Obsessive?

A friend of mine has long been a far-reaching, outside-the-box thinker, seemingly knowledgeable on any subject, no matter how esoteric or mundane.  If plotted on a graph, conversations with him would not reflect a normal back-and-forth pattern between us, regular and predictable along the spoken axis; rather, his portion would appear as jagged deviations from the anticipated flow of talk, spiking off in all directions from what might be expected.

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He never tells a lie, so far as I know.  But his conversational pattern reminds me of what one might see on a lie-detector print-out—the lines ordered and sure while I’m speaking, careering wildly up and down on the page when it’s his turn to talk.  His free-thinking tendencies result in tangential observations I sometimes have difficulty understanding in relation to what we’re supposedly talking about.

My pseudo-psychological label for his thinking process is random-hysteric.

By contrast, I am as predictable as the sun at dawn, and as ponderous in my thinking as he is not—my label, perhaps, fixed-stable.  Although I love my friend dearly, it can irritate me when he strays from our conversational path, rather than continuing along what I perceive as the direct route from A to B.

stable

“What’s that got to do with what we’re talking about?” I often cry after one of his rambling excursions.  “Stick to the point!”

More often than not, he’ll simply shake his head at my apparent obtuseness.  But he doesn’t change his approach.  In his wide-ranging mind, everything he says is related to the topic at hand.

Deep down inside, though, I suspect the problem is mine, not his.  I am a plodder in most things.  It’s amazing how many times, as I journey from here to wherever, I am unaware afterwards of almost everything lying between point of origin and destination.  Stop to smell the flowers is not an adage I have ever rigorously adhered to.

When flying, if I know the expected time it should take to get there, I become impatient with deviations to the flight-path that might delay arrival.  When driving, I hate if we pull in at roadside attractions or scenic lookouts because stopping means we’re not actually getting to where we’re going.  When reading, I constantly check how many pages I’ve read and how many are left yet to read—even when I love the story.

When swimming in our pool, I count each lap faithfully, and get annoyed if I feel I’ve lost count.  It was actually a depressing moment when I first learned that a lap is properly measured as two lengths of the pool, not one; I felt cheated, as if I had lost half the number I had accumulated.  And worse, it got harder to keep accurate count!

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Because I alternate strokes after each lap—freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, sidestroke—I have my own counting pattern: 1-1, 1-2, 2-1, 2-2, 3-1, 3-2, 4-1, 4-2, 5-1, 5-2…until I hit my goal, 20-2.  And then, while showering, I go over it in my head, trying to ensure I didn’t miscount.  Obsessive?

If you look up the word methodical in the dictionary, my picture will be there.

And so it is in conversations with other people.  I absolutely love when they stick to the topic, acknowledge what I’ve said before beginning their reply, listen politely when it’s my turn again, offer their further thoughts when I finish, and (I really must say it again) stick to the topic.

Because I’ve long been aware of this eccentricity of mine, it has occurred to me that it might be one of the reasons why, when I find myself in a social setting with several other people enjoying conversations with each other, I’m often the only one not directly engaged—a gadfly, as it were, flitting from eavesdropping here to overhearing there, nodding and smiling as if I were part of each exchange.

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But never mind.  A plodder I may be in just about everything, but in writing I find my escape.  For some reason, it seems not to disturb me that I can ramble on, hither and yon, from the start of an essay to the end—likely confusing many readers as to my thesis, my conclusions, even my thinking (such as it is).

Granted, there is always a starting point for each piece; but I seldom know at the beginning where the end will be found, or on what grounds I will trespass as I look for it. Most of the time, I just stop writing when it seems best.

There is a lovely peace that steals over me, and a surcease of compulsive demands, when I hie myself off to write.  Perhaps my brain draws respite from its normally-plodding behaviours as I lay down on paper the thoughts jostling each other for escape.

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Once there, however, those thoughts are fixed.  As Omar Khayyam wrote (according to Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation)—

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

And so, here I shall stop for now.

On Etiquette

A decade or so ago, after almost forty years of marriage, my wife left me.  Oh, it was nothing permanent, thank goodness—just a weekend excursion she took with one of our daughters, who was visiting us in Florida with her two girls.  They left me to look after our grandchildren.

I was delighted, of course, not only because I love the girls, but because I knew it would give me an opportunity to put into practice all those theories about dealing with children that I’m forever espousing to my wife.

 Hah!  So much for that plan!

