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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Football”

Exiled to the CFL

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Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes (1968)

This “fictional memoir” (which presumably means much the same thing as “semi-autobiographical novel”) gives an account of Exley’s drinking, time in mental institutions and ardent New York Giants fandom, among other things. It ends (SPOILER ALERT!) with Exley sitting down and writing a semi-autobiographical novel, making the book a sort of record of its own creation. Along the way, there are a few references to Canada.

Football on the Glacier

One of the key elements of the book is Exley’s obsession with (or, to put it in contemporary terms, “man-crush on”) Frank Gifford. They were at USC at the same time (though they never knew each other), and Exley follows Gifford’s career as a pro, becoming a fan of the New York Giants and going to watch them play at the Polo Grounds. Exley also develops a fascination with Steve Owen, who coaches the Giants during the early part of Gifford’s time there, but is fired a couple of years before the team wins a championship. When Exley hears about Owen’s death, he decides to go to his funeral, and reflects on Owen’s post-Giants career:

It was Owen who over the years kept bringing me back to life’s hard fact of famelessness. It was for this reason, as much as any other, that I had wanted to make the trip to Oneida to make my remembrances. After the day at the Polo Grounds I heard of Owen from time to time, that he was a line coach for one NFL team or another, that he was coaching somewhere in Canada — perhaps at Winnipeg or Saskatchewan. Wherever, it must have seemed to him the sunless, glacial side of the moon.  (70-71)

The path of Owens’ career after he leaves the Giants is clearly one of decline. To be a line coach in the NFL, after having been a head coach, is a significant step down, and to end up coaching in the CFL marks an even greater fall, to the sort of job no one would take unless they had no better options. The very vagueness of the reference — “Winnipeg or Saskatchewan or somewhere” — reinforces this, suggesting the narrator isn’t sure where Owen went but the specific place doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that it’s in Canada, and nothing in Canada matters.

The comparison of Canada to the “sunless, glacial side of the moon” further emphasizes the magnitude of Owen’s decline — he’s been utterly cast out of society into a harsh, depopulated wasteland — and brings in by implication the common idea that Canada is cold. Our country is portrayed as a place of exile from a better and more civilized world for a football coach just as surely as it is for an academic in a David Lodge novel.

And how marvellous is that phrase, “life’s hard fact of famelessness”? This idea — Exley’s desire to achieve fame, and at the same time his self-loathing rage at his inability to do so — is central to the novel, and makes Owen into a kind of avatar of the author’s self-image. And so, in a way, Canada becomes the gloomy resting place of those afflicted by famelessness, the most shameful of all American diseases.

The Upstate New York Connection

We have noted before the tendency of writers from, or writing about, upstate New York (including Lorrie Moore, Chris Kraus and James Salter) to show a greater — and perhaps more accurate? — awareness of Canada than American writers generally, no doubt as a result of our geographical proximity. Much of A Fan’s Notes also takes place in upstate New York, and this scene, from a series of reminiscences about Exley’s father, emphasizes that closeness:

In 1938, the day before President Roosevelt snipped the ceremonial ribbon opening the International Bridge spanning the Thousand Islands and uniting the U.S. with Canada, it is told, apocryphally or otherwise, that my father beat that exemplary poseur to the punch, with wire cutters severed the cable which had been strung across the bridge’s entrance to bar hoi polloi, climbed into the back seat of a convertible roadster, and had himself driven over the arcing, sky-rising span, while in imitation of F.D.R. he sat magnificently in the back seat, his jaw thrust grandly out, and, hand aflutter, bestowed his benedictions on the lovely and (one somehow imagines) startled islands.  (30-31)

By “International Bridge,” Exley must mean the “Thousand Islands Bridge,” which opened in 1938, when Roosevelt was president, and the fact that a bridge is all it takes to “unite” our two countries emphasizes our proximity. Exley’s father’s ability to drive across the bridge so easily before it has opened could be read as a reference to our “undefended border” with the U.S., which is a theme that has come up several times before. And we have already noted President Roosevelt’s connection to Canada (he owned a cottage on Campobello Island), which is probably not being alluded to here but is still interesting given his opening of the bridge.

