Forest Tales

Do you remember Joyce Kilmer –I think that I shall never see, a poem as lovely as a tree? It’s the only poem I remember by him, but I think he was on to something.

I’ve always loved trees –even when I was a child on the prairies where there weren’t any… Well, I suppose there were the guest trees that got planted along the sides of streets in Winnipeg, but unlike more human immigrants, they weren’t given an opportunity to mingle with other expats. Only when they were herded together in parks did a lucky few have a chance for social interactions -and even then it was a series of arranged marriages, concocted mainly for expediency, not empathy. Like birds in a cage, I’m sure that trees feel punished when they are separated from their traditional homes -their extended families.

But have I become too much of an anthropomorphist now that I’m retired? Or have I strayed achingly close to that other cognitive boundary that also seems to attend old age? James thought so, although it could be argued he spent most of his time on the other side himself.

When I moved to within striking distance of mountains, I began to treat myself to long, solitary walks in the forests that clothed the slopes like rumpled green carpets. Immersed in the fragrant mist of cedars, and enchanted by the variable textures worn by different trees, I would spend hours simply wandering along needle-strewn trails listening to the souffle of wind in the branches far above and the song of birds flitting from twig to twig. It was a form of meditation –of  shinrin-yoku, the evocative Japanese expression for the benefits of just such an activity: forest bathing.

But when I retired, I decided I was spending too much time alone. That’s where James came in, I suppose. He was an active, albeit cantankerous pensioner who said he loved walking and showed me his cane to prove it. He kept telling me, each time I saw him in MacDonald’s, that he loved walking among trees -he said marching, actually, so I assumed he’d been a soldier in a different time. In retrospect, though, I should have realized that his more recent active duties were confined to urban parks… On sidewalks. Except to defend against passing dogs, or help him negotiate unruly curbs, the cane was more needed more for support than show -even though it had ‘city’ written all over it.

Nonetheless, he kept pestering me, so I invited him to accompany me around a nearby lake. Actually, it was a converted swamp, and except for a few roots, was relatively level –caneable was how I described it, I think. But he showed up prepared –leather boots that he’d kept from a military tour somewhere, knee-length khaki shorts, and a black sweat shirt with a fist stencilled on it for some reason. Oh yes, and a crumpled green baseball cap from Cuba that looked as if it had just come from the bottom of a drawer. He was ready and eager.

I had to admire his stamina for the first few meters. He seemed to have a swagger that the cane did little to dispel. It was when I stopped to stare up the trunk of a huge Douglas Fir that he began to suspect he would have to 911-me home. I reached out and touched the huge, rough furrows in the bark and caught him shaking his head out of the corner of my eye.

“You tired already?” he said, barely able to contain his disapproval. He grabbed my arm, thinking I was trying to rest against the trunk.

“I was just…” I paused, uncertain how to explain to him that I just needed to touch it. “This tree is probably over a hundred years old, James,” I managed to explain to his frustrated eyes.

“So leave it alone, then,” he said, starting to walk away with me in tow.

The trail became a little narrower shortly after that, and I began to have second thoughts about his ability to manage with the cane. He insisted on walking ahead of me, however. “Trail’s not very well managed,” he grumbled, his cane slashing at a bush that had the temerity to reach out from it’s designated area. “And look at these damned roots all over the place. How do they expect people in wheelchairs to manage?” He didn’t seem to be enjoying himself at all.

“I don’t think the trail is really meant for wheelchairs, do you James?” I thought I’d humour him.

He turned his head and leered at me sarcastically –as if I should know if I’d ever been on a real trail before. Grumpy old man. But as the guest, he opted for discretion and switched, mid-smirk, into an ersatz smile. “I suppose it must be too difficult for the rangers to keep everything from wrecking the trail,” he said, and I could see it was all he could manage not to roll his eyes.

I think he was expecting an apology or something, because he continued to stare at me with that silly grin until I caught up with him. “Sorry,” I said; I don’t know why. “They don’t have rangers here…”

“What do they have, then?”

I had to think about it. “Volunteers, I guess.”

