Karao-kay!

So, here’s the thing—you don’t have to be a good singer!  You don’t even have to be a mediocre singer!  All you need is that you like to sing.

For some time now, as some of you know, I’ve blended my bass voice with mates on the risers of a large men’s chorus, the mighty Harbourtown Sound.  And it’s been a comfort to me to know that no one listening would actually be able to pick my voice out of the throng.  I mean, I do contribute to the wondrous wall of sound we produce collectively, but my solo voice is anonymous, much to my liking.

However, on my last birthday, which took me past my mid-mid-seventies, my wife and two daughters gifted me with a karaoke machine.  Never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought to ask for such a thing—although, in my younger years, I did take part in more than one karaoke session, usually after a few beers in the company of good friends whose critical faculties were undoubtedly somewhat impaired.  In fact, I think I remember stepping up in one or two open-mic sessions, as well.

As I recall, I was never asked back to the same venue twice.

Still, I’ve discovered I love my new machine.  The internet is chock-full of karaoke versions of popular songs, arranged exactly as the original artists sang them, with the correct lyrics scrolling on the screen.  Copyright restrictions apply only if one intends to use them for commercial purposes, which I most assuredly do not.  After all, if it were my intent to sell any of the songs I record, I’d need a buyer, right? 

‘Nuff said.

Ballads are my preferred genre, some of them even older than I.  A partial list of artists whose songs I have attempted includes Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Mathis, Willie Nelson, Jim Reeves, and Frank Sinatra.

Still to come, I hope:  Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford, John Gary, perhaps even Pavarotti!  After all, I’m singing for an audience of one!

I’ve also essayed solo versions of songs by several different groups, including Abba, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, The Irish Rovers, and The Platters.  Still on the horizon: The Everly Brothers, The Lettermen, The Seekers, and probably others I haven’t yet contemplated.

If you have assumed by now that my wife and daughters have inadvertently created a monster, I could hardly gainsay you.  But I’m benign, I assure you.

My process is to sit with the machine, which is connected by Bluetooth to a song dialled up on my laptop.  I sing it through a couple of times, adjusting the volume of the instrumentals as needed, boosting the mic volume up or down accordingly.  There is a reverb feature, too, which enhances my voice on most of the songs.

If I manage at some point to sound okay to my own ears, I record the song and add it to my little library.  Some of the songs, as you might imagine, are never recorded!

I quickly discover which of the songs will take me beyond my somewhat limited vocal range, and discard them.  Even with my bass singing voice, I can manage a falsetto if not too high, so that helps a little.  Breath control is the biggest single problem I encounter—running out of air before a phrase ends is never good, resulting in a cracked whimper that brings no joy to anyone ever.

Pitch problems are a concern, too, and I sometimes hear myself landing just short of the intended note—what a layperson might call singing flat.  That’s also associated with running short of breath, and can be corrected with proper breathing intervals.  I have yet to record even one song, however, without at least one pitchy problem.

But who cares!

I mentioned earlier that I sing for an audience of one.  That’s not entirely true, though, because I do send along those songs I’ve recorded to my wife and daughters—it’s they, after all, who unleashed the monster.  I also forward the recordings to my three long-suffering sisters, together with a plea that they resist the urge to tell me to stop.  I suggest to them they have three choices—

  1. enjoy the song,
  2. endure the song, or
  3. DELETE.

I implore them not to laugh as they listen (though I’ll never know if they do), nor compare me to the original artist.  Rather, I ask that they think of this as one, perhaps forlorn, attempt to make music with only a modicum of talent, for no other reason than the sheer joy of making music. 

And you, dear reader, might even try it yourself—in the shower, in your car—or, if you’re lucky, on your very own karaoke machine.

Karao-kay!

A Striking Beauty

“Beautiful!” I said.  “Incredible!”

Reclining in a commercial-grade lazy-boy, staring through a huge, panoramic window onto the icy waters of the Alaskan fiord slipping past the ship, I was halfway through a herbal-oil scalp massage my wife had talked me into—an experience I had stoutly resisted, but to no avail.

The sun was gleaming off the water, off the glacier, off the long, blonde hair of my Swedish masseuse hovering over me.  Her name was Inga—short for Ingeborg she told me when we’d been introduced.  My wife was in a similar chair in the cubicle next to mine, the two of us separated by a thin privacy wall.

A striking beauty, Inga was exactly the type I’d have assumed would be working in a shipboard spa.  Taller than I, shapely in her white salon dress, she gazed directly at me through green eyes lit from within.  Her smile would have dazzled the most jaded of men.

