Me, Myself, and It

Now that I’m retired, I’ve been thinking a lot about the subconscious. Well, I mean I have –I’m not sure if it’s doing the same. But I guess that’s just it in a briefcase: I’m not at all certain where I begin and it stops. Everything is shell-game and shadows really, isn’t it? People talk about it as if it were the brains of the office –it does everything important and then humours us with bits of information from time to time as if it were feeding a pet. I sometimes feel like I’m just a car being driven along a road somewhere.

I just wish it were a little more open about things. Why all this cloak and dagger stuff anyway? Doesn’t it trust me after all these years? Haven’t I proven a worthy shill?

Actually, that’s unfair; I realize I’m being a little ungrateful to my subconscious. In a way, it’s my business manager and it’s got way more to do than me; it runs the company while I lallygag around the body finding fault and pretending to be the boss. It probably has the best apps.

But it got me wondering the other day as I sat in the usual table by the wall in Starbucks that it always makes me choose. What if I tried an experimental takeover –but maybe just a few small steps here and there to test the waters before I attempted anything major? I realized I had to be very careful, though, because it is watching my every move. I decided to use a clever tactic: I would make a list of some of the things it does and see how much I could influence them. I have to confess that I was on pretty shaky ground here –I didn’t really know what stuff to put on the list- but, pretty soon a few items just kind of popped into my head from nowhere, so I wrote them down on one of those little brown paper napkins.

Let’s see, a little voice inside me whispered -how about ‘breathing’? That should be easy enough, I thought. So I wrote it down. ‘Heart rate’, surfaced next, so down it went. Then there was a long pause before ‘digestion’ occurred to me. I thought about that for a moment and then I crossed it off and substituted ‘saliva’. I figured I should probably start small and maybe in an easier to monitor area.

“What are you writing?” a louder voice suddenly said in my ear, accompanied by a scraping chair noise and a sudden jiggling of the table. Brien is always like that, though. He’s a large man and sitting anywhere requires a certain amount of adjustment of his front parts.

“Oh, just making a list,” I said, hastily reaching for the napkin to wipe my mouth.

But, despite his girth, Brien has quick hands and he beat me to it. “Breathing? Heart? Saliva?” He smiled and glanced at me. “You taking up meditation or something?”

I tried to think quickly; he wouldn’t understand. “Yes,” I replied, before my conscience took over. “In a way…” it added, and I blushed –a sure give away.

His eyes have a way of retracting way into his skull when he needs to think about something in private. Suddenly, they darted out again like cuckoos announcing the hour from those German clocks. “In what way?”

Damn him; my mind went blank for a moment, but then, just as I was about to answer with a shrug, a little voice whispered from inside somewhere: ‘tell him it’s a Buddhist exercise, for god’s sake!’ “I, uhmm, I read somewhere that you can control all sorts of things with meditation…”

He leaned forward on his chair and rested his arms on the table. Only his coffee spilled, fortunately, and he used my napkin to wipe it up. “Yeah, I read about that, too,” he said, proudly. I could see that he was surprised that we’d read the same article. “People Magazine, right…?” he thought about it for a few seconds. “No, it was probably National Enquirer…” he hesitated to give it his final seal of approval. “Anyway, it was one of those magazines you see at the supermarket checkout counters, eh?” He smiled conspiratorially, as if I had been outed at last. “I just look for the good stuff and skim through it while I’m waiting.” He had a quick sip of what remained of his coffee. “Can’t remember now who they said was using it for their blood pressure, but it seemed to be working.” His eyes darted out again and fluttered around my head. “At any rate, I think they said he hadn’t had another stroke yet.”

“I hadn’t thought of blood pressure,” I admitted, making a mental note to add it to a new list.

Brien sat up straighter in his chair –a sure sign he was about to tell me something important. “I’ve been trying it since I read that article,” he said with authority. “I figured it’d save me a bundle on pills… And,” he told his eyes to stand firmly on my cheeks. “…And I realized I could start eating ice cream and desserts again.” He smiled with evident satisfaction at how things could work out for him.

Perfect, I thought, secretly planning my own small takeover plot. “Did it work?”

