We depart the Canadian prairie for Barbados
tonight. A lovely Caribbean holiday awaits us.
The trouble is we have to get from A to B, or in our case, from YEG to BGI with
a layover in YYZ. Beyond the usual hassles and hell of added fees, security and
other people, there is a low voltage undercurrent of fear: Here be dragons.
Deep down every traveller knows they’re one mechanical glitch, one clever
hijacker, one suicidal pilot, one surface-to-air missile away from oblivion.
And that oxymoronic panel in the safety brochure about LANDING ON WATER? It’s
just a Neil Young album; anyone who’s ever belly-flopped off a diving board
knows that water hits back like concrete. Needless to say, the photographs in
this morning’s Globe and Mail of Air
Canada Flight 624’s wreckage Sunday a hair or two short of a runway at Halifax’s Stanfield
were a little disconcerting. My first thought was: Wow! No fatalities! A
miracle! My second thought was a little more in character: That better not have
been the Airbus 320 scheduled to take
us to Bridgetown
A picture really is worth a thousand words.
No offense intended to Donato, Aislin, the Edmonton
Journal’s Malcolm Mayes and that witty fellow at the National Post who may or may not be able to draw, but the Globe and Mail’s editorial cartoonist
Brian Gable is the country’s best. Ever. Wednesday’s panel, published one day
before the Government of Alberta’s ‘We’re busted but it’s not our fault’ budget
was further proof.
Gable’s scene was an oater cliché. The perspective
situates the viewer in a saloon called Alberta
at the moment a stranger enters. To the right side of the swing doors a pink
menu lists the day’s specials: caviar, champagne, Italian truffles and lobster
bisque. Outside there is a vague suggestion of the Rockies.
The sky is purple and filled with silver rain and yellow lightening bolts. The
wayfaring stranger, clad in black from hat to duster to gloves to pants and
boots, stands in a puddle on the plank floor poised and ready to draw. He is
labeled AUSTERITY. It’s impossible not to be reminded of a drunk, savage and
avenging Unforgiven Clint Eastwood
striding into Big Whiskey’s lone boozer with murder on his mind.
Alberta is peculiar; a parliamentary
democracy that habitually gravitates to sustained one party rule, and always
has since its entry into Confederation: Alberta Liberal Party, 1905-1921;
United Farmers of Alberta, 1921-1935; Social Credit Party of Alberta,
1935-1971; Alberta Progressive Conservatives, 1971-present. The message to
those who thirst for power in these parts is seductive: if you win a majority
in the legislature there will be many, many days of wine and wild roses ahead.
Let’s pause and consider human nature and
the dilemma of success. The goal of any advocacy group or political lobby with
a single ounce of integrity is to cease to exist. Job’s done, goodbye and
thanks for your time. We know that never happens. The job of a political party
is a little different. The goal is to achieve power and maintain it. So what
happens when the best interests of a party conflict with the best interests of
the people who elected it into power?
Alberta is a funny place. Forty years of Tory rule has locked the province
into the boom and bust fortunes of Big Oil. When the petro-economy’s humming
like a dynamo Alberta
feels the strain on her entire infrastructure. More people require more
services, more schools, better transit, widened roads. When the price of oil
tanks like Edmonton’s
hockey team and government revenues crater the good times initiatives are
either cut or scaled back. The cyclical lurching means that ultimately nothing
is ever accomplished with any high degree of efficiency. Albertans are funny;
we’ve tolerated four decades of Progressive Conservative fiscal hijinks since
the exploitation of the tar sands. One premier shredded the public sector and
then mailed every voter a cheque for $400.
The ‘transformative’ budget tabled Thursday
in the legislature came complete with a staggering $5-billion deficit; blame
OPEC and US
President Obama’s hedging on the Keystone XL pipeline. The sitting premier of
the province allowed that his ‘transformative’ austerity budget was the first
step in weaning citizens off the teat of the energy industry, the driver of Alberta’s undiversified
economy. The time had come for Albertans to look in the mirror and reflect upon
a litany of poor decisions. And so citizens will be subjected to some 60 new or
enhanced nickel and dime taxes including increased premiums on the usual
suspects: gasoline, tobacco and alcohol. Healthcare premiums cancelled by a
previous administration have been reintroduced. Ageing boomers will have to
negotiate deeper cuts to an already overburdened healthcare system.
