Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Hockey”

Canada: Where the Hipsters Come From

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Peter Stevenson, “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Suddenly … Hip?” (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2016)

Suddenly? As readers of this website know, there is nothing sudden about Canada’s hipster status. We’ve been here all along, just waiting for you to notice.

I was actually away at a hockey tournament (how Canadian!) the weekend (not The Weeknd) this article appeared and, clearly, it has taken me a while to catch up with it. But then, this article really represents The New York Times finally catching up with something we’ve been talking about here at Wow — Canada! for more than a year, so I don’t feel too bad.

You can read the whole article online if you’re curious. I could quote pretty much any paragraph of it, since nearly every line contains some sort of idée reçue about Canada, but here’s a representative passage, just to give you the gist:

His [i.e. Xavier Dolan’s] obscurity may have something to do with the fact that he is from Canada, the country that gave the world ice hockey, the snow blower and Labatt beer.

But the notion that our neighbor to the north is a frozen cultural wasteland populated with hopelessly unstylish citizens is quickly becoming so outdated as to be almost offensive.

You couldn’t really ask for a more complete compendium of Canadian stereotypes: obscurity, hockey, snow, beer, and a frozen cultural wasteland full of unstylish citizens (a reference to the Canadian tuxedo?) all pile up thicker than snowflakes in a Canadian blizzard (sorry — it’s contagious!) once Stevenson gets going. And then he tells us that these ideas are “becoming outdated” and are “almost offensive”.

Becoming?

Almost?

But I’m not really interested in unpacking these tired clichés about Canada for the umpteenth time. Instead, I want to provide an answer to a question the article ignores, namely: Why is Canada hip? (Hint: it’s not because Justin Trudeau got elected, and it’s certainly not because The New York Times says we are.) At the risk of seeming self-serving, rather than rehashing an argument I have already made, I’ll simply quote from something I posted back in February 2015:

What gives Canada its hipster cachet is precisely its oddness, its difference, the fact that it is like the U.S. and yet not the U.S. We stand at a slight angle to the U.S., off to the side as it were, and of necessity we look a bit askance at mainstream U.S. culture, understanding it and consuming it but not precisely of it. In other words, Canada as a nation perfectly incarnates the intellectual state that hipsters aspire to, because what hipsters desperately want is to be different, not average but somehow special or set apart from everyone else – “everyone else” meaning mainstream Americans.

The Canadian is, in fact, both the original and the ultimate hipster because by definition we stand outside mainstream American culture. And we achieve our hipsterism without effort – a key point because the least cool thing in the world is trying to be cool. Canadians are the true hipsters – we are, in fact, born hipsters – and American hipsters are, in the end, nothing more than imitation Canadians, striving to acquire a status that comes to us effortlessly, as part of our very essence.

So there you go, New York Times: Canadians are hip because we are what you most want to be — a slightly different version of yourselves.

That quote, incidentally, comes from one of our posts on Patricia Lockwood; for more on Canada’s place in the hipster imagination, you can consult our posts on Tao Lin, Leigh Stein, and another one on Lockwood. If you still want more after that, seek psychiatric help.

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The Idea of a Commonwealth, and a Poem About Montreal

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Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir (2012)

Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir is a bit of an odd book: he originally wrote it to chronicle the time he spent as part of a tour with Stevie Wonder advocating making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday (hence the book’s title) rather than as a conventional memoir. In the course of writing about the tour, however, he ended up writing about his childhood and youth as well. The process shows through in the structure of the book, which begins with Stevie Wonder, then suddenly leaps back in time to his parents and his childhood, and then gradually works its way forward to Stevie Wonder again, with various jumps and detours along the way. The book doesn’t really touch on the last years of his life at all (see below).

His relationship with his mother is powerfully conveyed, and his experiences as a campus activist and young author trying to get published are sharp and often amusing. And of course there are the backstage anecdotes you expect from a book like this – smoking gigantic joints with Bob Marley and so on. He seems to have stumbled more or less by accident into being a musician, by way of writing poetry and then making what would now be called “spoken word” albums – at least based on what he describes in the book.

If you’re a fan of his music, it’s definitely worth reading. There are even a couple of references to Canada.

