Thursday, 7 December 2017

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

And the Kitchen Sink

I don’t spend a lot of time rooting around in the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink because I’m not an amateur chemist who synthesizes crystal meth from abrasive cleaning products. But since which fruit flavoured dishwashing liquid to use at any particular time is a curiously compelling conundrum, there is always a selection, I do poke my head underneath once in a while. Recently, I was dismayed to discover a pool of grey water. I noted the blistered paint on the rear wall; black, mouldy stains cascaded like descending fireworks effects proximate to the pipe joints.

“Ann, we’ve got a problem.”

The drain has always been slow, beyond the scope of commercial cleaners. Well maintained for the most part too although who knows what has swirled away over thrice daily dishes over three decades. Dan the Demolition Man found a butter knife lodged in the U-joint. Pete the Plumber found a piece of a previous plumber’s snake. The pipe itself was kitchen cannelloni, an iron tube stuffed with petrified black sludge. The three-inch drainage channel had been reduced to the circumference of a sewing pin’s head.

So with the heart of the house torn out, why not replace the scarred kitchen countertops and the pale and neutral boring tile backsplash? We’re halfway there anyway and the room could use a fresh coat of paint. We set the coffeemaker up in the bathroom. We moved the cats’ bowls into the front hall. We emptied every kitchen drawer and cupboard and stored their surprisingly plentiful contents in the dining room, prepared to live like hoarding squatters.

Beyond conveniently situated hot and cold running water, we didn’t know what we had until it was out of commission. Off site Ann and I sat and analyzed where and how we spend our time in our home. Neither of us had ever given it any thought.

There’s the bedroom of course though neither of us are likely to sleep through the entire night. We tend to find evidence of each other’s visit to the kitchen. There’s cinnamon residue on the Montreal Canadiens mug: Ann had some hot milk. Geoff made a sandwich and left his plate in the sink; The Economist is splayed on the counter.

Ann practices her violin in a room dedicated to her music. I write in the basement surrounded by the works of more accomplished authors. The most comfortable chairs in the house are in the den but the tabbies have commandeered them. The television’s there too and it’s some kind of big day when it’s actually turned on. The desktop computer is essentially for correspondence.

I was brought up being constantly reminded that the living room is for guests and not for children. I only venture in there to play music on the stereo. Nothing much has changed. Besides, visitors to the Crooked 9 tend to congregate in the kitchen. The couch is very comfortable for stretching out and reading but Mungo, the tabby named for the founder and patron saint of Edinburgh, never fails to find me, lie on my chest in a tugboat or decoy duck pose and drool on me or my book. Ann and I use the dining room table for Scrabble games and increasingly less frequent family dinners.

Our household thrums from the kitchen: two or three meals per day plus foraging in the wee small hours; coffee and crossword puzzles; newspapers and magazines; iPhones and iPads; cat dishes. The main landline is in there and it rings sometimes. There’s a vessel of pens and pencils beside the Beatles Yellow Submarine notepad. The erasable bulletin board features Elvis and Montreal International Jazz Festival magnets, and to-do lists. We can’t plan an afternoon, a day or a week without consulting the inky wall calendar. I log a lot of time looking out our back door, thinking and watching the jays, magpies and woodpeckers, on sentry duty because evil grey-and-white cat who lives across the street prowls our property ready to pounce on our aged pair of brothers. Ann and I live our lives in the kitchen.

I had expected the renovation to disrupt our routine, my routine, but I hadn’t planned for the personal anxieties the impromptu refresh would cause me. The framed Bob Dylan show bill was leaned up against the loveseat in the living room. The wall clock, the only way I can tell time, was face down on the dining room table. No sink, no countertops. The antique pine washstand on which I stack our current magazines was inaccessible and bowed beneath a stack of utensil trays. Where are the box of Kleenex, the garbage bin and the roll of paper towels? Everything was missing or out of place, I was discombobulated.

Allocating home ownership funds can be a bit of a tightrope walk. There are always the monthly bills. Ongoing maintenance of the structure and its physical plant is critical. There should be an emergency stash of cash because modern appliances are more delicate and more difficult to repair because of their electronics and fragile assemblies. Not much is manufactured to last a lifetime these days; warranties aren’t worth the web sites they’re uploaded to.

