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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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?


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!


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.

tax frustration 2

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.


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.


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.


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.


It’s only a temporary measure!

tax- 2


Sure-Fire Cure for Insomnia

Sleep apnoea!  Really?  Me?

Apparently so, according to a recent visit I paid to a sleep clinic.  During five hours of REM sleep, the two dozen probes affixed to various parts of my head and body recorded ninety-two times where I stopped breathing for periods of up to forty-five seconds.  Who knew?


Remedies will have to be explored, of course.  At one time in my life, I had trouble falling asleep, but no longer.  Now, it would appear, my problem is trying to avoid expiring while in slumber-land, because of a shortage of breath.

I waken sometimes with my wife hovering anxiously over me, checking to see if I’m still inhaling and exhaling.

It’s all so bothersome.

When I used to lie awake for hours after going to bed, my breathing was perfectly fine—ranging from slow and regular to quick and fitful, depending upon the thoughts and images running through my hyperactive brain.  Given that I had to rise early for work in the morning, it was the wakefulness, not the breathing, that was the problem.

Along the way, a wise (but somewhat snide) friend offered me the perfect solution to those sleepless hours. “Pretend you’re interviewing yourself for a TV talk-show,” he suggested.  “As the host, ask a series of questions, and then, as yourself, answer them.”


“How will that help me get to sleep?” I asked, unmindful of the wicked gleam in his eye.

“Because nobody, including you, could stay awake if they had to listen to you being interviewed!” he cackled.

Despite his merriment, I thought the idea had possibilities, and so I set about trying it whenever sleep proved elusive.  At first, it had the opposite effect, however; I was so busy thinking of questions to ask myself, my brain went into overdrive.

With practice, though, the questions began to come more easily, and the answers flowed.  And sure enough, listening to myself proved a soporific boon.  The veils of Morpheus descended on me much more rapidly than ever before.  I don’t recall that I ever made it through an entire interview before falling asleep.  Insomnia was banished!

But now, in addition to the vexation of sleep apnoea, I am bothered by the fact that, as my friend predicted, even I cannot last through an interview with myself!  Can I really be that boring?

Speaker boring

So, I determined to find out.  As an avid reader of the magazine Vanity Fair, I always enjoy the quick-hit interviews with people of renown that are found on the final page of each edition.  It occurred to me that, if I could be asked those same sorts of questions, perhaps I would prove to be a stimulating subject.  Surely, I reasoned, listening to myself would not be a sure-fire cure for insomnia.

But you may be the judge of that.  Here are the questions, with my answers—

When and where were you happiest?  I’m very happy now, but my fondest memories are of the years when we were raising our two young daughters.

What is your greatest regret?  I don’t have many—life is too short—but I suppose it would be that I didn’t listen more carefully when my parents were talking about their hopes and fears.  I could have been more attentive and receptive.

What is your greatest fear?  Living beyond the point where I can be mentally engaged and productive.

What talent would you most like to have?  Playing the honky-tonk piano…well!

What is your favourite occupation?  Writing.

Who is your favourite character in fiction?  Travis McGee.

What quality do you most like in other people?  Two—integrity and a sense of humour.

What quality do you most like about yourself?  An ability and propensity to see others’ points of view.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?  Certainty.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?  Impatience.

Which living person do you most admire?  Stephen Hawking.  I don’t understand most of what he says, but I admire his courage and strength of will.

Which living person do you most despise?  Any fundamentalist or ideologue, of any political or religious persuasion, who would seek to take away someone’s liberty, personal dignity, and sense of self-worth.

What is your motto?  It changes from time to time, but a recurring favourite is ‘Don’t believe everything you think!’

What is your idea of perfect happiness?  Spending eternity in the loving arms of my wife.

How would you like to die?  Quickly…but not soon.

What is your current state of mind?

Mr. Burt? What is your current state of mind?




Secret Valentine

(first posted 12 February 2016)

In a recent telephone conversation, one of my granddaughters reminded me that Valentine’s Day is coming round again.

She didn’t ask if I would be her valentine again this year, as I have been for most of her six years, which would have been nice.  No, instead she mentioned that she’d be giving a valentine to every one of her classmates at school.

“Every one of them?” I exclaimed, mildly astonished.  “Don’t you have, like, one special valentine?”

“No, Gramps,” she replied.  “That’s not how it works.  In grade one, you give everybody a valentine.  All the kids do.”


I wondered how many youngsters there were in her class for whom she was planning to buy a valentine card.  After all, how many valentines can a six-year-old handle?

“How can one person have so many valentines? I protested.  “Being somebody’s valentine is supposed to be a special thing.  Won’t people wonder why you’re giving everyone a card?”

“Gramps! You don’t understand!  They won’t know who gave the valentines to them.  Mummy’s going to help me print ‘Guess Who?’ on all of them.  My name won’t be there.”

“Okay, wait a minute, l’il guy,” I said.  “Let me get this straight.  You’re going to give valentines to every kid in your class…”

“And my teacher,” she cut in.

