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Publishing online, I attract enemies like a rock collects barnacles. Thankfully, I attract more friends, but the ones that astonish me are those who — for whatever reason — take a dislike to me. Some combination of egotism and optimism makes me incapable of understanding how anyone could dislike such an easy-going and outgoing a fellow as I imagine myself. I can’t help prodding at them the way I would a scab, hoping I can comprehend them or maybe that they will have changed their views the next time I look.

They rarely do, though.

A few years ago, I suffered through a trio of semi-professional writers, all of whom seemed determined to establish their reputation by attacking mine. But since then, one has disappeared into obscurity. Another has retreated to his own little niche, where they are the center of a small group of like-minded people and ignored by everyone else. The third, after a blistering attack a year ago, ended up looking so biased and careless in his research that the only reason he didn’t lose respect was that he had none left to lose – not among any worth knowing, anyway.

Currently, nobody like these are disturbing me, but I do have three people who think less of me than I would prefer. The first is a sometime colleague who nursed a grudge over an incident I had forgot about and which they misinterpreted. Whenever we encountered each other, they were barely civil, and sometimes downright rude Finally, I asked them what was wrong. We had an angry phone call one night, which ended with us deciding to ignore each other. It wasn’t an ideal solution, because we have mutual friends, and I continue to think far more of them than they do of me. But at least I can go to conferences without having someone glaring at me.

The second was someone I knew years ago. Our paths recrossed years ago, but, after the initial excitement of renewing the acquaintance, I became discontented with the relationship, and distanced myself. I regretted the action almost immediately, and tried to apologize several times without success. .

Recently, I’ve been tempted to try again, but never have. I was lucky to get a second chance, and can’t expect a third.

The last was a person I never met. However, we interacted for some months on the Internet, and I was starting to think of them as a potential friend – the kind that I might meet at some unspecified point in the future, and maybe go for coffee with, or go for dinner with as part of a larger crowd. But they pushed some of my buttons, and I suspect my reaction pushed some of theirs. They withdrew, and I damned their hypocrisy immediately, and sneered from a distance ever since.

I did try once to suggest that a little creative forgetting was in order. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t surprised to get no response.

One of my problems in these situations is that my affability is learned rather than natural. I come of self-righteous stock, and, when I feel justified, my verbal fury usually destroys any basis for further interaction. If nothing else, my berserkergang is so unexpected that it unsettles the other person.

At the same time, my anger fades as quickly as it flares – maybe because it flares – which means that I am always under-estimating the extent of other people’s anger against me. Long after I’ve dropped a grudge, most people are still clinging to theirs.

It doesn’t help, either, that just because I have some inner child’s longing to be on good terms with everyone doesn’t mean that I have changed my opinion. I may be sorry I expressed it, but that’s usually not good enough for most people.

Under the circumstances, I can’t imagine playing peacemaker again in any of these instances. Being at odds with people irritates me the way that synthetics irritate my skin, but it’s an irritation I can endure. The regret is only occasional, and I’m reluctant to intrude on any of these people again.

All the same, if you think you recognize yourself as one of them, drop a line if you’re inclined. Not hearing from you won’t ruin my life, but I would like to talk at some point.

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Last Sunday, Trish and I would have celebrated our anniversary as a couple. As I have done the previous two years since she died, I observed the day (“celebrate” is hardly the correct word) by taking myself out to dinner. And, as I sat at the restaurant, I had a small moment of personal insight.

I was given a table in the bay window at the front of the restaurant. The table would have been ideal for two people who wanted to focus on each other, but for a person eating alone, it gave two choices: to sit either staring at the wall, or staring out at the dark and rainy street. Both choices meant my back was to the rest of the restaurant.

As I stared out at the cold and damp people hurrying along the street, I reflected that I was lucky I hadn’t been given a seat by the kitchen or the washroom. But I told myself I had better get used to unusual tables, because they were likely to be my lot for the rest of my life.

