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: 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:  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.

The Newness of it All

You know, by now you’d think I would have seen it all; tasted all the flavours on the menu; touched at least the edge of the weft and weave the rainbow has on offer. But there is always something new, I find. Something fresh. Something unexpected. And just when I decide the day has run its course, a new one dawns inside my head.

Perhaps I expect too much of sleep –too much of the waning light. Maybe there is no refuge from the New: the message in the cricket’s song; another way to feel the dark… A different voice in memory’s store.

But is it all a mirage –an oasis dream in the parched wasteland of my aging brain? Is it neural loss or neural gain that facilitates my reinterpretation of the Old and makes it garden-fresh? Or have I discovered, in my dotage, the elixir of youth that forever eluded Ponce de Leon: the art of seeing like a child?

I awoke one morning with that dream still coursing through my head and so I thought I’d run it by my friend Brien. The world always seems a wonder to him.

Each time I visit him on his porch, new surprises tend to bump me like people passing in the mall. Sometimes it’s his hair –it is a cherished and precious commodity, divided into separate pastures with which he is constantly inventive. Like farmers with their fields, he has a rotating system of combing that rations which section he will use that day. Sometimes I even think he pencils in any discrepancies -but fallow, he never leaves it.

On other, all be they rare occasions, he will seem to have mastered the button system on his shirt, and neither one too many, nor one too few will greet the final hole. There will be other anomalies to compensate, to be sure, but he faces them as everything else, with equanimity, and a beer. You have to take things as they come with Brien. Life moves at a different pace on a porch.

It is perhaps why Brien is a large man, and although I accept that there may be a chicken-or-egg component to the observation, I’ve always thought he seemed specifically designed for porch-life. Everything about him says ‘veranda’; every change is contextually driven, every surprise adaptive.

I found him on the porch as usual, legs extended from his lawn chair, staring at his favourite tree. It’s always awkward greeting someone who doesn’t see you from a porch –a form of ocular trespass perhaps, so when he finally mustered his eyes I smiled and sat on the steps for a moment. You have to give him time to adjust.

He glanced at his watch. “Wondered where you were,” he said finally, as if I were late for a meeting neither of us knew about. But at least it was an acknowledgement, I suppose, so I dived in.

“Brien,” I said with the enthusiasm of a child at recess, “Do you ever wonder whether it’s possible to run out of New as we get older?” I immediately realized I had phrased it poorly –he does not see the world in metaphor.

He tore his eyes from the bottle he was holding, and I almost heard them ripping off bits of label as they left to walk up and down my nose like a sidewalk. “You mean so we have to go to the store more often?” Brien was nothing if not well-hardened concrete. I shook my head but his face had already turned inward for a moment as if it was looking for something it had missed. Finally, it emerged triumphantly. “No,” it said with conviction, even though the rest of him didn’t seem so sure.

Then one hand flew up like it had another idea in class. “Oh, like new words?” He considered the fresh possibility with a forehead muscle I’d never noticed before. “No,” he said, this time with some emotion. “There are still plenty of sounds left…” He stared at his bottle for a second. “I mean that’s how they made up words in the old days.” From his tone, he made it sound like he was quoting from Wikipedia.

I had no idea why he thought I’d been talking about words. I felt like I had wandered into a class on non sequity -if that’s a word. But, curiosity got the better of me. “How on earth do you figure that, Brien?” I said dismissively.

He shrugged and looked at me as if I had sustained some sort of head injury. “Put a couple of sounds together, point at something, figure out how it should be spelled, and bingo, a new cave-word,” he said smugly.

“That’s not how it was done, Brien!”

“Sure it is!” He tends to dig in his heels once he’s decided something; I should have known.

I sighed rather dramatically, I’m afraid. “Okay,” I almost shouted, “Give me an example of a random sound that is also a word…” It seemed like a suitable challenge under the circumstances and for a split second I thought I had him.

He shrugged. “Dog,” he said and smiled.

That caught me off guard, I must admit. “The word probably has deep historical roots,” I mumbled staring at his now empty bottle for a moment. “And anyway, nowadays we tend to adapt old words for new purposes…” I realized I was on pretty thin ice here. “…And besides, we wouldn’t just make up new words with any old sounds…”

His smile grew alarmingly large. “Yes we would.”

I started to shake my head vigorously but he held up a finger like a Philosopher King as a mild rebuke of my childishness. “Bling,” he said and went into the house to get us both a beer.

Maybe the Ponce should have talked to him…

Socks and the single pensioner.