It wasn’t that my theories were without merit.  They were based on an assumption that children—and adults, for that matter—are responsible for their own behaviour, and should be held accountable for the consequences of that behaviour.  Pretty simple, really.  Our world might well be a better place if more people subscribed to that thinking.

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Now, before I go any further, please don’t get the impression that I ever told my wife how to raise our own two daughters.  Far from it!  She always brought her own common-sense approach into play during the many hours she spent with them.

But I couldn’t resist the opportunity—after I’d been away from fatherhood for so long—to put my theories into practice, dispassionately and all-knowingly, with my granddaughters.

However, I didn’t reckon on the fact that my daughter had learned the lessons of effective parenting only-too-well from my wife.  And the extent to which she’d been successful was brought home to me that weekend.

Right from the get-go, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any fault with my grandchildren.  On both mornings, they got up and made their beds, got themselves washed and dressed, and then wakened me.  Gently, with a kiss.

After breakfast, which they helped me make, they cleaned off the table without being reminded.  Then off they went, outside to play until it was time to walk to the pool—their favourite pastime.  The closest we got to a confrontation was when they asked if they could go barefoot.  I told them about fire-ants, and they readily dropped the subject.

pool

It was quite frustrating, because I wasn’t getting any opportunities to practice my pet theories.  Finally, however, I figured my chance had come.  We went out for dinner that first night, to a local place offering bbq ribs as the house specialty, and that’s what we ordered.  It was the perfect moment to direct the girls in the proper etiquette for dining out.

I tried to begin when the salads arrived, but I wasn’t fast enough.

“Use the small fork for your salad, Gramps,” offered the youngest before I could tell her the same thing.  I nodded obediently.

When I tried to say something else a few moments later, the oldest said, “Gramps, you shouldn’t talk with food in your mouth, remember?”  I nodded again, in guilty agreement.

Then, a minute or so later, while I was still watching for some breach of etiquette from them, the youngest piped up again.  “Please don’t let the fork scrape against your teeth, Gramps.  And your napkin should be on your lap in case you drop something.”  I hastily complied.

When the platter of ribs arrived, I received more advice from the oldest—even before I had done anything wrong.  “It’s okay to pick up the ribs in your hands, Gramps, but don’t lick your fingers.  Just wipe them on your napkin.”

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“Gramps, don’t eat so fast,” said the youngest a few minutes later, “or you’ll get a tummy-ache.”

This went on through the entire meal.  I was lectured to, scolded, and encouraged, all at the same time, by my own grandchildren.  Worst of all, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  Probably because, eating so fast, my mouth was always full.

But then, at long last, I found a way to seize the upper hand.  It was time to pay the bill, and I was the only one with money!  Confidently, I marched with the kids up to the cashier, flashing a broad smile at her as I pulled out my wallet with a flourish.  Rather than returning my smile, she merely looked at me—somewhat curiously, I thought.

Nevertheless, I paid the bill masterfully, adding just the right amount for a gratuity.  As we left, I bestowed one final, beaming smile on the cashier.  And again, she didn’t return it.

After we climbed back into our car, I turned to the two girls.

“There!” I said.  “That’s how you settle up after a good meal.”  I just knew they’d be impressed, and I smiled condescendingly at the two of them.

Ewww, Gramps!” they chorused in unison.  “You’ve got a big piece of meat stuck between your front teeth!”

Alas, being a grandpa isn’t always easy!

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Fore!

Upon retirement some twenty years ago, I moved with my wife to Florida for six months of the year.  Where once we had been intrepid winter-sportspeople, participating avidly in (and watching) hockey, curling, and skiing, we forsook them all for the warmer climes of the sunny south—and for year-round golf.

Nestled into a cozy villa in a golfing community, we took to the links as many as four or five times a week—foursomes with friends, club leagues, and even occasional tournaments.

My regular men’s foursome was with three friends, and playing with me was pretty much an act of charity on their parts.  Naturally enough, our conversations generally revolved around the state of our respective games.

foursome

These fellows had, for years, recorded better scores than I had.  I was never sure from week to week which single digit represented their handicaps, but I knew what my handicap was—a pronounced lack of ability to hit the ball where I wanted it to go.  Because of this, I had to put up with their wisecracks, clumsily disguised as advice.

“Y’know, you’re usually standing too close to the ball,” Charlie would chortle.  “After you’ve hit it!”