I sipped a cider and nibbled some bread, considering this prospect. The waiter took my order, and I kept on considering. Slowly, I realized that I was not embittered by the prospect. Nor was I anticipating it, nor resigned to it. I simply knew that was how things would be.

The realization, I discovered, was a profound relief.

Ever since I was widowed, friends have urged me to look for a relationship. At their urging, I have tried to join activities where I might meet someone. Not very seriously, I have tried online dating sites. Once or twice, I have gone out with a woman.

None of this activity led to anything serious. Perhaps it might have if I had tried harder. But the truth is, I never cared enough to do so. I was lucky once – far luckier than the majority of men who marry. Why should I expect to be equally lucky a second time? The odds seemed against me, and, although I’ve been lonely in the last thirty-two months, I don’t mind loneliness so much that I would automatically exchange it for any other alternative.

The truth is, a self-declared eccentric like me is not going to be much attracted to many women. I’m a romantic whose experience of relationship-hunting is decades in the past. Even worse, I’m a feminist, who had a feminist spouse, and I have little patience with the games I’m still supposed to play. Effectively, I’m an innocent with an exaggerated sense of idealism, which means that I would be unrealistic to pretend that these traits don’t substantially reduce my second chances.

No doubt this realization has an element of self-defense. Middle-age is supposed to be a time of settling in to your life. To have your routine routed and your expectations extinguished is enough to make anyone wary of trying a second time. After all, I barely avoided being broken on the facts of my life the first time.

But what I mostly realized while eating dinner on Sunday was that my life over the last two and a half years had fallen into a rhythm. I have meaningful work, and friends and pets. Although I can hardly call myself supremely happy, I am content, and disinclined to search for alternatives.

After all, my maternal grandfather lived alone for nearly twenty years, and seemed to manage a full life. My sister-in-law divorced over a decade ago, and her time has been full of accomplishment. And, clearly, there are some advantages to living alone, like keeping irregular hours when necessary and not being answerable to anyone  So who knows what other ones I might find by accepting my situation instead of resisting it?

For that matter, who knows if I’ll meet someone? I’m not prescient.

Meanwhile, though, please, don’t tell me to hang in there, or that I’ll never know unless I try, or offer any of the other cheerily meaningless cliches that people offer when someone has reached a conclusion that they shy from themselves.

I’m not asking for sympathy, much less direction. I’m describing the place I’ve reached so far, and while the description may appall you if you’ve never been here, let me assure you: for the time being, it suits me just fine.

I’ve things to do and places to see. And right now, doing these things matters to me far more than changing my relationship status on Facebook.

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Widowhood is a state of transition. It’s the time when you decide what you are going to do after the most important relationship in your life is gone. Or, to be more specific, it’s the time when you decide whether you are going to risk another relationship, or spend the rest of your life solo. Fourteen months after Trish’s death, that’s a decision I haven’t made, but, what most people don’t understand is that if I end up alone, I wouldn’t be overly disturbed by the outcome.

This fatalism has nothing to do with a morbid nostalgia. Trish and I met a month after her first husband died, and became a couple two months after that, so I don’t feel any need to stay loyal to her memory. In fact, several times, she told me that she hoped I would remarry if she died. So, if anything, I suppose I should be trying to meet people.

But the truth is, while one or two intriguing possibilities exist, I don’t need a relationship merely for the sake of a relationship. I’m comfortable with my own company, and as a writer I need a degree of solitude each day regardless.

Part of my attitude is my hyper-awareness of a fact that is obvious, but that no one likes to emphasize – namely, that a relationship ends with one person either leaving or dying.. As you get older, the possibility increases that the end will involve a death. I would rather not face the other person’s death, and I am no more eager to leave her facing my death and having to settle my affairs.

As time passes, this reluctance will probably fade, of course. But the truth is, I just don’t have the pressure to be in a relationship that people younger than me have. When you’re in your twenties or early thirties, being married or in a common-law relationship is a mark of maturity and independence. It can be a way to settle any lingering doubts you have about your sexual orientation. Most of all, it’s something everyone does, which often panics people into bad relationships, just so they don’t feel left out or appear odd. To be young and single by choice takes great strength of character because a more or less permanent relationship is part of what you’re supposed to want or do.

