Test driving a Mini

Like most people who work the ol’ 9-5 grind, my weekend started just as the whistle blew Friday afternoon. It was time to get my nose off the grindstone and into something far more pleasant. A beer.

Not that I want to sound alcoholic (as if I don’t already sound like that from previous entries), but this time I actually had a pretty good excuse. There were a fairly large number of birthdays on my floor of the office (referred to as “Technology”, “The Technical Floor”, “Domain of the Extremely Geeky”, “Realm of the Magicians”, and the “Second Floor”, depending on who you ask), and a few of us went to celebrate Carl, Nathan (recently returned from Europe), and Jude (who could not join us until later).

It’s good to get out with other members of the Technology department — I’m so isolated working on my account that I rarely ever see them again, except in the two neutral zones on my floor: the washroom and the kitchen. This is our chance to sit around, chat about pretty much anything but work (although it’s inevitable that we do), and act like idiots … okay, so it’s not much different that at the office. But at least we can drink.

Following our beverages, we plummeted ourselves back into the -25 degree evening for the second part of the show. The festivities of the evening were divided into three parts: Vicious Circle (the bar/club where we like to hang out), Sakana Grill (about the only place in town for large groups to go for sushi), and roller skating. I avoided the third part mostly due to a total lack of coordination. That, and I really didn’t feel like adding that kind of fodder to my journal entries.

I hadn’t been to Sakana Grill for months with a group (I’ve been there with Therese and Stuart a couple of times). The last time any large number of us were there was when we said farewell to Chris, Nathan, and Jen as they prepared to leave the company. Nathan, Carl, and I were extremely happy to arrive. The temperature outside was bitingly cold, even by my standards. Carl and I opted to warm up with sake. We mistakenly ordered a 1/2 litre of it. Not that I was about to complain…

We had at least 25 people crammed around two tables. We were loud. Loud enough to attract the new head chef. The last time we’d been there, Peter had not appeared. Peter was the guy Carl always managed to goad into giving us free rounds of sake. But Peter seems to be gone. Instead, we got Tony. Tony seems a pretty good replacement. He’s not as quick on the insults (which were one of Peter’s trademarks), but he’s a lot more generous with the sake. No-one seemed to mind.

As I previously mentioned, I bailed on the roller-skating. I wanted to be relatively alive the following day. I had plans. Big ones.

I even woke up early. Well, sort of. Earlier than I normally do on a Saturday, but early enough. I was going to make a trip up to the northwest quadrant to visit a car dealership. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need a new car. My current one is fine, but I want something newer. Something funkier. Sure, I could very easily keep the car I’ve got, but let’s be honest — I’m young, I’m (fairly) well off, and I think I can afford something far more fun than my ’91 Plymouth Acclaim. Could I buy a new Chrysler? Sure. A new GM? I suppose so. How ’bout a Honda, Toyota, or Nissan? Definitely. Do I want to? Not really. At the moment, there’s only one car I actually want.

A Mini.

Possibly the single most impractical car I could imagine, save for a two-seater coupe. The question is, of course, do I need a practical car? The answer is “heck no”! I’ve got a house with no plans to move any time soon. I’m not married, and the only dependants I have right now are two cats and an inanimate house.

I know what you’re thinking: “Geoff’s hit his mid-life crisis”. Maybe I have, but I have to say that my father went through more exotic cars by my age than I’ve had cars, period! I figure, I’ve earned it. (Okay, maybe I haven’t … but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to have fun!)

At any rate, I went up to the sole Mini dealership in town, and flagged me down a car salesman. Doesn’t take much — just look like you want to buy. We walked, we talked, we inspected, and we rejected. Finally, he hauled me downstairs to their protected underground garage, and we hopped into one of the cars for a little zip around the area.

The salesman, Michael, drove first. Along the way, he told me a little about himself and a lot about the car. It’s a fairly impressive bit of engineering. I know what you’re thinking: “Aren’t Minis little more than a patch of tinfoil wrapped around an engine?” The original Austin Minis were known for their … well … mini-ness. They were small, light, and little more than go-karts with substantial chassis. The new ones were redesigned from the group up by BMW, and contain mostly BMW parts. Think of a 325i crammed into half the size.

I guess I need not mention that it’s a great drive? It’s also a bit of a weird drive. While I wanted to give the manual a spin, my experience with a stick shift is a little weak. I opted instead for the automatic. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? This ain’t no ordinary automatic. It’s a continuous shifting transmission. In short: No gears. It’s a large steel belt that slides up and down cone-shaped driveshaft. It’s pretty ingenious. And you don’t ever feel a gear shift. It’s a little unnerving at first.

The question, naturally, is: Can I afford it? I’ve got my financial advisor working on it. I expect a negative result. I might be well off, but I don’t think I’m that well off. Hey, I gotta try!

I left the dealership carless … well, Mini-less. (I still have my Acclaim.) There were other events of the day to tackle, and I needed to get home fairly fast. I still had to tidy up the main floor a little (it’s looking more like a U-Store than a dining room), sweep the floors, shower, change into something a little more appropriate, and head out to the Zoo.

Why the Zoo? Critical Mass did not have a Christmas Party in December, like we had in the past. This year, for what reasons I’m not entirely sure, we delayed the party until the latter part of January. Unlike the visit to the Scandinavian Centre, this was at the brand-new Destination Africa exhibit at the Calgary Zoo.

It’s impressive. According to our tour guide, the Zoo spent over $31 million overhauling the exhibits, giving the animals more room (and more comfort), and increasing the educational value of the Zoo itself. In fact, the entire Zoo is undergoing a series of radical changes. In the coming years, other parts will be upgraded to increase available space, and improve animal’s living conditions.