He cocked his head and stared at me as if I’d missed something important in the discussion. “You can’t just expect something as multifactorial as blood pressure to simply disappear overnight!”

His italics grated, but I have to admit I was impressed with his use of the word ‘multifactorial’. I don’t think he got that from the magazine. “So…?”

“So I’m working on it.” He leaned on the table again, but his face no longer looked as confident as when he was talking about the desserts. “The meditation’s the hard part, though.” He sighed and fingered the cardboard coffee cup as if it had something written on it in Braille. “You know how you’re supposed to close your eyes and clear all thoughts from your mind, breathe deeply, relax… That kind of thing?”

I nodded, but actually I hadn’t got that far in my research yet.

“Well, when I try, it’s like I’m watching a crowd go by from a window, and I’m seeing people I know.” He shrugged and sat back again. “I think of food, of an itch on my leg, of what programs I’m missing on TV…” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve found meditation seems to work better after a big meal, though. I sit in a comfortable chair, lean my head back, close my eyes…” He closed his eyes to show me how he did it. “And when I wake up, I feel a lot better, you know. It seems to me I’m getting the hang of it, eh?”

I found myself smiling at his success. “And is your pressure going down?”

He nodded, his face all happy. “My doctor thinks it’s her pills, and I haven’t the heart to disappoint her. I know she means well.”

“Are you still taking them?”

He stared at me, nodded carefully, and then a wry smile slowly usurped the happy one. “But, I’m cutting down on them.” He hesitated for a moment, uncertain whether to disclose the full extent of his scheme. “I’m taking each of them an hour or two later than it says on the directions.” A mischievous expression soon appeared. “And I’m thinking of upping it to three hours…” he added, “Even if I have to get up in the middle of the night,” he whispered, obviously proud of his clever trickery.

I thought about his blood pressure that night, and I realized I didn’t really need to go that far. In fact, I figured my office manager seemed to be doing a pretty good job behind the scenes without me. Brien obviously hadn’t vetted his staff all that well. No, I rationalized, I’m retired now, and I probably shouldn’t take on too much more at this stage. And besides, I wouldn’t do a very good job with digestion -I’ve never much liked having to deal with my bowels unless I’m feeling a bit logy.





Pardon me?

I like to think that I’m observant, but maybe I went through some sort of hiatus a few years ago –a vigilance tunnel- and when I emerged, blinking into the sun, everybody had strings hanging from their ears. In fairness, I suppose it was a gradual thing -even normative behaviour has a break-in period.

The concept of a personal soundscape is as old as earphones, I guess, but those were big and clunky compared to earbuds -delivery trucks instead of sports cars. And they often drew unwanted attention to the head, thus requiring special grooming of which the nerds of the era were incapable. But the ability to dampen your thoughts in music as you walked or ran through life was an unmet need. It seemed the perfect antidote to a reality the young were just discovering. And yet, there was an unvoiced requirement to reject it while swimming in its benefits, so when the less-obtrusive earbud was invented as a compromise niche product, it became the norm. It became the cake they could also eat. The non-drug drug.

It took a while for the middle-agers to accede to the fashion –perhaps because they felt that the bulk of the phone and the length of the cord would spoil the look of their outfits- but eventually they, too, were draped in staidly coloured wires that led to purses and leather briefcases –teenage wannabes without the orange hair.

The community of elders was the last to adopt, as usual. I put that down to their hearing aids and the resulting lack of ear space, however -not to mention the widely known risk of cord entanglement because of their increasing visual issues. But with the advent of special, age-sensitive seating arrangements on most of the city buses, and therefore the opportunity to hand-hold the buds, this problem has largely been overcome. In fact, I’ve noticed more and more of them enjoying what I have come to believe are private podcast services offered by some local churches. I stopped sitting in that section, though, because the hymn leakage was hurting my ears. And I hate humming.

As for me, I’ve never had any particularly Ludditic tendencies, and like my younger contemporaries am now quite at home on a smart phone -although I have to admit I hate Siri and tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid constantly summoning her until my son showed me how to kill her… He described it differently, of course, but whatever! It seemed to reseal my mobile version of Pandora’s box and made me realize I was perfectly willing to listen to my own advice and, by extension, to appreciate what my environment offered for entertainment. Sorry, iTunes.