If there’s space in the household budget to splurge, Ann and I have two pieces of advice for you. First, buy a high quality mattress because you’ll find that you spend a lot of time lying on it. Don’t worry about the suite of furniture because most of the time you won’t be able to see it. Second, invest the rest in the room that’s used most often. In our case, that’s the kitchen. Provided you’re not incontinent, the room that wins the reno lottery may surprise you.

By this time next week our kitchen command centre should be back to a gussied up new normal. Ann and I will both be relieved by the completion of the process and the cessation of its troupe of indifferent strangers through what we now understand to be a crucial and intimate personal space. We look forward to rehanging pictures and restocking the cupboards and drawers, using the stove. And the sink will drain properly because we believe in miracles and hydrochloric acid. We expect all of this inconvenient work and redecorating to see us out in bold and colourful style, ours.

Friday, 1 December 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Tweeterdumbest

Rex Tillerson, the lame duck Secretary of State of the United States, is alleged to have described his superior, the 45th president, as “a fucking moron.” He and I have a lot in common. Who has not toiled under the fleshy, stubby thumb of a fucking moron? “Fucking moron” was my pet phrase for anyone I’ve had to report to throughout my varied working life. Granted, my job was mostly buying ink and paper, not averting nuclear war or inciting racial violence.

This week Tweeterdumbest retweeted three inflammatory anti-Muslim videos. The nasty and brutish shorts were productions of Britain’s lunatic fringe which, alas, is no longer comprised of the Goons, Spike Milligan and Monty Python. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders shrugged off the extremely dubious nature of the hate propaganda insisting, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.”

An unsurprising and Orwellian double-think take by an administration that happily trots out “alternative” facts while decrying “fake” news. While it’s rather sad and perhaps even cringe-inducing to watch a great world power wane, it’s definitely cause for alarm when it’s apparent its most senior officials display difficulty grappling with the actual nature of reality. Truth is for losers.

Meanwhile, former Klu Klux Klan wizard or dragon or grand imperial whatever, David Duke cheered on the orange, odious vulgarian from the far right sidelines. “That’s why we love him!” And a fucking moron, at that.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Crash and Burn

Beyond the city limits in Leduc County a super-duper outlet mall is rising in the environs of the Edmonton International Airport (EIA). From the highway the massive structure resembles a prison, complete with watchtowers. Costco, with all its concrete Soviet Brutalist charm, has been confirmed as a tenant. The Alberta Aerotropolis project envisions the province’s capital city, the city of Leduc and industrial Nisku as an inland port, anchored by the EIA and big box stores. Despite explosive growth along the Queen Elizabeth II, the CalgaryEdmonton corridor, I wonder if the retail component is a decade behind the times. As is, perhaps, the high stakes bet on the long term robustness of the fossil fuel industry and its Nisku service companies.

The city currently boasts two premium malls. West Edmonton of course, and Southgate, now host to the cavernous vacuum of the debacle that was Sears. Toys “R” Us will probably leave some big, empty boxes strewn about. Secondary commercial properties are struggling with abandoned Zellers and Target leases. Some are reeling from the double whammy of Sobeys’ Safeway acquisition; grocery banners which no longer compete with each other merely require a single space for their wares. Most malls are depressingly populated with medical service and supply companies, and dental clinics whose signs always feature a gigantic, rooty molar. Neighbourhood strip malls tend to be even drabber, shabby convenience stores tucked between FOR LEASE signs and whitewashed windows.

Loblaw was once Canada’s most innovative grocer, thanks to visionary gourmand Dave Nichol. The President’s Choice (PC) brand was audacious, promising consumers a private, exclusive and superior product to that of any of the nationals. The foundation of the PC line was somewhat ironic, the formula of Royal Crown cola, a deceased and forgotten though tasty brand, an early victim in the war between Coke and Pepsi. After the gift of President’s Choice cola Nichol graced us all with “decadent” chocolate cookies.

Last week Loblaw announced that it intended to extort its vendors again, shaving invoices for a modest percentage to cover processing costs. The company announced the launch of a fee-based loyalty program. The company announced too that it would close 22 of its stores but was coy about which ones where. The company announced an e-commerce initiative predicated on consumers’ needs featuring premium pricing which may potentially be eased somewhat by signing up and paying for the enhancements touted by the fee-based loyalty program.

