Books : Paul Is Indeed Mr. Everybody

Some time back I sang the praises of libraries here. To me, not only do they allow one to cut back on your expenses a little (obviously, by borrowing rather than buying books and other media) but they also widen my interests considerably, by making me “take chances” on books or records I wouldn’t ordinarily touch. I’ve always been “working class”, so it can be a big deal to put out $15, 20 or more on a book only to find a few dozen pages in it’s boring or unreadable. But, if it’s checked out of the library, all I’m out is an hour or so of time finding that out and a return trip to drop it back. Which leads me to the latest book I read.

Actually two out of the past four or five. Paul Goes Fishing, and its predecessor, Paul Moves Out. They’re graphic novels by Canadian Michel Rabiaglati, a Montreal-born and based graphic artist who began drawing fairly autobiographical accounts of his life about 20 years back. We see his alter-ego Paul growing up and dealing with the struggles of everyday life through the lens of the Canadian (and more specifically Quebec) ’80s and ’90s. “I’m from Montreal and I don’t travel a lot,” he told the Toronto Star, “so my stories are rooted in Quebec… the best way to have international success is to stay local.” Which he does, as well as living up to the famous writing adage “write what you know.” “It’s not pow-pow violence,” he points out, “it’s normal relations…it’s a normal guy. ‘Mr. Everybody’.”

Which is just where the charm of it lies. In Paul Moves Out, the most exciting, edge-of-your-seat event is simply a gay professor hitting on the very straight Paul. We see a snippets of his coming of age, moving away from home, finishing college, getting an apartment with his new girlfriend, babysitting relatives kids. Nothing entirely unique nor thrilling, but thoroughly interesting and story-driven enough to have you rooting for him (and his gal Lucie). In Paul Goes Fishing, he’s a bit older and having a few more adult problems…secretly envying his richer friends, Lucie having difficulty getting pregnant. All while set against the sanguine backdrop of a weekend fishing trip in the country. Again, you’re rooting for them because, as the author says, Paul is “Mr. Everybody.” The illustrations are black-and-white cartoons, realistic enough to be compelling while lacking excessive detail that would be distracting.paul art

The books really speak to me, since Rabiaglati is only a bit older than I am and is depicting growing up in my old homeland, albeit a different section. It’s relatable. Call me crazy but I secretly cheer a little inside to see a little depiction of quintessentially-Canuck things from my youth like Molsons beer or Canadian Tire stores; or that reflect my own life – a picture of a Stranglers album cover at a party he went to, for instance. It puts me in mind of another Canadian author a little – Douglas Coupland. The Generation X guy likewise has fashioned a career, which at its best is merely creating interesting stories about very ordinary and relatable people. Perhaps the somewhat low-key national identity we’re known for helps us excel at noticing interesting little things and eschewing the big, blockbuster blow-’em-ups Hollywood (and much of the rest of the world) seem to fall in love with.

I brought up libraries in the beginning because generally I am not a “comic book” guy. Didn’t read them as a kid basically, so sure not inspired to do so now. I, perhaps unfairly, tend to lump graphic novels in with them. Were it not for one of the “Paul” books being prominently displayed on a front table of my local library years ago, I would never in a thousand years stumbled upon the tales. And would have been a bit poorer for the absence of them. So, two messages to take from that perhaps.

One, to be more open to new experiences…something I admittedly am not great with. But just because I might find Superman or Aquaman ridiculous wastes of time, it’s silly to write off the whole genre of comics and things only remotely like them. And two, stories don’t need a lot of “pow” and flash to be compelling. Mr.Everybody probably leads an interesting life once you stop and consider it all. You and I have stories to tell as interesting as any Caped Crusader. Perhaps not quite as exciting but more compelling, since they’re real.

I’m looking forward to getting the next instalment he wrote. Maybe he and Lucie will have a kid. And I hope the rat doesn’t show back up in their bathroom! One encounter with it is “pow-pow” enough for anybody.

