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Archive for April, 2010

Frobisher Bay

The months I spent in the Arctic (Baffin Island), beginning in January 1953, were a time that led me down some odd paths and introduced me to some strange individuals, among whom only the wolves and huskies were normal. The rest were human.

Our Baffin Island campsite was little more than a dot on the map at the head of Frobisher Bay, roughly the present site of Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit. As an indication of what life was going to be like on a construction site in the Arctic, one of the first things I saw when I arrived was a sign in the camp office:

“WE’RE ALL HERE BECAUSE WE NOT ALL THERE.”

The second thing I learned was:

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Construction sites are dry, or so they say.

Each day the so-called fact was proven true:

Great piles of empty beer cans blocked my view,

So, yes, we’re dry — by breakfast every day.

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Officially, being totally teetotal, the Canadian campsite didn’t have a source of liquor, but there was an American Air Force base just a mile down the road, and it didn’t take long for enterprising Yanks and thirsty Canadians to set up a profitable exchange — Canadian money for beer from the American canteen. There were around 400 workers on the Canadian construction site, and one out of every two Americans quickly became a bootlegger. At one point the Yankee base actually ran out of beer, and in the ensuing investigation the records showed that every Yank “drank” 40 cans of beer a day.

Ultimately, common sense, not to say resignation, obliged the Canadian campsite authorities to simply ignore the illicit trade (and undoubtedly enjoy a cool [American] beer themselves).

The same brisk inclination toward trade for profit involved cigarettes. A packet of American cigarettes cost ten cents; Canadian cigarettes cost 37 cents. You don’t need a pocket calculator to see the Americans selling their cigarettes for 20 cents for a 100 percent profit, and providing the Canadians with a saving of 17 cents or (you might need the pocket calculator for this) a gain of over 45 percent (45.945%).

This was great, a superb business opportunity; everyone stood to benefit. Until the inevitable happened. Eventually everyone was smoking American cigarettes — except the Americans!

It was a terrible humiliation, which ironically revealed the power of American patriotism. Their canteen ran out of cigarettes. The Americans then had to buy Canadian cigarettes from the Canadian canteen — at 37 cents a pack. Or they could buy (legitimate, unbootlegged) American cigarettes from our canteen at a premium price of 40 cents a pack (they were, after all, imported). The Canadian canteen had lots, of both; no one was buying Canadian, nor was anyone crazy enough to buy American at 40 cents a pack. Until now. Because — and let’s hear a round of applause for the Yanks: They stood four-square, and almost without exception they lined up at our canteen and paid the premium for our 40-cent American cigarettes.

Greater love hath no man, at least until the new cigarette supplies came in.

But later an idle question remained unaddressed in my mind. Like the beer matter, the Cigarette Affair was quietly swept under the carpet and, so far as officialdom and the Mounties were concerned, it was forgotten. But I wondered: Was it forgotten by all those non-bootlegging Yanks, innocent of any wrongdoing, who were unfairly denied their cigarettes to the profit of a few? I got the subtle feeling that it wasn’t, and that the bootleggers would be wise to watch their step and not walk down any dark alleys … alone.

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The Portrait Painter

A short while ago, my wife, the artist, took me to supper as a birthday treat. At the next table sat a gentleman with two of his children: A girl, 7, and a boy, 3. They were quite neatly dressed kids, and very well-behaved. My wife did a sketch of each of them. Wow! Were they pleased! Their very own portraits! They held the sketches at arm’s length, smiling hugely.

Zwei Kleine Mädchen (detail), E. Schiele

Actually, these portraits were a bit of a departure from my wife’s usual restaurant sketching. Like much art these days, her sketches have gone down some interesting side roads. She is becoming highly skilled at drawing the back of a person’s head. I know what you’re thinking, but she is not crazy. Well, maybe not too crazy. Okay, crazy, but not insane.

She does a lot of sketching when we’re dining in a restaurant, while I am applying myself to the really important things one does in a restaurant, like getting outside some serious food. I am an artist, too, and I’m usually running over some story ideas in my mind, but mostly I’m chewing and swallowing. She generally finishes supper ahead of me, and will sit drawing the backs of people’s heads.

I asked her once why she did this. “Are you blazing new trails because they don’t teach backs of heads at art college?”

“No,” she said, “it’s just that I don’t like them watching me while I draw them.”

“Hmm,” I said, pointedly carving another piece of steak.

But you understand what I mean: Very strange artistic avenues, leading who knows where.

Anyway, next time you want the back of your head drawn, you know who to call. Prices to fit all budgets; cash, cheque, or money order. All major credit cards.

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Lost or Found?

Small towns are no different to big cities when it comes to gossip, especially when the gossip carries the hot breath of scandal. Though, these days, we don’t have to rely on local scandal; just pick up any newspaper. Politics is always good for sleaze and scandal, as reliable as the rising sun, and politics liberally lubricated by sex is even better, at least for those who look forward to their daily serving of that sort of thing.

These days, lovers aren’t so athletic. The only ones to climb walls are the parents.

