Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Friday, October 31, 2008

Mother's Eyes

"Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason."
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I spoke with Mater yesterday and decided, on a whim, to perform some gentle exercises at the same time. One leg up high, down again, the other one up, then down, as I marched back and forth purposely across the cold kitchen floor.
I stated that they were gentle: they were almost not exercises at all, so mild and nondescript were the actions. They took place without interrupting the flow of a reasonable conversation.
Then, from nowhere: "why do I get the feeling you are doing exercises? Your voice sounds as though you are."
It was a lucky thing I was standing on both legs at the time, or I might have tipped right over. Surprise can do that.
With my mother still at the other end of the line, I brewed a cup of tea. I added the requisite portion of sugar, an amount known only to me- or so I thought until I realised the futility.
"Are you scraping something from a container?"
Were Mater to calculate the number of times she heard the spoon touch the box, and then gauge the weight of each spoonful by the sharpness or dullness of the clatter, the precise volume of sugar could be ascertained.
I contemplated the ramifications of having a mother who sees everything.
"Big Mother is watching." I sipped my tea and heaved a sigh.
"Believe it," came the gleeful retort.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

No Time

"Methinks I see the wanton hours flee,
And as they pass, turn back and laugh at me."
-George Villiers

Last Saturday night the clocks changed. Or they stayed the same. It was rather hard to tell.
Spouse and I awoke on Sunday morning and stumbled around in the gloom, quite out of sorts and feeling that everything was, somehow, all horribly wrong.
We had suffered a temporary power cut as we slumbered, so the clocks running on electricity were either comatose, blinking wildly at 12:00, or hours off their schedule. How many hours, we could not know, not having witnessed the exact moment of the blackout.
Our lack of orientation revolved around one question: was it the week to change the clocks, or was it not? Each one of our time keepers was telling their own version of the story.
Our computers were up to mischief. One of them had been programmed long ago to automatically adjust the time to Daylight Savings; but since the recent- and, frankly, baffling- nationwide rearrangement of that plan, the computer is in error twice a year. Our second computer had been programmed after that matter was resolved, and was therefore expected to keep to the correct time- correct as it is currently accepted.
The two computers, then, argued with one another as regards the time, but Spouse and I had no method of finding out which one was right.
The clocks in our home that were battery operated seemed, at a glance, to be telling the truthful time- but therein lay more trouble.
Then take, for example, the battery-powered clock shaped like a cat that hangs on our kitchen wall. It would not, of course, be affected by a power cut. It would not automatically reset the time- either correctly or incorrectly- for Daylight Savings. For us to determine the honesty of the grinning feline, we first had to establish whether or not Daylight Savings had happened to us, a puzzle we conversely could not get to the bottom of without the assistance of a trustworthy clock.
Mater was the only soul we knew who might possibly be awake, residing as she does five hours ahead of us in Ireland. It would not, however, have done the least bit of good to ask her the time because we had no point of reference with which to confirm her answer; and because we vaguely suspected that the time in Ireland had in fact been set back overnight by one hour, reducing our difference to four hours; and because we were equally clueless as to whether or not Mater's change occurred in the same week that ours did- it used to be the same, but I thought I recalled some alteration to that- which allowed more confusion to rain down upon our poor befuddled heads.
So we wandered about for a while, deeply unsettled, desperately needing to know the time of day and asking each other, as a way of scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel, what we thought the time might be.
One guess, after all, was as good as another.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

At Home

"The best way to appreciate your job is to imagine yourself without one."
-Oscar Wilde

My mother has been out of commission since last April, unable to work due to a chronic shoulder injury. The supermarket she devoted so much time to is soon to commence its busiest season, when Christmas shoppers flock to the shelves to stock up on edible bargains.
For the workers tied to the checkouts during those hectic days, life could be immeasurably slow and painful. Last evening Mater mused about the chaos of a Christmas when there was a shortage of employees, and a deluge of customers in a thick line that never seemed to get shorter.
During a rather hectic hour when being at home was at the top of everyone's Christmas list, one of Mater's colleagues addressed a supervisor in frustration. She expressed dismay at the perpetual crowd of impatient customers- and she wondered aloud if the evening would ever come to a close.
Without missing a beat the supervisor- who knows well how to do the job she was assigned- agreed, but said calmly, "you're lucky to have a job at all."
Those within hearing distance heeded the sentiment, understanding that everything in the world, even keeping hold of one's job, was tenuous and uncertain.
Yesterday Mater rested quietly in her house with too much time to contemplate. She wondered if her friends were rushed off their weary feet, longing to be at home; and the words returned again to haunt her.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Sweater

"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."
-Mark Twain

My brother arrived at Mater's house last evening, newly shorn, a gleam in his eye, a question on his lips.
"Guess what I'm wearing under my jacket?" Hardly had he stepped inside the door before he posed the riddle for which Mater could not possibly provide an answer.
My brother heaved up his hefty jacket and Mater saw that he was wearing a sweater of wool. She recognised the garment as being one his grandmother had bought for him when he was a boy of ten.
Its colour had not faded; not a single thread was pulled out of place. My brother, whose height topped six feet a long time ago, wore the sweater with ease as he had done infrequently for the past twenty one years. It had grown, somehow, along with him, stretching when it needed to and retaining its most essential qualities.
Setting aside the astonishing fact of longevity, it is notable that my brother kept possession of the sweater for more than two decades: he never felt the need to dispose of the item based on age or length of use or its slipping out of fashion.
In an era where everything seems transient and disposable, it is increasingly difficult to put practicality before vanity; and so I commend my sibling for clinging to a perfectly fine woolen sweater when a fickle society would suggest he do otherwise.

