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?











Mutatis Mutandis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It made me wonder how he’d put it before. I decided to tell him about an article I’d read on brain size (http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38226810) “Our human brain size was a mutation, Arden,” I said -rather too loudly I guess, because several other people on the bench lowered their newspapers, or raised their heads from their chests and surreptitiously glanced my way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean…?”

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



High Intensity Retirement

I like exercise –if for no other reason than when I’ve finished, it makes me feel like I have expiated some ill-defined atavistic, yet autogenous guilt that I nevertheless like to blame on my mother. I suppose it borders on the masochistic to enjoy feeling that muscle groups everywhere are self-destructing, but there you have it –a modus vivendi. It’s not for everyone, I realize; not all of us require the degree of atonement bred so cleverly into my genes –okay, into my mother’s.

But each time I walk past Brien’s place and see him sitting motionless on his porch staring at his favourite tree, I wonder whether his mother had been a little too lax in her parenting. Too light on the guilt. Of course he’s retired now, as he is so fond of reminding me, and he feels he’s earned his sloth –although he prefers to refer to it as lassitude because he likes the word… I had to look it up.

Anyway, I am always on the alert for shortcuts to fitness for him. I have, in fact, made it into a kind of evangelistic vocation, so it was with no little frisson of excitement that I decided to tell him about an article I’d found in an old edition of the BBC news on the subject: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37249021 And it’s rather cleverly disguised by what seems to be an encrypted acronym, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) which is a plus –it would at least get me onto the porch.

“Hey Brien,” I said, waving at him from the sidewalk in front of his house. He always likes a warning salvo before the trespass.

“Hey,” he said, sounding as if I’d just wakened him up. Brien is a man of few words. He claims it’s to conserve energy, but I’ve been trying to encourage him to lengthen his sentences as a kind of warm-up thing.

“I found another article for you to read,” I said, threading my way with care over the cracked and broken concrete slabs that led to the porch. He used to tell me that he thought they discouraged thieves, until I pointed out that those kind of people would probably walk over the lawn to sneak up more quietly.

Even as I approached, I could see him rolling his eyes –his version of a stretch, I suppose. “Exercise again?” he asked with a yawn. He once called me an Exercise Witness, but I think he’d forgotten the right name. Anyway, I don’t hand out pamphlets or visit anybody else in the neighbourhood.

“Just fifteen minutes a week, Brien!” I thought I should italicize it, even though I knew he wasn’t very good at picking up those sorts of subtleties.

His eyes had stopped rolling by the time I reached the porch and were now wandering over my face as if they were hunting for something –the catch, probably.

“As a matter of fact, just 5 minutes at any one time…”

The eyes suddenly jerked upward to fence with mine. “Thought you said 15…”

His eyes were now embedded like fishhooks, so I smiled to disarm him. “Five minutes, at a time, three times a week on different days.” I thought I’d better clarify it for him.

“So that’s three days, you mean?” I nodded. “I have to spread it out…?” I nodded again, although I was beginning to wonder if I’d got it right.

He walked his eyes over to the tree again and hung them there for a while. Suddenly they returned with another question. “If you only need to do 15 minutes in a week, why can’t I get it all over with in one go, so I won’t have to worry about remembering it all the time?” It occurred to me that it might have been the longest sentence I’d ever heard from him.

I thought about his question for a moment. I couldn’t recall anybody in the BBC asking about that. I suppose the idea was that most people don’t have the time to do the 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week that they claim is usually recommended. “Well,” I started, sewing together my argument as I spoke. “It’s actually five bursts of 60 second exercise, each followed by 90 seconds of rest… I imagine it’s kind of tiring…”

“Hah!” he announced with a truly athletic show of eye-rolling. “Knew there’d be a catch.”

I sighed theatrically to indicate my frustration. “But that’s why you get to rest after each exercise!” I think I wasted the exclamation mark -they just seem to bounce off him like commas. “And you get to rest five times!” I wondered whether also adding two italicized words in a row might win him over instead, but I could tell by his confused expression that I’d squandered those as well.

“I’m not arguing about the rests,” he explained, obviously trying to be patient with me. “More about the need…”

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “We have to keep fit when we get older, Brien.”

He rested his eyes on my cheek and left them there until I cooled down. “Fit for…?”

That was unfair. “Fit… So we can…” But I was stuck, and although the smile that crept onto his face gave him away, he waited quietly for me to say something so he could refute it; I decided on ‘health’. “…So we can be healthy.”

