Excuse Me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do you ever have the overwhelming need to confess something –well, at least share it without the need for absolution? Coffee does that to me –all I need is a stranger who, although she may think I’m weird, is unlikely to pass it on to anybody I might know. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have a neighbourhood confessional that I could pop into whenever the mood strikes. And anyway, I’m looking for a laxative for my soul, not a penance for my sins.

The trick is to find the right person -you have to be careful. Older women in conservatively coloured dresses staring at newspaper crossword puzzles work best for me. Admittedly, this demographic tends to frequent libraries and you can’t talk much in there, but occasionally one will wander into Starbucks on the way, so I lie in wait. Their smile is important, by the way –it suggests openness to new ideas, and a readiness to engage, if only briefly. But that’s all I require, really. I’m not looking for a relationship, just a pair of friendly ears, and lips that won’t report me. I don’t think my behaviour is pernicious for a coffee shop, but my friends seem to imply that I’m overly needy. And of course, this is not one of the things I usually seek to confess. I am more into existential disclosures. Nothing personal, you understand –I don’t want to go viral on Facebook, or anything; I favour revelations that encourage sympathy and unfettered eye contact.

Most communication is said to be non-verbal, so I have developed various adjunctive measures to help me along. Coffee waves, for example. These are subtle, controlled movements of the wrist that swirl coffee perilously close to the rim while making a point. I had a few accidents in the early days, but I’m now pretty reliable except when I’m stressed.

I also use the finger jab to good effect. This is risky, of course, and requires careful timing and impeccable judgement so as not to be construed as an assault, but with a little patience, it can be an effective technique. The finger has to be in and out quickly; it must never linger on the sleeve or describe any motion other than a mathematically unidimensional point. And, lest it be misconstrued, it must be used sparingly, if at all.

The object, as I said, is to solicit commiseration and unwavering attention. Not anybody will do, so I’m always on the lookout. Yesterday, for example. I spotted a grey-haired woman in a long, black woolen skirt and white linen blouse sitting comfortably alone at a table reading some papers. Although she was scowling, she was sipping on a latte of some sort as she sorted through the reports, and I took that as an encouraging sign. Nobody’s perfect, eh? A real estate agent, I figured. Good –they’re trained to listen. There was an empty table next to her, so I sat down with my multigrain bagel in one hand and tall, dark, blend-of-the-day coffee in the other as if I was a regular. Actually, I was just trying to get out of the weather.

As my wet clothes started to steam in the too-warm coffee shop, she looked over at me -rather haughtily I thought. “You do realize you’re dripping on my table, I hope.”

This did not seem like the opportunity I had envisaged, but I thought a clever reply on my part might diffuse the tension. Unfortunately, I was still trying to think of one when she sniffed at me –I can describe it in no other way.

“You’re just like my husband,” I could hear her mutter to herself as she moved her latte to the other side of her table.

“I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t.

“He always says that, too,” she said in a louder, more directed whisper, all the while shaking her head. Then she stared directly at me, her eyes uncertain whether they should roost on my lips or my wet clothes; they decided to take up temporary residence on my face after hovering over it for the longest time.

“I didn’t mean to take out my frustration on you,” she conceded, but her expression was tentative, and it was clear that she was relieved that she did. “I’m sure you’re a better person than him…” And yet there was a hesitation in her words, that made me think she wasn’t at all certain. She sighed and withdrew her eyes so she could drop them onto the pages in front of her. The papers were obviously important.

“I didn’t mean to keep you from your work,” I said lamely, and then took a bite out of my bagel.

A smile surfaced briefly on her face, then disappeared into a scowl again. “I wish it was work,” she whispered enigmatically, and attacked her latte.

I made the mistake of glancing at it and was immediately jabbed by a finger.

“Do you mind?” she growled testily, and moved it further away. She was silent for a moment as she skimmed through a few more pages, all the while swirling her latte around inside her cup. I have to admit she was pretty good at it for an amateur.

