Gumbo Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Running for Godot

You learn to seize an opportunity when you get to my age, to latch onto it like a puppy on a leg because it may never walk by again. And besides, it’s something to do. I was having a quiet breakfast at a budget motel in Drumheller recently when a group of seniors rushed in like a flock of kindergarten children babbling excitedly about something they were about to do. They were wearing numbers pinned like diapers to their apparel so I suppose I could be forgiven for assuming they were on some form of supervised excursion from the Home, and their numbers were merely assigned for easy identification if they wandered away.

The strange thing, though, was that they were all wearing running shoes and athletic gear and doing stretches while they waited for their toast to burn. Powerful wrinkles rippled silently beneath their yoga pants and I tried not to stare; but it was difficult not to risk quick ocular sorties to identify the source of the crackles and pops that didn’t seem to be coming from their cereal bowls. They all looked so enthusiastic and animated, I wondered for a moment whether they had been pre-medicated with something.

Then one of them, a tall, thin, nervous looking woman with short grey hair sat beside me –by mistake, I imagine, because the rest had clustered together trying to fit themselves around a table so they could shout at each other more efficiently. She was wearing loose black pants, and a disturbingly dissonant neon-green hoodie that almost shouted. She smiled at me, rolled her eyes and poked carefully at a partially filled bowl of raisin bran. As I concentrated politely on trying to thicken an already decadent layer of peanut butter on my freshly toasted bagel, she muttered something. I suppose it was actually a whisper, but she was chewing at the time, so I couldn’t be sure.

“I wish I could do that,” was what it sounded like, but again, I wasn’t certain it was intended for me, so I continued slathering. “I’d feel too logy on the path,” was the addendum.

I didn’t respond, of course, so she tried it again –this time while attempting to dislodge a recalcitrant bran flake from between her teeth. Finally, in desperation, she nudged me with her elbow and spoke slowly and clearly, enunciating each syllable as if I were deaf, foreign, or challenged in some manner.

I smiled and put down my knife under intense scrutiny from the eyes she had sent to forage on the bagel. “I like a little bagel with my peanut butter,” I said, weakly, followed by a brief moment of embarrassment when she didn’t laugh.

“I love peanut butter,” she said, this time in a relatively normal cadence with a reassuring smile, still staring at my bagel. “But the organizers warned us not to eat too much before the race… Something to do with cramps, I think.” She glanced furtively at her friends at the other table. “None of us have ever finished before, but this year, it’s going to be me. I’m going to make it this time!” She sighed and wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Martha you’ll never do it, they keep saying.” She giggled like a teenager. “They only made it as far as the museum themselves last year and waited for me there…” She went suddenly silent and dropped her eyes to the table in front of her.

“And…?”

“And I never arrived… Got a cramp on the first part near the river and told them to go on ahead and I’d join them at the Museum. But it didn’t go away, so I walked back to the starting place and apologized to the race organizers for my failure.”

She seemed so ashamed of the memory, I thought I’d ask her about today’s race. “How far do you need to run this morning?”

Her grin almost split her face in two. “It’s supposed to be a half marathon,” she said excitedly. “We start at the bridge, run along the river path, and then through the badlands to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. We come back the same way.”

Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked the entire group stood up and pretend-jogged to the door. Martha pushed the cereal bowl away, stretched, and then touched my shoulder. “It starts in about fifteen minutes; wish me well –I’ve been training all year for this…”

I smiled and told her I knew she’d make it this time, and then concentrated on my bagel while she and the group bounced out the door.

The silence following their departure was almost preternatural and although I’d been enjoying it before, I felt like there was now something missing. I’d done all the tourist things –I’d been to the museum; I’d hiked the World Heritage site at the Dinosaur Provincial Park -I’d even trouped around Drumheller in the wind and rain taking pictures of the model dinosaurs sitting coyly on park benches or crouched on lawns in front of restaurants. I’d decided to stay another day, but frankly I was already bored. It was raining again and cold with the wind. I’d already hiked every trail I could find, but in the rain, the mud in the badlands turns, well, bad. I wondered about the path the race was using, though –it couldn’t be over the same material. And if seniors could run it, surely I could at least walk it when the race was finished. They were putting me to shame.

I waited until the early afternoon to be sure everybody would have finished the course, and then simply followed the arrows chalked on the pavement. There were still a few race officials standing around, but I could see they were merely taking down the signs and tidying up. There were even a few of the seniors huddled in a little group, hoods up against the wind. At any rate, nobody made any attempt to discourage me from walking along the route, so I started out, leaning into the roaring wind, excited about having a purpose again.

The first part was rather dull –it skirted the road that led to the museum- and apart from a few motels and a Health Center conveniently near to the course, the only interesting part was the strength of the unfettered prairie wind fanned by a Venturi effect that was roaring down the highway. But the little chalk arrows soon pointed into the relative shelter of the woods by the river, and the cottonwood trees rustled their leaves in encouragement. In fact, they were swaying and creaking so loudly in the wind overhead, it sounded like continuous applause –a standing ovation. I felt protected and hidden in the relative calm on the route below their gesticulating arms; it was only when the path crossed the road again and scraped its way across the badlands that I felt the building fury once more. But the museum was still only an invisibly distant, lonely promise.

The rain started up again as I struggled along one particularly steep part of the trail. All around were striped, pale and dark, layered columns of clay and silt deposited thousands of years ago by endlessly repetitive river floods as the glaciers melted. Tiny linear crevasses streaked down each hill -eerie, parallel testaments to the ambivalence of water: deposition or erosion -nothing lasted here; nothing remained the same. A place of aboriginal myths and superstition, it was as barren and forbidding as legend, wind and passing aeons could beget. Postdiluvian, yet unfamiliar. Incongruous… And as I stood there in the dwindling light, I felt increasingly silly for even attempting the walk in these conditions; abandoned, and chilled by the rain, I was a man struggling alone and forgotten on the surface of a cold, alien planet. A stranger in a strange land…

And then, in the distance made blurry by the sheets of rain, I saw it: a flash of colour that at first I mistook for a light from the still too-distant museum -but there was only one and it soon disappeared behind one of the muddy knolls. Nevertheless, I was tired, not curious, and decided to turn around, even though I knew I was far from my goal. There seemed no sense in continuing further in the growing storm -no reward to be gained; no one even knew -or cared- that I had ventured this far on foot.

I turned my back to the wind and tightened the thin, flapping Gortex hood. I don’t know how long I stood there feeling sorry for myself, but all of a sudden I thought I heard a cough behind me.

“I’m gonna make it this time,” a thin, exhausted voice yelled over the wind and through the rain beating staccato on my hood. “My friends have already dropped out, so I phoned them and told them to meet me at the starting place.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder as I spun around and saw a grin on the familiar, hooded face. “Didn’t I tell you I’d make it this time…?”

 

 

 

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…?