This is #19 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk and hike in my local community.
Midjourney AI’s take on the final part of this post. My own prompt, but this image was not based on a photo. Someone needs to tell the bot, however, that not all little girls wear pink.
Here we go again.
This body is walking out the door, headed this time for one of Vancouver’s beaches. I don’t particularly want to go anywhere, but I have no say in the matter. This body does what it wants. I just get the flak, and deal with the self-recriminations.
Much of the time these days I find myself feeling sorry for people, all those gazillions of bewildered, distracted people trying so hard to present themselves as being ‘together’, as knowing what is going on, as being in control of things (including themselves), when it’s patently obvious nobody is in control, and nobody knows anything. Such a sad charade, a mad performance straight from the King of Hearts. Places, everybody!
We (this body and I, a most un-royal ‘we’) board the Skytrain to the city. It’s quiet. We’re going against the flow of mid-afternoon rush hour, and we’re headed for a beach that has a vegan food fair happening this evening. We reach the end of the train line and wait to transfer to the UBC ‘accordion’ bus, which will take us into the ultra-affluent Point Grey and Kitsilano neighbourhoods, where home prices start at $3M.
As I (by which hereinafter I mean my self and this body, undifferentiated) wait for the bus, I watch a man on a motorized scooter coming towards us. I realize as he gets closer that there is a young boy, presumably his son, sitting cross-legged on a round board that appears to be attached to the scooter’s deck, and the boy is holding on to his father’s leg for balance. He is pointing and shouting out directions to his dad as they navigate around the bus bay, and he is looking, not at the road or where they’re going, but at the screen of a cellphone, and relaying the turn-by-turn directions to his father, in Spanish (“Izquierda, y luego a la derecha!”). They are going so fast that I am almost afraid to look, as they pass several slow-moving cars and then veer off the road onto the sidewalk and then onto the pedestrian walkway and into the Skytrain station.
With Vancouver’s roads clogged at rush hour and beyond, buses often move at a crawl for long stretches along their routes, and it is clear that the Skytrain, combined with a motorized scooter, is now far and away the fastest way for one or two people to get around in this city. (Bicycles are not allowed on the Skytrain during rush hours.)
And it’s only going to get more so. The private automobile’s century-long dominance of the streets of our cities is coming to an end. This strange wheeled duo is a harbinger of what is to come. “The old road is rapidly aging; please get out of the new one if you can’t lend a hand“. And the loser now will be later to win. Teslas are already history.
I board the bus. The faces of my fellow passengers, especially the young students headed to campus, are still a cosmopolitan mix, but this is not so on the streets we are passing, which are peopled almost entirely with white faces sitting out on bistro patios and darting into expensive designer boutiques. As we come to an intersection, I watch with amusement as a little terrier, on leash, suddenly jumps, at least three times its body height, into the arms of its person, and then jumps down again once they’ve crossed the intersection. I laugh, wondering if I actually saw this right. But the bus is crawling along, and damned if, one block later, I don’t see a repeat performance of this little dog’s well-rehearsed acrobatics. Safe in the arms of the one you love, and exercise too!
A few blocks farther on, one of the side streets has been completely closed to automobile traffic, and several nearby al fresco restaurants have reclaimed the roadway. They are jammed with joyous people, and adjacent to one of them there is a group salsa dancing, accompanied by a guy in a sombrero playing a large white piano, which is apparently there in the street for anyone to play.
In much of Europe they know the joys of dining, singing and dancing outdoors. Not so much here in North America, where streets are for cars, and for getting places quickly. Why has imaginative poverty so afflicted us on this continent? What will it take for us to learn how to repurpose things when they no longer serve their stated purpose? How might we start now to take back streets that are no longer functional transportation corridors, and use them to rediscover and rebuild our fractured, atomized communities? And what might we do, with a little imagination, with two billion soon-to-be immobilized cars, as we contemplate the arrival of two billion economic and climate collapse refugees, looking for a new home?
Sitting near me on the bus is an androgynous couple. They might be both male or both female or a mix, or neither. The whole point, which they make so well, is that it doesn’t matter. They hold hands, and look quite blissful.
