All your Moose-Bucks

“Wait, why Saskatoon?”

Every Canadian who learned who were on vacation from America asked us this question with shock, in a way that showed that they loved their city but they wouldn’t understand what would bring an American there. (I think it would be like a person from Ogden, Utah wondering why a man from Australia had chosen that particularly city for vacation, it just didn’t compute.)

Even Sonja, the kind Canadian woman who worked the WestJet check-in counter at the Saskatoon Airport, wondered why. “What did you even find to do here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

We’d done lots of things. Live music, beers, nightclubs, art galleries, live theater, long drives through the lush Saskatchewan farmland, historical exploration in small resort towns, long walks and talks, exploration of local neighborhoods and universities, coffee shops, and window shopping. It was difficult to explain that we’d chosen it to see a different side of life in a different place, somewhere far away but somehow just close enough to home. And in Canada, familiar to the culture of the United States but just one parallel universe away, with customs and currency just one degree off from the familiar. A place where people spoke the same, but the vowels were just a bit longer, giving an almost Irish lilt to the accents. (Example, instead of home, they say hohme, the oh just a bit longer.)

Sonja understood. “It sounds like you just chose a city with a great and unique name. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.”

I gave her a wide smile back. “The best name. And a place I’ll probably never make it back to.”

Adapting to the culture here had been mostly easy, with just a few rare exceptions. Without WiFi accessible on the phone, due to international data plans, we’d been left to use an ancient GPS in our rental car to get us places, and in at least one case it directed us to a spot around 160 kilometers away from where we’d needed to be, keeping us in the car an extra 2 hours to get back to where we needed to be. (But we’d seen an awful lot of wheat fields, flat horizons, and farm houses along the way, even stopping for some Rum Raisin ice cream at a random business built on a field, and served by a lovely woman with terrible teeth).

One day, we’d visited Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan to take some old tours of the city’s tunnels, built back in the 1920s and 30s, one about Al Capone’s alleged boot-legging business and one about the mistreatment of Chinese immigrants for decades during the construction of the local railroads and the years afterwards. The tours had been run by local actors, all short and squat, who mostly seemed bored with their jobs as they recounted fascinating history in a character voice. Yet parking in Moose Jaw had been impossible. Most places in the province had allowed us to use credit or debit cards to pay for parking, but this city only had old-fashioned parking meters, and we had to stop into several places to first get Canadian dollars, then to make change for Canadian quarters. (Now I have a collection of Canadian coins and bills, what seems like play money with pictures of British royalty on it, in my wallet, and I’m not sure what I’ll do with it).

We’d gone to the two local gay clubs on Friday and Saturday nights, to see what the local culture was like. One Friday, at Diva’s, we had been the only ones at the bar, and finally left at 11:30, baffled. But on Saturday, at Pink, the bar had been packed with men and women in flannel, all with thick bushy hair, some even in mullets, wearing styles that were reminiscent of the mid-1990s in Idaho and Utah: backwards ball caps, cigarettes tucked behind ears, baggy jeans, and hoodies over untucked flannel shirts.

We’d seen a local play, a first viewing of a production written by a local gay man, one that featured gay parents struggling to raise a son with schizophrenia all while getting in touch with their own roots. It had been moving and wonderful.

We’d watched a local band, the Royal Foundry, a husband-and-wife pop/folk duo whose songs are newly gracing radio stations across Canada, give an incredible concert for a group of 30 people in a small jazz club. The singers’ parents and grandparents had been in attendance, and we’d clapped and tapped our feet to their incredible energy and music, sipping on Old Fashioned drinks and continually commenting on how amazing the band was.

On Sunday, I’d taken hours to walk through the rain through the local University of Saskatchewan, weaving in and out of buildings, watching students study and write in quiet corners of the library and classroom buildings. I read the placards about local Nobel Peace Prize winners, and had admired the “collegiate gothic” style of the buildings. It had been beautiful, and filled me with a longing for my academic days.

We’d been picked up and dropped off by a Vietnamese immigrant, whose car we had rented for the week through a phone app. Nguyen, as he’d asked to be called, talked about this Christian family in Viet Nam, black-listed in their home town for being Catholic. His parents had worked for years to afford a Western education for their son, and now he was here working on a PhD in business, in his sixth year of school. He discussed his “maybe girlfriend” who lived hundreds of kilometers away, a girl he was interested in because he had met her at a college Bible camp years before.

So why Saskatoon? For all of those reasons. These random encounters. The music and art and theater, the rain, the buildings, the farmland and history, the never-ending niceness of the locals, and the wonder that we’d had this weekend to explore and be parts of these things.

When we first landed, my best friend Tyler and I had laughed that we didn’t understand local currency, and I’d joked that they must use Moose-Bucks.

Now that we were leaving, Tyler asked if ‘d wade the experiences in, if I wished we had gone somewhere different instead.

“I wouldn’t trade them,” I said with conviction. “Not for all my Moose-Bucks.”

moosebucks

Advertisements

Building an Art Gallery

Remai.jpg

“It’s like Andy Warhol doing Picasso,” I noted out loud as I looked at the lined Picasso impressions lined up on the walls in different neon colors, like that famous Marilyn Monroe piece that Warhol did.

