About two months ago, residents of a village in Quebec's Eastern Townships awoke to find a hydro pole in the middle of the road leading in and out of town.
In the middle was not, in this case, a figurative expression. It was smack in the space normally home to only yellow lines and dead skunks.
Apparently, the roadway had recently been moved. The pole had not. While construction was going on, flaggers, then signage, directed motorists around the obstacle. Through the grace of God no one was hurt, which again is not a figurative expression.
Anyone who has ever tried to follow the inscrutable signs, or even the instructions of our zany flag persons, through a Quebec construction zone knows it ranks among the most nerve-wracking, potentially deadly, endeavours on earth. There is eating Japanese puffer fish. There is playing Russian roulette. Then, tailgating hard on those two perilous pastimes, comes navigating a road under construction in Quebec.
Even that miniscule safety margin disappeared when the construction crews finished up, packed up, and moved on to the next job site. There the pole stood until intense media attention over the last several days forced its owner, Hydro Quebec, to agree to send a crew out by the end of the week to move it. The end of the week! Kin yew spelle bureaucracy spinning out of control?
But wait. It gets better. Or spinnier. Transport Quebec, which is responsible for the road building part of the fiasco, blamed the whole thing on a communications mix up. Say what? What, pray tell, was there to communicate? What was there to mix up?
You have a road. You have a pole. The road has a middle. The pole is in it. Road. Middle. Pole. That's as complex as it gets. Even in the more elaborate sentence constructions of French, it's still three basic elements and one unavoidable action.
What's truly fascinating about the episode is its illumination of the way faulty communication has progressively become the default scapegoat of blame-shifters everywhere.
We live at a time when communications technology is blessed. I can take my sacred iPhone or holy iPad and Skype for free with my son in Paris. Indeed, I could probably follow him on GPS and Google Maps into the jungles of Borneo if he had the head to go.
Yet we seem increasingly incapable of making the most common sense decisions, of living up to our most basic obligations, because of an apparent epidemic failure to communicate. We are like lobotomy patients of old. Our jaws hang slack. Our tongues loll. Our thoughts pile up as hollow grunts and groans.
Recently, my father-in-law, may he rest in peace, was in hospital. A nurse came around to give him the daily medication dole. Then, as she left again, she mimed a ritual forehead slap, practically dove back across his bed, and fished the pills out of his mouth with her fingers. She had given him pharmaceuticals prescribed for the man who had died in the same bed two days earlier. No one, it seems, had updated her medication chart.
"But didn't you notice," my wife asked, "that it wasn't the same man?"
The nurse looked at her as though what she'd said contained the germ of a revolutionary idea worthy of a great deal of further discussion even though it would ultimately prove practically impossible—kind of like skipping with flaming barbed wire to promote weight loss.
I took the train home that afternoon, travelling on rails laid into a rail bed set down by workers in the second third of the 19th century using picks and shovels and communications technology only a step ahead of smoke signals or carrier pigeons. I nodded off for a bit and when I awoke, renewed my vow never to knowingly let anyone ever describe me as a progressive.