Face it…?

I suppose I’ve led a sheltered life so far –not sheltered from people exactly, but rather the need to remember them… No wait a bit; I mean I remember them as soon as I open their chart, or see them in a hospital bed after I’ve delivered their baby… That’s easy. It’s the long term stuff -like who is that who just smiled at me on the street as if they knew me, or is showing me their no-longer baby and asking me if I remember how I did such a good job when it got stuck six years ago at three AM? You have to be allowed to forget when you retire –and so I have.

Forgetting is really easy when you get the hang of it. Every once in a while though, faces sneak through –or at least something does. It has always amazed me that even though things wrinkle and distort over time, there is still something of that original pattern that persists. Not the entire thing, to be sure –chins droop, stuff sags, and teeth move around a bit in the mouth or stare disconsolately at the gleaming new rack on the other side- but the face is still familiar. Even if, like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, sometimes nothing remains but the smile… Or the laugh.

I could feel the eyes coming, almost before they rounded the corner. I dread being accosted in a drug store, for some reason; and I especially hate it when, now that I am retired, I am caught in the laxative aisle. Pretending I was just passing through on a whim always seems lame, and trying to stuff the package back on the shelf before they arrive does not go un-smirked. I almost got away with it, though; she just about made it past me in her rush to get to something further down the aisle. Unfortunately, she was so focussed on the distant shelf, she knocked the package out of my hand.

I had been looking at the ingredients –merely out of curiosity, you understand- and her hip caught me by surprise. She stooped to pick up the container and glanced at it as she handed it back to me. Of course she tried to disguise her expression, but her lips were a paragraph that I recognized from long ago. And her eyes were quotation marks around something we had shared.

This happens all the time I’m afraid, and I’m never sure whether to ignore the face and pretend I’m somebody else that looks like me, or smile and assure them –and myself- that I am who I resemble. It’s a delicate balance to be sure and I don’t have a firm policy on this yet.

It’s not that I’ve allowed myself to go slack with age or anything; I’ve always expected, if not demanded, subjunctive tense usage by all those visibly younger than me, and I pride myself on fastidiously punching out only OED-approved words when I text. Oh yes, and my son showed me how to disable the auto-correct. But I have to admit to a certain grumpiness when it comes to events that purportedly required my attendance in the years before I began taking notes. The more unkind of the lumpen might whisper things about memory deficit, but I would dispute that.

Anyway, the woman hesitated for the briefest instant as our eyes touched, and I knew the tournament had started.

“I’ve seen you before, I think,” she said, tentatively. “Do you come here often?”

It always starts like this. I’ve invented a few distractionary techniques over the years, and I pulled one out at random. “I often buy my shaving stuff here,” I replied, thinking myself quite clever at placing my usual territory at some distance from the aisle of bowels.

Her smile said one thing, but her eyes were having nothing to do with it. “My mother has mobility issues, so I usually shop for her here,” she said, the smile now more of a token –the clear implication being that her mother doesn’t use after-shave. Ever.

I switched to another tack. “I have been known to frequent some of the local restaurants… Maybe we shared a lineup at Starbuck’s.” That seemed safe.

She sent her eyes to roost on my face –my nose to be exact. “Maybe…” The eyes trudged up to my glasses and then scrambled over them to my hair, wings akimbo. “But I recognize those curls.” She thought for a moment. “Did you used to wear your hair longer?”

I felt a little bit like I was being undressed, layer by layer. I nodded politely, wondering where this was leading.

“You remind me of someone I knew years ago…” A thought occurred to her and she blushed. “But he would have been grey… or bald by now, I think.”

I smiled; what else could I reply?

I could tell she was temporally confused. Things were not adding up, but she persisted doggedly –it was obviously intriguing her; important to her as well. “And I remember he had an earring in one ear,” she said, giggling loudly, but glancing covertly at my ears during what she thought was a clever distraction.

