Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Here's a short story I read this past weekend at a gathering of Franco-American artists sponsored by the Franco-American Center of the University of Maine. (More on the event itself shortly.)

An American Dream

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Mending Wall
Robert Frost

It is highly unlikely that Rita Poirier ever heard of the fences of Robert Frost’s pastoral poetry, neither is it probable that she ever read any Frost, for although the two lived in the same New England, no two people could have travelled on more dissimilar paths. But, upon seeing a beautiful fence, Rita did respond in a way that the laureate would certainly have recognized and celebrated.

But the reality was that the landscape and the conditions that made Rita Poirier what she was were vastly different than Robert Frost’s gentle farmsteads and small college towns. Rita’s New England was one of cotton mills and shoe shops and noisy tenements. Frost spoke his English with a soft and fluid flavor, Rita spoke her French with the nasality imposed by Québec winters and a stridency inflicted by crowded households.

But a fence – freshly painted a flavor of yellow and white not unlike the mixture of flour and buckwheat – was what sold Rita on the new house. The bungalow had several other features, but that fence surrounding the back yard was the crowning touch. Rita liked its powers of definition and gentility; it appealed to her sense of order and clean lines. Once seen, the fence became the deciding factor: Rita Poirier and her husband Emile would have 38 Adele Court as their new address, the address that would probably carry them to old age and to their graves.

The Poiriers were already in their advanced forties. They had had no children; they had saved enough money to finally leave the tidy tenement on River Street that had been the first address of their married life. Now was the time for Rita to fulfill her dream.

Two of her cousins had preceded her to the new development composed of small homes on a series of streets a few miles up the hill in the best parish in town: Sainte-Thérèse. A French parish, with French-speaking priests and French-speaking nuns and French-speaking people filling the pews at every Mass on Sunday.

She had Emile drive her around the new neighborhood. There was Bonneau’s Supermarket; there was the parish credit union with the sign in English and in French, there was Connie’s Coiffure, Marchand the cobbler, Chez Pinard, the ice cream shop – all within walking distance. She had spotted a branch of the main post office and had Emile go inside and see if any of the clerks spoke French. He had reported that all of them did, at least the ones who were on duty. Un paradis! she declared.

Thus, the Poiriers found themselves in early April of 1956 in the office of Marcotte Realty signing all sorts of papers to make the new house theirs. For Rita, it was the happiest moment of her life. She said so, then regretted it and corrected the proclamation to include the day of her wedding as the happiest. But, this was clearly the second.

Everything seemed new, although the bungalow had had a previous owner, who had been careful and respectful of the property. New paint – a soft shade of gray – covered the clapboards, and a discrete pink outlined the windows. Rita knew that combination: gray and pink were very modern. The seventy-five-by-hundred lot was tiny by some standards, but Rita thought it was grand. She would have preferred a breezeway connecting the house and the garage; a sort of sun room, perhaps, but that could come later. Emile was most pleased with the garage: finally he had a fitting shelter for his Studebaker.

There was a full cellar and since the house was built on a slope, the cellar had larger than normal windows and a full door. One did not climb out of the cellar, one walked out onto a back yard. This was covered with paving stones and it boasted clothes lines stretched between sturdy poles imbedded into the ground. Rita had nearly cried upon this sight. No more having to hang the laundry on a rickety contraption leaning out of a third floor porch.

The minimal landscaping would have disheartened other folks, but when one had spent so many years in a tenement building with a view of other tenements, the still-young weeping willow in the back yard and a struggling rose bush near the front made the house palatial. Emile said he knew someone who would sell him a used lawn mower; Rita said her cousin would help her map out a vegetable garden.

The address did pose a bit of a problem at first. Rita did not understand why it was 38 Adele Court instead of 38 Adele Street. The French in her wanted the word pronounced as court, meaning short. Emile explained it was a new, fancy way of making the place sound more important. And, the streets not being at right angles and meandering about at first contradicted Rita’s preference for order, but she found herself eventually charmed by the ambiguity.