But at my age, the situation is different. I’ve paid my own way since I was eighteen, so I have nothing to prove. I long ago discovered I was a straight male with eccentric ideas about gender roles and an indifference towards them. Nor, for some reason, does modern industrial culture have many expectations about widowhood and its aftermath.

If I were still married, no doubt I would feel the pressure of the expectations placed on long-married couples – but suddenly, and through no wish of my own, my possible choices are broader than they have been since high school. I don’t have to rush to decide whether I should be single or committed, because the decision doesn’t matter except to me and any woman with whom I might be involved.

And if I do end my days single, so what? I’ve had a relationship that was better than any I see around me. That’s not just my opinion or the distortion of romanticism, either – I lost count years ago of the people who said that Trish and I acted like newly weds or who were surprised that we were polite to each other (as though politeness was something you owed strangers, and not those you loved), or how we consulted each other about mutual decisions.
Should I never be in another serious relationship, I’ve been in one that people envied. So why should I settle for anything less?

That would be the real betrayal of my past – not staying single for the next three to five decades, but blundering into a relationship because when I’m tired or not sleeping I feel lonely. I owe the memory of Trish better, and I owe myself better, too.

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Near-freezing conditions in December always remind me of my decision to move out of my parents’ house. I didn’t actually move out for another eight months, but I made the decision after my visit to a high school friend in Saskatchewan.

I’d met her in Grade 12 when she attended my high school for half a semester. I was infatuated with her, and, although she didn’t reciprocate, we kept in touch when she returned home after Christmas. Since then, other love-interests had crept into both our lives, but, after five straight semesters of university, I was ready for an adventure. Somehow, travelling to see someone was more appealing than heading somewhere on my own.

Even so, the trip was an adventure to me. I was green, and knew it. But, eager for experience, a few days after my last exam, I boarded a train in the cold of early evening. I could hardly believe my own daring.

Traveling as cheaply as possible, I didn’t book a sleeper car. The trip was supposed to take 36 hours, and, being young, I didn’t see any trouble with staying up all that time, and maybe napping for a few hours if I started to flag.

Right away, I found myself thrown into a world of strangers. Seated across the aisle from me was a thin, unshaven man, obviously an alcoholic, who had a great fund of stories about working as a logger and at other manual labor. Across from me was a fat First Nations woman missing a front tooth, who suggested that I sleep first while she kept watch – a comment that made me so nervous that, when I slept, I made sure that my wallet was on the side closest to the seat so that nobody could pick my pocket when I slept. For a while, too, I shared my seat with a young army cadet. He was a year younger than me, but he seemed so fully of worldly experience that I felt about fourteen in comparison.

The train was still in the Fraser Valley when we hit snow. As we inched through the mountains, the train employees kept upping their estimates of how long the trip would take. By the time we reached Boston Bar, we were already a couple of hours behind schedule. I remember waking and descending from the train to take a couple of cautious steps, ready to bolt back if the train started moving, just so I could say that I had. It was my adventure, and I was determined to get the most of it.

We hit the Rockies just in time for sunrise – a sheet of blinding light spreading from behind craggy peaks that I can still see if I stop and remember. Another night, and we were in Edmonton, where I stepped off the train again to stretch. I thought of a penpal I had in Edmonton, and thought of calling, but concluded reluctantly that she probably didn’t want a call at 3AM on a Sunday.

In Edmonton, at least one passenger left to take a plane to Toronto. The alcoholic across the way said that the average trip across Canada took longer now than it had in the 1930s, a fact that one or two train officials confirmed.

By the time we reached Saskatoon, we were fourteen hours behind schedule, and I was cramped, and crabby from lack of sleep. Even so, I looked around the train station with undisguised awe, looking at signs promising departures to Le Pas and Churchill Manitoba that had previously only been names on a map to me. These places were real, I suddenly understood, and people could travel to them.
I found a cheap motor hotel, and got in touch with my friend. She still had exams, so, for much of my days, I was on my own. I explored the city on foot, especially the campus of the University of Saskatchewan, and even fantasized about transferring there long enough to make a couple of appointments with the advisors.