The giggle triggered something in deep in my catacombs as well. I’d heard it many times, but it was now nameless. Contextually bereft, and yet… distressing -like it had been long ago blocked and sealed away. And yet the eyes still probed, as if by scratching around on my head, they would unearth the golden key –the clavis aurea. I felt vivisected.

“Do you work around here?” she asked, like a fisher throwing out baited hooks willy-nilly.

“I’m retired,” I answered, hoping that she herself would take my bait that I managed to disguise with a smile.

She smiled as well, but a little too quickly. She recalled her eyes and settled her face to leave, but as she turned to go, she brushed me with another glance. “I guess it was another doctor…”

I nodded pleasantly, but when she shrugged, I could tell she didn’t really believe it. Like me, she was realizing that some memories are probably best left fallow for another day -or perhaps another aisle…

 

 

What did you say?

Language evolves; that’s what I like about it. New words keep popping up all the time so we don’t have to stick with the mouldy old mossbacks we were taught in school. Some of them, like say, LOL, are marvels of brevity and look good on a page even though nobody over forty has the slightest idea what they mean. Others, such as ‘choss’ are kind of catchy and begging to be used. Personally, I prefer the long ones because they presuppose some erudition and some of that clings to the user like an expensive scarf. I’m thinking here of ‘isms’ I suppose: eliminationism, or perhaps internalism -I don’t want to appear choosy. And yet I’m kind of partial to the ‘inters’ too –‘internaut’ springs to mind- however they do seem a little New Age and that’s passé now. But some are simply clever assonances such as Masshole (pardon the inadvertent phonological resemblance); pithy combos of different things of which ‘vog’ is a good example; or borrowed words like ‘tenderpreneur’, or even ‘yaar’ –which rolls nicely off the tongue.

But we have to be careful in our attributions, though. Most young people assume that words arise fully-baked from social media –spelled wrong, perhaps, but they’re easier to write that way. Texting does that to a language, of course, but I want to point to an even more fertile womb of neology: Retirement.

Neologisms are the undisputed prerogatives of the aged –make that elders. In fact, vocabulary, and its bejewelled use of new and hitherto forgotten permutations, are almost the sine qua non of respect for seniors. After a certain point, we simply cannot remember the common word for something in time to complete a sentence, so we have to futz around in the pot of syllables and come up with something tout suite –and make it sound natural. If you can perfect that, you are an elder; if not, you are just another doddery old person to be humoured. But sometimes we are judged, rather shamelessly I think, on our verbal performance -our repartees and the like. Our capacity to engage… In fact, inability to come up with a clever response is one of the key criteria that families use to register their parents in Homes –in loco parentis or something.

I can think of no better place to experience this semantic slight-of-tongue than in a Starbuck’s after the morning rush hour, when the kids and the workies have left enough tables for those of us who don’t eat and run –or can’t… I sometimes sit in the corner pretending I’m reading my iPhone and try to remember the words. I found myself inadvertently swimming in waters beyond my usual depth last week, when Joshua accosted me in the washroom lineup, however.

“You too?” he said a little too loudly. As a rule, I don’t like to let the baristas in on my personal activities. I figure their duties are to serve me, not watch me. Joshua was unfazed, however. He seemed to revel in the attention.

“I think the heightened lavatorial requirements are a function of age, don’t you?”  I said, trying to impress him with my command of bathroom words.

He shook his head. “Prostate,” he replied, trying to outmaneuver me by switching into anatomical mode. “It’s a function of hypertrophic dissonance.”

Whoa. This was getting serious. I nodded quickly to let him think I agreed, but actually it was to buy some time to find another, better phrase. “Obstructive uropathy can certainly be a problem when you’re over a certain age, eh?”

His eyes narrowed; the game was on. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, drawing out his words in an all too obvious delaying tactic. “Coffee is a diuretic even for the testosterone replete.”

I awarded him a slow, contemplative nod. “But they seem to come with larger holding tanks, don’t you think. There’s no one in this line who hasn’t fall’n into his sere, or his yellow leaf.” Shakespeare usually trumps, and I could see him stagger mentally for a moment.

