Fashionably Old


Yes, I know this is uninteresting to those of you with a strong sense of clothes, but to the few of us less acquainted with the intricacies of maintenance, it is a continuing source of frustration. I refer, somewhat hesitantly, to what might under other more public circumstances, be called Fashion. The word, by the way, derives its parentage from the Latin factionem –’a group acting together’. A pity, then, that clothes are seldom as forthcoming when they meet me in a store -not honest when they gloat behind a bargain sign. How could I possibly know if a sweater is lying to me? I tend to accept stuff in good faith if it’s on sale and seems to fit me when I try it on.

I only went into the store because of the Sale sign in the window -this type of enticement blinds me to everything else. I thought maybe they might have a nice Mick Jagger tee shirt –the one I have is so faded you can’t see his hair, and anyway it’s shrunk almost to the size of a bra. I figured I was in the market.

When I asked the sales clerk, she said they were all out of the Mick Jagger selection, but she seemed to have difficulty keeping her face serious. Maybe somebody had just told her a joke.

“But you strike me as a sweater sort of person, anyway,” she said as I started to leave.

I don’t know how she figured that, but she kind of made it sound desirable so I stopped and looked at her. I didn’t really need another sweater, frankly –I’ve got a perfectly good brown one at home. My mother gave it to me for graduating… Well, actually I figured it was a reward for finally leaving home, but I never let on that I knew.

The clerk led me over to a counter with a few brightly coloured sweaters piled haphazardly in little desultory heaps. My eyes ached just looking at them but I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. There wasn’t a brown one in the group. Nor a blue one. There wasn’t even a black one… I couldn’t believe it.

“Uhmm…” I didn’t know how to tell her that I didn’t like any of them.

I could see her eyes sizing me up for a moment. “Well, it seems a shame to leave without something,” she said. She pursed her lips, but sent her eyes over to savage my clothes. “I realize it’s hard for some guys to come in here…”

I liked her for that; it is hard to go shopping for clothes when you’re retired. I think I blushed.

She looked through the piles, glancing back at me every so often, as if she were trying to find the perfect colour for an older man. Finally, she fondled a scabby-looking yellow one that was ‘not too bright, but still sensuous’, as she put it.

I don’t generally go for yellows, but the price was right, and the saleslady had a nice smile and seemed adamant that I would get used to it. “Some people can wear anything and get away with it,” she said, glancing at the stuff I was wearing, and then reached out and touched my arm.

I have to say I was flattered. I mean, how many people can wear anything? I picked up the yellow sweater again and tried it on. I thought the sleeves were a bit long, but she quickly rolled them up into cuffs. “There,” she said, fussing with the lengths to get them just right. She reminded me of my mother in that moment, so I decided not to argue.

“And it’s a bit loose at the bottom, don’t you think?” I said, thinking it looked more like a very short dress than a man’s sweater. I wasn’t sure it was at all remediable.

She shook her head slowly and smiled at me as if I were a bit slow. “You should see my daughter…”

I waited for her to tell me what I’d see, but she seemed to think she’d offered a perfectly good description of how sweaters were supposed to hang nowadays. Unfortunately, she left the matter of whether her son would ever wear a yellow sweater unresolved, however.

I must have looked as if was still unconvinced because she winked at me. “She sometimes tucks it in,” she added, as a hoped for coup de grâce. She glanced at her watch; I was obviously taking far too long to make up my mind. And it was closing time. “I tell you what, if you buy it right now, I’ll take a further 15% off for you.”

“Give him 20% off the sale price,” her boss chimed in from the back of the store. For a moment, I thought she’d rolled her eyes, but then I decided it was just the flickering of the fluorescent light over the mirror.

Well, of course with a deal like that I had to accept. I was tempted to wear it home, but she had it sealed in a box before I could even reach for my wallet. They’re very efficient in that store, I must say.

“Let me give you our card, sir,” she said with another wink. “Maybe you can convince your partner to come in, too.”

I smiled and put it in my pocket. I have to admit that I don’t like it when somebody says ‘partner’, but I realize that in today’s society to presume to specify gender in relationships is to risk bumbles every now and then. I considered confessing that I was single, but then I realized that it might sound like I was coming on to her so I held my tongue. You have to be careful, you know.

