Grey Glower

I have to admit that I’m puzzled –okay, naïve- but I’m having trouble understanding the agitation over grey hair. Not why achromotrichia occurs –that’s Botany 101 stuff: the flower parts of the hair growing in the follicles no longer need to attract bees, and so they just put out stems instead. It happens, eh? No, what confuses me is the fuss it causes.

I never thought much about it until I got older and discovered that all of my male friends were silvering around the temples, and balding over the rest. The only exceptions seemed to be those whose entire head was suspiciously bald. They were the lucky ones, I guess –they never went grey… This is in distinct contrast to those of my friends who were still female. None of them went bald; none of them went grey either, for some reason. It seemed rather counterintuitive. Unfair, to tell the truth.

But when I thought about it some more, I began to suspect that the answer probably lay in their chromosomes. I have always wondered why females had two Xs. It seemed unduly profligate to a one Xer like myself who has always prided himself on leaving less of a carbon footprint. On using only what I need. Conserving stuff for future generations. But, after I tossed the idea around for a while, I realized that their second X was a spare –you know, for when the original one they’d been using had reached its best-before date. After all, the proof was readily visible on any bus: seeing a woman there with grey hair was like spotting a woolly mammoth in the aisle.

But I couldn’t understand why Evolution would have made such an obvious mistake with men. Eventually, I found an answer of sorts while mousing through the archival section of my Guardian app: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/01/why-women-dare-not-go-grey-politics-of-hair?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Women cheat. I now realize why it was a good thing I stopped commenting on people’s hair at work. I used to be dazzled by lustrous, silky, glowing hair –well, I still am, actually- but the blonds were so golden, so… sunrise, and the browns (I forget, am I still allowed to say ‘brown’ instead of ‘hazel’ or ‘chestnut’?) –the browns were a velvety, deep chocolate, like O’Henry bars only without the peanuts. I could never understand why my hair always seemed so drab in comparison.

I remember wanting to point out my amazement one time to a woman sitting beside me on a crowded bus. She was a stable, matronly person whose wrinkles said sixty but whose curls laughed at the thought. Her hair seemed to sparkle in the sunshine filtering through the dirty window. I was feeling a little bored, and I thought it was a good opening ploy -she was just staring at the person sitting ahead of her anyway. First, of course, I checked her fingers for rings, in case she had a jealous partner with a cane watching her from another seat -there’s a section on buses where you’re supposed to sit if you have a cane. When I had satisfied myself that I was in no danger from a surprise attack, I pretended to look out of the window beside her and put on my best smile. Not my leering one, you understand –I’m older now; I can only manage a pleasantly surprised one nowadays –an elder smile. Anyway, I let my eyes stray from the window and onto her hair as if I were just wandering in a field of flowers, when her head suddenly turned on me like an angry bear.

“What are you doing?” she said in a voice that scattered my eyes like birds from a bush.

“I’m sorry?” I said in a softer voice, pretending innocence by suffixing it with a question mark.

“You were staring at me…” Her voice had dropped a decibel on the off chance that she was mistaken that I was a pervert. Then, when she actually focussed on what was sitting next to her, it descended to a hiss that really attracted attention. “You were trying to hit on me…”

It was now or never; heads were beginning to turn my way. “I…” I lost my courage in her withering glare. I had intended to stray into metaphor, but just as the words were lining up for their fateful jump, I changed my mind. She would have misconstrued even the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam at that moment. And besides, I rationalized, glancing at her hair in the now building-besmirched scene outside and parched of its once colour-giving sunlight, her hair was actually the colour of a mouse-pelt and the similes floated away like gossamer on the wind.

So I furrowed my eyebrows like an insulted patriarch and blinked regally at her. “I was merely checking to see if my stop was next,” I said in a flash of inspiration, but with practiced professorial condescension.