That Sophisticated Land to the North

This passage is from a description of Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, who, we have already been told, “was originally from Jamaica”. It describes him at the time he met Scott-Heron’s mother, Bobbie, in Chicago:

Gil Heron was young, exotic, and worldly, a veteran of the Canadian Air Force. He was also physical and athletic, and went all out when he competed. The Aries fire lit up his face and made it glow. The joy of winning brought a smile that made you feel like you were standing in a bright, warm sun. Sometimes he was romantic and sometimes thoughtful, brooding over the quality of his competition and teammates who couldn’t get the ball to him when they were pressed. He loved to talk about soccer, past games, teammates, opponents ridiculed as their pointless, desperate pursuit of him always ended the same way: Goooooaaaaal!  (19-20)

Heron played soccer in the United States until:

…the Scottish national team visited Chicago for a “friendly” match, an exhibition game, and were impressed. In fact, after the game members of the coaching staff spoke to him and made an informal offer for him to come to Scotland to play. He was, after all, already a citizen of the commonwealth.
My mother and father separated when I was one and a half years old, when Celtic, in Glasgow, Scotland, offered him a formal contract. My father decided to take an opportunity to do what he had always wanted to do: play football fulltime, at the highest level, against the best players…. To play with Celtic was also a Jackie Robinson-like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of Blacks. (21-22)

The way the words “veteran of the Canadian Air Force” immediately follow the word “worldly,” as if to provide an explanation, implies that his time in the Canadian Air Force is part of what has given him this air of worldliness, and we can be flattered by the idea that spending time in the Canadian armed forces turns you into a sophisticated cosmopolitan. At least to Scott-Heron’s mother, at that time, Canada was not the boring provincial backwater we see in some portrayals, but rather an exciting and perhaps slightly romantic country.

Beyond that, it’s fascinating to see how the idea of a larger commonwealth citizenship, one that transcends nationality, runs through the passages about Scott-Heron’s father: though from Jamaica, his family immigrated to Canada (easier because both were commonwealth countries?) and he joined the Canadian Air Force; later, when an opportunity arises to play soccer in Scotland, being a citizen of the commonwealth smooths the way again. (Heron became the first Black player to play for Celtic – you can read his Wikipedia entry for a little more information about him.)

Montreal In Verse

Scott-Heron often drops little (or sometimes large) chunks of verse into his narrative as a way of telling his story. A visit to Montreal for a concert inspires one of his longer poetic passages:

Montreal, November 7, 1980

I had no choice aside from moving quick
An ex-country hick whose image was city slick
The last one they would’ve ever picked
When I was in school doing my weekend stick
Compared to my classmates I couldn’t sing a lick
And through record store windows when they saw my flick
On the cover of an LP they wished for a brick
Because it wasn’t just out there it was actually a hit
And what they were wondering was what made me tick
It was that in spite of themselves they could all feel it

In reality I was heading for work
In the back of a cab I was changing my shirt
My Mickey Mouse was saying it was five to eight
So theoretically I was already late.
Next to me in the backseat were my daughter and my wife
And I’d probably say never been happier in my life.
Light rain was falling on the Montreal streets
And I slipped on my shoes and leaned back in the seat
As we pulled up to the Forum where the Canadiens played.
Tonight: “Stevie Wonder” the marquee proudly displayed
But not a word about me or my “Amnesia Express”
But I was feeling too good to start getting depressed.

It was only four days since I had found out for sure
That Stevie wanted me opening the rest of the tour.
News of Bob Marley’s illness was a helluva blow
I thought. And the eight o’clock news came on the radio
It looked like a sellout though the weather was damp
And fortunately no cars blocked the underground ramp.
As the cab took the curves beneath the old hockey rink
I was lighting a Viceroy and still trying to think
Of how Hartford had sounded and the tunes we should play;
Made mental notes of the order and felt it was okay

Keg Leg, my man, stood near the security line
‘Cause I never had I.D. and couldn’t get in sometimes
I was carrying Gia as we moved down the hall
And I nodded and smiled as I heard my name called.
Things were getting familiar and I was finding my niche
But I didn’t want to give producers any reason to bitch.
I told my brother to get the band ready at eight o’clock
And it was damn near ten after when I moved into my spot
James Grayer gave me a smile and tapped his Mickey Mouse
The lights went down and the crowd perked up
Because I was finally in the house.   (262-3)

To clarify a couple of points: Gia is Scott-Heron’s daughter, the “Amnesia Express” is the name of his backing band, and he got his place as the permanent opener on Stevie Wonder’s tour when Bob Marley became too ill to perform and had to drop out. And a Mickey Mouse, I assume from the context, means a watch: interesting as Mickey Mouse watches were one of the items of desirable Americana mentioned in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which we considered recently.