On the bus home, an older woman sitting next to me kept smiling and looking at the box on my lap. “Shopping?” she asked.

I nodded. “Every once in a while, I have to do it,” I said, thinking it was a clever answer.

“Anniversary?” She was obviously intrigued.

I smiled back, of course, but I was puzzled. “Why do you ask?” I said.

Her smile broadened –like I was being modest, or something. She pointed to the printing on the box that I hadn’t noticed before: Forever Feminine it said, bold as a brass plate. “Most men are afraid to go into a woman’s clothing store like that by themselves,” she said, obviously pleased that she’d finally met one.








Sinister Aspects of Aging.

It all started out as a game, okay? A challenge. It was never meant to be a serious trespass into Sinistrae. Some places are defined by hereditarily determined boundaries, others, by long-standing custom. The troublesome ones are those occupied by usurpation alone –metastases from neighbouring states. Pretenders to the throne. Forced, not invited.

I refer, of course, to how it all started. An aging friend, Jeffrey, said he’d read somewhere that his brain was plastic and could be reshaped. For some reason, he felt it was a good idea; he’d never liked the one he’d been issued, and was anxious to change it before it was too late. I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant -and I don’t think he had read all of the instructions either- but apparently it involved using the other hand to brush your teeth. This simple act, he assured me, would reprogram my brain and develop new and really helpful pathways. In his case, it was probably a good idea.

I have always been satisfied with my neurons, though. They’re pretty standard-issue, I suppose, but I wear them comfortably. They’ve always been fairly good at following orders, and although they’re getting a little yellow in the teeth, and doze off on occasions, all things considered, they’re good fellows. We get along.

But I have to say, curiosity got the better of me one morning when I was staring into the bathroom mirror, neurons set on auto pilot. One of them obviously hadn’t yet bothered to connect with its neighbour –probably a clogged synapse, or something- and I picked up the toothbrush in my left hand. It felt delightfully naughty, like I was getting on a plane to New Zealand on a whim. Unpacked. Unprepared. Open for adventure…

The first thing I noticed was the direction of my teeth –I’d never really thought about them like that before. I mean, I knew they were all lined up like fence posts, but so many…? I found myself struggling to scrape the brush in parallel lines, and with just enough force to be able to stop in time to avoid damaging adjacent organs. Lips, I suppose, are used to stuff like that from eating large nuts, but they still seemed a tad surprised at the blood.

Although I persisted in the reverse-brushing, I have to say I never really got very good at it. And if the intent had been to improve my neural pathways, I must have been training them incorrectly. There was no statistically demonstrable improvement in their accuracy at identifying just why I had opened the fridge door, and I don’t think they were they any better at finding the inevitably missing sock in the dryer. However, in fairness to the study, I did notice that I was getting better at putting the toothpaste on the brush and I was quite pleased –until I realized that I had assigned that hitherto demeaning task to my right hand. And no, it wasn’t particularly happy with the job either, and went out of its way to make it feel awkward, but it’s work, eh? We all have to survive.

Anyway, the whole exercise made me realize just how dependent I am on dextromanuity, and I decided to change all of that –push the limits. I began to drink with my left hand, pour with my left hand, and reach for things sinistrally. Like the word, it felt fresh and exciting; I loved the new me. It was almost as if Retirement had finally allowed me to wear a different identity…

Allowed?  Or was it forcing me…? The thought occurred to me in bed one night. I got up for a glass of water, I think, and had ended up eating the hard, fuzzy remnants of a pizza my left hand found on a bottom shelf -just after it discovered a pile of cookies I’d hidden in the butter compartment for safe keeping. And as I lay in bed, heartburn threatening, I suddenly realized that my right hand would never have found those things. It grew up with the rules and didn’t have to extemporize all the time. I had inadvertently unleashed a monster. The new me was becoming increasingly sinister, and alien. I couldn’t shake the thought that I had become a disease –three AM does that to me sometimes, though: thoughts are stochastic; solutions are evanescent.

