Sunday, September 28, 2014

September in Toronto.

This blog has been very silent this month, mainly because I've been sufficiently occupied as a deacon, student, and human being that I haven't had much time to devote to posting here. I imagine that some might have expected me to comment on the mid-September electoral switcheroo between Toronto's pugnacious chief magistrate, Mayor Rob Ford, and his brother and close political adviser Councillor Doug Ford. After weathering several political crises that individually could have ended a less-resilient politician's career - including admitted drug use and a stint in rehab - this month Rob Ford abruptly ended his bid for a second term as mayor after doctors discovered a malignant tumor in his abdomen. Doug Ford immediately jumped into the mayor's race, despite having earlier declined to run for reelection to his own council seat in order to manage his brother's campaign; meanwhile, Rob Ford is now seeking Doug's council seat - a seat he once held himself - and appears likely to triumph even though his ongoing health problems are expected to keep him from campaigning much between now and the election on October 27. As of now, it seems likely that Rob will be the only one of the two brothers to return to City Hall after the election: the latest poll shows mayoral frontrunner John Tory with a twenty-two-point lead over Doug Ford and the other major candidate, former MP Olivia Chow. Though I doubt that the dynamics of the race will change much over the next month, perhaps I will write more about it in the coming weeks.

There is much more to Toronto than rambunctious municipal politics, notably including a vibrant cultural life. Among the city's great culture treasures is the Art Gallery of Ontario, which I visit several times a year. The AGO is home to the world's largest collection of Canadian art, containing many of the best-known works of the iconic 'Group of Seven' landscape painters of the early twentieth century together with canvases by such idiosyncratic (and indelibly Canadian) artists as William Kurelek and Norval Morrisseau as well as works by scores of others. The AGO's building is also a work of art in itself, all the more so since a 2008 renovation led by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry, who sought both to harmonize older sections of the building designed by other architects and to give the AGO a distinctive new profile. Perhaps the most striking architectural element of the AGO is Gehry's Galleria Italia, a bright wood and glass gallery fronting on Dundas Street West that happens to be one of my favorite spaces in the city.

I last visited the AGO two Sundays ago, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, in the company of my good friend and housemate Matt Dunch. Matt suggested that our experience at the AGO was something that I should blog about, so here he is enjoying a cup of coffee in Frank Gehry's Galleria Italia.

Here I am in the Galleria Italia, espresso in hand.

This sculpture by Henry Moore reminded Matt and me of the sort of character one might encounter in a book by Edward Gorey.

The AGO is currently hosting a landmark exhibition devoted to the work of Alex Colville, a major Canadian painter who died last year at 92. Colville spent much of his life in small towns in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and devoted much of his art to exploring the rhythms of rural existence. Though he had deep roots in Atlantic Canada, in some sense Colville got his start as a war painter: serving in the Canadian Army in Europe during World War II, Colville developed his craft by producing canvases such as the one seen here, Infantry, near Nijmegen, Holland (1946).

Arguably more typical of Colville's mature style, Main Street (1979) is interesting to me for the way in which it weaves the memory of war into an evocation of everyday life in a small town. The scene in the foreground is probably familiar to anyone who has lived in the wintry parts of North America: bundled warmly to guard against the chill, a woman loads groceries into a car, the windows of which are either frosted on account of the cold or fogged up because the heat is on full-blast inside; seen from behind, the woman closest to the viewer may be a shopping companion of the one loading groceries in the car. In the midst of unexceptional surroundings, the soldier of the Great War looming in the background serves to remind us that the past is always present - a thought that may occur to the woman whose back is turned to us, as she seems to have paused in her walk across a slushy street to look up at the statue in the distance, and probably not for the first (or last) time.

Though Colville's paintings tend to focus upon seemingly unexceptional slices of life, many of them do so in ways that are rather unsettling; Stanley Kubrick picked up on this aspect of Colville's work when he chose to feature four of the artist's paintings in The Shining. To get a sense of how the ordinary and the ominous coexist in Colville's work, take a look at Family and Rainstorm (1955). The mother and children seen here are in no hurry to get into the car; they seem not to be panicked by the dark clouds and heavy rain seen in the distance, yet the threat remains palpable enough to compel a retreat.

Lest you think that all of Alex Colville's work deals with dark and weighty themes, here is one of his lighter and more whimsical painting, simply titled Child Skipping (1958). What strikes me most about this image is the pure sense of joy that it evokes: eternally caught in midair, the child skipping rope reminds us of those fleeting moments when life seems effortless and uncomplicated.

To complete this post, here is one more image of Frank Gehry's Galleria Italia - a reminder of a very pleasant afternoon spent in a beautiful space, in a city that I have come to love. AMDG.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Tim Hortons and the Canadian soul.

