Friday, 31 January 2014



The Conversion of John the Baptist


It was supposed to be a quiet evening, just Ann Fatale and me, tablecloths – plain or chintz – who cares, muted lighting, some palatable Italian food and a bottle or two of red. There’s a bright neon sign in the restaurant window, a blue winking oval OPEN. Outside a nearby streetlight casts a sickly, pale grapefruit circle on the purple sidewalk snow. The night bleeds black for all the honest souls and unrequited lovers alone tonight in this cold, harsh city.


I feel good; I look even better: a new haircut slicked back with pomade and my freshly shaven cheeks still stinging from the slap happy application of witch hazel. I’m wearing new blue suede shoes in bad weather, but I don’t care. The rest of my clothes fit better than they normally do. I’m feeling like a million bucks. My baby is looking like she’s just sashayed out of The Royal Canadian Mint carrying a bulging handbag, along with three suitcases humped by love sick inside help only too happy to be of service gratis. Sometimes my heart breaks when I look into her blue peepers because I have a sense of what would happen to me if she ever walked out: that rear-end black skirt hip sway would kill me. I would die a little more saying sayonara.


I’m crazy about Ann and maybe I’m crazy because of the way I live my life; it’s a hard living trying to set things right. I’m no saint. I’m no diplomat. Talk is cheap and a bullet speaks volumes. The name’s Danger, Geoff Danger. I’m the fixer behind the curtain, the lethal shadow in the mist and fog.


The waiter doesn’t mince but he wants to, trouble is he’s about 50 pounds too hefty. I’m wondering about the thumb prints in the bread rolls. I’m wondering if the kitchen is cleaner than the men’s toilet. The coke addled owner is a crime family scion; he’s even paying protection to his old man. The trattoria’s a small time money laundering operation but Ann likes the food and the joint’s within walking distance. Just another night until the Baptist dame huffs in, dragging her purse like a ball and chain, her husband on a leash behind her.


Religion is the crutch of the vacant and feeble minded although all of us strive to fill the innate emptiness within ourselves someway, somehow. That holier-than-thou face is pinched. Her worm wiggly lips are the mere suggestion of a line revealing teeth sharper than some confidence men I know. Her tight little ringlets of hair are L’Oreal coloured, somewhere between mouse and auburn. The Baptist lady is all hi, hello, how are you, won’t you come to Bible study and who’s your man, to Ann. I ask the woman if she can remember the last time she uncrossed her legs. Conversation swiftly goes down hill from there.


She strides off smarting and thumps back down at their table to commence her snit. It’s been my experience that one of the reasons this great dirty world turns is that dames compel men to do things they’d prefer not to. I watched the little man reluctantly rise. Misguided honour but I didn’t court and marry the crone. I wasn’t spoiling for a fight; I was enjoying Ann’s vivacious company and my penne al dente.


“Did you insult my wife?”


“Not at all,” I reply. “I merely suggested she relax a little. Better for her and probably better for you.”


He looked relieved. “My name’s John,” he says. He held his hand out. Shake.


“You already know Ann Fatale,” I say. “My name’s Danger, Geoff Danger.”


“You’re new to the community. You should attend our monthly Bible study meeting and get to know everyone.” He grins. “I often serve beer as a little lure for the fallen.”


“Well,” I crack wise, “was it Ben Franklin who said, ‘Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy?’ Or was that in a letter from Paul to the Corinthians?”


“I don’t remember that particular passage. However, I do hope you’ll join us. Our next meeting is this Saturday night.”


“Thank you for the invitation. That’s very kind.” I rise from my chair and take John by his necktie and lift him so that the toes of his patent leather shoes scrabble against the chequered red and green ceramic tiles on the floor. “But get this and don’t you forget it. Beer is nothing but a chaser for Irish whisky. My bible is Storyville to Swing Street: Who’s Who of Jazz. And if you think we’d spend our Saturday night with the likes of you and your ilk, well, you’ve got another thing coming. And this is it.” I punch him hard in the face and then knee him in the groin. The waiter flits over but I stop him cold with a glare.


“Oh, baby,” Ann breathes, “I’m hungry for dessert but I believe we should eat at home.”


I let John slide down under our table. I finish my wine; it’s a paler shade of crimson than John’s blood but still a decent Asti.  I tell the waiter to get our bill and make it snappy. And penne ante up our doggie bags to the Baptist dame.