As I’d settled into my chair, my mind had raced off in all directions.  This lovely vision was undoubtedly in her late-twenties, embarked on the adventure of a lifetime, probably searching, even if leisurely, for a husband of means, a rich widower who might endow her with everything she could ask for.

The warm oil she’d poured on my scalp, and the sensuous fingers working it in, further inflamed my imagination.  I knew it could never be I she would settle on; after all, I was four inches shorter and several million dollars shy of the mark.  Plus, I was already married—happily, I firmly reminded myself.

Despite the magnificent view through the window, I felt my eyes closing as Inga worked her magic on my scalp, my neck, my shoulders.  I’d undoubtedly have drifted off into who-knows-what erotic imaginings if she hadn’t begun talking, her voice a dusky alto, her accent delightful.

“I love this job,” she said, “especially on this ship, and on this voyage.  The scenery is magnificent.”

“How long have you been doing it?” I asked, eager to keep hearing her voice.

“Not long,” she said.  “I found I couldn’t stay home alone after my husband died, and this was something I always fancied doing.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said automatically.  And I was—and surprised, too, to hear she was a widow at such a young age.  “How long were you married?”

“Thirty years,” she said.

Thirty years?  I gave my head a mental shake.

“He was a partner in a large firm,” she went on.  “His partners bought his shares from me, so I am financially independent.  My youngest son is in medical school in London, my oldest is a commercial pilot, and neither one needs their mother anymore.  So here I am, on my own, free as a bird.”

My mind was frantically doing the math.  A son in med school would have to be at least twenty-four, so even if she’d had two kids by the time she was twenty, she’d still be in her mid-forties—maybe even early-fifties!  And being wealthy in her own right, she was likely in no hurry to tie herself down to one man.  This woman, if so inclined, would have no shortage of companionship. 

I felt her warm breath in my ear, interrupting my thoughts.  “Oh, look!” she said.  “You are so lucky!  Many people never get to see this!” 

She moved closer to the window, and I saw a pod of orcas, seeming to race the ship up the fiord, leaping and twisting and falling back, their sparkling splashes transforming glassy sunlight into shattered shards. 

“Brad!” my wife called from the other cubicle.  “Are you watching this?”

Indeed I was.  The whales, a jumble of white-and-black juggernauts, were actually moving faster than we were.  Inga, her hands splayed on the glass, smiled over her shoulder at me, lighting my soul.

“Beautiful!”  I said.  “Incredible!” 

And they were—the whales certainly, and Inga most definitely—a tableau etched unforgettably on my memory.

I looked into Inga’s green eyes for the last time as we shook hands while my wife settled the cost at the desk.  “I hope you will enjoy the rest of your voyage,” she said.  “Thank you for sailing with us.”  And with that, she was gone.

Over drinks on the lido deck later, my wife asked if I’d enjoyed myself. 

“I did,” I said.  “You were right about the massage.  Did you like it?”

“For sure!” my wife said.  “Karin, my masseuse, was delightful.  And what a treat it was to see the orcas!”

“Yeah,” I said, reliving the window-scene in my mind.  “By the way, how old would you think my masseuse is?”

“She’s twenty-eight,” my wife said.

“That’s what I thought!” I exclaimed.  “But she’s in her late-forties, at least, maybe early-fifties.  She has a son in med school in London, and another son who’s a pilot.  I can’t believe she’s that old!”

“Yeah, we heard her telling you about herself,” my wife said.  “But Karin told me it’s just a story Inga tells to ward off all the older men.  She’s actually twenty-eight and single!”

“A story?” I whispered.  “Older men?”

Going Beddy-Bye

For the better part of seventy-eight years, I’ve gone beddy-bye every night—but I’ve been alone for only the first twenty-three of those.  In those early years, I slept atop an inexpensive mattress, twin-bed size, identical to the one occupied by my brother.

On my wedding night, no longer alone, I slipped under the covers on a similarly-inexpensive mattress, double-size now, which sat on a metal spring supported by three wood slats running between the sideboards of the antique bedframe we had inherited from my grandparents.  Those slats had the nasty habit of slipping off the lip they rested on whenever my wife and I were, shall we say, not exactly resting quietly.  Matrimonial merriment became a challenge, to see how frisky we might get without wrecking the bed.

Every night since that honeymoon eve—with a few exceptions due to travel, illness, or similar unusual circumstances—I have gone beddy-bye with the woman I married.

