The Chariness of Our Honesty

The person-situation debate –I knew there’d be an argument about that sooner or later. It’s the concern that maybe we aren’t the same person we thought we were –that we might change with circumstances… Perhaps there is no eternal me that rides the waves; maybe I’m not so predictable after all.

So why are they still squabbling about it? Nobody I know has even heard of it, let alone argued about it at dinner.

The issue seems to be whether it is personal traits or the situation that decides behavior. Are honest people always honest -even in the face of temptation? Even when all around are corrupt? And are traits themselves corruptible, or do we hold with Hamlet that ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’?

And what about the intuitively compelling idea of a thin-edge-of-a-wedge starting it all off –the so-called slippery slope? Is it really the case that we are more able to justify small deviations –little discrepancies, or small lies- which inure us to the incremental changes that might lead to something unanticipated? Unintended? I would have thought so, at any rate. But, of course, intuition is grist for the academic mill, and just when you think you have a finger on the pulse of malfeasance, along comes a Dutch study that puts paid to your naïveté:

The study, mentioned in the Association for Psychological Science, seems to indicate that: ‘[…] severe unethical behavior doesn’t necessarily emerge through a gradual process but can result from a sudden “golden opportunity”.’ Coals to Newcastle, perhaps, but it does question something that has always seemed obvious to me: ‘The popular idea that unethical behavior tends to start small and build up over time falls in line with established psychological processes like moral disengagement and shifting social norms — the gradual progression from small, ambiguous acts to progressively larger transgressions may enable those involved to maintain the belief that they are moral, upstanding people.’ I really don’t know what to believe any more.

And what about the people on an average city bus? Do they realize the perils of temptation? I mean, do they read the Science Daily releases, or go directly to the Association for Psychological Science?  Are they corruptible –and would they begin small or just go for it? I didn’t start out trying to solve this age-old enigma –I was just trying to get downtown on a Saturday morning to shop, but I did keep my ears open. Why waste a trip?

I found myself sitting beside a  large and fittingly be-perfumed older woman who was trying to figure out a rather dated looking cell phone –trying to turn it on, actually. We both found ourselves sandwiched between a row young teenagers –very young, I think- sitting behind and in front of us. They were well enough behaved, but nonetheless talkative. And curious.

One of them behind us, happening to glance up from his own cell phone I imagine, noticed my seat mate’s dilemma and stuck his head over the back of our seat. “Is that a new model, ma’am?” he asked politely.

I think she thought it was me who asked the question and she turned her head and looked down the bridge of her nose starting with my hair and then sliding downward. It was not a pleasant set of eyes that encountered mine and they made a brief, but hostile foray onto my face before being repelled by an innocent blink. They flew off and attacked the young man whose head had interposed itself as a more assailable target. “Pardon me?” she said to it, now more surprised than angry, but with a voice that raised hackles on the two girls sitting ahead of us. So they, curious, turned and stared at us as well.

The two boys behind us were delighted they now had an audience of like-aged females. “I was just wondering about your phone,” the head explained.

“It’s my sister’s… What about it?” she replied, throwing the words at him like gauntlets.

He smiled innocently, although I could see his eyes twinkling. “I’ve just not seen another one like that.”

One of the girls, a red head with wild, uncombed hair and freckles giggled. “My mom has one of those in her drawer, Eddy,” she said, proud to be in the conversation now, but smiling at the lady beside me.

“Is that so?” the woman said, but not returning the smile. “Why is it in her drawer?”

The girl shrugged innocently. “Not sure… It used to be her favorite phone, she told me. It probably doesn’t work, or something.”

The boy’s eyes turned from twinkle to sparkle. “I’ll fix it for her…”

“Yeah?” the girl ahead was not uninterested in the idea. “What’s the catch, Eddy?” She glanced at her girlfriend. “You know she doesn’t like you.”

“Date,” he said. “I fix it, and she agrees to let me go out with you again.”

I could almost smell the proto-testosterone dripping from his smile.

The red head rolled her eyes comically and snorted. “What makes you think you could even fix it? It’s pretty old…”

He managed to shrug with his head –well, that’s the only part I could see anyway- and then sighed loudly enough to be heard over the noise of the bus. “Look, I see it as a win-win-win, eh? She gets her favourite phone back, and you and I get each other.”

