Gumbo Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Rosé by any other name…

Uhmm, am I grasping at straws here, or is there really a Bacchus? Or, for that matter –not wishing to offend anybody- a Dionysus? http://vinepair.com/booze-news/sommelier-brain/?xid=soc_socialflow_facebook_fw  -is a rather superficial summary of an article published in Frontiers in Neuroscience from the Cleveland Clinic suggesting that smelling wine may make you resistant to Alzheimer’s disease. The very thought that my guilt may have been misplaced all these years is redemptive. And yet… Why does it all seem so counterintuitive? Why does it splash in the face of what I was taught to believe was beyond question? Indisputable? The prohibitions around alcohol in my youth were akin to a religion whose apostasism spelled painful parental sanctions and, of course, the dreaded brain death.

But, the older I get, the more I realize that I am able to shed, penalty free, some of the family shibboleths that I assumed were societal wisdom, not tribal folklore otherwise unknown beyond the kitchen table. That oak trees were the preferred cradle for ticks –an ancestral favourite- I was able to discard one year at summer camp when, dangling my toes in a pond near an oak, I escaped unticked. Not unleeched, however, thus making me wonder if my mother had actually tapped into something more atavistic than she realized. Or am I just making excuses for her because, well, she’s my mother after all?

Of course parents do that –they set impossibly vicarious limits on their children, and glue mores to them like post-it notes. There would be no guilt without parents. Maybe no religion, either. Far be it for me to suggest that both seem to have their roots in an uncritical acceptance of source material, but there you have it. I want to believe that smelling wine would be good for my neurons, and also the extrapolated corollary that therefore drinking it must be even better. Apparently the authors of the summary were also extrapolists –as Shakespeare said, ‘Let every eye negotiate for itself…’

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Perhaps, but I thought I’d run it by Brien, anyway. He’s always been a reliable advocator for beer, although I doubt that he smells it much. And I’m not sure whether, even though beer and wine both contain alcohol, the conclusions of that study would still apply. Mind you, I read somewhere that the perceptual loss of certain smells –peanut butter is the only one I remember- had something to do with Alzheimer’s, so maybe strengthening your nose is important somehow…

I found Brien sitting on his porch staring at his cedar tree as usual. I asked him about that once, and he just shrugged and admitted in a whisper that he liked to see the branches dancing in the wind. He made me look at them, I remember, and I kind of enjoyed the show; it was like watching the conductor of a silent woodland orchestra, but I never admitted it. You have to be careful about agreeing with Brien because then he figures you owe him something.

So when I saw him this time, I thought I’d try to put him in my debt for a change. “Hey Brien,” I said calling to him from the sidewalk and waving.

He slowly summoned his eyes from the tree and let them walk over to me. “Hey,” he said when they had climbed up my legs and roosted a little shakily on my face. It wasn’t a particularly auspicious greeting, but I saw a can of beer in his hand and another one lying prostrate on the wooden floor beside his chair.

“I thought I’d come over and see how you were doing,” I said, playing the dutiful friend card.

He shrugged. “Not much wind today,” he answered and tugged his eyes back home. “We may have to stare at something else.” He sounded disappointed. Brien was a creature of habit. He had probably planned on an afternoon of tree and beer; he hated improvisation. Uncertainty wasn’t what he’d expected out of Retirement he once told me.

“I read a really interesting article, Brien…”

He glanced at the tree and then offered me a beer from an ice chest he kept hidden from passersby on the sidewalk. “What is it this time?” he said, shaking his head slowly. “Not more of that stuff on exercise I hope…” Brien is a large man, and as such, largely exerphobic –his neologism.

I shook my head, trying not to look too eager –that always makes him suspicious. “It’s about smelling wine…”

His eyes poked me rudely on the cheek. “I only drink beer.”

“I know that!” I said it rather forcefully, I have to admit -I had to keep his attention. “But I think it may work for beer, too…”

He lowered his head and looked at me as if he were a professor staring over the top of his glasses at an annoying student. “Did you say smelling wine, or smelling of wine?” He allowed himself a chuckle.

I decided not to take it as a rebuff and smiled. I felt a little like a Jehovah’s Witness bearing the Good News to his porch. “The article suggested that people who smell wine for a living…”

“You mean drink wine, don’t you?” he interrupted -a little irritably, I thought.