Okay, I know losing socks in a clothes dryer is the stereotypical single man trope, but when you add Age into the picture, it hints at perceptual problems and presumes, well, cognitive declination. That which, in my salad days, was merely assumed to be an idiosyncrasy, has now become part of the entrance exam for the Home. The sock has become a sort of washable Rosetta Stone to interpret otherwise puzzling psychological conundrums.

I suppose it’s understandable; it’s natural to seek resolutions to ambiguities –no matter how banal. But algorithms for more efficient sorting of socks? It’s supposed to be a Radix algorithm, or something, so I looked it up in Wikipedia (of course): ‘radix sort is a non-comparative integer sorting algorithm that sorts data with integer keys by grouping keys by the individual digits which share the same significant position and value’. I didn’t understand a thing, but anyway it seemed like a waste of math.

You don’t get to my age without solutions, so socks are a mere piffle. When I sort them into pairs and stuff them into each other, if they don’t exactly match, so what? Who would lift my trousers to check to see if the socks are the same length, or shine a light on them to see if the colours exactly match? The trick is in the pant length, so all these years I have managed very well without an algorithm, thank you. But the very idea that someone might want to make a name for himself in the sock-sorting world intrigued me.

Brien has always had problems with his socks and I thought he might be interested in the approach outlined in the BBC article. He gets all his information from television or the old newspapers stores sometimes still wrap stuff in. The latter is not strictly ‘news’ in the etymological sense – but, as Brien always says when I see the yellowing, crumpled paper near his chair, “You have to learn from the past -it explains a lot of what they say on TV.”

Anyway, I found him dozing on a lawn chair on his porch, a woolen blanket covering everything but his head and feet. Even before I climbed the steps, though, I could see a sock colour discrepancy, but there was a certain symmetry to them, too: they both had big-toe holes. You have to admire his logic.

One eye opened as I mounted the wooden steps, and both feet disappeared under the covers.

“Cold today,” he said, his arms obviously stretching out under the warmth of the wool.

“Brien, it’s November. Why would you sit outside?”

“I didn’t know you were coming over,” he said and rolled his eyes as if that explained everything except why I was there.

“I just read an article about socks.”

“Why would you do that?” He shook his head slowly. I was a complete puzzle to him.

One foot surfaced for air from under the blanket and I pointed at it before it disappeared again.

“Private socks,” he explained. “The holes match, so I figure they’re good to go when I’m not expecting company.

He wasn’t clear on why he’d wear them on a porch so near a sidewalk, though.

“They’re different colours, Brien.”

He sat up straighter in the chair and pulled the blanket tighter around him. He still managed an indifferent shrug, nevertheless. “Lost the brother sock to each, so I matched something different… That’s gotta count,” he whispered irritably to himself. Then he ventured a glance at my face. “So what’s the article say counts as a match?” He sounded unwilling to accept the advice of a mere ‘article’, however.

I thought about it; Brien had a point. If we match lengths, colours, and patterns –even textures and materials- then why not holes? I brought the article up on my IPhone to check. They talked of sorting things into categories but there was nothing in it that disqualified holes as a group…

“What’s wrong with matching holes?” I could hear him muttering. “Why just colours? Seems like a waste of the rest of the sock…”

I put the phone away and smiled my best conciliatory, pedantic smile. “You sort for what people notice –what they see, Brien.”

He rolled his eyes again at my dull-wittedness. “You were the one who advised me about the pant-length trick.” He shook his head slowly and sighed. “Now, I’m going to advise you about the under-reported footwear trick.” He screwed his eyes into my face like he was going to hang a picture. “I’ll bet there are hundreds of guys walking around with hidden holes in their socks, as we speak. Thousands, maybe… How would you know?”

For a moment I thought he was going to put his theory to the test and ask me to take off my running shoes to prove the point. But all he said was “What happens in the shoe, stays in the shoe, eh?”

He sat up fully in the chair, and slipped his holes into a pair of rabbit’s fur slippers. “Want a beer?” he said, and padded off into the house before I could answer.


The Garden of Age

I have to be careful here –I don’t want to sound cerebrally damaged, or as if I’ve just escaped from a special-care Home- but I love Age. The leisure to perambulate at will through the overgrown garden of my life; the time to wander along unsuspected paths unencumbered by youthful boundaries; to sit where I will, and sample what I choose –these are the autumn fruits that Age lays before those who choose to walk the meadow.

And although I realize my life has been no more special than the rest, it has always seemed special to me. Unique. Memorable. And given the chance, I would not change it –although I wouldn’t mind being a little taller. A bit more talented… Oh yes, and the glasses… I would not choose to be chained to them from childhood again, thank you. But those peccadillos aside, I am content.

