean an idle wander from the banalities of métier and purpose, but rather the flight from the routine that seems to surface after the handshake and the gold watch. But escape to what, exactly…? Sometimes freedom itself is a cage –a candy store in the Hotel California, as it were.

I felt the need for a change, both of scenery and of pleasures, so I decided to flee from the protective bosom of mountains to the wide flat abdomen of the prairies. Alberta seemed a reasonable start: it’s the next province over in a whole string of them, and it shares our mountains -the unpainted side of the fence.

And yet to reach the other side and complete the escape is to negotiate a labyrinth -a rat in a maze. A random set of deep, green passageways lined by tall, glowering, protective walls guards each gate to freedom. Egress is not bought cheaply, nor with a guaranteed right of return. Absence is an exile whose only reward is a renewed appreciation of what has been left behind. And the thin tissue of the new reality beyond the windshield is too soon ripped by memories. The gift is evanescent and easily doubted; it verges on the unreal, as unreachable as a dream -not disappointing, really, just unassimilable. An untouchable hologram.

The mountains were a reassuringly three-dimensional world only hinted at from the coast –four dimensional if you count the time taken to creep through the unnamed, heavily treed rock canyons, trusting in the ever curving yellow line like Dorothy. But escape is hope; arrival is elusive –when does an approach end? When does the gerund become the noun? To linger is merely to toy with another journey. Postpone another escape…

I had decided to visit the Badlands of Alberta –a riverine trench carved into an otherwise flatland country where almost everywhere not there, is similar –dare I say identical? It is a two dimensional contrast to the mountain labyrinth and as I travelled like a line on an unending sheet of paper, I felt as if I were an ant on an infinite table seeking an entrance to the horizon, yet feeling it recede as fast as I approached. There were no believable ups or downs -just over-theres. Progress was unmarked except for telephone poles, or power lines marching off into the distance as if there was actually someone there to notice them, to greet them -someone who expected them to arrive.

I learned to read things that stuck up from the horizon –reminders of the dimensions I’d left behind. Telephone poles that approached the road ahead like serrated, stationary dinosaurs, heralded a crossroad with some numerically meaningless name that I could roar past and acknowledge as I might a passing a face in a crowd who happened to glance my way. They were welcome distractions from the eternal, browning crops that painted everything between the odd roofs that peeked up timidly, or the solitary, lonely grain silos that stood like prairie dogs on guard, lest I stray too close…

I felt continually watched, harassed by hidden things that chose not to reveal themselves –farmers hiding within stationary rusting tractors; eyes behind curtains too far away to distinguish; hands inside distant gloves uncertain whether to wave or clench. An odd feeling.

It was a drive under bi-dimensional clouds, speckled by occasional bursts of a pancake sun and omnivorous heat that threatened suffocation -a turning of the page by some unthinking reader. There was no dimension that included Time, because it did not pass –it could not. Time lives in expectation –in the hopes of achievement- and when this is lost or forgotten on the journey –when there are no markings to chart progress- its passage is an abstraction. It exists only in relation to something. But here, on the prairie, there was no something. No family of familiars –just a vague memory of an unnecessary addendum, an unexpected roof, or a maverick tree -real only in retrospect. As real as the horizon -or at least as real as the end of a rainbow; Time lived there; waved from there; but was as illusory as the pot of gold.

So, I do not know how long I drove; the fuel gauge was my only clock. There were no towns, just trucks that passed like tornadoes tearing at my wheels, sucking the metal from my protective cage. What cars there were, slipped past quietly, afraid perhaps of attracting unwanted attention from the behemoths that terrorized the asphalt line. You learn obedience here; to survive is to disappear safely over the horizon -the place I longed to reach: the el Dorado. There, other beings like myself lived their troglodyte existence, protected from the infinite prairie prowling just above their riparian trough: the badlands that already sounded like an oxymoron…

I sought the World Heritage site -Dinosaur Provincial Park- but already hope was fading. I feared it was another Brigadoon that only reappeared once an aeon -if it ever had. An Atlantis created to lure people onto the endless surface –stories of a hidden Eden; stories told by old, toothless people with shaky hands, under the sun-bleached prairie crops. Believed only by children, too young to know the words.

