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…?”

“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…

 

 

In the Fell Clutch of Circumstance

You know, I really have to hand it to John, he’s got this retirement thing down pat –more than pat, I suppose: he’s writing it all down.
“Just in case,” he said, one day at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop where I found him scribbling thoughtfully in one of those large three-ring binder notebooks like we used in high school.

“In case of what, exactly?” I asked, sitting down at his table.

I could see his eyes running a quick analysis of the risk of my coffee spilling onto his manuscript. He reached out and moved it a few centimeters away. “In case anything happens.”

I took a little sip of the newly-moved coffee, careful to put it back in the same spot.  “Like what, John? In case you’re kidnapped, or something?”

His eyes briefly chided my face and then withdrew to their accustomed roost on the binder. “No, but I live alone remember.”

I waited for an elaboration, but he obviously felt that he’d answered the question satisfactorily and occupied himself with staring at the half-full page he’d written. Then he wrote a few more words –one of which, even upside down, looked an awful lot like my name.

“I live alone too, John…” I didn’t know where to go from there so I just waited until it looked as if he’d finished writing the sentence with my name in it. “Is that important?”

He put down the pen and raised his head to look at me with a kind of resigned expression –the kind you might use on a slow pupil. “We’re both retired now,” he said, kindly. I almost thought he was going to reach across the table and pat my hand to console me. “And things change…”

That seemed rather generic. “What things change?”

He rolled his eyes in frustration at my thickness. “You know, things…”

I could almost feel the italics in his expression, but they didn’t help. “Things? Like, wrinkles, or having to get up in the middle of the night…?”

He waved me off impatiently and decided to sip at his own coffee for a moment. “Health issues,” he said, after he’d thought about it.

I have to admit that I was surprised. John was a self-confessed exercisomaniac, and since his retirement, I often saw him running in the park or bicycling along the trails, his helmet even brighter than the sunlight glinting off his orange lycra pants. He walked everywhere he didn’t bike. “What health issues, John? Muscle cramps? Allergies from riding through the woods?”

He fixed me with a prolonged stare, his eyes gripping my face like an angry parent, and then called them off and sighed. “Look, have you ever wondered what would happen if you had a heart attack or a stroke…?”

I shook my head; I hadn’t, actually. “Why would I wonder about that?”

He took a deep, frustrated breath and let it out slowly. “Neither of us have partners…”

“So…?”

“So, suppose something bad happened?”

“Like a heart attack, you mean?” I said, thinking I was finally catching his drift.

He blinked slowly and nodded his head. “Who would know?”

“Know what…?”

“Whether anything had happened.”

He had a point. “You thinking of buying one of those alarm buttons, or something?” I couldn’t believe it had finally come to this in our lives.

He smiled –his first of the morning- and shook his head. “No, but any port in a storm, I guess…”

“What storm, John?” He was obviously worried about something.

He looked around the room to make sure nobody was listening before he answered. “Dizziness,” he answered in a soft, semi-whisper, almost as if he was afraid of conjuring up the condition by even naming it.

“Dizziness?” I responded -but overly loudly, I guess, because he unmuzzled his eyes again. I softened my voice and leaned over the table towards him. “We all get dizzy sometimes, John. Why are you worried?”

His expression was defiant, his voice concerned. “It’s never happened before,” he answered, but without his usual bravado. “One day a few weeks ago I got out of bed and kept losing my balance. It lasted all morning…” Now even his face looked worried. He focussed his attention on my head and once again his eyes darted over to scratch at my cheeks. “I think I have a brain tumour,” he whispered, and then withdrew into himself again, his face now pale, and his hand shaking as he reached for his coffee.

We were both silent for a second or two. I couldn’t think of anything to say.  Finally, I managed to ask him if he’d seen his doctor.

“I was so worried, I went to the Emergency Department at the hospital and even saw the neurologist on call.” Then he lapsed into silence, as if that were enough of an answer.

Sometimes John can be so annoying. He left me to draw my own conclusions about something serious enough to require a visit to Emergency –and a neurologist. “And…?”

He snorted and stared at the ceiling. “She didn’t think it was a brain tumour…”

“Did she do any tests… a CT or something?”

