Sunday, 28 February 2016


Oscar Night in Edmonton

The marquee of the Princess theatre on Whyte Avenue looks particularly sad after dark, so many bulbs have burnt out. Judging from the exterior architecture and what’s left of the flaking interior design flourishes, the Princess must’ve been rather grand when it opened its box office in 1915. She’s a bit of a dump these days but the Princess is Ann’s and my preferred cinema; they don’t, and won’t, build them like her anymore.

We like the neighbourhood, its proximity to our home. We like the $6 Monday admission price. We like the illusion of dating in a bygone era. We like having a pint and a blast of blues next door at the Commercial Hotel after a film. I like the cheap and tasty tacos available around the corner in a cockroach cubbyhole with a dodgy toilet in the rear that for some reason prompts me to sing Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life.’ The Princess screens films that don’t play well with others at the multiplex. She is where Ann and I have seen at least three of the Oscar best picture nominees.

Awards shows of any ilk are like viruses and infirmities, best avoided. While goofing around in the kitchen last week to a song on the radio Ann mentioned that she might like to watch tonight’s Oscars as we enjoy going to the movies together. I thought, well, given that Ann’s had to sit through a Terminator flick, a James Bond flick and innumerable televised sports games, this seems a reasonable request. I said, ‘But you’re not going to want to see Ben Mulroney gushing over gowns on the red carpet.’ She said, ‘Oh, yes I am. That’s like the pre-game.’ Touché. We are interested in the fates of two provocative films.

‘Spotlight’ details the Boston Globe’s investigation into the systemic and almost sanctified child abuse endemic within the Catholic Church. The paper’s exposure of the far-reaching, sordid scandal in the face of complicit and powerful opposition was dramatic enough. Ann and I retired to the Commercial to discuss another equally important message delivered by the movie. In the wake of newspaper closures all over the continent and Postmedia’s ongoing cuts to finance its horrendous debt, what will become of our society if competent and ethical journalists no longer have the resources to do their jobs, to call douche bags of any stripe to account? Have we devolved so stupidly as to accept TMZ, The Rebel and suggested or shared posts on Facebook as legitimate news? Worse, will we soon gum the Pablum of uninvestigated and unexamined press releases issued by government departments and corporations? There’s no sifting, no filtering app for that; our phones aren’t that smart.

In 2008 the sign of the times was absurdly and gleefully encapsulated in a single panel by Brian Gable, the Globe and Mail’s editorial cartoonist: profits were soaring at Downward-pointing Economic Indicators Manufacturing Inc. (The Globe recently sent me an inscribed copy of that cartoon, unrequested though prompted by a letter to the editor. I was touched and thrilled. That small gesture illustrates the bond between a newspaper and its reader, the mutual trust and respect that must be earned and maintained.) Around that time I began reading ‘The Gathering Storm,’ the first volume of Sir Winston Churchill’s extensive history of the Second World War. In it he wrote (and I paraphrase) that the Great Depression was largely the fault of the United States because of its poorly regulated banking system, easy access to cheap credit and the false entitlement of wanting. I thought, well, here we go again. I tried to figure out what was happening to my savings, why portions were evaporating. Nothing made a lot of sense until Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi described Wall Street banks collectively as a ‘vampire squid’ (a description I was delighted to encounter in a recent issue of The Economist albeit without credit but in quotation marks).

‘The Big Short’ brought everything home and explained complex financials succinctly even if a Batman was chewing up the scenery. Everyone’s a winner with a sub-prime mortgage, baby. Jesus, how do you sleep at night betting on average people not being able to afford their modest goals? The film alludes to sanctioned institutional fraud on a massive scale. Ann and I found ourselves sympathetic to the dilemmas of the few sharks cannier than the greasy New York banks and Washington’s inept partisan regulators. Imagine seeing ‘The Sound of Music’ and cheering for the Nazis. (Christ, I’ve done that. Okay, anyway, Oscar time.)

Friday, 26 February 2016


meGeoff’s Extremely Subjective Guide to Great Sports Writing

Fifty years have passed since the National Hockey League audaciously planned to double itself in size, expanding from six to twelve teams. I remember my big brother Bob, nine years my senior, a teenager well into life’s double digits, opening the latest issue of The Sporting News, showing me the new teams’ logos and then quizzing me about their likely nicknames. We were in his bedroom, sitting or lying together on his bed, ensconced in the deep sagging pit in the middle of his mattress. I couldn’t complete the simple North Stars graphic puzzle, and many years passed before I was able to appreciate the synchronous ingenuity of the St. Louis Blues winged music note. I guessed the Penguins; the Seals too though unaware of Oakland’s hockey homage to baseball’s Pacific Coast League San Francisco Seals and local hero Joe DiMaggio. Nor was I aware that my older brother had begun to train his sibling seal.

