Fortune’s Fool

Health –what is it? The older I get, the more I wonder what I’m supposed to feel like. Is it merely the absence of something like sickness and incapacity, or are there positive attributes, whose presence somehow summons it from the vasty deep? There are official attempts to define it of course -the 1984 WHO revised definition of health defined it as ‘the extent to which an individual or group is able to realize aspirations and satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment’- but that’s about as solid as a cloud, and as useful as a stopped clock.

No, I want to know whether, apart from having survived long enough to have a history, I am hale. I figure I get sick as much as the next person, but insofar as I can determine, I am content… And yet I realize that’s not saying very much.

Anyway, I am always amused by those who claim they never get sick, and yet are unwilling to define their terms. An article in the Guardian newspaper renewed my interest: and it reminded me of my recent trip to New Zealand. Many of those on the plane –well, at least those sitting nearby- had personal hand-sanitizers that they would brandish from time to time like crucifixes. I felt distinctly apostate, and not a little unprotected when I dared to eat the meal unconsecrated. At least it kept the person in the next seat off my arm rest, though.

But I mention the trip because a 14 hour direct flight demands entertainment other than movies, and creates opportunities that are otherwise impractical: it allows time to design and conduct scientifically rigorous observational experiments. The possible topics are, of course, legion, but I decided to measure Health –or at least, its simulacrum –as best I could from my aisle seat, mid-plane, and in spite of an elbow that kept poking me. Would hand-sanity prevent anything, I wondered –at least in the short term? And what would that be? The sniffles? Respiratory infections? Polio?

I decided I would do a simple comparative analysis. I could measure the difference in health between the beginning of the flight (before they served the dinner) and its end (in the morning before breakfast) -with maybe a few random observations mid-flight during the enforced sleep to validate the progression towards whatever conclusions I might draw as we landed.

I had a purpose at last, I realized with a sigh as I drew some columns on the pale and rumpled surface of an air-sick bag someone had re-stuffed in that little pocket behind the seat ahead. To wit: were hand sanitizers effective disinfectants -or merely proxy-deodorants that gave the impression they were eliminating something that they were only temporarily covering up?

In the interests of adequate and representative sampling, I decided on two study groups: those who initially hand-sanitized without symptoms -no use of tissues- (i.e. initially healthy -arguing that the act of wiping or blowing was likely purposive), and of course the comparison group -the healthy control group- were those who neither sanitized, nor were startup tissuers. I accepted the occasional sneeze in this group in appreciation of the accepted wisdom that we all sneeze from time to time. I wasn’t sure what to do with polite little coughs however, so I tabulated these in each group. Horky, wet coughs, of course, I immediately assigned to the already sick group and just made sure they were not doing it around me or anything –I figured that was fair. So, any change by the end of the flight, and Nobel’s your uncle.

As the flight wore on, I began to hope that this data might well be cutting edge research -New England Journal of Medicine stuff. I was concerned, however, that during those periods of turbulence when I was unable to write, let alone judge the intricacies of tissuing (simple wiping vs full-nose clearing), data compilation might be compromised -but of course both groups would be equally affected, so I decided it would probably cancel out nicely.

I began to have some doubts again during the lights-off section of the trip, however. For some reason, the absence of light and the difficulty of individual identification seemed to engender episodes of what I can only describe as spiteful rogue coughing and camouflaged blowing –the perpetrators obviously having waited for darkness in order to remain anonymous. But fortunately, the distribution was random –indeed, stereoscopic. The initial no-blow areas seemed to be contributing as much night noise as the areas I had previously thought were affected regions –although in the dim light, and ubiquitous ambient groaning of uvular obstruction, all my previously ascertained and meticulously mapped certainty seemed to meld together into unclassifiable lumps.