“Maybe it’s how you’re gripping the club,” John would join in.  “Have you tried playing left-handed?”

“Actually,” Bob would blurt, unable to contain himself, “you’re not really playing golf.  The game you’re playing should be called, If Only…!

Mind you, the ball always went where I hit it—although rarely where I intended to hit it.

To tell the truth, I knew my friends were a lot better than I at the game.  But the gap seemed to be widening with each passing year, and I finally had to acknowledge I was the guy who always had the highest scores.

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What really bothered me were their claims that they played golf to relax, to shake off the everyday cares that accompany getting older.  When we’d finish a round, they’d be happy, serene, and ready for a self-satisfied nap.

Not so with me!  I generally came in after eighteen holes feeling frustrated with my score, angry about the balls I had lost in several of the ponds, and despondent over my lack of improvement.  My friends would laughingly console me by saying, “Relax already.  You’re not good enough to get mad!”

So, in desperation, I decided to take a lesson from the local pro at our club, who watched me hit a few balls on the practice range.

“Hmmm,” she offered, after witnessing my futile flaying of the club, “I think you need to take a couple of weeks off, get away from it for awhile.”

“Really?” I replied.  “That’s it?”

“Yup.  Then, you should consider giving up the game!”

Undeterred by her flippant attitude (and figuring she’d probably been put up to it by my friends), I decided to persevere—but, I have to say, only after making several minor modifications to the rules.

rules

On one day, for example, I would decide on the score I wanted to shoot before I began each round.  When I reached that number, regardless of which hole I was on, I would simply stop counting my strokes.  And guess what?  I began to feel quite pleased with myself—although, I was a tad concerned about how my friends seemed to feel.

“Seventy-five?” they’d chorus disbelievingly.  “Really?”

On a different day, I’d resort to another of my modifications, this one having to do with visualization.  Because I knew what constituted a good golf shot, even if I had trouble executing it, I’d conjure a mental image of what I wanted each shot to look like.  Then, Zen-like, I’d slash at the ball.  If I liked the result, if it matched my visual image, I’d count the stroke; if not, I didn’t.  And just like magic, my scores improved.

As did my mood.

A third minor change, one I particularly liked, allowed me to stick almost exactly to the rules.  I would play every stroke by the book, not trying to finagle the score on any hole—I’d tee off, hit crisply from the fairway, putt every stroke (no gimmies), and I’d count every penalty stroke (if there were any).  The only deviation from the rules of golf was that I used an imaginary ball, rather than a real one.

For a long time, I really believed this new game of ‘air-golf’ could catch on, and I wouldn’t have to bend over on every hole to retrieve a ball from the cup.

Looking back, there were a host of changes I made to my rules—

  • there was no such thing as a lost ball because the missing ball was on or near the course and would eventually be found and claimed by someone else, thereby making it a stolen ball;
  • when my ball was sliced or hooked into the rough, it could be lifted and placed on the fairway at a point equal to the distance it had carried or rolled into the rough with no penalty, because I should not be penalized for tall grass which grounds-keepers had failed to mow;
  • if my putt passed over a hole without dropping, it would be deemed to have dropped because the Law of Gravity should always supersede the Rules of Golf; and
  • if any of my putts stopped close enough to the cup that they could be blown in, I could blow them in without penalty; this would not apply to balls more than three inches from the hole, however, because I didn’t want to make a mockery of the game.

putt

With these changes in place, my scores began to match those of my friends in short order.  And I can’t say they were pleased about it.  In fact, so petulant did they become that, after only a week, I had to abandon these rule modifications altogether.

It was either that, or I’d have found myself playing alone!

Mind you—not that I want to lose my friends—I do shoot my best scores when I’m playing alone.

Just sayin’!

 

Mayday! Mayday!

Another pagan festival is almost upon us, the celebration of Mayday, which I dread with every ounce of my being.  It rolls around on the first of May, of course, and is observed in several countries around the world.

In its most malign form, it features a display of armed forces by autocratic nations eager to boast of their military might.  More benignly, it involves an innocent dance around a maypole by young lasses and lads, joyously welcoming the spring.

maypole-on-the-country-vector

But honestly, for me, the second is worse than the first.

Almost seventy years ago, when I was in grade one, I was one of those youngsters conscripted as a maypole dancer.  All the rosy-cheeked girls wore frocks and crinolines, and bright bows in their hair.  I and the other boys, all involuntary participants, wore jodhpur-type pants, shirts and ties, and sickly smiles.