“No. I mean sommeliers –the ones who can tell the terroir from the smell… Wine experts,” I added for some much needed clarity, judging by his expression.

“They have smelliers for beer, too,” he said defensively. “I just don’t know any…”

Anyway…!” It was my turn to interrupt. “The point is that learning to differentiate smells, may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.” I saw disbelief beginning to creep over his forehead. “They both affect the same area of the brain, I think the article said. So it may mean that practicing smelling could be a way of strengthening the neurons in there.” His expression changed. “Makes them more resistant, I guess,” I added to shore up my argument. “… At least it works with wine…” I figured I should issue a disclaimer in case it went to court.

“You mean it’s an exercise I can do right here on the porch?” He was smiling now.

I nodded, not sure where this was going.

“I can already do two or three,” he said. His smile had grown so large he had trouble framing his lips around the words. Then he sat back in the chair and stared at the can he was holding. “You know, I guess my mother was right all along…”

I watched him curiously for a moment. He’d never mentioned his family before. “Mothers always seem to know things…” It seemed like the right thing for me to say.

He nodded pleasantly. “They sure do… She always told me I’d end up forgetting my own name if I just kept drinking beer…”

Who knew, eh?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ministering Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allen shook his head again.

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

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

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

“I know what you mean, John…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A God by Any Other Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Love the word, though, Nat…”

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

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

Outside of time…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Excuse Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put a Sock on it!

We’ve had a particularly snow-filled winter this year it seems to me. Okay, nothing like the blizzards I remember from my childhood in Winnipeg when even the snowbanks on the constantly plowed roads would rise far above my ten-year-old head, and when we routinely built snow-caves in drifts along the river dikes. But that was Manitoba, three time zones and a half-century way. And I do live in the lower mainland of British Columbia, for goodness sakes –a land where rain is queen, and snow discouraged everywhere except on the North shore mountains for tourists to photograph.

Vancouver does not like snow; there are too many streets that become luges, too many people in Lycra on bicycles -there’s an image to maintain after all. But every five or six years, we have to endure the derision of the unfortunately-located Eastern provinces who seem to think Canadians deserve snow and that Vancouver is somehow unpatriotic to settle for mere rain in the winter. And so whenever we do find ourselves saddled with a white Christmas, it’s suddenly national news about the weak-link, profligate rain-queen finally having to pay her dues -like we’re being audited or something.

Anyway, we’re all unwitting hostages to those Jekyll and Hyde twins el Nino and la Nina that seem to alternate every five years or so. Last year we apparently endured the intemperate clemency of an el Nino so I suppose we were about due for his colder sister to usurp the throne:  http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ninonina.html  All fine and neatly retributive, perhaps, but it does wreak havoc on those who have never experienced a prairie winter, or on those who have but don’t want to anymore. Vancouver is the fabled Lotusland of Homer’s Odyssey and our tourists expect it. So do I.

But, like Brigadoon, the snow is only a once-upon-a-time here: a bedtime story told to naughty children, an advertising gimmick to sell ski passes for the nearby mountains. What we have more frequently is a thin veneer of ice masquerading as asphalt, or clinging like tired bats to the cables supporting major bridges. It hides, sidewalk-savvy, near retirement homes, waiting for un-caned feet, and walker-less arms; it preys on those whose eyes are wrapped in memories of other times, or stomachs aching for a change of menu at the Home. It is a dangerous time for the unwary -ice takes no prisoners.

I know the problem Brien usually has in this weather. A large man himself, he claims he was brought up by cautiously obese parents who instilled in him an inordinate fear of falling. An oft-told family legend has it that a distant, even larger relative, froze to death up north when he slipped on some ice as he returned from a nocturnal visit to the backyard privy. Neither legend nor Brien seemed willing to explain why the great-uncle-once-removed didn’t simply get up again, but I suppose the family needed a cautionary tale to scare the children. At any rate, Brien lived in small town Saskatchewan, and he says his fearful parents made him wear outsized rubber galoshes with snow-tire treads to school. They also made him promise he’d never drink alcohol when he grew up. So, as a result he hates hockey, and only drinks beer on his porch.