Then she suddenly looked up from the page and glared at me. “Look, it’s a separation agreement, okay?” Her eyes were granite. “You don’t have to be so nosey…”

I quickly disappeared into the bagel and stared at my table as if I’d noticed something fascinating on the faux grain. Then I felt the finger again, only softer this time, and it lingered, evidently unconcerned about misconstrual. “He’s really not a bad person, you know…” she added, with marshmallow eyes, now intently massaging the paper in front of her. “He means well I think… He just has trouble expressing it.” She glanced at me briefly, but I could see tears forming in her eyes. “He wanted to go for counselling, you know,” she said smiling, finally. “I didn’t want to…”

She touched me again, but this time on my wrist and with her whole hand. She left it there, warm and soft, for a moment. “But, you know, after talking to you, I think I’m ready for that now…” The voice softened like her hand; she seemed a changed woman. “You’re such a good listener.”

Her smile was contagious and I couldn’t stop myself from nodding in agreement.

“I’m so glad I met you today,” she said, scooping up the papers and shoving them into a briefcase hidden under her table. Then she scraped her chair as she got to her feet, sighed in my direction to demonstrate her gratitude, and walked resolutely towards the door without looking back.

It’s so nice to share things with strangers, you know, but you sure have to pick the right person.

Lilies that Fester

They’re cute alright; nobody can deny that they are cute -soft, fluffy, teddy bear cute. Everything about them shouts hug. But when I first saw it lallygagging up the driveway as if it was just out for an evening waddle, those were not my thoughts. Crepuscular activity has always seemed suspicious to me. I mean if something is not willing to cast a shadow, then maybe there are issues. And anyway, allure is contingent, don’t you think?

So, even if you brush its coat, straighten its stripes, and tie a ribbon around its neck, a skunk is still a skunk. In an olfactory world, beauty is as beauty does. I’d like to think I’m not being unduly speciesist when I observe that some attributes are simply not attractive, however utilitarian they may be to the animal in question. That it’s not their fault will not get them through the door.

But I digress. I think would find skunks more attractive if they didn’t sneak up so quietly, or better still if they snuck up going the other direction. But I recognize that this would be asking a lot of an animal intent upon getting back to the wife and kids after an evening prowl through the garbage. Alea iacta est, right? What’s a driveway for, if not a direct route to the garage? And home. Had I not trespassed on his route when I did, the cares of its day would have folded their tents like Arabs and as silently stolen away… Longfellow certainly understood skunks.

I had begun to notice a distinct… bouquet in the garage over the previous week that had none of the characteristics of car, or woodpile. It did not smell faintly bicycley, or wet-booty, nor when I checked –just to be sure- armpitty. I had to be certain, you understand. Despite the ecological footprint, the house is heated by oil, and the tank is in the garage –I would have installed wind turbines had I been asked, but the real estate agent was new at her job I think. At any rate, depending on the prevailing wind strength, the overwhelming impression when you enter the garage is that I have an oil refinery in the back yard. An indiscreet date once asked me whether I should have my septic tank inspected… I don’t do much entertaining.

Skunks probably don’t either. Wherever they go, telltale effluvial fewmets follow. I can appreciate what dogs go through in their odour-driven world. I think only a skunk could live with a skunk. Good thing they don’t believe in miscegenation –they’d have a hard time selling their profiles even online. Interestingly, though, like a strong enough deodorant, the skunk fragrance almost camouflages the petrochemical aroma for which I have become famous. And for what it’s worth, I’ve noticed the disguise is particularly effective under the oil tank, although I haven’t actually poked a stick in there. It is still terra incognita to me.

I mentioned this to Brien when I next visited his porch. As usual, he was sitting, heavily wrapped in blankets, on a lawn chair whose aluminum frame bowed and creaked with the effort. It fairly screamed abuse, but Brien was deaf to pity. He’d continue to use it, he’d say, until they came for him. Typically, he did not elaborate.

In many ways, Brien is perceptive although I don’t think one could make a very good case for sensitive. As I worked my way up the broken fragments of his sidewalk, he inspected me with a pair of concerned eyes. He looked as if he wanted to say something and then decided to have another taste of his beer instead. He is nothing else if not a creature with poor impulse control.

“I suppose you’re gonna tell me another horror story of your rats, eh?” Like I say, he’s perceptive. Not subtle. But at least he’d intuited distress on my face. “Thought you’d got rid of the buggers with your peanut butter traps.”

