Once upon a time, a creative-writing instructor praised me in class a few times and I overreacted—I quit my job, bought a portable typewriter and, with little to say and matching talent, set off into the blue. I was a man with a jet pack on his way to the moon and had about two years to get there. “What will you write?” some asked. I hadn’t a clue. “Short things,” I replied. “Short stories, essays, things like that.” Business colleagues commended me for my courage, but it didn’t feel, at all, like courage—it felt like school letting out for the summer. I hadn’t thought far enough ahead for it to be courage.


Writing, I’d discover, was akin to performing to an empty house and, a few months into it, hungry for applause, I began reading my work to others at every opportunity. A couple of times, I cornered and read to former colleagues in their offices. Once, I even cornered a guy at the end of a bar. Mostly, though, I read to groups of partiers, and there were parties galore that summer, so lots of opportunities. “Would you mind if I brought along and read some of my stuff to the group?” I’d ask.


I’ve no doubt they laughed about it later, but they sure weren’t laughing at the time. I wasn’t, either. I’d look up from a reading and there’d be two or three people had dozed off. And these were neither large groups nor long readings. At one party, mid-way through my funniest piece, a guy slumped right off his chair onto the floor, startling the sleeper next to him, who also tumbled onto the floor, sending her chair crashing against an antique buffet. I blamed the hour and the booze and decided, after that, to read earlier in the evening when my audience would be sufficiently alert, still, to appreciate my talents. But that wasn’t it. A couple of weeks later, after an early reading to a literate group of partiers on Toronto Island, I overheard my performance described as “fifteen minutes of turgid prose”, which it was, and as my reputation spread, the flow of invitations slowed to a trickle and dried up. 


Undeterred, I resorted, then, to going for a drink or two each evening at Phil's, a popular local bar from which I'd lure girls back to my apartment with expectations of sex, then read them stuff I'd written. “Well, wasn’t that something!” said one. “Oh my God,” said another, “look at the time!”



I've long admired the letter-writing ability of women friends. To some, I can email a couple of paragraphs I've laboured over for an hour to make appear dashed-off and, within minutes, receive back page-long accounts of what's going on in their lives, like they're sitting right there talking to me. With few exceptions, men friends, when they reply at all, do so briefly, as though writing for Reuters. For the most part, I suppose, we write like we talk, though, in my case, being on the quiet side, I write like I wish I talked.



The young woman walking toward me is smiling and looks surprised to see me, but I can't, for the life of me, place her. As we draw abreast, she says, “I know you.” I stop, expecting she will, too, but she walks right on by and, when she’s gone about ten paces, turns and shouts back at me, “You swizzled me when I was a teenager.” Then she turns and walks on. I shout after her, “I swizzled you? How did I swizzle you?” Across the street, there’s a woman scowling at me. “You’re mistaking me for somebody else,” I shout. She keeps right on walking. I’m about to shout again, but don’t—what’s the point. And what does it matter, anyway. I’m thinking it likely, by now, she’s mistaken me for Russell Oliver. Many do. It’s the long grey hair and high forehead. Once long-ago mistaken for Frank Mahovolich and asked to autograph a hockey stick, I’m now mistaken for an annoying old gold merchant whose TV commercials I can’t mute quickly enough. A few weeks ago, a young guy called out to me from a passing pickup, “Hey, Mr. Oliver—love your commercials.” There was no time to disabuse him. "Thanks,” I shouted. “Glad you like them." Across the way, an excited young boy was pointing me out to his mother.



CNN is reporting that a woman with a picture of Jesus taped to her dashboard was struck by a 9-pound rock hurled through her windshield from the back of a passing dump truck. It completely pulverized the glass and broke her hand in several places. Had it cleared the steering wheel, it would most likely have killed her. She credits Jesus with saving her life and is apparently okay with His having allowed the rock through her windshield in the first place.



Knuck and I have been friends since age five. His real name is Ronald, which boyhood friends changed to Knucklehead, then Knuckles, then Knuck. I still call him that.


After teachers college, he taught for several years, married another teacher, then returned to school for his law degree. He then began lawyering in Guelph, where he continued to practice mainly criminal law till just recently. At the time, he and his family lived in Fergus, near Guelph, in a beautiful old house on a tree-lined street close to a river. When I had a car, I'd drop by from time to time.


On one such occasion, a warm summer evening after sunset, Knuck and I grabbed a beer from the fridge and strolled on over to the river, where we walked to the centre of a pedestrian bridge and stood chatting for a while in the quiet of night.


Though not our practice to exchange views of one another, for some reason we did so that evening. Knuck said that what he'd always liked about me was that I never wanted anything. I replied that what I'd always liked about him was that he never made a fuss when I got up to leave.


Even at the time, this struck me as an odd thing to say. A stranger might have thought I was joking. Anyone might have. But I wasn’t. Having always liked Knuck but never wondered why, and pressed to respond, that’s what popped into my head—that he never made a fuss when I got up to leave. He didn’t laugh, so I think he understood what I meant. Either that or he didn’t get the joke.



From Alistair Rutherford's best-selling Backstairs at Buckingham— "Every so often, after dinner, Queen Elizabeth would make herself up to look like Helen Mirren and, at dusk, slip out for a few hours of doing as she pleased. Well, not entirely as she pleased—adoring movie fans would occasionally oblige her to sign autographs and pose for photographs. Otherwise, she was rarely imposed upon."



Do you have a guardian angel? I do. Or so it seems. I imagine her a staunch Methodist with a soft spot, a woman of stern bearing who’s averse to providing what I should be perfectly capable of providing for myself but, when I flounder, can’t help herself. Battling her principles to the end, she customarily shows up at the very last minute, on one occasion delaying an offer of employment till I’d all but completed an application for welfare benefits. 


I think she feels badly putting me through it like that, for, when she finally does show up, she nearly always goes overboard—in the above case, with a full-time job that required little more than a firm grasp of the alphabet and a good alarm clock and freed me at noon, each day, to be an artist. It paid well, too. It was perfect.


More recently, while struggling in vain to get comfortable in my Ikea chair (which, to compensate for a sheared bolt, I’d propped on a box, bound with duct tape, and backed against the wall), I imagined being granted a single wish, which, with all I might have wished for, I immediately squandered on a chair comfortable enough to fall asleep in watching TV—that’s how uncomfortable I was. A few days later, from out of the blue, I was given not one but two chairs—a little-used, black-leather recliner with ottoman, and a big, plush rocker-recliner that, I'd swear, hovers, as well. No longer must I go to bed to get comfortable—I fall asleep, now, during Jeopardy.



And my old chair? Callously shunted aside for a full-figured beauty half her age, she resides, now, broken and exhausted, on a mountain of waste on the outskirts of town, where, I imagine, she shares her feelings of abandonment with others like herself, perhaps tearfully recalling her many years supporting a man who splattered her with sticky stuff and clogged her folds with peanuts and caramel corn, though allowing, in spite of everything, how very much she misses me and how truly grateful she is to have been slouched upon, for all those years, by someone of modest girth who liked the same TV programs she did, perhaps crediting her guardian angel.



I’m bundled up, having a smoke by the open window and watching my neighbour Meggy and her Golden Retriever, Banner, on the grounds below. Wearing a cone, Banner is sitting contentedly on the grass by the walkway, seemingly oblivious to the frigid temperature and howling winds that have Meggy hugging herself and shifting back and forth from one foot to the other. Every few minutes, tugging gently on his leash, she encourages Banner to come, but he resists, so she leaves him be. After a time, he stands to stretch and, seizing the opportunity, Meggy entices him a few steps forward with treats. Then he sits down again. But not for long. A man's voice is calling out from somewhere below, a voice Banner recognizes. His tail is wagging and he’s up now and making his way toward the voice with a beaming Meggy in tow.


I like that she allows Banner to set the pace. I do the same with Island Girl. If there's a half hour's worth of sniffing between here and the corner, we take a half hour getting to the corner. She accommodates human priorities most of the time—on her outings with me, I accommodate hers and, as much as possible, set her free to be a dog.

