Sunday, 13 January 2019


La Belle Province

Ann and I are preparing for another trip to my old Montreal home. Although my appetite is not what it was, when I think about Montreal, I think about food. Studies have shown that the food I think about, the food I miss, hot dogs, smoked meat sandwiches and steak-and-pepperoni subs, cause heart attacks and cancer; crusty sweat levels of sodium and  nuclear reactor heavy water processing, they say. There are well-meaning approximations of these delicacies to be found across Canada but nothing tastes like home.

Food has been on my mind for a couple of other reasons as well but not because I’m hungry. Since the odious vulgarian south of 49 absurdly insisted on renegotiating NAFTA into CAMUS or USMC or whatever, the last family dairy farmer in this country has been angry over the erosion of his subsidized artificial market. Additionally, news stories concerning the federal government’s efforts to update the pantry-dusty Canada Food Guide have amused me. The tempest swirling in an orange juice carton constitutes the dilemma of political rule: How important is the well-being of the many as opposed to the commercial interests of a select few?

(I’m reminded of a point-of-purchase Coca-Cola campaign I had the misfortune to be involved with a number of years ago. The target demographic was Latinos in California. The message was blatantly bad advice: Coca-Cola with breakfast!)

I booked a two-room apartment for Ann and me on Mackay, across the street from Concordia University’s massive, brutalist Henry F. Hall Building. I wondered if we’d be staying in the old journalism faculty, a three-storey greystone where I’d spent so much time as a student. My old turf. Once the digital confirmations were transmitted I began to have second thoughts as I scanned them. Once I read them through I was in a panic.

I would have to download an app and re-input all of the information I’d already provided. When we arrived at the address in the freezing dark weighed down by luggage I would be e-mailed a pass code. The pass code in turn would facilitate a virtual check-in. After that I supposed I’d need a 3-D printer to make a key for the unit. It was all a bit too James Bond. Anyway, I don’t own a cell phone; I exist beyond the fringe. I cancelled our reservation.

(An unhappy memory played a role in my decision. A few years ago I booked us into an industrial loft south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral: fabulous price, an even better location. Trouble was the key was awaiting collection five city blocks away – which is nothing provided you’re not humping suitcases uphill after a long and irritating day of travel. You don’t even want to speculate on what aircraft cabin pressure does to my gut. Perhaps the balloon effect is related to my diet.)

So I booked Ann and me into something resembling a proper hotel located at the corner of Sherbrooke and Peel. I realized we’d be proximate to gourmand glory, La Belle Province.  The long, narrow restaurant faces Dominion Square and is situated between two storefronts I remember fondly, the Rymark Tavern and Murray’s Sport Shop. They no longer exist. La Belle Province is the type of place where the guys in t-shirts and jeans behind the counter and its sneeze-guard assemble your order with their bare hands, no dainty plastic gloves allowed. The décor is bleu, blanc et rouge, Montreal hockey laundry. The seats are hard. The translucent napkins are crammed into metal dispensers; they come out five at a time should you manage to hold a grip on a fold.

La Belle Province serves up my three preferred food groups under one roof:  hot dogs, smoked meat sandwiches and subs. There was no such emporium when I moved away nearly 30 years ago. Back then each specialty required a trip to an exclusive destination.

My friends and I used to attend Montreal Manic indoor soccer games, human pinball, at the Montreal Forum mainly because of the venue’s concession stands’ toasted hot dogs. The limited entertainment value of the nascent and ultimately failed sport was entirely secondary. Even the misguided vendors who shilled salmonella at the Olympic Stadium during Expos baseball games tried to copy Forum hot dogs. I’ve never been a swift study myself but, goddamn, serving up a decent hot dog isn’t quantum physics unless of course they don’t exist as handy, hand-held malnutrition in a parallel universe.

Smoked meat sandwiches were a fussier proposition because the competing delicatessens used their own seasoning formulas. This is the way WE did it in the old country. Should you ever wish to start a fight in Montreal, skip ideology and language and opine instead on the texture and moistness of a particular establishment’s smoked meat. Then again, the argument may be as tired as day-old rye bread because some of the classic joints are no longer in business and the survivors have changed hands, gone corporate.

Mike’s was the sub shop that created the ‘Co-star’ for delivery from modest premises, a toasted foot-long steak-and-pepperoni sandwich layered with Provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato slices, and drizzled with Italian dressing. Initially the only competition was the cheap micro-waved ingredients purveyed by Mr. Submarine. I believe the Mike’s chain was spooked by the incursion of Subway. Its management’s grandiose counter strategy of emulating the successful formula of western Canada’s Boston Pizza which offers patrons a licensed, casual sit-down atmosphere was too much, too fast, too soon and hence a headlong dive into expansion, corner-cutting mediocrity and shuttered locations. A trade mark registered signature dish will prevent a neighbourhood pizza parlour from lifting the name but not replicating it and selling it for less.

