Now that I have turned 65, the inbox on my computer brings me a daily flood of new ideas for keeping my brain from turning to potato salad. Experts say the most reliable way to stay sharp is to learn a new skill — like playing the piano or picking up Spanish.
I put four kids through 20 years of public education — so I already have a deep commitment to life-long learning. I have no certificates to show for my work, but I have constructed four castles, four reptile projects, three catapults and a trebuchet and edited more English essays than I ever wrote in university. I’ve circled the planet twice driving kids to bagpipe lessons and dance classes, conservation areas and band trips.
But my advisors warn me that past learning does not count. Without constant new stimulation, brain cells wither and die. So, I have decided to learn how to shear a sheep.
You might be surprised that I have kept sheep for 30 years without learning how to shear them. But most shepherds rely on the skills of a professional shearer, just as most farmers rely on an accountant or a vet. As the old guys used to say, there’s no sense having a dog and barking yourself.
The shearing question came up the very first year the sheep came to the farm. They were a dowry from my wife’s father — six sheep and a dog. I asked if we could just take the dog but he said he didn’t want to split them up. After he dropped them off and drove away my wife said, “So who is going to shear them?”
I said, “I will. I sheared sheep when I was in Australia.”
“That was 18 years ago,” she said.
“It’s like riding a bicycle.”
I borrowed a set of shears from a neighbour and went out to the barn and grabbed one of the ewes. My wife came out about an hour later and found the two of us leaning on the hayfeeder trying to get our breath back.
“My lord,” she said. “It looks like you did it with a lawnmower. I thought you said you had done this before?”
I thought I had. But the truth was I had snipped the crappy dag ends of wool off the rear ends of a few fly-blown ewes with a pair of hand shears which is not quite the same thing as getting the whole fleece off in one piece. When I got home to Canada, I told people I had sheared sheep in Australia and I said it so many times I came to believe it was true. This is what distinguishes a farmer from a writer. If something isn’t real or doesn’t exist, the writer just makes it up.
So, now I am taking instruction from a past Canadian shearing champion who just competed in the international match in New Zealand and stands 147th in the world. There’s a trick to shearing a sheep. There are 42 separate strokes you use to peel the fleece off in one piece. You have to memorize each one of those strokes. Your shearing hand is busy, but so is the left hand, pulling the skin to make it tight so the shears don’t nick the sheep. And the footwork is like tai chi.
You don’t lift the sheep, you roll it like a judo master.
I’ve been doing one sheep every morning and it’s all been very stimulating. I’m growing new brain cells at a ferocious rate. The trouble is, I have a new hip, steel bolts in one foot, a wheeze and some cautionary advice from my cardiologist about straining with heavy weights.
But this aging business is not for the faint of heart. My shearer’s big brother is five years older than me and has more scratches and dents on him than a farm truck. He’s been diabetic since birth and has a few circulation issues but his brain is snapping on all cylinders just fine. That’s because he gets out of bed every morning looking for some fresh mischief. He can still shear a sheep with one hand and repair his four-wheeler with the other. He hunts, fishes, dances, plays euchre and is thinking about writing his memoirs. The only thing he doesn’t do is golf.
I want to be just like him.