Monday, October 27, 2008

In October

“The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange.”
-G. K. Chesterton

On my twice-weekly excursion to the skip to dispose of the rubbish, I have learned to be wary. On occasion a rustling, rummaging squirrel will not sense my presence until the last second, when I stand ready to hurl the bags- at which point the cornered animal might catapult itself from the vessel, toes splayed, teeth bared, eyes wild and hair on end, flying in the direction of my face. Or perhaps the prickled hairs were mine, bristling at the imminent prospect of being assailed by a terrified creature I happened to disturb.
I have thus learned to be wary on such expeditions, and I make as much rowdy clatter as possible when approaching the skip. I shake the sacks of rubbish, I kick the nearest bit of wood, I clear my throat. Typically the squirrel will be given enough notice to escape in safety, much to the relief of both of us.
That being said, I cannot account, nor prepare myself, for an inexplicable sight in late, frost-tipped October: that of a human neighbour sunbathing silently under a grey sky, clutching a book, in the region of the rubbish skip.
I was startled out of my wits this morning, as well one might be. Thoughts of leaping squirrels vacated my head entirely.
Far be it from me to determine the validity- or lack thereof- of stretching out on a lawn chair when one is within breathing distance of Winter, but, to be reasonable, there are certain situations when one ought to make as little noise as possible, and slip away without a word being said or a throat being cleared.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Tale of Two Scissors

"A 'strange coincidence,' to use a phrase,
By which such things are settled nowadays."
-Lord Byron

Spouse donned the guise of a barber yesterday morning and, at my insistence, cut off my hair. It was a significant lop of the locks: I afterward estimated one foot in length and some considerable weight had parted ways with my head. It had been more than a year since my hair met a scissors.
Hours later, once the novelty diminished and I grew more used to being lightheaded, I began to suspect that such economical acts of spontaneity are an inherited streak. My brother has for years been veiled in an enviable mass of hair worthy of the most rampant rock star. In a striking coincidence and utterly out of character, he too decided that yesterday was a grand time for a change, and asked his own significant other to rid him of the majority of his hair.
My brother's obliging barber did the deed in the afternoon; mine trimmed the last strand before morning was quite underway. Given the five-hour time difference between our two worlds, one has to conclude that we were both perched precariously on our respective kitchen chairs at the very same time, thinking, perhaps, of the hearty surprise we might bring to our hair-conscious mother, but not at all intending to jolt one another.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On a Limb (News Piece 2)

"The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause."
-Mark Twain

The Irish government is in a good deal of uproar these last few days, but it is, I am happily led to believe, in due process of being sorted.
One must give credit where it is due to the supposed hero of the hour. I refer to an incident I read of during my recent, inexplicable burst of ability to wade through some wordy blunders.
I quickly gleaned that one of Ireland's former leaders returned for a short period yesterday in order to assist in eradicating the conflict and chaos.
According to the article I scrutinised, the fellow "entered the chamber on crutches after fracturing his leg in case his vote was needed."
If it turned out in the end that his vote was not needed, he ought to at the very least have been compensated for shattering his own limb in such a selfless act of nobility.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Chosen Driver (News Piece 1)

"Where words fail, music speaks."
-Hans Christian Andersen

I sat at the computer and turned tentatively last evening to the news of my homeland. I refrain, as a rule, from perusing the local pages, having a low tolerance for the grammatical errors and awkwardly constructed syntax. I rely instead on my knowledgeable mother to convey the items of the day.
On rare occasions, though, I do summon enough boldness to venture into the murky depths of lumbering letters.
Severe and woeful flooding had struck one area of the country; more rain was certain and, sensibly, people were being advised to cancel plans and stay home during the downpour.
No. No. That was not it at all.
I glanced again, and noted that it was not the population as a whole being graced with an alert, but just one very fortunate fellow:
"Motorist warned of heavy flooding."
Regardless of how that lone individual was chosen above all others to be issued with a warning- perhaps in some sort of secretive lottery he was deemed Motorist of the Hour- one can only hope that he took the suggestion on board, comprehended his special position, and used it cautiously.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Floor

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."
-Albert Einstein

My brother took his sleeping bag to work recently, with tentative plans to stay that night at a friend's house. But arrangements altered slightly and my brother found himself after midnight with a minor dilemma. He had consumed an amount of alcohol and could not drive home and he did not on any account wish to pay for a taxi.
As he stood and wondered, he remembered that he possessed a set of keys to his workplace, having locked up the premises that evening. He also, of great significance, had placed a potentially useful sleeping bag in the back of his car.
Thus it came to pass that my industrious, determined sibling slept on the well-worn floor of a shop until first light streamed through the shutters and he could slip away before the city came to life. Perhaps his sleep was broken only by wild, fevered hallucinations of the boss inexplicably bursting in, finding an assistant lying prone under the printers and fax machines and laminators, and demanding an immediate and thorough explanation.
Sometimes there is no explanation: but frugality is as good a suggestion as any.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Habits and Plates

“Habit is stronger than reason.”
-George Santayana

Certain habits are indelible. During the first Christmas Day that I was away from home and residing in California, I spoke to my mother on the telephone many times within a few hours. She was due to visit me in a few days and, it being an eminently significant occasion, I was on her mind.
During one such call, I heard a clatter of plates and rustle of wrapping paper working in symphony with each other as Mater attempted the dual tasks of readying the dinner table and opening gifts. Then, in the background, I heard my brother speak to her.
"We don't need that many plates," he said, "you've put one extra."
Mater had, in a combined moment of chaos and custom, put my plate on the table. The unique, blue-patterned plate was instantly recognisable: I had, years before, determined that item to be exclusively mine because my brother had a tendency to lick his plate after a meal, and I wanted my own fresh, permanently unlicked dinnerware.
That, then, is how one can be in two places at the same time, and how habits are not easily untied from the tangle of our lives.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