Under-funded universities will grant degrees to paying morons. The future looks
When you’ve put all of your eggs in one
basket, bet everything on black gold, what do you do when your main avenue of
revenue generation becomes a blind alley? Well, jeez, the energy industry
puppet masters who manipulate the Tories have already laid off thousands of
contractors, things are tough all over, so why raise the lowest corporate tax
rate in Canada
by a point or two? What about aligning Alberta
with every other province and territory in the country by imposing a modest
provincial sales tax on goods and services? Well, jeez, there might be an
election this spring or next year and voters would recoil at the taste of
strong medicine despite its long term benefit.
Just four political parties have governed Alberta during her 110 years
as a Canadian province. History here shows us that once the incumbent gang
loses an election, its members and banner vanish like cigarette smoke in
night and fog. The brain trust of the ruling Tories is wise to be wary of
potential doom. So the future and fate being tinkered with in the capital is
that of the party’s and not the people. Alas, Alberta is the only place in
Canada where the two are one and it must follow that what is good for the
We were downtown yesterday. Our primary
destination was the Art Gallery of Alberta and its new exhibit entitled Pop
Show! Pop art was a product of post-war prosperity and mass production.
Influenced in part by advertising it lingers with us today as a now un-ironic
affectation of contemporary graphic design. There’s a world of difference
between a green Richard Nixon and a blue Barack Obama.
The collection on display was not overly
extensive and given the zest of the genre, did not overwhelm. Of particular
interest to Edmontonians was a series of silk screened portraits of Wayne
Gretzky by Andy Warhol. The former Oilers star seems impossibly young and his
80s mullet is unfortunate. Warhol, who famously put lipstick on Elvis and
Chairman Mao, rendered number 99 as an alarming hybrid of rock star and prom queen.
Gretzky would appear much more attractive to me had he spent his career in a Montreal uniform.
It was a fine sunny day in the city so we
decided to wander over to the grand Hotel Macdonald which is celebrating its
100th anniversary. I always enjoy a beer under the massive Fathers
of Confederation portrait that hangs in the lounge off the main lobby. Cheers,
Sir John. A ragged gaggle of hockey fans had gathered outside, maintaining a
respectful distance from the main entry. The Colorado Avalanche were in town to
play the Oilers who have improved from abysmal to merely dismal.
If you absolutely must use a public toilet,
you can’t go wrong with the facilities in a five-star hotel. Between beers, I
paused in the lobby to admire a gigantic scale model of the Mac constructed
with Lego, some 100,000 pieces and 700 hours’ work according to the Edmonton Journal. I heard someone
calling to a friend or colleague in French. I turned and nearly bumped into Avs
coach Patrick Roy who was striding through the lobby in sweat sodden workout
garb. I did a double take. We made eye contact. My jaw dropped. I lost my
voice. I recovered my dignity and headed for the men’s room. Alone in the stall
I convinced myself that in our brief moment of one-sided recognition he knew
that I saw him not as an NHL coach but as Saint Patrick.
The Canadiens’ last two Stanley Cups, 1986
and 1993, were stolen trophies. These two editions of the club were not the
steamrolling flashy machines of the 70s dynasty. They were instead anchored at
the goal line by an insanely talented, confident and cocky butterflying magician,
Patrick Roy, a man who winked at Gretzky’s L.A. Kings during the ‘93 final: You cannot beat me.
The tragedy for Montreal
fans is that Roy
spent just 12 seasons of his stellar 20-year career as a Hab. He wanted out
after a very public dispute with then coach Mario Tremblay. This was an alpha
dog fight of two egos at the old Forum. Only one possessed the actual skills
required for such a self-reverential attitude. While the Canadiens have since
33 sweater, Tremblay was always just another number as a player. It’s worth
noting now too that Tremblay is currently embroiled in the courts over charges
of allegedly speeding while driving drunk - mainly because the little man played
the ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ card with the arresting officer. Schadenfreude
The martyrdom of Saint Patrick must
necessarily bring us to the Internet hockey meme of Jesus Price. Everybody
knows the Canadiens aren’t really as good as they have been this winter.