The girl glanced at her friend again, obviously tempted. “I dunno Eddy. Maybe you should start with offering to fix her old phone, first. She’d probably like that…”

The woman beside me was snapping her eyes back and forth, open-mouthed- to catch the conversation. And she was not happy about the position of Eddy’s head. Suddenly she turned nose-to nose with him, and slapped him with a malevolent glare. “Prove you can do it, kid. Fix mine and then work on her mother…”

She handed Eddy the phone and he smirked, touched a button on the side of the screen and it lit up. Then, before she could even thank him, he handed the phone back to her, pulled the signal cord, and the four teens got off the bus together.

“That was nice of him,” I said to the woman, trying to be friendly after our shared encounter. “Do you think her mother will fall for it?” I added, remembering the conclusion of the Dutch study.

But she was already too engrossed in her phone to bother with me. I managed a quiet sigh and stared at my lap, disappointed at being left completely out of the loop. I suspect I still don’t really understand corruption. There are just too many layers…









What’s Montague?

They’ve got a name for everything nowadays. That’s how it should be, I guess, but sometimes I wonder if they just make things up so they can try out a catchy name –fleek springs to mind. I heard it on a bus, downtown, but from the looks the kids gave the person who used it, I think it had already passed its best-before date. But that’s the trouble with names isn’t it? Especially if what they name isn’t really there, or has already transmogrified. Or maybe worse, never was, and the name was, well, unconsummated.

So I am very particular about names. Nowadays, of course, they could be fake news, but there was always a danger. You had to source them carefully. Validate their lexical potential, lest you be accused of neologizing for kudos –itself an irregular transliteration of the Greek kydos. See what I mean? Names can become Möbius loops if you’re not careful.

As such, I was particularly wary when I came across misophonia as you can imagine. I suppose context has a role to play, though. If I heard it on the BBC, I would assume it had something to do with the mistreatment of microphones or something; in a mall in the suburbs, I would think I had wandered into the food court. As it happens, I overheard it on the CBC here in Canada. A neurologist was being interviewed on the radio about a condition in which specific sounds trigger negative thoughts and reactions in certain people -up to 20% of the population, apparently. Sounds like chewing, coughing, slurping, horking… well, you get the idea. Its cause is unknown, but sometimes identifiable on fMRI as demyelination –unwrapping, as it were- of certain neurons in specific areas of the brain.

Great! Naked neurons lurking in 20% of our heads waiting for a chance to expose themselves and embarrass us. Definitely not fleek. But it did command my attention –especially when I heard the trigger sounds they broadcast as examples. I don’t normally hit my radio, but sometimes you just have to do what’s necessary, eh? It got me wondering whether the condition –which has yet to have its accouchement in the DSM psychiatric bible- is really as prevalent as reported. And if so, could this account for various cultural differences in tolerance of table noise? Mutations in DNA, or, if it can’t be found that way, epigenetic modification by lowering the volume on certain genes? Sorry -I suppose I’m just being a scientific reductionist, but I need excuses. Idiosyncrasies become reclassified as exemplars of dementia at my age.

Time for another coffee shop experiment. I decided against the upscale, usually working age Starbucks in case somebody complained. Lenny’s seemed a more suitable venue, with its offer of free terrible coffee for seniors on certain days. I figured I could test them out without fear of reprisal.

My plan was simplicity itself. I would go in, sit beside a doddering group, and make table noises and see what happened. To randomize the groups, I could switch tables after a few minutes and, like doing a poll, get a representative sample of the population. Wow.

I googled the local Lenny’s –I didn’t even know there was one- and discovered that Tuesdays were the free senior coffee days. It didn’t define the term ‘senior’, but as soon as I looked through the window at the sea of gray, I knew I had chosen well. I walked in and obtained my free coffee from a bepimpled teenager who should have been in school, and sat next to a three-seat senior’s table in the corner of the room. I figured it must have been purpose-built because it had arm rests, and a large gap on one side for a wheel chair, I suppose –but in this case, at any rate, a place to lean their canes.

So far, so good, I thought, as I smoothed a paper napkin from the dispenser screwed on to the middle of my table to discourage borrowing. I thought I should record things and I didn’t want to bring a clipboard. Writing it on my phone or a tablet might alert the subjects and alter their unwitting participation. Subterfuge was paramount, I realized, and although I doubted it would pass strict ethical muster, I could always claim my noises were how our family always behaved around the dinner table.