“I have,” I said, unprepared to have to defend my rat strategy. “Well, at least they know enough not to wave when I go for wood…”

He nodded his head compassionately, but when I actually reached the porch he seemed to sniff the air like a huge prairie dog. “Skunks, eh?”

My eyes opened in wonder at his intuition. Did I look that skunk-laden, or were my eyes truly windows to my thoughts?

“Get sprayed?” he asked, pointing to chair for me several feet away.

Now I felt embarrassed. I’d just come from Starbucks and had wondered about the smiles. Normally people just ignore me. “No, but I think there’s one living in the garage,” was all I could think to reply.

“Near the fuel tank?”

Again I was amazed at his perspicacity. “How did you know?” I gushed.

He shrugged. “Oil stain on your pant leg,” he said, pointing rather rudely I thought.

This was positively Sherlock Holmesian. Brien was certainly more than just a big man, I realized.

“By the way,” he said after thinking about it while he emptied the contents of a bottle into his mouth, “If you’ve got one, then you’ve got more than one.”

My god, I thought, gazing at him with increasing admiration, this is sort of like hearing a Buddhist koan. I almost expected him to attempt to explain the sound of one hand clapping next.

“Probably got a common law and some illegits under there,” he added to diffuse what he thought was my puzzled expression while he searched blindly under his chair for another beer with his hand.

My heart sank. I’d never persuade a date to get out of the car –assuming I could even get one when word got around…

“Moth balls,” he said when his hand finally connected with a full bottle.

“Pardon me?” We’d gone from Zen koan to nineteenth century clothing pesticide. I couldn’t keep up with him.

“Roll a few of them under the tank,” he said and pointed to a beer on the far railing.

I stared at him curiously as I walked over to get the bottle, but he just smiled. “I keep a box of ‘em in the shed with the lawnmower.” He opened his bottle with a flourish worthy of a television commercial. “Never had skunks in there.”

I smiled at his wisdom. I don’t think Brien even has a shed, let alone lawnmower, but I didn’t feel I should point that out when he was trying to be so helpful. And anyway, maybe he keeps stuff under a tarp somewhere. We all have a suburban myth to live up to.

I stopped off at a hardware store on the way home to buy mothballs and the only thing the clerk said to me was “Be careful what you wish for, mister.” I thought it was kind of rude. He probably didn’t have a skunk family living under his tank.

At any rate it was with a certain flare that I emptied the whole box and kicked them, one by one, under the tank -crepuscularly, so I would not find them at home having supper.

It worked I think –I haven’t seen the skunk or his missus in days- but I’ve taken to parking the car in the driveway and using the front door to the house because a lady in Starbucks asked me if I’d just taken my clothes out of storage. I didn’t think she was my type though, so I didn’t sit at the table next to her. I have enough trouble getting dates without having to defend my clothes as well…

Going Gentle into that Good Night

Okay, okay, I just thought you had to be polite. Maybe a little sensitive: a smile here, a nod there –that’s all it was supposed to take. Nobody told me there was an ethical framework involved. For that matter, I wasn’t even told there were rules until I got here. But I suppose the play doesn’t end until the curtain comes down so I should have guessed. I should have realized they wouldn’t understand –they couldn’t. Once the curtain falls, there is no encore…

Retirement is hard on people –the ones still working, I mean- and you can’t just assume they will adapt. Or care. There should be classes they are required to take when they are first hired. Or maybe an app that guides them through it one stage at a time –an interactive one, so they can be sure they understand that work is only the second chapter in the drama. They are denied the third act until they’ve earned it –without that, the play is meaningless. Forgotten.

I’m usually only looking for a table in Starbucks –faces come in a distant second. And besides, unless they’re ringed with grey hair, the heads arrive and disappear like bubbles in a boiling pot. But every once in a while, a pair of eyes will inadvertently disturb the water where they’ve hidden, and pattern recognition takes over. Familiarity doesn’t necessitate identification at my age, but occasionally a name will float close enough to the surface to grab.

