Townshipslaining the PM

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a town hall in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a town hall in Sherbrooke, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Oh, hi there, Prime Minister Trudeau, or as we say here in the Townships, “hi there.”

You see, Justin (may I call you Justin? I think I may), the Eastern Townships is a pretty easygoing place when it comes to the whole English-French thing. Certainly we’ve had our battles – sign complaints, bilingual status debates, health care access. But for the most part, even during difficult times, both linguistic communities have been fairly even-tempered, dare I say cooperative.

Just ask around, and by that, I mean ask the endless stream of your political peers who have stood before English audiences over the years and reminded them of how tolerant and open this community is – as if we needed reminding from politicians, whose goal is actually to demonstrate how tolerant and open they are. But, still, it’s nice to be thought of once a year or so.

That “once a year” I speak of, JT (may I call you JT? No? Too far?), is usually Townshippers’ Day, an annual event that takes place in a different community each fall across the Eastern Townships. It’s a celebration of the English community, a day just for us, a day to essentially say, “Hi there. We’re still here.” Politicians come out, make some speeches, and say, “Yup, we see you.”

Oh, I see your confusion; I need to explain to you what I mean by the “Eastern Townships.” Well, you go to Montreal, see, and then you take a right. Sometimes people refer to it as “the Estrie” but those people should be shunned. And don’t get me started on “Montérégie.”

The Eastern Townships, you see, was settled primarily by the English. I don’t want to brag but we were kind of a big deal. The English community has a long and proud history here. Schools, banks, churches, community organizations, even hospitals – all founded by the English community.

But you know what, times change. Demographics change. Politics change, as I’m sure you’re aware, given that you must always be looking over your shoulder, and not just for selfies. As the French community in the Eastern Townships expanded, the English community went into decline, for many reasons. But like I said: hi there. We’re still here.

And the best part of all is that our francophone neighbours generally recognize this. It’s not just about tolerating or patronizing the English community – a little linguistic pat on the head here and there. There’s a real recognition that the English community has deep roots in the region, whether it’s Sherbrooke or Stanstead or Richmond or way up in St-Félix-de-Kingsey.

In other words, Prime Minister, “English Quebec” does not equal “Montreal.”

That’s the only way I can interpret your decision at Tuesday’s town hall in Sherbrooke to answer English questions in French. You must have thought, “This isn’t Montreal, so the English community doesn’t exist here, or at very least doesn’t matter. I’m in ‘the regions,’ the hinterland, so I better play the French card, demonstrate that I’m in touch with le collectif, pander to the hardline, remind this English speaker the reality of Quebec in 2017.”

Well, no, sir. This isn’t a hardline community. Remember what I said about being tolerant? The soul of the Eastern Townships is more than that. It’s about being polite. We are very polite. If someone asks you a question in English around here, you answer in English, or you try. If you can’t manage, you work something out. No big deal.

“Yes,” you’re probably saying, “but there might have been people at the meeting who didn’t understand English. Plus, if you’re at a town hall meeting in Sherbrooke, surely you must understand French. Therefore, if I answer in French, everyone will understand!”

I see your point, Trudeau Fils, but it’s not up to you to dismiss over 200 years of history and community engagement. It’s not up to you to override the sense of politeness that we’ve worked so hard to establish.

Now, believe me. The last thing we want is to turn this into a language crisis. We are so over that. The English of the Eastern Townships know that this is a French region and that French is a fact of life and that you better manage at least a little in French if you want to get along. But we expect and deserve respect. Thankfully, most of us as individuals and institutions receive it from the people who live here. We expect the same from our Prime Minister.

Thanks for stopping by. À plus tard.

Posted in Canada and/or Quebec, It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Eulogy for an old acquaintance

James Morrison, Class of 1988

James Morrison, Class of 1988

I learned last week that an old university friend died. We spent two years together in Bennett House at Mount Allison University in the mid-80s. His name was Jim Morrison.

Not that Jim Morrison. Not the Lizard King, though Jim was big like a T Rex, and he tended to lumber like one. He was also legally blind, but only in the sense that you wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel with him.

Big Jim could appear terrifying when he wanted to, especially if he was scowling.

But it’s not the scowl I remember. I remember the grin. I remember the stereo.

I was an insecure, vanilla kid living away from home for the first time in a dorm aptly known as “Animal House.” It was like permanent summer camp, complete with the sort of pranks you’d expect when 18- to 23-year-old boys live virtually unsupervised.

