The View from… There

By now, everything should have settled into place –like compost in the garden after a good rain. And by now, all this extra time I have been awarded in Retirement should have been subsumed in the frenzy of getting on my horse and riding off in all directions. But I’m sorry; this surfeit of Time I have been told to wear, was designed for a larger man. And yet I am growing into it, I suppose: like J. Alfred Prufrock I shall wear my trousers rolled.

One of my older and recently retired friends whose teeth still fit, invited me to his apartment to talk the other day. Between naps and mysterious trips out of the room, he mentioned that he was exploring the idea of volunteering and wondered whether I would be interested in joining him.

I thought about it for a moment under the heavy scrutiny of his eyes. “That’s an interesting idea, Tony,” I replied cautiously. I’ve learned to be careful with Tony. He was, after all, the one who decided we should try the Polar Bear swim on New Year’s Day a while ago, and then changed his mind once I was in the water. And then there was the parachuting event when we invested a day learning how to do a jump, only to have him change his mind –again-  when he saw the instructor trying to pry my fingers off the wing strut and jump so I wouldn’t destabilize the plane or something. Tony is like that: full of good intentions that fall prey to last minute compromises.

I blinked to disengage his eyes and riffled around inside for my usual ‘What is it this time?’ smile. “What did you have in mind, Tony?”

A suspiciously benign expression that bordered on beatific gradually captured his face. I knew he’d assumed it slowly to tweak my interest. That always worked –we were both restless souls.

“ESL,” he eventually said, his eyes twinkling at the very sound of it.

I couldn’t help furrowing my brow. “English as a Second Language?” I blinked again, but this time in disbelief. Tony is Brazilian, or something, and English has never been his strong suit. He still gets the meaning of some common expressions wrong –he used to think a couch potato was something you snacked on while you were watching TV. Stuff like that.

“Yeah,” he said as enthusiastically as a child, his face beaming, and his eyes flitting about like barn swallows after insects. “We volunteer to go overseas to teach ESL and…”

I held up my hands like a politician quieting a crowd. “Why overseas? Couldn’t we just do it here in Vancouver?”

His eyes quickly returned to their proper roosts and he neutralized his face to rest for a moment. “Actually, I was hoping for a trip.”

“But… I mean, don’t you have to take classes to learn how to teach ESL?”

He shrugged with that Brazilian indifference to insurmountable odds that I’ve always found so motivating. “What’s to learn? You point at stuff; they listen and repeat the words.”

I couldn’t believe he was still so naïve at his age.

“Anyway,” he continued after a brief reflection, “I haven’t thought it totally through yet.” He loosed his eyes again. “But what do you think?”

“Well, we do have a lot of new immigrants arriving…” I was stalling for time, to tell the truth. I wasn’t sure that either of us would be of much value in the language industry. “Maybe we could help them in some other way…I don’t know, maybe like…” But I had to shrug at that point, and anyway I could see the words were just bouncing off him as soon as they arrived.

He rolled his eyes impatiently; it was a look I knew all too well. “You know what your problem is?” I disguised a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You’ve got no imagination. You get stuck in the old ruts and I always have to come along and push you out!” He paused to take a breath. “You’re an old car!”

He was shouting now –extemporizing, I think, because I could see he was running out of his limited cache of expressions. Actually, I was impressed with his use of metaphor. Retirement was obviously forcing him to branch out.

“The future is in Language,” he continued, waving his arms excitedly.

I nodded my head slowly, as if I was considering the wisdom he was expounding. In reality, I couldn’t think of any other response, but he studied me expectantly as if I was going to finish the sentence for him. And when I didn’t –when I merely stared back at him- I think he was disappointed. I realized he needed a suffix, or something, to show that I had, indeed, been listening and digesting his idea. I cast about in my head for a helpful aphorism, but all I could come up with was, “Well, how do you think we should start…?” I know it was lame, but I had to say something.