His smile grew until it split his face into two halves. “Which means…?”

His use of the ellipsis was beginning to bother me –I hate it when people copy my grammatical stress relievers… “Which means… I don’t know… That maybe that we can continue being able to do what we want.” It was weak, but it was all I could think of with his eyes sitting on me.

“I am…” He was just playing –he knew he had me. He summoned his eyes and sent them off again to roost in the tree. “Isn’t that what retirement is for…?”

Dog Days

The dog is probably one of the most important inventions in the history of civilization. More than just another thing, it has been a protector, a hunter and -when push came to grunt- a way of getting us out of the cave for exercise while our partner tore strips of meat off the mammoth for dinner. And unlike cats –which, in those days, probably wouldn’t have waited for you to open the bag of kibble- the dog was quite happy to lie quietly at your feet until you fed it scraps. Also, they have never messed around with purring; if the dog purrs, it inevitably does so with bared fangs, so you know where you stand.

Over the millennia, however, dogs have evolved. Some of them don’t even look like dogs anymore –they’ve been specialized -some for scratching, some for licking, and some, I blush to say, merely for vanity –ours.

My dog, Rugal –don’t ask for the etymology (I was a gynaecologist before I retired)- has managed to avoid all of the breeding pitfalls by being the scion of my border collie, and a ship passing in the night that jumped over the fence and seduced him. Penniless, and gravid, said inamorata sought shelter in the neighbourhood kennel and in a burst of filial loyalty and tainted with a soupçon of guilt, I rescued one of the cuddlier results. And, cleverly anticipating the ascendancy of non-binary dogs, I opted to have her sterilized before another passing ship could persuade her otherwise.

Despite our salad days, she’s now rather long in the tooth so our runs have become limps, or at least dawdles. She gets confused at forks in the trail, and like some aged senior wandering away in confusion from the Home, she needs supervision. And time –lots of it. So I thought it might do Brien some good to accompany me on our slow perambulations from time to time. He doesn’t live in a Home, or anything, but he seldom strays from the porch of his house unless I arrange to meet him at a coffee shop, or offer to buy him lunch. He’s stubborn like that –and abnegative, a word that could have been coined in his honour…

Brien has a lot in common with Rugal, I think –they’re both obese and both walk slowly, and probably would be even slower unless enticed. I sometimes put a few dog biscuits in my pocket for Rugal, but I quickly discarded the idea of bringing beer for Brien, because I’d have to carry it. And although Brien walks too slowly in malls, and tends to wander off like the dog, I figured I could keep an eye on them both. Besides, Brien likes to argue, so I would always know where he was. He also has bad breath, so that helps, too.

With that in mind, I wandered over to his porch one fine and sunny spring morning after 11 AM, ever mindful of his circadian rhythm, and there he was, dosing on a recliner as clothed as an Inuit on a December day.

“Brien,” I yelled from the sidewalk, not wanting to alarm him by sneaking up beside him on the porch unannounced. I had to shout several times and then bang on the bottom step because his ears were hidden inside a hoodie.

I could see a pair of eyes glaring at me like watchful falcons from within the shadows of the oversized hood. And then, once I had been ID’d and vetted, a head emerged from the cavern and the body sat up. “’Bout time,” it said in a gruff voice. “I wondered when you were going to come by.” He extracted a meaty arm from under a blanket and checked his watch. “What’s this great idea you were going to discuss with me?”

No ‘How are you anyway?’, or even a ‘Hello’. Brien never bothered himself much with preliminary conversational niceties, he merely ploughed straight into the meal. And he didn’t consider it at all rude to resume whatever he had been doing once he had obtained the relevant information. Words were tools and the fewer used, the more skilled the craft. Metaphor was wasted on Brien.

“I thought you might need some exercise.” I felt I should explain –no, justify– it further, but before I could even begin my carefully engineered argument, his eyes hurried over to stop my tongue, mid-wag.

“And why did you think that?”

“I was just about to ex-…”

“You know I hate hiking,” he interrupted irritably.

“Rugal walks slowly, Brien. Really slowly.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

I stared back at him, but kindly –like a parent. “I’m trying to tell you that you need more exercise, and walking with Rugal is a good way to start.”

I could feel his eyes walking back and forth across my face.

“You were a gynaecologist, not a trainer.”

He says that all the time and it usually quells my enthusiasm, but this time I had prepared a coup de grace and practiced my disdain in front of the mirror while I cleaned my teeth -it’s all in the forehead. “I was also an obstetrician, Brien -lest you forget!” That was the disdain part.

