Ginger Ice Cream, Canada Day, Slow Starts, Sudden Movements

My advice: have the ginger ice cream in a cone with a scoop of green tea ice cream on top.

Sometimes it’s funny how things run together. Several years ago, knowledge of the El Nino phenomenon finally filtered down into the average joe’s skull (read: me), and then…right away, the whole thing started to go off the rails, and what promised to make things more predictable ended up making them more surprising. In my part of the world, for example, there are red stinging jellyfish sprinkled in amongst their white (and harmless) cousins…but honestly, I never saw one. People say they’re very common, but I’ve spent half my life in and out of the salt chuck of the Inside Passage, and never encountered one. When I was young, I thought they were just things older kids made up to freak out younger kids.

How wrong I was. Round about the summer of 1997, we experienced a HUGE El Nino effect, and the water temperature around my erstwhile summer home on Bowen Island (still working on a replacement for that) soared to over 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and stayed there for days. And I got my first red jellyfish sting.

Then, over the next ten years, we got inundated. Constantly scooping, chucking, burying these little bastards. Suddenly, they were everywhere, threatening dogs and children who’d never been made hip to their presence. Their sting is actually quite interesting, the mechanics of it: it’s fast, much faster than a bee sting for example…and maybe because of that, it’s a very, um, clean sort of a burn. Hurts quite a bit, for a while; but with very little aftertaste, if you will. I found an old National Geographic lying around the cabin with a big article on jellyfish stings in it, and it’s really fascinating stuff, amazing little natural biotechnology…you just know someone’s working on adapting it for medicinal purposes…

Anyway, big El Nino, by all accounts pushing the edge of the model’s parameters…and then, weirdly, a very mystifyingly drawn-out La Nina, the backwards stroke of heat…and that was right outside the parameters of the model. In fact, that we average joes haven’t heard much of El Nino in recent years is probably down to this, that he was supposed to come in when his sister left, but she didn’t leave, she just stayed. For years. Now a new El Nino is finally massing (as far as I understand it, that is), and this one promises to be very much larger than the last one, that seemed to announce the arrival of the red jellyfish. And who knows what it’ll bring in with it?

Meanwhile, here I am, stuck in the city, unable to observe. While a different sort of El Nino hits Vancouver, this one made out of money and construction projects. Jackhammer noises fill the air like crickets; red stinging high-end shoe stores encroach on the concrete beaches, where once coffee shops and greasy spoons lounged worry-free in the sun, and their stings are not so clean. The place gets dirtier and noisier and more expensive all the time. It’s an economic boom, but it’s also a bringdown. Under our noses, unnoticed, it’s changing the ecology of our town in a permanent way. And, of course, us ourselves.

It’ll get changed in its turn, though: the little sister of this El Nino arrives in 2011, after the Olympics have left, and then who knows how long she’ll stay, or what weird phenomena she’ll create? I’ll be gone by that time, I hope: up to the coast somewhere, by hook or by crook, to chart the daily evidence of temperature change with my skin, and escape (as far as I’m able) the tide of friendly tourists. I, too, will be right outside the parameters of the model.

But I won’t be alone, which’ll make the whole thing simutaneously more attractive, and more difficult. All over Canada, middle-class semi-urban kids like me find themselves longing for a Land Rush…but the land’s all getting pretty expensive, and the cost of it drives most of us that much deeper into the moneymaking that can really only be done in the urban environment, land of jackhammer crickets. All over Canada, people are waking up one day to find that they can’t hang on to their countryside getaways, because they can’t turn down the money they’re being offered for it. Or, they can’t get these places in the first place, because they can’t compete for them. Or, they’re just plain not allowed to even try. For about ten years, a friend of mine who’s got a very good job has been trying as hard as she can to achieve her modest version of the Canadian Dream: a truck, a dog, an acre of land out in the woods. Now after ten years, she’s settled for a quarter-acre, and she’s decided to put off the dog for a while. She’s got the truck, though. But, isn’t that just a bit strange? Canada’s got the most acreage per person of any country on Earth, but it isn’t easy to get to it anymore; Germany compares favourably with us, as far as that kind of accessibility to the wide open spaces and the good life goes. From the hot buzz of money in Vancouver, pre-Olympic Games, a temperature change seeps out into the nearby rural landscape, and every summer’s the last summer in the old place, or the first summer in the new one. The summers in between are either gone for good, or yet to arrive.

