Thursday, 31 December 2015


Dinner and a Movie: Two Reviews

While we were washing up the dinner dishes Christmas night Stats Guy mentioned that he wouldn’t mind catching the new Star Wars movie. This past Tuesday Ann and I arranged to attend a matinee performance with him. We chose an early time because if The Force Awakens sucked as badly as the previous three prequel films to the original trilogy at least we wouldn’t have paid full price. Also, giving any amount of money to Disney makes me feel dirty, and I’ve spent 25 years in advertising.

I’ve never understood the allure of the Star Wars films. They’re well crafted flicks aimed at children or inner childs and so I find the fan boy thirst for the franchise’s Kool-Aid vaguely creepy. Admittedly this is a debate between Pot and Kettle as I’ve a few (somewhat healthier I’m certain) obsessions of my own. And I do have one Star Wars memory that unfailingly makes me smile. I saw Return of the Jedi in Montreal’s long departed York Theatre with two friends. We’d each eaten a gram or so of magic mushrooms and had choked the fungi down with multiple beers. Once we took our seats a voice in the dark to my right muttered, ‘These are useless. Do you have any more?’ The movie began to roll and a space ship entered the frame from the top. I next heard a giggle and a snort and, ‘Oh, wow.’ When the credits rolled we tumbled giggling onto St. Catherine Street. Outside A&A Records we encountered a woman walking a small anxious dog. ‘A rat! An ewok!’ We were comic geniuses.

The new movie is essentially a remake of the original from 1977 with one droid and two or three character substitutions. The Vatican’s official newspaper maintained in its review that the bad guy wasn’t evil enough; agreed, he’s a mere petulant child. I’ve since read at Rolling that Star Wars creator George Lucas is apparently miffed and moaning that Disney chose not to follow his perceived path of his epic’s sprawling mythology despite the involvement of Lawrence Kasdan who co-wrote the screen plays for The Empire Strikes Back (the best of the bunch) and Return of the Jedi, and director J.J. Abrams who successfully recharged Star Trek’s dilithium crystals. Of course Lucas sold his Star Wars stake to Disney for some $4-billion and that will buy him a lot of Kleenex should he continue to weep over the fate of his baby.

Christopher Plummer having a lark as a Klingon aside, why is it that celluloid villains are unfamiliar with the arc of classic tragedy and specifically the crippling effect of ‘vaulting ambition,’ especially when confronted by a misfit band of plucky underdogs? A Death Star wasn’t good enough for the bad guys in The Force Awakens; no, naturally they had to have a Death Planet with a plot purpose-built Achilles heel. Our consensus after the inevitable sequel suggesting ending was that we’d neither wasted our time nor our matinee money. I venture that if you’ve already seen this movie more than once you have.

Next on the evening’s agenda were beers and a bite to eat. There is a faux Irish pub in the downtown mall. We’re all so sick of middling pub and sports bar fare even if everything is garnished with aioli and arugula. Ann suggested we cross the river and settle upon a place a little closer to our homes. Stats Guy drove us across the High Level Bridge and we decided upon the High Level Diner situated somewhat awkwardly on a busy corner at its south end. We passed the restaurant and then turned left and left again, parallel to the opposite way we’d come into an unlit alley and then right into a hidden parking lot behind the high-rises lining Saskatchewan Drive. The short walk in the dark was bone-chilling.

Inside the three of us shook off the cold and settled into a booth. The place was empty but it was Tuesday, traditionally a dead night for any business anywhere. The large 11"x17" laminated menus promised a unique and sophisticated twist on traditional diner fare. The only waitress in the precious joint slid by and wondered aloud if we'd like to have anything. Well, gee. Ann asked if they served beer. Our waitress pointed to a smaller digest menu already on the table. We perused it, craft hi-tests. Hmm. Ann asked if we could taste the Scottish Amber. No, it’s in a bottle. Well, do you have anything on tap? Yes, Yellowhead lager. I reread the liquor menu, no mention of beers on tap. Okay, three pints of Yellowhead, please.

I spotted the all day breakfast sandwich: meatloaf, ham, bacon, a fried egg and sharp cheddar, a fistful of everything in the barnyard with home fries which theoretically constitute a serving of vegetable matter. Stats Guy asked about the meatloaf plate, no, not the meatloaf sandwich. What were the side vegetables? Our waitress went away and then came back to tell him some vegetables were mixed into the meat and there were potatoes on top. Ann wondered what the specials were. Our waitress went away and came back again and confessed to Stats Guy that she had mistakenly described the shepherd’s pie to him. The meatloaf came with zucchini and stuff. Maybe potatoes too. She informed Ann that there were no specials. Ann asked what the soup of the day was. Our waitress went away once more. Stats Guy wondered if he should maybe ask her what kind of potatoes came with the meatloaf? Yukon Golds? Little red ones? I asked him if he needed that kind of pain. The waitress came back and told Ann that the soup of the day was one of the ones listed somewhere on the main menu, maybe the other side, near the top? Ann thought she’d have the beef dip. The waitress wondered if Ann would like the soup of the day with that? Ann decided French fries might be a better option. Stats Guy ordered a Reuben sandwich and then asked our waitress what kind of bread the pastrami, sauerkraut and Swiss stack would be served on. He had to ask. Our waitress excused herself to go and consult the hash-slinging cook.

God love her, at least she got our three orders right. Our food was like the film we’d just seen, unremarkable and average; over promised and under delivered: a suicidal, death wish combination in the service and entertainment industries. Once Stats Guy, Ann and I had eaten I excused myself to wash the locally sourced, farmed and ranched sandwich grease from my hands. A sign in the men’s room trumpeted Tuesday’s fish and chips special. I supposed we might’ve enjoyed some battered haddock if we’d known it was available because that’s something you can’t reproduce at home. And Ann’s fries had looked pretty good. Oh well, just another night. No need to repeat any part of the activities.

Monday, 28 December 2015


Reading About Writers

I have just finished reading a book about books. One of my pleasures in life is to close a book and then shelve it. See those excellent spines and the bound worlds jogged flush and glued to them! To finish reading a book never fails to pose a happy dilemma. What next to extract from the stacks on the night table?

A happy Christmas inflates the piles of prose in our bedroom. This year’s was no different. Our good friends Alex and her husband Netflix Derek dropped off a gift bag on the evening of the 24th while Ann and I were out. Their present to me was a 1966 first edition of The Life of Ian Fleming by John Pearson. (They gave Ann Word Freak, a book about competitive Scrabble and I foolishly gave her the latest edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary; 2016 tilts at the dining room table do not bode well for me.) Stats Guy came for turkey; he gave me a cold and Adam Sisman’s recent biography of John le Carre.

Prose portraits of two of my favourite writers are now in the house; and me between books. I would rather read a novelist than read about a novelist, just as I would prefer to listen to the Rolling Stones or view a Lawren Harris painting as opposed to reading about them. All artists cease producing eventually and I find it impossible to let go of those whom I’ve long admired and appreciated despite their intermittent output or sheer inactivity. A well-researched objective biography (and its sister subjective memoir) allows the hobby scholar a welcomed peek behind the creative curtain; I dine heartily on the zest of peeled layers.

