Friday, 29 May 2020

NONSENSE VERSE

Last October (Bo Diddley)

We heard the music and human sound
Tourist marks in Camden Town
Old horse stables arched with brick
And an inflatable eggplant prick

Shopping stalls with a magpie eye
Sales banners well they don’t lie
Kashmir saris and tie-dye skirts
Biker jackets and Clash t-shirts

Walking cobbles New World no-how
Tripped and fell beside the canal
Oh let’s retire to the Oxford pub
For pints of beer and plates of grub

Inside we saw Canada on a big TV
Losing Japanese World Cup rugby
Lit British cigarettes on the patio
Wondered where else we’d care to go

Oh my pretty baby oh my pretty girl
You said best let our days unfurl
This be us now both you and I
‘Cause some day soon our souls may fly

I said our life together is pretty grand
Let’s take the Tube up to The Strand
Baby we’re here in London town
Let’s live our time in its surround

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of some of the worst poetry ever written since 2013. Don’t sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9, stay safe.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Leveraging Disease

Oh, Alberta! The emotional stage which follows anger and rage is incredulity, an uncomfortable numbness. “Now what!” An electric scream rendered as an unplugged sigh. “What now?” The unilateral actions of the inward-looking, nostalgia-whoring United Conservative Party (UCP) continue to confound progressive Albertans.

Take a moment to picture the lay of the land within Alberta’s immense boundaries: an alpine spine, rolling prairie, boreal forest, wetlands, desert…my province’s geographical features could comprise a concise yet comprehensive photo feature in a tourist guide aimed at visitors to Planet Earth. Given the climate up here, we’ve been accidentally blessed with vistas of almost everything. The land has been altered and scarred since before Alberta joined the Canadian confederation in 1905. This has always been the acceptable price of progress. But these days engaged citizens have gotten around to reading the fine print at the bottom of the sales slip: hidden costs and unintended consequences aren’t covered by warranty.

Alberta’s post-war economic rollercoaster has always been owned and operated by her energy industry. Some would say her government too, deep petro-state. The ride’s been hairy and right now it’s in a downward corkscrew spiral. The view is dizzying and distressing. Throw a dart at a map of Alberta. Chances are you’ll hit an orphaned gas or oil well. The province is prickled with the abandoned steel structures because busted companies aren’t required to maintain funds to clean up after themselves. Alberta’s Energy Ministry has received 37,000 grant applications to erase these eyesores, reclaim the sites. The available cash is federal pandemic largesse, taxpayer money.

Up north the lords of bitumen have fashioned a carbon-intensive Mordor. This is the one massively ugly fact concerning the tar sands that the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), the UCP’s laughably inept propaganda arm, cannot spin. Last week, even the CEC hacks had their “What now?” moment.

The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) is a provincial corporation rubber stamping government policy under the umbrella of the Energy Ministry. It’s variously described as an industry monitor or watchdog. The regulator has temporarily suspended most existing environmental constraints imposed upon the oil patch. Ethical endeavours such as measuring and reducing water and soil contamination levels and greenhouse gas emissions are impractical trifles in this covid-19 era. The tainted, poisoned fate of wildlife is just, well, the nature of things.

Canada’s economy needs Alberta’s energy industry to thrive. Alberta needs her energy industry to survive. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) agrees. So far, no debate. The strident discord surrounding the energy industry here is its future in light of the Paris Accord on climate change. Bitumen extraction is a primitive and expensive process when one considers return on investment, more nimble and ruthless competition, the low price of oil, and the freedom of distant customers to choose their suppliers. Relaxed regulations may goose some CAPP companies to saddle up and gallop backward into the good old days of the wild, wild west when rules and best practices did not apply. Oddly, Alberta’s First Nations aren’t overly excited by the prospect of the old ways returning to the new world order. The chiefs understand that after treaty laws get loosened they tend never to be retightened.

The UCP’s silver bullet for Alberta’s economic woes is the Trans Mountain project, the twinning of an existing pipeline to the Pacific coast along an existing right of way. The outcome of the last provincial election hinged on this magical tube to tidewater even though pipelines, like most national infrastructure, fall under federal jurisdiction. The long-approved though legally disputed private enterprise has since been nationalized and remains under the financial stewardship of the federal government and Canadian taxpayers. Trans Mountain is a toxic topic.

And so the last word must go to Sonya Savage, UCP’s energy minister. Ms Savage was quoted in this morning’s Edmonton Journal. Her remarks were made to an energy industry audience during a remote pandemic podcast to a loosely regulated choir: “Now is a great time to be building a pipeline because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people. Let’s get it built.”

What now? The UCP has applied to the federal government’s covid-19 wage subsidization program for financial assistance.

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative record of socially distant political commentary since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

Sowing Petulant Myopia

Spring has arrived in the province of Alberta albeit a little late and a little haggard. The ice-jam flood season seems to have passed with just a single incident or what people tend to describe as a “100-year event” even though natural disasters are now as commonplace as mass shootings. The northern town of Fort McMurray got swamped. The municipality is spending millions of dollars to create protective berms or levees. That news makes me think of genies and bottles, horses and barn doors. Wildfire season is just around the corner. Modern times.