But beyond the obvious fact that Canada is directly north of the U.S., there’s really nothing being said about our country; it’s as if we exist only by virtue of our geographic relationship with the U.S. The bridge to Canada is a staging-ground for one of Exley’s father’s legendary adventures, but there is no suggestion that he would use it to actually travel to Canada.

Fishing in Canada (Again)

Canada is mentioned in relation to one of Exley’s girlfriends:

She was spending a lot of time with her sister because her sister’s husband, Ronald, had just died of a heart attack. Her sister had found him on the davenport. There had been a smile on Ronald’s face. He was probably dreaming of fishing in Canada because he went there every year, the two of them went together. “Ronald loved to fish,” she said dolefully. “Oh,” I said.  (148)

The connection between fishing and Canada, in the context of salmon, was the subject of one of our earliest posts, and appeared more recently in our post on the stories of John Cheever. I’m not sure there’s anything new here; the portrayal of Canada as a place Americans go on fishing vacations is in line with the idea of Canada as a less developed, more “wilderness” nation than the U.S. where Americans can go to escape their everyday lives (see also the Canadian cottage).

The Fraudulent Surgeons of Montreal

And then there is also this, in relation to a train journey:

I found myself drinking beer and eating ham sandwiches in one of these booths with a Marine sergeant returning from Korea, a vernal-cheeked coed with large breasts, coming from some cow-sounding college in Pennsylvania where, she had loftily announced, she was studying veterinary medicine, and a goateed and fraudulent-looking surgeon travelling to Montreal.  (176)

It’s hard to draw too much from that; the association of the “fraudulent-looking” surgeon with Montreal may suggest that Canada is a bit of a backwater when compared to the U.S., the sort of place where fraudulent medical practitioners can take advantage of the ignorant populace — but it’s hard to say.

In Conclusion (Almost)

I suppose it’s a testament to how much ground we’ve already covered in the last three-plus years here at Wow — Canada! that while there are a number of references to Canada in A Fan’s Notes, there’s not much new. We get the idea that Canada is cold, that the CFL is an inferior league to the NFL, and that Canada is easy to get into (undefended border) but somehow a less advanced or developed nation than the U.S., which makes it a great place to go fishing (wilderness) but not to go for a medical procedure (fraudulent surgeons). But these are all familiar ideas about our country, and it is beginning to feel as if there are a limited number of ways of portraying Canada that recur throughout the works of different authors.

And Finally…

This isn’t a direct reference to Canada, but it seemed worth at least a brief mention. Much of the novel takes place in bars (no surprise there, I suppose, given that it’s about a failing writer); this is from a description of one of them:

Invariably from some nook in the room a life-sized, cardboard, and Technicolored waitress named Mabel winked forever lasciviously and invited one to shout, “Hey, Mabel,” and demand a bottle of Black Label.  (265)

This refers to Carling Black Label, an “iconic Canadian brand” (as they say in the “ad biz”) that became popular outside Canada (which is the standard Canadian way of measuring success), in both the U.S. and the UK. Exley is describing one element of the “Hey Mabel — Black Label” ad campaign that ran in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, and the way he describes the cardboard waitress as “invariably” part of the bar’s milieu indicates how established the Carling brand was as an element of American popular culture (you can read this brief history of Black Label if you’re curious). Here’s a sample of the TV ads that helped make Black Label so successful in the U.S.:

Animated version:

Later on, this series of ads was successful in the UK:

Sadly, due to my age, I don’t recall any of these classic ads from when they originally aired; what I remember is the early 90s Black Label campaign, when Black Label became a popular brand with the hip downtown crowd. The ads were a riff on the 60s originals in the way so much 90s “culture” was a “meta” reference to something that had come before:

I guess it seemed cool at the time.

That Little Development League to the North

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David Waldstein, “As N.F.L. Prepares for Longer Extra Points, C.F.L. Offers a Preview” (NY Times, August 16, 2015)

The title above is the actual headline of the article, but if you look at the photo you’ll see the teaser that appeared at the top of the front page of the Sports section: “Long extra points make Canada’s league a laboratory for the N.F.L.”

Having read that, it’s not even necessary to read the article; everything you need to know about the American attitude to Canada is already expressed that one word, “laboratory.”  This is a classic instance of the way Americans see Canada, and anything that happens here, not as significant in its own right, but only insofar as it could have an impact on the U.S. Canada is visible only through an American lens: the CFL, in the view of the august New York Times, is not an independent national league with its own long football tradition (the league was founded in 1958, but the first Grey Cup was awarded in 1909); it’s nothing more than a development league, a “laboratory” where rules experiments can be tested in a consequence-free environment before they’re incorporated into the NFL, where the games, and therefore the rules by which they are played, really matter.

