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The International Writers Magazine
:Hacktreks in the North West Pacific

Pacific Nonstandard
In Praise of Coastal Time
Greg Blanchette

An acquaintance of mine once had a problem. This young professional was such a pathologically heavy sleeper that he found it impossible to awake at the requisite hour on weekday mornings. He tried everything — diet, herbs, therapy — but none of it worked. He was almost always late for work, and lost more than one job as a result.

An electronics technician by trade, in a last-ditch effort he constructed this … thing that occupied the whole top of his bedroom dresser. There was a circuit board with some rectangular black chips, and a rat’s nest of wiring, and a relay hooked up to the guts of an industrial warning siren pointing right at his bed. It was, he said proudly after a few trials, fully capable of rousing the whole household (which he shared with three others), and probably much of the surrounding neighbourhood.

This contraption so effectively cured his morning lethargy that in short order he began awakening to the infinitesimal click the relay made as it triggered the siren. He would leap from bed across the room in a single bound to hit the kill switch before the thing wound up to full volume.

Another friend went the opposite route. A whisper-light sleeper, he has internalized the thing so well that he goes to bed merely thinking of the time he wants to wake up — say, ten to seven — and sure enough, come the designated hour, his eyes pop open. He rarely misses by more than a few minutes.

As for me, in my younger days I needed a strapping black brute of a thing, brand name "Westminster" like the abbey, with the tic-toc of a cartoon time bomb and a clangor like an old dial phone. Now I go to bed earlier and sleep lighter, and the peeping of a wristwatch does the job.
Loud or soft, though, it was the voice that inaugurated the day. From wherever you are, it proclaims, through whichever pleasant dreamland you may romp, puny mortal … come at once to do my bidding!

You will be getting the idea that I am not enamoured of the thing, that I somehow resent its intrusion into the everyday rhythm of life. After all, scientists, who on rare occasions come up with findings pertinent to human existence, have proven that habitual use of a thing leads to chronic sleep deprivation.
Maybe that was the root of my problem. Or maybe it was the cumulative humiliation of kowtowing every morning to a hunk of metal and plastic. At any rate, over the years it got progressively more difficult to cope with those workday mornings. The thing would jangle and I'd leap from bed to eat, dress, and creep into a day solidifying as tentatively as Jell-O.

For a long time I believed the wrung-out, hollow disorientation I felt in the morning was normal. It never occurred to me to question it until I happened to indulge a curiosity about early Arctic exploration — a ripe field, it turns out, for anyone interested in the stripped-down basics of life.

It seems that, on his 1909 expedition to the North Pole, Robert Peary had a problem. His native Greenlander guides were bollixing up a tight travel schedule by refusing to wake up in the mornings until they were good and ready. If forcibly roused they would simply roll over and fall back asleep, much to the vexation of the explorers, who had blank space on their maps to fill and homes to get back to.

After much palaver, Peary discovered the Greenlanders believed that when asleep a person’s goes off wandering, far from its body, and might not be able to find its way back if the sleeper is artificially awakened — a grievous peril.
The book didn't say how the dispute was resolved. Given the periodic furore over whether Peary reached the Pole or not, maybe it never was. More to the point, though, the instant I read about that high-Arctic credo I had an image for how I felt after the thing did its work every morning: a body pining for its soul. That was it exactly.

Reading that passage may have been the first tiny lurch in the convoluted journey that brought me to the end of the road on the West Coast. An old joke claims that Canada must tilt downward to the left, because everything in the country that’s not rooted to the ground inevitably rolls west. Most of the loose nuts, so the legend goes, end up in British Columbia. Presumably the very loosest keep rolling, right here to the water's edge in Ucluelet and Tofino.

Folks out here call each other all kinds of names, many of them unflattering, but my favourites are "Uclutian" and "Tofucian." I love these words because they sound like "Martian," and that reminds me that the West Coast really is a different planet.