She, too, blinked, but I was uncertain whether it was in apology, or because her cataracts were acting up. And for my part, I didn’t deign to look again but pulled the cord and got off at the next stop. In a rare moment of agape, I realized it was probably best for the bus.

 

 

 

 

 

Epiphenomenal Retirement

Epiphenomenalism has always been one of those meta-truths that underpin much of our everyday lives –it is the often-unexpected secondary effect of something. A by-product if you will.

It is the magnetic field that surrounds a power line; it is the mental process that accompanies a particular sequence of neuronal firing; it is sometimes the unintended consequences of an action or process. Put more simply, it is the taste of fruit.

I like that example -it puts things in perspective. But I think we have to take a step back to appreciate just how much perspective is involved sometimes. How much we have to stretch our minds to see things in a way that is not through a glass darkly. This may seem abstruse, but it is of consequence for most of us. Think of how much more of the sky we can see when we emerge from a tunnel, or leave Plato’s cave and its shadows of shadows that we had mistaken for reality.

So what has any of this this to do with Retirement? Well, I’ve begun to wonder if the whole concept is actually an epiphenomenon. At first glance it’s quite a stretch perhaps, but you cannot retire from something if you haven’t done it first. What you retire from is work, by and large.

Let me explain my point through metaphor. Let us say the work is gardening. Choosing and then planting the seeds comes first, then the lengthy and tedious job of tending and caring for it. And finally, when autumn arrives, the long awaited freedom to partake of the benefits you have sewn: the enjoyment. The taste.

I’m just trying to figure what Retirement is all about. It’s not an End-of-Days story, nor is it merely a happily-ever-after episode. And I realize that the world doesn’t really have to make sense, but come on! We are, all of us, metaphors; we are the stories we tell ourselves. Whether or not they are accurate is not the point; they are who we think we are; they are the disguises we have chosen. And Retirement is perhaps our first chance to look at ourselves and how the years have made us dress.

Retirement is not freedom in the sense of liberty to do whatever we wish, so much as freedom to see ourselves as others have. To see what we have become –assess the unintended consequences of our actions. And how we proceed from there is up to us –or, maybe, how an unexamined story might let us proceed. Or not.

I always remember a strange story a friend of mine once told me after she had retired from a life of nursing. Apocryphal? Possibly, but it was her story -her attempt to make sense of her journey; her attempt to find meaning; and yes, her hope that she had made a difference -and who am I to judge? It was what she believed about her life: her myth -and I suppose it is now mine…

“From my youth,” she said, “I had always been told by others to live for each day, because the next one may not appear. Of course, that’s harder than it sounds; stuff always happens; work gets in the way. It’s the ant that the grasshopper goes to when the winter winds begin to blow, remember. So I’d work extra shifts and overtime, just to prepare for my own winter. I was younger then, unmarried, unhopeful.

“I worked in the Emergency Department of a large downtown hospital, so shifts were busy and stressful. I saw a lot of trauma and abuse at nights; overdoses were not uncommon.

“One night, a baby was left in our baby-box –you know, that’s the place a mother can anonymously leave her infant if she feels she cannot take care of it. The baby was not breathing when we found it. We tried all the drug-reversal medications, but none of them seemed to work. They tried CPR to resuscitate the poor little tyke, but after the pediatrician and the arrest team had worked on him unsuccessfully for what seemed like hours, they eventually gave up. No breathing, no cardiac activity. Nothing.

“I was the nurse for that area, so I was directed to bundle him up before they took him down to the morgue as Baby Y. I could hardly see for the tears, but as I wrapped the cotton sheet over his tiny arms, I thought I felt a twitch. After all the team had done, I wondered if I’d just imagined it, but I grabbed my stethoscope and put it on his chest anyway. And I heard a sound –faint, but something…

“I screamed for a doctor to come in, and when I explained what I’d heard, she told me it was probably gas in the intestines from the resuscitation efforts. But I couldn’t accept that and insisted she have a listen.