Fleming and le Carre were not contemporaries. The James Bond creator died young, aged 56 in 1964. Call for the Dead, le Carre’s first novel, was published in 1961. Perhaps I will soon learn that they did indeed cross paths for a moment or an hour in time. Each filed a version of the spy novel into his particular dossier: Fleming added violence and sex to adventure stories, a genre a modern publisher might describe as young adult before James Bond infiltrated it; le Carre then transformed those stories into complex, sober and disconcerting literature through a looking glass. Both authors are indebted to Graham Greene and Eric Ambler.

All four of these thriller writers led more intriguing lives than the vast majority of their readers. All served Britain in a military or intelligence capacity at some instance during the Phony War, the Second World War and the Cold War, and thus their fictions are necessarily informed even if they all signed government gag orders. Greene is the subject of an exhaustive multi-volume biography by Norman Sherry despite Greene’s own five attempts to make sense of portions of ‘a sort of life’ and his ‘ways of escape.’ Ambler’s last book Here Lies Eric Ambler is as clever as the double-entendre of his title; his wry reminiscences of a brief stint writing advertising copy particularly resonated with me.

And what of Ian Fleming had he lived long enough to write about his life? One hundred pages into Pearson’s biography young Ian is already altering his personal history and literally forging a new identity for himself, assembling his 'legend' as they say in intelligence circles. John le Carre is the last of these men alive – and the only one who hides behind a pen name. His memoir, excluding what he chooses not to reveal about his duties with MI5 and MI6, is scheduled for publication in 2016.

Thursday, 24 December 2015


Christmas Could Not Come Soon Enough

For whatever well-meaning reason the National Hockey League traditionally saddles the Montreal Canadiens with an epic road trip in December, anchored by a brief respite, the Christmas break. As is the case with all ‘best intentions’ anywhere, anytime, it does not go well. The Canadiens’ play of late has been more wretched than most seasonal songs and carols. History repeats.

In their past 10 games the club has sagged worse than an erectile dysfunctional penis. They have won one game and lost nine. Their consecutive games losing streak is five. Two members of the team’s elite corps of four players are injured. The other two, P.K. and the captain, are notable for their indifferent, distracted play. The Canadiens cannot buy a goal on approved credit, no money down.

And somehow, perhaps ‘tis the season, they remain clinging to first place in the Atlantic Division by virtue of a single point. Montreal has 43; Boston and Florida each have 42. New Jersey, currently seeded outside of the Eastern Conference’s evolving playoffs picture has 39 points. The Canadiens don’t have much room to wiggle within the confines of a regulation rink.

On Boxing Day Montreal will face Washington, the second best team in the league. Next are games in Tampa Bay and Miami, and the Habs generally suck down south playing in front of homesick snowbirds. After the Sunshine State tour comes the outdoor marketing extravaganza with the Bruins on New Year’s Day, a genuine four-pointer in pick-up shinny conditions.

The statistical potential for terrible trouble, disaster, a falling sky, the end of the world or dropping out of playoff contention looms and lurks. Some people who don’t know any better contend there are more important things in life to worry over and fret about: ‘It’s just pro sports and anyway, it doesn’t matter in the great scheme of things, especially at this time of year.’ Where do they get off? Because, see, at this point in the season, what the Canadiens do after the holiday break really, really matters.

Merry Christmas. If you’re not a Habs fan it should be a good one.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


Magic in the Not Quite Longest Night of the Year

Sunday night Ann and I attended a Christmas party in the neighbourhood, one that’s been thrown some 25 years running. The talk throughout the house this year was of grown children, grandchildren, retirement plans, all-inclusive holidays in hot Third World places, bad knees and hip replacements. We thanked our hosts and then slipped away a little after 10 o’clock. We swiped back a couple of the beers we’d brought which we’d left to chill on their rear deck. We walked home through the curving back lane, smoking and sipping from our tins, the snow squeaking beneath the soles of our boots in the cold. Brrr.

Ann said, ‘Look up.’ I saw the pale yellow half moon in the navy sky. ‘No, the other way.’ Wow. Two, no three, no two massive columns of blazing emerald green light danced like the stilts of Atlas in some kind of cosmic street performance. The spectacle easily trumped the synth-synched lasers at a Who concert. We watched the great mantis legs dissolve and then reassemble themselves within seconds into a rippling ribbon that arced across the night sky into infinities beyond the boundaries of a compass rose.

We stood transfixed as our beers gelled into 7-11 adult Slurpees. We reminded each other not to lick our tins. Ann said that she couldn’t remember what caused the northern lights. I tried to think. Colour is a function of light. Light is made of particles, photons. ‘I think,’ I ventured, ‘white light hits the polar ice and is reflected back into the atmosphere which acts as a sort of cut crystal or prism or something. Like the cover of that Pink Floyd album.’ There, that sounded pretty authoritative for somebody who’s often uncertain of the colour of the sky in his own little world. ‘Green’s somewhere in the middle of the visible spectrum.’ I recalled overseeing the production of elaborate marketing materials and a few seasons’ worth of player cards for the Seattle SuperSonics and added, ‘It’s a bastard colour to print.’

Later I stood outside shivering on the front porch hoping for an encore aurora. Instead I heard the deep who-whoo hoot of Alberta’s provincial bird, the great horned owl. It was very close, almost overhead. I did a quick mental inventory of the cats: the tabbies were inside curled up asleep after figuring out that the paw quivering cold out the back door also existed out the front door. I called Ann outside to listen too. Tingling from the sound and hoping for another sighted tick mark in our Birds of Edmonton book (last summer I spotted a bald eagle), I went down the steps to the driveway and peered up at the midnight blue seeking a black silhouette. The who-whoo-ing faded, the creature had flown and was evidently now hovering somewhere above the nearby woody river valley.

We went back inside to shiver ourselves warm. And like a cat I went back outside again. I opened a beer and reminded myself not to lick the tin. I lit a cigarette and watched the grey smoke congeal before my eyes. Oh, the mystical night sights and sounds in a freezing winter city can be marvelous. A Van Morrison lyric replayed on a loop in my head: ‘And didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder.’

Sunday, 20 December 2015


The Ripples of Technology

I am immersed in a book called The Book on the Bookshelf by Henry Petroski. The topic is a tad arcane, but the message regarding the evolution and impact of new technology is universal. Writing transformed sounds into visuals which led to the invention of the book. This great leap forward in human communication posed a new and unforeseen problem. How to safely preserve and store these collected scrolls and codices, these records, these histories, these poems, these dramas? The hinged modern books which we store vertically on dedicated furniture whose shelves display minimal sag, a system we take for granted, required centuries of refinement.

The proliferation of books had other consequences. Architecture was affected, specifically the size, placement and quantity of windows because early monastic libraries thrived on natural light in the days before electricity and open flames in a room crammed with valuable flammable material courted catastrophe. The printing press had to be invented. Literacy spread, and with it, new ideas and knowledge as the number of writers grew. Publishers and bookshops opened their doors. Legible fonts, some beautiful, elegant and utterly timeless, were designed. The existence of books gave birth to an art form, the novel; there’s no chicken and egg riddle to ponder.

Books and shelves took time to evolve into something suggestive of their Platonic ideals. More recent and advanced technologies don’t garner such unabashedly positive reviews. Consider the automobile with mixed emotions; freedom for the middle class it helped inflate through factory jobs, paved infrastructure and peripheral businesses like service stations and garages, motor inns, roadside attractions and drive-ins. ‘Rocket 88’ which many consider the first rock ‘n’ roll song is an ode to an Oldsmobile; Chuck Berry and Bruce Springsteen made out all right writing and singing songs about cars; Detroit muscle endures as the only worthy ride into the heart of the American Dream.

