Put Your Faith in the Royal Canadian Mounties!
At last, the Annual Meeting was drawing to a close. Meeting services was already in the full stages of planning the next one before that even happens. An amazing feat for a department of three people, plus a handful of support staff in other departments to organize a meeting that lasts a few days and draws five or six thousand people. On the last day, everyone is busy closing up shop. The book exhibitors who don’t want to pay money to ship back their expendable leftovers that didn’t sell during the meeting, many of them sociology textbooks, dump them into boxes, which get loaded on pallets, and moved to a room where we spend an hour spreading them out on tables and then invite hoards of lowly graduates to pour through them and grab what they can, a perk of student membership. Surprisingly, there are sometimes even leftovers after this, and I wonder where they will eventually wind up. When it comes to sociology texts, there seems to be this infinite glut of books focusing on race and ethnicity, or sexuality and gender. But, the social sciences are pretty broad, so it’s not hard to find a lot of other topics in smaller quantities and I’ve managed to pick up some interesting ones at fire sales and giveaways at the meeting in the last couple of years. Guess that makes this the perfect opportunity to once again plug Neal Pollack’s Gen-X memoir of fatherhood, Alternadad, and Steve Bogira’s engaging exposure of Chicago’s inefficient criminal court system, Courtroom 302.
The student book giveaway pretty much marks the close of the meeting for most of us. A few will have to stick around another day for the infinitely boring (I’m guessing) council meetings. Meanwhile, I was getting ready for an 11-hour commute to Canada and with it, the bug that had been floating around in full effect. All around the airport, I spotted people from the meeting who were still brimming with enthusiastic conversation about things like teaching strategies and topics in the discipline. Enthusiasm and conversation that would both probably fizzle when the meeting once and for all was complete for them. Even at the Air Canada gate, I sat next to a jolly, pig-faced woman who spoke to another more quiet woman that attended a neighboring university in Toronto about a presentation that she gave at the meeting, as they seemed to have colleagues in common.
Wayne Gretzky: Hockey’s most badass centerfold.
I was bound for Toronto, and then to Edmonton. The first plane was so small that the stewardess had to count the number of people in both aisles to make sure our weight was evenly divided. A small group of what may have been business travelers were comfortable with the informal setting, laughing with each other like they were hanging out in a conference room. Two of the guys sat together and found a movie on the seat-embedded monitor to watch together, but kept getting frustrated when the pilot and the crew kept breaking in for flight info and safety instructions at first, which kept resetting the movie. I couldn’t figure out what they had eventually become so engrossed in, other than that it was a comedy, since they laughed loudly and often up until it was over. I found a selection of Canadian movies and put on a movie about a high school teen who modeled himself on Leo Trostky, although I didn’t bother putting on my headphones to actually listen to it, still being stuffed up and exhausted and dying for a nap.
Toronto at night.
Toronto looked gorgeous from the sky, all lit up as we circled around it, preparing to land. We passed over silhouettes of buildings bathed in evening light, and I sat by myself wishing that the layover was long enough to explore some of this city at ground level. The romanticizing was abruptly halted, however, by a sudden, nagging thought: my ears are really hurting!
As the plane was coming in for its landing, my ear drums felt like they were going to explode. And they didn’t un-pop when we got off the plane. It could only mean one thing: I had an ear infection!
What the?!! I can’t get an ear infection now! I’m about to share a house for a week with a six month old! I needed to do something. So, as soon as we landed, I rushed off in search of some over-priced decongestants and soda to wash it down with, hoping that by the time I got off of the larger, over-booked, and slightly delayed flight to Edmonton an hour after midnight, I’d be well-rested and somehow, with my immune system magically closer to a full recovery. Instead, I was sitting in the backseat of Phil’s parent’s Buick, circling the neighborhood near his brother’s house as we looked for the walk-in clinic where I’d spend three hours of my first day in town.
“Dear visitor: Welcome to Canada. And while you’re here, please sample what our health care system has to offer!”
I hate going to doctors. Aside from the expense of getting sick, the waiting room feels like a zoo of miserable people, coughing their contagions into the air. And it’s just hanging there all around us like when Mike TeeVee was transformed into transportable matter, floating above the heads of the remaining guests at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. But, it was unavoidable. I’d had an ear infection once before when I was home for Christmas a few years back and only gave in to see a doctor when the pain got to be unbearable. That time, the doctor barely had to put the scope in my ear to know I had a big ol’ messy infection. He might as well have added “no duh!” to the diagnosis.
Aside from this sudden condition where my ears have some weird inability to handle air pressure (there goes my dreams of being a deep sea diver!), I can at least count myself lucky enough to have inherited fairly good health, allowing me to steer clear of doctors for my life, not counting immunizations, one bizarre allergic reaction, and a few rides on the Pain Train that needlessly resulted from incessant need to show off.
But there I was, about to seek out healthcare in a foreign land. For some reason, when I was sitting on the plane wondering if this was all going to mean I had to go to the doctor , I couldn’t help but imagine the hospital from American Werewolf in London because, you know, I can’t seem to function without relating everything to pop culture nonsense. But this was 21st century Edmonton. Modern. Suburban. The walk-in clinic was in a strip mall and the medical records were filed on electric, convertible shelves. A far cry from nurse’s hats and avocado color schemes. In fact, the whole thing looked a lot like the walk-in clinics in the States, except that they couldn’t accept my insurance and they used the metric system.