“So, you’re wasting your time on me.”

I had anticipated that. “Ahh, but I’ve coached women on the need to be in top physical form for delivery.” Actually, that was the midwives and the antepartum instructors; I just caught the baby, but I figured he wouldn’t know that.

“I’ve seen it on TV,” he said, somehow managing to sneer verbally. “All you guys do is sit there and make sure the baby doesn’t fall on the floor.”

He was good, I have to hand it to him. “That’s what it looks like on TV, I suppose, but just like a finely tuned athlete makes what they do look easy, it requires a lot of preparation and training beforehand.”

“You want to teach me Kegel exercises, or something, then?”

Damn! He’d been reading again. I hesitated, unsure how to proceed. In the end, I decided to call a spade a spade and skip the rest of my now-thwarted argument. “No, I just want to invite you to walk with Rugal and me.”

He promptly threw off the blanket and I saw he was dressed in a sweatshirt, track pants, and a sturdy pair of walking shoes with woolen socks. “Thought you’d never ask,” he said, all smiles. “Where’s the dog, by the way?”

I just knew I’d forget something.


In the Fell Clutch of Circumstance

You know, I really have to hand it to John, he’s got this retirement thing down pat –more than pat, I suppose: he’s writing it all down.
“Just in case,” he said, one day at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop where I found him scribbling thoughtfully in one of those large three-ring binder notebooks like we used in high school.

“In case of what, exactly?” I asked, sitting down at his table.

I could see his eyes running a quick analysis of the risk of my coffee spilling onto his manuscript. He reached out and moved it a few centimeters away. “In case anything happens.”

I took a little sip of the newly-moved coffee, careful to put it back in the same spot.  “Like what, John? In case you’re kidnapped, or something?”

His eyes briefly chided my face and then withdrew to their accustomed roost on the binder. “No, but I live alone remember.”

I waited for an elaboration, but he obviously felt that he’d answered the question satisfactorily and occupied himself with staring at the half-full page he’d written. Then he wrote a few more words –one of which, even upside down, looked an awful lot like my name.

“I live alone too, John…” I didn’t know where to go from there so I just waited until it looked as if he’d finished writing the sentence with my name in it. “Is that important?”

He put down the pen and raised his head to look at me with a kind of resigned expression –the kind you might use on a slow pupil. “We’re both retired now,” he said, kindly. I almost thought he was going to reach across the table and pat my hand to console me. “And things change…”

That seemed rather generic. “What things change?”

He rolled his eyes in frustration at my thickness. “You know, things…”

I could almost feel the italics in his expression, but they didn’t help. “Things? Like, wrinkles, or having to get up in the middle of the night…?”

He waved me off impatiently and decided to sip at his own coffee for a moment. “Health issues,” he said, after he’d thought about it.

I have to admit that I was surprised. John was a self-confessed exercisomaniac, and since his retirement, I often saw him running in the park or bicycling along the trails, his helmet even brighter than the sunlight glinting off his orange lycra pants. He walked everywhere he didn’t bike. “What health issues, John? Muscle cramps? Allergies from riding through the woods?”

He fixed me with a prolonged stare, his eyes gripping my face like an angry parent, and then called them off and sighed. “Look, have you ever wondered what would happen if you had a heart attack or a stroke…?”

I shook my head; I hadn’t, actually. “Why would I wonder about that?”

He took a deep, frustrated breath and let it out slowly. “Neither of us have partners…”


“So, suppose something bad happened?”

“Like a heart attack, you mean?” I said, thinking I was finally catching his drift.

He blinked slowly and nodded his head. “Who would know?”

“Know what…?”

“Whether anything had happened.”

He had a point. “You thinking of buying one of those alarm buttons, or something?” I couldn’t believe it had finally come to this in our lives.

He smiled –his first of the morning- and shook his head. “No, but any port in a storm, I guess…”

“What storm, John?” He was obviously worried about something.

He looked around the room to make sure nobody was listening before he answered. “Dizziness,” he answered in a soft, semi-whisper, almost as if he was afraid of conjuring up the condition by even naming it.

“Dizziness?” I responded -but overly loudly, I guess, because he unmuzzled his eyes again. I softened my voice and leaned over the table towards him. “We all get dizzy sometimes, John. Why are you worried?”