A favourite was leaners. Dorm room doors opened inward, so it was a pretty simple trick to fill a garbage pail with water, lean it against a closed door, knock and run. Big garbage pails. Carpeted floors. Bennett House was quite the swamp.

My roommate and I received a few such leaners. Freshmen were regularly reminded they were freshmen. Even though these upperclassmen were three, two, even just one year older, there was a definite pecking order.

So imagine a young me, feeling his way, trying to make friends, and this giant older student with a take-no-prisoners grin welcomes me into his room. And imagine that room has the biggest big-ass stereo in the house.

Jim was big, his talk was big and his music was big. He unabashedly loved Top 40 and he loved to crank it. Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” – for when the drums kick in. The intro to Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” – for when the drums kick in. The theme to “Miami Vice” – for… well, it was pretty much all drums. Jim loved the drum parts.

I had forgotten “Money for Nothing” until I began writing this, and when I did, I smiled to myself, because Jim shared (imposed) his music with such gusto. This was happy music, even terrible songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Sussudio.” You want Zeppelin and Floyd? Down the hall in the room with the black light and the closed door. Jim’s door was never closed.

I don’t know if you’d call him the King of Bennett House. More like the Cruise Director of Bennett House. Something was always happening in Jim’s room. People wanted to be around his energy, and he wanted to be around them. Jim was a storyteller. He could regale. And what’s a regaler without an audience?

He was also generous – with notes, with clothes, you name it. Want to make a mix tape? He’d set you up. Yes, I made a mix tape with “Like a Virgin” on it. It’s Jim’s fault.

We weren’t close, but we were close enough that I saw some dark times too, usually over what any young guy’s dark times are about – girls. The girls loved Jim, but they didn’t love Jim. He wasn’t standard-issue boyfriend material.

So I was happy to see in Jim’s obituary that he had married, that he had had a successful career as a financial analyst and that he had two young sons that he loved to watch play sports. Did he still play it loud, I wondered? Was he still the universal donor of friendship?

Jim wasn’t on social media, and I had no contact with him over the past 30 years. I learned of his sudden death through a mutual friend. We’re getting to that age where there will be more and more such news, I’m afraid.

Jim and I didn’t hang out after I moved out of Bennett. As I said, we weren’t especially close. Yet I can’t think of those first two years without thinking of him. Big Jim was cool — he shouldn’t have been, but by the force of will he was. He filled the room, and letting me squeeze in that room during those early days of my independence made this kid feel like, hey, I’m all right. I’m going to be all right. Leaners and all.

That’s what I want. I want to remember how a generous spirit can make a difference in someone else’s life. I want to remember Big Jim’s big grin and warm heart. I want my MTV.

Posted in It Really Did Happen! | Tagged , , , , , , , | 40 Comments

January Newsletter of Russian Cyber-Hackers Local 301

Mildly Oppressive New Year, Comrades.

Holiday season is over in decadent West. Many bourgeois families woke on morning of Magical Jesus Holiday to find new electronic devices under freshly killed living room tree. It is musical ringtone to Mother Russia’s eavesdropping ears. Soon all of West will be puppet for Russian master and all of Russian people will have free subscription to Netflix.

Much work remains. But first, Comrades, we offer three hearty claps of hand to newest member of hacker family: Nadia has delivered strong and healthy baby girl underneath Soviet-era tractor in village. Welcome, Baby Vladimire, sister to Vladimir 1 and Vladimir 2. CLAP. CLAP. CLAP.

Also we thank Boris for bringing beet muffins to last meeting. They were adequate. CLAP. CLAP. CLAP.

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All hacker-related pics are really depressing, so instead here is a photo of our really fat cat looking comfortable.

Reminder to members: Tuesday is Bring-Former-Communist-To-Meeting night. We look forward to hearing stories of how American imperialists did not land on moon and Canada is big hockey cheat. Dress code: drab.

And now to big news.

Glorious Russian Federation is now ranked #2 in Barely United States of America as perceived threat to liberty and so-called democracy. Thanks to your efforts, brothers and sisters, of hacking email accounts that use “P-A-S-S-W-O-R-D” as password and making laptop virus that is just plain mean, Russia has passed #3 China as Western bogeyman. This is first time since sad days of end of magnificent Soviet experiment.