They were all men at the table, and I have to say their voices were all rather fortississimoid and they used an inordinate number of hand gestures. I found it terribly annoying, to tell the truth. I realized why they were seated in a corner –or had been sent there.

I tried a tentative slurp with my coffee –this turned out to be easy, because its taste demanded a reaction. In fact, in those brief interludes between shouts, they were all doing it. The sound was actually a pleasant relief from the otherwise obnoxious cacophony. Nobody turned to stare when I tried it during one of the lulls. If anything, I felt accepted

Then the irritating discordance resumed with no paper-napkinable response I could record. And the replacement noise was becoming infuriating. Time for the coup de grace: my teenage version of the smoker’s hork –produced, incidentally, should the method ever need validation, by a soupcon of coffee percolated over the uvula and then coughed into a (different) napkin. Unfortunately, it went largely unnoticed in the fray -although one of the men actually looked over and smiled as if he recognized me before he resumed yelling at his friends. Maybe they were just deaf, I thought, rationalizing the failure of yet another promising experiment that might have quantified the syndrome enough to be used in a future DSM.

But all was not lost, I realized as I dumped the remaining coffee with its thin waxy cardboard in the waste bin and slunk out of the door. I had, in effect, validated the reality of the problem. Misophony was alive and as naked as a newborn in a fresh set of my own hitherto unsuspecting neurons. They continue to skulk, for the most part, I guess, but I don’t go in Lenny’s anymore for fear of exposure. Not that you’d notice in there anyway.



Indecorous Words

Okay, I have been known to utter indecorous words from time to time. I’m trying to cut down, though. It’s not that I have forgotten them –they still sound rather naughty- it’s more that they seem precarious now. Dishevelled… a different kind of dirty. And what they accomplish I’m no longer certain –if I ever was. But I suppose there is an expostulatory stage of Life which requires time on pedestals. Demands individuation. Brief moments of spotlight. But for most of it, I think watching quietly from the shadows and choosing an appropriate moment critique for action is a better plan than jumping into the raging current without a proper strategy.

Of course, I’m older now, and arthritic in my tongue. It often hurts to swear when one is in one’s yellow leaf, and it does little for the tree. There are other ways to cathart. Other, more attractive,  purgatives -yet I must admit, at times they are not sufficient for the job. Swearing centres around taboos, I believe, and the frisson seems to come from flaunting the ability to flaunt the forbidden fruit. From uttering the unutterable. So the words tend to cluster around bathroom stuff, as well as religion and sex –only one of which holds much sway at my age.

But times change don’t they, and wanting to keep abreast of the ever roiling waters of verbal laxatives, I decided to pay attention to how the Young are currently phrasing things –to see if there are any new topics they’ve decided to disparage. New words. New codes.

I would not do it conspicuously, of course –it would be better to imbibe without actually tasting the waters, listen without seeming to listen.

I considered pretending to be asleep –it’s what is expected of elders, after all- but a venue that permits that also discourages the kind of youth interaction that would serve my purpose. And I’d likely have to sit in a coffee shop until the Apocalyptical Horsemen arrived and ordered donuts before I would get any useable results there. So I decided on a McDonalds outlet near a high school -and, since they all are I think, the choice was easy.

Now, even as a senior, you have to be careful when you’re sitting around for long in a location like that. First of all, it tends to encourage repeated purchases and there’s a limit to the number of coffees a bladder can hold. But more importantly, you don’t want to look unsavoury. Personally, I don’t think I do, but then again I’m used to me. Sunglasses –especially if they’re the dorky kind that fit over bifocals- stand out. And I think hats make you look suspicious so I decided not to wear my rapper cap or the toque my mother knit for me when I left home. I finally settled on a grey hoodie with matching jeans to allow me to blend in. And to allay any misgivings, and totally fool the kids, I decided to pretend to be doing a newspaper crossword puzzle. It’s what the elderly do in McDonalds to pass the time. Fly-on-the-wall stuff.