Then the quick twinkling in his eyes. “So must we only look to have curses, not loud but deep, or mouth honor…?”

He knew he had me on that – you only get to quote Shakespeare once each from the same soliloquy. I lowered my head, so it must have looked to him as if I were speaking through my eyebrows –a Ciceronian technique I hope he caught. “Well, at least I’m not standing here in need and desperation; I’ve come prophylactically. Better three hours too soon, than a minute too late,” I said, but I knew in that moment he had me. I’d used the Bard twice, albeit this time from The Merry Wives of Windsor which I figured he’d never read.

I could see triumph in his eyes as words formed slowly on his lips. They were peeking out from inside his mouth, eager to slice me to the ground when the toilet door opened and an old man sauntered out casually feeling to check if he’d remembered to close his fly. Joshua was next in line; he had no choice but to leave me there, bleeding, but not defeated.

As the door closed behind him, I saw my opportunity to escape mortal combat, and took another road to leave ‘just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear’. And as I left Starbuck’s I couldn’t help feeling sad. I would have had him on that one…

 

The Elfin Grot

Don’t let anybody tell you that Retirement is an empty space; that it is what you do when you’ve finished everything else; that you’ve become a kind of accessory nipple. Retirement is more than babysitting and crossword puzzles; more than staring vacuously at the lawn from a chair on the porch.

For example, I created a new religion. I didn’t mean to, or anything. It just happened. I’ve yet to reveal myself to my acolytes, so I’m writing this anonymously –it’s the usual way, I guess. But I’m new at this sort of thing, so I’m just kind of feeling my way through it all.

It started out innocently enough. I usually take my dog on walks through the woods on little-used trails. I prefer these routes so I don’t need to carry those little compostable bags. I’ve always felt that, like spoor, fewmets are natural. And they’re certainly less of an eyesore than a nicely-filled bag thrown in the bushes –my bags used to sit there for months at a time. I don’t know where they got the idea that they decompose.

Anyway, one day, as I was disguising some inconsiderately placed fewmets on the trail, I happened upon a little cairn of pebbles to one side of the path and I thought they would do nicely. Unfortunately, it would seem that my idea was not original and I had to abandon both it and its cache forthwith. But the way the rocks were piled struck me as a type of forest art –I admired the clever balance and choice of material and, I don’t know, I thought it was squandered on, well, waste. I wanted to expand on the concept and sculpt another, purer shape. And elsewhere –lest it be forever linked to deception.

I thought my first attempt  was clever: a tiny inuksuk, complete with arms and head –all cleverly balanced, and prominently displayed on a moss-covered boulder near where two trails cross. It was almost hidden under an arch of leaves, as if it were located in its own little, special cave of green. Alas, on revisiting the site a few days later, the rocks were scattered. At first, I thought perhaps it was the wind, but I suspect I was just being naïve. My carefully chosen stones were dispersed in all directions, and there was a suspicious stain on the bottom edge of the dais. But I was so enamoured of my creative idea, I wasn’t discouraged. New ideas are often denigrated by competing interests, don’t you find?

I decided to modify the form so that it was less depictive, and more dependent on heurism. Ingenuity. I cleverly balanced several disparately-shaped stones from the trail in such a way that it would take a steady hand and a little forethought to add to the structure. In fact, it was small enough that it positively begged for additions.

When I came back the next day I was amazed –there, on the boulder, was a small, dysmorphic figure. It was as if it had evolved overnight –blossomed like a flower in the night air. Little stones were carefully balanced on the larger ones beneath, with tiny pebbles crowning the apex like a diadem. I carefully added another, albeit a tinier addition to the summit, and walked away pleased.

Of course, like any Creator, I needed to make sure there were no further desecrations –there are precedents for this kind of thing, I believe- and on returning the following morning, I was amazed to see another shape growing beside the first –an Eve. And it occurred to me, I had created a grotto for a tiny trail-side religion that was maturing of its own accord.