He nodded. “Pretty well everything was normal.”

“So…”

He shrugged. “So, I think she missed something.”

“Why? What did she think was the cause of the problem?”

He grabbed his coffee and took an aggressive swallow, murmuring something as he did so.

“Pardon me, John? I missed that. What did the neurologist think?”

He whispered something, but it was lost in the shout of a nearby child. When I didn’t reply, he began to explain the mistaken diagnosis in a more audible voice. I still had no idea what he’d said, but it sounded for all the world like a justification. “It’s never happened before, you know,” he said earnestly. “So, it couldn’t be that…” I opened my mouth to ask what that was, but my attempt was read as a criticism and he evidently wasn’t prepared to hear it. “I’m in my seventies now; don’t you think I know my body?”

This from someone who had just told me he was worried about something bad happening to him, undiscovered. I smiled reassuringly. “And has the dizziness happened since that time?”

His face tensed and he glared at me. “Of course not!” he almost shouted at me, and then realized he shouldn’t take out his stress on a friend. He sat back and tried to smile. “I decided to change some things in my life, though… Maybe that helped.” He noticed my quizzical expression. “You know, dietary kinds of stuff.” He stretched his arms and took a deep breath. “Reduce my stress levels…”

I nodded as if I understood. I’d known him since university and he’d always been anxious. We used to go out and party on weekends and that always seemed to work. I had an idea. “Why don’t we go out for a drink tonight and talk about it like we did in the old days?

His brow furrowed suddenly and he cocked his head and looked at me as if I were crazy. “You mean like a test…?”

“Uhmm…” I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean, John? We’re just gonna talk about stuff over a drink, not do acid, or anything.”

He watched me carefully from behind his eyes, trying to decide if I was making fun of him. After a few moments of silence, he smiled, gathered up his notes and extended his hand for me to shake. “She told me not to…” he said and stood up to leave. “I still think she missed something, though…” he said as he walked away, nimbly picking his way through the chairs without a mishap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fashionably Old

 

Yes, I know this is uninteresting to those of you with a strong sense of clothes, but to the few of us less acquainted with the intricacies of maintenance, it is a continuing source of frustration. I refer, somewhat hesitantly, to what might under other more public circumstances, be called Fashion. The word, by the way, derives its parentage from the Latin factionem –’a group acting together’. A pity, then, that clothes are seldom as forthcoming when they meet me in a store -not honest when they gloat behind a bargain sign. How could I possibly know if a sweater is lying to me? I tend to accept stuff in good faith if it’s on sale and seems to fit me when I try it on.

I only went into the store because of the Sale sign in the window -this type of enticement blinds me to everything else. I thought maybe they might have a nice Mick Jagger tee shirt –the one I have is so faded you can’t see his hair, and anyway it’s shrunk almost to the size of a bra. I figured I was in the market.

When I asked the sales clerk, she said they were all out of the Mick Jagger selection, but she seemed to have difficulty keeping her face serious. Maybe somebody had just told her a joke.

“But you strike me as a sweater sort of person, anyway,” she said as I started to leave.

I don’t know how she figured that, but she kind of made it sound desirable so I stopped and looked at her. I didn’t really need another sweater, frankly –I’ve got a perfectly good brown one at home. My mother gave it to me for graduating… Well, actually I figured it was a reward for finally leaving home, but I never let on that I knew.

The clerk led me over to a counter with a few brightly coloured sweaters piled haphazardly in little desultory heaps. My eyes ached just looking at them but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. There wasn’t a brown one in the group. Nor a blue one. There wasn’t even a black one… I couldn’t believe it.

“Uhmm…” I didn’t know how to tell her that I didn’t like any of them.

I could see her eyes sizing me up for a moment. “Well, it seems a shame to leave without something,” she said. She pursed her lips, but sent her eyes over to savage my clothes. “I realize it’s hard for some guys to come in here…”

I liked her for that; it is hard to go shopping for clothes when you’re retired. I think I blushed.

She looked through the piles, glancing back at me every so often, as if she were trying to find the perfect colour for an older man. Finally, she fondled a scabby-looking yellow one that was ‘not too bright, but still sensuous’, as she put it.