We had been relentlessly rehearsed in the dance by our teacher, a lovely lady most of the time, but a tenacious taskmaster on this occasion.  Our mothers and grandmothers were gathered in the schoolyard to marvel at their darlings (this was in the day when everybody’s fathers went off to work, while mothers stayed home), and the children in the older grades were brought outside to watch, too.

The dance itself was not meant to be overly-complicated.  We stood in a circle around the pole, each of the boys facing a girl, whose back was to the next boy.  We all held one end of our own long, bright ribbon in our hands; mine was red.  The other ends were affixed to the top of the maypole—in this case, a steel volleyball stanchion.  When the music started, the idea was for the boys to shuffle counter-clockwise around the pole, while the girls went clockwise, bobbing and weaving around each other, first inside, then outside, thereby layering the maypole with cascading colours of ribbon from top to bottom.

We had to sing a song while we cavorted, an old tune that none of us liked—While strolling through the park one day/ In the merry, merry month of May,/ I was taken by surprise/ By a pair of roguish eyes,/ I was scared but I didn’t run away.

Believe me, every one of the boys wanted to run away, but we were too scared of our teacher to bolt.

teacher4

Anyway, right after the first or second turn around the maypole, singing that stupid song, the top end of my ribbon came off the pole, fluttering pathetically to the ground.  Thunderstruck by the disaster, I stopped dead in my tracks, which immediately caused a bumping and crashing among all the other dancers.  The singing died away, unlamented by the singers.

Had I not been too young to know the international distress call, I would probably have screeched, “Mayday!  Mayday!”

Quick as a flash, my teacher grabbed my hand and pulled me to one side, my ribbon trailing me, then got the others going again.  The synchronicity was ruined, of course, because the odd number of boys couldn’t zig correctly around an even number of zagging girls.

Every boy in that circle was probably wishing he was me, safely out of it, but I was mortified.  I couldn’t look at my mother and grandmother, so ashamed was I of my faux pas.  The only consoling thing was my teacher’s hand, softly stroking the back of my head.  I still love that woman.

Afterwards, everyone adjourned to the gym for tea and cookies (milk for the kids).  My mother and grandmother tried to reassure me, saying how much they had enjoyed the show, but all I could see were the faces of the other kids, some of them smiling smugly because they hadn’t been the one to mess up.

At some point, my grandmother took the ribbon from my hand and went off somewhere.  I scarcely noticed.  But after a few minutes, back she came with it, now gloriously fashioned into a large bow, with loops and knots galore.  It was beautiful, but I was too caught up in my internal anguish to acknowledge it.  A few moments later, my grandmother disappeared again.

After a while, we all went outside so some of the mothers could take pictures of the maypole.  I had to be convinced by my mother to revisit the scene of my shame, but imagine my surprise when I got there, only to see a big, bright red bow adorning the pole.  My bow!

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Those with cameras—little black boxes they peered into from above, shading the viewfinder from the sun with their hands—took picture after picture of all the dancers clustered in front of the maypole.

“Bradley’s bow!  Bradley’s bow!” the kids chanted, faces alight.

And at last a smile broke through on my face, too.  I may have been a klutz during the dance, but the pole was a smashing success because of me and my bow.  Or, perhaps more accurately, because of my grandmother and her love.

But regardless, Mayday has never since been my favourite of festivals.

Those black-and-white snapshots inside their scalloped frames are long gone now, of course.  Yet I still remember my teacher’s kindness, my mother’s proud smile, and my glorious bow.  And I have never forgotten my grandmother’s love for me.

I have, however, never danced around another maypole!

1-800-GET-LOST

One of the most annoying things in life—ranking right up there with unsolicited calls from telemarketers—is having to call a service provider to report a problem.  No matter who it is, the cable provider, the bank, or the phone service itself, their customer-service department never seems able to take my call immediately.

I find myself pressing button after button in response to a robotic voice guiding me, supposedly helpfully, through a menu of confusing choices—when all I want is to talk to a live human being.  By the time I’m able to do that, sometimes as long as forty minutes later, I am yelling angrily, almost incoherently, at the person unlucky enough to have drawn me.

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It bothers me because I resent being rendered inchoate.

So, out of frustration, and because I harbour a latent evil streak, I have recently begun to fight back.  But, like all good generals, I fight on a battlefield of my choosing—and that field is not when I have called them, only to end up stuck on IGNORE…or, as the service-providers call it, HOLD.

