Stuff I Learned This Week no. 4: It’s Academy Awards Sunday. Prepare to be lectured.

I’ve always been a bit of an Oscar junkie. When I was a kid, and had to go to bed before the best picture winner was announced, I’d sit at the top of the stairs and listen to the announcement. Even in years when I didn’t even see most or even any of the nominated films (which is becoming more and more common), I’ve always had an opinion. And, I must say, my track record of predicting winners is quite stellar.

imgres-1But over the past few years, the Oscars have morphed from a glittery, guilty pleasure to ‘Something Important’. Ever since the great #OscarSoWhite stink of 2015, where only white folks were nominated in the acting categories, the Oscar nominations have been elevated to an important socio/political/cultural statement.

This year, with the whole #MeToo and Time’s Up movements (throw gun control into the mix as a late addition), the entire show could become one insufferable moment after another. The vacuous ninnies who host those red carpet shows will have to skip their usual “Who are you wearing?” question in favour of “What are you whining about?” The only hope is that Jimmy Kimmel will keep the mood light enough that the whole production won’t go down like a dose of castor oil, and have us begging for the lighthearted relief of the In Memoriam segment. To avoid the worst of the pontification, I plan on PVRing the show for about an hour, then performing a ruthless and quite satisfying at-home edit. When France McDormand, the dour, perpetually angry actress guaranteed to win for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, begins her acceptance speech. I will simply jump ahead to the next award. That should reduce the total viewing time from three hours to about 30 minutes.

Even though my interest in the Oscars is at a low ebb, I still feel compelled to offer some predictions. So, here goes.

As mentioned above, McDormand is apparently a mortal lock for best actress. The other actresses are either too young, in films that not many people saw, or Meryl Streep (I’m pretty sure Streep will get Oscar nominations five years after her death).

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The guy on the right and the guy on the left are the same guy.

Gary Oldman seems to be the odds-on favourite to win the best actor Oscar for his pitch perfect portrayal of Winston Churchill (aided by the most remarkable make-up job in movie history) in the excellent Darkest Hour. But he’s not a lock. Daniel Day-Lewis has announced that he’s retiring from film acting, so he could get what amounts to an honorary Oscar for something called Phantom Thread (I almost fell asleep during the preview of this film). The other possible winner is Daniel Kaluuya, the crying guy from the poster for Get Out, this year’s most wildly overrated film. That would be the politically correct choice.

In the supporting roles, it’s a crapshoot, and frankly, I don’t care. Again, the consensus seems to favour Sam Rockwell for that Billboards movie. But then again, supporting Oscars often go to veteran character actors, and Richard Jenkins for The Shape of Water fills that bill, as does Willem Defoe in The Florida Project, but I doubt if half of the Academy voters have even seen The Florida Project. So, I guess this Rockwell fella.

Supporting actress is also wide open. Two veteran actresses, Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird, and returning to TV this month as Roseanne’s sister in the nobody-asked-for-this reboot of Roseanne) and Allison Janey (I, Tonya) could win, and no one would be surprised. (Janey, however, has to answer for starring in the dreadful TV series Mom.) Mary J. Blige wins the award as the most token nomination for her so-so performance in Mudbound, which is a Neflix flick which I’ve seen and recommend.

Then there’s best picture. I would have predicted Dunkirk after leaving the theatre, because it’s simply a great film, exactly the kind of movie that often wins Oscars. It’s big, bold, exciting filmmaking. But, remarkably, Dunkirk didn’t even win the British Academy Award, the BAFTA. Their best picture award went to the Billboards movie thanks to some slim connection to Britain. If the British are going to pass on Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, what chance is there that the American academy will choose either of them?

The battle seems to be between the polarizing Billboards movie (some people really hate that movie), and The Shape of Water, which, as I understand it, is an R-rated update of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There is a chance that Get Out could win, but I doubt it. And hope not. It’s a passable entertainment, I suppose, although I thought it didn’t know what it wanted to be – comedy, horror, satire, or heavy statement. So, I’ll go with The Shape of Water.

But I really don’t care. Last year, I briefly got genuinely angry when the tedious Moonlight beat out La La Land. It was a stupid thing to get angry about, so this year, I’ve taken on a new attitude – I really don’t care. Neither should you. The world is full of stuff that we should care about. The Oscars are not on that list.

RIP

Sir Roger Bannister, 88, the legendary British track star who was the first to run the first sub-four minute mile … David Ogden Stiers, 75, veteran character actor best known as the prissy Major Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H … Ronnie Prophet, 80, Canadian country singer … Urban Bowman, 80, former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach.

 

 

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Stuff I Learned This Week no.3: Why our best ever Olympics feels like a loss

The Olympics are over, and we in Canada can now go back to ignoring ‘big air’ and ‘half-pipe’ and even ‘mixed-doubles curling’.

The record book will show that this was Canada’s best Olympics ever. Twenty-nine medals in total (11 gold, eight silver, 10 bronze). That’s third overall. We beat the U.S. and the Olympic Drug Cheats from Russia. Hurrah for us!

But why don’t we feel like celebrating? Could it have something to do with hockey and, of all things, curling?

Curling is Canada’s game. Nobody knows how to throw stones like we Canucks. We’re the only country in the world where you can make a good living as a professional curler. We didn’t invent it, but we sure perfected it.

Our results? A gold in mixed-doubles curling (a bastardized version of the real game nobody seems to respect) … and nothing else. The men’s team lost in the BRONZE medal match, and the women – shudder! – didn’t even make the medal round. Perhaps even worse, the gold in men’s went to – shudder and wince – the Americans. Out of nine possible medal colours we could have won, our curlers brought home one, which is as many as the AMERICANS won in curling.

How could this happen? Well, it seems the world is catching up to Canada in curling, and we can thank ourselves for that. Anyone who wants to become a world-class curler knows he or she has to go to Canada to learn the game, or hire a Canadian coach. The Swedes came to Canada to learn, and a member of their team told The Globe and Mail about receiving rock star treatment in Canada. Sounds about right.