Walking home in the sub-zero darkness, Ann takes my arm and leans into me. Parts of me begin swell. I flex the knuckles of my left hand inside my glove. The little man never saw it coming. I shiver. Maybe it’s the cold; maybe because I know I’ll be sore in other places too come sunrise.

Monday, 27 January 2014



meGeoff’s Guide to Detective Noir


Wilkie Collins, a contemporary of Charles Dickens and author of The Woman in White and The Moonstone is generally credited as the originator of fiction’s mystery genre. In Britain the format gradually evolved from Victorian melodrama into deductions voiced before the assembled cast of characters in the drawing room: The butler did it with a candlestick in the library. The current incarnation of dark and often violent police procedurals abundantly populated with flawed, maverick protagonists owes more to the American detective story than the works of Agatha Christie or P.D. James.


Consider our neighbour south of 49 100 years ago. The New World republic peopled with Europe’s disenfranchised is expanding ever west, cities are being built in deserts. Big Oil has been birthed. The American Dream is a function of mass production and the Oz illusion that this hard won and still young democracy offers opportunity and a fair shake to all of its citizens. Everything’s on the up and up, there’s no seething underbelly to speak of: In God We Trust. Thing is, everybody wants a piece of the free market action, at least a wedge slice of the American Dream with two toppings whatever the cost. The best of American literature, music and art, an astounding canon, has long laid bare The Big Lie. Detective noir, a uniquely American creation, provided us with the lurid and sordid details.


Movable type was conceived in China, probably 1000 years after the birth of Christ. Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press some 400 years later; it was the Internet of the Dark Ages (except most people were illiterate). Efficiencies followed centuries later with the invention of the steam engine and the idea of imprinting with a rotating cylinder rather than the much slower process of pressing down one impression at a time on a flatbed. In the States this mechanization gave rise to the pulps, inexpensive themed magazines printed on inexpensive paper; an affordable, low budget entertainment option for many. The writers were not paid particularly well. (As one science-fiction scribbler wrote to a friend, ‘The big money is in religion.’ Those are the words of L. Ron Hubbard, hope that sentiment sits well with your inner thetan.) Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the absolute apex of detective noir was initially serialized in a pulp rag.


The hardboiled, cynical private detective Sam Spade casts such a towering shadow over the genre that it gives one pause to recall that the character appeared in a single novel. Hammett’s other creations included the nameless Continental Op and sleuthing socialites Nick and Nora Charles whose dog Asta remains a staple solution in The New York Times crossword puzzle. Spade’s equal is Philip Marlowe whom Raymond Chandler introduced to readers in The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s turf is down the coast highway from Spade’s San Francisco, but his City of Angels which he describes as ‘having all the personality of a paper cup’ becomes a character itself alongside its resident unhinged psychotics, hoods and femmes fatale. Both men are sharp-eyed observers of their surroundings – hey, they’re detectives, but their commentaries on the depravity of the human condition and the foibles of the rich, powerful and spoilt crackle with as much electricity as the characters’ realistic dialogue.


Crime writers seem to love Los Angeles as much as Randy Newman. Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, a worthy successor to Marlowe, prowls its mean streets alone. James Ellroy, the reigning king of modern noir who may be as whacked as some of his more extreme characters, continually mines the city’s corrupt and colourful past. Elvis Cole, the wise-cracking private detective conceived by Robert Crais, lives in the same neighbourhood as Michael Connelly’s L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch. In the weave of mood and atmosphere in fictional, alternative reality L.A. these two anti-heroes are actually on nodding terms with one another.


Travis McGee is not a licensed private eye. Instead, he is a self-described ‘salvage expert’ and ‘rusted knight errant’ who will work for a monetary percentage of whatever needs to be recovered. He lives alone on a houseboat (won in a poker game) in Fort Lauderdale. John D. MacDonald’s McGee stories are notable for their prescient undercurrent of the ecological impact of greed-fueled overdevelopment and the arrogant futility of capitalism’s attempts to harness and control nature. One more armed and solitary figure splashes through the puddles of The Lonely Silver Rain.