But those new highways bypassed towns and killed them. The drive-ins were cookie cut into burger chains. Our cities and suburbs ceased to welcome pedestrians. One family car became impractical, almost peculiar; car dealers became money lenders. Is there any need to mention Volkswagen and das auto emissions, or General Motors dithering for a decade and 115 deaths before recalling its products because of a faulty, paltry $5 part? Fossil fuels have powered all engines, including geopolitics and national economies.

Perhaps the automobile has driven us headlong into an even newer technology, hydraulic fracturing. Well fracking is clever technology. The main ingredients are water, a cocktail of chemicals and sand. The pressurized solution creates fissures in sedimentary stone. The cracks bleed hidden reserves of oil and natural gas. The process is a North American energy ‘Open Sesame;’ a self-reliant middle finger to the House of Saud and OPEC if you will, and a Washington snub of Alberta’s ‘dirty’ tar sands. Inexpensive and abundant natural gas is critical as electrical power generation stations are weaned off coal. Cleaner times are coming.

Fracking requires tremendous amounts of water, a natural resource that’s no longer considered to be limitless. Air pollutants include methane which smells like ass. Environmentalists are convinced the extraction process leaves nasty residue in the groundwater: since the fracking boom began in the 1970s, not that long ago, evidence of negative long term health effects on folk who have the misfortune of living in proximity to the noisy sites is inconclusive. Recent studies have proven that fracking triggers earthquakes. ‘Did the earth move, Little Rabbit?’ ‘Truly, the earth did move.’ Still, I wonder about the impact of even modest seismic activity on the integrity of pipelines and railroad track beds.

Time is the greatest teacher in the world. What a gift it would be to fast forward time in order to understand the ramifications and consequences of our new technologies. Who knows how it’ll all shake out when you’re in the middle of it with incomplete information and without the luxury of foresight? The Book on the Bookshelf is available on Amazon as a download.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015


A Double-double Hit

Alcohol, like many goods and commodities people sell to one another can be harmful to the user, or those in their orbit. A list could be infinite: cigarettes, firearms, Lawn Darts, power tools, medium-fat smoked meat sandwiches, ABBA records, pot… The sale of alcohol in Canada is still heavily regulated, a hangover from 19th century temperance movements and Prohibition. Because of the nature of our federation of provinces, pretty much a petty turf war for jurisdiction, except for the big, expensive stuff Ottawa should fund, rules and regulations are inconsistent from coast, to coast, to coast as prim, well-meaning, albeit intolerant hands must always be tied and then wrung in red tape horror.

Here in Alberta the government privatized retail alcohol sales while maintaining control of distribution and wholesale pricing. Essentially, competing retailers cannot afford to compete with each other, especially after consumer taxes are added at the till. I don’t know what the hell’s going on in British Columbia (and nobody does), except that drinking there is really expensive. Ontario, old Protestant, Loyalist Ontario, mystifies me. There is the Liquor Control Board of Ontario competing against a brewery cartel retail chain of shops, The Beer Store. Yesterday, the sitting government of Ontario announced that beer will now be available in grocery stores, but only in six-packs and that that frothy booze cannot be scanned at the same cash register as the rest of the cart. I miss the sophisticated, low-key convenience of living in Montreal. I could go into any corner shop or grocery store and buy a box of beer or a bottle of wine. Still, the good stuff, a peaty, single malt or an Irish, remained government issue, a special trip to a dedicated store.

A story: A friend of mine, a designer originally from the Maritimes, moved back east maybe ten years ago. We managed to hook up in Charlottetown, PEI in 2009. He told me about the previous winter. A storm was blowing in off the Atlantic, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence side of the island wasn’t looking too good either. The CBC and the RCMP combined to warn all residents not to travel, not to go to work, not to go outside. ‘That was fine until the next announcement,’ he continued, ‘the liquor stores (state-run) were closing early, just chaos everywhere after that.’

Granted, crown corporations are handed difficult and seemingly doomed mandates. Yet, it’s difficult to mess up a monopoly, really hard, especially when you’re controlling and re-selling an addictive product. In the sunny ways of post- Stephen Harper Canada, talk has turned to the impending legalization of pot.  Every expert and pundit has weighed in on how to get a regulated dime bag to a customer. The consensus seems to be the utilization of ineffectual provincial liquor boards and their existing distribution networks.

Me? Fuck it; sell the weed through Tim Hortons. The chain blankets the country anyway. Its hours are convenient. There are worse places for high scarfing, and the sandwiches are okay.

Monday, 14 December 2015


Christmas Kitchen Chaos

Life was full of promise in grade four. I would be an archeologist, a decorated soldier or a star skater for the Montreal Canadiens. Like roles in Major League Baseball or the Canadian Football League were also viable options. As was becoming a secret agent; my mother was always pleased with me after I’d wet-combed my hair and parted it like James Bond or Napoleon Solo. Trouble was, she’d then spit into a used lipstick Kleenex to wipe something from my face. This simply did not happen to 007 or the man from U.N.C.L.E.

I have three concrete memories from the fourth grade. ‘Monkey’ removed the Host from his tongue after Communion and did not get zapped into a smoking cinder. Miss Korb caught me dropping a pencil in front of her desk so I could crouch down and get a look up her mini-skirt. A girl in the class suggested that strategy. I still know her name. I sometimes wonder what became of you, Robin. And I remember an agonizing toothache. There’s nothing so, so awfully torturous as unrelenting pain in your head.

I blame Deguire’s by the 165 bus stop in the centre of town: pink logs of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Aero bars filled with empty bubbles, Sweet Tarts, Rockets, slabs of icing sugar dusted gum from packs of sports cards, cherry Chiclets, cherry Danish pastries, jelly doughnuts, Juicy Fruit, Thrills, Caramilks, Turtles at Christmas, RC Cola, Nesbitt’s orange, Tahiti Treat, grape Crush, Wink, Joe Louis cakes, POM lemon tarts, Stuart mini blueberry pies, Jaw Breakers, Life Savers, strawberry Twizzlers, Glosset chocolate covered raisins, Smarties and MacIntosh toffee.

One of the two local dentists, a tall man with white hair in white scrubs who reliably married his assistants in sequence, extracted what was left of my sweet tooth. Later that evening I chewed my frozen lower lip into a balloon of pus watching a Habs-Bruins playoff game. I kept the rotten molar in a blue Birks box for a couple years. Down the road tobacco seemed like a better idea than sugar. Some days I wonder about the wisdom of that particular decision; however, governments need their sin tax revenues and it’s unlikely I’ll actually spend my credited health care allotment or collect a federal pension for any significant length of time. Comme ci, comme saw-off.

The house smells sweet, better than a bakery. Today is the start of the Christmas baking season. I do not eat sweets. I can’t, you should’ve seen that tooth. Ann and her niece are in the kitchen making shortbread cookies with fork tine patterns on top, ginger snaps sprinkled with miniature green and red candy beads, almond squares, frosted Nanaimo bars and caramel popcorn sticky with chopped walnuts. After typing that I just tested positive for some type of diabetes; might cost me a half a leg even though I’ll not graze or nibble on the homemade goodies. Anyway, since a gas fitter is in the basement working our furnace into January order, it’s possible that all of the baking will taste like dust and cat hair. That don’t matter much to me now.