Indoctrination is best done, and usually most successfully, at an early age. My father read to me almost every night when I was small, perhaps we’d spend a month or so with The Man in the Iron Mask or one of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower epics. As I grew, Bob encouraged me to participate in sports. I did and he was my first football coach and my first baseball coach. If he hated the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Dallas Cowboys, well, so did I. If he read the newspaper sports section, Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News, I did too (provided he was done with them). Some sort of personal convergence of reading and sports writing was inevitable.

Bob’s room was a pretty neat place to sneak into when he wasn’t home. The ceiling over his desk was pebbled with dried, stuck spitballs. His transistor radio in its brown leather case was always on the blotter, tuned to the Canadiens skating right to left on the CFCF radio dial. The L-bracket shelves on the wall Dad had installed held textbooks in their bows with two notable exceptions: Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. (Years later I bumped into Brooklyn Dodger legend Duke Snider in a Montreal grocery store and I wondered what he thought about Boys as he was a central figure. Duke said the author had got a lot wrong though he’d probably meant well. As I was wearing a red A&P apron and Duke was seeking Sun Maid raisins I couldn’t ask him any follow-up questions.)

My sports library was seeded by Bob. Both hardcover books were gifts and were written by Canadian Football League stars and football was my best sport as an average athlete. I still have them: Mel Profit’s For Love, Money and Future Considerations and Dirty 30 by B.C. Lions receiver Jim Young whom I absolutely adored; he had me with that Fu Manchu moustache.

As I added to that foundation and sometimes culled mistaken acquisitions I began to understand that sports writing is a particularly tricky business. Because everybody knows the score, it’s not the story so much as how it’s told. The prose of the best writers possesses more style and flair between the margins than the stars they cover display between the lines. Always in the past tense, sports writing is history and sociology written for the common man. H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, an examination of high school football in a depressed west Texas town, is a fine example.

There was something else to be gleaned too. Great sports writing transcended the prejudices of the fan in two ways. You could be seduced by the saga of a team or player you’d happily stab at from the depths of hell, or become immersed in the nuances of a sport you’d always ignored or even despised. Based on those criteria, the best sports book I have ever read is The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, a suggestion of my brother’s. I cannot abide basketball.

Halberstam was a Pulitzer Prize winner, a political historian. I’ve never read The Best and the Brightest, but I’m pretty sure I’ve read every word he ever wrote about his leisure passions which included baseball and… fishing. Game follows the fortunes of Bill Walton’s Portland Trailblazers over the course of a late 70s single season, a model CBC Morningside host Peter Gzowski would employ with the protean Edmonton Oilers in The Game of Our Lives. Perhaps both books owe a debt to Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? Jimmy Breslin’s chronicle of National League baseball’s return to New York in 1962. For some, an entire schedule wasn’t enough. Ivy League blue blood George Plimpton, he of the literary and esteemed Paris Review, actually tried to play football with Detroit pros in order to produce the brilliant journalistic origami that unfolded in Sports Illustrated and evolved into Paper Lion, an article that became a book.

When renowned writers go off topic to examine their distractions and entertainments, readers win. Novelist and blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Eliot Asinof viewed the 1919 Black Sox scandal from every angle and corner of a baseball diamond in Eight Men Out; the flaws in the young though already corrupt corporate culture flowed downward from the executive suite. Ain’t no new news here a century later. Mordecai Richler wrote On Snooker and sent readers Dispatches from the Sporting Life (his description of Edmonton as Canada’s boiler room still rankles some folks in these parts). Roch Carrier revisited the genesis of The Hockey Sweater in Our Life with the Rocket. Richler’s chief biographer Charles Foran later wrote an elegant and succinct biography of Rocket Richard for a Penguin series on prominent Canadians.

An oral history bound between a book’s covers seems an oxymoron. Is it even writing, or just transcribing and editing? The oral history is a deceitfully difficult format because the interlocutor must not only know his subject but also be able to sublimate himself to the voices and stories he’s able to tease out by asking the right questions at the right moment. During a growing pause does the listener hope the speaker will fill the gap?

One of the greatest baseball books ever is The Glory of Their Times, an anthropological portrait of the game as it was played in the late 19th and early 20th centuries researched and assembled by Lawrence Ritter, a university economics professor. When you love something such as the summer game you must know everything about it, however arcane.  This book is evocative and delightfully human. The only Canadian and winter equivalent I can think of is Dick Irvin’s The Habs: An Oral History of the Montreal Canadiens 1940-1980. I’d recommend it to any Boston Bruins fan because their players figure prominently and you need to know and understand your enemy.

Contrasting the collective memory of an oral history is the singular point of view of the memoir. A cerebral athlete is a rare bird and likely considered a misfit by the rest of the roster. But luckily for their readers they kept notes. The most remarkable hockey book I’ve ever read is Ken Dryden’s The Game detailing his time with the Montreal Canadiens during their phenomenal seasons in the 70s. There is no other hockey book quite like it.

