pencil woes

Towards the end of the year, a series of coinciding circumstances allowed me for the second time to hold yesterday and today, or perhaps today and tomorrow, in the same field of view. You may have found yourself in such circumstances, and not realized it, or perhaps been asleep. But should you find yourself on an eastbound flight that departs at night and arrives in the morning, and you are in the northern hemisphere and seated at a southfacing window, be sure to look outside as the morning creeps in. Looking to your right, towards the rear of the plane, you will find the darkness of the night before; looking to your left, towards the front of the plane, you will glimpse the morning of the new day. Looking straight out the window, you will see night blend to day, yesterday to today, today to tomorrow.

From the ground I imagine you will not see the horizon so broadly, and so perhaps it is a very few people, indeed, in the history of our race, who have ever appreciated this sight. It is a gift, to be sure. And it was thus that I left the second-to-last day of the year, and greeted the last day of the year.

The peacefulness of the moment did not exactly set the tone for the rest of the day.

As you all likely know, I have somewhat of an aversion to round-trip tickets, and so have dabbled in the art of forgery now and then to keep borders running smoothly. To England, however, I believed no such precaution necessary. After all, you could leave the island by train, if you wished, and I was from harmless Canada, anyway. Why would they want proof that I was leaving? It was no matter: I had an onward flight about a week later, but had neglected to print it out. I had simply written the confirmation number and flight details in pencil. Little did I know, it was the bit about the pencil that would cause the most problems.

And so, when I meet the border guard, and tell her that I will be in England about 5 days, she wants to see my ticket to France and I show her my flight details and confirmation number. “What’s this?” “It’s my–” “This is written in pencil!” I didn’t see why that was such a problem. I will not here speculate on the many reasons she may have developed an aversion to the pencil — I wasn’t actually holding a pencil, by the way, but I was certainly holding evidence that I had used one. “I didn’t print it off.” “Why not?!” “Because the flight isn’t for a few days. Look, you can check the confirmation number–” “We’re not a travel agency! We’re customs! This is just written in pencil, how do I know it’s real?” I am paraphrasing, by the way, but this was the general tone of the conversation. I was tempted to point out to her that I could have easily typed and printed the exact same information, and its credibility would not have been enhanced in any way. Having it typed would really offer no new information at all, except demonstrating that I at some point had access to a computer and a printer, or at least a very good typewriter. I might have told her all this. Perhaps I wanted to. But I did not.

And I did not because such actions would operate contrary to my goal of moving past this woman. What I did do was make a mental note that apparently customs (in England, at least) is not capable of verifying flight details — a piece of information that could prove invaluable in the future.

We were at some kind of stand-off. I asked if there was a wi-fi signal, or any place I could use a computer, and she told me to “Look around. Do you see any computers? Do you think there’s an internet signal?” That’s the thing about wi-fi signals, though: they’re invisible, and they can be anywhere. I kept this to myself as well, in the interest of not further pissing her off.

While this is happening, I am wondering about the possible consequences of this small oversight of mine. Are they going to take me to a room? Will they eventually take me to some kind of computer? Would they actually send me all the way back to Canada because I failed to print off an electronic ticket? In most of the countries I’ve travelled, the problem would have been quickly resolved by some kind of bribe (indeed, the problem would be created for that purpose, you can be sure). The biggest downside right now was that I was pretty sure my 6-months-pregnant friend would be waiting for me in the airport (further thought reminded me that no specific meeting place was confirmed. . . it wasn’t exactly a well-planned trip).

I could tell that this woman really wanted me to regret using a pencil. I have been doing almost nothing but staring at this woman’s very pretty eyes for the past several minutes. I consider mentioning how pretty her eyes are, but decide that this is a completely unnecessary gambit, and I should keep my opinion of the aesthetic value of her eyes to myself, no matter how badly I want to see what might happen should I do otherwise.

And so I continue to be patient. She wants me to sweat it out until she’s satisfied I’ve been sufficiently shaken up; my strategy is to appear very afraid, and to be as cooperative as possible, to reword in as many ways as I can the question of what I could possibly do to remedy the situation. There is a time, I have learned, where appearing afraid is much more effective than appearing defiant. People like this woman want their power and authority to be acknowledged, and they want the sanctity of the system they uphold to be respected if not revered. This behaviour can be found everywhere from movie theatres (you would not believe. . .), to department stores, to dentist’s offices, to country-crossing train journeys. I found round-eyed slack jawed fear, genuine or otherwise, to be an effective tactic the last time I was on my way to England and was on the cusp of being late for the flight and was more or less at the mercy of the check-in lady (in this case the fear was real). Of course, appearing afraid all the time will just get you pushed around a lot, and you should be wary of overestimating the power of playing the victim.

To be sure, there are other very similar circumstances when defiance is the only way to go; for example, with impatient people — especially when delays are very inconvenient to them. One thing to realize is that stand-offs and confrontations take up time, and you should always be aware of which participant has a greater interest in spending as little time as possible in a given situation.

It was on this principle that my former girlfriend and I once managed to successfully bully our way onto a plane. The plane ended up almost crashing, which made the effort seem extraordinarily counter-productive at the time. In fact, as we were realizing that the plane had a very high chance of crashing due to an incompetent pilot, we began recounting the many acts of fate that had coalesced to keep us off the plane, and how we had fought so valiantly past these obstacles, so as not to be denied the apparent privilege of a fiery death.

Well, that’s what she was thinking — I was realizing that all those twists of fate that were keeping ‘us’ off the plane really were just trying to keep her off the plane. Fate apparently had no problem with me dying in a plane crash. It’s just like my parents’ fridge, all over again. And as we were thinking these thoughts, we ate from a large bag of M&M’s. The colour of the M&M I was about to eat came under scrutiny, and that’s when I discovered that the only thing that mattered when she eats M&M’s was that she gets at least one of every colour. After realizing she’d already had the colour I was holding, I was permitted to eat it. God forbid she should die having consumed an incomplete set of the candy-coated chocolate rainbow!

But despite a sudden swerve in mid-take-off and considerable turbulence in the air, the plane landed safely. But almost as if to prove to us that he really was incompetent, the pilot managed to miss the bridge at the arrival gate. He then had to restart the engine and back up a bit, making us very late for our next connection, which was okay because that flight was delayed, due to a mechanical part that hadn’t met inspection, which we ended up flying with anyway (yes, without inspection).

But I digress. Once in England I saw some old clocks and a very old rock. I touched the rock, but not the clocks, and had some very spicy soup. To be clear, the soup was so spicy that I felt tingling in my scalp and under my skull, all the strength left my extremities, and I passed out for three hours. But I ate the whole bowl. And it was good.

Sherpa. Derpa.

. . .


PS: I will here sing the many praises I have for the pencil, which in the last year I have come to appreciate a great deal. This recent rediscovery of the wonder of the pencil of course left me particularly sensitive to the border guards’ unwarranted malice towards my beloved medium. It does not run when it is wet, it does not slowly sputter out at the end of its life, it can write upside down, underwater, and in extremes of pressure and temperature. It can be sharpened with the crudest of implements, and it can be erased if necessary. And it’s what the Russians used instead of spending millions of dollars developing space pens, or so I have been led to believe.


originally sent January 24, 2013


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