Curling is the only sport in the Olympics that Canadians don’t just hope to win, or think we can win, but expect – even DEMAND – to win.  That’s why this one hurts a bit. As for hockey, well, it was a crapshoot. Without our deep well of NHL stars (thanks again, Gary Bettman), it was anyone’s to win on the men’s side. Normally, we turn up our noses at bronze in hockey, but not this time. It’s cruel to say, but at the Olympic you win a bronze, but you lose the gold. As for the women’s side, a gold medal game between the U.S. and Canada is as inevitable as the gun control debate in the U.S. after another massacre. It may be a long time before the rest of the world catches up. Unless, of course, other countries start sending their women hockey players to Canada.

Still with the Olympics, I learned a lot about Norway, starting with where it is. Also, I learned that Norway is incredibly rich, healthy, democratic, environmentally aware (hybrid and electric cars outsold conventional models last year) and, by all accounts, modest about it. They may have trouble maintaining that modesty with the results of these Olympics, a staggering 39 medals, easily the best of the games. It’s a little less impressive, however, if you take away skis. Of their 39 medals, 34 involved competitors wearing skis. Still, pretty impressive, especially considering that Norway has only 5.2 million people. Their Olympic team had only 109 members, which means almost 35% of Norwegian athletes took home medals.

Norway clearly has made winning Olympic medals a priority, especially in comparison to their Nordic neighbours. Sweden, with almost 10 million people, picked up just 12 medals; Finland, about the same size as Norway, a pathetic five. What about Denmark, you ask? Well, this country of more than five million people sent just 17 athletes, and have won only one Olympic medal – ever.

This week, I learned that the world turning on Justin Trudeau.

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Bollywood North

The prime minister, along with the wife and kids for maximum photo-op value, has been in India for an entire week. A week seems like a long time to spend in any country not your own, but Trudeau came prepared with trunks full of costumes apparently purchased at a Bollywood garage sale.

Trudeau and his family dressed in ludicrously over-the-top Indian garb, right down to curly-toed shoes (when he was wearing shoes; sometimes, he and the whole clan went barefoot). If you heard a strange sound this week, it was probably the sound of one billion Indians rolling their eyes. Trudeau was openly mocked by some in the Indian media and various online types, normally Trudeau allies. Even Trevor Noah on The Daily Show laughed out loud at the PM and his obsequious sucking up to India (and, more importantly, his Indian voting base back home in Canada). Speaking of that base, the worst gaffe of the Trudeau trip involved an invitee. It was revealed that the prime minister’s delegation included a guy named Jaspal Atwal, a Liberal Party activist from B.C. who also happens to be a former member of the radical International Sikh Youth Federation convicted for a 1986 assassination attempt against a visiting Indian cabinet minister (he was sentenced to 20 years, and, in classic Canadian fashion, served five). Atwal got as far as a photo with Sophie Trudeau before his past caught up to him – thanks to the CBC, which seemed to know more about this convicted terrorist than the prime minister’s own people did.

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Namastupid.

Clearly, Trudeau’s celebrity act is wearing thin on the international stage, where he has found his greatest level of adulation. Once the world starts laughing at Trudeau instead of admiring him, he may be in serious trouble on the home front, the only place where public opinion of Trudeau really matters.

 

RIP

Rev. Billy Graham, 99, ‘America’s pastor’ and the most prominent religious figure outside of the popes for much of the 20th century … Nanette Fabray, 97, multi-talented American actress and singer … Richard E. Taylor, 88, Medicine Hat-born, University of Alberta-educated physicist who won a Nobel Prize in physics in 1990 … Arthur Black, 74, former longtime CBC radio humourist and author.

 

 

 

Stuff I Learned This Week, no.2: Winter Olympics edition

Enjoying the Winter Olympics, or, to give it its due, the Games of the XXIII Winter Olympics?

I’m not. Well, not much. Always happy when a Canadian snags a medal, but the happiness is fleeting. Within a day or less, I’ve already forgotten the name of the athlete and the sport. Sometimes, I don’t even know what the sport is (slopestyle?). Shame on me, I guess.

But still, there is some stuff I learned about the Olympics of PyeonChang that I’ve picked up this week. And at least a couple involve Canadians.

First, consider the amazing story of the guy at the left in this photo.

It’s the same person on the right.

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World’s most amazing before and after photos.

He’s Mark McMorris, and he’s a snowboarder. Just 11 months ago, he was the guy on the left. In a snowboarding accident at Whistler, he suffered a fractured jaw and left arm, ruptured spleen, a stable pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed left lung. He had to undergo two surgeries to control bleeding from the spleen and repair his jaw and arm fractures.

That’s the same guy on the right, showing off his Olympic bronze medal in the aforementioned ‘slopestyle’.  The fact that this guy went from a hospital bed to the Olympic podium is amazing and inspiring, a tribute to both his determination and modern medicine. If Mark McMorris was an American, there would already be a movie about him, called something like: “Unstoppable: The Mark McMorris Story.”

Also this week, I learned the names of seven members of the Korean Olympic hockey team, or as they say in Olympic-speak, ‘ice hockey’. They are Eric Regan, Mike Swift, Brock Radunske, Bryan Young, Alex Plante and Matt Dalton. Not exactly traditional Korean names, mainly because they are all Canadian boys who traded in their Ford F-150s for Hyundai Santa Cruz pickups. Korea, making its Olympic ‘ice’ hockey debut, wanted to put on a respectable show, so they recruited a bunch of hosers who were playing pro in Asia (who knew Asia had pro hockey?). They are all ‘naturalized’ Koreans with two passports. So don’t be surprised if the scoring summary for Korea when they score another goal (or if they score another goal: they have one so far) reads Swift (Reagan, Radunske), and not Kim (Lee, Park).  I chose the names Kim, Lee and Park because those three names account for nearly half of the Korean population. And no, Brad Park was not Korean, but the coach of the Korean team, Jim Paek, is. He was the first Korean-born player in the NHL, and a two-time Stanley Cup winner.

In non-sporting news, the North Korean cheerleaders are the non-athletic sensation of the games. The cream of North Korean womanhood has been recruited to cheer on the Korean athletes in robotically choreographed, oddly hypnotic cheers. There are 229 of them (there are fewer than 30 North Korean athletes at the games), and their every move is watched over by security officials; they don’t even go to the washroom without a minder. I guess they might be tempted to defect to the south after coming in contact with soft South Korean toilet tissue.