I hadn’t seen Thomas in a while –not since he worked for the accounting firm our office used, anyway. He’d changed in the interim, I think –what hair remained on his bespectacled head was thinner, with only hints that it had once been dark and shiny. Now he wore it much as a tonsured monk might –but messier. And yet there was a certain consistency to his appearance as a whole. He was dressed, tieless, in a creased, off-white shirt, open at the neck. I couldn’t see more than the cuffs of his pants, but even in the shadows of the table where he huddled, they too appeared wrinkled.

He sat, anonymous as a bush in a forest, staring sightlessly at the room, a coffee sitting motionlessly in front of him like a dirty rock steaming in the sun. If he hadn’t brushed me accidentally with his eyes, I might have missed him. Maybe he had not wanted to engage, or maybe my name and face lay as firmly in the past as his to me, but memories intertwined atavistically at the fleeting retinal touch.

“Thomas,” I said, walking over to his table with coffee in one hand and bag with a steaming breakfast sandwich in the other.

He glanced up from studying the faux-wood surface where his mud-filled beverage lay and suddenly smiled. “Edward,” he said, half rising from his seat and extending his hand, “How are you?”

“It’s James,” I replied, but sotto voce, because he seemed so happy to have remembered a name.

“How have you been?” he continued. “I haven’t seen you in…” he thought about it for a moment. “…Years…” But he sounded uncertain, so I left it lying fallow.

I sat down still smiling broadly. “Yes, I guess it has been a while hasn’t it?”

There was an awkward silence while he evidently tried to recollect just where he’d seen me. The fact that he and the accounting firm he represented had dealt with my taxes for several years seemed lost on him –or at least misplaced. But lost or not, he didn’t seem to be hauling unpleasant jetsam aboard, because his expression was unwavering, if unreadable. “So are you retired now?”

The fact that we both looked undisguisably long in the tooth and dressed the part, he could not see. Or chose not to. So I merely nodded pleasantly as if to acknowledge we were fellow travellers. But I felt I had to reply in kind, in case he saw it as a wound that needed bandaging. “How about you? Still working at…” -I couldn’t remember the name of the firm- “…accounting?”

His face changed and a shadow seemed to cross his brow. “Retired three years ago, Edward… I think you beat me by a year or two…” He glanced at his coffee as if something were written inside the rim. “Funny you should ask, though…” His eyes walked up my arm but stopped short of my face. “I went back to the office yesterday –just to say hello, I suppose. You know… see how things were getting along there without me…”

His expression darkened like that shadow; I should have left it there, but I smiled and looked at him as if it was the type of thing we all do. “So, how was it? Still the same people there?”

He glowered at the table. “Nobody even recognized me, Edward! After twenty years in the firm, and ten years in same the office at the end of the corridor, nobody even looked familiar -except one of the typists who got my name wrong when she saw me…

“They all thought I was on the wrong floor, or lost…” He stared at the ceiling for a moment. “Finally, one of the women –the one who emerged from my old office, actually- came over and shook my hand. ‘We had a heck of a job getting your old desk through the door, Timothy,’ she said, proud that she thought she’d remembered my name. ‘They even had to unscrew the legs and destroy one of the drawers to get it down the corridor.’ She laughed when she said that, as if it had acquired the status of a legend that was told with twinkling eyes around the water cooler, or something.

“My regional manager was away sick, she informed me, in front of some of the others, but by the looks on their faces and the eyes darting back and forth, I gathered he wasn’t expected back…”

His face seemed so sad, I had to look away for a moment.

“You ever go back to your old studio, Edward?” He evidently couldn’t remember where I worked either –the Past has a way of Rorschaching itself, I suddenly realized.

I smiled –lamely, I suspect- and shook my head. You can never go back.








Agape for Seniors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any ideas, James?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Coloured Babel

I was listening to somebody talking at the next table in Starbucks the other day. Well, actually, it could have been any day, because I like to listen. I figure it’s sort of like window shopping. Anyway, the grey haired man sitting next to me was leaning over his table and whispering to another younger looking man, and nothing attracts my curiosity more than a whisper.