The attitude continues in the article:

The National Football League will also introduce longer extra points this season, and with its two-month head start, the C.F.L. has become a test laboratory for the new extra-point rule, which will add more uncertainty to games, and perhaps more excitement.   (S6)

The phraseology is a little more gentle there, making the CFL’s status as a laboratory sound more like an accident of chronology than an essential aspect of its nature, but the idea persists.

And later in the article we get this:

Higgins, Daniel and Bede all said that the kickers in the N.F.L. were generally superior to their C.F.L. colleagues….   (S6)

So even the key CFL figures who are quoted in the article (Alouettes coach Tom Higgins, CFL statistician Steve Daniel, and Alouettes kicker Boris Bede) admit that the CFL is inferior to the NFL. (I’m not saying this isn’t the case, of course, only that it’s another element of the paternalistic view of Canada expressed in the article.)

All this shows that football is yet another arena in which Americans tend to look down on Canadians and see us as their adorable, bumbling little cousins, not up to the high professional standards set by leagues and athletes in the U.S., but still trying our best to keep up, and occasionally useful when we allow Americans a glimpse of how rules changes might work out in their own league — though needless to say (except that, of course, they do say it), the much higher skill level of NFL players makes the comparison a bit tenuous.

A Narrow Escape from Toronto

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Nicholas Dawidoff, Collision Low Crossers (2011)

Having grown up in Toronto following the Maple Leafs, I feel a certain affinity for the New York Jets, or perhaps for their fans. The Jets are the Leafs of the NFL: a team separated from past glory by an increasingly lengthy (and seemingly interminable) period spent thrashing around in search of a path to excellence – this thrashing consisting mainly of continually hiring and then firing a parade of coaches and general managers who are heralded as saviours when they arrive and derided as incompetent losers when they depart (often to success elsewhere) – while the team occasionally shows glimmers of something approaching competence for a season or two, only to sink sighing back into the muck of mediocrity (or worse).

So I was curious about Dawidoff’s book, which chronicles a year spent “embedded,” so to speak, with the Jets organization. And what a year he chose: the 2011 season, when, after consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game and a general acknowledgement among football’s serious heads that they were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the Jets publicly and spectacularly collapsed back into their accustomed incompetence, with accusations, recriminations and vituperations all around.

Pond Hockey in the Cosmopolis

The early chapters set the stage for what is to come, introducing the coaches and players. And it turns out that Jets coach Rex Ryan (and his twin brother Rob) have a Canadian connection. This passage deals with the period in their childhood after their parents, Doris and Buddy (the legendary Bears defensive coordinator) divorced:

Leaving the twins with her mother in Ardmore, Doris went to the University of Chicago’s school of social sciences and got a doctorate in education. She took a job at the University of Toronto, and that’s mainly where Rex and Rob Ryan grew up. Ryan believes his parents’ divorce didn’t affect him much because he was cushioned by his friendship with his twin, but it’s true that he and Rob got into a little more trouble than most boys. Doris was concerned enough about them as teenagers that she sent them to live with Buddy in Minnesota, which Rob later decided probably saved their lives.  (53-54)

And then, a couple of paragraphs later, this:

There weren’t many college options for indifferent high-school students who wanted to play defensive line and weighed a hundred and ninety pounds. Buddy knew the coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State, in Weatherford, and so the twins were admitted to the school and off they went, a nine-hundred-mile drive. The land around Weatherford was flat and dusty, the tumbleweeds as high as a linebacker’s eye, and from a sixth-floor dorm-room window, the horizon was so long and uninflected the brothers had the feeling they could just about see Chicago. Coming from a childhood mostly spent in vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, the Ryans were horrified – and lonely.  (54-55)

It’s certainly plausible that there were other cities along the way, but given that the Ryan twins “mainly…grew up” in Toronto, it’s indisputable that Toronto must be one of the “vibrant, cosmopolitan cities” being referred to here. We’ve seen this pattern before, and here it is again: another reference to Toronto’s “cosmopolitanism,” and again the reference comes from an American (it’s hard to imagine a Parisian, for example, calling Toronto “cosmopolitan”) and is made in the context of football.

