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.

 

 

 

Zen and the Art of Retirement Maintenance

There is a Zen of exercise you know, but not everybody partakes equally of its spiritual side. Like most of us from the West, we seem to frame our expectations on the models that Western religions have offered us: pain and suffering. At least I suppose I do -although I pretend to experience endorphin-induced ecstasy, and an epiphany with burning muscles -ecclesial agape. All in retrospect, you understand.

I fancy myself a runner, and there’s a funny thing about running: it’s hard to stop, once you start. Well, it’s hard for me to stop, anyway. Every once in a while, I ask myself if it’s abnormal, but the consensus seems to be no. Of course it’s a small sample to go on, but you have to start somewhere.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am a competitive runner or anything. About the only competition I ever tried was with my dog and, well, he had an unusual number of legs so I let him win. He was also on steroids from the neighbour’s table scraps… Fortunately, he’s slowed down a lot since they went Vegan. Still, I learned a valuable life lesson: only compete with the same species  And also, avoiding competition with people who have excessive body hair is probably a good idea, too. So, to be safe, I run alone.

I was over at a friend’s place for coffee the other day. Someone had told him that he was really porking up since he’d retired, so he was thinking of getting into exercise. He’d asked me to come over and help him decide what kind of treadmill to buy. Like me, he hates to run in front of people and he thought that maybe something he could do in the privacy of his basement would avoid public shaming. I thought maybe I could proselytize some zen.

“I figure that something that I can set on ‘walk’ would be a good start…” He sipped at his coffee and looked out the window of his tiny living room. There was a refreshing absence of curtains in his house because it was at the very edge of a forest.

I followed his gaze into the deep shadows between the trees. “Why not just set your feet on ‘walk’ and stroll around in the woods?” It seemed like a reasonably thrifty option for someone living on a pension.

“Thought of that,” he said after a long, contemplative pause. “But I need to have a backup plan,” he explained with a sigh.

“You mean in case the forest burns down overnight, or something?”

He fixed me with a perplexed glare and shook his head sadly as if I hadn’t been paying enough attention. “In case it rains,” he said in slow, drawn-out words and then rolled his eyes. ‘Perhaps you are asking advice from the wrong person,’ his eyes whispered to him once they were back online.

“Oh…” It was all I could think of to reply under the pressure of his subsequently withering stare. And then, when he’d called off his eyes and they were safely back in their cages: “I sometimes walk in the rain…” I used the italic ‘I’ and left the sentence open, hoping it might summon some common recollection.

I don’t,” he mumbled, but his expression softened when he noticed my eyes desperately searching for their tiny perches. “That’s what Retirement’s for: choice.” He decided he’d better explain when he saw my blank face. “If I don’t have to, I don’t.” And then, when he realized that even this detailed explanation didn’t help, he sighed. “Look, I just want to try exercise because I’m bored.” He inspected my face to see if he was getting through. “But I don’t want to take on too much.”

“You can’t get bored on a walk,” I added helpfully. I even winked, although I’ve been told that it usually looks like I’ve just found something in my eye.

“I still want options,” he said after a short pause to decide whether or not I was talking about a walk in the rain.

The thought occurred to me that walking on a treadmill –even a dry one- might not alleviate the boredom very much. “I suppose if you get a really quiet device, you could listen to music or something while you walk.”

A smile appeared, but I could tell it was forced -I obviously did not understand. “Don’t want any distractions, though,” he managed to say, all the while while shaking his head at me. “Maybe once I get it down pat, I may try that.” It was merely a concession to prevent me from losing face, I think, because he then went on to explain how you really had to pay attention on a treadmill –something about foot placement and falling off. “I think it’ll help prevent cognitive decline, too, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I hate Sudoku,” he added, for some reason. “I get half way through it and then realize I’ve got two nines or whatever, in the same row…” Then he blinked at me and lowered his eyes for a moment. “And I cheat in crossword puzzles –they have the answers at the end of the book,” he explained, in case I didn’t know that. “So, you see, I really need exercise…”

He probably had strong pencil fingers, but I decided not to mention it and just nodded.

He became unduly pensive for a moment, and leaned back in his chair. Suddenly he pushed a cookie across the table at me and leaned forward. “Tell me, honestly,” he said, in an earnest tone, locking me in his gaze as if I would otherwise try to fool him. “Do you think I’m being a little bit too rash with this exercise thing?” His eyes tightened on me -talons on an item of prey. “I mean am I overdoing it by wanting to walk every day?” He looked at the plate of cookies in front of him and selected a large, thick one with chocolate chips bursting from it like gopher mounds on a prairie field. His eyes certainly got a lot of exercise.

