We live in the age of miracles

Curry Coleslaw coming out of the printer

Maybe this does not look miraculous to you. But to me, it does: a printout of a recipe (for Jacques Pépin’s Curry Coleslaw) coming out of our printer, on the second floor and in the study of the Manse. Having been told to do so by me, hitting a button on my phone – my phone! – on the first floor of the Manse. No wires or strings attached. Life is in so many ways a lot easier now than it was when I was growing up in this house… And if you’re intrigued by the vintage Birks box that you can see on top of the printer, stay tuned: it’s a good story, and another post.

This has been a truly gorgeous winter day, has it not? The sun shone and there was not a cloud in the sky. There was real warmth in the sun. As a result, everybody whom Raymond and I met on our errands in Madoc and Tweed today was in a good mood. The car washes in both towns had major lineups of winter-crusted Ford F150s (the pickup truck of choice in our area) lined up to get de-salted and de-grimed. It felt like maple-syrup season must be almost upon us.

I think, people, that the back of this cruel, cold winter really has been broken – just as I predicted a few days ago. Life is good.

And speaking of life being good:

Curry Coleslaw on my phone

The recipe I wanted – Curry Coleslaw – found on my phone, in milliseconds. Miraculous!

This morning I was sitting in a comfortable rocking chair in the sunny dining room of the Manse, putting together a shopping and to-do list for the aforementioned errands. Since this is the first weekend in quite a while that Raymond and I have not been out of town or hopelessly busy, I decided it would be a good time to do some serious cooking. And so – on my phone – I consulted the excellent New York Times section called Cooking (and you can too if you click here). I pulled up the recipe for Roast Pork With Milk, which I’d seen in an email alert from the Cooking folks this past week and thought would be worth a shot. (It was. Delicious.) Raymond suggested that tomorrow night he make fried chicken, another recipe from NYT Cooking. Great idea! (Because it was fantastic the first time he made it.) And then I got thinking: what goes well with fried chicken? Aha! Coleslaw. Except store-bought coleslaw is inevitably an oversweet disappointment; in fact, I tend to find coleslaw in general a disappointment. I needed a good and interesting coleslaw recipe! Okay, back to NYT Cooking, on my phone. Search “colelsaw.” Find the ever-reliable Jacques Pépin‘s recipe for Curry Coleslaw, with a hit of tabasco, poppyseeds and curry powder to give it some zip. Sold!

I hit the Print icon on the recipe on my phone. Thanks to the wifi in the house, the phone instantly located the printer upstairs in the study. And before I had time to get upstairs and fetch the printout, it was, well, printed out.

Which in the year 2015 is no big deal, right? But I suddenly found myself thinking: Good lord! If anyone had told me back when I was a little kid or young teenager growing up here in this very same house (in the 1960s and early 1970s) that such wonders were possible…

And by wonders, I mean: using a phone to look up recipes. On the internet. The internet! Do you remember life before the internet? Well, today, I did. That life involved finding recipes only in the cookbooks (like the Queensboro Cook Book), or the recipe cards in your recipe box, that you happened to have around your house. The phone only played a part in it if you happened to pick up the heavy old receiver and call a neighbour for some cooking guidance.

And then there was this: having in seconds located a great recipe from a famous chef and food writer on my phone; hitting a print button and having that recipe magically turn into a printed piece of paper, emerging from a printer that is in the Manse study, one storey and several rooms away from where I was sitting – with no wires attached!

If anyone had told me on, say, Feb. 28, 1975, exactly 40 years ago today, that someday I would be able to do that – well, it makes me laugh to think how I would have reacted. The phrase “bug-eyed” comes to mind.

People, we live in an age of miracles. Miracles that are so common and ordinary that most days we just take them for granted. I was happy that today – thanks perhaps to the unlikely fact that I am living in the house I grew up in, and can thus readily compare how things were then and how things are now – the sheer miraculousness of the changes that have occurred in the time in between was forced into my consciousness.