First thing in the morning I phoned Jeffrey, the tooth-brush apostate to check how he was coping. He dropped the phone on the floor –but I put that down to the time. He probably wasn’t walking around like me at 5 o’clock. Anyway, at first I could only hear him gumming his way through several fine curses, but then after something tinkled like glass, and the heavy sound of a bed being scraped roughly over a floor, his enunciation improved somewhat and he agreed to meet me at Tim Horton’s at seven. He made me promise to pay, though.

As soon as I saw him, I could tell that we were both sizing each other up. He carried his coffee cup in both hands, and I was deliberately eating my breakfast sandwich with both hands, too -opening salvoes. Simple shots across our respective bows.

“So how come you phoned so early?” he said, placing his cup equidistant from each edge of the table in front of him.

I noticed that the buttons on his shirt were in the wrong holes and he had one left over at the top. But given where he buys his clothes, I thought maybe he’d got it on sale. “I guess I was just up then,” I hedged, unwilling to admit anything before he did.

He reached for the coffee with both hands again, pretending it was the most natural thing in the world; pretending as well, that he wasn’t at all concerned that I was watching his every move. “Boy, they’re really making this stuff hotter than they used to.” He put the coffee back down and blew on his hands as if he’d just sustained a third degree burn.

It was a weak excuse. “So how are you doing Jeffrey?” I said, so he wouldn’t overdo the alibi. “I haven’t seen you in a while.” That, too, was weak, but we were both so busy skirting the issue that we were reduced to the most basic of banalities.

He straightened in his chair and mounted an almost beatific smile that I’d never seen him use before. “Never been better, actually.” But the strain of even saying that wrinkled his mouth and a tiny smudge of tooth peeked out, then quickly dipped back into the shadows as if it had disobeyed instructions.

In fact, that all too brief glimpse of enamel made me realize that he’d been hiding stuff in there. I pretended not to notice, but I’m terrible at subterfuge, and I think I pointed. Of course, I pretended my finger was aimed at somebody walking by, but now he knew I knew. I could tell, because he abandoned all pretence of using both hands, and grabbed his cup aggressively in his right.

And I could tell I was witnessing an important and long overdue catharsis. The blissful expression segued seamlessly into a snarl. Then a chuckle followed by a shrug. “It seemed like a good idea when I read about it…” He sent his eyes over to interrogate my face. Gently, though -self-consciously- and I could barely feel them land. “Made me really confused.” His eyes took off again and flitted about the ceiling, hunting desperately for a roost. “I kept swallowing the toothpaste.”

I nodded. Some things were universals.

“And pretty soon my left hand tried to take over things it wasn’t designed for.” When I smiled in sympathy, he took that as an admission that I, too, had been forced to reign mine in. “Damned things are so competitive, eh?”

I nodded and was about to tell him about the fridge when he suddenly leaned across the table and opened his mouth. One of his front teeth were missing. “When you phoned this morning, it beat my right hand to the glass and dropped my teeth on the floor.” He shook his head angrily and stared at his left hand. “Clumsy bugger…”

I smiled in sympathy. “I’ve decided to cut mine off…”

His eyes locked on my face and his left hand involuntarily reached for mine.

I felt the grasp and laughed. “No, I mean if I keep using it, I’m gonna end up with diabetes.” I told him about the fridge.

We both laughed and then he stood up to leave. He apparently had been so busy looking for the tooth that he hadn’t had time for a shower. We were both relieved that we’d had a chance to talk -had a chance to see the folly from each other’s perspective. I didn’t feel as bad at abandoning the experiment as I’d thought, and hope that it would be easy for us both to undo glimmered like the first hint of dawn… Until he extended his left hand to say goodbye, and mine, without the slightest hesitation, shot out to greet it.




Through a Glass Darkly

I want to register a complaint about car windshields. Well, maybe it’s not really a complaint –I’m sure they try their best- it’s more of an observation on anonymity, I guess. Another iteration on the theme of unintended consequences. Let me presage it with a question –how often do you really know who is waving to you from behind the steering wheel? Even seeing their hands is one thing, but identifying them…? And, in time to decide whether or not to wave back…? I’m sorry, but this is a serious issue –especially in a small village. Offend one person by refusing to acknowledge their social largesse, and next thing you know, your phone is tapped… Okay, just your garbage can gets knocked over, but it’s only a matter of scale, isn’t it?

