The Ministering Angels

I don’t know what it is about illness –everybody talks about it nowadays as if it’s their fault. As if they wouldn’t get sick they were really healthy. But seems to me that lifestyle and diet can explain only so much. Some of it just happens; check with any old person -it’s like asking someone walking off a train at a station how he got there…

We all get sick. After all, health is only possible if you have something with which to contrast it. Otherwise you might just as well be asleep. Or that other thing.

Not to dwell on it, or anything, but I have to say that the conversations that swirl around me at my age, seem to have inordinately large components of disease in them. And if not specifically referenced as such, bear all the facially recognizable hallmarks thereof. The only words not shouted so we can hear them, I find, are the affliction words of maladies -not loud, but deep- to paraphrase Macbeth. And, given that I have as well, perhaps, fallen into the sere, my yellow leaf, I would it were otherwise.

It is for that reason, I suppose, that I seek out tables near younger people in restaurants and coffee shops when I am allowed the choice. It is not hard to find those autumn-deprived souls, of course, so the opportunity is almost always on offer.

Allen, however, is of a different mind whenever we meet. He seeks to compare notes, I think –to wallow vicariously in the misfortunes of other graylings who are only too willing to remonstrate with each other in barely whispered shouts about how they, also, did not escape entirely unscathed. I think it cheers him up.

It was on one such trip that I remember we had our very own remonstrance. It took place in one of the lesser known franchises that were only able to stay open by offering discounts to seniors for coffee and doughnuts. So the air was awash with the clatter of dentures gripping tasteless pastry and overly-loud greetings once we cleared the door. Everybody seemed to have monosyllabic names like Fred and John, with the occasional Edward sprinkled in for acoustic exercise. Arthritic hands waved their slow salutes, and rheumy eyes squinted in the fluorescent glare as they fought to recognize the faces of friends they’d long since given up for dead. Or at least that’s how it seemed each time Allen dragged me there.

I was in the middle of bemoaning his taste, both of the company and the venue, when he suddenly tried to paste an impatient smile between the wrinkles on his cheeks. He seemed to have difficulty clearing enough room –his face was crowded with other issues at the time- but I suppose I shouldn’t have shrugged at his attempt.

“What is it this time?” he said, disdainfully. It was his favourite coffee shop and we had arrived in time for the seniors’ Happy Hour, so Allen knew they’d marked the doughnuts down even further. The place was packed and he’d been amazed we’d even found a table.

I shook my head and shrugged. “Nothing, Allen,” I replied, pointing to the lineup at the till. “You go get us a couple of coffees and I’ll guard our table.” It seemed the sensible thing to do.

He wandered off, delighted in the line of canes that offered to vindicate his choice of time and place. Allen is short, slightly gnarled, and definitely tonsured in grey like his line mates, so he almost disappeared in the gestalt.

I had to squint to make him out, but I could see him touch one of the gaunt ones gently on his shoulder and smile a silent greeting as their eyes met. I could see their lips moving and Allen shaking his head while reaching out with his other hand to console him.

The two of them soon made their way back to the table, deep in conversation. Neither looked happy.

I recognized the other man as he sat down and smiled. “John lost his wife, last year,” Allen said, scarcely looking at me.

“Breast cancer,” John said, staring at the coffee in his hand.

“And now John has found out he has to have a prostate operation…” Allen said, shaking his head again.

“Just a biopsy… so far, at any rate,” John added for clarity. “Had my first cataract removed a couple of weeks ago, though, so the prostate apparently has to wait.”

Allen shook his head again.

John gazed at Allen now –it was his turn, apparently.

Allen sighed loudly enough to be heard over the ‘Pardon me’ shouts from various tables all around us, many engaged in listing off their respective ailments to each other at the top of their voices, and shaking their heads as necessary. “I suppose I’ve been lucky, John,” he said with false humility. “I’ve only had bouts of chest pain –especially when I walk,” he added, lest John think it wasn’t as serious as his prostate issue. It was news to me, and I was about to say something when I felt two predatory eyes stalking my face. “But my doctor reassured me after a few tests…” He recalled his eyes and dropped them onto the table in front of him. He was silent for a moment. “He plans on sending me to a specialist if it happens again, though… Or maybe to the Emergency Department.” I think he only said that to validate his claim, however, because he quickly picked his eyes up off the table again and hurled them at my face to silence any rebuttal.

John seemed relieved –although whether it was because of Allen’s reprieve, or his membership in the club I couldn’t tell. “You just don’t know from one day to the next, do you Allen?” He resumed shaking his head in response to the same from Allen. “I mean, who’s going to be next in line, eh?”