He sighed; things were clearly not what he’d expected on the walk. But he cheered up when the trail approached the edge of the little lake. I could feel the breeze as ripples skimmed across the surface of the water. There were a few ducks swimming bravely into them like kids playing in the waves. I mentioned this to James, but the metaphor was lost on him the moment his hat blew off and into a thicket of tall bushes beside the path.

I was wearing heavy sweatpants and a long-sleeved sweatshirt so I volunteered to wade through the sea of brambles to rescue it. He waved me off immediately, however, no doubt regarding my offer as disrespectful –a comment on his age, perhaps. But I had other concerns.

“James, I think I’d better go after it –I have long pants…”

“I’ll go,” he interrupted, and glared at me for even suggesting it.


He pushed past me and shoved his way through the prickly copse. “Just because I wear a cane…” he said on returning, not bothering to finish an obvious point.

I loved his verb, but I didn’t say anything –he had a faraway look in his eyes. And anyway, I was too busy staring at the blood on his legs.

“Just scratches,” he whispered, obviously proud of his forage into the wild. “Had it a lot worse when I was stationed in Africa,” he added. “You didn’t dare go off the trail like this in Africa,” he said with a knowing little grin that seemed to invite an inquiry. “Snakes,” he said, in case I let the opportunity pass. “And in some places after a rain…” He paused to increase the suspense. “Blood suckers that dropped on you from the leaves.” His face tensed up with the memory. “Had to check every night before you went to bed… Nasty little buggers,” he added sombrely, and yet a touch nostalgically, I thought. “Sometimes I wish I could go back, you know…” He sighed noisily and stretched. “Life was more exciting when you had to watch out for things like that…” He sat down on a large rock near the water’s edge. “Danger made you feel alive –the world seemed more precious then. Precarious, but precious…”

I smiled, still looking at his legs.

“Why are you looking at my legs? It’s just blood…”

“That’s not,” I said and pointed at a little black mark on his calf.

He looked at the spot and shrugged. “Bit of dirt, eh?” He grinned; he’d lived through the dangers of a tropical jungle and was amused that I would be worried about a bit of mud on his leg.

I shook my head. “It’s Canada’s answer to Africa,” I said, picking the speck off carefully, and showing him the little legs.

Suddenly he stiffened and stared at me with a worried look on his face. “What is it? It doesn’t look like a spider…”

“Tick,” I said with a little sigh. “That’s why I suggested I should go after the hat.” I threw the little thing back into the bushes. “They hang from leaves or tall grasses and drop onto passing animals. Some of them carry Lyme disease in this area as well,” I added with a little smirk of my own.

He immediately chuckled at the news. In fact, when we resumed our hike, I could see him looking around with new respect. There was a spring to his step and I almost expected him to throw his cane into the woods. There were no more complaints about the trail and he appeared positively enchanted with his new world. He seemed… Alive. “I guess I’ll have to check my legs tonight before I go to bed,” he said with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips. “Nasty little buggers,” he added, hardly able to contain his new-found enthusiasm.






The History Lesson

I have a question: when does the past stop… or do I mean start? It’s all very confusing. When I started out, everything seemed to be now –or at least that’s what everybody told me- but now all of that same stuff is classified as the past. So what’s up? Were they lying to me?

I think its time we had a once-and-for-all definition of the Past to help those of us who don’t know when we are. Historians, for example –how do they know what to study? Do they find themselves scooped every year, or is there maybe a grace period? Otherwise, everything that they write would be outdated. It must be hard for them.

But of course I’m not being altruistic here –it’s a hard, cold place for us retirees, too. Nobody thinks about it like that, though. Oh no, it’s a forgone conclusion that we are a part of that mythical Past –that other world. So I ask again: where is the boundary?

As I write this, sitting on my porch with the sun playing hide and seek above my head and the wind gently riffling the keys, I feel the dimorphic guilt of an expat: I’m apparently from the past, and yet here I am, enjoying an exile in my recent home, the present. It muddies the water to be sure because I can’t for the life of me figure out whether it makes me, an inter regnum or a memory. Or do I qualify as an honorary regnum as long as I stay in the background?  I need to know just where the past stops so I can get on with my life.