There’s voodoo between the goalposts. Goaltender Carey Price seems to be
slumming in the modern day NHL, sent down from some celestial loop where Gordie
Howe, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Mario Lemieux and Gretzky are still performing at
the all-star height of their unique and various games. Price is poised to tie
or surpass regular season franchise records for wins and shutouts. He is
chasing Hab Hockey Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup winners Jacques Plante and
The established Canadian media, confused mixed
and merged viper pit that it is, expends column inches and minutes of video
time wondering whither a Stanley Cup for one of the league’s seven Canadian
squads. It’s all chaff; the only team that matters is Montreal. Yesterday I gawked at a retired
saint. This year we’ve Jesus in the crease. Please, God. Please, Carey, you’re
begotten of a pseudo-biblical line of heroes and now’s the time for you to take
your place in the bleu, blanc et rouge pantheon. Please, God. Please, Carey,
this can be our time.
Advertising when pared to its core is a
simple proposition. In exchange for your attention, you will be provided with
information. Even a kid who operates a sidewalk refreshment table gets it. The
sign reads: lemonade (item), 25-cents (price). That’s everything a neighbour
with a bit of spare change needs to know.
Alberta is Canada’s
largest prairie province. Its borders contain almost a quarter million square
miles of land. When the Alberta edition of the
Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, drops
six mornings a week it has to cover a lot of turf.
On Saturday, March 21 I was struck by a
golf ball. Actually, it was a massive picture of a golf ball that took up half
of the real estate available in a full page colour ad. The bracketed headline
read: BECAUSE WHEN IT COMES TO GOOD LIVING ARTESIA IS THE PERFECT PRESCRIPTION.
A smaller graphic icon near the top of the ad exhorted me to: LIVE OPEN WITH
ARTESIA. This icon was the hub for a series of spoked instructions to: LIVE
OPEN WITH CONFIDENCE and LIVE OPEN WITH PROMISE. I noticed other smaller
pictures: a butterfly, wildflowers, trees.
What, I wondered, is Artesia? A drug? A
golf course? An obscure Prussian duchy where Biggles, Algy and Ginger once
outwitted the devilish Hun? The body copy began: 5 MINUTES FROM YOUR FIRST
PATIENT, 5 MINUTES FROM THE 1ST TEE BOX. This polished nugget of claptrap
made things even more confusing. The next sentence read: Located just minutes from the South Health Campus, Artesia puts you in
the heart of everything that matters to you, including luxurious living.
Ah, assisted living for semi-retired
medical doctors, perhaps? How many can there be? But where, oh where, is the
heart of everything that matters to me? And where is the South Health Campus?
The logo on the giant golf ball read: ARTESIA AT HERITAGE POINTE. Heritage
Pointe, complete with the twee ‘e.’ I was pretty sure the amenities at Heritage
Pointe included shoppes and maybe even Ye Olde Pub, but where was Heritage Pointe
when it was at home? Alberta
is a big place and there are four major cities in this province. The pace of development in these urban centres is such that even long time locals would be hard-pressed to name all of the new communities which have sprung up on the outskirts of each.
The ad went on to list the viewing hours of
Artesia’s stunning show homes. Yet not a hint as to location, location,
location. Oh, wait! Down there, way down there at the bottom: LIVEATARTESIA.COM.
The web site read: A PLACE TO DROP YOUR SHOULDERS AND BREATHE. Virtual Artesia
was becoming more mystical even as it promoted poor posture. It got better: WELCOME TO A PLACE WHERE BEING GREEN
WASN’T AN AFTERTHOUGHT, IT WAS OUR FIRST THOUGHT. Aw, it’s not easy being green,
everybody knows that, so that sentiment climate changed the cockles of my heart. LIVE OPEN
WITH TRUST. Om, yes. But where!?
This place Artesia, this luxurious utopia, this
paradise for guileless, golfing, tree-hugging doctors, this Arcadia, this
Avalon, is apparently somewhere in Alberta. High-end Villas from the low $800,000's.
There is a road in Edmonton called Groat. It snakes through a
deep ravine down to the north bank of the North
Saskatchewan River. If you like to drive and if you’ve got the
type of car that tells others you like to drive, Groat’s insanely twisting
turns are really fun to drive. It’s a major artery to a crossing in a city
riven by a river. Groat Road also courses beneath the 102nd Avenue Bridge, a crucial
east-west span that traverses the gaping ravine and moves heavy traffic in and
out of downtown.
It’s a charming quirk of urban geography
that Groat Road
and 102nd Avenue
don’t actually intersect because of the variance in their respective heights,
but what went up and over must eventually be replaced. The bridge was closed
July 1, 2014. The $32-million upgrade was scheduled to be completed 15 months
hence, this fall. Businesses located at either end of the bridge have seen
patronage, wait for it, drop off.