The ladies are rocking ingredients in the kitchen and the Rolling Stones are on the iPod; singing lead for a rock ‘n’ roll band and dancing out front never occurred to me in grade four. Get down! Why can’t Christmas cooking be something I like? Red onions and green lettuce can be pretty festive wrapped up in a donair. Ripe red tomato slices and green lettuce on a bacon cheeseburger equally so. Festive red and green wreaths of relishes on a hotdog. Crisp red and green peppers on a sausage pizza.

Brother, can you spare a submarine sandwich? I will gladly pay you next Tuesday for a Petro-Can store bologna hoagie today. All I want for Christmas is a slice or three of pre-cancerous pink pork off a moulded loaf with mayonnaise on white bread. With lettuce and tomato.

Friday, 11 December 2015


Second Place Feels All Right

I woke up this morning only to find I was chasing Fifteen Dogs. Fortunately, I was well ahead of Even Dogs in the Wild. As for The Girl on the Train, I left her at Windsor station; sorry, baby, it was getting too heavy to laugh.

My second novel Duke Street Kings has reached the second spot on the Edmonton Journal’s list of local bestsellers. This height hit is strictly due to the success of my book’s launch at Audreys last December 2nd. And honestly, every effort was made to paper the room with friends who would bring their wallets. The scheme worked and I thank everyone who ventured out on a school night to support my years of effort scribbling in Hilroy copybooks (coil bounds are bastards for lefties) with disposable Bic medium ballpoints (they smudge but I like their feel). As for the no-shows, well, I hold grudges and never forget: I could’ve been number one, a real contender, you too busy bastards.

Today has been particularly trying. I’ve been confined to the kitchen and the dining room since I read this morning’s paper as the entry between the rooms is the only one in the house big enough to accommodate my newly inflated Trump-sized ego. I’m thinking about caking orange paste on my face and seeing my barber about an elaborately hideous comb-over; still working out which nationalities and religions to fear and shun. Seriously, there are a few inches of snow outside that need shoveling, the fridge is beer critical and I really have to go to the bathroom but I can’t seem to fit my head through a standard doorway. And I’m not allowed to smoke in the house.

The challenges facing a small publisher touting an unknown writer are universal for anyone hustling goods: advertising, marketing and distribution. There are still a few signed copies of Duke Street Kings left at Audreys. Displayed by the door I hope. You can visit Audreys at although like a lot web sites it’s been neglected for the immediacy of social media. That info’s there too. You can order Duke Street Kings direct from my publisher Falcon Press at or call (in North America) 1-877-284-5181.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


The Boys Are Back in Town

Driving south on Alberta’s Highway 2, the province’s EdmontonCalgary connector. The landscape shifts as the snow tires rumble along the bone-dry road, the white crust covering the fields crumbles and ebbs into gold and brown stubble. The low, pale sky vaults into an intense electric blue. On the right and to the west the Rockies, still young in a relative way, begin to make their jagged selves apparent, cloud-snaring pins, points and peaks.

An ancient mix tape spools from reel to reel in the cassette deck. Rocking down the blacktop to rendezvous with my three oldest and best friends; it’s been years since I can’t remember when, the four of us being in the same room together again, a complete quorum. The new normal has been a duo or a business trip trio and a smartphone ping to the missing. The Clash is playing, Mick Jones singing a rare lead vocal: And I’ll never forget the smile on my face ‘cause I knew where you would be/So if you’re in the Crown tonight have a drink on me/Go easy, step light, stay free. Sentimental? Yes. Mawkish? No.

Our reunion has been driven by one of those middle-aged speed bumps: Jim’s getting married again. Though Tim and Marty have been in long relationships, neither fellow ever married. Me, I’ve been around the block a few times. Each one of us is or has been a father figure at various times in our lives (with varying success), but only Jim is an actual biological father. This fact may be of some interest to a sociologist studying those Catholic souls who miraculously appeared at the tail end of the baby boom.

My dear friends mock me. I will be ragged to the ends of the Earth for all of my foibles, flaws, stupidities, shames and embarrassments, but I will never be judged. And, anyway, I can give as good as I get, this is the nature of our game. High school confidential: we all smoked cigarettes back then. Jim and Marty were smart enough to dabble and then quit. Jim runs marathons. Marty still plays hockey at a high level, hikes and cross-country skiis. They should, statistically, outlive me and Tim by a decade, but we’re all old enough to know that life is rife with broken plays and deflected pucks. We accept and are comfortable with each others’ life choices; no grade nine zits these days and no one’s ballooned into a waxen dough ball.

Indulge me as I flashback. Marty and I grew up together on the same odd side of the street in Montreal, Marty’s house number was 77, mine was 111. We walked to school together for years because back in kindergarten in 1965 or ’66 he decided that the two of us had no need to ride the yellow Uncle Harry’s bus, there was a shortcut through the alley. An early 80s memory: Marty meets me in Concordia University’s Sir George Williams campus pub. We have a beer and then find his parked used gold Malibu for the drive to the west end Loyola campus. We listen to Ian Hunter on the 8-track. We share a joint well above the speed limit. We go to our respective classes.

I cannot recall how Marty and I met Tim. If I had to guess a year, I’d say 1969. Probably shinny on the outdoor ice at Mohawk Park. Maybe organized atom football. Maybe at school. All of our parents knew of each other but they were not close friends. An early 80s memory: I turn up late at my studio cockroach apartment near the Montreal Forum. Jammed into the jamb is a portion of a cigarette package, a note scribbled on it. Tim is back a week early from his summer gig as the night manager of the Cascade Inn in Banff! Where was I and why wasn’t I in!? My friend has come home! I’m staggering over the moon. Jesus, you get nauseous at this height. Best to crash on the floor and avoid the bed spins.

Marty and I hooked up with Jim through Tim in high school, maybe 1974. We were so much older then. Jim’s basement walls were covered with very stark modern wallpaper. The patterns could be mutating distractions if you were high, playing Pong on the TV and trying to sing along to the Doobie Brothers. An early 80s memory: Jim and I looking out the front window of his duplex in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood. We are hungover giddy. His coffee table is still sticky from the spilt Drambuie we licked off its surface the night before. Something new and weird called a floppy disk had made a poor coaster. Below us, out on the street, his orange Beetle is being harnessed to a tow truck, the wrecker’s yard looms. A lot of hazy memories tied up in that Volks. I ask him if we should play ‘Taps’ or something. For some reason he finds my question insanely witty.

Following the ceremony, the formalities and the small talk cocktail circuitry, the four of us gravitate toward one another as other guests line up for the roast beef buffet. Our chat is deep and meaningful. Someone we all know and who is not present has a batshit crazy spouse, and the Canadiens have a decent chance of going all the way this season; please, God, fix Carey Price’s mysterious lower body injury! I want to tell you that the Stones’ ‘Happy’ was playing, but that’s too perfect, too scripted. Tim senses the moment and the photo op. The iPhones come out. Jim press-gangs the official photographer. We put our arms around our each. ‘Brothers from different mothers,’ Tim said later. We’re smiling, all together again. We’re flash frozen. Another take, let’s do it again tonight, and maybe somewhere else again down the road.

