Thursday, March 24, 2011

Snowpocalypse in spring-time

Hello March. I didn't see you there under ALL THAT SNOW.

It wasn't really the sheer quantity of white stuff that had me gawking out of my window on Wednesday morning. I mean, I live in Canada. I know that has consequences. Perhaps I was daft, but I thought that 20CM OF SNOW would be preceded by, you know, cold weather.

It wasn't even that we'd just had a brief warmer day. It hadn't snowed for weeks and on the weekend, I had finally dragged the bag of de-icing grit for the sidewalks back down to my basement. I had picked up my snow boots from their spot by the door and stowed them in my closet and laid aside my full length coat in favour of a fleece. I had even switched my violently coloured knee-length socks to violently coloured ankle socks. Seriously, spring was coming!

I noted my actions on Facebook and received the prompt reply that I'd jinxed everything and now it was going to snow on Wednesday....

.... I'm still hoping a weather forecast was involved somewhere in that.

Having completed a serious 20 minutes worth of slack-jawed gawking on Wednesday morning, I shovelled my drive and staggered into work. Notably, only the few most major roads had been cleared; something that was true even when I returned home in the evening. In Ontario, much of the snow clearing comes from residents with plough-attachments on their pick-up trucks. They get paid by the province for the work they do, but apparently I wasn't the only one who had packed up for the season.

Upon arriving in my office, I found my Facebook wall had become a site of blame:

"Cause and effect -> didn't you put your salt/grit back in the basement? Doomed..."

Sad but true. Evidently, the clearing of my drive had also been a repulsive act to Mother Nature and she worked steadily all day to cover up any evidence of my labour. It was extremely successful.

I returned home and wrote my message to the world in my car's rear windscreen.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Typical homecoming

Upon walking up my driveway towards the door of my apartment:

Neighbour's dog: Ruff! Ruff ruff ruff! Ruff ruff!

Me: Ruff ruff ruff ruff. Ruff!

Upon pushing open the door and entering the kitchen:

Cat: Meow! Meow meow meow meeeeooooow!

Me: Meow meow! Meow!

I'd feel better about all this if I felt anything I said during the preceding day had made more sense.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The ultimate warm-up

I stepped on the ice and flailed as my right skate shot out from underneath me. Hurriedly, I swung my weight to the left, becoming an ice ballerina as I sailed on one foot towards the barrier. Was the rink slick with water from the new surface deposited by the departing Zamboni? Normally, freshly cut ice has the reverse problem, with the residue thin layer of water causing the puck to stick to the rink before it freezes properly.

Gingerly, I put my skate back on the ice only to have it slide hopelessly sideways. What crazy ice problem was this? Two of my team-mates passed me, apparently unaffected. Was the issue with my skate? Had my blade come loose without me noticing? That would be bad; I couldn't skate with a blade so displaced it sent me flying every time it touched the rink. I'd have to not play.

I scanned my friends performing warm-up exercises. We were low on numbers tonight, I had to skate! I'd just have to ... have to .... skate on one foot. At least I'd have the element of surprise. Maybe if I pushed off from the bench really hard at the start of each of my shifts, I could sail across the rink, intercept the puck and ...

... be carted off for six weeks traction before the end of the first period.

This was clearly a COMPLETE DISASTER! However you looked at it there was going to be carnage and missed goals and broken bones and bandages and probably an iron lung. 

I reached the barrier and leaned against it, allowing me to get a proper look at my feet. My eyes narrowed at the lump of sticky tape attached to my right blade. Okay, perhaps no one had to loose the use of their lungs. This seemed like a solvable situation.

The next few minutes progressed in a remarkably similar manner to this video clip. I pushed the lump of tape with my free boot but it just slid along the blade. Next I tried pinning it down with my left blade while I lifted my right skate up. That caused my skates to be stuck together. Then I tried trying to rub it off on the barrier after which I attempted ... Look, it doesn't matter. Let's just say in a battle of me versus tape there was a clear winner and leave it at that.

