Friday, 25 September 2015

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

Political Notes from a Community League BBQ

Last Saturday was one of those days meant to remind you that the immediate alternative to a waning summer is equally glorious. The rain we needed in May, June, July and August fell after Labour Day. The river valley was primped for its postcard portrait, green water, and green foliage accented with bursts of orange, burgundy and gold shining under a refracted crystal blue sky. Saturday was such a fine, fine day and so much so that a local might be tempted to lie to a guileless visitor: ‘Autumn in Edmonton? Oh, it’s always like this, right through to the end of November. Really. And that big, honking formation of Canada geese overhead? They’re not going anywhere. Honest.’

In the morning Ann and I sipped our coffee listening to ‘Dead Ends and Detours,’ a Grateful Dead themed show on CKUA while perusing our newspapers. Together we nailed the Saturday New York Times crossword. High fives! We then moved into the yard; this is the time of year when Ann starts cutting back, transplanting and envisioning next spring’s and summer’s blooms. I raked up the squirrel-dropped, strange and spiky fruit of our Ohio buckeye. I next tried to clean up the rotting crabapples by the back gate and realized that the few wasps we’ve encountered this year have been undersized and unaggressive.

The social event of the season was held that evening, our annual community league membership renewal barbecue. Although outdoor ice is no longer winter’s certainty, we happily pay out for the skate tags anyway. We strolled over to the nearby arts park beside the hall, playground and rink. The neighbourhood’s once-dying lawns had sprouted orange New Democratic Party election signs. Two-term federal incumbent Linda Duncan is going for the threepeat. I like Linda because she is visible and present in our riding, nor does she say or Tweet anything stupid.

The celebrity at our barbecue was Lori Sigurdson, elected last May to represent us in the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. A former social worker, Lori now holds two ministerial portfolios: Innovation and Advanced Education, and Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour (I didn’t name the cabinet posts, folks). She had embraced the spirit of the event and sported an orange NDP chef’s apron. We were introduced to Lori by a neighbourhood friend, a respected community and political activist. The conversation went much like this:

Friend: Lori, this is Ann, and Geoff, longtime friends of mine.

Ann: Hi, Lori, how do you do? Congratulations on winning your seat.

Me: Hi, yes, we displayed one of your lawn signs.

Lori: (Smile.)

Me: Yeah, so then I kept getting e-mails from Rachel (Alberta NDP Premier Notley) asking for money.

Lori: Um, fundraising…

Me: Linda seems to be winning the federal sign war. Who’s the Liberal again?

Friend: Oh yes, Eleanor somebody…

Me: Yeah, Eleanor. Last summer when Justin’s (federal Liberal leader Trudeau) book Common Ground came out, a Liberal canvasser came to our door handing out bookmarks from Eleanor. No last name, just a Twitter account and a web site. Does she think she’s Elvis or Mick or Keith?

Lori: (Uncomfortable smile.)

Me: So I told the Liberal door knocker my vote costs the traditional Quebec price of $5 and a mickey of gin. Whoosh! Went right over his head.

Lori: (Really uncomfortable and awkward smile.)

Friend: Geoff, have you had a hamburger yet?

Ann: Well, nice to have met you, Lori.

Lori: (Utterly frozen, really, really uncomfortable and awkward smile.)

Me: Actually, we were just getting ready to go.

Lori: (Wide, relieved smile.)

Friend: Lori, there are some other people over here I’d like you to meet.

Lori: (Wider, much relieved smile.)

Alberta’s newly hatched NDP government has spent the summer legislative break coping with drought, wildfires and four decades’ worth of shredded Conservative documents. And so, it’s far too soon to rate and judge inexperience even though the electorate seems to have recovered from our ‘What have we done!?’ moment. As we made our way home through the back lanes Ann noted that Lori didn’t seem to have much to say. Ann thought a ‘thank you’ for the lawn sign would have been nice, a minimum to suffice. Our rookie MLA hasn’t quite got her stump patter down pat yet. That may or may never come, but at least Lori’s not a Tory and she may yet have some forward thinking legislation planned for the fall session.