Thirty-two million bucks is an abstract
number to most of us. If you read the sports section, you think, Ah, maybe a
five-year deal for a decent professional hockey player. Most Canadians live in
densely populated urban areas. Trouble is, unlike their more voracious federal
and provincial counterparts, municipal governments are limited in their ability
to raise funds through taxation and other methods. The buck stops at city hall
and the mayor is obligated to provide each one of us with our interpretations
of essential services which we perceive as rights and not privileges.
Alberta is treed with signs touting the Harper government’s Economic Action
Plan and the decrepit Government of Alberta’s own benevolent infrastructure
initiatives. If Edmonton
were to follow the same propaganda route, the City would have to hire a
calligrapher with his own black Marks-A-Lot. So a lengthy, albeit necessary,
$32-million project guaranteed to piss off commuters and business owners is an
expensive undertaking on many levels.
Since most of us live in the real world, most
of us understand that nothing ever goes quite as planned. Sometimes things go drastically,
disastrously wrong. Groat Road was closed last weekend because of work from
above. The bones of the new 102nd
Avenue Bridge were to be installed. Seven steel girders,
each measuring 41 metres in length and weighing 40 tonnes apiece were to be
braced into place across the ravine. The process stalled and then ceased for
safety’s sake in the wake of 70 kph winds. Sometime early Monday morning four
of the monstrous manufactured beasts buckled like wet cardboard.
How does structural steel become al dente spaghetti?
Apparently there was a domino effect. Officials are saying that last weekend’s
closure of Groat Road
must now extend into mid-April at the very least and perhaps for another 11
months after that. There are questions about the integrity of the manufactured
metal and possible flaws in the new bridge’s design. Was the girders’ installation
inadvertently botched due to adverse weather conditions? Can the warped girders
be repaired? Nobody knows now. And nobody knows the eventual tally of a civic construction
schedule and budget blown all to hell. We do know that the 102nd
Street Bridge must eventually open and that Edmontonians will cross it once
they’re able to get to it.
I scrolled through a digital trove of
family photographs Sunday morning. I came across a snapshot of my nana, my dad,
my brother and me taken in Montreal
maybe 20 years ago. Dad had made the two-hour somnambulant drive from Ottawa. My big brother
had flown in from Edmonton and I’d arrived from Calgary. We’re seated
together on a couch with rolling, scrolling Rococo arms, flourished brocade
upholstery. We grin great grins, delighted and happy. Nana had just turned 100.
Her failing eyesight annoyed her because reading, knitting, hands of bridge and
crossword puzzles had become sources of frustration rather than pleasure, but
overall she was in fine form compared to the other ‘cabbages’ (her noun) in the
quaint and dignified Anglican ladies’ residence.
Looking back at the four of us I realize
that I did not appreciate such a momentous moment in time; I’m the sole
survivor. Because I believe a lot of what I have learned about life was taught
by the power of song, I sometimes think of living as a mash-up of Willie Nelson
and Pink Floyd: Nothing but blue skies, and pain.
Now is the time of blue skies. Above the
treetops there are honking traffic jams of returning Canada geese. The digital clocks in
house have sprung ahead. Later on this week we’ll welcome the first day of
spring. Ann and I have been discussing last year’s robins. Will they return to
rebuild a nest in that sheltered spot under the eaves where the high tension
wires strung from a pole in the alley connect to the house? It’s prime avian
real estate except for the neighbours, a plethora of predators including our
two cats, crows, magpies and blue jays.
We invited friends for dinner Saturday
evening. I barbecued a mixed grill of ribs and sausage. Though the ice on the
backyard patio was still three inches thick in places, it was lifting, its bond
to the concrete breaking down. At this latitude, anything north of freezing on
Ann’s iPhone weather app is positively tropical. We actually sat out for a while
as the sun set. Footing was tricky but that might have been due to the
The front of the property thrives in the
higher, hotter afternoon sun. Half of the lawn is already exposed and
struggling mightily to turn green. The melt pattern of snow intrigues me. It
always begins at the base of the birch tree and then recedes in a neat,
unbroken circle from there like the ripples created by a pebble dropped in a
puddle of water. Ann says the roots of all plants contain residual heat which
speed and orchestrate the visual vestige of another winter’s end.
Sure enough, portions of the street facing
flowerbeds were dry enough to be combed free of leaves and other debris. I
spent some of Sunday afternoon raking them with gloved fingers, revealing pale green
tulip shoots. I’d spent the morning communing with the dead, now I’d uncovered
life. I knelt there under the sun; my knees and back hurt but I felt good.