Ultimately, I was rescued by a team-mate who was able to bend down and tug the offending stickiness free of my skate. The exposed blade finally cut into the ice and I shot forward just as the whistle blew for the game to begin. Fortunately, I had just stretched out every single muscle. It was the ultimate warm-up. I must write to the NHL.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don't knock it

"That ... can't be right..."

I was watching the student cashier count out a pile of coins from the till for my change. The thing was, I'd given him $2 and my drink was $1.90. It might be first thing on a Thursday morning, but even I could work out that I shouldn't be receiving a fistful of silver coins back.

The cashier paused and looked at the till screen. It read:

Purchase: $1.90
Change: $0.85

"No ..." he agreed and then shrugged. "Just ... you know ... go with it." He passed me over the coins with a sunny smile.

"Um. Okay. Thanks." I took the coins and the drink and wandered off.

Probably a sociology student.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sled hockey

"On the off-chance this ever becomes an issue ... which way are we shooting?"

Even for me, it was strange question to ask during a hockey game. This, though, was no ordinary match. This was sled hockey. Designed for disabled players, sled hockey is played --as the name suggests-- on sleds. These devices resemble metal stretchers supported on short twin blades with a plastic bucket seat on one end.

A member of my regular hockey team coaches in a sled hockey league and, finding her team had an hour of extra ice time at the end of their season, she suggested we come and try it out in an exhibition match. There is clearly no other answer to such a suggestion than 'hell yes!' and it was utterly awesome. The 'exhibition' naturally turned out to be us, rather than the game, but this was suspected well in advance of the reality.

The first obstacle I had to cross occurred in the changing room when I attempted to put my hockey gear on without my skates. The issue was not the emotional guilt from leaving my skates in my bag (although that was rather sad) but simply that my kit goes on in a certain order. Like Ikea furniture, forgetting one of the steps usually results in the end product falling to pieces. In this case, my shin pads felt dangerously slippy.

As it turned out, this wasn't a problem since my ankles got taped to the sled. What was more of an issue was getting my GIGANTIC BACKSIDE into the tiny plastic seat. If the proceeding game wasn't enough to wreak my ego, this would have sealed the deal. It transpired later that sled hockey players don't wear the same padded shorts as skaters in the traditional game (IT'S TRUE I TELL YOU!). They either wear lighter shorts similar to those used in roller hockey or just leggings. As a result, I had to be levered into my sled by the referee.

Then I was off!

.... if I could work out how to move. Instead of a single long stick for manoeuvring the puck, sled hockey players have two short sticks roughly a third of the length of a traditional hockey stick. The shooting blade on each is the same size and shape as a full-sized stick but the reverse end is equipped with metal teeth that are dug into the ice to propel you forwards. It was quite like rowing a boat on frozen water. When you wanted to hit the puck, you inverted the stick to put the blade against the ice and shot towards the goal. At least, that was the idea.

The sled blades were adjustable and could be set at different distances apart. Ours were separated by about half a foot rather like the training wheels on a bicycle. A few of the real team members had theirs mounted so close together they looked like a single blade. This forfeited stability in favour for manoeuvrability. Since I had a habit of tipping over, being unable to do handbreak turns on one stick was not overly upsetting. Normally when I fell to one side, I was able to righten myself with one hefty push. However, while guarding the goal (probably from nothing, I have no idea where the puck was at the time), I tipped over so fully that I partially came un-wedged from my seat. This meant that when I tilted back up, my centre-of-mass was off to one side and I just fell down in the opposite direction. Team members surrounded me like a bovine heard around a wounded animal. However, since we were all tied into our sleds, no one was able to provide the leverage and stability to correct the problem. In the end the referee (laughing hard) appeared to stuff me back into position. Time to go!

Never had the ice rink looked so big. None of us were used to working our arm muscles so much and we couldn't yet move at any great speed. Someone sped past me, guiding the puck with one stick and manoeuvring with the other. He approached the goal, lifted the entire sled up about an inch, and shot the puck underneath it to land in the net.