“Well, yes, there was a heartbeat, the team hurriedly reassembled, and the baby was eventually transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit. Babies are amazing creatures –they can survive what would kill or disable the rest of us.

“I followed Baby Y for quite a while –I’d go up and see him in the nursery whenever I could, until one day, after I’d been away for a couple of weeks, he was gone. Adopted.

“And then, well, life intervened and I eventually married and had a little girl. I forgot about baby Y. We all have our paths to walk, but sometimes the most unlikely routes converge by accident. It was at my daughter’s wedding –or more accurately at the party after when we we all a little east of Eden, that I got into one of those confess-your life stories with my new son-in-law, Brian.

“’Yeah,’ he said, slurring his words a little, ‘I died after I was born. Did I tell you that?’ I think I spilled my drink, but I asked him about it. ‘Yeah, my birth-mother left me at the hospital, but she must have been doing drugs, because they couldn’t revive me, apparently.’

“At that point, his adopted mother who was sitting with us, smiled. ‘They tried to start his heart, but the doctors gave up after a while. Then, a nurse noticed him moving and got the team back. The rest is history,’ she said, and leaned over to kiss her lucky son on the cheek.”

My friend sighed and grasped my hand, obviously comforted by the story. “I’ve got a grandson now,” she said, a satisfied smile capturing her face. “This is what Retirement is for, isn’t it? A chance to think about what you’ve done with your life? A chance to enjoy the side effects?”

 

I think so. Retirement can be epiphenomenal…

 

Freedom comes in many flavours

Freedom comes in many flavours, but in order to taste any one of them, you have to know whether it is freedom from, or freedom to. There is a difference. Take Retirement, for example -‘Freedom 65’ as it’s sometimes called is something we hear about all the time. The implication is that you’ve survived 65 years, say, of what –Hell? Punishment? Imprisonment…? – and have finally been released from it. But for those who have lived their lives in a cage, sudden expulsion, might well be a form of exile –expatriation in one’s own country.

So I’m not really sure, despite the choices –the flavours– what the freedom of Retirement entails, exactly. Shakespeare put it a clever way: ‘Though age from folly could not give me freedom, It does from childishness.’ Well, perhaps, but I have to say, I am more inclined to the view of A.D. Foster, the American writer: ‘Freedom is just chaos, with better lighting.’

I have always wanted to ride buses –not to exotic places, you understand, but just through the city. Unfortunately, the constraints of my work and its unusual hours did not allow it. So freedom, for me at least, has been the bus. I don’t travel to arrive, usually; I travel to see. To hear. To submerge myself in a world I have never known, with people I have never met, nor likely ever will again.

It is a world I have come to enjoy but which like any culture, has its rules and customs that are derogated at the risk of civil but nonetheless obvious censure: loud whispers, and faces wrinkled with ill-disguised irritation; raptor eyes, only barely leashed. It can be a dark country, the bus –the best of times, the worst of times. And yet, for me, the often silent witness, it has been an interactive movie.

I was on a journey to nowhere in particular the other day and happened to be sitting behind a studious looking middle-aged woman with a folder of papers open on her lap. She was flipping pages noisily and writing on them as the mood struck. I have to admit that I was only mildly curious, although I admired her ability to work on a crowded bus that swerved and braked its way through rush hour traffic. As I watched people accumulate in the aisles during the innumerable stops, I quickly lost interest in her –until, that is, she erupted in a truly theatrical shrug, reached into her briefcase and extracted some earbuds. To her credit, I suppose, she kept the volume down so what leaked out contained only the rhythm section. But what I hadn’t noticed before was her metallic heels. Who wears metal heels nowadays? Anyway, one of them managed to find one of the large bolts that held her seat to the floor and proceeded to tap on it like a woodpecker on a tree. That was annoying, but her obviously off-tune humming coupled with the incessant, silly bobbing of her head began to dissipate the background cloud of conversation enveloping our immediate neighbourhood.

