Despite appearances, I really am me

The me nobody seems to know. Three-year-old headshot used by The Sault Star.

(A version of this item appeared in The Sault Star)

I’m not myself these days.

So I was informed by a few of the people who stopped to chat at our local authors booth at a Christmas market.

“You’re not the Tom Mills who writes columns in the newspaper,” they said. Or words to that effect.

I’m accustomed to hearing that sentence with a question mark at the end. 

I’m one of those people, like a community theatre actor or a lawyer who shills on TV, that people get to know through our personas and then are surprised and probably disappointed when they encounter the real thing in their dentist’s waiting room.

When asked, I confirm I am said columnist, despite many devils urging me to deny it.

Then they tell me how much they like my columns. (With varying degrees of sincerity.)

I express my thanks. (With a degree of sincerity matching my perception of their sincerity in claiming to like my columns.) And we go our merry ways.

The problem that day was that people weren’t asking if I was the guy who writes columns in the newspaper. 

They were telling me I wasn’t him. Using declarative sentences and scoffing at my insistences.

A part of me was delighted, because my avatar that appears in the paper sometimes seems like a bit of a whack job.

I’m only as much like him as the Alec Baldwin who allegedly punches people in disputes over parking spaces is like the Alec Baldwin people watch on Saturday Night Live. 

That other Tom Mills might well be my fraternal twin, but with a different father.

Still, I don’t think my accusers were drawing that same fine distinction between my column persona and myself that I use as a flimsy defence against lawsuits.

What they were saying is that I no longer look very much like the picture displayed with my column.

And since they were women, I believe them. It takes a woman to make a man aware that he has failed to notice what should be as plain as the nose on his face. (If indeed that is my real nose any more.)

Older men tend to be less alert to changes than women are, which might explain why so many vote Conservative.

Their hair is a dead giveaway. 

Women like to try “something different” when they visit the salon.

It may be a subtle something different, blond highlights or lowlights, a quarter-inch change in length, an alteration of the angle of curl — just enough to justify paying quadruple the rate of a man’s haircut.

Occasionally it’s something more drastic, like blond high-beams instead of highlights, or going grey (which involves an intricate dye job because female hair obviously doesn’t go grey in nature).

Be sure you notice, partners of such women. But don’t go overboard in your praise, because she probably has niggling regrets and you don’t want to imply that you didn’t like the way she looked before her act of bouffant boldness.

When an older man goes to the barber shop or salon and his stylist asks, “the usual?” or “just a trim?” he always says “yes,” just as he has for the majority of his adult life. 

(A few days after this column appeared I went for a haircut. The first words out of Lisa’s mouth: “The usual, Tom?”)

Never mind that he has about one-tenth the hair he once possessed, or that it has changed from horse-poop brown to winter-sky grey; he still believes the cutter is about to make him look like the sixth Beatle. Again.

And when, or more likely if, a man looks in the mirror, what appears to his bleary eyes is whatever he imagines himself to be. The ravages that time has inflicted on his venerable visage go unseen.

When those women accused me of identity fraud, I had some fun with it.

“That guy in the newspaper has had more work done than Joan Rivers,” I told one. 

I informed another that the newspaper kept using my high school yearbook headshot by accident. 

One woman was incredulous that a photo on the back cover of my book, a mugshot of me wearing an antique goalie mask, was really me. I told her the mask was court-ordered to reduce the likelihood that my face would terrify small children.

But when I got home and checked the best-before date of my newspaper mugshot, I found it was taken a scant three years ago, a split second in old-fogey time.

Has the magic mirror on my bathroom wall been lying to me, telling me what it thinks I want to hear like a Doug Ford cabinet minister?

Has my hairstylist subversively been stretching the boundaries of “the usual?”

Regardless, a new column mugshot is in the offing, because I guess, as my fellow Beatles used to sing, I’m not what I appear to be.

Are my grandkids from Iceland?

(A version of this item appeared in The Sault Star Dec. 5.)

A couple of my grandkids and I started a new Christmas tradition recently.

We went shopping for moderately priced toys that kids their age might like. They selected one apiece. I paid. 