They are very, very upbeat. In the Korean men’s hockey game against Sweden, the cheerleaders chanted “Cheer up!” after the first Swedish goal. They did that a lot, since Sweden scored eight times. You can see then in action here... and be prepared to be charmed! That Kim Jong-un can’t be all bad if he’s got cheerleaders!

And finally, a word about the unsung heroes of Norway … the cross-country ski technicians.

Cross-country skiing is taken very seriously in Norway. You might even say cross-country skiing is to Norway as hockey is to Canada. Cross-country skis are heavily waxed, but they don’t just rub old scented candles on the skis. Norway has a team of 30 “wax techs”, housed in seven temporary cabins, whose job is to come up with the right combination of waxes and what-not for the skiers. They even brought two, one-ton grinding machines used to make faint etchings on the bottom of the skis. The tech team has a database of 7,000 combinations of grinds, waxes and powders for all weather conditions.

When Norway failed to medal in the men’s or women’s relays in Sochi, the fiasco was front page news, and everyone in the country knew the name of the top tech (for the record, it’s the gloriously Norwegian sounding name of Knut Nystad). Things are going swimmingly for the Norwegians this time, raking in all sorts of medals in cross-country. And who gets no credit for the success? Yep, Knut Nystad.

RIP

Vic Damone, 89, American pop singer of the crooner variety … Reg. E. Cathey, 59, TV actor best known for his role on The Wire as Norman Wilson, the chief strategist to the mayor of Baltimore … John Gavin, 86, mostly B-level Hollywood actor whose best known role was the boyfriend of Marian Crane (Janet Leigh) in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Psycho. (He’s the guy who – spoiler alert – stopped Anthony Perkins from making one last killing in the film.) … Dave Barrett, 87, colourful former premier of B.C. … Leo Cahill, 89, also colourful former Toronto Argonauts head coach … Marty Allen, 95, TV bug-eyed stand up comic who was a frequent guest on variety shows in the 1960s. His catch phrase was “Hello dere!” You had to be there. I was, and I didn’t get it.

 

 

 

 

Stuff I Learned This Week no. 1

Over the last three years, I wrote a weekly blog on world events, cleverly titled ‘Stuff Happens’, followed by less cleverly titled sequels. This year, I decided to abandon the weekly news roundup because it was just so damn depressing. I couldn’t write another word about the insane clown president to the south, or our simpering sock-salesman of a prime minister. While I don’t regret the decision – and I especially don’t regret cancelling my Edmonton Journal subscription in an effort to reduce my news intake – I missed writing a weekly blog.

It has taken me years to figure this out, but writing makes me feel better. Some say that writing releases endorphins, those feel-good hormones, and I think that’s true. If nothing else, I feel that I have accomplished something when I write a blog.  So, I don’t want to abandon it completely. But what to write about?

It came to me one morning, while listening to a podcast called Part Time Genius. I learned some weird, interesting stuff about Japan on the episode I listened to, and it dawned on me: why not share stuff I learned this week? While I am trying to read less current news, I’m still absorbing a lot of other non-news stuff. Odd stuff, cool stuff, ugly stuff, ‘what,seriously?’ stuff … just lots of stuff. Compile it, write it, share it. That’s my new blog focus. So here we go with Stuff I Learned This Week.

The aforementioned podcast Part Time Genius was all about great things the hosts learned about Japan. For example:

  • The Japanese are so loyal to Toyota and Honda and all the other car makers that they account for nearly 90% of all cars sold in Japan. Even the mighty Ford motor company pulled out of Japan in 2016 because nobody was buying their cars (they sold only about 5,000 cars in their last year there). And get this: Japanese car dealers will actually bring demo cars to your door for you to try. And when you buy the car, they’ll even arrange the insurance for you. And give you a free car wash every couple of weeks. And when your car needs a tuneup, they’ll pick it up.
  • I also learned that almost all Japanese cell phones are waterproof, because the Japanese like to take their phones into the shower or bath.
  • The Japanese have a madness for a 1960s-era American band called The Ventures. They toured every year up until 2015, and their albums have outsold The Beatles 2-1. Here they are in Japan in 1966.
  • In Japan, the population is aging so rapidly that a Japanese diaper maker says the sales of adult diapers now outsell baby diapers. They have also developed ‘choke proof food’ because more people die from choking than car accidents. The food is mixed with a gelling agent and shaped like the food it is supposed to taste like.
  • Japanese kids have a high level of independence. In fact, there is a reality TV show, My First Errand, that follows kids as young as two or three as they run errands outside the house.

Also this week, I listened to one my favourite podcasts, the CBC radio show Under the Influence, which deals with marketing and advertising. It’s always filled with remarkable nuggets of stuff. For example:

  • Many foods start out with names that practically shout out ‘don’t eat me!’ In the early 1900s, a fruit seed was imported into New Zealand. It grew well there, and was quite tasty. It was called a Chinese gooseberry. When they tried years later to export the Chinese gooseberry to the U.S., they were told nobody would buy it anything associated with China. So, somebody decided to rename it … the kiwi. The rest is history.
  • Then there’s something called the alligator pear, which is ugly, green and leathery. In 1915, the growers of the alligator pear changed the name to avocado, and sold it as a high-end treat.
  • Ever heard of the Patagonian tooth fish? Nobody wanted it because nobody knew what do to with it. It got caught up in Chilean fishing nets, and the fishermen promptly threw it out. In 1977, a fish merchant chanced upon the fish, took one home and fried it up. It was great. Knowing that no one would buy a Patagonian tooth fish, he changed the name to Chilean sea bass, and before too long, it became the fish to ask for in upscale restaurants.
  • Remember prunes, that shrivelled up fruit so commonly associated with constipated old people? Not surprisingly, the sale of prunes was not good with young people, so back in 2005 the prune marketing board changed the name of its primary product from prunes to … dried plums. Combined with a canny marketing campaign, sales of prunes – sorry, dried plums – began to rise.