Thursday, 3 December 2015


Dining with the Lizard People

Last night Ann and I experienced a bitter end to what had been a lovely evening. Many good friends, old and new, took the time and made the effort to attend the launch of my novel Duke Street Kings at a downtown bookshop. The house wasn’t quite full but it sure was friendly. Once my Warholian 15 minutes had expired, a sizable group of us repaired to a nearby sports bar for celebratory drinks.

It was late when Ann and I drove back across the river headed for home. Ann said, ‘I feel like having a greaseburger. What about you? You must be hungry.’ I was; I hadn’t eaten all day, afraid to drop anything solid into a churning stomach. An A&W whizzed by on the driver’s side. Ann said, ‘I missed the turn for the A&W.’ I agreed she had. ‘What about Wendy’s?’ she suggested. I agreed Wendy’s would do.

The Wendy’s we frequent once a year is in the university district, separated from the teaching hospital’s emergency take-in by a twin set of LRT tracks and four lanes of traffic. We chose a booth in the corner of the restaurant as it appeared to be a clean one. I removed my overcoat. Underneath that I wore a jean jacket over a naturally distressed black tee-shirt promoting my first novel Murder Incorporated.

A lizard boy in a tracksuit slouched in a booth across the aisle, his long legs stretched out, said, ‘Nice shirt.’ I wondered if he thought it referenced the hip-hop record label or just kicks. I thanked him for the compliment although he was already reabsorbed by his smartphone’s screen. His companion was passed out: forearms on table, forehead on forearms, head in hoodie. These guys were just hanging out. There was nobody on the premises with any stature or authority to shoo them away.

Through the window I could see a gaggle of lizard people in track suits passed out at a table on the chained-off outdoor patio. Toward the rear of the restaurant, near the toilets which tonight I knew I would never use in a million years, sat an elderly man sporting a black leather jacket and a grey Mohawk. His face was a mess, perhaps disease, perhaps a beating. Likely both. No one else in the place looked much better.

Ann leaned close to me. ‘Are we in Emergency overflow?’ Or the sixth circle of Hell. We bit into our Wendy’s Hot n’ Juicy burgers. They were nitrogen cold and rubbery. Now, it’s fair to say that most fast food burger chains have inflicted a grave disservice upon the noble American hamburger. But how does a chain store with its systems in place massively, gigantically, heroically botch, nay, sodomize with impunity, its very foundation, its core fare? Ann returned our sad sack sandwiches to the counter.

While Ann was registering our complaint Lizard Boy received a visitor. This new lizard stood out as he was wearing winter camouflage fatigues. He emptied two plastic bags of swag on the table for Lizard Boy’s inspection. I spotted a doctor’s rubber reflex hammer. I spotted other personal goodies, items left lying around a busy hospital ward that only a thief and his fence might value. I suppose it’s possible to be more amoral, and perhaps there was an equally plausible and innocent explanation for what I was witnessing. Ann returned with our replacement burgers which were mildly less appalling, so we know for sure it’s possible to make a worse hamburger. If only the other patrons hadn’t killed the ambiance as we tried to wind up my big night with a modicum of intimacy.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


Closer to Home

Our household is awash in print. We live in a sea of serifs. We subscribe to two daily newspapers and five magazines. There’d be more periodicals in the house if Edmonton still had a decent newsstand, a place with warped floorboards, wizened chiselers poring over the daily racing form, stacks of outdated European broadsheets, British football mags and an exposed, glorious wall of tobacco behind the counter. Magic. Yeah, a place like that would be a destination as desirable as our indie record shop.

Magazine racks in chain bookstores and the 7-11 don’t quite purvey the same ambience. So my favourite magazines come to me now. Rolling Stone has been a habit since 1975 and each successive issue makes me miss CREEM that much more. Alberta Views is a traditional magazine in the sense that it includes a compendium of other published articles to complement its own array of intermittently annoying left-leaning features. The New Yorker is sort of a reverse Playboy for me, yes, the writing’s wonderful but I really love the cartoons. Britain’s The Economist is hands down the best magazine in the world, full stop.

I suspect it’s a culmination of age, five miserable, lost years working nights, topped up with 25 years of advertising stress, silliness and deadlines, but I rarely sleep through the night these days. I tend to prowl the house around 3:30 in the morning. Invariably I end up seated at the kitchen counter with one or more of the recently delivered magazines. And I always begin each one on the very last page.

Rolling Stone is slip sliding into irrelevance and so it boasts reminders of past issues, glory days. We used to matter, here’s proof! I enjoy the little time machine. Alberta Views simply lifted Harper’s Index, stats and facts tied into any one issue’s theme. The New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest is almost worth the magazine’s cover price alone. The Economist publishes a single obituary. Most of us don’t qualify for an unfailingly elegant and witty send-off in The Economist, but what a crowning achievement to a life that would be – provided it was not cut short.

In recent years it has been my misfortune to write obituaries, eulogies and Globe and Mail Lives Lived columns. It is not easy work, tinged as it must be by family blood and grief. Yet there seems to be a definite third party art to concisely and succinctly taking the final human measure of a woman or a man. Lou Reed, a rock ‘n’ roll hero of mine, died in 2013. The simple, single one-page essay in The Economist revealed the artist and the man with more depth and emotion than the extensive Rolling Stone cover story tribute.

After skulking last week during the small hours, I settled in the kitchen with The Economist. The obituary told the story of one Cedric Mauduit, an obscure French provincial fonctionnaire or bureaucrat based in Caen. The picture showed a good looking, stylishly dressed man, aged just 41. M. Mauduit led a secret life after office hours and on weekends. His casual wardrobe consisted of Ramones tee-shirts; he was fanatically devoted to the music of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. M. Mauduit’s death warrant was a concert ticket. He was one of the 129 people slaughtered in the November 13th Paris attacks.

I’ve long been numb to the rotten news of the world. Yet here before me splayed on the counter was a horrific statistic reduced to the elementary human connection, one-to-one. The Economist made a faraway event deeply personal. I imagined that if I had ever crossed paths with Cedric I would have instinctively liked him. I knew him now. I even heard dialogue in the heart of the night: ‘The Berlin trilogy? Dude, are you fucking crazy? No way, it’s got to be Ziggy, Aladdin and Diamond Dogs!’ Adieu, Cedric. Rock on. I promise to do the same.

Friday, 27 November 2015


Black Friday on My Mind

Thursday is the day our Edmonton Journal drops crammed beyond capacity with retail flyers. Unfashionable and wasteful as they are, flyers remain proven, reliable vehicles for advertisers. They ain’t broke, so to speak and probably never will be. Alas, the universal theme in yesterday morning’s batch was today: Black Friday.

Black Friday is not a breakaway cell of Black September. It is an American economic phenomenon tethered to Thanksgiving, the biggest, richest consumer holiday in the USA. The day after everyone has watched football and digested their turkey dinners major US retailers are supposed to switch into glide, transform lead into gold, red ink into black, and realize their profits for the calendar year as Christmas approaches. Everything’s on sale because every cent gained on approved credit is gravy for the Q4 train.

Canada has no cents since the penny was eliminated from our currency. Our history has made us a bit schizoid. Thanksgiving Day, a North American tradition, comes early here because of the vise of the short growing season north of 49. Christmas is the rich consumer holiday. Boxing Day, after the country has already opened its wallet, is blow-out sales time. These two dates reflect our founding by Catholic France and a subsequent, commuted, sentence as a British colony.