I wondered for a while whether to branch out. Divaricate. Maybe Facebook it and use bigger words with my friends… Well, perhaps in my younger years, I would have strayed onto that path, but remembering the lessons of Shakespeare, I was fearful of the wages of hubris. I was, I realized, a small god in the scheme of things. Those same sacred stones could be cast my way.

Eventually, I decided to remain in the shadows like a cult, and would have remained there, content and replete, if it hadn’t been for Jeremiah –well, his name was actually Jerry, but I promoted him. I saw him walking his funny little incontinent dog in a small park a few weeks after I abandoned my flock. I’ve never really liked him because he was always complaining about something. Criticizing this, or mocking that, his life –to hear him describe it- was Job-like. And I think he saw his dog, Weenie, as an agent of excretal revenge. His very own avenging angel.

“Jerry,” I said, quickly moving my foot from Weenie’s inquiring leg. “I thought you preferred sidewalks for your exercise.”

The sarcasm was lost on him, though. “Got bawled out by some lady the other day,” he said, not in the least embarrassed. “Said she was going to call the mayor…”

Does anybody actually call a mayor nowadays? “Oh… Well, nice to see you again, Jerry,” I said, starting to walk away as Weenie, never one to accept failure, began to tee me up again.

“I’ve begun to walk the trails, you know,” he said grabbing my sleeve, his eyes turning skyward, as if he was appealing for divine forgiveness. “Nobody seems to care in there.” This seemingly angst-ridden statement was accompanied by a sour grin and what on anybody else might have passed for a wink. On his face, however, it was more like a twitch; a muscle fired by mistake.

“And do you know what I saw?” he continued, his voice thick with contempt. He waited for me to ask, but I was too busy with Weenie to answer. Besides, I knew he was going to tell me whether or not I asked.

I did, however, manage a quick glance to see if he’d notice if I kicked the dog. He pulled sharply on the leash as I searched his eyes, but I think it was because Weenie was showing preternatural interest in one of his shoe by then.

“You know how Weenie likes to explore…?” He left the question open. “Well, I usually let him off his leash in the bush, so I never know where he’ll go.” His eyes darted briefly to my face to check whether or not I approved of this reckless action. “He always comes back, you know…”

Then, confident that I was reassured, he continued. “Anyway, I found him sitting on top of a boulder near the trail. He was sniffing at a pile of rocks he’d knocked down that somebody had stacked there. He was licking his lips and chewing something. He actually growled at me when I tried to get him off…”

“So…”

He rolled his eyes in frustration that I didn’t immediately grasp the significance. “So somebody had left a candy there –I found a wrapper behind the boulder.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “Why do people do things like that?”

“Things like…?”

“Littering, for god’s sake!” His body stiffened and his mouth hardened -as if people like me were what was wrong with the world nowadays. “And there was actually a bare spot on the path where some idiot had taken those stones to put on the rock…” He shook his head irritably again and looked around as if he was searching for another bare spot to illustrate how upsetting it was.

“Maybe they were just trying to hide the candy,” I said softly, “Put it in a special place…” Weenie was tugging on his leash so Jerry was already starting to wander off. I don’t think he heard me.

But I don’t think he’d ever hear. The message from my elfin grot was only a whisper in the trees: a still, small voice not yet ready for the rooftops. But my ripple had started –I already had the first sacrificial offering.

I think I’m going to like this Retirement stuff.

You Can’t Do This?!

It seems to me that there is little that stirs us more to resist than a barrier –a can’t. I don’t know what it is about prohibitions that stir the passions but I’m coming to realize that it doesn’t settle much with age. Well, I suppose that’s a bit general –I rarely feel the urge to speed in my bottom-of-the-line Yaris with its wind-up windows, and I’m equally unlikely to want to climb a fence and trespass across a field of mud just for the heck of it. That said, however, I do object to the arbitrary imposition of capricious rules.