Robert B. Parker’s one-named Spenser (‘like the poet’) is a hybrid of Marlowe and McGee. Parker’s Boston is as present as Chandler’s L.A.; the reader may never have been there, but they will know it like the back of their hand. Like McGee, Spenser operates by an idealized personal code of conduct which is above the ignoble grasp of ordinary average guys, their fans. Each has a sidekick: McGee the hirsute economist Meyer, his slip neighbour; while Spenser calls upon the ultra Shaft-like, mysterious and lethal Hawk As with Mickey Spillane’s ham-fisted Mike Hammer, Parker’s Spenser and Hawk sometimes teeter dangerously on the precipice of pulp or comic book super heroism. However Parker’s dialogue is as witty and snappy as Elmore Leonard’s.


Disgraced New Orleans ex-cop Clete Boyer is Cajun detective Dave Robicheaux’s sidekick. Both are shockingly violent alcoholics, except that Dave is a dry drunk and a bit more rational with a bittersweet, default fondness for Dr. Pepper. The skies over the Louisiana bayous in the Parish of New Iberia are oppressive, purple and iron, a storm is always imminent, death lurks in the swamps. Author James Lee Burke forces you to inhale the twin reeks of humidity and heat, the organic rot of antebellum history. How can a reader bypass a novel called In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead? Like Spenser, Robicheaux conducts himself by a unique and peculiar personal code; both men are Korean War veterans although each seemed to cease ageing sometime before 1980 even as real time marched on in their respective constituencies and in the narratives of their creators.

Somewhere out there tonight in your town, in the lee of a recessed doorway away from the lemon sidewalk cast of the street light, there is a good yet unfriendly man in a trench coat who signed on for a job at an hourly rate plus expenses because nobody else would. As to why he did, well, therein lies the mystery. And if your conscience lets you sleep at night, why, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

Sunday, 26 January 2014



Shopping in Montreal


Kicking merchandise in a shoe store on St. Catherine Street. Blue suede shoes with crepe soles. Slick. Hipster. I’ve wanted a pair my entire sentient life, since rock ‘n’ roll steamrolled the Catholic Church into the ditch. They’re on sale too, just $40 a foot. A bit rich and I don’t actually need them as I already have six pairs of shoes, three pairs of winter boots and a pair of skates; a lot of footwear for a biped. But those blue suede numbers would be too cool with a pair of black stovepipe Levi’s. But I don’t own pants like that anymore. Anyway, I’d have to get a new leather jacket and a porkpie hat and so it all becomes a bit too much. I cannot pull the trigger on those blue suede shoes. Parting with a dollar is painful; perhaps I’m as cheap as talk.


Strange, the 30 years I lived in Montreal I never shopped for shoes. I just bought what was needed when they were needed. When you return to your hometown as a visitor after a long time away there’s not much else to do except browse shop windows. Old friends have since moved away and established themselves in other provinces or in other places dotting this chaotic globe. The life spans of old haunts have long expired and some of the addresses have been demolished. For the prodigal music fan, the old record store route that used to stretch from Guy Street to Park Avenue has gone the way of America’s Route 66 – the interstates made the legendary highway a mere patchwork of its Chicago to L.A. blacktop myth and the famous stops along those 2000 miles withered; in Montreal A&A Records, Discus, Deux Mille Plus, Rock en Stock, Dutchy’s Record Cave, Phantasmagoria and Sam the Record Man were all fatalities of the new digital world order.


The intersection of St. Catherine and Peel was once reputedly the busiest street corner in Canada. This recalls the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, our country’s centennial, Expo ’67, the city’s race against Toronto to trumpet a civic population of one million and hosting ’76 Summer Olympic Games. Since then there have been recessions and referendums. The island’s tunnels, bridges and elevated spaghetti expressways are literally crumbling, falling apart and falling down. The current hearings investigating the corruption entwined within City Hall’s infrastructure maintenance and sourcing (cheap cement, Mafia strings twitching union bosses and shameless Third World graft) is 70s Cliche Commission redux. Tammany Hall could never touch this. It’s good to be home, if only to get a whiff of 400 years of gangrene.


Canadian HMV stores have been spun off by their UK parent but the store at St. Catherine and Peel reminds me of the one on London’s Piccadilly Circus (since closed). Massively multi-floored yet inviting despite the lack of twee amenities such as pleather club chairs and an in-store café although it’s immediately apparent that music is now just a sub-genre of home entertainment. Still, the lowest level is almost all CDs and vinyl, as if Napster and iTunes never existed. The selection is vast, not merely compilations and recent releases: artists’ entire back catalogues are stocked in the racks. The Bob Dylan section is spilling over and Infidels will plug a hole on my shelf of His Bobness. HMV’s prices are Amazon competitive too. Pinch me.