The fence, however, was the pièce de résistance, and on the morning of the first day, she walked outside in her housecoat to caress it. Examining the yards and the bungalows that surrounded her on three sides, Rita Poirier talked to the fence. “Give me good neighbors,” she whispered.

On the afternoon of the third day, she heard voices outside and, for a moment, Rita thought she had returned to her boisterous tenement. She found the voices unsettling, not merely for being unexpected and unexplained, but as a reminder that her dream was unavoidably a shared one. Rita’s thoughts found immediate refuge, however, in the fence and she reasoned that it would protect her – from what, she was unsure, and because of that she stepped outside.

Emerging from her cellar onto the little terrace washed by the Spring sun, Rita identified the voices as male and female, both speaking French, which pleased and comforted her. She followed the sounds to their speakers and watched and listened. An older woman, slightly bent over and wearing a thick oversized sweater, was giving orders to a man who appeared to be removing some kind of structure, a lattice frame, from where it had been attached to the rear of a garage. Rita soon understood that the woman was telling the workman to take it all down and to haul it away. He was explaining that he would have to charge extra, that she had hired him to clean out the garage, not to cart away debris. The old woman swept her hands open in resignation and her gaze wandered and fell where Rita was standing. The two women sent each other a wave of the hand.

The next day, the two neighbors found the opportunity to introduce themselves. Rita learned that Louise Bessette was recently widowed. With warm weather on the way Madame Bessette had decided to empty the garage of her husband’s possessions – mostly tools.

“The arbor has to go also, I decided,” she told Rita. “My husband grew tomatoes and beans and sunflowers. I know nothing of such things and, besides, I am too old.”

“I wish I had known him. I could have used his suggestions for the garden I hope to have,” replied Rita.

Madame Bessette thought for a moment. “There are seeds and plantings in the cellar, I am certain. I will give them to you.”

As surely as the warming days of April bring life to the New Enland soil, the haphazard meeting of the two neighbor ladies by the fence they shared, brought life, gradually and steadily, to a friendship filled with exchanges of baked goods, advice on how to treat maladies and gossip.

Madame Bessette had lived in her bungalow for eight years, and she had seen, she would eagerly tell you, all sorts of neighbors. She never elaborated on her set of criteria, but she soon announced to Rita that she was a welcomed addition to the neighborhood and that she would be honored to introduce her to their other neighbor, a young mother by the name of Estelle Dupuis who had two little girls attending Sainte-Thérèse School.

On Sunday, the dream was made perfect by the mere act of walking to and from church. Reveling in the warmth of the clan, the Poiriers sent a bonjour here and a bonjour there and nodded to co-parishioners who were just like them and heading to and from houses that were just like theirs. Even Emile had to acknowledge the comfort and rewards of the day as he sat down for the Sunday boiled dinner after which he went to the garage to polish his Studebaker and Rita went to tend to her flower beds.

By the time Rita’s irises had poked out of the soil at the base of the weeping willow, the neighbor ladies, now three in number, met regularly at the fence which intersected their properties and linked their friendship. This became Rita’s world, bits and pieces of which would be shared every night with Emile at the supper table. Although the three friends had established a schedule of for their daily tête-â-tête – early afternoons before the Dupuis girls came home from school – Rita found herself peering through her windows or up from the garden to see if either neighbor was about and ready to engage in conversation.

During all this time, never was there a mention of the fourth neighbor. Rita was intrigued and one day asked Madame Bessette about the unknown person next door.

“They are two sisters. Des Américaines,” she said conspiratorially. “They only speak in English. They work in a women’s clothing store downtown. I rarely see them.” The summation, terse and definitive, did not invite further discussion. Rita reported the conversation that night to Emile who merely shrugged.

By the time June came along, the flowers and vegetable plants had taken hold in the back yard of 38 Adele Court, and on one bright Sunday afternoon, Rita had all the cousins and their husbands and their children over for a family picnic – the first one she had ever hosted. On folding chairs borrowed from the neighbors, the clan members drank soda pop and gin tonics on the paved section of the yard shielded from the sun by sheets thrown over the clothes lines.