“Reminiscences make one feel so deliciously aged and sad."
-George Bernard Shaw

When I lived in Ireland, it was a perpetual joke between Mater and I that she might, from time to time, find a piece of paper suddenly tucked into the novel she had laid aside for a moment, or inside the packet of biscuits she opened and turned her back on, or atop her pillow, to be found at evening.
The pieces of paper in question bore, always, a crudely drawn circle with shining eyes, and a tongue extending from a cheeky grin.
It was my token, my signature mark, and on idle days I might leave as many as ten of them around the house in various places.
I determined that for each one I hid and which Mater uncovered, I scored one point. Precisely what I intended to do with those points was never given consideration.
Mater caught on eventually and pretended not to see some of them, depending on her mood- but she often could not drink her tea or open a door without first removing one from her line of vision.
When Mater made her first Christmas visit to Spouse and I in California, I prepared well beforehand. We lived, at the time, in a small town full of history and kind people and in which Winter was a grand time for festivities that buzzed and kept the cold at bay.
Mater and I walked every day; I took her to my favourite book haunts, and when we did not walk we enjoyed the luxury that the local public transport afforded.
And so I found myself, that December, fashioning a bundle of smiling papers one crystal clear afternoon, attaching some sticky material to their backs, and setting out with Mater on our first walk around my already beloved town.
I made an effort to jump ahead just a little, which was rather easy as Mater is a slow walker and complains to this day that I never wait for her.
Whenever I disappeared around a corner I invariably found a pole or a lamp post or a newspaper vending machine- in one case, on the dusty bookshelf of a thrift store- to plaster the tiny smiley face to before I rejoined my mother.
And when, for the very first time, Mater rounded the corner and her eye caught a familiar tab of paper, it felt as though we were both at home again, playing our little tricks, as though nothing had changed.
There was Mater, walking in a town in California she had not known about until recently, strolling with me, who lived there, identifying a hallmark of another era.
I continued to place those notes of humour not only throughout the day but during Mater's three-week visit. Often, as the time went by, we would retrace our steps, revisiting our favourite places, and stumble on a smiley face we had forgotten about or which Mater had missed the first time.
I saw some, weatherbeaten and faded but clinging for dear life, for many months after my mother's visit had concluded.
And I wonder, years afterward, when I miss that dear little place for all it was worth, if there might yet be any washed out evidence of the marvellous adventures that Mater and I had, and if they ever cause a passing stranger to wonder about the origin.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Tunnel Vision

“You often meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it.”
-French Proverb

A couple of years ago Mater and I won a stay in an esteemed hotel in the south of Ireland. Shortly after we arrived and relinquished our luggage and after we had freshened up, we left the premises and took a little motoring excursion in the area. The hotel was set like a grand jewel in a wooded, green and eminently rural stretch of land on the edge of a tiny village that lapped the ocean.
We puttered about for a bit, surveying the scenery, pausing in quaint stores, partaking of local cuisine when we grew famished.
The grandest thing about it all was that, however removed we felt from modern life, the enormous city of Cork was within a healthy proximity. That might well be the best of all worlds, where the antiquated slow pace of farmland borders the bustle of an entertaining city.
After a time, we set out from the stone-walled village and pondered what to do next.
"We can't go back now," said I to Mater. "It's still broad daylight! The hotel staff will think we've nothing to do. We have to keep roaming for a bit."
My reasoning was flawed, of course, but the sun was still beating the rocks and anyhow, what would we do from early evening until dinner time?
Mater concurred and away we went, driving in circles at times, passing increasingly familiar trees, uncertain of what might be the appropriate and dignified moment to turn back and have dinner at the hotel.
It was after dusk when we set out once more for our hotel but by then we had forgotten the way.
That was how, in a moment of panic, confusion and complete disorientation, we ended up on the road to Cork City. A fast road, a newly constructed road, a road most definitely not leading to any hotel in the forest: we were rolling along the state-of-the-art motorway, unable to turn around and change direction, without a clue as to how long we would have to continue.
Then, inexplicably, we found ourselves gliding along the Jack Lynch tunnel, a tube road which runs under the river that intersects the city of Cork. Mater was suitably terrified on such a slick, high-velocity express road, not having planned it and not knowing how to exit and all the while getting further from our dinner.
Mater made me vow there and then, once we were safe and had concluded our laughter, never to tell any member of the family that we had found ourselves flying along, of all things, the Jack Lynch tunnel in the dead of night, speeding in the exact opposite direction we had intended.
We did have a hearty dinner that evening, but our secret adventure kept us amused and baffled for a long while afterward.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Still There

“Caress the detail, the divine detail.”
-Vladimir Nabokov

Some rascal recently had an extensive party and although it was entirely at our expense, we were not invited. Spouse discovered, quite fortuitously, some unfamiliar charges on his usually dormant credit card- one that was tucked safely inside his wallet- that amounted to one thousand dollars. Somebody in the State of New York had enormous fun with the crookedly acquired details of the card, purchasing nothing but gasoline and alcohol over a period of days and in copious quantities.
We had in fact been in New York at the beginning of the month, passing through on our return journey from Michigan.
Spouse called right away to cancel the account, dispute the charges and ask why the company did not detect anything out of the ordinary.
Typically, if we use the card in a way that deviates from our particular habits, or spend more money than usual, a hold is immediately put on the card for our protection until we can confirm that it is indeed our activity. When Mater visited last year and attempted to use her credit card, we were held up for some lengthy, humiliating time at the checkout, whereupon Mater had to make a desperate international call to inform her credit card company that it was her, she was visiting and shopping, that her routine had altered, and please could she take her goods out of the store now?
But when Spouse queried the lack of diligence, they were ready, of course, with a mechanically flat response.
"You were in New York a few weeks before. So we thought you were still there."
Still there, they thought, living out of a gas station, existing exclusively on gasoline and beer, having abandoned not only our home and our work but also our ingrained pattern of determined and rigid frugality.
It is all in the detail: all they had to do was observe, and notice not so much a change in pattern as a tremendous great walloping dent.
Fortunately, one of us was paying attention.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Fun and Games