Marital gossip isn’t quite as juicy as it once was. Today the primrose path has been worn as smooth as a lover’s tongue, and gossip of any real and exciting interest finds pretty stony ground in which to grow. I mean, we’ve seen and read so much of it, it’s passé. Lost or found a husband or lover? So? What else is new?

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What has the lovely lady lost?

Sadly now, so tempest-tossed;

and saddened, too, at what it cost;

what does she think of it now?

One night of love (or more, indeed);

of all responsibility freed?

Mock trust, and blithely thus proceed?

All vows to disavow?

Yet, how did love become mishap?

Her loving arms did once enwrap,

officially, another chap:

Was this love false, or true?

What took her heart and changed its aim?

What joy could cause her now to claim

that this new course held hope, not shame;

that ’twas not wrong, just new.

Madame, what will the future bring?

A lovely song for your heart to sing?

Or will it be the same old thing:

New lyrics, but the same old song.

Do we hear sighs in all you do?

Is smiling hard? And laughing, too?

From new windows … what’s your view?

At night is right now wrong?

There’s them will sniff and lift their nose;

many who like to hear your woes;

cherish with relish your loss; God knows

Our little world’s full of them.

But ’midst the censure, some still see

the way you are — will always be;

still hear your voice, and think of thee,

and never will condemn.

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Voices

You’re not going to believe it, but picture this: A friend loans me one of those DVDs of a recent highly successful movie. As in most movies of today, the actors speak in low, tense, dramatic voices. Sixty years ago my teacher would have given them a D for pronunciation. I can’t understand a word the actors say, and it’s made worse by the noise from the Special Effects. But this is a DVD, says I to myself. I should be able to switch to subtitles. Can you picture it? There’s me, an English-speaking viewer, watching an English-language movie, with English subtitles. (Sigh … Only in America).

Further to DVD watching, we can sit down in my work room, where the computer is, stick in a DVD, and watch a movie. But as I mentioned before, about all we can do is watch; we can’t understand anything. Makes you pay closer attention, but I wonder if that’s the real point. Actors today all seem unable to enunciate the language they’re speaking. I’m going to reclassify them: Forget D; make it F, all would get a straight F on their report cards. North American movies are bad enough, but British movies are worse: Lots of muttering, plus incomprehensible regional accents that make Jamie Oliver sound like an elocution prizewinner. Watching a British movie, my comprehension level is close to that of a Braille-literate bilingual visitor whose second language is Morse Code.

Cinematic dinosaur that I am, I only understand movies from the ‘40s and ‘50s. So I do a lot of reading.

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Advent of Spring

Spring seems to be with us at last, though a couple of weeks ago you’d never have known it. Look at the thermometer, even today: 4 degrees — actually 3.5 — and the furnace goes on even before I’m out of bed. This is Spring?

PRIMAVERA. Sandro Botticelli, 1482. (see also details below)

Spring thaws have a built-in quick re-freeze factor, Nature’s way of keeping us on our toes if not happy. Hardly has Winter given up the ghost than Spring re-instates it. You begin to wonder if Nature really is on our side. Sneaky Spring — do you see her as a young golden-haired girl, sweet and demure, as in Botticelli’s Primavera? Forget it; Spring can be harder than a used car salesman’s heart. My wife has no more time for Spring, or even Winter for that matter, than she has for me and my skill at cleaning the path from street to house.

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FLORA, Goddess of Spring. Doesn’t look too happy, does she?

She’ll rise at an early hour and off she’ll go,

despite snow

—residual ice that winter’s left behind—

the kind

that’s still there, dog-stained, beneath our spring’s weak sun,

reminding me our Spring has just begun.

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One of the Three Graces (immediately to the left of the central figure). The model for her was Caterina Sforza, a major figure of the Italian Renaissance. Strange choice for a model. She was ruler (despot) of the two cities Imola and Forlì, and arguably the most vicious and bloodthirsty tyrant of her time.

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“Just begun” indeed. There’s a laugh for you, if you’re into borderline hysteria. “Begun” sounds kind of positive, consistent, as if you could rely on it.

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Well, blast the weather’s inconsistency!

Here’s me,

up to my you-know-what in ice and snow,

while lo!

two days ago it seemed like spring had come,

and shorts and shades were de rigeur for some.

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But the appearance, the subtle suggestion, you might say, of Spring cuts no ice with my wife.

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Unhappy she is with how I’ve cleaned the walk.

There’s talk

of calling our neighbour’s boy to do the job,

and rob

me of the dubious pleasures I have found

in scraping shovels over frozen ground.

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Still (I’m trying to find something positive) I saw another robin this morning. Harbingers of Spring, they say, though I’m not so sure. Pretty low IQ, those birds. They could just as easily be heralding the onset of more winter weather. I mean, look at them: 4 degrees and they’re looking for worms.

Would you?

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Fashion Rampant

The other day, while idly eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation (What else? Can you eavesdrop on your own conversation?), I heard the expression “unmentionables.” (You have to be my age to even understand what it means!) And I thought: How can they be “unmentionable” when every newspaper and magazine carries full-page ads displaying them?

