Thursday, 29 January 2009

bored and terrified

War has been described (by someone I am too lazy to look up) as lengthy periods of boredom punctuated by moments of indescribable terror. That sounds credible to me. Sergeant Bilko is my hero to end all heroes, but I know that army life is not really that funny. Training, marching around, more training ... and then BLAM your buddy gets his face shot off.
What I did not fully realize until yesterday is that the two contrasting emotions can co-exist.
Driving through the snow and slop yesterday, I discovered that it is possible to be bored and terrified at the same time. This I would not have thought possible. But there I was, crawling along the highway at less than a quarter the legal speed limit (which means about a sixth of the normal driving speed) nose to tail with all the other vehicles, yawning and anxious. I hate driving slowly. I get mesmerised by the red lights around me. I roll my eyes, flick the radio on and off, compose sonnets to my landlord rhyming gouge with ouch, and leaking sink with freaking drink. I long to be anywhere else. But yesterday, despite the slow slow going, I had to pay constant attention to my car, because I never knew when it would hit an extra slippery patch and decide to try to spin out of its lane. Every few miles we came across vehicles which had crashed into each other or the barrier. We slowed to a walking pace, and crept around them as they sat there embarrassed, with crumpled fenders, headlights facing the wrong way, waiting for tow trucks.
I was reminded of a herd of cattle, moving stolidly across the range except for the odd one or two who decide, for no reason, to start kicking out and bellowing and generally going crazy. The herd parts around them and leaves them to their destiny.
Boredom is tiring, and so is fear. Put them together with vigilance, and a short trip can seem to take days. When I finally got home yesterday evening I could not find the scotch bottle fast enough.
I have been thinking of other fear-boredom combos, without a lot of success. Imagine editing a legal manuscript for typos, knowing that if you missed one you would be set on fire. Something like that.
I have another trip to make today. I do hope the plows have been busy. I'm not looking forward to a repeat of yesterday. I think I'd almost (almost) prefer to go to join the army.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Obama blah blah

I was visiting a school in Ontario on the day of the inauguration, and the principal asked if I would mind having my presentation cut short so that the fifth and sixth grade students could watch.
You mean they would miss question time with a Canadian children's author in order to witness history? I said.
Uh, yeah, he said.
Sounds good.
I was hoping for perspective, and I got it. The kids were excited at the idea of watching TV in the gym, and cheered every time the President paused in his speech. When it was over I followed them out the door, and listened hard to their conversation. A lot of it was lunch related: what they were going to eat, where they were going to sit with. There were some things said about a girl named Leslie -- none of them complimentary. Two guys were shoving each other, not meaning it. Someone had a nose bleed, and had to lie down.
I asked the kids what they thought of the new President.
There was a pause.
He's okay, said someone.
He's historic, right? said someone else.
He's kind of ... boring, one guy admitted.
I smiled and smiled. Ah, grade six. I'd rather have eaten my own sweatshirt than listen a politician make a speech. And if I had had to listen, I'd have drawn cars and guns and tic-tac-toe games on my arm to stay awake.
The kids are all right. Even Leslie is probably all right. She sounds like a bit of a pain, though.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

how'd that happen?

I've been visiting in LA for a few days, and just got back. Lots of contrasts between the big city and my charming small town, but one of the most striking was this. In Cobourg, whenever something untoward happens -- a kid lost in the mall, say, or a bear wandering into town, or a falling tree or even a falling ice cream cone -- no matter how small the incident, the very first question on everyone's lips is always: HOW DID THAT HAPPEN? You could say that we Cobourgers are interested in reasons, motives, causes. Or you could say that we like to know who to blame. Anyway, I was buying T shirts for my kids in a funky Los Feliz boutique on Saturday afternoon, when I heard a loud bang, and an odd scraping sound from outside. Poking my head out, along with everyone else in earshot, I was shocked, concerned, and amazed to see a car flipped over in the middle of the road. It was on its back in the uptown lane, with its tail lights pointing at me. The Lexus (I remember noticing) was not rolled, but actually flipped forward, as if it had tried a somersault and couldn't get up again.
Of course everyone's first thought was for the driver, who had managed to exit the car and was lying on the pavement. A crowd of people clustered around helpfully, offering pillows, blankets and advice. Half the street was on a cellphone calling 911. All very normal. I did not linger. There was nothing I could do that wasn't being done, and staring at other people in trouble is kind of awful. As I walked down the street I overheard dozens of Poor guy comments, a number of Where is the ambulance? (Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, tow trucks appeared long before the EMS) and more than one Traffic, huh! But no one -- no one -- wanted to ask what I thought should have been the first question after: Where does it hurt? No one asked: HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
I interrupted a guy who was telling everyone around him for about the eighteenth time that he'd seen the whole thing. How did it happen? I asked.
He stared at me. It was awful, he said. That poor guy crawling out of the car upside down.
Yes, yes, but how did the car get that way? I asked.
He frowned at me, as if I had asked the colour of an orange. Just look at it! he said.
I walked on.
I still can't work it out. Are some cars prone to front flips? Was the guy a stunt driver? Did he hit a teeny clown car which sped away unnoticed? Was it aliens or potholes or gangs or giant magnets or what? Sorry -- it's the Cobourger in me. I want to know.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