"If you never did you should. These things are fun and fun is good."
-Dr. Seuss

I used to take weekly trips to town with Mater, and we would do shopping and browsing and walking together in the city centre. Most of the stores, and the car parks, had multiple levels and offered the option of stairs or the elevator.
For as long as I can remember I have chosen the stairs, while Mater consistently preferred to step into that tiny, creaking, most unsettling metallic cabinet, and be propelled upward or downward.
Out of the fact that I never liked to use the elevator, we gradually made a game which lasts until this very day.
I would hover, following the unspoken rules- waiting for Mater's word, standing beside but not touching the stairs until the elevator doors had closed and obscured a smiling Mater from view; then I would leap forth and challenge myself to reach our destination floor before she did.
I always won the race, hurtling down the stairs just as fast as I could, landing on the final step as the elevator doors slid open and Mater squeezed out from between baby carriages and shopping carts and people who were not playing any games at all. Or, I would find myself waiting a long age for Mater, well ahead of time, laughing to myself, feigning boredom and impatience, drawing worried looks from other shoppers as I waited all alone bedecked with a triumphant grin.
Anyhow, I always won, which is quite the most essential thing to record, and Mater was perpetually astonished at my ability to undermine technology. I suspect, now I have the advantage of hindsight, that she was not so competitive as I thought, but was just glad I kept myself mobile and moving, and found an energetic way to amuse myself in an otherwise dull situation.

Friday, October 17, 2008


"Genius is nothing but continued attention."
-Claude Adrien Helvetius

Spouse was eager last evening to locate the October issue of a certain magazine. The edition was for an anniversary special and so, it already being two weeks into the month, we were experiencing a degree of trouble in acquiring a copy. The only available copies seemed to be those of November, as though we were somehow remiss in keeping up with the calendar.
We decided to venture to a particular chain bookstore some thirty minutes away in hopes that they yet carried in their archives the dusty, cobwebbed prints from October.
I thought we should first make a telephone call to ensure they had what we were hoping for. When the call was connected Spouse named the magazine he wished to buy.
"We have November," the lady began with good cheer.
"No, that's just it. I'm looking exclusively for October's issue, since it was a unique edition."
"Oh, yes, we have October, too."
"October? Really? I just want to make sure. I don't want to come all that way for November!" Spouse brightened at the prospect of at last being successful.
"Special Anniversary Edition?" the assistant breezed with the utmost confidence, tapping on a keyboard.
"Yes, that's the one. Thank you. I'll be right there."
We were in our car before she had time to hang up.
"No," we were advised when we reached the store and could not find what we wanted on the shelves: "but we have November though!"
Spouse said the name of the assistant he had spoken with; perhaps she had put a copy aside for us. The assistant was duly brought forth.
Without further ado: the long and the short of it is that the store did not carry the October issue and in fact had quite run out of all copies within a day or two. Three assistants told us this, and three assistants beamed brightly as they did so.
Certainly, we were at the right store; we located the correct assistant who- although vaguely- recalled the query, and who gushed confounded apologies for our wasted visit. I doubt that she had actually expected the voice to turn up in person.
Afterward, I came to understand that the lady Spouse initially spoke to did not, conversely, tell any lies: she just did not listen to a single thing that he wanted, did not look at the detail and did not much care whether she was discovered to be in error. At the risk of sounding acerbic, I reserve most of my respect for those that place a high value on listening, and on paying attention to others. It is worth more than any commodity for sale.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On Speaking Up

"Conviction is worthless unless it is converted into conduct."
-Thomas Carlyle

Upon meeting Spouse seven years ago this December, we went immediately to a little cafe for some sustenance. The tiny institution was positioned in the heart of a city I knew well, a city at the epicentre of all the book hunting and shopping and waitressing I had carried out over the years. I had sat and sipped tea in the cafe many times, occasionally with Mater, but was not on familiar terms with the staff, who were forever changing faces.
Spouse, at my suggestion, ordered some succulent wild salmon with boiled potatoes- he wished to try some authentic Irish food- and I asked for a sandwich of some sort.
My plate was emptied within a few minutes; Spouse, though ravenous, ate with meticulous care. We hardly, I think, spoke to one another, so concentrated were we on our appetites. It is the same even today: whenever Spouse and I dine out, our discussion is limited to those adjectives usually reserved for delicious morsels. It suits us well enough, and we heartily comment on the food on our return journey.
As I swallowed the final bite of my sandwich, a waitress materialised and scooped my plate off the table with a practiced turn of her hand.
Next, to my great alarm, she swept up Spouse's plate, with a considerable portion of wild salmon still sitting on its surface. I saw her trained hand reach out, I saw that she intended to snatch a plate of good food away from a hungry man, and I could bring myself to do nothing about it. I was mortified, immobile and useless in my chair; in part, I think, I did not want to offend the waitress, or correct her at her work. I watched as she threw, for good measure, a couple of used napkins and some scraps on top of the precious fish, at which point I saw that there was no turning back.
As for Spouse, who was looking around the cafe with the air of an awed traveller, it took the poor fellow a few heartbeats to understand what was happening, but by then it had happened, and concluded.
I was of course very sorry, and continued to exclaim my regret for the woeful lack of action. I wailed that I ought to have spoken up, fixed the matter before the plate passed any further over my head.
Spouse made a slight joke about it, suggesting that it hardly mattered at all, and we promptly went home to Mater, who spun a lovely meal that evening- and who even let Spouse eat the last crumbs from his plate.
I never could shake the inclination that I, as an ambassador of sorts between my country and a wide-eyed tourist, had been reluctant to express dismay when I noticed that an error, however trivial, was in the midst of forming; and as such I blame not the waitress but my own self for neglecting to voice those very thoughts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Passenger

