Mutatis Mutandis

For some reason, I am drawn to articles about brains. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and realize they don’t stock a lot of the original parts anymore. Or maybe I’m really hoping for a kind of Sears catalogue listing the upgrades available –anything that doesn’t begin with ‘Once upon a time’. And I’m tired of reading the words exercise and Sudoku over and over again like they were electricians with extra training in neuronal circuits.

I mean I’m okay with the one I got, but I keep thinking the newer models probably have more interactive apps; I think they were overly optimistic about our old ones. Somebody told me they were stamped with an update-before date, but mine didn’t come with instructions about where to look. And of course if they were hidden somewhere inside the reptile part, they knew I wouldn’t check.

But even the act of thinking about thinking, is in itself ‘conundral’ as Arden would put it; I actually prefer ‘labyrinthine’, but he would no doubt call that semantic needle threading. He usually tiptoed around big words, though, preferring his own creations where possible to avoid abstruse definitional, let alone pronunciatory gaffes. And yet it was Arden who first wondered aloud about our brains –well, his in particular anyway.

“What is all this stuff about big brains?” he blurted out one day as we sat on a crowded little bench in a downtown mall. People were breaking over and around us like surf, but Arden likes the challenge.

“You mean, as in intelligence, or just big people?” I asked. Arden can be so opaque.

For some reason he nodded, but just at that moment, a passing child poked his cheek with a straw, so I couldn’t be sure. “So big is supposed to be better, right?” Arden wouldn’t let a mere straw interfere with his chain of logic.

This time I was buffeted by a large, heavy shopping bag full of hard things, so my answer was probably lost in the expletive, but he smiled in acknowledgement nonetheless. “It can’t be just the size that makes us smarter than chimpanzees or whatever, though…” A group of chattering school children on some sort of a mall-tour passed by at that moment, so I had to ask him to repeat his observation although he was still talking  after they’d passed.

He glared at me for interrupting and then shrugged as if realizing he’d said it poorly anyway. “I mean, if size is so important, why don’t whales have cities, or elephants own stores?”

It made me wonder how he’d put it before. I decided to tell him about an article I’d read on brain size ( “Our human brain size was a mutation, Arden,” I said -rather too loudly I guess, because several other people on the bench lowered their newspapers, or raised their heads from their chests and surreptitiously glanced my way.

Arden nodded sagely, as if he’d already suspected that.

“Some gene mutated five or six million years ago, after humans split off from the chimpanzees,” I said pedantically, trying to remember the gist of what I had read. “Apparently it changed its function, or something, and made the neocortex grow.” I hoped there would be no questions, because I had already passed my comfort zone.

But Arden, fascinated by the new word, would not let it rest. He quickly surveyed the passing tide and waited for a break between the waves to talk. “What’s a neoCortes?…Or should I say Who?” he added, shaking his head at the word.

“Neocortex,” I corrected, scanning the crowd for another little boy with a straw, but a fresh wave was breaking over us as I spoke.

“Whatever!” he replied, shaking his head indignantly. “What’s a needleCortes then?” He stared at me for a moment. “Or is it Who? You never clarified that…”

I saw a group of bag-waving shoppers approaching, so I decided not to correct him again, and timed my answer to coincide with their approach. “It’s apparently a key brain region,” I whispered, so he’d be too embarrassed to admit he hadn’t heard me. He nodded again –a sure sign he’d seen my lips move.

We sat like spectators at a noisy hockey game, and the inquisitive bench-heads went back to their respective meaningless diversions. But I could tell Arden was thinking about something, because he nodded a couple of times more and then poked me with his elbow. “Isn’t it puzzling, though…?” he asked no one in particular, and the cadre of heads grew ears again. “I mean that a brain can wonder about itself!” He let his eyes soar up to the faux Tudor beams that crisscrossed the ceiling above us in a very un-medieval pattern. “Thinking about thinking is sort of like…” I could see him struggling to express the inexpressible, his face contorted in an almost religious agony of wonder. “…Brushing your hair without a mirror,” he finally chose, surrendering to the unutterable. The heads disappeared again.

He turned toward me and shrugged at the ineffability of the process. “It’s a hall of mirrors,” he added, although whether as an amendment or an explanatory postscript I wasn’t sure. “A mutation, eh?” he continued, shaking his head in appreciation of the epiphany. “Makes sense, though… I mean because otherwise religion would never work would it?”

Eyes, and the occasional mouth in the dormant heads flew open.

I stared at him for a moment, wondering if I’d missed something. “How do you mean, Arden?”

He rolled his eyes at my obtuseness. “If brain size means intelligence, then…?”

I suppose he thought he was feeding me with clues, but all I could do was blink. I made a stab at it, though when I saw the disappointment on his face. “You mean that more intelligent beings would…?” But I had to stop there, because my idea collapsed.

