Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Harvard/MIT/Yale meet the Canadian Prairies

When people at parties launch into bad travel stories, it’s usually time to mingle. A travel nightmare is always more salient to the person involved than it will ever be to an audience that wasn't. And we know the punch line- they lived to bore you with it, right? But this is my blog so I get to talk about mine.

With all the new and challenging logistics this summer- sales calls in six new provinces, along with my usual trips to Minneapolis, Chicago, Iowa City and elsewhere in the American Midwest- it’s been a surprisingly glitch-free ride. Until Calgary.

But let me back up. I decided to tackle the Prairies head on last month by following one of David Stimpson’s previous itineraries to the letter. If it worked for him, why not me? But even with only three publishers as opposed to the seven he and Laurel Oakes represented, it seemed impossible. Could you really sell Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon and Winnipeg in one week? Though it left precious little time for idle urban meandering, the answer is yes.

I flew into Edmonton on Sunday. It’s a surprisingly gorgeous river city, with, of all things, a shiny new light rail system. (Sorry, I live in a place where the governor thinks trains are a socialist ponzi scheme, so I’m always impressed and surprised by good urban transit.)

All I’d really known about Edmonton was that it’s the provincial capital, and that it’s k.d. lang’s home town. I visited the lovely, old-school downtown bookstore, Audrey’s, and had my main appointment on Monday with the excellent University of Alberta bookstore.

Later in the afternoon, I took the fast and luxurious Red Arrow bus to Calgary- comfy seats, wi-fi, and a help yourself snack galley in the back.

I arrived early evening in a Calgary that seemed much bigger than the one I remember from ten years ago. The energy industry I guess. (Note to self: learn more about the tar sands debate.) Calgary seemed the least “Canadian” city I’ve visited all summer, and reminded me a lot more of Denver than, say, Toronto. I’d been warned by Canadian friends that it’s full of right-wingers, though Canadian political lunatics always seem more benign than our US ones. Luckily, I had just missed both the Stampede and the visit of Prince and Princess. My cab driver complained lustily about both events (no fares!), and about a lot of other things. ("We have the first Muslim mayor in Canada but nothing has changed!")

My main complaint: just try to find a New York Times in Calgary. Or, rather, don’t bother trying. Even the “Out of Town Newspapers” store downtown only gets it on Sundays. A stroll over to Pages Bookstore on Kensington- alas, closed for the day.

Tuesday morning, and it’s on to another great store and excellent buyer at the University of Calgary. Like most Canadian universities I’ve encountered this summer, the campus is nearly devoid of “You Are Here” type signage. It’s completely mystifying to a visitor. Buildings tend to have cryptic names so I had to use my best student union way-finding skills to locate the shop. (Look for a lot of parked bicycles). Like the Londoners who took down all the street signs during the Blitz to thwart occupying Germans, Canadian universities will be well positioned to confuse an invading US army.

It was pouring rain as we ended our appointment, and Brad, my buyer, led me through a maze of underground passageways, magically emerging ten minutes later at the LRT station.

The day rapidly deteriorated after that. The weather turned increasingly cold, ugly and stormy. My cab driver was exceptionally cranky. My flight to Saskatoon was delayed, and delayed again. Finally we boarded but a “red alert” was declared, meaning no one could set foot on the tarmac. So we sat and watched a lightning storm break around us for another hour.

Finally, the sun came out and we were allowed to take off- straight into the storm, which we were apparently going to follow to Saskatoon. Perhaps to take our minds off the roller-coaster turbulence, the chipper pilot came on to advise us to “pay no attention to that whistling sound, it’s just a small hole in the back door and means nothing.”

I hadn’t noticed any whistling sound but now you couldn’t ignore it. I wondered why he hadn’t made the announcement in French as well. A news story that morning reported on a French-speaking passenger who was awarded $12,000 from Air Canada for not being served a 7-up en francais. (Just the sort of culture wars red meat that would have the US crazies up in rhetorical arms for months. Here it’s a three day head-shaker.)

To cut a too long story short, we eventually landed. We taxied to within a few meters of the gate when the plane stopped because another red alert had been declared, thanks to lightning in the area. So we sat motionless for another half hour as I watched a line-up at Tim’s through the terminal window. We were close enough to see what people ordered, yet so far away!

I am a big admirer of these protections won by the Canadian labor movement, and if unloading my bag means risking a lightning strike, I can be patient. But if I'd run into one more alert, I was ready to cross over to union-buster.

The evening held one more surprise. I caught a cab to take me to my hotel, the Sandman, which I expected to be downtown. It is in fact less than a mile from the airport, on one of those hateful, anonymous, edge of city commercial highways. To add to the fun, the place was packed with NASCAR fans (and their bikes, and their parties.) Really, my kind of place. Hadn't eaten all day and I had dinner at the adjacent Denny’s. Risking suicide to cross six lanes of traffic for a dubious looking “Number One Chinese” didn’t seem worth the trouble.

