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07/01/2013: The Longest Canada Day

I’m almost back to normal, though my body remains confused about why I

Missed the big party in the capital, but that was alright with me.

insist on lying down in the dark between 1 and 5 am, which it regards as Afternoon Drive Time. It would be if I was still in China, but I’m sitting in a sunny, leafy backyard behind a loving occasional home that features books, the resumption of sweet old conversations, gustatory temptations that haven’t crooned to me from such close range for nearly a year, and beds in the basement for son and bride and me. We’re back in Canada, almost completely. We flew on Canada Day, which for a long while seemed it would never come; when it did, it went on and on.

It started the way most days have recently, at least for this displaced Canadian trying to figure out Where is HERE? Though worn to a frazzle by an exhausting wrap-up of my working year in Dalian, China, my bladder and the barking of sunrise called me from my bed at about 4:30 a.m. Happy Canada Day! I tried to get back to sleep, but my mind-emptying mechanism was on the fritz. (I couldn’t stop writing parts of this thing, for instance, but I was also mentally packing, packing.)

5:48 a.m., July 1. We are flying back (home?) to Ottawa today. It’s been broad daylight – of a grey and smoky kind – for an hour and a half. There’s only one time zone in China, Beijing-centric, natch, and we in the east of the country get an early, early sun. We fly to the capital at 12:30 pm, arriving about an hour later, where we’ll wait for the Toronto flight out at 6:05 p.m. We will be in the air for twelve hours. When we touch down in Ottawa, after a bleary nod to Lester B. Pearson as we race through his airport in Toronto to catch our plane to the Canadian capital, it will still be July 1. Thirty-six hours of Canada Day. Fireworks will be visible during our descent. Well, this has been my favourite welcome-home fantasy, but that’s partly based on Dalian thinking: even at the end of June, it’s full-on darkness by 8 o’clock, whereas the saving of precious summer daylight hours make Canadian evenings go on and on. There won’t be real fireworks exploding from Parliament Hill until Uncle Bernie has us safely in his Subaru, I expect…

(I thought I’d be writing on the planes and in various airports. I did, but my short sleep put me behind the circadian eight-ball right off the break. There were only intermittent fits of writing; I probably could have fought off my family’s longing to use my laptop as entertainment centre, but the call to slice and dice words was less than insistent. I couldn’t even blame my kid for my lack of production, so what was the use in even having him?)

Spending Canada Day: well, I’m a good Canadian, so I’ll be reading an American novel, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. It’s about baseball, and it entirely suits the visions of batting splendour that still attend the moments before I fall asleep – a level and effortless swing, the vision of a slowly approaching ball that looks as big and hittable as a dinner gong. (I really do see this as I close my eyes to another middle-aged day. I started noticing it recently, but who knows how long I’ve been swinging into sleep? I’ve loved that game for untold innings.) Reading about baseball also matches the disorientation of a time-travelling, geographically confused, worn-out old ballplayer who still wants to oil up his glove in the sunset years of his athletic prime. (Hmmph. It’s midnight, Cinder-fella: your throwing shoulder is fulla rust and those long-gone “good wheels” are falling off one by one.) No magazines, no in-flight sit-coms or missed-but-not-lamented movies for me. Just the luxury of time, no competing interests of any real muscle, and the appeal of getting lost in what looks to be a good book. A plan!

Superb blurb from J. Franzen!

It’s 9:15 a.m., July 2, according to my timepiece and my China-calibrated body rhythms, but the longest Canada Day persists. After my struggle for airplane sleep ended, so did my attack on The Art of Fielding. The book seems to be drooping after a brilliant opening two hundred pages. (In hindsight, though, it was me that wilted; I picked it up during my mid-night non-sleeping since we finally touched down in Ottawa, and surprise! The book was great again after some horizontal sleep, much better than my white-flag-waving brain thought it was during the long flight.) I am finally going to give in to the charms of the tiny chairback movie screen; Field of Dreams is on the menu.

Ninety minutes seemed possible, though I’d neglected to get headphones and failed to consider all the late-flight interruptions for bilingual announcements. I watched Kevin Costner hearing voices in his cornfield, talking to Shoeless Joe, and the guy from Thirty Something trying to talk sense to him about selling the farm. I remembered that in the original novel by W.P. Kinsella

Mr. Kinsella, one of our good ‘uns. Order of Canada recipient, and not exclusively for the ‘stache.

(Canada Day! Canadian writer!), Shoeless Joe, it was J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye midwife, for whom the spirit of baseball was to “ease his pain” by going road-tripping with a nutty corn farmer.

We managed to make our connection at Toronto Pearson, from which we could clearly see the CN Tower and the downtown skyline from, what, 30 kilometres away? In Beijing, by contrast, we couldn’t see much more than 500 metres. (Maybe there was some fog, but certainly the air looked particulate-filled. Chewy.) Gosh, I’ve missed Canada! I’m always excited to get back in the summer — so much family, so many friends, so much of everything that I miss. This time, though, I was filled with manic energy and the periodic predisposition to weep, then to howl like I’d just hit a walk-off home run, then to polka with strangers, then to just sit and gobble the landscape with my eyes.

