A letter to a Syrian Refugee

Dear Syrian New Canadian,
Welcome to Canada! I’m sorry I was not at the airport, along with our photogenic Prime Minister, to welcome you to our cold country where the hearts are warm and the feelings are mushy. Actually I was feeling a bit jealous, for when I came to this country nearly 30 years ago from a similarly war-torn one like yours, with a wife and two small children (one sick and the other post-operative), there was no one to welcome us; we just checked into an apartment and started life, funded only by our savings. Oh yes, the diffident immigration officer did say “Welcome to Canada,” after stamping our passports and accepting us as landed immigrants.

Let me re-assure you that you have made a good choice in coming to Canada. But instead of the warm and fuzzies, let me give you a few do’s and don’ts that you need to be aware of here, facts that the immigration brochures do not reveal, as we are, for the most part, a polite nation.

Do’s
1) Get yourself a job as soon as you can. Any job! Canadian Experience gets you into progressively better jobs faster than all the credentials you can bring from your home country. Besides, the longer you stay unemployed the higher the risk-hire you become. And don’t quit a job before getting the next one. We love to hire currently-employed people because someone else has already done the filtering and taken the risk on you. And when you get a job, work hard at it. Luck is the product of hard work.
2) Unless you wish to reside in Quebec, learn “Canadian English” as soon as you can, replete with “eh”s and “duh”s and other expressions. And when you are stuck for words, throw in stuff like “basically,” “that’s a good question,” “as a matter of fact,” etc – these are acceptable fillers.
3) Do pay your taxes and obey the law. The law here is what makes this country different from where we came from; it’s terribly slow once you get into its clutches, and outcomes are based on compromise not justice. That’s why when two Canadians bump into each other they both say “sorry” and go their way without getting into a punch up or a shoot-out. And don’t try to change this law with imported ones either. We like it methodical and labyrinthine. Just don’t get tangled up with the law and you’ll be fine.
4) Do learn to accommodate your neighbour. That’s how this place works. I don’t know my next door neighbour nor subscribe to his peculiar habits and customs. But I respect his space and he gives me mine and I offer to look after his place when he is away on holidays, and he does the same for me.

Don’ts
1) Don’t try to live on subsidy for longer than you can. We have welfare and medicare and EI and other props. These are very addictive and are only for those genuinely in need.
2) Try to become a net producer rather than a net consumer. We love shopping and buying things we don’t need that only put us in debt, especially after Christmas. This is an Achilles Heel that will ultimately be our undoing. Don’t fall for this trap of living today based on tomorrow’s potential earnings.
3) While you are free to indulge in your customs and rituals that give you your identity, don’t impose them on others. And, like me, you might want to sample, even adopt, some of the customs that make us Canadian: we play Christmas songs from November to December, we go crazy during Hockey season, we unite around a National Anthem that brings a clutch to my throat every time I sing it, we like to criticize our politicians without shooting them, we drink a lot of coffee, flush a lot of toilets and eat doughnuts even if it’s not good for us. Please don’t try to change these customs, because if I don’t hear my Christmas songs on the radio and in public places anymore, I’m going to be pretty pissed off!
4) Make sure your kids get an education, integrate and become Canadian. This “multi-cultural” business is good only to get newcomers through the door. But after a few years here we all have to find some commonality that hangs us all together as Canadians.

This may be a bit much to absorb all at once. Sorry. Besides, you need to bask in the celebrity status with which you have been welcomed into this country; many who came before you have not had this privilege. And you have earned it, after your treacherous voyage from your war-torn homeland. So relax and let it soak in during this Christmas season. But remember, that in these Attention Deficit times, the show will be over very soon, the audience would have moved on to the next big thing and you will be left on the stage, alone, wondering what happened. That’s when I hope you will read and re-read my do’s and don’ts and find them helpful. They are offered from the heart and not from the handbook.