We should never forget how lucky we are that some of the basic tasks of life – like finding a desired recipe, or a video of a long-lost favourite song – are so effortless. Compare that to what the people who lived right here where we are now had to deal with, if they might have thought to try to seek out the same information.

And on that note, here’s a great Talking Heads song that’s been bombing around in my head all day, ever since that moment when it struck me how miraculous this helpful technology is. It’s less about miracles and more about being respectful of what happened before us on the very land where we stand and live, but because it’s called City of Dreams – which is kind of like “age of miracles” – it seems appropriate for the moment. Enjoy!

On this Friday night, let’s talk about Ringo

Ah, Friday night. Best night of the week! Regular readers will know that I often devote Fridays to musically themed posts, because I figure that both you good people and I need a diversion that doesn’t require too much brain power, or reading, at the end of a long work week. On Friday night, it’s nice to just sit back and relax and listen to some music.

On this particular Friday night, I’d like to feature a friend of us all (that last bit being a turn of phrase that George Harrison used to introduce Bob Dylan at the Concert for Bangladesh; thanks, George): Mr. Ringo Starr.

Why Ringo? Well, mainly because his classic song Photograph has, for some unknown reason, been running around in my head, day and night, for much of the past week. (Click on the video at the top of this post and it can be running around in your head too!) It’s a song I hadn’t thought of in many a year, and suddenly I can’t stop humming it. I know it well because it was played often by everyone’s (well, everyone around here, anyway) favourite 1970s radio DJ, Joey Edwards, on CJBQ-AM (Belleville and TREN-TONNNNN!, as the jingle went) back when it was a new release in 1973. Which just happens to be the era when I was a young teenager right here at the Manse in Queensborough, tuning in to the hits Joey played every weeknight on his popular show. (Would you like to know more about Joey Edwards – who, I am very proud to say, is a reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse – and how I made contact with him after all these years? Click here. And for a little more, here.)

And thinking about Photograph, and what a simple but great pop classic it was, and is, got me also thinking about some of Ringo’s other post-Beatles hits, which also coincided with the years when I was a kid here in this house that, through a happy chain of circumstances, I now live in once again with my wonderful husband, Raymond.

After the Beatles busted up, Ringo had quite a good run, I have to say. Let’s take a little trip back. There was the oddball hit (written by the wondrous Hoyt Axton, whom I previously featured here) The No No Song:

And the wackadoodle Goodnight Vienna:

And the even more wackadoodle Snookeroo:

And I don’t even know what to say about Back Off Boogaloo:

And then finally, there is the utterly, indisputably great It Don’t Come Easy:

Ringo! That guy brought a lot of joy into people’s lives as the clowning but talented drummer in that British band that we’ve all heard of. But you know, in the first half of the 1970s – a great time, and I don’t care who hears me say it – he also brought us some fantastic music all on his own. Music that brings back good memories – and more to the point, makes me hum along. I hope it gets you humming too. Because, you know –

Every time I see your face it reminds me of the places we used to go …

“Red Rover, Red Rover, we call Kathy over!”

Red Rover

I saw this picture on Facebook the other day, and while I’m not much for those “LIKE if you remember this!” Facebook things, it really did bring back a bucketload – or should I say an armload? – of happy memories. I hope it does for you too.

Do kids still play Red Rover in the schoolyard, do you suppose?

Man, we played a lot of Red Rover when I was a pupil at Madoc Township Public School between 1966 and 1971, when I was growing up here at the Manse in Queensborough. (That was right around the dawn of time, I realize.)

Even though I was absolutely terrible at the game – I was small for my age, and hardly ever able to break through the clasped arms of the opposing team, or to keep members of the opposing team from breaking through my arm clasped with someone else’s – I always thought it was fun. Because I was so terrible at breaking through the barricade of arms, I got “called over” a lot – as “Kathy,” which is what people called me way back then. I didn’t mind the calling over. I always tried hard, and sometimes I actually did break through, which was thrilling; you’d trot back to your own team feeling very chuffed. And if I didn’t succeed (which was most of the time), I cheerfully joined the other team.

