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Archive for the category “Magazines”

The Romance of Canada 4: Escape to the Barrens

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Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Man Who Saw America” (NYT Magazine, July 5, 2015)

Nicholas Dawidoff, who appeared here before in the guise of a football writer, has a fascinating article about photographer (best known for The Americans) and filmmaker (best known for Cocksucker Blues) Robert Frank in the NYT Magazine. It’s worth reading on its own merits, but Canada does play a small role, when Dawidoff describes Frank’s reaction to his own growing fame:

Acclaim was likewise anathema. By the 1960s, just as his work was gaining a following, Frank abruptly moved on from still photography to become an underground filmmaker. Ten years later, with all the glories of the art world calling to him, Frank fled New York, moving to a barren hillside far in the Canadian north.  (42)

“A barren hillside far in the Canadian north” — how romantic that sounds! Later in the article, however, it turns out that the place he moved to was Mabou, Nova Scotia. Here’s Dawidoff’s description of the move:

Overwhelmed in New York, craving ‘‘peace,’’ Frank asked [June] Leaf [his girlfriend] to go to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to find them a home. It was winter. She bought a pair of thick boots and flew north: ‘‘He knew I’d do anything for him,’’ she says now.

They moved to Mabou, where the March wind was so strong you had to walk backward. They knew nobody, and the house they’d purchased overlooking the sea was, in the local expression, ‘‘after falling down.’’

Now, if you consult a map, you will see that while Mabou may be barren, it is roughly as far north as Maine. (If Frank is “the man who saw America,” Dawidoff is “the man who never saw (a map of) Canada.”) It’s a bit troubling that this kind of error can make its way into The New York Times (even if only the magazine) — doesn’t anyone check these things? Do the editors really think a place that’s much closer to Martha’s Vineyard than to the Arctic Circle represents the “far north”? Perhaps they think anywhere in Canada is the far north. Or perhaps this is just another instance of Americans’ total indifference to our country and everything to do with it.

Beyond that, Frank’s girlfriend saying that flying to Nova Scotia proves that she would “do anything for him” is quite charming, suggesting, as it does, that travelling to Nova Scotia is a perilous undertaking from which one is fortunate to return alive. And while Dawidoff doesn’t say it directly he certainly implies, through the references to the thick boots and the strong March wind, that Canada is cold — one of the most common ideas about our country.

The main impression of Canada conveyed by this article, however, is that it is a remote, unpopulated land that is ideal if you’re looking for somewhere to escape to. (We saw a similar attitude to Canada in Kris Kraus’s novel torpor.) And perhaps I’m imagining things, but I even feel like there is a certain admiration in Dawidoff’s tone as he describes Frank’s abrupt departure from New York. We do tend to idolize great artists, and far be it from me to suggest that Frank doesn’t deserve Dawidoff’s adulation; but there is a special reverence reserved for those who not only produce great works of art, but who also reject the trappings of fame and celebrity that come with their accomplishment. The reclusive genius is a romantic figure, admired for being more honest and true to the artist’s calling by virtue of having rejected fame, and in describing Frank’s flight to Canada, Dawidoff places him firmly in that category.

And so Canada plays a role here, not as an independent nation with an identity of its own, but rather as a marker of authenticity that validates a particular kind of American achievement: ironically, it is by leaving New York for Canada that Frank establishes his status as a true American original, a genuine artist not interested in his own fame but devoted only to the tough realities of his art.

What, after, all, could represent a more complete rejection of fame than leaving New York City (and “all the glories of the art world” — what are those, I wonder?) for Canada? And not just Canada, but a “barren hillside” in the (supposedly) “far north”?

In fact, there are probably areas in the United States that are just as much a wilderness as the most wilderness-y areas of Canada; and yet escaping to a cabin in Montana doesn’t have the same romantic finality, the same grandeur in terms of a gesture, as fleeing to Canada, where of course acclaim can never pursue you because, as everyone knows, in Canada the mechanics by which acclaim comes to be don’t exist: there are no magazines, no newspapers, no television, no radio, no people or communities; just an endless succession of barren hillsides where American artists fleeing their own celebrity huddle together to stay warm against the unending cold.

