March 10, 2013

Taxi-Driver Wisdom

It took me 49 hours to get from Ottawa to Berlin, largely thanks to one airline’s inability to be an airline. A conversation with said airline might proceed thus:

Own planes?
Rented space at airports?
Got customers?
Got any idea how put those pieces together in a workable system?
Er, well…
Trained your staff?
They don’t go by train…

(Yes, Air Canada, it’s you).

But the vagaries of travel do give one time to think, as well as ample opportunity to hear the wisdom of taxi drivers, whose lives tend to operate only between airport and city, even if once or twice they have made terrible and unforgiving journeys of their own. In fact it is the likelihood that your taxi driver is an immigrant of some kind that gives him – it is usually a him – his wisdom, for in many cases it means he has suffered. All the tedious miles ferrying us from pillar to post have given him sufficient time to reflect on the causes of that suffering, and the inordinate number of bigots he has met in the back of his cab have given him cause to reflect on the length of the roots of the evil that has been done to him. You may not always agree with your taxi driver, but should he wish to talk I suggest you listen. It is rarely dull.

One of my many couriers during the chronic pain of my latest Odyssey is a Moroccan Arab. He used to work for the East German embassy in Rabat. He liked Germans. Organised minds. Efficient workers. But everyone had a problem with flags back then and, come to think of it, the biggest problem with the world now is people with flags. Whether it’s Russians putting a flag on the ocean floor at the North Pole, Canadians waving flags on the ridiculously partisan Canadian coverage of the Olympics (who would want to miss another valiant third place finish?), or the Americans sticking flags everywhere and especially where they’re not wanted, the world’s problems basically boil down to flags. From the DRC and Rwanda to China and Taiwan, to Argentina and the UK, the flag – and the nationalism it stands for – is the fundamental barrier to us all getting along. For our problems are common, and we are all enslaved to the interests of a few who esteem themselves superior.

At the eye of the storm are the greetings-card manufacturers who have managed to sell Father’s Day to an all too compliant Western culture. Humanity should begin with family, not be in thrall to corporations who tell it when to love. He doesn’t need a day picked out at random for his son to say ‘Happy Father’s Day’, any more than he needs a government to tell him to love, protect and nurture his son. These relations existed before governments, before capital, and before flags. He put his son through college. It’s what dads do. His son bought him his taxi last week. It’s what sons do.

The ties that bind are such that no adversity of circumstance ought to bring them down. A stupid woman once told him how she left her husband for a younger man. He asked if she loved her husband. She said she used to. This concept did not fly with our man, who could not grasp the notion of a love that passes. I’m sure the woman had an unpleasant ride, but our taxi driver’s grip on the truth, full of innocence and naiveté and yet, paradoxically, tainted by experience, has a compelling quality of frankness, simplicity, purity.

I’m sorry to leave my chauffeur when we arrive at the airport. I know I’m not going to have any company for another day. But I am reassured that the shortness of the average taxi ride, and the high volume of stranded frequent flyers, means that the wisdom of the taxi driver, such as it is, will be dispensed hundreds of times in a week. Some passengers might emerge from the back of the cab feeling that the number of tips they have received en route surely merit the large one they are about to give in return.

March 08, 2013

What Happened to Feminism?

Yesterday I read this story about a San Diego teacher who was ousted from her job for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, while the school in question subsequently hired the impregnator, irrespective of his premarital sowing. It is retrograde, despicable, and utterly unsurprising. In January, eminent professor Mary Beard suffered a torrent of misogynistic abuse after her appearance espousing progressive politics on the BBC. And it seems that however vile the abuse gets, veiled under the anonymity of the ethereal realm, there is some brute in a suit prepared to apologise for it. Meanwhile, the most popular ‘news’ website in the world, the Daily Mail online, is one long screed of misogyny, salivating over tits and ass while scorning the weight tribulations of minor celebrities. 

What is so shocking about it all is that it is so commonplace than nobody is shocked. Worse still, there is an abundance of women who will deride feminists, stubbornly refusing to engage in their own interests or to see the structural chauvinism that continually works against them, whether it be their exclusion from the top ranks of the corporate world, discrimination in the workplace and unequal pay, lack of suitable maternity benefits, sexual objectification, domestic violence, or a host of other malignancies that continue to blight our society. It is International Women’s Day. If you’re a half decent man, you’ll stand up to be counted among those who want to end the injustice. You’ll encourage the female naysayers to show solidarity, and you’ll do this not just today, but tomorrow and everyday, so long as is necessary. 

March 05, 2013

Treadmill Punishment

The Victorians knew the meaning of punishment. Among their more arcane penalties was the treadmill – a large wheel turned by a captive human-cum-hamster, to no apparent end. It was designed to wear down prisoners through constant physical exertion and mind-numbing boredom. It was de-humanising, turning the person into part of a meaningless machine that turned only to turn. Across the world, sedentary office lackeys now willingly pay for a similar privilege.