The latest Bob Dylan album, released about
a month ago, is getting heavy airplay here in the house. We have tickets for
the Who show in town scheduled for October. There are rumours of a Rolling Stones
North American summer tour. What year is it!? I know, I know, they’ve sped up
and begun bumping into each other. Time folded back on itself and then paused
to survey the knotty damage.
All right, my old friend, you dad rocker
you, let’s stop wheezing for a second and contemplate another time, the 14
years between 1966 and 1980. Spark a doobie, crack a beer and now take a moment
to muse upon the rock canon of epic, brilliant double-LP studio albums we
purchased between the releases of Blonde
on Blonde and The Wall. Jesus, if
you were to build a music library from scratch, you could do worse than seeding
the storage shelf with Dylan, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who,
Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, Genesis and Elton John.
Sorry? Just a glass of white now and then?
Sucks to be you, most of my meds don’t come from doctors. Anyway, remember
1975? Led Zeppelin was arguably the biggest band in the world. That year they
dropped Physical Graffiti, four
monumental sides of the mighty, mighty Zep at the apex of their astonishing
creative powers. The album didn’t plod like some of their earlier releases and
Robert Plant didn’t screech as if a black dog had Plant’s golden god balls in
its jaws. ‘Night Flight’ still sends me even though my tastes in music have
lightened up somewhat through the decades. And ‘Kashmir,’
whoa, nine minutes that flew by like three. Even the die cut cover art was
borderline genius, especially when you slid the inner sleeves up and down – all
kinds of things went on in the windows.
I am now old enough to qualify for the
seniors’ discount at IHOP. I can now buy other goods and services at a slightly
reduced rate. I suspect the same goes for you. This means we probably spend
more time at drugstores than with drug dealers. Chain pharmacies have a
peculiar smell, sort of a mingling of cosmetics and disease. But when you’ve
got to go, you’ve got to go. You get that, right?
These days everybody tries to sell you
everything in the name of convenience. What I mean is that major retailers are
trying to be all things to all people; they’re all inflicted with Amazonitis.
The gas station will sell you milk and Teen Burgers. Wal-Mart will sell you Big
Macs and eyeglasses. The grocer has its own line of cheap chic fashion, a bank
and a pharmacy. The drugstore has a wellness aisle featuring Oreos, Doritos and
Thursday morning I was idly flipping
through the London Drugs circular because where else would you begin looking
for a digital camera (I’m developing an interest in photography) at a decent
price? I was struck by a bargain: the 40th anniversary edition of Physical Graffiti, re-re-remastered by
guitarist Jimmy Page – whatever happened to his Satanic wizard suit - was an
advertised special right there along with the Epsom printers, vitamins and
patent medicines. I had two questions. Does London Drugs employ lunatics as
buyers? Can I get a job there?
We were about the same age in 1975 me and
you. I was 15. That was forty years ago. We don’t hang around like we used to;
frankly, there aren’t that many record stores left to haunt. Don’t laugh, but
it occurs to me that last year I bought the new Springsteen and Pink Floyd CDs
at London Drugs. It’s not like I haunt the drugstore, but I guess we’re just at
that age now… I’m with you, man, I don’t know what happened either. You can’t
go back. Still, on some level, I guess it makes sense in some weird way that we
can re-buy Physical Graffiti at
You know what? If we ever end up in an old
folks’ home with each other for company, we’re going to play it loud, pop the
drywall screws in our time of dying. Figure most of the other inmates will be
deaf and demented anyway. I see them in the drugstore.
We’ve been steppin’ out. The proof proved
positive a few Sundays ago when I realized we’d seen three of the best picture
Oscar nominees. In cinemas, no less! American
Sniper was not one of them because a war movie without Nazis is like, I
don’t know, a Mick Jagger solo album versus pretty much anything in the Stones
catalogue – something’s missing.
Home entertainment technology has come a
long way since Sony’s invention of Betamax videocassette recorders. Home
theatre is no longer a spare room foible of the wealthy. Audio and picture
quality are stunning. The lag from theatrical release to secondary media has
become increasingly compressed. Inexpensive DVDs and digital rentals have been
a godsend for film buffs and fan boys who are now equipped with the tools to
deconstruct and examine scenes at their leisure. The rest of us can depress the
PAUSE button before rustling in the kitchen for more snacks.
