Improbable Fictions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





To Sleep… Perchance to Drown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Didn’t Dan turn his off too, Edie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contemplative Helplessness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blushed. “Same thing, actually…”

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

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

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






Days of Wine and Linament

The time is out of joint, says Hamlet. I can relate to that –only it’s my knees that are complaining, not my Time. But, in fairness to my movables, I suppose I should be mindful that rust is preferable to replacement.

Even so, I find I’m spending more on liniment than wine, nowadays, and the only heady bouquet in the kitchen is that of demulcent emollients from the pharmacy. Friends have stopped dropping by for coffee, though, so I guess I’m saving on that.

I want to be clear: I am as deeply committed to exercise now as I was in grade 5 at the Riverview Elementary School in Winnipeg. I had never excelled at Height, and so to compensate for this disability I concentrated on developing Mouth. It worked in the first few grades, but as my age wore on -and the more evolutionarily successful louts in the back seats began their recess-driven raids on those of us who preferred the front- it soon became apparent why our genetic pool was at risk. It was then that I discovered Run. It was amazing what Mouth could get away with if it couldn’t be caught. I developed what I have come to think of as the Border Collie Defence: a kind of broken field zig-zag that was impossible to predict –a David and Goliath defence that I’m sure is still legend in Winnipeg.

But I digress. I meant to say that I have been intrigued by exercise since I was very young. You’ll note that I used the word ‘intrigued’ rather than ‘excelled’. To excel at something suggests a level of commitment I was seldom able to sustain. In Run, the clearly understood goal was to escape. Only later, in my more mature times, did I realize that it could also be utilized for non-utilitarian projects such as fun, or -if I happened to be chosen for the pick-up game of football on Saturday afternoons- sports. I was usually chosen last, though, and each side always fought over who would be forced to take me, so I often spent Saturdays reading.

As I got older, however, it became de rigueur to pretend I could keep up with my own kids, and so I learned to push my envelope. But when it became embarrassingly evident that I was enclosed in a rather old envelope, they switched tactics. They began to challenge me at chess, then –out of pity, I suspect- Snakes and Ladders, and finally, the  entrance exam for most Retirement Homes- X’s & O’s, so I opted out of team sports and limited my exercise to solitary moonlight walks and private, keyed facilities like the mat in my basement.

As a Retirement gift, though, I ventured online and bought myself a programmable stationary bike with speakers into which I could plug my iPad and its retinue of Netflix movies. It seemed like the perfect answer to unfavourable, ego-dystonic juxtapositioning with those -other than my children- more endowed with the atavistic simian traits that I had learned to avoid at Riverview. Sometimes I wonder if I harbour some lingering bitterness about my youth.

I’ve never been a big movie fan. We front-rowers who could actually hear the teacher, quickly realized that the strange black things scribbled under the pictures in our books were words –and that there really were two roads that diverged in a yellow wood that we could see with our minds without photographs. And never the twain did meet… Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.

Anyway, because of my exercise bike, I became enthralled with movies. Entranced by the colour and the action, no longer did I have to imagine what was happening –it was all done for me like magic. My aging friends started to roll their eyes when they saw me coming because they knew I would have discovered some great film to tell them about that was all the rage when they were still working. They had to assure me that the marvellous old cars I described were not just special-effects, but were actually the ones being driven when the movie was made. Who knew?

But, when I immersed myself in this new medium, I lost track of time –all the while pedalling away on my endlessly repeating program of hills and mountains on the bike, heedless of the increasingly hoarse shouts from my knees. I would emerge from the film and then buckle when I tried to stand. Well, not actually buckle or anything –but when I tried to walk, I would hear what I used to hear in the bowl when I poured milk on my Rice Krispies. Whatever; I’m not convinced that stationary bikes are equivalent to standard-issue outdoor bikes whose movies are more three-dimensionally compelling, and also subject to balance and dog issues.

And then there’s the muscle thing –the char, or whatever they call the thigh pain you get when you keep pedalling and watching the screen. I never used to suffer it when I ran, and my legs stayed neutral when I biked for miles around my paper route, so this is all new to me. It makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with the bike. I’d take the whole thing back, only I got a deal online and saved a lot of money by renouncing the warranty. Also, somebody scraped the brand name and serial numbers off, so it would be difficult anyway.