I waved my sticks a bit in stunned admiration.

When the whistle blew, I cut myself free of the tape round my ankles and tumbled unceremoniously onto the ice. Strangely, one of the sorest parts of me was not my arms but my unused legs. This is apparently not uncommon, since you do not normally sit with your legs absolutely still for an extended period of time.

I picked up the sled and carried it to the store room noting, with some surprise, that many of the regular players did the same. Upon inquiring, I discovered that to play in the sled hockey league, you have to have some form of disability, which need not be physical. This led to one very important question:

If you could walk, why on earth is sled hockey considered easier than the traditional sport?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chocolate, traffic and visas

My car was full of chocolate aero bars. I'd stuffed three in the glove compartment, two in the cup holders and now I was trying to find homes for another five. Clearly, some rearranging was required.

I was parked at the duty free store by the US-Canada land border near Niagara. While this leg of the journey should have taken only an hour, I had left home at 9:30 am and it was now 2 pm. The heavy snow the night before had taken not only me by surprise, but caused a tractor trailer to jack-knife on the highway, blocking all three lanes and resulting in near-stationary traffic for hours. This had led to repeated texts to my friend providing ever longer estimated arrival times.

I supposed I should count myself lucky. As I had sat there flicking through the radio stations and failing to find any traffic news, a car carrier truck had drawn up beside me loaded with three mashed-up vehicles. I suppressed the temptation that had been growing within me to start ramming the car in front.

Despite the fact I was anticipating spending at least another hour at the border office getting a tourist visa, I had pulled into the duty free to use the bathroom. Feeling that someone should benefit from this chaos, I had bought another US residing (a.k.a. the country without aeros) friend more of her favourite chocolate while in the store. Well, it was better than the other (rather tempting but probably regrettable) option of accepting the free samples of ice wine.

For reasons designed to vex me, the US air and land ports have different policies regarding entry visas. The airports have moved over to the electronic ESTA applications and consider these so shiny and superior that they confiscate the old green paper visas on sight. The land border, by contrast, has rejected this crazy modern technology and wants you to have the green slip in your passport. The upshot of this is that I am either sulking in the land border office waiting to be called to the counter or watching sadly as the airport guy destroys my paper visa like a mother weaning a child off a pacifier.

Before pulling onto the bridge, I called my friend and told her I should be in Buffalo in about two hours, depending on the queues and busyness of the border office. I hoped for once that I wouldn't have send the follow up text telling her to double that estimate. Then I stuffed the chocolate into my bag and slid onto the road.

"Reason for coming to the USA?" The border control guard took my passport and flicked through its pages.

"I'm meeting a friend."

"How to you know them?"

I'd long ago learned to outright lie to this question. The friend I normally met when driving over the border I knew from an internet fan group for Japanese anime. If that didn't sound like something for which I should be detained and questioned for 6 weeks, I don't know what does.

"College," I said, my face bland. I watched the guard examine my collection of visas and took a long shot. "I've entered the US recently," I explained. "Less than a month ago through Atlanta airport. There's a stamp in the back."

A visitor visa to the USA lasts three months before you have to renew it. Every other time I had passed through though, the lack of the green paper slip has meant that I have to get a new pass done. Still, I'd never explicitly tried pointing out that this should be unnecessary.

The guard examined the stamp. "Okay, carry on."

....Seriously? I was so surprised, I nearly forgot to put my car back in gear. It was a good job I'd stopped to use the bathroom at the duty free. I drove slowly through the gates, reaching for my phone to text:

"25 minutes."

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Late night

As the zamboni rolled onto the ice, we pushed open the rink door and made our way over to the benches. We stopped in the 'away' team's area and started to deposit our sticks and water bottles.

"Guys, we're the home team tonight!" Our captain had arrived and was now waving us to the next bench over.

We all turned to stare at him for a moment. "But....that one's further...." someone protested.

Can you tell it was a late game? It was.