All of this wonderful sensory advancement
is grounding us inside of our apartments and houses. Part of what makes film so
magical is sharing manipulated emotions with a group of strangers in the dark.
The historically inaccurate Eureka! moment in The Imitation Game becomes a shared, universal truth. The
bittersweet and dreamy ending of Birdman
is that much more poignant experienced tucked into a row of seats amongst a
rapt crowd. Not everybody got the gag of Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking as a
Dalek in The Theory of Everything,
but pop culture savvy audience members’ laughter helped lift their ignorant
brethren’s appreciation of a transcendent, comic moment.
family grew up on black and white television, rabbit ears. Movies in
Technicolor were a real treat. In those days a hit would play for weeks or months
which, in retrospect, must have been a special kind of hell for the
projectionist. I don’t remember being brought to any Dean Jones Disney movies
or seeing any long form fairy tale cartoons. I saw Doctor Doolittle with Rex Harrison and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Dick Van Dyke and discovered decades
later that the story was by 007 author Ian Fleming. The Sound of Music was an endurance test but at least it had Nazis.
My father chose our movie outings well.
Together we saw The Battle of Britain,
Young Winston and Lawrence of Arabia. Epics! My big
brother took me to see Brian’s Song
and to this day I still keep an eye on the Chicago Bears during an NFL season.
My older sister took me to see the original Planet
of the Apes at the Van Horne. This was massive. All the boys at school
collected the cards. One was particularly valued. It showed human captives in a
cage. A couple of the kids swore you could see tit if you looked hard enough.
My favourite film-going companion growing
up was my Auntie Mag. Family lore has it that this free spirit was this close to entering a convent and
taking her vows. Instead, this musician and painter became a Creative Director
at J. Walter Thompson. If you’ve seen even just one episode of Mad Men you understand the type of environment
she toiled in. I cannot call her a mentor but she certainly influenced the
direction of my life. Auntie Mag gently nudged me toward a career in
advertising. She voiced mild criticisms about my novel once it was published,
but overall she was pleased I’d done it.
She used to pay me a dime if I let her
clean and trim my fingernails. She made omelets or open-faced sandwiches for
lunch, very sophisticated, very Continental. She kept cranberry juice in her
refrigerator. Cranberry juice! Oh the
places we went, art galleries and museums downtown, strange and exotic
delicatessens and restaurants that served food unlike anything her sister, my
mother, overcooked or burned.
I thought her ancient and so it made no
sense to me that Auntie Mag loved the Beatles. She took me to see Yellow Submarine. Its groovy graphic
style struck her as brilliant and afterward she explained to me how animation
works and why it can be such a charming art form. She introduced me to the
madcap genius of British comedian Terry-Thomas in La Grande Vadrouille. That was a strange film, subtitles and Nazis.
In 1970, when I was 10, Auntie Mag took me to see Little Big Man which was rated 14 YRS AND OVER. She blandly fibbed
through the speaking grille of the York Theatre box office: she was my mother
and I was small for my age. My God, the western we watched together was nothing
like John Wayne or Gunsmoke.
The Brutalist nature of multiplexes in
malls makes it easy to stay home. In my memory, the cinemas I was taken to and
sat in were dedicated art deco buildings with just one screen. There was always
a balcony. The orchestra pits, ornate gilt flourishes and grand velvet curtains
suggested a life before Hollywood’s
studio system; these houses of the holy had once been vaudeville venues. These
are the types of places we are drawn to: it’s not so much What’s at the Princess or the Garneau? as Let’s go to the Princess or the Garneau - just to watch a movie,
any movie, in a house like the Princess or the Garneau.
Our film fallback is the corporate screens atop
Edmonton City Centre. There are nine doors to nine screens in a massive, stark
space. The chill disappears quickly. We’ve got tickets for one; who cares
what’s playing in the other eight. Even in a grey place like this, isn’t it
still magical to go downtown and take in a show?
Some days you win. I was gleeful when the
hysterical and inane Sun News Network cut to dead air after vain pleas to the
archaic Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) for common carriage in
the increasingly complicated digital universe. Canadians showed no appetite for
our own trite version of Fox News. Like its sister chain of tabloid newspapers,
it set the lowest common denominator bar so low that a garden slug could have
slimed it. Social conservatives thought that was just the bee’s knees.