Seeing the photo on Facebook reminded me not just of Red Rover, but of the other games we used to play in our gorgeously expansive playground (several farm fields’ worth) at what everyone referred to as “the Township School.” It reminded me of Field Day back in the mid-’60s, before Field Day got overly organized and turned into Track and Field Day with hurdles and the high jump and the standing long jump and the hundred-yard dash and whatnot. On those earlier, less-structured Field Days – when (as you can imagine, based on the name of the event) the whole school abandoned classrooms and headed out to the playground/fields – we had events like the three-legged race (in which your right ankle was tied to your partner’s left ankle by one of your dad’s ties that you had to bring to school for the occasion) and the potato-sack race, in which you had to hop to the finish line in a burlap bag originally used for potatoes.

Hey, did we have to supply our own potato sack, along with one of our dad’s ties? I can’t remember.

What I do remember – of the three-legged race, and the potato-sack race, and Field Day, and especially Red Rover – is lots of awkwardness and hilarity, zero time spent in front of screens, and good old-fashioned fun.

The front-yard hockey rink, long, long ago

Larry, John and Ken on the rink

The place: the Manse’s front yard. The time: winter (obviously) 1971 or ’72. The hockey players: (from left) Larry Parks of the Boston Bruins, John Sedgwick of the Montreal Canadiens, and Ken Sedgwick of no fixed team and, like a real hockey player, missing a few front teeth.

People, I am no weather forecaster, but I’m going to venture this: I think we may have finally broken the back of this brutal winter. Yes, I know the windchill is supposed to be down at some ridiculous double-digit-below-zero number – again – overnight tonight; but have you noticed how in the daytime for the past couple of days, the air has felt a tad less bitter? That there has seemed to be a tiny bit of warmth in the sun when it shines? And that the sun has, in fact, been shining a fair bit recently? I do believe we will come out of this thing yet. And that there will be spring, and that the bulbs I planted late last fall on the south lawn of the Manse will come up.

But before winter gets away from us, I want to share a happy winter memory from long ago at this same Manse. The photo that you see at the top of this post was taken on the makeshift ice rink that my family had in the front yard for several winters in the years when I was growing up here. And the young hockey players are none other than my brothers John (centre) and Ken (right) and their great friend (and all-round excellent guy) Larry Parks, whose family lived at the other end of Queensborough. (Which is all of about 300 yards away from the Manse.)

Isn’t it a great photo?

Don’t you love the low-tech hockey uniforms and equipment, the less-than-fancy skates, the missing front teeth in Ken’s big smile, and the chipped, uneven ice under those skates? Does it bring back memories of the days when a makeshift rink in the front yard was all kids needed for endless hours of fun?

The photo (which comes to me courtesy of grown-up John) does all that for me, and in addition provides still more useful evidence of how our corner of Queensborough looked back then – which I’m guessing would be about 1971 or ’72. Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that this corner of Queensborough doesn’t look very much different even now, 40-some years later.

Which cheers me almost as much as does this delightful photo of three boys having fun on our front-yard rink, in simpler times. Good old times.

Frozen pipes and overpriced internet: ah, rural living

House of Cards

“A Netflix Original Series:” that translates into “Forget about it” if you’re a fan who lives in Queensborough and wants to watch it along with the rest of the world on the internet.

Last night in this space I was waxing on about one of the simple joys of living in an old house in the country, to wit shovelling snow to a soundtrack of chickadee song. But there are definitely some downsides to old-house rural living too. Tonight, for instance, I returned wearily home from work, only to discover after turning on the lights, turning up the heat (Raymond was out) and petting the yowling cat that the hot-water pipe to our kitchen sink had frozen. Again. And did I mention that Raymond was away? The past two or three times that the same thing has happened, he has done what all good husbands do, which is deal with it. Tonight, I was on my own.

Happily I was able to manage without too much trouble, with a small bit of instruction over the phone from Raymond and my trusty hairdryer turned to high. Crisis over.