He started nodding his head, as if he thought I had finally grasped the profundity of his thought. “I mean they’d have to redesign everything, wouldn’t they?”

“You mean…?”

“Yes,” he interrupted, a knowing smile capturing all the available space on his face. His eyes glowed with a rapture I’d never seen before, as he considered just how lucky we were to have mutated in time. “Stuff really does work out, doesn’t it?” And he nodded to himself again as the myriad possibilities that could have been, slowly receded into the dark corners of his fortuitously modified neocortex.



The Trail-minder

There are sometimes things you just have to do, you know. Things that cry out for justice, hoping for their rightful place, begging you to simply help them out –or pick them up. Scraps of paper are like that, for example. Or tissue that finds itself hanging helplessly from a branch. Sometimes it is a solitary glove, alone and desolate, lying prostrate on the ground hoping for a hand. It’s not boring being a trail-minder –it’s a calling.

But sympathy for the forgotten things, redemption for the cast-asides, a bag for the downtrodden –these were not what pricked my conscience initially. I first glimpsed Agape in a clump of burdock. And yet I blush to mention this, lest the more cynical of my readers suggest that it was merely a flash of enlightened self-interest that sparked my ministry. While it’s true that the plant dared me to pass untouched, I like to think I heard the scolding of a generation of mothers burdened with preload anxieties as they confronted the laundry, and the distress of innumerable hapless dogs, their coats encrusted with burrs, condemned to prolonged, painful grooming they did nothing to deserve. A trail, after all, is still a trail no matter what anathemas hide along the way.

And so it was that, on an overcast and drizzly day, as I wandered aimlessly along a well-trodden path just killing time, I had an Epiphany -like Paul on his way to Damascus, I suppose. Only I didn’t get the blinding light, or even the Voice –just a sudden sprinkle of rain and a gust of wind that sent Satan -sorry, I mean the burdock- grabbing at my clothes for all I was worth. I figured this was probably a sign or something, because after my overly loud, and heartfelt curse, the sky darkened. Okay, it was just my hood that had shifted, but stuff happens differently nowadays, eh?

Then, as if the weather had just been teasing me, and I began to free myself from the feckless hood, it occurred to me that maybe I had been singled out for some reason. And, through the Gortex still wrapped across my nose, I thought I heard the soft insistent whispers of pant legs yet unborn telling me to kill the burdock. Of course it might have been the wind –I don’t normally attack plants.

But it got me thinking that I might be on to something. There was a niche service that I could provide -and it could be done anonymously. In fact, would have to be done with nobody looking… Aye, there’s the rub. You can’t just walk around tearing up plants willy-nilly; there would no doubt be complaints from the all-powerful burdock societies, and their affiliated bush-huggers. Yes, and probably Facebook posts denigrating my character and suggesting my mental health was not really up to par. And of course, in the background, the inevitable, whispered fears of garden molestation that always arise in the more faith-oriented ecological presbyteries. I decided to switch niches –you should never waste an epiphany.

That’s when the idea of trail-minding occurred to me. Leave the plants alone, no matter the rumoured malevolence they try so hard to conceal. I started small: paper. While picking up scraps of Snickers wrappers, and the odd MacDonald’s cup may seem tedious and unrewarding to everybody but the felons, I have to say that there is also a whole undiscovered world of crumpled letters and smudged envelopes out there –names naming names, addresses begging to be researched, and information usually locked within the interstices of inner pockets along with the accompanying Kleenex. If I were of a mind, I thought, I could probably make a few Facebook posts of my own. But I didn’t want to soil the vocation that was thrust upon me to bring meaning into my life.

Still, one can’t let paper be one’s entire raison d’être can one? Sometimes, I feel more comfortable, more amused, rescuing fragments of coloured things from bush-tops and low hanging branches. I spent an entire day gathering some orange ribbons strewn along an unmarked trail last week. I could scarcely believe my luck –it’s uncommon to find so many like that. Whoever threw them away should be arrested. And to make it even harder to gather them, they were often tied where they sat. Now that’s mean. Utterly irresponsible!

It’s also rare, thank goodness. Usually, my day is limited to an envelope or two, and maybe a dirty mit or a scarf some peripatetic child has dropped. Those kind of days are necessary, of course, but sometimes there is a haul of soggy tissue paper of uncertain usage. How it finds itself under the wings of hard to reach bushes so far off the path, is a mystery. But wonders like that are part of the allure -part of what keeps me coming back.

One time, I remember finding an intriguing spot at the end of an unusually busy day of gathering. It was an isolated meadow that seemed particularly littered; it was a nexus for beer cans, wrappers and even a soupçon of little deflated balloons scattered hither and thither. Now why would you bring your kids way out there? But that’s part of the mystery that sustains me, eh? Anyway, after cleaning up as much as I could find, I decided to rest under a nearby cedar. My plans were necessarily fluid, you understand.