Most days you lose. Within our borders,
2015 is designated as a federal election year. Across the nation voters meet in
pubs for Despair Hour. There’s the secretive and paranoid incumbent regime
along with a couple of other lame and painfully inexperienced prime ministerial
contenders. Some riding will elect somebody who figures creationism is legit
science; we know that much. And for the most part, the distracting hockey on
the surrounding flat screens isn’t any good. This country has crashed headlong
into its What’s happened to us!?
Canada’s seventh prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1896-1911), famously
declared that the 20th century would belong to Canada. History
intervened, world wars and whatnot, but we made out well enough. Number 22,
Stephen Harper (2006 – present), envisions Canada as a 21st century
energy superpower, a global force to be reckoned with. The Bond villain scheme
is temporarily on hold; commodity prices can be alarmingly elastic. The current
edition of Rolling Stone (issue 1230,
Madonna cover) contains a glib expose of Harper’s failed ambition.
The threat or promise of peak oil,
depending upon your politics, seems paradoxically far-fetched. The Keystone XL
pipeline has become a symbol of the fossil fuel debate. It’s really just one
more tube in an already extensive and ageing continental network. Might it be
nice to have a new one in the short term as everything tends to wear out over
time? One side describes the heavy crude as ‘ethical oil’ for our neighbour and
closest ally. The other side cites tar sands and posits a manufactured
environmental disaster. The stuff’s going to move one way or another, so let’s
hope the Grateful Dead’s Casey Jones isn’t driving that train.
President Obama’s recent veto of Keystone
XL is meaningless, a lame duck legacy signature. What has stymied the Harper
government is OPEC’s (specifically Saudi Arabia’s)
decision to keep the taps turned on, driving down the price per barrel and
making would-be competitive oil providers in North America
inefficient. This could all turn on a dime of course as an unstable Middle East historically gooses the price of oil, and
things over there are particularly messy right now. But for now, with global
energy domination no longer an effective re-election platform plank, Ottawa’s ruling Tories
have turned to the politics of fear.
When the writ is dropped later this year,
the discourse on the stump will be public safety. Shockingly, the vast majority
of Canadians are not in favour of crime or terrorism. The majority party in
Parliament through previous and proposed legislation has created the illusion
is a seething sewer rife with Twitter bullies, serial killers and terrorists.
Tough on crime and tough on terror are easy aces to play face up on the green
felt. It’s important to note that the Harper government actively moves to limit
debate on its legislation and tends to ram through omnibus bills, essentially
putting apples and oranges in the same bushel basket. The Tories have been so
hasty that they’ve even sent the wrong draft of a bill to the upper house of
sober second thought for rubber stamping. Amazingly, the dozy appointed
senators caught the error. There’s a pervading sense coast to coast to coast
that Bill C-51, the government’s impending anti-terrorism legislation was
written by 1000 monkeys pecking away at 1000 typewriters.
Fortunately, in a country as blessed as Canada, the
state’s watchmen would never abuse their invasive powers even if the law
they’re to abide has more loopholes than a poorly knitted sweater. Frankly,
so-called terrorists in this country are no threat to the state. In another
time they would have been lonely losers absorbed into the Moonies or earning
their keep hanging around airports, dressed in orange and forcing flowers on
Violent crime in Canada has receded to a 40-year
ebb. Our federal prisons overflow with inmates due to Tory mandatory minimum
sentencing. What’s to be tabled next on the Hill? Life sentences without
abolished capital punishment in 1976 and you wonder how fond the Harper
government is of the good old days, God save the King. Crown prosecutors always
got it right back then, didn’t they?
It’s easy enough to piss off the editors of
Rolling Stone. Recently Canada Canada! has earned the condemnation of both
the United Nations and Amnesty International. Since 1980 more than 1000
aboriginal women have been murdered in this country. Nobody knows how many more
are missing. Aboriginal people constitute a little more than four-per-cent of
our population of 34-million souls and change. This appalling statistic shames
Crisis? What national crisis? Prime Minister
Harper is on record describing this extremely narrow and insanely inflated
swath of violent death as a mere police matter. Anything outside of his
admitted expertise in economics seems to be beyond his scope as a human being.
So we are left with a federal government that will perpetuate and leverage fear
as an electoral weapon but will do nothing to alleviate it for those truly at
risk and genuinely living in its grip. Who will be unafraid to speak for the
dead and the missing during the upcoming campaign and again on election day?