"For safety is not a gadget but a state of mind."
-Eleanor Everet

The Aunt cast a long shadow, and tales of her exploits will linger. During the course of a discussion with Mater I came to understand that the old lady had been a terrible and dangerous driver in her day. I learned, too, that one family member had more cause than the rest of us to tremble at the sound of the Aunt's faithful car engine.
He lived in close proximity to the Aunt, quite in another part of the country to the rest of us. It happened frequently that he, with no car of his own, would be left with no option but to accept the Aunt's company when offered.
She would, as a rule, talk to her passengers, and invariably her eyes were on not the road but the person she was intensely speaking to.
She might see a green traffic light far off in the distance, and, for fear of getting caught halfway by a changing light, would abruptly bring the car to a grinding halt a great distance from the appropriate stopping point. She would wait until the light had turned yellow, then red, then green again: then off she would go, never once having heeded the distressed drivers behind her, paying not a bit of attention to her traumatised passenger.
That anybody survived to tell their version of accounts is a wonder.
On one such adventure, the fellow in question decided that beloved as the Aunt might be, he could take no more tension. He developed the seed of an idea, and spun it into a cunning, intricate plan of minute detail and careful strategy.
He pretended to be asleep.
Every car excursion from then on saw the Aunt lapse into elongated silence, and having no waking soul to converse with, her eyes mercifully stayed on the road at all times.
Quite apart from ensuring the Aunt was not led to distraction, he had another, more personal motive. Equally essential to his well-being was the old maxim: what cannot be seen cannot be harmful. With his eyes closed tightly against all the awful possibilities, he was thus able to avoid seeing disaster as he hurtled toward it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Sense of Direction

"The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
-George Bernard Shaw

I worry slightly whenever Mater is away from her home and her usual routine. She is away this week visiting family, relishing an interim of warm conversation, ocean air and delicious food.
In particular, given that tomorrow she intends to drive home, I am concerned about the sense of direction she was not endowed with.
Once, years ago, the pair of us went to stay with some relatives who lived less than fifty miles away from us. At the end of our stay, Mater and I climbed into our car which was parked in the driveway.
"Goodbye!" the numerous relatives cried out.
One family member offered, through the open window, sensible instruction on how Mater might get home most efficiently, beginning with a left turn once she emerged onto the street .
With a confident nod, Mater slid the car out with the air of an expert, and proceeded to turn swiftly to the right. Away she went, waving to the clan that stood on the doorstep, their figures abruptly painted with open mouths and wide, disbelieving eyes.
Mater fancied that they were waving farewell; they were gesticulating frantically in hasty efforts to right the wrong turn she had made.
Fortunately Mater had a travelling companion, and I endeavoured to correct the error within a few feet of the gate, if not immediately.
Moments later, a mortified Mater drifted past the house and glided past a muted, astonished group who wondered, perhaps, if she would make it home in time for next week's dinner.
How strange that we might hear a single line of advice, that we could convince ourselves and all and sundry that we have absorbed its worth, yet follow with an action of reverse proportions. I strongly suspect that Mater had already determined, unwittingly, which path to choose; her brother's advice thus fell on deaf ears.
When accepting advice or attempting to learn something new, it is wise to possess a mind that is open, and wiped clean of what one imagined one was certain of.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Something Rotten

"Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it."
-Emily Dickinson

Last week we took the car to an automotive centre, hoping to acquire just a little advice. Spouse has, for the last few months, been regularly checking the air pressure, and one wayward tyre seemed to routinely lose air after a week or so.
Our initial response- other than to cheerfully drive two thousand miles on a trip to Michigan- was to trundle weekly to a garage, pump some more air into the tyre, and hope for the best.
Fresh air, for reasons shrouded in the deepest mystery, is not free in our neighbourhood and quite apart from paying nearly a dollar every time it was not, anyhow, a long term solution.
So Spouse sought the suggestions of a professional mechanic, who examined our car tyres with an expression of supreme authority but one that, conversely, sheltered us from discerning his true thoughts.
We stood under a rain cloud and watched his hands trace their way over the tyres and we answered his various questions.
Then, mumbling something about wheel rot and tyre rot and changeable New England weather causing everything to rot, he made a daring attempt to sell us four brand new tyres right there and then. Under his breath he uttered the word "hundreds" as well, and that certainly sealed the deal.
Spouse was having none of it.
We refused the noble offer, took our rotting tyres, and went home completely deflated, in a manner of speaking.
We went this weekend to another garage where, we first ensured, they do not sell tyres and had nothing whatsoever to gain by claiming that ours ought to be put out to pasture.
"Look!" the mechanic called out after about thirty seconds of inspection had passed.
"You've got a nail!"
With all the delight of a doctor who has just discovered the evasive cure for an ailment, he extracted a long, rusted and vile looking strand of metal from the sorry wheel of our car; he sealed the gash with some magic solution, charged us ten dollars and bid us good day. Never a word he spoke about rot.
Novices we both might be when it comes to the intricate details of our well-worn car, but we were certain that something or other was rotting on that colourless, rain-drenched afternoon a week earlier.
Our impression had much to do, I suspect, with a mechanic who weighed, not the worth of the tyre, but the trust and naivety of his customers- and erred in judgement.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

