Years ago Dad bought a 1986 right-hand drive Land Rover Defender, named her Matilda, and sawed her in half. Then he welded an impenetrable steel box onto her back end, fashioning larger fuel tanks, a fold-out kitchen, and a beefier rear compartment so he could ship her overseas and drive her off the beaten paths of Africa and Australia.
Last weekend I borrowed Matilda – repatriated from her Southern Hemisphere escapades – to meet my friend Carmen at a pub in Horseshoe Bay. Every inch of the journey took place cocooned inside what I presume the Industrial Age must have sounded like, a throaty mechanical roar. This in itself could explain my father’s deafness.
Dad has always collected old Land Rovers. As a teenager I drove them proudly, quadriceps as proof, even borrowing one for my high school grad. That’s a lifetime ago. Now the heavy clutch, the right-hand steering, the steep winding streets of West Vancouver conspired to make me feel conspicuously non-roadworthy. By the time I’d maneuvered Matilda into something approximating a parking position behind Troll’s Fish & Chips, my self-doubt — entirely vehicular, for a change — had soaked my T-shirt, sweat pasting my bangs to my forehead, relief slick on my upper lip.
Afterwards Carmen took a picture of me driving away, or trying to. “Don’t put that on social media,” I shouted, tussling valiantly with the gearshift. I was thinking: Not until I know I can make it back.
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My confession? I’ve spent too much of these yawning months of uncertainty and joblessness on social media. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been disciplined (mostly). I’ve met my writing targets, I’ve eaten a Mediterranean diet, I’ve kept up friendships and outdoorsy pursuits. But I’ve also permitted myself the occasional Facebook rabbit hole, scrolling the feeds of people I scarcely know or like and worse, pinwheeling ever deeper into the click-bait quicksand of celebrity gossip. Ten Crazy Health Myths That Are Actually True leads shamefully to Fifteen Child Stars You Didn’t Know Were Dead, which is of course the gateway drug to Ten Child Stars You Didn’t Know Were Bonobo Monkeys. No matter what the headline promises, I will eventually surface feeling sticky and unenlightened, as if I’ve spent a shadowy half-day at a peep show. It’s infuriating. After more than a decade as a journalist with near daily deadlines and readership in the tens of thousands, it’s been a tough go, writing for no one and telling myself that’s okay. Certainly spending month after month on projects that may never be seen by another living eyeball can convince you that you are vanishingly small and might just as well binge on Facebook.
“I don’t have time for Facebook,” Dad told me airily. He doesn’t. Well into his ’70s, he runs a manufacturing business selling his most recent invention and, in his leisure time, is designing something for the International Space Station.
“Oh, me neither,” I assured him, ignoring the precious hours I’ve wrapped individually in silk pillowslips, plunged into concrete, and sent to the bottom of the Social Media Sea.
The truth is, I envy Dad’s ability to tune out the noise, literally and figuratively. He’s always given his imagination the space to sprawl, large-limbed, and utterly at home. Me, a new idea comes knocking and I peer at it through a crack in the curtains wondering whether I should invite it in, assuming I might not be the address it was looking for.
I spent the weekend bringing Dad up to speed on my plans for what comes next. It’s soothing. The more I tell him, the more it seems that most of my choices will prove, after all, to be sound and appropriately adventuresome. He has new hearing aids, so I presume he heard most of what I told him. He is unflappably calm and confident, surefooted and can-do. Anything broken can be taken apart and fixed. Everything will work out just fine. He’s usually right, but how can I be sure?
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* * *
A few weeks ago a friend invited me out to a political rally. It was orange, but it could just as easily have been green or red — anything other than blue. I left not with an unbudging sense of whom I’ll be voting for next month but with a grudging awe at the spectacle of confidence. Tom Mulcair, looking rouged and pumped, arrived and cut a jagged swath through the packed theatre as if being driven by radio control. After the requisite hugs and handshakes he launched into a speech thick with “whens” but utterly devoid of ‘ifs’.
“Norah and Richard are going to be great MPs after October 19th!”
“When an NDP government takes power in Ottawa …”
“Friends, the NDP will get the job done.”
Could I bottle this and take it to go, I wondered, this unwavering confidence in What Shall Be? Mulcair was reading from a teleprompter, which made everything seem that much more preordained. Maybe a scrolling script for my life would help me believe in my path with such ringing conviction. My list of dreams, if I write it down and read it aloud, will that make it so?
Heading home to Dad’s from Horseshoe Bay, Matilda died. Rather, her gruff protests grew in concert with a huffy deceleration and the hot-bitter smell of burning engine. Ferry traffic swarmed along the Upper Levels highway like an army of ants past a pill bug. When a man on a bicycle overtook us, I knew it was time to pull over. I managed to nose onto the shoulder before Matilda grunted to a halt.
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I’ve seen my father underneath the oily chassies of decrepit Land Rovers on at least three continents. I got his blue eyes and his weakness for puns, but not, it seems, his inventive and mechanical mind. Some days I convince myself I inherited the gene fragment that codes for his special streak of creativity, but most of the time – surprise, surprise — I’m not so sure.
* * *
Never mind how the news of me and Matilda, marooned, eventually reaches my father. He caught a lift out to Caulfield to rescue us, a bulky toolbox swinging from one arm. We set out along the highway together, cars careening past, top speed, top volume. I was fretting about what I did or didn’t do properly, whether Matilda’s breakdown was my fault, whether I’ve somehow grown too old or too girly to drive my dad’s old trucks. But there was no point babbling on about it. Even with his hearing aids, he likely couldn’t have heard me over the roar of traffic.
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Friday night at Dad’s, when we’d first shared the plans we were hatching — his and mine — they took on tangibility as if fired in a kiln. He talked about his projects with a series of modest shrugs, one hand swishing the air: zero gravity this, Canada Arm that, whatever will be will be. Me, I prattled on about the year gone by and what comes next, my frivolous anxieties. He nodded, prodding occasionally with questions. Once, I couldn’t say for sure, but he seemed on the brink of tears. He leaned forward abruptly and I worried he hadn’t quite caught what I’d been saying because his mouth was working wordlessly, the way it does when he’s about to tell a bawdy joke. Then he folded me in a hug and said, Your mum would be so proud.
That Saturday afternoon, when Dad and I were marching silently along the curve of highway towards Matilda, the air eddying off the tarmac smelled of late-summer road-trips, of escapes and endings. In lieu of words, I reached out and took his hand. We walked like this for a minute, hand-in-hand, which sounds cheesy when I write it down, but in the moment was an act of pure instinct. Life will inevitably get busier again, and more certain. There will be less time for the people and things that are truly important, let alone the inconsequential and indulgent. But for now, here is a father, head bowed under a battered hood while his daughter strains to stomp the clutch to the floor. Here is a daughter rounding a corner, taking her father’s hand.