Thankful Thursday XXI – Canada Day

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for Canada. Appropriately enough since today is Canada Day, the national holiday celebrating the country’s origins and independence from England 154 years ago. To many, it will be an extra-special one since last year’s was a total washout due to the pandemic. Although initially Canada had done well in keeping the virus at bay, last summer having infection and death rates much lower than their neighbors in the U.S. or in Europe, a growing disinterest in following the “rules” – social distancing, masks etc. – and problems obtaining the vaccines when they became available led to a spike in numbers this spring which led to widespread lockdowns once again. But things are looking up, with illness rates dropping and numbers of people vaccinated increasing by the day. As of last weekend, 66% of Canadian adults had received Covid vaccinations, compared to less than half of Americans. So, Canadians may not be crowding together into bars to drink Molsons tonight nor heading to the Rogers Centre in Toronto to watch a Blue Jays game, but they should be able to at least get together with a few friends and bbq a burger and perhaps sing along to the Tragically Hip before taking in some fireworks. I hope they do and enjoy it!

Of course there will be some protesting the people having fun because they object to the day itself. The killjoy contingent of Cancel Culture enthusiasts have taken to Canada like flies to a dungheap, which is conveniently pretty much what they compare the country to. They propose eliminating the holiday and erasing its name from history, because they object to parts of the country’s history. The whole thing has gained traction since news of the bodies of long-deceased children at long-closed Native boarding schools has come to light, suggesting possible widespread abuse of the students.

There is absolutely no justification for the abuse of the children, and indeed, it is reasonable to investigate it further to see how widespread that might have been, who the victims were and prosecute the violators should they still be alive. That in itself is unlikely, as the very last of the schools was shut for good in 1996; they were most active and in all likelihood most abusive during the first half of the 20th Century. Prime Minister Trudeau has apologized – several times – on behalf of the country and its forefathers, and created a list of 94 recommendations to right the wrong. Many Native Canadians are already receiving cash payments in return for being displaced from their land generations ago. That seems to me like a reasonable resolution. Let’s not forget the past, but recognize it is the past and move along together from there.

I’m a Canadian and I’m proud of the country. It is by no means perfect. No country that I know of is, or comes very close to that mark. But it is a good land with a history of great individuals and great deeds. Liberating Holland from the Nazis in WWII. Developing insulin. Gas masks. Hockey masks. An ebola vaccine. Lacrosse and basketball. Hawaiian pizza… well, I said Canada wasn’t perfect!  Add in more great artists, musicians, actors, athletes and comedians than you can shake a Zamboni at and you’ve got reason to feel good about the Great White North. And let’s not forget that magnificent scenery from the mountain lakes at Banff to the glowing fall colors in Algonquin Park, all saved for posterity in the parks.

My dad and his dad as well were struggling in post-war Europe when they came to Canada. They learned the language and soon found good jobs and built lives for themselves in the new land. My mom went through many an air raid and bombing as a child in Britain during the War and didn’t take to the climate there, so she too found her way to Canada (why she didn’t pick Australia for a better climate while still being able to see the queen on the money, I never fully understood) and soon was teaching classrooms of kids from a smorgasbord of different backgrounds. I went to school with kids whose parents had come from Germany and England, Jamaica and Japan. One of my best buddies in high school had escaped the Philippines not long before with his family. He missed his country but not the secret police busting down their door in the middle of the night and taking family members away for unknown reasons. His dad, sleeping safely at night for once, started a very successful electric company in town. After all sorts of asthma and other medical problems as a small child, I was probably only alive to meet him because of Canada’s fine health care system, funded by taxes but making world-class hospitals as accessible to a factory-worker’s kid, or an unemployed person for that matter as they were for the CEOs of the companies employing those workers.

Actress Jennifer Garner recently quipped that people often assume she is Canadian. She’s not, being from California in fact. But, she says it makes her feel great because if people think she’s Canadian, that must mean she is pretty nice. That’s a great compliment to all of us who are from there!

