Saturday, June 4, 2011

Smart Phones

The interpreter was sitting on the sofa next to Stacey, opening her birthday present to him.   It was a phone.  It slid from a narrow cardboard box with a sucking sound.   It was flat, mostly black, and shiny, a rectangle with rounded corners.  He said, “It doesn’t look like my old phone.”

“That’s because your old phone was old.  This is a smart phone. See? No keypad.  It’s touch screen.  It has internet, and a camera, can even make movies.”

He spied it suspiciously.  “I believe this was the type of device used to make that video.”

He was referring to a video that someone had posted on YouTube, a mishap that occurred a month earlier during a canoeing program, a mishap featuring, starring, the interpreter.  It had caused him much grief. Ongoing grief. Endless grief.

The interpreter  was with a group of novice canoeists at the edge of a dock, and was about to spend ten minutes or so teaching a few basic strokes that in theory would provide them with the ability to control their crafts .  He knew this to be a waste of time.  You could no more successfully teach a novice to successfully paddle a canoe in 10 minutes than you could in 10 minutes teach a novice to fly a helicopter.

In the video he was shown waving his arm, asking the group to step back, give him a bit of room so that he could, down on one knee, demonstrate the strokes.   With his foot he pushed away the stern of a canoe tethered next to the dock, and he asked a man standing nearest the bow if he could rotate the boat outward, to provide some paddling room.  The man crouched down and the canoe moved like a large, slow, windshield wiper. 

At the instant the interpreter stepped forward to take his paddling position, a child dropped her paddle, and the interpreter unwittingly stepped onto the blade.  A split second later, the child’s father, who was fast and beefy, intending to make things right, grasped the paddle grip and yanked powerfully upward, effectively jettisoning the interpreter off the dock, into the widening  gap between dock and rotating canoe. With his last, desperate foothold, and as he one-handedly tossed his paddle lakeward, the interpreter launched himself at the canoe, snatching the gunwales and frogging himself into the moving, unstable craft.  He landed on his feet mid-boat, but was off-balance, and tripped over the centre thwart.  He should have dropped to all fours, but for reasons he would never understand, tried to remain upright, as if in a log-rolling contest, and staggered back and forth over the thwart in the pitching craft, eventually finding himself in a death dance to the stern seat, the least stable point in a canoe, the pivot point of no return, from which he was jettisoned vertically and laterally.   He met the lake flat on his back, creating a spray that spread for meters on either side.  He sank among the water lilies, and contemplated staying there.

The entire three or four hilarious seconds were caught on a smart phone, and within two hours the recording went viral on YouTube.  A few days later it was picked up by a popular fail blog, and there would garner more than a million hits within a week.  The event was bound to be featured in end-of-year Best Fail compilations.

The interpreter asked Stacey, “Why was that moron filming me anyway?  When is there a moment in life so empty that you would want to spend time watching someone tell you how to paddle a canoe –or anything else that goes on in an interpretive program?  The whole point is not to watch—it’s to do!”  He glared at the phone in his hand.

Her fingertips softly worked their way among his and she gently wrested the phone away.  She briefly held its blankness in front of his face, and she said, “It’s also a bird guide. I downloaded an ornithological app.  “It’s got multiple pictures of each bird, ecological information, range maps and songs.”

“It plays the songs?”

“And the chip-notes and flight calls too.”

He stared at her.  “Play Western Tanager.”

She tapped and dragged through the menus, and pressed the screen.  It took mere seconds.  The phone sang.

He listened, nodding his head.   “That’s good.  Can it play louder?”  She increased the volume and played it again.

He held out his hand, and she placed the phone in his palm.  “This is a magical thing,” he said, recalling the old days of struggling with cassette tape recorders, fast-forwarding and reversing, more often than not failing to find the particular inch or two of electromagnetic tape needed to teach a call to program participants.

“Just don’t take it canoeing.”

A few days later would be his first chance to try out his new toy in public, a birding program in a mountainous park in the eastern suburbs.  Evening Birding, a Family Program.  He liked the park, which contained a pleasing mix of forest and marshland and a wide range of elevations, offering a decent variety of birds, but family programs could be unpredictable and challenging.  No family arrived uniformly enthused about being there.  Unruly children were dragged along, and unwilling spouses came too, and weren’t shy about expressing their views on the weaker points of a program.