Languages like Finnish, Turkish, and Mandarin have no male or female pronouns, which saves an enormous amount of hassle, makes perfect sense, and costs nothing. We don’t need to have more pointless choices to have to make, like what ‘pronouns’ to prefer. What we need is fewer pointless choices to have to make. Why is it so hard for us to give up and part with useless things? And to appreciate that, when it comes to the most important things in life, we have absolutely no choice.
It’s a further 15-minute walk through park trails to the beach, so when I arrive at the closest bus stop, I try a new Maps app that actually displays, on my screen, the exact ‘street view’ path in front of me as I walk, with three giant blue arrows pointing in the direction that I should walk to reach my chosen destination. This body thinks that this is ridiculous; it knows where it’s going. And looking at a screen picture of the sidewalk in front of me, rather than looking at the ‘real’ sidewalk, is really disturbing, and probably dangerous. Soon, the app points me to a small park path, but at the entrance to it there is a huge (real) sign saying “Caution: Coyotes recently seen on this path”. I decide this body is right, and we don’t need the app. This body gets us there just fine without it.
I am about to discover why there have been a lot of coyote sightings here lately, and it’s not the vegan food.
I arrive at the vegan fair, which is already crowded, with hour-long line-ups for the dozen or so food tents and carts. But we Canadians are a patient and polite lot, and there are no complaints and no butting in. Vancouverites’ willingness to pay $150 for a mediocre concert seat, or to wait two hours to get into a Christmas craft fair, is unfathomable. But this is where we are. Things keep getting more and more dysfunctional, but so gradually that, seemingly, nobody really notices. It’s astonishing what we can get used to.
My body, which is not so patient, finds some food without a long lineup, and as I nibble on it I wander down to the beach and up among some of the ‘club’ houses (yacht club, folk club, some sort of gourmet club) in the park.
And then I see them: Four black rabbits, grazing on the manicured park grass. These are bunnies, not wild hares. I take a picture, in case no one believes me. And then, up over the ridge, there are ten more. And in a large field just beyond that, at least two dozen. Turns out there are hundreds in the park, the invasive, feral offspring of abandoned pets. Everyone just ignores them, and they seemingly ignore the people as well, and even the many dogs that people bring for walks in the park pay them no heed. But that explains the recent influx of coyotes!
There are 16 beach volleyball courts on Jericho Beach, and on this lovely warm evening near solstice, they are all in use. This body loved to play volleyball, and I wonder in passing whether I’m too old to ask to join one of the games. Then I notice a table at the side of the middle courts, with maps, scoreboards, rules and schedules. It’s a tournament. Serious fun. There is some laughter, but it’s not the joyful laughter of play. Just up from the beach there is an Ultimate Frisbee field, with referees with whistles and stopwatches and official time-outs among the uniformed teams. To play frisbee?
I used to play beach volleyball each summer, a few decades ago, as a charity fundraiser. The game lasted 45 minutes, regardless of how many points had been scored, and only the ‘pro’ division teams kept scores. The rest of us tracked ‘great plays’ instead: When someone made a great diving ‘save’ or an amazing recovery at the net, another player would point to them, and others would raise their arms to ‘second’ the nomination. These were the plays you learned from, what you remembered, and a great play trumped a winning game every time.
How has the meaning of ‘play’ changed so much? Geez, I’m sounding old.
So now I’m on the bus home. There are two young French Canadian guys at the back of the bus, one of them with his arm around the other, and both with their feet pulled up onto their seats. They are in full pose mode, absolutely claiming the back of the bus, and talking as if there is no one else on board. The arm embrace is a sports-buddy hug, as if daring you to suggest they might be gay. (Which they might be, but not your business.) They are dressed casually but purposefully. They are expounding, en français, on how the girls in Montréal are much prettier and better dressed than the girls in Vancouver. (So probably not gay.) There are few francophones in this city, and they clearly don’t expect anyone in earshot to understand what they’re saying. It’s really hard not to laugh when I listen to their conversation, but I don’t want to blow my cover. Or theirs.
When the francophones depart the bus, two young Korean women come onboard and sit opposite me. I’ve learned (barely) to differentiate the Korean language from Japanese, Mandarin and Cantonese, living in a suburb where all four languages are common, but I have no idea what they’re saying. Instead, I focus on the body language, and in particular how theirs differs from that of the female K-Pop stars I’ve seen on interview videos. Unlike those in Korea, these women don’t cover their mouths when they laugh. But they do do the little claps of delight when they laugh (palm to palm, hands in prayer position not crossed, and quick and quiet, what some might describe as an affectation, but others say is just an act of politeness).
