Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Freaks Belong in the CFL!

“Tebow headed north of the border?” ProFootballTalk (Dec. 22, 2012)

This video is a bit old now, but it contains so many central ideas about the CFL versus the NFL that it’s worth a look:

Peter King is rather like the Thomas Friedman of sports journalism: he plays the “reasonable man” who offers a wise and balanced point of view, but he’s nothing more than a mouthpiece for relatively conservative conventional wisdom. Between him and Florio, however, they cover quite a few clichés about Canada in a relatively short space of time. Here are a few highlights:

Go to Canada, hone your craft, win championships. (King)

This is the essence of King’s advice to Tebow – because obviously anyone who has played in the NFL will automatically become the best player in the CFL and be guaranteed to win multiple championships simply by showing up. Tebow’s unconventional mechanics and poor accuracy – King calls him a “sideshow” at one point – won’t be a problem up north because, as everyone knows, it’s an inferior league that welcomes players who are essentially circus freaks.

What are you talking aboot? (Florio)

Florio leads off with this classic (or should I say stale? a matter of perspective perhaps) American joke about Canadian pronunciation and gets a big laugh with it. I have to admit I still don’t get this one; is it an accent thing? I feel like I pronounce “about” properly (rhymes with “trout,” not “toot”).

He should exhaust all opportunities at the NFL level before he gives up. (Florio)

Playing in Canada is tantamount to giving up, since no one who had a chance to be even a third-stirnger for an NFL team would choose the CFL. There’s probably a fair bit of truth to this, at least in terms of how players perceive the NFL versus the CFL.

If it doesn’t work in Jacksonville, then you ship him to Canada. (Florio)

The CFL, apparently, is a gulag for failed NFL starters.

He’s not accurate enough. (King)

By this, King means Tebow isn’t accurate enough to succeed in the NFL; of course that won’t interfere with his ability to win multiple championships in the CFL, as King mentioned earlier.

How many games do they play up in Canada? Sixteen? Nineteen? Twelve? (King)

This casual exposure of gross ignorance is greeted with laughter from the other two talking heads; no one can be expected to know how many games they play in that crazy Canadian league! It’s remarkable that someone purporting to be a journalist can get away with remarks like this, and needless to say it’s only acceptable because he’s ignorant about Canadian football; no outlet would pay Peter King a nickel for his opinion if he didn’t know how many games were played in an NFL season, or by major league baseball.

Now having said that, I have to admit that I don’t know how many games they play in the CFL either. I’m sure it’s more than sixteen.

Pause for research….

A quick look at the 2012 schedule for the Toronto Argonauts shows they played 18 regular season games (Peter was close with 19) plus three playoff games. (They conveniently won the Grey Cup last year, so their schedule represents the full gamut.)

That took me all of a minute, Peter. Do some research! Don’t you have interns to find this stuff for you?

At the end, King goes into full Angry Schoolmarm mode, jabbing his finger and shaking his wattles in what used to be known as “High Dudgeon”. Everything, apparently, is the fault of the evil New York Jets:

I blame the New York Jets. The New York Jets totally hurt this kid…. The Jets are the ones who are to blame for this whole mess. (King)

OK, Peter. As long as we have someone to blame.


Sylvia Plath in Ontario

Here’s something remarkable from Carmine Starnino and the Véhicule Press Blog; a photo of Sylvia Plath feeding a deer … in Ontario:

Plath Feeds Deer in Ontario

Plath Feeds Deer in Ontario

I can’t comment too much on this, as Plath isn’t saying anything about Canada; it’s hard not to notice, however, that the photo contains Plath herself, a deer, and a bunch of trees. (It’s not, for example, Sylvia Plath hailing a cab on a busy street corner in Toronto. We do have busy street corners, you know. And cabs. Really.) This seems in keeping with general impressions of Canada as a wilderness nation that’s a great place to go if you want to see trees, mountains, or wild animals, but not really a destination for culture or other more civilized pursuits.

The photo could be from 1959, when, according to Wikipedia:

Plath and [Ted] Hughes travelled across Canada and the United States, staying at the Yaddo artist colony in New York State in 1959.

I haven’t read much Plath beyond the standard Norton Anthology selections, but I wonder if she mentions Canada anywhere? I think there’s a Collected Poems on the shelf upstairs….