What I didn’t bank on was a boisterous group of teenagers from a nearby arts college out on a lunch break. There were three of them, all wearing sweatshirts and jeans, and two exhibiting the usual jockeying for status as the boys knocked shoulders with each other and vied for the attention of the only girl who had braved their company. She seemed unimpressed and the little jewel on her nose sparkled in the fluorescent light as she glanced around the busy room. But even so, there was a curious lack of the usual four-letter taboos I had expected to hear.

I have to admit to a certain thrill of anticipation, nonetheless. As if I were standing, curious, on a stile and peering into a new, greener pasture, I unholstered my pencil.

“Jeez, I don’t know, Stephanie,” one of the boys said. “I think you were definitely Harrising him…”

‘Jeez’? Come on guys -we were using that when I was a kid. I suppose he was nervous or something, but ‘Harrising’? We all misspeak, though… I smiled and pretended to add something to the puzzle in front of me as the girl –obviously named Stephanie- briefly rested her eyes on me en route to her accuser.

She shook her head playfully and giggled defiantly. I’d never heard a defiant giggle and realized I was breaking new ground but couldn’t figure out how to transcribe it in the puzzle margin. I squeezed the pencil for inspiration but the conversation continued without it.

“Look, Jako, he was dissing Carr, eh? I mean, like, ignoring her influence…”

Jako rolled his eyes and raised his hands as if in profound disbelief. “Mother Kahlo! Carr wasn’t even a member, Steph.”

‘Mother Kallo? That was a bit ambiguous, I thought, but I could hear the exclamation mark so it must have been a profanation… It seemed familiar, though.

“Yeah, sure, Jako, side with the men again, eh?”

“And you’re not polarized? Whoa, you wouldn’t even admit Thomson’s influence on the group…”

Stephanie shrugged. “If you’re gonna include him, then you have to leave the door wide open for Carr…” She seemed to pout for a moment. “At least she was still alive, eh?”

“Look, even Harris admitted Thompson’s influence…”

Stephanie crossed her arms. “Harris?” she said, like she were invoking the devil. “Have you even read his essay, Jako?”

It was Jako’s turn to sulk. “Oh, for Kahlo’s sake? Steph, we discussed it in class a zillion times.” I thought I caught him stealing a glance at me, but I could’t be sure.

He’d used ‘Kallo’ again; I improvised an approximate spelling and then double underlined it –maybe he was invoking the wrath of an obscure Grecian god that Stephanie was obviously fond of. Kids sure read a lot more than we did, I thought, shaking my head in admiration.

She smiled accusingly. “And…?”

“And no,” he replied, glaring at her. “Have you?”

“No, just Varley, Jako! What do you think, eh?” She uncrossed her arms and leaned forward over her Big Mac to stare at him.

‘Just Varley’ –now there was a new one! Probably a pseudonym for some unspeakably rude act, I decided as I scribbled it down and then underlined it as well.

“You’re just sore because we glossed over the Beaver Hall Group.”

“They had almost as much influence as the Seven…”

Yes! An obvious biblical reference to the Sins. Good. I wrote it in the margin.

“Yeah,” Jako said with a sneer, “When they had A.Y…”

‘A.Y’? This was going well, I thought -and although I had no idea what it meant, it was obviously a mean thing to say.

“And remember, Steph, all ten of them studied under Brymner…” said the other, smaller boy who’d been silently gobbling up his fries until Jako reached for some.

Hah! ‘Brymner’. I started to write down the word and then erased it. No, I decided, that’s just somebody’s name.

“Meaning what?” Stephanie was not backing down. “That, like, men had to help us? That without their help we would still be in the kitchen cooking for them…?”

“Carr again, eh? That’s not what I’m saying…” The quiet boy suddenly stood up and grabbed his tray, risking a quick glance my way. “Anyway, we’re gonna talk about Frida this afternoon, remember?”

‘Carr’? I was beginning to suspect something here. Was Carr the new deprecation? I was sure I’d heard that word before…

Stephanie rolled her eyes and stood with the rest of them. “Tokenism! Frida’s just a way of introducing bloody Rivera.” She said the name with an ill-disguised snarl.

Hah! ‘Bloody’ –that’s more like it. But I wasn’t sure if it was the invective, or merely an adjective describing the ‘Rivera’ thing. Either way, I wasn’t certain it was what I was looking for. Neither was ‘Frida’, for that matter.

“What’s wrong with murals?” Jako asked, taking her tray to carry for her.