But even when I saw the sign and turned to follow another line, my faith was shaky. It is all too easy to succumb to prairie apostasy, I fear. There were no trees along the line, no dimensions to sell the lie. I was seeking yet another receding horizon with no edge. Another fable.

And yet, there is an edge sometimes, and what it hides cannot escape. Like Narnia, it lies just beneath the wardrobe’s door. And suddenly, as the road descended like an elevator, another world arose, mushroom-like, beneath my eyes. A sparsely coloured hobbit kingdom of jagged hills and hoodoos, mounds and trails, and people dwarfed by the grandeur of this unexpected kingdom. Up and down returned, and even the phoenix Time peered at me through the buried treasure of dimensions.

But I was reminded of England’s Lake District, or New Zealand’s Fiordland –Disneylands both: Edens writ small -purpose built almost; glimpses of our heart’s desire, but as evanescent as a Gypsy camp. This was no home away from home; it was a film set –not meant to be the journey’s end.

And yet, at least it was a world of things, of places. Of volume. But even there you could not stay too long; even there the prairie called. I could feel it sighing as I left.

But, deprived of things again, I got lost on the way back. I suppose I should never have tried to leave my home; there is no pleasure dome of Kubla Khan outside. We must all learn to live within the cage assigned -its open door leads only to another cage.




Running for Godot

You learn to seize an opportunity when you get to my age, to latch onto it like a puppy on a leg because it may never walk by again. And besides, it’s something to do. I was having a quiet breakfast at a budget motel in Drumheller recently when a group of seniors rushed in like a flock of kindergarten children babbling excitedly about something they were about to do. They were wearing numbers pinned like diapers to their apparel so I suppose I could be forgiven for assuming they were on some form of supervised excursion from the Home, and their numbers were merely assigned for easy identification if they wandered away.

The strange thing, though, was that they were all wearing running shoes and athletic gear and doing stretches while they waited for their toast to burn. Powerful wrinkles rippled silently beneath their yoga pants and I tried not to stare; but it was difficult not to risk quick ocular sorties to identify the source of the crackles and pops that didn’t seem to be coming from their cereal bowls. They all looked so enthusiastic and animated, I wondered for a moment whether they had been pre-medicated with something.

Then one of them, a tall, thin, nervous looking woman with short grey hair sat beside me –by mistake, I imagine, because the rest had clustered together trying to fit themselves around a table so they could shout at each other more efficiently. She was wearing loose black pants, and a disturbingly dissonant neon-green hoodie that almost shouted. She smiled at me, rolled her eyes and poked carefully at a partially filled bowl of raisin bran. As I concentrated politely on trying to thicken an already decadent layer of peanut butter on my freshly toasted bagel, she muttered something. I suppose it was actually a whisper, but she was chewing at the time, so I couldn’t be sure.

“I wish I could do that,” was what it sounded like, but again, I wasn’t certain it was intended for me, so I continued slathering. “I’d feel too logy on the path,” was the addendum.

I didn’t respond, of course, so she tried it again –this time while attempting to dislodge a recalcitrant bran flake from between her teeth. Finally, in desperation, she nudged me with her elbow and spoke slowly and clearly, enunciating each syllable as if I were deaf, foreign, or challenged in some manner.

I smiled and put down my knife under intense scrutiny from the eyes she had sent to forage on the bagel. “I like a little bagel with my peanut butter,” I said, weakly, followed by a brief moment of embarrassment when she didn’t laugh.

“I love peanut butter,” she said, this time in a relatively normal cadence with a reassuring smile, still staring at my bagel. “But the organizers warned us not to eat too much before the race… Something to do with cramps, I think.” She glanced furtively at her friends at the other table. “None of us have ever finished before, but this year, it’s going to be me. I’m going to make it this time!” She sighed and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Martha you’ll never do it, they keep saying.” She giggled like a teenager. “They only made it as far as the museum themselves last year and waited for me there…” She went suddenly silent and dropped her eyes to the table in front of her.


