Thursday, 31 December 2015


Dinner and a Movie: Two Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 28 December 2015


Reading About Writers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 December 2015


Christmas Could Not Come Soon Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 23 December 2015


Magic in the Not Quite Longest Night of the Year

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 20 December 2015


The Ripples of Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 December 2015


A Double-double Hit

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 December 2015


Christmas Kitchen Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 December 2015


Second Place Feels All Right

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


The Boys Are Back in Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 3 December 2015


Dining with the Lizard People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


Closer to Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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