Category Archives: Stories

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.

My Mid-Life Crisis

Posted: September 25, 2015 at 9:55 am

 

“Maybe you’re just going through a mid-life crisis.”

It was February 2012. Having just taken a bite of my smoked duck breast and gizzards, I started choking. I sat in my favourite booth at Café le Verdun with my medium-level-friend Dan, visiting from Canada. Dan had skipped a few levels on the relationship scale by inviting himself to stay with me in Aix-en-Provence. He heard for the first time I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore, and his conclusion surprised me. How could I be going through a mid-life crisis? I’m only 53! Uh-oh, wait a minute.

Cough. Swallow. I took a sip of Sauvignon Blanc. “No I don’t think that’s it, Dan,” I said. “I’m just so tired of reading contracts and the rest of that shit that I have to do something different.”

That’s a mid-life crisis, Billy.” Dan was talking with his mouth full and I could see bits of seafood lasagna in there. “You’re asking yourself what it’s all for, aren’t you? Well, I can tell you what it’s all for. It’s all for money. Forget about all that higher meaning bullshit. We do our jobs for the money.  Everyone wants to retire with lots of money and live in a house on the ocean and have a cabin at Whistler. If your job was fun, they wouldn’t pay you so much to do it.”

“But I can’t take it anymore.” I felt whiny. “Besides, last year I had tendonitis in my elbow from clicking my mouse all day.” I drummed the fingers of my right hand on the table, as if proving to Dan their connection to my injured elbow.

“Are you really ready to give up your clients?” Dan asked. “A barista makes ten bucks an hour. How many times does ten divide into your hourly rate?”

I told him the number.

“And you’re complaining? His job is way harder than yours, and he has to clean the toilets too. Are you fucking crazy?” Dan said. The waiter looked up from across the restaurant and scowled.

“I know, I know. My job was easy for me. Easy isn’t the right word, but you know what I mean. I have nothing to complain about, but I was miserable, all the time. I just need to escape. Somehow I thought that during this year in France, something better would miraculously happen to me. I figured I’d find something better to do or I’d meet someone who’d offer me some cool job.” I felt embarrassed saying that out loud, and looked down at my plate so I could avoid Dan’s eyes.

Dan pointed his fork at my chest. “You must have known that wasn’t going to work. What happens when you go back? It took years for you to get that great setup. You won’t just find two perfect clients like that, two huge clients, and start back where you left off. Some lawyers can’t find jobs, you know.”

“But I don’t want to start back where I left off,” I said. “I’m done with it.”

“You can’t do that, can you? How will you live? Don’t you want to retire some day?”

“Well, I can’t retire yet, that’s for sure. I don’t have enough money. But I don’t have to continue making what I was making. I don’t think. I’m not sure. Maybe when I go back, being a lawyer won’t look so bad anymore.” I paused. “What am I saying? It’ll still be bad. I’m an idiot.”

The waiter had appeared at our booth, hearing my last sentence, perhaps understanding. Dan waved him away with a flick of his hand. I could see the waiter roll his eyes and heard a suppressed sigh as he turned.

“Is it SO bad that you can’t do it for another five or 10 years, make a shitload of money and then retire to do whatever you want? Then you can go to France for as long as you want.” It sounded so simple when Dan said it like that, but I instantly recoiled.

“If I thought I had to be a lawyer for 10 more years, and that would be my last job until retirement, I would probably have to kill myself.”

“Really? You’d kill yourself?” said Dan. I saw the woman in the next booth, obviously a tourist, sit up straighter so she could hear the rest of our conversation.

“Of course not. I’m too much of a chicken. And if I killed myself, Carol would really kill me. But I just can’t keep doing what I was doing. I always thought I was smart enough to end up doing something cool or something insanely fun, and I ended up reading contracts. It’s just so boring.”

“What would be your perfect job?” Dan held up his arm to get the waiter’s attention. The waiter looked in our direction, expressionless, then walked toward the kitchen.

“I was asked that once at a party. Without thinking, I joked I’d like a job where I could paint nude portraits of my friends’ wives.”

“That doesn’t sound like it would pay much. Can’t you just do that in your spare time? A real job would be the lawyer for Playboy Enterprises.” Dan giggled. “That would be fun.”

“I doubt they let the lawyers take the pictures. Or hang out in the grotto.”

“You’re probably right. That sucks. I just think that throwing away all those years of school, when you’re at the top of the heap, is crazy. Maybe there’s a different way you can be a lawyer that you’ll like better.” Dan waved at the waiter again, who had returned from the kitchen and was three booths away, intently studying his empty tray.

“Yeah, I thought about that,” I said. “Maybe there is. But I don’t think so. I hate all the lawyer bullshit. And I am tired of having to be perfect. Everyone expects me to be right all the time, everything is so exact. I like broad strokes and ballpark answers, I like artsy stuff, and I’m stuck with the opposite. I’m a total faker.”

