Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Illumination

News of a death does not always bring only dark sadness. Sometimes it brings illumination.

That was the case last week when we learned that Stuart McLean, an unpretentious Canadian icon, had passed away. He died at 68 of cancer.

McLean’s death came at a time when we needed illumination. Our prime minister had just returned from Washington where his visit was considered of so little importance that they forgot his first name. Sean Spicer, Trump’s vacuous press secretary, called him Joe Trudeau.

That, along with the avalanche roar of attention paid to Trump’s megalomania, fed our Canadian inferiority complex. Once again overshadowed by the loud and hugely important cousin to the south, our Canadian littleness diminished to the size of a crumb fallen from a table.

However, the sorrowful news of McLean’s passing reminded us that small and unassuming always trumps egotism and braggadocio. It reminded us that we are a humble people, willing to listen, willing to help and not afraid to laugh at ourselves.

It was indeed an illumination. The kind of illumination that McLean transmitted across the nation through his Vinyl Café variety radio show.

McLean was a CBC radio and TV reporter who moved away from covering the so-called big and important issues concerning Canadians. He began reporting stories that might be considered less newsworthy. They were stories about everyday folks and provided insights into ordinary Canadians and their communities.

He started the Vinyl Café show in 1994. It was presented before live audiences in smaller communities across the country, and from time to time on the BBC and dozens of public radio stations in the United States. It toured 100 days each year, broadcasting roughly a quarter of those on Saturdays.

The Vinyl Café was a fictional second-hand record store owned by Dave – he never had a last name – a bumbler who too often found himself in a pickle. His wife Morley was the sensible partner, usually extracting Dave from his predicaments.

The show also featured musical entertainment performed by lesser known musicians and McLean reading essays about communities and letters from the ordinary people who lived in them. People who worked with him said he regarded his essays as journalism and did extensive research before writing them.

“He reminded us that everything is important, even little things, and that means we’re all important,” Jess Milton, his producer for the last 13 years, was quoted in the New York Times’ story on McLean’s death.

The Vinyl Café told us about and helped us to understand parts of our country that are seldom reported on.

I recall first meeting Stuart McLean in the hallway at a broadcast industry meeting in the early 1980s, long before he invented the Vinyl Café. He reminded me of an Ichabod Crane character, long-limbed and angular in brown corduroy pants and a tweed jacket hanging off his frame. Hanging from one shoulder was a leather-cased tape recorder - a Sony TC-110 if my memory is correct – on which he captured his interviews.

Stuart McLean moved into fictional storytelling on the Vinyl Café, but he remained a reporter.

He was like thousands of journalists in Canada and the U.S. who work at (in many cases for small money) honestly and fairly reporting the theatre of our lives. They vigorously seek out facts and balanced opinions to get as close to the truth as is possible.

Sometimes parts of society do not like to hear the truth and reporters are given the blame for telling it. But that’s just part of the job.

That’s why it was an insult to Stuart’s memory when Donald Trump this week called journalists the enemies of the American people. And most assuredly he meant that for journalists everywhere, including Canada.

Stuart McLean, through his reporting and his trademark storytelling, illuminated our lives and made us feel proud to be Canadians. He did that in a folksy, positive and humorous way.

Donald Trump, evidently suffering the advanced stages of malignant narcissism, makes the entire world feel afraid. Some worry that someday he will have us feeling like radioactive ash.

And he says journalists are the enemy?           

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

It's About the Birds!

Canada is a country of great diversity, so it is odd that we might still want to single out anything as especially special in identifying our nationality.

Yes, we decided long ago that the maple leaf and the beaver are national symbols. But do we really need anything else, like a national bird?

That is the question now facing the federal government, which has been petitioned by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society to officially declare a national bird this year, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

Two years ago the Society’s magazine, Canadian Geographic, began a project to select a national bird, inviting Canadians to vote for their favourites. It is not clear how many Canadians participated, however the Society announced in November a decision: the whiskey jack, or gray jay, should be named Canada’s official national bird.

The whiskey jack received fewer votes than the loon and the snowy owl. Geographic, however, rejected those two because they already are provincial symbols: Ontario (loon), Quebec (snowy owl).

The feds now must decide whether we really need to have a national bird. Or should it forget the idea and get on with important matters such as infrastructure decay, the drug abuse crisis, the collapsing middle class, criminal electricity rates and planning how to deal with the damaging effects of a changing climate.

Only a fool would enter the national bird controversy, which of course does not rule out the politicians jumping in.

Firstly, naming national things is passé. That is something countries do when they are trying to define who they are and what they stand for. We know what Canada is and what it stands for and have  got along for 150 years without a national bird, and without a national flower as it happens.

Secondly, getting people to agree on anything these days is like trying to corral chipmunks. Picture the circus in the House of Commons as MPs argue the fine points of declaring the whiskey jack our national bird.