No, the ground I fight on is when they call me.  And believe me, they’re always calling—the cable service with a new package of channels they feel I won’t want to miss; the bank with an incredible savings opportunity, offering, for a limited time only, 0.05% with a minimum $5000 deposit; the duct-cleaners, promising they can rid my home of the nasty critters living in the HVAC system, poisoning the very air I breathe; the hucksters telling me in tones of barely-suppressed excitement that I’ve won a free trip to Hawaii, if I will first agree to attend an investment seminar.

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They are omnipresent, these people, lurking on the other end of every solicitation call I receive.  But they have finally met their match in me.  Once I realize it’s a sales rep on the line, the ensuing conversation goes something like this—

REP:  Good afternoon, sir…

ME:  Excuse me, before you begin, would you prefer English, français, or Español?

REP:  Ahh, English please.  Are you…

ME:  Are you calling with regard to existing accounts, bill payment, customer service, technical assistance, sales, or some other service?

REP:  I’m calling to interest you in…

ME:  Okay, sales.  Before you go further, let me place you on HOLD for a brief moment.  I have someone on my other line, but I can assure you your call is important to me, so please don’t go away.

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I then go away for as long as two or three minutes, leaving the caller dangling on the line.  When I come back, if he or she is no longer there, I gently end the call.  On occasion, however, the unfortunate caller has chosen to wait, and so the conversation resumes.

ME:  With whom am I speaking, please?

REP:  Me?  Ahh, I’m Hector, and I’m calling to…

ME:  Before we continue, Hector, I have to inform you that this call is being recorded to ensure quality service and customer satisfaction.

REP:  Recorded?

ME:  Of course.

REP:  Sir, that is highly unusual…

ME:  Yes, I’m sure.  Also, I must ask you a couple of questions to confirm your identity.  What is the name of your firm, what is your employee number, and at what number may I reach you on a call-back?

REP:  Sir, we don’t give out that…

ME:  You don’t?  But you will ask for similar information from me, will you not?

REP:  Yes, of course, but that’s for your own…

ME:  Hector, I know you have something very important to tell me about, but before you do, I want to let you know about my brief survey.

REP:  Survey?

ME:  At the end of this call, when you’ve finished your sales pitch, I’m going to ask you five short questions, each of which will have a choice of three answers.  For each question, you will choose either A, B, or C, whichever best describes your experience on this call with me today.  Do you agree to take this survey?  Please answer yes or no.

REP:  [frustrated] Sir, I think we have a misunder…

frustrated call center man

ME:  [impatient] I’m sorry, Hector, was that a yes or a no?

REP:  [desperate] Sir, we don’t respond to…

ME:  [hectoring]  Ex-cuse me!  You do remember that this call is being recorded, right?  Is it not important to you that our conversation reflect a high level of satisfaction on my part?

REP:  [whimpering]  Sir, please, this is…

ME:  [pityingly]  Hector, do you know what number you’ve called?

REP:  [thoroughly cowed]  No, sir, I’ve called so many today…

ME:  [wickedly]  This is 1-800-GET-LOST.  Now, is there anything else I can help you with today?

REP:  ~click ~

My wife tells me this sort of curmudgeonly behaviour on my part is unbecoming a man of my supposed intelligence.  She tells me it’s unfair to take advantage of someone who is trying to earn an honest living.  And, somewhat reluctantly, I concede that she is, as usual, probably right.

Anyway, I’ve told her I’ll stop doing it after the next time I have to call in to a service provider for help with a problem, and I’ll stop immediately, but only on one condition—that I manage to get a real, live person on the line on my first try.

What are the chances, do you suppose?

on hold

Scratching My Back

As I creep up on my seventy-fifth birthday, somewhat apprehensively, I have discovered I can’t scratch my own back anymore.  It used to be that I could get at any itch, anywhere, with a few grunts and gyrations.  But now, my arms are no longer able to reach those remote regions where I itch the most.

backscratch

Over my shoulder, with either hand, I manage to get no more than one hand-span below my neck.  Pushing down on my overhead elbow with the other hand doesn’t help much; in fact, it usually brings on a muscle cramp.

Reaching behind to stretch a hand up from my waist isn’t any better.  The itch I’m itching to scratch is always just above my outstretched fingers, lying irritatingly in that band of skin that connects between my shoulder blades.