To Sea

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”

When I was seven I caught, one afternoon, a glimpse of a riotous comedy film on television. I turned to my brother and asked, with an honest gullibility common to the young, "what happened to Laurel and Hardy? Where are they now?"
My brother donned a demeanor of such solemnity that I was quite startled.
"Ah, that's a sad story," he shook his head. "Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, and Laurel and Hardy, they all went to sea on a boat once, many, many years ago, and the boat capsized. They all drowned."
Devastated, I was, and utterly overwhelmed by the oceanic tragedy concerning seven worthy actors of jocular inclination.
It was whole years before I was enlightened as to the true accounts of the various deaths, and I, furious, thought to put my own sibling out to sea on a boat of his own.
Still- I am obliged to express a degree of admiration. Rascal that he was, he weaved a thoroughly plausible scenario from the thin air of fabrication, and it is one I remember all these years afterward.
Over the plain, humdrum answer that lands dryly on the ear, I would gladly take my brother's kaleidoscopic imagination.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Son

"Always be a little kinder than necessary."
-James M. Barrie

It would seem that Mater's recent hope for humanity is justified. She enthusiastically presented her newly acquired safe to my brother, seeking his expert opinion when he visited yesterday.
Without comment, without an inkling of his mother's recent jest about donations, he, smiling, reached into his pocket, extracted fifty cents, and deposited it in the safe.
The event failed, naturally, to make the evening news: but it made Mater's day.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A Place for Treasures

"Hope is independent of the apparatus of logic."
-Norman Cousins

Mater bought a safe the other day. A sturdy, waterproof vessel it is, with a number of tiny keys and its very own private registration number so that, in case she ever lost the ability to open the box, the manufacturing company would assist her.
The trouble, Mater tells me, is that the box is enormous, far larger than she had originally intended to bring home. It is so vast that instead of being a mere cash box it could well be used to house Mater's family heirlooms and jewels, had she any to speak of. It is comforting to know, though, that there is a ready place in her home for any treasures that cross her path.
"It looks really empty, and I'm looking for monetary donations to fill it," she quipped, and, despite its clumsy size, managed to rattle the hollow box over the telephone for my listening pleasure and my sympathy.
It is wise to begin with an empty receptacle and the faint hope that it might later be filled to capacity.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Elegant Junk

“You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.”
-Albert Einstein

We were forced to give due credit to the fellow: he put time and effort into his project. I regret to note that we will not be requesting his services, but the important thing to remember is that he tried.
I refer to an envelope Spouse received today which, for the handwriting it bore, I was mildly curious about all the day long. I studied the refined, confident penmanship that announced our address; Spouse's name was spelled correctly, and I observed the lack of any return address. I was certain the letter was a fond greeting from somebody who knew us well.
So our collective dismay was justifiably great when Spouse tore open the mystery envelope on his return from work and extracted a single sheet, torn crudely from a newspaper, that advertised a super, staggering, could-not-miss deal at an automotive centre.
A yellow note was stuck to the page: it greeted Spouse warmly by name, like an old friend. The message read "wow, check this out!" accompanied by an indecipherable, affectionately scrawled initial- the decryption of which would have meant nothing to us anyhow, the fellow being a complete stranger and all that.
But, stranger or not, he seems to be an industrious character- he after all succeeded in the rarity of getting us to open the envelope- and we wish him all the best in his chirographic endeavours.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Tip

"One's action ought to come out of an achieved stillness: not to be a mere rushing on."
-D.H. Lawrence

It might have been a scene from the grim world of Dickens.
Not the setting- no, that was a perfectly lovely occasion. Spouse and I had just finished lunch in a rather upscale restaurant in Ireland; it was a frost-bitten December afternoon seven years ago, a couple of days after we first met.
Our repast concluded, we dabbed our respective mouths with pristine cotton napkins, set a considerable cash tip of ten Irish Pounds on the table, and wound our slow way to the payment register.
Thereupon little Oliver Twist entered the stage.
I turned around to glance back, just once, at our table. It was, I think, the third time I had eaten in a restaurant in my life, and I wanted to remember it well with a final image.
I saw, then, a boy of about six years of age approaching our discarded table. His thin arm snaked out, coiling around the various dishes and ware we had left behind. Like the very street urchins of Victorian literature, the young fellow snatched our money between his fingers, and strolled away.
Had he been a weather-beaten, famished character in a book, I would have had, as a reader, due sympathy. Had he been a living, breathing, famished fellow human before my eyes, I would have been gripped by despair and pity, and doubtless would have let him escape.
But he, with my own money inside his fist, wandered back to his parents, who were dining at a nearby table. I suspected, from their manner and dress and the wealth of food on their table, that when they stood up to leave they would not think to look back with fondness: it struck me that they probably dined out regularly.
Add to that the telling fact that they laughed heartily at the sight of their little son, an intrepid entrepreneur of the future, carrying money that was not his own.
I was caught in the middle of a most unusual dilemma. Spouse was visiting an unfamiliar country and was not about to tackle a youngster for a sum of money. Spouse had just met me and neither could I set about vigorously berating the child and his family.
If, however, neither of us acted then the parents- who were smiling, avoiding eye contact with us and wholly excusing their son's penchant for thievery- would continue to be humoured by us all the way home.
I decided to risk the good nature that Spouse seemed to identify in me.
I told Spouse not to move. I stormed over to where the child was standing, took his hand firmly in mine, and proceeded to peel back his rebellious, resisting fingers one by one until I was able to extract the note and give it to the deserving waitress who had served us. Both the boy and his parents were stunned, and fell silent, and I chose not to shatter the peace with useless words. I only said "thank you," but the growl and the tone was its own suggestion to the parents that we had better not meet again.
Minutes later Spouse and I were skating merrily on an ice puddle outside the restaurant, and the little robber was forgotten.
It must, in hindsight, have been the right thing to do: Spouse, after all, is now Spouse.