Toronto’s cosmopolitan identity is (again) slightly undermined by the fact that it is being compared to Weatherford, Oklahoma, which, based on the description Dawidoff gives, must be one of the least cosmopolitan places on earth. (Isn’t the use of the word “uninflected” to describe the horizon lovely, though?)

And what are we to make of the idea that being sent away from Toronto saved the lives of the Ryan twins?  Details are not forthcoming, beyond the bare statement that they were getting into trouble, but this seems to hint at a side of Toronto that we don’t normally see. Americans tend to regard Canada as a relatively safe, peaceful place when compared to the U.S., with far less danger, particularly in major urban centres; but here Dawidoff suggests that Rob and Rex had found the dangerous side of Toronto, and needed to be saved from it. So in this telling Canada has an element of unspecified menace, in contrast to its usual, squeaky-clean image.

Much later in the book, we discover that his time in Toronto has left at least some impression on Ryan:

I was cold at the walk-through, so I wore a green ski hat. “Nicky!” said Ryan. “That hat! That’s the kind of hat we used to wear to play pond hockey in Toronto.” I was instructed to lose the hat and “put a hood on!”  (366)

The association of Canada with cold weather and hockey is obvious and doesn’t really bear remarking on, beyond the fact that Ryan mentions exactly the things about Canada that any American would expect. But pond hockey in Toronto? That’s a bit of an odd one, as Toronto has plenty of outdoor rinks, but isn’t exactly rich in ponds. Grenadier Pond, perhaps? True pond hockey would fit more with rural Saskatchewan than Canada’s largest city. Perhaps Toronto was different when Ryan lived here? Or perhaps, despite the fact that his mother worked at the university (which is right in the city’s pond-free downtown), the family lived out in a thinly developed suburb?

I’d rather consider a more intriguing possibility. Perhaps Ryan played hockey on outdoor city rinks, not ponds, but when he refers to his Toronto upbringing among Americans, he romanticizes (or ruralizes?) it to fit more neatly with what Americans think of Canada: namely, that it is a thinly populated wasteland, where the monotonous tundra is only occasionally punctuated by a cluster of igloos and a frozen pond where a few children are whacking a rock around with sticks.

The Importance of Nicknames

During the description of training camp, we get the following:

So much that went on in August was about achieving group closeness. Because Garrett McIntyre had played in Canada after his college career at Fresno State, people at first thought he was Canadian and that his name was McIntosh. Even when his biography was clarified, he continued to be known in the defensive room as O Canada, just as Matthias Berning, who really was from Duisburg, was called the German. Gradually it became clear that McIntyre had, as they said, “the good awareness,” and he was also tough and physical. As he proved himself to be one of them, O Canada fell away and he became Mac. Berning, not quite as good a player, remained a foreign element, the German.  (223-4)

There’s certainly a lot to “unpack,” as they say, in that passage.

The essential narrative movement, if you will, of the paragraph is quite straightforward: a player is given a nickname that is completely inappropriate for him, but the other players don’t care until he earns their respect, at which point his nickname changes to something more fitting.

Canada plays its small role in the drama. For starters, we can note that American football players are at least familiar with the title of our national anthem. And the changing of his name to “McIntosh” is intriguing, though unexplained – does this have something to do with apples?

More importantly, though, the “success” element of the story, from McIntyre’s perspective, is that he is finally able to shake the nickname that associates him with a country that is not his own. The means by which he accomplishes this are also of note: he shows football awareness and, more importantly perhaps, proves that he’s tough. Though it’s never explicitly stated, there seems to be the undercurrent of an idea that toughness and physicality are not typical Canadian traits. By proving himself and morphing from O Canada into Mac, McIntyre shakes his association with the gentle, pacifist nation to the North and reclaims his martial, macho Americanism.

So at least his story – unlike that of the Jets’ 2011 season – has a happy ending.