It takes two trips over two days to browse and shop just the Rock alphabet from A to Z. There is some heartbreak and pain, a bit of crying in the climate change January rain. HMV has a deluxe edition of High Hopes, the new Bruce Springsteen release and it includes a live DVD from 2013 of Born in the U.S.A. in its sequential entirety. When I bought the album earlier that week in Edmonton there was no deluxe edition in evidence. I would’ve spent the extra $2 then but damned if I’m repurchasing it 72 hours later even though I’m a Bruce completist. Or was until now. And there’s an enhanced package of the Stones’ recent Sweet Summer Sun which now includes a DVD of their premier 1968 Hyde Park performance. Bastards! Mick and Keith have been hoovering money from my wallet for 40 years; I dread the forensic accounting.


After all these years of consuming music, sweet music, it’s pretty much come down to plugging gaps in the library. The bond was formed long ago and this need persists. For instance, no decent collection should be without at least some Randy Newman or Long John Baldry. So HMV was good, Better Than Ezra in fact. I spent enough to buy at least two and a half pairs of blue suede shoes, but you can’t hear shoes unless they squeak.


Shopping in Montreal remains problematic. If you spend a dollar, the Feds will top up that amount with the five-per-cent GST. Fair enough. Afterward the province’s Ministry of Finance will impose its 9.975 per cent tax on the sale, but not on your initial dollar, no, those ferrets in Quebec City calculate their take on $1.05. Sing about sticker shock.


I do not move in the rare air circles of Coffee, Tea or Me? or Executive Class in big old jet airliners. Planes are flashy Greyhound busses, giant incubators of other people’s infections, most of whom cart way too much carry-on along with their sniffles. So hefting a shopping bag into the cabin is humiliating. At least it’s filled with CDs. Yet I feel like yesterday’s émigré, some sad sack from a former Soviet satellite country packing onions for on-board snacks.


All things considered, I guess it was worth it although the neighbours keep calling the Edmonton police with noise complaints. Bastards.

Monday, 13 January 2014



Scamp’s 21st Century Marine Cadence Blues


Are my claws in your shoulder
Excuse me, sir, come a bit closer
Nobody knows the troubles I’ve seen
This old house puts the M in mean
Woe is me, I’m wasting away
I’ve been fed just once today
Now listen, mister, I ain’t fat
All tabby toms are built like that
What’s so funny about my striped girth
I ain’t no joke, no waddling mirth
I don’t get no dinner ‘til 'bout five
Times are hard, help me survive
Oh brother, can you spare some kibble
Something tasty that I can nibble
See this long and graceful stretch
It helps me puke, I like to retch
A soggy hairball for your time, sir
I made it myself with my own fur
A gift from a sad and forsaken pet
With eight long lives to be seen out yet



Small Town Saturday Night


East and south of Edmonton Highway 21 was black, wet but bare. Blowing snow scoured both lanes, white snakes as hypnotic as that ever-distant shimmering asphalt on long, hot summer drives. Beyond the shoulders, the white rolling fields melded indistinctly with the low winter sky. Maybe nine Elvis Costello songs to go before the junction with Highway 13 and the green Camrose City Limit sign.


The road into town does not go on forever. The left side is lined with retail signs and logos we’ve all seen, set on commonplace buildings with cheap architectural flourishes meant to evoke something other than cinderblock. Mirror Lake is frozen over and its legendary clipped-winged swans must have gone walkabout. On the right is a one-storey mall without stores, a dead colossus; an ugly utilitarian Soviet structure with two lame, horizontal decorative red stripes about nine feet up from the parking lot pavement which itself is pimpled with big boxes, a Bulk Barn and a Mark’s. There’s a 24-hour McDonald’s too and it seems unnaturally busy for a population of some 17,000 souls, so the highway must be paved with franchisee gold.


The inn is adequate. Clean. The $13.95 Daily Movie Deal offers three Hollywood blockbusters and unlimited porn. Trouble is the room’s television set was brand new in 1991. The complimentary newspapers are The Camrose Booster and The Camrose Canadian. The dented newspaper box beneath the port cochiere is a lurid Pierre Karl Peladeau red. The on-site micro-brewery’s swill may be best utilized for alcohol aversion therapy. That’s irony you can actually taste through copper lines.