Monday, October 6, 2008


“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment.”
-Henry David Thoreau

I was employed, for a mercifully brief time some years ago, in a fast-food restaurant. It was a thoroughly disturbing experience, not least because I found myself ordered about by a girl who was, legally speaking, not old enough to work. I noticed that she paid far too much attention- with her probing fingers- to the various facial piercings she displayed, which were weeping and oozing even as she served and prepared food. Between not really being able to look at her, and not really being able to listen to her, it was an awkward sort of relationship, one doomed from the beginning.
The rest of the staff, while paling in comparison to our young friend, were either immensely creepy, violently temperamental, or rude; and although I liked the work I was out of place there, and I loathed the hours spent.
One late night, anyhow, I happened to look up from my business of cleaning a table at the front of the restaurant. The dining area was narrow, but long, and I saw some of my colleagues engaged in deep discussion at the far end.
Following on from that, I observed that all my colleagues, and my boss, were engaged in deep discussion at the far end.
Every one of them had their backs turned to me. A thought darted across my mind like a mischievous sparrow: namely, that it would be deeply satisfying to go out the door, run away down the busy street and never come back. If I left, my young, self-appointed supervisor, poor thing, would have to clean the entire restaurant at closing time- a task she was not accustomed to.
I continued to scrub the table, but I found that my hands had started to tremble. My mind, try as I might to carry on with my job, just would not be silent. It felt as though my head had woken up and expanded in the course of three seconds, and indeed was now not only increasing in scope but saturated with a single thought: leaving while the others' backs were turned.
The thumping of my heart, which had lodged in my throat, drowned out all else. It seemed that cars buzzed past the restaurant in slow motion and time seemed at once to slow down and speed up.
It was, I well knew, a very rare moment in which there were no customers and every person I worked with was distracted, leaving me quite alone by the door.
I hardly know how much time actually passed, but it was likely not to have been more than half a minute. In hindsight, I sometimes feel it was half an hour, such was the back and forth, the justifying why and why not. At times I thought it already too late; my colleagues would, I knew, turn around any second and return. But they did not, and still that tantalising carrot was dangled before me.
Finally the thought grew too big for my head, and I knew that nothing would ever be the same again. Who could work when such terrifying thoughts of freedom threatened to overwhelm the senses?
I left the cloth on the table, snapped my jacket off the hook, eased the door open and, with one final wary glance at the other end of the restaurant, slid into the street.
I ran for five whole minutes without a pause.
At times I laughed aloud to myself as I sailed through the air; there were, admittedly, brief half-moments of doubt, of wondering if the others had noticed yet and if perhaps I could still return and pretend nothing unusual had happened, but they were soon diluted by the night breeze on my face, the triumphant echo of my shoes slapping the footpath- the latter being the only proof that my feet touched the ground at all.
I caught, as I flew, the partial murmurs of late-night pedestrians- free, like I was- on their way to parties or pubs or friend's houses.
My flight was almost derailed when it occurred to me to examine the jacket I had snatched in haste; if it turned out not to be my own, I would have had some dreadful, sheepish explaining to do. I had chosen correctly, however, and the unsettling thought was soon dispatched.
I found a public telephone at a safe distance, found my breath, and called my mother, and asked her to collect me- but gave Mater strict instructions not to venture within a hair's breadth of my workplace. We made arrangements to meet elsewhere.
The recriminations that followed were slight ones: that my boss called my house some hours later, demanding from Mater to know my whereabouts; that I chose to forfeit my last wage rather than meet with the threats he delivered to us; that I had to find another job; that I would, for some years afterward, see my young colleague on the street and would have to, as they say, duck out of sight.
I remember how it struck me to have one notion in my head grow and grow until I could not help but act on it, and I remember how marvellous it felt to be so absolutely sure of the validity of an idea, and to have but a blink of an eye in which to accomplish it- and to run with it.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What Am I?

"Necessity is not an established fact, but an interpretation."
-Friederich Nietzsche

Spouse met, quite by chance some months ago, a former acquaintance of his. The individual was most eager to know about my own background and what precisely I did for a living.
While Spouse was engaged elsewhere during a subsequent gathering, the fellow sought me out.
"Are you in hardware?" he queried bluntly, thinking perhaps that Spouse and I were colleagues. At the very least, he was convinced that we three must be skilled in the same field.
"No." I told him I was not in hardware.
"Are you in software?"
"No." I told him I was not in software either.
He fought to control his curiosity, his facial expressions, and his confusion. He failed on all counts.
"So," he said at last, after a considerable pause in which I suppose he hoped I would supply him with the answer, "what are you?" His hushed tone carried a note of true bewilderment: he was the stupefied explorer who had stumbled unwittingly across a hitherto unidentified species, a creature with no title, a being with no ascertained utility.
There are all sorts of people in the world, and a significant number of them are not, as it might happen, involved in hardware or software, or any ware.
The expectations of those who fail to formally recognise a life removed and different from their own are, I must confess, wildly amusing to the ear.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cold Call

