Monday, July 30, 2012

What's a Peascod?

You’ll know where to find me for the next two weeks – glued to the Olympics.

Did you watch the opening ceremonies? I thought it was terrific. I loved how “story-telling” it was and I loved the typically wry British humor,  especially the skit with Her Majesty, The Queen and James Bond “arriving” by parachute out of a helicopter. Hilarious. Apparently everyone is calling her the next Bond Girl.

The buzz all last week speculated on how this show could possibly ever hope to stack up against that exhibition of over-achievement that was the opening ceremonies in Beijing in 2008. Do you remember Beijing? It truly set the gold medal standard for awesome. Casts of thousands performing in strict precision; drumming, marching, dancing; unerringly exact, not one single person out of sync. Talk about pressure! And I know how that feels! I was once in a display of similar magnitude, let me tell you!

When I was in grade 4, schools across the city participated in a dance exhibition at the Winnipeg Arena. The idea was that each grade would rehearse prescribed dance routines in gym class and then converge in the arena to perform all together with all the other schools. The grade fours citywide were doing an English country dance called “Gathering Peascods.” I have no idea to this day what a peascod is (and neither does my Spell Check which just underlined it in red.) In any case, it was a routine performed by four pairs arranged in squares; dozens of squares around the floor of the arena. No doubt the organizers imagined that these pods of darling children, hundreds of them, frolicking merrily to some ancient English folk tune, would look just adorable when viewed from the stands, and they probably thought we'd all be in nice, tickety-boo order, all precise and synchronized like a giant military drill team. And so it might have been. Except for one pair of kids. A couple of hapless girls who couldn’t figure out where their spot was. Two little eight year olds, holding hands, who were totally confused; hopelessly out of step. An enormous voice BOOMED over the arena’s PA system, like the voice of God, “Numbers 104 and 105!!! GET IN LINE!!”  “What? What?” “OH!! THAT’S US!!!” “AAAUUUUUUGH!” I’m not sure my partner and I ever made it into formation. Maybe we messed up the whole pattern for the whole dance. I don’t know. I don’t remember the rest of it.  I was glad when it was over. The humiliation was crushing.

So, I don’t blame London Olympics director, Danny Boyle, one bit for going the opposite route. In an interview on the Today Show, I heard him say that he had no intention of even trying to live up to Beijing. He told the reporter that he thought it best to accept that Beijing was astounding and to give the Chinese their due for near perfection. Boyle’s opening ceremonies in London were going to be different, he said; he described it as “a live movie”, more organic, more story-telling in character and more intimate. I’m glad he allowed his English country dancers to be all free form and joyous in the opening sequences. Maybe he heard about that “Gathering Peascods” debacle in Manitoba back in 1959…and shuddered. I certainly did.

Monday, July 23, 2012

American Dreams

People often ask me why we moved to the United States. One word: Mayberry.

Well, it was a bit more involved than that, what with career moves and so forth. But it hit me this weekend as we were driving through rural Ohio toward our B&B destination, popping into small towns first established in the 19th century, that for a Canadian kid, I have such a “Small-Town America” ideal stuck in my head. Surely this fascination came from watching 1950s and 60s television programs like the Andy Griffith Show that painted such vivid portraits of the American Dream; it certainly isn’t imagery born in Manitoba where a small town might contain a grain elevator, a Co-op, a Chinese-Canadian cafĂ©, and a Royal Bank. But somehow, under the spell of TV, I grew up longing to find a small town that fit my ideal of Main Street, USA.

And so, every weekend that we get a chance to go for a Sunday drive, I love exploring country byways and coming upon real-life versions of Mayberry. America is full of them, as it turns out. We have been driving the back roads of New York, Ohio and other states for years now and are constantly surprised by how many cute little towns we encounter. We’ve discovered so many places where Main Street is a designated historic district; either a couple of blocks in a straight line, or arranged around a town square; consisting of two or three-story brick buildings with viable businesses within: attractive shops, restaurants, a hardware store, commerce for the community. Arranged around these “downtowns” are tree-lined streets of sweet, well-kept houses; some grand Victorians, some dear little cottages; some dressed in red, white and blue bunting and flags, flower pots and porch swings. Steepled churches complete the scene. It all makes you think you can almost see Andy on the porch after dinner of a Sunday night, playing his guitar, serenading his best girl, Helen, and telling Opie to go to bed because he has school tomorrow. These are places that exude a sense of community pride; peace and prosperity in spite of the odds.