I even had the thrill of stopping by the office of a magazine that was publishing a poem of mine, and answering a question that arrived in a letter shortly before I left. Yes, I definitely meant “wondering,” not “wandering,” I told the editor from the doorway. “Oh, I was just wandering,” she replied.

At night, I ate at the restaurant attached to the motor hotel. If my friend was busy, I stayed in my room and wrote poetry. I felt very grown up, writing poetry in my hotel room, and more than a little self-consciously dramatic.

The last night of my stay, my friend invited me after dinner. We went for a drive out on the prairie, and I remember the impossibly bright stars and the seemingly endless miles of dark, flat land around us that left me disoriented and dimly frightened. As we drove, we had one of those long talks that seem so important when you’re a young adult, and she told me she was seeing someone else. Finally, she drove me back to my hotel. We held hands for a while, and I felt like telling her that I didn’t need sympathy, but for a long time I kept holding her hand anyway, enjoying the feel of her chubby fingers when she squeezed mine.

The next day, I took a taxi to the train station for the journey home. Moving to Saskatchewan was probably out of the question, I thought. But if my friend could move hundreds of miles to go to university, the least I could do, I decided, was to move out on my own. I couldn’t do much with a new semester about to start, and I needed a summer of work if I was going to pay rent, but, eight months after I returned home, I did move out. Nor, except for two weeks when I was between semesters and apartments, did I ever move back.

Somehow, after that late night car ride, I never did get back in touch with my friend. I didn’t seem to have anything more to say to her.

A few years ago, she called me unexpectedly after she had found a trove of some of my poems, wanting to apologize for having treated me shabbily. But I felt embarrassed talking to her with Trish nearby, and, anyway, I still didn’t have anything more to say. I listened and made non-committal noises, sensing that what she wanted was less my forgiveness than an opportunity to forgive herself.

I was unable to tell her that, so far as I was concerned, she had done nothing to forgive. She’d given me the opportunity for adventure, and given me an example for doing what I should have done at least a year earlier – and each of those was a gift that she could hardly have equaled even by asking me to spend the night with her.

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Early in The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien mentions that the Baggins family was so respectable that you knew what a member would say on a given subject without the troubling of asking them. He meant that they were hopelessly conventional, and, despite his own conservatism, Tolkien leaves no doubt that Bilbo Baggins became a better person for having adventures and becoming an eccentric. I’ve been thinking about this comment a lot lately, because recently I’ve been feeling like I’m surrounded by the members of the Baggins family.

The specific trigger for this feeling was an effort to get back in touch with someone last week. I was reasonably certain I wouldn’t get a reply, but every once in a while, a Baggins does go off and have an adventure, so I tried anyway. Call it an act of cynicism, or a gesture of faith – you wouldn’t be wrong either way – but I was right.

Since then, I’ve had half a dozen other incidents in which people acted in the most predicable way imaginable. Maybe I’m just too observant for my own good, but I find this predictability disappointing. When, I keep wondering, are people going to stop acting like characters out of a movie or book, and start acting like people?

You know what I mean. I’m talking about the people who, if you know one of their opinions on social issues, you know most of the others ones. The people whose greatest wish is to be married – not because they’ve found someone special, but because all their friends are getting married or they’re afraid of the sound of their own thoughts when they’re alone. The ones who never rebel, or the ones who rebel by getting a tattoo or body-piercing just like millions of others. The women who see all men as predators, the men who see all women as prey. The businessmen and women who underpay employees but set up carefully selected charities so they can live with themselves. All the millions of reconditioned Victorians with their secondhand hypocrisies and emotions who cry at nationally declared tragedies that didn’t affect them or theirs and put flowers and plush toys on the roadside shrines for strangers, but won’t stop to help someone with a flat tire or give a dollar to someone begging on the streets.