“That’s not true. You can’t be a faker for 20 years and still have a bunch of happy clients. You’re good at your job, obviously.” Dan was always a bit in awe of the career I created, and believed me to be much smarter than I actually was.

“Well, it’s not me. I’m not that guy. I don’t wanna be that guy,” I said, without eloquence.

“How can you waste all that education?” Dan asked.

“Who says it’s wasted? Can’t I do something else with my brain?”

“Sure you can,” Dan said. He paused. “Maybe you can do business development for some big company and negotiate their deals.”

“That’s kinda what I was doing already. No, I have to make a clean break. I don’t want any job like the one I had. If I do this half-assed, I’ll end up where I was before. I’ve got to let go completely, turn everything upside down.”

“Wow. I don’t know if I could do that,” said Dan. I was perversely happy that he was afraid to do what I was planning, but I didn’t tell him that.

“I like the idea I’m finally thinking big, but thinking big is scary. I never thought I would have the guts to do this. To leave law. That’s all I know how to do.”

“It’s not the smartest financial decision you’re making.”

“Tell me about it,” I said. “Every bit of logic tells me the smart thing to do is go back to law, work hard for 10 years and then retire. But my heart and soul are screaming at me to never do law again. It’s not me. So I have no choice but to do something different.”

“Well then, I guess you do.”

“It could be my mid-life crisis. Maybe. But I think I’m now confident enough to not worry about what other people think I should do………..and not for one minute more do something that I don’t want to do,” I said, raising my voice much more than I intended. I certainly sounded more sure than I was. I could see the waiter coming our way.

“Sounds like you’ve made up your mind,” said Dan.

“I have, I guess. I don’t know. I’m freaking out a bit. Oh, here’s the waiter. Should we order dessert?”

The Great One

Posted: September 10, 2015 at 8:21 am

 

In honor of Wayne Gretzky, the only player in the National Hockey League to wear, or who will ever wear number 99, my  upcoming book will have 99 chapters. Even though we are about the same age, no two people could have different work trajectories. I have spent my working life as a bubbling mass of turmoil, never happy professionally, never sure of myself or the direction of my career. Did Wayne Gretzky ever have to wonder what he was going to be when he grew up? I remember walking by my hometown’s Central Arena in my youth, and on the enormous illuminated sign, the kind where a guy on a ladder slid the big black letters into the horizontal channels and used a backward number three when he ran out of the letter ‘E,’ I could see Wayne’s name in lights. The sign encouraged me to watch a 10-year-old play hockey against 14-year-olds. Ten years old, and adults not related to him were filling arenas at hockey tournaments. Wayne scored 378 goals and had 139 assists that season.

From the time he began skating on his backyard Brantford rink, I imagine Wayne had one unshakable focus, to be a professional hockey player. This in no way minimizes the many years of hard work and determination that led to him becoming the greatest player in history. He didn’t have to waste any brain cells worrying, crying, agonizing, or complaining about his lot in life – it’s amazing that I have any brain cells left, considering my lifelong preoccupation with these four verbs. Wayne concentrated on hockey, and that seemed to work out pretty well for him. All I ever wanted was to have my path laid out for me, have the certainty that what I was doing was the absolute best use of the one life I had. I don’t know the right path yet, but I am positive I was on the wrong one.

I kind of met Wayne Gretzky once. He came into the near-empty bar at the top of what was then SkyDome in Toronto. As he walked past me, he happened to look my way, we locked gazes, and he rocked my world by coming up with the highly original “hi,” before moving on to his private table. I doubt he remembers this brief encounter as clearly as I do.

Snow Day

Posted: December 14, 2014 at 4:57 am

I woke up one Tuesday to a light dusting of snow, so light that it was not enough to completely cover the tiny gravel pieces of our terrasse, only filling in the spaces between the pebbles. That said, any snow in Aix was a rare occurrence.
“Kids, you can look at that computer as long as you want, but school won’t be cancelled today,” I said, as my children surfed their school’s website. “This little amount of snow won’t make any difference.”
“That’s not true, dad,” said Sophie. “Aline told me that whenever it snows school is cancelled because the buses can’t get up the big hills.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. Eat your breakfast so I can drive you to school.” Unfortunately for the children, one tenth of one centimetre of snow was two tenths shy of the amount required for a snow day in Aix. The kids shuffled into the car, heads bowed, grumbling.
By 10 o’clock, the winter sun had melted the night’s mistake and the roads were bone dry. Carol and I walked downtown to do our market shopping and then meet our friend Erin for lunch. An hour before our rendezvous, my ringing phone flashed Erin’s name.
“I’m so, so sorry, Bill, but I can’t meet you guys for lunch,” said Erin. “I have the girls with me all day.”
“Don’t they have school today?” I asked. Erin’s daughters went to a semi-private school called Sainte Catherine de Sienne in downtown Aix, which we happened to be walking past at that exact moment.
“Well, yes and no. I drove them to school like I always do, and you know the roads were fine. A bit wet. I was barely home, making a cup of tea when the directrice called and demanded, not asked, demanded, that I come back and pick the girls up. Only some of the teachers came in today, but most of them used this huge snowfall as an excuse to stay home.”
“Erin, I’m standing in front of your school right now, and the street is bare.”
“Oh, I know. But that’s not the crazy part. The directrice also told me that school is cancelled for Thursday too.”
“It’s only Tuesday,” I pointed out, unnecessarily.
“Remember, there’s never school on Wednesday, tomorrow. And they said that the forecast for Thursday didn’t look too good, so it was best to cancel it right now, to avoid confusion.”
“But that’s in two days. They’re cancelling school because of what the weather might be like in two days?”
“Don’t get me started. It’s nice when you run a private school…you collect the fees, no refunds, but you can still cancel school for no reason.”
“Actually, that’s an excellent French business model,” I said. “The more they cancel school, the more money they save. Their costs go down each day they don’t have to provide services. But their income is the same. If they could only figure out how to cancel school every day, but still collect the fees.”
“They’re working on it,” said Erin.