Then we headed for the Christmas Cheer depot so they could donate their gifts and get a glimpse of the huge local operation dedicated to making everyone’s holiday happy.

Christmas Cheer collects money, toys, food and other good stuff and assembles baskets to distribute to needy families in the Sault Ste Marie. area.

Charitable acts are rampant at this time of year. I expect other grandparents and grandkids do things along the same lines.

This sort of ritual gave me a chance to introduce notions of volunteerism and social responsibility into the pre-Christmas frenzy, though I generally try to be Fun Grandpa instead of a pedantic old poop.

It’s also a good, sneaky way to find out what your grandkids would like for Christmas.

To my surprise, what these two want is books.

We were heading down the mall in the direction of the toy stores when my devilish duo dragged me into a book store.

“I think a boy my age would really like some books,” said the eldest, in the same tone of voice I use to extol the therapeutic virtues of beer. 

The youngest already had glommed on to some beginning reader books and was too absorbed to second that opinion, though it was clear he agreed.

Think One then attempted to read every page of every graphic novel on the shelves, a task that would have seen him evicted about eight hours later by store staff anxious to get home.

That presented another teaching moment for grandpa, on the difference between books in a library and those for sale in a store. Together we pondered the not-so-fine line between examining the teeth of a gift horse and dissecting the animal.

I don’t think books top most people’s Christmas lists, either for giving or receiving. Electronic media bombard us with toys and electronics, booze and chocolates, even cars.

Indigo book store’s web page has Top 50 Toys at the top of its “What Kids Want” web page; you have to scroll down to get Top 50 Books

So though I’ve spent a lifetime reading and writing and have published a book of my own, I was almost automatically headed for the toy aisles that afternoon.

In the end, we ended up buying toys for Christmas Cheer, because reading choices are so much a matter of personal taste. 

But I remain convinced that paper beats plastic, so I’m glad my grandkids, who have a plethora of Lego in their lives already, felt the same.

It makes me wonder if there’s an Icelandic branch in the old family tree.

Icelanders have a delightful tradition of giving books on Christmas Eve and then spending the night with their noses between the covers. (The book covers; don’t be naughty.) And isn’t that better than watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the 32nd time?

Each autumn, households in Iceland receive a free catalogue of newly published books, called the Bokatidindi. That’s the start of a buying frenzy known as Jolabokaflod, or the Christmas book flood.

“It’s like firing the guns at the opening of a race,” researcher Baldur Bjarnason is quoted in a treehugger.com (paperless) article. “It’s not like this is a catalog that gets put in everybody’d mailbox and everybody ignores it. Books get attention here.”

So it’s no accident that there are more books published and read per capita in Iceland than in any other country. One in 10 Icelanders will publish a book in his or her or (insert gender-fluid pronoun here) lifetime.

My smiley face at the Christmas Market

Some of my fellow local writers and I are tried to start a mini-Jolabokaflod in Sault Ste. Marie this Christmas.

We put a booth in the Silver Bells Christmas Market Dec. 9, which benefitted the Kidney Foundation.

Nevin Buconjic, Bryan Davies, Ruth Fletcher, Gregory Saxby and Karen Davidson Zachary joined me to chat about and sell our publications. We also had books by Paula Dunning.

We sold a few books and met some old and new friends.

But more important, some of those bazaar-goers who looked at us as if we were from Mars might now be thinking that books belong under the Christmas tree.

Savouring a glass half empty

This appears in today’s Sault Star. saultstar.com

“She thinks I’m crazy but I’m just growing old.” – Hey Nineteen, Steely Dan

I was feeling a little glass-half-empty a few days ago, because it was my birthday.

Mind you, if you’re in your sixties, sliding so swiftly toward seventy, it’s probably a good thing if only half of your glass is empty.

A half-empty glass suggests that in another 60-plus years from now I could find myself interviewed by whatever passes for media, asked for the secret to my longevity.

I’ll tell them it was a dissipated lifestyle, that immorality fosters immortality.