Today is a holiday in both Canada and the United States, so it seems an auspicious time to comment on the impending merger between Tim Hortons and Burger King, a deal that has some Canadians expressing concerns over potential changes to a chain that many have come to regard as an iconic national institution, while some Americans grouse that Miami-based Burger King is effectively moving offshore to avoid paying taxes in the United States. What interests me about all of this is the reflection that the merger/buyout has prompted regarding the place of Tim Hortons in many Canadians' collective self-understanding. The best thing I've read on point comes from Toronto Star writer Amy Dempsey, who begins her consideration of the particular place of Tim Hortons in the national psyche with a childhood memory:
My little brother stood in the middle of the kitchen swinging a giant box of Timbits by its flimsy cardboard handle.

Danny was 7, skinny and, to me, annoying. He would get away with things I couldn't, like messing around with a 40-pack of itty-bitty doughnuts while my mother did the dishes, my father put away leftovers and I did my homework at the kitchen table.

One minute my brother was swinging the box with a big smirk on his face. Then the handle ripped and the Timbits sailed high above his head and somersaulted across our Cape Breton kitchen, landing with a cannonball splash in the dishwater.

"Jesus!" my mother screamed. She was covered in Palmolive suds. There was a moment of silence, then we all laughed for a long time.

. . .

My family's flying doughnuts story may not be as wholesome as the ubiquitous great Canadian hockey road-trip tale, but the story itself, and the way it leaves me with a nostalgic lump in my throat and a hankering for a honey-glazed Timbit, is exactly what has made the company so successful. Tim Hortons has quietly inserted itself into our history. It has become a part of our daily-life stories, but more importantly our collective national story. It has succeeded in making Canadians believe that Tim Hortons is Who We Are, and that we are duty-bound to hold it dear.

"To say you don't like Tim Hortons is blasphemous," says Peter Hodgins, an assistant professor of Canadian studies at Carleton University.

No one wants to hear from the silent minority of citizens who believe Tim Hortons coffee tastes like boiled tap water strained through a handful of soil from a garden that has recently been sprayed by a skunk. Or from those who argue the brew requires heavy doses of sugar and cream to make it even remotely palatable, and then isn't it just a hot milkshake? Only a traitor would dare to suggest Tim Hortons is the Nickelback of Canadian coffee shops — popular with the masses, but ughhhhhh, really?
As Dempsey suggests, Tim Hortons has been so successful because the company has deftly branded itself as an important part of the Canada's social and cultural fabric, finding ways to link itself with enduring values and presenting a distinctively Canadian image at a time when globalization seems to augur an erosion of national identity:
The identity crisis Canadians have suffered since Confederation has helped Tim Hortons achieved its emblematic status. We are keen to latch on to anything that helps define us, particularly in a post-1980s globalized world in which our feelings of national culture have become entwined with our acts of consumption. Tim Hortons has seized on that, but not in an aggressive way. It has become a part of us without making demands.

. . .

"There are other companies that try to attach themselves to Canadian nationalism, but I've never seen a company do it as well," says Patricia Cormack, a professor of sociology at St. Francis Xavier University whose book, Desiring Canada, written with James Cosgrave, includes a chapter devoted to Tim Hortons.

"They're extremely careful about how to link the everyday with real deep emotional feelings that connect at some level with the nation, the idea of being a Canadian," she says. "It's not just throwing around a bunch of stupid signifiers like hockey sticks and beavers."

So while one company might slap a puck on a T-shirt, Tim Hortons has aligned itself not only with the game of hockey but with bigger ideas attached to it — community, sacrifice, childhood. The "True Stories" commercials were full of pathos and ambiguity. Remember the one where the immigrant family is welcomed to Canada by the dad at the airport? Remember the one about the golden retriever, Sammi, who went to Tim Hortons for her owner and carried the bag back in her mouth?

The same emotional strings are tugged with the company's charitable work, most notably the Timbits youth sports program, a community initiative that has furthered the company’s brand association with hockey. Who can resist the sight of a 5-year-old stumbling across the ice in a Tim Bits jersey? Not me. Tears are pooling in my eyes right now, and I am not being sarcastic.
For an example of one of those Tim Hortons "True Stories," take a look at the below commercial featuring three generations of a Chinese-Canadian family - a commercial in which Tim Hortons coffee plays an apparently incidental role, even though that product is ostensibly what is being promoted:

Is this an example of shameless tugging at the heartstrings by a large corporation out to make a buck? Undoubtedly, but by my lights it's also brilliantly well-done. For more on the underlying issues, read the rest of Amy Dempsey's piece in the Star. AMDG.