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So Polite It’s … Creepy

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P.C. Vey, “Whack A Canadian,” from The New Yorker (February 23 & March 2, 2015)

I have to admit there are moments when even I grow tired of thinking about Canada. And I suspect that most people have even less tolerance for Canada-related thinking than I do. In fact, people in general probably find thinking about Canada rather wearying, even at the best of times.

There is one group of people, however, who have demonstrated time and again that, when it comes to thinking about Canada, they are indefatiguable. Who are these people, you ask?

Why, New Yorker cartoonists, of course.

For them, it seems, jokes about Canadians are an inexhaustible well of hilarity, one whose brackish waters they go back to draw from again and again. Above is a recent example; if you can’t read the caption at that size, it says, “I just want to apologize beforehand if you miss.

I have already laid out my Platonic theory of New Yorker cartoons, and I’m not going to go through it again here; you can click on that link and consult it if you like. The cartoon above represents yet another iteration of what is perhaps the most common type of Canadian New Yorker cartoon: “Canadians are so polite that….” So polite, in this case, that we would apologize in advance to someone who might fail to whack us on the head with a mallet.

The precise joke in this particular cartoon is a little elusive, at least for me; at first I thought it meant, “I want to apologize in case you miss because I’m so polite that I will feel bad for you if you fail to hit me and therefore don’t win a prize.” After further reflection, though, I think the joke is actually based on the idea that Canadians are so polite that if you step on a Canadian’s foot, the Canadian will apologize. Read in that way, the joke means something more along the lines of, “As a polite Canadian, I plan to apologize if you hit me on the head with that mallet, but I’m actually so excessively polite that I want to apologize in advance just in case you miss me and leave me with no reason to apologize later” – as if apologizing for suffering physical violence were such a thrill for Canadians that we don’t want to lose any opportunity to do so.

Either way, the cartoon suggests that Canadians are so polite that it is weird, and perhaps beginning to border on the creepy.

There are even visual similarities between this cartoon and previous Canada-related cartoons in The New Yorker. For comparison, here are a couple we’ve looked at before. The “Canadian Standoff” cartoon:

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

And the “Canadian Lemmings” cartoon:

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In all three, the word “Canadian” appears prominently, paired with something already familiar to readers: a standoff, lemmings, and replacing the word “mole” in the game Whack-A-Mole. All three cartoons are also by different artists, which suggests either that these ideas about Canada are so common that all Americans share them, or that these cartoons are being generated according to some proprietary New Yorker “polite Canadian” cartoon template.

But there’s really nothing new in any of that.

What is new is the strange undercurrent of violence in the “Whack A Canadian” cartoon, which is essentially about an American (presumably) who is going to attempt to clobber a Canadian with a mallet as part of a carnival game. In other Canada-related New Yorker cartoons, Canadians have been portrayed as if they were slightly weird relatives: a little different from Americans, but harmless, really, and maybe even a bit lovable on account of our odd foibles. What accounts for the edge of viciousness in this cartoon? Are our southern neighbours beginning to turn against us? Are we so polite that we have transformed politeness into a form of passive aggression that needs to be combated with direct violence?

Or perhaps there’s another issue here – is the cartoonist frustrated at not being able to come up with anything but another “polite Canadians” cartoon, and so he is subliminally taking out his anger against us, as if it were Canada’s fault that his inspiration had flagged? Or perhaps the Canadian cartoon was imposed on him by New Yorker Cartoons Editor Robert Mankoff, who seems to have a fondness for this sort of Canadian joke, and the violent attitude against the Canadian in the cartoon is just the expression of the cartoonist’s attitude towards his material?

Or is it just a cartoon, and I’m a hyper-sensitive Canadian reading way too much into it?