One of the women is repeatedly, but apparently subconsciously, pulling her hands into the sleeves of her sweater, as I’ve seen some female K-Pop interviewees do in their videos. And it’s certainly not cold in the bus. No idea what this mannerism signifies, and neither Google nor ChatGPT is of any help. So it’s a mystery. There is so much to learn about the cultures of this city, its languages, its worldviews, and the joys and struggles of its many diasporas!
Finally, we’re back in the Skytrain for the last leg home. The Skytrain is a driverless electric LRT, with most of the track above-ground rather than underground. Our (“Millennium”) line usually has only two cars in it, except during rush hour. Each train therefore has a single seat at the very front with a unique view, and tourists and kids usually jump at the chance to sit in it.
On this trip, a little girl and her mother board the train just as the front seat is vacated. The little girl is very excited, and she tells her mother, in a loud voice:
“Mommy! The driver has gone! We have to drive the train!”
Her mother sits in the front seat, with the little girl sitting in her lap.
“Steering wheel please mom!”
Her mother puts her arms around her daughter, raised slightly to make them into a ‘steering wheel’.
“All aboard!”, she says in an imperious but gentle voice, testing the ‘steering wheel’.
There are titters among the other passengers watching this. You get the sense this is not a first-time performance by this young lady. Sure enough, there is more to come:
“Please move to the centre of the train to make room for other passengers!”
Her voice is singsong, cheery, but with a weary edge, brilliantly (and I’m sure unintentionally) mocking the voice of many frazzled transport staff she must have heard in her travels.
Several passengers break into laughter now, and the girl looks back around her mother, with a concerned look at first, and then a delighted look as she realizes she has an appreciative audience. As the train draws to a stop at the next station, she adds:
“Thank you for travelling with us!… Mind the gap, please!”
At this point, the woman sitting in front of me is practically peeing herself laughing, doubled over and snorting. The laughter is, of course, infectious. But the back half of the car, behind us, is oblivious, lost in their private chatter or glued to their cellphone screens. This is a show just for us.
The little girl is watching carefully, ‘steering’ the train as it curves left and right along its route. But she’s also curious about her audience, and can’t resist turning her head back to peek, a look of sheer elation on her face.
And then suddenly she turns back to face front and, churning her arms and her mother’s ‘steering wheel’ frantically, says:
“Eek! Oops, almost turned the wrong way there! Sorry about that folks!”
A few moments later, after greeting and bidding farewell to the passengers at each stop, we reach her stop, and the show is over. Several of our fellow passengers are both smiling and crying at the same time. Holding on to her mother’s hand, as she departs, she leaves us laughing:
“Have a nice rest of your day, ladies and gentlemen, and safe travels!”
Vancouver Translink should, of course, hire this little girl and her mother. The world needs more of this wonder, this courage, this innocence, this imagination, this joy, this capacity for finding and conveying the beauty and pleasure in simple things.
Three stops later and this body and I are home.
This body is unhappy that we’re too late for a chai in the local bistro, which has just closed. It loves its animal pleasures — lazy café chats, lying in the sun or in a hot bath by candlelight, doing challenging crossword puzzles, walking on a tropical beach. In that, it is so much wiser than ‘me’.
This ‘me’, seemingly imprisoned inside this amazing, ordinary body, is filled with guilt and shame at its astonishing good fortune, its rare privilege. And filled with grief that so many in the world struggle so much with pain, fear, anxiety, doubt, unhappiness, anger, dread, and endless precarity. None of it ‘their’ fault. They’ve done their best, all their fraught lives. No one is to blame for their terribly human, terribly lonely predicaments.
But you can’t feel sad for everyone. Of course most lives are unfair. Of course it didn’t have to turn out this way, but that’s not because of anything they did, or did not do.
I tell myself it’s not a denial of their suffering, not insensitive, to shake my head sadly and acknowledge the awful, endless, personal horror of so many just trying to make it through one more day, mostly blaming themselves for their plight. It’s not wrong, I tell myself, to accept this ghastly situation, and then to climb the stairs to our building roof and look at the moon and the million lights of the city and marvel at the staggering wonder, and beauty, and the utter unknowability of it all.