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In the next few centuries, we may encounter non-human intelligences in space. I hope that first contact occurs during my lifetime, but, if it doesn’t, I am not concerned. Without any exaggeration, I can say that my personal first contact happened when I was twenty-six on the bottom floor of the Pike Place Market in Seattle, when I discovered parrots.

Until then, I hadn’t thought much about parrots. So far as I was concerned, parrots were kept in cages like fish in aquariums, minding their own business and eating decaying fruits and vegetables for preference. About all that could be said for them, I thought, was that they were more interesting than reptiles, and less creepy.

Trish and I were meeting friends who read tarot in a booth down the hall from the parrot shop. Waiting for our friends to finish work for the day, we wandered down to stare at the birds. It was a gaudy, raucous experience, and I suspect that too many birds were crammed into too small an area by modern standards, but I realized almost at once that almost everything I knew about parrots was wrong.

I was captivated. Best of all were the birds running up and down the torsos and arms of Dick and Diane, the store’s owners, chuckling, squawking, stopping for a scratch and occasionally a squabble. Some of the birds would pause, looking at me while hanging upside down, and, meeting their eyes, I knew there was an intelligence, watching and evaluating me. The experience was uncanny and thrilling at the same time.

After that, we made a habit of stopping at the parrot shop whenever we were in Seattle. We started visiting pet shops at home, too. Those were the days when the exotic bird trade was still unregulated, and pet stores would get dozens of different species for sale, most of them kept in overcrowded conditions.

Once, we saw birds with scaly face mites disfiguring their beaks being kept in a coral with other birds with clipped wings, and made a point of avoiding that chain of stores every after.

Not that the stores we continued to visit were much better. I suspect now that most of the birds in such stores died, and most of the rest went to homes where they were chosen to match the decor in the living room, and thrust into closets and back rooms when they stopped being amusing to their owners. Only a handful are likely to have had happy lives.

Now, the restrictions on the parrot trade have mostly ended such commercial misery, and I regret having assisted it by patronizing such stores. At the time, though, we had no idea. Our fascination grew, and, when our tarot-reading friends bought a yellow-naped dwarf macaw they named Coquette, who quickly befriended us, we became ambitious to own a parrot ourselves.

Large parrots like cockatoos, and macaws were beyond what we could afford, and Amazons seems staid. However, we soon learned that conures, a small South American type of parrot had much the same irreverent rowdiness as macaws, and were far less expensive.

We briefly considered a blue-headed conure at the Lougheed Mall pet store who responded excitedly to us through the bars, going so far as to think of naming him MacAlpen, because his blue and green feathers reminded us of a hunting pattern on some of the older Scottish kilts. But somehow, he didn’t seem quite right.

Then at the Kingsgate Mall, we met a young nanday in the closed room. His round cage sat amid a dozen others, most of which were much larger than he was. The only other bird near his size was a red rosella, and they would hang from the bars of their cages for hours, cheeping back and forth.

The nanday had a bright-eyed look of innocence. He was also missing two claws on his foot, which was almost a sure sign of the kind of rough treatment associated with the illegal export of birds. In addition, the store owner seemed dodgy, boasting of contacts that sounded like smugglers and claiming that the nanday was several years old when his all-black hood strongly suggested he was under a year.

We went home and looked up nandays in the magazines we had accumulated. Nandays were poor talkers, we read. They were noisy, and not fit for keeping in apartments. They were not beginners’ birds.

Still the nanday at Kingsgate Mall had an irresistible gallantry, a willingness to hold his own in the face of much larger birds. On our second visit, we agreed to buy him, and to take him home after the folk festival. We did stop by on the way to the festival to feed him cherries, but we waited until the day after, which was Trish’s birthday, to pick him up.

We put him in the living room, and went out to dinner to give him time to adjust to his new surroundings. I was so excited that I could barely leave him, or eat when we got to the restaurant.