One afternoon while hanging clothes to dry, Rita heard a commotion from the usually quiet English-speaking neighbors. On the other side of the fence two workmen had just finished digging a wide deep hole in close proximity to the fence. She watched from between the sheets while the men removed a piece of burlap from around the roots of a large bush. Rita gasped as she understood their intent and stared in near terror as the bush – the size of two or three small trees – was slowly dropped into the hole. The workmen filled the space around the trunk with dirt and while one of them proceeded to hose down the area quite thoroughly, the other walked to the house to converse with one of the unknown sisters. Moments later, the neighbor walked resolutely to the corner of the yard and threw a smile of satisfaction at the new landscape.

Invasion, despoliation, abomination! Rita wanted to yell out, And she would have, had she known the words in English.

Later, back in her laundry room, she looked out and imagined the invading vegetation fully grown and blocking her access to the very corner of the fence that had been the rendezvous point with her neighbors, the good neighbors. The neighbors would soon find an obstacle separating them, one that would grow and grow and spread and spread until the three ladies could never see each other.

“What is it?” asked Madame Bessette the next day.

“I have never seen anything like it,” added Estelle.

“Emile thinks its sumac,” said Rita.

“Sumac can be poisonous,” responded Estelle.

“Mon Dieu,” exclaimed the women in unison.

They were conversing at their usual corner and already the encroaching specimen was sending its barbed branches through the pickets, making abundantly clear that it was taking over.

That night, Rita complained again to Emile, and he happened to mention that no plant can survive salt. He added that in time salty soil will kill all vegetation.

Rita could not sleep. Halfway through the night she walked into her kitchen, turned the lights on, opened a cabinet and her eyes scanned the pantry items, stopping on a round cardboard container. “Ah, Morton’s. Dieu merci!” Rita turned the container and gave a loving smile to the image of a girl with the umbrella. “Ah, you and I have much work to do,” she affirmed. “We have a fence to defend.”

Paul Paré

April, 2013

Saturday, September 11, 2010

An open letter to US Senate Candidate Lamontagne.

I can’t remember if I told you then, but when you ran for Governor of New Hampshire in 1996, that was the only time in my life I voted Republican. Although I have generally disagreed with everything the GOP says and/or stands for (not always the same), I knew you personally and I saw you as a genuine, sincere, honest and dedicated individual. I believed that as governor you would bring pride to New Hampshire’s Franco-Americans. I also believed that as governor, you couldn’t do much harm.

What a difference 14 years can make. You’re undoubtedly still honest and dedicated, the same devoted family man and unselfish supporter of many good causes. However, should you win next week’s Republican primary, I couldn’t vote for you – not this time. Even if I still lived in New Hampshire, I couldn’t vote for you. Even if your opponent were a convicted felon or a certified lunatic or both, I couldn’t vote for you.

The reason is rather simple. It’s not that in the current campaign you refer to yourself as the “true conservative.” (Some people might relish the contradiction in terms in that phrase.) You’ve always been a conservative fellow. After all, you’re the product of Manchester, N.H., and a Franco family.

The reason is that you’ve not only aligned yourself with the Tea Party folks, you’ve actively sought them out and licked their boots (I’m being kind here.) Read some history, Ovide. Look up the Know Nothings. The Tea Party is the most recent reincarnation of that kind of hate group, the same folks who burned an Ursuline Sisters Convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and a French-Canadian Catholic chapel in Lewiston, Maine, in the 19th century. It’s clear to me that the Tea Partyers are their direct descendents. Why isn’t it clear to you?

Not only have you’re proudly branded yourself the Tea Party favorite, you’ve now taken up one of their mantras: establishing English as the official language of the United States. Come on, Ovide. Think about it. That’s the same concept you loudly opposed in New Hampshire on numerous occasions back in the ‘90s. If it was bigoted and mean-spirited then, why isn’t it today – on an even larger scale? If you opposed it then, why espouse it now?

