Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Oh. Canada.

Recently one of the cover lines on a recent issue of MacLean's caught my eye: "National Symbol Smackdown." The related article was about the campaign by Canadian MP Nicole Eaton to make the polar bear Canada's national symbol, displacing the beaver, which has formally enjoyed the honor since 1975 (but for much longer informally). The Honourable Ms. Eaton has some rather harsh things to say about castor canadiensis, calling it a "dentally defective rat." She prefers the polar bear, which she calls, "A mighty mammal...that dominates our northern landscape of cold and ice."

Her proposal has provoked widespread outrage. She's received quite a lot of hate mail. To be sure, the beaver is very much a part of Canada's national brand. To many, beavers are a perfect symbol for Canada: they're hard working, community oriented, don't harm others.* There are also sound historical reasons for associating beavers with Canada. For centuries, beaver pelts were highly prized by European hat makers. Beaver pelts were the primary reason European traders went to Canada. One could make the argument, no beavers, no Hudson's Bay Company—and thus no British presence in what is now Canada. No beavers, no French trading posts. No beavers, no smackdown on the Plains of Abraham.

Polar bears, on the other hand, played no role in Canada's economic development. Hell, you see a polar bear, you run away if you've got half a brain. Polar bears are the apex predator in their environment. They kick ass whenever they can. They see something they want, they take it. That's so not the Canadian self-image. It sounds more like...take a guess

However, I was naively surprised to read about the outraged provoked by Eaton's seemingly harmless proposal (in part because I think polar bears are fucking awesome), until I thought about how crazy Americans get about their symbols. I was a teenager in Mississippi when it was first proposed that the stars and bars be removed from the upper right hand corner of the state flag. From the outrage you would have thought every white person within the state's borders had been asked to kill their grandparents (or dance on their graves if they were no longer around). I also remember the fury provoked during my college years by what seemed to me a constitutionally protected exercise of free expression.

I was also bemused that a huge controversy could be happening in a neighboring country and Americans would know next to nothing about it. Sure, it's not an issue of substance (at least not to me) but reporting it would have been an opportunity to teach Americans a little history. But I guess it's more important that we all know about Ashton Kutcher's failed marriage.

A day or two later a new MacLean's arrived at work. This one had a picture of a gray-haired man with a cover line to the effect that Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney has been tapped to fix the global economy (specifically, he's been appointed to head the Financial Stability Board). In a masterpiece of anti-climax, the cover line concluded, "If he succeeds, he'll be our most prominent player on the world stage since Lester B. Pearson."

I imagine you have no idea who Lester B. Pearson is. I certainly didn't. The name Lester B. Pearson sounds like it should belong to the head of the Chamber of Commerce of Columbus, Georgia, or a 1950s author of self-help books. It turns out he was Canada's fourteenth prime minister, and a hell of a good one. His government introduced universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, and student loans. He was also a diplomat's diplomat. He played important roles in the founding of both the UN and NATO. He also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his part in keeping the Suez Crisis from exploding into a full-blown war that could have pulled in the US and the Soviet Union.

I know it's a cliché to lament that Americans know so little about other countries, but Jesus, a guy from next door stopped World War III and we have no idea who he is?

*Strangely, in all the discussions I've read about beavers, no one has raised the question of whether or not male beavers bite off their own testicles.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Week in Food

According to US law, pizza is a vegetable—because it's covered in tomato paste.

With a name like Smucker's, it has to be...recalled.

Take away the butter, and give me the cheese.

Gummi Bears, battery acid, what's the difference? Not as much as you would like....

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Heard on NPR

In the ATC report, "Struggles in Washington Frustrate Job Seekers," Melissa Block reported that public approval of Congress is at 9%.


Repo Men? Mental patients? White supremacists who want civilization to collapse? The manufacturers of the orange dye that gets injected into John Boehner's face?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Week in Food

Only 2% of US imports are inspected. This is a problem.

Everybody relax: that's not koala meat.

Costco's now paying people to mold ground pork into the shape of a pig. Don't ask me why.

Does the commodities market hold the answer to the disappearance and reappearance of the McRib?

