Sunday, 21 September 2014



Scrabble Punk


Language. It articulates our thoughts even though we can speak without thinking. We can talk to one another and still misunderstand each other. And we’ve figured out ways to visibly express these dedicated abstract sounds, write sentences. Words are the gears of language.


Words are wonderful constructs. Words are weapons in a game of Scrabble. In our house, our fine home with two tabbies in the yard, the game box is on a chair in the dining room. It is never put away. We try to play at least once a week. When we do the stereo is always on and we alternate the music selections so Lou Reed could follow Guy Clark; we’re desperados doin’ the things that we want to. I’m not competitive by nature and I don’t really keep track of such things but over the course of our last 50 games Ann is up something like 44-6. I am her Scrabble punk.


In current parlance, I am Ann’s Scrabble bitch as punk has lost its original meaning of being a sore-assed prison weakling. Bitch of course has been dogged by its own 99 misogynistic usage problems. Ann is a keen and ruthless TRIPLE WORD SCORE Scrabble player and losing to her is a bitch but she is not one.


While there are rules pertaining to usage, words may mesh in so many marvelous manners. Some words are so wonderful that they’re able to convey their meaning even if the listener or the reader is ignorant of their exact definition. Anthrax is a good example; it sounds and reads like something to fear, its black and yellow danger stripes are innate. Some words boast two or even three totally different definitions depending upon their context. The meanings of other words have altered over time.


We do the Saturday and Sunday New York Times crosswords together. I’m a little better than she is as Ann is still a novice with the nuances of the clues: puns, punctuation and abbreviations are crucial keys to successfully completing the puzzles. After we inked in SKOSH this morning my first thought was, ‘Oh fuck. The K is worth five points and the H is worth four and she’s already memorized the word.’


Our latest Scrabble tilt was Friday night. I went first and BLURTed out a solid lead and never looked back. Didn’t need a plan B for the two blank tiles nor Q, X, Y and Z. Tagged on to existing words to create tenses or new ones. Filled in some gaps like squares on a crossword grid. Read ‘em and weep. I scored like Guy Lafleur and Mick Jagger combined. We’d listened to Deacon Blue and Simple Minds, acknowledging the Scottish referendum and Ann’s heritage.


Shortly before midnight I stepped out onto the front porch. The tally had been taken. Beyond the roof tops and the tips of the buckeyes, birches and firs were thousands of imaginary adoring fans. I waved. Tapped my heart. Tipped my cap. Took a bow. I smiled. Waved again. Grinned. Opened a beer and toasted the world. Lit a cigarette and just basked in the adulation.

Ann had no words.



Short Fiction


The day’s mail included a warning from bylaw enforcement informing me that my cat Mort was not only unlicensed but apparently free to roam out of doors. I know who placed the call.

My neighbour Dave is one of those people who consider themselves engaged. He talks too much when the community league meets. He pesters our ward’s city councillor and probably dogs our Edmonton riding’s MLA. Our MP in Ottawa is a backbench party hack nearing his dotage and therefore likely immune to Dave, too old school to pay attention to missives from a self-described activist. Suffice to say, Dave pretty much annoys everybody and not just me. There is a well maintained and solid fence between us although we’re civil to one another.

Dave lives in an infill, corner lot. His home is nice enough in an absurd Cape Cod way and he’s proud of the solar panels on the roof. I had to replant my tomatoes and peppers once I gleaned the pitch of his roof and calculated the area of shadow it would throw on my vegetable bed along the garage’s south wall.

The eyesore on the other side of me is a bungalow, post-war rock-dash, crumbs of broken glass sometimes wink and glitter from the mixture depending upon the angle and intensity of the sunlight. The roof shingles have curled like burnt bacon. All the accents and trim need a thorough scraping and a fresh coat of paint. The long term solution is a new owner who would either reno or demo, but for now it’s a rental property.

The neighbourhood is in transition and I suppose I reside in a sort no-man’s land between the new and the wretched.