What I really want to know is: Does everybody have to be such a walking cliche?

I don’t know if people are getting worse, or I’m simply observing more as I get older. Remembering Oscar Wilde’s comment that there was no fog on the Thames until artists painted it, I have a theory

(I always have a theory)

that people are taking their role models from the thousands of hours of sitcoms and reality shows that they watch.

That insight first struck me when I read a decade ago about a man who hired a hitman to go after his girlfriend. At the time, I wondered: Had he ever thought of talking to her? Or just leaving?

But, increasingly, I seem to run into people who act as if they are in a TV show scripted by a derivative hack.
It’s easier, I guess, than thinking for yourself.

The thought that people are basing their lives on bad art is depressing enough. Yet the real nightmarish thought is that maybe people aren’t capable of better.

What if they aren’t simply failing to live up to potential? What if they are living up to their potential, and the mediocrity of a bureaucrat refusing to bend the rules out of compassion or the petty mendacities of people who don’t have the decency to breakup with their lovers face to face are really the best that the average human can do?

If I truly believed that for more than a few seconds, then I would know what despair was all about.

So far, I still cling somehow to the belief that people are better than they let themselves be, that people could be foresighted, decent, and courageous if they chose to be, that people really could surprise me and shatter my gloomy cynicism. But, with all the petty daily betrayals of themselves, I have an increasing sympathy for Cassandra.

You remember Cassandra. The Trojan princess to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophecy, then cursed her so she would never be believed? When I predict how people will act based on my experience and knowledge of convention, I get the same dubious stares she must have endured. And, like Cassandra, I am just as tired of being right as I am of being doubted.

Sometimes, I almost feel like standing on the street corner and shouting, “Come on, people! Surprise me, just once! Prove me wrong!”

But, like Cassandra, I’d only get blank stares if I did. Apparently most people haven’t read The Hobbit. Or, if they have, they were cheering for the Bagginses instead of Bilbo.

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After I sent off an article this afternoon, I worked out at the rec center, then limped across the street to meet Trish at the local pasta joint. While I was waiting, a male neighbor came in with his female house guest and sat on the patio. From our table, we couldn’t see them, but I admit that both of us took a couple of strictly unnecessary trips to the washroom so we could watch what was happening (although it was true that I needed to wash after my workout, and those Gorgonzola chips were greasy to eat with my fingers). Our neighbor was hell-bent on seduction, and, cynically, we wanted to observe his plans going awry.

Admittedly, I never was an expert at seduction, and being an old-married has blunted whatever poor skills I once had (or so I assume; trying them out would be inadvisable, even if I wanted to). Yet even I could figure out that a restaurant more famous among university students for the price and size of its portions than the quality of its food is a poor start to an amorous evening. Naturally, too, the portions have more than a dash of garlic – and we all know how garlic makes you want to cozy up with someone new.

Then there was the fact that his guest was from a much warmer climate, and the temperature drops off sharply in the fall evenings in the temperate zone. If the house guest was interested in anything outside of dinner, it wasn’t the neighbor. From our brief glimpses, it was burrowing deeper into the ski jacket she had had the foresight to bring.

All in all, she looked massively unimpressed.

While she looked reservedly polite, our neighbor ploughed on. Each time we saw, he was leaning forward and talking with more animation. Each time, she was leaning back further in her chair, looking as though she was doing nothing except enduring until she could go and get warm.

That, I think, would be the worst part for anyone with powers of observation. She wasn’t being rude to him. Nor was she enough of a participant in events to suggest that they move to a table inside where she could at least enjoy her meal. She was humoring him – and nothing is worse for any ego, amorous or otherwise, than being humored. A person who responds to you can be enjoyable company, regardless of what happens, and one who reacts unfavorably can — at least in theory — be won around. But what can be more deflating than someone who doesn’t care enough to react one way or the other?

We left before they did, so I don’t know how the little drama ended. However, if my guess is anything like correct, I think I’ll avoid our neighbor for the next few days. He’s apt to be feeling a little surly.

