It’s a brave new world, for some

Special to the VOICE

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road can take you there.

I was thinking of Alice down the rabbit hole recently as I drove around another unfinished Niagara shopping mall, searching for my dentist’s new location. After 30 years in a downtown St. Catharines office, he had removed to this concrete wasteland that I remember once being an orchard.

Weaving my way through a maze of untenanted offices and stores, I counted half a dozen fast-food outlets already up and running. If I get lost, at least I won’t starve to death, I think, as I cut across an empty parking lot that could safely land a 737.

Though right now eating anything was a challenge, and why I needed my dentist.

The two teeth on my partial bridge had snapped off on a raw carrot, and left me looking like Davey Keon when he held the Stanley Cup the last time the Maple Leafs won it.

A little agitated now with my appointment time nearing, I parked outside a barebones office that had people inside and went in for assistance. The receptionist knew of the dental clinic and gave me directions that involved a lot of left turns. I thanked her, re-entered the concrete maze and drove around for another ten minutes until one of the left turns took me straight out of the mall and back onto the highway.

A mile down the road, with the clock ticking, I managed a u-turn and raced back. I found the friendly receptionist again, whose smile vanished when she heard the panic in my voice.

“I’m fifteen minutes late and I have to call my dentist.” What I said next was equal to telling her I was an alien who had misplaced his flying saucer.

“I don’t have a cell phone. Would you be so kind?”

I read her lips as she dialed the number—How does he even breathe? she seemed to be saying.

“I’m definitely getting one, though. Today, in fact.” But she wasn’t listening.

“Yes, he’s here with me now. I’ll draw him a map.”

I felt like the kid who gets separated from his parents in a busy department store, but really I was the guy who fell asleep for 20 years and woke up in a technological age without a lifeline (think Sleeper, but with fewer laughs). I thanked her, took the map and smiled, mouth closed so my toothless grin wouldn’t further unsettle her.

I found the clinic in a section of the mall I hadn’t noticed before. Perhaps it was still being built while I was busy getting lost.

Linda, the dental assistant, greeted me as I walked in the door, as she had done 30 years ago when I first entered the downtown office with rather more teeth in my head than I have now.

“We were going to send out a search party,” she said, laughing. “Did you forget your cell?”

I smiled.

Dr. McKenzie examined my bridge and said the teeth could be re-attached. I could collect it tomorrow. He grinned, displaying a mouth that was full of his own teeth because he had never played hockey without a face-guard. Did I think I could find my way back, he asked?

I laughed, then said I had planned ahead and scattered breadcrumbs along the way; if the pigeons left them alone I’d be fine. I thanked him for waiting.

Driving home I felt distracted and a little lost again, but not because I couldn’t find my way or didn’t own a smartphone. This wasn’t about technology, but missing the familiar. Something I get to do a lot of these days.

If the past is another country, then sometimes the present is too, with so much of the familiar replaced by the new. Almost by the minute, it seems.

Nothing is spared the chop anymore, not even thinking. We’re told there are no truths now, just unreliable constructs. History is a narrative of misrule that’s best forgotten. Language doesn’t work because words mean different things to different people. Art is anyone’s guess, morality is nobody’s business, and rule has become a four-letter word.

Without the familiar, why shouldn’t we feel lost in our actual world and seek asylum in a virtual one? Where are we? was once part and parcel of Who are we?, in a time when place and community helped to identify us. Where are we? is now wherever we want to be, but we go it alone and GPS won’t help us get there.

One day there won’t be a there anymore because it will already be somewhere else.

Change as a means to improvement is always desirable—Dr. McKenzie’s dental office downtown was getting a little long in the tooth itself—but is change all we want to know?

Don’t we need to know that some things—not just the next thing—will still be around tomorrow? That tomorrow there will be neighbours and a friendly wave, libraries and bank tellers, the corner store, someone’s initials in the sidewalk, immovable feasts—and not just the memory that these things once were.

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that,” said the Queen to Alice.

My nostalgia is less for the past than it is for a future where things might not be around long enough to be missed.

But for now at least, I found someone to show me the way, and someone else who waited patiently until I got there.

Retired teacher Colin Brezicki has written three novels and a collection of stories. A Case for Dr. Palindrome was published this year in the UK. His short fiction has won awards in Canada and the US. Essays have appeared in The Globe and Mail and sundry journals. He lives under the radar in Niagara-on-the-Lake.