“Maybe I should get one of those stationary bikes –I mean you can do all the exercise sitting down…” He smiled at the thought and popped a large part of the cookie in his mouth.

“But…” -I was about to explain to him that for it to do him any good he’d probably have to work up a little sweat.

“So I don’t get tired,” his cookie-laden mouth interrupted irritably, quite unable to understand why I wouldn’t think that would be a better way to exercise. Crumbs dripped from his mouth as he finished chewing. “I’ve never been able to balance on the two wheelers anyway, so I wouldn’t have to worry about falling off… Or going out in the rain,” he added, obviously pleased that he’d found another good reason. “What do you think…?”

I tried to say that I thought he might have the wrong idea about exercising, but he’d caught me mid-bite, so my mouth was full and my words were probably muffled and hard to interpret.

I think he took the chewing noise for agreement, because he immediately shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth and scanned the dish for another similarly endowed one. “But there’s no sense rushing into things,” he managed to squeeze in between bites. “I mean I’ve got the rest of my life to decide, don’t I?”

I finished my cookie and managed a smile. Exercise isn’t for everybody. And anyway, who knows how many more cookies any of us have…?

 

 

 

 

 

Improbable Fictions

Age is supposed to be a time of change, I suppose; I’d be bored if things always stayed the same. But sometimes I wish that we could all come to some consensus on what it is that has actually changed. Sometimes I wonder if is just me who wonders. To my eyes, I look the same each morning in the mirror –a little grumpier, perhaps, a few more wrinkles around my eyes, and skin that seems determined to collect in folds around my chin, but things are otherwise sufficiently stable that I am recognizable to myself each day.

And so it is interesting to me that others do seem to alter under the impress of Time –especially those that have escaped my watch for uncounted years. They all say I haven’t changed, and smile as if expecting a tip, but in all honesty, they have, and the more perceptive of them can see the surprise poorly disguised in my face, no matter how I try to conceal it. It makes me wonder if they are simply better actors –better liars– than me.

But all these changes –however stochastic- must require a sophisticated neural methodology, otherwise we wouldn’t know who we were dealing with from day to day. And this would lead to social breakdown because there would be no more us and them… everybody would be a them and then where would we be? How would we know who was on our side? How would we know who to avoid, or gossip about? No, this would be too big a challenge for civilization as we have come to understand it.

I’ve lain awake many a night seeking the answer to what I consider the existential question of our time: how do I know you are who you say you are? And, of course, its corollary: So what – I mean, if I don’t know you anyway…?

I think I have arrived at a partial solution to this seemingly intractable issue. It is surprisingly obvious, and one that I am embarrassed took me so long to see. We, all of us, have been looking through glasses darkly. I think the answer to the awkward problem of recognition-over-time is simple: affectations. Our faces may change, our hair may thin, but our affectations are like the warts we wear: enduring, and however disgusting, as individually identifiable as, well, warts tend to be. Or scarves…

Often, affectations are for those of us who have nothing otherwise uniquely identifiable to offer posterity. My friend Joseph always prided himself on wearing a colourful scarf -a bib, really, the way he tied it. From the beginning he’d seen himself as unique. I’d hung around with him ages ago when I was in first year university on the other side of the country. I saw his affectation as a facade but since he seemed to have worn it for so long, he could no longer see beneath its thread-bare weft and I never had the heart to tell him. The next year he’d switched from Arts to Engineering and since the two don’t mix, I hadn’t seen him since.

And then one day, like the remnants of a dream, something surfaced suddenly in a long line up for breakfast at Tim Horton’s: a cowboy scarf –I mean who wears cowboy scarves in Vancouver, anyway?

We made our ways to the front at different counters and then, double-double in hand he glanced my way and blinked. Although I pretend I possess no noticeable affectations, he nonetheless identified me –perhaps we are blind to our own warts. I had no trouble, however and smiled and signalled him to find a table for us.

“Joseph,” I said, vigorously shaking a thin, bony hand after I’d stowed my coffee, breakfast sandwich and two bagels safely on the table in front of him –my eyes have always outstripped my stomach. He was all smiles, and tried to camouflage his inability to remember my name by saying I still looked the same.