By the time we welcomed our first daughter some five years on, we had bought a more expensive box spring/mattress combo, double-size, but still resting on those same slats—reinforced now by two additional slats, all five screwed into the sideboards.  No longer did we fear capsizing while…..well, you know, canoodling.

Our second daughter arrived twenty months after her sister, and it seemed no time at all before we began waking to find four of us in our double bed.  With those two wee urchins snuggling between us, I remember being pushed so close to the edge of the bed that I would almost fall out.  It was about then that my wife and I, for decorum’s sake, began to wear pyjamas…..and to consider buying a larger mattress.

We graduated, eventually, to a queen-size bed, the mattress set on its own free-standing base.  The old double-size bedframe was stored away, except for the headboard, which we continued to use, propped at the head of the bed to match the rest of my grandparents’ suite.  Even with the girls growing bigger by the day, the space was more than adequate, as if we were sleeping in the wide-open spaces.

During all this time, I slept on the right side of the bed, to the left of my wife.  The only reason for this, as I can recall now, is that in all the homes we lived in, the bathroom was closer to her side.

Not long after the girls had left our happy little family to start their own, we began to suffer hitherto-unknown aches and stiffness in the morning.  Thus began a period of frequent mattress-turns and flips, seeking to stop the sag.  Eventually, after some consideration of the alternatives (and the cost), we opted to purchase a king-size, memory-foam mattress.  We found ourselves at that point, just the two of us, sleeping on a bed that would easily have accommodated our little family of four. 

For the most part, at least in the beginning, we gravitated to the middle, close enough to reach each other, and to feel each other’s warmth.  And there were no sags—not in the mattress, anyway.

But lo and behold, into this blissful beddy-bye there came an insidious intrusion that negated the benefits of the mattress—to wit, snoring.  Increasingly, in the wee, small hours, one of us would waken to the other’s snorts and gurgles, toss and roll fitfully for what seemed like hours, unable to recapture sleep, and finally retreat to the recliner-chair in the den.  It was intolerable.

The cure arrived when we went, first I and then my wife, to be tested for sleep apnea—a condition where one stops breathing, sometimes for a minute or longer, thereby placing great pressure on the heart and other vital organs.  And when breathing  resumes, it’s often with loud gasps and splutters—AKA snoring.  Alas, both of us were diagnosed with apnea, which led to our acquiring CPAP machines (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) to combat it.

We feel now as if we’re sleeping with Darth Vader, each of us with a mask over our mouth and nose, flexible hoses running to the machines on our bedside tables.  And we’ve moved away from the middle of the bed so the hoses won’t be stretched beyond their six-foot length.  To anyone unfamiliar with CPAP machines, this must sound like a horror show.

Thankfully, however, the machines work!  After a short period of adjustment, they have put an effective stop to our snoring, allowed us to sleep more deeply, and longer, and to waken more refreshed.

So now—more than fifty years after I moved from my single-size twin bed to that double-size marital mattress, still sharing my bed with the love of my life, close enough on our current king-size mattress to reach out and touch—I find myself looking forward every night to going beddy-bye.

I am blessed.

The Movie Critic

During my long-ago university days, a friend and classmate in our journalism programme enticed me on several occasions to skip classes and spend our days in the local movie theatres.  Curtailed by our austere budgets, we patronized the seedier of those—the Biltmore, the Rio, the Roxy—often getting three features, two cartoons, a newsreel, and a couple of previews for the price of admission.

After being indoors from shortly after nine in the morning until well after four in the afternoon, lunching on salted cashews and soda, I frequently saw the journey home on public transit through squinting eyes, and with a flickering headache.

Such reckless behaviour did not seriously impede our academic progress, happily.  Despite our truant ways, both of us managed to graduate on schedule, thanks to the great gift of being able to write well and on deadline.  I soon enrolled in a teacher-training programme, which led me to the path I followed for the next thirty-years-plus. 

My friend, on the other hand, sought and gained immediate employment with a small city newspaper where, among other assigned duties, she quickly established herself as the resident movie critic.  I was never sure how stringent the requirements were for that role, though, because most of the films we enjoyed had featured such luminaries as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, starring in such films as The House of Usher, The Raven, and Pit and the Pendulum.

Not exactly boffo hits at the box office!

On the occasion of my friend’s retirement a few years ago, I sent her a sincere note of congratulations and remembrance, hearkening back to those golden school days of yore where she had received the best training for her work as a critic from the most unlikely of sources.

And just for fun, to show her the havoc that would have ensued had I followed that same career path, I sent along my imagined synopsis of several award-winning movies from the 1920s to the 2010s, picking one from each decade.  My list is reproduced below, including the names of their respective directors—

1920s   The Kid   (Charlie Chaplin)

A woebegone tramp, homeless and alone, finally finds happiness living in an abandoned boxcar with a baby goat.