Small places established in an earlier century exist for what were once important reasons. Even though CPR and CNR tracks crisscross the town site, the Rose City is no longer a railway hub. A solitary Alberta Wheat Pool grain elevator remains, it could use a fresh coat of paint; there used to be five others. ‘Historic’ Main Street (50th) is bookended by a Liquidation World trumpeting a going out of business sale and the Monte Carlo – Dining With Personality! Inside the restaurant are linen tablecloths and $11 club sandwiches. There’s also a murder of Christian women discussing the ‘good wife’ in Proverbs. They convene monthly. Their particular sect remained elusive as Camrose is littered with competing houses of worship.


Main Street itself has little to offer. There’s a Chinese restaurant that naturally serves Western Food, the bunker-like Provincial building, a Party Maxx, a beautifully refurbished art deco theatre that hosts live music, a precious purveyor of adorable tourist trinkets, a shoe store, a tattoo parlour and a used book shop which is directly across the street from Wisemen’s, a Bible seller. Highway 13 has killed downtown but at least there’s neither Goodwill store frontage nor a payday loans joint on 50th Street yet. However, it’s of prurient interest to note that the front desk of the rundown Windsor Hotel is behind a cage. God knows what sort of creatures may enjoy glasses of draught in its singularly uninviting beer parlour as the glass on its front door has been replaced with something a little more solid and the single window is opaque with filth.


As nightfall bleeds out the twilight, the tiny core sandwiched between 51st and 46th Streets becomes horror movie eerie. There are vehicles in the angled slots on Main but no people on the sidewalk. No moving traffic. The three-piece band at the Alice Hotel is playing too loudly for an empty room. Figure skating, hockey and football are on the TVs but nobody’s watching. No need to reserve your lucky VLT even though you know the win cycle’s bound to come around again. Everybody knows the machines are fixed. The lights are on at the Masonic Temple but the Elks Hall is shuttered. The liquor store’s open but there are no customers. Scallywag’s Pub is locked. The flour mill looms like a steampunk industrial installation on a barren planet. Around the corner from the Windsor, the residents (not mere guests) of the Cam-Rest Motel seem to be crashed out in their rooms as only one decorated window is lit.


It’s going to be a long and quiet Saturday night downtown. Meanwhile Highway 13 is alive with activity, the parking spaces surrounding the quick service restaurants and chain bars are full and the McDonald’s drive-thru is lined with trucks and cars.

Sunday dawns clear and crisp in time for early mass. The McDonald’s drive-thru is lined with trucks and cars, maybe the same ones as Saturday night, maybe different ones. There’s blue sky ahead on the horizon of Highway 13, the way out of town. This bright morning after checkout there’s no looking back; nary a shadow of a doubt about a road not taken.

Saturday, 11 January 2014



Sobeys and the 1%


Yesterday I went for a haircut. After Paul had finished the job I told him that even though he charged $23 for a trim, I would only pay him $20. I also told him that I expected an additional $3 rebate on my previous haircut last November. Finally, I said that from hereon in I expected to pay $20 though I may arbitrarily drop that price too. Maybe down to $18, I wasn’t sure, but I was confident a precedent had been set and I pretty much had carte blanche to dictate the cost of his services and shave his margins for my benefit.


Our ensuing discussion was short as he’d left enough on top to grab a fistful of my hair and straight razors are really sharp.


That evening we went downtown to the Mercer Tavern to watch a little hockey and have a bite to eat. It was a nice time as we don’t treat ourselves frequently. When the bill came I told the waitress that even though the pints of Newcastle Brown were on special for $4, I would only pay $3.50. Then I told her I expected at least $2 off the menu prices for the burger and the Rueben sandwich. And don’t forget to add the discount from our visit in December.


Bouncers can be intimidating and I think some of their ilk may be borderline psychotic. When I came to in the icy windrow lining 104th Street it occurred to me that maybe I just don’t possess the buying power of Sobeys/Safeway, Canada’s newly steroidal grocery titan. The chain has decreed that its vendors will cut their invoices by one per cent, retroactive to last November 3rd.