Which is important when you have -25 degree weather and animals that live in climates that are usually 50 degrees warmer.

Our party didn’t start until 4:00. I met up with Shantie at the Zoo C-Train station and proceeded to start on a tour of the Zoo. I’d never been there before. Shantie’s been an annual visitor, usually because of nieces and nephews. But the Zoo had changed quite a lot since she’d last been there. And with the wind whipping around, we made a point to enter the nearest warm building we could find.

We went to the Transalta Rainforest first. But more on that place later. Next, we braved the brisk outside and raced over to the greenhouses, where the Zoo has recreated a rainforest and a desert environment. It’s almost all plants, except for songbirds in the rainforest, and a couple of meerkats in the desert.

Plunging back outside, we hopped over to the Large Mammals building, which save for a pair of ostriches (which Shantie knows a lot about — her father used to raise them), a couple of elephants, a warthog, a flock of peahens, and a tapir, was mostly empty. Most of the animals are being moved to the Savannah building — I figure the Large Mammals building is on the list for overhaul.

We circled the rest of the Zoo, our pace quickening with each second we were outside. The trip back was torture, as we now headed into the wind. I lost feeling in my ears. My thighs were going numb. By the time we reached the African Lodge, we were probably running risk of frostbite. The warm air of the Lodge was very welcome.

The tour began about 20 minutes after we arrived. Our guide, Stuart, took a group of us from the Lodge and into the Rainforest. Now we get back to what I skipped before. The Rainforest building is new — only opened about two weeks ago. It’s very impressive — all the trees are real (except the baobab — it’s a cold air return duct), and there are animals everywhere. Two of the most impressive parts are the gorilla enclosure, and the aviary.

The gorilla enclosure is massive. It’s got a huge indoor area that you can view from several angles, a small outdoor “winter” enclosure, and a rather large outdoor summer enclosure. The family of nine apes gets along quite well, save for the newbie. (She was raised by humans and hasn’t quite figured out that she’s actually a gorilla.)

The enclosure was also supposed to have a set of Colobus monkeys. However, it seemed that the keepers and the architects couldn’t really overcome one minor problem: Colobus monkeys are really devious. The enclosure is hot-wired — there are electrical lines that run the perimeter of the main area, and even up the trunks of three trees. Fences prevent escape, and the surfaces are non-graspable. Didn’t stop the monkeys. The just upped and ran. Luckily, the building goes into lockdown in cases like that, so the monkeys couldn’t get away.

The aviary is completely netted off, for a similar reason. So far, nothing’s escaped. Impressive when the birds could probably fly between the mesh if they tried (or rip it open), and there are three ring-tailed lemurs inside. The lemurs are a hoot to watch. When we’d come through the first time, you could barely see them amongst the massive support poles. But this time, the lemurs were in plain sight — 70 feet up in the rafters of the roof. The must love the heights.

From the Rainforest we moved to the Savannah — a huge building that houses warthogs, porcupines, a nasty-lookin’ vulture, two giraffes, and two hippos. Unlike the Rainforest, you can see pretty much everything in the building from anywhere. The central point, of course, is the 80,000 litre hippo tank. Ungainly on land, these creatures swim like ballerinas when submerged.

Returning to the Lodge, most of Critical Mass’ employees had arrived with their guests. The lobby was full of chatting people, with others having moved into the hall. The entire building has an African motif (for obvious reasons), which include the paint on the walls, the tablecloths, and the main chandelier — a dugout outrigger, fitted with lights in the hull.

Dinner was buffet-style, nothing overly fancy. But all very tasty. The difficult part was seating — there weren’t a lot of tables. The centre of the room had a wood floor, which was surrounded by chairs, and filled with various instruments. This was part of our entertainment for the night.

Not long after dinner, the music started. People took seats around a small group of people in the middle. Instructions were given, and the people in the middle (not C-Massers, but musicians hired for the job) started to play. All the instruments, save for a single keyboard and one guitar, were all percussion.

It was a drumming circle, for lack of any better term to use. The musicians in the centre started the rhythm, which everyone else picked up on. The leader slowly brought everyone in until there was a single pulsating chorus of drums, cowbells, and shakers. The leader rose the sound up, and took it down as a conductor would lead an orchestra. The energy was amazing.

Drumming circle, Calgary Zoo, Alberta, 25 January 2003

An hour later, most people were drummed out. It takes a lot of energy, and a few people had a headache from it. (The room’s acoustics are quite good, so you could hear very well.) Following the drumming was, of course, dancing. Few people danced at first, partly because everyone was a little tired from drumming, and also because Critical Mass is like a high school at times, and no-one wants to be the first out.

The DJ compensated by starting a conga line. It weaved all around, trying to suck up people. It was quite successful, but the line broke so often that we ended up with about a half-dozen lines running through the building.

Some line dancing, Calgary Zoo, Alberta, 25 January 2003

The show closed down at midnight, sharp. That was the rule from the start. We picked ourselves up, aimed for the door, and waited for the shuttle bus. Although the wind had died for the night, it had to be nearly -30 outside. This is the second time Critical Mass has had these temperatures for their holiday season festivities. (The last time, I walked — or rather, stumbled — about 15 blocks back to my apartment. Luckily, I was insulated by a protective shield of booze at the time.) Shantie gave me a lift home, rather than freeze on the C-Train.

The only thing that was really missing from our soiree? No drunken stupidity. In what is probably a first for a Critical Mass function, everyone left relatively sober.

Yeah, I’m as puzzled as you are.