Monday, 21 September 2015

A FAN’S NOTES

Rock of Aged

The Who have postponed their October 3rd 50th anniversary concert here in Edmonton until sometime next spring. Singer Roger Daltrey who did not die before he got old is recovering from a viral illness. We bought our tickets almost exactly one year ago, gambling really that all of us would be good to go 12 months’ hence. Though interest rates are at an historic low, the fact remains that the oldies band is holding onto a lot of unfulfilled boomers’ gold for a heck of a long time. For fans of touring senior citizens, expensive delays might be the new normal.

When rock ruled the 70s, there were other questions and risks associated with attending concerts. Are there better odds of getting tickets at the Montreal Forum box office or from the Ticketron outlet at Montreal Trust in Place Ville-Marie? Is the hash I just scored from a complete stranger at the drug bazaar in Cabot Square across the street from the Forum any good? Will the security monkeys beat the shit out of me just because they can? Will someone else beat the shit out of me? Since the start time printed on the ticket is only a suggestion, will the headliner be too wasted to perform when they eventually come on? Have they been arrested? Will there be a riot? Will I pass out? And what about homework and school tomorrow?

My 21st century concert question is a simple one: ‘Will my bladder hold for the duration of the set if I have a beer?’ Personal physiology becomes academic if an aging act reschedules or cancels for health reasons; reasons unrelated to the side effects of substance abuse they assuredly experienced in their rock ‘n’ roll primes. Waiting a few more months to see The Who (or Who’s Left, more legacy brand than recording band now as they, like the Stones, have submerged their grizzled faces within an immersive graphic identity) for a third time is disappointing, but at least the venue was and will be only a public transit train ride away.

When the Rolling Stones announced their June 2015 Zip Code tour we studied its itinerary. The exchange rate of the Canadian dollar was a concern. What ultimately held us back were doubts about the reliability of performing grandfathers and travelling. My days of sleeping rough in the back of a friend’s van or contemplating suicide in a smelly, chartered motor coach’s chemical toilet are done. Hotels cost money. Indirect flights and layovers cost money and time. Were there any Zip Code cities aside from Quebec City and Nashville we’d enjoy visiting regardless? What would we do in Columbus if our raison d’etre suddenly decided their show could not go on?

Anyway, I’d convinced myself that the Stones would extend their summer tour of North American secondary markets and that they must eventually land in Edmonton as they hadn’t played Alberta’s capital since 1998 or ’99. I neglected to factor in the FIFA Women’s World Cup which effectively occupied our Stones-worthy stadium throughout the entire month of July - so much for my rock ‘n’ roll attempt at informed and sensible risk management.

Perhaps the ethos of rock, now a minor sub-genre of music, has remained the same: ‘You pay your money and you take your chances.’ We never knew what we were maybe going to get back then, and it seems much the same now, only different.

Friday, 18 September 2015

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Stop les Presses!

An endearing and enduring image of my grandfather is him sitting in his favourite chair beside his pet canary George and reading in the natural light of his second-storey apartment’s living room window. I walked under his window on my way to school for years.

Papa Moore was a retired Bell Canada engineer when I knew him. He explained fractions to me when my arithmetic teachers and my math-genius friend Marty could not. When Universal Product Codes began to appear with increasing frequency in the mid-70s, Papa Moore studied the patterns and thicknesses of the black bars under a magnifying glass trying to discern their correlations to the human-readable numbers printed along the base lines. Had he lived into our Digital Age, he would have been a fascinated, septuagenarian adaptor and I often wonder what he would make of the evolution of his former employer, for tucked among the personal papers he left behind was an unfinished history of Bell.

Papa was an English √©migr√© from Bristol who settled in Montreal prior to the First World War. His family’s haberdashery business in suburban Fishponds was strangled by the 1910 introduction of a bus route into downtown Bristol and a high street rife with competition: everything for everybody changed almost immediately or perhaps according to the bus schedule.

