Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How Aboot a Ski Trip, Eh?

The Teen, The Bride, and I just returned from four days in Canada. You may have heard of Canada. It’s the big country to the north that plays hockey and stubbornly refuses to become a state. Before this trip, what my son knew about Canada came from my copy of Jon Stewart’s “America: The Book,” where a demure Samantha Bee periodically interjects in the discussion of our political life to ask “Would You Like the Hear How We Do It In Canada?” The Bride, who went to college at 14 and so never studied things like high school geography, knew Canada was not anywhere near Belgium. She also never took high school biology, but she has learned where babies come from, which is probably why we’re not having any.

This was my third trip to the frozen north. The first was almost twenty years ago for a medical meeting, which really involved no tourism. The second was supposed to be a week-long excursion with someone I was dating at the time, a girl who actually spoke Cajun French so we wouldn’t be totally lost in Montreal. She backed out at the last minute but I went anyway, and spent most of my time in Ontario mourning my romantic misfortune. However, on the train from Ottawa to Quebec I met a most charming and beautiful woman from Trois Pistoles by the delightfully melodic name of Natalie Chantal Lavoie, who spoke such wonderfully accented English that the fact that I could barely understand her seemed superfluous at the time (To be honest, it seems kind of superfluous even today. She’s number two on the “Where are you now?” list. And don’t pretend you don’t have a list, because everyone does.)

So essentially I still have the same understanding of Canada as most Americans, which is the following:


Canadians are more witty then we are but without the inherent bawdiness and occasional cross-dressing on the English. They listen to pop groups like “5 Neat Guys.” All televisions shows start with the traditional “Coo-roo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo! “Coo-roo-coo-coo-coo-coo-coo! (I watched SCTV.) They shoot rubber chickens at things for fun. People from Canmore are silly. (I watched the Royal Canadian Air Farce.)

Canadians are handy. They can wear overalls and flannel shirts without being thought of as lesbians. Even the men. ( I watched Red Green.)

Canadians speak English and French. This means they understand all the words to “Lady Marmalade.”


The Royal Canadian Air Force Snowbirds fly smaller planes than the Blue Angles, but more of them. That’s very cool.

The dollar coin is called a looney, which is funny.

Gordon Lightfoot is from Canada. Bob Dylan is from near Canada. Both sing as if suffering from severe intestinal distress. Coincidence? I think not.

Canadians can probably look over Sarah Palin’s house all the way to Russia.


Draft dodgers used to go to Canada. I can’t judge if that choice was right or wrong. But when you match up swamps, bullets, and the Viet Cong against bacon, beer, and Tim Horton’s donuts, it’s pretty clear why some folks jumped the border. (Speaking of which, wouldn’t the perfect Canadian food be a Tim Horton donut with apple filling and bacon sprinkles? I’m just sayin’.)

Canadians are multicultural, highly taxed, have cheap drugs, and unfailingly polite. They have universal health care that is either a glorious ideal of care and compassion or a satanic assault on our individual freedoms, depending on whether I’m watching MSNBC or Fox News.

The Queen is still officially in charge of Canada, and if she really wanted to she could just dissolve their whole government lock, s tock, and barrel and replace it with the an amalgamation of the Hudson’s Bay Company and some disgruntled pilgrims, installing a scandalous relative who needs to be out of the UK as Governor-General.


One of the most interesting things about Canada…or at least about Whistler, British Columbia, the small resort town north of Vancouver that was our final destination…is that a lot of Canadians aren’t. The place was rife with young workers from New Zealand, Australia, England, and South Africa, with a fair number of Japanese and Chinese thrown into the mix. In talking to them, I got the impression that it was considered routine for them to spend a good part of their twenties living abroad, working small service jobs to make ends meet while seeing the world and having one heck of a good time. This seemed almost anathema to the American experience, where we tend to get plugged into career tracts just after college and a semester abroad is considered enough international exposure for any one person. It reinforced to me why Americans are often seem small-minded and xenophobic, because we voluntarily and willfully restrict our exposure to the rest of the world. And while plenty of Americans travel abroad, travel itself teaches very little. Life is the real professor.

For my souvenir, The Bride purchased a pair of red and white boxer shorts emblazoned with the Maple Leaf of State. I presume this is so one day when I am in the nursing home, the aide can prepare to change me and suddenly exclaim, “OH CANADA!” (Which has got to be the oldest line in the Great Joke Book of the North.)

I have decided that I want to live in a town called Squamish. It’s about 40 km from Vancouver and another hour down the road from Whistler. It’s a beautiful area, with mountains on one side and oceans nearby. The indigenous people of the region have a strong heritage, and from what I understand Squamish is particularly popular in summer with rock climbers. (This sounds like job security for an emergency physician.) Squamish has those things you really need: A Wal-Mart, a London Drug, a Canadian Tire, and a Tim Horton’s Donut Shop. But I think I’m most intrigued by trying to figure out if, after the Great Migration, I would be known as a Squamite. Or Squatter. Or Squamanian. Or Squamapolitan. I could have fun for the rest of my days with this problem alone.