Canada is a land of milk and honey, but only if you bring (or grow) your own cows and bees. Since you have come to this country with nothing more than yourselves and a few belongings, I suggest you cut through the hoopla ASAP (another acronym we use excessively) and get down to seriously growing your personal treasure chest. And with hard work, you will. All the best!

Sincerely,
A Fellow New Canadian

P.S. – It might interest you to know that, by definition, you will remain a New Canadian for the rest of your life – another quirk of this place! Enjoy!

Do titles sell books?

I know that covers sell books, well, at least for now, before e•books run us over, but do titles do the same? Is it best to plagiarize an existing best•selling title, and modify it a bit to ensure that unintended searches will unearth your book and present it to an unsuspecting reader? I know I had some unasked•for success when my last novel After the Flood came out a few months after a more famous book called The Year of the Flood (honest, I did not plagiarize here, I had been toiling at my tome for over seven years and had a mass of publishers and other gatekeepers to wade through before I arrived at my launch party, late, as to be expected)

Or is it better to use the most unremarkable title like The (Something) or a longer one like the curious incident of when I went to buy groceries and met a long cool woman in a black dress? Or adapt one of those biblical passages that Hemingway was so fond of using even if it has no relevance to the story: I lie me down in green pastures.

I have been struggling to find the title for a collection of linked stories that I would like to see published next. These stories cover the immigrant experience from both sides: the home country and the host country, and deals with the unfinished business often left behind, the emotional baggage that prevents the immigrant from making that final commitment to his new home, to what was originally just a leap of faith. I started with Unfinished Business, then I found out that there were plenty of titles under that moniker; also it could be mistaken for a poorly written business book. I lingered over Memories – too soppy and melodramatic. Departure Stains was next, but it sounded like someone had taken a dump on the old country and run away in a hurry seeking sanctuary in the new home (which is true of some shadier immigrants, but is not a general condition). From Both Sides Now is the name of a famous song, so I discarded that one. In desperation, I thought of Untitled but even that has been taken several times over. My Short Stories would be too immature, Immigrant Stories would be better as a sub•title, and I Can’t Bloody Find A Name For This Book would definitely sound paranoid.

I thought of asking my publisher. After all, they are going to market my book, let them do some work. But then I could see their rebound question hitting me squarely in the face: “You can’t even articulate the meaning of your book with an appropriate title? Okay – Reject Pile. Next!”

Dear readers, you seem to be my last resort. If you have an idea, please let me know. Perhaps cyberspace will come to my rescue, and as Frasier Crane said, “I am listening…”

Christmas Over the Years

Christmas brings out mixed feelings in me. Will it be good or bad, white or green this year?

There were the Christmases of childhood when I cradled a lonely Roy Rogers annual while my more fortunate cousins flashed multiple gifts received from doting parents. The Christmases of Pyrotechnics followed, when my bachelor uncle would buy a car load of fireworks each year and appoint me master organizer of the Christmas•eve “firing schedule,” when I became the envy of the neighbourhood kids. The fireworks•less Christmas followed in the year my sister was born—our Christmas baby, who now as an adult walks the land preaching salvation to the uninitiated, just like the original Christmas baby did—when everyone was pre•occupied with Mum’s long labour, and when the kerosene canon, a poor replacement for the fireworks, was created by me and a buddy to prove that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Midnight on Christmas•eve in the old country was a cacophony of exploding fireworks until that sound morphed into a more deadly kind—civil war—causing us to leave seeking safer pastures.

Our first Christmas in the Middle East was terrible: no fireworks, no friends, no family and no carols on the radio. Christmases in the desert got better afterwards when the “tribe,” (comprising family and friends chasing safety, petro•dollars and immigration nest eggs), began to grow, and when we built our own collections of Christmas music. The first Christmas in Canada was a wonderland of falling in the snow and making angels and snowmen – activities we had only imagined and read about in fairy tales. Now, we could not get the sound of Christmas music out of our ears – it was everywhere, 24/7, from the time Halloween ended. The tribe followed us to Canada when their nest eggs were sufficiently grown, and they increased and multiplied and Christmas parties got grander and it was no longer sufficient to give (or receive) a solitary gift per person, and January was a blah month when the credit card bills came in.