“And I never arrived… Got a cramp on the first part near the river and told them to go on ahead and I’d join them at the Museum. But it didn’t go away, so I walked back to the starting place and apologized to the race organizers for my failure.”

She seemed so ashamed of the memory, I thought I’d ask her about today’s race. “How far do you need to run this morning?”

Her grin almost split her face in two. “It’s supposed to be a half marathon,” she said excitedly. “We start at the bridge, run along the river path, and then through the badlands to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. We come back the same way.”

Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked the entire group stood up and pretend-jogged to the door. Martha pushed the cereal bowl away, stretched, and then touched my shoulder. “It starts in about fifteen minutes; wish me well –I’ve been training all year for this…”

I smiled and told her I knew she’d make it this time, and then concentrated on my bagel while she and the group bounced out the door.

The silence following their departure was almost preternatural and although I’d been enjoying it before, I felt like there was now something missing. I’d done all the tourist things –I’d been to the museum; I’d hiked the World Heritage site at the Dinosaur Provincial Park -I’d even trouped around Drumheller in the wind and rain taking pictures of the model dinosaurs sitting coyly on park benches or crouched on lawns in front of restaurants. I’d decided to stay another day, but frankly I was already bored. It was raining again and cold with the wind. I’d already hiked every trail I could find, but in the rain, the mud in the badlands turns, well, bad. I wondered about the path the race was using, though –it couldn’t be over the same material. And if seniors could run it, surely I could at least walk it when the race was finished. They were putting me to shame.

I waited until the early afternoon to be sure everybody would have finished the course, and then simply followed the arrows chalked on the pavement. There were still a few race officials standing around, but I could see they were merely taking down the signs and tidying up. There were even a few of the seniors huddled in a little group, hoods up against the wind. At any rate, nobody made any attempt to discourage me from walking along the route, so I started out, leaning into the roaring wind, excited about having a purpose again.

The first part was rather dull –it skirted the road that led to the museum- and apart from a few motels and a Health Center conveniently near to the course, the only interesting part was the strength of the unfettered prairie wind fanned by a Venturi effect that was roaring down the highway. But the little chalk arrows soon pointed into the relative shelter of the woods by the river, and the cottonwood trees rustled their leaves in encouragement. In fact, they were swaying and creaking so loudly in the wind overhead, it sounded like continuous applause –a standing ovation. I felt protected and hidden in the relative calm on the route below their gesticulating arms; it was only when the path crossed the road again and scraped its way across the badlands that I felt the building fury once more. But the museum was still only an invisibly distant, lonely promise.

The rain started up again as I struggled along one particularly steep part of the trail. All around were striped, pale and dark, layered columns of clay and silt deposited thousands of years ago by endlessly repetitive river floods as the glaciers melted. Tiny linear crevasses streaked down each hill -eerie, parallel testaments to the ambivalence of water: deposition or erosion -nothing lasted here; nothing remained the same. A place of aboriginal myths and superstition, it was as barren and forbidding as legend, wind and passing aeons could beget. Postdiluvian, yet unfamiliar. Incongruous… And as I stood there in the dwindling light, I felt increasingly silly for even attempting the walk in these conditions; abandoned, and chilled by the rain, I was a man struggling alone and forgotten on the surface of a cold, alien planet. A stranger in a strange land…

And then, in the distance made blurry by the sheets of rain, I saw it: a flash of colour that at first I mistook for a light from the still too-distant museum -but there was only one and it soon disappeared behind one of the muddy knolls. Nevertheless, I was tired, not curious, and decided to turn around, even though I knew I was far from my goal. There seemed no sense in continuing further in the growing storm -no reward to be gained; no one even knew -or cared- that I had ventured this far on foot.

I turned my back to the wind and tightened the thin, flapping Gortex hood. I don’t know how long I stood there feeling sorry for myself, but all of a sudden I thought I heard a cough behind me.

“I’m gonna make it this time,” a thin, exhausted voice yelled over the wind and through the rain beating staccato on my hood. “My friends have already dropped out, so I phoned them and told them to meet me at the starting place.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder as I spun around and saw a grin on the familiar, hooded face. “Didn’t I tell you I’d make it this time…?”