I suppose the greatest disappointment, however, was with the innocuous, albeit large man seated next to me –the one who had ceded the armrest. It wasn’t so much his sleeping head constantly sliding dangerously close to mine before it mercifully underwent a miraculous gyroscopic correction, nor the gurgling that -in the absence of sufficient light- reminded me of the pebbled creek that burbled and bubbled behind my house. No, rather it was his surreptitious experiments in clandestine wiping and foxy rasping, hitherto undisclosed. Who would have thought that an experimental subject that I had, in good faith, enrolled and randomly allocated to the hand-sanitizer healthy arm, would go over to the dark side? I felt betrayed. But not only that, it made me realize just how porous my categories had become. How similar to Matryoshka dolls were even the best dressed passengers. How they will all ‘round a varnish’d tale’, as Shakespeare could have had Othello say, but didn’t.

So, in the dim, inadequate glow of floor lights, and amidst a symphony of unheralded respiratory dissonance, I decided to suspend the as-yet embryonic study before arriving at the statistically verifiable conclusions for which I had striven. And yet I suppose that with the current penchant for counting simple trends as signifiers, and given observations that were unable to reach even the firm ground of bullet points, let alone a satisfactory level of corroborable validity, I can say with words Shakespeare did write -this time for Banquo: ‘The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles.’ So, despite a bout of violent turbulence when the lights came on again, I began tabulating the trends with shaky arrows on the sick-bag until a pale-green shoeless man grabbed it as he torqued past me down the aisle.

I can therefore offer only a shadowy recollection of my findings. First: hand-sanitizers clearly do not work in the absence of light (which serves to let nearby people know you have one); second -people who only cough at night are hiding something; and finally, but even more startlingly, herd immunity becomes herd acquisition on a plane -flagrant plagiarism that begs for further studies.

Me? I didn’t resort to tissuing until the third day of my trip, and even then it was desultory –I’m really not very good at sickness. I did find that I developed an inordinate proclivity for washing my hands, though. That’s healthy isn’t it?






Previously Frozen

The thought occurred to me the other day that I’m in danger of becoming a Red Queen –you know, needing  to run faster and faster just to stay in the same spot. I doubt that Lewis Carroll had my particular concerns in mind, and yet there are probably many parallels with 1871 when he wrote the story. Sometimes, even with the best intentions, you simply can’t keep up with things.

To be clear, I’m not referring to anything as technical as Moore’s Law and it’s observation that things like computer technologies seem to double every 18-24 months –although that’s certainly too fast for someone my age. Nor, for that matter, can I even claim confusion about the vicissitudes of celebrities, or the vagaries of fashions –I simply can’t be bothered. And anyway, even the most cursory glance at Facebook would likely glut my already overburdened vessel –a surfeit of trifles is seldom healthy.

Except when it is. I often wonder how the important things –albethey in fine print, and sometimes far beneath the purview of the average progressive lens- escape relatively unexamined.

I’m referring, of course, to one of those items of the consumer society that we would not ordinarily include: food. Well, at least I wouldn’t have. At any rate, food slipped in unawares. I thought I knew food; I buy it, I cook it and then I eat it. I didn’t think I needed to study it as well… But when someone who did told me that a fish I kind of liked, orange roughy, was once called slimehead I nodded as if everybody knew that. I now pretend the reason I no longer buy it is that it was also deemed an at-risk species. You have to try to keep up with this stuff.

I read labels –they’re usually pretty big and tarty so they can wink at you from the shelf, but by and large, they don’t tell you much. So I usually search for the much smaller Nutrition Facts rectangle to see how many calories they say there are in one of whatever the package offers… Then I multiply it by the number I figure I’m going to need to eat to feel the effects of why I bought it in the first place. They always try to trick you unless you figure that out.

It’s the same with the Best Befores. I’ve discovered there is a difference between a Best Before, and an Expiry Date… You can die or something if you ignore the latter, whereas you’re allowed to put the former on sale a day before the date and make people think they are getting a deal. They probably won’t die. I Googled a reference to make sure:

But it’s sometimes hard to stay up to date with food things -the Previously Frozens, for example. I suppose it makes sense that if a food is properly frozen two days before its Best Before date, it should be edible for another two days at the start of the thawing process. But I can never remember when I froze it -and the labels are all covered with frost, anyway.  Definitely Red Queen material.