There were the sad Christmases too, when illness visited the family and mortality checks registered for the first time and relatives brought gifts and food for us, the homebound, because Christmas was never to be missed, come whatever. There was the Christmas when a marriage ended and my family never sat down to its turkey dinner as a unit ever again. And there was also the Christmas when I looked upon my first unemployment insurance cheque and wondered how one could live on such a measly sum, and questioned where all my taxes and contributions in previous years had gone. Those were the times when I did not look forward to Christmas.

But good times return, just like the bad ones do, and this year we are seeing family members celebrate their own Christmases as their circles expand, and given the numbers now in the tribe, we are assured of at least reasonably sized gatherings at any one place for the next few years. And the ones coming to visit this Christmas are driving long distances on planes, trains and automobiles to get here (well, maybe not on planes this year).

Above all, Christmas reminds me of the passing of time and of the human condition, replete with good times, bad times, wins, losses; of giving and receiving. Maybe Christmas is an annual check point to see if we are truly living life in all its diversity. Poor is the man (or woman) to whom Christmas has always been a procession of joy or an unending saga of misery. They have been short changed. Christmases should be like eggnog cocktails, with equal or alternating infusions of sorrow and joy, which we must partake of annually in order to be truly alive.

The Dead-ends in Life

When I think of the dead ends I have followed over the years and the amount of time I spent on walking those futile pathways, I must have wasted much of my life. Let me itemize a few of these duds that would not offend friends or family (the rest, you will have to imagine!):

1) Earning four academic degrees, none of which I have any recollection of putting to practical use, except on my ever changing resume. I use Microsoft Office applications more than any other, and these tools I taught myself
2) Trying several times to immigrate to the wrong country (whose name will remain unmentioned) and then, by freakish accidents, ending up in two places I never knew I would ever live in. Dubai in the 80’s was pile of sand attracting only labourers and housemaids; I ended up there for seven years, like Ulysses on Circe’s island seven times over, until I was panting to get out. I then landed in Toronto which had hitherto only been a name on those old paperbacks that claimed “this book is published simultaneously in New York, London, Toronto, Sydney & Auckland”; well, I thought, at least they read in Toronto—must be a nice place. And it was! Why did I take such a circuitous route?
3) Reading hundreds of books, many of which did not advance my understanding of this world one iota, especially the formulaic fiction that everyone was reading because these books were “so cool, and recommended”
4) Writing dozens of stories and novels, only a few which have seen the light of day. The others are making good doorstops or keeping the Post Office solvent with their to•ing and fro•ing
5) Sending out hundreds of job applications and attending dozens of “play•act” interviews only to find employment through the people I had known all along and hadn’t asked
6) Joining, forming, or playing in many music groups, all of which finally collapsed on their own success, leaving me holding onto my lonely guitar, back at square one
7) Pursuing the dot•com phenomenon. Oh, weren’t we champions of that promised new economy during those heady days of the new millennium, creating new business models by the day, taking inventions out of every basement crackpot and trying to find customers for them, and finally imploding when the banks and venture capitalists cut off their financial pipelines.
8) Rebounding to pursue this social networking thing now (Hello! Who’s out there? Are you listening? Do you even care? Do you wanna be my friend? No? THANK YOU!) No one knows where SN is heading, or how it will end. Will it be another dot•bomb?
9) Joining volunteer movements in order to make the world a better place. Instead, this planet has become worse. Oh, you egotistical sod, you were but a solitary spermlet in a sterile ejaculation that could never transform the elusive egg!

I could go on, but I would only end up depressed. A wise man once told me that Planet Earth is not a place for accomplishments but a place for learning hard lessons, often making one end up empty handed but spiritually enriched. If that were the case, I must be well on my way to earning a PhD in this joint soon. But I wonder if I will ever use that credential either?