Somewhere along the line, though we agreed to call the bird Ningauble, after the insatiably curious and gossiping wizard in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. The wizard’s personality seemed to match the bird’s, and we were completely enchanted. What we didn’t know was that one of the most enduring features of our domestic life had arrived.

Whole wheat, sour dough, rye, pita, challah,  foccacia, poppadom, and naan – no matter what form you serve it in, I have an obsession with bread that amounts to gluttony. One of my most memorable meals was in San Francisco in 1992 with Margo Skinner, where we sat long after closing while the cook — delighted that Margo had lived in India — served us bread after bread, and I still wasn’t sated. But for me, no bread comes close to matching the bagel. Whether Montreal or New York style, the smell of a bagel causes me to salivate uncontrollably.

Understand that I am not talking about the round pieces of bread that are sold by the half dozen in grocery stores that purport to “New York Style Bagels” – a euphemism for “not a bagel at all.” The only thing that these upstart buns have in common with an actual bagel is their round shape, and the hole in the middle. These alleged bagels are frauds, one and all, and in a civil society would not be tolerated for a moment.
For one thing, a true bagel is not sprinkled with onions or bits of cheddar cheese. Nor is made from whole wheat flour. No! These ingredients are a snare and deception played upon the unwary. All these innovations may be fine on other breads, but the true bagel is covered, both top and bottom,  in either sesame or poppy seeds, regardless of whether you eat it with cream cheese and lox, or simply hot, melted butter.

A true bagel uses a touch of malt to activate the yeast and harden the outside when they are dropped into boiling water before cooking. Even more importantly, a true bagel rises for half an hour before being punched down and rolled into shape, and  for another twenty minutes, making it the sort of dense foodstuff that sentients of taste and refinement must eat on high-gravity planets across the galaxy. Such a bagel is the breakfast of heroes, the yeasty equivalent of a bowl of Scottish oatmeal whose dozen bites, when eaten at 6am , can sustain you until noon even when you are doing heavy labor.

Yet this is the sort of bagel you rarely find in most cities. In fact, you can forget Pokémon Go – what I want is an app that can locate a proper bagel when I am traveling. In Vancouver, Solly’s makes a decent bagel, although the true masterpiece of all its branches is challah. Seigel’s is genuine, too, with the mild sourness of malt as an aftertaste, and is, in fact, the only bagel found locally on grocery shelves that is worth buying.

Stray out into the suburbs, though, and edible bagels are rarer than Tsonqu’a. In fact, before you are fifty kilometers down the highway in any direction, the prospects of a true bagel is several thousand kilometers down the road.

For that reason, a few years  ago I finally learned to make my own. Even, as sometimes happens, I have to substitute sugar for malt, the result is better than what I can buy in most places. But the do-it-yourself  approach does help me to understand why bagels worth eating can rarely be bought. Bagels are labor intensive, and making them circular is  a craft that takes several batches to learn; my own approach is to poke a hole in one end of the dough when it is rolled out into a flopping rope, then insert the other end into the hole and twist the ends together. Personally speaking, though, I would rather go to the trouble than condemn myself to lesser breads for breakfast.

If you are interested in how people age, a school reunion is ideal for observations – especially if several decades have passed since graduation. The types are quite distinctive, although since my own recent reunion, I am still puzzling over what the physical changes indicate. However, I am starting to believe that George Orwell was correct when he wrote in his journal that, after forty, everyone has the face they deserve.

In my experience, people tend to age in one of two ways: either they continue to look much the same as ever, or there is a drastic change in them. Very few are anywhere in the middle, and those who are likely to have had major upheavals in their lives. Their bodies, for example, may be similar to what they were when they were young, but a stiffness in their walk may indicate knee replacements, or deep-set lines in their faces a prolonged illness or trauma.

Those who continue to look much the same are often those who take exercise and diet seriously. These people are rather strained – threadbare around the edges is the phrase that comes to mind – but usually move well and seem lightly brushed with age, either mentally or physically.