Of course so is my friend Brien; he has a thing with food but I’m never really sure if he’s serious about his ever-changing opinions on the topic. One moment he will wax eloquent, describing a science article he’s read on Facebook, and in the next breath, descend the staircase into some nutritional hodgepodge he’s found with clickbait. He has that unique gift of being able to hold two or three contradictory notions at the same time and understand none of them.

Take the Previously Frozens –the PFs as Brien calls them. He was sure the term just meant that since they had been frozen once, they were capable of being frozen again –that the PF acted as a kind of endorsement for the freezer, unlike, say, eggs –which are never labelled PF. Or lettuce, which he keeps in the very bottom compartment as a kind of memento mori… a reminder of the diligence required in the absence of any warning labels.

Even with the presence of warning labels, Brien is hyper-alert to the dangers of the post-truth era in which we are embedded. He suspects that False News has crept into the labelling industry as well as Facebook. It was his favourite topic for weeks, until he found a label he said he could finally trust.

I often pass his house on the way into town, and I saw him sitting on his porch staring at Sheda, his tree. It was a brisk fall afternoon and the wind was mussing the needles and making the branches wave at him. Brien needs to get out more. At any rate, I thought I’d join him on the porch for a while. That’s when we started talking about the value of really knowing what we’re eating. Of actually reading the labels.

“I’ve started to eat Ancient Grains,” he said, proudly, pointing at a crumpled plastic package at his feet.

“That’s nice,” I responded, not sure what else to say. “Why?”

He looked at me through his eyebrows and slowly shook his head at my naiveté. “It’s what the Neoliths used to eat,” he replied slowly, pronouncing the unusual word carefully in case he got it wrong. When I didn’t congratulate him immediately, he seemed disappointed. “Do you even know what Ancient Grains are? What they do?”

“I’m still working on Neolith,” I said.

He rolled his eyes. “The Grains were what our ancient ancestors decided to eat…” –he hesitated briefly, obviously a bit uncertain about the really early days- “It was when they were changing from hunters into gatherers…” He glanced at Sheda for inspiration. “Anyway, the Grains were growing in a big field so they started to gather them…” He stared at my blank face briefly. “The Grains are thought to be what drove human Evolution.” He sat back in his chair, smiling like a professor who has just explained a particularly difficult concept to a rapt class. “They made us who we are,” he added, reverently.

“I thought it was meat.”


“You know, the extra energy from meat is what made our brains grow. It’s why we’re so intelligent.”

Brien likes new ideas, but he seemed genuinely puzzled. He thought about it for a moment. “Then why don’t lions walk upright, eh?”

I stared at him and blinked. I had the feeling I was being led somewhere. “Uhmm…”

“Because the Grains have lots of omega-3 which wildebeest carcasses don’t,” he said smugly, confident he’d solved the mystery for me.

I have to say I didn’t know that, and picked up the crumpled package to see if that’s where he had found these words. And sure enough, as authoritatively as Wikipedia, and written in what I assume Big Agro thought would be ancient cursive, there was Brien’s argument brightly embossed beneath the label. “So, has it worked yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you evolved more intelligence?” I said, pleased at my cleverness, and put the empty package back on the floor as respectfully as I could. Unfortunately, at that moment, a gust of wind blew it over the railing before I could stop it.

Brien looked at me and mounted a wry smile. “Well,” he answered, pointing at the package now scurrying over the grass, “it never blows away when I put it down…”




Cultured Questions

What is acculturation? I mean really? Or, more to the point, is it necessary to acculturate to the culture which you have adopted -and how would you know if you have? A friend recently asked me what accepting a foreign culture meant and, given that it is not a word that I find myself having to use on more than a multi-annual basis, I responded with what I could remember from, well, Sociology 101, I suppose – a long time ago. “It is,” I ventured, “something like normalizing and maybe practicing some, or all, of the cultural characteristics of another group.” I figured it would be better to sprinkle my definition with equivocations in case he was trying to trap me.

He was no Socrates, however, and he seemed quite needy in his pursuit of my opinion.

“But,” he continued, focussing his eyes on my mouth for some reason, “What is culture actually?”

