Monday, March 30, 2015

oh canada

sometimes, when i go to canada, i ask people about what it’s like to be right next to such an enormous country, the usa, with all its wars and involvement around the world. This time, it didn’t come up. I did talk to a few canadians in toronto, and some were, at one point, singing a cowboy song, and i almost told them i was from texas – I wasn’t sure how they’d respond. people were friendly to a fault, especially when I was lost. on my way home, i was in the wrong terminal in the airport, and a shuttle driver, seeing my dilemma, said, "wrong terminal? buggers, eh?" which made my whole trip, but he gave me a ride to the right one, and i got there just in time. i slipped through customs and security in a hurry, without even the time to suffer from it.

the convention center was sandwiched between the baseball stadium and the hockey arena, and the whole line of them blocked the city from the lake itself, which, as the pilot pointed out, was not frozen over. it was an in-between time of year; definitely spring in the south, but still below freezing up here, and lots of people had had enough, it being a very long winter, and they were ready for the cold to let up. i kept getting lost down there, and at night i was looking for the convention center, in the cold, and stumbled upon a hockey game the first time. the leafs were playing florida, of all teams, and people had come from far and wide, wearing maple leaf shirts, big and wide and blue, to see the game. outside the arena, a large screen showed the game, and i watched for a while. some people had come from far and wide just to be there, and for whatever reason, having spent their money perhaps, were stuck outside the arena, in the cold, watching the game.

several things happened at the conference that were important to me; first, I connected with friends that i’ve had for years, people I've taught with, people with similar interests. i saw a guy I taught with in korea, in around 1986. i went to a reunion of the university I taught at for eighteen years; about a dozen people attended. i gave my own presentation, which was about technological influence on people's writing and learning. And finally I got a bit of a break, from a wild family; I came back to my old stomping grounds, where they were not surprised by snow in late march, and where the grim dirt on the bus windows prevented you from really seeing the traffic, or the scenery, or the lake off in the distance.

at the convention several international people were in a jam. some were from yemen, and had found that the airport was closed, taken over by rebels, after they left. They were not sure they could get home. another friend was in the museum in tunis right before it was attacked; she was a bit shaken by the experience, but was nevertheless packing up and going to bangladesh soon. one friend worked in qatar, and wanted another different job in the same region. one more friend, a computer tech friend from argentina, said things were bad there and in brazil; argentina might go the way of venezuela, she said, and that would be terrible. people shared their experiences, and we heard stories. this crowd was relatively fearless; canada's passport requirement didn't phase them; they were willing to consider most isolated posts.

now, i've made it back to new york, and i'm at gate D10 in laguardia, which happens to look out at a constant stream of planes landing and taking off, every twenty or thirty seconds or so. big giant jetliners are taking off and landing, while the snow swirls around but doesn't collect, and sometimes dies down, and there are smokestacks on the sound over in one direction, and manhattan off in another. back in the usa, i'm not afraid to use my phone anymore, and there's all kinds of stuff on it. I'm laid over for a while, trying to get back to texas. i can see why texans like to get out of this gray, bleak, dark late march. i had met one woman from vermont and i'd told her I was jealous, I thought she lived in one of the prettiest places there was. she lit into me with a litany of complaint; it was a long, hard winter, went forever, way too much snow, miserable. going to toronto hadn't made anything better for her.

i had to admit, it wasn't a break in the weather for anyone but me. in texas, it's already hot and sunny, warm all the time, spring full-on blooming and things about as green as they’re going to get. Some people complained bitterly about the cold in toronto; it was about 25, and it was windy, and a hard wind came off the lake all the time. This I already knew about toronto. my hotel was about two miles from the convention, and it was a hard two miles, partly because suit-jackets don't really make it possible to really make yourself warm, especially if you are like i am, live in a warm clime and rely on layers in cold times. but i was ok with it. it was a lot of very cold walking, and i slept well at night.

american airlines doesn’t let me get on an earlier flight unless i'm a “preferred” customer, or have miles, or some such, so it looks like i'll be at this window watching planes for a while. they seem to mix in take-offs and landings, but they keep them coming, every twenty or thirty seconds, a new one. a family comes with a precocious daughter; they provide my entertainment, along with the snow and the constant planes. eventually, the snow dies away.