Apart from the fact that everyone looks dazedly confused when the puck is first dropped, the other problem with late games is that the outside temperature is prone to plummet. As Saturday night swung to Sunday morning, the heavy rain that had been dousing the city all day morphed into horizontal snow. I left the rink to find one half of my car covered with a dusting of white icing powder and the other half buried under 2 inches. It was kinda awesome. And difficult to shift.

After about half an hour of dedicatedly fighting against nature's desire to preserve my car in ice while the fans warmed the windscreen, I was able to trundle away out onto the road.

Hamilton city is divided into two halves by what is locally known as 'the mountain'. This is a wholly inaccurate description for what is actually an escarpment, the same one that runs south-east of Hamilton to form the cliff from which Niagara Falls plunges. The ice rink is located on the raised escarpment while my apartment sits in the downtown city area below. This meant I was looking at a steep and snowy decent to get home.

I rolled unenthusiastically along the road, trying to follow the path carved by the few other vehicles up and about at this hour.  I could mentally see myself turned upside down in a ditch, my car wheels turning like its upturned bug namesake. Sadness!

Then, I spotted a snowplough. Sneakily, I went twice round the roundabout and slid in behind it to follow it down to the city. It was a bit like tailing an ambulance to avoid red light except .... much .... slower.

I ditched my new best friend at the bottom of the hill and scooted off for home. When I arrived, my driveway was already thick with snow. Should I risk trying to pull into it? Images of angry old ladies lecturing me on the location of my broken-down car filled my mind. I scuttled off to park in the street. That woman seemed just the type to be out at 2 am.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Potato, potato

"Did you say, Buffalo?"

Finally! After 12756 tries (or there abouts), Continental Airlines automatic phone system had detected the airport I wanted to leave from. Now we just had to ...

"Please give the name of the airport you wish to travel to."

I closed my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose with one hand.


"Did you say, South Korea?"

May I just point out that is a country and not an airport? I suppose I should be grateful that I would at least be heading in the right direction rather than starting in Russia and ending in Mexico. I wondered how many virtual airports I would have to tour before something approximating a flight to Japan was being considered by both parties.

"Did you say, Sapporo, Japan?"

Bullseye. Second try, no less. Still, we weren't out of the woods yet.

"Please give the date you wish to depart."

"March 21st."

"Did you say March 28th?"


"Sorry about that. Please give the date you wish to return."

... What? So we have unequivocally established that you did not record the correct date for my departure so you're going to apologise and just ... carry right on? Apparently, I was not the only one getting annoyed here. Continental's phone system had clearly decided I should be grateful for any flight at all.

Strangely, at this stage in the proceedings, I was pretty much in agreement. Just get me to Japan for some period of time; I'll sort out the rest from there.

... it was preferable to calling this whole thing off.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tomato, tomato

"Please give the name of the airport you wish to travel from."


"Did you say, Finland?"


"Sorry about that. Please give the name of the airport you wish to travel from."


"Did you say, Barcelona, Spain?"


I was attempting to communicate with the automatic telephone system for Continental Airlines. While the pleasant sounding male voice appeared to have an extensive knowledge of world cities, it was apparently rather less good on world accents. I pulled a face and tried to think of a different way of pronouncing 'Buffalo'. Buuuffalo, perhaps? Buffaaalo?

"Did you say, Boston?"

Well, at least we were in the right country this time. Perhaps I should just have said 'yes' and driven there. Indeed, I promptly regretted not doing exactly that when we moved onto:

"Did you say, Campeche, Mexico?"

How does one go from 'Buffalo' to 'Campeche, Mexico'? How is it that a voice recognition system can cope (presumably) with a southern drawl and not with a British accent? Could this plausible sounding recording actually be a particularly annoyed employee having a laugh? Maybe it was someone taking an extended lunch break by wiring up the phone system to keep the customer on hold until gone half-past two. If so, I had to hand it to them; it would be a hard crime to prove.

"Did you say, Perm, Russia?"

Then again, a tape of this conversation ought to nail the skiving bastard.