Swept up in this epiphany of Age, and consumed with a secular sort of Agape, I happened upon Brien sitting morosely on his porch. How long he had been staring at the tree in his front yard I couldn’t tell from the sidewalk, but the plate of cookies on the table beside him was largely empty, and so were a few bottles of beer that lay conspicuously on their sides. It was a warm autumn afternoon so he was in no danger of hypothermia; ennui seemed a greater risk, so I waved and invited myself up his steps.

“What trouble are you going to try to cause for me today?” He said before I even sat down.

“Only a wander through the garden,” I said, filled with my vision. It was a mistake.

“I don’t have a garden,” he grunted, and pointed at the tree. “Just old Sheda here.”

“Sheda?” My god he was starting to name stuff. Next thing it’d be his porch and then maybe the garbage… Caught off guard, I must have hit him with my eyes.

He felt the blow. “Yeah, I decided the way to get to know things better was to name them. By the way, you’re sitting on Florence,” he added. Fortunately, he pointed at the deck of the porch so I was safe on the chair. “Made a world of difference, too,” he added, after giving it some thought.

I have to admit that I did scrunch my face up a little when he said that. You never know whether he’s serious or letting slip a little unguarded cognitive dissonance. I decided to take the middle ground. “Stuff to talk to, you mean?” It’s always easier to talk to something with a name.

A big, surprised smile suddenly surfaced on his face and he nodded his head quite vigorously. “You do that too?”

I ventured a tentative nod in reply, trying to let him know I understood, but at the same time not wishing to fertilize any ungerminated seeds of dementia. “Uhmm, I name some things I guess… sometimes… I mean if they’re alive and moving around… sort of.”

“I shouldn’t have named the porch, you mean?” He sounded hurt.

I shrugged to buy some time to think of something. “Well, I suppose it –she– serves a purpose, and it’s probably a useful thing to differentiate one purpose from another…” As soon as I said it, I realized it was weak, but Brien seemed to perk up at the idea.

“Never thought of it like that. I mean I could name the table, and maybe the cookies…”

We sat in silence for a while. “I’ve been thinking about Retirement, Brien,” I said, to change the subject as his hand inched carefully and slowly across the table towards an as-yet unnamed cookie.

“Again? What is it this time? Pensions? Rest Homes…?” He was about to name a few other topics when I held up my hand.

“Something new,” I said, but slowly, to build up the suspense. I have to say I was a little discomfited by his evident disparagement of past topics, though.

The smile on his face said it all: there was nothing new about Retirement.

“I have come to look upon my life so far as an overgrown garden!” I said, proudly.

I’m sure he could feel, if not actually see the exclamation mark, because he immediately sent his barn-swallow-eyes out to flit around my head. “Why a garden?” Epiphanies were wasted on him. So were metaphors, for that matter.

I shook my head to ward off the embarrassing reception my insight was being accorded.

“Think of it, Brien,” I managed to stammer. “Those things you tended and planted throughout the years, finally bearing fruit. Finally maturing for the autumn harvest…” I stared up at the sky as if I could see it manifest in the clouds. “Fruit that you can share with the world… Seeds that will grow, and spread throughout the…”

“You should name it, then.” he interrupted before I could expand even further on my vision.

I had to blink in surprise. “Pardon me?”

“Name the garden!” He rolled his now-captive eyes at my obtuseness, as if I hadn’t been listening. “The fruit probably already has a name,” he added for clarity.

I felt embarrassed for a moment. “It’s just an idea, Brien…”

“You figure it’s going to escape, though.” His expression suddenly turned serious, but of course he could have been trying to distract me from the cookie. “I think we really need to know what to call it -before the seeds spread everywhere, I mean.”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when he’s just playing with me; I decided to join in. “Okay then…” I stalled for time. “How about I don’t know… Demeter, the Greek goddess of Harvest?”

He shook his head and grinned. “Where do you find this stuff?”

His stare made me uncomfortable. “Maybe I’ll try another name…”

He chuckled at the thought. “You’ll just make up another one I’ve never heard of.”

Now I knew he was toying with me. “Got a better name?”

“Matter of fact, I do.” He grabbed the cookie in a fit of pique and took a large bite out of it. “I was going to use it on the trash can, but it’s yours if you want.”

I tried not to look like a teacher who had lobbed a question at a kid sitting in the back row of the class. I pretended to look eager and thankful for the help. “And that would be…?”

“I was going to call it Pandora.” He sat back, and munched contentedly on the cookie.

Sometimes, I think Brien sits nearer to the front…

Agape for Seniors

There are many things that Age does to you, but the only one I can remember at the moment, is the awareness of the fact you’re still here and being done to. It engenders a great need to reciprocate. Repay the debt. And whatever you’ve used the most, is probably the best place to start. That raises a few problems, however.