Despite the hours in the air and the contorted sleep, I was dizzy with excitement and gratitude, misty eyes and a constricted throat. Once we knew that, thanks to a flight delay for the Ottawa-bound plane, that we’d actually make our connection, I paused and breathed and blessed my country. Home! There was baseball on TV, and Canuck superstar Joey Votto just happened to be batting for Cincinnati as I walked by a sports bar. I’m home! People were reading books and magazines, as they mainly don’t in China. I walked by a mag shop with dozens of things in my own mother tongue that I lusted to buy. I watched reports of Canada Day festivities, including one where Aboriginal and non-native communities (on the Miramichi in New Brunwick?) had come together for a multicultural pow-wow, after years ethnic antagonism over fishing rights. They’ve realized they’re all in the same lobster boat, that they must work together. Sounds like Canada (then and now)! There were Scottish dancers sharing a stage with the feathered and bespangled native fancy dancers. There were Irish- and Quebecois-themed teepees at this new inter-community festival. It’s CBC television. I’m home! I was even loving Toronto. Maybe this year has been more stressful than I realized.

9:30 p.m., Canada Time. The sun is just setting as we fly. This time I’m sure, but about halfway through our 12 hours in the air from Beijing to Toronto, I couldn’t decide, and was too bleary to bother asking, whether the light we were seeing was an Asian sunset or a northwestern Canadian sunrise. I confirm my suspicions: I am no scientist, but there might be a poem there. 38 minutes ‘til home!

Home. Our four years in China have surely raised our Global Citizen Scores, and at times our little nuclear unit wonders where home really is. Our son has spent nearly a third of his life in Dalian, and that’s where most of his friends and memories are. He loves to see his brothers and other family, and to eat poutine – I hope, in that order – but once that’s off the list, he’ll be pretty much done with Canada. (Well, and the candy. And root beer. And the local library, too. Don’t forget the Doritos.)

 9:35 p.m. We’re descending. Oh! I saw a little town, five minutes or so west of Ottawa, and the dark square with the fiery/disappearing blooms must’ve been the central park. I imagine a parade with floats for the Optimist Club and the Legion, minor hockey and gymnastics, maybe some lovable local in a John A. MacDonald mask and period costume. I’ll bet there was face-painting, and

A CD parade float, a truly Canadian theme.

Suessian hats in red and white, and Stompin’ Tom and the Hip and maybe even Avril Lavigne playing on somebody’s borrowed stereo system; there were a thousand balloons. There must have been hot dogs and bad coffee and soft drinks in ice-filled tubs, and lots of runs to Tim Horton’s. (Must’ve been a Tim’s float, or Timbits for the kids who won prizes or races.) I hope baseball was played, but it was more likely to be soccer. And when the sunlight dialled down, a few leading citizens took care of bringing the skylight sparkle to the town’s children; in my little hometown, they burst into the deep blue from a small, bushy island in the middle of the Grand River.

As we landed in Ottawa, I convinced myself that I could just see, far off, the big national sky show where tens of thousands cheer and sigh after a day of sun and music. (I loved the concerts at Major’s Hill Park, but after our years in China, I’ve had enough bangs and starbursts. Still, it was a kick to see them from 20,000 feet.) I was blitzed with fatigue and nostalgia and what I think of as warm and benevolent kind of patriotism, though I can’t pretend there isn’t a sprinkling of absurd pride and geographical superiority as well. Canada Day Forever? Nope, but at times it sure felt that way. And sure enough, there was Uncle Bernie, “Saint Bernard” as his Wendy calls him, with a big smile and a bigger hug and the best taxi ride ever to the most welcoming of basement bedrooms. Home. Thirty-four hours since July 1 started in Dalian, and two to go.

Now, even for a Fourth o’ July salute to the Americans on their flag-waving day, I’ve swung too late. (Blame jet-lag. I am.) Sometimes, though, you hit the ball perfectly and it ends up in the first baseman’s glove; I hope this slow swing is a flare off the end of the bat that drops down the left-field line. Yeah, it’s a double, woulda bin a triple if I could still run! As we used to say before the wheels fell off, it’ll be a line drive in the scorebook. (In mine, it already is.) Hope your fires worked, hope your little piece of your nation has some happy in it, and hope that the earth as one country gains ever more traction in our sane and intelligent hearts. Home!

Canuck readers, I hope you had a great day. To the rest of you: wish you were here!

Comments (2)

  1. Guo

    If I knew baseball and Canada, I would understand it better.

    • And if I knew Mandarin and China better, we’d be even deeper friends! (Mr. Guo is a loyal young buddy whose challenges in following JH.com are thornier than most. His English is quite good; on top of being a great guy to play half-court hoops with, he’s also been my “fanyi” (translator) more times than I can count (or than he would want to!). Still, it’s his second language, and baseball is a mystery to most Chinese.)
      Here’s the short news, XQ: I was very emotional coming back to Canada this summer, more so than the first three summers; it’s a pleasure to be reading long fiction again; I love Canada Day, even when I’m flying; I haven’t started getting fatter yet, but it’s very tempting!

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