Welcome to Czechoslovakia

Posted: October 22, 2014 at 5:05 am

“Nick,” I said over a Belgian Mort Subite beer, “I have to go to Czechoslovakia next week. Sam wants me to scout around and find some bike routes, try the food, stuff like that. A reconnaissance mission. He wants to run a bike tour there next year, so I’m going to set it up. Do you wanna come, if I pay? He gave me quite a bit of money.”

Une autre bière, s’il vous plait,” he said to the tuxedoed waiter. “I’m free next week, so maybe,” he said to me. “Where do we start in Czechoslovakia?”

“We have to go to Prague first to meet with someone from the tourism bureau.”

“There’s a train with a dining car that has a great wine list running between Paris and Vienna, which is on the way to Prague. OK, I’ll go.”

Stopping in Vienna, we stayed a night with Nickipedia’s college roommate Andy, an Estonian-American working for Radio Free Europe. Andy was an expert in Soviet affairs, and asked us to deliver a package to some native Czechs in Prague. Usually when someone asks me to deliver a mysterious package to people I don’t know across international boundaries into a communist country, I am mildly suspicious.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” said Andy, laughing. “Look, it’s USA Today, Le Monde, a hot rod magazine, some zippers and other sewing stuff, and a bunch of plastic bags.”

“I understand Western newspapers and magazines are unusual in Czechoslovakia, and I can guess that sewing supplies aren’t plentiful. But I don’t get the plastic bags,” Nickipedia said.

“These aren’t merely plastic bags,” said Andy. “These are plastic bags with writing on them. See, they have the name of the supermarket where I usually shop. This one’s from Steffl department store. There’s no advertising in a communist country, and there’s no reason to try to drum up more business or show the name of a store. But these bags, with writing, will be the coolest bags in Prague, as they obviously come from the West. My friends will use these bags every day until they disintegrate. They’re precious.”

If I had been asked to transport drugs or military secrets on microfilm, I would have been nervous as our train approached the Czechoslovakian border. If I had known better, I would have been worried. The train went through a gate in a heavy metal fence, 10 feet tall, topped with barbed wire. The word ‘POZOR’ was written on several large signs.

“This ‘Pozor’ thing seems to be fairly important, Nick. What do you think it means?” I asked.

“I have my dictionary, remember? Let’s see….ahhh….‘pozor’ means ‘warning.’ As in ‘Pozor, Minefield.’ We’ve crossed the border and if the fence and the barbed wire and the guard towers won’t stop a Czech from escaping, the minefield should do the trick.”

“I see there’s another fence ahead of the train. More barbed wire,” I said, as the train came to a sudden stop. “Pozor.”

The rest of the people on the train were locals, as evidenced by their lack of wearable logos. They didn’t look surprised by the stoppage, but a few glanced around furtively. Suddenly, the whole train jumped ahead a foot, and with a scraping of metal on metal, the engine disengaged from our car and left us sitting in what we assumed was a minefield surrounded by barbed wire. As we fretted about losing our ride, the car shook again and all of the cars behind us were detached and pulled back towards Vienna. We were now one single car, attached to no other, straddling the border, waiting. There was zero chance anyone was ready to venture off of that train car. After 15 minutes, the door at the front of the car, and the one at the back simultaneously opened, each admitting a soldier with a finger on a machine gun trigger.

“Pozor,” said Nickipedia quietly.

Having machine gun toting soldiers approach you from the only two exits on a train is a claustrophobic experience. The soldiers reviewed everyone’s passports, and then painstakingly opened up each piece of luggage of every passenger (save two), and laid out the contents on the empty seats. I’m not sure what they were looking for, but I was glad that Nickipedia and I, and our subversive newspapers and magazines, were spared this scrutiny. At the end of the luggage examination an hour later, a couple of the passengers were escorted off of the train while we intently examined the tops of our shoes. Without another word, the soldiers left the car. An engine coupled with our car and we were finally pulled over the border. Welcome to Czechoslovakia. Pozor.