Black Friday is now a major marketing event in Canada, quite a trajectory for a phrase born in the financial pages of newspapers from another country. I attribute the initial dawn of Black Friday up here to proximity, cross-border shopping and traditional media spillover. Expanding American retail chains simply imposed their sales sensibilities on what they conceived as a mere common market. Amazon invented the e-tail model and created continental competition in sectors once confined to neighbourhoods or big box suburban malls. Canadian advertisers and marketers, too often unoriginal anyway, got on board or jumped in.

A story this week in the National Post indicated that an insanely absurd percentage of the Canadian workforce will call in sick today in order to Black Friday shop. This in a land of citizens overloaded with credit card debt and little cash money in the bank. The article went on to say that Boxing Day deals would be slightly better, although the waiting is the hardest part. The more you spend, the more you save!

My flyer mound consists of publications by Best Buy, Golf Town, Home Outfitters, The Source, Leon’s, Hudson’s Bay, London Drugs, The Brick, The Brick Mattress Store and one so poorly laid out that I will not waste 30 seconds trying to figure out who the retailer might be. The Black Friday headers collide into a fever dream collage. The price and item format is necessarily restrictive, but I’m sure each designer was certain their flyer would stand out from the herd. That however becomes Mission: Impossible when the brief likely insisted upon utilizing the same headline and colour scheme as competitors and unrelated businesses.

This is not nationalistic moaning about the encroachment of an American pseudo-consumer holiday. The simple fact is that successful banners and brands do not run with the pack. Years ago I worked for Canada Safeway. I remember sitting in a marketing meeting listening to the consternation around the boardroom table. We’d just opened a new store and had distributed a templated flyer wrap rife with Grand Opening! specials. The rival down the street had anticipated every item featured and had undercut every price. How did they know? Was there a leak? After all, we’d only employed the exact same strategy nine times previously. Eerily, the unsolved mystery recurred again and again. I moved on to my first ad agency job with a very sore forehead.

Saturday, 21 November 2015


Such a Supple Wrist

Luxury is one of those all-in words, meaning comfortable and expensive, and it’s impossible to achieve with just one of the aforesaid components. Most of us can’t afford luxury. Some of us aspire to luxury. A fortunate few revel indolently in luxury. Luxury thrives in both good times and bad times; it piggy-backs on booms and is immune to busts. The Platonic ideal of the machinations of capitalism is a luxury commodity that either must be consumed or will wear out, thereby necessitating replacements. Not one single person requires luxury in any of its many forms.

Sometimes luxury’s forms serve an antiquated function. The 21st century’s population has been penetrated by smartphones. Why would anyone except a fighter pilot or an undersea diver need or even want an archaic wristwatch? Because a chronograph Suisse (hiss it like a snake with a lisp) carries cachet in certain snobby circles, a subtle indicator to others of one’s wealth and taste. Recent print ads by a trio of premium watchmakers have struck me because of their absurd use of celebrity models. Each execution is intended to appeal to the worldly man they believe I dream of being. I mean, name one baby boomer who isn’t absolutely flush with cash to spend on feel good baubles.

The first ad I noticed made me do a double-take. The TAG Heuer creative featured a race car driver apparently adjusting an invisible watchstrap between his glove and the cuff of his fire-proof suit. I looked twice. The masked man was Steve McQueen, deceased since 1980. Apparently the chronograph kept on ticking. Dead celebrities are safer than live ones mainly because the brand doesn’t have to worry about their personal behaviour anymore. There’s virtually no risk in purchasing the discounted rights to a pop culture image from the estate – as tasteless as that may be. Did Steve McQeen even know or care about ‘Swiss avant-garde’ engineering during his lifetime?

Omega product placements have figured prominently in recent James Bond films. The brand’s current half-page ad featuring actor Daniel Craig as 007 wearing an Omega timepiece serves equally well as publicity for the SPECTRE installment to the franchise. It’s a bit like the play-within-the-play or peering down a colonnade of arches filled with mirrors. The subject is watches or current cinema, and both. The tag reads, ‘James Bond’s choice.’ Nothing rings truer than a product endorsement from a fictional assassin.

Breitling has been crafting ‘Instruments for Professionals’ since 1884. The headline of the brand’s full colour, full page ad reads, ‘Welcome to my world,’ all caps. I have never heard this phrase uttered in a positive manner. The inviter is a pasty, doughy John Travolta. The sleeves of his dress shirt are too long and so it’s impossible to know whether or not he’s actually sporting the famous Chronomat 44. And a rational person must ask a fair question: What exactly constitutes John Travolta’s world? Are we talking the cult of sci-fi pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard (‘The big money’s in religion.’)? Of thetans and Xenu, that evil galactic overlord? Maybe in Travolta’s world his film Battlefield Earth was unjustly savaged by critics and those unfortunates who paid to see it.

Three deluxe brands are attempting to sell me the same thing; something I don’t need but should aspire to, a tactile enhancement to my imagined social status and inflated self-esteem. And three deluxe brands trying to sell me something useless the same way, each one utilizing a meat puppet to persuade: one dead, one deadly and the other, dubious. The luxury I possess as a consumer is the ability to say, ‘No.’

Friday, 20 November 2015


Reading This and Signing That

I will officially launch my novel Duke Street Kings on Wednesday, December 2 at Audreys Books in downtown Edmonton. The reading and signing event begins at 7:00 pm.

I’m excited about the venue. Audreys is an institution among Edmonton book lovers. The store itself is located in one of the few heritage buildings left on our main street. It oozes books and charm. A dozen years ago when I launched my first novel Murder Incorporated at Audreys attendance and sales were good enough to boost that book into the Edmonton Journal’s Top Ten list of Alberta bestsellers. Audreys’ complete street address is 10702 Jasper Avenue NW.

It’s possible the prospect of watching me jelly nerve shake live and in person and listening to me stutter and stumble over my own words does not appeal, in which case you can visit my publisher at or call 1-877-284-5181 (in North America) to arrange a copy of Duke Street Kings shipped directly to your front door.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


A Tale of Two Cities

Twenty-five years and 3000 kilometres from my hometown, the Montreal Gazette’s Hockey Inside/Out blog has become my main lifeline to the Montreal Canadiens. This because, thanks to Rogers-NHL television deal, I can no longer access all 82 Habs games on the French-language TSN for a mere additional $2.49 a month tacked on to the cable bill. Happily, my life has transformed enough that I no longer need to sit and watch all 82 regular season Habs games. The team is entertainment when I want it and not an escape because I need it. This personal insight speaks to a mature rebalancing of my life’s priorities. Really.

In the wake of Monday night’s comeback overtime victory over Vancouver, news this morning out of Montreal got even better: Carey Price practiced with the team. When the club announced a ‘lower body injury’ to their all-galaxy goaltender two weeks ago, my first thought as a logical and compassionate fan was, ‘Please, God, not his already wonky knee. Let it be a fresh, new, debilitating and possibly chronic injury.’

Sans Price between the pipes the Canadiens slumped to pretty good after a start hotter than an arsonist’s. The New York Rangers and Dallas Stars have since caught up to them in the overall standings. Still, there’s a firm mattress of playoff points padding for the inevitable Christmas and February doldrums; it’s a long season. Even if nobody in Montreal can quite remember the Stanley Cup parade’s usual route, it’s at least a legitimate topic for discussion there, especially given the city’s rotting infrastructure and the maze of dented, reflective orange RUE BARRE barriers.

