So Far, So Good!

I have a friend who claims his goal in life is to live forever.

“How’s it going so far?” I ask him.

“So far, so good!” he replies with a grin.

As I approach my eightieth year—having been alive for all or parts of nine different decades, the first being the 1940s—I don’t share that lofty goal, to be an eternal Methuselah.  I confess, though, my friend does have me wondering about my chances.  So far, I have lived out more years than three grandparents, three uncles, two of five aunts, and all four of my younger siblings (one of whom has already passed).

I’m currently the eldest of my surviving birth-clan, which includes three sisters, two daughters, and five grandchildren.  My wife, almost four years my junior (strictly speaking, not a birth-relative), is also with us.

If I am destined to live longer than anyone in my family so far, I’ll have to make it through another fifteen years, which will leave me just five shy of my centenary.  One grandmother made it to ninety, three aunts lived into their early-nineties, mostly intact, as did both my parents, so my genetic coding bodes well.

One goal I do have, perhaps more realistic than my friend’s, is to spend more years in retirement than I spent during my professional career.  I worked for thirty-two years and retired at fifty-five, leaving me eight years to go before attaining that goal when I reach eighty-eight.  So far, so good!

Back when I was a young thirty-ish man involved in several athletic pursuits, I used to joke that, if I had to die anytime soon, the best exit would come while sliding into third base, the game-winning run scoring ahead of me, with the last words I hear being the umpire bawling, “He’s safe!”

Older now, and less-inclined to make light of matters mortal, I’m pleased to say that goal was never realized.  I’m still alive, no longer playing ball, and so far, so good!

As an aside, one of my more ribald teammates claimed his goal—never one of mine—was to die in bed, shot to death by an irate husband.  To my knowledge, absent a willing bed-mate, he also never attained his dream.  But I digress.

Baseball is not the only pursuit I have forsaken as the years have mounted up.  Badminton, curling, cycling, golf, ice-hockey, in-line skating, and tennis are also sports I have abandoned in recent years.  The main reason, given that I wish I could still partake in all of them, is that I came to fear major physical damage if I should come a-cropper.  The risks began to outweigh the rewards, and I became determined not to end my life as an invalid. 

These sacrifices notwithstanding, I certainly had no wish to finish my time on earth as a couch-potato, either.  So, I still visit the gym to engage in low-impact activities such as rowing, weightlifting (low weights/high reps), and stretching exercises.  I walk the corridors and stairs of my high-rise condo, and I still swim, although not as many laps as once I could manage.  My goal is to stay active and limber, and so far, so good!

Paying attention to my personal health is a much greater priority now, too.  I still remember an occasion (again, in my feckless thirties), when I called my doctor’s office to make an appointment for a physical exam.  The receptionist couldn’t find my records for the longest time, and when she came back on the line, she said, “Okay, we’re good.  I found them in the dead file.”

“The dead file!” I exclaimed.  “What made you think I’d died?”

With a chuckle, she explained the dead file was the repository for records of patients who had not made an appointment during the previous five years.  Five years!  I was shocked to be informed it had been that long.

These days, of course, having lived into my ninth decade, I see my doctor much more regularly.  My goal is to stay ahead of ailments that might slow me down, or put a crimp in the comfortable lifestyle I now enjoy. 

That current, comfortable existence includes singing in a men’s a cappella chorus, a most enjoyable experience, still part of a team.  It includes spending hours each day writing essays and poems for a regular blog, tales for a number of published anthologies, and stories for a series of published crime-fiction novels.  I’m having the time of my life right now, as a matter of fact, and hope I can go on doing these things for a long time to come.  So far, so good!

My wife and I are fortunate to be able to split our time between a home in Ontario and another in Florida.  Each autumn, and again each spring, as our time in one draws closer to its end, we begin to look forward to our return to the other.  Aside from the normal concerns associated with home-ownership, we find it’s an idyllic way to live, and we eagerly anticipate each change of the season. 

In the unlikely event it turns out my friend is able to realize his own goal to live forever, I know he’ll bid me a fond farewell when my time comes, as it surely will.

But you know what?  So far, so good! 

Get the Message?

“So, lemme get this straight,” my companion says.  “If your phone rings, doesn’t matter where you are, you don’t answer it?  Not even if you know who it is?”