Some other little towns appear to have faded, where the businesses in the brick buildings are limited to a Bail Bondsman, a dance school, an insurance agent and a Christian Science Reading Room; or more sadly, boarded up. The houses in the nearby neighborhoods appear run down and unloved, not as crisp as in the other towns.  So, we drive through and wonder aloud how one town can be so darling, so Mayberry, and the next one, not so much. I always wonder, what are the factors that cause this?

Too easily, you’d want to blame the other district present in all of these towns: the long stretch of fast food chains, gas stations, chain hotels and convenience stores identical in every community throughout North America, making one place indistinguishable from another. And however comforting it is that your Big Mac will be the same wherever you go, the effect of that forest of glowing plastic signs is jarring. You drive this gauntlet on your way to the historic district; your senses relieved by red brick and hand-lettered signs once you get there. But I’m not sure that each community’s fast food region is relevant to the success or failure of Main Street. I think, and this is only my opinion, that it has more to do with community will and leadership; perhaps a collective determination to keep Mayberry alive.

And then I begin to imagine what future generations of Sunday drivers will encounter. A hundred years from now, will the fast food district be designated “historic”? Will a collective nostalgia rally preservation efforts to sustain these plastic and neon zones?  Will someone like me go in search of classic Burger and Fries Americana for the memories it evokes? I'm curious, but glad I won’t be around to find out.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Basic Judi Dench

I got my hair cut yesterday. This is an event that’s not usually worthy of a headline in anybody’s life, but I mention it because I’ve been dreading hair appointments lately. My regular stylist left recently leaving me and her other regular clientele to work through the salon’s squad of cadets fresh out of hair school in the hope of finding a reasonable replacement who excels at hair-cutting and has a talent for making small talk with middle aged women.

I’m actually pretty annoyed with my ex-stylist for answering the inner voice that told her she should pursue a new career as a credit card call center customer service rep. I don’t get how informing people that their accounts are in arrears could be fulfilling; although “arrears” is a funny word and I can see how that could make your day. At least she can work sitting down and her hands won’t be wet all the time.

But did she think about me!?! I have seen this woman every four weeks for three years and she cut my hair just the way I like it! Besides that, I thought we had a pretty good rapport going. I could count on an enjoyable salon visit every fourth Tuesday chatting away with her about things women of a certain age find interesting. Kids coming up in salons today just aren’t that interested in conversing about Weight Watchers, orthopedic flip-flops and colonoscopies. Besides, she understood me. She knew that I’d get a slipped disk if she didn’t put up the footrest on the shampoo sink chair before she tilted me back. Now I have to train a rookie.

The first was a vivacious young lady who asked me things like “Do you watch The Bachelorette?” She was sweet enough, but I could tell she thought I was her grandma’s age as she held my elbow to help me get out of the chair and talked loudly at me, “WE’RE GOING TO THE SINK NOW!” I brought my dog-eared photo of British actress, Judi Dench to show her: “This. I want this.” The Young Thing didn’t know who Judi Dench is but thought she could replicate the hair cut. She couldn’t. For the last four weeks I have looked like a Schnauzer that had been groomed with pinking shears.

Yesterday I gave a nice young man an opportunity to apprentice on my hair. The kid is maybe pushing 20 and quite tall, so he had to bump the chair up quite high in order to reach my head comfortably. Ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk. I bounced on each ka-chunk and started to laugh.

“Ha, ha,” I chortled, “This reminds me of being a kid, I’m up so high. Whee!” Awkward silence. After that I had nothing to lose so I thought I’d tell him my childhood hair cut story, which goes like this:

When I was a little kid, my mother got her hair set and permed every week by a hair dresser named Pauline to whom she’d gone for years. The salon was downtown on the second floor of an office building and was one of those places with hospital-green painted walls, stale-dated Look magazines and a hundred potted plants – mostly Mother-in-Law’s Tongue. The resident barber was named Mr. Billings. He cut my hair while mother was under the dryer. I hated him. He lifted me and plunked me on a booster seat and snapped his scissors in the air all around my head. Then Mr. B would cut my bangs straight across about a half inch from my hairline. He parted my hair in the middle and gave me bunchy curls at my ears that made me look like a miniature version of Bozo, the Clown. My mother thought I was adorable. “Oh, you look like a little pixie!” she said. Even at the age of 5, I can remember scowling in the mirror and thinking, “This isn’t glamorous! I don’t want to look like a pixie! I want to be glamorous! I want long hair!” I told Mr. Billings so. He snapped his scissors at my nose and shouted, “Well, you can’t!”  Sheesh. Talk about your sensitive artist type!