I’m going to persist, though. I’ve decided to bike in smaller aliquots to accommodate different viewing opportunities. I’ve switched from movies to the shorter TV shows, and lately I’ve found that some of the children’s programs actually help with my muscle-driven attention span. I do worry, though, what this ever-diminishing physical stamina says about my cognitive capacities -that I can now lose myself in a cartoon I mean.

But my new selections have also taught me a few tricks I can spring on my kids if they ever try to go back to those game challenges -I think I’ve discovered a sure-fire algorithm for Rock, Paper, Scissor victories, for example. I can’t wait.

Fly Away with Me

Okay, I know I shouldn’t have done it –especially at my age! When you retire, there’s a certain protocol you’re expected to follow: Good Form; Decorum -stuff I’ve never understood. But I really couldn’t help relapsing –it’s an addiction I’ve had for over twelve years now, and I only managed to kick it when I broke my wrist a couple of years ago while running. There is a protocol for that as well, and apparently my addiction and the pain medications were dangerous partners. But one sunny day recently, after almost two years of successful, yet difficult abstinence, I succumbed to temptation –no, to an overwhelming compulsion! Warm weather and succulent cumulus clouds do that to my head. I’m just a puppet when a zephyr blows, and hawks are soaring thermals in the sky.

So, from what closet am I about to exit? To what dark and morally depraved behaviour am I confessing with not a hint of shame? With not even a tittle of regret? Uhmm, well… Let me first explain that to indulge my… ‘problem’, I also require drugs. But the ones I use are cheap -in fact, I make them myself. Stimulants? No problem -I’ve set up a little lab in one of my adrenal glands to crank out catecholamines (And I’m trying to arrange for a few steroids from the other one). Narcotics? -I found a secret factory hidden at the bottom of a run-of-the-mill gyrus in an undisclosed location in my brain that is willing to make an unlimited amount of endorphins for me. Mind you, my contract requires me to return the favour with chocolate bars and Pepsi, but so far I have been able to cope quite well without having to resort to crime.

Anyway, not to keep the surveilling security forces in suspense any longer, I freely admit, and without benefit of lawyer, that my naughty little secret -my need- is not illegal, not even covert; in fact, it’s a public spectacle and people come from miles around to watch it like a parade -a sky parade: paragliding. And I do not blush when I say the word, except to explain that it is not Hang-gliding (that other means of getting into the sky that requires an engineering degree, and hours to waste setting the glider up and then taking it down to put it away again like a large and bulky rented wedding tent). Our stuff can all be carried on our backs; it  does not require a bolted-together fixed wing, nor the hammocky thing cocooned underneath like a captured insect. Sense a little competition? A soupçon of testosterone (or, in the interests of our sport’s gender parity, estrogen)? No, our differences are all in good fun, really. The hangies just go faster and brag about it more. We, however, yell a lot after we launch.

Our equipment is deceptively simple: an elongated, and extremely colourful (so planes and helicopters can see us) banana-shaped parachute from which the pilot hangs by slender strings –okay, we call them lines for insurance purposes… These are attached to a little seat into which the pilot is strapped in case she falls out in turbulence –rough air. Fainting could do it too, I guess, but none of us will admit to this.

We can steer the wing by deforming its aerodynamic shape via those same lines –not too much, mind you, or it simply collapses; not too little either, or you’re just riding a slowly descending parachute. So the idea is to stay in rising air unless you want to go down.

Without an unduly complicated explanation, there are basically two types of rising air: thermals –jets of warmer air rising from the earth, and often under cumulus clouds; and ridge lift -air from the prevailing wind that is deflected upwards by a hill or a cliff. And air being air, it’s pretty tough to see –that’s where the soaring birds come in. They’re usually okay about sharing the air with us, and they rarely attack or carry the pilot back to their tree-top aeries. Nor can I remember seeing any pilots with ripped flesh or severed lines.

But naturally, there are legends that seem to have great currency at launch… I’m not saying I believe them, or anything, but we’ve all talked about what we’d do if one of us were rapted (or is it carnivated?): sympathize with the victim of course, then phone condolences to their family, and finally, avoid the area to minimize further deaths. It’s just the right thing to do.