I leaned against the bark for five or ten minutes reading my phone apps, when an elderly couple, one of whom I’d seen coming out of some bushes a while back, arrived on the other side of the grassy knoll. They spent a few minutes sitting on the ground and glancing over their shoulders at my tree. Finally the man rose to his feet and limped over to my aging cedar. For a moment I thought he might have had another urgent text from nature, but he walked right up to the tree and stared at me.

“Was it you who passed us on the trail?” he asked with hopeful eyes, but without introducing himself.

I nodded wearily, assuming he was just another autograph-seeker.

His face broke into a wrinkled smile. “I think you dropped this,” he continued, holding out a mildewed, lacy, lingerie-like thing for me to take. Wow, I thought, I’m finally trending -people were actually helping me with stuff. Even though it looked rather small, I could see him mentally assessing whether or not I would actually put it on. But when he saw other articles of dubious merit also hanging from my pockets he winked and hurried back to his friend, no doubt sure that he’d just talked to a deviant. After they left, I noticed one of them had dropped a small pledget of Kleenex on the grass so it was definitely a bonus day. Of course every trail isn’t motherloded like that.

But looking back all these many years later, I have no regrets. I was awarded a purpose not given to many others. And as I’ve fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf, as Macbeth so aptly put it, there have been no curses -nothing loud or deep that I could hear, anyway. Okay, there was maybe a bit of mouth-honour, but hey, I imagine everybody gets that when they pick off soiled gloob hanging from branches… And I figure I’m probably in line for that which Macbeth felt should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience and troops of friends…

Actually, I’m still waiting for those.



That I might touch that cheek…

I’ll admit to being a child of my era –okay, an elder of the era- but I have to confess to a grudging appendage –a questionable attachment to something I was taught in high school. Well maybe it was only hinted at, but certainly no less sticky for the methodology. No less disappointing to an adolescent hungry for acceptance. In fact, it makes me wonder how some of us survived our youth.

And what was the terrible insight that so impressed me in my youthful innocence? So shocking that my memory has played it over and over again like an ear-worm? It was the surreptitious intelligence about the other side… a kind of whispered Malleus Maleficarum. Things even my mother didn’t seem to know –or at least was unwilling to divulge to an outré like her male child. Important information: secret handshake stuff. Things like women being consummate networkers –members of a clandestine female guild with a complicated, yet untraceable matrix of vast global reach. Words were unnecessary for them –just a certain look sufficed, a partially closed eyelid, a smile that really wasn’t meant, and yet conveyed reams of data were it ever to be trusted to hardcopy. It’s why we males, weighed down by guilt and testosterone as we were, didn’t stand a chance. I mean it sounded reasonable when I was sixteen, and I never doubted it as the prevailing wisdom until I came across an article in the BBC News a while back. It’s comforting to know that some people at least dare to question societal mores –even ones that seem so self-evident:

The article reports on a study by Professor Joyce Benenson from Emmanuel College and Harvard University and published in Current Biology in which ‘The team looked at recordings of tennis, table tennis, badminton and boxing involving men and women from 44 countries.’ And in these, ‘Researchers examined the aftermath of same-sex sporting events and found that men spent longer talking, touching or embracing their opponents than women. These efforts to patch things up ensure the males can then co-operate more successfully in the future.’ This, even though ‘In society generally, data indicates that physical contact between women is equal to or more frequent than it is among males. But across the four sports observed, men spent significantly more time touching than females, in what the authors term “post-conflict affiliation”.’

Whoa! I went to the original study to check, and as they put it in their summary, their ‘[…] results indicate that unrelated human males are more predisposed than females to invest in a behavior, post-conflict affiliation, that is expected to facilitate future intragroup cooperation.’ I mean how could I have missed that all these hugless years?

But I wondered if I was the only one who hadn’t heard about this, or whether it was just an age-thing and for some reason, I didn’t have the new app on my phone. It was certainly so life-changing, and so potentially ethos-altering, I felt I had to clarify and even validate the findings and, if necessary, embark upon a retirement dedicated first to a critical analysis and then, maybe, to proselytism.

And where better to start, than with a friend? I decided to ask Brien if he knew about it. Then, because he wouldn’t –he only read the TV- I’d tell him what I’d learned even though he was dead set against any form of evangelism and had been known to play recordings of large-dog barks when he heard unsolicited footsteps on his porch. Fortunately for me, he is usually on his porch whenever I visit, so I never get the barks. Still, he guards the veranda like a fort, and even though he usually pretends to be watching Sheda, his favourite tree, his eye-corners are ever vigilant. There is no moss on Brien.

But he wasn’t on his porch, and as I navigated the difficult parts of his sidewalk on my way to the steps, I heard the barking start. He’d chosen the Yorkie version –the dog-lite, back-off-eh signal he used for children selling cookies or the sponsor-me-to-camp kind of missions- but it was still annoying. The big-dog-growls only started when my feet hit the porch. I’ve never figured out how he does it; there is a rumour in the JW community that he has CCTV, but I suspect he just watches through the curtains.