1930’s   City Lights   (Charlie Chaplin)

An impoverished, old lamplighter in 1890s New York almost changes history when he tries to discourage Thomas Edison from inventing the lightbulb.

1940s   All the King’s Men   (Robert Rossen)

The king of a faraway land finds that neither he, nor any of his men, can repair his breakfast egg that was accidentally broken when it fell off a high wall.

1950s   Twelve O’Clock High   (Henry King)

Jack Kerouac writes a literary masterpiece after discovering the joy of smoking dope continuously as soon as he wakens every morning.

1960s   Some Like It Hot   (Billy Wilder)

A young chef in the czarist court discovers that, although the czarina does not like pease porridge hot—preferring it nine days old and cold—some do.

1970s   Carrie   (Brian De Palma)

In a remake of Birth of a Nation (1915), the birth and early activism of Carrie, a radical member of the temperance movement, is chronicled. 

1980s   Full Metal Jacket   (Stanley Kubrick)

In a film adaptation of the classic tale of Ivanhoe, a solitary knight in shining armor sets out on a quest to gain entry to King Arthur’s Round Table.

1990s   Men in Black   (Barry Sonnenfeld)

Two undertakers, known as the fishin’ morticians, enter a salmon-fishing contest, spawning a host of jokes when their prize catch is already embalmed.

2000s   There Will Be Blood   (Paul Thomas Anderson)

A food critic in Los Angeles learns what else he will find on his plate when he orders his prime-rib extra-rare.

2010s   Spring Breakers   (Harmony Korine)

Two grossly-overweight friends find work in a mattress and box-spring factory, testing new products before they go to market.

Some time after sending off my note, I received a lovely reply from my old friend, assuring me of her continuing regard, but with no commentary on my list.  It may be that, despite her job, she had never reviewed the films I cited, and so accepted my synopses at face value. 

Or, more probably, she assumed I have taken leave of my senses.

But that’s alright.  I always wanted to be her friend, but I never wanted to be a movie critic!

The Dilemma of the Rut

Someone once wrote:  a rut is like a grave, except still open at both ends.  And a rut is something in which I never wanted to find myself mired, like many of you, I expect.  Nor a grave, either, for that matter—at least not anytime soon!

The grave, alas, is ultimately unavoidable.  Not so, however, for the ruts we might encounter in life; they, with diligence and determination, can be sidestepped or skipped over.  Our final destination may be preordained, but the paths we follow on the way there are not.

Confronting our choice of byways was spoofed several years ago by one of the twentieth century’s wisest (if unintentionally so) philosophers, Yogi Berra:  When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Again, like many of you, that is what I have done during my life—consciously choosing one fork on some occasions, finding myself inadvertently set on another sometimes.  Occasionally, I have regretted choices I’ve made, and have tried to retrace my steps.  In most cases, that proved to be impossible and I had to live with the results of those decisions.

And I have lived, too, with the consequences of treading paths I didn’t knowingly select.  The fact I have made it this far along my journey is, I must tell you, due for the most part to the triumph of random chance over rational, thoughtful decision-making.

Still, here I am.

When I say that my life has been a series of ‘adventures’, I do not mean it in the swashbuckling sense, such as might be said for Robin Hood, Indiana Jones, or even Dora the Explorer.  Indeed, no one has ever mistaken me for an audacious thrill-seeker.  I would not be comfortable as that person.

Rather, it is simply that the journey has led me, time after time, from one new experience to another, each subsequent situation not totally different from those before it, nor completely the same, either.  There has been sufficient variety in my meanderings across the years that I have never felt myself stuck in a rut.

My marriage, about to celebrate its fifty-fourth year—to a lass I met fifty-eight years ago—has never been dull or wanting in enthusiasm.  Being a father to two daughters—grown now with families of their own—has never been predictable, but always exhilarating and enjoyable.  My working life, spanning thirty-three years, was immensely rewarding, notwithstanding the occasional challenge and setback.

And now, firmly ensconced in retirement for twenty-two years, I still flit from one activity to another—writing, golfing, cycling, swimming, reading, and for the past four years, singing with a splendid men’s chorus. For one my age, the pace of activity is almost frenetic.

If being in a rut could be visualized as a straight tunnel running from wherever one is standing to the far horizon, my life would be more accurately represented as a maze, with pathways leading hither and yon from every intersection.