And finally, unrelated to any of the above mentioned stuff, The New York Times this week reported that subscription revenue for its product hit $1 BILLION in 2016. Subscription revenue now accounts for 60% of the company’s revenue.

See what you can do when you offer people a quality product?

Your Sunday Sermon: Maybe this Trump fellow isn’t so bad after all

Last year, I wrote that one of my resolutions for 2018 was to deTrump myself. No more reading about the insane clown president. No more all-Trump, all-the-time monologues from the late night guys (I’ve quit the sadly unfunny Stephen Colbert and the sanctimonious Seth Meyers, but I’m still a fan of Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien).

unknown-1However, as a sentient being, avoiding everything about Trump is like trying to avoid the weather. I’m trying, oh how I’m trying, to quit. But I can’t completely go cold turkey, so I’m taking a whole new approach.

I’ve decided, after one year in office, that maybe this Trump guy isn’t really that bad after all. In fact, I think there is much to admire in the man. OK, maybe not ‘much’. A little to admire, perhaps. So let’s take an alternative look at Donald Trump.

First of all, maybe he IS an economic genius.

The U.S. economy is bubbling right along. Economic growth exceeds 3% in the second and third quarters of 2017. Blue-collar wages are going up. Unemployment is at 4.1%; it was 4.8% when he took over. And the stock market is soaring. Maybe not the greatest stock market of all time, as he says, but it seems everybody is making money.

Second, there was a huge stink a few weeks ago about the administration’s overhaul of the tax system, which was passed under cover of darkness and was so hastily conceived, some of the changes were actually PENCILLED IN to the document they voted on. The biggest change was a cut in the corporate tax rate, to 21% from 35%. Chaos, said the Democrats and almost everyone else! Huge tax gains for the rich! Middle class getting screwed!

All that is probably true, but get this.

On Wednesday, Apple announced that it will “repatriate” most of the estimated $274 BILLION that it holds in offshore earnings, resulting in a one-time $38 BILLION tax payment. The company promises to add 20,000 jobs to its U.S. work force, and build a new campus. Another $5 billion will go toward a fund for advanced manufacturing in America.

And this is just the beginning. According to a New York Times opinion piece, Microsoft holds $146 billion in overseas earnings, Pfizer $178 billion, General Electric $82 billion, Alphabet $78 billion, and Cisco $71 billion. The paper says the haul is about $3 TRILLION.

“Assume that just half of that money comes home to the United States,” the paper said. “It’s still the equivalent of Canada’s entire gross domestic product. “

Sheesh. Way to make a country feel puny.

The economic performance of a country, particularly the United States, is the overriding concern of voters. If times are good, the government usually gets a pass on the other terrible things they might do. And so it is with The Donald. Yes, he’s an idiot, the voters might say. A buffoon. A pig. A racist. But hey, my stocks are going through the roof!

But what about all the other terrible stuff he does, or more accurately, says. Well, are they really that terrible?

Take the uproar about “shithole” countries. Trump wondered aloud, in a conversation with a senator, why America gets so many immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti, and not much from non-shithole countries like Norway. Cue the uproar.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that Trump was referring to mostly black countries and mostly white countries. Yes, it was a terrible, tactless thing to say … but you know that millions of Americans (and, to be honest, Canadians) wonder the same thing. Why so many immigrants from “shithole” (i.e. poor) countries, and so little from non-shithole (i.e. rich) countries? The answer is obvious, of course; who wants to leave a rich country with a good lifestyle and stable government? It’s the nature of immigration. Nobody leaves one country for a lesser life in another. Even though it was stupid and crude to say, he’s only saying what a lot of people are thinking.

Then there is his greatest accomplishment, one that nobody gives him credit for.

It’s utterly remarkable, and a tribute to the American system, that a clearly mentally ill person can achieve the highest office in the land.

There is a case to be made that Trump is suffering from something called narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD. According the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a checklist for this disorder includes a person who:

• has a grandiose sense of self-importance;

• is preoccupied by fantasies of unlimited success;

• believes he is special and unique;

• requires excessive admiration;

• has unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment or automatic compliance with his expectations.

Sound like anyone we know?

And finally, in this era of 24-hour-a-day diversions, where we demand to be entertained ALL THE TIME, Donald Trump has provided no end of amusement. Compared to the boring, no drama competence of Barack (Yawn) Obama, Trump is wildly entertaining. As long as he doesn’t press any buttons with his stubby, hamburger-greased fingers, let’s just sit back and enjoy the show.

RIP

Jerry Keeling, 78, former CFL quarterback with the Calgary Stampeders and others … Red Fisher, 91, much admired Montreal sportswriter, back in the day when there were good sportswriters in Canada … Dorothy Malone, 93, movie actress who won the 1956 best supporting actress Oscar for Written on the Wind … Peter Mayle, 78, author of the influential A Year in Provence … Jo Jo White, 71, Hall of Fame basketball player (Boston, Golden State, Kansas City) … Dolores O’Riordan, 46, Irish lead singer of The Cranberries … Hugh Wilson, 74, creator of WKRP in Cincinnati.

Your Sunday Sermon: Exclusive sneak peak at Trudeau tell-all book!

For the past few months, writer C. Ellsworth Stubbins has been granted unrestricted access to the inner workings of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office. Although not as explosive as Fire and Fury, whereby a reporter had unrestricted access to the Donald Trump White House, this new book is a revealing look at the inner-workings of the Trudeau cabinet. This week, I am proud to present a blog exclusive, a first look at  “How’s My Hair? Inside the Trudeau Government.”

Cabinet meetings begin promptly at 10 a.m., as “J.T.” as intimates call him, likes to begin the day leisurely. He is, however, often late, sometimes laying the blame on the demands of selfie-taking Canadians.

“Sorry I’m late … just can’t say no to a selfie,” Trudeau says as he strides into a cabinet meeting at 10:45 a.m. Feeling badly about his tardiness, Trudeau hand writes a fulsome apology, then insists on reading the teary-eyed statement to his restless cabinet members.

A source close to the prime minister says that Trudeau’s tardiness is not always attributed to the demands of a selfie-snapping public.