His expression was defiant, his voice concerned. “It’s never happened before,” he answered, but without his usual bravado. “One day a few weeks ago I got out of bed and kept losing my balance. It lasted all morning…” Now even his face looked worried. He focussed his attention on my head and once again his eyes darted over to scratch at my cheeks. “I think I have a brain tumour,” he whispered, and then withdrew into himself again, his face now pale, and his hand shaking as he reached for his coffee.

We were both silent for a second or two. I couldn’t think of anything to say.  Finally, I managed to ask him if he’d seen his doctor.

“I was so worried, I went to the Emergency Department at the hospital and even saw the neurologist on call.” Then he lapsed into silence, as if that were enough of an answer.

Sometimes John can be so annoying. He left me to draw my own conclusions about something serious enough to require a visit to Emergency –and a neurologist. “And…?”

He snorted and stared at the ceiling. “She didn’t think it was a brain tumour…”

“Did she do any tests… a CT or something?”

He nodded. “Pretty well everything was normal.”


He shrugged. “So, I think she missed something.”

“Why? What did she think was the cause of the problem?”

He grabbed his coffee and took an aggressive swallow, murmuring something as he did so.

“Pardon me, John? I missed that. What did the neurologist think?”

He whispered something, but it was lost in the shout of a nearby child. When I didn’t reply, he began to explain the mistaken diagnosis in a more audible voice. I still had no idea what he’d said, but it sounded for all the world like a justification. “It’s never happened before, you know,” he said earnestly. “So, it couldn’t be that…” I opened my mouth to ask what that was, but my attempt was read as a criticism and he evidently wasn’t prepared to hear it. “I’m in my seventies now; don’t you think I know my body?”

This from someone who had just told me he was worried about something bad happening to him, undiscovered. I smiled reassuringly. “And has the dizziness happened since that time?”

His face tensed and he glared at me. “Of course not!” he almost shouted at me, and then realized he shouldn’t take out his stress on a friend. He sat back and tried to smile. “I decided to change some things in my life, though… Maybe that helped.” He noticed my quizzical expression. “You know, dietary kinds of stuff.” He stretched his arms and took a deep breath. “Reduce my stress levels…”

I nodded as if I understood. I’d known him since university and he’d always been anxious. We used to go out and party on weekends and that always seemed to work. I had an idea. “Why don’t we go out for a drink tonight and talk about it like we did in the old days?

His brow furrowed suddenly and he cocked his head and looked at me as if I were crazy. “You mean like a test…?”

“Uhmm…” I had no idea what he was talking about. “What do you mean, John? We’re just gonna talk about stuff over a drink, not do acid, or anything.”

He watched me carefully from behind his eyes, trying to decide if I was making fun of him. After a few moments of silence, he smiled, gathered up his notes and extended his hand for me to shake. “She told me not to…” he said and stood up to leave. “I still think she missed something, though…” he said as he walked away, nimbly picking his way through the chairs without a mishap.











Zen and the Art of Retirement Maintenance

There is a Zen of exercise you know, but not everybody partakes equally of its spiritual side. Like most of us from the West, we seem to frame our expectations on the models that Western religions have offered us: pain and suffering. At least I suppose I do -although I pretend to experience endorphin-induced ecstasy, and an epiphany with burning muscles -ecclesial agape. All in retrospect, you understand.

I fancy myself a runner, and there’s a funny thing about running: it’s hard to stop, once you start. Well, it’s hard for me to stop, anyway. Every once in a while, I ask myself if it’s abnormal, but the consensus seems to be no. Of course it’s a small sample to go on, but you have to start somewhere.

I don’t mean to suggest that I am a competitive runner or anything. About the only competition I ever tried was with my dog and, well, he had an unusual number of legs so I let him win. He was also on steroids from the neighbour’s table scraps… Fortunately, he’s slowed down a lot since they went Vegan. Still, I learned a valuable life lesson: only compete with the same species  And also, avoiding competition with people who have excessive body hair is probably a good idea, too. So, to be safe, I run alone.

I was over at a friend’s place for coffee the other day. Someone had told him that he was really porking up since he’d retired, so he was thinking of getting into exercise. He’d asked me to come over and help him decide what kind of treadmill to buy. Like me, he hates to run in front of people and he thought that maybe something he could do in the privacy of his basement would avoid public shaming. I thought maybe I could proselytize some zen.

“I figure that something that I can set on ‘walk’ would be a good start…” He sipped at his coffee and looked out the window of his tiny living room. There was a refreshing absence of curtains in his house because it was at the very edge of a forest.