Véhicule Press has more cool photos of writers from the Faber archives. None of them are in Canada, however.

Enjoy nevertheless.

Canadian Xenophobes

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960)

Let me just note, for those not already familiar, that this book is published by New York Review Books, a fantastic source of hard-to-find books (though in hunting down the link I find Dead Souls is their featured title, which is actually fairly ubiquitous. Oh the cruel ironies of life!) They also have a great children’s series.


There are a couple of points of interest here; let’s tackle the meatiest first.

We sailed for New York on February 18, 1939, on the Canadian ship SS Aurania. (p. 198)

Perhaps only a Canadian would note the irony implicit in this: Mitford and her husband, Esmond Romilly, sailed on a Canadian ship, but of course they weren’t going to Canada – no, they were on their way to a far more glamorous and exciting destination – New York. Their brush with Canada was merely a means to get somewhere else.

A description of the voyage follows:

Our fellow passengers were Canadian tourists, and Polish refugees who had managed to get on the immigration quota. Since there was little to liven up the voyage, we devoted our attention to taking sides in the continuous battle that raged between these two groups.

Some of the Canadians had taken it upon themselves to preserve the Anglo-Saxon purity of the steerage class bar from the “foreigners”. The bar was small, generally crowded, and stuffy. A group of Canadians generally managed to monopolize it early in the evening. “This place stinks of polecats,” they said loudly when some of the immigrants tried to come in. Esmond, assuming his most super-English-upper-class-public-school manner, escorted a group of Poles through the Canadian phalanx. “I really must apologize for these ghastly Colonials. They’re virtually uncivilized. Too bad we couldn’t have sailed on an English ship.” For once he was enjoying outsnobbing the snobs.

For a country that now prides itself on welcoming immigrants, this doesn’t make the most charming reading. Romilly’s comments about the Canadians play on the standard trope of colonials taking on the characteristics of the wild land they have settled, becoming more savage than the cultured sophisticates who remained home in the mother country. And putting on his most upper-crust attitude is the perfect touch; even today, most Canadians are cowed by the mere sound of an English accent. A cockney could proclaim himself a lord in Toronto and be met with bows of obeisance.

No insight is given into the motivations of the Canadians, but this sort of imposition of inferiority tends to work in a chain i.e. the English make the Canadians feel inferior; the Canadians then have to find someone (in this case, Polish refugees) that they can make feel inferior in their turn; and so it goes until the person at the bottom is left screaming at his child or kicking his dog. Perhaps the Canadians were acting out the contempt they had just been treated to on their tour of Europe. If so, Romilly’s joke about uncivilized Colonials must have twisted the knife with particular sharpness.

Moving on….

Romilly’s decision to join the Armed Forces to fight in the Second World War while he and Mitford were living in the United States brought about another brush with Canada:

[Esmond] was exultant at being in a position to arrange the details of his own participation in the war. Had he been caught up in the English conscription he would have found himself at the mercy of officialdom, with nothing whatsoever to say about what branch of the services he would join. As things stood, he was free to steer as clear as possible of the more tradition-bound centers of the armed forces. He decided to leave immediately for Canada, there to volunteer for the Air Force.

Notice that the reason for enlisting in Canada is entirely negative – he doesn’t particularly want to be part of the Canadian armed forces, he just wants to avoid English conscription. Romilly was the nephew, by marriage, of Winston Churchill, and to him Canada is nothing more than a useful backwater that provides him with some much-desired obscurity.

Canadians: The Decaf of North America?

Java Jive by Ben Schott

Java Jive by Ben Schott

Ben Schott, “Java Jive,” The New York Times (Sunday, February 10, 2013)

I’m not sure how legible that image is; it shows part of “Java Jive,” an “Op-Chart” by Ben Schott (he of the Original Miscellany, various spin-off miscellanies, and related products. One can only assume the world is better for having so many miscellanies in it.)

But returning to “Java Jive,” it’s essentially a glossary, giving definitions of barista terminology from coffee shops across the U.S. It’s mostly unremarkable: for example, a “crushtomer” is a customer on whom a barista has a crush, and “spro” is a common abbreviation for espresso. Nothing earth-shaking there.