In Edmonton this morning I hauled our bag of garbage out to the back alley bin for collection. As is becoming the norm, a dog walking douche in the neighbourhood left me a little gift to re-bag for the trash collector. Mercifully, it was frozen solid; and perhaps a perfect analogy for the state of the pro game on the northern prairie.

The Oilers float like untreated sewage in the NHL’s rank cellar, already 18 insurmountable points behind contenders like the Stars, Rangers and Canadiens. November isn’t over although Edmonton’s season is already. Winters here are harsh, long and dark; when the Oil stinks they provide no distraction to their shivering loyalists.

The chattering masses were excited before the puck dropped for real in October. Connor McDavid, the phenom, the godsend, the next greatest player ever, would wear number 97 even though he was just 18-years-old. Horrid orange retro pre-NHL World Hockey Association third marketing sweaters were actually sort of attractive in a diced carrot vomit, Reebok uniform system type of way. Downtown was being transformed by the construction of the new rink, more office towers and entertainment venues up the yin-yang. It was good, aiming toward really, really good in 2016.

McDavid of course suffered an ‘upper body injury’ 12 games into the new season. He was averaging a point a game, looking like the real deal and giving Oilers fans a reason to live. He’s expected to play again in February. The calendar at least promises longer and brighter days ahead in this winter town.

Monday, 16 November 2015


Scrabble Butt

Ann and I play Scrabble frequently. The game is a ritual in our house. I set up the board on the dining room table. Out come the beer mats. Scamp the tabby curls up in the ceramic bowl, overflowing the rim, to watch, groom and doze. Ann and I take turns selecting the music we’ll listen to during play. For our last match I selected Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Nick Lowe.

Dear me, our last match. I went first. I played VOTER. Ann added an S and played LOAFERS. Boom! All of her seven tiles gone, on a triple at that. I spelled out another word, played my Q early, QUIRE. I was in an early hole but not out of the game by any means. Ann took her second turn, her second fucking turn and played off the V: VELOCITY. Boom! All seven of her tiles used again. Another triple. Well, fuck, I was now looking at a short game and a very long night.

One of the legitimate concerns of modern times, our brave new digital world, is privacy. It’s one thing to have my ass kicked liked a soccer ball around the dining room table in the confines of my own home and anyway, there are some folk who enjoy being spanked and having their raw asses handed to them. Ann of course took up her iPhone and photographed the Scrabble grid thereby ensuring that everybody she knows on the planet immediately knew of her consecutive clever plays and guaranteeing my humiliation beyond the walls of the Crooked 9: shame goes global.

Like any athlete, I knew it was time for a gut check. I slunk into the bathroom to look in the mirror and to summon up that 110-per-cent, no quit, anything can happen attitude. Hail Mary. How many letters is that? Ahh, a phrase including a proper noun, so much for that play. Ultimately, I resignedly opened the medicine cabinet aware there could never be enough ointment and talcum powder to ease the sting and the agony of certain defeat.

Friday, 13 November 2015


Scenes ‘Neath the BF Goodrich Sign

Ann and I had a productive week. The basement workroom was reorganized and cleaned out. The garage was reorganized and cleaned out. Despite the wet mop and the sweeping compound, we kicked up a lot of dust. We took a load of scrap to the ECO Station for recycling: an old heater, iron bars, a stovepipe, an heirloom ottoman one of the cats had pissed on, empty paint tins and an ax with a dangerously loose head. The last chore of the season was to get the winter tires installed on the CRV.

This morning Ann and I turned up at A-1 Tire and Battery about ten minutes before its eight o’clock opening. The CLOSED sign was still up in the window. The lights weren’t on. There were already customers inside. As we entered, one of the customer service reps, the manager and maybe an owner, still sporting a Remembrance Day poppy, allowed loudly into the phone, “Busy, bud. We’re givin’ ‘er.” Another front line fellow whom we know by sight glanced at the job tickets on the wall behind him, studied his computer screen and announced our vehicle would be ready in about an hour as our rims were already on.

So we wandered up a street of low slung pre-war art deco garages and body shops, and then along the CPR right of way toward Whyte Avenue seeking another cup of coffee and breakfast. The A&W was open. Alas, our orange and brown unaddressed direct mail coupons were back in the Honda, tucked into the passenger door map pocket. We decided to live large anyway.

Afterward Ann and I dawdled along Whyte, pausing to peer into the windows of the darkened shops; Sound Connection, an indie record store we like (Found treasure: A sealed mono reissue of the Stones’ Got Live If You Want It EP and a demonstration-only copy of This Time It’s for Real by Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.), wouldn’t open for a couple of hours yet. The sidewalk was empty. Nobody waited at the bus stops.

Upon our return to A-1 we were distressed to see that our CRV had not yet been moved into a bay. I began to worry about the combination of more coffee, A&W food and my wonky digestion. Maybe I should have gone at the A&W? No! A fast food public restroom, no way. Besides, there’s something heroic about gutting out a seething belly in the waiting area of an automotive shop. As it turned out, someone else hanging around A-1 Tire and Battery was having a much more miserable morning than I was; unfortunate for her but a welcome distraction for me and my big ears.

S was a young girl, early 20s I guessed. She wore Ugg boots, Lululemon pants and a university branded hoodie. S alternated chugging coffee and bottled water. She needed a wheel alignment and new tires. Since A-1 was, “busy, bud,” and “givin’ ‘er,” S’s car would not be ready until noon, another three hours away. But S had a dress fitting scheduled at ten and ten blocks away because S is to be married tomorrow. And where had she left her coat? S rubbed her iPhone with the cuff of her sweatshirt; unprompted, Siri offered no answers. One of the A-1 reps gallantly offered S a ride to her dress fitter. No, S would phone her mother. There was still time. S’s Mom was tied up until 11ish with other nuptial details but Grandma was at this moment picking up the wedding cake at a bakery on Whyte Avenue. Perfect! S phoned Grandma to arrange her pick up. Grandma phoned back a few minutes later, yes, she had the cake but her car wouldn’t start and she’d already called the Alberta Motor Association and what was S doing at A-1 Tire and Battery anyway on the day before her wedding? S called her Mom back. No, Mom was unable to help either her daughter or her mother until 11ish.

Finally our CRV was ready, only one hour later than promised. I hoped S’s car would be ready on time and not an hour later than promised. I was anxious to get home but nor did I want to scrunch out clutching my stomach in the middle of the drama. God bless smartphones and folk indiscreet enough to use them in public places. They sure beat old magazines when you’re hanging around a waiting area with nothing but cramps and time. S, here’s hoping tomorrow shakes down a little better for you. At least, you’ll be able to depend on your car.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Hello Again, Mr. Bond

As with the Rolling Stones I’ve no memory of my existence without James Bond somewhere in it. I expect to live out my end of days without the Stones functioning as a working band (though I promise to buy the repackaged and re-mastered scraps to the bitter end). I suspect that Bond will see me out because a fictional character well tended is forever. And anyway, isn’t a silencer screwed on to the end of a pistol barrel in silhouette too cool for words?  Mick and Keith are immortals and tough, but human beings cannot defy the inevitable indefinitely. Agent 007, licensed to kill, is something else altogether.

