Tag Archives: United States

O, Say! Can You See Canada?

two flagsTo celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, my parents, my husband and I and my brother Peter, traveled to London, U.K. for a couple of weeks of sightseeing and theater. We stayed at a rented flat in Kensington so that we could save money eating in … which is how we came to be standing in the checkout line at the local grocery store when my mother enthusiastically informed the cashier, “We’re American and Canadian! Guess who’s American and who’s Canadian!” The girl peered at my husband and me; we were cringing with embarrassment. “They’re Canadian,” the cashier said flatly. “And you . . . you’re definitely American!”

I’m not sure exactly when I began to morph into a Canadian – not that the transformation is in any way complete. I still retain rock solid faith in my own moral rectitude — a quintessentially American trait –and when 911 happened, I plastered American flags on anything that didn’t move and burst into noisy tears whenever the word, “Firefighter” was uttered.

I came to Canada forty years ago as a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Center for Medieval Studies. Like most Americans, my understanding of the great hulking land mass to the north of the 49th parallel was derived largely from Dudley Do Right cartoons. Indeed, my ignorance so appalled a Canadian friend of mine that he presented me with a reading list: Canadian Culture 101.  Several tortured novels and a passing acquaintance with the Group of Seven later, I remained unprepared for the through-the-looking-glass experience that Canada proved to be – things appeared to be more or less the same as in the States; they were, in fact, very different. Canada was far safer; people were more civil, if less exuberant; but, most of all, there was just a whole lot less drama.

Case in point: national holidays.

National holidays in Canada are, to paraphrase Ricky from The Trailer Park Boys, “a time to get drunk and stoned with your friends and family.” And that’s what Canadians do when holiday time rolls around; we get drunk and stoned with our friends and family:

  • We do not celebrate making it through our first winter by grossly overeating way too close to Christmas, then camping out outside Walmart so that we can trample our fellow citizens in the battle for bargains when the doors open at dawn on Black Friday.  Canadian Thanksgiving takes place in early October and is a decorous little celebration of the harvest, spiked with just the slightest soupçon of family-engendered angst.
  • As for our national birthday, Canada was not born in conflict, but in compromise and due process; hence Canada Day is largely about mass quantities of beer quaffed near largish bodies of water, as opposed to the sabre rattling, flag flogging and pant hooting with which the Fourth of July is commemorated south of the border.
  • Instead of Presidents’ Day, we have Family Day. (That kind of says it all.)

Most of my fellow graduate students at the Center for Medieval Studies were American. They got together on Sunday mornings to mainline coffee, read the New York Times and complain about how boring Canada was. Not me. I hung out in my basement room in the Annex with a blue parakeet named after the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate and listened to bleak radio dramas on the CBC about life on the Prairies. I married a Canadian. Then another one. I didn’t leave.  I became a Canadian citizen and, as time wore on, I grew less and less enamored of my native land and more at home in my adopted one.

Who needs fireworks?  Just threaten to take away Americans' guns and watch their heads explode.

Who needs fireworks? Just threaten to take away Americans’ guns and watch their heads explode.

The United States has been a force for some good in the world, but recently it has come down with a real bad case of stupid.  A couple of years ago, I was walking my dog at dawn on a North Carolina beach when I met a local man doing likewise. Twenty children had just been gunned down by a madman in in Newtown, a town I had once visited and found charming, and  the U.S.’s credit rating had just been degraded because of Republican shenanigans. We lamented these debacles and then he asked,“What do Canadians think of Americans?”

“We think you’re crazy,” I replied.

And we do.

So, to both my countries on your Special Day, have a good one! I pray to the Universe that not too many drunk or stoned Canadians celebrate Canada Day by falling off the dock and drowning. I also pray that not too many of my fellow Americans decide to mark the joyous occasion of the Fourth of July by mowing down more of their compatriots  in yet another senseless mass shooting.

Because minimizing the slaughter would be awfully nice and what is more Canadian than nice?


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My grandfather and Darwin

My maternal grandfather, James Howard Zant, was born on a evolutionranch near Aspermont, the seat of Stonewall County, Texas, northwest of Dallas.  The town was founded in 1889; Granddaddy arrived on the scene in 1897.  His father, John Solomon Zant, was born in 1860 in Murray County, Georgia and migrated to Texas after the Civil War; he remembered driving a herd of cattle along the Shawnee Trail, which ran right through the centre of Dallas, to get it to North-bound railheads.   He married Mary Elizabeth Loving in 1889.   My relatives have sought in vain a for some kind of connection with Oliver Loving of Lonesome Dove fame; I remain hopeful.  Oliver Loving. Wouldn’t that be cool?

Granddaddy was one of twelve children.  They all went to University; even the girls — remarkable for the time and the fact that we’re not talking South Fork here. Granddaddy’s family all called him Bob, despite his being named Jim.  When Mom asked her grandmother why they did this, she replied that, after the last child – Royce Darwell Zant – was born, they realized that they had forgotten to name somebody Robert.  They made up for this apparently grievous failure by calling Granddaddy Bob.   I don’t know if they called somebody else Jim to deal with the problem created by their solution to the previous problem.

I know only one story about my Grandfather’s family.  His father, feeling that his mother was due some respite after twelve children, built her a playhouse where she could retire and, presumably, scream.  One day a tornado picked the playhouse up and deposited it, intact, as far away from the main house as you could get and still be on the ranch.  Apparently the forces of Nature felt that Mary Elizabeth needed even more distance from her brood and conspired to make it so.   In their West Texas community this ranked somewhere between a miracle and a phenomenon.  For a while people came from miles around to see the relocated structure and hear the story.  Then they stopped.

My Grandfather’s first teaching job was in the high school in Durant, Oklahoma.  He taught mathematics and saved up money for graduate school by coaching the school’s basketball team.  If you lived in a small town and taught high school in those days, it was expected that you go to church, so every Sunday, my grandmother and he would put on their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes and head on down to the Methodist Church.  The year was 1925 and the Scopes Trial and evolution were being hotly debated nationwide.  In due course the minister, evidently not a big fan of Darwin, thundered, “If anyone in this congregation believes that man descended from apes, let him stand and be recognized!”

So my grandfather stood.  Despite my grandmother’s frantic attempts to get him to for-god’s-sake-sit-down-this-is-SO-embarrassing, he stood.

No one else did.


My grandfather looked around, then, realizing that the cat was well and truly out of the bag,   he picked up his hat, exited the pew and headed down the aisle towards the church door, my utterly mortified grandmother scuttling behind him, red faced and furious.  Granddaddy wasn’t the sort to pick a fight; he was no ideologue.  And his background wasn’t that much different from all the other people in that church.  It was just that, yes, he’d been to college and, true, he was a mathematician and, therefore, a kind of scientist, and, don’t you know, he’d had him a look at monkeys and they sure looked a lot like some people he knew, so . . . . yes. Yes, he thought mankind probably did descend from apes.  It just made sense.

Except for weddings and funerals, Granddaddy never set foot in a church again.  Instead he went on to earn a PhD in Mathematics from Columbia University and become one of the pioneers of New Math and the author of a number of influential text books.  Truth be told, he had a pretty illustrious career. There were a whole lot of reasons to be proud of my grandfather, but what he did in that church that day …  I think that’s what makes me proudest.

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