I had read an interesting, but silly article from New Zealand about wearing socks over shoes for walking on ice: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/mar/09/improbable-research-icy-socks-over-shoes and I thought I’d tell Brien about it. I even toyed with the idea of showing up in full kit, but after ruining two pairs of perfectly serviceable fancy woolen tube socks, I realized that nothing else in my drawer would likely fit over my rubber boots. A description of the article would have to do, and if he laughed at the idea, well, sometimes you just have to risk personal humiliation to help a friend.

It was a bitterly cold day (for the West Coast) in late January, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark and threatening rain. Snow still clung stubbornly to the lawns and roads however, refusing to budge until it had first turned to ice and choked the stems off any daffodils foolish enough to attempt a pre-vernal dash for sunlight. Some considerate neighbours had salted the sidewalk in front of Brien’s house, but the fragmented concrete slabs that led to the steps of his porch were tiny ice rinks, their slanting surfaces seemingly Zambonied in anticipation of my imminent arrival.

Brien was organized, too. Despite the cold, he was sitting on the porch bundled up like an Inuit with a large Hudson’s Bay blanket over his lap, and his parka hood fully deployed. His hands were thickened with fur-lined leather mitts with opposable thumb tabs so he could hold the Sunday afternoon beer bottle comfortably and securely. Brien is nothing if not prepared.

“Brien,” I said, waving at him as I skated warily across rink after rink on my way to the porch.

He lifted his bottle in silent recognition of my arrival, and studied my careful little steps. “Watch out for that last rink, eh? It’s my rental dog.”

I stared at him for a moment before attempting the crossing. “Huh? What do you mean?” I said, suspecting a trap of some sort.

He shook his head slowly at my thickness. “Dogs warn you of people coming, right? Well so do people on that final bit of ice.” I could see him smiling in the cavern of his hood. “Never fails.”

“Come on, Brien, you just don’t want to have anything to do with ice… like everybody else,” I said, a little bit irritably, and pointed to the ice free sidewalk that ran past the outside edge of his yard. Then, I realized I’d been a bit harsh, so I softened my tone. “You keep telling me about that uncle in Saskatchewan…”

“NWT.”

“Huh?”

“North West Territories,” he explained, as if I were an American.

“It changes every time you tell it, Brien…” I couldn’t help chuckling.

He shrugged in reply, I think, but it was hard to tell through all his clothes. “I never met him,” he said once I had gained the steps without barking. He nodded towards a nearby chair equipped with both a large woolen blanket and a bottle of beer.

Why would I even think he’d want to sit inside? “Anyway, I read an interesting article about walking on ice,” I said as his face disappeared once again into his hood. “No more need for the legendary winter-tread galoshes of yours…” I added, wondering if I sounded too much like one of those fast-talking salesmen on TV.

But I must have seemed really excited, because I could see his teeth glimmering in the depths of the downy cavern. “Haven’t used those in years,” he said, obviously amused at the memory.

But I was determined now. “This is about an exciting, revolutionary idea from New Zealand, Brien: wearing socks over your shoes. Apparently you get better traction on ice, and…”

I heard, or rather saw, him sigh as his head emerged from the depths and he pulled the blanket up to uncover his feet. It was hard to miss the bright red argyle pattern of the plus-size socks that covered his size 12 shoes. They stared at me as much as anything. “All the kids at school used to wear socks over their shoes,” Brien said, smiling broadly. “I just had to remember to take mine off before I got home.”

“Where did you get big enough socks? I thought you said you had to wear…”

“My parents gave me a weekly allowance…” he interrupted with a grin.  “In Saskatchewan it was important to fit in with the group, eh?” He eyed me suspiciously for a moment wondering why I wouldn’t have known that. Then he slipped the blanket back over his feet and took a sip of his beer.

He seemed so pleased with himself that I didn’t dare tell him I’d only ever bought candy with my allowance.

Boundary Issues

I don’t believe I have anything against religion. And yet when I come across it unawares, I am sometimes unsettled by the earnestness with which it is pursued. Or maybe it’s just the facial expressions that seem to surface whenever an administrator of the creed begins to talk.

Still, the older I get the more I wonder about things. It’s strange -I find I’m tangled in the words of Shakespeare’s court jester, Touchstone: ‘A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ Which am I? Which are any of us? It seems there is no winner.

But the more I struggle to free myself from the web, the more enmeshed I become, the more I see it as a lesson: we are both.