So we paid for the visit in advance with a credit card (God bless plastic) and sat in the small waiting room for quite a while. First, to have my number called to fill out paperwork, and then to have my name called to see the doctor. It was remarkably quiet in the lobby with the exception of the chubby girl who was carried in by her exasperated-looking father, followed by the rest of the family. The little girl balled and grabbed her arm like she might’ve broken it, but even she soon ceased crying when it looked like she might be able to coax a bigger-than-usual toy from her sympathetic parents who took her to the connecting pharmacy to pick something out. Laughter may be the best medicine for some. But it seems that toys are for others.
Over the next few days, I stuck to a regimen of antibiotics and annoying decongestants (I tried nose sprays for the first and probably last time) and kept my distance from the baby who was herself miserable enough with teething and a pesky rash. It was already going to take a while for her to get used to my being around. She’d be sitting there, sizing me up and staring me down the way babies do when they’re trying to figure out who this stranger new stranger is. Needless to say, I don’t spend much time around babies. In fact, Baby M was the first I’d be spending a whole week with. And also the first baby I would actually hold. Clearly it was the worst timing for a cold.
This was not my first time to Edmonton. Phil and I had been there about two years ago when his brother got married. The newlyweds had just bought their first home in a neighborhood near the Griesbach Barracks. (Nearby was recently the site of an investigation after a crazy guy blew up a house with him and his girlfriend in it and condemning about 40 others near it earlier this summer). Phil got to see it before I did, having flown in a few days earlier. When I showed up, he gave me a tour of the house, and insisted that I close my eyes before revealing the best part: The Man Cave. Actually, it was more like the vestiges of carefree Bachelorhood that had been relegated to a single floor of the house that was sort of hidden from view because it was in the basement. A finished basement, actually. The kind I wished that I’d been lucky enough to find when I was in search of basement apartments during my own Bachelor(ette)hood. It has a living room, spare bedroom, laundry room, bathroom, and even a bar. There were gaming consoles set up and two cabinets of games, and a massive DVD collection by someone who actually had good taste in movies. An angelic choir might as well have sung in praise, and we were in absolute awe, which only goes to show you our priorities at the time.
But, with the closing of Bachelordhood and the coming wave of Parenthood, the Man Cave lost ground as things were rearranged to make way for Baby. Boxes were piled into the basement; those typical reminders of who parents were before they were parents. Accessories of a lifestyle that would perhaps be permanently remained boxed away in garages and basements and storage lockers except for some nostalgic rediscovery many years later amidst some kind of major housekeeping effort when they’d be dusted off and delicately handled like the precious finds of an archeological dig. But until Little M grew into the need of her own regular-sized bedroom, enough of the Man Cave thankfully remained to keep me entertained for the duration of my quarantine. And Phil dutifully joined me as we (rather appropriately) spent that time playing Left 4 Dead 2, the strategy game in which you play survivors of a zombie epidemic. Because what else interests young people these days than fantasy scenarios about the end of the world?
A day or two later we emerged into the light of day to sample the cultural offerings of Edmonton. Our first stop: the West Edmonton Mall. Or, the Mall of America of the North! Which is actually quite rude because that’s like saying the Canadians can’t have their own thing or be as crassly capitalistic as we can.
And it’s rather uncharacteristic of Edmonton, a remarkably subtle place compared to America’s shove-it-down-your-throat approaching to marketing. One thing that stood out during our first visit were the black signs with changeable fluorescent letters that all of the stores used to advertise as though it were a standard of to which they were legally obliged (and they may well have been). So it’s weird to think of there being this gigantic mall-and-amusement Mecca in Edmonton. Aside from the usual things you find in malls – overpriced stores, greasy food courts, arrogant teenage fashion victims, and oblivious overweight shoppers, they have quite the smorgasbord of family entertainment to make any kid’s jaw drop, including a full waterpark, miniature golf course, cineplex, ice rink, some kind of trampoline contraption, arcade, indoor rollercoasters, kiddie playground, and an underwhelming segway track. I wanted to go to there! That they have a floor map designed like something you’d pick up at a theme park isn’t surprising. They also have an Asian Supermarket which even it’s own Happiness Gate to mark the entrance.
I’m not much of a mall person, though that’s not to say it wasn’t a pleasant afternoon wandering around with Phil’s family. It’s just that there’s something unsettling about the age-old universal understanding that a shopping center can be a desirable place of leisure. That was, after all, the original intention in the design of shopping malls. To be centers of activity where people were encouraged not to stand around and socialize so much as Shop! Eat! and Spend! An encouragement of mindless consumption that George Romero once terrifically and succinctly satirized in Dawn of the Dead.