The Sobeys attempt at being digital is the ludicrously codenamed “Project Sunrise.” The only quantifiable result to date is the termination of the careers of 800 of its employees.

The golden or perhaps black metric for traditional retail has been same-store sales. Ever upward! Amazon never cared a whit for this dusty model. It didn’t have to. So this is why e-commerce can become something like Hercules’s Hydra for newcomers, old school operations. E-commerce will reduce foot traffic. Reduced foot traffic will reduce impulse purchases, incremental sales. Less busy stores require less staff. A lack of staff, especially cashiers, will annoy average shoppers inside stores who are not professional third party pickers with lists. They may ultimately decide to spend their money elsewhere, some place with a human face and a modicum of customer service. But where will they go?

My guess for baby boomers like myself is that we’ll just give up and go home, a safe place to click-step into the new, emerging world order. Younger people, prizing experiences over consumer goods, are already mobile, shopping from anywhere without actually having to endure the hassle of going to a store. Chain retailers are twigging to the new reality, that they don’t need hundreds of locations so much as a few warehouses and a virtual store. Amazon seems to be going against the trend it created with its Seattle shop and its acquisition of Whole Foods, a modest operation, but it doesn’t strike me as a strategy so much as a novel attraction, like a themed corporate outlet on Times Square.

Electronics retailer Best Buy has long complained that consumers utilize its stores as mere showrooms before purchasing items from less expensive, competing online vendors. Chapters-Indigo, a bookseller, seems convinced the path to profit is lit by votive candles and padded with aphoristic throw cushions. Why visit a bookstore that doesn’t sell books? The HMV music chain closed its doors leaving Edmonton with one decent record shop; that one hurt me.

My sweeping generalization of economic digital disruption is that most sectors have or will become more efficient while utilizing less labour. Retail provides a fine example of the paradox posed in this period of transition. Online shopping is a relatively painless and positive experience. A venture into the actual physical marketplace has been degraded into something akin to agony, no staff, no stock, no satisfaction. And anyway, people who are out of work or juggling multiple part-time obligations or struggling with their new roles in the gig economy tend not to throw money around.

But if you’ve got the money, honey, why settle for the wares of a dowdy banner still trying to figure out the modern world which already went by in a Doppler engine drone? Direct-to-consumer startups are offering viable alternatives to Gillette razor blades, Kraft Dinner and Heinz ketchup; they’re as disruptive now as Loblaw was in the 80s when it launched its President’s Choice brand to humble the nationals: Dave Nichol versus Goliaths.

So in a region pocked with dead or withering retail space and banners, it only makes sense to develop more, bigger, grander commercial square footage on arable farmland midway into nowhere because, well, things are bound to revert to the good old days, if only we knew when the good old days were and could define them. My hunch is that there are just not enough Black Fridays and Boxing Days on the retail calendar to make Aerotropolis anything more than a fiasco.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

NONSENSE VERSE

Scamp’s Crooked 9 Blues

I’m a cranky old tabby big as rugby ball
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby big as rugby ball
Hear me rumblin’ all down your front hall

I’m a cranky old tabby pacing the kitchen floor
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby pacing the kitchen floor
You don’t feed me Whiskas I ain’t goin’ purr no more

I’m a cranky old tabby sippin’ at the bathroom sink
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby sippin’ at the bathroom sink
You better run that tap ‘cause man I need a drink

I’m a cranky old tabby with a crusty butt
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby with a crusty butt
Better change my litter or I’ll drop a you know what

I’m a cranky old tabby snoozing on a comfy chair
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby snoozing on a comfy chair
When I wake up you better comb my tiger hair

I’m a cranky old tabby wailin’ at the wall
Said, I’m a cranky old tabby wailin’ at the wall
Dear Lord deliver me won’t you heed my call

Monday, 13 November 2017

NONSENSE VERSE

A Tabby in Winter

I know that it’s confusing; I know it’s really weird
But winter has arrived again, my old greybeard

We’ve had this conversation at least twenty times before
The weather is the same outside every household door

I’ll tell you something else that’s oddly passing strange
It takes more than thirty seconds for a season’s change

Letting you out now, sir, you’d only meet your death
You’d freeze beneath that hungry coyote’s breath

Get off the counter! Don’t shred the couch!
Use your litter box! Don’t be a grouch!