But in Retirement, I evolved –or at least changed. I’m not sure evolution is even permitted at my age… it’s frowned upon at any rate. Anyway, although I’ve never liked the idea of being imprisoned in a little tailor-made sound envelope, I figured it might come in handy at parties where I don’t know anybody and don’t really know why I was invited. So, on the off chance I might actually be asked to one, I decided to practice earbudding.

That’s when I discovered I had funny-shaped ears. Uhmm, let’s be clear, there’s nothing abnormal to look at. I mean I don’t have to wear a toque over them or anything. They don’t come to a point like Spock’s, nor do they hang down like flags on a windless day. I have no reason to suspect that they are asymmetrical –although my hair usually gets in the way when I try to measure them in the mirror, so I suppose it’s non liquet. I did reassure myself that they’re both about the same height above my shoulders, though, so that was a relief.

No, my ears are both libertines -well, one of them at least: the one that can’t hold an ear-bud. At first I was terribly embarrassed, albeit not particularly inconvenienced. I spent a good deal of time and money experimenting on different models, different sizes, and even different colours – I mean you have to look good in a bud, eh? Nothing worked in that ear, however –not even the luscious purple ones with the little ear-hooks that were supposed to suspend the things in the right area. All one side did was swing like a trapeze, though, sowing its sound like unwanted seeds on anybody close enough to complain.

Then I figured maybe it was cord-drag that was acting like an unwanted weight on the earbuds, so I went cordless. But no, the overly expensive Bluetooth ones were no better. The little thingy that joined the buds and told them what to do kept snagging on my collar for some reason, and whenever I turned my head, they’d both come off. They were never adequately anchored in my ears anyway, and I lost my last pair in the rain on the way to the bus stop.

Maybe some ears are just not designed for earbuds –a sobering thought, to be sure, and one with undoubted fashion consequences if I ever wanted to fit in… Which, of course, I don’t. What’s retirement for anyway, if it doesn’t allow you a polite escape from the permutations and combinations of realpolitik? Or at least, the office.

I briefly reconsidered earphones, but on sober reflection, I realized they might further stigmatize me at the parties to which I never get invited. And besides, they make it difficult to find a hat that would still look good if I decided to take them off… Not that you can wear a hat at a party, or anything, but I occasionally get invited to weddings or funerals -the sort of event where you’re expected to sign a book to show you attended and indicate whether or not you brought gifts or flowers. You have to attend those.

So, I’ve decided to remain ear-naked, and rely on hair to cover the defect. I’ll go back to imagination like the old days -and maybe birdsong, if it’s available. We all have to adapt, eh?

Hair-raising Mutations

Apparently I have a genetic flaw –well, Brien called it a mutation, but I think he was just guessing. Anyway, if it’s a fatal one, it’s sure taken its time to raise its hand, and since it waited until late in my life I suppose it’s too late to prevent me from giving it to my kids. Come to think of it, my father had it too, and he didn’t seem too concerned about giving it to me. I think Brien is just jealous of my genes –he gets like that if he thinks he’s been issued the default product.

It started out innocently enough. A friend of his decided to dye his hair to get rid of the grey. Apparently he overdid it and was criticized for his profile picture on the dating website he uses. So, Brien wanted to know what product I apply. He, by the way, is the same age as I am, although considerably heavier –I’m not sure that’s relevant, but I always like to draw it to his attention anyway.

“Brien, you know I don’t dye my hair,” I said, surprised at his comment.

He promptly furrowed his brow, at my denial. “Don’t get all petulant on me, for god’s sake. I’m not going to tell anybody.” He glanced around the busy coffee shop, and when he faced me again, there was a mischievous smile on his lips –the kind that cameos the teeth. “Unless, that is, you don’t tell me what you use…”

Brien has naturally greying hair –I probably shouldn’t use a gerund: his grey is a fait accompli. It is the colour of an old mouse, but considerably less well groomed. He seems to pride himself on the fact that he doesn’t really need either a comb or a brush because of his curls. Once again, language belies the truth –he has one untidy curl on the top of his head that usually passes as a rogue fly-away, and only assumes a curl shape if you look at it from a certain angle. It’s also the view that aggrandizes what few strands he has left. I looked at him and smiled. “Okay, then, if you’re going to play dirty, I use a shampoo I buy at Walmart…”

He fingered a pencil he’d hidden in a shirt pocket and hovered it over the napkin. “Name?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know –whatever’s on sale. They’re all the same, I figure.”

