Monthly Archives: September 2009

Rainy Day Women

I have driven in blizzards in North America, New York City gridlock and even over sidewalks in Beijing in a desperate search for a toilet. But nothing prepared me for the experience of picking up my nephews, ages 8 and 6 from school on a rainy day.

My sister in law is taking an all day class and because my wife and I are a 10 minute walk from the school, the boys have been coming over to our house after school for the past week or so.

I have been deputized to meet the kids and walk home with them. The kids would prefer to ride. It would take three minutes instead of ten. But the weather has been good and the traffic situation around the school seems to be a little chaotic.

Today it was raining. It was torrential. And windy. So even I thought that driving would be appropriate. Recalling the traffic conditions around the school on a normal day, I considered my alternatives. Like Chuck Norris delivering a briefing before a clandestine suicide mission, I told my wife that I would leave 15 minutes early, find a juicy parking spot near the exit, and read a book until the kids came out. I didn’t say “Goodbye” when I left. I said, “I’m going in.”

But alas, fate was laughing at me. I arrived at the school and was horrified to find total gridlock in the area. The rain had not only produced flooded streets. The area was also inundated with SUVs and vans. People with the same plan as me (or more likely, just in the know) had arrived much earlier and seized every available parking space within a half mile radius of the school. And ‘available parking place’ had been very broadly defined to include sidewalks and lawns.

Each car’s engine was idling to permit operation of the defroster and wipers, enabling me to see the mother (or caregiver, but that’s another story) talking on her cell phone.

I finally found a parking spot, probably closer to home than to the school. And that’s when things got really interesting. The bell rings at three and at about five minutes to three, all of the mothers left their cars and rushed to the school exit. Unlike a normal school with a single building, this one is a campus and each classroom is a standalone module loosely connected to the others. The actual exit from the campus is through a wide walkway between the library and the auditorium.

For some reason, the weather conditions had generated a panic. The mothers who know their kid’s classroom go directly there to get them, armed with umbrellas, raincoats, sugar packed after school snacks and other life saving gear. Others, like me who didn’t know where the kids would be coming from, stood in the walkway. The result was something probably not too different than conditions on the stern of the Titanic, except not on a slant. And with cell phones.

I’ll admit that it was raining and blowing, but I didn’t understand the mood of desperation that suffused the crowd. Mothers carrying yellow rain slickers pushed through the crowd, frantically calling names. “Isaiah!” “Zeb!” “Joshua!” For a moment I thought it was a summoning of the Twelve Tribes. Umbrellas were used more for offense than defense. A pet dog, leash tied to a pole and seemingly forgotten, barked furiously, adding a sort of Last Days of Pompeii mood to the pervading sense of chaos and doom. A group of children, terrified at the thought of getting wet huddled under an awning, afraid to move until a teacher with a whistle began herding them out into the deluge. I found a reasonably sheltered spot and watched with amusement.

One difference I’ve noticed between children and adults is that children love it when things don’t go according to routine. Wet, windy chaos was a delightful change from a normal end of the school day. My nephews were thrilled. I was there with the car instead of on foot. To get to the car we had to walk down a different street. All these novelties were more important than the elements. They were totally oblivious to the conditions and went out of their way to avoid the shelter of my umbrella. They were totally soaked by the time we got to the car. “Drowned rats,” is the term my grandmother would have used. Adults were freaking, but they absolutely loved it.

The longest part of the trip was the drive home. Gridlock prevailed as normal traffic rules were replaced by the law of the jungle. People were driving on lawns, reversing at high speed and generally abandoning the concept of rational behaviour. My last vision as I rounded the corner and left the chaos was a silver Mercedes SUV angled across the street behind me. The driver’s window was open and a hand was raised through the opening. The hand clutched a cell phone, but the middle finger was extended.

We probably got just as wet as we would have if we had walked. And it would have taken less than a quarter of the time it took to drive.

But it wouldn’t have been as interesting.

I Get A History Lesson

The other day my wife and I took my mother in law to the orthopaedic surgeon.    

A fact of life when you go to see the orthopaedic surgeon is that you spend a lot more time waiting to see him than you spend actually seeing him.  As a veteran of the experience, I had taken along War and Peace, which, at the rate I’m going, will take me as long to read as it took Tolstoy to write.  Or longer.  I had just finished a battle scene and was getting into one of Leo’s lectures, so I took advantage of the excuse to stop reading by helping a young woman who was struggling to seat herself. 

“Thank you,” she said, flexing her heavily bandaged knee.

“No problem,” I said, offering her a year old copy of Women’s Weekly.  “How is your knee?”

“Getting better.  Thank you.”

“What happened?”

“I slipped on dog shit.”

Normally when you ask someone about a medical problem, you expect a fairly generic answer, such as “I fell.”  Or, “I had an accident.”  I wasn’t expecting anything quite so detailed and specific.   Not only that, it was hard not to laugh.

Although she was very forthcoming on the cause of her accident, she wasn’t very interested in follow up so I went back to Russia in 1809.  Leo was waxing rhapsodic about the perspicacity of that old Russian general, Kutuzov by name, and, against my best intentions and efforts, my mind began to wander.

When you read military history, they always talk about strategy and tactics and how the planning and experience of the generals and captains is usually the decisive factor in a battle.  That is why winning generals are so revered.  Because the fate of people and countries–and history itself–hinges on their good judgement and skill. 

I’d just read that the history of Europe had been decided by the wisdom of old Kutuzov.  But my experience that morning got me wondering.  Here I was sitting with a woman whose life had been changed because she stepped in dog shit.  According to Tolstoy’s account of the battle, it must have been very chaotic.  Plus there were a lot of horses and men running around.  No one knew exactly what was going on.

Well if there were horses around, there must have been a lot of horse shit around too.  So what are the chances that these famous battles (and the history of Europe) were not, in fact, determined by the wisdom of the Napoleons and the Kutuzovs of the world?  Rather, what if the minor skirmishes that determined the outcomes of the big battles were determined by things as minor as a guy slipping on horse shit and failing to take the opponent’s flag.  Or tripping on his boot laces.  Or just bumping into a guy who was about to fatally shoot the opposing general?  Think about it.  If battles were half as disorganized as Tolstoy and others portray them to be, they must have been totally out of control from the perspective of the people involved. 

So that’s my theory for the day.  History is not determined by great leadership and planning.  It depends on whether someone has stepped in shit.

You may wonder why this is relevant.  Because it raises the whole question of what and who is important.  In daily life things don’t usually happen at the same pace as they do in battles.  I hope.  But it’s the little things that add up to how the day goes.  Just like little things determine how history turns out.