Well, at least this time, because the door opened even before I reached it and an angry-looking face glowered at me from the shadows. “You said you weren’t coming till this afternoon,” it said petulantly.

“Brien, it’s one o’clock…” I countered irritably, glancing at my watch to be sure. I don’t like it when I’m challenged about things like that.

“Well, I’ve always thought that ‘afternoon’ starts at three. Stuff before that is ‘middle of the day’…” He paused for a moment, thinking of a coup de grace for me. “Or, even clearer: ‘around noon’!”

“Think of the words, Brien,” I growled. “after and then noon! What could be clearer?”

He folded his arms across his chest defiantly. “Explain how three isn’t after noon then, eh?”

I couldn’t believe we were arguing about this. “Since when have you been such a semantic stickler, Brien?”

“What?” he shouted theatrically and threw his arms above his head as if I had insulted him onstage. More probably, he hadn’t understood the words, though.

I felt sorry immediately -he’s actually a very good friend- but I couldn’t very well back down from the implied threat of a yelled ‘what’. “You’re being so…” I had to search for something that would register my indignation, but not inflame things further. “…So concrete!” A perfect amelioratory word, I thought, unduly proud of my clarity in the heat of battle.

His eyes hardened and his face scrunched at the idea. “Who had to resort to a rather weak etymological explanation for ‘afternoon’, eh?”

Rather than out-harden him, my eyes actually enlarged. ‘Etymological’? I suddenly realized I had gravely misjudged his vocabulary. Gravely misjudged Brien, for that matter. I do that sometimes… I started to shrug as a sort of testosterone apology but realized that it, too, might be inadequate. “Okay, then you were being more… asphalty.” I have no idea where that came from, but it just sort of slipped out.

His eyes softened, and the folds over his forehead flattened like venetian blinds. In fact, he couldn’t help chuckling as he reached out and touched me gently on my arm. Then, suddenly realizing what he’d just done, looked at his hand and then squeezed my arm as he withdrew it.

Me? I pretend-punched his chest -just a tap, really… I mean you have to do something, don’t you?

“A two-guy apology, eh?” And he smiled warmly. “Let’s go sit on the porch and have a beer,” he said, draping his arm over my shoulder and leading me outside. “So,” he continued when we were comfortably settled, and staring at Sheda, “What was that new study that you couldn’t believe…?”


Lost and Found

Last week, I took a wrong turn as I was hiking in the woods and found myself lost. I never get lost, so whenever it happens, I worry.  At my age, they don’t consider it an accident, or that you angered the Moirai. If you get lost they take away your privileges; the Home is filled with people who are lost. So I usually tell myself and whoever wanders by and stares at me, that I am merely exploring a new route –it sounds better, I think. But that day, it started to rain so I decided to shelter under the branches of a huge, ancient cedar and keep a lookout for any paths that happened by.

Anyway, I love the rough texture of cedar bark -my hands are drawn to it like iron to a magnet. And as I ran my fingers over the wrinkled trunk, they discovered a weathered old trail marker. Hope sprang eternal: you can’t be lost if someone else in the same spot knew where they were. An arguable point, perhaps, but enough to save face.

I enjoy being able to make obfuscatory statements to myself like that -it proves I’m still in command of my faculties. In fact, I was so proud of realizing that I wasn’t, in fact, technically lost, that I decided if I ever made it back home I would make sure someone else found out that I hadn’t been. Otherwise, who would know? Genius is only genius if it is recognized.

I should know by now that Brien is not an empathetic listener; before I’ve finished the first sentence, he has usually formed an opinion and I can see him stirring restlessly on the lawn chair on the porch where I always find him. He’s a large, slow moving man, so in a way, it’s like visiting a verandal monument. But I knew I had to do it -I already felt the weight of guilt for equivocating with myself and I was desperate to atone.

The day was unseasonably warm for March, but Brien had obviously not checked the forecast before ensconcing himself on the porch in an array of scarves, hat, coat, winter boots and woolen blanket. Several bottles of anticipatory beer were lined up beside the chair, but his eyes were fixed on his second favourite tree as if it might surprise him and suddenly sprout if he relaxed his vigilance. Unlike Sheda, his favourite –and only- cedar tree, there were no leaves on the maple’s knobby limbs, and even if there were any buds, they were too far away for him to see. But although he expected great things of the tree, he hadn’t named it. “Too risky,” he’d say each spring when I’d see him staring at it like he was watching child about to wake. “I mean suppose this year it’s different…?” And yet despite his annual vernal angst, he still felt compelled to prepare for the new season. Spring does that to some people.