Go groom yourself, curl up and try to get more sleep
Because out there, my friend, the snow drifts are so deep

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

The Dilemma Posed by Rod Stewart

Ann swears like a sailor these days. Sometimes I wish she’d stop poring over her American fake news feeds. Hello, Pot, I’m no better. I look at the CBC, the BBC, the New York Times and the Globe and Mail and keep muttering, “Jesus.”

Ann cannot move around my heart without the use of a cane now. Sometimes she uses it as a pointer and I find myself instinctively cupping my gnards with protective affection. Some sort of binary, cisgender reflex, I guess; I’ve always been fond of them. Our everyday routine has altered. Our ancient and deaf tabby sits and caterwauls facing the wrong way in a corner like some Cockney demon, “Allo! Allo!” The toilet runs like a marathon. The faucet in the bath doesn’t work. October’s social calendar was populated with funerals. Halloween Jack on the front porch is frozen solid.

When it all gets too much, I shrink inward and dwell on big, important stuff. The other morning Ann said, “Rod Stewart’s coming to Edmonton.” I made a humming noise of acknowledgement, morning kitchen coffee proof that I’d been paying attention. I began to think about Rod the Mod because I’m so sick of global, national and provincial politics; heart attacks, suicides and cancer scares; poverty and entitlement; negative and regressive public discourse; the Canadiens’ horrific start to the new season; Facebook platitudes and affirmations; pug puppies and kale.

Even if things are breaking down in this house and in the world that surrounds us, there is always music playing in the living room or the YouTube vortex on the desktop computer in the den. Either as a member of Faces or as a solo star, Rod gets more than his fair share of loud spins here at the Crooked 9. However, we rarely listen to anything released after 1975’s Atlantic Crossing. In the great, chaotic cosmic scheme in which life’s rich pageant unfolds, Rod’s career trajectory barely registers as tragedy except amongst betrayed hardcore fans.

Rolling Stone once sneered that no other artist had betrayed their talent so completely. Rod was a lot like a tumor, the bigger he became the worse he became. Yet his pedigree was impeccable: shy second fiddle to the ego that is Jeff Beck in the Jeff Beck Group; front man for chaotically and delightfully sloppy Stones rivals the Faces; the remarkable string of solo albums for Mercury Records. There’s no firm consensus as to when Rod fell over the edge of the creative cliff but the albums that followed 1977’s Foot Loose and Fancy Free were slicker and excruciatingly calculated to please a mass audience: the folkie, lovable loser desperately desired to be a rock god at any price. And then Rod stopped writing songs altogether.

He is a legacy artist with a chequered legacy. Still, Rod remains one of the premier showmen of second generation rock ‘n’ roll. His is an amiable stage presence, witty and charming. (His breezy autobiography Rod is neither a waste of time nor eyesight.) Soccer balls booted from the footlights zipping around hockey rinks! Reliable. For two hours or so his paying audience will have as much fun as he does, and that’s always felt like reciprocity to me having seen him four times over the course of some 40 years.

Ann said, “I’ve never seen him.”

Hmm. “When?”

“April.”

The trouble with senior rockers of course is that you must make a financial commitment months in advance, roll the dice on their health (and yours) rather than the illegal foolish behaviour of their (and our) primes. Tickets aren’t $15 anymore. Arena security is now as invasive and annoying as an airport’s. Still, it’s very simple to reschedule a downtown train trip across the river as opposed to an itinerary involving flights and hotels. I’d mused a year ago about surprising Ann with a trip to see him in Las Vegas, but America has a very different hue these days.

“Something to look forward to,” Ann said.

April, yeah, spring. It’s cold now and the winter’s coming on. The fake news is all bad. All right, let’s plan on rocking out like middle-aged boomers in five months. “That would be fun,” I said. And if Rod the Mod can still do his job, and everything shakes down as it should for him, and us, and the planet over the next 150 days, it will be.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

THE DELETE BIN

Three O'Clock Train

Today's post has migrated to the Delete Bin, my favourite music blog. The link to the 'Bin is down on the lower right. I wrote about Three O'Clock Train here in September. More needed to be said.