training day

Gosh that was a fun day.

I already knew it was going to be fun because I would be spending it in Toronto -- a city that always reminds me of smashed Lite-Brite in a dirty parking lot, with orange construction cones placed around the pieces -- for training that I didn't want and that I really didn't need. Still, managers have to spend the entirety of their training budgets or they won't get as much next year, and everyone else in the department had already been tagged multiple times, and the barrel must be scraped, so to speak.

But what made it an *extra* fun day was having my VIA train cancelled because of a freight derailment near Cobourg, and having that train replaced with a bus. The VIA guy at the other end of the the 1-800 line promised that this bus would leave on time and get to Toronto on time but I knew this was a lie. Still, what could I do but go? Try to have a good day anyway, my wife said when she dropped me off at the station. Another kind of lie. I will be really, really late getting home, I said. Probably after ten. And then I went inside. The woman at the service counter said that the buses were leaving about twenty minutes later. I smiled at the way she said later instead of late. Great, I said, and found a seat, to sit and wait and sit and wait and listen to the eventual announcement over the intercom that my bus was at least an hour behind schedule. Providing this held, I would get to my training just in time, which is a bit like believing that Jesus is watching you, and only you, right now.

But then a bus pulled up to take away passengers who'd already been waiting a few hours and this bus had some empty seats. O miracle! Now I was committed. It was a charter bus so it didn't have that chemical-urine stink -- yet -- and no amateur violinists or or sad girls in dreads or blowhard guys who talk loudly about going back to school to be either an auto body technician or a chef. They even put two stewards on board, to hand out doughnuts and apple juice. Crushed against the window, trying not to breathe too much (I fit the seat like a hammer fits a sandwich bag), I still wanted to kill myself, but more in a resigned, ice-floe kind of way.

Why do we do things that we don't want to do? Some would say that this is what it means to be an adult. But then you get to that second stage, where you've being doing unwanted things for quite awhile already, and you start to evolve (or devolve) again. This is why the elderly so often behave like gangsters: because they're tired, and don't care, and are, in that way, liberated. That is, until their machinery fails them.

I would have liked to have put this question to the guy behind me, who was quite the folksy philosopher and generalized jackass. He was *really* working the married, pant-suited blonde beside him. Take what you want and say what you have to, he told her, and she giggled obligingly and promised to plug that one into her Blackberry, with all his other chestnuts. Save your breath to cool your soup, he said as we pulled into Oshawa, or rather into the massive parking lot around the GO station, and I wondered to myself how and why people live like this, moving from fields of cars to interminable trains through some deafened twilight of commuting.

And O God how I hate the bus. It reminds me of being poor. And diminished. And hopeless. It represents not travel but something to be endured.

The philosopher king had to get off right away when we got to Toronto, to catch a train going west (those ones were working), and he and the blonde made the usual promises to stay in touch, and email and Facebook, but you could see the false intimacy falling away even as he waved at the top of the aisle. I've seen versions of this temporary couple on every bus I've ever taken: some guy who likes to bullshit thinks he's making time with a woman. Meanwhile, the woman is just passing time. Once, at the end of a horrendous Christmastime bus ride to Edmonton, having had to listen to some guy regale a woman with his plans to become a fighter pilot or a professional snowboarder, I heard him ask her for her phone number. Oh, I don't think so, she laughed.

But now: Toronto. The wonders to explore! Where everyone wears black and heavy-framed eyewear and looks like they've been up all night. Having a whole half-hour to make it to my training site, I grabbed a cab and then that classic rushed-singleton's lunch: the Subway sandwich. I didn't even take my coat off.

And then, finally, the training: a lecture on typography. And here I don't want to knock the lecturer, because she was rather good -- that certain kind of smart, capable New Yorker with a ton of war stories. And I did play along. I listened. I participated. But the whole thing was infinitely depressing.

It was depressing because it was a information-based lecture for a job (read: mine) where information or knowledge is often the enemy, where knowing more actually impairs your ability to do your job or, more accurately, to cope with your job (enhanced creativity is a similar kind of detriment, which is why I can hardly bear to look at design magazines anymore). This is the way it goes, when your job demands that you do bad work, and turn your brain off, and any given secretary can overrule you on anything you might do. Which is why you ask the secretary first exactly how she wants her business cards or brochure or whatever it is to be done, and you save yourself the heartache, and why a lecture on typography is like showing you places you can never travel to.

Yes, Bickham Script has nineteen Open Type variations of the letter 'h', and yes, you could spend an entire day exploring them to properly set the title for a poster. But if your client is only going to tell you to make it look like last year's, why would you bother?

In other words, a dancing bear does not need to learn Chopin. In fact, Chopin just makes him sad. (Perhaps he's accepted his fate. Perhaps he knows that the only advantage of an unthinking job is that he doesn't have to think. Or perhaps he just has a mortgage.)

Towards the end of the session the lecturer said something like, ... what we're talking about here is a high degree of professionalism, which brought on a kind of heavy feeling in all my limbs, like polio was settling in. Then we gave her an ovation and headed back into the bleak Toronto day, which slowly turned to night, as I even more slowly made my way back to Kingston, which would take five hours, on another slug of a bus, whining droning rattling along, this box of plastic windows with seats inside, the landscape beyond in dots of light, struggling against darkness, although when it's called darkness I always think to myself that it's really just the deepest shade of blue.


  1. one of the best things I've read in weeks and weeks.......

  2. Ha! I'm about to LIVE in a bus. Let's hope it doesn't make me feel "poor, dimished, and hopeless."

    I also used to live in Toronto; in fact, I grew up there. I enjoyed your smashed Lite-Brite metaphor, but my memories of Toronto are a bit different. I lived near a ravine, through which I walked to go to school. But I actually miss the more city-ish aspects of it too sometimes, even the dirty parking lots and diesel fumes.

  3. Ok - next time you pay someone to attend on your behalf - do you resemble a battered chair? I have some out of work one's around here could use a couple of bucks.

  4. really well written..I felt that heavy limbed feeling and the hopelessness...I actually felt sorry for you! Yikes

  5. Interesting. I always enjoy these kind of self short stories. I agree, the bus is not for me either, and that is why I have a car. I liked your elderly people gangster comment. Christian's Grandmother has been acting like that, although at 93, and a former head Nurse I think she is probably entitled. :-)

  6. Five hours spent like a hammer in a sandwich bag on a rattling bus? I do feel sorry for you. Though I can't help being glad it happened: the read was so good.

  7. i agree with Jeane. it is the best tihng i read all week.
    i particularly liked the "smashed lite brite" reference.
    painted a very vivid picture in my mind...

  8. graceful raucous applause*


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