the image of the hockey game sticks with me. the first time i arrived there, a guy was eager to sell me a ticket, maybe eighty, hundred bucks. i was dazed; i didn’t even know where i was. ticket for what, I asked. he couldn’t believe it, and didn’t have time to waste explaining. the scalpers buy up tickets cheaply, and turn them over the best they can. people were hanging around the open area around the arena. the second time, coming back home, i was at the hockey game again, and this time it was already a period or two into the game. on impulse i asked the scalper how much he wanted and with excitement he called out to his friends. the scalper mentioned $40 as a price for a single ticket, after the game had already started; i probably could have gotten it for less with a little haggling. it was cold, below 30, and there were traces of snow in the air. i kept on walking, deciding i was not quite prepared for the full force of a hockey game.

several people were standing around, part of the scalper community, apparently, or trying to get money out of a ticket or two, so they could go get something to drink. One guy in particular caught my attention. he was an older native american guy, a little drunk maybe, transfixed by the situation, with the wide screen television up in the square and people standing around trying to gather up the resources to get into the game; maybe some people wait for the main scalpers to admit they aren’t going to sell the last of the tickets; at that point, everyone gets in free.

in any case, it seemed like this guy didn’t quite believe he was in downtown toronto. it seems to be the main city of the whole country; it attracts people who are uprooted, who don’t know where else to go. but the hockey game seems to have a special role to the canadians. it was clearly an important event.

out on yonge street some kids just sat on the sidewalk, even in the cold, nowhere else to go. there were lots of panhandlers, a whole community of them, people who had come from far and wide just to be in the times square of Toronto.

at the convention, i asked people what they thought of canada. one friend said it was much like europe, with lots of european brands that you can’t get in the us; she obviously is a shopper. another said she couldn’t take the cold; it was cold enough this winter, and she just wanted it to be over. one guy was canadian, and said it was a brutal winter in most of canada. i asked him what they’d done to the money; instead of the loonies and toonies of yore, they had money with this kind of glassy aluminum on it. This too, he said, came from europe, and don’t put it in the dryer. You can still get loonies and toonies out in the boonies, he said.

one woman said that her mother was canadian, so it was like coming home for her. where she lived, it was all hockey, all the leafs and the habs. habs, I said? This was the montreal canadiens; it attracted the french, the catholics, the quebecois, even in ontario. It was big, the rivalry between leafs and the habs. it's like the raiders and the longhorns. but it’s hockey.

the leafs lost, apparently, and i find that ironic, because we’re talking about florida here. florida can beat the Leafs? There is some imbalance here, an imbalance in quality homegrown players not playing for their favorite team, but going where the money is? I don’t know how it happened.

Somewhere where I was, the television was on an endless loop. It started with a couple of hockey players starting a fight. Now hockey fights are pretty common, and people see them coming, and usually are pretty quick to get between two combatants and pull them apart, even though everyone is on skates and it can get a little dicey. But in this loop, it’s not clear that anyone ever breaks it up. In fact, just as people are about to break it up, the loop does an odd twist and goes back to the beginning without the viewer realizing that. And it’s as if the onlookers have backed off and the two are about to start up at it again. So as the loop comes around its fourth or fifth time, it seems as if these guys have been going at it forever. Where are the lost teeth? Where’s the blood? The television just kept looping.

But hockey was on television in every restaurant, every hotel, everywhere. It was a passion, clearly. It was how a Canadian got through late March, when it was still snowing, apparently.

The airlines wants my bag. They’re getting tired of bags not fitting in the overheads. Everyone wants to carry as much as possible on the plane, and the plane can’t hold it all. Bags are too stuffed, and people are all right up against the measurements of what is permissible. That’s true for me as well. I didn’t want to check any of it; I wanted it right next to me. Didn’t want to pay. I knew we’d be crowded and didn’t care. In the end, I let them check it for free. I was in Group 3, so there was no way I’d get it overhead. So now I’m alone with my computer, and we’re hdigh above the Appalachians somewhere. The sharp opaque clouds have let up, and the sun is reaching the ground below in a kind of haze.

I have a little peace. I am ready for Texas again. I got my winter fix; I got a good brisk walk or two. I heard a lot of languages; I talked to people from all over. I connected with my buddies in the tech world; I breathed some northern winter. And I watched a lot of hockey on television.

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