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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The Elfin Grot

Don’t let anybody tell you that Retirement is an empty space; that it is what you do when you’ve finished everything else; that you’ve become a kind of accessory nipple. Retirement is more than babysitting and crossword puzzles; more than staring vacuously at the lawn from a chair on the porch.

For example, I created a new religion. I didn’t mean to, or anything. It just happened. I’ve yet to reveal myself to my acolytes, so I’m writing this anonymously –it’s the usual way, I guess. But I’m new at this sort of thing, so I’m just kind of feeling my way through it all.

It started out innocently enough. I usually take my dog on walks through the woods on little-used trails. I prefer these routes so I don’t need to carry those little compostable bags. I’ve always felt that, like spoor, fewmets are natural. And they’re certainly less of an eyesore than a nicely-filled bag thrown in the bushes –my bags used to sit there for months at a time. I don’t know where they got the idea that they decompose.

Anyway, one day, as I was disguising some inconsiderately placed fewmets on the trail, I happened upon a little cairn of pebbles to one side of the path and I thought they would do nicely. Unfortunately, it would seem that my idea was not original and I had to abandon both it and its cache forthwith. But the way the rocks were piled struck me as a type of forest art –I admired the clever balance and choice of material and, I don’t know, I thought it was squandered on, well, waste. I wanted to expand on the concept and sculpt another, purer shape. And elsewhere –lest it be forever linked to deception.

I thought my first attempt  was clever: a tiny inuksuk, complete with arms and head –all cleverly balanced, and prominently displayed on a moss-covered boulder near where two trails cross. It was almost hidden under an arch of leaves, as if it were located in its own little, special cave of green. Alas, on revisiting the site a few days later, the rocks were scattered. At first, I thought perhaps it was the wind, but I suspect I was just being naïve. My carefully chosen stones were dispersed in all directions, and there was a suspicious stain on the bottom edge of the dais. But I was so enamoured of my creative idea, I wasn’t discouraged. New ideas are often denigrated by competing interests, don’t you find?

I decided to modify the form so that it was less depictive, and more dependent on heurism. Ingenuity. I cleverly balanced several disparately-shaped stones from the trail in such a way that it would take a steady hand and a little forethought to add to the structure. In fact, it was small enough that it positively begged for additions.

When I came back the next day I was amazed –there, on the boulder, was a small, dysmorphic figure. It was as if it had evolved overnight –blossomed like a flower in the night air. Little stones were carefully balanced on the larger ones beneath, with tiny pebbles crowning the apex like a diadem. I carefully added another, albeit a tinier addition to the summit, and walked away pleased.

Of course, like any Creator, I needed to make sure there were no further desecrations –there are precedents for this kind of thing, I believe- and on returning the following morning, I was amazed to see another shape growing beside the first –an Eve. And it occurred to me, I had created a grotto for a tiny trail-side religion that was maturing of its own accord.

I wondered for a while whether to branch out. Divaricate. Maybe Facebook it and use bigger words with my friends… Well, perhaps in my younger years, I would have strayed onto that path, but remembering the lessons of Shakespeare, I was fearful of the wages of hubris. I was, I realized, a small god in the scheme of things. Those same sacred stones could be cast my way.

Eventually, I decided to remain in the shadows like a cult, and would have remained there, content and replete, if it hadn’t been for Jeremiah –well, his name was actually Jerry, but I promoted him. I saw him walking his funny little incontinent dog in a small park a few weeks after I abandoned my flock. I’ve never really liked him because he was always complaining about something. Criticizing this, or mocking that, his life –to hear him describe it- was Job-like. And I think he saw his dog, Weenie, as an agent of excretal revenge. His very own avenging angel.

“Jerry,” I said, quickly moving my foot from Weenie’s inquiring leg. “I thought you preferred sidewalks for your exercise.”

The sarcasm was lost on him, though. “Got bawled out by some lady the other day,” he said, not in the least embarrassed. “Said she was going to call the mayor…”

Does anybody actually call a mayor nowadays? “Oh… Well, nice to see you again, Jerry,” I said, starting to walk away as Weenie, never one to accept failure, began to tee me up again.

“I’ve begun to walk the trails, you know,” he said grabbing my sleeve, his eyes turning skyward, as if he was appealing for divine forgiveness. “Nobody seems to care in there.” This seemingly angst-ridden statement was accompanied by a sour grin and what on anybody else might have passed for a wink. On his face, however, it was more like a twitch; a muscle fired by mistake.

“And do you know what I saw?” he continued, his voice thick with contempt. He waited for me to ask, but I was too busy with Weenie to answer. Besides, I knew he was going to tell me whether or not I asked.

I did, however, manage a quick glance to see if he’d notice if I kicked the dog. He pulled sharply on the leash as I searched his eyes, but I think it was because Weenie was showing preternatural interest in one of his shoe by then.

“You know how Weenie likes to explore…?” He left the question open. “Well, I usually let him off his leash in the bush, so I never know where he’ll go.” His eyes darted briefly to my face to check whether or not I approved of this reckless action. “He always comes back, you know…”

Then, confident that I was reassured, he continued. “Anyway, I found him sitting on top of a boulder near the trail. He was sniffing at a pile of rocks he’d knocked down that somebody had stacked there. He was licking his lips and chewing something. He actually growled at me when I tried to get him off…”

“So…”

He rolled his eyes in frustration that I didn’t immediately grasp the significance. “So somebody had left a candy there –I found a wrapper behind the boulder.” He shook his head disapprovingly. “Why do people do things like that?”

“Things like…?”

“Littering, for god’s sake!” His body stiffened and his mouth hardened -as if people like me were what was wrong with the world nowadays. “And there was actually a bare spot on the path where some idiot had taken those stones to put on the rock…” He shook his head irritably again and looked around as if he was searching for another bare spot to illustrate how upsetting it was.

“Maybe they were just trying to hide the candy,” I said softly, “Put it in a special place…” Weenie was tugging on his leash so Jerry was already starting to wander off. I don’t think he heard me.

But I don’t think he’d ever hear. The message from my elfin grot was only a whisper in the trees: a still, small voice not yet ready for the rooftops. But my ripple had started –I already had the first sacrificial offering.

I think I’m going to like this Retirement stuff.