“And your teacher,” I continued.  “But, you’re not going to put your name on them, so nobody will know that you gave them a valentine.  I don’t get it.”

“Oh, they’ll know, Gramps.  Everybody knows.  They just won’t know which valentine I gave them.  That’s the fun of it.”

That’s the fun of it?  Back when I was a kid, the fun of it was in deciding whom I would ask to be my special valentine.  To which little girl would I dare to offer a valentine card?  And who would accept it without laughing?  Or worse, not accept it at all?

shy boy

There was a certain delicious risk involved back then, a risk that made the whole exercise worthwhile.  After all, asking someone to be your special valentine meant you were sort of sweet on her (or him, if you were a girl).

But, times change, and so do valentine cards.  Now, they don’t ask someone to be your valentine; instead, they proclaim ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’!  They’ve become indistinguishable from birthday cards, for goodness’ sake.

Anyway, I wished my granddaughter well with her plans.  I harboured the faint hope that perhaps I’d still receive one from her—with her name on it!

Afterwards, I kept thinking about our conversation.  Anonymous valentine cards made no sense to me.  But, my granddaughter had stated, “They’ll know…”

Well, who’s to say?  Maybe they will.  It occurred to me that I’ve always sent anonymous, loving wishes to my own two daughters—back when they were growing up, and even now, as they raise their own children.  I never thought of that as silly.

good night

At night, after they were asleep, I had the habit of whispering in their ears, to tell them how much I loved them.  They hardly stirred as I did it, and they never mentioned it the following day.  And, every day now, when thoughts of them cross my mind, I still send little messages of love their way.  I always believed that, somehow, they would know I was telling them.  Anonymously, as it were.

So, maybe my wee granddaughter is right.  Perhaps it isn’t such a ridiculous notion.  In fact, I’m even hoping to receive a valentine this year from ‘Guess Who?’

I’ll know.

guess who

Wrong Number!

As a young man, I never used to like the telephone!  Oh, I knew it was a wonderful invention, a labour-saving tool, and a life-saver in time of emergency.  And I was aware that it brings old friends together and ties families more closely to one another.  I understood that it is, indeed, a modern marvel.


But I never liked it.  In the first place, I never felt at ease when I was talking to someone on the phone.  When I couldn’t see the person to whom I was speaking, it didn’t feel right to me.

In the second place, my phone always seemed to ring at the most inopportune moments; for example, when I had just sat down to dinner, when I was busily engrossed in some leisure-time activity, or (most annoying of all) when I was the only one home to answer it.  Although it was located in a central part of the house, I never seemed to be close by when it rang.

But, without a doubt, the worst thing about the telephone was the wrong number.  And it didn’t seem to matter whether I was doing the calling or receiving the call.  Wrong numbers were a pain in the neck!

Whenever I dialed a wrong number, I was immediately apologetic to the person who answered.  I knew that my own carelessness had put the other party out, and I tried to make amends.  However, my efforts were invariably met with some sort of angry or impolite response.  It usually began right after I realized I’d dialed incorrectly.


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

“Obviously!” would come the reply, followed closely by an abrupt banging of the receiver in my ear.

What bothered me even more, though, was when I answered a call from someone who had the wrong number, because I still ended up being the bad guy.

“Hello?” I would answer.

“Jenny there?”

“No, I’m sorry,” I would start to say, “but you have…”

“Where is she?”

“Uh…I don’t know.  You’ve dialed…”

“Who’s this?” the caller would demand, cutting me off again.

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

“What number is this?”

And when I would give it, I’d get a snarling rejoinder, like, “That’s not the number I want!”

I was never quick enough to miss that banging receiver.  Worse, I was left with the feeling that it was all my fault for even thinking of answering when the call was for Jenny (or whomever the person had asked for).

On more than a few occasions, I actually resorted to dirty tricks, more to avoid the unpleasantness than out of any malicious intent.

“Just a minute,” I sometimes replied when the caller asked for someone I’d never heard of.  I then laid the receiver by my phone, placed a cushion over it, and forgot about it.  After a few minutes, the caller would get tired of waiting and hang up.  When next I passed by the phone, I gently replaced the receiver.

off hook

Occasionally I would 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.

Or, more than once, I asked the name of the caller, told them to wait, then made 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, knowing the caller could hear me, I’d yell again, “No way, Jenny!  If you don’t wanta talk to her, you tell her!  Not me!”

Sometimes I could hear the caller bang the receiver down from ten feet away.

I never believed that any great harm would arise from these tactics, and it sure made me feel better.  I might even have taught those careless callers to be a little more conscientious when dialing.

Somewhere along the way, I discovered the best and most effective way to deal with those nuisance calls, and it was relatively simple.  It did take some measure of will-power, and it required a little practice at first to get the hang of it.  And I no longer had to spend time dreaming up new tricks.

When the phone rang, if I thought it might be a wrong number, I didn’t answer!