I don’t generally go for yellows, but the price was right, and the saleslady had a nice smile and seemed adamant that I would get used to it. “Some people can wear anything and get away with it,” she said, glancing at the stuff I was wearing, and then reached out and touched my arm.

I have to say I was flattered. I mean, how many people can wear anything? I picked up the yellow sweater again and tried it on. I thought the sleeves were a bit long, but she quickly rolled them up into cuffs. “There,” she said, fussing with the lengths to get them just right. She reminded me of my mother in that moment, so I decided not to argue.

“And it’s a bit loose at the bottom, don’t you think?” I said, thinking it looked more like a very short dress than a man’s sweater. I wasn’t sure it was at all remediable.

She shook her head slowly and smiled at me as if I were a bit slow. “You should see my daughter…”

I waited for her to tell me what I’d see, but she seemed to think she’d offered a perfectly good description of how sweaters were supposed to hang nowadays. Unfortunately, she left the matter of whether her son would ever wear a yellow sweater unresolved, however.

I must have looked as if was still unconvinced because she winked at me. “She sometimes tucks it in,” she added, as a hoped for coup de grâce. She glanced at her watch; I was obviously taking far too long to make up my mind. And it was closing time. “I tell you what, if you buy it right now, I’ll take a further 15% off for you.”

“Give him 20% off the sale price,” her boss chimed in from the back of the store. For a moment, I thought she’d rolled her eyes, but then I decided it was just the flickering of the fluorescent light over the mirror.

Well, of course with a deal like that I had to accept. I was tempted to wear it home, but she had it sealed in a box before I could even reach for my wallet. They’re very efficient in that store, I must say.

“Let me give you our card, sir,” she said with another wink. “Maybe you can convince your partner to come in, too.”

I smiled and put it in my pocket. I have to admit that I don’t like it when somebody says ‘partner’, but I realize that in today’s society to presume to specify gender in relationships is to risk bumbles every now and then. I considered confessing that I was single, but then I realized that it might sound like I was coming on to her so I held my tongue. You have to be careful, you know.

On the bus home, an older woman sitting next to me kept smiling and looking at the box on my lap. “Shopping?” she asked.

I nodded. “Every once in a while, I have to do it,” I said, thinking it was a clever answer.

“Anniversary?” She was obviously intrigued.

I smiled back, of course, but I was puzzled. “Why do you ask?” I said.

Her smile broadened –like I was being modest, or something. She pointed to the printing on the box that I hadn’t noticed before: Forever Feminine it said, bold as a brass plate. “Most men are afraid to go into a woman’s clothing store like that by themselves,” she said, obviously pleased that she’d finally met one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sinister Aspects of Aging.

It all started out as a game, okay? A challenge. It was never meant to be a serious trespass into Sinistrae. Some places are defined by hereditarily determined boundaries, others, by long-standing custom. The troublesome ones are those occupied by usurpation alone –metastases from neighbouring states. Pretenders to the throne. Forced, not invited.

I refer, of course, to how it all started. An aging friend, Jeffrey, said he’d read somewhere that his brain was plastic and could be reshaped. For some reason, he felt it was a good idea; he’d never liked the one he’d been issued, and was anxious to change it before it was too late. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant -and I don’t think he had read all of the instructions either- but apparently it involved using the other hand to brush your teeth. This simple act, he assured me, would reprogram my brain and develop new and really helpful pathways. In his case, it was probably a good idea.

I have always been satisfied with my neurons, though. They’re pretty standard-issue, I suppose, but I wear them comfortably. They’ve always been fairly good at following orders, and although they’re getting a little yellow in the teeth, and doze off on occasions, all things considered, they’re good fellows. We get along.

But I have to say, curiosity got the better of me one morning when I was staring into the bathroom mirror, neurons set on auto pilot. One of them obviously hadn’t yet bothered to connect with its neighbour –probably a clogged synapse, or something- and I picked up the toothbrush in my left hand. It felt delightfully naughty, like I was getting on a plane to New Zealand on a whim. Unpacked. Unprepared. Open for adventure…

The first thing I noticed was the direction of my teeth –I’d never really thought about them like that before. I mean, I knew they were all lined up like fence posts, but so many…? I found myself struggling to scrape the brush in parallel lines, and with just enough force to be able to stop in time to avoid damaging adjacent organs. Lips, I suppose, are used to stuff like that from eating large nuts, but they still seemed a tad surprised at the blood.

