Is Canada Kinder and Gentler?

Sometimes leaving the USA clarifies what’s wrong with it. An old joke holds that George W. Bush meant Canada when he promised Americans a “kinder, gentler nation.” Yet in many ways that quip is more truth than cliché.

Before going further, a disclaimer. I used to teach Canadian Studies and have been to every province except Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, but I’m not Canadian. When those who are tell me they can be as mean as a junkyard dog, I'm honor-bound to believe them, so no misty-eyed utopianism from me.  Oscar Wilde once quipped that a map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia isn’t worth gazing upon, but I suspect it only appears at the map's edge where the road runs out and we see an arrow signposting, “To Utopia.” Maybe Utopia is an aspiration, not an actual place—one that challenges us to be better than we are.

Alas, too many Americans feel maps are worthless because there is nothing beyond the borders worth considering. Is it blissful ignorance that blinds them to aspirational Utopia, or the pride that goeth before a fall? The latter, I fear. Whenever I venture northward, I see people who are, on average, nicer, happier, and more decent than Americans. Perhaps I romanticize, but I’m not blind. Montreal drivers are often aggressive and foolish, homeless people line Ottawa’s Rideau Street, and heroin addicts roam some Vancouver neighborhoods.  Canadians like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper are as odious as any politician that crawled from a US cesspool.

Nonetheless, I encounter civility inside of Canada that exists in the United States mostly in myth-fueled imaginings of the 1950s. Civility makes Canadians, well… nicer. That adjective distresses some Canadians and makes them feel they are not being taken seriously. Embrace it! Civility is linked to the concept of civitas—citizens bound by some common code: law, morality, shared values….  Civitas is a rare commodity south of Canada, where the word “united” is a syntactical misnomer that generally goes no deeper than xenophobic cheers during international sporting events or bombing sorties. In the main, the US is a land of “me,” not “we.” Canada seeks to reverse that formula. There are, of course, social outcasts in Canada, but at least they have universal healthcare, aggressive anti-poverty programs, and a social safety net that puts ours to shame.

Think upon other differences. Canadians own guns just like Americans, but are 51 times less likely to shoot each other. Why? Because too many Americans can't imagine that there should be any gun control; most Canadians can't imagine there wouldn't be commonsense restrictions. While it's true that Canadians visiting Parliament moan about taxes and complain about government with the fervor of a white Dallas suburbanite, at the end of the day they still think government should solve social problems. I've yet to meet a Canadian who thinks that universities are bad for the nation—something a majority of American Republicans shamelessly believes. When Canadians complain about government—who doesn't? —as often as not, it's because they want more schools, roads, public transport, and services.

It boils down to how one defines wealth. Americans often perceive it as if there are no stops between acquisitiveness and asceticism. Bumper stickers proclaim, "He who has the most toys wins." That would be amusing, were it not such a guiding principle. But is wealth merely individually owned TVs, SUVS, McMansions, bling, and sparkle? Civitas ideals suggest otherwise. Can a nation truly be considered wealthy if it has impoverished culture, a fractured citizenry, broken infrastructure, and a corroded sense of civics? Americans are fond of saying that a rising [economic] tide raises all boats, but do you see much evidence that this actually occurs? Ironically, though Canadians on average pay higher taxes and live in the world's 8th richest country, the median wealth of adult Canadians is higher than that of Americans in the world's wealthiest nation.

Maybe Canadians don't assume as much debt, or maybe some economist will cite data refuting median wealth comparisons, but there is little question that Canadians are wealthier in their civic life. There are public mixings of First Nations people, immigrants, Anglophones, Francophones, assorted Euro-Canadians, and people of color. There are bigots, of course, but there is a much greater tendency for groups to move in synch that in the United States would roam in separate packs. The Canada Council for the Arts and other such bodies routinely greenlight multicultural or controversial projects that would be hopelessly shipwrecked upon ideological reefs in the States.