Some of what he was telling his friend was lost in the babel of louder words that seems to define coffee shops, and what I heard was initially trivial: he was losing the colour of his words. Nice metaphor, but commonplace, nonetheless, so I turned my attention back to my sausage and egg sandwich which I had separated into its component parts so the egg and the meat could both cool. I began to center them more appropriately on their respective bun-halves, when I heard the word colour again –this time reiterated more clearly by the younger man. I centred my ears on their table.

“You mean different words have different colours for you?” The young man sounded excited, so I focussed my ears.

“Not all words, Sydney, just names, mainly –but only some names.” the grey man whispered in response.

The young man appeared to think about that for a moment. “Nothing else –no other words?”

Grey closed his eyes and was silent for a second or two. “Well, maybe the months had colours once…”

“How about the days?”

Grey shook his head. “No, just months and certain names.” He appeared to sigh, although I couldn’t hear it in the din. “And now, even they seem to be fading…” He looked unhappy. “My wife’s name, for example. Flora was green…”

That seemed obvious, even banal to me, so I withdrew into the relevant details of my sandwich arrangement. The last remnant of my ear shopping trip was the fact that Grey was divorcing Flora so maybe that had something to do with it fading. Sydney’s name was still the colour black, he said, though –I didn’t feel like psychoanalyzing that any further.

And yet, that snippet of overhearing started me thinking about synaesthesia. It’s some sort of cross-synapsing, or maybe alternate routing of messages in the neurons, I think I recall reading. Colours get attributed to sounds, or numbers and the like. I remember reading Oliver Sacks’ ‘Musicophilia’ where he mentioned some of his patients’ ability to see notes or chords –even key signatures- in colour. Numbers have colours for me as well when I think about them, but I only feel the colours –I don’t actually see them coloured on a page.

It’s interesting to me how some abstruse topics like that somehow materialize out of the gestalt, seem to grow like crystals for a while, and then dissolve once again into the void as if they’d never existed. Retirement fodder…

I decided to have breakfast in the local bakery a few days ago. I rarely go there in the morning and didn’t realize it would be so busy. All the tables were full, but I saw a red-sleeved arm waving from one of them; it was attached to a person I hadn’t seen for months -or maybe even years. I think she’d been away. I groaned inwardly, realizing I was trapped.  I remembered that she seemed always to have done or read something bizarre and then wrapped herself in it like a patriot in a flag. Basically harmless, and sometimes childlike, the last one, I think, was her fairy phase. She believed she’d been given the power to grant wishes to the select few who asked, but unfortunately, after she was medicated, she lost her powers, and had settled back into the shadows –at least until now.

“Shirley,” I said, walking over and sitting down in the seat she was pointing to. “I haven’t seen you for a while now. Were you on vacation?”

Her face lit up and although she barely nodded her head, I could see she was excited to tell somebody about it. “I was in Europe,” she answered, leaning across the table conspiratorially, but with a wink that commanded me to ask more about it.


But I couldn’t even finish the sentence. “I was in Greece studying, actually…”

I took a bite of my bagel and smiled. I didn’t need to encourage her.

“Colours,” she continued. “I was studying colours.”

I nodded, to show her that I could both eat and listen at the same time, but she stopped talking and just stared at me. Clearly, I was required to ask her to explain, but before I could finish my mouthful, she decided to skip that step.

Word colours,” she added, scanning my face for interest. “I’ve always thought that language –words- should be assigned colours…” Although I was still chewing, I tried to smile. “This was a course for synaesthetes actually…” She tightened her eyes to see if she needed to define the term, but I nodded recognition and her whole face relaxed and welcomed me to her table.

“I’m not a practicing synaesthete, as you probably know…” Actually I didn’t know, and it’d never occurred to me to even ask. “But I thought I’d pretend I was writing an article on the subject, so they opened up to me.” She immediately sighed, grinned toothily at her cleverness, and then sent her eyes out to capture me again. “Most of them were grapheme-colour synaesthetes, you know -the ones who see words or numbers in colours,” she explained. “But most of those only felt the colours rather than actually saw them…” She obviously thought this deserved a shrug. “I suppose that’s still synaesthesia …” She seemed disappointed, though –as if the ones who couldn’t actually see coloured words were just the poor cousins: wannabes who had gone to the conference to improve their skills.