He bounced into the nearly empty, unpaved parking lot and in a cloud of beige dust stopped next to a Parks Operations pickup.  He popped the trunk of his car and rummaged around, gathering spare binoculars, laminated bird identification sheets, and other materials for the walk.  He threw his backpack over his left shoulder and patted the breast pocket of his jacket.  His new phone, batteries charged, ready to sing.

He approached the trail head, which was marked by a weathered wooden information kiosk with split-rail fence snaking out from either side.  Two young men wearing Operations uniforms were leaning on the fence section nearest the trail, smoking, and laughing about something.

The interpreter generally avoided Operations staff.  He resented that they were all better-paid than interpreters.  Even the newest ones, whose jobs consisted of little more than changing the plastic lining of garbage cans and running a gasoline-powered weed-whip, started  two pay grades higher. On top of that, ops guys tended to have little or no respect for interpreters.   The interpreter suspected there was a question at Operations job interviews along the lines of, “Do you like making fun of interpreters and what they do?”

“Yeah!  I really do!  Making fun of interpreters is awesome!”

“You’re hired.  Here’s your weed-whip, and a crayon for signing your contract.  Don’t worry about the spelling, and you may keep the crayon.”  

The interpreter waved as he walked past.  “Hey there,” he said.

“Hey there,” said one of them.

The other said, “Hey!  “You’re that guy!  The canoe guy!”

“What canoe guy?” the first one asked.

“You know, on YouTube!”

The first one’s face lit up.  “Ho yeah, the canoe fail!  That was awesome!  I must have watched it at least 20 times!”  He mimicked the interpreter flailing as he fell backwards into the lake.

“Totally awesome,” said the other.

“Awesome,” muttered the interpreter.   “The adjective of morons.”  He walked down the sloping trail, their laughter burning his ears.

He was seeking a spot not far from the start of the trail where he could gather the participants together and deliver a brief introduction to the program.  It didn’t take long. There was a wide area about 30 metres along, overlooking a steep, wooded ravine that contained second growth deciduous forest and a dense understory of thimbleberry and salmonberry.  This was a good spot, prime bird habitat.  He closed his eyes and listened. Wilson’s Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch.

The downhill side of the trail was protected by three massive logs, meant to keep the inattentive safely on the path.   He found a relatively dry, moss-free spot on one of them, and sat, waiting for the cars to arrive.  The Operations guys were still at the fence, smoking and talking, and he had no interest in waiting up there with them.

After ten minutes, he heard the cars, and saw the dust cloud through the trees.  He waited for the sounds of doors closing and children yelling before going to meet them.  He breezed past the Operations guys, and they said nothing.

There were nine cars, 25 people, a couple of couples, but mostly parents with elementary school-aged children.  Several families seemed to have come together. When doing something as unfamiliar as bird-watching, it is best to have a neighbour come along to watch your back.  He led them down the trail to the place with the logs, moved to the uphill side, and stood, slightly upslope.

“Welcome to the park,” he said. “Tonight we’re...

A woman interrupted, “Aren’t you the one in the video, who fell out of the canoe?”

Her husband said, “You’re right!  That’s the guy!”

“What video?” Another woman asked.

The husband of the first woman described the video in animated detail, ending up bent over coughing from laughing so hard.

The interpreter asked, “Just out of curiosity, how many of you have seen the video?  Show of hands?”

Slightly more than half, including all of the children.

“Great,” he said.  He sighed deeply, and then recommenced his introduction, his new phone in his hand, set to the bird-watching app.  His intention was to play some of the common calls they would be expected to hear as they walked the forest trail.  And then he noticed an identical phone, at the back of the group, held high over the heads of the others by a stocky man wearing a blue toque.  The interpreter stopped speaking in mid-sentence, and he said, “Please, no recording.  I find it distracting.  Plus, nothing we do here will be worth watching later on.”

