(Gordon Downie, jr, lead singer & songwriter for the Tragically Hip, Canadian icon. 1964 – 2017)
It’s August 2016 and I’m in Kansas City for MidAmeriCon II. It’s the last day and I’m both happy and exhausted, that enervated feeling you get when you’ve been talking to so many wonderful people for so long you have run out of words. In my moments alone, walking from panel to panel in the convention centre, I listen to the Tragically Hip, thinking about how they’ve been a constant soundtrack, a commentary running in the background of our lives for decades. As I walk through the big glass doors at the corner of 13th and Central, among the writers and fans and boba fetts, I hear “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.” One line sticks in my head: the ferget yer skates dream. I think about what that dream might be: anxiety and memory and childhood.
The next day, at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, I read an email from a friend who watched the last concert– the one livestreamed by the CBC– in a bar in Nanaimo, and cried with strangers over the impending loss. While I walked around the convention centre, and probably while I was at the Hugos, 11.7 million strangers & friends watched the last Tragically Hip gig.
I missed it. I missed it and I am surprised by how much this hurts me. It’s a good life (if you don’t weaken).
It’s October 1999 and I’m in the bar in Muenster, Saskatchewan. It’s walking distance from St Pete’s College, where I am staying for three weeks of poetry workshop, so we go there a lot. I’m playing pool with Robert Kroetsch. I’m a terrible terrible pool player, but Robert is forgiving, and digs into his pocket for a handful of quarters and tells me to go put something on the juke box. That something is always– that night and other nights– “Bobycaygeon.”
“Bobcaygeon” while we drink cheap beer and watch the northern lights and talk about poetry.
It’s June 1993 and I’m at Western Speedway, just outside of Victoria, for Another Roadside Attraction: Pere Ubu, The Hot House Flowers, Midnight Oil, and the Tragically Hip. Only I’m not with a group of Hip fans, so we leave after Midnight Oil because our ride wants to get out before the traffic gets crazy. I am sad to leave them behind, because secretly I love “Courage” though for adolescent reasons I cannot remember, it is uncool at that moment to love “Courage.”
As we walk out across the parking lot, I hear them playing it, distorted by distance, bouncing over the walls of the speedway and over the asphalt and the cars and the bodies in the moshpit up front. I can hear the crowd, too, from whom I am separated and who sing along, Gord’s voice over them all:
courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.
Welcome to 1812
Reasoning that it qualified as dissertation-research (for me, that is), D and I drove down to the Niagara Peninsula last weekend to watch the re-enactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights. This event was part of a huge, national project to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, with events planned all around Ontario and Quebec for the next two years. There will be fancy-dress armies, historically-accurate food, tall ships, sea-battles, red-coats, poke bonnets. Laura Secord. Tecumseh. General Isaac Brock. The events are spectacular, and expensive, equal parts educational opportunity and vacation plan.
This event drew nearly a thousand re-enactors, many of them men who double as combatants in the Seven Years War, or the American Civil War. It lasted all weekend, with Saturday devoted to the battle, and Sunday to “Brock”‘s funeral, and a slow march in costume through Niagara-on-the-Lake. Continue reading
I was trying to remember when I first heard about the War of 1812, and I came up with two icons I must have encountered when I was very small, though I could not say exactly when: Laura Secord and Johnny Horton. Laura Secord has a pretty obvious 1812 connection, so obvious she even has her own historica minute. Johnny Horton might require an explanation.
When I was about seven I had Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits on a beige audio tape, without a case, one that a neighbour kid left at our house when he moved. It was an unfortunate oversight on his part, one that has, sadly, informed my sense of American history as much as L.M. Alcott or Herman Melville or Frederick Douglass. It’s a good thing I’m not an historian, because I’m pretty sure they’d take away my degrees for that.
So, as a seven year old I absorbed a peppy, post-war version of American history, much preoccupied with battles and heroic men: Johnny Reb fights all the way through the Civil War, Ol’ Hick’ry defeats the Red Coats with a weaponized alligator, Davey Crockett strangles a bear and dies at the Alamo, and even the Bismarck is imagined in Texan terms, with guns as big as steers and shells as big as trees. It’s Disney-history, nuggets of sepia-toned high adventure rendered as three-minute narratives in 4/4, with Horton’s band singing “Mush! Mush!” behind him, as Big Sam McCord goes north to Alaska (where the rush is on). Continue reading
Last May D and I drove south to the Niagara frontier to see the Corpse Flower in bloom at the Niagara Floral Showcase and to visit Queenston Heights, because I’m working on a chapter about the battlefield. The Corpse Flower gets its own post, though, as a kind of footnote.
Queenston Heights is a park that was once a battlefield. You know it was a battlefield because there’s a very large monument to Sir Isaac Brock, the English General who led British and Canadian troops against the Americans in October 1812, and who died early in the battle. The memorial tower rises aggressively on the Canadian side of the frontier, with Brock at the very top, pointing toward the American side of the river, as though the tower isn’t only to remind us of the general’s death, but to tell us where and how to look toward his American enemies.
Last spring D and I made the trip out to Whitby, Ontario, for an early Doors Open Toronto event at Intrepid Park. It was May, one of those days that aren’t cold really or warm, but blustery and dull, with a flat, pale sky, and quite a bit of mud.
There are no doors to open at Intrepid Park, because there’s nothing there but a concrete memorial, a few shell holes, and a grassy mound. It’s a nice park, with viewpoints from which you can look along the coast of Lake Ontario toward the downtown skyline, which looks delicate and almost translucent at that distance. Continue reading
My first visit to Toronto was a ninety-minute layover between Vancouver and Montreal. I got in to Pearson before 6am, so it was still the-middle-of-the-night (PST), and all the coffee shops were closed. I had tried to sleep, but the night was very short and brightly lit, and somewhere over the Great Lakes I had seen the sunrise. When I looked out the window of the lounge I saw a landscape of tarmac, with the distances hazed over. There was an enormous pile of refuse from some construction project. Then I boarded a plane to Montreal.
My second visit to Toronto was a layover, too. We spent the time between trains at Union Station, eating hotdogs from one of the carts on Front Street.
In the first four years I lived in Ontario I spent less than a week in this city, including more layovers at Pearson or Union station. Last winter we moved here, and I suddenly found myself living in Canada, the one I’d seen in TV, or read about. I was surprised to see the CN Tower looming at the end of a street, to look up and see MuchMusic’s corner of Queen West, or De Grassi Street on a sign. This was CBC Canada, and Globe-and-Mail Canada, where people say “aboot” and have cabins on Georgian Bay and along the line of smokey hills the crimson forest stands. It was strange to see that the postcard version of Canada was a real place.
I’ve wanted to start a blog for years, and my arrival in this version of Canada seems like a good place to start. Welcome to Toronto!