I’ll never say Canada is perfect and probably will never like the climate – I really hate cold weather. But I will always say I am proud to be Canadian, and glad that is where I began my life. Happy Thursday, and Happy Canada Day no matter where you hale from.

Thankful Thursday XIX – Timmies

This Thankful Thursday I’m thankful for one of my fonder memories of Canada – Tim Horton’s. Only a few Americans know what that is, and fewer people still from other countries. But to Canadians… they’re a way of life and as much a cultural keystone as maple leafs and geese.

Tim Horton’s, or simply “Timmies” to many Canucks, is a chain of coffee shops. Diners perhaps would be a better word since they offer an array of foods as well. But they are a great deal more than that up north; not only do they define the national obsession with coffee and the “down to earth” mentality, in many communities they have become the de facto “town square” – the meeting place, the place to hang out when you don’t want to be by yourself. Quite an achievement for something begun in the ’60s by a second-string hockey star as a single little coffee shop in the factory city of Hamilton.

Today there are over 4000 of them, the vast majority of them in Canada, although Americans close to the border – those in Western New York, Washington State and the like – have some of their own, perhaps as much for the Canadians driving south as the locals. Although they started out as simple purveyors of cheap coffee and a range of donuts (another Canadian obsession, and something Tim’s does very well) they have through the years expanded the menu to have a number of lunch options from sandwiches to soups and chili, and even brought in cold soft drinks for those who for some difficult-to-understand reason don’t always want a hot coffee! As such they’ve become a viable competitor to the various sub and burger places in the fast food market.

Through the years, I consumed many a cup of that java. Many a thousand cups, actually. When I was going somewhere in winter, there’d always be a Tim Horton’s along the way to stop and get a coffee at and quite probably, get rid of the last coffee, if you catch my meaning. Many a work lunch break was spent sitting in one, a cup of coffee and a bagel with cheese (their poppy seed bagels are pretty extraordinary too) as I read the newspaper and forgot about the job for half an hour. I’ve taken dates to Tim’s, sat and chatted with my dad for many an afternoon, packed my laptop and sat in one late at night when the wi-fi at home gave out. I might add that I wasn’t convinced they offered the best coffee of any chain in Canada; but they were the one that was always there for me. And the 33 million others in that land.

And therein was the appeal. Tim’s are a unifier there, a totally democratic sort of institution. The prices were reasonable, the décor comfortable but very basic. It’s the place the grubby street people go and sit in when they’ve panhandled up enough for a drink and a donut just as much as they’re the place the office execs from the shiny city towers stop at to get their cruller and double-double at on their way to work. If Ryan Gosling or Bryan Adams are back in their hometown, chances are if you wait long enough, they’ll be at Tim’s. The local cops are likely to be there between calls, just as are the teens coming home from school, the socialites heading out for a night on the town and the retirees who don’t have a lot to do during the afternoon hours. So they find the Tim’s and each other and then have something to do in the afternoon. So engrained into the culture are they that they’ve even added to the lexicon. “Timbits” anybody? “Roll up the Rim?” The Canadian in the crowd will know.

That sort of thing doesn’t really exist in the States, or at least not in my part of them. Coffee isn’t king down here (mind you, I guess it takes a special breed of crazy to be like me and want hot coffee day in, day out, in a place where half the year days top 90 degrees) and of course, there is a Dunkin’ here and there if you search them out, and a few Starbucks but it’s not quite the same. Dunkins seem a place to get in and get of quickly; Starbucks are pricy and have a sort of elitist air to them. They’re all places where you can get a hot drink, but not a place to go.

While there isn’t a Tim’s shop for about a thousand miles from here, at least we can get the coffee in imported bags at the supermarket. So sipping one in my own room isn’t like being in a busy restaurant watching the world go by, it is pretty good “jo”. And a nice reminder of where I came from.

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