Put a Sock on it!

We’ve had a particularly snow-filled winter this year it seems to me. Okay, nothing like the blizzards I remember from my childhood in Winnipeg when even the snowbanks on the constantly plowed roads would rise far above my ten-year-old head, and when we routinely built snow-caves in drifts along the river dikes. But that was Manitoba, three time zones and a half-century way. And I do live in the lower mainland of British Columbia, for goodness sakes –a land where rain is queen, and snow discouraged everywhere except on the North shore mountains for tourists to photograph.

Vancouver does not like snow; there are too many streets that become luges, too many people in Lycra on bicycles -there’s an image to maintain after all. But every five or six years, we have to endure the derision of the unfortunately-located Eastern provinces who seem to think Canadians deserve snow and that Vancouver is somehow unpatriotic to settle for mere rain in the winter. And so whenever we do find ourselves saddled with a white Christmas, it’s suddenly national news about the weak-link, profligate rain-queen finally having to pay her dues -like we’re being audited or something.

Anyway, we’re all unwitting hostages to those Jekyll and Hyde twins el Nino and la Nina that seem to alternate every five years or so. Last year we apparently endured the intemperate clemency of an el Nino so I suppose we were about due for his colder sister to usurp the throne:  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ninonina.html  All fine and neatly retributive, perhaps, but it does wreak havoc on those who have never experienced a prairie winter, or on those who have but don’t want to anymore. Vancouver is the fabled Lotusland of Homer’s Odyssey and our tourists expect it. So do I.

But, like Brigadoon, the snow is only a once-upon-a-time here: a bedtime story told to naughty children, an advertising gimmick to sell ski passes for the nearby mountains. What we have more frequently is a thin veneer of ice masquerading as asphalt, or clinging like tired bats to the cables supporting major bridges. It hides, sidewalk-savvy, near retirement homes, waiting for un-caned feet, and walker-less arms; it preys on those whose eyes are wrapped in memories of other times, or stomachs aching for a change of menu at the Home. It is a dangerous time for the unwary -ice takes no prisoners.

I know the problem Brien usually has in this weather. A large man himself, he claims he was brought up by cautiously obese parents who instilled in him an inordinate fear of falling. An oft-told family legend has it that a distant, even larger relative, froze to death up north when he slipped on some ice as he returned from a nocturnal visit to the backyard privy. Neither legend nor Brien seemed willing to explain why the great-uncle-once-removed didn’t simply get up again, but I suppose the family needed a cautionary tale to scare the children. At any rate, Brien lived in small town Saskatchewan, and he says his fearful parents made him wear outsized rubber galoshes with snow-tire treads to school. They also made him promise he’d never drink alcohol when he grew up. So, as a result he hates hockey, and only drinks beer on his porch.

I had read an interesting, but silly article from New Zealand about wearing socks over shoes for walking on ice: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/mar/09/improbable-research-icy-socks-over-shoes and I thought I’d tell Brien about it. I even toyed with the idea of showing up in full kit, but after ruining two pairs of perfectly serviceable fancy woolen tube socks, I realized that nothing else in my drawer would likely fit over my rubber boots. A description of the article would have to do, and if he laughed at the idea, well, sometimes you just have to risk personal humiliation to help a friend.

It was a bitterly cold day (for the West Coast) in late January, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark and threatening rain. Snow still clung stubbornly to the lawns and roads however, refusing to budge until it had first turned to ice and choked the stems off any daffodils foolish enough to attempt a pre-vernal dash for sunlight. Some considerate neighbours had salted the sidewalk in front of Brien’s house, but the fragmented concrete slabs that led to the steps of his porch were tiny ice rinks, their slanting surfaces seemingly Zambonied in anticipation of my imminent arrival.

Brien was organized, too. Despite the cold, he was sitting on the porch bundled up like an Inuit with a large Hudson’s Bay blanket over his lap, and his parka hood fully deployed. His hands were thickened with fur-lined leather mitts with opposable thumb tabs so he could hold the Sunday afternoon beer bottle comfortably and securely. Brien is nothing if not prepared.