Of course, with the advent of smartphones, all my reasons for disliking the phone have evaporated.  Now, I can see the person to whom I’m talking, so that excuse is gone.  I’m never too far from the phone to answer a call, because it’s always with me.  There are no wrong numbers, because the name of the caller flashes on my screen.


But the biggest reason I have for changing my mind is that, as I’ve grown older and somewhat less active, seeing old friends less and less often, I crave the connection with people.  Instead of willing that old black phone not to ring, I now yearn to hear the ringtones in my pocket.

And so, I confess a dark secret to you.  Now—even when I know it’s a wrong number, even when I don’t recognize the name of the caller, even if I’ve been happily reading in my armchair, or dozing quietly—I answer the call.  If it’s for Jenny, I don’t care anymore.  I have even chatted happily with many fast-talking telemarketers, who quickly become anxious to get off the line with what they must assume is a befuddled, old geezer.

I love the telephone!

The Sneezer

My father was a prodigious sneezer.  As children, my siblings and I would delight in watching his frantic scramble for the handkerchief he invariably carried in his back pocket, seeing his face scrunch up in anticipation of the looming explosion, hearing the violent expulsion of air from his lungs.

Getting at the handkerchief was often problematic, especially when he was seated.  Without warning, he’d burst from his chair, sometimes spilling to the floor any of us children unlucky enough to have been sitting on his lap.  Pawing frantically at his pocket, turning away from anyone present, he’d pull the white cloth out, shake it quickly, and plant it firmly across his mouth.  Once in a while he was late getting it in place, which would elicit frustrated mutterings between sneezes.

We thought this routine was especially funny when carried out at church, in the middle of another long sermon.  Or while he was on the phone.


During his fumblings for the handkerchief, he’d squeeze his eyes tightly shut, wrinkle his slightly bent nose, and tilt his head backwards, looking for all the world as if he was beseeching the heavens to spare him.  His Adam’s apple, never particularly noticeable at other times, would bob up and down with his every stifled gasp.

And the noise!  Depending on the severity of the sneezes, or how quickly they came upon him, the noise could be loud trumpeting, loud wheezing, even loud hissing.  Always loud.  We were never disappointed in the range of noises he could muster.

A-roo-pha-a-!  A-roo-pha-a!  we might hear.  Or A-ree-cha-a-a!  A-ree-cha-a-a!  Sometimes A-chintz-ish!  A-chintz-ish!  There seemed no end to the variety of forms his sneezes could take.  But always, they were six times repeated before he seemed able to stop.  I think we first learned to count by marking my father’s sneezes.

My mother, always proper, would roll her eyes, frown, and sometimes admonish him for his attention-seeking ways.  That’s how she regarded them.  Genteel people, she maintained, would sneeze into their handkerchiefs so quietly as not to disturb those around them.  And they would never draw attention to themselves in so garish or boorish a manner.


At her words, my father would nod agreement and point a finger randomly at her as he completed each cycle of sneezes.  But he never changed.  Not once as I grew up did I hear a gentle sneeze from him.  No discreet Ker-choo!  No soft A-choo!

He’s gone now, of course, and I’m older by far than he was when I first began to marvel at his sneezes.  Over the years, I’ve become quite aware of the power of genetic coding as I’ve lived with my own daughters—and my wife—bemusedly berating me for my own sneezing habits.  I believe, at least in this one small way, I am my father reincarnate.

Allergy season is a disaster for me, and every season seems to boast one or more allergens that trigger my sneeze reflex.  Remembering my father’s sneezing, I’ve striven mightily to conform to my mother’s admonitions to him.

But honestly, have you ever tried to suppress a sneeze?  Successfully?  If you can, you’re among the blessed of the world.  I marvel when I see someone turn their face into their sleeve and emit a barely audible Mmm-ffft!  They behave as if that simple act is nothing.

When I try, my eyes begin to water, my breath comes in short gasps, and I can’t continue talking, so preoccupied am I with the tickle in my nostrils that just won’t go away.  And it’s always to no avail, anyway.  I’ve even tried clamping my hand over my mouth, only to have the eruption through my nose.  That’s not pleasant, handkerchief or not!

To my chagrin, I’ve discovered that my grandchildren may have inherited the sneezing curse.  I watched one of the girls recently, doing as she’s been taught, sneezing into the crook of her elbow rather than into her hand.  I thought this a much healthier way of proceeding until I saw her wipe the residue off her sleeve with…you guessed it, her hand!


And my grandson—what a sneezer he was as an infant.  I even wrote a poem for him, so taken was I with his prowess.  It was entitled Ebenezer Sneezer, and he laughs at it still.

But alas, it’s still I who commands the attention of all around me when I have to sneeze.  Although I remember my father fondly for so many reasons—his sense of humour, his kindness, his pride in his ever-growing family— his sneezing proclivities bedevil me to this day.

You may laugh at my concern, thinking it trivial, but it’s the only thing in my life where I can truly say, “It’s nothing to sneeze at!”