The tenants are kids, a couple of guys who work in the trades, and their girlfriends. They’re friendly enough and we know each other’s names. The four of them like it when Mort the friendly neighbourhood mouser pays them a visit. The only work they’ve put into the place is in the backyard which is something to behold. There’s a gerry-built cinder block fire pit; garden gnomes and painted plywood animal silhouettes; fairy lights strung in the trees; Japanese lanterns; and three sets of tinkling wind chimes that annoy me more than Dave does. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be ironic or if they’re just constantly high and think the atmosphere is groovy pagan or Peter Pan.

Once the winter weather finally broke around Easter things really livened up behind the bungalow. The constant smoke from the fire pit, the barbecue, their cigarettes and their pot reminded me of my clean up stint in Kuwait after the elder Bush’s Gulf War. Have you ever seen a black sky at dawn? I’ve had to close my windows because Mort becomes anxious and the smell might linger for days inside on the dining room drapes and kitchen curtains. The noise carries too, the constant screeching, swearing and laughter. The music is loud and that’s a generational thing: I’d rather cry 96 Tears than be subjected to someone else’s litany of 99 Problems. Underneath it all is the insane ting, ting, ting of the goddamned wind chimes.

I have never lifted a finger to complain because I know Dave two doors down from the kids will summon a prowl car at exactly 11:01 PM. He’s reliable that way. And those kids know who places those calls. This gave me an idea.

All I would need was a pair of wire cutters and the opportunity. At first I thought I’d simply snip off the spatula blades at the bottom and maybe the pucks suspended inside the circles of cylinders. Then I wondered if maybe it would take too long for the silence to be heard. I decided instead to steal the complete mechanisms figuring their absence from the bungalow’s backyard dreamscape would be more readily apparent. I considered dumping the chimes in Dave’s rear lane garbage bins but concluded he wouldn’t be that stupid. However, he might be devious enough to dump the three sets of hardware in my own bins, clever boy.

My little wind chime caper gave me an adrenaline surge I hadn’t felt since those early days in Kuwait City when we’d slip out in search of a decent cocktail, evading the clockwork though sloppy Iraqi patrols, hoping all the while that someone unseen from the CIA had our backs. We went in through the back gate, me and Mort. I was dressed in dark clothing. I crouched in the shadow of a massive fir and watched the bungalow for a few minutes. He investigated various things of interest to a cat. The lights were out; there was nobody home. I cut all the chimes down without too many tinkles, bagged them and then slipped back into the alley. It was a little eerie being out there in the dark between the rows of fences and hedges. The night sky seemed unusually low as if the web of branches and wires above my head was holding it up. I knelt in the dirt by my garage and damaged each of the damned chimes beyond repair with quiet precision. As I placed everything in my garbage bin Dave’s motion sensor security spots lit up. I ducked low and crept back into my own backyard staying in the black shadow of the fence. Mort could play the patsy. I heard Dave come out his side door to investigate. The cat squealed. He swore.

There was a lag of blessed silence before things erupted along the street, but they did. I was tending to my tomato plants one evening when one of the bungalow girls let out a shriek. All was awry in fairyland. I dug weeds and listened to the consternation and speculation a while before wandering over with my innocent discovery.

I met the blonde who wears her earrings in her lips and nostrils at their back gate. “I found these in my garbage can,” I began. I chatted about fishing line and maybe hammering some of the tubes straight. As I finished up I made sure she saw my eyes stray toward the second storey gable windows of Dave’s looming infill, “Probably just some neighbourhood kids’ idea of a lark.”

That weekend both Dave and I were out mowing our front lawns. He does his twice, once vertically and once horizontally. I just do mine once; life’s too short. The bungalow renters pulled up and piled out of their truck. The girl with the hoops in her face screamed at Dave. He looked at her bemused. She sprinted across the grass and slapped him across the chops. I don’t think his wispy little NDP goatee provided any padding. I interceded before he was swarmed. I dragged him into my house to a chorus of taunts and cursing.

“What was that all about?” he asked me.

I handed him a cold can of beer. “Drink it or hold it against your cheek. Or both.”

“What was that all about?”