More often, those who look much the same are heavier set than when they were young, but are still recognizable. They may be bald, or have a limp, but you can easily subtract such incidental changes to see their younger selves beneath, and, once you do, they remain unmistakable. Some of them seemed to have grown into their bodies, so that what what seemed like too large a nose now seems to suit them. If they were clumsy, they have developed, if not a grace, but an appropriateness in their movements. Somehow, they have learned to accept themselves.

In contrast, others look so different that you would never recognize them without a name tag. Often, they have gained considerable weight, as people tend to do as they age because few of us realize that our eating and exercise habits need to change as we age. However, those who greatly changed also tend to be more careless in the way they dress. It is not that they are eccentric so much as they no longer worry about the image they present to the world. To my eye, they seem tired and often colorless

Very occasionally, you do find someone who has changed for the better, but, after several decades, they are the rarest type of all. Often, they have overhauled their lives because of a premature heart attack or some other crisis, becoming slim where they were once chunky, and outgoing where they were shy To be honest, this type often disconcerts me, because I feel that I have never known them at all.

These categories are fairly complete in my experience. However, what I am less certain about is what to make of them. I tend to think that those who look basically the same have been true to their natures, while those who have greatly changed have given up on life, and are preparing to follow the chalk marks on the floor for the rest of their lives.

However, this may be my own prejudice. In theory, those who have greatly changed may have matured, and now please themselves instead of doing what every one expects. Yet judging from their conversation, which is all about retirement and their empty nests, that doesn’t seem to be so. Perhaps Orwell was more accurate than I first imagined.

On this date in 2010, at 3:05pm, my partner Trish died. We had been together thirty-two years. Since then, at a time when most people are settling down domestically, I have had to start again. So far, my new start has not included a new relationship. Nor do I expect to.

Whenever I state my current situation, most people assume that it troubles me. They imagine that I am discouraged, and tell me to cheer up, that a new relationship could happen at any time. A relationship is such an important part of their lives, they cannot imagine someone who does not share their pre-occupation. From their perspective, I must be being stoic, wearing a brave face while being shredded inside.

What they don’t understand (and probably never will, unless they are widowed themselves) is that I mean exactly what I say. I wouldn’t refuse another relationship. I might even take a chance on a less promising relationship. However, it is no longer a priority

Perhaps part of my attitude is my realization that, unless you divorce or break up, a relationship is going to end with one of you dying – a fact that popular culture conveniently ignores. Having faced that overwhelming event once, I admit that I am nervous about facing it twice. Emotionally, the death of your partner is overwhelming, and, even after your grief has quietened to a chronic condition that is always in the background, it puts you out of sync with your family and generation.

Still, I might take a chance – but only if I thought my new relationship had any chance of being as successful as the one I shared with Trish. We worked hard on our relationship, and, even after thirty years, many people assumed that we had just found each other. When I have had the best, why should I settle for anything less, just because I am afraid of dying alone (and I am afraid) – or, worse, because everyone thinks that I should be hanging out on OK Cupid, and taking night school classes in the hopes of meeting someone?

Having been lucky once, I am not greedy. I have had my share – in fact, more than my share, when I observe many of the relationships around me.

However, the main reason I am not particularly eager for a new relationship is that, in the last six years, I have learned to survive alone. I have learned to go to parties without being supported by someone or supporting them. I have learned that, if I don’t do a chore, it won’t get done. I have learned to live without having someone with whom to share absurd or puzzling moments. Now my calendar is my own, and I stay up or go to bed early without consulting anyone else.

At first, I didn’t care for being responsible for no one except my parrots and I. But I survived – I had no choice, because a minimal number of things always had to be done each day, even after I had plunged into the bureaucracy of death and out the other side. Now, I am like a castaway who, after praying each day for rescue, realizes that I have become accustomed to my own solitude.

In fact, I suspect I am no longer fit for a relationship, anymore than, after twelve years of freelancing, I am fit for working in an office. Inevitably, I have grown egocentric. Unlike most people, I no longer define myself by my relationships – not even the one that Trish and I shared.