His once so active face relaxed into a smile, and his arms dropped to his side as if they had finally accomplished their mission. He pretended to consider it for a moment. “I…” –the artful hesitation again- “I think you should compose a letter to…” His expression suggested he had to reflect on this for a second, and he managed to screw his face up in serious contemplation. “…a letter to the mayor, outlining our idea…” He reconsidered the word. “No, our proposal.” A satisfied grin replaced the smile and he crossed his arms and sat back in his chair.

“But it’s your idea,” I replied, somewhat taken aback by the suggestion, but not really surprised –this was Tony, after all. “Why don’t you compose the letter and we’ll both sign it?” This seemed like a reasonable compromise.

He shook his head and blinked at me. “I’ve never been very good with words…”

Move over Prostate

Retirement? When I was younger, I always cringed when I heard the word –it sounded so… so age-heavy. To admit to retirement, I felt, would be akin to admitting to constipation, or maybe a gradual shift to lentils. Like a tattoo branded on a cheek for all to see, retirement would label the owner as a member of an overly-grey group of people with liver spots and hidden incontinence that usually sat together on bus tours exchanging memories of the last one they took.

Retirement, I figured,  was probably the time you discovered that you weren’t what you thought you’d be when the word first came up. Everything would groan or ache, and things that used to work like a new car, would have shiny seats with the soft and flabby patina of aging skin, and there’d be a speed governor on the few horses that remained. So many things would either have changed or deteriorated that one might be forgiven for thinking that to ‘retire’ was in fact to ‘re-tire’ – or more likely, re-patch, given that Time and Obsolescence would have inevitably ensured that they no longer made the only tires that fit by then.

But nothing lasts forever -sometimes you do get old. And it dawns on you that you may have to shed some of things you were attached to, or try to live with damaged stuff that creaks.

Take the prostate for example -the young man’s gift and the old man’s curse. It’s a scary organ when you get older; cancer of the prostate is the second most common cause of cancer deaths in US men –and its prevalence increases with age. A recent issue of the Urology Clinics of North American suggests that ‘Of all new prostate cancer cases, only 0.6% are diagnosed among men younger than 44 years of age, with most cases being diagnosed at ages 65 to 74’. The article goes on to say that ‘Prostate cancer is generally asymptomatic until it has reached an advanced stage, a strong incentive to the widespread use of prostate-specific antigen (PSA)-based screening for early detection within the window of curability.’

PSA is a readily available blood test and many studies suggest we old guys should probably all get one… Well, actually the Clinics article lists several caveats: ‘Although higher PSA levels are a strong predictor of prostate cancer risk, the total PSA measurement is not specific for prostate cancer [italics mine] and is influenced by other factors, such as benign prostatic hyperplasia, prostatitis, and other benign conditions.  Consequently, many men undergo unnecessary biopsies leading to the overdetection of some indolent tumors.’ In other words, unnecessary treatment of something that may not ever become a threat. And if the risk of dying of something else sooner, say stroke or heart disease, is higher than that of prostate cancer, there’s some debate as to whether it’s even beneficial to screen for it -screening wouldn’t likely change the prognosis but might heighten the anxiety.

I’m certainly not taking a for-or-against position on PSA –I think it’s probably a pretty good thing to have around; I’m just pointing out that there’s a price to pay for everything -there’s no free lunch, as they say… Or is there? Maybe there’s a light snack of hope –or at least an appetizer.

We’ve all heard how good exercise can be for our general health –it seems to have a good effect on mood, on memory, and certainly on muscle tone and bone metabolism. So how about the prostate? I have to say I would never have thought of the lonely little prostate as one of the beneficiaries of exercise –I mean, given that its stuck way down in the nethers, and everything. But scientists will study anything, anywhere. And the BBC will duly report it: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-35235884

At the current stage, of course, this particular study is just a proof of concept -the trial is only for a year, and only on 50 men who already have prostate cancer. ‘Half of the men will have weekly supervised exercise sessions, while the other 25 will only be given information about the benefits of exercise for cancer patients.’