And so, hello, bonjour, La Belle Province. I’ll be dropping in for a bite. Or three. But not everything all at once. I’m thinking breakfast, lunch and dinner? Or maybe three successive days.

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Wednesday, 9 January 2019


Goop and Saccharine

Suzanne Somers wrote the answer
Three’s Company cures all cancer

Anthony Robbins grew a goatee
And short’ed his name to Tony

Deepak Chopra and Lululemon
Talking aphoristic New Age heaven

Live, laugh, love and floss
Lap up all that sugary dross

Gweneth Paltrow sells real Goop
Using colonics to make her soup

Repurposed the rocks in her head
Shoved them elsewhere up instead

Bring me the head of your ESA
Not tomorrow, I mean today

Well good God, Morrie, it’s all too much
Mitch Albom, Ellen, an Oprah crutch

Am I the poster boy epitome
Of really callous insensitivity?

I know, I know, life is hard
Thank Christ you got a loyalty card

You are different, you are special
Not just your average human vessel

Recall that Earth is big, older than you
And you, my friend, are nothing new

You might step outside yourself
And leave the charlatans on the shelf

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Thursday, 27 December 2018


The Fine Print

Advertising is my personal poll of the zeitgeist, accurate 19 times out of 20, plus or minus a few percentage points. There was a time when four out of five doctors were particular about their brand of cigarettes. When plastic wares and frozen foods were modern miracles and artificial fabrics never wrinkled. The war had been won and the road ahead was paved with the cardboard cartons of new-fangled consumer durables. Advertising is an era’s barometer.

Times and mores, along with the century, have changed, as they will. Luxury advertising has a small but growing demographic; people will always pay too much for stuff they don’t need if they can afford to. Companies that make leotards in Bangladesh, shoes in China and bottle our free municipal water for resale exhort us to Olympian heights of personal achievement. And the shiny, happy people depicted in print ads reflect an awareness of society’s diversity; there’s always room for a trans-gendered Muslim with a physical disability amid the buxom babes and the square-jawed white men enjoying their staged moment of commercial bliss.

But there are other signs of the times in contemporary advertising too, down at the bottom of the message near the logo and slogan. Years ago there was an address an interested consumer could write to for more information. The post office boxes in Battle Creek, Michigan or Chicago area code 60619 were replaced by more convenient toll-free phone numbers. These 11 digits soon began to share space with web addresses. The advent of wireless phones equipped with cameras led to an early indicator of the internet of things, QR codes or binary short-cuts. Shortly thereafter social media revived the always mysterious # symbol from the telephone dial thereby engineering a deviously insidious form of customer and brand engagement.

Progress is dizzyingly relentless. The advertising industry, like its sister, porn, is part of the technological vanguard, up to the minute or just a half second behind, always ready to exploit the latest and greatest as a vehicle for its white noise. I was reminded of this last week while perusing my latest issue of The Economist where I came across a full page, Christmas-themed ad paid for by the Salvation Army. 

The graphic was attractive, sort of Norman Rockwell filtered through a New Yorker cartoonist: ring that bell, put a penny in the drum… snow – a clever use of white space. WE CONQUER HUNGER WITH COMPASSION. LOVE HAS AN ARMY. The pair of headers were complemented by a combative hashtag: FightForGood. The ad’s execution touched me, so I lingered over it. Logo? Check. Slogan? Check. Toll-free number? Check. Website? Check. And then… Say what!? Right down there with the phone and the URL: “Alexa, make a donation to The Salvation Army,” a scripted digital assistant prompt and not to just any digital assistant.

Amazon has come a long way from simply distributing pre-existing books and music. Alexa is a fine example of its evolution. At the moment the AI tool seems pretty benign, assembling songs, lording it over household appliances and distributing alms to the needy. The day will come when it will be less passive and begin to make suggestions on behalf of advertisers. Ultimately, there aren’t that many steps between taking orders and giving them, a simple promotion will suffice. I suspect we’ll reach that existential chasm soon enough.     

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Saturday, 22 December 2018


Wait a Minute, Please!

The Crooked 9 does not have a dedicated walk to the front door. Consequently Ann and I are diligent about keeping the driveway clear for the duration of Edmonton’s long, dark winters. I enjoy shovelling snow. It’s similar to mowing the lawn or raking leaves in that the result is immediately pleasing and apparent. I get as much thinking done performing those tasks as I do standing still and watching the blue jays, magpies and woodpeckers flit about in the firs outside through the window in our back door.