“Beats me,” I said. “Could be she’s on something.”

“You saw it. She just attacked me.”

“She did. Do you want me to call the cops? Or should we speak to the landlord?”

Mort leapt up on the table and Dave gave the tabby an absent minded scratch behind his ears. “Both,” Dave said. “I’m not going to let this thing go.” Of course not. And so Dave went to war, which cast me as the voice of reason in the middle of a feud. Meanwhile Mort’s excursions are off Dave’s radar and the renters are a lot quieter on Friday and Saturday nights. Some people pull strings while others cut them. I’ve managed to do both. It’s all good on my side of the street.

Thursday, 18 September 2014



Andrew, George and the Ties That Maybe Bind


Today is Scotland’s and England’s big day. A little less than 4.3 million Scots are eligible to vote ‘Yea’ or ‘Nae,’ rend the kingdom by the sea or keep on grumbling about the way things are and always have been. The eventual outcome is too close to predict which must be a bonanza for British betting shops who’ll give odds on anything. A mildly concerned outsider is left with the impression of two obstinate and fusty old neighbours arguing over the fence about very little at all and just for the sake of it: reason and passion can find no common ground.


Political borders are human constructs. Tribal nationalism is easy to exploit but trickier to manage if the neatly ruled boundaries do not align properly. Natural geography can wreak diplomatic havoc. Zealots can be quirky. We’ve come to expect the birth of sovereign nations from the dregs of empires. And we’re unsurprised that these heaving entities eventually fracture as competing factions vie for power. Us versus them rhetoric makes a sharp wedge. Most manifestations of pride in any form are delusional.


Tonight the United Kingdom is on the brink of something. As with Canada’s own issues with the province of Quebec’s Jack-in-the-Box will for independence, the debate seems much ado about nothing and much about perception, salting and sandpapering the playground scars of history. It was rather amusing earlier this year when the premier of Quebec, her separatist party a two-time referendum loser, graciously offered some hard lost and apparently unwelcome advice to Scotland’s Yes clan. ‘This is how you mess it up. Ensure the question is unclear. Future plans? Wing them! But remember! Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia! There’s hope!’


I was born in Montreal, Quebec. I love the city; I love the province. And if you ever want to get nothing done at a very high price, it’s the place to be, worse than Italy. If Quebec had ever broken with Confederation the rest of Canada would have paid for it to be airlifted to the Balkans or the Middle East, maybe some dusty, infected part of Africa. I have two memories of the votes, one for each.


1980. The polling station was in the basement of a church at the corner of Simpson and Sherbrooke streets. Right downtown. We were all warned not to display any indication of affiliation, no ‘Oui!’ or ‘Non!’ badges before being herded down the stairs. Fair enough. Corruption in Quebec has a long and vibrant history and maybe some official would decide I wasn’t eligible to mark an X, although chances were I was in line with dead people who might vote three or four times. A woman in front of me, possibly the same age I am now though I was 20 then, pointed at the flaps of my Levi’s jean jacket pocket and screamed, ‘He’s wearing buttons!’ I said, ‘Lady, they’re Keith fucking Richards and the Clash.’ The exercise divided us, even those of us on the same side; folks were a little uptight.


1995. I live in Alberta now (for a very good reason) and I’m watching it on TV. Neck and neck, like today’s vote in Scotland. I’m wondering about the fate of my country, which is still in its infancy by relative standards, but mostly about the fate of the place I’m from. The ‘Oui’ side maintained that an independent Quebec will be the 43rd most vibrant economy in the world. It’s good to have a goal. And speaking of goals, will the Montreal Canadiens have to change their nickname? The bitter details, the now international clean up, would have been horrific. And when the drunken porcine loser gripped the podium, the blame for the status quo was hung on ‘money and the ethnic vote.’ This fellow, who was educated at the London School of Economics, by Jove, dreamed of a country much like an exclusive golf club, no blacks, no Jews, no Anglos. There was bitterness on all sides; it lingers to this day.

Nearly half of Scotland is going to be very pissed off tomorrow. Here’s hoping for Saturday night and Sunday morning remorse either way: ‘I don’t know what I was thinking.’

