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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.

This Music-loving Dave Reads About The Other Music-loving Dave…

The art of storytelling is not necessarily a dying art, but is one which is getting a little gray on top and wheezing a little. In the last week or so, I revisited one of its finer recent practicioners, reading Stuart McLean‘s Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. It was the third compilation of his “Vinyl Cafe” stories which he put out with some regularity for over 20 years until his death in 2017.

McLean had decent careers as an English professor, then a news journalist before settling in to become one of Canada’s most beloved media types by telling stories about folks who felt like family. If that sounds a bit familiar to Americans, it probably should. McLean’s often been referred to as “Canada’s Garrison Keillor.” The comparison is obvious, with both telling stories of ordinary small town folk on public radio then publishing them in compilation form. Of course, while Keillor’s stories were set in his fictitious Lake Wobegon and was mainly heard on NPR, McLean’s were set in Toronto. Now, Toronto is anything but a “small town” but it is also a city of neighborhoods, and McLean made us feel like residents of Dave’s little corner of it.

For those unfamiliar, the Vinyl Cafe stories center around Dave, a middle-aged proprietor of a vinyl record store, and his family, wife Morley and two kids. The stories flip back and forth between his record store, his home life and quirky neighbors and the odd reminiscence of his youth in rural Nova Scotia or his career as a rock roadie when young and single.

The stories are generally relatable, sometimes warm, sometimes witty. The term which seems to fit is “gentle humor”. Not many of these stories will make you fall on the floor laughing, but in general they do make you feel like Dave and Morley are family, have you cheering on their little victories and nodding along with their foibles or frustrations of having a teen girl and ‘tween boy to shepherd into adulthood.

The themes are familiar, lower-case ones. Dave’s buddy’s wife doesn’t like him much and doesn’t realize he didn’t go with said buddy on a run to the beer store when she dashes to the kitchen in the nude to get a drink. An old customer comes back to his store after being away for seven years and the most valuable record Dave owned ( a 1930’s 78 by Geechie Wiley) has them reminiscing and catching up on each other’s lives. A stodgy old aunt comes from Britain to visit and go to a Due South fan convention – she’s obsessed with the Canadian Mountie show – but ends up being taken away for an impromptu fling on a little fishing boat. The family decide it would be nice to make each other Christmas presents but find the idea is nicer than the stressful reality of doing so. Nothing earth-shattering but then again, nothing that causes us to have much “suspension of disbelief” nor to flinch or have our hearts miss a beat. No Stephen King scary clowns or rabid dogs in the Vinyl Cafe.

I’ve read a number of his books (there are around 10 different “Vinyl Cafe” titles, although some of them are essentially “best ofs”) and enjoy them. I like his style, I like the references to my homeland and a city I’ve strolled the streets of and shopped the stores in, and feel no small amount of kinship with a 50-ish year old guy called Dave who loves Blue Jays baseball and mostly, music. However, as I got further into the book, my honest assessment was … “this is OK, but it’s a bit weak for McLean.” To put it into parlance Dave of the store would understand, it’s like a compilation of B-sides. Worthy enough, but not representative of the heights he could attain. No “greatest hits” this one. Until I got to the final short story. “Love Never Ends.”

Love Never Ends” sees Dave take a side seat to his old childhood baseball coach, and wife. It’s astonishing. It’s not one of McLean’s funnier tales, but it may well be his crowning achievement as a writer and a person. It says in about 14 pages as much about the meaning of life and the Human Condition as many philosophers and theologians have been able to deduce in a lifetime of work and pondering.

So the overall review is, a decent enough set of stories, and a pretty good introduction to the Vinyl Cafe for a newcomer, and if you come to it first, you might be pleasantly surprised with other books in the series you read later. If you like Garrison Keillor, you probably will like Vinyl Cafe Unplugged. But if you want to be moved, touched… made to feel, track down the “Love Never Ends” story from it, at a library, online, while sitting in a bookstore. But have a Kleenex ready.

I Am Canadian, Eh

I’m Canadian, eh?

I’m proud of my homeland and of course, puff up a little every time something Canadian appears on the world stage, be it a Mike Myers movie, Joey Votto winning an award in baseball, a Sarah McLachlan or Guess Who tune on the radio in Texas, a bag of cookies on a Florida grocery store shelf saying “Product of Canada.”

I find we Canucks are pretty well accepted wherever we go, which is nice. I think that’s largely because we just don’t create a real strong impression on foreigners. Rather a double-edged sword, that – we’re dull but we’re not unlikable therefore. That could be rather a function of both our typically mild-mannered nature and the fact that our national culture is… well, not terribly colorful or unique when looked at on the world stage. Not that we don’t have a culture, it’s rather that it is primarily a mix of America-lite with a tip of the cap (or toque) to our British heritage. People who visit Toronto from other countries often leave with the comments of “that’s a whole lot like Chicago or Atlanta with slightly less trash on the streets and a few more Depeche Mode songs on the radio.”

Of course, what little we do have to make us “special” is played up to death in the media. We don’t have bagpipes, or haggis or stinky cheese to define us, but we do have Tim Hortons, toques, hockey and beer. Which is fine by me. With the majority of us, I find. We laugh along with Robin (a character played by an actual Canadian actress, Colbie Smulders) in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother with her Vancouver hockey-logo bedecked t-shirts, jerseys, sleep pants and her patter – indecipherable to most Americans – about back home with its hydro poles, curling bonspiels and Mark Messier, all the while being mocked/pitied by her American friends who point out how tough it must have been growing up with “America right there!” . Barney in that show visits her in Toronto and makes fun of the brightly-colored paper money and just about everything else, but does begrudgingly admit upon return to New York, “the coffee was excellent.” Or with Hank Hill on King of the Hill, when confounded with new Canadian neighbors who use a lawn mower with a maple leaf design on it and ask him things like “How come America still can’t brew a decent ale, eh?” … to which he responds to the effect of “because we’re too busy making Hollywood blockbusters and sending men to the moon”.

Yes, we do have a Tim Hortons coffee shop on just about every other street corner and in half the country they serve as more or less the social club, point of reference, beginning point to journeys and daily mid-morning work break. We do, it seems to me, like beer a bit more than other Americans, cola a little less. We do say “eh”,although a lot less than most TV shows might have you think. We do call electricity “hydro” even if it comes straight from a nuclear plant or solar farm. And a toque with a plaid lumberjack coat is as close to a national outfit as we have. We do as a people love hockey more than Americans not from Boston or Detroit, and have an indifference for football, particularly of the amateur high school variety that’s inexplicable to our neighbors south of the Mason-Dixon Line at least. But we’re not that different.

What’s more, we laugh at ourselves and seem to have a lassez-faire attitude towards those who behave differently or have their own cultures when they come over. Which I believe makes us easy targets for those wanting to make jokes… but also more accepted than a number of other nationalities. It’s difficult to sweepingly dislike a group of people who don’t stand out and who laugh at their own foibles anyway.

I think there’s a message in there somewhere. Be proud of who you are, where you come from, but realize that others are just as proud of where they are from, what matters to them. Don’t get too bent out of shape by a little ribbing – it just means you’re no different really. Part of the crowd. Or when it comes to Tim Hortons coffee, that maybe they’re a bit jealous, eh!