I don’t know that we can conclude a lot from this poem; there are a couple of local references (the Forum, the Canadiens) but other than that it focuses on what is going through Scott-Heron’s mind on the cab ride; he’s not making statements about Montreal or the impression it creates on him. And perhaps that’s just the point: to Scott-Heron, Montreal is just another city, another stop on the tour, and the fact that it is in Canada isn’t even particularly meaningful to him.

Except for the fact that it is Montreal, and not some other city, that he chooses to memorialize in verse.

Left Unsaid (Unrelated to Canada)

It seems difficult to leave this book without glancing at the question of what Scott-Heron leaves out. There are some oblique references in the final chapter to not being allowed into his mother’s apartment, but nothing is ever clearly explained. I do recall reading a harrowing article about him in The New Yorker years ago, however, and I managed to track it down: called “New York Is Killing Me,” it is a portrait of Scott-Heron a year or two before his death.

It’s not a pretty picture, obviously, but if you’re thinking of reading The Last Holiday, the article makes a useful companion piece in terms of filling out the story of the latter part of Scott-Heron’s life.

The Music

Of course, there has to be music. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is Scott-Heron’s most famous song, but we’ve already featured it, so I’m going to put up my personal favourite, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”:

I also like this one, which is a little closer to his “spoken word” roots:

And finally, we might as well have Scott-Heron’s tribute to a couple of jazz greats:

And that’s that.

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.

Do Not Read about Canada

A Day in the Life of Canada (1985), featured on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

I’m perpetually getting distracted from literature by these foolish asides. Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother with this, but there are two points of interest for me here, one related to the subject of this blog, and the other purely personal.

Anyway, here is Jimmy Fallon’s “Do Not Read” List for Spring 2013:

The part about A Day in the Life of Canada starts around 2:25, and Fallon’s approach really seems a little easy; the book was part of a series of A Day in the Life of… books done in the mid-80s, so the fact that the clothes are a little outdated is hardly surprising. The choice of cover photo is a little … odd, I admit, once you start analysing it. (And why, incidentally, is a book from 1985 on the Spring 2013 “Do Not Read” list? Has some recent event catapulted A Day in the Life of Canada back into public consciousness? Is there an imminent danger that, without Fallon’s warning, millions would rush out and read it?)

You can learn a little more about the book, and the series (which also included Australia, Japan, and Hawaii, among others), from its Amazon page. And should you wish to ignore Fallon’s advice, new and used copies are still available!

More interesting for our purposes is the discussion between Fallon and his sidekick about what they might find inside in the book (around 3:10). Fallon starts off by saying he loves Canada and has a lot of fans here, but what we get is this rather depressing list of clichés:

Probably pictures of maple leaves, ice hockey…
Poutine…
Poutine…
Mountains…
Yeah, sure.

So there is a good look at the ground Canada has staked out in the American mind: hockey, poutine, and pleasant scenery (maple leaves and mountains). Fallon seems almost shocked to think we have anything as advanced as store mannequins up here; isn’t Canada just a wilderness with a few ice rinks scraped out of the endless tundra?

As for the personal reason: as a child, I had a copy of A Day in the Life of Canada. (And scrolling through the YouTube comments on the video, I see I’m not alone: the comment “Oh my god I own that Canada book!” had 29 likes as of this writing.)

I got it as a gift, and my recollection is that, with typical Canadian humility (or is it insecurity?), we were thrilled that our little country had been included in the series. Being part of it was a point of national pride, and I recall the book being written up as a great opportunity to present Canada to the world. No doubt the thoughtful aunt who gave it to me bought it partly out of a feeling that buying a copy was somehow showing her support for Canada itself.

Given that, 28 years later, Jimmy Fallon’s mind still turns to maple leaves and ice hockey when he thinks of us, it seems the book may not have been the roaring success we hoped for.

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