Elysian Fields

Now that I’m retired, I’m thinking of specializing again -trespassing on new territory while I can. While people still notice. Still listen. It’s not an easy decision –nothing except procrastination gets easier with age. But I feel the need for identity again after so many years as a doctor -so many years immersed in what now seems like Plato’s cave. And yet, having finally emerged into a newly discovered sunshine, maybe it’s all too easy to regard what I used to do –what I used to assume was normal– as playing with shadows. Naming things I never really understood, reassuring people who were chained alongside me, staring at the same wall.

I suppose that’s not fair, though, is it? We do our best with what we encounter; if all we know are shadows, we play with shadows. Until there’s something with which to contrast them, we are shadows, so we’d best adapt. Who’s to say which reality is more testable? Who among us is willing to critically examine his own confirmation biases?

So is it a deadlock? A one-way trip into the labyrinth?

It’s why I want to test the waters again. Maybe try out another confirmation bias. But it’s not as easy as it sounds –there are rules. Ideally, one should have a background in whatever one chooses: an expertise to smooth out any rough edges that might become exposed. An ability not only to talk to a topic, but mostly around it, because you can never know everything about your specialty.

At my age, the choices are not particularly legion –young people are far smarter than they used to be. They tolerate equivocation poorly. Anyway, I don’t know enough about computers to fool a child, and nobody is particularly interested in an expert in the practical applications of medieval cursing. I toyed briefly with the idea of advertising my command of the effects of sudden sunlight on 1960s clothing worn after removal from dusty wardrobes, but a quick survey of both my Facebook friends convinced me there was no market for that. People are not interested in short-men esoterica, even from closets; there would be no knocks on my door.

So, in desperation, I decided on a fall-back. What could an elderly man with a forty year career in gynaecology offer a world increasingly enmeshed in gender politics -increasingly uncertain about gender identity, for that matter? What did it mean to be a woman? A man? Or neither… or even both? Some clarity seemed like a good idea, but about which? The ‘both’ and ‘neither’ categories were out of my reach –my purview didn’t stretch quite that far. And I’ve never really understood my own gender. I’ve never wanted to change it or anything –I’m just not particularly enamoured with some of the things it does. I suppose all sexes transgress, but the members of mine seem particularly insecure about themselves lately. Particularly intemperate. In need of guidance, perhaps…

Then it struck me –who better to explain women to men than a gynaecologist? And, if the need arose, I could even try to explain women to women. It would mean treading on a few shibboleths on occasion, maybe even crossing over to the dark side once in a while, but as long as I was vague and sufficiently sesquipedalian, I might be viewed as a well-meaning elder and provoke gentle head-shaking. Sober second thought. I might trend.

But even prophets must pick their venues with care. Neutral arenas.

Of course, sometimes, venues self-select. They just happen. I was wandering through a busy mall deep in the city center lost in thought one day. How could I go about launching my specialty, I wondered? Maybe a page on Facebook? A clever ‘ask-me’ hashtag on Twitter? Perhaps with a smiling picture of me in a gender-neutral shirt that I could use as an avatar? Uhmm, do they even use avatars on Twitter…? Social media is still a black box for me, and I felt lost in the crowd of mall-elbows. To avoid a sudden, noisy wave of school kids sweeping down the corridor, arms akimbo on their lunch break, I leaned against a store window to think of another way to publicize my skills.

Then I saw it: the clothing sale sign. ‘Fifty to seventy-five percent off all items in the store! Everything must go,’ it said. A chance to work on my outer avatar had just epiphanized and I hurried in.

The store was amazingly empty for a place with deals like it was offering, but I saw a young man trying on sweaters, so I figured maybe everybody else was just having their lunch somewhere. I wandered down a couple of aisles fingering a shirt here, and a sweater there. Nothing was my colour, really, but I had to admit my colour knowledge had not kept pace with the years. Still, pinks and reds do not become me. They all looked like they’d glow in the dark, given half a chance.

The man I’d noticed seemed to be having some difficulty choosing as well. First he tried on a neon blue sweater, and positioned himself in front of the mirror like he was modelling it. Then, obviously displeased, he picked up an orange one with diagonal blue stripes and held it up in front of him, all the while shaking his head slowly. He noticed me watching him and rolled his eyes.

“I just can’t decide, you know…” he said, shaking his head again.

Fortunately he didn’t ask me which I would choose if I were him –I hated them both. But then he stroked the orange one and asked me to feel it. I could tell he needed support.

I ran my middle finger over it as if it was something people asked me to do all the time. “Uhmm… Well, it’s certainly soft, eh?” I figured that was about as far as I could go.

“That’s what my partner likes,” he said, holding it over his chest as he stared in the mirror again. “But…” he looked at me over his shoulder. “What do you think?”

Damn! But then I realized this was my first test. I could give him the benefit of 40 years of gynaecology. If he was buying it to please his girlfriend, it might help. I’d have to be careful, though –be gentle with him. Guys have big muscles but thin skins. “Well, I love the texture. It’d sooth even the roughest skin…”

His face relaxed a little. “What about the colour, though?”

I stepped back a little as if I was trying to do a figure-ground thing. Actually I was just trying to buy some time. “Orange is a strong colour,” I said. “But your hair is blond, so I wonder…”

“It’s blond today. Normally it’s a lot darker…” he added quickly.

I nodded pleasantly. “Orange likes to contrast with things…” Where was I getting this stuff from? “That’s why the designer used the blue stripes.” I pretended to look more closely at him. “But your cheeks are certainly swarthy enough to deal with orange. Of course if you leave your hair that light, maybe top it with an indigo fedora,” I added, the words coming out of nowhere.

His eyes lit up, and a smile suddenly appeared. “That’s a great idea! My partner bought me one last Christmas…”

His partner? Why did he keep saying ‘partner’? Don’t young people even use the same words anymore? What ever happened to ‘girlfriend’ or ‘wife’…? But he seemed relieved that I approved of his choice –although I didn’t. But maybe his girlfriend might wear it. Kids do that kind of stuff nowadays.

By now, his face was positively beaming. “I want to thank you for helping me, sir…” He hesitated for a moment, and looked at me more closely. “Haven’t I…” He searched around in his head for something. “Haven’t I seen you before –your picture, I mean?” He was silent for a second. “Are you, like, a fashion designer, or something…?” He looked at the orange sweater again, as if perhaps I was mentioned on the label.

I was too embarrassed to respond, so I just smiled back at him.

He sighed and gathered up the sweater to take to the sales lady who had been watching us from across the store. “I can’t wait till I tell him…” he said, shaking my hand vigorously.

I glanced at the sales clerk, a definite female, even from this far away. “Him…?” I asked, nodding towards the clerk.

The young man chuckled as if I was a big kidder. “No, my partner, of course.” And he walked happily across the room with a final admiring glance at me over his shoulder.

Sometimes you have to amend your specialty though, eh? Move with the times. Grow with it as the petals open…

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