“I swear one day I saw him coming into the building well before meeting time, and he just stood outside for a few minutes until somebody recognized him,” the source says. Another source says Trudeau often carries a personal cellphone with him in case fans don’t have a phone with them.

Once Trudeau has his chi tea, the meeting begins, but not before an acknowledgement to the Indigenous community.

“We will begin this cabinet meeting by acknowledging that we are meeting on aboriginal land that has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples from the beginning,” Trudeau says, his voice quivering slightly. “As settlers, we’re grateful for the opportunity to meet here and we thank all the generations of people who have taken care of this land for thousands of years. Long before today, as we gather here, there have been aboriginal peoples who have been the stewards of this place.”

Trudeau then takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves to precisely six inches above the wrist, and begins the meeting. The male cabinet members take that as their cue to take off their jackets and roll up their sleeves, somewhat of a bone of contention to the female cabinet ministers, who have no similar way to curry favour with J.T.

“It’s a power move,” one female cabinet minister told me. “It illustrates that there is still an imbalance of power in this government. Until we, as women, can roll up our sleeves, we will never be fully equal.”

Other female cabinet ministers privately gripe that several male cabinet ministers like to wear colourful, goofy socks in the Trudeau style. In lighter moments, the ministers and the prime minister like to compare sock choices like the women stew quietly.

“Not very inclusive,” one minister sniffed.

During cabinet meetings, each minister has a few moments to speak about their issues. Trudeau sits ramrod straight, his penetrating gaze seeming to say, “Yes, I’m listening.” Trudeau rarely asks questions, although when he does the questions tend to focus on “inclusion” and “transparency”.

“J.T. loves transparency”, one insider told me. “To be honest, nobody is exactly sure what it means, but we always tell him that transparency is at its maximum.”

The meetings don’t go on for long – the prime minister is not into details – but once they return to their offices, the prime minister shifts gears to more personal matters.

Every day for 45 minutes he exercises, concentrating on his abs in preparation for the summer shirtless season. The prime minister’s staff is fully aware that Trudeau “photo bombing” wedding parties and other events while shirtless frequently go viral, much to the PM’s delight.

“We all know that nobody wants to see (Conservative leader) Andrew Scheer shirtless, not even Mrs. Scheer,” an insider says with a snicker.

The strategy can backfire, however. In one incident that went unreported thanks to the dwindling membership in the parliamentary press corps, Trudeau “spontaneously” appeared shirtless during a gather that he realized, too late, was a funeral.

“Man, that was a close call,” one confidant says. “J.T. has to attend a lot of birthday parties to make up for that one.”

 

His cabinet and backbench MPs admire Trudeau, but they’re realistic.

“Hey, he’s a nice guy, don’t get me wrong,” a close confidant says. “But right now, it seems like the best thing he has going for him is that he’s not Donald Trump.

“And that hair … it’s gorgeous.”

 

 

Your Sunday Sermon: You call THIS cold?

Edmonton, the city I have called home since birth, has a love-hate relationship with winter.

One the one hand, we hate it. It’s cold, it’s dark 15 hours of the day, and it’s long. Good God, is it long.

On the other hand, we sort-of love winter because it shows how tough we are. It is inextricably linked to Edmonton’s self-image. With some exceptions, no matter where else you live in North America, we can top cold weather bragging. In fact, we can get downright smug about it, too, which is not a good feature on a person, much less a city.

Yes, here in the most northerly major city on the continent we wear shorts when the winter temperature creeps above +5C. Yes, we carry on with our lives in temperatures that would lay waste to entire populations elsewhere in the world – including Canada (right, Victoria?).

See? Smug, right?

But let’s be honest, Edmonton. We’re living on reputation, like the Edmonton Oilers. The fact is, we are not the winter city that we used to be.

As evidence, I present the cold snap we had in the last couple of weeks in December. We could barely handle it.

When the temperature started to fall into the mid-minus 20s, the Alberta Motor Association was overwhelmed with calls. At the peak of the cold snap, you would have to wait five hours or more for a boost, maybe 16 hours for a full tow.

Now, any self-respecting Edmontonian knows – or should know – that if you leave your car outside overnight when it’s cold, plug it in. (For the benefit of non-Canadians reading this, we don’t all have electric cars here. We have block heaters to keep the engine oil warm, which only work if you plug them in.) Clearly, there were a ridiculous number of people who don’t know this basic rule of winter driving in Edmonton, probably because genuine cold snaps like the one we had are now so rare that “plugging in your car” sounds like something great-grandpa used to do, like putting your horse in the barn overnight.

And whatever happened to booster cables? Time was that if you couldn’t get your car going, there would be a least a dozen guys in your neighbourhood who had booster cables, and knew how to use them. It was a manly, Edmonton thing to do. Alas, it appears that manly things – like boosting a battery or changing a tire on your own – are now outside the scope of the average Edmonton man (or, to be ‘inclusive’, woman).*

We truly wimped out on New Year’s Eve, when the city of Edmonton, for the first time ever, cancelled its outdoor celebrations. Cancelled? Because of the cold? What are we, Ottawa? Winnipeg, where the temperature never rises above -18 for six months of the year, carried on in the cold. But not here. Not that I would have gone out in the cold to watch 12 minutes of fireworks, but cancelling the outdoor event was a very non-Canadian thing to do.

Old people (and I grudgingly admit that I am in that category, in the ‘young-old’ or ‘junior-senior’ demographic) will tell you that winters here used to be much, much colder. And I frankly don’t care if that is statistically true or not – I feel that it is true, so it is. I would put on my Stanfield’s in November and leave them on until March, or until they became too rank to wear.

As proof of how much colder Edmonton used to be, look here.

ScanThis is my personal certificate that shows that I Was There for Edmonton’s all-time record cold snap. It was in the winter of ’69 (which sounds like a rejected Bryan Adams song title). I was 13 going on 14 (also a rejected Bryan Adams song title). The cold snap lasted from Jan. 7 to Feb. 1, 26 days where the temperature did not rise above 0 Fahrenheit. (For the benefit of any younger readers out there, Fahrenheit was a temperature scale that we used at the time that today is used only be a handful of primitive countries, like Belize, Palau, and the United States.) To put the cold snap into modern terminology (0F is -18C), it was 26 days where the temperature never rose above -21C; the coldest was -39C. And did we shut down schools? No, sadly. I was 13 going on 14, and I prayed on a nightly basis for the temperature to fall to -40F (-40C), which was the unofficial school closure day. So not only did we survive brutal cold for 26 days, we still had to go to school!