Morning broke. After a long cab ride to the University of Saskatchewan (too long?), I found yet another beautiful store on a beautiful campus, with superb inventory tended by an excellent buyer. After our meeting, I walked to the airport for my late afternoon flight- a sunny day, and a great way to see the city.

The trip to Winnipeg was mercifully uneventful, and the city looked stunning from the air in the evening sunshine. I’m a great Guy Maddin fan, and I couldn’t help but be excited to be on his turf. To my mind, Winnipeg has a Midwestern look and feel, yet with its own distinctive Manitoba flavor. I picked up a copy of the Winnipeg Free Press, which was by far the best newspaper I’d seen all week. The day’s news included a story on a local scandal: Marshall McLuhan was born here, yet there is no street, park or building named after him!

I had the luxury of two nights in downtown Winnipeg, the centerpiece being several hours at the impressive McNally Robinson Bookstore. Top notch independent store, excellent thoughtful buyer, really wonderful place. This is the kind of smart book retailing that makes me wonder why such stores don’t exist in every Winnipeg-sized community.

Onward to the (far-flung) University of Manitoba Bookstore, where the buyer is doing a heroic job of keeping a solid academic inventory alive while fending off the viral spread of sweatshirts and trinkets. And a quick visit to the wonderful Winnipeg Art Gallery, where I found a charming book I’d never seen about one of my favorite Canadian artists, David Milne.

A very early Friday morning flight had me back in Milwaukee by noon, with time for a couple phone appointments. But next summer I will build in a few extra days to take in the Icefields. And, certainly, Gimli.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Invisible Romans & Invisible North Americans

A couple weeks ago, as I was driving to an appointment, I was half listening to an NPR interview with an economist. I didn’t catch his name but he sounded like one of those right-wing think tank types whose ideology swims in a warm bath of soothing, reasonable verbiage. The David Brooks approach.

He was asked about the idea of raising the retirement age as a way to reduce so-called entitlement spending. He told the interviewer that this was a great idea, because- and I confess that I paraphrase but this was the gist- “most people today have jobs like we do, sitting in an office, talking into a microphone. People don’t work as hard as they used to, like in factories.” Thus, workers should be obliged to carry on with this leisurely pace to age 68 or 70.

What was this man talking about? How could someone brought on to NPR as an authority be so utterly clueless about the actual working world? It almost sounded like a joke, but he was dead serious.

Let’s stipulate that, in one sense, he’s correct: fewer people are “working hard” because fewer people are working period. Particularly in factories. But as I traveled across the Canadian prairies last week, and spend a couple days in Milwaukee and Chicago this week, I see people working their butts off everywhere I look, even in offices.

The invisible working class is not a new phenomenon. And in contemporary North America, “invisible” is the wrong word anyway. It’s more precisely a willful refusal to see lives as lived by the vast majority.

Our media and culture are completely synched to the corporate fairy tale which controls our politics. Labor, when mentioned at all, is a parasite, a greedy extortionist or a union boss. We almost never get to see images of the actual people who keep the social and physical infrastructure standing and the economy running.

I’m reminded of Invisible Romans, one of my favorite books on the fall 2011 Harvard list. In it, Classics scholar Robert Knapp makes the surprising observation that everything we think of as “ancient Roman history” comes from the doings of the Roman elite- .01% of the population. How the ordinary laboring classes, housewives, slaves, soldiers and others lived, and the kind of cultural artifacts they created, has been lost or all but ignored. He does a wonderful job in this book of re-imagining real daily life in Rome, as opposed to the well-documented stories of Romans with microphones.

How will the history of the 21st century read a millennium hence? Will it include the taxi drivers, the hotel maids, the Tim Horton’s servers, the baggage handlers, the road repair workers, the bus drivers, the postal workers, the teachers, the ordinary North American workers plying thousands of trades?

If we are to avoid the narrative fate of the invisible Romans, we need more books about these people. It’s been a long time since Studs Terkel’s path-breaking Working, the quintessential oral history, though that book can always bear a re-reading.

And we need fiction that celebrates workers. We need a social democratic version of Ayn Rand, where wealth is created by the people who work, not the people who own.

I’m actually pretty optimistic that this sort of literary revival is already quietly underway. This summer I’ve been reading lots of Canadian fiction, and I just finished an extraordinary short story collection- Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. Son of Alistair MacLeod, one of Canada’s premier writers, the stories are intelligent, gripping, and funny. They feature people and kids who haul bricks, make bike deliveries, build cars.

These are not didactic, socialist realist cardboard characters created to argue a position. On the contrary, they are sweetly intimate snapshots of lives we all know and recognize. Bonus: it's published by Biblioasis, one of the most interesting literary publishers around.

As they have so often in the past, books can lead the way out of this depressing ideological corner we’ve been backed into. If we have our eyes, our hearts, and our minds open, the millions of ordinary people who are keeping the whole show going will prove to be not so invisible after all.