Closer to home, our Jesuit educated premier seems to have embraced unhinged White House conspiracy theories regarding the genesis and spread of the covid-19 virus. Diplomatic relations between Canada and China were already fraught. A minor politician accusing the planet’s most powerful authoritarian regime of virology complicity and incompetence before taking a breath to plead with the villain to buy Alberta’s canola, oil and pork is simply wet market batshit crazy.

Alberta has always imagined she can play in the big leagues. When two hostile petro-states colluded to crush America’s shale and fracking energy industry, there were bound to be casualties, collateral damage. Canada is neither Nigeria nor Venezuela, but Alberta shares the vulnerability of these competing, inefficient and failing single-resource countries. When the price of oil drops, when a barrel of crude isn’t worth an investor’s dime, our boom-and-bust economic revue pauses for Chaos to enter stage right followed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Alberta shyly revealed some of her tired majesty this recent Victoria Day long weekend. A few provincial parks opened their gates with a myriad of restrictions beyond the usual cautions about open fires and open alcohol. Many are destined to remain closed forever because quality of life and conservation, like funding a decent, well-rounded educational system and ensuring reliable, efficient health care, can be so darned expensive.

Speaking of costs, what’s the difference between garden soil and potting soil? About two dollars a bag. Really close to home, spring has finally arrived at the Crooked 9. Ann and I were particularly anxious to welcome luminous sprouts of green following a lingering drab and dreary winter, its last weeks spent in isolation. In the meantime, when weather permitted, we cleaned up the debris in the yard, swept out the exterior crawlspace beneath the kitchen and stained the stairs leading up to our back door. The lawn’s already been mowed for the first time this year - eleven more until Thanksgiving.

Ann knew too that she’d have to improvise somewhat with her flowerbeds and pots this spring because the owners of her favourite greenhouse announced their retirement last fall. But Ann didn’t expect a pandemic. Nobody expects a pandemic! Still, Ann’s been able to manage her passion with a practical panache. She has planted new life in spite of everything and it’s no small blessing for me to share in her pleasure.

We bought a few sacks of composted cow manure the other day to help Ann’s garden grow. I was amused to discover that the product was processed and shipped from Laval, a northern suburb of Montreal. The official word out here from the legislature is the usual endless goofy GIF loop of blame: Albertans have taken enough shit from other countries, the rest of Canada and especially Quebec. And so I’m amazed we have to import more of it. Anyway, so far Ann’s annuals are thriving in a particularly unstable climate.

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Saturday, 9 May 2020

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Who Am I and What Have I Done?

The first of May marked a quiet personal anniversary, the mid-point of a divided life: thirty formative years lived in Montreal and thirty more formative years lived in Alberta, awkwardly split between the province’s two major cities.

I’ve no faculty for language beyond my mother tongue. English is difficult enough and the tip of my tongue is frequently mute. I default to “fuck.” French fluency, forget about it. I was fed up with the politics of language and language politics in Quebec. I realized I was facing a hardscrabble dead-end in my hometown. The place I loved was no place for me.

I sought work in bilingual Ottawa where my father lived, faraway close to Montreal. I came close, a job in the advertising department of a major department store hard by Parliament and the Rideau Locks. The manager said it might take a little time to sort out but I must remain patient. When he phoned me back with what I expected was an offer, he told me his department was being shut down and its work outsourced. I’ve never dwelt on that untrodden path, my alternative personal history.    

In the spring of 1990 I purchased a Canadian Airlines ticket, Montreal–Edmonton-return which was significantly less expensive than a one-way fare. My older brother Bob met me at the airport; I had a soft landing. On the way home to his place we made multiple stops, ran errands. I’d just left the only life I’d ever known behind and here I was standing damp and shivering in a coin-carwash bay an hour off the jet. I was sure my head was going to explode; Bob could hose down the mess.

Six weeks later I had my first job in advertising, a grocery chain, my first white collar job. A family friend, a Montrealer with extensive business ties across western Canada had put in a word and I’d passed the audition. A new work colleague remarked that my English was impeccable and wondered why I didn’t speak it with a French accent. I thought, “My God, what have I gone and done?” By September I’d rented a downtown apartment and my toddler nephews were no longer haunted by “The Man Who Lives in the Basement.”

Within three years I was transferred from the division office to corporate headquarters in Calgary. There I was no longer “Frenchie” but “one of those new guys from Edmonton.” I lived and worked in Calgary for the next 20 years. And that’s all I did, live, and work chasing salary increases. I never established an emotional connection to the city; I was just there and Calgary was just where I was. I made good friends and I had good jobs but I always felt at sea, adrift.

Meanwhile, the tenor of my trips home to Montreal had changed. Most of my childhood, high school and college friends had left town long before I came to terms with my own inevitable departure. Mystery shopper, I didn’t recognize any of the employees’ faces in the grocery store where I’d managed the night shift whilst trying to establish myself as a writer during the day, young enough to toil through traditional business hours, forgo sleep. The baseball Expos had limped out of town. The places I’d loved to haunt, the record stores, the newsstands and the taverns, had all closed. All that was left were a few fragments of family and the hockey Canadiens gliding into mediocrity in a ritzy new arena. I did not belong; time had recast me as an Albertan.