The fact of this is mildly amusing to me, for I am, by temperament, a person who prefers predictability, who craves certainty, who relishes reliability.  It is only by dint of will that I have encouraged myself to a point where I dare proclaim, Don’t believe everything you think; certainty is the enemy of an open mind.  

Because, you see, my secret wish is that I could, in fact, be certain about everything.

The dilemma I face is that nurturing an open mind leads me further from the safety of certainty—and away from the rut I have never wanted to fall into—while at the same time pushing me into new adventures my conservative nature would generally prefer to avoid.

It is one or the other for me, it seems—the rut or the unknown, each its own fork in the road.

And on every occasion, even after all this time, I still wonder which I shall choose.

Lighten Up

As you may know, dear reader, being snuggled away in self-isolation, even in comfortable conditions, can become something of a drag after awhile.  So, I’ve taken to searching the web for uplifting and humourous utterances from famous people to lighten my mood.

It works most of the time, except for when I stumble upon something truly brilliant—at which point I fall into a funk, wishing it had been I who had said it first.

Nevertheless, here are a number of my favourites, sure to brighten the dullest day, lighten the heaviest melancholy, restore the most forlorn soul.

Lincoln

To make reading them a tad more fun, and to afford readers a chance to guess who the speaker of each might have been, I’ve appended the speakers’ names at the end of this post, listed in alpha order by surname. Some of the speakers are no longer with us, alas, but their joie de vivre lives on after them in their humour.

The three items with a double-asterisk indicate which of the speakers might have been (but were not) offering comments about books I have written.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

a) I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.
b) Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
c) You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. 
d) They told me that Gladstone read Homer for fun, which I thought served him right.
e) The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.**
f) There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad.
g) Fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches.
h) Remember, when you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It is only painful for others. The same applies when you are stupid. 
i) My mother’s menu consisted of two choices: Take it or leave it.
j) No man has a good enough memory to be a successful liar.
k) My doctor gave me six months to live, but when I couldn’t pay the bill, he gave me six months more. 
l) To succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone.
m) When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself. 
n) This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.**
o) Everything is changing. People are taking the comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke. 
p) I’m the only man in the world with a marriage licence made out to whom it may concern. 
q) Only I can fix it.
r) Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.**
s) When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.
t) The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you have your own favourite quotation from a famous person, please feel free to add it in the Comment section below.

ANSWERS: a) Fred Allen; b) Napoleon Bonaparte; c) Al Capone; d) Winston Churchill; e) Tom Clancy; f) Salvador Dali; g) Duchess of Windsor; h) Ricky Gervais; i) Buddy Hackett; j) Abraham Lincoln; k) Walter Matthau; l) Reba McEntire; m) Peter O’Toole; n) Dorothy Parker; o) Will Rogers; p) Mickey Rooney; q) Donald Trump; r) Mark Twain; s) Mae West; t) Oscar Wilde

Telephone Jokester

I have never liked the telephone!  I know it’s a wonderful invention, a labour-sparing tool, a life-saver in time of emergency.  I’m aware that it brings friends together and ties families more closely to one another.  And I understand that it is, indeed, a technological marvel.

But I don’t like it, especially now when everyone but me carries one around in pocket or purse.  For whatever reason, I’ve never felt at ease when I’m talking to someone on the phone.  If I can’t be in front of the person to whom I’m speaking, it doesn’t feel right.  And no, Skype and FaceTime do not resolve that problem for me.

Even before the days of smartphones, my home phone always seemed to ring at the most inopportune moments; for example, when I’d just sat down to dinner, when I was busily engrossed in some leisure activity, or (most annoying of all) when I was the only one home to answer it.  That still happens.

But without a doubt, the worst thing about the telephone is the wrong number.  It doesn’t matter whether I’m doing the calling or receiving the call.  Wrong numbers are a pain!

Whenever I’ve entered a wrong number, I’m immediately apologetic to the person who answers.  I know that my own carelessness has put the other party out, and I try to make amends.  However, my efforts are invariably met with an angry or impolite reply.  It begins right after I realize I’ve dialled the number incorrectly.

“Oh…oh, sorry,” I stammer.  “I’m afraid I have the wrong number.”

“Obviously!” comes the reply.  And if it’s a landline I’ve called in error, that response is followed closely by an abrupt banging of the receiver in my ear.

What bothers me more, though, is when I answer a call from someone who has the wrong number.  For some reason, it’s still I who ends up being the bad guy.  Where’s the justice in that?

“Hello?” I answer.

“Jenny there?”