Many haircuts later, I can still see that kid, miserable in the mirror. I keep hoping for glamorous.

My rookie stylist didn’t know who Judi Dench is either. He didn’t get the hair exactly right, but he did o.k. and I think I’ll give him a second chance next month mostly just because he laughed politely at my story and didn’t hold my elbow when I got out of the chair.  

Dame Judi Dench

 Me with an almost Judi Dench hair cut

Saturday, July 7, 2012

True Patriot Love

Canada Day. The 4th of July. Two great nations. Same continent. Two great national holidays. Same week. Lucky us! As citizens/ex-pats of one country and residents of the other, we celebrate both and, if possible, we’ll take a full seven days of vacation time!

American friends often ask me if Canada Day is similar to the 4th of July. Well, maybe I’m not asked all THAT often, but I am happy to tell you all about it in case you are just dying to ask. The answer is, kinda sorta.

Celebrations in both countries involve community parades, festivals, cook outs, family gatherings and patriotic displays of affection for the homeland, and both culminate in fireworks. In Canada, though, this is fairly understated as we Canadians are not that demonstrative a people. I found that I actually became so much more emphatically Canadian after we moved to the US. For example, I hadn’t ever actually watched a whole hockey game in my entire life until we moved to Buffalo in 1999. But I became an avid fan of the game when we arrived in the US just because I thought it was my patriotic duty. Everyone we met would say, “Hey, you must love Hockey!” So, I thought I better start.

I also found that the word, “eh?” started slipping into my vocabulary whether or not I bid it to part my lips. Total strangers, some of whom you would not expect to be linguistically attuned, like parking lot attendants, were constantly shouting at me, “Hey, you’re Canadian, eh?”  “Uh, yeah, I am. How did you know?” “You’ve got that accent, eh?” “Ha, Ha! Yes, I guess I do… (pause)… EH?”

Anyway, back to our national holiday. I don’t remember as a kid that there was a lot of fuss made over Canada’s Birthday on July 1st. Apparently the Canadian government began to organize national celebrations around 1958, but I seem to recall that it wasn’t until our centennial year in 1967 that any escalation of revelry might actually have been interpreted as patriotic or, heaven forbid, garish.  It was likely Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government in the 1970s attempting to rebrand Canada as a fun country that created some excitement around Canada Day. Up until that point we had been a pretty stodgy group. If any of you are familiar with our prime ministers of the 50s and 60s, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson, you know the very definition of stodgy. Good statesmen, but not party dudes.

Although very similar in structure to the “It’s a Capitol Fourth!” concerts broadcast on TV from Washington, DC, our annual concerts from Parliament Hill in Ottawa have a uniquely Canadian flavour (US translation: flavor.) They are bilingual to a fault, featuring two hosts, one announcing in English and the other repeating exactly the same thing en francais. Performers are carefully chosen to represent each region of Canada in utter political correctness and are equally divided between French and English. You can count on there being at least one group of First Nations dancers. Sometimes you’ll see a celebrity act like Burton Cummings or kd lang. And no one from western Canada will have ever heard of the acts from Quebec. They are usually really bad concerts.

Then it’s on to the fireworks. When I was a kid, it was many a Canadian’s ambition to actually be present in person for 4th of July fireworks in Boston or Washington. Watching these loud, lavish pyrotechnic displays on US TV always filled us with awe at the grandness of it all. Once Ken and I were in a small town in New Brunswick on July 4th. All the locals were talking excitedly about their annual trek down to the beach to watch the fireworks that would be visible across the water from the northern corner of Maine. After dark, everyone waited in a hush for the show to start. “There’s one!” someone shouted. On the horizon, it was a burst the size of a pea, it was so far away. Everyone around us “ooo’d” and “ahhh’d.” This is SO Canadian.

So, you see, both of our countries have similarities and differences. It isn’t so much what we do, but how we do it. But one thing I will tell you for sure that is the same regardless of which side of the border you come from: fireworks on TV just don’t translate!

July 1st is a statutory holiday in Canada. Patriotic celebrations are held in communities across the country to mark the day in 1867 when the British North America Act joined together four provinces to create Canada as a Dominion under the British Empire. Anniversary celebrations were henceforth known as Dominion Day. On July 1, 1982, Her Majesty, the Queen, visited Ottawa to sign the Canada Act which quietly, peacefully —repatriated our constitution making Canada an independent country in the Commonwealth. At that time, the name of the annual national hoopla changed to Canada Day. Her Majesty is still Canada’s monarch.

We fly the Maple Leaf at our house in Dayton, Ohio to celebrate Canada Day.