Could it be that the Tea Party is applying a certain litmus test to make sure the candidates they support march in step to their hate agenda? But, more importantly, could it be that the Franco-American identity you’ve proudly proclaimed and defended all your life has now become a liability? Have you come to believe that being a Franco might make you less American in the eyes of the bigots you hope will vote for you? I would like to think not, but I sadly suspect I am wrong.

In the final analysis, cher Ovide, I would one day like to see a respected, effective, intelligent and honest Franco-American serve this great country in the US Senate. I fear that won’t be you. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Mattress RIP

Today is the day the new mattress is to be delivered.
Somehow that makes me sad. And pensive.
What object inanimate is there that is so intimate?
I wonder and I cannot summon any other.
For all my life, there’s been a mattress for all my nights.
This will be Number Six, counting only those long-term.
What else has shared my tossing and turnings?
What else has absorbed fluids in such variety?
What else has tolerated the passion and love-making?
What else has always so easily forgiven and forgotten?

This new mattress will be different.
A graduation from Queen to King,
A softer, gentler one,
To respect old bones and sore muscles.
And what of my bed mate?
Will this mattress camouflage as well
All his yelps and groans and utterances from dreams
Good and Bad?
What of my sneezes and restless legs?
Will the King’s extra inches calm them
Or at least distance them?

This Number Six has its pedigree to establish
And an impressive record to maintain.
I wish it well.
As I mourn the one it replaces,
The one carried away by the movers
For an extra fourteen dollars,
A trifle for all of its service,
I dare not ask where it will go,
How it will end.
I give it my gratitude and whisper an

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Invisible Franco-American at the Tea Party - Part One

I feel like a Rip Van Winkle who’s just awakened to find that his world has gone upside down. The biggest wonder: a glance at the ballot for the upcoming primary elections, and lo and behold, there are more Franco-American names than ever, and most of them are Republican. What the hell happened, as good old Rip would say?

LePage, Poliquin, Michaud, Lamontagne, Racine. LaPierre. Where do they come from? In Northern New England, it used to be Franco-Americans could muster a few credible candidates for local offices like county sheriff and state representative. Those constituencies were local, small and manageable. But for governor and for U.S. Congress and Senate? Never, hardly ever. Once in a while a Franco name would surface for state or national office, but always as a Democrat. A Franco-American on a Republican Party ballot? Unthinkable.

Some of the Franco candidates are clearly favored by the grass roots Tea Partiers according to several polls and the press. This should be less of a surprise since Francos have always been conservative in their politics. I’m tempted to say that Francos might still harbor some deep feelings as outsiders which would clearly make them convenient fellow travelers of the current crop of Tea Partiers.

Maine by far has the largest number of Franco-American candidates. Of course, it’s the only state with a Franco incumbent, Congressman Mike Michaud, a Democrat. He’s running for reelection and is opposed by a newcomer, Republican Jason Levesque of Auburn. Neither is opposed in the primary, so the November battle for that seat in Washington will be fought over by two Francos, in what is very likely a historical first.

The governor’s race has two Francos among the seven Republican candidates, both from Waterville: Bruce Poliquin , a businessman, and Paul LePage, the three-term mayor of that city. Both are first-time candidates for statewide office. Neither would embody the typical Franco-American experience (if there is one, of course.)

Poliquin points to his roots on his official website, citing his great-grandparents who emigrated from Canada. The family names in his background – Poliquin, Cyr, Doyon and Bouchard – are common Franco names. His education, however, veered from tradition. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover and studied economics at Harvard. Over his career, he’s owned several businesses and from all appearances has made a success of them.

LePage’s life history is also atypical, especially his youth in Lewiston which is right out of a Dickens novel. According to the candidate’s web site, he was the oldest of 18 children in an “impoverished, dysfunctional family.” He left home at the age of 11 and “lived on the streets for two years, making a meager living shining shoes.” Later, when he tried to get to college, he kept failing his verbal SAT scores. According to LePage, it was only when Husson College administered the exam in French, his mother tongue, that he passed and was accepted. I have my doubts about the accuracy of this claim. As a contemporary from Lewiston (I’m four years older,) I suspect that a Franco kid in his circumstances at that time would have no more than a limited oral knowledge of French. His resume does include, however, a stint as an “executive” of Arthurette Lumber in Canada.