One of Canada’s best newspapers announced Wednesday that it would cease publishing weekday print editions come January 1, 2016. Montreal’s French-language La Presse began publishing in 1884. The broadsheet found its legs in 1894 under its second owner, Treffle Berthiaume, a typographer and lithographer by trade. I know this because when Canada Post honoured M. Berthiaume with a stamp in the early 80s I wrote the tribute essay (and at $1 per word you can be sure my research was extensive) which appeared in the corporation’s monthly Philatelic Bulletin and annual collection. This 19th century visionary could never have imagined his newspaper transitioning into a more profitable and free tablet-only form (the Toronto Star has since paid for the technology and required training), fat and tactile weekend editions excepted.

When I picture my grandfather in his comfy club chair, I always see sections of La Presse on his lap. Papa Moore had no facility for any other language beyond his mother tongue, although he could speak enough French moving around Montreal to at least be polite. But he read La Presse every day, determined to learn the language of the majority. I copied Papa’s example and struggled through editions of La Presse attempting to improve my own impoverished French. I learned quickly enough that my ability to recite baseball’s nine fielding positions en francais did not constitute full-blown bilingualism. I gave up and moved to Alberta.

La Presse was designed to appeal to Montreal’s middle class, an incredibly broad spectrum. While it has always competed against the Montreal Gazette for engaged bilingual readers (and scoops), its French-language newsstand competitors represent two extremes: Le Journal de Montreal is an icky, lurid mix of sex, murder and hockey; the august Le Devoir a musty, skimpy oleo of separatist intellectualism. La Presse is now betting its 131-year history on a new reality: its loyal readership, especially those under the age of 40 and so seductive to advertisers, wants properly reported news but not newspapers. The future doesn’t quite look the same way I remember it.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

HUMAN WRECKAGE

A Letter to a Friend Who Lives Around the Corner (and Has Netflix)

Dear Derek,

Hey, how are you? It’s been a while. Don’t believe we’ve seen you since July (possibly the 26th – Mick Jagger’s birthday), just a few days before we left for Prince Edward Island and long before you headed off for to Quebec’s Laurentians for a couple of weeks. Hope you had a great trip. Here we are almost mid-way through September. I suspect you’re up to your eyeballs at the university.

Last time we spoke you said you had treated yourself to three new Dylan albums because you felt he was under represented in your collection. The reason I mention that is because I had a dream about Dylan last night although I can only remember a fragment: I was with him and he was making ‘fluffy pineapple ice cream.’ Not sure what that means, but, hey, you’re the psychologist, not me. Oh, and he was bare-chested, but wore a black top hat, one of those squashed, hourglass-shaped ones, not a stovepipe.

Was it early June when we dropped by your place unannounced just to say hello and drink your beer? I remember listening to your fabulous Exile-centric Stones iPod mix as you extolled the virtues and convenience of your recent Netflix subscription. A special box or something, wasn’t it? Or did you just need one of those HMV thingys connecting your Commodore 64 to your Sony Trinitron? It all sounded complicated; I require no less than two remotes to turn our set on to watch sports.

I’m mentioning this because last Friday I received an e-mail from Keith Richards. Cool, eh? We’re like this, mates for life, like. Crosseyed Heart, his first solo album in something like two decades, will be in stores next Friday, September 18. Bit of an event for me – as you may well guess. On the same date Keith Richards: Under the Influence, a documentary about his musical life, will debut on, get this, Netflix. Imagine that. However, I’m unsure of the broadcast time. Maybe eight o’clock?

In closing, just a short note to let you know we’ve been thinking about the two of you, wondering how you’re doing. We would love to get together soon, perhaps toward the end of the week? I know people’s schedules and commitments can get goofy, especially with the fall semester underway; you don’t have to tell me. Just glanced at our calendar and it appears we’re wide open this coming Friday, the 18th. Seems like a perfect opportunity for all of us to catch up, have a laugh or two in front of your TV.