I was a little hesitant about taking The Teen skiing. This trip was something I had always wanted to do as the ultimate family outing, but still I knew that at age 13, I would be trying to cultivate enthusiasm against the potent opposition of the Sullen Years. He ended up having a really good time but, true to expectations, immediately after telling me that a run was “AWESOME!” he returned to form when I asked him if now he liked skiing. “It’s okay, I guess,” he replied, catching himself before enthusiasm got in the way of his image.

He did really well for his first time out. His skiing ability is best thought of as a controlled standing fall, with the skis in a snowplow vee all the way down. Turning, when it happens, is a slow and deliberate process, so speed control on the steeper slopes can be something of a problem. But point him the right way on most of the easier green slopes and he takes off like a small helmeted rocket.

The weekend was chock-full of those proud father moments that you can’t describe in words, though every father knows what I mean…when he went down the first beginner slope all by himself, when he told me he was skiing on ahead because he didn’t need me alongside to back him up. But there was a big ol’ honker of a father terror moment as well.

We had hit a steep patch on a slope that was difficult for Brendan, and he fell in a ball of powder and ice. Fortunately, he had already perfected the “crucifixion” fall, which is where you lay on the snow with your legs together, throw your arms out to the sides, and yell loud enough to remind everyone how you’ve been forsaken.

To get him back up, he needed to take off his skis; and as I was ten yards ahead of him I needed to take mine off as well to get up the slope and help him back to his feet. He stood up, and I held him steady by the boots as I lay on the snow and told him to meet me at the bottom of the hill, about 100 yards down in plain sight. This plan would have worked out fine, except that it took me a while to get my own skis back on. When I did, I looked to the bottom of the Hill and he was GONE.

Dread took hold of my heart. I was pretty sure nothing major had happened…he’s a pretty loud kid when he needs to be, and if he had gone off the trail I was certain I would have heard something. So while I had some trepidation in my heart, I was doing okay until the two guys from the ski patrol came whizzing by.

Now I’m officially terrified. My kid has gone off a cliff or broken something that is best left intact. There’s no doubt in my mind that something awful has happened. So I finally get my skis back on and get down the hill as fast as I can. I still don’t see him. Panic rises. I speed up and he’s still not there. I kept going, now in my old creaky guy version of a racing crouch to go even faster. But as my knees screamed at me to stop, I started to notice that even though the slope was getting steeper, he wasn’t down there in the snow. For that matter, neither was the ski patrol anywhere to be found. The only thing I could hear was the wind as I sailed down the hill, and not the shrill cries of a child in pain. So I started to relax, and as I took a deep breath and sighed I saw in the distance a small figure in a gray plaid jacket and red ski boots, snowplowing his way gamely down the hill, cautious but confident, eminently on his own. Another proud father moment revealed.

Next year we work on turns.

Because The Teen is…w ell, a teen…bodily noises and products are never far from his mind. So when we went into the local rock and gem shop to hunt down a souvenir, he was naturally delighted to discover that one could purchase a coprolite. (For those who lead normal lives, a coprolite is fossilized dung.)

Some time later, we’re in a hotel restroom. He’s taking an awfully long time. I try to take it in stride. After all, he is an adolescent boy. Is he on a journey of self-discovery, looking at his body and marveling at the changes that occur as he goes from boy to man?

A few more minutes pass by, and I’m just a bit concerned. So I ask through the door, “Hey, what’s going on in there?’’’

He answers. “I’m making the coprolite of the future.”

(This line of conversation was followed the next day while having dinner in Seattle at a Chinese place that overlooks a row of houseboats. We were talking about what it would like to be to live on a houseboat, and especially what we would do with our dogs. Do you have to walk them all the time, or do they just kind of learn to put “parts” out over the edge as needed? The Teen had the ready answer. “Just send them to the poop deck.”)

Overall, we had a great time. The Teen learned to ski, The Bride got to jump off things (it’s called “Zip-Lining”), and I felt like a genuine Head of Household befitting my tax status. And as we came back to the US on the Amtrak Cascades (business class is brilliant fun) one memory that will stay with me is the stark contrast between the old but well-maintained Central Station in Vancouver and the decrepit King Street Station in Seattle. You could actually start to see the difference in route. Just like in America, Canada has older infrastructure. And the United States certainly has no monopoly on rusty trackside containers parked outside of warehouses or fenced-off vacant lots. But somehow things just seemed more orderly, more organized, the mess somehow arranged with care. And when we got off at the station, to go from four days of people going out of their way to be nice to having to persuade the baggage handlers to actually give you your bags that you can see on the cart before slamming the steel door on your hand, and being harassed in broken English (broken American?) by taxi drivers from nations you’re pretty sure would be perfectly happy to eliminate you and your co-religionists from the earth, it was even more clear what Canada got right.

I’m sure that there are a host of sociologists who can wax eloquently about the sociocultural factors that have made Canada different than the US. Whatever it is, it seems to this admittedly superficial observer that while America may still offer more economic opportunity than anywhere in the world, Canada excels at the business of life. Which is why, at some point in the future, I might really need to ask if BC will have me. I think I’d make an excellent Squamite.

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