At the Republican Convention in May, LePage proved quite popular and was clearly the favorite of the state’s Tea Party. In a recent televised debate, he used a third of his opening remarks to address the audience in French, a rather gutsy act – one aimed obviously at the Franco voters who have traditionally voted the Democratic ticket. LePage has been quoted as saying, “the one thing a Frenchman likes more than a Democrat is another Frenchman.” Everyone will have to see if he makes it to the November ballot to find out if he’s right on that one.

There are no Francos on the Democratic ticket, although Democrat Donna Dion, former mayor of Biddeford, is waging a write-in candidacy. Besides serving as mayor and Chair of the School Board, Dion has worked as chief financial officer for two non-profit agencies and is widely known as an advocate for a number of social and educational causes.

The Maine primary election is June 8, while the primaries in New Hampshire and Vermont are scheduled for September. We’ll talk about the candidates in those states later. Rip Van Winkle deserves another nap.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

long ago, in a crowded bar

Excerpt from my first novel Singing the Vernacular, in which a lonely widower of 50 spends a couple of hours in a bar, from the chapter entitled His Bearded Cheek:

“You don’t know how lucky you are that your wife died,” Perry said.

I was stunned. I wasn’t certain that I had heard correctly, and then my mouth opened wide with disbelief. Perry apologized, muttering something about not really meaning it, and that it was just his bitterness speaking.

“Oh, don’t mind him. Just because his wife took him for a couple of million, he thinks all marriages have to end the same way.” It was Perry’s friend from Saint Louis offering the excuse.

The three of us occupied a small corner of the bar where we had been corralled by the ever-growing Saturday night crowd. Forced by the herd of gay men to stand closer to each other than I wanted, our breaths collided. I felt the mist of Perry’s spit on my face when he talked to me. I could smell body odor on both men and, to my surprise, I found it wasn’t unpleasant. The milling throng surrounding us had us constantly shifting our positions but no matter how much our trio was jostled about, I nearly always found myself caught in the middle, between Perry and his friend Jack.

Perry craned his neck looking around the room and signaled for a waiter. He was obviously drunk and appeared to have forgotten the remark he had so casually dropped on me. Jack was sober. He was working hard trying to repair the damage caused by his friend.

“Please, don’t pay any attention to Perry,” he whispered in my ear. Pulling me closer, Jack explained that Perry had just wrapped up a bitter divorce. “I don’t know exactly how much money she sucked out of him, but Perry’s very, very wealthy. He still has plenty to spare. He has a thriving real estate business. He’s the one paying all the expenses for this weekend, for all of us. But, whatever the amount they settled on, Perry feels his ex-wife got too much.” Jack’s way of talking, whispering in a conspiratorial way, was annoying. I had to strain in order to hear him over the noise of the crowd. I hesitated to ask him to repeat, fearing he would just get closer.

“Let me buy you guys a drink,” Perry said. He had caught the attention of a waiter. “She told me she’d make me pay dearly and she sure did,” he told us. I was surprised that he had kept up with our conversation. “She just couldn't’t deal with the fact that I liked young boys more than her. I know your situation is totally different, but I can’t help dumping on all women right now, especially that breed called wives. What are you drinking?” Perry said while grabbing the waiter’s arm.

“Scotch. Dewar’s preferably, and on the rocks.”

It was all Jack’s fault. He was the one who had drawn my life’s story out of me with his disarming directness. I had just walked into the bar and had headed straight to the first open space I spotted without noticing who my neighbors were. Jack turned to face me immediately. “Well, hi there!” he said. He elbowed his neighbor to catch his attention. “This is one of the guys we met at the pool this afternoon.” Turning back to me, he extended his hand. “I’m Jack. And this is Perry.”

I quickly paraded the day’s events before me and placed these two among the new faces I had seen at the pool party and later at dinner. Perry was tall, about my age, and very handsome. Jack was even taller and he was sporting a deep tan.

“Sorry, but I just can’t remember your name. I met so many people this afternoon and I’m terrible with names,” Jack said.