I followed his gaze into the deep shadows between the trees. “Why not just set your feet on ‘walk’ and stroll around in the woods?” It seemed like a reasonably thrifty option for someone living on a pension.

“Thought of that,” he said after a long, contemplative pause. “But I need to have a backup plan,” he explained with a sigh.

“You mean in case the forest burns down overnight, or something?”

He fixed me with a perplexed glare and shook his head sadly as if I hadn’t been paying enough attention. “In case it rains,” he said in slow, drawn-out words and then rolled his eyes. ‘Perhaps you are asking advice from the wrong person,’ his eyes whispered to him once they were back online.

“Oh…” It was all I could think of to reply under the pressure of his subsequently withering stare. And then, when he’d called off his eyes and they were safely back in their cages: “I sometimes walk in the rain…” I used the italic ‘I’ and left the sentence open, hoping it might summon some common recollection.

I don’t,” he mumbled, but his expression softened when he noticed my eyes desperately searching for their tiny perches. “That’s what Retirement’s for: choice.” He decided he’d better explain when he saw my blank face. “If I don’t have to, I don’t.” And then, when he realized that even this detailed explanation didn’t help, he sighed. “Look, I just want to try exercise because I’m bored.” He inspected my face to see if he was getting through. “But I don’t want to take on too much.”

“You can’t get bored on a walk,” I added helpfully. I even winked, although I’ve been told that it usually looks like I’ve just found something in my eye.

“I still want options,” he said after a short pause to decide whether or not I was talking about a walk in the rain.

The thought occurred to me that walking on a treadmill –even a dry one- might not alleviate the boredom very much. “I suppose if you get a really quiet device, you could listen to music or something while you walk.”

A smile appeared, but I could tell it was forced -I obviously did not understand. “Don’t want any distractions, though,” he managed to say, all the while while shaking his head at me. “Maybe once I get it down pat, I may try that.” It was merely a concession to prevent me from losing face, I think, because he then went on to explain how you really had to pay attention on a treadmill –something about foot placement and falling off. “I think it’ll help prevent cognitive decline, too, don’t you?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I hate Sudoku,” he added, for some reason. “I get half way through it and then realize I’ve got two nines or whatever, in the same row…” Then he blinked at me and lowered his eyes for a moment. “And I cheat in crossword puzzles –they have the answers at the end of the book,” he explained, in case I didn’t know that. “So, you see, I really need exercise…”

He probably had strong pencil fingers, but I decided not to mention it and just nodded.

He became unduly pensive for a moment, and leaned back in his chair. Suddenly he pushed a cookie across the table at me and leaned forward. “Tell me, honestly,” he said, in an earnest tone, locking me in his gaze as if I would otherwise try to fool him. “Do you think I’m being a little bit too rash with this exercise thing?” His eyes tightened on me -talons on an item of prey. “I mean am I overdoing it by wanting to walk every day?” He looked at the plate of cookies in front of him and selected a large, thick one with chocolate chips bursting from it like gopher mounds on a prairie field. His eyes certainly got a lot of exercise.

“Maybe I should get one of those stationary bikes –I mean you can do all the exercise sitting down…” He smiled at the thought and popped a large part of the cookie in his mouth.

“But…” -I was about to explain to him that for it to do him any good he’d probably have to work up a little sweat.

“So I don’t get tired,” his cookie-laden mouth interrupted irritably, quite unable to understand why I wouldn’t think that would be a better way to exercise. Crumbs dripped from his mouth as he finished chewing. “I’ve never been able to balance on the two wheelers anyway, so I wouldn’t have to worry about falling off… Or going out in the rain,” he added, obviously pleased that he’d found another good reason. “What do you think…?”

I tried to say that I thought he might have the wrong idea about exercising, but he’d caught me mid-bite, so my mouth was full and my words were probably muffled and hard to interpret.

I think he took the chewing noise for agreement, because he immediately shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth and scanned the dish for another similarly endowed one. “But there’s no sense rushing into things,” he managed to squeeze in between bites. “I mean I’ve got the rest of my life to decide, don’t I?”

I finished my cookie and managed a smile. Exercise isn’t for everybody. And anyway, who knows how many more cookies any of us have…?






Days of Wine and Linament

The time is out of joint, says Hamlet. I can relate to that –only it’s my knees that are complaining, not my Time. But, in fairness to my movables, I suppose I should be mindful that rust is preferable to replacement.