“Brien,” I said, waving at him as I skated warily across rink after rink on my way to the porch.

He lifted his bottle in silent recognition of my arrival, and studied my careful little steps. “Watch out for that last rink, eh? It’s my rental dog.”

I stared at him for a moment before attempting the crossing. “Huh? What do you mean?” I said, suspecting a trap of some sort.

He shook his head slowly at my thickness. “Dogs warn you of people coming, right? Well so do people on that final bit of ice.” I could see him smiling in the cavern of his hood. “Never fails.”

“Come on, Brien, you just don’t want to have anything to do with ice… like everybody else,” I said, a little bit irritably, and pointed to the ice free sidewalk that ran past the outside edge of his yard. Then, I realized I’d been a bit harsh, so I softened my tone. “You keep telling me about that uncle in Saskatchewan…”

“NWT.”

“Huh?”

“North West Territories,” he explained, as if I were an American.

“It changes every time you tell it, Brien…” I couldn’t help chuckling.

He shrugged in reply, I think, but it was hard to tell through all his clothes. “I never met him,” he said once I had gained the steps without barking. He nodded towards a nearby chair equipped with both a large woolen blanket and a bottle of beer.

Why would I even think he’d want to sit inside? “Anyway, I read an interesting article about walking on ice,” I said as his face disappeared once again into his hood. “No more need for the legendary winter-tread galoshes of yours…” I added, wondering if I sounded too much like one of those fast-talking salesmen on TV.

But I must have seemed really excited, because I could see his teeth glimmering in the depths of the downy cavern. “Haven’t used those in years,” he said, obviously amused at the memory.

But I was determined now. “This is about an exciting, revolutionary idea from New Zealand, Brien: wearing socks over your shoes. Apparently you get better traction on ice, and…”

I heard, or rather saw, him sigh as his head emerged from the depths and he pulled the blanket up to uncover his feet. It was hard to miss the bright red argyle pattern of the plus-size socks that covered his size 12 shoes. They stared at me as much as anything. “All the kids at school used to wear socks over their shoes,” Brien said, smiling broadly. “I just had to remember to take mine off before I got home.”

“Where did you get big enough socks? I thought you said you had to wear…”

“My parents gave me a weekly allowance…” he interrupted with a grin.  “In Saskatchewan it was important to fit in with the group, eh?” He eyed me suspiciously for a moment wondering why I wouldn’t have known that. Then he slipped the blanket back over his feet and took a sip of his beer.

He seemed so pleased with himself that I didn’t dare tell him I’d only ever bought candy with my allowance.

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mutatis Mutandis

For some reason, I am drawn to articles about brains. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and realize they don’t stock a lot of the original parts anymore. Or maybe I’m really hoping for a kind of Sears catalogue listing the upgrades available –anything that doesn’t begin with ‘Once upon a time’. And I’m tired of reading the words exercise and Sudoku over and over again like they were electricians with extra training in neuronal circuits.

I mean I’m okay with the one I got, but I keep thinking the newer models probably have more interactive apps; I think they were overly optimistic about our old ones. Somebody told me they were stamped with an update-before date, but mine didn’t come with instructions about where to look. And of course if they were hidden somewhere inside the reptile part, they knew I wouldn’t check.

But even the act of thinking about thinking, is in itself ‘conundral’ as Arden would put it; I actually prefer ‘labyrinthine’, but he would no doubt call that semantic needle threading. He usually tiptoed around big words, though, preferring his own creations where possible to avoid abstruse definitional, let alone pronunciatory gaffes. And yet it was Arden who first wondered aloud about our brains –well, his in particular anyway.

“What is all this stuff about big brains?” he blurted out one day as we sat on a crowded little bench in a downtown mall. People were breaking over and around us like surf, but Arden likes the challenge.

“You mean, as in intelligence, or just big people?” I asked. Arden can be so opaque.