Just as I was commiserating with my dog about where we belong, Brien dropped by for a beer. In fact, he just wanted to talk to somebody –anybody- but he felt he needed an excuse. And also, I think I’m the only anybody he knows. I’ve offered to lend him my dog, but he says he’s not there yet…  Anyway, Brien, like me, lives alone and has just retired; but Brien, unlike me, does not want to live alone or be retired. This is a problem, because apparently neither party wants him back. That’s why he wants to talk.

“So,” he said, all neighbourly and curious as he climbed the wooden steps, “What are you writing about?” Before I could answer he walked into the kitchen and helped himself to a beer in the fridge. I try to keep a couple in there for him.

I could tell by the faraway look on his face that he was not interested in an answer, so I didn’t.

“Last time I was over here, you were going on about the past being a problem for you,” he said, settling into a lawn chair underneath one of the hanging plants. It wasn’t actually what we’d been talking about, but I let him continue. “Boy, it sure got me thinking. Adele was certainly a problem.” Adele was his wife and she’d left him right after he retired. “Said I’d changed…” He took a quick swig from the bottle and fixed me with his famous spotlight-on-stage stare. He did that whenever he said something I was expected to reassure him about. I’d only known him for a year or two, so I had no idea whether she’d been right, so I clamped a reassuring smile onto my lips and blinked.

“I mean, we all change don’t we? Isn’t that what the past is for –it has to be different, or we might not be able to recognize the present, right…?”

Maybe he thought he was being profound, but I was having difficulty following the logic. I raised an eyebrow.

He, in turn rolled his eyes at my density. “We evolve, over time –it’s a Darwinian fact- so of course I’m going to be a different man from the one she married. If nothing else, we age, and guys… well, stuff changes as we get older.”

I fully expected him to wink, but he blushed instead.

“Isn’t that what you said the last time I came over –that we cross a boundary, or something?”

Well, at least he remembered some of the words. I decided to probe. “I was actually wondering if there was a boundary between Past and Present, and if so, where it lies. Is it different for each of us, or is there some rule, some algorithm that others –younger people- use…?”

“In shorter words, you mean when do we get old?” He finished the bottle and put it on the porch deck at his feet. “Adele figured I was pretty old when she left, so I don’t know about any rules…”

I tried to disguise a sigh and decided to give it one more try. “So… Adele is in your Past, right?” He nodded more vigorously than I thought the question deserved, but I took it as a yes. “And when she left, is that when your past ended, do you think?” He nodded again, but I could see he was less certain about it. “And everything that has happened since then is in your Present?” I merely got a quizzical stare like I was trying to trick him on that one.

“Well, no… it’s just a more recent version of the past.” He rummaged around inside his head for a more suitable descriptor and then shrugged when he couldn’t find one. Clearly, it was a fairly low priority for him, anyway. “Look, Adele was the one who left me. She was the one who started the past, okay?” He got up and helped himself to another beer, but when he returned, he’d changed his mind. “Actually, she phoned me yesterday…” he said, almost apologetically. “So maybe my past is beginning again…”

An intriguing concept: a Past that could begin again as if were a new day, or something. I was about to comment on how profound that was, when he sent his eyes over to my side of the porch for a moment. But as they hovered over me, uncertain where to land, he called them back. “Does that make Adele my future, then?” He took a very long pull at the bottle and emptied it with one go at it. “Or would she be a new past?”

He had me there. And as he staggered down the steps to leave, I realized I would have to rethink my approach to time. It’s good to talk to other people about the Past when you get old, though –you never know where it might lead…


Smile, Dammit.

I am given to understand that a smile often entails contracting muscles at the corner of the eyes –and if they don’t, it is probably a fake smile… Well, Wikipedia gave it to me to understand, so go ahead –smile. Anyway, in a spirit of Scientific Inquiry, a la Roger Bacon, I decided to test the assertion in a mirror. Now, admittedly my eyesight is not as good as it used to be, and it was no doubt further impaired when I found I had to remove my glasses to see my eye corners, but I was nonetheless disappointed in my smile. Unless I overdid it and wrinkled my entire face with the effort, my eye-parts remained uncontracted. However, let me say in my defence, that the act of forcing one’s face close enough to a mirror to scatter the shadows and at the same time keeping it motionless while the other part is trying to smile, is incredibly challenging. Face-stuff is pretty tricky even under the best conditions.