Out here on the coast we are not exposed to the full glare of the continent. We are distanced by a ferry, shielded by mountains, quarantined by a notorious goat-track of a highway. It switches up hills and scrambles through rock, turns back in despair several times, vaults triumphantly through a cloudburst, plummets into a fog. The pilgrim is threatened with logging trucks and blind curves, sheer drops and scenery he wants to watch but dares not.

Nobody arrives on the Coast easily. And when they do arrive, damp with sweat and breathing hard, they find themselves slowly coming unstuck. What was fixity in their lives now seems to be in flux. Like the weather and the roads, all is mist and echo, swirl and curve, glimpse and shadow.

Modern notions, by contrast, travel the straight lines of laser beams and microwaves. They need right angles and sharp edges; they move fast and cannot handle curves. So you can see why the twenty-first century doesn't get out here much, with its meddling progress and obsessive efficiency - and its mandatory bedside thing.

When you first arrive here from the city, this doesn't hit you all at once. It takes time to seep in. But eventually you start to notice disturbing things about yourself: that you dawdle more than you used to; that you arrive at places other than planned; that sometimes you stare out over the ocean for minutes on end. And finally, one day, you look at your watch and realize you're ten minutes late for a meeting — and you just don't care.
That's when you know you're on Coastal Time.

Over there on the other side, time is a rigid commodity — a big trophy buck that Einstein shot a hundred years ago, and now hangs mounted and glassy-eyed on his wall. On the Coast, though, time is still a fluid. We do not march to Coastal Time, with the tic-toc-tic of the thing, so much as we swim it, like a salmon through the Pacific, searching out that one, true-smelling stream of our destiny.

Out here on the Coast we have traditions to uphold, imperatives imposed upon us by one transcendent fact of geography: The farther west you go, the later the sun rises. Which means that, in all of Canada, the sun rises here dead last. The indisputable corollary is that we Coast dwellers are the latest risers in the whole country. By the time Ucluelet rolls out of bed in the morning, Ontario has put in three hour's work, and most of Newfoundland is already out to lunch. West Coasters are the naturally ordained slackers of the nation.
As a result, Coastal Time is too expansive to be summed up in just one time zone. Out here we need dozens, maybe hundreds. In my small circle alone, for example, we have Jody Time, which consists of just two moments for doing anything: right now or in three months, after tree-planting season is over.
We have Grant Time, which is as close to random as anything in nature. There's Robyn & Dave Time, which miraculously runs fast — except when the swell hits two metres and the tide’s right for surfing, when it stops entirely. And there's Barb Standard Time, which runs, depending on weather, about half an hour slow.
So it's a simple matter of course that when organizing a dinner party, for example, you phone Jody when the rice goes on to boil; you don't phone Grant at all; you invite Robyn & Dave for 8:00, Barb for 6:30, and the other guests for 7:00. Everybody then trickles in between 7:30 and 9:00, right on time.

Indeed, when the occasional freak event does somehow manage to begin at its appointed hour, we have a problem. Take the Winter Music Series concert last Christmas: A fine, clear, nearly Arctic night it was, as we pulled up to the venue at 7:35 — way early, obviously, for a 7:30 event — only to find the audience already in place and musicians setting bow to string. I still recall the Daliesque aura that warped the evening far better than the music itself, and I truly hope the organizers have since come to their senses.
Still, we simply squeezed to our seats and settled in, reflecting smugly that late-comers in Winnipeg would have been ushered in by flashlight to everlasting humiliation, while those in Montreal would have been left standing in the lobby till intermission.

Out here on the Coast we are safe from this nonsense. You were supposed to have been somewhere half an hour ago? Forgot to set the thing, did you? Squirm not, O Tardy One, it is nothing. Here you will not be chastised for your dilatory ways, your momentary preoccupations, your very humanity.
Here, we live on Coastal Time.

© Greg Blanchette Dec 14 2004
abuzz@island.net
Ucluelet, BC

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