I think wistfully of a relationship from time to time, but I abandoned worrying about relationships – or a lack of them – several years ago. In the last six years, I have learned to live with myself, accomplished a few things that satisfy me, and even to find a bit of contentment. But the difference between me and the average adult is that relationships no longer define me.

By your standards, I might be poorly adjusted. However, I no longer expect what most people suspect. You may not understand my perspective but, then, I no longer understand yours either, except by a conscious act of empathy.

Please do me the courtesy, though, of believing that I mean what I say. For the most part, I am content with my adjustments to life – even if many of those adjustments are not the ones I expected to be making at this stage of my life.

My younger ghost is walking,
He kissed you against the wall,
I hear he looked a lot like me,
Would you know him now at all?
-Oysterband

Last Saturday, I went to my high school reunion. If that sounds unlike me, that was the point. However, what struck me most during the evening how varied and sometimes strange the opinions about me were. Walt Whitman may be vast and contain multitudes, but I could only wonder how one uncomplicated person could inspire so many opposing opinions that were at odds with my self-image today.

I went to a large high school, and it has been (mumble, mumble) years, so I wasn’t surprised that some people failed to remember me at all. Another person remembered me as a basketball player, pretending to remember only when I said that I had always lacked the coordination for basketball. I tried to demonstrate my clumsiness by make dribbling motions with my hands, but either I had drunk too little or too much to get my point across, because the person with the faulty memory wandered vaguely away, leaving me to imagine myself Afro-American and fifteen centimeters taller.

Almost as bad were the women with whom I had once been infatuated. One I saw across the room, but she seemed defeated by life, putting in the time until her death; I waved at her, but by her lack of enthusiasm I might have been inviting her to a meal of slugs and tripe, and I inferred I was not a welcome memory. Another women, whose last exchange with me involved me angrily unfriending her on Facebook arrived late, watched me all evening the way a squirrel would watch a hawk, and left early, possibly fed up with the dance of keeping away from me.

A long-ago friend was more accurate and more enthusiastic describing how I used to run everyone else into the ground at track meets “Oh, thank you very much,” I said, referencing my bad knees and suggesting that, these days, a two legged dog could outrun me without breaking into a pant.

Still another went on in embarrassing detail about how, when I ran, I wore a look of concentration that nothing could shake. That was news to me, but when they went on to say that my example had inspired them later in life, I wanted to cringe. Ten years ago at another reunion someone had professed to admire me, but they had built me up too much in their own mind, and my ensuing fall from grace was as quick as it was inevitable. I didn’t want a repeat, and was embarrassed to be someone else’s example, because I was sure I would sooner or later fail to match expectations.

Then there were those I had gone all the way through school with, or known even earlier. They knew who I was, but their assumption of my intelligence and abilities made me squirm, making me squirm with the knowledge that at best I had only feebly fulfilled whatever promise I might have had. We were glad to see each other, but after the initial welcome, we didn’t have much to say. The mutual sympathy was there in several cases, but our meeting sometimes felt like a convocation of our younger ghosts than a meeting of our current selves – wistful and even pleasant, yet always with a sense of a gulf that would take more than good will or a single evening to cross.

On the whole, it was easier to deal with people with whom I had struck up a casual exchange with over the Internet, involving a lot of jokes and little beyond the present. That was a persona I could slip into easily, enjoying and, I hope entertaining others without giving too much away.

The exceptions were one or friends from long ago with whom I could simply talk. Soon after arriving, I had a long conversation about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, and later on one about British punk-folk bands. The kindness of these friends was part of the reason I could relax, but another part was that these topics bridged the past and present for me. In these topics, my authentic self (or what I imagine to be my present self) was to the fore, and I could relax.

Unfortunately, a reunion was not the place for the deeper conversations I would have preferred. On the whole, the evening was enjoyable enough, but, on the long taxi ride home, I kept thinking that while many people go to reunions to reconnect, or to prove something to others, I must be one of the only ones to have brought home the rags and tatters of former selves, many of which had never fit, and most of which certainly did not any more.