“My name’s Marc.”

Grabbing my shoulders with both hands and looking at me straight in the eyes, Jack said, “So, tell me all about Marc.” He accurately read the look of confusion on my face. “I want to know everything about this person Marc who is standing in front of me.”

Flattered by the attention and by his sincerity, I blurted out a capsule description of my life. Jack listened attentively. I thought Perry wasn’t interested; he had his eye on a couple of young pretty boys.

After I was finished, Jack shook my hand in an exaggerated gesture of formality and said, “I am very glad to know you.” Perry simply volunteered that he too was fifty years old. “Fifty, but not dead yet,” he added. Neither offered any other information about themselves, and we drifted into the usual bar banter. That is, until Perry dropped his line about me being so lucky that my wife died.

I scanned the busy room, looking over the heads of the chatting and laughing men, and I suddenly felt a deep gratitude for all the years of my life when I hadn’t had the time or the need for a place like this. Then, the clamor and the throng vanished, and I suffered through a drenching of serious self-pity. Without a word, Perry handed me my drink. I thanked him and emptied nearly half of the Dewar’s in a quick gulp. I noticed Perry was staring at me and I stretched my arm out, holding my glass towards him. He responded and we toasted each other silently, sending the clinking sound of our glasses into space as a testimonial to our shared misery.

Perry turned away from me and was swallowed up by the noisy crowd. I shot a look at Jack who threw back a knowing smile. “Does that all the time...just walks away,” he explained. “Nothing personal. I told you already: don’t mind him.”

“Last call, last call,” a faceless voice invaded the smoky room. “Last call.”

I looked at my watch and was surprised to discover that it was almost 2 o’clock in the morning. My two hours in the bar had evaporated. It worried me that I was developing a fondness for jammed bars. Was I beginning to find, in the crush of people, with all the noise, the music, even the smoke, a haven? Was it that entertaining, or distracting? The one certainty was the exhilaration I felt when I realized I was surrounded, totally and overwhelmingly by gay men – all kinds of gay men, dozens and dozens of gay men, nothing but gay men.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bergeron, Gosselin, Chouinard and other Franco name dropping(s)

The television season about to draw to a close has showcased more personalities with Franco-American surnames than ever before, according to a totally unofficial and undocumented survey by this writer. It could be a gut feeling, or the fact that I’ve been watching much too much TV lately, but it does seem like many French names have popped up on credits in the past few months.

The ratings surprise of the season, Dancing with the Stars, had not one but two big Franco-American names: Tom Bergeron, the ever-smiling and affable host, and Kate Gosselin, one half of the famed reality show ex-couple and the most talked about dancer of the season.

Now, Bergeron is one of the country’s best known TV hosts, but few are aware that his roots are strongly New England: born in Haverhill, Mass., and young radio and TV personality in Portsmouth, NH, and Boston. His first TV hosting job was for Granite State Challenge, a high school quiz show on NH Public Television. He was at WENH-TV at the same time I was, as producer of the Franco-American children’s show The Franco File. (I don’t think we ever met, but the TV director for the pilot of my show was a young lady who dated Tom at the time, and I think they eventually got married.)

One important thing about Bergeron – beyond his obvious talent – is that he kept his name at a time when many aspiring radio hosts and deejays would anglicize their last names. Does anyone remember Jack Smacks, famous deejay from the Worcester, Mass. area in the ‘60s, whose real name was Jacques Frappier? Bergeron’s career escalated when he moved to California and got the spot as host of Hollywood Squares, and later America’s Funniest Home Videos and Dancing with the Stars. And, the rest is Wikipedia history.

Ms. Gosselin, one of the dancers on the current season, owes her tabloid fame to the TLC reality show Jon and Kate Plus 8 that featured her and husband Jon Gosselin and their eight (!) children. The show started in 2005 and ended in 2009 when the couple announced they were splitting up after ten years and a set of twins and sextuplets (hence the 8 of the title.) Both the reality program and the media frenzy that followed the couple’s split have been controversial as was Kane’s performance on Dancing.