“Ah, no, sorry,” I begin.  “You have the wrong…”

“Where is she?” the caller demands.

“Hey, man, I don’t know.  You’ve got the wrong…”

“Who’s this?”

“It’s me,” I reply lamely, “and there’s no one here by the name of…”

“What number is this?”

When I dutifully give it, I get a snarling rejoinder, “That’s not the number I want!”

I’m never quick enough to miss that banging receiver.  And I’m left feeling it was all my fault for answering when the call was for Jenny.

I confess, back in those unlamented landline days, I resorted to dirty tricks on numerous occasions, more to avoid the unpleasantness than out of any malicious intent.  Although, I must concede, I did derive some guilty pleasure from it.

“Just a minute,” I would reply when the caller asked for someone I’d never heard of.  I’d lay the receiver by the phone, place a cushion on top, and forget about it.  After a few minutes, the caller would get tired of waiting and hang up.  When next I passed by the phone, I’d gently replace the receiver.

Or on occasion, I’d respond by saying, “Jenny?  She left quite a while ago.  She should be at your place any minute!  Tell her to call when she gets there.”

And I’d hang up first.

Sometimes, I would ask the name of the caller, tell them to wait, then make a show of yelling for the non-existent person to come to the phone.

“Jenny!  Phone for you.  It’s Alice!”

After a few seconds, I’d yell again, “No way!  If you don’t wanta talk to her, you tell her!  Not me!”

In those cases, I could hear the receiver bang down from ten feet away.

I never believed any great harm came from such tactics, and it sure made me feel better.  I always hoped it might even teach those careless callers to be a little more conscientious.

“They’re only getting what they deserve,” I rationalized.  “Just desserts for them, justice for me!”

Needless to say, I was elated when—back then, before the introduction of caller ID—I hit upon the very best way to deal with those nuisance calls.  Mind you, it took some measure of will-power, and it required a little practice at first to get the hang of it.  But I persevered, and once I mastered it, I no longer had to waste precious hours dreaming up new tricks.

It was so simple.  When the phone rang, if I thought it might be a wrong number, I didn’t answer!  Ergo, no hassle, no stress.  And in time, of course, no more calls!

Brilliant!

Nevertheless, given the technological world in which I live, I suppose I’ll have to break down and get a smartphone of my own one of these days.  I’ll be tempted to turn off the ringer, set it to vibrate, and leave it at home when I go out.  But I probably won’t.

I still don’t like the telephone, but it’s lonely being a Luddite.

By Myself

No one, I don’t think, would ever mistake me for a recluse, a loner, a solitary wayfarer along the road of life.  I am, generally speaking, among the Hail fellow, well-met! sorts of people, one who enjoys lively conversations and adventures with friends and family.

But I must admit, there do come those times when I like to get off the well-trod path and retreat into a little world of my own.  It may be that you, too, enjoy doing the same thing, so mine may not be a completely unique peccadillo.

However, the things I prefer to do when I’m by myself may be different from what others choose.  For me, the top three include riding my bicycle, playing my harmonicas, and writing all manner of things—poetry and prose, articles, blogs, and books.

I got my first bike, brand-new, when I was ten years old—for forty dollars, of which my parents paid half.  Within a month, it was stolen!  I remember being outraged and heartbroken, both.  But the worst insult was learning that, if I wanted to replace it, I’d have to save up half the cost again.  Life seemed particularly unfair at that point.

I did it, though, and purchased an identical bike—maroon, coaster-brakes, a new lock.  During the next half-dozen years, until driving the family car became an option, riding my bike opened up new worlds for me.  I could ride forever, it seemed, miles further than I could ever have walked, in and out of places no larger vehicle could navigate.

That bike served as my horse when we were playing cowboys in the park; a motorcycle when we were playing drag-racers in the schoolyard (complete with stiff cardboard cut-outs clipped to the rear fork to make a loud, chattering noise as the spokes battered them); and a tow-truck to pull my cartload of newspapers on pre-dawn deliveries.  I loved my bicycle.

Different bikes over the years served me just as well, especially as a young father when one or the other of my wee daughters would ride in the seat attached behind me.  Up hills and down, my wife and I spent many hours cycling with our girls on their own bikes, well into their teenage years.

bike

Today, long into retirement, I still love to ride, mostly by myself now, able to go as slow or as fast as I like—or whatever my body dictates.  Lost in thought, I ride the roads, the trails, even cow-paths sometimes, marvelling at the changing surroundings, enjoying the peace and solitude.  It’s one of my favourite things to do by myself.