But then we come to the entry for Gimme! Coffee (locations in New York City and the Finger Lakes) pictured above, and what do we find? Why, this:

A decaf Americano.

A CANADIAN with an extra shot of decaf.

Ouch! I try not to take these references to Canada personally, but … ouch!

First of all let me state, for the record, that I have never in my life ordered a decaf Americano. I regard coffee primarily as a palatable caffeine delivery system, and don’t really see the point of decaf.

But I don’t think the idea here is that Canadians are always ordering decaf Americanos. Call me paranoid, but I think something more insidious is at work.

The real joke is this: Canadians are to Americans as decaf is to “real” coffee; that is, lacking in punch, kick, force and power. By now we can recognize this as a recurring trope: Canadians are essentially the same as our neighbours to the south, only less warlike, more polite, and more socialist. In short, we are weaker, less interesting Americans.

This is a bit rich when you consider the origin of the Americano. According to my extensive research, the Americano came into being when American soldiers in Italy in the Second World War added hot water to the espresso they were served there in order to more closely approximate the weak, watery brew they were accustomed to at home. So if Americans are just weaker Italians, and then Canadians are just weaker Americans … and where does that leave the French Canadians?

Here lies, to me, the most interesting crux of the joke. A French Canadian is a Canadian with an extra shot … but an extra shot of decaf. In Canada, we’re accustomed to hear about how French Canadians – or at least Montrealers – are so much more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the rest of us, with a passion for art and literature and public intellectualism English Canada can only regard with sick, pathetic envy. (We hear this mostly from Montrealers who live in Toronto.) This seems to fit with the “extra shot” idea: a French Canadian is a Canadian, only with an added dash of alluring intrigue.

But the extra shot is an extra shot of decaf; it’s more blandness piled on top of something that was already rather bland; it’s an extra dose of dullness. This presents a view of French Canadians directly opposed to what we’re used to: they’re just like other Canadians, but a little more blah.

As a side note, one of the eager young writers on staff here at Wow Canada Publications Inc. suggests that a “Canadian” should actually be what we up here call a “double-double,” i.e. a coffee with two creams and two sugars (a common order at Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain purveying vile coffee and uninspired doughnuts to rushed commuters and named after – what else? – a hockey player. I try to outrun the cliches, but they keep catching up.)

If it were up to me, a Canadian would be a quad espresso – my personal Starbucks order, on the rare occasions when I buy coffee out. But that’s neither here nor there.

Skiing with Socialists

New York Times Comic Strip

Bryan McFadden, “The Strip”

Bryan McFadden, “The Strip,” New York Times Sunday Review (January 27, 2013)

In case the image isn’t clear, the “rich victim of climate change” in the first panel is saying:

I had to go to Canada to ski! On their socialist slopes, no less!

First, hats off to Bryan McFadden for fitting several cliches about Canada into such a small space. It begins with the larger idea that lies behind the joke: that Canada is not really a nation in its own right, but rather a vast northern playground that exists solely for the pleasure of rich Americans.

Specifically, skiing; because all of Canada is covered by snow, right? It doesn’t seem to occur to Americans that if their climate is changing, ours must be too. Earlier this week, I was looking out my window at puddles so large they should almost have been given names; a couple of days ago, the temperature reached 13 degrees (that’s Celsius, of course). And yet, in the American imagination, we’re sitting here shivering, buried in snow, our ski slopes eagerly awaiting their captains of industry.

And then … socialism. (Is it possible for Americans to refer to Canada without mentioning either socialism or extreme politeness? I suppose time will tell.) We sometimes see Americans refer to Canada with some apparent envy at our socialistic health care system; in this case, however, it is clear that the capitalistic American is offended by our purported socialism, as if setting foot on our left-leaning slopes will somehow corrupt the independent, pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstrtaps spirit that allowed him to achieve his immense success in the first place.

Sigh. This hardly even seems worth unpacking anymore.

Instead, I’ll just remark that when I started this blog, I genuinely intended to focus on books, not newspapers and magazines. But suddenly, the New York Times just can’t seem to stop mentioning Canada! If I come across another of these, I’m going to stop reading that paper and re-dedicate myself to literature.

Of course, if they don’t mention Canada for the next six months, I’m going to be hurt and wonder why. Such is the nature of insecure nationalism.

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