For some reason he nodded, but just at that moment, a passing child poked his cheek with a straw, so I couldn’t be sure. “So big is supposed to be better, right?” Arden wouldn’t let a mere straw interfere with his chain of logic.

This time I was buffeted by a large, heavy shopping bag full of hard things, so my answer was probably lost in the expletive, but he smiled in acknowledgement nonetheless. “It can’t be just the size that makes us smarter than chimpanzees or whatever, though…” A group of chattering school children on some sort of a mall-tour passed by at that moment, so I had to ask him to repeat his observation although he was still talking  after they’d passed.

He glared at me for interrupting and then shrugged as if realizing he’d said it poorly anyway. “I mean, if size is so important, why don’t whales have cities, or elephants own stores?”

It made me wonder how he’d put it before. I decided to tell him about an article I’d read on brain size (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38226810) “Our human brain size was a mutation, Arden,” I said -rather too loudly I guess, because several other people on the bench lowered their newspapers, or raised their heads from their chests and surreptitiously glanced my way.

Arden nodded sagely, as if he’d already suspected that.

“Some gene mutated five or six million years ago, after humans split off from the chimpanzees,” I said pedantically, trying to remember the gist of what I had read. “Apparently it changed its function, or something, and made the neocortex grow.” I hoped there would be no questions, because I had already passed my comfort zone.

But Arden, fascinated by the new word, would not let it rest. He quickly surveyed the passing tide and waited for a break between the waves to talk. “What’s a neoCortes?…Or should I say Who?” he added, shaking his head at the word.

“Neocortex,” I corrected, scanning the crowd for another little boy with a straw, but a fresh wave was breaking over us as I spoke.

“Whatever!” he replied, shaking his head indignantly. “What’s a needleCortes then?” He stared at me for a moment. “Or is it Who? You never clarified that…”

I saw a group of bag-waving shoppers approaching, so I decided not to correct him again, and timed my answer to coincide with their approach. “It’s apparently a key brain region,” I whispered, so he’d be too embarrassed to admit he hadn’t heard me. He nodded again –a sure sign he’d seen my lips move.

We sat like spectators at a noisy hockey game, and the inquisitive bench-heads went back to their respective meaningless diversions. But I could tell Arden was thinking about something, because he nodded a couple of times more and then poked me with his elbow. “Isn’t it puzzling, though…?” he asked no one in particular, and the cadre of heads grew ears again. “I mean that a brain can wonder about itself!” He let his eyes soar up to the faux Tudor beams that crisscrossed the ceiling above us in a very un-medieval pattern. “Thinking about thinking is sort of like…” I could see him struggling to express the inexpressible, his face contorted in an almost religious agony of wonder. “…Brushing your hair without a mirror,” he finally chose, surrendering to the unutterable. The heads disappeared again.

He turned toward me and shrugged at the ineffability of the process. “It’s a hall of mirrors,” he added, although whether as an amendment or an explanatory postscript I wasn’t sure. “A mutation, eh?” he continued, shaking his head in appreciation of the epiphany. “Makes sense, though… I mean because otherwise religion would never work would it?”

Eyes, and the occasional mouth in the dormant heads flew open.

I stared at him for a moment, wondering if I’d missed something. “How do you mean, Arden?”

He rolled his eyes at my obtuseness. “If brain size means intelligence, then…?”

I suppose he thought he was feeding me with clues, but all I could do was blink. I made a stab at it, though when I saw the disappointment on his face. “You mean that more intelligent beings would…?” But I had to stop there, because my idea collapsed.

He started nodding his head, as if he thought I had finally grasped the profundity of his thought. “I mean they’d have to redesign everything, wouldn’t they?”

“You mean…?”

“Yes,” he interrupted, a knowing smile capturing all the available space on his face. His eyes glowed with a rapture I’d never seen before, as he considered just how lucky we were to have mutated in time. “Stuff really does work out, doesn’t it?” And he nodded to himself again as the myriad possibilities that could have been, slowly receded into the dark corners of his fortuitously modified neocortex.