‘Study leader Dr Liam Bourke said: “It’s early days yet, but the data that we do have suggests that exercise may actually be beneficial in terms of helping regulate the way that cancer cells grow and repair DNA.’

But it’s not the only study to look at the effects of exercise on the prostate; there was an even more fascinating one reported in January 2014 in San Diego at the American Association for Cancer Research – Prostate Cancer Foundation Conference on Advances in Prostate Cancer Research (they probably had to have two signs to advertise the conference -or at least use very small letters): http://www.pcf.org/site/c.leJRIROrEpH/b.8968717/k.695D/Exercise_and_Prostate_Cancer8212the_evidence_stacks_up_for_benefits.htm  A team funded by this foundation discovered that, ‘Men who regularly walked at a brisk pace of 3.5 mph or greater before any prostate cancer diagnosis, had more normally shaped blood vessels in their tumors once a cancer did develop. Malformed blood vessels in a prostate tumor have been associated with an increased risk of developing lethal cancers.’  This was no doubt building on a previous study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 2011 also looking at physical activity and its effects on men with prostate cancer which found that: ‘Men who walked briskly for 90 minutes or more per week lower their risk of death from any cause by 46% compared to men who men who walked less quickly and less often. Men who exercised vigorously (e.g., biking, tennis, jogging, swimming) three or more hours per week had a 61% lower risk of death from prostate cancer compared to men who exercised vigorously less than one hour per week. Both non-vigorous and vigorous activity lowered men’s risk of death from any cause.’

And guess what exercise also does? It helps to combat obesity! And guess what effect that obesity can have on the prostate? In another study funded by the Prostate Cancer Foundation, Dr. Adam Dicker in Philadelphia found that ‘men who were either obese or overweight had a higher risk of local tumor invasiveness at the time of their surgery to remove a cancerous prostate.’

So there does seem to be accumulating evidence that exercise may well be able to breathe life into a stone. ‘Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, which we ascribe to Heaven’ as Shakespeare observed.

All I’m saying is that retirement lends itself as much to exercise as it does to reading. In fact, as Mark Twain once cautioned, ‘Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint’.

Okay… I suppose this means my retirement should include more than naps and lentils. Good -I don’t much like lentils.

Barbery

I have great respect for barbers –I mean you have to, eh? Who else is going to do it? Animals groom each other for a reason –stuff gets stuck in there. Unpleasant things that, except in times of starvation or mental illness, should probably not be examined. Should not be itemized.

All this makes barbers special, of course. Throughout history, they have had a special role to play in society -nobody wants messy, flyaway hair; nobody wants it hanging in their soup. So whoever could stomach the life was accorded special status; everybody from priests to surgeons signed up to cut hair -or was it the other way around…? I forget.

Anyway, hair –or the lack of it- has always been important to us, probably because, as well as clothes and length of sword, it revealed a lot about the person wearing it. Hair is usually pretty evident as soon as someone walks in the room: it’s either displayed, peacock-like, or disguised beneath a helmet with horns or something. These are important signs that people have learned to watch for over the years. Just by looking, you can learn a lot about other things, too: religion, social status, cleanliness… And barbers have to know all this stuff before they start.

But I mention all of this as a prelude to a momentous discovery that is likely only possible after Retirement: you can cut your own hair –assuming, of course, that you still have some thick enough to see.

I used to go to a barber, near my office. Admittedly, I was an infrequent visitor, and only when specifically forced to by my secretary, but nonetheless, it was convenient. Rain or snow, I could walk proudly into the shop after work with Mick Jagger curls and sneak home looking like I was about to hand out religious pamphlets door to door. Like Samson shorn, I felt vulnerable. Noticeable. Socially cubby-holed. And I knew that I would continually be the object of scrutiny for weeks until it had grown sufficiently that women wouldn’t shield their children’s faces from me and drivers wouldn’t point and honk as they passed.