A brief glance was all he could spare me as I climbed the three rickety wooden steps to his lair. “I’m waiting for a leaf,” he said and picked up one of the bottles. “You can watch from there,” he added, pointing to a nearby chair with his free hand, and handing me the beer as I passed. “First leaf is always exciting…”

Sometimes it’s really hard to take Brien seriously.

“You’ve been hiking again, eh?” He notices more out of the corner of his eyes than I can manage with a concerted stare.

This was going well. “Why do you say that?” I asked, preparing to launch into a detailed description of my morning.

He shrugged but didn’t take his eyes off the maple. “You’re all muddy… Get lost again?” he added with a little smile before he cracked another beer. Retirement has allowed Brien a little too much time for reflection, I think.

“No,” I said, puffing myself up as much as I could under the mocking scrutiny of his indirect stare. “As a matter of fact, I’ve come to believe that ‘lost’ is merely a relative construct.”

His eyes briefly swooped over my face like swallows chasing insects, then flew away again. “Relative to where you want to be, you mean?” He thought about it for a moment. “Or, relative to where you think you are?” he added, complete with italics.

Sometimes it’s hard to follow his logic, so I decided to rephrase my initial point. “Being lost is entirely subjective,” I said, hoping to out-obfuscate him. “It’s only a decision you make about your location. You could be mistaken…”

His eyes did not waver again, but I could tell he was processing my assertion, because his bottle seemed to linger over his lips as he drained the contents.

“And the fact that I am now on your porch is the proof,” I added, smugly.

I think he nodded. Whenever Brien suspects he has me, he nods. “So where’s the hat you always wear?” He risked another quick ocular sortie onto my face, then retreated as if it never happened. But I’m used to these lightening raids. Unfortunately, I had no idea where the hat was; it was so wet, I must have hung it on that tree and then forgotten about it. “I don’t always wear it,” I said defensively, but I realize my tone said otherwise. “Or maybe it fell off where I turned around…”

“In the place where you weren’t lost, you mean?”

That seemed safe to concede, so I nodded –although a little apprehensively.

I could hear him breathing as he prepared his trap. “So, is it lost?”

I shrugged –that was an interesting question. I mean presumably a hat can’t decide whether its location is or is not where it thinks it should be. “Well…theoretically, if I don’t know where it is, it’s only missing.”

“Lost, you mean,” he corrected me with a firm, parental voice.

“No… misplaced!” I felt I needed another word.

He actually left the maple for a moment and turned the full force of his eyes on me. “So you mean if you left it where you weren’t lost, then it isn’t either -even if you don’t know exactly where it is right now?”

I didn’t want to agree too quickly or he’d ask me to wear it next time I saw him. I thought of an interesting corollary, though: if ‘lost’ is just a subjective construct, then an objective thing like a hat could be lost without reflecting poorly on its owner… He thought he had me, and I thought I had him… So I decided just to smile in response -I was already starting to get lost in permutations.

He settled back in his chair, content that he could now give all his attention to the tree. “Think you can find me another beer?”

I nodded pleasantly. Some things don’t get lost.

A Sympathy in Choice

I sometimes wonder how people do it –make decisions, I mean. I’m not talking about what they’re going to have for lunch, or whether or not to wear a blue shirt with a red tie to work -most of those could be settled with a coin toss. No, I’m more concerned with the deeper questions we are asked to solve. The ones for which we have no preliminary data, no idea of outcome, no hint of consequence. Decisions which, poorly made, could have far reaching and unintended repercussions.

I’m not complaining, mind you –just pointing out that unprepared decisions can be fraught. But it leads me to wonder about choice. Do the decisions we make reveal anything about who we are? Do they define us or merely describe us? And if we were stripped of the ability to choose –if someone else took the responsibility- would we be happier? More content? Or bereft of identity -just another voice in the choir? Is choice, in other words, an emergent property of Life, or merely a by-product of chaos? A necessary side-effect of complexity?

Now that I am retired, I’m beginning to think that my life has become too chaotic. Too random. When I was at work, it was structured; there were duties to perform, obligations to honour, social rites to enact –expectations of continuity with commitments that left less room for choice.  And like a forest, the overall characteristics of life-changes are really only discernible when viewed from afar.

So now I am overwhelmed with choice, buried under the weight of options I never knew existed. And, since time stretches before me like a prairie, I find that I am confused by the selection. Or perhaps, bored might describe it better. When you are confined to a candy-store, perspective shifts. Tastes change, and candy is not the object of desire, no matter how many varieties are on offer. It is no longer choice, but monotony. Indifference. Detachment. A surfeit of anything no longer satisfies –it chokes.

I decided to catch a city bus the other day and as luck would have it, there was already a queue. Ahead of me in the line was a man even older than myself leaning on a cane. Bundled up against a bitter December wind, he wore an ill-fitting ankle-length winter coat, and a heavy scarf wrapped around his head like a hijab. His face seemed wrapped as well, because he had a long bushy, untrimmed white beard he tried several times to tuck into the coat like his scarf. No matter his preparations, he still looked cold. I gathered from his clothes that he wasn’t entirely used to the weather here in Canada, either. And to make matters worse, he was carrying a bulky shopping bag so his hands –both of them bare- looked almost blue with the cold.