“My friend has tried everything, and he can’t seem to get it right.” He paused for a moment to think of a more convincing argument. “The women on his site are laughing at him for his fake colouring.”

“What’s wrong with grey hair? I mean, won’t they find out if he gets into a relationship with them? Won’t they see his bottle of dye on the bedside table along with his teeth?”

Brien thought about that for a moment. “I don’t think he has false teeth…”

“Then why fake the hair either?”

The wry smile again. “You do…”

My hair has always been a cross for me to bear. I have a full head of the stuff, but the curls keep it in a kind of Beethoven shape -he was actually born on my birthday, so it was a standing joke around the office. One person even grabbed my hair to pull it off my head, thinking it was a wig. But, like Dorian Gray –pardon the pun- it hasn’t changed much over the years. I’m hoping there isn’t some Wildean picture of it in an attic somewhere, of course. I shook my head vehemently at his accusation and sighed.

“Look, it isn’t natural for someone not to get grey at our age…” His eyes narrowed and his mouth puckered for some reason. “And besides, I don’t believe you.”

I sighed again, but this time loudly enough for the next table to hear. “Here, look at this,” I said, offering him an ear-level view of a few greys I knew were tucked away under some curls in front of my right ear.

“Doesn’t prove anything and you know it!” he said with a shake of his head. I must have looked puzzled because he rolled his eyes and tapped his pencil on the napkin. “A lot of guys leave a bit of grey undyed here and there -just to pretend they’re not trying to hide anything. That it’s how they are –salt and pepper, or something.”

His explanation didn’t help. “How do they do that?”

He had to shrug. “I don’t touch the stuff, so I haven’t kept up with the technology.”

“Neither have I,” I had to admit.

He stared at me for a moment, his eyes buzzing back and forth over my head like a couple of hungry bees. And then he sighed deeply and brought them back to the hive. “Well then you must be genetically abnormal. I’ll bet you have a mutation!” He said the word like it I was a mutant -something feral and maybe mildly unpredictable, because he immediately sat back in his chair and moved his coffee closer to his side.

“Don’t you ever wonder if people are staring at you behind your back?” He examined me for a moment. “I mean your skin is wrinkled like mine, and we’re both wearing old-fashioned glasses and clothes from another era…” He shook his head slowly –and a little sadly as well, I thought.

“Your point, Brien?”

“I’m saying that apart from your hair, you still look your age.” He eyed my hair again and nodded. “My point is your hair’s an anomaly. It looks too good to be natural.”

I was confused. “Isn’t that what your friend is trying to do?”

A little shrug. “But he got called up on it though, didn’t he? And his didn’t even look as natural as yours.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “But…”

“I tried to talk him out of dying it so he could look his age again. Honesty is what women want, I told him –someone who looks like everyone else his age. But he wouldn’t listen.” Brien took a sip of his cold coffee and immediately put in down. “Anyway, I said I’d talk to somebody who was better at it…”

“So… Where are you trying to go with this, Brien?”

A smile suddenly appeared and so did wrinkles around his eyes. I’d even say they were twinkling, but I think it was his allergies. “Ever think of dying your hair grey? To look your age, I mean…?”

I hope my kids don’t have to go through this when they get old.







The Teleology of Grass

I’ll probably be criticized for my grass again this year –it’s getting rather long. People tell me it’s because I don’t cut it, but I can’t accept that. It’s grass for goodness sakes –it’s meant to be eaten not decapitated.

Perhaps I should explain, before you write me off as some sort of New Age Grassist. I do not worship grass, nor do I sacrifice stuff at its behest. It merely is, as am I. But I suppose that’s not enough is it? We tend to need more than that –teleology springs to mind. We’re all teleologists when you get right down to it. Like children, we ask difficult questions, but we want simple answers. There is a point, however, beyond which because is simply not the answer to why.