 

 

The Trail-minder

There are sometimes things you just have to do, you know. Things that cry out for justice, hoping for their rightful place, begging you to simply help them out –or pick them up. Scraps of paper are like that, for example. Or tissue that finds itself hanging helplessly from a branch. Sometimes it is a solitary glove, alone and desolate, lying prostrate on the ground hoping for a hand. It’s not boring being a trail-minder –it’s a calling.

But sympathy for the forgotten things, redemption for the cast-asides, a bag for the downtrodden –these were not what pricked my conscience initially. I first glimpsed Agape in a clump of burdock. And yet I blush to mention this, lest the more cynical of my readers suggest that it was merely a flash of enlightened self-interest that sparked my ministry. While it’s true that the plant dared me to pass untouched, I like to think I heard the scolding of a generation of mothers burdened with preload anxieties as they confronted the laundry, and the distress of innumerable hapless dogs, their coats encrusted with burrs, condemned to prolonged, painful grooming they did nothing to deserve. A trail, after all, is still a trail no matter what anathemas hide along the way.

And so it was that, on an overcast and drizzly day, as I wandered aimlessly along a well-trodden path just killing time, I had an Epiphany -like Paul on his way to Damascus, I suppose. Only I didn’t get the blinding light, or even the Voice –just a sudden sprinkle of rain and a gust of wind that sent Satan -sorry, I mean the burdock- grabbing at my clothes for all I was worth. I figured this was probably a sign or something, because after my overly loud, and heartfelt curse, the sky darkened. Okay, it was just my hood that had shifted, but stuff happens differently nowadays, eh?

Then, as if the weather had just been teasing me, and I began to free myself from the feckless hood, it occurred to me that maybe I had been singled out for some reason. And, through the Gortex still wrapped across my nose, I thought I heard the soft insistent whispers of pant legs yet unborn telling me to kill the burdock. Of course it might have been the wind –I don’t normally attack plants.

But it got me thinking that I might be on to something. There was a niche service that I could provide -and it could be done anonymously. In fact, would have to be done with nobody looking… Aye, there’s the rub. You can’t just walk around tearing up plants willy-nilly; there would no doubt be complaints from the all-powerful burdock societies, and their affiliated bush-huggers. Yes, and probably Facebook posts denigrating my character and suggesting my mental health was not really up to par. And of course, in the background, the inevitable, whispered fears of garden molestation that always arise in the more faith-oriented ecological presbyteries. I decided to switch niches –you should never waste an epiphany.

That’s when the idea of trail-minding occurred to me. Leave the plants alone, no matter the rumoured malevolence they try so hard to conceal. I started small: paper. While picking up scraps of Snickers wrappers, and the odd MacDonald’s cup may seem tedious and unrewarding to everybody but the felons, I have to say that there is also a whole undiscovered world of crumpled letters and smudged envelopes out there –names naming names, addresses begging to be researched, and information usually locked within the interstices of inner pockets along with the accompanying Kleenex. If I were of a mind, I thought, I could probably make a few Facebook posts of my own. But I didn’t want to soil the vocation that was thrust upon me to bring meaning into my life.

Still, one can’t let paper be one’s entire raison d’être can one? Sometimes, I feel more comfortable, more amused, rescuing fragments of coloured things from bush-tops and low hanging branches. I spent an entire day gathering some orange ribbons strewn along an unmarked trail last week. I could scarcely believe my luck –it’s uncommon to find so many like that. Whoever threw them away should be arrested. And to make it even harder to gather them, they were often tied where they sat. Now that’s mean. Utterly irresponsible!

It’s also rare, thank goodness. Usually, my day is limited to an envelope or two, and maybe a dirty mit or a scarf some peripatetic child has dropped. Those kind of days are necessary, of course, but sometimes there is a haul of soggy tissue paper of uncertain usage. How it finds itself under the wings of hard to reach bushes so far off the path, is a mystery. But wonders like that are part of the allure -part of what keeps me coming back.