I’ve noticed other things, too, that I used to be able to do, none of which comes as easily anymore.  Getting out of bed in the morning, for instance, can sometimes be quite a chore.  My back might be aching, for example, though for what reason I’m unable to say.  Our mattress is comfortably firm, and relatively new.

On other days, my knees might be stiff, or my neck could be kinked.  This, despite the fact I sleep with a small pillow between my knees for proper alignment, and have tried the so-called natural-shape pillows.  Perhaps it’s my natural shape that’s misaligned.

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It seems on mornings like these—most mornings, in fact—I have to stand slowly, uncurling myself, moving ever so carefully, just to give everything a chance to jiggle and drop back into its accustomed place.  There isn’t any pain, really—although it hurts to hear the clicking and popping sounds my body makes.

Even on those days when there isn’t any discomfort, I find I’m exercising more than I used to—exercising more caution, that is.  I don’t run downstairs two-steps-at-a-time anymore.  In fact, I don’t even run up the stairs with the same reckless abandon I once displayed.  I’ve learned from experience that doing so now is just…well, reckless.  My toes seem to nick the edge of one of the steps at the most inopportune moment.

It strikes me as too ridiculous that I’m falling up the stairs!

There are other minor tasks, acts requiring only the simplest degree of motor coordination, that I can’t handle anymore, either.  Pulling on a sweater, for example, has become a major endeavour.  It seems a short time ago that it was a relatively smooth operation—both arms into the sleeves, up and over the head, then down around the waist.  Increasingly now, I seem to become trapped inside the sweater enfolding me like a cocoon, a helpless larva struggling to get free.  On more than one occasion, I’ve even had to call for help.

It’s the same with tying my shoelaces.  For more than seventy years, I’ve been tying bows with flair.  Lately, I fume and fumble with fingers that don’t seem to flex and follow my poor brain’s instructions.  I haven’t yet resorted to wearing shoes with velcro tabs, but I fear the day is nigh at hand.

And don’t get me started on buttonholes!

Once upon a not-so-long-ago time, I could read the smallest print while sitting in semi-darkness, and never feel the strain.  Now, even with the three-way lamp turned to its highest setting, I find the words are invariably out of focus—with my reading glasses on!  I’m forever leaning in closer to the page, or to the laptop screen, trying for a better angle.  It’s even become a problem in the bright, outdoor light!

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Other changes abound, as well, both subtle and insidious.  I’d mention them here, but—most alarmingly, perhaps—I can’t always remember what they are; I forget things much more often than I used to.

At least, I think I do—when I remember to think about it at all.

Of course, I’ve tried out various measures to compensate for all these lapses.  For example, whenever something important is decided by my wife and me, I write little notes to myself so I won’t forget.  The trouble is, I often forget where I stored the notes.

I do try not to let myself become too upset by all these changes.  After all, one’s golden years are supposed to bring freedom from stress and anxiety.  Getting older is a natural process, and I remind myself of that repeatedly—repeatedly, because I usually don’t remember that I’ve already reminded myself.  Alas, there’s nothing to be done about that.

But fortunately, if I really try, I can look at it all as rather amusing.  It’s kind of fun, occasionally, to step outside my skin (figuratively speaking) and look at myself as an objective bystander might.

And what do I see?  I see a reluctantly-elderly gentleman, a grandfather, often bespectacled, striving to stay erect and trim, who, in his heart, wants to believe he still feels and acts like a young man, able to do all the things he used to do.

Problem is, he can’t remember how!

Anyway, if you’re out for a stroll in the park one day and chance to run into an old man sitting on a park bench, and if you notice he’s shimmying manically side to side, as if demented, please don’t be dismayed.  It’s probably just me, trying to scratch that infernal itch in the middle of my back!

Man sitting on a bench under a tree

 

A Temporary Measure?

Temporary!

That’s what the government declared when they introduced this nefarious measure of which I speak.  But I confess, I do not believe them.  After all, it’s been with us for more than a hundred years, ever since they enacted it near the end of the First World War.  That’s hardly temporary!

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I’m talking about income tax, which has lingered on and on to become my living nightmare.  Every April, late in the month, I sit down—just like thousands upon thousands of other citizens—to figure out how much I owe the government.  Invariably, I spend several hours trying to complete the forms, but I just can’t seem to get it right.