The worst was the humming. It was a noise that shifted both randomly and indiscriminately between almost-words and almost-melody, capturing neither sufficiently well to satisfy the unwilling audience. Soon, heads began to turn and eyes narrow –but cannily. Carefully –not willing to give offence.

Then, the first eyes rolled –they belonged to a backpack-wearing man standing beside her in the aisle. They glanced around at other fellow eyes, flitting from face to face seeking solace and acknowledgment at first and then, quickly, permission. Little  retributive justice is meted out on a bus without some sort of consensus. Slowly, after an almost imperceptible nod, he swung the backpack accidentally into her shoulder –a camouflaged request, disguised as an accident, disguising a warning.

She looked up at the man, made a rude face, and retreated into her private inharmonious, inner concert. He, in turn, feigned an apology and smiled. But he might as well have been a ship passing in her night. The clicking of her heels became louder and the humming more insistent. She had, however, replaced the papers in her briefcase, the better to concentrate on her music. It was, and was seen as, a rejection of his attempts to broker a ceasefire.

The man looked around for further sustenance, feeding off those around him like a bear on berries. It was a snub that called for retaliation, but he realized that a backpack nudging a shoulder once is an accident, twice is a provocation. He would have to be cautious. He would have to pick his next opportunity carefully.

He waited until the next rapid deceleration and pretended to lose his balance and fall into one of the tiny earbud wires with an outstretched hand, tearing them both gently but firmly from her ears. This, of course, dislodged the iPhone from her lap to which the common wire had been connected. The phone went skittering under the seats as the bus came to a stop, but before the woman could register her outrage, he immediately offered his surprised and rather maudlin apologies.

The other nearby passengers, trying not to show too much relief, tut-tutted their commiserations and solicited help to find the phone from the seats ahead of her. Lazy eyes inspected the floors, and slow hands reached under their seats.

Eventually the phone was found and passed back to her with compassionate smiles while knowing eyes foraged among the complicit strangers. The woman, for her part, struck up a conversation with her assailant and when the phone arrived, mercifully stored both it and the buds in her briefcase. And laughter reigned and smiles opened like flowers on all the faces near her. And everybody probably lived happily ever after.

I don’t know if this was one small step for Man on the journey to universal peace, or whether buses around the world will ever hear of it; I doubt that the incident will be commemorated in song, and I would be surprised if my grandchildren will be encouraged to draw pictures of it for their fridge doors at home, but I will remember it as yet another doorway for a world to which I am now privy with my new-found freedom. My freedom to.

The Great River of Time

I suppose we’ve all wondered about the great river of Time on which we float. Where does it go and what will it be like when we get there? Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you or anything, but as far as I can tell, it just floods into a big reservoir and sits there. Then all of the accumulated flotsam and jetsam sort of bumps together and surrounds you. I haven’t gotten any further than that, but I assume that some of it sinks to the bottom.

And this lake is big; before your eyes adjust, the horizon is empty and it’s hard to know where to head. What to aim for. Time is not at all what we were led to believe. It’s supposed to be ever-flowing, but once it hits this basin, it almost stops. In our youth we were always guided by the current, but at the end, in Time’s delta, it slows and divides itself in every which way offering fragments, not options. Eddies, not progress. And any motion is just the faint rise and fall of the looming tide. I’m not sure why there’s a delta; maybe it’s just a way of slowing us down before the sea -a chance to look around. But I have to say, after all the rush to get here, it’s rather disappointing when you first arrive…

And yet I don’t want to suggest that Retirement is just a vast pool of stagnant Time. I’m sure it has its shores and I’m beginning to suspect that if there really are instructions, they are likely are written on its banks. You just have to get there, wouldn’t you know.

*

Six o’clock arrives late this morning –I’ve been waiting for it since about 4 AM according to the big red numbers on the clock that watches me all night. I think it’s because I go to bed too early, but hey, I spent a career getting up at 4 so it’s hard to kick.