“I know what you mean, John…”

They both looked at me to see if I could better them. I didn’t know what to do with my eyes, let alone my lips. The only thing I could think of on the spur of the moment was a theatrical sigh and a little head nod. They each sat back in their chairs, first to listen and then commiserate. I could see Allen massaging his neck after all its unaccustomed exercise; but he appeared to be limbering up for another shake.

“I’ve been a little bloated lately…” I said, improvising as I went along.

“That’s worrying,” said John immediately, while Allen started nodding his head as the plot developed.

“I Googled it…” I continued, beginning to get into it.

“Good idea,” John whispered loudly -whispers are apparently more commiseratory.

“And I realized that I could be sitting on an explosive powder keg,” I said, casting my eyes about for reaction. They were loving it, judging by the speed and range of their heads.

“And did you go to your doctor?” John asked, totally engaged in my ailment.

I shook my head, this time; I’d learned the moves. “I think I diagnosed it online, John,” I answered. “Thought I’d first wait and see if the treatment from the site I looked at would help.”

John nodded his wholehearted approval. “We have to try lots of stuff first, don’t we?” he said with his lips, while ‘and then we’re sorry,’ was written all over his face, but I ignored that. He continued to stare at me hopefully. “So, how did it work?” He lowered his eyes to half-mast in anticipation of my answer.

I shrugged. “I feel fine now, thanks John.”

He slowly raised his eyes to check my face, but I could see he was disappointed in me. “Great,” he managed to say without choking. “What’d you do?”

I shrugged again. “Stopped eating kale… I only tried it because of Allen anyway… Hate the stuff…”

I could tell John didn’t know whether to shake his head or do a congratulatory nod. Instead of situating himself in either camp, he made a show of raising the sleeve of his sweater to look for his watch. He got the wrong arm at first, but I put that down to his jealousy about my health.

Once he found the watch, though, it wasn’t long before he excused himself and left the table without his empty cup.

Allen glared at me. “You just can’t fit in, can you?” he said, but with a different shake of his head this time -an angry shake. I could tell the difference.

I cocked my head, pretending confusion. “I talked about my bowels, Allen…”

“John wanted to share the serious health issues we’re supposed to have in common nowadays.” he said, his wrinkles unable to disguise his disappointment. “Real things that matter…”

“Like your ‘chest pain’ that didn’t show up on the tests?”

“I get twinges…” he replied and shrugged. But even in the fluorescent glare, I could tell he was blushing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A God by Any Other Name

Now I know I really am getting old –I’m starting to think about religion. Well, perhaps it’s unfair to single it out like that. Religion, or at least wonder about existence is such a part of the human Umwelt that, like the air we breathe, it is an appreciation that is tempered by its ubiquity. But I am reminded of a section of a poem written by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.’ It is a beautiful image, and although the entire poem is a bit too religious for my taste, the metaphor has a universal appeal that I suspect transcends even sectarian boundaries.

Given what I take to be our omnipresent awe about life, I have to suspect that other sentient beings –alien beings- would have a similar acknowledgment of the Mystery of Being, and wonder about the unknown… Or does wonder suggest insecurity, and mystery, merely challenge? Would omniscience, if such a thing could ever exist, necessarily preclude curiosity? Belief? Reverence? Late night questions, to be sure…

I suppose the BBC article that I stumbled across a while back fell upon fertile soil: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20161215-if-we-made-contact-with-aliens-how-would-religions-react?ocid=ww.social.link.email Just how important is it for us to believe in something? To have questions?

Maybe there are no answers, but it reminded me of a heated discussion I heard one evening in a coffee shop that I visited after a movie. It was quite busy, as I recall, and I found myself sitting beside a group, deep in conversation. All four were leaning over their table, heads together, bagels long consumed, and coffees no longer steaming. They were young –in their early twenties, I would guess- and the only woman, a short-haired blond with horn-rimmed glasses and a black Rasta sweatshirt, was gesticulating with her finger to make a point. She seemed so enthusiastic, I couldn’t help listening.

“Archetypes? That’s so Jungian, Aaron…”

“And what’s wrong with that? How else could we explain it if we don’t assume some sort of a Collective Unconscious, Natalie?” Aaron was another bespectacled youth, with messy short brown hair.

She threw her arms up in mock protest. “You haven’t explained anything, though. I don’t accept that God is a black hole, let alone that She happens to be the one at the center of our Galaxy…”

“Can we please ungender the concept, Nat? How about it, or they, or something?”

She turned to the speaker, a large heavy man in a black leather full-length coat. “Fair enough John. Whatever we use is weird, however –especially gynaecomorphizing a neutral abstraction.”

“Love the word, though, Nat…”

She smiled at the third man, the only one with long hair. “Thank you Jag –makes me sound academic, eh?”