The Crooked 9 has an Edmonton postal code. I vote and pay my taxes here. It is home, a place I’d been searching for since long before I left Montreal, somewhere to feel comfortable in my own skin. And yet I often feel like a Canadian version of Schrödinger’s cat. I’m not inside the box with the creature so much as inside its head, that bottle cap-sized brain that logically assumes that the weather outside the front door must be different from the weather outside the back one.

The paradoxical question isn’t whether I’m alive or dead but “Where do I fit in?” When I now hear members of the provincial government, local authorities and broadcasted talking heads reference “Albertans” I imagine every citizen in Alberta gathered under some sort of midway pavilion and me on the outside a few feet away, socially distanced, the same as I’ve always been.                                                                 

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Thursday, 30 April 2020

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Toronto: Ifs, Ands and Buts

Ann and I were supposed to fly to Toronto yesterday morning, a bang-up holiday to celebrate her significant Beatles birthday. As her big day approaches, Ann has yet to lose her head; she’s still the brains of our modest operation. In our experience domestic tourism has generally involved dropping in on family members and so the idea of voluntarily spending time in Toronto was as remote as a getaway weekend in Winnipeg. Time has since erased some of the names in our increasingly skinny address book.

Queen Victoria designated Ottawa as Canada’s national capital in part to ease tensions between the newly federated and competing provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. But Her Majesty’s decree regarding her wayward dominion was more likely informed by the geopolitics of her era. Ottawa was a wise and strategic compromise.

Montreal, an island in the St. Lawrence River which connects the Great Lake Ontario to the North Atlantic Ocean, would have been a prime candidate except that the river serves as a natural border with the United States. Easy to cross and navigate. Toronto (York), at the west end of the internationally divided Lake Ontario, had already been razed once by American naval forces. Both cities were vulnerable to Washington’s aggression. Ottawa (Bytown) was less susceptible to sacking and could be reinforced and supplied from the British naval base in Kingston on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario via the Rideau Waterway – perhaps the greatest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Canada considering the technology of the times – or from Montreal via the Ottawa River, a crucial artery in pre-European North America.

Canadians have blamed Ottawa, the seat of the federal government, for everything for more than 150 years. Perhaps Ottawa can be held responsible for the rivalry between Montreal and Toronto, cities spurned by Buckingham Palace in its favour. They have always vied against one another: from the magical race to reach one million citizens, to Stanley Cups and Grey Cups, baseball championships and the unofficial designations of being recognized Canada’s cultural or corporate capital. Born in Montreal, I always perceived Toronto as an uptight, Protestant place to catch a connecting flight or visit on a dreary business trip.

Last February we noticed a banner ad in the Globe and Mail announcing a co-headlining concert in Toronto featuring John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett, two artists whom we greatly admire. The late April date, tonight, almost coincided with Ann’s birth certificate rollover. We did a little more research. The Boston Red Sox were scheduled to visit the Blue Jays last night. Ann could care less about sports but she’s never objected to sitting in a ballpark for a couple of hours. The beloved Canadian musical ‘Come from Away’ was still occupying one of the downtown theatres. Intent on walking everywhere we compared the low season senior rates offered by downtown hotels.

Ann said, “If we don’t do this now, we probably never will.” We’d both been to Toronto but we’d never actually gone to Toronto.

I suggested that a couple of afternoons spent at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario would not be a waste of our time. Somewhere near the Eaton Centre there was a ratty deli with a purple sign that served up exquisite corned beef sandwiches. There used to be a record shop on Queen Street, east or west, God only knows. There was also an opportunity to say hello to a few suddenly not so distant friends, have a drink and a laugh. And so together we booked and bought Ann’s birthday in the big town.

The world wobbled last month, March. We watched the calendar. The days began to flutter away, daytimer pages in a movie. Like a cat who eventually realizes that the lousy weather is the same outside the front door and the back, it slowly dawned on us that pandemics don’t exhaust themselves after a week or ten days, unlike a particularly nasty bout of the flu.

WestJet sent me an e-mail complete with a big blue REFUND button for our airfares. What that really meant was that the airline would deposit our money in a WestJet bank for future use – provided we flew with them again in the next 24 months; the fate of our money beyond that deadline remains something of a mystery. The helpful associate at the other end of the line had no clue.

We telephoned the hotel to cancel our reservations. The desk clerk respectfully inquired why. Well, gee. Surprisingly, we’ve had no issues with the ballclub aside from the fact that they’re not the Montreal Expos; I’d expected some sort of covid-19 raincheck. The usurious Shylocks at Live Nation/Ticketmaster have merely postponed the Lovett-Hiatt gig indefinitely. As for our theatre tickets, who knows? I mean, you know what those people are like.

Ann’s birthday tomorrow promises to be a memorable one for us isolated here in Edmonton; alas, we had other plans – but, you know, in the great, mysterious scheme of things they weren’t that big.                                                            
 meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative record of pandemic armchair travel since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.