It’s the same when I play my harmonicas—my mouth organs, my harps.  I started playing when I was about the same age as when I got my first bike.  I remember asking Santa for a Hohner Marine Band, the small one, and was overjoyed to find it beside my stocking one Christmas morning.

I still have it, the very same one.  Some of the reeds are damaged, of course—that Christmas was about sixty-five years ago—but I’ll never let it go.  I still play recognizable songs on it (recognizable to me, at least), even if some of the notes are audible only to me.  Do you know O, Susanna?

Other harmonicas followed as time went on, all Hohners—a couple of which I still have.  They’re dented here and there, discoloured in spots, but the sound is almost as good as ever.  I spent many a frustrating hour trying to learn how to play a chromatic harmonica well, eventually resigning myself to an acceptance of mediocrity.  And I listened whenever I could to such giants of the instrument as Toots Thielemans, Little Walter, and Big Mama Thornton.

harmonicas

Abraham Lincoln reportedly said, Two of my favorite things are sitting on my front porch smoking a pipe of sweet hemp, and playing my Hohner harmonica.  I’ve done the very same thing many, many times—but not with Abe, and without the hemp.

I do it still today, usually when no one is home.  The music sounds as sweet to me while I’m playing as ever it did, but I’ve learned that, to the ears of others, it may not be quite as pleasurable.  And so, to spare them, playing the harmonica by myself is one of my favourite things to do.

The third, of course, is writing—an example of which you’re reading right now.  Writing is, almost by definition, a solitary endeavour, even selfish, thanks to its exclusion of others and the distractions they bring.  Ideas spring into my head at any time, anywhere, even in the dead of night.  On more occasions than I care to remember, I’ve staggered to the keyboard in a pre-dawn darkness, so as not to lose the next brilliant idea.

Writing fiction is like playing God.  After something has been recorded in an early chapter, let us say, but then overtaken by a contrary (and better) idea in a later chapter, it is nothing to go back and erase the original draft, to revise the very history I’ve created.  I can change people’s names, their appearance, the things that happen to them, all at a whim.  It’s a form of omnipotence—albeit, very limited.

I usually write with music playing softly in my earbuds, almost always from the classical repertoire.  It serves to mask ambient noise from elsewhere in the house, focus my thoughts on the subject at hand, and free my imagination for long stretches at a time.  I wonder sometimes if Mozart might ever have envisioned this solitary writer listening to his symphonies and sonatas, creating a literary piece that has never existed before, just as he did with his music.

I know.  Probably not.

author2

But that doesn’t matter.  It’s the freedom and peace I enjoy, whether riding, making music, or writing.  I don’t believe I’d like being lonely; but I do appreciate having the opportunity to be alone now and then, able to engage in my favourite things.

By myself.

Two Resolutions

“Okay, you first.”

“Me?  Why me?”

“You don’t want to go first?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.  It’s just that I’d like to have a say in deciding.”

“Okay, no problem.  You want me to go first?”

“You can if you want to.  Or, I will…whatever.”

“Jeez already, make up your mind.”

“My mind?  Why’s it me who has to make the decision?”

“You don’t.  But one of us does or we’ll never get through this.”

Silence.

“Okay then, you can decide.”

“You sure?  In that case, you go first, like I said in the beginning.”

“Yeah, because you don’t want to, right?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to.  I already told you that.  But one of us has to, and you told me to decide.  I chose you.  Why are you making such an argument out of this?”

Me?  How come it’s me who’s arguing?  Takes two to tango.”

arguing

“Okay, look, I’m not arguing.  All I’m doing is trying to get us started.  If you want me to go first, I will.  If you want me to go second, I will.  Just tell me what you want so we can get going on this.”

“Oh, so now I’m the one who’s holding us up?

“I didn’t say that.  But I need to know how you want this to go.  I’m ready to start, but you can go first if you want to.”

“Right, so it is me who has to make the decision!  Just like I thought!”

More silence.

“Okay, let me try again.  It’s not you who has to make the decision.  I said I’d decide who goes first because you said that’s what you wanted, and I chose you.  But, since you have a problem with going first, I will.”

“Who says I have a problem going first?”

“Well, apparently you do or you’d have started by now.  I’ve already suggested that three times.”

“Suggested?  Is that what you call it?  Telling me I have to go first, like I shouldn’t have a say in it?”

“Look, I’m not telling you to do anything, okay?  I’m inviting you to go first.  Or second, if that’s what you prefer.  Just make up your mind or we’ll be here all day.”

“And that’s my fault?  Seems to me you’re the one who’s trying to control everything.”