Canada is, indeed, a kinder, gentler nation. Utopia? No. But if you look, you'll notice that the arrow on the edge of the map bends northward.

Rob Weir


Tom Perrotta's Mrs. Fletcher: Sharp, Recycled, or Cheap?


MRS. FLETCHER  (August 2017)
By Tom Perrotta
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp.
★★ ½

I mused over Tom Perrotta's latest before attempting to write about it. Perrotta has never shied from unsettling themes, so I knew that Mrs. Fletcher wasn't going to be mannered. I pondered whether Mrs. Fletcher is a crib of turf he's already trod in Election (1998), Little Children (2004), and The Abstinence Teacher (2007); a Zeitgeist-capturing look at modern relationships; or just a trashy and clichéd pastiche of buzz topics. After careful rumination, I still can't decide.

If you're looking for wholesome, cast your gaze elsewhere. As fans of Perrotta's The Leftovers know, he's a sharp critic of the gap between the values Americans purport to hold and how they actually conduct their lives. There's a lot of sex in Mrs. Fletcher and quite a bit is degrading. All acts of fellatio seem to come with the recipient commanding, "Suck it bitch." You could read this as punctuating misogyny with a phallic exclamation point. You could also conclude it merely titillates in a prurient fashion. Without giving anything away, let me add that there are more deeply inappropriate relationships in this book than in Congress and the White House combined. Is that how it is in modern America, or is Perrotta just being as nasty as he wants to be? Similar split readings arise over other plot devices: Craigslist pickups, Internet porn, LGBTQIA themes, casual hookups, hazing, autism, the cougar phenomenon…. Do these add complicating depth to characters, or are they contrivances designed to make the novel seem more "relevant" and "contemporary?" (Terms in quotation marks because the definitions of such terms are up for grabs.)   

The novel's epigraph is from the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus: "The way up and the way down is one and the same." Heraclitus was a foundational thinker in what is called the unity of opposites. In oversimplified terms, the idea is that we understand most concepts in relationship to its opposite(s)—love presupposes hate, good requires evil, etc. Do healthy relationships requite contemplation of unhealthy alternatives? Can contemplation take place without actual walks on the wild side?

The titular character is 46-year-old Eve Fletcher, a still attractive divorcee, but one aware that her life is at a crossroads. As the director of a senior center, Eve witnesses decay and death daily, and she has just dropped off her only child, Brendan, for his freshman year at Berkshire State University*, where she's perceived as ancient by other students. That point is driven home also by Brendan's disrespect and his infrequent texts that touch upon campus life. She even feels like a frump around Amanda Olney, her tattooed and energetic recreation director at the senior center. Eve's midlife funk is so deep that she's afraid to confront the fact that her son is a total asshole. Just to change the frame a bit, she signs up for a Gender and Society class at a community college in Haddington, Massachusetts (a fictional town that's clearly a Boston suburb). Her instructor is Margo—once Mark—Fairchild. Will this be a spark to make her rethink her rutted life, or will it confirm how out of touch she has become?

Perrotta divides the novel into five parts—The Beginning of the Great Whatever, The End of Reluctance, Gender and Society, The MILF, and Lucky Day—each one focusing on paths taken or forsaken by one or more of the book's major characters. Eve is the book's center, but hers is not the only point of view. Whatever else one makes of the book, Perrotta has plotted it well and has populated it with secondary characters that have stories and issues of their own. He even redeems cheaper prose with occasional gems, such as describing a Bikram yoga instructor as  "a beautiful Asian man with the body of a gymnast and the soul of a drill sergeant."

And yet, there are aspects of the book that unsettle me in ways other than its inherently creepy details. It began to stretch credulity that Eve could know so many people simultaneously making unwise decisions. Nearly every male character —Brendan; Eve's ineffectual ex-husband, Ted; cranks at the senior center; a bartender who hits on patrons; and skateboarding Julian, a self-described PTSD high school survivor—is a jerk, a loser, pathetic or all three. Not that the women in the book specialize in Socratic logic either. Eve dances on the razor's edge so often that we wonder why she hasn't sliced herself in two. Perrotta seems to be leading us to consider that damaged individuals must hit bottom before they reverse course. Does he do so, or is his "Lucky Day" section more tacked on than organic? What would Heraclitus say?