 

One place I can’t is around picnickers, where, unless I keep her leashed, she’s all over them for handouts and has been known to snatch and run off with the occasional sandwich. Where food’s involved, there’s no calling her away, so I make sure, now, to leash her as soon as I spot a party of picnickers and not unleash her, again, till we’re well past them. And I do mean well past. She can be cagey. Once, believing it safe to unleash her, I obliged her wish to cool off in a stream, where, after a few quick dunks, she sidled out of sight behind some bushes and, before I knew it, was up the bank and high-tailing it back to the picnic area.


I’ve learned to be cagey, myself. On the rare occasions she won’t come when called, I walk down the trail a ways and hide behind a tree, which doesn’t bring her right away but hurries her up. Not knowing where I am makes her anxious.



Naming a child at birth is a leap in the dark. You risk naming a Douglas ‘Henry’ and a Zelda ‘Joanne’. You should wait, some say, till your children reveal who they are.


There are risks either way. Friends of mine, while waiting for their newborn daughter to reveal herself, called her Darling and, 50 years later, she’s still called Darling—Darly, by those close to her. That’s the thing with names—however odd or inappropriate, with enough exposure, you get used to them. The name and named become one.


During the late 50s, a prominent child psychologist went so far as to advise that children be called Babe till at least 5 years of age, then allowed to name themselves. Not surprisingly, name registries from those times show a profusion of Barbies and Cinderellas and an occasional Superman. There are quite a few Babes, as well.



I was a late talker and it was thought, for a while, I’d have to be sent somewhere and taught to talk. But it turned out I could talk all along, I just hadn't thought of anything to say, yet.


Not much has changed. I have little to say, still, and through inactivity, my speech muscles have so weakened that, when I do talk, I mumble.


In medical parlance, I have what’s termed Labia Otiosi (Lazy Lips), which my doctor informed me “is more a male than female affliction, explaining,” she said, “why you’ve probably never known a female mumbler.” And she was right—I couldn’t think of a single one.


She told me that Lazy Lips is frequently accompanied by Sloppy Fingers (Digitos Sordidus), requiring the afflicted to both re-type as well as re-say a lot of their words.


That was me to a capital T, I said. What did she recommend I do about it?


She said there were exercises I could do to improve my elocution but, seeing as how I didn’t talk much, anyway, she didn’t see it mattering much. And for Sloppy Fingers, she said, there was spell-check. She  recommended I leave well-enough alone.



It's brazen of me to mention myself in the same sentence with the great Walt Whitman, but I've discovered we have something in common—he devoted a large part of his writing life to rewriting Leaves of Grass, just as I’ve devoted a large part of mine to rewriting Rewritten Rewrites Rewritten. Slim justification, I know, for sharing a sentence with him, but we all do it, don’t we?—take heart and a smattering of self-esteem from glimpses of ourselves in those we admire? I do, anyway. And Whitman isn’t my first. I’ve just as brazenly shared sentences with Ernest Hemingway, Leonard Cohen, E. B. White, and, as an artist, with Alex Colville. I'm working toward being brazenly mentioned, myself, in the same sentence with. Progress is slow.



I’m having a coffee and cigarette here by the open window. It’s early morning. There’s a fellow walking backwards along Keewatin, more interested, apparently, in where he’s been than where he’s going, out there building muscles of little use for anything but walking backwards, and he’s the smarter of the two of us.



I’d bought some tickets on a dog, I thought, and here was this guy on the phone telling me I’d won a bog. I thought I’d misheard him but he repeated it and I hadn’t and, afterwards, when I dug up my ticket stubs, sure enough, they clearly read ‘bog’, not ‘dog’. I should have been looking more closely at the tickets and less closely at the vendor, but a pretty young woman at the door, mid-evening, can play havoc with an old guy's attention span. It had with mine, anyway, and here I was, now, signing deeds and things and being photographed for the local paper—for the first time in my life, a landowner—me of all people—a landowner with full title to 10 acres of bog just south of Bala. I had mixed feelings. I was surprised how good it felt to be a man of property, but what on earth was I going to do with a 10-acre bog? I borrowed a friend’s car and a pair of rubber boots and drove up there a couple of times, waded around for a bit trying to feel some pride of ownership. But it wasn’t happening. So I put the whole works up for sale and, to hurry things along, lowered its price every couple of weeks till, finally, it was free and, still, no one wanted it, so I took it off the market. A good move, as it turned out—water levels rose high enough that, a couple of years later, I was able to sell it for a pretty penny as lakefront property. I haven’t been anywhere near the place in quite some time, now, but a friend happened by it the other day and says it’s all lake, now, no front, and that, with water levels still rising as they are, he’s glad he lives in a high-rise.