Scan 2
The official cold snap temperatures, in something called Fahrenheit. They were recorded at the ‘industrial’ airport, later the ‘municipal’ airport, later gone.

To be entirely honest, I would take 26 days of -18C weather over the brutal two or three day blizzards easterners endure two or three days a year. When it’s cold, you can still go about your daily life (if you PLUG IN YOUR CAR!). Heavy snowfall makes life that much more unbearable, which is why I still prefer the brutal cold to mammoth snowfall.

As I write this, the sun is shining and it’s 4C. By Wednesday, however, we’re anticipating a low of -28C. Combines with an expected 5-10 cm of snow, on Tuesday, Edmonton will almost be crippled. We’re just not as cold as we used to be, and I say … bring it on, wimpy winter.

* Mea culpa: I don’t know how to do either. Somewhere in my garage I have a set of booster cables, or at least I think that’s what they are. It’s a tangle of cables, with a couple of clampy things on either end. I don’t know where I got it, since I would never buy anything like this, and I certainly don’t know how to use them. As far as I know, if you do it wrong, you will fry your car’s entire electrical system, which I most certainly would do. But, in my defense, I’m kind of a wimp. I’ve been an AMA member since 1990, so the manliness of simple car maintenance has been sucked out of me.

 

RIP

Jerry Van Dyke, 86, comic actor and brother of Dick Van Dyke. Jerry was a regular on the long-running sitcom Coach, and more infamously was the star of the legendarily stupid sitcom My Mother the Car … Bruce Hood, 81, former NHL referee … Jim Shaw, 60, former CEO of Shaw Communications.

 

The Return of Stuff Happens, week 52: RIP

As the last blog of 2017 – and the last in the Stuff Happens series of blogs –  let’s look at the names we lost in 2017.

January

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Mary Tyler Moore

Milt Schmidt, 98, the former Boston Bruins great and most frequently accidentally mispronounced name in hockey history … Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snooka, former pro wrestler who lived to the unusually ripe age of 73 (unusual for a wrestler, anyway) … Anthony Armstrong-Jones, 86, former husband of Princess Margaret, recently featured in The Crown. Probably a good thing he died before he could see how he was portrayed in the series … William Peter Blatty, 89, author of The Exorcist, made into the scariest movie ever (at least I thought it was back when I saw it when I was 18) … Tony Rosato, 62, briefly a member of both SCTV and Saturday night live … Eugene Cernan, 82, last man on the moon. Poor guy; he goes to the moon, and nobody remembers … Mary Tyler Moore, 80, star of two of the most beloved sitcoms in TV history, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Tyler Moore. I wish some channel, somewhere, would start showing MTM again … Mike Conners, 91, who starred in the old TV show Mannix, which nobody is clamouring to see again … John Hurt, 77, Brit actor Oscar-nominated for The Elephant Man, not that you would recognize him from the movie.

February-March

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Bill Paxton

Brunhilde Pomsel, 106, who was the private secretary to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Like all good Nazis, she said she knew nothing about all the bad stuff … Mike Illitch, 87, owner of the Detroit Red Wings and the man who inflicted Little Caesars Pizza on the world .. Darrel K. Smith, 55, former Eskimo receiver … Stuart McLean, 68, all-Canadian CBC broadcaster … George ‘The Animal’ Steele, 79, wild man of wrestling who in real life had a master’s degree in science … Bill Paxton, 61, all-purpose leading man of movies, most often described as ‘not Bill Pullman, Bill PAXTON’ … Bernie Custis, 88, first black QB to play pro football with the Hamilton Tiger Cats … Joseph Wapner, 97, the original People’s Court judge… Chuck Berry, 90, the father of rock and roll and the first of a superstar gallery of rock stars to exit the stage in 2017 … Larry Highbaugh, 67, five-time Grey Cup champ with the Eskimos as a defensive back and punt returner in the days when there was no blocking on punts … Betty Kennedy, 91, longtime panelist on Front Page Challenge (for younger readers, ask your parents, or grandparents) … Chuck Barris, 87, creator of The Gong Show and The Dating Game. Not necessarily anything you want to brag about.

April-May

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Don Rickles

Don Rickles, 90, one of the greatest stand-up comics of all time … J. Geils, 71, guitarist and band leader of the J. Geils Band, who inflicted ‘Centrefold’, ‘Freeze Frame’ and ‘Love Stinks’ upon an unsuspecting world … Aaron Hernandez, 27, former New England Patriot whose promising career went off the rails when he was convicted of murder. He committed suicide in prison … Erin Moran, 56, who played Joanie on both Happy Days and Joannie Loves Chachi. In her last days, she was reportedly kicked out of her trailer park for unruly behaviour. Happy days, indeed … Jonathan Demme, 73, director of Melvin and Howard, Philadelphia and The Silence of the Lambs … Stan Weston, 84, creator of G.I. Joe, fighting man from head to toe … Roger Ailes, 77, villainous genius of Fox News and a man who did more to damage American democracy than anyone before Donald Trump … Chris Cornell, 52, singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave … Roger Moore, 89, the most British of all the James Bonds (he played him seven times), and the star of some of the worst Bond films (Octopussy and Moonraker)… Greg Allman, 69, member of the Allman Brothers Band (Ramblin’ Man, Midnight Rider) … Bill White, 72, former NHL defenceman and member of Team Canada ’72.

