Thursday, March 4, 2010

Paradise Found

"I have found Paradise!"

God works in amazing ways, bringing people and situations together. With the Olympics over, spring busting out in Vancouver and my life becoming all too sedentary again (transl.: the fine work the Lord had done in shaving 20 pounds off my frame was starting to reverse), I couldn't wait to get on my bike and ride to work again. The ban on bikes on SkyTrain was ending, so yesterday was The Day. (My ride to work is much too far to tackle by bike, so I ride to Waterfront Station, take SkyTrain to Patterson or Royal Oak and then ride the rest of the way to Metrotown, since bikes aren't allowed at Metrotown Station.)

Except I -- who had written the dang press release -- forgot that, when the rule said "no bikes on SkyTrain until March 3", that meant March 3 was the last day one could not have a bike on SkyTrain, not the first day that one could.

The nice SkyTrain Attendants decided to "use their discretion" (which TransLink policy allows) and let me ride, but lest I cause any grief on the return journey, I decided to hitch my bike to the front of the #19 bus and go home that way.

And here, as you'll see, is where God took over, because what followed could only be Him at work with what some might call a "chance encounter".

A group of people also got on the bus at Metrotown and sat next to me. They were black, and their accents told me they were from the US. One of them struck up a conversation with me, and it turned out he was from Mobile, Alabama, and had come up to drive the media buses for the Olympics. He would be working through the Paralympic Games, as well, making the runs to and from Whistler.

"It's so beautiful here, and the people are so nice and polite," Ed said (that was his name - Ed), "I called my wife a few days ago and said, 'Honey, I found Paradise!' Know what amazes me? So many cultures here -- and it don't matter! White, black, brown ... It don't matter! ... Man: you guys are 'bout a thousand years ahead of us!"

Ed looked about the same age as me, and I did a quick flashback to the headlines from my childhood -- the mid-1960s would have been a whole lot different for a black kid in Mobile, Alabama than they were for a white kid in Vancouver.

For all the negative carping about the Olympics, the inescapable fact is that this has been a defining moment for our country. I don't mean, as spelled out in any rhetoric from officials, but as shown in a kind of spontaneous, organic manifestation as the Games progressed. Sure, winning all those medals helped, but I get the feeling that even if Canadian athletes hadn't been as successful as they were, people visiting for the Games would have come away with a totally different view of Canada than they'd had before -- and seen Canadians as rabidly patriotic, multi-cultural (there's a guy who works in one of the Metrotown office buildings, a Sikh with huge beard and turban and who occasionally shows up in a vintage Oilers "Mark Messier" jersey: only in Canada, I say to myself) and, yes, unfailingly polite, courteous and welcoming.

It was a "defining moment" that none of us really expected, and I don't think it over-states the case to suggest that it's rather like the battle of Vimy Ridge, almost 100 years ago. We came together as a nation then, and in a totally different way, came together as a nation now.

(Warning: with exposure comes risk, and our swaggering patriotism -- while justified and DEFINITELY nothing to apologize for -- caught some commentators by surprise. Gil LeBreton in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram made no friends north of the 49th with his column, which likened the sea of red to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. But whether he meant to or not, we have to realize that he gave us a taste of our own medicine. For decades, we have smugly defined ourselves as being Not American and have taken pride in putting down our neighbors for what we consider to be over-the-top jingoism. The 2010 Olympics proved we can be just as nationally prideful as any star-spangled Yank, Empire-yearning Brit or Kangaroo-toting Aussie, and while I'd be one of the first to say, "It's about bloody time!", we have to remember that we, too, can be called down for it by the very ones we criticize. Make sure the flag you wrap yourself in is made of sturdy fabric.)

But I digress. How would people like my newfound friend Ed have learned about Canada -- and learned about what's possible in a multicultural community -- if not for the Olympics? He'll go home to Mobile and will tell others about his experience in Paradise, and while that may not translate into a Crimson Tide of Alabamans surging into BC to buy up property, they'll have a new goal to shoot for in their own society.

A cynic, Oscar Wilde famously said, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. We've had myriad assessments of the price of the Olympics, but such things as Ed's experience remind us that the value of the event can't be measured in gold -- medals or otherwise.

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