But then there’s the never-ending issue of poor and ridiculously expensive internet. I’ve written about that many, many times before (like here and here and here and here), but this week there has been a considerable amount of salt rubbed into the wound. Why? Because everybody’s abuzz about the new season of House of Cards, which becomes available this coming weekend on Netflix. House of Cards, House of Cards, House of Cards – you see and hear references to it everywhere, in the newspapers and on social media and in workplace chatter. Everybody’s wondering what that evil, evil Frank Underwood and his frosty and equally evil wife, Claire, will get up to now that, as of the end of Season 2, they’ve managed to make their diabolical way to the White House. Here’s the trailer:

I’m sure you’ve seen lots of images of Kevin Spacey (so brilliant as Frank) all over the place in recent days. Why, there’s even a hilarious Sesame Street version, which, for those who haven’t yet seen it, I will treat you to here:

Anyway, Raymond and I have enjoyed Seasons 1 and 2 of House of Cards, but not on Netflix. Oh no. Netflix, you see, comes through that crazy modern invention called the “internet.” If you live in a town or city, chances are excellent that you can use all the internet you want at a very reasonable monthly fee – maybe somewhere between $35 and $50. And as of this weekend, you can gorge on Season 3 of House of Cards.

But if you happen live in some rural pockets of Eastern Ontario, like, say, Queensborough, there’s no House of Cards when the rest of the world watches it. We must wait patiently for the old-fashioned DVDs.

Here, you see, we have a choice between not-too-expensive but not-very-good (dial-up is not uncommon, believe it or not) internet, or, if you’re Raymond and Katherine, a wireless hub that delivers not-zippy but not-bad internet, at a ridiculously high price. I wrote here about our first case of sticker shock after making the rookie mistake of doing what all city folk do and listening to some online audio. There have been a few more sticker-shock bills since, including this month’s because Raymond had the temerity to use the internet extensively for the work he’s doing as editorial consultant to the National Newspaper Awards. Imagine: thinking you could actually use the internet for work!

Oh, now I’ve gone and got myself all riled up. I must try to calm my nerves with the hope that there is light at the end of this tunnel, just as there was hot water coming out of my tap tonight after a bit of water-pipe blow-drying. That glimmer of light is the new internet tower that has been erected just northeast of Queensborough, and that I believe is to come into service this spring.

An awful lot of people in our little village are pinning their hopes for reliable and reasonably speedy internet, at an affordable price, on that tower. As are Raymond and I, of course. Fingers crossed that it delivers on our hopes – and maybe in time for Season 4 of whatever brilliant skulduggery Frank and Claire can get up to.

A pleasurable wintry chore

Winter wonderland

It’s a pretty snowy and wintry view from the front porch of the Manse these days. And that can only mean one thing: lots of shovelling.

Do you have a chore that you find relaxing rather than a pain in the neck? I know a few people for whom ironing serves that purpose; they enjoy the quiet reflection time that standing by the ironing board gives them, not to mention the sense of satisfaction that a well-ironed shirt gives. I know others who seem genuinely not to mind, and indeed even enjoy, doing dishes by hand. I’m not one of those happy ironers or dishwashers, but since Raymond and I moved full-time to the Manse, I have found a task that I really do enjoy: shovelling snow.

Now, I don’t enjoy it so much that I’m about to go house to house offering my snow-shovelling services to my neighbours (who wouldn’t take me up on it anyway, because they pretty much all have snowblowers). But faced with the necessity of keeping the Manse’s driveway and walkways passable this very snowy winter – and last snowy winter too – I have found myself moving a lot of snow. (Raymond shovels too, but once I realized that I didn’t mind doing it, I began urging him away from it. He’s a very good ironer. Way better than I will ever be.)