Maybe age itself engenders a frivolous sense of entitlement – a feeling that a lot of what is decreed is simply a fashion -like the requirement that men wear a tie to a meeting, or women wear high heels to dress up. Only when viewed over time, does the apparent reasonableness of the issue dissolve into the Gestalt; only when the dictum is seen as a societal version of a Rorschach inkblot does the arbitrariness of the interpretation become obvious.

And nothing irks me more than the attempt to impose restrictions on language rules! Language is emergent –an epiphenomenon of words, really. It is organic and evolves with time and changes with need. The attempts by the l’Académie Française –France’s guardians of the French language- to keep the language ‘pure’, or for that matter, the efforts by the various governments of Quebec to keep Quebecois from devolving into regrettable Franglaistic creations such as ‘le computer’, or even ‘la girlfriend’ have largely been scarves flapping in the wind, indicating at best, the direction of change. And social media has only stirred the mélange. Tasted the pudding. Language has a current, and to attempt arbitrary containment is to build a dike of sand.

I have always had a fascination with the raw power of punctuation and how mere tittles can take over a sentence. Take, for example, the sensual shape of a question mark. Although its history is somewhat obscure it became, nonetheless, my favourite thing to draw. I loved its provocatively feminine shape and always used to giggle at the embarrassing little dropping underneath -as if it had, well, spilled something. And in the olden days, before the practice became de rigueur with teenage girls, it had the uncanny ability of being able to turn the last word of a sentence upward like a hitchhiking thumb. You could actually predict what it was going to do beforehand. It had influenceand I have to admit to a little frisson of anticipation whenever I used it.

The  same, of course, with the colon. I mean, quite apart from the naughty association with its anatomical homonym, it always seemed to me to be magical: that two pencilled-in perpendicular dots could signify that an elaboration was about to follow -a summation- was preternatural. And that I, a little boy, could actually summon it to happen was almost adult.

But best of all that I, that same helpless child, could mandate that something that I had arbitrarily chosen could be a command simply by adding an exclamation mark at the end was pure Disneyland. The world -okay, the page at least- was at my feet!

So it was with some amusement that I read about the edict from the United Kingdom’s Department of Education restricting the use of the exclamation mark by elementary students in the odd belief that it would improve their ability to communicate effectively -oh yes, and also to pass a national curriculum test. Bear in mind that these are seven year olds. We’re not talking Oxford or Cambridge applicants here. A brief note in the Sunday Times outlines a bit of the issue:  http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Education/article1675680.ece

So, did the Department do it on the advice of some new and compelling data, or merely to change things for the sake of change? Was there a contest that awarded a new Persian carpet for the office of the administrator who came up with the cheapest idea for novelty? Or was it simply the ingratiating naïveté of some new and eager acolyte, freshly hired and determined to launder the Queen’s English?

I’m sorry, but that decision was just plain foolish and ill advised! It was the dying gasp of a department that had run out of useful ideas! It is a picayune decree that serves no useful purpose! And yes, I broke their exclamation mark rules! And why? Well, because I chose to… That’s what exclamation marks are for: to indicate excitement, determination… Intention!

So, go ahead, and arrest me at the border; scan my blogs for exclamation marks if you wish… (I’m more of an ellipsis fan anyway…) Gonna challenge me on that, too? Forget it! Now that I’m retired, I think I’m entitled to live with an exclamation mark on my lips! Or maybe a question mark…? I’ve always tried to shy away from unreasonable commands.

 

 

Picky Ticky -Maybe (apologies to Kipling)

I should have known better –I did know better, but I forgot. Unlike Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that so infuriated 1913 Parisians, our rite of spring often creeps unnoticed from bush to grass –okay, it doesn’t creep exactly, it’s more of a dangle- but it nonetheless lands upon us unawares. And that’s the problem. At the slightest hint of sun, we emerge, blinking, from our winter hibernation and stumble along shrub-lit paths in hopes the forest is still there, untamed, and pollinating. Aye, there’s the rub: we forget that it has been preparing for us; needs us; wants us to forget the lessons we so painfully endured in seasons past. Samsara –that great chain of birth and death- can only continue if we forget. It depends on recalcitrance –on our naïve hope that, having passed the examination we once wrote, we can now forget its substance.