I was about to offer to lend him my gloves for the wait, but just as I was going to introduce myself, a crowded bus arrived and we all shoved on. The elderly seats were all occupied, of course, but a stout lady in one of them offered her place to the old man. He seemed embarrassed, and looked around at those of us standing nearby almost as if he were asking for our permission. The lady insisted he take her seat, however, so he accepted with a smile and a grateful bow of his head. The scene was so unremarkable, that I think most people standing nearby didn’t notice anything unusual.

But one man did. He was a short, balding man dressed in a suit and tie covered with an expensive looking overcoat that did little to disguise his corpulence. He was carrying a briefcase that he kept shifting from hand to hand because of its weight. And since he happened to be standing right beside me, I noticed he was glaring at the old man who was now sitting quietly with his eyes closed.

Suddenly the man with the suit started to mumble and knocked his leg into the old man. “In this country,” he whispered loudly, “men give up their seats to women.” I could see he was beginning to become angry. “Not the other way around!” he added, loudly.

The old man, clearly intimidated, opened his eyes wide.

“Why is it you think you can come over here and act like you’re still over there?” The man was yelling now. “We do things differently here, old man!”

The old man squirmed uncomfortably, uncertain how to react. People around him stared nervously at their laps, or out of the window, hoping the man would stop. Nobody had yet decided what they should do, although they were obviously uneasy.

“And what’s in that bag…?” he said, reaching out to grab it.

The old man gathered it closer to his waist and I could see he was terrified. The only thing I could think of in the situation was to offer him my gloves, so I stepped between the two of them. “I noticed you looked cold,” I said, and handed him my old leather gloves although the crowded bus was really quite warm.

His eyes met mine and I could see he understood. “Thank you,” he said, accepting them with a smile so wide that it once again untucked his beard from inside his coat. “My daughter told me to dress warmly, but I forgot about gloves…” He peeked under my extended arm at the furious face of the man with the suit.

“I said what’s in the bag, old man!” The man was just not giving up. But by now, a couple of younger men in the aisle were staring threateningly at him.

“What’s in your briefcase, mister?” one of them said with a sneer.

But the little man merely attacked him with his eyes. “Well, it’s not a bomb!” He almost spat the last word out for maximal effect. He nodded his head at the old man, who was busy examining my gloves. “Don’t you read the news reports?” He yelled, as if that was evidence enough to validate his suspicions.

The young man moved closer to the briefcase and leered at him. “Yeah,” he said, his nose almost touching the abuser. “And I read what life was like for them over there…” He turned to his friend who was equally angry. “I think all of us in this bus would feel safer if you got off at the next stop, mister!” And he bumped aggressively into the man.

Fortunately, it was a popular stop, so a lot of people got off as well as the man in the suit. And as they left, most smiled at the old man or touched his leg in an embarrassed apology. A seat became available beside him, so I sat down.

He immediately clasped his hands over mine and bowed. “Thank you sir,” he said in a soft, heavily accented voice. “I didn’t know what to do…” He took a deep breath and looked at me. “I’ve never been in a crowded bus like this before. My daughter warned me… She wanted to pick me up from the hospital, but she got called in to work this morning.” He took my gloves off and gently laid them in my lap. “She told me she’d pay for a taxi, but I decided to take the bus.

“You know, I’m glad I did,” he said, smiling warmly and clasping my hands again. “It made me realize just how kind people are in this country I chose…”

He said it so sincerely, I almost blushed.


Do you ever have the overwhelming need to confess something –well, at least share it without the need for absolution? Coffee does that to me –all I need is a stranger who, although she may think I’m weird, is unlikely to pass it on to anybody I might know. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have a neighbourhood confessional that I could pop into whenever the mood strikes. And anyway, I’m looking for a laxative for my soul, not a penance for my sins.

The trick is to find the right person -you have to be careful. Older women in conservatively coloured dresses staring at newspaper crossword puzzles work best for me. Admittedly, this demographic tends to frequent libraries and you can’t talk much in there, but occasionally one will wander into Starbucks on the way, so I lie in wait. Their smile is important, by the way –it suggests openness to new ideas, and a readiness to engage, if only briefly. But that’s all I require, really. I’m not looking for a relationship, just a pair of friendly ears, and lips that won’t report me. I don’t think my behaviour is pernicious for a coffee shop, but my friends seem to imply that I’m overly needy. And of course, this is not one of the things I usually seek to confess. I am more into existential disclosures. Nothing personal, you understand –I don’t want to go viral on Facebook, or anything; I favour revelations that encourage sympathy and unfettered eye contact.