One per cent. A single point. Meaningless on a jar of mayonnaise. Significant if you’re negotiating a mortgage. Almost incalculable if you’re reselling millions of dollars worth of product from other publicly traded outfits such as Kraft and Coca-Cola and then withholding shorted payments for something like 120 days. It’s crucial to note here that the two aforementioned Fortune 500 companies have been jamming their own vendors in the same manner for years. There’s a sense that these three corporations, and many others, are now being driven by their CFOs and procurement departments; brand integrity, a genuine affection and belief in their businesses and long term planning are secondary to sniffling on Bay and Wall Streets.


The supermarket is the remora fish of the suburbs. Credit mass production, an ancient White House promise of a chicken in every pot, the post-war boom and the prevalence of the automobile. The grocery industry itself is staid and complacent and always has been. Its two greatest innovations were barbequed chickens and Dave Nichol’s arrogant and audacious gamble that a premium house brand could not only compete with established nationals but top them and make his stores a go-to consumer destination for President’s Choice products.

All stores have bakery and deli departments. Flowers too. Everything else from the coffin freezers, the miniscule organic food aisles and the sad little olive bars has been otherwise knee-jerk and reactionary. It’s an industry of copycats. If Sobeys/Safeway can extract a one point concession, you can be sure Loblaws/Shoppers will join that line and swipe their loyalty card too. The current grocery chain marketing mantra is Locally Grown, Locally Sourced, Local This and Local That. While companies like Kraft and Coke might be able to gag down that one per cent and pass it on to their vendors, tiny family firms like Geoff’s Specialty Meats, Saint Geoffrey’s Happy Organic Cheese and Geoffy’s Gluten-Free Goodies may choke to death.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014


Men's Olympic Hockey


Last year Hockey Canada unveiled our 2014 Sochi sweater. While the Nike design alluded to the pop art maple leaf design of the '72 Summit Series, most of us were reminded of Pierre Trudeau's national chain of gas stations.

Yesterday, after months of tiresome speculation in all media, we were graced with the genuine composition of the men's Olympic hockey team roster. Gold is a literal lock; we're stacked. Honest. A month to go. Please keep your head up Sidney Crosby.

All that remains in the interim, Russian security concerns aside, is for the Quebec government's Minister of Antagonizing the Rest of Canada to complain about that province's latest and most humiliating humiliation in regard to the make up of the national men's hockey squad. Not enough Quebecois. But then it gets trickier: does Team Canada hockey garb constitute religious attire under the proposed Charter of Values? A Habs sweater sure does.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014


Bad Weather and Sports in Hi-Def

While there are still folk who wear tin foil hats and rabbit ears decrying television’s 21st century transformation into a digital medium, no sane viewer misses the lines and snow of the two interlocking analog fields. Television has never looked better.


When it comes to live sports in hi-def, especially live sports in bad weather in hi-def, the picture is nothing short of amazing. The NHL outdoor game on the first of this latest year is a case in point. Both teams sported ersatz throwback uniforms, each an almost solid primary colour. The tableau was something akin to an old table hockey game. But what stood out was the constant swirling snow. The precipitation was ready for its close-up, Mister DeMille. This was compelling television with neither sound nor CGI required. The images were so integral to the Winter Classic’s narrative they easily superseded the often inane and obvious commentary.


Silver needle rain fell throughout baseball’s playoffs and again Sunday during the Bengals – Chargers wild card tilt. Green Bay’s home game played out on the legendary and redundant ‘frozen tundra’ of Lambeau Field. The grass was brown, dead and probably was as soft as concrete. The players’ breaths whooshed like fighter jet contrails. The TV room felt chilly. Unscripted hi-def nature provides all the atmosphere and ambience of a Ridley Scott film.

Weather is no longer just another segment of a newscast, its behaviour and effects have become the news and a point of contention between the political left and right. The sun only shines every day in an execrable Trooper song. Snow and rain and freezing cold aren’t exactly exotic anomalies in Canada’s climate. Indeed every Canadian has experienced actual snow, rain and freezing cold first hand. And an increasing many something far worse with certainly more to come.