An Apple a Day

I am really puzzled by those whom I see beavering away on their laptops in coffee shops across the city –across the world for all I know. I suppose it is actually a hydra-headed quandary: where they do it; how they do it; but more to the point, why they do it. The act of being voluntarily immersed in a cauldron of noise while attempting to produce a meaningful result on the screen strikes me as similar to trying to remember a shopping list while being water-boarded. I had nothing but disdain for those who pretended to be productively engaged while a cup of steaming hot coffee sat just centimetres away from their Apples on noticeably rickety tables.

But now that I am retired and have had time to reflect on such weighty matters, I have begun to wonder if it was just envy that had led me to discard such ostentation as mere affectation. I decided to subject the practice to Scientific Scrutiny and set about designing a randomized single-blinded controlled experiment to establish once and for all, whether those nattily-dressed dandies in their expensive suits and overly-decorative ties could actually accomplishing anything worthwhile in Starbuck’s. I’m trying to remain neutral; I have no confirmation bias worth mentioning, I don’t think…

I am, by all accounts, though, a one-burner chef, and I suspect congenitally maladapted to multi-tasking anything more complicated than eating in front of the television set. Sequentiality, not omniality –assuming that is actually a word- has defined my existence, but retirement is a time for change and renewal. A time to discover the potential stored away after a life of presumed productivity. A time to prove I was right all along…

First, the experimental design. I pretend to write short stories, so the Control part was easy: write different parts of the same story both in the quiet of my den at home, and at Starbuck’s in the hubbub of the morning rush. I could sort of Blind it as well, by copying down the first sentence and putting either an S or and H beside it, then filing it away until I analyzed the data. And, Randomizing it was simple, of course –I don’t like the noise so I didn’t go out for coffee on anything like a regular basis. So, there you have it: Retirement Science in action.

I was really excited on my first day in Starbucks, and like buying a new collar and leash for the mandatory dog you are supposed to bring to be tied up outside, I’d polished up the outside of my MacBook Air so it gleamed in the overhead lights. I hoped it would make up for the lack of dog.

The tables in my local Starbucks are really small, however, and because the laptop occupied most of it, I wondered what to do with the coffee. I started out by putting it on the other side of the screen, but I soon discovered that this is a practice that is frowned upon. I would forget that it was there, and people walking by would keep tapping the computer to tell me it was about to fall off the edge. I ended up storing it in my lap between my legs. I really don’t know why they insist on putting those silly little holes in the lids.

My first day there was pandemonium. The high school is nearby and soon after I had scored a little table in the middle of the room, the Starbuck’s immediately filled with teenagers who had either escaped or had bribed the janitor to let them out for recess. And then the shopkeepers arrived, and the mothers taking their toddlers to preschool or obedience classes… It was all Brownian motion and crowd noise –Babel on a jet engine scale. Snippets of conversation surfaced and then submerged again in the gestalt. Screams, when they are relatively constant, despite the stochastic pitch and volume, are easier to ignore than words, and I noticed I was following different strands of people’s lives as they wove themselves in and out of the weft of comprehensibility. I found myself wondering why the woman standing in the line in front of my table, was still living with her husband, and how the teenager at the next table had actually made it home after the party on the weekend. I even sympathized with the mother at a nearby table who had forgotten the nappies for her crying, malodorous baby in her rush to discuss child care tips with her older, and presumably wiser mother-in-law. Sitting at my table was like treading water on somebody else’s Facebook page.

I attempted to get back to my experiment, but I felt as if I was imbedded in stucco; the words weren’t mine, nor were the ideas. I tried desperately to focus but it was like trying to follow raindrops in a storm, so I closed my laptop and stood up to leave. I had decided I would have to revise the study design somehow, but as I concentrated on just how, I felt a warm trickle in my lap and I realized that Science would be immeasurable enhanced if I tried it the next time without coffee. Potato chips would fit nicely on my thigh and maybe even help drown out the other noise as I chewed. Of course, I’d miss a lot…