Most communication is said to be non-verbal, so I have developed various adjunctive measures to help me along. Coffee waves, for example. These are subtle, controlled movements of the wrist that swirl coffee perilously close to the rim while making a point. I had a few accidents in the early days, but I’m now pretty reliable except when I’m stressed.

I also use the finger jab to good effect. This is risky, of course, and requires careful timing and impeccable judgement so as not to be construed as an assault, but with a little patience, it can be an effective technique. The finger has to be in and out quickly; it must never linger on the sleeve or describe any motion other than a mathematically unidimensional point. And, lest it be misconstrued, it must be used sparingly, if at all.

The object, as I said, is to solicit commiseration and unwavering attention. Not anybody will do, so I’m always on the lookout. Yesterday, for example. I spotted a grey-haired woman in a long, black woolen skirt and white linen blouse sitting comfortably alone at a table reading some papers. Although she was scowling, she was sipping on a latte of some sort as she sorted through the reports, and I took that as an encouraging sign. Nobody’s perfect, eh? A real estate agent, I figured. Good –they’re trained to listen. There was an empty table next to her, so I sat down with my multigrain bagel in one hand and tall, dark, blend-of-the-day coffee in the other as if I was a regular. Actually, I was just trying to get out of the weather.

As my wet clothes started to steam in the too-warm coffee shop, she looked over at me -rather haughtily I thought. “You do realize you’re dripping on my table, I hope.”

This did not seem like the opportunity I had envisaged, but I thought a clever reply on my part might diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, I was still trying to think of one when she sniffed at me –I can describe it in no other way.

“You’re just like my husband,” I could hear her mutter to herself as she moved her latte to the other side of her table.

“I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t.

“He always says that, too,” she said in a louder, more directed whisper, all the while shaking her head. Then she stared directly at me, her eyes uncertain whether they should roost on my lips or my wet clothes; they decided to take up temporary residence on my face after hovering over it for the longest time.

“I didn’t mean to take out my frustration on you,” she conceded, but her expression was tentative, and it was clear that she was relieved that she did. “I’m sure you’re a better person than him…” And yet there was a hesitation in her words, that made me think she wasn’t at all certain. She sighed and withdrew her eyes so she could drop them onto the pages in front of her. The papers were obviously important.

“I didn’t mean to keep you from your work,” I said lamely, and then took a bite out of my bagel.

A smile surfaced briefly on her face, then disappeared into a scowl again. “I wish it was work,” she whispered enigmatically, and attacked her latte.

I made the mistake of glancing at it and was immediately jabbed by a finger.

“Do you mind?” she growled testily, and moved it further away. She was silent for a moment as she skimmed through a few more pages, all the while swirling her latte around inside her cup. I have to admit she was pretty good at it for an amateur.

Then she suddenly looked up from the page and glared at me. “Look, it’s a separation agreement, okay?” Her eyes were granite. “You don’t have to be so nosey…”

I quickly disappeared into the bagel and stared at my table as if I’d noticed something fascinating on the faux grain. Then I felt the finger again, only softer this time, and it lingered, evidently unconcerned about misconstrual. “He’s really not a bad person, you know…” she added, with marshmallow eyes, now intently massaging the paper in front of her. “He means well I think… He just has trouble expressing it.” She glanced at me briefly, but I could see tears forming in her eyes. “He wanted to go for counselling, you know,” she said smiling, finally. “I didn’t want to…”

She touched me again, but this time on my wrist and with her whole hand. She left it there, warm and soft, for a moment. “But, you know, after talking to you, I think I’m ready for that now…” The voice softened like her hand; she seemed a changed woman. “You’re such a good listener.”

Her smile was contagious and I couldn’t stop myself from nodding in agreement.

“I’m so glad I met you today,” she said, scooping up the papers and shoving them into a briefcase hidden under her table. Then she scraped her chair as she got to her feet, sighed in my direction to demonstrate her gratitude, and walked resolutely towards the door without looking back.

It’s so nice to share things with strangers, you know, but you sure have to pick the right person.

The Hills are Alive

The other day a rock spoke to me –well, I suppose it was more of a boulder if you want to quibble, but it caught my attention anyway. There were no words, of course –rocks do not speak in words- but there was something about it that announced its presence. A speck of mineral perhaps, or a gleam of quartz that watched me as I approached and then signalled me to stop. Commanded me to stop. And when I bent down to examine it more closely and ran my fingers over its stubbled skin, I suddenly realized how poorly we define Life; how spirit, or something akin resides in everything –if only because our focussed perception grants it a special existence: a place somewhere inside our heads, a neurological pattern to which we assign a meaning, a memory that entrains feeling. We breath our own life into nature…

Could it be a search for kinship that makes life bubble from the most unlikely sources? The feeling that if we could only bridge the abyss that seems to yawn indifferently between the I in here and the rest –the it out there- we would not be so alone? That if there really were a spirit that enlivens those things which encase us, trap us in ourselves, we would be members of the club to which we have been so far excluded?