The catch up question of my scattered family has always been, ‘What are you reading these days?’ I recall a phone call with my father some 20 years ago; my employer had recently relocated me to Calgary from Edmonton and Dad was in Ottawa. I answered his question: ‘From Russia, with Love,’ I said. I felt a bit sheepish as my tastes and my father’s ran more toward John le Carre. ‘It’s a long commute to the office,’ I explained. My father replied, ‘I’ve always got time for a good story.’

Armed with parental permission I read every single word Ian Fleming wrote about James Bond. And then some. I don’t agree with the lives of fictional characters being extended beyond their creators’; something gets lost when a new author takes up the quill. Yet, I’ve read Bond novels written by John Gardner, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver. The grail of the continuations is Colonel Sun by English comic novelist Kingsley Amis (father of Martin) writing as Robert Markham. My life’s sole remaining mission is to stumble upon a used copy somewhere, in a second hand shop or at a rummage sale.

During one of my gigs as an advertising production manager I spent a lot of other people’s money with a particular printer in Toronto. This firm held a contest to promote its new digital on demand services. Second prize was a complete set of Bond films on DVD. I e-mailed my counterpart requesting her to put the fix in. I had no qualms about blatantly demanding graft. After all, the 007 gun logo is along with the Stones’ lolling tongue the most recognizable trademark in pop culture; I was just conducting business.

I have viewed them in sequence three times. My favourite, prior to the 21st century franchise reboot, is From Russia, with Love because it is fairly true to the novel upon which it’s based. The Timothy Dalton movies are dogs, but he is the actor who most resembles Fleming’s descriptions of the MI6 agent. The Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan eras descended from decent into farce. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service starring George Lazenby is overlooked and underrated; it too doesn’t stray too outrageously far from Fleming’s novel. I sold Ann on Casino Royale by telling her that it wasn’t Bond so much as just a really good movie.

Yesterday the fourth Bond film featuring Daniel Craig opened in Edmonton. We had friends over last night; at 55 I was the youngest baby boomer in the room. My sister is visiting from PEI. Stats Guy dropped by as did Netflix Derek. Our mutual excitement over the release of SPECTRE was animated. The universal enthusiasm surprised me somewhat as Bond movies don’t play in art houses and one’s tastes mature over time. Consensus between two people is often elusive enough; all of us agreed to attend a SPECTRE screening en masse, the way we did as kids in the 70s. Of course, given our ages, it’ll have to be a matinee. I think cinemas still have those?

Wednesday, 4 November 2015


Does Not Compute

If yesterday Inc. had announced the launch of a virtual bookstore that played out like a first person shooter game in which browsers’ avatars could wander the aisles, mingle with other users and examine virtually every publication on the shelves, I would not have been surprised. Instead, Amazon opened a traditional bookstore out of left field in Seattle. That surprised me.

If urban sprawl and the proliferation of suburban malls reconfigured our downtown main streets, Amazon reconfigured everything again, our malls and our rebounded, increasingly specialized and eclectic main streets. Whether you’re standing on polished tile or a cement sidewalk, the evidence of e-tail is all around: How much is that FOR LEASE sign in the papered over window? Amazon for some is the epitome of competitive convenience, for others it is a lethal disease. Amazon’s u-turn on its relentlessly efficient business model is akin to the Romans scattering salt over the sacked, razed and smoking site of Carthage, just rubbing it in.

A form of mechanized print existed in the Far East long before Johannes Gutenberg jury-rigged a wine press in 1449 or 50. I know this because a lot of the time I spent in advertising was spent spending clients’ money on paper and ink; I learned very quickly that I’d better fully understand what I was talking about. I grew up being read to at bedtime. My favourite authors are dead but the library keeps growing because there’s so much more to know about so many subjects. I cannot imagine my existence without a couple of books and a few magazines on the go.

I like the weight and feel of a book’s cover and pages as I read it. I like to handle them and examine them before I buy them. While I know a store’s layout is designed to draw me in and lead me around, at least I feel like an individual as I spend my money in my town and not the subject of an algorithmic crawl: YOU MAY ALSO LIKE… OTHER PEOPLE WHO HAVE PURCHASED… Fuck off and thank you for your valued input; I can create my own consumer tangents, thank you very much. Online shopping is like filling out a form, it’s just no fun. (Whereas impaired online shopping can be fun but catastrophic.)

Perhaps the Amazon brains trust in Seattle has glommed onto the fact that virtual shopping is incapable of providing the sensory experience of actual shopping. And perhaps it’s fitting that Amazon’s business model u-turn experiment is in sense a circle, the site went live selling books. The overarching trend in modern business that I’ve picked up on is that successful, established firms are prone to stray disastrously from their core expertise, their very foundation. Not Kodak stubbornly sticking by 35 mm analogue dreams so much as McDonald’s pitching salads and lattes. And so there’s a niggling sense with Amazon that once the original corporate leadership transitions out of the corner office somebody newly senior will ponder the launch of the Amazon bookstore and decide that appliance shops and clothing stores are obvious next steps.

Monday, 2 November 2015


There’s Something About a Sunday in November

Ann took an hour off all of the clocks sometime during Saturday night while embarked upon one of her midnight rambles. We sleep together but we never seem to bump into each other as we each stalk the halls of the house in the wee wee hours. There are always telltale signs of the other: a sodden cigarette butt (hastily inhaled outside on the back steps) in the kitchen trash bin, a rinsed bowl and spoon by the sink or an Economist left open on the counter.

Yesterday was Sunday, the 1st of November. We could smell the rain lurking beyond the low iron sky. We didn’t need an app for the evening’s forecast. Sundays have always been miserable days. Growing up they meant the boredom of the Catholic mass and then school the next day. Aging brought hangovers and the dreaded prospect of the night shift or Monday morning. As much as I love the song, Aaron Neville’s funky “Struttin’ On Sunday” was never my bag.

November of course is the most wretched month. The shortening days grow steadily colder. Everything dies by degrees if it isn’t dead already. The only holiday is the mournful solemnity of Remembrance Day. This year will mark the first anniversary of life without my father, an RCAF veteran who passed away with dignity last November 11th aged 90. Mix Sundays with Novembers in a northern town and you have the main ingredients for meGeoff’s recipe for the blues.

Because of all this and the serendipity of timing, we were well pleased to attend legendary comedian Billy Connolly’s Edmonton show last night. I had never attended a stand up performance before, always having believed that belly laughs shared around a table with relatives and friends were not only as hearty, but free. I’ve always admired Connolly as an actor and the routines of his I’ve heard are comedy classics. I’ve read Billy, the biography written by his wife and Monty Python alumna Pamela Stephenson. To me, Connolly is the best comic there ever was.

Last night he spoke without a break for two hours. A Billy Connolly story is impossible to repeat. There are tangents and asides, jokes within the joke, set ups for jokes to be told five minutes’ hence and references back to jokes told five minutes beforehand. He bobs and weaves, a verbose boxer. Sometimes he interrupts himself, bending, overcome by fits of giggling glee. Nobody can swear like a Scot and Connolly has elevated cursing to poetry during his long career. He does not abide those who are easily offended.

After the show Ann and I went out into the darkness and the snow-flecked rain. As we tried to make our way through and around the University of Alberta’s massive Health Sciences campus we chuckled about cigarettes, disease, the elderly and decrepit, dead people and cats dispatched with hammers. Pinch, pinch, punch, punch, a fuckin’ fine ending to the first Sunday of this month.