Sunday, February 13, 2005

Hanging by my toes

For a change of pace, I'll write about something that happened to me today instead of five or ten years ago. When I began this blog, I decided I wouldn't write about anything pertaining to work. And here I am, breaking that rule already. Bad, bad crumblord.

One of the highlights of my year is taking the graduate students from the program where I teach to a week-long artist's residency in a small village about three hours from New York. This is the sixth year we've done it, and by now I've got the planning down to a science. Which means, of course, that this year it would have to begin with a minor disaster. Well, not a disaster. A schoolbus.

You see, ordinarily we pack ourselves into a coach - a large, comfortable bus like you might ride to Atlantic City. There were only 20 of us, but there were enormous piles of luggage, computer equipment, musical instruments and snacks. The trip is usually uneventful and pleasant. It was a gorgeous day. Everyone arrived more or less on time.

If only we knew.

Somewhere just north of the Bronx, the bus stalled, and the driver pulled over to the side of the freeway. He waited for a few minutes until the bus started up again. The same thing happened again; we drove for ten minutes, and the bus overheated and stalled. Being in a bus careening without power on a crowded New York highway is a delightful, relaxing adventure. Oh, yes.

The driver managed to get off the thruway and into a small main street of a town near White Plains. He went into the hardware store and bought some antifreeze, thinking that might solve the problem. He refilled the oil and water as well.

We made it another half-mile before stalling again.

The students were all very laid back and relaxed about it, for the most part. They slept or chatted; we had the DVD player on the bus playing Napoleon Dynamite. We waited while the driver called his bus company and they decided what to do. A mechanic could not be found. They were searching for another coach which could come and pick us up.

By now, hours were passing as we were stuck on the side of the road. I had eaten a good breakfast, but by now it was becoming late afternoon, and my blood sugar was plummeting. Although there were other faculty members on the bus, I was in charge; I was feeling like Julie Andrews in charge of the von Trapp children, while having been stranded in a plane crash in the Andes. We joked about who would be eaten first. Liesl can't run fast. Get her!

I kept my sense of humor. Barely. The driver reported that the only bus they had available was a school bus, or a "banana boat" as he called it. He finally figured out what was wrong with our bus, having called a cousin of his who was a mechanic. There was a leak in the air line that cooled the clutch, so the bus would never go more than five minutes without overheating.

Faced with the choice of a schoolbus or no bus at all, I opted for the schoolbus. The students joined in to transfer our mountains of luggage to our new ride, which appeared after another hour by the side of the road. We all squeezed in to what was clearly an elementary-grades bus - I had to sit with my knees sideways, as the space between seats was so narrow.

Dark was falling and although no one was stressing out, we were tired and hungry. We arrived in the village, offloaded the luggage, and immediately climbed back aboard the bus to head to the grocery store so that the students could buy the food they'd need for the week. The driver hadn't bargained on this extra trip, so he wasn't thrilled, but it had to be done. Our hosts in the village had suggested that we could wait until the next day to make the grocery trip, but I knew that I personally would begin digesting my own stomach if I didn't get some food soon.

I held it together even while trying to stand up at the front of the lurching bus on the way to the store, trying to address the students while whipping around like a cat with bent knees, giving directions to the driver as we barrelled over the hills.

We were all having a good time, considering the chaos. Once upon a time I might have morphed into Controlling Tour Guide mode, tight-lipped and bossy. But I made an extra effort and allow everyone the time they needed to wander the aisles in the store, without rushing anyone. We clambered back onto the bus with our bags and bags and bags of groceries, and finally arrived back at the village. The students settled in to the various old houses they were staying at - very Harry Potter-esque in this tiny New England village - and I suddenly crashed from the release of tension. I had been hanging by my toes all day, suspended upside down, trying to keep my equilibrium. I wondered if, had I been the sort of person to lose his temper and start having a tantrum, would we have had a new bus sooner, or if that would have just destroyed the ready-for-anything mood we had established. I too often let people and situations slide, not wanting to be a jerk and press the issue or ask for what I really need. In this case, I felt like I was acknowledging the good faith efforts of our driver, and also trying to undertand the reality that another coach was not going to magically appear. I didn't see the value in getting angry. Does anyone ever respond in a useful way to tantrum-throwers? I don't know.

So now everyone is tucked up in their houses. I've had something to eat. It's warm. It's silent outside in the frosty night, and the big old house I'm in is creaking comfortably, settling down to sleep. We avoided the fate of the Donner party; thank God we had snacks.


Blogger David said...

Not to be punitive, but this is what you get for leaving me alone on Valentine's Day. Hey, I don't make the rules. :)

9:05 AM  
Blogger Rindy said...

Does anyone ever respond in a useful way to tantrum throwers? I'd say it depends on what you mean by 'useful'. Do tantrum-throwers ever get what they're demanding, thus theoretically justifying their tantrums (to themselves, anyway)? Sure. (See: Jack talking to customer service on the telephone.) Sometimes they get what they want and more, just to shut them up. (Also see: Bullying.)

As you know, I tend to have similar problems in perhaps leaning a little too far toward "go along to get along." It's not necessarily the best option in all circumstances. But I also think:

1. There's a difference between being assertive (getting the driver to go on the grocery run even though he'd rather not) and aggressive (LISTEN, I want another bus here RIGHT NOW, do you understand me?!). One is more reasonable, and doesn't operate on the hostile assumption (as the tantrummers do) that everybody is out to screw you over and so they all need to be kicked in the ass.

2. The squeaky wheel may often get the grease, but godDAMN do I hate sitting next to squeaky wheels. Not to mention that I think there's some value in not spreading negative vibes wherever one may go. At the very least, service personnel don't secretly spit in your food nearly as often.

P.S. I hope your toes are feeling better.

5:13 PM  
Blogger jwer said...

I can't help but feel that you're all talking about me, oh hi...

I would submit that there is also a difference between the righteously angry and the squeaky wheel; while I have been in plenty of situations in which I am sure I am making those around me uncomfortable, if they're only uncomfortable that someone is "making a scene" and not that that someone is dead wrong, it serves to make me more annoyed.

I try not to be dead wrong, ie: the squeaky wheel, but I can certainly be accused of "bullying" at times. This, among many other reasons, is why I shall burn in hell for eternity. Or at least until I die.

5:35 AM  
Blogger gregorio said...

CL, you did the right thing by maintaining your super-coolness. However, there is a lesson to be learned from this, and I think we can all agree that this is it: always have enough snacks for the trip, and more. You never regret it.

1:58 PM  
Blogger David said...

Tantrum throwers suck! Polite assertiveness rules!

7:51 PM  

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