“Social malaise” or “shit happens”? #52essays2017

I used to live in Montreal, so I like to keep tabs on the city’s big news. Recently, there was quite a hubbub when 300 cars were stranded overnight on a Quebec highway, due to a snowstorm. People kind of lost their minds over this, and now the inevitable “think piece” from Maclean’s has arrived.

After reading the article, I can’t say I agree with this author’s conclusions. Maybe it’s because I, too, have survived a night stuck on a highway in my car, after a tractor-trailer jackknifed on the road up ahead of us. Granted, I didn’t get frostbite nor die. My car wasn’t towed. I didn’t have to walk miles to the nearest exit to try to find shelter from the storm. But a similar event did occur, once upon a time, outside of Chicago back in the 1990s. (It may have even been 1999 – billed as one of Chicago’s “3 Worst Blizzards” in this article.)

At the time, it was quite an inconvenience. A frustration. Not so much a worry about whether or not everything would eventually be righted, and the world turned back to normal, but certainly there were questions like “How could this happen?” and “What kind of a society can’t figure out how to keep a highway going in the winter?” I mean, it’s not like Chicago doesn’t experience snow every single year, right?

My take on this story is that the author is promoting a lot of unnecessary fearmongering, trying to prey on people’s concerns about a more disconnected society, where people really do not give a damn about one another. Classic dystopian visions, right?

Honestly, my response is that shit happens. Not to be too glib, but it really does. Every day. All the time. Usually when you least expect it, when you’re least prepared for it, and when you’re most vulnerable. It sucks, but it doesn’t mean society is about to collapse, or that people don’t actually care about one another – although I can certainly understand and identify with that feeling, living in a country currently run by the World’s Biggest Man-Baby, where every day it seems like he is about to start WW3.

In case you’re curious, here’s what happened when I got stuck on a highway in a snowstorm:

I was with my dad, driving back to our home in Cincinnati after having taken a tour of the University of Chicago in said snowstorm. It was a pretty small tour group as I recall… I think my dad and I may have been the only brave souls to turn up that day. Being originally from the Chicago area, I certainly wasn’t afraid of the snow, and my dad will never let the weather stop him from doing anything.

After the traffic suddenly ground to a halt, we wondered what the heck was going on, and turned the radio to a news station to discover that the traffic was backed up due to an accident up ahead. There was an overpass exit up ahead, so we maneuvered into the off-ramp and went inside. The overpass contained a couple of fast-food joints, some restrooms, and a gas station. We didn’t need any gas, so we got something to munch on, and settled down at a table. There were various people talking about the traffic jam, and we looked out the windows over the highway, trying to see if we could spot the mess up ahead.

We couldn’t.

We stayed there for a while, until we saw the traffic start to move again. Optimistically, we got back into the car and decided to try to head for an upcoming exit, which led to another highway. My dad had been consulting his maps from the glove box, and said the other road would take us a bit out of the way, but would ultimately allow us to bypass the mess and continue on towards home.

Somehow or another, once we got back onto the highway, my dad decided not to take the exit we’d agreed upon, saying that it looked like the road ahead was clear and we could just keep on going. So we did, until once again the traffic ground to a halt.

Obviously, the real jam had still not been cleared, because cars were still basically parked on the highway.

I can’t remember if we had consulted the radio’s news again or not – remember, this was back before the days of instant cell-phone communications and being able to check the internet for real-time updates about such traffic problems – but we probably hadn’t. So now, we were stuck.

Thanks, dad!

He and I tried to sleep in the car for a bit, as it had gotten quite late in the day, and he would wake up every half-hour or so, turning the heater on for a few minutes to warm us both back up. We had a few blankets in the trunk, and kept our coats on to preserve body heat. I think my dad also gave me his navy blue ear-flap hat, to keep my head warm. Things were not exactly comfortable, and trying to sleep with boots on is not really ideal, but we tried not to complain too much.

Eventually, during one of the “wake up and heat the car up again” rounds, we discovered the road had been cleared up ahead of us. That was sometime around 3 AM. We weren’t sure how far the traffic had been backed up, but since we definitely couldn’t see the truck that was blocking things, it must have been quite a ways. We excitedly tapped on the window to wake up the sleeping driver in the car in front of us, and got back on our way.