“Every man's memory is his private literature.”
-Aldous Huxley

I passed through the kitchen one storm-wracked night years ago when Mater was just answering the telephone. It was not an evening to go visiting in but the Aunt, it transpired, wished for Mater to pay a call.
No helpless little old lady's request was this: the Aunt had not fallen on the floor; neither had she run out of food or water. She, I seem to recollect, was urging Mater to drive through the puddles to the Aunt's home in order to examine something or other related to clothing, and offer a supposedly expert opinion.
I could not believe my eyes or my ears as I observed my honest mother pinching her nostrils closed with two fingers, and squeaking:
"I'd love to, but I have a terrible cold!"
It was the most dreadful impersonation of somebody consumed with a cold- had I been asked, I would have put forth the covert suggestion that Mater lower her voice a notch instead of raising the pitch- but it worked. It really worked. The Aunt backed away- recoiled, I suspect- and hastily agreed that the appointment should be on another, less germ-ridden day.
Mater attended the Aunt's funeral this evening in Ireland. A legion of stories were brought to light- broken fragments of memory about the formidable lady none of us will forget.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thoughts on the Aunt

"Life has meaning only if one barters it day by day for something other than itself."
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I must mention the Aunt.
A former nurse, a spinster with a penchant for ridding Mater of grey hair, and one for ruthlessly setting her personal contacts onto my prospective employers in order to ensure I gained the position, thereby unwittingly abolishing every chance I had of being employed: she passed away this morning, most unexpectedly.
My mother's earlier recollections of visiting the Aunt, pre-nursing-home days, are of enormous, cavernous wardrobes engulfed with fur coats, party dresses, perfume and countless shiny shoes. Wherever the Aunt resided, nine tenths of her living space always consisted of clothing and accessories.
She invariably attempted to polish everyone she met, with regard to world view, etiquette and educational ambition. She had a grating tendency to establish various appointments for members of her family- medical, social and otherwise- without so much as a word to those involved until they were in the hair salon, on the operating table or sitting down to dinner with an important stranger.
Having experienced severe and traumatic illness in her youth, she continually expected never to live much longer, outlasting many a younger family member, and causing her to repeatedly ask in wonderment why she herself was still there.
With no immediate family of her own, her career and her unfailing urge to help others were the wheels that kept her busy and moving, always on the outside verge of a lonely life.
Such was the way the Aunt moved through the years until the never-imagined age of eighty two, and until today, when she left us all behind for a place which I do sincerely hope is overflowing with her most beloved garments, and in which she encounters willing participants for all of her helpful endeavours.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hair Today

“When you have decided what you believe, what you feel must be done, have the courage to stand alone and be counted.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt

An evocative word, a potent tool; used too sparingly for fear of being the lone dissenter, or for fear of causing offence.
My mother once took her elderly aunt for a drive, gathering bits and pieces, doing the grocery and assisting with little tasks.
After a time, the Aunt insisted that they take a certain direction. Mater, willing and able, drove the Aunt where the instructions led to.
Mater turned off the car's engine outside what appeared to be a hair salon. It was a hair salon.
Indoors they went, my mother imagining that the worst the afternoon might bring would be having to sit and wait while the Aunt sat under a dryer.
"Now," said the Aunt suddenly, "we'll soon get that grey out of your hair."
Mater, who was far too busy in the real world to notice the colour of her hairs, was thoroughly appalled at the notion.
"What?" was all that she could muster.
An old lady- the owner- stood by with a cape in her hands and a bright smile on her trusting face, and just a dash of hope. Apparently, the appointment had already been paid for by the enthusiastic Aunt: Mater's grey hairs were doomed, each and every one.
Mater was propelled into a seat, where her head was subjected to all manner of implements, sprays and chemicals. When she drove home hours later her straight grey hair had turned brown, curly, and incalculably angry. The colour and the shape were on the outside; the fury was contained inside the hair and the Aunt never felt a moment's worth of the wrath.
Mater never said no: I saw that head of hair shortly afterward, and we all came to the grim conclusion that she really should have.
Such a tiny, harmless-as-a-mouse word: but we ought to exclaim it all the same, when we suspect that something is not quite right. Next time, it might be more than hair.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Street Twins

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can't see the levers and pulleys.”
-Emma Bull

When walking with Spouse in Boston, Massachusetts on one occasion last year, I suddenly found that I was being stared at. I was, to be exact, being stared at intensely and there was no mistaking the situation. It was most unsettling, in particular because the young lady was walking in the opposite direction, coming toward Spouse and I, and we had a rather long and disturbing moment in which to observe each other.
I did not know her, and I was almost entirely certain she did not know me.
As she passed alongside us, her head turned; I was concerned about the mobility of her neck, such was the swivel she gave it to see me a little better.
"I have no idea what that was about," I said to Spouse.
I caught sight of myself just then in a store window. I realised we were wearing exactly the same red jacket, identical down to the familiar buttons and stylish belt- the sort of apparel I usually never take the time to buy. I had, in this case, acquired it in Ireland, under the suggestion and guidance of Mater, in a particular department store that sold its own brand.
The chances of meeting face to face a customer from the same store in another country were outlandish, but I revolved quickly in order to see my jacket's twin- and there it was.
Now that I knew what the other walker was thinking, I felt altogether much better about having two eyes boring into my soul.

House Hugs

“There is no instinct like that of the heart.”
-Lord Byron

My self-declared surrogate grandmother once asked a friend to accompany her on a house-hunting expedition. My friend and her husband had retired, and were searching for the perfect nook in which to find placidity.
When they stepped into the very house that, as it later transpired, my friend would eventually come to own- an elegant and charming Victorian house flanked by California's trusting, lofty trees- her companion gasped her thoughts aloud.
"Oh. This house just hugs you!"
I can testify to that declaration. I have been in the house in question: it is an abode with a heart, a place which most assuredly extends a mighty, welcoming embrace to all who visit. I have spent treasured hours in the company of my friend, who I believe knows a thing or two about heeding instincts and about the immeasurable and inexplicable worth of a first impression.
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