Tuesday, 16 September 2014



Time Warp: Feeling Groovy


Blackbyrd, an indie shop on Whyte Avenue, is where we browse and usually buy our music. We dropped in late last week on the heels of time out of town to pick up the new Robert Plant release and one of the various packaging formats of ‘CSNY 1974.’ The deep and narrow space had been transformed. The vinyl inventory had expanded like Star Trek tribbles and had all been shifted to the front of the store. ‘Wow,’ I said to the owner, ‘you’re betting the house.’ ‘This is where it’s at,’ he replied, his revenue, his future.


Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Neil Young are all on record croaking or mewing the same song: MP3 files suck. Those guys know a thing or two about sound. According to last Thursday’s Globe and Mail digital album sales have declined by 12-per-cent during the first six months of 2014 alone. Forty-eight hours earlier U2 foisted their new album on 800 million iTunes subscribers, many of whom were annoyed by the virtual intrusion of an insistent gift which kept on giving even as their average monthly spend is down to a meagre $1.10 (US).


There’s something happening here/What it is ain’t exactly clear


In recent years there’s been an intriguing debate regarding the fate of the novel as our most popular art form. Have long form cable television series like ‘The Wire’ or ‘The Sopranos’ doomed popular prose? The book versus script smack-down has a fighter in each corner, a contender.


Is the record album dead? CD sales have been declining for years. Digital piracy has chomped more bytes and bits out of the music industry than home taping ever did in the 80s. Defecting iTuners are migrating toward glorified radio, music streamers like Spotify or Rdio (what is it about digital companies and vowels, there’s always too many or never enough). And yet there’s no pending immediate and viable alternative to the LP and its basic menu of three hits and filler.


Somehow the good old ways survive, the products produced with craftsmanship and uncut corners. Sales of vinyl in Canada alone have bulleted by over 50-per-cent compared to last year. Still, this huge, promising gain is relatively little in a fluxed, flummoxed sector of the recording industry; the very idea of multi-platinum album sales seems as quaint as shellac 78s and sheet music from the Brill Building. If you’re of a certain vintage, today’s vinyl prices are hideously shocking, but at least you can make out the liner notes; if you don’t know any better a great disc of black plastic inserted into big art is a remarkably cool innovation for discerning ears.

Another indicator of the modest health of the LP’s vital signs is competition. Blackbyrd has staked out its niche. As has Permanent Records, another indie shop, just a few blocks away. There’s a third record store a little farther along the avenue just across the CPR tracks. A remarkable trio in a city the size of Edmonton and in a neighbourhood the size of Old Strathcona. Obviously these three businesses all figure they can make a healthy go of it which means there’s hope for music fans and artists alike.

Friday, 12 September 2014



The Determined Renaissance of a Golden God


My painful years in high school ran from 1973 through to 1977. I hated high school so much that I did not repeat a grade although geometry was a bastard and summer school was a drag. The administrators of my school worshipped the papacy. The students, especially the stoners, worshipped Led Zeppelin.


I remember squirming through a hash hazed midnight showing of ‘The Song Remains the Same.’ The film seemed painfully pretentious (a new word in my vocabulary). Sometimes the music soared but more often than not it descended into a dense sludge. Robert Plant did not move like Mick Jagger or even Rod Stewart; he wagged his index finger once in a while. ‘Shake it one time for Elvis.’ Right. And when ‘Stairway to Heaven’ played at the close of a dance in those days, all it meant was an unsettled night alone in bed with braces and elastics in my mouth, acne on my face and southerly frustration.


My brother-in-law Al went to the same school. Our paths did not cross until later in life as he’s seven or eight years older then me. (This age gap has begun to pay off in spades as Al buys as much if not more music than I do, but he forgets what he has. In PEI last month he handed me a sealed copy of ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.’ I said, ‘Thanks but you’ve already given me this one. Did you buy it a third time?’ He peered at the cover for a moment and then replied, ‘No, no… This one was a gift.’ Right. He then substituted a sealed re-mastered copy of ‘Pretty Hate Machine.’) Al’s take on Led Zep’s debut as a longtime music fan and talented amateur pianist is, ‘I never realized the blues could be so heavy.’