Still, from the moment I woke up that birthday morning it seemed I would confront reminders that, mercy me, things ain’t what they used to be.

For one thing, it was about 6:30 a.m. That meant that for the 10,000th or so day straight I had been unable to sleep in past noon, a feat I could accomplish without batting an eyelash when I was in my teens and twenties.

In my youth, sleeping in was as easy as failing to activate an alarm clock. Now it’s as difficult as tricking my bladder and intestines into hibernating.

When nature’s calls could no longer be ignored and I stepped out of bed, my wonky knee collapsed just enough to remind me that it would dictate what I could and could not do for the rest of the day.

About half of my right knee’s cartilage has been replaced by arthritis, like a once-ritzy neighbourhood now populated by the unsavoury and occasionally violent imaginary aliens Trump likes to rant about.

Some days I’d never know it. Other days, knee pain and weakness dictates that my goaltending strategy in oldtimer hockey is go down and stay down. Sadly, I can’t even fall as fast as I used to. 

Limp-shuffling to the kitchen, I began to salivate about the oatmeal I was about to enjoy.

Oatmeal?

Enjoy?

Salivate?

More like drool, I thought. But when you’re in your sixties, porridge is the equivalent of a young man’s greasy-fried eggs with a beer-and-tomato-juice chaser.

Chock full of fibre, I felt ready to begin that birthday business of taking stock of your life’s accomplishments and wondering how you’re going to become insanely rich and famous in the few years that remain.

A senior’s memory and life expectancy being what they are, the looking ahead part of taking stock is much less taxing than the looking back. There’s a lot more to regret (or celebrate, if you have a good imagination) than there is to anticipate.

But first, I had to check the obits, otherwise known as my social calendar.

At some point in my dotage it dawned on me that almost all funeral home staff were greeting me by my first name. Thankfully they are too professional to rub their hands together when they see me coming.

On a bad week I might find myself lined up three or four times to pay my respects to the families of former colleagues, teammates or, sadly, close friends. That’s demographics for you.

And because I’m not a Horton’s habitué, a funeral home might be the only place I run into a lot of longtime cronies.

We’ll say each other’s names, or at least what we think they might be, then exclaim over how well each other looks. Moments later I’ll remark to a companion that our friend looks like he’ll be residing in an urn before long, just loudly enough to drown out the sound of our friend confiding to a companion that I resemble a discarded bag of doggie droppings.

Still, someone else’s wake offers the reassurance that you are still on the sunny side of the sod. Moreover, every member of your age cohort who shuffles off to the hereafter boosts the life expectancy of those left behind, pushing us toward the right-hand extreme of the chart.

My obit check showed there were no birthday bereavements (I held a mirror under my own nose to make sure) so I was free to pursue my usual business: becoming exhausted after an hour or so of manly chores like carpentry, firewood hauling, snow shovelling and housecleaning. 

Those are things I used to be able to do all day, as long as I was sensible enough to take frequent beer breaks.

Overdo it now and my afternoon nap might make me late for the weekly meeting of the I’ll Email You Later club.

This happy hour/dinner gathering of friends earned that label because of our growing failure to be able to recall important stuff, such as what colour the team’s jerseys were when the centreman got in a fistfight with his own defenceman (no, not that centreman; the one who was having the affair with the left-winger’s girlfriend) or which prominent business owner is the illegitimate nephew twice removed of the woman he believes is his mother.

These lapses used to distress us. But now, when we return home after our gatherings our email boxes contain the forgotten information, remembered by one or more of us during the drive home.

So when something eludes us we just say “I’ll email you later” and move on to the next piece of fiction.

It strikes me that our table consumes incrementally less beer with each passing year. Perhaps that’s because most of us are pensioners and can misallocate only so much of the week’s grocery budget without becoming emaciated.

More likely it’s because we no longer need to drink to forget.

Blackout binging certainly is beyond us; it’s a younger man’s game.

As Canadian folk singer Garnet Rogers sang in Ease Into It, “It takes me all night to do what I used to do all night.”

He was talking about drinking, right, not about another glass-half-empty aging symptom?

I’ll email you later.