I remain conflicted. The good news is that the book moves crisply, so you won't invest much time in checking it out for yourself. If, however, after 75 pages or so you find Mrs. Fletcher too tawdry, give up. It won't get any nicer for quite some time.

Rob Weir   

Berkshire State is clearly modeled on UMass Amherst, especially its physical appearance, its campus activism, its ideological diversity, and its honors college. Other parts are stereotypes that died in the 1980s. In a recent ranking of top party schools, UMass ranked a mere 69th. Nor does anyone complain about the food—UMass cuisine ranks #1 in the nation!


Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas: July Album of the Month

Ports of Call
Culburnie 125D

In a world in which the adjective "professionalism" is often appropriated rather than demonstrated, music remains an expression in which one can literally hear the proof behind the label. Top-tier musicians possess an ineffable quality that, the moment you hear it, you know you have crossed from the border between good and great. I have made this claim before, but let me reiterate: there are few fiddlers on the planet whose tone, precision, skill, or excitement levels approach those of Alasdair Fraser. For the past fourteen years, his primary musical partner has been cellist Natalie Haas, whose own talents have risen to match those of her mentor. On Ports of Call, the duo's fifth release, Haas and Fraser are co-equals that stand head and shoulders above most of their peers.

The album is aptly named. Past Fraser/Haas collaborations have explored deeper dimensions of Scottish traditional music. It has taken them far, and this album pays homage to various places they have touched down. This includes an evolving exploration of their own compositional skills, and the myriad ways in which melodic categories overlap and collapse. Fraser is fond of saying that their music is "all about the dance," you would be hard pressed to say which Fraser and Haas imbue with more gravitas, a village dance tune or a formal court promenade. That's because many of their favorite composers blur the folk/classical line. Take the Hamish Henderson tune "Freedom Call All Ye." It was written as a protest piece, but it sets your toes tapping. Haas appends her own tune, "Peas in the F-hole," whose whimsical title does little to prepare you for its jaunty complexity. This combination is one of the few that is mostly Scottish in makeup and structure. From it they move to France for two scottisches and an andro. These three tunes chase each other, but with a solemnity that flirts with darkness, as Breton music often does. The same can be said of the "Silver and Stuff" set, a march, polska (3/4), and halling (6/8) that come from Norway.

Before Ports of Call finishes we also visit Spain (including Galcia), Quebec, California, Sweden, Finland, and the creative minds of Fraser and Haas. Galician tunes such as those in the "Muińeiras" set often employ hand drums, but Haas' cello provides the percussive bottom. If you like somber, check out the Galician hurdy gurdy tune in the "Foliada!" set, a xota, which is waltz-like, yet not a waltz. Listen to Haas' own "Megan and Jarrod's Waltz" and you'll hear what I mean.  The polska/waltz combo of Swedish tunes in "The Devil and the Gypsy" also tilt toward the austere end of the spectrum, but also highlight the age-old tussel between those of a puritanical bent who damn dance as the devil's music and the gypsy spirit that embraces its intrinsic joy. If you want a lighter touch, check out Fraser's "Keeping Up with Christine," written in honor of his high-energy sister, or Haas' "Waltzka For Su-A," an original and innovative mash of Scandinavian, Quebecois, and Celtic music in C-minor. A personal favorite is Fraser's "Hanneke's Bridal March," which is what more formal pieces should be: stately, but without starch.

Nothing on this album fits the diddly-diddly stereotypes often slapped onto the efforts of "Celtic" musicians. At a recent concert I overheard a woman remark that this was the best "classical" concert she had attended all year. I might dispute the label, but I know what she meant. Listen and you will too. That's what the true pros do—defy our expectations until we surrender to their charms.

Rob Weir