Warren Harding Gets Lucky – in Montreal

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Jordan Michael Smith, “All the President’s Pen” (The New York Times Magazine), July 13, 2014

An interesting article in the The New York Times Magazine outlines future President Warren Harding’s extramarital affair with Carrie Phillips, and includes selections from letters he wrote to her over the course of the affair and afterwards. A few of them are quite steamy (or “NSFW,” if you prefer), including the following, in which the man who would one day be President is so overwhelmed by his feelings that he actually launches into verse:

Jan. 28, 1912

I love your poise
Of perfect thighs
When they hold me
in paradise…

I love the rose
Your garden grows
Love seashell pink
That over it glows

I love to suck
Your breath away
I love to cling –
There long to stay…

I love you garb’d
But naked more
Love your beauty
To thus adore…

I love you when
You open eyes
And mouth and arms
And cradling thighs…

If I had you today, I’d kiss and fondle you into my arms and hold you there until you said, ‘Warren, oh, Warren,’ in a benediction of blissful joy…. I rather like that encore discovered in Montreal. Did you?  (32)

Whoa! It’s a little difficult to discern exactly what went on in Montreal, but that’s a very suggestive reference. What was this “encore” they “discovered”? Based on the context, I think we have to assume it’s sexual. But was it a new position? A new technique?

Alas, the wording is just vague enough that knowledge of the specifics probably passed from the earth with the participants – though perhaps that’s as it should be. If nothing else, it leaves us free to speculate.

One of the chronological notes in the margin of the article offers some context for the reference to Montreal, at least, if not for exactly what went on there:

1911-13: In the fall of 1911, Carrie left her husband behind in Marion and traveled with her daughter to Berlin. She returned around Christmas and spent New Year’s Eve with her lover in Montreal, where they made love at the stroke of midnight; a moment Harding would revisit again and again in his letters.  (33)

So apparently Montreal played a key role in their relationship, and whatever sexual dynamite they discovered there lived on in Harding’s memory … forever? And of course, it would be Montreal – Warren Harding’s erotic discoveries are just one more addition to the accumulating legend of Montreal as Canada’s sexy, swinging, European-style city, while Toronto remains the staid banker’s paradise it has always been.

It occurs to me, re-reading the letter above, that “Warren” must be one of the least sexy names in the world. As for Harding’s poetic gifts, I simply quote the work; I will leave the reader to judge its value. I must say I think there’s a certain artistry – or perhaps I should say an attempt at artistry – in the way the final stanza carries the verb “open” from “eyes” (which is so banal it’s absurd – he loves her when she opens her eyes?) to “thighs”. This suggests that Harding at least had some understanding of the way poetry worked, even if his attempts to replicate it weren’t always completely successful.

Canada’s Gift to the Fashion World: The Canadian Tuxedo

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Brian Hiatt, “The Rise of the Black Keys,” Rolling Stone (January 19, 2012)

As a general rule, I try to focus on references to Canada in books, but occasionally I’ll come across a mention in a magazine or other piece of pop-culture ephemera (is anything really ephemeral anymore?) that is just too good to ignore. This is one of those moments.

I’m not sure exactly how I stumbled on this Black Keys article, and it’s a few years old now, but it opens a door into a part of Canadian identity that we haven’t really dealt with here before, so it seemed worth considering. This is from the very opening of the article, when the author does his obligatory description of how cool the subject of the article is:

No one in this busy Hollywood organic coffee shop looks like they might have just sold out Madison Square Garden – least of all, perhaps, the compact, thick-bearded dude in the jean jacket shuffling toward a corner table. Dan Auerbach’s looks are striking enough: sharp-angled nose, bright blue eyes, floppy reddish hair. But his denim-on-denim outfit says “parking-lot attendant” as much as it does “rock star” (“I’m not afraid of the Canadian tuxedo,” he says, though at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans) – and he carries himself with an almost wilful lack of flamboyance.

He’s so cool, he’s good-looking, he’s wildly successful but at the same time totally down to earth – and he’s wearing denim-on-denim! It’s actually Auerbach himself who identifies his look (if someone so cool and down to earth can even be said to have a “look”) as “the Canadian tuxedo,” showing that, among our many other accomplishments, our nation has also left its imprint on the fashion world.

Is this something to be proud of? It’s hard not to feel that there is something disparaging about the term “Canadian tuxedo,” as though we Canadians are such unsophisticated hicks that jeans with a jean jacket is the closest we can come to formal wear. And the line about “at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans” – that “at least” seems to indicate that the Canadian tuxedo is a horribly unfashionable look, but the version of it that Auerbach is sporting isn’t quite as awful as it might be. (Note that, for the cover shoot, he swapped the denim jacket for the more conventional rock-star leather.)

And why is this look referred to as “the Canadian tuxedo”? Is it, in fact, a way for Americans to make fun of Canadian fashion sense? According to GQ magazine, the story is a little more complicated than that, and involves Levi’s, Bing Crosby and a Vancouver hotel. (Needless to say, there are other explanations floating around on the Internet.)

But, contrary to its ostensibly scruffy and lower-class reputation, the denim-on-denim look is one of this spring’s hottest fashion trends, having made appearances all over at Fashion Week in Paris. And, predictably, there’s a website devoted to images of people in Canadian tuxedos – including Beyonce and Barack Obama.

So our humble contribution to the fashion lexicon is clearly hitting the big time.

The Humble Canadian Takes On Wall Street

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Michael Lewis, “The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street” (NYT Magazine, April 6, 2014)

I hadn’t really planned on spending any more time on Brad Katsuyama, but then the NYT Magazine landed on my doorstep on Sunday morning. The copy under the “Meet Brad” headline reads:

He’s a humble Canadian trader who happened to figure out exactly how the stock market was rigged. Now Wall Street may never be the same.

We learned from 60 Minutes that Katsuyama was a conformist even by Canada’s rigorous standards for conformity; now we discover that he’s also “humble.” I understand that Michael Lewis probably didn’t write the copy on the cover of the magazine; I also understand that it’s trying to set up a “David and Goliath” type narrative that is intriguing enough to make you open the magazine and read the article; but “humble”? Really? This is the man who may revolutionize Wall Street, and the best adjective they can apply to him is “humble”? Not “clever”? Not “brilliant”? Not “bold”? Not “crusading” – I like crusading. The Crusading Canadian – it even alliterates. But no – he’s a Canadian being featured in an American publication, and so he must conform to the pre-existing American stereotypes about Canadians: he must be polite, he must be quiet, he must be conformist, he must be humble.

And then there’s that phrase, “happened to figure out.” My recollection from watching the 60 Minutes report was that Katsuyama and his team actually put a significant amount of time and effort into figuring out how other people were managing to front run their trades. It required doggedness, ingenuity, creative thinking, a refusal to give up or to accept being told that was just how the system worked – in short, it took the opposite of humility and conformity. But here, on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, all that effort is elided, and we’re told Katsuyama “happened to figure it out,” as if by some happy accident.

Now that I’ve finished complaining about the cover, the article itself is actually quite fascinating. It goes over some of the same ground as the 60 Minutes report, and also reveals some new aspects of the story. Most of all, Lewis paints a very compelling picture of Brad Katsuyama as a person who felt forced by circumstance to take action for something that, for lack of a better word, could be called “principle”.

It’s important to point out that Katsuyama lives and works in the United States, and that the story is very much about the American financial system – there’s really not a whole lot about Canada in most of the article. In the introductory paragraphs, however, we are treated to some key ideas about our humble little nation to the north:

Before the collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008, Brad Katsuyama could tell himself that he bore no responsibility for that system. He worked for the Royal Bank of Canada, for a start. RBC might have been the fifth-biggest bank in North America, by some measures, but it was on nobody’s mental map of Wall Street. It was stable and relatively virtuous and soon to be known for having resisted the temptation to make bad sub-prime loans to Americans or to peddle them to ignorant investors. But its management didn’t understand just what an afterthought it was – on the rare occasions American financiers thought about it at all.  (28)

Stability, (relative) virtue, resistance to temptation – these are classic merits that Americans associate with dull, conservative old Canada. And I love that phrase, “by some measures,” as if to say RBC likes to call itself the fifth-largest bank, but no one really believes it. The Canadian financial system is being firmly put in its place here. When Katsuyama arrives in New York, Lewis makes him sound rather naive:

It was his first immersive course in the American way of life, and he was instantly struck by how different it was from the Canadian version. “Everything was to excess,” he says. “I met more offensive people in a year than I had in my entire life. People lived beyond their means, and the way they did it was by going into debt. Debt was a foreign concept in Canada. Debt was evil.”  (28)

Canadians sound rather schoolmarmish here, horrified by loud voices and the very concept of borrowing money. But this passage is also funny for the way, in describing a stereotypical Canadian who’s shocked at the freewheeling American way of life, it smuggles in Canadian stereotypes about Americans – that they’re all loud, brash, offensive, and racking up an insane amount of debt to make sure their lifestyle keeps up with their incessant bragging. Canadians, and Canadian banks, need to be insulated from such offensive behaviour:

The RBC trading floor had a no-jerk rule … If someone came in the door looking for a job and sounding like a typical Wall Street jerk, he wouldn’t be hired, no matter how much money he said he could make the firm. There was even an expression used to describe the culture: “RBC nice.” Although Katsuyama found the expression embarrassingly Canadian, he, too, was RBC nice.  (28)

These opening few paragraphs are like a high-speed tour through American ideas of what it means to be Canadian, all building towards this final, central concept of how nice (close cousin to polite) we are. In this telling, even Canada’s largest bank doesn’t care how much money it makes; all it cares about is making sure everyone is nice. Niceness is the archetypal Canadian virtue, the quality from which all our other characteristics spring; everything begins with everyone being nice. We didn’t make bad sub-prime loans – that wouldn’t be nice. We don’t act offensively – it’s not nice. We don’t go into debt – debt’s not nice. And we certainly don’t give jobs to jerks – jerks, after all, aren’t nice.

The table of contents page of the magazine has a photo of Katsuyama and his wife at home playing with their kids; the signs on the wall in the background seem to fit so perfectly with the image of Katsuyama in the story that it’s hard not to wonder whether the photographer hung them there before taking the picture:

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The idea of Canadian virtue that the article trades in is summed up in those five words: “Play Nice.” “Share Your Toys.” Clearly, RBC’s “no-jerk” policy extends all the way to the Katsuyama playroom.

Canada: Centre of Advanced Science

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Nathaniel Rich, “The New Origin of the Species” (NYT Magazine, March 2, 2014)

Is it just me, or does the mammoth in that cover photo look an awful lot like Snuffleupagus?  (It’s in the eyebrows.) Or did it just never occur to me before that Snuffleupagus is a mammoth, but without tusks?

Anyway….

I thought, in connection with Paul Muldoon’s references to his brother’s advanced agricultural science studies in Guelph, that it would be worthwhile just to take note, in passing, of a reference to the role played by Canada in the re-creation of extinct species in an article from the New York Times Magazine.

For context, Ben Novak, one of the central figures in the article, is an ecologist obsessed with the idea of resurrecting the passenger pigeon. Beth Shapiro is sequencing the passenger pigeon’s DNA; Novak applied for a job at her lab but was rejected, which led him to McMaster. Hence the word “instead” at the beginning of the quote; unable to find a job in the U.S. (that centre of the scholarly universe), he had to settle for Hamilton:

Novak instead entered a graduate program at the McMaster Ancient DNA Center [sic] in Hamilton, Ontario, where he worked on the sequencing of mastodon DNA. But he remained obsessed by passenger pigeons. He decided that, if he couldn’t join Shapiro’s lab, he would sequence the pigeon’s genome himself. He needed tissue samples, so he sent letters to every museum he could find that possessed the stuffed specimens. He was denied more than 30 times before Chicago’s Field Museum sent him a tiny slice of a pigeon’s toe. A lab in Toronto conducted the sequencing for a little more than $2,500….  (29)

There are a few points worth drawing out here, but first, if you’re using the proper name of an institution like the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, you should at least spell it the way the institution spells it. And in Canada, we spell “centre” with an “re,” not an “er.” It’s so typically American to casually impose their spelling conventions on us. They see themselves as the centre of everything, and it never occurs to them that other countries might have their own way of doing things.

The reference to McMaster, introduced by that loaded “instead,” does make it sound a bit like a consolation prize, as if Novak would have much preferred to stay in the U.S. if he could have – but let’s not let ourselves slide into the muck of being aggrieved and offended.

Instead, let’s focus on the positive aspects of Canada we learn about here. First, McMaster apparently has an institution that’s a leader in the field of sequencing the DNA of extinct animals. Did you know that? I didn’t. And second, there’s a lab in Toronto that, for a moderate fee, will actually sequence the DNA of an extinct animal for you if you simply send them a sample. I had no idea I lived in such a hub of cutting-edge science. I’m surprised people aren’t breaking into museums, stealing bits of dinosaur bone, and mailing them off to the lab every day so they can create their own dinosaur theme parks. We could be at the centre of the species resurrection revolution – which, according to this article, is proceeding apace.

Unguarded Doesn’t Mean Defenceless

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Mark Oppenheimer, “The Not-So-Lonely City” (NYT Magazine, Jan 19, 2014)

This issue of The New York Times Magazine contains several references to Canada, mostly in a story by Emily Bazelon about Anonymous-type groups trying to prevent online bullying, which discusses the Rehtaeh Parsons case at some length.

But the reference to Canada that jumped out at me came in a story about Keith Hampton, a Canadian who is now a professor at Rutgers. The article was about Hampton’s study of how people use public spaces; this is from the author’s description of Hampton:

Tall and broad with a warm charm, unguarded in that Canadian way, Hampton has become a star in a subfield that lacks a proper name: He studies how digital technology changes our lives.  (35)

First, let’s tip our hats to a Canadian who’s doing well enough to be considered a “star” by The New York Times, even if only in a field that doesn’t have a name. And doesn’t that, in itself, seem very Canadian? He’s willing to be a star, but being a star in a well-known field might seem like an attempt to attract attention, so he’s become a star in a field without a name – this is Canadian success in its classical form, real and present, but simultaneously slightly retiring and diffident.

But the phrase, “unguarded in that Canadian way” – what does that mean? Do Americans see Canadians as “unguarded”? I would have thought the opposite, as our well-known politeness can easily slide into a formality, or even a stiffness, that makes us come across as somewhat cold, distant, or, at the extreme end, closed-off.

And yet here is an American who speaks of being “unguarded in that Canadian way,” as though as though our unguardedness were such a well-known characteristic that it could simply be taken for granted. It makes us sound so open and carefree, like the sort of big, brash people we’ve always dreamed of being but could never quite become.

Unless it’s just a subsumed reference to our undefended border … or a way of saying we’re defenceless without our more militaristic neighbour to the south?

How Canadian, this over-analyzing of a complimentary reference until it begins to sound like an insult. Enough! We are unguarded, in the best sense of the word. Thank you, Mr. Oppenheimer.

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part II

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Patricia Lockwood, “What Is The Zoo For What” (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2013)

We continue our look at Neil Young’s appearances in contemporary poetry with this poem from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

What Is The Zoo For What

The word “zoo” is a zoo for the zoo.

A fountain is a zoo for water, the song
is a zoo for sound, the harmonica
is a zoo for the breath of Neil Young,
vagina is a zoo for baby.

Baby, girl baby, is a zoo for vagina.

The rose is a zoo for the smell of the rose,
the smell of the rose rattles its cage,
the zookeeper throws something bleeding
to it, the something bleeding is not enough,
a toddler fell into the cage of the rose,
the toddler was entirely eaten. His name
was Rilke, it was in all the papers.
A Little Pine Box is a zoo for him now,
it said in all the papers.

Then all the kids started doing it. Falling
into the violet’s cage, approaching the cave
where the smell of violets slept, getting
their whole head clawed off by it.
Neil Young did it to a buttercup
and his face got absolutely mauled.

The music that was piped into the zoo
let all the longing escape from it
and it ran riot over the earth, full
of the sight and smell of a buttercup
rearranging the face of Neil Young,
attacking pets at random, attacking
me in my bed as I slept, attacking
the happy wagging ends of my poems.

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

I’m going to leave it there.

The first thing that struck me about the poem was, Why does it even mention Neil Young? The poet needs the name of a well-known harmonica player, but surely, for any contemporary American poet, there’s someone a little closer to hand than Neil Young? No, not Toots Thielemans. I’m thinking, of course, of the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota himself: Bob Dylan.