Trust this missive finds you well. Desperately hoping to see you soon, really, really soon.

Cheers,

meGeoff

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

HUMAN WRECKAGE

These Are the Pinheads in Your Neighbourhood

The trouble with a neighbourhood is the neighbours.

Our house is sandwiched between the homes of unhinged, elderly solitaries who seem to have declared a demented race with one another toward the murky realm of utterly batshit crazy. Get those walking canes on the marks, folks! It’s amusing until it becomes annoying. The shrill voices of these unremarkable, regressing lives are angry, full of insane and incoherent complaint. And frankly, to be uncharitable, Ann and I are sick of hearing it. Scream ‘Fuck!’ at your blind poodle or the night sky inside, please, maybe from the furnace room?

Ann guesses our house was built in 1954 as the blueprints date from December 1953. This place was built solidly utilizing quality materials and proper workmanship. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. A little over two years ago, Ann decided it was time to upgrade the original cedar exterior planking. Since the skin was coming off, the contractor suggested fortifying the bungalow with an additional layer of insulation, essentially doubling or tripling the integrity of the barrier between us and seven months of nipple-erecting cold.

Perhaps unpatriotically, we’d no issues with being warm and comfortable. Four or five rolls of foiled bubble wrap were subsequently dropped off on our driveway. My first thought was, ‘If I was still a kid, I’d so be making myself a Martian spacesuit.’ The bonus bales of insulation caused some consternation on our street. The next morning when I went outside to collect the Journal and the Globe I found a desktop printout, timed 12:17 am, in our mailbox. It was a screed from a bean-eating, gun-polishing, Vermont-based, off-the-grid (though blogging), eco-warrior, purporting to rip the lid off of the manufacturer’s conspiratorially inflated R-rating claims. I stood on the porch a moment gazing up and down the street. I thought, ‘Fuck. You fucking pinhead whoever you are, thank you for your valued input.’

Somebody in the neighbourhood last night changed out three General Electric four-foot fluorescent light tubes. I know this because a trio of burnt out casings were neatly sequestered behind our trash bins in the back lane this morning. I hissed ‘Fuck!’ at the weeds sprouting through the fissure in the concrete. Ann and I will drop them at one of Edmonton’s eco stations on our next visit. If I had any idea who left them for us I would hurl the tubes at their car or house because those glassy vacuums POP! pretty good, as I recall from a long ago bout of juvenile vandalism or one of my first part time jobs.

Dog owners are a special breed, aren’t they, kissy-kissy with rescued, flea-ridden, feces machines. Only drug runners are comfortable carrying bags of shit. Our household garbage is collected every Thursday. I often come across gifts from neighbours a few days later when I haul out a new black sack. There’s a doggie bag fermenting at the bottom of one of our damp and fetid plastic bins. I mutter ‘Fuck!’ and re-bag it because the garbage man has too much dignity to pluck it out and because nobody should ever, ever have to stoop to pick up somebody else’s shit.

I smoke 25 cigarettes a day. That means I have a lighter, a spare and a book of matches. If I ever find out who our doggie donor is, I will take their bag of shit and set it afire on their front step. I will ring their doorbell. And because I’m all grown up now, I will not run away.

Monday, 7 September 2015

DUKE STREET KINGS

I Know a Place

My friend Roy, a wildlife sculptor, sent me a note from Banff, Alberta last week where he’s winding up an artist-in-residence gig at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Our paths haven’t crossed since Interstellar Rodeo last July; we have plans to take in the debut of Roger Waters: The Wall in a Cineplex at month’s end because Roy is, in his words, ‘a Wall connoisseur.’ His text, all thumbs, read: ‘Just had a Reuben (sandwich) at the Fairmont. Yours are better. Second career?’

