Time to kill with the invisible man


I was hurling along Route 1 in the dark headed for Saint John. It was 3:00 a.m. I’d had maybe two hours sleep, and I knew I wouldn’t get to bed again until 2:00 a.m. the next morning. It was business as usual, just another red-eye flight to Toronto for a meeting.

As I stared through the windshield into the pitch dark hoping that at least the deer and the moose were asleep. My mind was wandering. I was working to stay awake, to keep from drowsing off. I turned on the radio. The BBC World was on three of the four stations. I learned that there’d been a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti just a few hours before, and early estimates put the death toll at 100,000 people. It was way too much for my tired mind to picture.

The next news clip (delivered in a much-too-soothing, sleep-inducing British accent) informed me that researchers had discovered that feeding test mice a blood pressure medication offset the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. Apparently, these angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) somehow combat the buildup of sticky plaques in the brain. I thought, “drug companies are going to love that.” Then I remembered reading that caffeine did much the same thing. Mice that were fed the human equivalent of 5 cups of coffee a day had a much lower incidence of Alzeheimer’s. Same effect, cheaper solution. I’ll bet the drug companies won’t be promoting that.

By the time I got into downtown Toronto it was 8:00 a.m. I had several hours to kill before my first meeting at noon. I decided to have breakfast at The Four Seasons. I don’t like the food, but the coffee is good, the cup is bottomless, they offer a choice of complimentary newspapers and they’ll let you sit and read as long as you like. As I picked at my omelet a solo business guy in sat down at the next table. We struck up a conversation. He was some kind of PR guy for the investment trade. Turns out he as from LA and had been doing this kind of marketing for over 30 years. I pretended to be interested.

After breakfast I went over to the Royal Ontario Museum gift shop to buy a book. Nothing caught my interest. I browsed the shelves. There was the usual variety of mugs and T-shirts. Lots of environmentally friendly stuff. Saving the environment is a feel good purchase. I spotted some framed prints of butterflies. I picked one up. It wasn’t a print. It looked like an actual framed collection of six butterflies. I looked closer. Could these butterflies be some kind of cunningly convincing, made-in-China reproductions? No. From what I could tell, they were real. I picked up another frame and compared it to the first. All the butterflies were unique. I looked at the next shelf and noticed that there were collections of dragonflies, too. Real dragonflies with iridescent bodies and gossamer wings. Six beautiful dead creatures for less than $30. “Environmental pornography” I thought, putting down the frame.

One of the nice things about being in the city is the anonymity. I can be the invisible man. I looked around. People walking fast, going somewhere. Lots of big urban SUVs with glittering chrome wheels with aging blondes in sunglasses behind the wheel. And sports cars, Porsches and sleek Mercedes two-seaters covered in salt in the middle of winter.

I bought a magazine and found a coffee shop. Three more hours to kill. I stared out the window at the traffic. I thought about the flashy cars again. They really are rolling pornography. Taut, smooth skins, powerfully rippled flanks, sparkling with chrome jewelry. It reminded me of a photo I’d just seen in one of the newspapers—a piece on Bob Lutz of GM unveiling the new 2010 Camaro at the Detroit Auto Show. The article informed us that the new Camaro is highly profitable, bringing home a profit of more than $8,000 per unit. The reason? GM rolled out the car as a fuel-efficient V-6 then added a gas-guzzling V-8 option with an almost criminal price markup. Well guess what? No surprise, all the muscle car fans wanted the big V-8, and were willing to pay the steep price.

Bob Lutz is a car guy. He’s deeply into the pornography of cars. Bob has publicly said he doesn’t believe we’re running out of fossil fuel. Bob is the guy responsible for Chrysler’s big reawakening in the 1990s before returning to GM. While at Chrysler he developed the monster gas-guzzling Viper V-10 and the big Dodge Ram pickup, one of which I owned for a while. It was a great truck, if you didn’t mind paying at the pump. I averaged about 15 miles per gallon. Ironically, Bob is also the guy at GM who’s supervising the development of the Chevy Volt electric car. But he’s behind on hitting his technical targets and behind schedule. It isn’t that easy to replace gasoline. Possibly to save face, Bob’s GM has introduced a sporty Cadillac gas-electric hybrid.

I kept staring out the coffee shop window. So much glass, steel, plastic. So many well-dressed shoppers and workers hustling to the next traffic light or traffic jam. All this energy.

Energy’s been a nagging thought for a while now. Back home we’re finishing up our house renovation. It’s getting down to the short strokes now, so I’m hoping we’ll be able to move in soon. But a few of the trades guys have been cruising in “go slow” mode, and go slow means getting expensive. That’s my money that’s flying out the door; that’s my energy they’re using up.

As I was driving into work today, I realized that that’s what we humans do. We compete for energy. Just like all creatures do. Trees compete for their space, pushing their leaves up into the sky and their roots deep into the soil, trying to crowd out other trees.

From birth we’re taught to compete. We’re introduced to games, from Monopoly to hockey, and we’re encouraged to play and win. We pay lip service to being a good loser, but our entire culture focuses on the winners, the Wayne Gretzkys and Madonnas of the world.

Paradoxically, at the same time we’re also taught to share and love one another. On the one hand we’re encouraged to compete for the most attractive mate, then once we do, we’re supposed to magically stop competing, relax and share the love. Which paradigm are we to choose—the competition or the love?

It’s no wonder that so many old people—tired of competing—get ripped off by tradespeople.

But none of us can stop the force of nature, whether it’s human nature or an earthquake, I thought. I got up, buttoned up my coat and headed off to my meeting. I was still a bit early, but needed to get out into the fresh air. Or at least as fresh as it gets in Toronto in January.


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