So, in an admittedly lay attempt to answer the question Why is grass? I do not wish to fall back onto the theological becauses of which many of us have hitherto been so fond. I wish to posit that the answer is far more terrestrial, far more pragmatic: grass evolved, simply put, because sheep did –post hoc, ergo propter hoc, eh? Or is it the other way around? I get confused with all the hocs.

Anyway, I realize that answer is itself a leaking Pandora’s Box –or, in a more contemporary idiom, a Matryoshka doll, full of dark entendres for other unnamed herbivores. Full, in other words, of an infinite regress of yet more and more whys. And hocs…

I began to see grass as a problem when I was living in the city. It didn’t make any sense for me to grow the stuff in the front yard, only to be forced to cut it down and then throw it away just so I could still see the house from the sidewalk or tell if the kids were near the driveway. So I made the decision to move to the country and commute to work. It was there I had the epiphany: meat did not grow in those little packages in the store; it once had legs, and wandered around… eating grass.

After a quick check with the neighbours who, at the time, were stretching the limits of their knowledge just keeping chickens alive, I decided against any animals they felt would threaten their children. Cows were out, it was explained to me with angry eyes, because they were so big and people that lived nearby were frightened at what effect a stampede might have on their gardens. Having grown up with the same cowboy movies as them, I could readily sympathize with their concerns.

They encouraged me to get a couple of horses -although they’re big, they rationalized, horses have names like Flicka and Dancer. And no horns -apparently that’s important as well. Still, I don’t understand horses, and I was told that you can’t just leave them alone in a field for weeks at a time. Also, I don’t ride, and I have to admit that the idea of taking them for extended walks along a busy road every day was not at all appealing. I also did not relish the size of the disposable bag I would have to carry.

No, it came to me that grass is for sheep, so I bought a flock from a farmer who wanted to move to the city and see what a clean lawn was like. He explained that with his sheep, I could just let them wander around so I wouldn’t have to pet them, or anything. And he never used bags.

After I retired and had time to look, however, I realized I didn’t actually need a whole flock. In no time they’d polish off a field and then stroll around baaing as if their life depended on it -or worse, just lie there staring at my conscience, hoping I’d notice they were chewing on disgusting stuff they’d stored for emergencies in secret intestinal cupboards. There’s not much for them to do in the winter either, so you have to keep buying hay for them, and taking out unfrozen water for them to drink before it freezes again -sort of like Sisyphus… Well, sort of. The obvious lesson in this, though, is that sheep are not much good without grass. So I sold them all –well, they were pretty old, so I actually just gave them away.

I thought about the problem one winter, and realized the answer was simple: buy lambs in the spring, turn them loose on the fields around the house and then, well, send them to other pastures in the fall –and sell the meat. So, an economists dream: they eat the grass for free all summer, and then recoup their initial cost in the fall. It’s win/win all around, although I did not interview the lambs.

This year, however, the idea caught on in the neighbourhood, and so my traditional source of lambs was not available. My usual source of grass was, however, and it got me wondering what our ancestors did with all their grass –before they had animals, I mean… Before they discovered cows and stuff. And certainly long before they realized there were some kinds of grass that they could sell in baked goods in little road-side stands. I imagine green was merely a kind of thick shaggy background for them, and unlike for their prissy descendants, no big deal. It was just something they had to wade through to get to the cave. They had no idea that people would one day be upset if they had to get out of their cars and struggle through it to their houses all the while worrying they might drop the pizza or lose their keys.

Now, it seems, we’ve taken the whole idea to its extreme –if the lawn has any members in it higher than the sidewalk, it’s messy and unkempt. But I reject that position as totally anti-Darwinian and propose a corrective regression to the mean -somebody has to step back and revisit the norm. I feel called to reinstitute a healthy respect for the random -a recognition of what Nature no doubt intended all along. Scattered amongst my knee-high grass is an assortment of flowers: dandelions, foxgloves, daisies… weeds -anything that has seeded there from the neighbouring gardens. The area around the house has become my fallow; I run an equal opportunity yard now. I kind of wish some sheep had applied, though…