“You’re just how I remember you, too, Joseph,” I gushed, “And I see you’re still wearing the…” I couldn’t think of a polite term for ‘cowboy scarf’ so I merely pointed at it and nodded my head as if I approved of how it made him look. Actually, it made him look silly, but my fraying grey sweatshirt probably didn’t endear me to him, either. “Are you living out here now?”

His smile faded a little, but he tried to look cheerful and he nodded. “How about you?”

“I’ve lived out here for years. I’m retired now, though, so I sometimes go out for breakfast…” His face, never full even back in university, looked quite thin and his facial bones unduly prominent –like cages around his eyes, almost. “Are you still working, Joseph?” It was an innocent question meant to draw out some memories, but I could see him struggling to keep his smile.

His eyes dropped suddenly to his coffee and he stirred some more sugar into it. In fact, he’d brought a few sugar packets to the table but he appeared embarrassed to add them to his coffee in front of me. “No,” he said, with what seemed to be a forced gaiety. “Not any more…” Then he looked up at me, the awkwardness fading. “What did you end up doing after I changed courses back at McMaster?”

I shrugged. “Oh, you know –I muddled through the arts degree and eventually went to UWO after I graduated…”

He nodded, momentarily transported to what his expression said was a happier time for him. But something told me the rest of him did not agree –or at least could not share in the joy. In fact, the only memory it seemed willing to accept was the scarf that hung limply around its pale thin neck, the only splash of colour on clothes that had certainly seen better days.

I was going to ask him the usual things that friends do after long lapses -how life had treated him since we’d last seen each other, and maybe what he was doing nowadays- but something stopped me. An awkward silence followed –almost as if neither of us dared to probe the other more than superficially. Memories can be dangerous, I suppose. He reached a little tentatively for his coffee and sipped it slowly, carefully -as if properly done, it could hide the need for words.

I smiled and picked up my coffee for an imitative sip, glanced at my watch as I did so, and pretended to be surprised.
“Damn,” I said, shaking my head and rising to my feet. “We must have been in that line longer than I thought…” I shook my head sadly. “I have an appointment for the car in about ten minutes!” I glanced sadly at my food and smiled. “Look, I haven’t even touched it… Have some if you like… Seems a shame to waste it…”

I took his hand and shook it warmly. “I’m so embarrassed about this, Joseph. Why not meet me here at the same time tomorrow for breakfast and we can reminisce about our lives -do some catching up?”

He smiled at me and nodded, but I could see just a hint of tears in the corners of his eyes so I turned and walked away.

And after I left, I could see him through the window, finishing my breakfast as if it were his own, but quickly, voraciously, in case I changed my mind. I knew I’d never see him again.

 

 

 

 

To Sleep… Perchance to Drown

Science is so simple; I mean you just have to look around –or at least listen. Take unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS) for example. This is where only one side of the brain sleeps while the other side stays alert. It’s a great thing; if you’re an animal that needs to sleep, but could get eaten if you do, it would be a good idea to keep the burglar alarm connected at all times. Or, to use a more current analogy, video-surveillance with motion detectors –a kind of CCTV for the brain.

It’s an adaptation known to exist in Beluga whales, some dolphins and seals, and maybe in certain types of migrating birds. It makes sense, of course. If you’re supposed to breathe air, and you’re somewhere in the middle of the ocean, how could you ever go to sleep? Even domestic chickens that are rarely found out there, exhibit USWS. So how about us?

Well, now that I’ve retired, I find that I can sleep pretty well anywhere, although, similar to the chicken, I tend to avoid it while swimming and in other circumstances where I might be in danger –driving comes to mind. Also while shopping, because I would probably buy a lot of sugary things which would also put me at risk.

But USWS has not been a priority for mammals for some reason. It has been argued that to do this in a creature with a need for close integration of both hemispheres of the brain (like us) might compromise some cerebral functions –unless, of course, being eaten trumps being smart. So, if becoming a porterhouse steak is not a major threat, evolution would probably weed USWS out.

And yet… Could we creative mammals have retained some vestigial remnants of this ability -like some of us have retained the capability of going bald? It’s a question on which I wouldn’t have dared to speculate until reading this short little blurb on my BBC News app. –fully awake at the time, you understand: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-36105516

It would seem that a study done at Brown University in Rhode Island by Yuka Sasaki suggested that ‘People sleep less well in an unfamiliar place as the brain’s left side stays alert for danger.’ Well, at least more responsive to sound –but that’s a start, eh?