Although I persisted in the reverse-brushing, I have to say I never really got very good at it. And if the intent had been to improve my neural pathways, I must have been training them incorrectly. There was no statistically demonstrable improvement in their accuracy at identifying just why I had opened the fridge door, and I don’t think they were they any better at finding the inevitably missing sock in the dryer. However, in fairness to the study, I did notice that I was getting better at putting the toothpaste on the brush and I was quite pleased –until I realized that I had assigned that hitherto demeaning task to my right hand. And no, it wasn’t particularly happy with the job either, and went out of its way to make it feel awkward, but it’s work, eh? We all have to survive.

Anyway, the whole exercise made me realize just how dependent I am on dextromanuity, and I decided to change all of that –push the limits. I began to drink with my left hand, pour with my left hand, and reach for things sinistrally. Like the word, it felt fresh and exciting; I loved the new me. It was almost as if Retirement had finally allowed me to wear a different identity…

Allowed?  Or was it forcing me…? The thought occurred to me in bed one night. I got up for a glass of water, I think, and had ended up eating the hard, fuzzy remnants of a pizza my left hand found on a bottom shelf -just after it discovered a pile of cookies I’d hidden in the butter compartment for safe keeping. And as I lay in bed, heartburn threatening, I suddenly realized that my right hand would never have found those things. It grew up with the rules and didn’t have to extemporize all the time. I had inadvertently unleashed a monster. The new me was becoming increasingly sinister, and alien. I couldn’t shake the thought that I had become a disease –three AM does that to me sometimes, though: thoughts are stochastic; solutions are evanescent.

First thing in the morning I phoned Jeffrey, the tooth-brush apostate to check how he was coping. He dropped the phone on the floor –but I put that down to the time. He probably wasn’t walking around like me at 5 o’clock. Anyway, at first I could only hear him gumming his way through several fine curses, but then after something tinkled like glass, and the heavy sound of a bed being scraped roughly over a floor, his enunciation improved somewhat and he agreed to meet me at Tim Horton’s at seven. He made me promise to pay, though.

As soon as I saw him, I could tell that we were both sizing each other up. He carried his coffee cup in both hands, and I was deliberately eating my breakfast sandwich with both hands, too -opening salvoes. Simple shots across our respective bows.

“So how come you phoned so early?” he said, placing his cup equidistant from each edge of the table in front of him.

I noticed that the buttons on his shirt were in the wrong holes and he had one left over at the top. But given where he buys his clothes, I thought maybe he’d got it on sale. “I guess I was just up then,” I hedged, unwilling to admit anything before he did.

He reached for the coffee with both hands again, pretending it was the most natural thing in the world; pretending as well, that he wasn’t at all concerned that I was watching his every move. “Boy, they’re really making this stuff hotter than they used to.” He put the coffee back down and blew on his hands as if he’d just sustained a third degree burn.

It was a weak excuse. “So how are you doing Jeffrey?” I said, so he wouldn’t overdo the alibi. “I haven’t seen you in a while.” That, too, was weak, but we were both so busy skirting the issue that we were reduced to the most basic of banalities.

He straightened in his chair and mounted an almost beatific smile that I’d never seen him use before. “Never been better, actually.” But the strain of even saying that wrinkled his mouth and a tiny smudge of tooth peeked out, then quickly dipped back into the shadows as if it had disobeyed instructions.

In fact, that all too brief glimpse of enamel made me realize that he’d been hiding stuff in there. I pretended not to notice, but I’m terrible at subterfuge, and I think I pointed. Of course, I pretended my finger was aimed at somebody walking by, but now he knew I knew. I could tell, because he abandoned all pretence of using both hands, and grabbed his cup aggressively in his right.

And I could tell I was witnessing an important and long overdue catharsis. The blissful expression segued seamlessly into a snarl. Then a chuckle followed by a shrug. “It seemed like a good idea when I read about it…” He sent his eyes over to interrogate my face. Gently, though -self-consciously- and I could barely feel them land. “Made me really confused.” His eyes took off again and flitted about the ceiling, hunting desperately for a roost. “I kept swallowing the toothpaste.”