Every so often, the barriers drop away; sometimes it is on a trail in the mountains when I feel the boundaries dissolve, the cage disappear, and I am wandering not in wilderness, but in myself -in us– And I am as much out there as inside my head –a secular agape

As I age, it seems to be happening more often, and although it is epiphanous and profound, it is also worrisome. There is a stage in life when the experience is no longer seen by others as merely idiosyncratic, but pathological –a sign that things are short-circuiting in the control panel, or are at least being rerouted, being forced along a detour that never succeeds in finding its proper destination.

It happened to me again as I walked through a suburban park on a cold and windy afternoon. Dark and ominous clouds had palled the sky, threatening more than the damp grey maelstrom sweeping through the wildly dancing branches that cloistered the gravelled path. The world was a dervish, and for a moment –in the briefest speck of timelessness- so was I…

But I was on my way to visit someone, so I thought I would confess my angst to him. Friends, after all, are the only proxies of boundary-breaches we are allowed. George, an emeritus professor of Philosophy, would accept that, although it would only come after a hard-fought slog through the peregrinations of his mind. I just solicit his opinion in extremis –when the topic is important, and resolution is fraught with pitfalls. Satisfaction rarely comes unbruised.

Despite the wind –or perhaps because of it- I found him wandering in the November remnants of his garden when I arrived. As usual he was wearing the blue woolen toque he’d knitted for himself, and the heavy, grey, ankle-length coat he donned at the slightest provocation. His smile on seeing me approach through the storm of swirling leaves percolating above the lawn seemed to vindicate his choice of clothes.

“Goz!” he shouted above the wind when he saw me.

I hate it when he calls me my childhood nickname, but I suppose it’s the price I have to pay for his friendship. “George!” I called back, trying to vilify the sound, but I think the nuances I had intended were lost in the turmoil that surrounded us.

“I’m just seeing how my perennials are doing,” he said, ignoring any slight that might have slipped through the curtain of noise. “Still some chives over there,” he yelled as if I were still somewhere in the fountain of yellow leaves on the grass. Then he pointed to a rather nondescript patch of mud near his feet. I didn’t see anything even resembling the carcass of a chive, so I smiled and tried to twinkle my eyes, at the boot print he seemed to be indicating.

My theatrics were lost on him, of course. “No, no Goz, the chives are over there,” and he nodded his head at something over his shoulder, presumably. “Here is the buried treasure,” he continued almost reverently. “Potatoes.”

I couldn’t see anything but dirt and footprints, so I walked over to inspect the area more closely. I don’t garden, so the significance of the trodden earth was not at all apparent even when I bent down for a closer look. “Uhmm…”

A condescending smile suddenly surfaced on his face. “You don’t see anything do you, Goz?” I despatched my eyes on what I hoped would be a search and destroy mission on his paternalistic expression, but he parried them with a shrug. “I left a few in the ground. They’ll awaken next spring and the miracle of Samsara will again emerge.”

I also find it irritating when he waxes pedantic and pulls some reference or other from his head like a magician’s rabbit. I’m not even sure he realizes what he’s doing –it was so much a part of his former existence.

“This is such an interesting time of year, don’t you think?” he continued, as if he were about to draw my attention to another bullet point in his PowerPoint presentation. “It’s almost as if we assume that there is death all around us. Even the dirt seems drab and lifeless doesn’t it?”

I searched his face for a moment, fully expecting him to follow with the usual parable of spring rebirth, but he remained quiet for the longest time and scanned the little rock terraces he’d built for his plants over the years.

“I sometimes wonder what we expect of life,” he said, after picking up a heavy rock that had fallen from its place in one of the granite walls. He replaced it carefully and wiped off its muddy surface with his hand then stared at its rough, variegated veneer for a minute. “And why we privilege things that grow, over those that don’t…” He glanced at me. “Is there really a difference, or is it an arbitrary assignation of unearned value?”

I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help but wonder if he was scratching the same facade I had felt.

“Reversion to the mean?” he suggested after a moment of letting his eyes wander across the garden to the mountains, just visible above the trees that ringed his yard.

“Pardon me?” Sometimes he let his thoughts escape, unintroduced, from their usual playground in his head.

He smiled and sent his eyes to perch on my face, but I had a feeling he was somewhere else. “It’s not exactly that…” he admitted with uncharacteristic candour as he sorted through the permutations and combinations he had unleashed inside. “…But, it seems to me that we have confused the properties with the thing exhibiting them -the adjectives with the noun. Conflated them, in fact…”

I shrugged in hopes he would think I was following him, but in fact we both knew I wasn’t. And yet I had a feeling that we felt the same, but used different words. That although there is no doubt a boundary that separates eccentricity from madness, idiosyncrasy from dementia, we were both watching from the same, but distant shore.