All posts by William Crow

He Who Hesitates Is Flattened

Posted: January 14, 2018 at 4:16 pm

I figured out the secret of success in life while learning how to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Let me explain.

I’ve circumnavigated a Renault Super-Cinq through the confluence of twelve roads at the Étoile traffic circle in Paris. I’ve fought the crowds on foot through the streets of Manila, Hong Kong, Beijing and Guangzhou. One time, I even stepped in front of a throng of Lululemon-bedecked, West Van yummy-mummies ordering their morning grande, extra-hot, non-fat, low-foam, extra shot vanilla lattés at Starbucks. So I understand the threat to one’s person when crossing  against the flow.

But nothing prepared me to wade into the vehicular insanity of Ho Chi Minh City. Home to 10 million people and an equal number of motorcycles. I estimate 10% of the vehicles are cars, taxis and Ubers, while the rest are motorcycles and (for the hardy) bicycles. No one walks. Motorcycles are used to transport what SUVs and trucks carry in North America…..bags of rice piled on the seat behind the motorcycle driver, taller than his head.  A bouquet of wire lanterns ten feet in diameter. An ancient, hand-operated cement mixer on a wooden trailer, only connected to the motorcycle by the driver’s left hand. And a family of five: father driving, a toddler standing on a metal platform placed between dad’s feet, a 5-year-old sitting behind dad, followed by the mother, with a breastfeeding infant in the crook of her left arm, a cellphone at the end of her right. Only dad wore a helmet.

If there are driving laws, they are spectacularly ignored. Lanes are imaginative, traffic lights mere suggestions, safety a quaint fiction. More than once, I saw a motorcycle driving at the side of the road, against the traffic, on the highway.

There are few crosswalks, and their faded white lines mock the tourists as traffic speeds by, unabated. Remember watching the Tour de France on TV, and the peloton races by, maybe 200 riders in a pack, wheel to wheel, shoulder to shoulder? It’s like that, but motorcycles. Standing on the crumbling curb, you see no breaks in the traffic, no windows of opportunity, no Frogger-like path to weave back and forth, side to side.

If you wait for a convenient or safe time to cross, you will never cross. Here’s the key: forget there’s any traffic and walk straight across the road as if you’re the only one there. As Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” Also, don’t stop, hesitate, stutter-step, or look at the approaching traffic on your left (and it may come from the right!). Trust the cars and motorcycles and bicycles and tour buses and cement mixers will flow around you like water. They almost always do.

After two weeks in Vietnam’s asphalt minefields, I realized my newfound street-crossing philosophy could also be applied to achieving success in life: walk confidently, keep moving forward, and don’t break stride.

Billy at the Bat

Posted: November 30, 2017 at 9:48 pm

The outlook wasn’t brilliant in the publishing world this year,

Authors watched their dreams of glory slowly disappear;

And with every shuttered bookstore, and breaks they could not catch,

A pall-like silence fell upon every ink-stained wretch.

 

A straggling few got day jobs, in deep despair. The rest,

Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;

They thought, “If Rowling created magic with her café-writ debut,

We’ll bet our homes and marriages, that we can do it too.”

 

But Young Adult rules writing, unless it’s Shades of Grey,

And the former is too childish, while the latter’s quite risqué;

So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy set,

For there seemed but little chance of winning: Publisher Roulette.

 

But Billy penned a memoir, to the wonderment of all,

Except his editor Colin, who was not the least enthralled;

And when the dust had lifted, and Bill wrote his seventh draft,

He realized three years wasn’t long for one to hone his craft.

 

From all three family members, there rose a lusty yell,

It rumbled through Lynn Valley, it rattled in the dell;

It pounded on Grouse Mountain, recoiled on West Van hovels,

For Billy, clever Billy, was ready to sell his novel.

 

There was ease in Billy’s manner as he wrote his book proposal,

There was calm in Billy’s bearing as it reached the waste disposal;

And when, responding to his agent, he wrote it thrice again,

No publisher could resist the pitch of Bill’s deftly wielded pen.

 

His Facebook friends applauded as Bill attempted the implausible,

Ten thousand blogs reminded him his dream was near impossible;

Then, when Reason said he’s doomed to fail, get off this ego trip,

Defiance flashed in Billy’s eye, a sneer curled Billy’s lip.

 

And now a major publisher called, a house without compare,

And Billy sat a-listening, in haughty grandeur there;

But the conversation dragged a bit….our author’s hopes were fallin’—

“Whaddya think?” asked Billy. “Not for me!” said Harper Collins.

 

From Bill’s kitchen, filled with loved-ones, there went up a muffled roar,

Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;

“Kill him! Kill that publisher!” shouted Bill’s long-suffering wife,

And it’s likely she’d have killed him had not Billy saved his life.

 

With a smile of Christian charity our Billy’s visage shone,

He calmed his loving partner; he bade the game go on;

He signalled to his agent, and once more a query flew,

But M&S rejected it. His agent said, “Strike two!”

 

“Fraud!” cried Bill’s coffee shop pals, and echo answered “Fraud!”,

But one scornful look from Billy and the baristas were awed;

They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his temples quiver,

And they knew that Billy would make some publishing house deliver.

 

The sneer is gone from Billy’s lip, his teeth are clenched so tight,

He mails his last proposal to a house which should be right;

And now the author’s waiting, he trembles with his spouse,

And now the air is crackling with a call from Random House.