She’d sent me this email laden with exclamation marks and bursts of red uppercase demanding I immediately remove the photo of her I’d posted on my website and shred every last copy of it, as well. She wanted all traces of it expunged from the face of the earth and beyond. “THAT'S THE WORST PHOTO OF ME I’VE EVER SEEN!!!!!!!!!!!!” she wrote. “LOOK AT MY NECK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” 


I’d thought it a good picture of her and couldn’t remember anything in particular about her neck but, sure enough, when I checked out the photo, she had an old woman’s neck. And why wouldn't she? We were the same age.


I replied that I’d done as she asked, and told her that I hadn’t noticed her neck till she pointed it out and that I was worried, now, I might never be able to get the image of it out of my head.


She called to thank me for the laugh and said she may have overreacted a touch but had gotten used to seeing herself as the mirror saw her, and the mirror, she’d just realized, nearly always saw her leaning toward it, which smoothed out her neck. It had been quite a shock to realize she looked just as old as the rest of us.


A few days later, she reported that, quite without realizing it, she’d begun leaning toward people. “Its foundations crumbling, vanity presses valiantly onward,” she wrote.



I’ve a new dog friend I’ll be taking out occasionally—an elderly Golden Retriever named Georgie who, with her owner, lives in this building several floors above me. During the week, she’s walked by a neighbour, but I’d volunteered as back-up should it ever be required and, this past weekend, her owner had a two-day conference to attend and I was available both days, so Georgie and I had our first outing on Saturday. She walks very slowly and I followed where she led me, which, that first day, wasn’t very far, at all—just down Keewatin a ways and back. On Sunday, though, she was much longer turning for home. She led me down Keewatin and back and, at an ever-quickening gait, continued on along Keewatin to Yonge Street, where, tail wagging the whole time, she took me on tour of her favourite stores. These included any with open doors (which she strained at the leash to enter) and a good many with closed doors (where she stood looking, hopefully, through the glass) and, finally, completing the tour, PetValu. As expected, they had a treat for her, as would the Wine Rack, later, and the lady at the bus stop. We were out for over an hour. Before dropping her off, I removed her collar and gave her neck and haunches a good rub, same as I give Island Girl.



Laura told me I’m a lucky man to have a friend like Coby.


“Do you intend, ever, to submit your account of the friendship to a publisher, or are you simply going to go on rewriting it forever?” she asked.


“Probably the latter,” I said. “Every now and again, I consider submitting it, but what stops me every time is knowing, from experience, how much better-written it will be six months from now.”


Laura shrugged. “They probably don’t pay much, anyway, for unfinished stuff.”



Have you noticed that the words ‘old fool’ always conjure the image of a man, never a woman. It’s not that there aren’t foolish women. It’s just that, for women, I think, being foolish requires a special effort few of them are willing to make, so the few go unnoticed. We men, we’re fools by design. It’s in our DNA. We have to make a special effort NOT to be foolish. Not all of us, of course, but enough of us to have earned the reputation.



Birthdates aside, I’ve a theory that we’re pretty much the same age all our lives, not fundamentally different at 60 than we were at 20. That toddler sizing me up (and none too favourably) on the subway the other day? He was already 50. And the retired lady in the doughnut shop? I can see through her wrinkles. She’s 30, tops. Me? I’m probably mid-30s. Still seeing things through younger eyes, I occasionally have to will myself not to act like an old fool. I might have tried harder a couple of times but was having too much fun. Fun is a hard thing to turn your back on.

here by the window