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“And when you leave your body on your bed at night,
And you drift away to somewhere like you do,
In the morning when you open your eyes,
Do the lovers in your dreams wake up, too?”

– Ray Wylie Hubbard

One of my favorite works by Neil Gaiman is the graphic short story “The Hunt,” which is collected in Fables and Reflections. When I read the story, what I enjoy the most is the humor in the interaction between the old man who narrates the story and his teenage granddaughter, who thinks herself too old for stories but is interested despite herself, as well as the gradual revelations about who the protagonist is and about the true nature of the old man and his granddaughter. Still, last fall at my high school reunion, I was surprised to find myself suddenly taking a life-lesson from the story.

In “The Hunt,” a young man comes into possession of a locket that contains a portrait of the local duke’s daughter. He stares at the locket constantly, and, dreams of the woman portrayed. Finally, in payment for a piece of magical business with the personification of Dream, he is transported to the woman’s bed chamber. When he sees her, she is “everything he had dreamed of,” but all he does is hand her the locket and walk away. Defending the story to his cynical granddaughter, the narrator says, “It was about what he saw when he looked at the sleeping woman. Why he turned his back on her. It was about dreams.”

At the reunion, for the first time in years, I saw the adult versions of several girls who — unknown to them — were the recipients of my first crushes. In fact, off and on, I spend the better part of the evening with several of them. It was all very Platonic, but initially made pleasant by nostalgia and alcohol.

Eventually, though, the encounters were more sad than wistful. Two of the women had foregone the music careers they wanted, one because she was shy about performing, the other because of her family. A third seemed more successful, but in subsequent months, her business proved shaky, and she revealed an unpleasant side that I would probably find intolerable if I were ever to see her again. For that evening, though, she made a pleasant enough companion.

Then, halfway through the evening, my adolescent crush of crushes arrived. I had spent too many of my early teenage years obsessing over her not to recognize her immediately. But even if I had never been infatuated, I would have recognized her, because she looked younger than most people in the room and was still very fit and animated. Almost immediately, she dove into a corner talking with someone I didn’t recognize.

For a while, I waited for an opportunity to approach. I wasn’t so foolish as to imagine any romantic interest was possible, let alone desirable — I’m the sort who is so married that the fact might as well be branded on my forehead. I even wear an engagement wedding ring, which is not that common among men of my age (the engagement was a good excuse for my partner and I to buy the West Coast rings we had always wanted). Still, this was the latter day version of a girl who had occupied much of my thoughts at one time, and who still made occasional guest appearances in my dreams as an obvious Anima figure. What better closure, what more fitting sign of maturity, I thought, than to meet her as an adult and recognize that she was simply another woman, and most likely someone I had nothing particularly in common with?

After about an hour, I realized that I would have to interrupt the discussion. I ran through a few fitting phrases of introduction in my head, and was starting towards her when Neil Gaiman’s story popped into my mind.

Abruptly, I realized that I had no reason to talk to her. I had long ago lost touch with the woman, and the dream images that began with her had long since assumed an independent identity of their own. What possible good would come of having the two meet? I knew the woman and the mental images weren’t the same. In the end, I smiled at myself, and turned to talk with someone else. For the rest of the evening, I barely looked in her direction.

Probably, some people would say that I had a juvenile mind, to take a life-lesson from what they would dismiss as a comic book. But you take your epiphanies where you find them, and that moment of revelation has done me good service in the months since.

For instance, when the third crush revealed her unpleasantness, I had a momentary pang, but, once I realized my reaction was based on a confusion of past dream with present reality, it seemed unimportant. That’s not to say that, were I to hear from her again, I would immediately walk away or hang up the phone. After all, literary analogies only go so far, and I hold grudges in the abstract far more easily than I do in person. Still, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do one of those things, either — or that, if I never encounter her again, the disappointment will be unbearable. Learning to negotiate the interplay between fantasy and reality is an important lesson, no matter where you learn it. Frankly, I consider myself lucky to have learned it at all.

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