I nodded. Some things were universals.

“And pretty soon my left hand tried to take over things it wasn’t designed for.” When I smiled in sympathy, he took that as an admission that I, too, had been forced to reign mine in. “Damned things are so competitive, eh?”

I nodded and was about to tell him about the fridge when he suddenly leaned across the table and opened his mouth. One of his front teeth were missing. “When you phoned this morning, it beat my right hand to the glass and dropped my teeth on the floor.” He shook his head angrily and stared at his left hand. “Clumsy bugger…”

I smiled in sympathy. “I’ve decided to cut mine off…”

His eyes locked on my face and his left hand involuntarily reached for mine.

I felt the grasp and laughed. “No, I mean if I keep using it, I’m gonna end up with diabetes.” I told him about the fridge.

We both laughed and then he stood up to leave. He apparently had been so busy looking for the tooth that he hadn’t had time for a shower. We were both relieved that we’d had a chance to talk -had a chance to see the folly from each other’s perspective. I didn’t feel as bad at abandoning the experiment as I’d thought, and hope that it would be easy for us both to undo glimmered like the first hint of dawn… Until he extended his left hand to say goodbye, and mine, without the slightest hesitation, shot out to greet it.

 

 

 

Through a Glass Darkly

I want to register a complaint about car windshields. Well, maybe it’s not really a complaint –I’m sure they try their best- it’s more of an observation on anonymity, I guess. Another iteration on the theme of unintended consequences. Let me presage it with a question –how often do you really know who is waving to you from behind the steering wheel? Even seeing their hands is one thing, but identifying them…? And, in time to decide whether or not to wave back…? I’m sorry, but this is a serious issue –especially in a small village. Offend one person by refusing to acknowledge their social largesse, and next thing you know, your phone is tapped… Okay, just your garbage can gets knocked over, but it’s only a matter of scale, isn’t it?

I made it through Grade 9 physics (I think) so I’m fully appreciative of the properties reflected light, and its effect on the human psyche. Or maybe that was the rainbow -I was never clear on that. So, because the windshield is slanted, any light beam that hits it, reflects off on its angle of incidence and destroys whatever it hits… No, that was the Death Ray -I’ve always had trouble sifting out the other stuff I was reading at the time. Anyway, the fact that the light is reflected makes it devilishly difficult to distinguish any readily identifiable features –birthmarks, scars, or the tell-tale grey of the drivers. Wedding rings are also hard to spot, although they occasionally reflect light differently if they want.

But I hope you get my meaning. This unforeseen defect has probably ruined marriages, and falsely excluded countless lonely people from the encouragement that might have helped them make it through their otherwise meaningless existences as they wended their purposeless ways down isolated, winding, forest-lined roads just hoping for a wave… Take me, for example. Actually, I’m not lonely; I just put that in for the effect.

I needed a muffin; it happens. I’m not good with muffins –if they’re there, I eat them. If they’re not, I buy them. As it happens, the penchant for muffins –or their proxies- had ‘unduly girded my loins’ as was implied in a mysterious Facebook posting the other day. And so, vacationing as I do on the edge of a 4 kilometre, isolated, winding, forest-lined road, I decided that walking it would amply justify the muffin consumption at the other end.

It was not my intention to ride my bike, nor to dabble in the soul-destroying practice of aurally preoccupying my pilgrimage with those little ear-things that make the younger generation continually bob their heads and mouth stuff. No, it was a journey naked of accoutrements and unadorned with bling. There was not so much a purpose –I had yet to decide what kind of muffin; nor a timeline –I’m retired. I had all day… No, merely a destination, a goal, I had set for myself. I would commune with the trees, listen to the birds, and forest-bathe along the way. I would, in effect, be cleansed. Well, tired, anyway –and I figured I’d probably hitchhike back to make up for it.

The problem, of course, was that I hadn’t anticipated all the traffic. There are no sidewalks, and only token, gravel shoulders on either side of the road, so a good portion of my journey was avoidance, not communion. I walked facing the traffic, of course but that meant that the drivers were on the far side of the vehicle. I wonder if anybody thought of that when they were designing these things.