Edmonton has always been reluctant to come to terms with its latitude. When I initially moved here nearly 30 years ago, I was stunned that the City’s entire snow removal budget was habitually drained by the end of November, the solstice still some three weeks away. This year late fall and the first couple of days of winter thus far have been mildly vexing. Months of weather have been packed into a space of days: December’s snow, January’s deep-freeze, February’s thaw, the spring breezes of March and April’s showers.

In days like these in Alberta and on the eve of an election year, it’s best not to mention the mundane commonality of weather to a stranger at the bus stop. Accelerated climate change is an anecdotal elitist hoax. Accelerated climate change is last call for a lazy, one resource provincial economy to diversify. All I know is that there’s enough sand on our driveway to host a beach volleyball tournament although conditions in Edmonton in late December are not exactly ideal for bathing suits and SPF grease.

Last week mail to the Crooked 9 came bundled in a blue elastic band. My overdue issue of The Economist was not included. I was annoyed. The unaddressed direct mail flyers were iced with a yellow sticky note reminding Ann and me to keep access to our home safe. I figured the plea was generic. The pizza man and our newspaper carrier were able to negotiate our driveway in the dark. An Amazon Prime subcontractor from the subcontinent delivered a parcel which could not go to its true destination just yet; the gentleman wore cleats and a big grin. Visiting friends had not creased their skulls on the front steps.

Ann and I were on top of the insanely spinning freeze and thaw cycle. Still, I walked the front 40 with a pail of grit and an ice chipper. Our neighbour’s self-pruning willow had laid a mesh of twigs atop the receding snow and our driveway. The public sidewalk was sure-footed. I used an old yogurt container to scatter even more traction. The next day Canada Post dropped off a postcard telling us that delivery to the Crooked 9 was too dangerous a proposition. Ann and I wondered how they managed to summon the courage to inform us.

I was outside smoking and fuming when an area supervisor from the Crown Corporation arrived. He walked up the driveway to speak to me. He himself had delivered the pre-printed scolding earlier in the afternoon. Two visits, back and forth, up and down the driveway. I thought, Isn’t it ironic? Not like the rain on my three wedding days because that’s just coincidence or maybe pathetic fallacy at the most. I said, “We’re in a winter city and the weather’s getting weird. Just what exactly do you expect me to do aside from everything I can?” I was reminded of my final performance review at my last ad agency before I quit: What the fuck else do you want from me!? Since then I’ve found some peace shovelling snow, chipping ice and scattering sand. I never expected tsk-tsk from a public service.

And so I went back to work, I re-re-did what I had already done, done, done: optics, cosmetics, appearances. My back was not pleased although my mind enjoyed the travel once it had acquiesced to the Sisyphean futility of it all.

Two days later a Canada Post van sped up and down our street, skidding to a halt everywhere else, fulfilling the company’s mandate. Ann pulled on her boots and strode down to the end of the driveway. The postal carrier said to Ann, “Your driveway looked better yesterday and so I decided to bring your mail today.” Ann replied that we certainly appreciated the service. Ann noted that the postie was wearing flat-soled sneakers, fine footwear for Edmonton in an increasingly bizarre wintertime; just as I, naturally, would wear hockey skates on a snowbird beach.

Now, Ann was not raised as a Catholic, which is to say that my baby is a pagan. Cursing to Ann is a relatively new art and I carbon date it from the ascent of Neanderthal Tweeterdumbest to the Oval Office. Ann handed me my tardy Economist. She muttered, “Can you (expletive) believe that we pay that (expletive) person’s (expletive) salary?”

I said, “Yes.”     

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Wednesday, 12 December 2018


Rallying Around the Brand

The scene is the exclusive executive departure lounge at a major Canadian international airport. Two super elite fliers with similar stories encounter one another for the first time. The alcohol is free and tongues are loosened.

Brand Manager One: Excuse me, is this seat taken? May I share your table? And I must recharge my phone.

Brand Manager Two: Eh? Oh, sorry! Let me move my stuff. Sorry.

BMOne: Hi, I’m Brand Manager Who Only Replies To Media Queries Via Email.

BMTwo: Pleased to meet you! How’d you guess my name?

BMOne: Funny old world, not funny ha-ha but funny nonetheless.

BMTwo: I could use a laugh or two myself these days.

BMOne: Who couldn’t? So… not to pry, but you work for whom?

BMTwo: Huawei Canada.