June-July

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Martin Landau

Manuel Noreiga, 83, pizza-faced former dictator of Panama … Adam West, 88, the only true Batman, from the TV series of 1966-68 … Sam Panopoulous, 83, Canadian restaurant owner who created the Hawaiian pizza in 1962 … Don Matthews, 77, the most successful coach in CFL history … Stephen Furst, 62, who played Flounder in Animal House … my brother Richard, 73 … Dave Semenko, 59, beloved former enforcer for the Edmonton Oilers, the man who never let anyone lay a finger on Wayne Gretzky … George A. Romero, 77 who changed the horror genre with his film Night of the Living Dead … John Heard, 71, character actor best known as the dad in the Home Alone movies .. Kenny Shields, 69, lead singer of the Canadian rock band Streetheart … Martin Landau, 89, Oscar-winning actor for playing Bela Lugosi in the film Ed Wood, and before that he starred in the great old TV series, Mission: Impossible. Mind you, he also appeared in The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island … June Foray, 99, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Granny from the Warmer Brothers cartoons, and many others.

August-September

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Jerry Lewis

Sam Shephard, 73, Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright and sometime actor (nominated for a supporting actor Oscar in 1983). New York magazine called him the greatest American playwright of his generation … Glen Campbell, 81, country singer who achieved huge mainstream popularity with a string of hits like Wichita Lineman, By the Time I Get To Phoenix, and Rhinestone Cowboy. In his last years, he became the public face of Alzheimer’s Disease; if you have Netflix, I highly recommend the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, which follows his final tour. He had a great late career return … Dick Gregory, 84, pioneering black stand up comic who brought race issues to the comedy stage, and who later devoted his life to “agitating” … Perhaps the biggest loss in the entertainment world this year was the departure of Jerry Lewis, 91, one of the most popular, and often critically reviled comics in film history. His best films, like The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, The Stooge, Cinderfella, are considered comedy classics. His worst films were, well, unwatchable. He was also a raging egomaniac and often quite a nasty person.

October-November

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Hugh Hefner

Walter Becker, 67, guitarist, bassist and co-founder of one of my all-time favourite bands, Steely Dan. With partner Donald Fagen, Steely Dan produced unique hit songs like Reelin’ in the Years, Rikki Don’t Lose That Number, Hey Nineteen, Kid Charlemange, Peg, and of course, Deacon Blues, which is in the Top 5 of my all-time favourite songs … Shelly Berman, 92, a very successful stand-up comic in the 1960s, and frequent comic actor. He most recently played Larry David’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm … Skip Prokop, 73, co-founder and drummer for the great Canadian band Lighthouse, described as the world’s first 13-piece rock orchestra. Lighthouse had hits with One Fine Morning, Sunny Days, and the truly great song, Little Kind Words … Don Williams, 78,  a singer of heartfelt country ballads who emerged as one of the biggest stars in country music during the late 1970s. His hits include You’re My Best Friend, Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good, and Tulsa Time … Harry Dean Stanton, 91, familiar American character actor, best known for important parts in Alien, The Green Mile and many, many other movies …Jake LaMotta, 95, former boxer immortalized by Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull… Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, 72, former WWE wrestler, manager and commentator … Hugh Hefner, 91, creator and publisher of Playboy magazine. Hefner’s impact on society can scarcely be understated. He created the first widely distributed magazine to feature female

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Tom Petty

nudity (my teenage self thanks you, Hef). But it wasn’t just a nudie magazine; Playboy featured writing from some of the most important and influential writers of the 20th century. You could actually say that you read Playboy for the articles, and not be laughed at … David Mainse, 81, Canadian televangelist who created and hosted the long-running 100 Huntley Street ….  Monty Hall, 96, the Winnipeg-born host of the long running game show Let’s Make A Deal … While a lot of musicians who died this year were well past their prime, that wasn’t the case with Tom Petty, 66, one of the most enduring and widely popular rock and roll artists of the last few decades.  … also gone well before his time was Gord Downie, 53, the poet laureate of Canadian rock as the lead singer and songwriter for The Tragically Hip … on the other end of the Canadian entertainment spectrum, Juliette, 91, at one time one of Canada’s most popular singers as star of her own long-running TV series which ran from the 1950s to the 1970s. She was known as ‘Our Pet Juliette’. Different times, different times  … Fats Domino, 89, rock and roll pioneer, famous for hits like Blueberry Hill, Ain’t That A Shame, and I’m Walkin‘.

December

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Rose Marie

David Cassidy, 67, teen heart-throb from The Partridge Family TV show … Charles Manson, 83, notorious cult leader who led a murderous group of followers, resulting in one of the most infamous murder sprees of the 1960s. As the saying goes, the good die young … Della Reese, 86, singer and former star of Touched by an Angel … Mel Tillis, 85, longtime country music star and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame … Malcolm Young, 64, the guitarist and songwriter who with his brother Andrew helped found the Australian rock band AC/DC … Jim Nabors, 87, who played the amiable hick Gomer Pyle on The Andy Griffith Show, and later on his own show. Nabors spoke in a typically Southern drawl, but sang in a deep operatic baritone that was a weird contrast, to put it mildly .. Dick Enberg, 82, famed American sports broadcaster … Terry Cavanagh, 91, former mayor of Edmonton … Keely Smith, 89, American singer (That Old Black Magic) … bookending the passing of Mary Tyler Moore in January, this month saw the passing of Rose Marie, 93, who played the rarest of rarities – a female comedy writer – on the Dick Van Dyke Show … Sue Grafton, 77, wildly successful mystery writer who wrote a series of murder mysteries starting with A is for Alibi. She made it all the way to Y is for Yesterday just this year … Johnny Bower, 93, legendary NHL goaltender.

And this brings to an end the long running and widely ignored series Stuff Happens. Three years of this is enough, I think, particularly since I’m trying to wean myself off of news as best I can. I will still write occasional blogs on topics of interest. Thank you for reading.

 

 

The Return of Stuff Happens, week 51: The year in books (well, books I read, anyway)

OK, I’m well aware Stuff Happened this past week. Justin Trudeau had his knuckles rapped for accepting an all-expenses paid trip on a private island, courtesy the Aga Khan some sort of religious leader/zillionaire. Trudeau claimed that the Aga Khan was a “close family friend”, when in fact the last time he saw him was at daddy Pierre’s funeral. The mini-scandal makes Trudeau look like a spoiled little rich boy, which is pretty close to the truth. Meanwhile, Donald Trump got his tax reform plan passed despite the almost universal opinion that it greatly benefits the rich at the expense of everyone else. Did we expect anything else?

