Sunday, May 28, 2006

separated at birth

Canada reminds me of those classic nature versus nurture experiments: what if you took two young countries, offspring of roughly the same queen, raised them side-by-side, and let one of them run wild -- play all of the violent video games it wanted to; eat all the Lucky Charms and Doritos it could stuff into its maw; and smoke cigarettes and shoplift on weekdays, when it should be doing its chemistry homework -- while you encouraged the other young country to develop wholesome and sensible habits -- to play character-building team sports like hockey; to write its social studies term paper a week before it was due; and to go to bed at a reasonable hour.

What if? Well, I spent last week in Manhattan and this week in Ottawa, so I got to see.

The results of the experiment are pretty darned clear. No surprise which one is the glue huffer. Canada turned out to be the class valedictorian and got a full scholarship to Carleton; it's had a few soul-cleansing sips of beer, but certainly not enough to interfere with its paper route, delivering -- ironically -- Grit. Canada's skin is clear and its teeth are white. The US, on the other hand, spent much of its senior year in rehab and will attend Cal State Northridge as soon as its therapist gives it the thumbs-up. The US got a boob job as its 16th birthday present, mostly to distract other countries from its pasty CRT tan and undeniable tendency toward obesity.

It's amazing Canada can stand to share a border with us.

Yes, Ottawa was nice. Even the morning radio show DJs were nice -- a veritable Prairie Home Companion of remarks -- especially when you compare them to the typical US morning DJs. (Every city seems to have a pair of them. They pull relationship-destroying stunts using nothing but an informant, a phone number, and a small library of innuendos. Common household items.) Of course, they've got Simon Harper heading up the govenment now, so they could play a game of catch-up in the near future. But I doubt it. Quebec could still secede. But I doubt this too. There'll still be black-fly jokes and beavers dressed up like RCMP officers. Canada -- through some quirk of nature and nurture -- will remain nice.

Did I venture all that way to eat donuts at Tim Horton's? Or to take notes on the functional health care system? Nope. I was attending a conference on archiving, which was both interesting and educational. Felt right in step with the Canada theme -- it's an audience on the correct side of the border, an audience that escaped the US obsession with the gee-whiz future. A sympathetic audience that didn't use personal digital archiving to demonstrate its anger management problems (you may know what I'm referring to here; if you don't, ignore this apparent non-sequitur). But you can read about digital archiving (and I suggest you do if you care about the future of your digital stuff); it's an important topic. Let it suffice to say that in 1997, a Canadian librarian, Terry Kuny, wrote:

“The tenor of our time appears to regard history as having ended, with pronouncements from many techno-pundits claiming that the Internet is revolutionary and changes everything. We seem at times to be living in what Umberto Eco has called an ‘epoch of forgetting.’… We are moving into an era where much of what we know today, much of what is coded and written electronically, will be lost forever. We are, to my mind, living in the midst of digital Dark Ages…”
Even though this may seem to you like hyperbole, I'm afraid that for much of our personal everyday stuff -- not to mention the stuff we really care about -- he may be right.

So that's what I was doing during the day. Ottawa doesn't seem to be a town that never sleeps; instead, you have to make your own mischief. I wasn't a particularly energetic mischief-maker this time, so I spent my time working on my Black Hole Superstring Non-Linear Theory of Hotel Stairs. It goes something like this:

Hotels all have stairwells. They have big red EXIT signs labeling them. But they're apparently not meant for ordinary egress. Instead, if you check them out, you'll find that they're of little use for getting from your room to the lobby. Oh, perhaps they're a smoking lounge for hotel staff members, or perhaps they're an architectural annoyance, mandated by law. But what they aren't is STAIRS in any normal sense of the word. First off, they're invariably bleak. Echo-y. A little grimy, even if the hotel is nice and everything else is spotless. There's a cigarette butt here, a candy bar wrapper there. Some unidentifiable stain from a long-ago spilled liquid. The stairways have those metal railings and not much paint has been wasted on them. I can't help myself though. I have to check them out; they exert some kind of gravitational pull on me.

This time, the first staircase I checked out was one of those Haruki Murakami staircases that occupies a set of dimensions that are completely orthogonal to the usual ones. You enter the stairwell and can descend more floors -- or ascend more floors -- than seem physically possible. And the number of steps between floors doesn't seem right. Either the ceilings must've been lower than you noticed when you were in your room. Or there's an interstitial floor between the ones you can get to on the elevators. It is there you'd meet the Sheep Man or take a turn into an alternate universe. It's creepy to think about this, especially in a dim flourescent-lit place where sounds echo in unbounded waves.

The second stairway I checked out was another canonical type: the stairway that brings you to somewhere you're not supposed to be, like a kitchen or a laundry room. You pull open the door and staff members look at you like, "what're YOU doing here?" You've interrupted them, smoking, laughing, hanging out. They're on break. In a nice hotel, they'll gently suggest that perhaps you shouldn't be where you are, with the implication that you might well be crazy for not taking the elevators like everybody else. I usually smile at them and explain my elevator-phobia. Sometime I make up something about once being stuck between floors in an elevator full of Shriners in their red fezzes, smoking cigars, shepherding a keg of beer up to the 18th floor. "I haven't been able to use an elevator since," I conclude.

This story NEVER makes anything better, but I tell it anyway. It did happen to a colleague, so I feel like it's almost true. I do commit an inordinate number of elevator faux-pas, like saying something to one of the other occupants or, worse yet, talking to myself (which is bad enough on the street, but it's much worse in a place where you can't cross over to the other side). Sometimes I'm not facing completely forward too, which isn't right. I know it, but I can't help myself.

Another typical stairway traversal deposits you on the sidewalk. Outside. Someplace where you've never exited the hotel before. It all looks unfamiliar, like it's taken you to a different city. That wouldn't be so bad, except you usually don't have a coat and opening that door marked Exit sets off an alarm that's entirely louder than it needs to be. It's hard to act nonchalant as you hustle your way back to a legal entrance, cold, with the alarm attesting to your guilt. This is a good time to take the elevator back to your room. Forget about the stairs.

You'd actually think that in Canada the hotel stairs would work right. But they don't. It's just that the hotel staff is nicer when you peer into the kitchen or creep back into the hotel after setting off the alarm.


Blogger xm said...

Very nice analysis.

Looks like a "Cain and Abel" type of story ...


1:56 AM  

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