“But, come on folks,” Aaron was on a roll. “Just think about it, okay? The myth says God is outside of time, right? A black hole is outside of time…”

Outside of time…?

“Well, if time is infinite inside a black hole, then it amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it?”

There were a few seconds of silence while the others considered the idea, so he developed it further. “And where is the timeless Heaven the various religions talk about?”

Jag rolled his eyes. “You’re doing the same kind of thing that Zukav did in that old book The Dancing Wu Li Masters…”

My coffee was getting cold; I felt I should be taking notes.

“Come on, Jag –that book was about quantum stuff… And I’m not invoking Buddhism, or anything eastern like that.” He leaned further across the table. “No, you go to a black hole, you exit time. It fits with the biblical heaven, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t think the Buddhists even believe in God, do they?” John said this as he stretched and then leaned back on a wooden chair already creaking under his weight. “Or heaven, for that matter…”

“They believe in Samsara –that cycle of rebirth thing I think…” But Natalie didn’t seem sure, so John dropped his objections.

Jag attempted a sip at what was left in his cup, and put it down as soon as he tasted it. “But Aaron raises an interesting point, though…”

“I finally broke through, eh?” Aaron smiled and tried to high-five Natalie, but she just stared at him.

“What do you mean, Jag?” she said, caressing his face with her eyes, and blushing. She seemed obviously attracted to him. Maybe they were a pair.

“Well, let’s suppose Aaron is on to something here, and there is somehow an awareness of a power to which we are all subject. I mean the stars in our galaxy are all rotating around the central black hole, aren’t they? So, if there are other inhabited worlds out there in the galaxy, maybe they’d experience the same awareness, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe the black hole exerts some kind of force or field on the galaxy that our earth calls spirit, or god. It gets interpreted differently, of course –we all have different cultures, and different surroundings –different exigencies… So perhaps aliens would have their own explanations for this force…”

John sat forward again and leaned into the table. “Do any of you realize how teenage this all sounds?” He glanced over at me and rolled his eyes.

I guess they knew I was listening. Of course I’d been staring at them one by one as they talked. Natalie tore her eyes from Jag and stared at me like a teacher would at a student that was interrupting. But she wasn’t angry –just surprised that I was listening. “Sorry, sir. We really get into these post-pub discussions…”

I smiled and sat straighter in my chair. “Please don’t apologize. I’m intrigued by your arguments…” I leaned forward on my table again. “Especially your God of the black hole,” I said, looking first at Aaron and then at Jag. “And I’ve often wondered how our terrestrial religions could accommodate such different creation myths.

“I’m from the Carl Sagan era, don’t forget –remember the Pale Blue Dot photograph by Voyager 1 from 6 billion kilometers away? It kind of emphasized just how un-special we and our precious sun are in the galaxy, let alone the universe…” They all nodded politely, but I had to be careful -I was the alien in their midst… “But like Aaron and Jag suggested, maybe what we call religion is just an evolutionary balm for a consciousness that demands identity in the midst of cosmic anonymity.”

I sat back in my seat, rather pleased with my obfuscation. Memories of my university evenings flooded back.

“Whoa,” Aaron said, staring at me -puzzled that I even had an opinion, perhaps. “You make it sound so… I don’t know… depressing!”

Natalie glanced at Aaron and then stared at me for a moment. Her eyes were soft and reassuring, but I could tell she was once again the patient teacher, hoping not to embarrass me, the older, slower student in the back row who would probably never understand. “Not depressing, Aaron,” she said turning away from me with an encouraging smile- “Hopeful…” And she reached out and squeezed Jag’s hand.

Whether it was a secret message to him, I couldn’t tell, but I felt acknowledged at any rate. Comforted, if not accepted -I was from a different time than them, after all.

‘Age considers, youth ventures,” as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote. It probably never occurred to them than I was like them… once.

 

 

 

 

Excuse Me?

You know, by and large I’m pretty content with being old… Well, not old as in wrinkly and cane-bound -more like calendarially acquisitive. However, there is one thing that I have lately discovered that greatly inhibits my social intercourse –a design flaw, I think: hearing.

It’s not that I can’t hear things –I am very attuned to volume and the background melee in which they seem invariably embedded -it is more the interpretation thereof. Indeed, the backcloth seems to swallow words, and dissolve them into a meaningless pap that I am forced to process later at my leisure like a cow. You would think that Evolution would have issued ear-cuds, or something, but I suppose Darwin couldn’t think of everything.

Evolution takes time of course, and yet I’ve learned it sometimes also takes short cuts; that gives me hope. Exaptations they’re called –the use of a pre-existing mechanism for something other than its original function. Jury-rigging it. Feathers, for example, which once-upon-a-time probably served only for thermoregulation and maybe sexual attraction, were then adapted, as time and circumstance allowed, for flight –a kluge. Why design something new, eh? So, given that I didn’t get in on the feathers, I figured maybe I’d be up for second prize.