“It’s nice. But I think this is my least favorite room in the gallery,” my best friend Tyler replied, and I agreed with him. The films we’d watched had been particularly inspiring for me, as I love the film-making medium, and he had adored the modern art room. One piece, a filmstrip on a constant reel just showing a blank filmstrip on rotation, had left me feeling inspired, like our days in life just rushing through over and over, one indistinguishable from the next at a certain point. Every person there was being made to feel, looking at particular pieces that evoke particular emotions, and that in itself was art.

I turned and looked at the fork in the South Saskatchewan River outside. The gallery and been placed her purposefully, I’d read, to show the juxtaposition of the old and the new, with the farmlands of Saskatchewan (called the Wheat Province) in the distance, and the more modern downtown life of Saskatoon behind us. It was raining outside and drab, but still beautiful.

“Hey, the guys from Utah! You made it!”

I turned to see Tracey, the woman from the Tourism office, behind us smiling. She was in her mid-30s and sort of looked like a Canadian Tina Fey, shoulder length brown hair with thick glasses and a charming smile. The day before, on our walk through the city, we had stopped by her office and she’d told us about the opening of the art gallery here, then had opened her purse to offer us two free tickets of her own, as two of her family members ¬†weren’t going to be able to make it. We had chatted with her for thirty minutes at the time and had made fast, casual friends with her.

“Tracey, hi!” We shook her hand and commented a bit on the rainy weather, then she turned toward the gallery walls.

“So what do you guys think?”

“It’s really nice!” Tyler, himself an artist with artist friends and a history of promoting events, commented on the building’s layout and architecture as we stepped back into the hallway, gabbing.

My mind drifted toward the live performance art piece, and I had thoughts of the book I’d read by Marina Abramovic, all about live performance art. Here, two lithe and lean artists were dressed in floral prints and snug jeans and black shoes and they were laying contorted on the ground in positions that looked almost like they had fallen from a building. They slowly moved, painstakingly flexing an ankle, rolling a shoulder, craning a neck, raising a hip, twisting into new positions over minutes at a time, and I’d read on the board that they would continue doing this for a full four hours. I couldn’t imagine the strain that would put on their bodies.

On the drive to the gallery, I’d heard a radio commentator describing the gallery like she was talking to friends in her living room. “You guys, you have to come and check out the Remai Modern, I mean, it’s amazing, truly. It’s like a little piece of New York City right here in downtown Saskatoon! If you don’t make it down, you’ll be soar-y!”

Tyler and Tracey continued talking, this time about the development of the gallery itself, and how difficult it is to get a venture like this going. Tyler has the rare ability to engage with practically anyone on practically any topic.

“A place like this needed to happen,” Tracey was agreeing. “Much of the community stood against it. It required construction into a resource that a lot of people weren’t sure they wanted, and many still aren’t sure. But I think that just shows it needed to happen, to push more boundaries. Saskatoon has lots of different cultures in it. One of my favorite places is the Bassment, and on Friday nights there are free jazz shows, and older citizens will come in and get drinks and complain about the young crowd in the back who talk during the music. It’s not easy to bring everyone on the same page always. But it’s a really accepting place too.”

Tyler asked questions about the funding of the building, the construction of it, the selection of the board of directors, and the fight that they had over a period of several years to get the gallery built. There were empty spaces on some of the walls, and he estimated that the challenge now would be to keep tourism up so that staff and security could be afforded, and the place could become a community staple, a featured space for locals to gather and support. The truth of the space would be told over the following years.

“Back in Salt Lake,” Tyler was saying, “many complain about the local art community, saying it isn’t very vibrant. But there are galleries, art walks, and a museum, and none of those who complain about it seem to be the ones supporting art itself.”

The models on the floor were in new positions. The male had his legs bent back behind him, his hands on the floor, his back arched and his head dropped back, his chest raising toward the ceiling. The woman lay on her side in much the same position, her arms and legs both bent back behind her and touching at a point. It was painful and beautiful. It was art, much like the building itself. Yet each moment with these artists in the live piece was a new painting, something that could only be experienced in that particular moment, and one that would move on, one that would change for each viewer as they walked by, some moments perhaps captured by no one at all.

We bid Tracey farewell and walked along the river for a bit, and I thought of the complexities of having a dream, and then navigating the political realities of making it happen. Actresses who dealt with sexual harassment to get a role, playwrights who pushed through rich snobby boards to get their works put on a community theater docket, and, in my case, documentary film makers who search and search for funding to try to make a life-changing film, navigating through an insular movie-making community in a small town.

Then I turned back and saw the building on the river, filled with people looking at art. I thought of the artists contorting their bodies on the floor of the museum as patrons watched them, and knew they did what they did because they loved it and wanted it to be seen, just like the people who dreamed up this gallery in the first place. And now that it was built, after the dream, and after the struggle, now the struggle for survival started, and the space would likely transform in the following years, as all spaces do, into something that the dreamer hadn’t dreamed in the first place. But still, it had been built, and how many dreams weren’t ever built?

If they can do it, so can I, I thought, and turned back to watch the river flow.