I have always had misgivings about trigger warnings, the labels for movies and books that are supposed to allow the traumatized to avoid any unpleasantness. To my way of thinking, they are a presumption, a judgment on an artist’s work that is all too likely to be based on an out-of-context summary or an arrogance like that of an American complaining about being unable to get a hamburger on a gluten-free bun in Paris. I have started to explain my reaction once or twice, but never got around to finishing the explanation – which is a good thing, because recently I discovered that A. E. Housman had made a much more graceful explanation than anything I had drafted.

These days, A. E. Housman is not a fashionable poet. He wrote largely in ballad-like quatrains, often affecting a kind of pastoralism, neither of which fits into modern poetic conventions, and he is usually discredited as not being a profound thinker. Yet, despite this reputation, he retains a certain popularity, and school anthologies often include his poems “To an Athlete Dying Young” or “With rue my heart is laden.”

Housman’s tone is often melancholy, if not world-weary. Apparently, he was well-aware of the fact, since he wrote explaining his own defense of his tone. His defense appears in the poem known by its first line as, “Terence, this is stupid stuff” – Terence being the imaginary shepherd who wrote Housman’s poems.

The poem opens with Terence’s friends comically complaining about his music, and pleading with him to play something happier. Terence replies that he enjoys a drunken carouse himself, when “the world seemed none so bad, / And I myself a sterling lad.” But the trouble is, when he wakes in the morning, he realizes that “the tale was all a lie” and all that is left was to return to the daily routine.

Under the circumstances, although:

the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would.

Hearing his melancholy, Terence goes on to say, his friends might find something to sustain them when the inevitable time comes when they are troubled in their own lives.

To reinforce his point, Terence makes a comparison with Mithridates, the great enemy of Rome in Caesar’s day. According to legend, to avoid assassination, Mithridates gradually accustomed himself to various poisons, until he had developed an immunity to them, confounding his enemies as he swallowed the arsenic and strychnine they slipped him without any effect.

Houseman does not belabor the point, ending simply with, “I tell the tale that I heard told, / Mithridates, he died old.” However, the implication is clear enough: Just as Mithridates developed an immunity to poison by taking small doses, by first facing the gloomy parts of life second-hand through art, people better prepare themselves for the inevitable time when they face similar experiences in their lives.

In other words, unlike those who favor trigger warnings, Housman does not believe that art is simply for enjoyment, or – I might add – to please members of the audience by reinforcing their viewpoint. In fact, to do so is to present a false view of the world. Instead, the purpose of art in Housman’s view is to prepare people for life, and that means dealing with subjects that are sometimes distasteful and uncomfortable.

Housman does not mention catharsis, the purging of emotion and the sense of renewal that comes from tragedy. However, the concept fits well with what he does say, suggesting yet again that what matters is the interaction between the audience and art.

Reading Housman, I realized that those who favor trigger warnings are like the people for whom music is what Frank Zappa called “aural wallpaper” – something in the background of their lives that reinforced their existing conceptions and left them unchallenged. But for me (and, I suspect, Housman), the point of art is not to reinforce prejudice, but to experience life from the artist’s perspective. The perspective may be troubling, and in the end you may reject it as false or offensive, but, even then, your experience does you more good than simply hearing what you prefer to hear.

Not that there is anything wrong with light entertainment. Most of us, if we are being honest, prefer light entertainment at least some of the time. But the limitation of trigger warnings is that they imply that is all there is to art, and that is an over-simplification, and as much a lie as Terence’s joys of drinking.