Why not mention Bob here? Has Neil Young eclipsed him as the iconic harmonica-blowing folkie in the contemporary pop culture imagination? (And if so, what a victory for Canada!) Does the poet simply prefer Neil’s music to Bob’s? Is is for the slant rhyme with “song” that “Young” provides? The last is perhaps the best reason, though rhyme doesn’t seem to be a major goal of Lockwood’s; in fact, she uses direct repetition in places where one might expect rhyme – if one expects anything at all. (Though there is a fascinating music in “violets slept … clawed off by it … buttercup.”)

But notice how, once she lets Neil Young into her poem, she can’t get rid of him. The reference to Neil’s harmonica seems like a throwaway, and the poem appears to be moving off in another direction, with children getting attacked and devoured by flowers (or the smells of flowers?) – and then suddenly there’s Neil again, getting mauled by a buttercup. And there he is again in the next stanza, his face now not “mauled” but “rearranged” by the buttercup.

At this point Lockwood seems to realize that Neil Young is taking over her poem, and we get that odd little two-line stanza:

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

Neither of these apparent questions actually ends with a question mark, but we’ll try to answer them anyway. Yes, you can put Neil Young in a poem, but no, he won’t get trapped in there forever; in fact he’ll take over your poem, make it all about him, and then roll off down the open road with his old friend, the white line. And how refreshingly un-Canadian that behaviour is; considering how often we’re saddled with the reputation of being overly polite, it’s rather exciting to see a Canadian behaving badly, even if only by overstaying his welcome in a poem that seems to want to be about something else.

A Further Reference

I was doing some “research” for this post on Patricia Lockwood’s Twitter page, and I couldn’t help but notice this:

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The context is that she tweeted about giving her parents weed brownies; someone replied that that was illegal, and she replied with the tweet that mentions Canada. I’m not sure how much I want to read into this remark – is it just absurdist humour, or does some idea of what Canada is like lie behind it? That our country itself is somehow fond of spreading misinformation? That we’re overly respectful of parents? That we live in a socialist nanny-state with laws regulating every aspect of interpersonal behaviour?

I think I’ll just leave it alone.

Toronto: City of Grandmas

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Willy Staley, “Talk,” The New York Times Magazine (September 15, 2013)

The following is from an interview with the rapper Earl Sweatshirt in The New York Times Magazine:

You were just in Toronto. How was that? It was crazy. Canadians are weirdos, though. They are so nice – overbearing nice, like grandmother nice. Toronto is like a city of grandmas.

The rapper Drake is from Toronto. Is he grandma nice? Due, Drake is grandma nice. He was at Frank Ocean’s show in L.A. and got into an argument with Tyler, the Creator’s mom. I left and came back in the room, and she was apologizing to him for how she came at him, and he was saying: “It’s all love. I love you, Mom. I love moms.” Drake loves moms.  (12)

The idea that Canadians are “nice” is not in itself particularly noteworthy, especially coming from an American; this  perceived “niceness” is a close cousin to the “politeness” which we already know we’re famed for south of the border. But then comes the twist: “overbearing nice.”

That’s a new one. Canadians aren’t just nice; we’re overbearingly nice. Here our niceness takes on a bit of an edge, as if its purpose isn’t to make other people feel comfortable, but rather to get our own way, like a grandmother who uses a sugary, wheedling tone to compel you to do what she wants. From this point of view, niceness becomes a type of power play.

This may illuminate the anecdote about Drake which follows, and which on the surface seems to make no sense. If Drake is from Toronto, and Torontonians are nice, then we would expect the story to lead to Drake apologizing to Tyler, the Creator’s mother – or to focus on his being so nice that he never gets in an argument with her to begin with. In fact the opposite happens: the story ends with Tyler’s mother apologizing to Drake. What does it mean?

Arguably, the anecdote simply comes out of the question about Drake, which comes out of the question about Toronto, and isn’t meant to suggest the more self-serving corners of our national niceness.

But if we accept the general notion that everything means something, then we might be inclined to suggest that this story reveals how Canadian niceness becomes overbearing. Drake doesn’t directly win his argument with Tyler’s mother; instead, through a sort of conversational jiu-jitsu, he is so nice to her that at the end of the argument she apparently feels so bad about having argued with such a nice guy that she is compelled to apologize to him, thus giving him a form of victory – at which point he continues to overwhelm her with niceness.