“I’m not into Big, eh?” she said, grabbing the tray back from him.

Ahh, now ‘big’ may be a double entendre, and I wrote it down excitedly. I was beginning to feel like an ethnolinguist at first contact, listening to sounds that had no meaning.

As they started to leave, I slipped into camouflage and pretended to write something down in the puzzle as if I’d finally thought of a word for it. I smiled at my clever ruse but I felt someone standing next to me and looked up.

Stephanie was smiling too, and her face seemed about to laugh. “I saw you looking at us, sir,” she said. “Hope we weren’t too loud,” she added, her smile growing by the second.

“No,” I said, blushing. “I was just thinking of words for my crossword, I guess…”

She glanced at the words I’d written in the margins beside the puzzle for a moment and nodded. “Well if it’s asking for a five-letter word for a feminist Mexican painter, it’s spelled K-A-H-L-O… not K-A-L-L-O.” Then, for some reason, she winked at me.

Where do they learn this stuff I wondered and smiled to thank her, realizing with a sigh that I’d never make it as a kid nowadays.






For two scents…

Okay, full disclosure: I’m a guy -uhmm, I suppose that has been apparent for years… But before I am relegated to just one of the many gender allocations now so readily available, I have to admit that when I was growing up, there were only two choices and actually they were assigned and not open for discussion. I have no issues with that; I am very comfortable in the clothes I have been expected to wear; and had I to start all over again, I would no doubt self-direct myself to the same side of the tracks.

And yet there is one thing… A very tiny thing perhaps –nothing comparable to the disrespect and outright inequity so often foisted upon other gender roles, of course, but nonetheless troublesome when you get right down to it. No, perhaps irritating describes it best… Actually, come to think about it, I’m going to go for disgusting. Sorry.

I’m referring, of course, to odour –male, exercise odour. Gym bag malfeasance. Male locker room fetor. Naturally I have been somewhat limited in my olfactory experiences given that I have never been sufficiently athletic to be selected for any team that might be expected to sweat excessively, and I’ve never been awarded female locker room privileges. But it has always seemed to me that males have been alone in their allotment to the spoor-bearing section. Hormones, I figured -testosterone, eh?

I can’t say it has been a burning issue all these years; it’s something you learn to put up with –something guys tell each other. I was warned never to leave a hockey equipment bag in the back seat if I was going out on a date. And always wear lots of aftershave even if you don’t –shave, I mean. At the very least it would make them think you were old enough. At the time, I never asked for what, but I have to assume it was about paying for the movie.

Body odour has always been a source of embarrassment to me, but being an only child I naturally believed that it was only a guy thing. Girls usually smelled of flowers and were probably not allowed to sweat. I don’t mean allowed, really –but obviously their hormones enabled them to control it somehow. Women are from Venus; Men are from locker rooms –anyway that made sense to my finally-deepening voice.

I was shocked when, in my later years, I came across a book by Katherine Ashenburg called ‘The Dirt on Clean’ and realized that our species had a rather chequered past with regards to both cleanliness, and odour. Bathing seemed to have gone in and out of favour as did techniques for disguising the stench that attended each person who happened along. But I guess if everybody smells, you don’t have to worry as much. And it wasn’t that grooming was on the endangered list or anything –fleas and lice were quite fashionable, so inspecting and picking at each other’s hair was probably what you did on first dates.

And hey, you didn’t actually have to wash –linen was believed to clean your skin without the danger of opening up the pores and letting bad stuff in. I’m not actually sure what linen is, but hopefully it came in nice colours.

But, naïveté aside, it did get me wondering if there was such a noticeable sexual difference in gym bag bouquet back then. Did they learn to stuff them with linen, or something? Of course, I suppose women weren’t picked for many of the hockey teams in those days, so we may never know. And I think only guys got to fight with swords and whatever… maybe that’s how the folklore about male body odour got started…

Finally, in my declining years, I have been given a clue of sorts –an explanation, maybe. It’s an acknowledgement by the BBC, previously undisclosed and carefully obscured: women have not escaped as unscathed as I was hitherto taught to believe. They also -well, dare I say it?- smell. It’s the bacteria, not the person though, okay?