Canada, A Land of Two Seasons

 

AP Photo/Times-Dispatch, Lindy Keast Rodman

AP Photo/Times-Dispatch, Lindy Keast Rodman

Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback (September 30, 2014)

What is it with Gregg Easterbrook and Canada? Even in full romantic flight, as he rhapsodizes about his favourite season (autumn) in his column, he can’t resist taking a little shot at us:

In Praise Of Sweaters: October begins tomorrow, and with it the full glory of autumn. Your columnist’s favorite season is autumn — leaves are turning, the weather is changing (I like cool weather), football is being played, the wonderful Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday sequence is in prospect, and everyone looks better in sweaters.

In Hawaii, there are no seasons. In some cold places such as Canada, there are two seasons: frozen and construction. In four-seasons areas, like where I live, we get one fall day for every two non-fall days, so I spend two-thirds of the year waiting for the full glory of autumn. It’s finally here.

“Cold places such as Canada”? Really? I’m a bit stunned to find myself pointing out that, in much of Canada, it ‘s actually not cold all the time.

Here in Southern Ontario we get four quite distinct seasons, thank you very much; spring does turn into summer rather quickly, and winter can be a little long, but fall is just as glorious as it is anywhere in the northeastern U.S., and I can say from experience that summer in central Illinois isn’t markedly hotter than it is here.

So Easterbrook’s joke doesn’t reveal anything factual about Canada; it does, however, reveal the weird persistence (among Americans) of the idea that stepping across the border into Canada involves passing instantly from a temperate climate into an inhospitable wasteland of perpetual winter.

Just a friendly reminder: the border between Canada and the U.S. is composed mainly of air – there’s really no difference between the climate of, say, Southern Ontario and that of Upstate New York.

So if you’re coming in July or August, it’s safe to leave the parkas at home.

A Mathematical Aside

And incidentally, if you live in a “four-seasons area” (as many Canadians do), wouldn’t you get one fall day for every three non-fall days, not every two? That is, for every one fall day, there would be one winter day, one spring day, and one summer day, leading to a ratio of 3:1 non-fall to fall days, not 2:1 as Easterbrook says.

Easterbrook Shows Toronto Some Love

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Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback (August 19, 2014)

I’ve already whined extensively in this space about Gregg Easterbrook’s rather stereotypical references to Canada (doughnuts and health careadvancing (not receding!) glaciers, and our generally squeaky-clean image), so it seems only fair to pick up on it when he actually says something complimentary.

The following passage is from his AFC Preview column, where he discusses the possible relocation of the Buffalo Bills to either Toronto or Los Angeles:

Toronto, North America’s fourth-largest city, is a cosmopolitan boom town with every major sport except the NFL. Doesn’t it make sense to relocate the Bills?

“Cosmopolitan boom town” – I like the sound of that. It’s especially gratifying to see the word “cosmopolitan” applied to Toronto, since we who live here are much more accustomed to hearing how Montreal is so sophisticated and cosmopolitan, while Toronto is essentially a hick town with tall buildings.

Of course, there are caveats: this quote is from a football column (though one written by a serious journalist), and so its views on cosmopolitanism should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. As well, it’s important to remember that Toronto is being described as a “cosmopolitan boom town” in comparison to Buffalo – which drains much of the power from the compliment, though it also reminds us that, to our neighbours to the south, our cities can look like remarkable success stories.

Perhaps Toronto’s perceived cosmopolitanism exists only in relation to collapsing American cities; within Canada, we’re still running a distant second to Montreal. Still, it’s nice to know that we can appear cosmopolitan, even if you have to go to Buffalo to see it. We’ll take what we can get.

 

Easterbrook and King Both Speak Canadian!

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 22, 2014)

The Super Bowl is almost here, which means that soon I’ll no longer have the help of football writers to pad out these columns – so I might as well take advantage of them while I can. Gregg Easterbrook seems to have a thing for Canada – he can’t stop mentioning us – and here he goes again, in his TMQ column following the conference championship games:

Denver’s other touchdown came on a really pretty goal line zed-in to Demaryius Thomas – the zed-in is the Canadian version of a z-in.

Well, that’s interesting. Based on a Google search, it seems this play (see the diagram at the top) is commonly referred to as a “z-in” not a “zed-in” (under the name “22 Z In”, it was a staple of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offence when he was in San Francisco). So why does Easterbrook go out of his way to type it out as a “zed-in”?