I went,” she continued, “because I have always felt that although some words maybe already have colours, many many more deserve them.” Her forehead ruffled pedagogically. “So I went to Greece to learn how to colour them for other people. I think that a coloured language would be far more descriptive, far more… poetic.” She deliberately italicized the word, maybe hoping that might somehow colour it. But although I think I saw the italics, there was still no colour that I could detect.

I had finished my bagel by this stage, and so I suppose she felt she now had permission to ask some questions. “What do you think?”

I sipped at my coffee to buy some time to think. “You mean, about whether or not words deserve colours…?”

Her eyes suddenly morphed into saucers and her face wrinkled from forehead to chin when I said that; I have to admit I recoiled slightly, fearing I may have triggered something in her again. “How did you do that?” she said, barely able to say the words.

I cocked my head, puzzled at her reaction. “Do what?”

Colour that word?” Her eyes circled around my face like a pair of bees near a flower, but then they flew away.

I was lost. “What word did I colour?”

She recalled her eyes, and hid them briefly in shadows. At first I thought maybe one of the overhead lights had burned out, but nobody else in the room seemed to notice. Her eyes peered out at me as if they were tethered to perches beside her nose. From a safe distance they were inspecting me more closely than before, as if they were looking for a special amulet, or ring that I might be wearing. And her face wore that mysterious smile I’d seen so long ago: the fairy smile. “Even the Syns couldn’t do that,” she said with reverence. Then she laughed with a delightful tinkling sound and touched my hand as if I’d finally been unveiled as an undercover member of her synaesthesia church. She winked conspiratorially -a gift she thought she owed me for the coloured word.

Suddenly she scraped her chair back from the table and stood up. She still seemed impressed. “You are one of us…” she whispered loudly, her eyes almost pleading with mine to confess. And then she was gone, slipping through the crowd like a fish swimming through some reeds.

I could only stare at her as she disappeared, and felt a little sad that the doctors had decided she needed medication.

Some of us are afraid of magic.


Me, Myself, and It

Now that I’m retired, I’ve been thinking a lot about the subconscious. Well, I mean I have –I’m not sure if it’s doing the same. But I guess that’s just it in a briefcase: I’m not at all certain where I begin and it stops. Everything is shell-game and shadows really, isn’t it? People talk about it as if it were the brains of the office –it does everything important and then humours us with bits of information from time to time as if it were feeding a pet. I sometimes feel like I’m just a car being driven along a road somewhere.

I just wish it were a little more open about things. Why all this cloak and dagger stuff anyway? Doesn’t it trust me after all these years? Haven’t I proven a worthy shill?

Actually, that’s unfair; I realize I’m being a little ungrateful to my subconscious. In a way, it’s my business manager and it’s got way more to do than me; it runs the company while I lallygag around the body finding fault and pretending to be the boss. It probably has the best apps.

But it got me wondering the other day as I sat in the usual table by the wall in Starbucks that it always makes me choose. What if I tried an experimental takeover –but maybe just a few small steps here and there to test the waters before I attempted anything major? I realized I had to be very careful, though, because it is watching my every move. I decided to use a clever tactic: I would make a list of some of the things it does and see how much I could influence them. I have to confess that I was on pretty shaky ground here –I didn’t really know what stuff to put on the list- but, pretty soon a few items just kind of popped into my head from nowhere, so I wrote them down on one of those little brown paper napkins.

Let’s see, a little voice inside me whispered -how about ‘breathing’? That should be easy enough, I thought. So I wrote it down. ‘Heart rate’, surfaced next, so down it went. Then there was a long pause before ‘digestion’ occurred to me. I thought about that for a moment and then I crossed it off and substituted ‘saliva’. I figured I should probably start small and maybe in an easier to monitor area.

“What are you writing?” a louder voice suddenly said in my ear, accompanied by a scraping chair noise and a sudden jiggling of the table. Brien is always like that, though. He’s a large man and sitting anywhere requires a certain amount of adjustment of his front parts.

“Oh, just making a list,” I said, hastily reaching for the napkin to wipe my mouth.

But, despite his girth, Brien has quick hands and he beat me to it. “Breathing? Heart? Saliva?” He smiled and glanced at me. “You taking up meditation or something?”