Even so, I find I’m spending more on liniment than wine, nowadays, and the only heady bouquet in the kitchen is that of demulcent emollients from the pharmacy. Friends have stopped dropping by for coffee, though, so I guess I’m saving on that.

I want to be clear: I am as deeply committed to exercise now as I was in grade 5 at the Riverview Elementary School in Winnipeg. I had never excelled at Height, and so to compensate for this disability I concentrated on developing Mouth. It worked in the first few grades, but as my age wore on -and the more evolutionarily successful louts in the back seats began their recess-driven raids on those of us who preferred the front- it soon became apparent why our genetic pool was at risk. It was then that I discovered Run. It was amazing what Mouth could get away with if it couldn’t be caught. I developed what I have come to think of as the Border Collie Defence: a kind of broken field zig-zag that was impossible to predict –a David and Goliath defence that I’m sure is still legend in Winnipeg.

But I digress. I meant to say that I have been intrigued by exercise since I was very young. You’ll note that I used the word ‘intrigued’ rather than ‘excelled’. To excel at something suggests a level of commitment I was seldom able to sustain. In Run, the clearly understood goal was to escape. Only later, in my more mature times, did I realize that it could also be utilized for non-utilitarian projects such as fun, or -if I happened to be chosen for the pick-up game of football on Saturday afternoons- sports. I was usually chosen last, though, and each side always fought over who would be forced to take me, so I often spent Saturdays reading.

As I got older, however, it became de rigueur to pretend I could keep up with my own kids, and so I learned to push my envelope. But when it became embarrassingly evident that I was enclosed in a rather old envelope, they switched tactics. They began to challenge me at chess, then –out of pity, I suspect- Snakes and Ladders, and finally, the  entrance exam for most Retirement Homes- X’s & O’s, so I opted out of team sports and limited my exercise to solitary moonlight walks and private, keyed facilities like the mat in my basement.

As a Retirement gift, though, I ventured online and bought myself a programmable stationary bike with speakers into which I could plug my iPad and its retinue of Netflix movies. It seemed like the perfect answer to unfavourable, ego-dystonic juxtapositioning with those -other than my children- more endowed with the atavistic simian traits that I had learned to avoid at Riverview. Sometimes I wonder if I harbour some lingering bitterness about my youth.

I’ve never been a big movie fan. We front-rowers who could actually hear the teacher, quickly realized that the strange black things scribbled under the pictures in our books were words –and that there really were two roads that diverged in a yellow wood that we could see with our minds without photographs. And never the twain did meet… Sorry, I get carried away sometimes.

Anyway, because of my exercise bike, I became enthralled with movies. Entranced by the colour and the action, no longer did I have to imagine what was happening –it was all done for me like magic. My aging friends started to roll their eyes when they saw me coming because they knew I would have discovered some great film to tell them about that was all the rage when they were still working. They had to assure me that the marvellous old cars I described were not just special-effects, but were actually the ones being driven when the movie was made. Who knew?

But, when I immersed myself in this new medium, I lost track of time –all the while pedalling away on my endlessly repeating program of hills and mountains on the bike, heedless of the increasingly hoarse shouts from my knees. I would emerge from the film and then buckle when I tried to stand. Well, not actually buckle or anything –but when I tried to walk, I would hear what I used to hear in the bowl when I poured milk on my Rice Krispies. Whatever; I’m not convinced that stationary bikes are equivalent to standard-issue outdoor bikes whose movies are more three-dimensionally compelling, and also subject to balance and dog issues.

And then there’s the muscle thing –the char, or whatever they call the thigh pain you get when you keep pedalling and watching the screen. I never used to suffer it when I ran, and my legs stayed neutral when I biked for miles around my paper route, so this is all new to me. It makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with the bike. I’d take the whole thing back, only I got a deal online and saved a lot of money by renouncing the warranty. Also, somebody scraped the brand name and serial numbers off, so it would be difficult anyway.

I’m going to persist, though. I’ve decided to bike in smaller aliquots to accommodate different viewing opportunities. I’ve switched from movies to the shorter TV shows, and lately I’ve found that some of the children’s programs actually help with my muscle-driven attention span. I do worry, though, what this ever-diminishing physical stamina says about my cognitive capacities -that I can now lose myself in a cartoon I mean.

But my new selections have also taught me a few tricks I can spring on my kids if they ever try to go back to those game challenges -I think I’ve discovered a sure-fire algorithm for Rock, Paper, Scissor victories, for example. I can’t wait.