 

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,

The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;

And somewhere men are laughing, and children play en masse,

But there is no joy in North Van—Random took a pass.

 

(With Apologies to Ernest Lawrence Thayer)

Le Tour de Rants

Posted: July 22, 2017 at 2:01 pm

As I watched le Tour de France race through Marseille today, I felt a couple of rants coming on. But first a bit of background.

In person, I have seen stages of le Tour de France on four occasions, and it is my favourite sporting event. It’s also the hardest thing to win in sport. I have driven a car up Alpe d’Huez, one of le Tour’s ugly mountain stages. My little Renault Super Cinq could barely make it up the 21 steep hairpin turns in first gear. It’s harder on a bike. There is a scale for rating the difficulty of mountain climbs in le Tour, but Alpe d’Huez has the special designation of hors catégorie, which translates exactly to “it’s so frickin’ tough that it is beyond our classification scale.”

Every year, the cyclists strain to reach the summit of Alpe d’Huez, to complete a 172 kilometre challenge. The crowd’s always boisterous, if not slightly insane. Fans dress up as superheroes, vicars, kangaroos, vikings, and weird naked guys. Everyone cheers madly, waving the flags of their home countries. So far so good, but here starts the rant.

During le Tour de France, the most famous bike race in the world, boasting millionaire riders of immeasurable physical conditioning, there are no rules for the crowds. The fans surge onto the racecourse during the competition…and why wouldn’t they? After all, there are no barriers keeping them away, and, well, they are mostly French. Fans constantly touch the riders, run beside them, cross in front of them at the last second, narrowing avoiding collisions. In what other professional sports championship are the fans allowed onto the field of play during the game? A couple of years ago, I watched Frenchman Christophe Ribbon inch up d’Huez in the lead. The crowd blocked his route, leaning over in front of him, opening a sliver of road at the last second. Riblon looked like Moses parting a Red Sea of crazed cycling fans. The road was obscured by the people and the flags held in front of each rider…the cyclists just had to trust the depth perception of a mass of drunken idiots to pull back in time to avoid collisions. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask that le Tour riders can actually see the road they are racing on, a split second before they ride it. Running guys were slapping Riblon and the other riders on the butts and shoulders while they climbed the Alps. It was like trying to give an NFL wide receiver a high five, just as he’s trying to make a catch, in the end zone. Near the end of the race, a jogging, beefy guy tried to put his arm around Riblon’s shoulder, (remember, this is DURING the competition), and the cyclist started to veer off course. Riblon had to lash out and punch his fan in the chest just to get clear. Most telling was that the television announcer didn’t even comment on the incident, which is common. How can this be allowed during a professional sporting event?

There is a short section of the climb up Alpe d’Huez which actually has normal metal barriers, the type you would see at any North American race. An affront to the crowd, the barriers can not hold back everyone leaning over, shaking their fists, trying to touch the riders still. Huge flags hang over the racecourse so the riders have to duck to get through them. Fans with foam swimming noodles whack riders on the helmet. I remember one lonely guy, who probably lives in his mum’s basement, dangling over the fence a hugely fat, naked, blow-up sex doll, its cherry red lips held in a permanent “oh.” The riders casually ducked under her too.

The route up the mountain is narrow, made narrower by the long, long line of camper vans parked on the road. Not at the side of the road, or in a campground near the road, but ON the road while the race is in progress. Those without camper vans pitch their tents on the road, which may make for a hard sleeping surface, but keeps one close to the action. I think it would be cool if the next time I went to New York I just pitched my tent in centrefield of Yankee Stadium. During the World Series. Good seats.

It isn’t all uphill for the riders on d’Huez, and in one descent most hit 70 kilometres per hour. While they risk their lives racing downhill, team cars weave in and out between the riders, with inches to spare. Bystanders walk across the road, narrowly  avoiding collisions with racers and team cars. The cyclists breathe the fumes of the many motorcycles with cameramen on the backs, sometimes sitting backwards while they film the racers. So much for the health and safety of the riders.

I appreciate that le Tour de France is partially great because the fans can get close to their heroes. Anyone can go, and it’s free. The lack of rules adds to the race’s charm…it’s a month long party where anything goes. But as I watch horrific crashes of cyclists in le Tour each year, I remember the closing day of a recent Tour de France. The cyclists were on the final bolt up the Champs-Élysées, a cluster of sprinting madness. Each rider was inches away from his neighbour, pumping furiously to win the final stage. A woman leaned over the course, and her purse handle looped around the handlebars of one of the riders. He immediately went down in a high speed, end-over-end tumble of road rash and broken bones, taking a dozen others with him. There formed on the road a huge clump of tangled metal and bloodied millionaires. I asked myself what it was in the French psyche that justified the danger to its heroes when a reasonable barricade could eliminate most hazards, without loss of enjoyment for the fans. Maybe I’m just too English to ever understand it.

The Art of Non-Conformity

Posted: December 1, 2016 at 11:05 am

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I’m featured on “The Art of Non-Conformity,” a website for people with unconventional ideas about work and happiness. It was started by Chris Guillebeau, a New York Times bestselling author. The website has 100,000 subscribers. Check out what he said about me (some of it true): http://chrisguillebeau.com/william-crow/. Special shout out to my friend Sharka Stuyt who plays a role in the story.