Anyway, back to me, eh? I have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation after a two-year absence from the sky. There are a lot of things you forget. We often launch by running down a steep embankment on a mountain, but to do so successfully, the wing has to be above you –fully inflated, fully controlled and not all ruffly-buffly. It’s sort of like flying a kite so we call the practice exercise ‘kiting’. The launch site, given its altitude and crowds, is not the place to practice or simply give it a go and run off wildly, armed with just a wing and a prayer, however. Winds shift in strength, direction, and consistency, so it requires more than a modicum of skill to get into the air -but even more to decide when to abort the wing before reaching that place of no return: the end of the slope… or the trees further down from launch -especially the one they named after me. It’s kind of special…

And once you’re in the air, a thermal can suddenly bubble up like water in a school drinking fountain, or as you enter or leave it, bubble down just as quickly. And, of course, if you don’t even see the fountain… You get my drift? Retrospective falsification of bubbling works in most of us pilots when we’re on the ground, but there’s a sudden shift in perspective in the middle of turbulent air with the wing shaking and threatening imminent collapse a thousand meters above the ground.

And yet we don’t go gentle into that good night; there are practice disaster courses we can take –‘simulations d’incidences en vol’ (SIV)- to help us to cope with collapses and the like. They usually involve launching from an even higher altitude, usually over a lake or something, and making the wing do various types of terrifying collapses then trying to recover before we both hit the water -stuff like that. I hadn’t done a course in four or five years, although I practiced the motor muscle skills involved most nights in the safety of my hot tub. I recommended it once at a course, but the instructor just sniggered. It’s not the motor memory stuff that’s as important as remaining conscious enough to perform them, he insisted. Anyway, I’d under-remembered the all-consuming fear that grips you when you see the fabric that is supposed to be over your head and supporting you, floating down level with your face, or hear it flapping like a rag far above.

And then, even assuming a successful, albeit troubling flight, there is the pressing need to land at some stage. One ‘sets up’ by losing altitude by a series of maneuvers, usually at right angles to the wind, and then, a few meters above ground, heading into the wind and flaring the wing like a seagull settling onto a wave. Custom and protocol dictate that you land on your feet and stay on them. It is also rude to break anything or bump into others already on the ground. And when asked, it is not only customary, but polite to assure them you had a great flight without rolling your eyes.

I forgot most of this on that sunny day and bluffed my way up to the launch site far far above the surrounding highway with its toy cars and Alice-in-Wonderland shrunken gardens and teensy houses. Even the trees look fake and glued in place from here. I also forgot that launch is crowded and very busy. So, after waiting around for a turn in the heat all kitted up, strapped in and sweating, there were people watching my every move as I took my place at the edge. And, faking serenity, I tried to remember how to get the wing up just far enough over my head so it would stay there while I ran down the slope. It’s a ‘just-right-baby-bear’ thing: too far behind you and you can’t take off; too far ahead and it collapses. Oh yes, and did I mention that the wind necessary to keep the wing up often changes direction at the last possible moment and so requires compensatory directional changes mid-run to keep the wing inflated? I’d forgotten about that part in the hot tub, too.

But then, with a thousand eyes watching and hoping I wouldn’t screw up so they could get their turn to launch, I somehow managed to keep the wing inflated as I ran, and climbed into my seat like a pro. The rest is history: I had several minor collapses, corrected them, and climbed a thermal like a wounded hawk. Then, satisfied I could still do it, I fought my way through increasing turbulence to the landing area while more persistent, but less colourful wings around me, testosteroned and estrogened themselves up invisible columns of air flaunting their lines, and waving their legs at the timid mortals like me, safely and quietly beneath.

Okay so I didn’t stay on my feet as I landed; so I have grass stains on my pants and a tiny rip in one of my sleeves; and so the wing kind of overshot when I was a few meters above the grass… but I made it, eh? There were no aging body parts strewn along my path, and no arthritic screams bedecked those waiting, like impatient air traffic controllers for me to land. There were just smiles and congratulations, even though I was only another nameless helmet who’d managed to touch down still able to speak in coherent sentences… Still able to assure anybody who asked, that I had a great flight.