And yet I could have told you that, come to think of it. I first heard evidence of its existence while I was sitting at a little table in Starbucks having my coffee and sausage-and-egg breakfast sandwich. It’s really very good, although if you don’t let it cool off a bit first, your level of awareness can fluctuate markedly. Anyway, I was just waiting for it to cool down, and my ears, having little else to do, were on patrol.

Two women were sitting at the next table, heads together, whispering loudly at each other. Nothing attracts attention like a whisper, so I focussed immediately. Normally, of course, I don’t focus; I just let it drift in, but they sounded so… angry, I thought it might be important.

“I don’t know how he thinks he can get away with it,” the blond with the sporty lipstick hissed. I could see a little trail of bubbles on her coffee where the whisper had bounced.

“But how could you tell what he was doing, Edith? You said it was the middle of the night and as dark as freshly dyed hair?”

I have to say that I was impressed with her simile –her own hair requiring a few touch-ups, notwithstanding. I’d have taken it personally, I think.

“I thought I was dreaming at first…” she hesitated mid-whisper. “Actually, it was a part of my dream…”

The woman with the roots, waited patiently for her to continue. You can’t rush this kind of thing.

“I was in a club sitting at the bar, when some guy sat down next to me. He was hot, but only for his phone. I could hear him tapping at it, even though he’d turned off the keyboard sound…”

“Didn’t Dan turn his off too, Edie?”

Duh. She was missing the whole point, and Edith just withered her with a ‘you’re not very smart, are you?’ stare that I could almost feel at my own table. Perhaps I had been leaning a bit over to their side under the guise of rebooting my sandwich –I’d taken it out of the bag to cool and then had to reconstruct it for consumption. But they were too wrapped up in the intrigue to notice my proximity. Besides, they were whispering, so the secret was safe.

“So you think Dan was texting someone from your bed in the middle of the night, Edith?” The woman had to get her rumours straight if she was going to pass it along.

“I know he did!” Edith whispered emphatically and then nodded –a little sarcastically, I thought, but I can’t say for sure because the little egg patty had slipped onto the table somehow and I had to encourage it back onto the bun. I may have missed something.

But even in the midst of my own food angst I managed to anticipate the response: “How do you know?” She was genuinely puzzled.

I think Edith sighed –I was busy, remember- but a whispered sigh is far more difficult to identify… Or at least attribute it to one party or the other.

“I checked his phone when he got up to pee,” she whispered with an obvious frisson of pride.

“And…?” The woman was evidently drinking decaf.

“And I was right…” Edith sat back, clearly satisfied that he couldn’t put one over on her!

The other woman shook her head admiringly. “Edie, it’s like you’ve got ears on the back of your head…”

Edith was not happy with that analogy, but nonetheless, she was smiling. “Sometimes, you know, I think I can sleep with one eye open…”

She’d have made a good chicken, I decided, and tucked into my rescue-sandwich.

Contemplative Helplessness

Now that I’m retired, I thought I was making great strides towards what everybody is expected to do in this state: contemplative inaction. Let me rephrase that. I meant to suggest that, with the surfeit of time accorded me, I can finally afford the luxury of thinking about things without necessarily having to do them. It’s the great sit-back, in other words: the magnificent summation. The coda.

I have to say that I have never been comfortable with confrontation, so the opportunity to collate what I have learned and organize it into some semblance of Wisdom without the need for a preliminary skirmish is appealing. Remember, wisdom doesn’t have to involve omniscience, or profundity –or even a huge amount of experience- it just has to be helpful. To someone…

So much of what we fob off as wisdom is time-sensitive, though, so we have to be careful who we are advising.

Amud and I run into each other sometimes at the Mall. Neither of us hang out there, or anything, but we do seem to gravitate to the same bench at times. It’s an almost biblical breakwater in the stormy Mall waters that seem to part like the Red Sea around an Apple store. Not apple as in eating, you understand –they don’t seem to attract crowds anymore- no, I mean Apple, as in the technological empire’s store.

At any rate, it’s a fun place to sit. We first met inauspiciously, bearing our wounded iPhones that we had brought, as if to Lourdes, in hopes of cure. And there was a certain pilgrimagey feel to it: we had both tried secular sources of help; both attempted online deliverance, but to no avail. Finally, in desperation, we had both sought miraculous intervention through a long public transit journey to this brightly lit grotto, tucked garishly into the top floor of an otherwise unremarkable mall. Far from the nauseating odour of the Food Court, and removed from the ebb and flow of the overfed, it basked in its own reflected glory. With soft leather couches scattered tastefully at its gates, it welcomed believers and agnostics alike to partake equally and liberally of its healing arts –as long as they had an appointment.