It felt like we were teenagers sitting around a campfire at night, solving the eternal mysteries with deeply probing questions. No, actually I felt more like St. Augustine when asked about the nature of Time : ‘What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.’ I decided to be less abstruse. “Culture…” I answered slowly, choosing my words carefully “…Culture… is the sum of most of the customs, behaviours, and beliefs of a group… At a particular time.” I added, to provide myself with a loophole in case he challenged me.

But he didn’t. John was someone I had known ever since he’d moved into the neighbourhood a few years ago, and we had just joined the same checkout line at a market when I saw him. But that wasn’t when he asked me -he was too polite for that. Too embarrassed. We started out speaking banalities, the kind of things one says upon running into a friend unexpectedly. Actually, we were talking around a woman with a load of vegetables in her cart. She had a tired, housewife Vegan look about her as she examined first my purchases –steak, eggs, and a round of packaged sausages- and then John’s basket of lamb chops and some kind of cheese I didn’t recognize. I don’t think she did either, and although she did not look pleased, I decided perhaps that was because we kept darting our heads around hers to talk.

I suppose I should have let her go ahead of me, but her cart was so full, and mine so empty, that by widely accepted market etiquette, it would have been neither reasonable nor was I likely to let her. In fact, now that she knew what John had, she should have stepped aside and let him pass. But I could see by her eyes that it would only happen over her dead body. So, as I see it, she deserved our ocular peregrinations.

It was only when we had left the store and passed the woman who was glaring at us from the doorway, that John dared the questions about culture.

At first he merely shrugged, at my answers, glancing nervously over his shoulder at the woman, but as the distance increased, he relaxed a little. “Do you know that lady?” he finally asked, his face serious and his expression concerned.

I looked back at her; she was still staring at us. I shrugged. “Never seen her before. Why?”

He sighed and then shook his head. “She came over to me at the meat counter.”

I waited for him to continue, but it seemed too painful for him, so I probed. “Did you get the last lamb chops, or something?” I immediately regretted making a joke of his discomfort.

He shook his head, obviously trying to remember. “No… She just stared at me.” His eyes jumped onto my face for a moment before flying home.

John is of Middle Eastern extraction -a tailor back home, I think- and looks perpetually tanned, even in the dead of winter. He is unusually tall, with curly black hair, but apart from his height, the most striking feature about him is his eyes. Brown, curious, and constantly asking questions, they seem like couriers, homing pigeons, always busy carrying messages to and fro. And he was usually smiling, like he was glad to be alive.

“I thought maybe I’d dropped something and she was returning it, but when I looked at her, she just stared at me with accusing eyes that seemed to crawl over my face, then slide down my body.

“She followed me over to the deli section and watched me look for cheese. I was trying to find some variety of the Shanklish we used to get back home… They sometimes have a version of it here.” he explained, when I looked puzzled.

“You’ll have to do better than that, John,” I said and then chuckled. “What is Shaklish?”

“Shanklish,” he corrected me. “It’s a cheese made from sheep or even cow’s milk… They make it into little balls to age,” he explained. “Smells, terrible to most people over here, even though it has a nice mild taste…”

“So, why was she…?” I didn’t know what he thought, so it was hard to frame a question.

He sighed deeply and stopped. “At first I thought maybe she was just curious about me or something.” He smiled and suddenly held his head high. “I am rather tall, you’ll have to admit.”

I nodded. He usually stooped when he was around shorter people -so he could see their eyes more easily, I suppose.

“But I could hear her whispering –hissing, almost.”

I had to look up at him, so he stooped a little again. “Whispering what…?”

He shrugged, as if it didn’t really matter, but I could tell it did. “Well, I couldn’t actually hear –whispering isn’t supposed to carry, is it? That’s why it can be rude…” A weak, forced smile appeared on his lips. “But I distinctly heard ‘You people!’ and then ‘culture’ or something -I couldn’t be sure. She sounded really angry.

“What did I do?” he said in an anguished voice, his shoulders slowly sagging.

I watched his suffering with sad eyes that I soon withdrew and confined them, instead, to the sidewalk. His agony was too immediate. Too real. I was going to mention that the woman wasn’t pleased with me either, but his face told me not to. That I could never know. Could never stand in his shoes… Not here.





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?