I made it through Grade 9 physics (I think) so I’m fully appreciative of the properties reflected light, and its effect on the human psyche. Or maybe that was the rainbow -I was never clear on that. So, because the windshield is slanted, any light beam that hits it, reflects off on its angle of incidence and destroys whatever it hits… No, that was the Death Ray -I’ve always had trouble sifting out the other stuff I was reading at the time. Anyway, the fact that the light is reflected makes it devilishly difficult to distinguish any readily identifiable features –birthmarks, scars, or the tell-tale grey of the drivers. Wedding rings are also hard to spot, although they occasionally reflect light differently if they want.

But I hope you get my meaning. This unforeseen defect has probably ruined marriages, and falsely excluded countless lonely people from the encouragement that might have helped them make it through their otherwise meaningless existences as they wended their purposeless ways down isolated, winding, forest-lined roads just hoping for a wave… Take me, for example. Actually, I’m not lonely; I just put that in for the effect.

I needed a muffin; it happens. I’m not good with muffins –if they’re there, I eat them. If they’re not, I buy them. As it happens, the penchant for muffins –or their proxies- had ‘unduly girded my loins’ as was implied in a mysterious Facebook posting the other day. And so, vacationing as I do on the edge of a 4 kilometre, isolated, winding, forest-lined road, I decided that walking it would amply justify the muffin consumption at the other end.

It was not my intention to ride my bike, nor to dabble in the soul-destroying practice of aurally preoccupying my pilgrimage with those little ear-things that make the younger generation continually bob their heads and mouth stuff. No, it was a journey naked of accoutrements and unadorned with bling. There was not so much a purpose –I had yet to decide what kind of muffin; nor a timeline –I’m retired. I had all day… No, merely a destination, a goal, I had set for myself. I would commune with the trees, listen to the birds, and forest-bathe along the way. I would, in effect, be cleansed. Well, tired, anyway –and I figured I’d probably hitchhike back to make up for it.

The problem, of course, was that I hadn’t anticipated all the traffic. There are no sidewalks, and only token, gravel shoulders on either side of the road, so a good portion of my journey was avoidance, not communion. I walked facing the traffic, of course but that meant that the drivers were on the far side of the vehicle. I wonder if anybody thought of that when they were designing these things.

Some of them seemed to be waving at me –I could make out motion in the driver’s seat- but judging by the horns, and the screeching brakes if they happened upon me coming down a hill, I began to wonder if it was friendly. Naturally, I sometimes waved back –I mean, it seemed the friendly thing to do- but after one or two slowed and yelled stuff through their open windows, I decided to keep my hands in my pockets and pretend I had an outer ear disability.

But, suppose they’d been friends –not the ones who yelled toilet words at me, but the ones who merely gestured unseen behind the wheel; the ones who honked in surprise at seeing someone actually walking on the road; or the ones who applied their brakes in honour of my unexpected presence? What if they knew me and I hadn’t acknowledged the bond? Hadn’t reciprocated their existential cries for recognition and undone years of expensive psychotherapy? What if? I mean the potential ramifications of neglect can be profound and, in my case at least, extend until the next car threatened my identity.

I mentioned this to a friend I found sitting at the bakery. As it happens, we both like gluten, and had each ordered peach bran, super-muffins with an extra pat of butter –I had actually ordered three pats, but he showed me how to cover the surface using only two. I had to justify spreading the third on anyway by mentioning that I had walked to the bakery.

“Whoa,” he said and smiled. That, plus waving his knife at me was all he could do with his mouth already full.

I wasn’t sure if he was telling me to put the butter down, or just being friendly, but the confusion did let me describe my problem with people waving from cars. “You can’t see their hands through the windshields when they’re driving, Jim,” I said, and then took an especially large, butter-filled bite.

He nodded as if it wasn’t all exercise and health being a pedestrian –there were issues as well.

“I never know whether or not to wave back if I sense some purposive arm-movement behind the steering wheel,” I continued.