Prolonged silence this time.

“Look, for the last time, I don’t care who’s in control.  I just want us to get started on this, and obviously somebody has to go first.  Who do you want that to be?”

“You’re asking me to decide?”

“Yes…please!”

“Meaning you don’t want to.”

“Jeez Louise!  Okay, I’ll decide, and I’ll go first.”

“So, now you’ve changed your mind, right?  ‘Cause earlier, you said I could go first.”

“You want to go first?  Please, be my guest.”

“Your guest?  So now I need your permission to go first?”

More silence.  Gritted teeth this time.

“No, you don’t need my permission.”

“I mean, you’re not the boss of me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Okay.  So now that we got that settled, you can start.”

new year

“Yes!  Thank you!  Finally!  Here it is then, my New Year’s resolution.  I resolve in 2020 to be more patient with everyone I meet.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, that’s my first one.  I have some others, but now it’s your turn.”

“Why are we doing them one at a time?”

“It’s called sharing!  I share one of mine, then you share one of yours.”

“Yeah, I guess, but we could do your whole list, right?  Before we do mine?”

Silence again.  Hostile now.

“You don’t like that?  You’re determined we have to take turns?”

No reply.  The beginning of a snarl.

“Okay, already, I’ll read mine.  Sheesh!  You don’t have to be so grouchy!  Here it is, and I hope it makes you happy.  You ready?  I resolve to try very hard this year to be less argumentative.”

Open disbelief.

“How’m I doing so far?”

One More Time

A few years ago, we sold our home in Florida and I retired from playing ball.  Once the decision was taken, it didn’t seem like such a big deal.  There was no special celebration or ritual ceremony to mark the occasion.  After all, several of my friends had already made the same decision before me.  And furthermore, when it came right down to it, nobody really cared.

PP home

However, last spring we purchased another Florida home, and as this past autumn approached, I began to have second thoughts about that retirement.  I began to question if I could actually carry through with the decision.  I mean, how would I weather another winter in Florida without playing ball?

As September gave way to October, the sunshine state beckoned us again, and, with a sense of quiet desperation, I began to search ‘midst the debris of a sporting life for my trusty old ball glove.

glove

My wife (whose university degree dealt with biology, physiology, kinesiology, and other -ologies having to do with the human body) tells me that the average male person attains his physical peak around the age of twenty-six years.  If she’s right, that would mean I am fifty years beyond my glorious prime.

These days, I can’t remember what I was even doing when I was twenty-six, let alone how well I might have been doing it.  But I’m pretty sure I was somewhere playing softball, for somebody.

Now I have to admit that, with my level of athletic prowess, it’s difficult to tell if I ever actually reached a peak!  Regardless, I’m long past the point where even I could think of myself as a player ‘on the way up’, a kid ‘with a future’!

A few winters ago, before my decision to retire, several little things occurred on the playing field that, by themselves, weren’t especially significant.  Taken together, though, they presented a pattern which had led to my giving up the game.

First was the change in the distance between the bases; it got longer!  Either that, or I began to slow down.  And, for a ballplayer who couldn’t hit his weight, who threw three-bouncers from centre field to the infield, speed on the base paths was a commodity I sorely needed.

turtle

I also noticed I had stopped caring who won the game.  What mattered more to me was that I got to play my innings.  I don’t think my teammates knew, because nothing changed outwardly in my approach to the game.  But I knew, and I worried about it.  I mean, who wants to be on a ball team with someone who isn’t even competitive anymore?

The clincher, however, was a fall I took in the outfield, after [ahem] catching a long fly ball.  It was similar to dozens of such falls in the past, except this time I tore some ligaments in my shoulder.  Surgery was required twice—once to insert two screws, and again to remove them.  Those were not fun.

Consequently, when we sold our home, I retired.  Hung up the cleats.

However, upon my recent return to Florida this fall, I heard about the first meeting of the new season, to organize teams for winter ball.  I wandered over to the ballpark, just to see who might be coming back.  And I took my ball glove with me for moral support.

Once there, of course, my crumbling resolve to be retired collapsed completely.  Surrounded by past teammates—and wondering how they all got so old—I joyously entered my name and signed on the dotted line.

teammates2

I’m back! the boy inside me cried.

I probably still can’t hit for average, and my speed in the outfield will be tragically reduced on my gimpy knees, but I can still spit in the dirt and pound my glove.  So, sometime within the next couple of days, under a warm, winter sun, with all the other erstwhile boys of summer, I’ll trot—or totter—on to that field of dreams again.

One more time.