Shovelling can of course be hard work, especially when the snow is heavy and there’s lots of it. Sometimes my back hurts a bit after a long session, but less and less often now that I’m doing it regularly; I have to say that the exercise feels pretty good. But even better than the exercise is the satisfaction of making a clear way where minutes before there was nothing but many inches of snow. And best of all is the soundtrack I generally have while I’m shovelling. I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, let me proudly show you all the shovelling work I did yesterday, the morning after a day of heavy snowfall. It probably won’t strike readers in rural areas as being anything special, but I fully expect you city folk to be impressed with the acreage of the area cleared here at the Manse. So okay, first I shovelled the front walk:

Front walk shovelled

And then the pathway to the garage:

Path to garage shovelled

And then the pathway to our bright-red oil tank. That’s a very important section to shovel out, because the good guys who deliver the heating oil from Woods Fuels in Tweed expect (as they should) a clear path when they arrive to do their work and ensure we stay warm:

Path to oil tank shovelled

I also shovelled in front of our rustic garage:

Front of garage shovelled

And finally, of course, I shovelled out the driveway proper (though I admit the front section was cleared by a neighbour with a truck and scraper blade):

Driveway shovelled

Now, here are two areas that all last winter, and at the start of this winter, also got regularly shovelled – but that this winter, due to the never-endingness of the snowfall, I have just given up on. Here is one set of back-porch steps, utterly unshovelled:

Back steps unshovelled

And here are the steps to the official front door of the Manse, the one that no one ever uses now and that no one ever did even back in the long-ago days when I was growing up in this house:

Front steps unshovelled

People, I do like to shovel. But even I have a limit.

Okay, now for the soundtrack. It was pretty quiet in Queensborough when I was doing all that shovelling yesterday morning. But then, it’s pretty quiet in Queensborough almost all the time. The only thing I could hear was some boisterous chickadees who were chick-a-dee-dee-deeing all the while. What a lovely sound! I wondered if they were commenting among themselves on the quality of my work.

When I was done, I went and fetched my phone in an effort to record them. Unfortunately the chickadees chose that moment to make themselves scarce, but there were other birds offering up some commentary, and here they are:

Now, isn’t that a good kind of soundtrack to work by? It made me happy as I headed back indoors, my shovelling done. Or, well – maybe not.

Because right then, it started to snow again.

A vintage ticket to fly and dream: the Fisher-Price Airport

Fisher-Price Airport

The most recent addition to our collection of vintage Fisher-Price toys: the Play Family Airport. On a wintry day like this, don’t you wish you could be a little Fisher-Price person and jump into that Fisher-Price plane and fly away south?

I don’t know about you folks, but I am really, really tired of this winter. As I write this, it is snowing outside the Manse windows. Again. Meanwhile, I heard yesterday that we are on track for this being the coldest February ever. Yikes! People’s nerves are stretched by all this cold and snow, I tell you. At least, mine are. I bet yours are too – unless you happen to be reading this in some sunny southern getaway.

Ah, but speaking of sunny southern getaways, doesn’t weather like this make you long to get on a plane and go somewhere nice? Somewhere different? Preferably somewhere warm? Well, have I got the thing for that! Yes, it’s the Fisher-Price Play Family Airport!

All right, you can’t actually jet off from the Play Family Airport. But you can be a kid again, and dream.

Fisher-Price School

The schoolmarm waits for her pupils at our Fisher-Price School.

The airport is my latest addition to a small collection of great Fisher-Price toys from back in the 1960s and ’70s – not coincidentally, the years when I was a little kid growing up here at the Manse and playing with such toys with my sister and brothers. Those were the days when, in my opinion, Fisher-Price stuff was more elegantly designed than it is now. It was more compact and less plasticky and princessy.

(Mind you, the Fisher-Price Little People were small enough that they later were deemed a choking hazard for little kids, which I suppose wasn’t the best thing. But hey, I never knew anybody who choked on them. And they were a lot cuter than the plastic not-very-little Fisher Price people you get today.)

I wrote some time ago (that post is here) about my delight in acquiring a Fisher-Price Garage, which as I recall pretty much every household had back in the days of my Queensborough childhood and was truly the best toy ever. You could run your cars up and down the ramps, or move them in the elevator that dinged at every floor, or turn them around on the top-level car turner, or fill them up with gas at the bottom-level gas pump – and it was all just a whale of a time. Good for keeping kids quiet and occupied for hours.