Yes, experiencing art that is challenging can be unpleasant, and sometimes more than you can endure. Yet I can’t help remembering that, more than any other generation of soldiers, those who fought in World War I resorted to poems and fiction as a way to endure the realities of war. In the same way, I recall a man in a lifeboat in the middle of the Atlantic who survived a storm by singing Stan Rogers’ “The Mary Ellen Carter,” with its refrain of “Rise Again!” over and over. I did much the same in the first days after being widowed. And when I think of such examples, I suspect that advocating trigger warnings, far from sparing people pain, in the long run deprives the traumatized and risks doing them serious damage, like parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

“Mansplaining” is the portmanteau word coined by feminists for men’s tendency to lecture women – at length, on the obvious, and even on subjects on which the woman is an expert. Ever since I was alerted to mansplaining, I have noticed it several times a day, and it never fails to make me wince.

For one thing, mansplaining is an embarrassment, like an elderly relative who makes loud racist comments at a family dinner. Worse, it is an embarrassment that I am rarely in a position to divert or shut down. When I try, either I am labeled rude for interrupting, or the intervention flounders with my attempt to explain what is offensive, and ends up with me taking the blame for disturbing a social gathering.

Instead, I am left feeling the discomfort that the mansplaining man ought to feel for himself, but never does. The man goes on and on in a hectoring tone of voice, as often as not getting the facts wrong, impervious to interruption, and all the while leaning closer and closer to his victim, apparently under the impression that he has become endless fascinating to her.

Meanwhile, the woman tries to stay polite, interjecting a few vague words or a polite laugh that the man mistakes for interest. She is rarely able to turn the monologue into a discussion, because the man does not detect anything except the fact that he has audience. He never dreams that she has mostly tuned him out, because, in his world view, the main reason for her current existence is to make him feel important or charming – and, for the most part, cultural conventions back him up. And, just like when I try to intervene, any other response from her puts her in the wrong socially instead of him.

All this is so wrong on so many levels, that I am torn between moving out of earshot and leaning closer, morbidly fascinated that anyone could be so crass and unobservant as the mansplainer.

Yet that is not all that bothers me. I am what some people call a high verbal, and for many years I was a university instructor. Regardless of whether I am talking to a man or a woman, my interest in a discussion frequently causes me to interrupt as I become excited by an idea that has struck me, and I have to apologize frequently and back down to avoid monopolizing the conversation. This behavior is not helped by the fact that, as an instructor, I actually was the expert (at least most of the time), and partly paid for lecturing, although I usually tried to turn the lecture into a discussion after I conveyed a few basic facts.

Consequently, whenever I see a demonstration of mansplaining, I am apt to review my recent conversations, and wonder if I have been guilty of the same behavior that I am privately denouncing. Given the social norms between men and women, mansplaining can be appalling easy to commit, even when, intellectually, I am determined to avoid it.

Sometimes, I go so far as to ask a woman I am having a one-on-one conversation with if I am talking too much. However, that is not much help, because her social role is to reassure me, and even the most activist woman can sometimes fall into it. Although I am pleased when a woman tells me that I haven’t been dominating the conversation, or that I am a man who knows how to talk to women, I can never be sure she is not offering me a bit of conventional politeness, woman to man. In the end, I am left to my own self-observations. The result is that the mansplaining is not only boring a nearby woman (or sometimes women), but also leaving me full of self-doubt and self-accusation.

I grew to understand what mansplaining feels like to a woman when I published a book. The reviews were mostly upbeat, and the criticisms minor, but a few reviewers insisted on explaining why I should have done one thing or another. Had they asked, I could have told them I had considered their ideas months ago, and discarded them for well-founded reasons – but of course they never did ask. They simply expressed their opinions, and, like a mansplainer’s victim, I could say nothing without sounding ungracious myself. However, I did start wondering why there were not more instances of women lunging across restaurant tables, intent on mayhem with the cutlery, and I became more determined than ever not to be a mansplainer myself.

To me, a mansplainer is a Jungian Shadow, an embodiment of things I do not want to be or even have around me. Consequently, whenever I encounter one, I cannot help but react with distaste and self-doubt, hoping against hope that the situation will soon be over. Unfortunately, though, it almost never is.