OPINION

Joan and George save me; I save the snails

BARBARA AMIEL June 11 2007
OPINION

Joan and George save me; I save the snails

BARBARA AMIEL June 11 2007

Joan and George save me; I save the snails

BARBARA AMIEL

We came back to Toronto last weekend and very unsetding it has been. Unlike my husband, I am a creature of routine. Chicago routine is straightforward: get up at 5.45 a.m., leave for court at 8:25 a.m., pat-down by pleas-

ant court security man 8:50 a.m., listen to nasty things said about us till 5 p.m., with a lunch break for one banana and a carton of skim milk (in lieu of the utterly foul Styrofoam boxes of fries, chicken and something weirdly yellow that appear in the small room set aside for defence counsel). Back to the hotel, watch Joanie and George for five minutes, make dinner in the nifty galley kitchen of our hotel suite, and then write till bedtime.

This has been repeated for the past 10 weeks and will continue for at least another four or five. Taking time out to come home requires a psychological flexibility that throws me completely.

Joanie and George are a couple of indeterminate age—late fifties, I’d guess—and are not actually identified by name but it is clear to me that they are Joan and George. Whenever you turn on the hotel television set they appear, keen to cope with a fire by crouching down with hand towels over their noses and peering around the hotel’s corridors. I can’t get enough of them, especially the moment that comes 28 seconds into their journey when they encounter a fireman rushing up the back stairs and politely huddle close to the wall so as not to impede his journey to save someone like me who would probably have done something foolish like smash my hotel window and hurt strangers below.

Conrad worries that I have gone balmy. He quite often goes out to dinner in the evenings—urging me to join him—but I prefer eating my roast chicken watching George and Joan before working. Day ends with hand laundry and hot bath while listening to iPod with Brahms symphonies and Roy Orbison

before reading myself to sleep (I’m enjoying the late 19th-century novel New Grub Street by George Gissing, which confirms how immutable are the survival techniques of journalists and petty intelligentsia, licking and backstabbing one another then just as today).

A love of routine is variously described as childlike behaviour and/or a neurotic response, but I think it is more likely an English upbringing. George Orwell’s 1946 Evening Standard article “A Nice Cup of Tea,” giving what he personally took to be the 11 essential steps in making a “cuppa,” sums up the cast of mind with which I grew up. Not unlike the mind that allowed Jonathan Swift to parody the angels on the head of a pin argument

What weapon against mortality have two frail people besides shared ritual and habit?

about the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation by turning it into a war between the Big-Endians and LittleEndians over the correct way to eat an egg.

The strength of routine—and a nice cup of tea—emerged during the visit that was my initial reason for coming back to Toronto, a trip to say goodbye to my stepfather in the last round of his fight against metastasized cancer. Against all odds, my stepfather must still make my 91-year-old mother her morning and afternoon tea. By now lighter than goose down, he can’t lift her to rearrange the pillows behind her bird-like frame, but he putters with the kettle and cups, carefully putting milk in first as always. It is a routine of defiance, a fist against the journey across the river Styx that could separate them. What other weapon against mortality have two frail people—as deeply in love with each other as when my sister and I waved goodbye to them on their honeymoon trip in 1951—besides shared ritual and habit?

Back in Toronto, we went for a walk in the evening dampness. I suppose it is the rotting grass in the empty plots of land close to us that attracted the snails, but dozens were making a perilous journey from one side of the road to the other. Just why so many had decided to leave a safe field for a far smaller bank of grass is incomprehensible, but no less rational than much of human routine. I watched the journey of these nearly elegant creatures, everything packed on their backs, trying to relocate in a war zone of automobiles and tramping feet. One’s sense of fair play made it difficult to resist helping them across the road. So I did. At first they retracted into their shells but then I got the hang of it and they lay in my palm perfectly quiet until I put them down. At home I googled snails and discovered that

they are almost as disliked as the hideous gypsy moths that defoliated the trees around us last year. My transporting of them across the road would appear to be in violation of the spirit of some statutory regulations in various provinces and states, which, given the brown snail’s cap-

acity for destructive eating, have declared it quarantined.

My defence of snails is hypocritical of course. I am presently living in Chicago, which in April 2006 declared the sale of foie gras illegal. Forced feeding of geese is probably a horrid thing but it’s hard to deny that foie gras chaud is delicious. Mayor Daley said it was “the silliest law” city council has ever passed, and he is probably right. Some restaurants are giving foie gras away free and consumption has soared—as has attention to it. I hadn’t thought of foie gras for ages. Back in Toronto, on leave as it were, I went straight to Opus and gulped some down. What’s sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the snail as well, but then if a ban on foie gras is upon us, can a ban on escargot be far behind? I ought to worry, but gastronomically speaking, snails are not part of my routine. M

barbara.amiel@macleans.rogers.com