Just because it's organic, doesn't mean it's safe.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Watching Cartoons as an Over-Educated Adult

On some Saturdays at the library we have an afternoon movie for the public. Normally one of my co-workers sets up the DVD projector and starts the film, but she had the flu last weekend. So that task fell to me. The movie is preceded by a cartoon, so I sat with the audience while the cartoon was showing. Once it was done I switched DVDs, started the movie, and went back to the reference desk.

The cartoon in question was MGM's "Northwest Hounded Police" (1946). It's one of the many cartoons featuring Droopy, an anthropomorphized dog who looks and sounds like he's heavily sedated.

In "NHP," Droopy plays Sgt. McPoodle, a Canadian Mountie assigned to bring in a wolf who's escaped from a penitentiary. True to the Mountie spirit, McPoodle pursues the wolf relentlessly. True to the cartoon spirit, that relentless quickly becomes unreal. It reminded me of the very thin line that separates the humorous from the horrifying (an undergrad professor of mine once said you could easily re-write Oedipus Rex as a comedy called The Born Loser). Seriously I began to feel for this wolf. He's running with McPoodle behind him, finds a cabin, locks five doors behind him, and McPoodle is waiting for him in the innermost room. He runs back out through those five doors and McPoodle's waiting for him. He gets into a plane, flies away and McPoodle's in the plane. This is bordering on the stuff of existential nightmares. Typically an existential hero doesn't know why horrible, frightening things are happening to him. The wolf doesn't know how McPoodle is able to turn up everywhere. It's the stuff of Kafka and Camus.

Come too think of it, there's something "Myth of Sisyphus" about Wile E. Coyote's pursuit of the Road Runner, except Wile E. Coyote never reaches the existentialist hero's moment of revolt.

Anyway, at the end of the cartoon you get an answer of sorts to the question of McPoodle's ubiquity, but it's weirdly sci-fi. And the moment where the wolf escapes into a movie theater and starts watching an MGM cartoon is unsettlingly meta for 1946.

I showed "Northwest Hounded Police" to a friend of mine who's a professor of religion and philosophy. His reaction: "The guy who wrote this was definitely having a crisis."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Top Ten Things I Learned...

...by reading Joe McGinniss' The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin:

1. She was elected mayor of Wasilla in a low-turnout election by a bizarre alliance of fundamentalist Christians and bar owners. The Christians were told by their pastors she was God's choice for mayor. The bar owners were behind her because she was against the campaign to require Wasilla bars to close at 2 a.m. instead of 5. Palin said that telling bar owners when to close was government interference with free enterprise.

2. When she was first elected mayor, a supporter and friend was worried about Palin's ignorance of certain subjects. She tried to give a Palin a book on economics. Palin refused to accept it. The friend urged her to. Palin again refused, saying, "I never read anything that might conflict with my beliefs."

3. Shortly after her election she appropriated over $50,000 that had been budgeted for road repair and improvement to redecorate her office.

4. During her second term as mayor, she had a multimillion-dollar sports complex built. It cost $15 million. The entire Wasilla city budget at the time was $20 million.

5. She had the complex built on land the city did not have clear title to. Land that could have been purchased for $125,000 cost the city $1.5 million in legal fees.

6. Gary Wheeler, the head of the Governor of Alaska's security detail, said that Palin dispensed with the normal practice of state troopers serving as the governor's drivers. She drove herself. He said, "...she didn't want us around. She didn't want anybody to follow her to Nordstrom's when she went shopping every day....Overall, she didn't want anybody to know that she wasn't coming in until ten AM and then leaving by three to go home."

7. She once kicked out two house guests (a married couple) because she suspected them of having sex in her...house.

8. When Palin's sister Molly filed for divorce, Sarah filed a complaint against her brother-in-law (a state trooper) for professional misconduct, specifically domestic violence. When state police sergeant Ron Wall questioned her on the matter he found her account so unbelievable that he said to Palin at one point, "We don't mean to frustrate you with facts, but our life is fact-driven, okay?"

9. When making appointments to state positions, Palin appointed high-school friends with no qualifications that matched the job descriptions.

10. Many pictures have been taken of Sarah Palin when she was with child. And she looks pregnant in all of them—except for pictures taken during the eight months before Trig's birth.

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