And yet Retirement piled still another impediment on that humiliation: distance. I live no where near the barber shop, nor do I have any excuse, desire, or motivation to visit it again as a tourist. But I see it as a cruel irony that, despite the abysmal shearing, I have grown to trust them, much as one might trust, say, the leash on the dog not to break as it growls past on the street. Life is so different now…

First, there are few people who would dare criticize an older man with hair –no matter what it’s doing. I can wear it with pride in any weather. I’ve also found that we seniors are expected to deviate, however slightly, from accepted norms; it’s what we do; it’s who we are. So, even if the light was flickering over the mirror, and a slight tremor afflicted me au moment critique, the ragged edges and eccentric contours are excused –welcomed, even, as fitting into the expected stereotype. It seems to me there is nothing more disturbing to an younger man, than seeing an elder disguising himself as someone he is not. Or at least should not be.

But there is one group that does not hold back its criticism –a group from whom I would have expected unconditional support and understanding: my own.

“Cut your own hair again, eh?” Jeff said, as I sat down at his table at the local MacDonald’s.

At first I thought he was impressed at the job, because I mistook his expression for a smile. “Yeah, it was getting a bit unruly around the sides,” I replied, a little surprised that he had noticed. I’d taken particular care to avoid nicking my ears this time, and was quite proud of the way I’d left a tuft on each side to curl around them. Actually, I wasn’t sure where my ears were hiding, so I didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances.

“Ever thought of trying a barber?” he said, with an earnest expression stapled firmly on his face. I think he assumed he was being helpful.

“Used to use one,” I said with feigned levity -Jeff really seemed concerned as he scanned my head with eyes that seemed to flit from curl to curl like sparrows in a tree. “But they never did a very good job. Took almost a month for it to grow back enough to seem natural…”

He nodded thoughtfully, as he continued his inspection. “How long do you figure this time?” he said, his eyebrows marking the lower edge of a series of furrows above.

I took a sip of my rapidly cooling coffee and carefully placed the cup on the table as if there were a specifically mandated spot for it. “Does it really look that bad?” I almost hated to ask.

He shrugged and attacked his own cup to dampen the tension. “No…” he said, choosing his word very carefully. “Just… noticeable, that’s all.”

I hate it when people use audible italics. “I thought it looked okay,” I said, in a brave attempt to save face.

A faint, and exculpatory grin managed to crawl unwillingly onto his lips. “Sometimes it’s the mirror,” he said, although I could tell he didn’t for a moment believe what he was saying.

I wasn’t sure where to go with this; I was beginning to feel embarrassed. It was almost like the first time I’d heard my recorded voice played back to me on a phone and hadn’t recognized it –myself as others hear me. Now it was a visible estrangement… “So… You think I should go to a barber?”

He stared at me for a moment and then chuckled. “Well it’ll even out eventually… I guess after all these years I just notice things…” But he didn’t really sound convinced.

I think I blushed. At any rate, I tried to cover it by sipping at my coffee again and peering at him over the rim. I’d only known him for a few months, and we always met here, so I wondered if his judgment had been clouded by an otherwise-disguised cognitive decline. I pretended to sigh, but actually I was wondering how many other people had noticed and been too polite to say anything. “No,” I said, “I think you’re right. It’s not as easy as I thought… Hard to see around the back.”

He smiled benevolently but I got the impression I was just digging myself into a deeper hole.

“Know any good barbers around here? Good ones, I mean -I don’t trust a lot of them, do you…?” Might as well ask.

The smile grew on his face like a flower opening. “My shop’s just next door,” he said, shaking his head and winking at me. “I’ll give you a deal if you let me finish my coffee,” he added, chuckling merrily at something.

 

A Face by Any Other Name

Facial recognition is a pretty primitive thing. Not only can the FBI do it, but freshly born babies make a pretty good stab at it, too. We all look for faces everywhere, and we see them as well. We find faces in clouds, in trees, on rocks, the Man in the Moon… It’s called pareidolia when we interpret a non-existent pattern as something familiar. I think I am a reverse-pareidoliac –I often cannot even make out the patterns that aren’t there.