Perhaps Canadians are like the Greeks in Horace’s famous line:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Epistles II.i.156)

We accept being conquered so nicely that we make our conquerors feel bad about it, and thus ultimately win a stealth victory over them. Some idea along those lines seems to lie behind Earl Sweatshirt’s description of us as “overbearing nice” and gives us an interesting new perspective on Canadians: nice on the surface, but underneath that, consciously using our niceness as a way to get what we want. This is, at least, a little more interesting and nuanced than the more usual image of us as overly polite pushovers.

A Final Question

One final issue arises: why is the question about Toronto even asked?

As a professional musician, Earl Sweatshirt must travel all over the world. Why is the fact that he was just in Toronto of interest? Why does Staley ask specifically what he thought of it? He sounds like a typically insecure Canadian journalist, forever asking foreign celebrities, in a tone of desperate hope, “What do you think of Canada?”

Still, he makes a point of discussing Canada – and if you go to the online version of the article (linked above), you’ll see the headline is “Earl Sweatshirt: ‘Canadians Are Weirdos'”, as though Earl Sweatshirt’s opinion of Canadians were the main point of the interview, and the one most likely to catch people’s attention and make them stop and read.

Could it be our neighbours to the south are beginning to find us as fascinating as we always dreamed they would? We can fantasize.

Two (or Three) Solitudes

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Emily Nussbaum, “Clue” (The New Yorker, August 12 & 19, 2013)

This is from the “On Television” column, discussing a TV series called “The Bridge”:

Created by Meredith Stiehm and Elwood Reid, the show is a reworking of the popular Swedish-Danish mystery show “Broen.” Like the original, it begins with a body, split in two and dumped on a bridge that separates two countries – the bottom half from one corpse, the top half from another. In the original, the half-bodies are from Sweden and Denmark; their discovery forces two police departments to work together. The FX production has taken this setup and plunked it down at the border of Texas and Mexico, a concept with tremendous potential. (Hard to imagine Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, the producers’ initial idea, working nearly so well.)  (79-80)

That sentence, in context, is almost unutterably hilarious. I don’t mean to put down my country by indulging in a typically Canadian bout of insecurity, but … how could anyone possibly think that a story about police having to cooperate across the Canada-U.S. border could be even remotely interesting? Particularly given the ongoing fascination of American culture with their lawless yet strangely magnetic neighbour to the South (see films like The Wild BunchTrafficJulia and countless others), as well as the obvious topical interest of the unsolved crimes in Juarez, which we’ve touched on briefly before.

Certainly Nussbaum’s reference to the (discarded) Canadian concept for the show makes it clear that she sees Canada as far too uninteresting, at least compared with Mexico, to make for compelling TV. (I can’t say I totally disagree.)

In the producers’ defence, I suppose if you’re asking yourself what country has a relationship with the U.S. that’s most like the relationship between Sweden and Denmark, Canada might spring to mind before Mexico. Like Sweden and Denmark, we have more similarities than differences – or is that just a North American assumption, along the lines of “Scandinavians – they’re all the same”? Canadians, after all, tend to bristle if someone suggests we’re just like Americans; do people from Sweden and Denmark bristle at the identical suggestion about them?

Fortunately, our vast and multicultural (very Canadian word, that) staff here at Wow – Canada! includes someone from Sweden, who assures me that Swedish and Danish people see themselves as very similar – more Windsor-Detroit than Texas-Mexico.

As a side note, here in Canada we have, of course, our own “two solitudes” with Quebec separated by language and culture from (most of) the rest of the country. One might almost say the Toronto-Montreal chasm is wider than the Detroit-Windsor separation. (And don’t people from Windsor cheer for the Red Wings? That alone marks them as brethren.)

While it’s hurtful that we didn’t end up being on the other side of “The Bridge,” we can take consolation from the fact that we already have a Canadian-made movie that tells essentially the same story, and we didn’t even have to look outside our own country to find cross-cultural tensions – the film Bon Cop Bad Cop:

So who needs you, FX producers?

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