“Right,” I reply, “most of the time, anyway.  Unless it’s my wife or kids, or grandkids.  For them, I always answer.”

We’re walking along the lakefront on a sunny late-afternoon, enjoying the scenery, the other strollers, the kids flashing by on bikes and scooters, the sailboats out on the water.  A light breeze keeps us comfortable enough in the heat.

“So, what if it’s an emergency?” my friend asks.

“I figure whoever it is will call right back,” I say, “or leave a voicemail message.  Robocalls don’t do that, but people calling in an emergency will.  If nobody answers a bot’s call, it just moves on to the next random number.”

“You always check your voicemail?”

“I do,” I say.  “Maybe not immediately after the call, but frequently enough.”

“What if it’s a relative or close friend?”

“Same drill,” I tell him.  “I mean, I may choose to answer, but it depends on what I’m doing at the time.  I figure the phone is my servant, not the other way around.  It’s a tool that does its thing when I say so, but I don’t jump to its bidding.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the phone demanding your attention,” my companion protests.  “It could be a friend!”

“That’s right,” I nod.  “But if another friend called me right now, I wouldn’t ignore you to answer the call.  Why should you play second-fiddle when you’re right here with me?”

“Yeah, I can see that,” he concedes, before adding, “So, I imagine you never answer unknown callers, either.”

“Right.  Same logic.  But if they leave a message, I’ll soon know if I need to return the call or just forget about it.”

“Seems like an imperious attitude to me,” my companion says.  “What if everybody did that to you when you’re calling them?  How’d you like it?”

“Actually,” I say, “I wouldn’t mind.  Far as I’m concerned, it works the same both ways.  If my reason for calling is urgent, I’ll leave a voicemail message.  If it’s an emergency, I’ll still do that, but I’ll also keep calling—twice, three times, four, one right after the other.  I figure in that case, the person I’m calling will realize she or he should answer, that the calls aren’t random.”

“And if they don’t?”

I shrug.  “Well, some things are beyond my control,” I say.  “The important thing in cases like that is I try to get through and leave a message.”

“Seems like it’d be easier if everybody just answered every call,” my companion says.  “That way there’d be no wasted time.”

I shrug again.  “Depends, I guess.  Some people—like me, for instance—would think answering every call is a waste of time.  Every call?  C’mon!”

We walk in silence for awhile, pausing to let a flock of geese cross our path on their way from the water to the park lawn.

“So, if I call you, I won’t get an answer, right?” my companion says, still thinking about our conversation.  “And then, I hafta leave a message and wait for you to get back to me.  But what if I’m the one who’s busy when you do that?  Then what?”

“Then I can leave a message for you,” I argue, “which I’d do if my call was important.  But if I were just calling to touch base, I might not leave a voicemail at all.  No problem.  Either way, the ball’s in your court at that point.”

“And this works for you?”

“So far,” I grin, gently edging my friend to one side to let a couple of bicycles flash past, bells ringing loudly.

“Maybe I should give it a try,” he says uncertainly.  “I get a lotta calls, and sometimes I really wanta let ‘em go, y’know?  You think it could work for me?”

“You won’t know if you don’t try,” I reply.  “I had to work at it when I first…”

I’m interrupted by the insistent jangling of my companion’s phone.  With a stricken look on his face, he pulls it from his pocket, checks the screen, then puts it to his ear, turning his back as he does so.

I walk on, unperturbed, leaving him in privacy to deal with the call.  A hundred metres or so further along, I hear him call my name.  Turning, I see him, phone still fixed to his ear, motioning for me to wait.

In response, I put my hand to my own ear, pinkie and thumb cocked in the universal signal for Call me!, then carry on my merry way. 

I know I’ll get his message.

Uneasy Lies the Head…

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.  So mused Henry IV in William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, after he had seized the throne from Richard II.  Being ruler of an Empire had proven more wearisome than he had reckoned.

I thought of his quandary upon hearing the news that Prince Charles has succeeded his deceased mother, Queen Elizabeth II, to the British throne, and will henceforth be known as His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

That is a mouthful, and may prove to be more than he can chew.