But sun and pollen do not forget, and each year, like new graduates, they bloat with ambition and career goals. Deer-infested forests await the influx of bleary eyed hominids bumbling along dimly remembered trails, now overgrown with the exuberance of Spring. They know, with the sure and certain education of aeons, that the traps are set; the Nets of Being have been hung. They know we will not remember them at first –or at least, in time…

I have to confess that when I peek through the dirty windows of my winter-worn house, I am excited by the colour green. True, the cedars and pines and everything that constitutes a boreal forest have been waving at me all along, but it is only with the return of virgin leaves that I am seduced into the elfin grots outdoors. It’s not that I am a fair-weather naturphile, you understand, but it does help -white rain has never been a charismatic draw for me.

So, a couple of weeks ago, in the existential throes of Retirement angst, I have to admit to a succumption (is that a word?) -I left the heated confines of my burrow and ventured into the Great Unknown and in my excitement, I inadvertently wandered onto a trail I had never tried before. Now it’s true that with age, comes a serendipitous veil that screens out non-essential trivia –memories, for example- but even the dog seemed lost. I never take that as a good sign.

The trail meandered capriciously in and out of forest and stream, unmarked for the most part except for tufts of fur and fewmets –my dog found those; I’m not a coureur des bois. At one stage, I even considered leaving Greteloid bread crumbs to help on the way back, but alas despite a meticulous search of my person, I could find only scraps of matted Kleenex, and they ran out after a few minutes.

I am yet to be convinced that leaving scraps of civilization is of much value for markage, but nonetheless, I suppose they –and my dog- contributed to our successful re-emergence near my car. And yet, for all that remembered fell clutch of circumstance, there was no wincing, nor crying aloud; no redemptive display of sun and sky, simply a tired sprint to the metal door and a whispered paean to whatever gods were out that day.

But I don’t think I was heard –or maybe Someone was angry about the Kleenex, because no sooner than I had returned to the safety of a mirror at home –I hate ‘hat-hair’- than I noticed I had acquired a guest. There, mid-loin, brazen as a blemish, I saw a tick, mid-burrow. I only noticed, because it was waving a couple of its legs at me in its frenzied efforts to tunnel unbeknownst towards my innards.

I’m sorry, but although there are few places I hold sacrosanct, anything inwards of my skin qualifies unconditionally. Nothing enters without my permission. And not only was the thing trying to steal past my defences with local anaesthetic, it was doing so in a location it knew perfectly well I would have trouble seeing –let alone reaching.

Every year I get a hopeful traveller or two that attempts to fool me, but every year I find them and remove them. I think the new generation of ticks is becoming more savvy, however. In the old days, it was a simple matter of reaching for the pliers –I used Vice grips once when I was on a sailboat- and extracting it like a sliver. Not for me are the more arcane methods my urban friends used to suggest like, oh, burning them with a cigarette, or freezing the outer ends with ice cubes. I suspect these items are more readily available to those more accustomed to a night-life to which I have never been attracted, but in the average non-smoking house whose fridge barely keeps the milk cold, I had to fall back on the old ways. And yet, the new tech-savvy breed of ticks has learned to break off at the slightest provocation leaving its mouth-parts fully engaged and buried beyond reasonable grasp. Even with my admittedly limited selection of tweezers, I had to admit defeat because I couldn’t twist my body enough to get a good look. Also, it hurt.

So, somewhere en route to my heart –or wherever they go- is a mouth-part slowly eating its way into a sanctum sanctorum that few have visited. I can only hope that it’s first name is not Lyme, and that my aging defences recognize the spoor for what it is and, despite the vaunted camouflage, stops it in its tracks. Stuff happens, eh?