I figure the local MacDonald’s is unlikely to notice if I clean my place before leaving –and anyway, there’s always gum stuck under the table that I refuse to touch. And as for Starbucks, I think the best thing I could do for them would be to drink up quickly and get out to free up a seat for the people always waiting in the queue –but then my sausage and egg sandwich would never get a chance to cool.

I was sitting with bared egg and meat, and just toying with my coffee to fill the time the other day, when I saw James at the counter, just starting to argue with the barista about how he wanted his cheese bagel treated -we’re both well known in Starbucks for our peccadillos.

I stared in embarrassment at my coffee and was suddenly taken by the thought that perhaps our best gift to them might be to go to Tim Horton’s, when James suddenly appeared at my table.

“Always somebody new behind the counter,” he grumbled, without even saying hello and leaning his cane perilously close to my naked, cooling sandwich.

We sat in silence for a few minutes while he adjusted the position of the little cheese particles on the bagel for some reason. I asked him about this once, but he’d only stared at me and said that in Africa you always had to sort out the cheese from whatever else had wandered onto the bun. The fact that he hadn’t been stationed there for fifty years or so never seemed to mitigate the need, so I always let it pass.

But that day, I was in a contemplative mood. “Do you ever feel thankful that you’re here, James?” I said it with an obvious italic, but his brow furrowed and a portion of his lip let a segment of tooth escape captivity. “I mean, that you’re still alive and with friends after all these years?”

“Didn’t succumb to parasites, you mean?” His thoughts were still on some troublesome lumps  that might be disguising themselves as cheese.

“Well… Yes, I suppose. But also that the community helps us, and…”

“That’s not cheese!” he hissed to no one in particular, and swiped the offending particle off the bagel with a contemptuous thumb. I sensed he wasn’t really listening.

“I think we all have a duty to repay the community,” I added –addressing my breakfast sandwich. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

James was already stuffing bits of the bagel into his mouth. I saw another suspicious bit of something just disappearing over the rim of teeth, but I decided not to tell him.

“Any ideas, James?”

It was admittedly a poor time to ask, but he responded nonetheless with a glare that would have easily reheated my sandwich had I not just replaced the bun over it. He shrugged noncommittally and continued to obliterate what shreds of cheese and lint may have chosen to hide in the previously untouched crevices of his mouth. “Already paid for the bagel…”

I rolled my eyes. “I didn’t mean Starbuck’s, James.”

He slurped some coffee and swished it around in his mouth to flush out the hiding cheese bits. “You’re obviously thinking about it the wrong way.”

I stared at him for a second. “How do you mean?” The uncaring lout.

He grunted and then attacked the other half of the bagel. “Repayment,” he said, as a particularly large chunk of it disappeared like a lump of coal into a furnace.

I tilted my head in what I hoped conveyed a sense of puzzled annoyance, and sampled my sandwich in frustration. It was now too cold, and the egg had borrowed the consistency of his cheese bits.

He continued chewing until he had cleared enough space in there so his words could escape. “You’re talking just like them.” He accepted my glare with a magnanimity that surprised me. Then he poured another mouthful of coffee between his teeth, and clacked them together a few times before swallowing. “Look, if you want to give a friend a present for being nice to you, do you call it a repayment?”

I shook my head warily; I could almost hear the door of a trap creaking open.

“No. You call it a gift.” He smiled, but there was a large piece of cheese peeking out between his teeth. I hate that, but I didn’t want to be rude and interrupt him. “And what kind of a gift would you give a friend?”

I suppose he thought he was leading me towards the answer, but I must have misunderstood his directions because I was still lost. I smiled anyway and sighed. “You always seem to have some good ideas, James…” I said slowly, and pretending to catch his drift, but hoping he would then explain what he meant.

He seemed surprised that I had caught on so quickly though, and swished another mouthful of coffee through his teeth with obvious satisfaction. That, however, finished off his coffee, and since he had already devoured his bagel and deposited the cheese detritus remaining on his plate onto his waiting tongue with a moist finger, he scraped his chair back to leave. Starbucks was just a utility stop in his day and he accorded the experience no more thought than a visit to a washroom.

He grabbed his cane and knocked it on the floor a few times to get it ready for the journey and levered himself to his feet.

“Gift?” I asked hopefully as he prepared to leave.

He nodded sagely. “Gift,” he reaffirmed, pleased that I had truly understood.

Now I was really confused. “But…” I started to say as he turned to leave.

He turned and looked at me for a moment, then shrugged, obviously annoyed that he had misjudged me. “I’m fond of beer,” he said softly and walked away shaking his head.