There was a time when I told myself that I had evolved beyond the primitive –that was why I couldn’t recognize faces. I convinced myself that I used far more advanced people-identification methods: the way they walked; how they parted their hair; the rhythm of their jowls when they pronounced my name –advanced things like that which babies could only dream of.

But now that time has worn thin and the edges have begun to fray, and in the plethora of leisure that Retirement has bolted to my shoulders, I feel that I should try to add to my repertoire of categorization clues -accrete lesser known strategies to advance my capacity to function in a crowd of otherwise-strangers. Well, okay… even reliably identify people who have remembered my name.

I like to go for long lonely walks in the woods with the dog along trails where I don’t have to pick up after her. She is aging now -deaf, and arthritic and seems to become easily confused- so I am the one in charge. I stroll slowly and aristocratically along the paths with pride, and at every junction on the trail, every place that might allow her the option of going the wrong way, I make sure she doesn’t get lost. I am the doting father, the aide de camp; I am the slow courier du bois.

Last week, on a particularly wet perambulation through the dripping forest, beset by mist and things that rustled the bushes unbeknownst to my dog, I thought I saw something on the trail ahead. At first I have to confess that, after dismissing notions of bear, or a feral troll, I decided it was a large tree. The fact of its swaying slightly from side to side did nothing to disavow me of my opinion. Once you have thought a thing through dispassionately and with critical reasoning, the conclusion becomes pretty sticky.

And yet, I am not one who believes in carding shadows; evidence can sway me -I am not a solipsist. When the tree eventually wobbled up to me, I was perfectly willing to admit it was human. What I was less certain about, however, was why he seemed to know me –and me him.

“Well, hello again,” he said, with undeserved familiarity. “Still at it I see.”

I nodded politely, but with not the slightest idea what he was talking about. I decided to reply in kind. “And you too, I guess, eh?” It was a brave attempt at concordance that he immediately disavowed.

“Actually, I’m giving up,” he said with a sigh and looked skyward –well, leafward, anyway. “A little too wet for me, I’m afraid.”

We both nodded and then stared at the ground between us as if for instructions. “Yes,” I replied, trying to find something we agreed upon. “It is wet…” As I spoke, a large drop of water landed on my now exposed neck and made me shiver. “And a bit cold.”

He nodded, but in a familiar way that made me suspect I’d seen him before –that maybe I’d even been introduced to him. “So where’s your dog,” he said looking around.

Aha, he knew I had a dog -I was closing in. I shrugged as if it were really of little importance whether your dog is actually visible in a forest like this. “Oh, she takes her time… probably back there sniffing something I guess.”

He nodded his head as if, yes, dogs were like that.

Why did that nod make him seem so familiar I wondered? I riffled through the files in my head for the answer: a name, a circumstance –anything. But the only thing that kept surfacing was that he had a dog, too. Somewhere… “So where’s your dog today?” It was a shot in the dark. I didn’t see a dog, but usually people don’t walk in the woods in the rain if they don’t have one –or at least one at home, anyway.

He chuckled and looked behind him. “Sometimes dogs hide…”

The name ‘Bob’ suddenly surfaced in my head. Was it the name of the dog…? No, probably not –nobody’d name their dog ‘Bob’. I decided it must be his name, so I thought I’d use it to appear more friendly –but non-referentially, noncommittally, just in case. “Ahh, Bob,” I said, dropping the ‘Bob’ down several notes and slowly shaking my head in a sort of pretend shrug. “Happens, eh?” It wasn’t brilliant, or anything, but I think I pulled it off.

He nodded again –it’s a guy thing on a trail- but he seemed a little uncertain, I thought. Just then my dog came limping in a slow pant up the trail and he pointed at her. “Finally, eh friend?” he said speaking in a direction that could have been directed at either one of us. Then he made eye contact with me, said “Well, I’d better be off now… Nice seeing you again.” and waddled off dogless into the mist, no doubt feeling he’d handled the situation as well as I had.