BMOne: Ooh. Well… you must be pleased your CFO got sprung from the joint on $10-million bail. Nasty stuff, violating trade sanctions and stealing intellectual properties, state sponsored espionage…

BMTwo: It’s always darkest before the red dawn.

BMOne: Excuse me?

BMTwo: It’s always darkest before the dawn. You?

BMOne: Me? I work for Tim Hortons.

BMTwo: Ooh. You know, I just read an unscientific study about the nature of litter in Canada. Apparently when it comes to strewn garbage, your brand’s at the top of the heap.

BMOne: Customers, eh? Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em. Still, we serve coffee and treats, not the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.

BMTwo: At Huawei we pride ourselves on providing our customers ‘A Higher Intelligence.’ That is to say a product of excellent quality at a competitive price. We also treat our employees and vested stakeholders with dignity and respect.

BMOne: Touché. So… campaign season is upon us, the holidays. What are you running?

BMTwo: We’re all in on hockey: ice graphics, rink boards, broadcaster call-outs, set decoration; like that. Seems to be the most reliable way to reach Canadian consumers and millennials don’t pay attention to the news. It’s all good. You?

BMOne: Hockey, eh? Been there, done that. This time we’re going for warm and fuzzy, human interest, real life, heart warming stories narrated by our customers and employees. A real calculated small town feel, everybody of every ethnicity and ability pitching in for the greater good. Similar to Huawei at home, I suppose? So... I bought heavy weight during hockey broadcasts, the usual standard operational Canadiana bullshit.

BMTwo: If it ain’t broke… Hope that works out for you again.

BMOne: Yeah, yeah, thanks. Likewise. Timmy’s has chewed up and spat out a lot of brand equity this year. There’s no maple sugar-coating that. Still… all things considered, it could be a lot worse for the likes of us and our ilk.

BMTwo: Like working in the White House?

BMOne: Yeah, or Brexit.

BMTwo: Or Assad in Syria.

BMOne: Or bin Salman in Saudi.

BMTwo: Sears, don’t forget Sears.

BMOne: Facebook.

BMTwo: Ooh, good one. We still leverage it though.

BMOne: Us too. A devil you know sort of thing.

BMTwo: Anyway, must run, they’re calling my flight. Nice chatting with you.

BMOne: Likewise. Happy next financial quarter!

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Thursday, 6 December 2018


You Had a Friend

Modern times amaze and confuse me.

Our friend Netflix Derek who lives around the corner from the Crooked 9 underwent a surgical procedure this week. He is an active man and his ailment affected his quality of life for a significant period of time, months at least, probably longer. Upon diagnosis, and following the trickier part of scheduling his place in the health care system’s queue for treatment, just an hour or so under the knife set him right. He was home that evening.

Such is the miracle of modern medicine. It’s a bit like commercial air travel. I’m still dumbfounded that Canadians are able to traverse the second largest country in the world (by landmass) in a matter of hours.

I said to Ann, “I hope Derek has a speedy recovery.”

Because ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ begins streaming on Netflix a week this coming Sunday and our rabbit ears with their aluminum foil muffs can’t receive its signal.

Ann mentioned as a mere aside, “Did I tell you that Derek got rid of his landline?”

“He did? Well, what’s he use?”

“His cell.”

“His cell?”

Thoughts zipped through my mind, completely coherent but impossible to articulate in that nanosecond of neuron transmission: I don’t have a cell. I don’t send text messages. We still have a landline. Other friends text me; I pay the phone company to recite gibberish. How am I ever going to communicate with Netflix Derek again? Cell::landline, it’s like inserting a 45 or a cassette into a CD player.

“Derek texted me his cell phone number,” Ann said. “Maybe you should write it down in your address book.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Yeah. Yeah! I can still call Netflix Derek. He might even answer. I’ll wish him well and drop hints, angling for his Springsteen viewing invitation to Ann and me. Could work, this antiquated, quaint form of contact even as he’s adapted to new technologies swifter than I ever have or ever will.    

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Monday, 26 November 2018


Grey Cup Day

Throughout my 50 years of cyclical waxing and waning engagement with the Canadian Football League, I have absorbed just one truth. The quasi-national loop more often than not flies by the straps of its jock and its loyal fans love hanging on whatever the turbulence.

Sometimes the CFL has eight teams, but usually nine. Sometimes there are no franchises in Montreal or Ottawa. Sometimes two of its teams have the same nickname. Most times its major market teams struggle to attract fans. Often its very existence is threatened by American hegemony in the guises of the Continental Football League, the World Football League, the United States Football League and always the National Football League, the King I-kong-ic corporate monolith of them all, but sometimes the CFL has franchises based in the United States too.