Time has been on my side. I no longer associate Led Zeppelin with Catholic schoolboy hell. While Al prefers their first three releases, I’ve embraced ‘Physical Graffiti’ and ‘In Through the Out Door.’ Part of the band’s mystique, if you exclude the misty mountain Hobbit imagery, hysterical rumours of Satanism and shark fins, is the finite nature of their time together. Just nine albums if you count the farewell barrel scrapings of ‘Coda.’ While the Rolling Stones and the Who have staggered to 50 in various incarnations and fits and starts, Led Zep has emulated the Beatles to date: that’s it; that’s all. The tantalizing exception was the one-off 2007 London reunion concerted documented on the mesmerizing ‘Celebration Day.’


The hype and hope for a full-scale tour were eventually quashed by one man, Robert Plant. God knows how many gazillions of dollars he’s left on the table. While his band-mates and their fans all wish the sensational space shifter would travel backward, you absolutely have to admire the mighty re-arranger’s refusal to revisit the heyday of his fame. Everybody can pound sand. His steps as a solo act upon Led Zep’s dissolution were tentative. He took years to find his own sound as a big 80s log rolled over 29 palms. No rocker from my teenage years has shed quite so heavy an anchor to evolve into such a vibrant and current artist in his own right.


Think of it: Roger Waters is still tearing down ‘The Wall.’

The first three Led Zeppelin re-masters have hit the market. The packaging is lovely and bonus tracks abound. Jimmy Page has nothing better to do. The Firm isn’t promising a box-set anytime soon. Shopping fingers flick and creep to the here and now, Plant’s ‘lullaby and… THE CEASELESS ROAR’ is coming home. What really matters is living and listening in the present.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014



Apple!? My i!


Apple Inc. yesterday announced the arrival of two new products whose names do not include a lower case i. Reverberations from the Cupertino, CA media event were felt as far away as Edmonton, AB. Are Apple Pay and Apple Watches the death knell, the final fatal tolling of the bell for meGeoff? Industry analysts concur: it’s too early to tell, although one insider revealed that iTeeth were gnashed.


Apple Pay is particularly sky breaking. It works exactly like the cash, debit card and credit card you already carry in your wallet except that it’s digital. This means that all of your important financial information may be safely and securely stored on Apple’s iCloud.


Proposed product names including uPay and iPay did not pass the first marketing brainstorm meeting. However the bite out of Apple Inc.’s logo was thought to be indicative when combined with the word pay – ironic given the corporation’s world class tax avoidance schemes.


The Apple Watch will tell you what time it is while getting to know your body although the biblical sense is still a few years away. Perhaps it will flag a heart attack if you keep ignoring the constriction in your chest and the agonizing pains shooting down your left arm. It will come in many fashionable colours and the wristbands will be interchangeable.


Neither Apple Pay nor the Apple Watch will work without the iPhone 6. This new device is slimmer than previous incarnations and will boast a slightly larger screen. Me? I prefer my Perez Hilton gossip and grumpy cat videos in Cinemascope, or at least on an iPad.


The other big news Tuesday from Cupertino was Irish rock band U2 launching their new album on iTunes. ‘Songs of Innocence’ is a gift to the world from Apple, a no charge download. Ireland of course is a notable off-shore tax haven and a particular favourite of Apple Inc.’s.

Finally, eBay has just announced that the vowels a and o have put themselves up for auction as e, i and u have strutted their digital fonts for a generation at least. Sources indicate y is hedging.

Monday, 8 September 2014



Oh God, It’s Monday


There’s enough coffee left in the carafe for a third cup. The morning papers are on the kitchen counter, their sections reshuffled. The BBC’s World News is being read over the radio. It’s still early in the day and it’s dim inside the house, enough so that we need to have a few lights on.