After that, thanks to yard sales and auction sales and antique barns, I was able to add to the collection the Fisher-Price School, the Fisher-Price Two-Tune TV, the Fisher-Price Hickory-Dickory-Dock Radio, the Fisher-Price Jalopy, the Fisher-Price School Bus, and that rocking Fisher-Price toy with the multicoloured plastic rings for baby to stack one on top of another. All in fairly decent shape, though the school and the garage are missing a lot of the Little People they originally came with. (Perhaps they disappeared down various toddlers’ throats…)

Vintage Fisher-Price toys

Our vintage Fisher-Price Two-Tune TV, Jalopy, and whatever that colourful ring thing is called.

Anyway, I was pretty happy with this fun little collection, which needs only Raymond’s grandson Henry to come visit for some serious fun to be had. And the best part of it was that none of these Fisher-Price treasures had cost more than a few dollars; one or two of them I picked up at yard sales for less than a buck. Yay!

But then last summer, when Raymond and I were vacationing down in Maine and taking part in one of our favourite vacationing-in-Maine activities, which is to visit antiques and collectibles warehouses, I came upon a Fisher-Price Play Family Airport for sale. Now this was a find – mainly because it was a piece of the Fisher-Price universe with which I was utterly unfamiliar. While everyone had the Fisher-Price Garage back in the day, and there were lots of Fisher-Price schoolhouses and barns and buses around, nobody that I knew had a Fisher-Price Airport. I’d never even heard of it, let alone seen it.

So even though it was over my usual Fisher-Price price limit, I decided it would have to come to the Manse. Because, you know, the only thing better than a vintage Fisher-Price toy is a relatively rare vintage Fisher-Price toy.

According to the website This Old Toy, the Fisher-Price Play Family Airport was made for only four years, from 1972 to 1976. (Ah, 1972 to 1976. Those were good years, weren’t they?)

I love our little Fisher-Price airport! Not that I spend much in the way of time with it; when I pulled it out the other evening to take the pictures that you can see here, it was the first time I’d really examined everything about it in detail – but it makes me smile when I see it tucked away in its spot in the Manse’s children’s corner.

Those Fisher-Price designers were brilliant, if you ask me. Just look at all the good detail on my airport! You can see most of it in the photo at the top of this post: the baggage truck and carts, the helicopter, the baggage carousel. But here’s a closeup of the control tower with the air-traffic controller hard at work:

Fisher-Price Airport control tower

And here’s the Arrivals level, which is unfortunately a bit dark:

Fisher-Price Airport arrivals level

And best of all, here’s that big ol’ plane with the happy pilot at the controls and the happy flight attendant – actually, I am pretty sure she would have been called a stewardess back when this toy was made – just waiting to welcome you aboard:

Fisher-Price Airport plane is boarding

This, people, is one happy kids’ toy. And I am very happy to have it here at the Manse. Now if only I could climb those steps, get on that plane, ask the stewardess to bring me a refreshing beverage, and let the pilot fly me somewhere far, far from winter…

Sieste the Manse Cat is the queen of routine.

Sieste in her bed

Sieste the cat where she likes to be of an evening (and for much of the day): on the living-room couch, in her bed. Or should I say, “On her throne”?

Since moving to the Manse from her old home in Montreal, Sieste the cat has developed quite a lot of routine in her life. I think it keeps her grounded. Because she is a very important part of daily life at the Manse – she is one-third of our house’s total occupants, after all – her routine has a fairly big impact on the routine of the other two-thirds of the occupants, who are Raymond and me.

Here is Sieste’s daily routine:

  • If the humans aren’t out of bed at 6 a.m. (which is when the female usually gets up on weekdays to go to work), make some noise – in fact, make quite a bit of noise – and try to force the issue. If it’s the weekend, and therefore the noise isn’t working and the humans are clearly going to sleep a bit longer, return to own bed on downstairs chesterfield.
  • Spend the first part of the morning up and about. Eat. Drink. Examine things. Watch humans get start on day. Retire to own bed on chesterfield by 9:30 a.m. or so. It is time for long morning nap.
  • Have lunch at some point. Begin long afternoon nap.
  • Be very, very quiet and unobtrusive during these long daytime naps, and even when awake during daytime. Male human is, after all, working. Or maybe out in town running errands. Either way, no need to yowl. There’s good napping to be had.
  • When female human returns from work about 6 p.m., wake up loudly. Yowl. Say hello. Say, “Where have you been?” Continue yowling. Prowl about. Eat. Yowl. Drink. Yowl. Watch humans start to make supper. Yowl. Yowl some more. Seek attention. Demand attention. Demand that early-evening tradition, dispensation of cat treats by female human, be fulfilled. Snarf up cat treats and be quiet. For two minutes. Then yowl some more.
  • When female human sits down at vintage telephone table between 7:30 and 8 p.m. to call her mum (who used to be the châtelaine of this house, though little does Sieste know that), yowl like all get out. Female human is paying attention to person on the other end of the red phone, not Sieste. This requires the lodging of a long and loud series of complaints throughout female human’s telephone conversation.
  • Upon completion of telephone conversation, and as dinner is being served by and for humans, settle down again in own bed on chesterfield. With any luck there will be an episode of Downton Abbey or The Good Wife or, in summer, a Red Sox game, to be watched on the television before humans retire to bed. This television thing is useful because it places humans in the living room, one of them on chesterfield. Near Sieste. All are together. There is quite a bit of stroking of Sieste’s fur. There is attention. Sieste is queen of her subjects, and in fact of all she surveys.
  • “Life is good,” thinks Sieste. “It is time for bed.”

Canada Fitness Awards: “great thing” or “kid’s nightmare”?

Canada Fitness Awards Award of ExcellenceI laughed out loud when my brother John recently texted me this photo, which brought back a lot of 1970s memories – few of them good. Do you recognize it? It is, of course (as those of us of a certain age and Canadianness will inevitably know) an Award of Excellence badge, the highest award for fitness in the Canada Fitness Awards that that damned 60-year-old Swede brought to all our classrooms. Including those at Madoc Township Public School, the excellent rural elementary school that John and I and our siblings attended when we were kids growing up here at the Manse in Queensborough.

I refer of course to the (in)famous study from 1972 that found that the average 60-year-old Swede was in at least as good shape as the average 30-year-old Canadian, and that inspired the Participaction program – only in the 1970s could anyone have come up with a name like “Participaction” – and the Canada Fitness Awards.

Here, by the way, is the Participaction television ad featuring that infernal Swede:

Anyway, the goal of the Canada Fitness Awards was apparently to get us lard-bottomed young Canadians off our lardy bottoms and doing flexed arm hangs and standing long jumps and 50-yard dashes and the like. All for the sake of a measly badge – bronze, silver, gold or the specially shaped Award of Excellence – to wear on your jacket. If you were lucky enough (i.e. fit enough) to win anything at all, that is.

I think most of us remember those days with distaste verging on horror. Oh sure, there were the athletic kids for whom it was nothing, who barely broke a sweat as they earned Awards of Excellence; but for a lot of other kids, including people like me who always preferred reading in the library to any kind of sport, it was a gruesome experience.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the awards program was discontinued in 1992, “in part because it discouraged those it was intended to motivate.” Gee, it only took them 20 years to figure that out!

In a rather fun looking-back post here at the blog Glenn’s Take (subtitle: “Positive Advice for Daily, Healthy Living”) headlined What Happened to the Canada Fitness Test?, Glenn (I assume it’s he) notes that there was an episode of the CBC-TV comedy series Corner Gas in which a character declared that ““The Canada Fitness Program was the last great thing this country ever did.”

Well! That’s some crazy stuff. And: I beg to differ. And: I bet I’m not alone.