Some of them seemed to be waving at me –I could make out motion in the driver’s seat- but judging by the horns, and the screeching brakes if they happened upon me coming down a hill, I began to wonder if it was friendly. Naturally, I sometimes waved back –I mean, it seemed the friendly thing to do- but after one or two slowed and yelled stuff through their open windows, I decided to keep my hands in my pockets and pretend I had an outer ear disability.

But, suppose they’d been friends –not the ones who yelled toilet words at me, but the ones who merely gestured unseen behind the wheel; the ones who honked in surprise at seeing someone actually walking on the road; or the ones who applied their brakes in honour of my unexpected presence? What if they knew me and I hadn’t acknowledged the bond? Hadn’t reciprocated their existential cries for recognition and undone years of expensive psychotherapy? What if? I mean the potential ramifications of neglect can be profound and, in my case at least, extend until the next car threatened my identity.

I mentioned this to a friend I found sitting at the bakery. As it happens, we both like gluten, and had each ordered peach bran, super-muffins with an extra pat of butter –I had actually ordered three pats, but he showed me how to cover the surface using only two. I had to justify spreading the third on anyway by mentioning that I had walked to the bakery.

“Whoa,” he said and smiled. That, plus waving his knife at me was all he could do with his mouth already full.

I wasn’t sure if he was telling me to put the butter down, or just being friendly, but the confusion did let me describe my problem with people waving from cars. “You can’t see their hands through the windshields when they’re driving, Jim,” I said, and then took an especially large, butter-filled bite.

He nodded as if it wasn’t all exercise and health being a pedestrian –there were issues as well.

“I never know whether or not to wave back if I sense some purposive arm-movement behind the steering wheel,” I continued.

“Are you not allowed to wave if you don’t know them?” He asked, in the short interval between swallowing and re-biting.

I thought about it while I chewed. “Well… I suppose it would help if I at least knew if it was a hand or a fist they were waving.”

“Good point,” he said, although the words were heavy with bran and muffled with a bit of peach his tongue had just found. He worked his way through the peach in silence. “But a wave,” he said, when there was enough room in his mouth to let more than saliva escape, “A wave can also mean ‘I’m sorry I was walking on the road and made you drop the phone you were using’”.

I stopped chewing for a moment. “We’re not supposed to be using our cell phones while driving… It’s illegal.” I licked some butter off my lips. “Not to mention dangerous…”

“So is walking on the road.” He was no longer chewing either.

He sounded rather engaged in the issue, I thought. “Where else is there to walk on these roads?” I asked, politely.

That seemed to stump him. It was something he’d likely never asked himself. “Maybe on the shoulder on the way to the bus stop…?” I could tell he was trying to be friendly, but there was an edge to his voice.

“And if you don’t want to take the bus?”

He rolled his eyes, no doubt wondering what kind of a person he was talking to. “Aren’t there trails out there somewhere…” He smiled, obviously satisfied with his solution –all forests have trails… He burped and sat back in his chair to digest.

I found a little extra butter on my plate, scooped it up with my knife, and slathered it on the remnants of my muffin while he watched enviously. “The only trail near my place goes over to the lake and then follows the stream bed up a hill to a lookout.”

He looked defeated for a minute and then sighed noncommittally. Guiltily, I thought.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I suppose should have waved at you.” The words just slipped out without warning through all the butter still on my lips.

He shot forward on his seat as if he suddenly wondered if he had another muffin waiting for him on the plate. “Thought you couldn’t see through the windshield…” he harrumphed, disguising his surprise with the sudden extraction of a piece of wayward peach from his front teeth.

“Didn’t have to, Jim –you were on the other side of the road and your window was open.”

“That wasn’t me…” I could see his eyes desperately flitting around the room so they wouldn’t have to perch on my face. “And anyway, I didn’t recognize you in that hat.”

I manufactured a suitably neutral expression for my face and then massaged it with a napkin –you can’t be too careful with all that butter. Time for forgiveness; I had chosen to vacation here after all. “Want to give me a ride back?” I said, now certain that I had removed all the muffin from my chin. “I can watch out for pedestrians while you’re on your phone…” It seemed like a neighbourly thing to offer.