Sales of my new novel Duke Street Kings are either skyrocketing into double digits or flaming out low on the horizon like a piece of Soviet space junk. Everything depends upon perception, is that glass of dirty water half full? Scribbling two long works of fiction has frankly cost me more in materials and time than I’ve made in royalties. Advertising copywriting has been far more lucrative: ‘Pork butt whole,’ I wrote that. ‘Master baker?’ That’s me too.

In bygone days when the Montreal Canadiens absolutely ruled the National Hockey League retired players and coaches tended to open drinking establishments. These places tended to be taverns that served only beer, and males. My favourite was Toe Blake’s at the corner of Ste-Catherine and Guy. To wrap your head around a legend like Toe Blake, who starred beside and then coached ‘Rocket’ Richard, imagine former Oiler Mark Messier winning five Stanley Cups as an Edmonton player and then being behind their bench to orchestrate five more. You can’t.

I remember Toe Blake’s being immense. The walls were wood-paneled, maybe with maple. Hockey player caricatures, similar to the backsides of cards, hung high up making the ‘fun facts’ difficult to read through the rich, grey-blue clouds of tobacco smoke. Toe Blake’s was a Habs shrine without pretense. In those days breweries didn’t festoon a joint with branding pennants and posters. I lived nearby, I went to school nearby and I worked nearby. Most of my disposable income went toward record albums, newspapers, magazines, paperback novels, cigarettes and beer. Eating was an afterthought but I could always afford to eat well at Toe Blake’s.

There, I sometimes bumped into one of my Concordia Can Lit profs. He always wore a black leather sports jacket, similar to Bryan Ferry’s on the cover of 1978’s The Bride Stripped Bare. Although he did not appreciate my attitude as one of his students, he did allow that I had the talent and the potential to become a writer. (The questions for the 2015 bathroom mirror are: How much (talent) have I squandered over the past 35 years? And, is there anymore left?) Then again, he never said I’d be a successful writer - they don’t teach you that over a beer off campus.

Duke Street Kings is a story about a group of ex-Montrealers who reunite in Calgary. Most of the action, such as it is, takes place in a pub. The fictional Duke St. Tavern is a hybrid of memory and experience; there were three pubs in Calgary’s Kensington neighbourhood I used to frequent. Each one had a unique quality which I embraced, but none of them constituted the Platonic ideal of pub perfection. Nor were any of them in my old hometown where former hockey players really know how to do up a beer joint and serve proper food like a decent medium fat smoked meat sandwich. In a sense I wrote about the type of pub I would open if I had the money, the know-how and the wherewithal.

Through seven drafts of Duke Street Kings I did a lot research on the hospitality business. I even came up with a can’t-miss pub business plan for my own purposes. Now I find I can’t read my notes. Guess I was on the scene a little too often. Trust me: if this vision ever coalescences, the sandwiches chez meGeoff will be very, very good, atmosphere, everything. I vow pristine toilets as customers won’t actually be allowed to use them. But there are miles and miles to go between here and paradise. Meanwhile, if the premise of Duke Street Kings intrigues you, visit falcon-press.ca or call 1-877-284-5181 (North America).

Friday, 4 September 2015

SAINTS PRESERVE US

But What Will the Search Engine Think?

The Disney Corporation this week announced an ‘epic world event,’ their words. Epic world events are rare in our galaxy. Disney’s hyperbolic take on an ‘epic world event’ is a few YouTube uploads unveiling a new line of toys launching with the December release of Star Wars Episode XLIX – or was that last season’s Super Bowl – anyway, not exactly an Apollo moon mission.

My intent with this meGeoff entry was to get the vitriol up and a good sneer on at such lame audacity. I thought maybe I should watch one of those unboxing videos to get a better handle on what Disney intends to foist upon harried parents and creepy nerds this Christmas. And then I thought that might be a bad idea because the desktop’s search engine will then know and remember that I actively sought information on Star Wars toys. And this would be humiliating, like being seen and photographed exiting an adult store with a parcel - if you know what I’m talking about.