Pro sports are ultimately meaningless, but the tribes they create are entertained by it. There is no steaming primordial soup in the Canadian creation myth: we all emerged through a crack in the surface of a frozen pond. There is something compelling about watching elite athletes perform in less than ideal conditions. Nostalgia is a factor because as youths we played our games outdoors rain, snow or shine. We remember what that was like and it’s nice to be ensconced in heat and shelter while watching others suffer through it. But mainly, the hi-def picture’s perfect.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


On Shovelling Snow and the Nature of God

Memory is tricky, prone to error and exaggeration with the relentless passage of time. I’ve not seen this much snow since 1967. That winter in Montreal, with cousins visiting from England, we climbed out my brother’s bedroom window onto the roof of the back porch and then jumped or dove into the snowdrifts covering the backyard lawn. The close of 2013 in Edmonton finds me a bit older than seven, a little taller than four-foot something and a little heavier than 80 pounds. Time is relative, scale too.

This winter the snow banks in the neighbourhood are big enough to be hazards – drivers can’t see over them nor around them. I’m too old to plan, excavate and construct a snow fort but every property on the street has enough white stuff for at least a decent pillbox. War! I keep shovelling but am rapidly running out of places to heave the snow with any ease. The toil’s been on repeat.

My neighbour Forrest is outside with his trident cane. His hired snow removal crew are Seventh Day Adventist siblings and they don’t work Saturdays so I’ve done Forrest’s sidewalk, a path to his door and his front steps. I worry about him getting out and about.

When I first met him 25 years ago he drove a gleaming maroon Jag, spotless. He said he helped people when they had evolved enough in their thinking to need it; that’s what he did. He was writing a book then and may still be scribbling away on it today. He is Buddhist but lapsed, he says now. Each rock in his Japanese garden has been placed just so, he often speaks of continuity and flow. I sense the absent presence of a woman, mistakes maybe and a broken heart. He’s still got Bob Dylan hair and John Lennon glasses and I like his look.

The morning is still. There’s no overarching weekday ambient thrum of the distant freeway carried on the cold. The snow is falling, drifting down, white against the grey sky. Forrest is angry and upset: The NHL Oilers, despite their young skill up front, have no depth and desperately need some 20-goal grit on their third and fourth lines. Why haven’t they made a trade? I venture that the second coming of Bobby Orr couldn’t hurt either. It takes a moment but he laughs. The club has been surprisingly dreadful. He waves his cane and then sets off on his eight block shuffle to the local tea shop. I lean on my shovel and watch his hunched back for a moment. Forrest likes hockey? Who knew?

And who really knows anything about anyone? My mother is dwindling away on the fifth floor at St. Mary’s Hospital in Montreal. Her surviving children are a thousand miles away in either direction. We are strung out in a limbo of disease, hostages to ignorance as we’ve no way of knowing when or how things are going to shake down. I wonder if 86 years of Catholic indoctrination are providing my mother with any comfort even though her early 70s divorce from my father meant the bell, book and candle – ex-communication. I hope her God doesn’t give a damn about a bit of paperwork filed in the Quebec court system and I pray her God knows they must meet very soon. I do know that my mother would really like a gin-and-soda with a wedge of lemon, maybe a cigarette and for sure a decent egg salad sandwich.

The blade of the plastic shovel isn’t so sharp anymore; especially at the corners which I use to chip away at the snow-pack which squeaks like Styrofoam when it’s really freaking freezing outside. I keep adding scoops of powder to the rising banks and ponder St. Anselm’s a priori proof of God’s existence and how its non-empirical construct still further requires what Swedish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as ‘a leap of faith.’ On a cigarette break to calm an accelerated heart rate I conclude that if an entity such as God exists, the greatest Good we can conceive of according to Anselm, It must feel like an exasperated cat owner.

Imagine yourself as a cat owner. You provide shelter and food. Maybe a bit of loving. You know the future a little bit; vet trips are scheduled appointments more often than not. You know that the weather outside the front door is the same as the weather outside the back door. You train them to use a litter box but you still have to clean up after them. And yet… they don’t listen. You tell a cat to get off the kitchen counter or the dining room table but they just look at you. What? The message never quite gets through. You’re powerful enough to open the door to let them out but helpless once they’re on the prowl out there. You do your best but it’s pretty much a one-way street even though the species has been clever enough to domesticate itself. Cats do what they do. You do what you can.

This is us, the absurdity. My Zen neighbour breathes hockey. My mother needs an oxygen tube. I’m out on the sidewalk pushing snow from there to here and contemplating cats, medieval monks and the strange wonder of it all. There’s no meaning to be made of the way things are, free will and tumbling Dominoes. Anyway, for a moment, there’s peace up and down our street, Forrest has turned the corner, and the snow looks much the same as it did in 1967.