“How can you say that?” Edward almost rose from his chair as he pounded the table. It wasn’t only the loudness of his voice that attracted attention in the room, but also the expression in his eyes when people turned to look. His face was red and several fat veins had surfaced on his temple like snakes sunning themselves on a rock. He looked furious. Dangerous!

The man sitting at the adjacent table studied Edward almost clinically for a moment and then, glancing briefly at me, asked if he could be of some help.

The snakes disappeared immediately and Edward stood up, pretending to smile. Then, after trying to attack me with a glare, he slipped out of the room embarrassed by the silence and the flock of eyes that followed him to the door.

“A friend of yours?” the man asked, barely able to suppress a worried grin.

I nodded as nonchalantly as I could manage, but I think I blushed all the same. “I don’t think today is one of his good ones…”

The man was silent for a while and had a sip of his coffee, but he was obviously upset. It was clear that he was thinking about the outburst, because he soon turned to me again. “Look, I realize this is none of my business,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But is he all right?”

I summoned my eyes from my coffee cup where they had been resting and sent them to scratch at his face. As they circled to alight somewhere I noticed he was wearing a grey clerical collar. I think I must have gasped, because he smiled and shrugged as if to say you never knew who you’ll be sitting next to -especially someone with a grey collar. At least it matched his suit, I thought. Maybe the church was finally looking into fashion.

I took a deep breath and sat back in the hard chair. “He thinks he is…”

His smile broadened. “And you…? Do you think he’s all right?” It was my turn to shrug. “Because he seemed very angry at something… In fact,” he continued, “I think he even frightened some of the customers in here.” He had a sip from his now-cold coffee and extended a hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, I’m being rude talking to you like this. I’m Gregoire –Greg.”

I introduced myself with a tentative handshake –I didn’t want to commit to anything. “We…” I hesitated to explain, lest it be misconstrued. “We were talking about God.”

Greg’s eyes attached themselves to my face like roosting birds preparing for a storm. “And I take it you disagreed.”

I nodded, but carefully -Edward is my friend. “He just gets excited sometimes.”

“About God?” I could see a little smile trickling across his mouth –I was in his territory after all.

I shrugged and decided to be honest. “Well, not exactly about God, more like whether God…”

I was still locked in the talons of his eyes like a prisoner. “And he felt strongly about his opinion?” he said kindly –like he’d heard it all before.

I had to smile; Edward feels it’s his duty to stand on the other side of a fence no matter what. “He sometimes thinks with his mouth. Words tumble out and then, like a father, he feels he’s obliged to support them.” I sighed to show I’d heard it all before as well.

Greg summoned his eyes back for a moment as he finished off the rest of his coffee. “And are the arguments usually about god?”

I could tell he was trying to be nonchalant about the word. In fact, I think he purposely avoided a capital G. But I had to think about the question. I saw Edward infrequently, often in this coffee shop; and yes, the conversation usually ended up with religion. I had no recourse, especially under the attentive pecking of his eyes, but to shrug again. “He seems to have a thing with religions…”

His eyes nibbled harder on my cheeks and he smiled a weary smile. “Competitive ones…?”

I blinked. “No, neither of us belong to anything…”

“So…?”

I have to hand it to Greg, he knew how to interrogate. Maybe it’s part of pastoral training. “So, I suppose we compare them…” I tried to pretend the arguments we often had were usually just discussions -explorations of contrasting myths, and not heated quarrels.

His face dissolved into a wicked grin and his once predatory eyes now twinkled back to their cages. “Just window shopping… or looking for the best deal?”

I hadn’t thought about it like that before, but it made me wonder about Edward. His wife had belonged to a church before her death many years ago. He’d always resisted, but now that he was retired, he seemed, well, anxious. Or…empty, as he once put it. “Maybe…”

“Maybe he’s read Pascal’s Wager,” Greg interrupted with a mysterious smile. “You know, Blaise Pascal. He thought that even if the existence of a god was unlikely, the benefits of believing in one far outweighed those of any disbelief.”

A light suddenly went on inside my head. “And he’s just trying to find the most comfortable pew?”

Greg nodded, obviously pleased his observation had fallen on fertile ground. “We seem more at ease when we have a direction to face. Then we just need to find a road going there.”

His face was a poem and his metaphors so apt. So certain.

Religare, eh?”

He seemed surprised that I knew the etymology. “Re-fasten? Re-attach…?” And then he sighed the sigh of the contented. “Exactly.”