The search engine is already intimate with my habitual online habits. A Star Wars search might stop it in its tracks. I can hear the algorithms snidely clicking over and computing: ‘Star Wars toys, hmm? I knew you were middle-aged, but I’d no idea you were such a sad sack loser. Be that as it may, I’m here to help. May I suggest some naked pictures of Carrie Fisher?’

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

A FAN’S NOTES

Talking Baseball: A National Conversation

Here’s hoping Canada is Camelot, that our short summer, in the words of Broadway lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, “lingers through September.” Then again, Camelot did not end well for either Arthur or J.F.K. Current conditions in Canada are, to warble the least, more than “a bit bizarre.”

Holy rollers here in Alberta are frantically rereading the Book of Revelations seeking references to wildfires, drought, recession and mishaps involving bitumen transportation. The recently elected and woefully inexperienced provincial government has been walloped by nature, world events and the partisan screech of Big Oil. There’s a spooky sense that Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party has come to terms somewhat with ceding 44 years of uninterrupted power. The old blue guard didn’t just dodge a bullet but a howitzer shell.

News from the nation’s capital is just plain weird. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a confirmed paranoid autocrat, was apparently blissfully unaware of the machinations of his former and current chiefs of staff, both of whom actively moved to quash an embarrassing legislative scandal without informing their micro-managing boss or even reading their e-mails to each other. The blindly committed right is in denial about a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled The Closing of the Canadian Mind detailing nine years of calculated Conservative suppression of dissenting voices in this generally polite and apologetic democracy. Mr. Harper is a trained economist yet he is incapable of defining the ‘recession’ to curious reporters because he is now on the hustings, serving double-doubles at Tim Hortons, having decreed what might be the longest federal election campaign in Canadian history, a personal war to be won by obfuscation and attrition.

The grace in all this icky, grimy grimness is that the national conversation has been so far mercifully dominated by baseball. The American League Toronto Blue Jays were generally regarded as an afterthought asset of one Canada’s most reviled corporations. Rogers Communications is a dominant media conglomerate that considers ‘customer service’ an oxymoron. (To interject a personal note, Rogers seriously rogered my hockey viewing habits last winter by virtue of its exclusive Canadian broadcasting contract with the National Hockey League.)

Attendance is up at home games in Toronto, Jays television ratings have skyrocketed and team merchandise is flying off shelves and racks. At this moment in time the Jays have extended their reach well beyond their traditional fan base in southern Ontario. The Jays’ surge to perhaps peak popularity owes a lot to the 21st century pro sports landscape in Canada: the proliferation of cable sports channels, the advent of digital devices and platforms, and the simple fact that they are without competition being the only Major League Baseball club left in this country.

The evil entity that is Rogers is staring at two colossal marketing opportunities. First, hammer home the concept of the Blue Jays as Canada’s national baseball brand. Develop a secondary logo that doesn’t reference Toronto for usage in our other nine provinces and three territories. A tired national gag is that Canada remains a working federation because everybody’s united in their hate for Toronto. Second, every single Rogers ad involving a visual, whatever the product or service, should be tagged with a Blue Jays logo. It’s impossible to manufacture the buzz and goodwill the 2015 ball club created during the dog days of summer. Ride the tails of those double blue double-knits and begin subtly altering the perception of a widely disparaged corporate brand.

Baseball is played for keeps in September and ultimately October. The Blue Jays are legitimate contenders after an insanely hot August, here be monsters with Louisville Sluggers. The magic of a close pennant race is its immediacy; games are so frequent that the minutiae in a box score summary become part of the daily conversation. Division standings refresh themselves every evening following the final pitch. Any distraction from workaday drudgery in a slumping economy is no small grace. A home run call during a game that really matters is more compelling than any stumping politician’s network sound byte. Here’s hoping Canada’s boys of summer are still playing ball when Canadians go to the polls on October 19th. And here’s hoping Harper supporters would rather stay home and watch baseball instead of voting.