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.