All of which concerns me. Have I been false-smiling all these years, or does the same thing happen to a face as it does to other aging parts? Is this what Retirement has in store for me?

I had to know, so I inveigled a friend to walk with me along a usually busy trail on a sunny, spring weekend. I chose the friend because she had corner-contractions. I chose the trail thinking that anybody coming the other way would have to look at us, and we could check their eye-corners if they smiled –a prospective, randomized study to disprove the null hypothesis that all eyes contract when they are amused. In other words, that I am actually normal and not just breaking down.

My friend was reluctant at first –she thought it was a little creepy- so I compromised and promised her I wouldn’t take my camera as I had originally intended. If it was going to be a study, I had reasoned, I wanted some sort of an objective record. She pointed out that we would probably be arrested and they’d confiscate our record anyway. I suppose she had a point.

I thought another good strategy would be to alternate smiles, and record the difference -although I have to confess that I was also curious as to whether the two of us smiling in tandem might make the approachee start to sing, or maybe turn around. But, so as not to muddy the water and get bogged down in statistical trickery, I decided only to test people approaching singly and with one, randomly chosen smiler. I also thought of interspersing a grimace or two –to see what kind of a reaction that elicited- but that did not sit well with my friend. She thought it might be confused with aggression and that we might be attacked or something on the remoter sections of trail, so I dropped it from the protocol. You have to think of all this stuff if you want to do a proper study, though.

So, faces entrained, we started out with high hopes. It didn’t go as well as I had planned, however –it’s amazing how many people avoid eye-contact on a trail. It’s also amazing how many dogs are suspicious of smilers –fortunately, that day they were all small, yappy dogs and suitably restrained from biting. Fourteen people did smile, thank goodness, but except for one, we never got close enough to their faces to see whether or not there were contractions. And the one I did observe closely, snuffed her smile when I tripped and ended up bumping her cheek with my chin.

They seemed to smile more for my friend, too, which was a personal disappointment. It reminded me of those days at high school dances when my smile was not enough, either.

At any rate, after a somewhat cursory preliminary analysis of our data, I cannot say with any real confidence that I have discovered anything so far that I didn’t suspect before we began: people do smile when smiled at –with the possible exception of when I initiate it. The numbers are small, and statistically insignificant, but we observed a definite trend in that direction. My friend thinks I overdid my smiles and that it wasn’t always necessary to show both rows of teeth at the same time. She thought it looked… suspicious, but when I asked her to explain, she declined to elaborate further.

But clearly, there was a design flaw in the study: I neglected to quantify the amount of smile between our two faces –obvious fodder for a new approach. I plan to take a picture of each of our faces in full smile and Photoshop them so they match. Then, we can each carry an enlargement under our arm and show it to people we pass on the trail… randomly, of course.

Unfortunately, my friend has decided not to participate –something to do with methodology or something. There’s always something, though, isn’t there?

The New Age String Theory

Retirement is a two-edged sword: there’s more time available, but less time left to use it. And yet, age wears perspective on its cuffs and dresses in knowledge if we are lucky. And even from its recently shrunken pedestal, it still offers a unique view of the variegated panoply of progress. We can observe the problems in which we were once enmeshed, but from a safer distance; and we can grasp that although they are different, they are really the same. It is feeble comfort, perhaps, but it is Wisdom.

And yet there is a catch: for Wisdom to flower, for enlightenment to blossom, for Pattern to emerge, there must be the weft and warp of things past. Aye, there’s the rub: having survived to experience Retirement, what shadows lurk in still, dark corners? Is crippling mental decline the comfortable chair beckoning from across the room? Or, as with Othello, are we already so declined into the vale of years, we head towards it for relief?