I’m sure other stuff happened, but I don’t really care. I’m weaning myself off of news in anticipation of my Year of Not Caring Anymore. So this week I’m offering something different … my list of favourite books of the year.

First,  The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit is one of the best of the year (again, by that, I mean MY year). The amazing true story of a guy who just up and quits civilization, and what happens after, is absolutely gripping. I also highly recommend Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI a true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history, the systematic murder of an entire tribe in the 1920s. Another slice of American history can be found in The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, the story of the founding of one of the great food companies in the world, Kelloggs, and the two brothers behind it. You will never look at Corn Flakes the same way again.

The best biography I’ve read in a long, long time is Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig. In this meticulously researched but never boring warts-and-all biography, Eig shows that Ali was one of the genuine giants of the 20th century.

On the political side, if you haven’t had enough of Donald Trump and the U.S. election, I recommendInsane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus  by Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi. Not for all tastes perhaps (if you like your political commentary with a frown, this won’t work for you), but if you want something flippant and thoughtful at the same time, this is your book. I also thoroughly enjoyed Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by peculiar comic/writer John Hodgman, a frequent contributor to The Daily Show back when it was good. Genuinely laugh out loud funny. Fans of David Letterman will want to read Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night, more warts-and-all stuff.

Lest you believe, based on the above-mentioned books, that I read exclusively American, let me assure you that I am as Canadian as the next guy. The trouble is that nothing from our home and native land that I read this year was as good as the American stuff. In honour of our 150th, I read Charlotte Gray’s so-so The Promise of Canada: 150 Years–Building a Great Country One Idea at a Time, Mike Myer’s elementary school introduction to Canada, called, imaginatively, Canada.

A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects by Jane Urquart is pretty academic. Much more entertaining was Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession.

If I had to pick a top book of 2017, I’d have to choose Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: The Mavericks Who Plotted Hitler’s Defeat by Giles Milton, an almost too crazy to be true, hugely entertaining account of the British men who created and led guerilla attacks on the Nazis. The stories are absolutely fantastic, and Milton is a splendid writer. When non-fiction is this good, I see no need to read fiction. If I had it in my power, I would turn this book into a multi-part Netflix series.

If you’re really bored, you can find a list of every book I read this year at my Goodreads page.  It wasn’t all good, believe me, but why dwell on the lousy when you can celebrate the good?

And finally, if you’re sitting around with nothing much to do during the Christmas break, check out this photo collection from the New York Times. It will seem impossible that Donald Trump was only inaugurated THIS YEAR (seems like at least five), but the photos don’t lie.

RIP

Dick Enberg, 82, famed American sports broadcaster … Terry Cavanagh, 91, former mayor of Edmonton … Keely Smith, 89, American singer (That Old Black Magic)

 

The Return of Stuff Happens, week 50: The year in Google

In lieu of an actual look at the past week, here’s a look at last year, as tabulated by most popular searches on Google.

Here in Canada, Hurricane Irma was the top search for the year, even though it never touched Canada. Surprisingly, the no. 2 overall search was Meghan Markle, the fiancee of Prince Harry, or Charles, or Jimmy, or whatever that ginger royal goes by.  No. 3 on the list was Tom Petty, which is a little surprising in that Gord Downie – The Tragically Hip singer who also died in an orgy of mourning and much ultra-Canadian commentary about how important he was to the country – wasn’t even in the top 10 (he was no. 4 on the list of ‘losses’, behind Tom Petty, Chris Cornell, and even Bill Paxton). For some reason, the Ottawa Senators were in fourth place (I assume they did something in the Stanley Cup playoffs; I stopped watching once the Oilers were eliminated). After that, we searched North Korea, Chris Cornell (another dead singer), 13 Reasons Why (which, as I understand it, is a Netflix series), the fidget spinner (which, as I understand it, was a fad of some sort), the iPhone 8 (not the iPhone X, but the 8), and the Super Bowl. Aside from the Senators, that’s not a very Canadian list.

There was more Can-con on the list of most searched political figures. Trump was no. 1, naturally, but a surprise no. 2 was Andrew Scheer, most likely people asking ‘who the hell is Andrew Scheer?’ Third was hipster NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, which is kind of embarrassing that such a cool dude wasn’t searched as much as a dullard like Scheer. New Governor-General Julie Payett came in at no. 7, and Valerie Plante was no. 9. In case you’re wondering- (and I know you are –  she was the surprise winner of the Montreal mayoralty.

Just out of curiosity, I checked out Australia’s Google search list. (Google supplied a list of Aussies most frequently searched, but offered no such list for Canada. Even New Zealand got its own list of most searched Kiwis, so apparently we don’t rate). The top overall searches in Australia couldn’t be more Australian: no. 1 was the Australian Open, no. 2 was the Melbourne Cup (which, believe it or not, is a horserace), and no. 3 was Wimbledon. In New Zealand, the top search was for lotto results.

Harvey Weinstein topped Canada’s most searched people list, which included at no. 4 Eric Salvail. Yes, Eric Salvail. THAT Eric Salvail. Don’t feel badly if you’re asking who the hell Eric Salvail is. Turns out, he’s a Quebec TV personality who is, like every other male celebrity today, charged with sexual misconduct. Again, what could be more Canadian than the no. 4 searched name in Canada being unknown to 80% of the population.

Under the How category, Canadians were most interested in how they name hurricanes, and at no. 2, the eternally vexing question, how many teaspoons in a tablespoon. At no. 8 for some reason … how often should you wash your hair.

Under the Why category, two are absolutely fantastic. Aside from the expected (why are NFL players protesting the national anthem; why are women marching; why are there so many hurricanes), there were two gems. At no. 8, Canadians wanted to know ‘why doesn’t Caillou have hair’, and at no. 9, ‘why is everything so heavy’. These are great, but my favourite why question comes from Australia: at no. 6, ‘why is my poop green’. In New Zealand, which is clearly a weirder country than I imagined, no. 5 on the ‘What is’ list is ‘what is the time’.

You can see the whole list, from every country, here.

RIP

Zarley Zalapski, 49, Edmonton-born former NHL defenceman with Pittsburgh, Calgary and Hartford. He died of a viral infection in Calgary.