I tried to think quickly; he wouldn’t understand. “Yes,” I replied, before my conscience took over. “In a way…” it added, and I blushed –a sure give away.

His eyes have a way of retracting way into his skull when he needs to think about something in private. Suddenly, they darted out again like cuckoos announcing the hour from those German clocks. “In what way?”

Damn him; my mind went blank for a moment, but then, just as I was about to answer with a shrug, a little voice whispered from inside somewhere: ‘tell him it’s a Buddhist exercise, for god’s sake!’ “I, uhmm, I read somewhere that you can control all sorts of things with meditation…”

He leaned forward on his chair and rested his arms on the table. Only his coffee spilled, fortunately, and he used my napkin to wipe it up. “Yeah, I read about that, too,” he said, proudly. I could see that he was surprised that we’d read the same article. “People Magazine, right…?” he thought about it for a few seconds. “No, it was probably National Enquirer…” he hesitated to give it his final seal of approval. “Anyway, it was one of those magazines you see at the supermarket checkout counters, eh?” He smiled conspiratorially, as if I had been outed at last. “I just look for the good stuff and skim through it while I’m waiting.” He had a quick sip of what remained of his coffee. “Can’t remember now who they said was using it for their blood pressure, but it seemed to be working.” His eyes darted out again and fluttered around my head. “At any rate, I think they said he hadn’t had another stroke yet.”

“I hadn’t thought of blood pressure,” I admitted, making a mental note to add it to a new list.

Brien sat up straighter in his chair –a sure sign he was about to tell me something important. “I’ve been trying it since I read that article,” he said with authority. “I figured it’d save me a bundle on pills… And,” he told his eyes to stand firmly on my cheeks. “…And I realized I could start eating ice cream and desserts again.” He smiled with evident satisfaction at how things could work out for him.

Perfect, I thought, secretly planning my own small takeover plot. “Did it work?”

He cocked his head and stared at me as if I’d missed something important in the discussion. “You can’t just expect something as multifactorial as blood pressure to simply disappear overnight!”

His italics grated, but I have to admit I was impressed with his use of the word ‘multifactorial’. I don’t think he got that from the magazine. “So…?”

“So I’m working on it.” He leaned on the table again, but his face no longer looked as confident as when he was talking about the desserts. “The meditation’s the hard part, though.” He sighed and fingered the cardboard coffee cup as if it had something written on it in Braille. “You know how you’re supposed to close your eyes and clear all thoughts from your mind, breathe deeply, relax… That kind of thing?”

I nodded, but actually I hadn’t got that far in my research yet.

“Well, when I try, it’s like I’m watching a crowd go by from a window, and I’m seeing people I know.” He shrugged and sat back again. “I think of food, of an itch on my leg, of what programs I’m missing on TV…” He shook his head slowly. “I’ve found meditation seems to work better after a big meal, though. I sit in a comfortable chair, lean my head back, close my eyes…” He closed his eyes to show me how he did it. “And when I wake up, I feel a lot better, you know. It seems to me I’m getting the hang of it, eh?”

I found myself smiling at his success. “And is your pressure going down?”

He nodded, his face all happy. “My doctor thinks it’s her pills, and I haven’t the heart to disappoint her. I know she means well.”

“Are you still taking them?”

He stared at me, nodded carefully, and then a wry smile slowly usurped the happy one. “But, I’m cutting down on them.” He hesitated for a moment, uncertain whether to disclose the full extent of his scheme. “I’m taking each of them an hour or two later than it says on the directions.” A mischievous expression soon appeared. “And I’m thinking of upping it to three hours…” he added, “Even if I have to get up in the middle of the night,” he whispered, obviously proud of his clever trickery.

I thought about his blood pressure that night, and I realized I didn’t really need to go that far. In fact, I figured my office manager seemed to be doing a pretty good job behind the scenes without me. Brien obviously hadn’t vetted his staff all that well. No, I rationalized, I’m retired now, and I probably shouldn’t take on too much more at this stage. And besides, I wouldn’t do a very good job with digestion -I’ve never much liked having to deal with my bowels unless I’m feeling a bit logy.