But, malls were intended to represent something else, too. Progress. At least in the last decade, it seems like they’ve become just another depressing indicator of economic despair, much like formerly great downtowns of major cities. That this was once a sign of the way things were. Something once representative of a thriving middle class that can never be restored to former glory. At least that’s the way it seems around here. Maryland has one two-story mall without about 5 stores still in operation. And the mall in Springfield, Virginia recently made headlines as another in risk of ultimate collapse. All of this can’t be blamed on just buyers shifting to online shopping, can it?
Super Happy Fun Time at the Edmonton Mall.
One of a few indoor rollercoasters at West Edmonton Mall.
Doubloons not accepted at this machine.
The last laugh of stencil graffiti artist Shepard Fairy on display in a trending clothing store.
Harry D. Stanton… the Jerry Lewis of the Northwest.
Phil, having a go at antique bowling.
A rather strange place to put a historic memorial to the (coal? oil? steel?) industry.
Another day we visited the Muttart Conservatory (a botanical garden) on the other side of Downtown. Indoor gardens are always welcome in chilly weather, since the rooms containing the tropical plants are typically heated. The Arboretum in Edmonton is a small, but interesting looking one, housed in greenhouses shaped like pyramids. In the center atrium, a group of giddy school kids sat around watching a demonstration as part of some Junior Scientist or Nature Ranger program.
At last, I’ve seen the pyramids!
It wasn’t too busy that afternoon, and I think we went during the middle of the week. Though we had occasionally changed our routes along the narrow, winding sidewalks to make way for other parents who also brought small children. I wonder what they make of the Arboretum. Is it just a giant place with plants? Like being in a backyard, but one where you’re not allowed to really touch anything or go wild running around? The exotic landscapes are the ones that you don’t often get to see, albeit you’re exposed to them in a limited, intentional display whereas normally you wouldn’t see all this cacti in one single spot together. It’s all very picturesque and tasteful, except for this corny Treasure Island kind of theme they had set up for kids in the last room we passed through. But I wonder who takes an interest on a deeper level. To become so much of a horticulture enthusiast that the scientific names might even mean something to them. At least one lady walked around with a small notepad writing down some of those names, and I wondered, since most of those seemed amenable to Canadian climates, whether she had intended to find some of her own to grow.
The most interesting (and unique) stop on our unofficial cultural tour was Fort Edmonton. What began as a shipping point in the fur trade eventually became Edmonton as we know it now, and they smartly set it up to show how things progressed over the course of about 120 years. Built in a circular path, there are five different sections representing a certain time period, each preserved to give you an idea to what life might have been like during that period. The steam train replica carries people from the entrance to the Fort and then you walk the rest of the way, passing through towns simply named for the first year that they represent.
All aboard the Name Train!
“Here were are now… back in good old 1885.”
You could walk all around the Fort, which by itself, takes about an hour, and there’s seriously so much to see, it’s about a full day’s visit to take it all in. A couple of guys who look like history professors moonlighting for summer work do demonstrations of wood carving and fur bailing. Everything looked like the naturally hard life that makes you appreciate all the fancy conveniences we have now. And people stayed in character, including the singing dandy who classically sassed me when I told him that the house was cool when he asked what I thought. They closed up some of the restaurants that day because someone was having a wedding. We had passed the bride, groom, and wedding party earlier as they walked near the farmhouse with the wedding photographer. I’m not sure what it is about muddy streets, the lingering smell of farm animals, and a couple of formally dressed folks that exactly screams “romantic.”
We broke for lunch at one point to try the trademark Canadian fast food, Poutine (pronounced Poo – Teen …yes, I know that looks funny when spelled phonetically), which is just french fries, gravy, and shredded cheese. A slightly more fattening item than American fast food fries, unless you’re talking about the loaded fries, which win by a coronary. Not that there’s anything gross about Poutine, if you like gravy and cheese. Which I do. And it doesn’t seem like it’d be difficult to incorporate this into America’s daily life. But they may have once said the same thing about soccer.
Well, I’m sold!
Just before leaving Edmonton, we passed by a small fairground with a functioning ferris wheel. It surprisingly generated a long line, though I guess for lack of other rides. If I remember correctly, the other options were to just buy tickets to play the games and take your chance at winning a prize. 1920’s styled prized I think. But the ferris wheel was a big draw, only they loaded one or two people into one of the cars, spun them half a revolution so they were at the top, and then loaded another group into the car now at the bottom. I’m not sure how many revolutions people actually got for their ticket, and I wondered if the ride operator ever actually kept count. A small guy in a page boy hat later came over with a megaphone to announce that, since it was 4:00 (nearing park closing time), they were going to have a freakshow for only the cost of a quarter! Which would have been great, because who doesn’t like gawking at hideous mutant freaks?!! Or just slightly strange oddities. But I’m pretty sure he was all talk. Still, I won’t count it against them. Fort Edmonton is definitely worth a go. They sure give you a glimpse of a huge chunk of history for the money.
Classically sassed by a singing dandy.
And that’s the story of our trip to Canada. As it turned out, I did get to spend some time with Baby M, who has since figured out that dastardly art of crawling (in our attempt to teach her, she hadn’t figured out what to do once she got in the ready-to-crawl position… moving her legs would come with some practice). And even with the teething and the pesky rash, she even smiled for the camera!
Next, the adventure continues with life in small town Montana. Stay tuned.