Kind of where I’m at right now.

Still: ginger ice cream. We didn’t used to have that, either, and I’m not saying things should, or could, ever stay the same. What I’m saying is, one of the things that’s going on in my generation of Canadians, which I think is unprecedented in our history, is that take everything else as you will, ever-increasing numbers of us are growing ever more desperate to find a way out of the Big Smoke somehow. Desperate. But although once upon a time in this country it was harder to get into town than out of it, that situation’s been reversed just as the frantic desire to get the hell out has begun to surge up in many unexpected places. And that’s a big, big change. But like all big, big changes, you don’t see the effects of it right away, and the effects that you do see are ones you’re just as likely to attribute to something else. Did the big El Nino of ten years ago really bring in the greater numbers of the red jellyfish that I saw, and carefully avoided? Maybe it did, and maybe it didn’t; the ocean’s a very large system, and I barely achieved a functioning knowledge of my own bay over the forty years I spent living in it. What about the spiralling (and believe me, spiralling is exactly the right word) cost of land out in the sticks, or indeed land anywhere? The conventional explanation is that the urban market is the driver of the rural one, but you know, now that I think about that I’m not so sure it’s true in anything more than a simplistic way. Canada, whether by real character or by reflex, is a country full-up with people who like to embed themselves in their own natural landscape to some degree or another. Canoes and lakes, sailboats and coastlines, tents and hammocks, mountains and trees. Maybe it’s our myth. Maybe it’s that we very commonly had that experience as part of our upbringing. Maybe it’s that we just plain had a lot of room to do it in all this time. But for whatever reason, if that liking exists, we could call it demand as easily as we could call anything else demand…and if you’ve got a whole load of people out there who’ve got a demand that isn’t being answered, well…I’m not a big believer in sudden ecological “tilts”, because I think the word is too easy, and a little deceptive, but in my part of the world the price of the good life (heretofore fairly cheap) is rapidly becoming productive of gallows humour: because you can’t afford to live in the city, but then again you can’t afford to live out of it either. In Soviet Union, living affords you. If you like.

So says the white guy from the middle class. Of course if you’re Native, you’re probably reading this right now and thinking “dude, please, you don’t even know, for the love of God spare me your whining…” Ha. Point to you, my aboriginal friend. However, it still doesn’t mean this isn’t really going on.

Heck, it’s not even a specifically Canadian story, is it?

We talk about rapid social change brought on by technology, money, and markets all the time, all the time, all the time. But social change, like the ocean, is a very big system. And sometimes our standard models can’t predict it as well as we assume they can.

So let’s think about that, this Canada Day. While we enjoy our ice cream, and count our blessings thus far.

Hope you all had a swell barbeque, folks!


3 responses to “Ginger Ice Cream, Canada Day, Slow Starts, Sudden Movements

  1. Happy Canada Day, Plok!

    Wow. What an incredible post. “You can’t afford to live in the city, but then again you can’t afford to live out of it either.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. I work with homelessness, so every day I see research about the lack of affordable housing in Canada, the rocketing price of housing, Vancouver’s refusal to live up to its Olympic bid promises regarding creating affordable housing, etc. I have a great government job, yet buying a home isn’t even close to an option for me, and I live in Ottawa, not Vancouver or Calgary or Toronto!

    By the time my wife and I have our student loans paid off, our children will be ready for University. I mean, how do you save for your children’s tuition when it is going to take you 20 years to pay of your own?

    And as you point out, you and I are much better off than most people. This country has hundreds of thousands of homeless people, and possibly millions who are at risk of homelessness, just a paycheck or two away.

    The Canadian dream for our generation isn’t a nice home with a two car garage. The Canadian dream for our generation is not ending up homeless. That’s pretty much all we can afford to shoot for.

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