“Are you not allowed to wave if you don’t know them?” He asked, in the short interval between swallowing and re-biting.

I thought about it while I chewed. “Well… I suppose it would help if I at least knew if it was a hand or a fist they were waving.”

“Good point,” he said, although the words were heavy with bran and muffled with a bit of peach his tongue had just found. He worked his way through the peach in silence. “But a wave,” he said, when there was enough room in his mouth to let more than saliva escape, “A wave can also mean ‘I’m sorry I was walking on the road and made you drop the phone you were using’”.

I stopped chewing for a moment. “We’re not supposed to be using our cell phones while driving… It’s illegal.” I licked some butter off my lips. “Not to mention dangerous…”

“So is walking on the road.” He was no longer chewing either.

He sounded rather engaged in the issue, I thought. “Where else is there to walk on these roads?” I asked, politely.

That seemed to stump him. It was something he’d likely never asked himself. “Maybe on the shoulder on the way to the bus stop…?” I could tell he was trying to be friendly, but there was an edge to his voice.

“And if you don’t want to take the bus?”

He rolled his eyes, no doubt wondering what kind of a person he was talking to. “Aren’t there trails out there somewhere…” He smiled, obviously satisfied with his solution –all forests have trails… He burped and sat back in his chair to digest.

I found a little extra butter on my plate, scooped it up with my knife, and slathered it on the remnants of my muffin while he watched enviously. “The only trail near my place goes over to the lake and then follows the stream bed up a hill to a lookout.”

He looked defeated for a minute and then sighed noncommittally. Guiltily, I thought.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I suppose should have waved at you.” The words just slipped out without warning through all the butter still on my lips.

He shot forward on his seat as if he suddenly wondered if he had another muffin waiting for him on the plate. “Thought you couldn’t see through the windshield…” he harrumphed, disguising his surprise with the sudden extraction of a piece of wayward peach from his front teeth.

“Didn’t have to, Jim –you were on the other side of the road and your window was open.”

“That wasn’t me…” I could see his eyes desperately flitting around the room so they wouldn’t have to perch on my face. “And anyway, I didn’t recognize you in that hat.”

I manufactured a suitably neutral expression for my face and then massaged it with a napkin –you can’t be too careful with all that butter. Time for forgiveness; I had chosen to vacation here after all. “Want to give me a ride back?” I said, now certain that I had removed all the muffin from my chin. “I can watch out for pedestrians while you’re on your phone…” It seemed like a neighbourly thing to offer.




Zen and the Art of Retirement Maintenance

There is a Zen of exercise you know, but not everybody partakes equally of its spiritual side. Like most of us from the West, we seem to frame our expectations on the models that Western religions have offered us: pain and suffering. At least I suppose I do -although I pretend to experience endorphin-induced ecstasy, and an epiphany with burning muscles -ecclesial agape. All in retrospect, you understand.

I fancy myself a runner, and there’s a funny thing about running: it’s hard to stop, once you start. Well, it’s hard for me to stop, anyway. Every once in a while, I ask myself if it’s abnormal, but the consensus seems to be no. Of course it’s a small sample to go on, but you have to start somewhere.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am a competitive runner or anything. About the only competition I ever tried was with my dog and, well, he had an unusual number of legs so I let him win. He was also on steroids from the neighbour’s table scraps… Fortunately, he’s slowed down a lot since they went Vegan. Still, I learned a valuable life lesson: only compete with the same species  And also, avoiding competition with people who have excessive body hair is probably a good idea, too. So, to be safe, I run alone.

I was over at a friend’s place for coffee the other day. Someone had told him that he was really porking up since he’d retired, so he was thinking of getting into exercise. He’d asked me to come over and help him decide what kind of treadmill to buy. Like me, he hates to run in front of people and he thought that maybe something he could do in the privacy of his basement would avoid public shaming. I thought maybe I could proselytize some zen.

“I figure that something that I can set on ‘walk’ would be a good start…” He sipped at his coffee and looked out the window of his tiny living room. There was a refreshing absence of curtains in his house because it was at the very edge of a forest.