But when you think about it, our perspective on the world is not only our measuring tape of others, but sadly, also of ourselves. Who would have thought that the Theory of Mind –i.e. our ability to realize that others may have different thoughts than our own- might apply equally to smell?

And yet, I have to admit that I am more than a little unprepared for this sudden equivalence. I mean, if men and women both smell the same after exercise –if we’re all subject to the same deodoral constraints- then what separates us? Apart from the more noticeable anatomical bulges, how are the sexes meaningfully different? On what grounds could we ever decide which would make the best or most efficient hunter? If Power smells the same in each, if hard work is olfactorially undifferentiable, what’s left to choose between us for anything? Why, exactly, did they put in a glass ceiling? Maybe they should simply mandate different coloured linen handles on gym bags.

But it’s just a thought though, eh?



Gumbo Diplomacy

I have been thinking about prairie gumbo ever since I visited Saskatoon recently. That such an interesting word with its obviously gastronomic overtones could occupy my thoughts days after I have left its realm is, in itself a gumbo, don’t  you think? At any rate, casting aside any tautological ramifications, I would like to focus on its more relevant aspects. Like what it does to peoples’ psyches -their Weltanschauungs, not to put too fine a point on it.

Strictly speaking, it is a curse –nothing religious, you understand. It does not seek to undermine whatever gods may be, nor does it pretend to be other than what it is: sticky, nonporous and horribly adhesive wet soil that had previously lived a rather mundane existence as, well, dirt. Rather Jekyll and Hydey, in a way.

I first encountered it as a child in Winnipeg, and then promptly buried it where I hid all my other transgressions, deep within the collective unconscious of a million other six year olds. All it took was earth –better known as clay in those days- and a soupçon of moisture, and suddenly you had heavy shoes that transported mud from field to house better than a wheelbarrow. Every door had a scraper and a mother that stood guard over her linoleum like a jinn. The proper disposal of one’s gumbo was conscience’s teething ring. It was how every prairie child learned to cope with being yelled at from an early age without developing ego dystonia. Without dialling 911 from the neighbourhood phone booth citing child abuse. Things were different then…

I have to admit that I had neither seen nor thought about gumbo since I moved to the west coast more years ago than I can remember. But I suppose all expats deserve a flashback now and then, eh? Something that awakens their latent post gumbo stress disorders –that urgent need to find a scraper before getting caught, that fear of awakening in the deep of night with heavy feet. It is an under-reported affliction here though -a region of the country where waves roll onto the shore with other news from other places. The world everywhere else is messy too, and with far more serious things to worry about; gumbo is simply not a bête noir out here.

And yet, despite the West Coast’s famous solipsists, there are prairie waves that lap silently at its back door mountains that cannot be ignored for ever. Saskatoon is whispering at the window.

I didn’t hear it, though, and drove blithely Eastward like a compass-blind settler, hypnotized by a land sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans… Sorry, but it was like driving over a stained and wrinkled tablecloth, green to the horizon, infinite in all directions –I’d forgotten that, too. It’s amazing how we can sublimate entire childhoods.

I’m not sure what I was expecting really. A pancake city? Or maybe a sudden 3D concrete oasis glued to a piece of unfolded green wrapping paper like one of those little fake houses you put on a monopoly board? Well, it was not like that; Saskatoon was beautiful –a warren of deep-green trees lining the South Saskatchewan river with the city snuggling into it like a cheese into rind. I loved it, despite the faint whiff of Mother that greeted me at the door of the little B&B I had booked. There were signs everywhere requesting –no, demanding– the removal of footwear before proceeding inward –prefixed, of course, with an ample dose of Canadian politesse: Please was ubiquitously on display. But I still felt like a child at a kindergarten class forced to walk around in socks, carrying his shoes and pretending not to mind.

There were no scrapers, though, as if their very presence might grant an insufficiently scraped shoe entry into the sanctum sanctorum. A synecdochical Prairie might appreciate the transgression, but no one else –especially one in need of lodgings for the night. It had rained that morning, apparently, so the matron (is that what you call the woman who greets you at the door with a fake smile?) was on Defcon 3, her eyes, trained falcons each waiting for its little hood to be removed. Hoping for prey.