When we came to the next exit, this time we took it – both to grab some coffee and warm back up, and to get the hell off of that highway, just in case. The dude in charge of the convenience store and gas station seemed pleased to be doing such brisk business at such an odd hour of the morning. Somebody called me “sir,” because I looked totally disheveled and was wearing my dad’s hat.

We got some coffee and some gas for the car, used their restrooms, and got back on the road again.

Shit happens. Life is what you make of the difficulties that block your path.

You can choose to look at that as a pain in the ass, as a severe fuck-up on the part of probably dozens or hundreds of people, and that’s not wrong. But you can also look at it as an adventure, or a funny story about a road trip you can tell all your friends, at least in hindsight. Right? It’s all in your attitude. And, granted, I am not the Queen of Positivity, but I do try to be realistic about how much of my life is simply out of my control. Getting stuck on a highway in a snowstorm was definitely not Part Of The Plan. But it’s also not The End Of The World.

I’m not trying to say that Quebec doesn’t have its problems, nor that getting stuck on a highway in a snowstorm doesn’t suck. Crumbling infrastructure and unconcerned government officials are two things that surely combined to result in such a mess in the first place. And on top of that, it snows a lot every year. Lots of people in the province have SADD. Tow truck drivers are notorious assholes, no matter what country you live in (hell, their business is basically preying upon folks who are stranded). 50% of your income in Quebec goes to taxes that never seem to come back to the people, whether it’s in the form of better roads, better pay for teachers, better support for new immigrants, or whatever else you might think income taxes should pay for. I could go on.

Hell, here are some parody postcards of Montreal that will give you some idea of what Montrealers hate about their own city!

But to paint Quebec society with such a broadly negative brush is incorrect. I have lived and loved in Quebec, and have also hated the place for its language politics and police, its strangely small-town mentality, its ignorance and arrogance regarding foreigners of all kinds.

Alas, Quebec is not perfect; no place is.

But letting a publication like Macleans point the finger or try to place blame on a “nihilistic” society is not going to help matters.

Shit happens, and we just have to try to deal with it as best we can. We are all flawed individuals. We will all make mistakes. Sometimes, people will lose their jobs for their incompetence. Sometimes, lots of money will be wasted on stupidity, carelessness, and waste. We should all try harder. We can all do better.

To claim that “Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted” is simply irresponsible journalism. What, after all, makes getting stranded in a snowstorm “pathological” or indicative of societal alienation? What do any of the author’s examples (such as cops not wearing “proper uniforms”) have to do with this theory? Weren’t a couple of out-of-town truck drivers actually to blame for this whole incident? So, then, why not lay the blame on wherever these unnamed truckers hail from? Clearly they did not have the public good at heart! They refused to move their trucks, or to let a local tow truck driver help them – clearly, their home provinces are to blame for such “pathological” and “alienated” behavior!

If this all sounds ridiculous, it’s meant to. Trying to place blame on society at large is a futile act. Society is nothing without individuals, and individuals make choices for many different – often unfathomable – reasons. When two truck drivers refuse to have their trucks towed, then insist they cannot move the trucks because the snow has not been cleared properly, well… you’ve got the beginnings of a mess right there. Two people, making choices, are what are really at the heart of this problem. Two people who would not be moved. Two people who probably wish, in retrospect, that they had done something differently.

So, while you can make up any kinds of wild theories you like, I think the real truth of the matter is that sometimes people make mistakes. They fight for the wrong things, and other people get hurt as a result. Thankfully, no one got frostbite or died. The worst that happened here was that several hundred cars were towed, but Quebec says they will not force the drivers to pay associated fines, since circumstances were beyond their control.

And that’s really it. Circumstances are often beyond our control. We like to think otherwise, but we are really just fooling ourselves. This is not to say we should not attempt to control our own lives, our own circumstances, but sometimes there’s simply nothing more we can do.

Shit happens. Let’s deal with it together.