I followed his gaze into the deep shadows between the trees. “Why not just set your feet on ‘walk’ and stroll around in the woods?” It seemed like a reasonably thrifty option for someone living on a pension.

“Thought of that,” he said after a long, contemplative pause. “But I need to have a backup plan,” he explained with a sigh.

“You mean in case the forest burns down overnight, or something?”

He fixed me with a perplexed glare and shook his head sadly as if I hadn’t been paying enough attention. “In case it rains,” he said in slow, drawn-out words and then rolled his eyes. ‘Perhaps you are asking advice from the wrong person,’ his eyes whispered to him once they were back online.

“Oh…” It was all I could think of to reply under the pressure of his subsequently withering stare. And then, when he’d called off his eyes and they were safely back in their cages: “I sometimes walk in the rain…” I used the italic ‘I’ and left the sentence open, hoping it might summon some common recollection.

I don’t,” he mumbled, but his expression softened when he noticed my eyes desperately searching for their tiny perches. “That’s what Retirement’s for: choice.” He decided he’d better explain when he saw my blank face. “If I don’t have to, I don’t.” And then, when he realized that even this detailed explanation didn’t help, he sighed. “Look, I just want to try exercise because I’m bored.” He inspected my face to see if he was getting through. “But I don’t want to take on too much.”

“You can’t get bored on a walk,” I added helpfully. I even winked, although I’ve been told that it usually looks like I’ve just found something in my eye.

“I still want options,” he said after a short pause to decide whether or not I was talking about a walk in the rain.

The thought occurred to me that walking on a treadmill –even a dry one- might not alleviate the boredom very much. “I suppose if you get a really quiet device, you could listen to music or something while you walk.”

A smile appeared, but I could tell it was forced -I obviously did not understand. “Don’t want any distractions, though,” he managed to say, all the while while shaking his head at me. “Maybe once I get it down pat, I may try that.” It was merely a concession to prevent me from losing face, I think, because he then went on to explain how you really had to pay attention on a treadmill –something about foot placement and falling off. “I think it’ll help prevent cognitive decline, too, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I hate Sudoku,” he added, for some reason. “I get half way through it and then realize I’ve got two nines or whatever, in the same row…” Then he blinked at me and lowered his eyes for a moment. “And I cheat in crossword puzzles –they have the answers at the end of the book,” he explained, in case I didn’t know that. “So, you see, I really need exercise…”

He probably had strong pencil fingers, but I decided not to mention it and just nodded.

He became unduly pensive for a moment, and leaned back in his chair. Suddenly he pushed a cookie across the table at me and leaned forward. “Tell me, honestly,” he said, in an earnest tone, locking me in his gaze as if I would otherwise try to fool him. “Do you think I’m being a little bit too rash with this exercise thing?” His eyes tightened on me -talons on an item of prey. “I mean am I overdoing it by wanting to walk every day?” He looked at the plate of cookies in front of him and selected a large, thick one with chocolate chips bursting from it like gopher mounds on a prairie field. His eyes certainly got a lot of exercise.

“Maybe I should get one of those stationary bikes –I mean you can do all the exercise sitting down…” He smiled at the thought and popped a large part of the cookie in his mouth.

“But…” -I was about to explain to him that for it to do him any good he’d probably have to work up a little sweat.

“So I don’t get tired,” his cookie-laden mouth interrupted irritably, quite unable to understand why I wouldn’t think that would be a better way to exercise. Crumbs dripped from his mouth as he finished chewing. “I’ve never been able to balance on the two wheelers anyway, so I wouldn’t have to worry about falling off… Or going out in the rain,” he added, obviously pleased that he’d found another good reason. “What do you think…?”

I tried to say that I thought he might have the wrong idea about exercising, but he’d caught me mid-bite, so my mouth was full and my words were probably muffled and hard to interpret.

I think he took the chewing noise for agreement, because he immediately shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth and scanned the dish for another similarly endowed one. “But there’s no sense rushing into things,” he managed to squeeze in between bites. “I mean I’ve got the rest of my life to decide, don’t I?”

I finished my cookie and managed a smile. Exercise isn’t for everybody. And anyway, who knows how many more cookies any of us have…?