Thursday, January 15, 2009

Funny Thing, Irony

Probably one of the most debated coffee-house topics is that concerning what does or does not constitute irony.

Poor old Alanis Morrisette fell afoul of this one when she wrote a song about it. "It's like rain on your wedding day" she sang, and people said "No it's not. That's just annoying."

I don't know so much.

From where I sit, irony would appear to be a matter of context, which in turn demands knowledge of the culture in which the reference is being made. This would seem to argue that not only is irony not absolute, one man's annoyance could very well be someone else's irony.

Rain on your wedding day could be seen to be ironic in the context that your archetypical American Girl spends vast amounts of her young life dreaming about her wedding day, and when the actual thing hoves into view it therefore tends to be stage-managed to the nth degree in order to make everything comply with the vision of what it should be like. Given that the young girl's dream undoubtedly includes the entire day, the one uncontrollable thing going totally nails-up could very well be interpreted as irony.

At least, that's how it seems to me.

This thesis is born out by the scene in the movie Con Air, in which some convicts seize control of the aircraft in which they are being transported and begin partying hard while Sweet Home Alabama booms from the radio. Steve Buscemi leans across to another character and says that this defines irony: a bunch of people on a plane singing along to a song performed by a group all-but wiped out in a plane crash.

Well, yes and no.

It is ironic if you consider that the last thing these guys want is to crash, and you happen to know that Lynrd Skynrd were involved in a plane crash that killed half the band and put the rest in hospital, I suppose, maybe, although it's a stretch even so. But if you consider that only a small fraction of the English speaking world contemporary with the film's release would know that, well, it pretty much fails the test as badly as Ms Morrisette's song did. That is why the writers felt the need to have one of the characters tell everyone where the irony was of course.

Which is a round-about way of saying that I'm rarely sure I've correctly identified irony when I've encountered it.

Changing the subject: This morning I raced to catch my train, the 8:53 from Wyandanch (Pearl of the East) to Penn Station (change at Jamaica for trains to Brooklyn). I am usually on this train these days, which gets me to work at the extreme end of my "flex time" window and requires that I work late and miss my only straight-through train home, since I have the honour of driving Mrs Stevie each morning to her radiation treatments.

This drive is now made in silence since her voice is no longer audible. Many's the time I've begged for a halt to her shrill admonissions of my good self, but for some reason there's no sense of satisfaction in being able to get a word in edgeways when she's so ill, just a mood of crushing sadness tempered by the sure knowledge that the cancer is in retreat. No doubt I'll regret not making the most of this time once she is back to ordering and nagging at the drop of a hat. I digress.

Snow had been falling since about 5 am and was blowing around and covering up the windows and headlights of the cars most inconveniently. Once again the elusive Long Island Panzerfüren hit the streets in force. This year there seem to be flocks of idiots in white cars who do not see the point of cleaning the snow from their vehicles nor of turning on their headlights. The resulting montage pretty much defines the art of camouflage. White car, covered in irregular heaps of snow (yes, even on the hood/bonnet), small slot scraped in snow-covered windshield, producing a very good simulation of a mobile snow bank. Add in a swirling snowstorm to help in further breaking up the outline of the cars and you have the perfect hide from which to snag caribou or snap candid photos of penguins at play. Whoops, I digress again.

I got to the station with about a minute to spare, but I needn't have worried. The Long Island Rail Road was having one of it's "days" and the train dawdled for another eight minutes before showing up, allowing the would-be passengers just the right amount of time to synchronise their bodies to ambient temperature conditions. I've believed for years that we, the paying customers of the LIRR, have been the unwilling subjects in an unannounced and inadequately overseen series of experiments in human cryogenics performed by the rail road, and today was proof enough for even the most hard-nosed skeptic. We staggered aboard the train, snapping icicles from out earlobes and noses and greeting the train crew with the traditional curses and threats, thinking the ordeal was over.

A sad mistake.

The train proceeded as far as the next grade crossing, about a hundred feet down the track, then stopped for about ten minutes. It them crept to the next crossing and did the same thing. then it did it all over again. And again. And again.

In a mere twenty minutes we had arrived in Farmingdale, about five minutes west of Wyandanch by sedan chair. Another fifteen minutes saw us in Bethpage, where we were so late everyone seemed to have lost hope and gone home. Would that I had done the same.

There were periodic "announcements" by someone doing a fair imitation of Mrs Stevie. I heard the word "signals" but nothing else was intelligible. Each crossing was guarded by a convoy of MTA Police vehicles, lit up with flashing lights like so many full-sized Hess Trucks, leading me to believe the automated circuitry that raises and lowers the booms had gone bye-bye. What was most galling (as it always is) was having to watch the off-peak east-bound trains get priority over our west-bound peak train.

By the time we reached Hicksville we were 47 minutes late. This was so late that there was no-one there to board the train. Hicksville is a major hub for commuters1. Finding it empty was more than a little surprising and a good indication of how badly screwed up everything was. The doors opened so we could all sample the cold air from the elevated platform, unshielded from the wind by so much as a single tree, about the time I should have been boarding the Brooklyn train at Jamaica.

By the time we reached Jamaica, we had missed all the connecting trains and I realised I could either ride to Manhattan and use the subway to get to Brooklyn, or I could wait for forty minutes on the unsheltered platform at Jamaica for the proper train. I stayed put.

Sometime around 11am, an hour after I was supposed to be at my desk, we pulled into Penn Station and I started getting ready to debark. It was then that I actually took time to read the many flyers littering the seats2, which were from the LIRR propaganda arm and were trumpeting their on-time performance.

I'm pretty sure that was irony.

  1. and a source of a particularly gittish species of commuter too, but that's another story
  2. I am currently re-reading my collection of Jack McDevitt "Hutch" books and had brought along Cauldron, the latest in the series. It was very engrossing, much more than whatever the LIRR was trying to make me believe

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