That’s how we would pronounce “z-in” in Canada, of course, as opposed to “zee-in,” which one would think would be the standard U.S. pronunciation. Is Easterbrook trying to make his Canadian readers feel at home? That seems unlikely, given his history of glacier references. He is originally from Buffalo, which is close to the Canadian border – perhaps, through some sort of linguistic influence by proximity, the play is pronounced “zed-in” up there rather than the more typically American “zee-in”?

Or is Easterbrook just seizing the opportunity to take another dig at one of his favourite targets – Canadians?

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 21, 2014)

By an odd coincidence, Peter King’s MMQB column touches on related subject matter. While in Denver covering the AFC championship, he attended a hockey game (hockey – this column just oozes Canada!) between the Devils and the Avalanche:

b. Of course, one of the highlights during the game was noticing the back of No. 24 for the Avalanche: CLICHE. A forward. Marc-Andre Cliche, from Quebec. So, brilliant me, I’m at the game with our Robert Klemko, and Cliche goes into the penalty box, and I say, “Cliché in the sin bin! How perfect is that?!”

c. But the dream soon died. The PA announcer, calling out the penalty, pronounced the last name “Cleesh.” Bummer.

That question mark/exclamation mark combo is exactly the way it appears in King’s column; apparently hockey is so exciting it makes him toss punctuation around like a drunk 13-year-old on Twitter.

As for the name, I thought “Cleesh” might just be the American PA announcer’s mispronunciation, but a quick Google search doesn’t turn up any instances with an accent on the “e” (though, curiously, “Andre” sometimes has an accent and sometimes doesn’t). Perhaps the family got tired of the jokes  and dropped the accent – the opposite of the famous case of Egbert Sousé.

I’m not sure these two references tell us anything new about perceptions of Canada, but they do offer further confirmation that American sportswriters have an idea that their neighbours to the North speak strangely (“aboot” etc.), and that this is an appropriate subject for jokes at our expense.

In a related note, the Montreal Canadiens are now putting accent marks on players’ names on the backs of their jerseys. If only Colorado would follow suit, Peter King would have one less thing to be confused about.

It’s Glacier Season in Canada!

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Nov. 26, 2013)

As you may have guessed if you visit this space occasionally, I read a fair bit (too much) about football during the NFL season. Every week I tell myself that I won’t write about football columnists here, and then every week I read something that is too good to resist.

Next week I’m definitely going to write about something literary. But I just can’t let this, from Gregg Easterbrook’s latest Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, slip by. He’s talking about the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their victory in the Grey Cup:

Underdog Hamilton trailing host Saskatchewan 24-3 in the second quarter of the Grey Cup — Canada plays its title game in November, before glaciers cover the fields — the Tiger-Cats faced third-and-goal, the CFL equivalent of fourth-and-goal, on the Rough Riders’ 3.

He hasn’t noticed that Roughriders is one word – a discussion we’ve had before – but at least he’s conversant in the basics of three-down versus four-down football.

But glaciers? Really? Have we come no further than that? Do Americans still have so little notion of what Canada is actually like that mainstream columnists can get away with jokes about glaciers advancing across our country every December? And this from a writer who believes in global warming and so must be aware that glaciers are actually retreating, not advancing.

Yes, America, it’s true – glaciers cover Canada every winter. But just like Canadians themselves, Canadian glaciers are so polite that they stop 1.6093 km (one mile, for your convenience) away from the US border so that you won’t be bothered by the massive sheet of ice that covers our northern land for four months every year.

I like Gregg Easterbrook’s column – I don’t always agree with him, and I could do without the sci-fi references, but overall I think he’s an intelligent and insightful writer and a well-educated man. And yet, when it comes to Canada, this well-educated and intelligent American instantly sinks to the lowest cliche available to make a joke at our expense. Really, it’s a bit dispiriting.

I suppose that’s what I get for reading too many football columns.

Fame – or Infamy?

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Brett Michael Dykes, “A New Subplot for Manning vs. Brady” (The New York Times)

As you may or may not know, things have been a little hectic in the city of Toronto lately. Sometimes it’s diverting, and sometimes you just want to forget – for a little while at least – that we’ve become a global laughingstock.