One time, I remember finding an intriguing spot at the end of an unusually busy day of gathering. It was an isolated meadow that seemed particularly littered; it was a nexus for beer cans, wrappers and even a soupçon of little deflated balloons scattered hither and thither. Now why would you bring your kids way out there? But that’s part of the mystery that sustains me, eh? Anyway, after cleaning up as much as I could find, I decided to rest under a nearby cedar. My plans were necessarily fluid, you understand.

I leaned against the bark for five or ten minutes reading my phone apps, when an elderly couple, one of whom I’d seen coming out of some bushes a while back, arrived on the other side of the grassy knoll. They spent a few minutes sitting on the ground and glancing over their shoulders at my tree. Finally the man rose to his feet and limped over to my aging cedar. For a moment I thought he might have had another urgent text from nature, but he walked right up to the tree and stared at me.

“Was it you who passed us on the trail?” he asked with hopeful eyes, but without introducing himself.

I nodded wearily, assuming he was just another autograph-seeker.

His face broke into a wrinkled smile. “I think you dropped this,” he continued, holding out a mildewed, lacy, lingerie-like thing for me to take. Wow, I thought, I’m finally trending -people were actually helping me with stuff. Even though it looked rather small, I could see him mentally assessing whether or not I would actually put it on. But when he saw other articles of dubious merit also hanging from my pockets he winked and hurried back to his friend, no doubt sure that he’d just talked to a deviant. After they left, I noticed one of them had dropped a small pledget of Kleenex on the grass so it was definitely a bonus day. Of course every trail isn’t motherloded like that.

But looking back all these many years later, I have no regrets. I was awarded a purpose not given to many others. And as I’ve fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf, as Macbeth so aptly put it, there have been no curses -nothing loud or deep that I could hear, anyway. Okay, there was maybe a bit of mouth-honour, but hey, I imagine everybody gets that when they pick off soiled gloob hanging from branches… And I figure I’m probably in line for that which Macbeth felt should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience and troops of friends…

Actually, I’m still waiting for those.

 

 

That I might touch that cheek…

I’ll admit to being a child of my era –okay, an elder of the era- but I have to confess to a grudging appendage –a questionable attachment to something I was taught in high school. Well maybe it was only hinted at, but certainly no less sticky for the methodology. No less disappointing to an adolescent hungry for acceptance. In fact, it makes me wonder how some of us survived our youth.

And what was the terrible insight that so impressed me in my youthful innocence? So shocking that my memory has played it over and over again like an ear-worm? It was the surreptitious intelligence about the other side… a kind of whispered Malleus Maleficarum. Things even my mother didn’t seem to know –or at least was unwilling to divulge to an outré like her male child. Important information: secret handshake stuff. Things like women being consummate networkers –members of a clandestine female guild with a complicated, yet untraceable matrix of vast global reach. Words were unnecessary for them –just a certain look sufficed, a partially closed eyelid, a smile that really wasn’t meant, and yet conveyed reams of data were it ever to be trusted to hardcopy. It’s why we males, weighed down by guilt and testosterone as we were, didn’t stand a chance. I mean it sounded reasonable when I was sixteen, and I never doubted it as the prevailing wisdom until I came across an article in the BBC News a while back. It’s comforting to know that some people at least dare to question societal mores –even ones that seem so self-evident: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-36969103

The article reports on a study by Professor Joyce Benenson from Emmanuel College and Harvard University and published in Current Biology in which ‘The team looked at recordings of tennis, table tennis, badminton and boxing involving men and women from 44 countries.’ And in these, ‘Researchers examined the aftermath of same-sex sporting events and found that men spent longer talking, touching or embracing their opponents than women. These efforts to patch things up ensure the males can then co-operate more successfully in the future.’ This, even though ‘In society generally, data indicates that physical contact between women is equal to or more frequent than it is among males. But across the four sports observed, men spent significantly more time touching than females, in what the authors term “post-conflict affiliation”.’