One of the few perquisites of Age, is the permission to wander short distances from the heavily trodden road under the guise of hindsight. It is, however, a balancing act: stray too far, and it’s dementia; tiptoe only circumspectly, and it is a forgettable idiosyncrasy. But, after travelling all this distance through the years as an eccentric and then arriving unscathed at the nether end, am I only to be tolerated –or worse, institutionalized? It is not the epitaph I had in mind. Rather, I wish it to be acknowledged that, unlike many, I was able to floss to the very end -although I’m not sure how that would look on a tombstone.

Perhaps I should explain. Flossing –for those of you not old enough to remember- was a meditation technique reputedly invented in 1819 by a dentist in New Orleans, but I think the practice has been around for a lot longer than that -as long as we’ve had hair, anyway. In fact, I remember seeing it in action by some women on a bus in Bolivia years ago. Hair was merely a dross waiting for a need –waiting for evolution.

Of course, flossing is something that requires a fair amount of coordination and ontogenesis; it can be done without an opposable thumb, I suppose, although it’s hard to tear off the string from the little container without one. Thus it is rarely observed in rats or beavers despite the need, and I’m given to understand that chimpanzees will not do it while they are being watched, so we don’t know about them. Neither will I, for that matter.

Flossing underwent a bit of a decline during the war years, probably because all available string was shipped overseas for the war effort. It made a spectacular resurgence in the affluent 1950ies, however, when actually keeping an intact set of teeth became a distinct possibility. Who can forget that black and white TV commercial sung by my mother’s favourite -Doris Day: ‘Floss your teeth today, in your Chevrolet’? Oh, the memories! Maybe it’s still on YouTube…

Nowadays, flossing has become so important, it’s almost New Age in the intensity with which its spirituality has been espoused -although not quite so hokeyWe flossing aficionados have long been aware of the underground data linking filthy gums to health risks. Flossers, it was hinted, lived longer, more productive lives than those who just watched TV before they went to bed –String Theory it’s called in some circles, although they may have borrowed the term. At any rate, I am pleased to report that my retired sources think they remember reading that there is new evidence that flossing may help stave off the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Or maybe it was arthritis -they weren’t sure.

A little background. Most of us by now are steeped in the preventative lore of Sudoku, crossword puzzles, dietary strategies, and even exercise to ward off cognitive decline. We have become sifters through health promises, traders of articles -Googlemasters. All for that elusive lottery of memory -for what are we, really, without memory? It is what knits the ravelled sleeve of who we are. That I wake up each day convinced I am the same person who went to sleep, and that I recognize as friends those faces which appear before me, is what validates a life. I take no comfort in Nietzsche’s jibe that ‘The advantage of a bad memory is that one enjoys several times the same good things for the first time.’ That is the urbane rationalization of one who thinks the exact opposite… Of one who thinks.

I suspect the root of the problem of cognitive decline is that Science is still unable to pinpoint a cause or -at the level of neurons and their increasingly dysfunctional connections with age- a way of preventing the degeneration. Of course it makes sense to provide adequate and appropriate nourishment to them (dietary management); make sure they stay well oxygenated (exercise); and with the increasing awareness of the plasticity of the brain for laying down fresh neural pathways, to continually challenge it with new material (socialization, games, etc.). But why this is more necessary as we age, is problematic. There have been various theories throughout the years as to the effects of such things as arterial narrowing and inflammatory processes in the cerebral blood vessels, but the issue of whether or not it is inevitable still remains.

So, is there anything more we can we do about it? String Theory may offer some hope. Suppose that flossing does get rid of the plaque that inflames gums which otherwise, ISIS-like, would have sent terrorists far and wide to wreak havoc? Suppose that, in the end, it all comes down to clean gums? Maybe I can die with a good memory, recognizing who I am until the very last syllable of my recorded time.

And yet, and yet… I am still haunted. Do I really want to be bright and clear until that last breath, aware that I’m about to tumble off the edge? Maybe there’s a reason for pre-terminal forgetfulness -a numbness that we tamper with at our peril… Maybe we shouldn’t be flossing too close to our dies mortis

Are you allowed to fake stuff on your epitaph?