Sunday mornings are one of the latter times for me. If I can find a few minutes of quiet, I like to spend it with the NFL previews in The New York Times. What better way to escape from reality than to retreat into what Gregg Easterbrook so aptly calls “the football alternate universe”? But what greeted  – or should I say affronted? – my eyes this Sunday when I reached the capsule preview for the 2-8 Buccaneers at the 6-4 Lions? The following:

After starting the season 0-8, Tampa Bay has suddenly won two in a row, including a 41-28 thrashing of Atlanta in Week 11. And in the Buccaneers’ last loss, they forced overtime against Seattle, probably the N.F.C.’s best squad. So perhaps the team that looked to be imploding like the N.F.L.’s version of Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, has turned a corner.  (Nov. 24, 2013, S2)

Now, this isn’t completely news – in fact, we’ve already noted the presence of Toronto’s mayor in one online football column. But this is different; this is the Grey Lady herself, The New York Times, America’s unofficial paper of record, deigning to notice our little outpost of civilization here amid the frozen wastelands of the North.

And it’s not just a slightly amused, “Look at the crazy stuff going on up in Canada” news article buried somewhere near the back of the front page section. It’s in the Sports section, which is actually more significant than a news article. Being mentioned in the Sports section proves that the Rob Ford scandal has percolated through American public consciousness so completely that even the NFL game previews aren’t complete without a cheap joke at his expense. The NFL itself, apparently, isn’t complete without at least one team representing the league’s version of our mayor.

(The Bucs, history will note, went on the defeat the Lions, despite being 10-point road underdogs. Is this a sign that the mayor is also about to turn things around?)

How long, Toronto – how long have we dreamed of this sort of recognition? I’ve always felt that, as Canadians, we were like a little brother, eager to gain the attention of our big brother (not to say Big Brother) to the South. And now we’ve got it: segments on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, interviews with Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer, and finally, a mayor so well known that football writers make jokes about him and just assume everyone will understand.

Why has Rob Ford struck such a chord south of the border? I’ll offer my personal theory: it’s because he’s just like Chris Farley. Numerous American outlets have pointed out the resemblance as part of Rob Ford stories – and not only does Ford look like Farley, he behaves like the sort of character Chris Farley played. Ford resonates with Americans because he conforms perfectly to an archetypal comedic character they’re already familiar with.

That’s just a theory – but whatever the reason, we’re at the top of America’s mind – though it took Rob Ford to get us there. Is this victory, or a kind of defeat?

The CFL Doesn’t Count, Right?

Hey, did you know Peter King now has his own shiny new website where he can talk about the NFL all he wants? Well, he does. It’s called The MMQB (not to be confused with the website devoted to office furnishings), and this is from his Tuesday, September 3 “Mailbag” column:

BRIAN BROHM LIVES! “On the Bonus Baby QBs part of MMQB, you listed Brian Brohm as “On The Street”. While, yes, he’s out of the NFL, he’s actually with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL, plying his trade and continuing his dream, and who knows, like Jeff Garcia, Doug Flutie and Dave Dickinson, maybe makes it back to the NFL. I can see how someone might say “that’s just semantics”, but it’s not like he’s given up the dream and is selling insurance, or, like JaMarcus Russell after getting released by the Raiders, holed up in his mansion and feeding his face.”

—Kevin

Important point, Kevin. Thanks for making it.

Unlike the writers of many similar “letters” columns, King doesn’t tell us where his correspondents hail from, but my first thought was, Kevin must be from Canada. Followed immediately by, In fact, he must be from Hamilton. Who but a Hamiltonian would know the name of the Tiger-Cats starting quarterback? (I certainly didn’t – and the quarterback is the most visible position. It’s not like we’re talking about the backup right guard or something.)

Is it just me, or does King’s seven-word reply seem a little dismissive? It’s not exactly a heartfelt mea culpa. A reader has proven that King – again – has no idea what he’s talking about, and he brushes it off with a “thanks for pointing that out”.

Here we see a major American sports journalist’s total ignorance when it comes to Canada – and more than that, the fact that his ignorance has no ramifications whatsoever. King doesn’t even seem to feel bad that he equated being a starting quarterback in the CFL (which some might say is (almost) success) with being “on the street.” Why not? Because he knows no one (other than “Kevin”) will really care. CFL, on the street – same difference, right? It’s not like it’s a real league.

I can’t take too much offence at this, since I don’t actually follow the CFL myself, but I have to admit I expect a slightly higher standard from major sports journalists. At the very least, doesn’t King have minions to check his facts for him before he goes to print?