Our forebears would be perplexed in the extreme by our need to contrive exercise. Our lives are such that physical activity might not happen at all in the normal course of things, and the most shocking part of that commonplace is that we do not dispute the fact that it is ‘normal’. Actually, the sedentary existence, broken only by a perceived need to eat enormous amounts of fat and salt, is unique among mammals – an astonishing testament to human conceit, as we have driven ourselves so far from animality that we have bypassed civilisation and emerged as mere automatons. In a last-ditch attempt to wrestle back our dignity, not to mention our waist lines, we mount moving belts and other stationary calorie eaters in order to extend our meaningless existence. It’s amazing to me that boredom is not a bigger killer in the decadent West.

I’m given to reflect on these things because I’ve just spent some time on a treadmill. I only ever go to the gym when I stay in hotels in winter. The street is otherwise my pounding place of choice, where to run is an end in itself, an essential human activity, and a central pillar of our distinctive evolution. Somehow, despite everything, the emptiness of hotel gyms appeals to me, notwithstanding the tedium of the punishment. No jocks; no posturing; no people at all, actually. In the interest of not losing the edge on my fitness, I resort to – become – the machine.

March 01, 2013

Temps perdu

I just spent 21 hours getting from Berlin to Ottawa via Frankfurt and Toronto, incorporating a snow storm, several hours of delays, and doubtless more than a week’s worth of salt intake. I’ve crossed the Atlantic at least 50 times since 2005, and I took 29 flights in 2012 alone, so I’m well past the excitement factor, through acute boredom, and settled into a benumbing routine of an alcohol-soaked bad-movie haze. Parts of trips like this are actually pleasant, in the same way that an overcast Wednesday afternoon can sometimes feel comfortingly melancholic – a warm blanket of depression, the indulgence of which involves endless pots of tea and chocolate and ends up being a kind of happy-sad sugary caffeine kick. No one can contact me on travel days. I do not feel guilty for watching 7 straight hours of movies that I wouldn’t otherwise pay to see. I set my watch back at the start of the flight, drink scotch as a pre-lunch aperitif, wine with my slop, and cognac with my coffee, without worrying that I’m half-cut at, technically, breakfast. The sun is over the yard arm somewhere, right? And when you’re in the air it’s easy to imagine that you could indeed be anywhere. There’s an alchemical mystery about flying. Aside from take-off and landing, there’s no notion of movement or speed, no landmarks to mark the passing of geography. One embarks a giant metal tube, sits for half a day, and disembarks. And in the meantime, the airline has seen fit radically to alter the outside scenery. Sometimes in my Truman-Show anxiety moments I wonder if flight is really real.

If there were doubt, jet lag would dispel it. The hours lost on short days, the hours gained on long days, not to mention the entire days lost in transit, all seem to count. Awake with jet lag is closer to an hallucinogenic experience than to tiredness; asleep with jet lag is closer to coma than to rest. I’ve had fits of hysterical laughter, strange impulses of aggression, bouts of talking gibberish, and the odd feeling that gravity is no longer at full strength. In a Subway sandwich shop in Auckland in 2005, in desperation after 25 hours in the air, I experienced all these sensations in quick succession. Hunger laughter melted into an I-don’t-know-what-kind-of-bread-I-want rage, followed by some impossible suggestions for sandwich fillings and the distinct impression that my feet weren’t really touching the ground. I blamed the Singapore Slings.

I have tried almost everything to shake the desynchronosis funk. Drinking less or not at all doesn’t help, merely depriving me of an explanatory factor and inducing paranoia; drinking more doesn’t help either. I once got stranded in Montreal for five hours and accidentally got drunk before take off. The hangover started an hour into the flight and lasted two days. I’ve tried staying awake, becoming delirious. I’ve tried going straight to bed, inducing insomnia for days. I’ve tried exercise, pushing my body to wake up in the short term that it might sleep better come the night, but find that the runner’s high induces a crash that only exacerbates the problem. Over the years I’ve basically come to expect this temporary madness. It’s part of a life’s experience – an opening of a perceptual door or the closing down of one’s humanity. If you can live with yourself with jet lag, stripped down and deprived of higher functions, then you’re probably a thoroughly decent sort under regular conditions.

Ultimately, the only thing with which I cannot reconcile myself is the loss of time. The travel time, as I say, I can live with as a sort of self-piteous luxury. It’s the days afterwards, operating at half speed, that really gall. The one thing I haven’t tried is writing. Perhaps it might fire the synapses such that the mind is stimulated, reset, re-engaged. Time lost is a physical problem, but what of mind over matter? You have just read the experiment.
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