We’ve 15 days to go before the first day of autumn. There are not enough yellow leaves on the lawn to bother raking up, too soon; the city’s still green. The patio furniture and the umbrellas are still out. And Ann’s outside, wearing a black coat and frantically picking our modest crop of peppers and tomatoes. Snow swirls around her hooded head and shoulders.


Snow, wet and heavy, lazily blown spring snow. The trouble is, the days aren’t getting longer and summer isn’t on the horizon any time soon. Even though it’s accumulating on roofs and vehicles, it won’t stay. Still, we’re just eight days into September. Winter’s harbinger is early to the skating party. The tabby cats are peering out the front door and muttering in French, Qu-est-ce que fuck? Equally vexing is that the weather’s exactly the same outside the back door. Emergency sirens scream and car alarms bleat from elsewhere; nothing ever happens when conditions are pristine.


I’m of three minds this dark and snowy morning. Despair is easy. I can begin pre-dreading the long frozen nights that lay ahead. A second alternative is to stand shirtless in the middle of the street screaming at the sky. ‘Is that it!? Is this the best you got!? Bring it on!’ Such a display of defiance could also provide a bonus benefit. Our more annoying and eccentric neighbours would be warned I’m dangerously batshit crazier than they are and they’d best keep their distance from hereon in.

The third option hinges on California design and Chinese manufacturing. Apple tomorrow is apparently set to introduce its iPhone 6 to the drooling masses. Here’s hoping this gussied up device comes with a weather app that actually works. Ann points out that while meGeoff’s faith in St. Steve’s iTechnology may be warranted, it’s possible I’m not entirely clear on the concept.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014



Tuesday Night’s All Right for Complaining


September; is it me or does the sun suddenly seem a little cooler, the air a little sharper? The lawn seems to have stopped growing. Ann’s begun cutting back the garden. The harvest from our summer-long vegetable growing experiment still isn’t quite all in. We’ve got tomatoes, peppers, spaghetti squash… and zucchini.


Anybody want a zucchini? Seriously. It’s an amazingly versatile vegetable: delicious baked or barbecued; a key ingredient in salads, stir-fries, soups and sauces; a fine pizza topping, sandwich stuffer and it adds a certain je ne sais quois to scrambled eggs. Shredded zucchini ensures cakes and spicy loaves are always moist. You can use them as compost or sex toys. Anybody want a zucchini? Please?


There are mundane chores to be done before the frost. The stairs leading up to the back door must be sanded and stained. The wrought iron railings repainted. The garage has to be cleaned out and reorganized. The patio umbrellas must be stored along with all of the flower pots. I’ve already washed all of our windows inside and out, the vehicles too, with oil changes and winter tires yet to come.


Everything is not completely melancholy. Canadian football and professional baseball have reached the stage in their schedules when the games begin to matter a little bit more. Hockey’s just around the corner and the Canadiens are unbeatable at this moment in time. The good news is that the boys are back in town and we’ve got our Tuesday night quorum of four cranky men once again.


Jack has returned to Alberta after four years in Texas. He is reacquainting himself with the province’s healthcare system. Sometimes I think he scrolls through WEB M.D. and ticks off the illnesses, diseases and syndromes he hasn’t had yet. Stats Guy spent his summer holidays in the British Columbia Interior caring for his aged mother; it was touch and go there for a while. He believes anything unrelated to James Bond, baseball or Canadian university hockey is communist: tough to argue as it’s tough to get a word in. Ray is an artist, a sculptor. He’s just returned from a lucrative artist-in-residence gig at a chi-chi resort. I’ve sat beside him on a hockey bench and gagged as he smacked his separated shoulder back into place.

From now until the onset of next summer we are going to taste test every $12 hamburger available in Edmonton. We will criticize the presentation of the food and the temperature of the beer. We will talk amongst ourselves. We will watch TV and mutter. We will attempt to flirt with waitresses less than half our age. We gather tonight on Bourbon Street in the West Edmonton Mall. A new year is underway. I’m looking forward to seeing the guys again. As a token of my esteem, each manjack will be presented with a fresh zucchini. It’s the least I can do.