Ratings on TV have rarely been hurt by controversy and a couple of Dancing programs this season won the ratings war for ABC, including for the first week of April when it beat out American Idol, surprising Hollywood and Madison Avenue watchers alike.

Kate Gosselin, however, is not Franco-American. Née Katie Kreider, she was born in Pennsylvania where she met and married Jon Gosselin. The latter’s father is Franco-American and his mother is Hawaiian. But, for the purposes of this blog, it’s the name that counts, which explains the presence of Kate Gosselin and the absence of Christopher Meloni of Law & Order, SVU although his mother is Franco-American.

Another top-rated show, Castle, has Nathan Fillion in the lead role. It’s surprised everyone in the ratings game in part because of its position following Dancing on ABC. Some writers have placed the show’s success on the star quality of Fillion, a former soap opera star and heartthrob from One Life to Live, Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (And, you thought I watched PBS all the time.) Fillion, by the way, is a native of Edmonton, Alberta, and I suppose he could be considered a Franco-American as much as most of our ancestors who left Canada to make a living in the United States.

The most prominent French surname of the current TV season was probably Gervais, as in Ricky Gervais, the UK-born actor, comedian, writer and producer whose credits read like a Who’s Who of Television of the past decade. Most people recognize him from the HBO series Extras, a follow-up to the original The Office he created for British TV. Gervais’ father, Lawrence Raymond Gervais of London Ontario, was stationed in London (the original one) and met the TV star’s mother during a blackout. In the current season, Rickey Gervais hosted the 67th Golden Globe Awards, he appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and was panelist on Jerry Seinfeld’s The Marriage Ref. To date, he’s made 15 guest appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman. And, of course his name appears several times a week on the credits of The Office as the program’s creator.

The name that has warmed my heart the most, however, is that of Yvon Chouinard, the Lisbon, Maine, native, who appears on commercials for the environmentally-conscious American Express Members Project. A world-renowned mountain climber, Chouinard founded a company that produced steel pitons for rock climbing, and, as he says in the American Express ad, he became aware of the environmental damage caused by his pitons and changed the manufacturing process. He is credited with introducing the clean climbing movement to North America. He also founded Patagonia, a sports clothing manufacturer with world-wide sales that, among other things, propelled the organic cotton industry in California.

So what does all this mean? I’ll let the sociologists and anthropologists ponder that one. I’ll just keep tuned in, and maybe in a few seasons we’ll have a Franco-American version of Jersey Shore – perhaps filmed at Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Can’t wait for that one.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

NY Times obit of Michel Chartrand shows ignorance

The Sunday April 18 NY Times obituary of Michel Chartrand hit a nerve.
In the first sentence, Chartrand is called a firebrand 'Canadian' labor leader. Right away, here's bias or stupidity or both! Chartrand spent his entire adult life fighting to be identified as Québécois instead of Canadian.
Douglas Martin, one of the Times' veteran obituary writers, then refers to Chartrand's court outburst as 'vulgar'. A cheap, very cheap shot. Chartrand was one of the more than 400 individuals arrested and jailed for months during Québec's October Crisis of 1970 when Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and suspended civil liberties. At his trial several months later on a charge of sedition, Chartrand spoke to the judge in strong terms, accusing him of being "prejudiced, partial and fanatical." Looking down on the judge (Chartrand was very tall and large), he added: "You're smaller than I thought." That's how Montreal's English language press translated it. In French, 'petit' in this context would have referred to intellect as much as stature. Fiery, imprudent, yes; vulgar, no.
Also, in his obiturary, Martin retells how Chartrand entered the Trappist monastery as a young man. His comment about Chartrand being able to keep the vow of silence as 'remarkable' is gratuitous and shows a true lack of respect.
I doubt that the writer knows much about the unrest and turbulence in Québec in the 60s and 70s. His obituary of Chartrand, one of the icons of that era, is a rewrite of the English-language press items in Canada since his death April 12. If Douglas Martin had bothered to, or been able to, read what the French media had to say, the NY Times piece might have been more nuanced and more honest.