The government used to call it an Income Tax and Benefit Return, but that made no sense to me because I could never ascertain what, if any, benefits accrued to me.  And I never had any money returned!

By my calculations, prior to retiring I was working ‘til sometime in July every year before I would begin to earn dollars exempt from the taxes I had to pay.  More than half my yearly income was subject to taxes!  Not only that, I always ended up owing the government at the end of the year!  What kind of a deal is that?

Over the years, prior to the advent of computers and tax software, I developed a number of avoidance mechanisms when income tax time rolled around; translated, that means I found several ways of putting it off until the very last minute—and sometimes well beyond.  In fact, I became adept at fooling even myself!

For instance, early in April I would psych myself up to get at the job.  I’d set aside a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and be sure to get a good sleep the night before.  Then, at the appointed hour, I’d seclude myself at my desk in the den, leaving instructions that I was not to be disturbed.  At this point, I actually believed I could get ‘er done.

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Unfortunately, however, and through no fault of my own, I was never able to get right to it.  Inevitably, some significant problem would arise; for example, my pencil-sharpener would be broken, the bulb in my desk lamp burnt-out, or my calculator battery expired.  By the time I could resolve these crises, I’d have exhausted, not only myself, but my determination to tackle the forms.  So at that point, mentally drained, I would defer the job until I’d recovered sufficiently to try again.

In retrospect, though, that shouldn’t be surprising.  The tax return, even the so-called simple form, is very confusing, perhaps intimidating, to the average person—which is who I am.

Having been a humble pensioner for several years now, I’m required to use the simplest forms, but every year they seem to change, with more and more information being asked for.  The old printed guidebook, which increasingly resembled a novella in terms of its length, was almost impossible to read, and the digital version is no better.  By the time I’ve tried to cross-reference all the sections and sub-sections it directs me to, I have umpteen screens open on my computer—which by then is whimpering piteously in the background.

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The guidebook tells me some sections of the forms do not have to be completed by some taxpayers, in some circumstances.  That leaves me trying to figure out which questions to ignore and which to worry about.  One year recently, I ignored the entire section on Total Income; the government promptly made sure I didn’t make that mistake again!  I’m sure they’re still watching me.

In truth, I don’t find the guidebook to be much help with any of it.  I get mixed up when I read through the explanations in each section, even the uncomplicated ones.  And it always seems to be the commonplace words and statements that trip me up.

A case in point is the statement that six basic steps “should be all you need to complete your tax return.”  They never are for me!

One of my biggest problems came the year I read for the first time about the electronic filing process, where I could complete my return by phone.  Elated at this discovery, I called the toll-free number to do that.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered the government still expected me to do all the calculations before calling in!  The agent was downright rude!

Online filing, when it burst upon the scene, was no better.  No matter that I’ve tried using Ufile and e-file, it still always comes back to me-file, and the me is ever the weakest link there.

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Perhaps my dilemma is that the instructions aren’t as simple as I am.  Friends have been telling me forever that only a fool would still be trying to complete his own tax return, rather than having an expert tackle it.  But, consultants I’ve spoken to have told me that the potential return for someone in my tax bracket isn’t complicated enough to justify the cost or bother of hiring a third party.  I don’t know whether that makes me proud or embarrassed.

On occasion in the past, I’ve resorted to attending income tax seminars, hoping to pick up valuable tips about the whole process.  Needless to say, they quickly became tutorials that were taxing my mental health, and the information inevitably went right over my head.

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The best tax tip I ever got was from a friend who was probably as confused as I was.  He told me to forget the computer and go back to using a pencil with an eraser on the end!  I promptly told him about my broken pencil-sharpener.

Anyway, as the April deadline for filing my next return draws near, I’ll be faced with the whole, ugly scene again.  Still befuddled, I’ll gather all my documents around me, those I can find, and try to muddle through.  I know I’ll be overcome at times by despair, fettered by fits of panic, and burdened by the sure knowledge that, once again, I won’t do it right.

I agree with T. S. Eliot, who so memorably wrote in his epic poem, The Waste Land—April is the cruelest month…

Nevertheless, I’m determined to keep trying—not because I harbour any fantasies that I’ll suddenly see the light, or that the government would forgive me if I decided not to file. Faint hope for either of those!

No, my reason for persevering is that, underneath the heavy clouds of pessimism, there burns one shining, though increasingly-faint, ray of hope concerning income tax.

Remember?

It’s only a temporary measure!

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