As I said, the first time I met Amud he was outside the Apple temple. He was comfortably ensconced –sprawled really- on the largest couch as if he were about to watch his favourite program on TV. I even looked around to see if there was a TV set with sports playing in the window, but couldn’t see one. Amud who had apparently researched the issue more thoroughly than me, asked me if I had an appointment; I, having only overheard whispers of cure in a coffee shop, said I did not.

“They’ll never let you past the sentry,” he said, when I mentioned that I had made the long and arduous journey without official sanction.

“I didn’t know I needed permission to attend,” I said, despair growing in my voice.

For some reason he found that amusing, and chuckled. “Didn’t you look it up online?” he said, looking at me with new respect. I shook my head in embarrassment. “Neither did I,” he admitted. “I came down yesterday and sat here for a couple of hours before someone noticed me and said they wouldn’t be able to see me until today.”

I think my mouth fell open at that point. I glanced into the gleaming mouth of the Apple cave where the bright-eyed, always-smiling acolytes were smooging clients into seats and pointing at stuff on the shelves in front of them. “In fairness, they did apologize, though…” He thought about it for a moment. “But the young man they sent to talk to me couldn’t seem to wipe the grin off his face.” Amud blinked. “How can you trust someone who refuses to stop smiling?”

Good point. But he was right, I thought as I looked at the employees. Nobody can smile that much without collapsing. I pointed to the empty couches. “They don’t seem very busy this morning,” I said, hope dripping from each word. “So, maybe…”

“Same thing yesterday when I came,” he interrupted with a sad shrug.

We sat in silence for a while. “Why are you here?” I finally asked, more for something to do, than out of curiosity I have to admit.

“Can’t get the phone to work.” He held up the poor unresponsive thing he was cradling like a dead puppy so I could see it. “It ran out of juice and I thought maybe that was the problem, so I recharged it for a few hours, but it just wouldn’t come on.” He sighed and gazed at it with a worried expression. Then his face changed as a thought occurred to him and he looked at me, apologetically. “I didn’t drop it, or anything…” Obviously somebody had already accused him of abuse.

“My wife went online and said I needed to reboot it, or something. She showed me where the on/off button was, but nothing happened. Then she grabbed it from me and tried several other tricks she’d learned on a chat forum.” He smiled at me. “Honestly, it was like watching somebody doing CPR –the desperation in her eyes was something I’ll never forget.

“Anyway, she finally decided I needed to make the trip and found out what buses I should take to get here.”

I nodded empathetically; the phone has almost become a member of the family. Even the thought of its demise is fraught with inconsolable grief. “Do you mind if I see it…?”

He fixed me with a stare that is usually reserved for pedophiles, or maybe strangers on a dark street. But I think he could tell I would be careful. He handed me a phone that looked a lot like mine –different clothes, perhaps, but the same genes.

Of course I tried poking the on/off button several times like everybody else. Nothing worked. So, I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I try combinations and permutations -the stochastic approach. If there are four buttons, I try pushing and holding them in different ways, in different orders, and for different times. It takes a while, but we were both waiting anyway.

I was working my way through the combinations and I could see Amud was getting anxious that I was really going to break something and void his warranty. He made an attempt to grab it when it suddenly came to life. He almost sobbed. “How did you know to do that?” he managed to stammer, with tears in his eyes. “I thought my wife and I tried everything!”

I shrugged modestly; I’d tried so many things already, I honestly couldn’t remember what I’d just done.

“How about your phone?” he asked, more out of indebtedness than hope of succour, I think. “What’s wrong with it?”

I blushed. “Same thing, actually…”

Amud, with a memory bank clearly unimpeded by his years, grabbed it from my hand and like my grandson with a Rubik’s Cube, quickly repeated my procedure until the phone, Lazarus-like, sat up and blinked.

We both turned our attention to the grotto in whose light we bathed. The frantic little elves were still pointing and nodding their heads. Still helping. Still smiling… We read each other’s minds in that moment: they were obviously stalling for time in there. Stalling until they found the right combination of buttons…

And that realization is why the two of us meet here every once in a while: a celebration of technology in a way. A recognition that its mastery, is only complicated if you try too hard to understand it; for the rest of us, it’s largely serendipitous.