I’ll be the judge of that,” said the man.  “Maybe my kid can use your stuff for a school project or something. Or maybe you’ll do something else YouTubeworthy.”  He laughed.

The interpreter said nothing.  He switched his phone from the birding app to video camera mode, and held it up.  He started recording himself being recorded. The program participants standing between the two men scattered, and for almost 30 seconds the interpreter and the stocky man stood like duellists at opposite ends of the main street of a frontier town, squinting at one another through 3.5-inch screens.

The stocky man rolled his eyes and lowered his phone.

The interpreter lowered his, returned it to the birding app, and resumed his introductory talk.  The group reassembled in front of him, but after less than a sentence, unbelievably, the stocky man started filming again. 

In response the interpreter stopped talking, fiddled with his phone, and resumed filming the stocky man.

A tall, thin man about the same age as the stocky man and standing next to him said, “Hey, Bud, turn that off!”

The stocky man backed away from the tall, thin man and stepped up onto one of the logs. 

The interpreter, sensing impatience from the others, returned to his talk, but then stopped again.  The stocky man was filming.  He raised his phone, and resumed filming the stocky man.

The tall, thin man walked over to the log and said to the stocky man, “Look, Bud, he’s not gonna give his spiel if you keep filming.”   He tugged the stocky man’s pant leg.

The stocky man gave a weak kick at the tall, thin man, and in doing so lost his balance on the damp, mossy log.  He windmilled his arms two or three times and wordlessly slipped off the far side of the log.  He landed on his feet, but on soft ground sharply sloping away.  In an instant he was gone, tumbling backwards through the understory. 

“Bud!” the tall, thin man yelled.  His name, apparently, really was “Bud.”

The group spun around to watch, some climbing onto the logs.  The interpreter had already run around their left flank, his arm extended capturing every delicious second.

After the first thirty feet and three backward somersaults Bud was swallowed by the dense foliage, but his progress was observable in the sudden jerky collapse of the crowns of individual shrubs as his rolling body undercut their stems.  A one-man British cheese-wheel race was going on down there, a shallow mountain stream the prize.  Bud finally reached the bottom of the ravine, as evidenced by a splash.  The interpreter stopped filming, leaned into the void, and yelled, “Hey, are you okay?”

There was no answer.  There was silence, almost.  A Western Tanager was singing somewhere.

“Bud!” A woman, Bud’s wife, yelled.

“Hey Bud, Are you okay?” The tall, thin man called.

More splashing followed by the underfoot crunching of streamside gravel suggested the stocky man was alive and mobile.  An answer came.  “I’m @#%*ing perfect!”

The interpreter and program participants stood at the top of the ravine listening and watching as Bud worked his way back uphill, grunting and cursing under his breath as he pulled on the spindly bases of understory shrubs.  He eventually reached the trail halfway between the group and the parking lot, and beckoned to his wife, “C’mon, we’re outa here.”

“Maybe you are.  We’re not,” she said, draping her arm across their young daughter’s shoulders.  “You can wait for us in the car.”

The interpreter watched Bud walk away.  The two Operations workers, who had not moved from their station at the trail head, had also observed the spectacular tumble.  One said something to Bud and they laughed.  He didn't respond, and walked out of sight. 

The interpreter looked at his magical phone, and mused aloud, “I wonder how tricky it is to upload a video to YouTube.”

A nine year-old boy standing nearby said, “It’s not tricky at all.  It’s as easy as texting.  It’s like sending an email.”

The interpreter thought for a moment.  He looked to the parking lot, at the Operations louts, and then at Bud’s wife and daughter who were at the far side of the group, out of earshot.  He asked the boy, “Do you know how to delete a video?”

The boy nodded.

“Awesome.”  He handed him the phone.


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5 comments:

Tatyana@MySecretGarden said...

Great! I love it. Thank you!

Dave said...

Awesome ending.

Hugh said...

Tatyana, Thank you!

Dave, Thanks. It sort of wrote itself.

Patricia Lichen said...

Oh, this is fabulous! I had no idea how it was going to end & agree with Dave...awesome ending.

Hugh said...

Thank you Patricia.