Also: we are #1 among girls 13-15. CLAP. CLAP. CLAP. Continue reading

Posted in It Could Happen... | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments

How to author

#amwriting

#amwriting

Now that I’m a renowned author in my own imagination, I feel I am in a good position (dangling lotus) to dish out advice to writers, along with anyone else who happens to be around me after three whiskeys. Here, then, is some advice that is exactly like how I described my ex to that detective I hired: cheap and easy to follow.

The Story Cupboard

The hardest thing for a writer to come up with is rent. The next hardest thing to come up with is an idea. There are two reasons for this. One, the writer may not be very bright. Second, the writer is thinking too analytically. This is when the writer should head to the Story Cupboard.

The Story Cupboard is a place where you stash all your ideas, characters, images and breakfast cereal. Don’t kid yourself: breakfast cereal is an important part of this complete and balanced story. Continue reading

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , | 24 Comments

How to do laundry in 2017

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Get the dirt on soap 

Your laundry detergent makes a lot of claims. It’s going to spin. It’s going to tell you it’s better than all the other detergents. It might say the other detergents can’t get the job done, have no moral fibre, don’t have the temperament, are soft on grime. Some might go so far as to suggest the competing brands support ring around the collar. Don’t let your detergent whitewash the truth in a post-clean world. Read the ingredients, make sure they’re real, talk to other people with differing detergent beliefs. When it comes to the truth, don’t be delicate. Continue reading

Posted in It Could Happen... | Tagged , , , , | 32 Comments

Fave books of 2016

Most of the books I read this year weren’t from this year. Here, though, are four novels published in 2016 that I quite enjoyed.

img_1030Nutshell by Ian McEwan

Could McEwan possibly have had more fun? I doubt it. It’s as though the author said to himself, “I want to write an extended essay on the state of the world, right now, and I want to do so thrillingly.” And he did, and he thrills, because as a craftsman, McEwan is as bad-ass as they come. And because it’s McEwan, telling this bitter comedy from the perspective of a fetus is more than just a clever device. It’s the fetus as writer, the fetus as reader, the fetus as all of us, living in a world so complex and so unclear that our allegiances toss and turn, our morals are endlessly compromised, leaving us Hamlet-like in helpless inaction. What a piece of work, indeed.

img_1031Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

For a novel that touches on so many dramatic themes – prison life, marital breakdown, race, the guilt and blame we impose on others and ourselves, how we define ourselves through work  – this could have been an overwrought melodrama. But Reeves controls the prose masterfully and with lyrical restraint in this story about a discontented electrician sent to prison for accidentally killing a man. She lets the reader mull over the allegories rather than impose them. This is a touching, thoughtful book full of beautifully drawn characters.

img_1032Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

This is a book in which the reader expects calamity to strike at any moment – an unprepared mother and her children winging it across a fire-scorched Alaska. Thankfully, calamities pass most of us by in this life; most of our tragedies are internal. And that’s where this story lies, in the heart and mind of Josie, who does not always make the best decisions but does so in such a human way. Eggers generates terrific empathy for this flawed character. In the end, Josie’s quest finds purpose and clarity, though we know, as does she ultimately, that it will be fleeting. Eggers writes a heartfelt, funny and surprisingly moving book. All is forgiven for The Circle.

img_1033The Sellout by Paul Beatty

“Get out! This ain’t for you! This is our thing” a black comedian yells at two white audience members near the end of The Sellout, and white readers may feel a little of that discomfort, laughing along nervously, wondering if the comedian/author is being serious or not. But don’t get out; stick with it. This rollicking satire about race, blackness and the imperfect notion of equality as we perceive it is hilarious and biting, oftentimes more commentary than fiction. But it just may be the satire we need right now. My favourite book of the year and winner of the Booker Prize.

Honorable Mention: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen 

I’m four-fifths through this 500-page autobiography. Springsteen writes his life like he writes his music: cleanly, honestly and sometimes over the top. But he’s honest about his ambition and his demons, making this compelling stuff for even the casual Springsteen fan.

Posted in Reading? Ugh! | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Do you hear what I hear?

In 2016, I ended my 8-year run of contributing to CBC Radio’s regional network here in Quebec. It was a blast while it lasted. Among my favourite audio excursions were those in which I created short sketches. Here are two of those, Christmas-themed pieces for you as you finish up any last-minute shopping (are you crazy?!?) and settle down for your Christmas Eve.

Peace and kindness to you all, whatever and however you celebrate.

Posted in Holidays, Turn that radio on! | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments