Sunday, July 09, 2017

We’ve Seen an Alternate Future

We’ve seen the future not chosen, and returned to tell the tale.

Last week the family drove up to Canada, dividing time between Toronto and Ottawa.  I hadn’t been to Canada since the 80’s, and both it and I have changed a bit since then.  The Boy had never been.  It seemed like time.

Americans tend to think of Canada as America’s younger brother, but it isn’t.  The differences sneak up on you, but they add up.  Aside from language and the metric system, the biggest difference seems to be that as a country, it chose to maintain a middle class.  That permeates the culture in ways that wouldn’t occur to you unless you see them.

I knew about and expected to see signs in metric, and in French.  And yes, they were there.  Unprompted, the kids both noticed quickly how much cleaner it is there.  We saw far less litter, unsanctioned graffiti, and abandoned stuff there than here.  (A walking tour of Toronto with an old friend took us to a neighborhood with walls of sanctioned and impressive graffiti, but that’s different.)  The buildings are better kept, the streets are better maintained, and the people seem palpably more relaxed.  (The Boy: “It’s like the whole country is chill.”)  The Wife pointed out a few days into the trip that we hadn’t seen a single bumper sticker on a car with Canadian plates; I kept looking, and never saw a single one before we left.  Admittedly, we spent most of our time in two major urban centers in Ontario, so I don’t know how much of this applies to the rest of the country.  

Driving in Toronto is a nightmare, but I attribute that more to size and timing than anything else.  We were there for Canada Day, and this year was the country’s sesquicentennial, so it was crowded even by city standards.  Still, we couldn’t figure out how to get from the hotel in Mississauga to downtown Toronto by mass transit in any reasonable way, so we braved the traffic and the markedly narrow parking spaces.  

The harbor featured a six-story-tall rubber duck, which I found endearing.  The duck was apparently a subject of some controversy in Canada, since they spent six figures to get it there, and it’s a duck.  The connection between a national sesquicentennial and a giant inflatable rubber duck isn’t obvious, but hey.  Plenty of people took selfies in front of the duck, myself included, because how often do you get to see a six-story rubber duck?  Judging by how crowded the harbor was -- it reminded me of lower Manhattan at rush hour -- the duck held real appeal.  Municipal kitsch can draw crowds.

I’ve never seen an American city try that, though I’d be happy to be corrected on that.

We did some standard tourist-y stuff, too: the aquarium, the CN tower, a Blue Jays game.  We sampled poutine and butter tarts, too, and came away shrugging and saying “meh.”  They’re fine, I guess, but something got lost in translation.

We connected with my friend and erstwhile colleague Alana Wiens, who gave us a walking tour of her neighborhood.  She took us through some alleyways with sanctioned graffiti, and mentioned that she often walks through them on her way to work.  Alone.  Without fear.  When she mentioned at lunch that maternity leaves in Canada often exceed a year, with pay, I saw The Girl’s eyebrows go up.  That registered.

Ottawa had a different feel.  It’s much smaller than Toronto, and apparently almost undiscovered by Americans.  (At every touristy thing we attended, the guide would ask where people were from.  In every case, we were the only Americans.  That wasn’t true in Toronto.)  Ottawa is the national capital and home to two large universities, so it’s a funny cross between D.C. and Boston, but smaller.  As a political scientist by training, the blend of government and academic flavors felt natural.  

The downtown lends itself to walking, and we certainly did.  It has an open air plaza called Byward Market that’s fun to meander through, and the government buildings are impressive.  We climbed the Peace Tower, which offered a great view, and eventually got to tour the main Parliament building.  (They had tours in French and English; my French is juuuuuuust a bit rusty.)  The Parliament building will close late next year for a ten year (!) renovation project, so I recommend checking it out while you can.  It has the single most breathtaking library I’ve ever seen.  See it while you can.

We also finally got to connect with Dani Donders, who I’ve known virtually since about 2005.  She was an early “mommy blogger” when I was starting out as “dean dad,” so we connected over tales of parenting.  Her “postcards from the mothership” blog has moved more towards photography over the years, and it’s excellent.  She even did a “family fun in Ottawa” piece by request, which we drew on heavily in making our plans.  I’m happy to report that she’s as likeable in person as onscreen.

For sheer weirdness, though -- even weirder than the duck -- the Diefenbunker took the prize.  It’s a museum now, but from the 50’s into the early 90’s, it was the Canadian government’s designated location for continuity of government in the event of nuclear war.  They’ve kept the furniture and technology of its time, so it’s a wild time capsule.  

Parents of a certain age have the disconcerting experience of hearing events they recall from their own lifetimes presented as history.  To the kids, the Cold War is vague and sort of mythical.  They have no idea how real it was, or how heavily it influenced how we saw the world.  Our tour guide was a crusty-but-funny veteran of the era who had some clear opinions, which added a distinct flavor to the day.  

The tour involved descending four levels underground, walking through decontamination chambers, seeing posters and equipment of the time, and hearing funny little details that make sense once you hear them.  We saw the command room, and TW got a picture of The Girl sitting at the head of the table looking like she was weighing options from the joint chiefs.  The guide pointed out that the Prime Minister’s chamber had a single bed; no family members allowed.  The main computer room featured those five-foot-high mainframes with what look like reel-to-reel tapes on them.  (The guide mentioned that the walls of the computer room formed a faraday cage, to prevent signal leakage.)  The office spaces had heavy black rotary phones, and plenty of selectric typewriters.  We even saw the radio station from which emergency information would go out to the country; with its dual turntables and reel-to-reel tape decks, it looked a lot like my old college radio station.  Except for the whole “nuclear war” part.

The guide showed us the room with the plans on the wall for coordinating evacuation responses across the country.  He muttered bitterly that “the NDP government in Saskatchewan thought that if it ignored the Cold War, it would go away.”  The Girl responded brightly “it worked!”

Someday she may be at the head of that table.

Returning to the states, I couldn’t help but notice the wide parking spaces, the litter, the bumper stickers, and the stressed facial expressions.  Canada struck me as what America could have been if it had chosen to attempt to maintain a middle class over the last thirty years.  I wanted the kids to see that, just so they know that different choices are possible.  Sometimes it’s easier to envision alternatives when you have something to see.