I realized quite recently that most of my trouble with interpretive hearing loss tends to be self-inflicted, however -it seems particularly bothersome when I wander into people-infested areas. Starbuck’s springs to mind… Brien, too -when he’s not receiving visitors on his porch, he consents to meeting me for a coffee every so often. But although he is a man more comfortable with grunts and head nods, I still have trouble making those out from across the table in the noisy room.

So I decided to exapt. I’m actually kind of embarrassed I hadn’t thought of it before. And nothing very complicated, or anything –I think it’s better to go basic when you first try something. Sort of feel your way around. The concept I settled on was proximity –if you can’t decipher what someone is saying over there, go over there. I hadn’t counted on Brien’s reaction, though, and as I leaned closer to his face to decipher the sounds, he countered by receding. His back was to the wall, and when he finally realized there was no more room to recede, he pushed me away with a vigour he’d never demonstrated on his porch even when he thought I was reaching for the biggest cookie.

I immediately grasped the fact that not all exaptations succeed –or at least not at first. Proximity needed a little work. But as I thought more about it, I reasoned that since mouths form words, and lips can be seen from a distance, maybe I could fashion my own kluge: translipping, I suppose you could call it -lipping for short. The added advantage is that from a few feet away at least, the person observed thinks you’re really looking in his eyes. This makes him feel you are actually paying attention. I’ve come to realize that it works better with a gender imbalance, though, because when I tried it with Brien in the crowded Starbucks venue a few days later, he again backed away and kept turning his head. He needs to get out more.

But when I was lipping, it seemed to help a bit. I think consonants work best, though – probably because of the need for larger and more demonstrative lip excursions. It reminded me that originally, the Hebrew alphabet was an abjad­ and consisted only of consonants. Maybe they used to have hearing problems in those days too, so they figured they’d make it easier for people in the bazaars, or whatever. Brien didn’t think that was right when I told him my theory, but neither of us are Jewish, so we left it there.

There was some progress, however, so I thought I’d expand the potential and try distance-lipping. Brien encouraged this; he said it would feel like he’d got his face back.

“Try it on that woman over there,” he said, pointing like a child in a supermarket when we were next in Starbucks. His target, when I eventually grabbed his arm and lowered it, was an attractive brunette with long shiny hair and curls that danced on her shoulders each time she laughed. Her eyes were almost as alive as her full, red lips, and every so often I’d earn a hint of sparkling white teeth when she looked with growing concern in my direction. She’d started out with the expected balance of fricatives and labiovelar articulations, but as she began to glance my way, I noticed an increasing frequency of velars and labiodentals. Her eyes, too, began to harden. Soon, I had four lips to practice on, because her boyfriend –I didn’t notice a ring- began to velate. I was right on the cusp of decrypting their meaning when he stood up and swaggered over to our table. Brien pretended to have dropped his little paper napkin on the floor, so he missed the eye-boxing I received.

“Why were you staring at my wife?” the man said angrily.

That was unfair –I mean he wasn’t wearing a ring, or anything. “I…” Actually, I was so alarmed, I couldn’t think of an answer that would defuse the situation.

“He’s almost deaf,” Brien replied for me, coming up from under the table au moment critique. “He’s learning to lip sync..”

“Lip-read,” I corrected him. Sometimes you probably shouldn’t be too pedantic.

The man stared at Brien for a moment, and then shrugged. “Well… practice on somebody else, eh?” he said and walked back, somewhat subdued.

I risked a quick glance at them after he’d sat down again. Their faces were huddled together, but I was pretty certain I could make out lip for ‘handicapped’ before I hurriedly tore my eyes away.

“You’ve got to get a hearing-aid,” Brien said, as soon as they left, but he said it slowly, as if I were foreign to the language, and he opened his mouth like he was singing in a choir and made his lips over-perform with each syllable. I hate that.

Anyway, I’m okay on his porch when the only other sounds are Sheda, his tree, rustling in the wind, and the occasional rattle of his dentures when he eats cookies with nuts. So a hearing aid seems over-kill.

I’m waiting for the ultimate kluge that I read about in the BBC news. I found an article on the brain’s solution for making sense of speech in a noisy room: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38381915  I didn’t understand it really, but I gathered that scientists have found the area of the brain that not only processes sound, but is able to focus on different parts of noise to make it more intelligible. There must be a way of exercising it, I figure -maybe doing purpose-built Sudokus, or being strapped into a specially equipped seat in Starbucks or something. Brien is all for it.