While we’re at it, we might as well close the circle on Brian Brohm and the CFL; in one of those coincidences that proves the universe is not random after all, but in fact governed by a supreme being with a perverse sense of humour, Brohm also came up this week in Bill Barnwell’s “NFL Contenders” column at Grantland. This is from the section on the Green Bay Packers:

Worst-Case Scenario: Rodgers is attacked by his stalker in the Cheesehead from the insurance commercials and misses two-thirds of the season, forcing the Packers to start Seneca Wallace. And then, when B.J. Raji accidentally drops his boom box on Wallace, the Packers have no quarterbacks on the roster and are forced to turn to Br … Brian Brohm, their former second-round pick who was last seen in the CFL. What, who did you think I was talking about?

We’ll ignore the Brett Favre joke. Barnwell is exhibiting a fairly typical attitude of smirking superiority toward the CFL – the phrase “last seen in the CFL” suggests our northern league is a career black hole into which unsuccessful NFL players disappear, never to be seen again – but at least he’s aware that it exists and knows Brohm is playing there. I’d say that puts him a few rungs higher up the journalism ladder than King, anyway.

Incidentally, that’s a lot of big-time American press coverage for the Tiger-Cats starter; probably more than he gets in The Spectator. I hope he can handle it.

Our Greatest Export: Neil Young

Two references to Neil Young from two very disparate sources; I think of Neil as so much a national icon that a reference to him is essentially a reference to Canada as a whole.

Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux (2013)

Unfortunately I can’t find an actual film clip, only these “intellectuals” from The Guardian rattling on, but if you look/listen closely at the very beginning of the segment you’ll hear one character ask for a  Neil Young song; the woman at the piano then launches into “It’s A Dream” from Young’s 2005 album Prairie Wind.

I haven’t seen the entire film (though I did watch the trailer), so I have no idea whether the song runs through it or plays a larger thematic role, or whether it’s just a bit of music in a single scene. I have seen Battle in Heaven, also by Reygadas; no Neil Young that I recall,but I did spend a lot of time staring at the blank, affectless faces of non-actors (Reygadas is somewhat of the Bresson school) feeling that I was supposed to conjure for myself the emotions the characters were feeling rather than watch the (non)actors express them. This grew tedious after a while.

Moving on to another part of the universe…

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (May 6, 2013)

From the “Tweets of the Week” section of Peter King’s NFL column at si.com:

Tweet of the Week IV

“Randy called me and said.’..Got mashed potatoes…can’t get no T-Bone!!!..’.so I said we’ll float that rent fer a little bit n keep rockin’ ”

 @jimirsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts.

I’ve been told Irsay gave $75,000 to keep a Colts-themed bar in Indianapolis, the Blue Crew Sports Grill, alive. Kudos to him for that.

Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, is a well-known fan of classic rock, and according to Wikipedia he “has a habit of quoting rock music”. (You can get a glimpse of his conversational style in this profile and see some of his guitar collection here.) So apparently people who know Irsay know that quoting rock lyrics is the perfect way to communicate with him; and if you use Neil Young lyrics, even slightly obscure ones, he’ll still understand what you mean. (Though it’s impossible to tell whether the Neil Young quote was used by “Randy” when speaking to Irsay or whether it’s just Irsay’s way of summing up the situation; I’m inclined to think the latter.)

So we have a Mexican art-film director and a billionaire NFL franchise-owner, connected by their love for the music of a Canadian: Neil Young. That indicates the remarkable reach of Young’s art and its ability to connect very different people, and shows how deeply it has seeped into the North American cultural consciousness. It makes you wonder whether a lot of his fans even know he’s Canadian; and that, somehow, seems like a very Canadian definition of success.

And now, a little music. Here’s the album version of “It’s A Dream”:

Here’s Patti Smith covering the song in, of all places, Ottawa (I’m still a bit ticked off that she wasn’t the opening act when I saw him last fall in Toronto; she clearly opened for him in Ottawa, as well as at most of his other shows around that time):

And here’s “T-Bone” – be warned that it’s not his most lyrically inventive song – from the oddly titled re•ac•tor album:

And finally, with thanks to Craig Proctor, here’s the encore he did when I saw him; a rare performance of “Helpless” by Crazy Horse. The critics sneered, but we cheered:

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