Some MPs would argue that both of the bird’s official names – whiskey jack and gray jay – don’t even use Canadian spellings. Gray and whiskey are American spellings. In this country it’s whisky and grey.

(Incidentally, whiskey jack is taken from Wiskedjak, one of many spellings of the Algonquian name of the little greyish bird known by aboriginal peoples as a trickster).

Then, of course, there is the controversy that the whiskey jack is not found in the most populous part of Canada – southern Ontario. The bird’s southern range,  believe it or not, ends somewhere in the northern part of Haliburton County.

I was thinking about all this the other day while alternately watching the Trumpeter’s inauguration on TV and the chickadees at the feeders outside the kitchen window. (The chickadees were much more interesting!)

Trump delivered a scornful, dystopian speech and boasted how he will fix, immediately, all the screw-ups created by the four ex-presidents seated in the audience behind him.

Meanwhile, the chickadees flitted and twittered, broadcasting a message that despite cool temperatures and a bit of grey sky, the world overall is a pretty great place.

If I was voting for a national bird, or an American president, my choice would be the chickadee. It is a humble little creature that always appears positive and hopeful about its surroundings. Also, although its brain is tiny, it is fully functional.

The Cherokee associated the chickadee with truth and knowledge, traits noticeably missing in the new American president, and an increasing number of other politicians.

At any rate, I am not voting for a national bird. We have more than 400 species of birds in Canada. Each has its own qualities and instead of singling out one as special we should celebrate them all.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Making the Forest Great again

This Week's (Feb 9) Minden Times Column

A dark and heavy despondency had fallen over the forest. The creatures who worked and lived there brooded over their declining state of affairs.

The beavers complained about jobs lost to workers in other faraway forests. Rabbits, bears, foxes, birds and others worried about illegal immigrants entering the forest, bringing different cultures, religions, and terrorism.

Meanwhile, the super rich got richer while the poor got poorer. The middle class was evaporating. Forest society was a mess.

Fears for the future drove many to despair. Increasing numbers chewed mind-bending leaves and snorted magic mushroom powders, once available only
when prescribed by owls, the physicians of the forest.

The decline in the forest also was marked by a loss of intelligence, and a lessening in tolerance for others’ views. Noisy barking and cawing overran reasoned debates and compromises became impossible.

Most of the noise came from the crows who squawked and jeered about making the forest great again. The loudest voice came from the crow Puffball, named because he swelled up to twice his size whenever he cawed, which was often.

It was said that Puffball dyed his feathers and used hairspray to make himself look sleek and majestic.     

“Terrible. Really bad,” he cawed about life in the forest. “Horrible! Disgusting!”

The crows, then all the other creatures, turned to him in hopes that he could make their forest great again.

“The forest is in trouble. It’s terrible,” he croaked. “But we’re going to straighten it out. OK? That’s what I do. I fix things. We’re going to straighten it out. It starts now.”

Puffball decided to build a high wall across the forest’s southern border. That would stop the illegals from sneaking in with drugs and intent to rape and pillage.

Construction began immediately. The beavers cut trees with their sharp teeth. The bears and the moose hauled the logs while legions of other creatures set them in place.

One day a crow patrolling the forest border spotted light blinking from an abandoned farm house. He swooped down to investigate and found in the rubble pieces of a shattered mirror reflecting the sun’s beams.

He clamped his beak on one of the pieces and flew back to the grand White Oak where Puffball was signing orders.

“Look what I’ve found, Chief,” the crow cawed excitedly. “If you stand over it you can see yourself in it.”

“Fantastic!” Puffball croaked while trying to get a full view of himself in the small piece of mirror. “Amazing. Are there any larger pieces?”

A flight of crows left the White Oak immediately to find a larger piece. Two hours later they struggled back with a piece large enough for Puffball to see his whole self. He hopped back and forth in front of it, preening and cawing about how the forest already was starting to be great again.

The crows found a spot to place the mirror piece so Puffball could walk in front of it often as he went about his day.

Work on the wall progressed through the summer, which was unusually sunny and hot.

One morning Puffball was passing the mirror and moved it to get a better look at himself. As the sun rose higher during the day, the mirror caught the sun’s rays head on and reflected them onto the tinder dry forest floor.

Soon dry leaves on the forest floor began to smolder and white smoke curled into the air. Within minutes there was flame that grew and leaped into other parts of the forest.

All the birds, animals and reptiles panicked. They gathered their children and fled the best they could as the flames grew higher and advanced greedily through the forest.

A few days later a doe and her fawn walked to the edge of where the forest had been. All that remained was blackened tree stumps and grey ash. The carcasses of some animals that could not run fast enough could be seen rotting in the sun.

“What destroyed our forest, mother?” asked the fawn. “It was supposed to be  great again.”

“Vanity, little one,” said the doe. “Vanity. The ruin that comes when popularity becomes more important than honesty and truth.”