The CFL was established in 1958. Given the meandering history of the league, it’s only fitting therefore that Sunday’s championship game between Calgary and Ottawa was the 106th edition of the Grey Cup, the country’s ultimate rugby, rugger and football trophy. The final was staged a short train ride away from the Crooked 9 but damned if Ann and I were prepared to shiver outside for four hours in Edmonton in late November. The parts of our bodies designed to be flexible sometimes dispute their basic job functions.

I’ve got my memories of six or seven Grey Cup games played in various Canadian cities, the ticket stubs as triggers. I’ve attended regular season games in stadiums old and new in four provinces. I’ve paid to see the departed: Stallions, Rough Riders, Renegades, Concordes, Gold Miners, Pirates, Barracudas and Mad Dogs, a Posse too. Jerseys hang in my closet, t-shirts are folded in a bureau drawer, caps and toques on shelves, logo mugs in the kitchen cupboard. There are a few dusty hardcover CFL-themed books in the library.

Two stories epitomize the CFL for me. Late last century an advertising colleague offered me a ride home to my downtown apartment after work. We stopped a block from my door at my favourite watering hole. I had a beer. Kevin had a Coke because he was minutes away from taking Highway 2 south to Calgary to spend the weekend with his wife who was then employed by the football club. Kevin said, “Oh, hey, I’ve got to show you something.” We left the pub. He unlocked the trunk of his car. There it was: the most Canadian of all sports trophies, the Grey Cup lying on a blanket in the rear of a Japanese import. No white gloves and tuxedos for this piece of metal. I said, “Jesus, does anybody know you have it?” He said, “I don’t think so.”

Glenn attended his first Grey Cup game in 1977. It was a bitterly cold Sunday, and the site being Montreal, there was a public transit strike. Of course there was. I was at that tilt too; the $24 ticket stub is pinned on the bulletin board above my writing desk. Glenn and I subsequently met each other a year later at college. He was the sports editor of The Plant, our school paper. I contributed record reviews and penned a comic strip. Our friendship went on hiatus once I moved to Alberta and Glenn relocated to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.

Thursday night Ann and I had dinner with Glenn and his wife Margaret and four of their friends. They were in town for the big game. The visitors were clad in their team’s black and orange, adorned with beads and badges. Glenn told me he’d been to 21 Grey Cups. Margaret had only been to 14, but hey, somebody had to stay home and take one for the team when their two sons were toddlers.

Grey Cup is Canada’s only annual national social event. Edmonton Tourism and Edmonton Economic Development announced Monday morning that thanks to Glenn and Margaret, their friends and other folk like them from across Canada, the Capital Region realized a financial windfall of almost $64-million hosting the football festival. That’s worth closing a few blocks of the main drag for a party. The magic of Grey Cup is that the game is only half of it. The other equally important portion is flying your team’s flag from your hotel room window and sharing morning pitchers of “sluice juice” with like-minded souls from Regina, Winnipeg, Hamilton and even Halifax dressed up in costumes and seeking heroic fun. Elvis and the Blues Brothers meet Saskatchewan Man in the Lions’ Den, Tiger-Cats welcome.

Aside from catching up with Glenn for the first time since the 2000 Grey Cup in Calgary, my little black raisin heart was also warmed by a bit of news issued by the commissioner’s office of our modest little sporting league. Ten teams, balanced eastern and western divisions, and true coast-to-coast presence in the nation could soon become a reality. The Atlantic Schooners, to be based in Halifax, now have a name and an apparently stable ownership group who has excited Maritimers enough to shell out for a healthy number of seat subscriptions.

Should the dream team earn a berth in the CFL, I dearly hope the club’s colour palette will be anchored by the hues of Nova Scotia tartan. I suspect its logo would be something of a stylized A based on the sail array of a two-masted vessel. Potential designers will have to avoid the Bluenose on the Canadian dime, the tall mast ship on labels of Molson Export beer and Toronto’s long-discarded classical Greek galley sailing football.

The Schooners will need a place to play. Public risk for private profit is always a bad deal. Pro sports, ultimately a useless distraction, has somehow brainwashed civic leaders that new stadia for private tenants is all to the collective good. Amazon even employed this spinning business model for its HQ2 sweepstakes. Still, from thousands of miles away, I would love to see a Canadian professional football team on our east coast. My reasoning abilities are out the porthole when it comes to our goofy little circuit. The CFL is a survivor against all odds, a touchstone for citizens scattered across a big, empty country. And Jesus, wouldn’t a three- or four-day Grey Cup party in Halifax set kitchens reeling?            

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