Whoa! I went to the original study to check, and as they put it in their summary, their ‘[…] results indicate that unrelated human males are more predisposed than females to invest in a behavior, post-conflict affiliation, that is expected to facilitate future intragroup cooperation.’ I mean how could I have missed that all these hugless years?

But I wondered if I was the only one who hadn’t heard about this, or whether it was just an age-thing and for some reason, I didn’t have the new app on my phone. It was certainly so life-changing, and so potentially ethos-altering, I felt I had to clarify and even validate the findings and, if necessary, embark upon a retirement dedicated first to a critical analysis and then, maybe, to proselytism.

And where better to start, than with a friend? I decided to ask Brien if he knew about it. Then, because he wouldn’t –he only read the TV- I’d tell him what I’d learned even though he was dead set against any form of evangelism and had been known to play recordings of large-dog barks when he heard unsolicited footsteps on his porch. Fortunately for me, he is usually on his porch whenever I visit, so I never get the barks. Still, he guards the veranda like a fort, and even though he usually pretends to be watching Sheda, his favourite tree, his eye-corners are ever vigilant. There is no moss on Brien.

But he wasn’t on his porch, and as I navigated the difficult parts of his sidewalk on my way to the steps, I heard the barking start. He’d chosen the Yorkie version –the dog-lite, back-off-eh signal he used for children selling cookies or the sponsor-me-to-camp kind of missions- but it was still annoying. The big-dog-growls only started when my feet hit the porch. I’ve never figured out how he does it; there is a rumour in the JW community that he has CCTV, but I suspect he just watches through the curtains.

Well, at least this time, because the door opened even before I reached it and an angry-looking face glowered at me from the shadows. “You said you weren’t coming till this afternoon,” it said petulantly.

“Brien, it’s one o’clock…” I countered irritably, glancing at my watch to be sure. I don’t like it when I’m challenged about things like that.

“Well, I’ve always thought that ‘afternoon’ starts at three. Stuff before that is ‘middle of the day’…” He paused for a moment, thinking of a coup de grace for me. “Or, even clearer: ‘around noon’!”

“Think of the words, Brien,” I growled. “after and then noon! What could be clearer?”

He folded his arms across his chest defiantly. “Explain how three isn’t after noon then, eh?”

I couldn’t believe we were arguing about this. “Since when have you been such a semantic stickler, Brien?”

“What?” he shouted theatrically and threw his arms above his head as if I had insulted him onstage. More probably, he hadn’t understood the words, though.

I felt sorry immediately -he’s actually a very good friend- but I couldn’t very well back down from the implied threat of a yelled ‘what’. “You’re being so…” I had to search for something that would register my indignation, but not inflame things further. “…So concrete!” A perfect amelioratory word, I thought, unduly proud of my clarity in the heat of battle.

His eyes hardened and his face scrunched at the idea. “Who had to resort to a rather weak etymological explanation for ‘afternoon’, eh?”

Rather than out-harden him, my eyes actually enlarged. ‘Etymological’? I suddenly realized I had gravely misjudged his vocabulary. Gravely misjudged Brien, for that matter. I do that sometimes… I started to shrug as a sort of testosterone apology but realized that it, too, might be inadequate. “Okay, then you were being more… asphalty.” I have no idea where that came from, but it just sort of slipped out.

His eyes softened, and the folds over his forehead flattened like venetian blinds. In fact, he couldn’t help chuckling as he reached out and touched me gently on my arm. Then, suddenly realizing what he’d just done, looked at his hand and then squeezed my arm as he withdrew it.

Me? I pretend-punched his chest -just a tap, really… I mean you have to do something, don’t you?

“A two-guy apology, eh?” And he smiled warmly. “Let’s go sit on the porch and have a beer,” he said, draping his arm over my shoulder and leading me outside. “So,” he continued when we were comfortably settled, and staring at Sheda, “What was that new study that you couldn’t believe…?”