Once you reach a certain age you learn that your
ass isn’t as reliable as it was once upon a time. After you get your own head
out of it, you can never be sure what it may choose to expel next. Long haul
flights create the perfect churning vortex of ghastly gut balloons: there is
the stress of travel itself, of being at the mercy of inept airlines; there is
the confined space pumped with engineered air maintaining artificial
atmospheric pressure; carbonated beverages effervesce in your swollen
basketball belly; maggots gag on the grotesque grub; and then the seething
discomfort of nicotine withdrawal. You dance in your seat, tangoing from cheek
to cheek. You watch a movie and then congratulate yourself for not having paid
to see it in a proper venue. You read a few chapters of a book. You flip
through a magazine. You work on a crossword puzzle. You look out the window and
hope the outside isn’t upside down. You try to doze but before doing so you
warn yourself not to drool or snore. Eventually you give in and stand up to
walk that lonely mile to the back of the aircraft. You make sure the drinks
trolley is safely stowed. Everybody else knows where you’re headed. You hope
there isn’t a lengthy line and there’s nary a thought about joining the Mile
High Club. No, was the person using the john before you an ill-bred, spattering
pig? What about your own rancid smell upon departure? The pores on your
forehead have opened to the circumferences of golf ball dimples. You feel
bloated and doughy, pale with irrational rage. That squalling child in row 17, you’d
rip its throat out in exchange for a cigarette. Precious little bag of puke,
your grandmother hates you. Maybe three quick puffs in the toilet? Who would
know? What could possibly go wrong?
A man I’ve known since I can’t remember
when, Tim, has never seen a Star Wars
movie. He’s never squirmed through teddy bears with spears nor pop-eyed Rasta
asses. I believe he’s walked out on the evil franchise’s trailers, preferring
to power smoke outside under the theatre’s marquee, whatever the weather. We
grew up together in an era of hash, Alice Cooper and George Carlin. Our
generation was (thankfully) never conscripted to serve our country. Living a
life without having seen even a minute of George Lucas’s space opera
constitutes a rare and valued badge of honour. But Tim has shelled out cash
money to watch the crew of the starship Enterprise
in action - provided the original cast was on the bridge.
The derring-do exploits of William Shatner’s
Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock initially ended in 1969 when NBC
pulled the plug on the original Star Trek
television series. But we’re talking science fiction here, so the galactic Odd Couple were reincarnated in syndication
and Saturday morning cartoons before boldly going into a series of Paramount
films – a few of which were pretty good. The only comparable fictional duo of
mismatched, adventuresome best friends and equals is Jack Aubrey and Stephen
Maturin, the Napoleonic era heroes of Patrick O’Brian’s delightful 20-volume
Royal Navy roman fleuve.
A few months ago, Ann and I settled at a
table in the Empress Alehouse for a pint. Across the street, and you can see it
from the Empress’s window, is a comic book and game store called Warp One.
Inside the pub was a guy wearing a t-shirt that read: HAN SHOT FIRST. I
recognized the Star Wars font and I
laughed. I realized too that Trekkies constitute a marginally slighter sad sack
of fandom. While the look of Klingons and Romulins has evolved through various
TV series and films, at least Star Trek
footage has not been subjected to excessive and obsessive CGI tinkering and
Trek was always grounded, a little more immediate
than a puerile galaxy far, far away. NCC-1701 slipped the surly bonds of Earth
in service to a futuristic United Nations. There was a connection to our Milky
Way and a connection to us still down here, locked in our time, seated together
in the cinemas of our primitive and paranoid culture. The best film of the
franchise, not coincidently, was The
Voyage Home. Leonard Nimoy wrote the story and directed the movie in which
he deadpanned a recently undead Spock as a little soft in the head. This flick
had everything: time travel, action, drama, romance, wit, wry social commentary
and an environmental message deftly delivered years ahead of our current and
continually unfolding crisis.
The two recent and enjoyable theatrical reboots
of the first series have explored the genesis of Kirk’s and Spock’s lifelong
friendship. Theirs is a tense balance of reason and passion, appetite and restraint; they mesh
dynamically as a duo. Unlike Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, neither
character can be second banana to the other. I’ve watched the pair in action
through some 80 TV episodes and about eight movies. Counting reruns and
repeated viewings, I calculate Kirk and Spock have occupied more than 200 hours
of my waking life. I’ve enjoyed every minute in their company. I cannot say the
same about Luke Skywalker and a green puppet; my friend Tim never wasted his
time with them – he’s always been more sensible than me.