Fellow Canada Fitness Awards victims, are you with me?

A new book by Dr. Seuss? How about an old one?

The SneetchesPerhaps you heard the big literary news today: that a new book by the beloved Dr. Seuss is to be published this summer, even though Dr. Seuss himself (Theodor Seuss Giesel) has been dead for more than 20 years. (Apparently his widow discovered the manuscript for the book, called What Pet Should I Get?, in a box of his papers. Good news for his publisher and all concerned, who stand to make an awful lot of money from what is sure to be a bestseller. Kind of reminds one of the upcoming publication of another novel by Harper Lee, who until a similar kind of discovery was made among her papers had always sworn that the classic To Kill a Mockingbird would be her only book.)

Anyway, this Dr. Seuss news has put me in mind of my own favourite Dr. Seuss work, and it’s one that doesn’t get nearly the notice that many of his others do. Of course you are all familiar with The Cat in the Hat, and Green Eggs and Ham (click here for an earlier post by me that includes mention of that one, and a link to the classic Saturday Night Live sketch in which The Rev. Jesse Jackson reads from the book), of course How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and perhaps And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, and the one beloved of environmentalists, The Lorax, and the last one published in Geisel’s lifetime, one that is a frequent gift to grads, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

But do you know about The Sneetches?

Ah, The Sneetches. That was a Dr. Seuss story that I discovered in Mrs. Ketcheson‘s Grade 1 class at Madoc Township Public School when I was a kid growing up here at the Manse, and that I have loved ever since. Recently I managed to get my hands on a vintage copy in excellent shape, which is a fine addition to the children’s corner upstairs at the Manse.

What I love about the story of The Sneetches is that it is all about tolerance – about the fact that there is nothing in a person’s outward appearance that makes him or her better or worse than any other person, and that we should all just smarten up and learn to get along. It was a good lesson back in 1961 when it was first published – a time when the civil-rights movement in the United States still had a long way to go, when schools were still segregated and African-Americans were frequently denied voting rights – and it’s a good lesson for today.

So what’s the Sneetches’ story? It’s that on the beaches, where the Sneetches live, there are two kinds of Sneetches: the kind with stars on their bellies, and the ones without. (They have “none upon thars,” as Dr. Seuss so Seussically puts it.) The ones with stars look way down their noses at the no-star Sneetches, and treat them abominably:

Best kind of Sneetch

Whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past then without even talking.
When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,
Could a Plain Belly get in the game…? Not at all…
When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts
Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches,
They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.
They kept them away. Never let them come near.
And that’s how they treated them year after year.

Sylvester McMonkey McBean's machineThen one day, much to the joy of the no-star Sneetches, along comes a canny entrepreneur with the terrific name of Sylvester McMonkey McBean, with a marvellous machine that can put stars on bellies! Of course the starless Sneetches all line up to fork over their cash to McBean and get their stars. But then the original Star-Belly Sneetches get their knickers in a knot because they no longer enjoy social superiority based on their appearance. And so the wily McBean adjusts his machine to take stars off, so that the formerly starred Sneetches can be bare-bellied and pronounce starlessness to be infinitely superior. Which in turn leads the newly starred Sneetches to have their stars off, and one thing follows another, and it’s just a steady steam of Sneetches getting stars put on and taken off until – no one can remember who was who or which was which.

The story ends with the acknowledgement of two universal truths:

One, it doesn’t matter whether you have a star on your belly or not.

And two, there will always be people like Sylvester McMonkey McBean who will find a way to cash in on other people’s inferiority/superiority complexes. Still, even though he drives off with his truck overflowing with the Sneetches’ money, you have to give McBean and his machine credit for the Sneetches eventually reaching enlightenment:

…I’m quite happy to say
That the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day.
The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches
And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars
And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

It’s a great story, and a great lesson – for a little kid in Grade 1 at Madoc Township Public School in 1966, and for any adult anywhere today.

Because, you know, we are all Sneetches.