For the first nine years of my life, I pledged allegiance to a King every morning in school—and to the flag, the Empire, and my country—but I had scant appreciation of what those actually were.  To me, the King was a framed portrait of a uniformed man hanging on the wall of my classroom; the flag was an attractive array of red, white, and blue crosses, draped below the portrait; the Empire was made up of the pink areas on a Mercator projection wall-map prominently displayed nearby; and my country, Canada, was for a long time defined by the few square city-blocks I could traverse on my tricycle before being corralled by a frantic mother.  But it was pink!

Indeed, as we were taught, the sun never set on the British Empire.  We sang the national anthem every day with great gusto: God save our gracious King, Long live our noble King, God save the King… 

It took a while for us to master the switch to God save our gracious Queen… upon the death of George VI in 1952 And eventually, we stopped singing the song at all, in favour of our own national anthem, O Canada, officially adopted in 1980—long after I had left my schoolboy days behind.

It never occurred to me back then that those glorious pink areas on the map were the result of rampant, colonial conquest of the original inhabitants of those lands.  And in fairness, how could I have known?  I was raised to believe in right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsity, morality vs. depravity, religiosity vs. atheism, generosity vs. selfishness, civility vs. rudeness, the rule of law applied to all equally vs. anarchy—all admirable virtues in and of themselves, but all defined, of course, by the privileged White authority represented by the Crown.  The triumphant.

…Send him victorious, Happy and glorious…

I was brought up in the bosom of the Anglican Church, a colonial version of the Church of England, and taught to believe that sin was inevitable, repentance essential, and forgiveness attainable.  And those, too, I came to understand, were defined from on high.  Sin was anything the clergy might from time to time, in their great, Christian wisdom, determine it to be; repentance was adjudged sincere or not by their strict standards; and forgiveness was beneficently granted by the Lord through them—or not, as they deemed appropriate—often requiring mandatory acts of atonement.

To be sure, I enjoyed a privileged childhood, for which I am grateful.  But my upbringing rendered me an absolutist well into my adult years, fully invested in the values and tenets I had been taught.  That I am today something of a relativist may, I suppose, be attributed to my advancing years and a questing mind, more than to any great, moral awakening.

It seems to me now that, although might should never make right, the definition of right vs. wrong is still determined by those who can enforce their interpretation.  Truth vs. falsity is defined and re-defined by those who are winning the culture-wars at any particular moment.  Ernest Hemingway wrote a memoir, published posthumously, the title of which—A Moveable Feast—describes perfectly the relativism of the definitions of virtues we still profess to believe.

What constitutes selfishness today, as opposed to self-interest?  And who gets to decide?  What is regarded as moral vs. depraved behaviour?  And by whom?  Where is the boundary between civility toward one another vs. rudeness and hate?  And who sets that boundary?

Is adherence to a set of liturgy-bound, religious beliefs more legitimate than a self-imposed regimen of acceptable, generous-of-spirit behaviour?  And who is to decide if the adherents of either viewpoint are upholding and demonstrating their professed beliefs, as opposed to merely paying lip-service.  Hypocrisy is never pretty.  

In the diverse, multicultural world in which we live, there are many who would answer those questions. And there are many more, alas, who will not listen to any but their own.

A major advantage of being an absolutist is that one need never question one’s own motives or actions.  For the acquiescent, it is enough to act within the boundaries of the commonly-accepted virtues proscribed from on high, or profess to be doing so.  For the scofflaws, it suffices to act in opposition to that, based upon their own set of contradictory values.  Each side sees itself as right, the other wrong.  And they are absolutely certain of their positions.

Relativists, on the other hand, are forever doomed to uncertainty, questioning the validity, the relevance, the wisdom of their beliefs and actions, no matter what they do.  Theirs is the age-old question—why?

King Charles III strikes me from afar as one who, though bound by centuries of absolutist tradition and ritual, will prove to be something of a relativist, a King who will question many of those very institutions and sacraments surrounding him, with a view to modifying them.  I want to believe he realizes that, even as the monarchy is steeped in pomp and circumstance, it cannot stand still.  There is no such thing as stasis.  Just as our world is ever evolving, so, too, must its institutions.

Charles now wears the crown I pledged allegiance to on the head of his grandfather during my long-ago school-days, and I pray it will not lie uneasy upon him.  I hope it will inspire him to critically examine his reign relative to the world around him, to lead his monarchy to a strengthening of ties with his subjects, and toward reconciliation with those whom the Empire has harmed.

…Long to reign over us, God save the King.