Anyway, when the radio news turns on, I immediately silence it with a well-trained poke and drop my feet on the cold wooden floor in the preternatural darkness. Normally, I hate darkness –it usually means I should go to bed. I also hate mixed signals. The shower wakes me up, though, and after turning on the bedroom light, the hall light and then the kitchen light I feel more prepared for the day’s mission.

My early, tread-water thoughts, remember, were to engineer purpose, force it to surface, and then grab whatever comes up while it’s trying to take a breath. No need to search the internet for ideas today, however –I come prepared: I wrote my plan down last night before the bed seduced me into its warm and comfortable bosom. Today, I am going to volunteer to serve.

I had to check the writing again; I had obviously written it in some haste lest I fall asleep mid-word. I am usually less inclined to rash behaviour when I awaken, and that which seemed like a good idea after a glass of wine and a full stomach is less persuasive in the morning’s cold, predawn hours.

But on rereading the note, I am willing to risk it. I will volunteer to help in the little restaurant. Or at least I will investigate what it might entail from the safety of that table by the window. But, until it becomes available, I will watch from the crowd and practice my conversation skills. I will learn from them, but I will not commit. Yes, that makes me feel better. I decide to leave a bit early.

I’m surprised; there is parking everywhere and I find that the restaurant is not as crowded as usual this morning. In fact, my seat by the window is empty. So are all the others. There’s only one other person sitting in the room and he is buried in a computer and muttering silently to himself as he shakes his head. Good, I think, I’ve beaten the inevitable rush today -arriving early is a great idea.

I walk over to the counter to order a bagel with peanut butter, keeping an eye on my table in case of trespass. It’s not the owner who takes my order, however, it’s a pretty young woman wearing a bandana over her hair and flaunting an obviously stained cotton blouse. I look more closely, but the stain turns out to be a pattern cleverly disguised as a stain. My god, there’s a lot of stuff available out there nowadays.

“I’d like a whole wheat bagel, toasted, with some peanut butter on the side, please.” It seems like a reasonable request when I say it, but she blinks and all expression drops from her face.

“It comes with cream cheese and salmon, Gary…” Damn, even she knows my name. I have no idea who she is, so she has me at a disadvantage. I mean, I could pretend I know her name and carry on blithely, or I could use it to my advantage and say “Well then, you should know I just want it with peanut butter, eh?” I opt for the former.

I can see the disappointment written on her lips, although it is not clear whether it is the me she knows who has failed, or just my choice. But she swallows her disillusionment like a good waitress and the smile returns. “You go sit down and I’ll bring it to the table.”

It is the owner who brings it to the table, however. I can sense his embarrassment at carrying an unadorned and lonely bagel on a plain white plate in front of his only other customer because he has embellished it with a sprig of parsley for show.

I purposely hone in on the parsley and, after offering some of it to him, down it with one bite. He smiles and crosses his arms as he sits across from me.

“Certainly not as busy as usual, eh?” I say to break the silence. “Maybe it’s the weather…” But this feeble attempt at humour merely nudges one of his eyebrows. I try again. “And I see you have enough staff around today.” I figure this is a way to ease into a discussion of personnel.

He smiles, nods benevolently, and looks around. “I didn’t expect you to be around this early again today, Gary,” he finally says, for some reason emphasizing the word ‘today’, and then staring at me for a moment. “Don’t you ever sleep in?”

I shrug -he’s just trying to make conversation. “Habit, I guess.” He nods thoughtfully and sits back in his chair and a larger, more understanding expression slowly captures his eyes. It catches me by surprise, I guess, so I venture a question. “Why do you ask?”

It’s his turn to shrug. “Thought you might have made a mistake, that’s all.” All the while, I can see his eyes trying to probe mine for answers. Truthful ones.

“Why’s that?”

“It’s Sunday, Gary…”