How about “pinafores”? Did you ever wear a pinafore? These days the only pinafore around goes under the brand name of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Then there is “plus fours” (or knickerbockers). Or should that be “there are” plus fours? (In a haberdashery one day I heard someone ask for “plus fives.” I guess he planned to play one of the longer golf courses). For your info, they’re called plus fours because an extra 4 inches of material is required to give the overhang. (Why the overhang, you ask? Good question. I’ll leave you to think about it). Golfers wear jeans and runners now, to the outrage and despair of the St Andrew’s set. There was a time when you were not allowed on the golf course unless you wore proper clothing. Nowadays, the golf courses are after more profits just like any other business.

All these items — now the dinosaurs of the fashion world — were once the sine qua non of the day, days now gone and laughably passé.

Today, especially in the Big City, the fashion gurus speak and the cosmopolitans listen, smirking knowledgeably:

The city engenders, in fashion spenders,

an urge to splurge that’s naïve.

It’s “Ralph” (Lauren), and “Calvin” then,

and their friend St Laurent is just “Yves.”

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"KENORA MINK." See more of Carhartt’s wide range of examples at http://www.Carhartt.com

The small town is not far behind, though with a somewhat different set of values: There, instead of Fashion rearing its dictatorial head, it seems rather to be ducking down and maintaining a low profile. But even in a small town, due consideration is given to the image one projects:

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To the theater, I think, it’s Kenora mink,*

and runners, white socks, and blue jeans.

They’ll say I’m obsessed, that I’m over-dressed,

but they don’t know what fashion means!

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It’s often a strain when I try to maintain

the style on which small towns rely.

But sweat pants are there, and with white socks to wear…

somehow, I’m sure I’ll get by.

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Kenora Mink, to the best of my knowledge, refers to the thigh-length plaid jacket or heavy plaid shirt worn in many logging camps and mining towns. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong. I am told the term was coined by a radio broadcaster as a light knock to the fashion sense (or its absence) in the inhabitants of northern Canadian rural towns. It was, he implied, Hicksville’s idea of “dressing up” — you buttoned up the top button. Black tie for the boondocks.


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Ethnic Cuisine

I’ve had little contact with SE Asian cooking; small towns in Ontario, from what I’ve seen, lean toward fairly normal British or American food habits and tastes — standard roast beef, ham, chops, chicken, fish, that sort of thing. Any non-North American restaurants usually feature so-called French or Italian dishes. And yet — surprise! — our town recently saw the opening of a Thai restaurant. So I now have the opportunity to sample Thai cooking.

SCALOPPINE DI VITELLO ALLA MARSALA with portobello mushrooms. Like so many Italian dishes, it’s delicious and easy to prepare. Check any Italian cookbook. Just as good made with scaloppine (the plural of scaloppina) of chicken, or pork.

When I remarked on this to a friend he said “Lotta people eat ethnic.” Disregarding the fractured grammar, I thought: Yeah, but the Oxford English Dictionary says the term “ethnic” comes from the Greek meaning “heathen,” and I bet most Thais would take bitter exception to being called heathens. Despite the dictionary’s definition, most North Americans these days consider “ethnic” to mean anything not natively North American. And yet I’ll bet in Bangkok they think hot dogs are ethnic — what the heathen Yankees eat. And while I find it hard to think they’re wrong, the globalization of just about everything these days has seen its effect in restaurants

COTOLETTA ALLA MILANESE. Probably the simplest dish in the world: A breaded veal cutlet. Every country has one, with perhaps microscopic variations.

everywhere. Italian restaurants have become native to North America; once-strange Italian dishes now appear on Canadian menus to such an extent they are no longer considered Italian. Pasta is on every table; there are a dozen Canadianizations of what was once strictly the Italian Scaloppine di Vitello alla Marsala. American versions of this dish sometimes introduce strange flavour overtones by adding pineapple and/or tangerines, melon, or some such fruit; Americans tend seriously to the addition of fruit to just about anything you want to name, probably because they’re fortunate to have such a wide choice, all year long. Is there a Yankee ham that doesn’t have a round of pineapple on top? Scratch an American salad and you’ll find an apple or an orange in there somewhere.

So, should I be surprised to find a small town of 18,000 that welcomes a Thai restaurant? A town of whose population fifty percent come from United Empire Loyalist antecedents, who were at one time decidedly non-Yankee, and certainly as far from Bangkok as it’s possible to get. We also have a genuine Greek restaurant, too. And a Swiss restaurant: Glorious schnitzels bearing German names festooned with umlauts and incomprehensible vowel/consonant combinations. Once, when I was unable to pronounce the name of a dish, the young girl serving us translated it for me, referring to it as “the émincé” — a startling departure: A Swiss-German restaurant with in-house French translations while-U-wait, for English-speaking Canadian patrons.

The term “ethnic,” in its current “non-North American food” sense, is disappearing. Soon you’ll only find it in the dictionary. Food enthusiasts applaud, as the world’s tables become a part of everyone’s kitchen.

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