Apart from an atavistic hardening of the hairs on the back of my neck and a frisson of anticipatory guilt, I hardly noticed, however. After the long, and may I say soporifically boring trip across both an unending and untitillatingly naked land, I needed to stretch my legs and don my Adidas for a run along the river trails -a run through the pseudo forest. Mother eyed me suspiciously, but Canadian to her roots, she only smiled at my foolishness.

I am no forest virgin, however; I am a mountain trail runner, used to roots and creeks and hills with obstacles a Prairie could only dream of. I had no fear of running in flatland.

The trail started well: a brief sprint across some rather sparse grass, still sparkling in that just-washed fashion which only partially hid the nourishing soil, and then, only moments away, a gravel trail that begged for some company. However, by the time I reached the trail I was exhausted. I wondered if it was the altitude –maybe the prairies are above sea level… I mean they must be, or they’d be one huge and even less interesting puddle. I took it as a thought experiment, a koan requiring meditation as I ran –and yet, I couldn’t. My feet felt logy –driver’s feet. I decided to fly next time.

I slogged a few metres down the trail and sat on a little bench obviously provided by some NGO for aging people with heart trouble. It didn’t look out on the river, or anything –just the sparkling green grass. But maybe that’s what you’re supposed to do when you get old: sit and watch plants grow.

I was still puzzled with myself however, although that soon turned to an embarrassed wave as a younger, more beautiful specimen ran past, sporting thighs of varnished ivory and a compassionate smile that positively oozed pity. I am an athlete too, I thought, and while I am burnished with wrinkles not alabaster, I felt I should also be in the race.

I wracked my brain for a reason I felt so fatigued. Prolonged ennui? Car-lag? Maybe I had a new, hitherto undescribed condition that could be named after me… I brightened at the thought. Maybe sitting for long periods of time in a car with only endless lines of telephone posts for company, reduced to naming the innumerable gravel roads that branched from the highway like ribs, and watching the wind carve lines through the still-young crops, was enough to inflict worrisome damage to the unwitting driver. Maybe that’s why pioneers went mad…

Still, as I sat on the bench feeling sorry for myself, and also wondering if it was time to sell my car and find a Home that specialized in disability, I struggled to understand the speed with which the fatigue had arisen. I thought you were supposed to get a warning about these things –chest pain, or bladder leakage… Something. I got nothing. No excuse for my sudden demotion, not even a headache.

Shame heightened as I saw an old man –okay, an older man- hobbling up the trail swinging his cane jauntily like he was in Vaudeville. As he got closer, I noticed he was smiling. I thought that was odd –who smiles to himself on a trail? Perhaps he’d escaped from somewhere –a local Institution maybe- although he looked harmless enough. Anyway, when he reached me, he stopped and his smile broadened.

“Lovely day for a sit,” he said, chuckling at the word. “I see you’re not Prairie,” he continued, inspecting me from foot to head. His tone of condescension was unmistakable.

“Why do you say that?” I answered, nodding politely, and wondering how he’d guessed.

He shrugged as if the question was a silly one. “Ran across the grass, eh?” he added and inclined his head towards the little field behind him.

I nodded again, and tilted my own head at his local knowledge. How did he know that? “Yes…” I said tentatively, afraid to commit myself to something that might get me in trouble.

His eyes twinkled merrily at my admission. “How far did you get before you had to stop and walk…?”

“Excuse me?” I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or insulted.

He smiled a devil’s smile and pointed his cane at my shoes. “Gumbo,” he said softly and reverently. “Gumbo and grass,” he added, shaking his head disparagingly, as he turned to continue his walk. “They should put up signs…” I heard him mutter as he trundled away nodding his head as if he intended to attend the next municipal meeting and suggest it.

My long-buried guilt returned with a shiver and for some reason, I felt as if I’d been caught in flagrante delicto. Deeply ashamed, I vowed to sit in the bushes and check my shoes the next time. Anyway, now more on guard, I made sure nobody was around, then quickly scraped my gumbo off on the bench seat. But there were traces of mud there already and it dawned on me I was not alone. There were obviously others who’d been caught begumboed. Others who’d probably also had to expose their inadvertent podiatral transgressions to an old man with a cane.

It suddenly dawned on me that we – the others- are simply a more brazen variety of the many patterns that are woven into Saskatoon’s quilt. So, finally realizing that I am an essential part of the societal matrix, I decided to catch up to that girl with the ivory thighs, and wave again.