truth and trust

What do you do when confronted with a flat lie? No, this is not a kid with a crumb-darkened mouth saying he did not take the cookie, how could you say that, Daddy. My kids are way past that, and anyway I have taught them not to lie. (Yeah, it's brown skag, Dad. Really sweet. Want to try some?) Yesterday evening on the westbound 401 the electronic sign read : TRAFFIC MOVING FREELY. And it wasn't. I was sitting in the middle of a six-lane jam, lines of red brake lights stretching far far into the distance. The sign was lying to me. It kept its lying message on display for minutes on end.
I like the chatty highway signs. There are the charming random philosophical comments: DON'T LITTER, CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE, THE ROAD BEHIND AND THE ROAD AHEAD ARE EQUALLY INACCESSIBLE, EVER THOUGHT ABOUT INVESTING IN REAL ESTATE? But that's a subject for later. I appreciate the MTO's attempt to tell me what is happening on the road ahead of me. COLLECTORS MOVING WELL, EXPRESS SLOW PAST NEXT TRANSFER, says one sign, and I obligingly head off the express lanes to the collectors, along with everyone else, so that the next sign I see (from the collectors) reads: EXPRESS MOVING WELL, COLLECTORS SLOW.
I enjoy the varying degrees of traffic slowness the signs like to talk about. COLLECTORS MOVING SLOWLY, EXPRESS VERY SLOW. Poor old Express, I think to myself, angling towards the transfer ramp. COLLECTORS VERY SLOW, EXPRESS VERY VERY VERY SLOW.
Bit stilted, the language. If I had the job in traffic control center, staring at the MTO cameras and changing the signs for the commuters, I'd try for a bit more drama. EXPRESS SO DAMN SLOW YOU WILL BE BETTER OFF WALKING OH MY GOD IT'S JUST AWFUL! Or at least some poetry. COLLECTOR LANES BLOCKED UP WORSE THAN UNCLE BERNIE AFTER A CHEESE SANDWICH. STAY CLEAR!
I know that traffic conditions change quickly, so I don't resent the occasional piece of outdated info on the signs, but yesterday's surprised me. TRAFFIC MOVING FREELY. No it's not, you silly sign! I wanted to say. Look around you. It was like the weather girl holding an umbrella in a downpour, telling me that it's going to be sunny and clear all day. When the sign did finally change to VERY SLOW I waited for an apology, but none was forthcoming.
I waited a long time.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

deep thoughts from traffic

Driving along the 401 yesterday (which doesn't sharply differentiate it from many other days) through the snow/slush/ice pellets, I had to watch my speed. Over about 60 kms/hr the car had a tendancy to skid and swoop like a playful bird. Lots of concentration required, and concentration is not my strong suit. (I would rather be chatting to my companion, singing along with the radio, or thinking about what will happen next in any story I am writing.) Spun-out vehicles, and there were many, reminded me of the consequences of inattention and haste. (I couldn't even summon up a fleeting smile of satisfaction when I came across an untimely halted 4x4, and recognized it as one which had spattered me with a bow wave of frozen spume as it passed. Oh oh, I thought.) My mood, in short, was fearful and focussed.
And then we caught up to the snow plows. And my average speed was cut in half, as we crawled along. The road was clear (for now) and safe and easy to follow. I should have been pleased -- there was no danger of spinning out, no further need for white knuckles and sharp indrawn breaths. But I wasn't pleased. I was grumpy. It was going to take me forever to get there! Couldn't we go any faster than this? Come on, come on! I wanted to shout at the plows.
When I reached my off ramp, I sped up, and immediately started to fishtail. I brought the car under control, slowing back to a crawl. My grumpiness vanished as if it had never been, replaced by a returning fear.
How much of life (I wondered) is an icy road, with a choice between too fast and dangerous, and too slow and boring? Between Oh oh! and Come on! Why are we so ready to complain? Why can't we thank our stars that we are not in a ditch? Why can't we appreciate the plows that make the way clear? Why are we such idiots?
Maybe I am using the wrong pronoun here.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

christmas moments

And so the Christmas season sinks slowly into the west behind us, and we are left with a lingering scent of pine and a bigger than normal VISA bill. Did you get any really dumb presents? One of my favorite moments was Thea opening her KK gift, which was a ball of yarn the size of a beer keg. What the hell? she said. I tried to be sympathetic while smiling widely. Thea does not knit. The gift made about as much sense as a bag of giraffe food, or a book of sonnets in Icelandic. She has gone back to Toronto, but the yarn is still here. I have used some of it to tie up cardboard boxes which, for some reason, we can not put out to be recycled until they have been flattened and stacked into packages.
Actually, What the hell? came up again during present opening. Sam wanted a belt for Christmas. I think it was on the top of his list. But somehow, amidst all the dashing around and spending, the belt idea got lost. As Sam opened present after present he'd say: I sure hope this is a belt. Of course it wasn't. And his face (like his pants) fell lower and lower. Ironically one of Ed's presents was a belt. Sam said: Isn't that for me? But Ed was already slipping it on. When there was nothing more under the tree, Sam thanked me for his gifts because he is a polite boy. And then his jeans slipped again.
Looks like you need something to hold up your pants, son, I said. How about some, uh, suspenders?
He frowned at me. What the hell, Dad? he said. I mean, what the hell?
I nodded sympathetically. Christmas presents, I said.
The whole thing reminded me of my friend Michael, years ago now, scouting for a place to live. The only thing his girlfriend had insisted on was that it not be a basement apartment. She didn't care where it was or how big it was or what kind of amenities it had -- just not a basement. Michael came to work a few days later with a scowl. He'd found the perfect place: large, cheap, brilliantly located. And it's so bright, he said. Deep cut windows, south view. I didn't even realize it was a basement at first. But Genevieve is upset. She doesn't want to take the place. Can you believe that?
I shook my head sympathetically. Women, I said.