There are three similar baseball books. They were all written by pitchers. Perhaps a staff’s rotation downtime offers more opportunity for reflection. Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season was the likely inspiration for Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Both books breached the omerta of the clubhouse. While Brosnan was more self-absorbed about his days pitching in the National League, Bouton spilled the beans about almost everyone he’d played with, notably Mickey Mantle, thus causing thousands of wide-eyed teenage boys to embrace the new sport of beaver shooting. Pat Jordan’s A False Spring recounts the pain of never being able to make the cut as a major league hurler. He quit the game and went on to a dual career as a sportswriter and mystery novelist.

Career spanning autobiographies are generally best avoided. They are usually shallow, defensively self-serving, or intended to convey some hackneyed personal credo. The really bad ones manage to do all three. Larger than life personalities are best viewed through the lens of an objective biographer and not a friendly ghost.

A few biographies published during the last 25 years have stuck with me. They of course reflect my interests and my fandom. Georges-Herbert Germain’s Overtime: The Legend of Guy Lafleur struck me because it reads like a novel. Stephen Brunt’s Searching for Bobby Orr is the definitive portrait of the ever elusive number 4. Great Time Coming by David Faulkner provides greater context to the life of Jackie Robinson. Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe DiMaggio unravels some of the enigma that was the Yankee Clipper. An old friend with a fine baseball pedigree has recommended The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy. What the hell, they’re playing ball in Florida and it’s time for my annual baseball read.

Cancer killed my brother Bob in 2012. When the timing was appropriate I went through his collection of sports writing. I was unsurprised at the number of doubles, titles we shared. I did find two volumes I wanted, The Teammates and Everything They Had, both by David Halberstam. The bookmarks in each were airline boarding cards; reading was how he passed his business travel hours in the air. They’re on my shelf now, nestled up along side the other books he gave me. I see their spines most every day and remember him and the love of the game he passed down to me.

Thursday, 18 February 2016


The Sound of Old T. Rex

My stepsister sent me an e-mail earlier this week wondering what I thought of Lady Gaga’s Grammy David Bowie tribute. Ann and I did not tune into the broadcast but we watched the performance the next morning on her new iPhone over coffee and cigarettes. I cringed. Bowie’s glam was always lurid and a little seedy, harmless yet vaguely threatening. I keep going back to Joel Grey’s Cabaret master of ceremonies. Gaga is Rockette-Cher-Vegas glitz. I’m not with her, content to be stuck in my g-g-generation.

For anyone who ever had a rock ‘n’ roll heart or struck a star pose in a bathroom mirror Bowie’s death remains top of mind. The human mind is a remarkable entity, it leaps and scurries. My head is full of squirrels and most days I can tolerate the internal scratching and gnawing. When Ann and I play Scrabble we take turns choosing the music that will accompany our game. The other night I selected Mott the Hoople. As much as I love ‘All the Way from Memphis and ‘Foxy Foxy,’ I probably chose Mott because of Bowie’s ‘All the Young Dudes.’

The television man is crazy, says we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks/Oh! I don’t need TV
when I’ve got T. Rex. That couplet herds this lyric lemming to the Who: I’ve drunk myself blind to the sound of old T. Rex. The ensuing rhyme is problematic to me. Does Roger Daltrey sing Who’s Next referencing the group’s 1971 album or just who’s next as in the next record to be listened to which may or may not be Who’s Next. Is it a question or a statement? This stuff keeps me awake at night; I need to know.

Marc Bolan in the guise of T. Rex was one of those peculiar British acts like Slade that were massively popular on the home front yet barely caused a ripple across the pond. When Mott the Hoople released Bowie’s Ziggy outtake in 1972, T. Rex was it. Top of the pops. While it would be unfair to blame Bolan for the career of Gary Glitter, he is generally credited as one of glam rock’s founding fathers. T. Rex’s only Top Forty American hit was ‘Bang a Gong (Get It On).’ You’re built like a car; you’ve got a hubcap diamond star halo. Say, what would Chuck Berry write if he’d gobbled acid? Still, whatever it is sounds pretty cool. You’re dirty sweet and you’re my girl. I got that part; at least I really wanted to get that part. It’s a minor cultural crime that ‘Bang a Gong (Get It On)’ remains the definitive (and only) T. Rex track in the ears of Canadian commercial radio. The less said about the execrable Power Station cover, the better.

‘You Better You Bet’ was the lead single and first song, side one of the Who’s 1981 Face Dances. Pete Townshend’s vague memory of a lamentable nostalgic bender reminded me that time can be short and that glam rock, whatever it was beyond the platform boots and sparkles, was gone. In just the nine years since ‘Dudes,’ Mott the Hoople had broken up, Bowie was already moving beyond his brilliant Berlin phase and Marc Bolan was dead, a 1977 car accident passenger fatality at age 29. Who’s the next T. Rex or Lady Gaga? Hype crests quickly and recedes even faster. Next!

Tuesday, 16 February 2016


Victoria in the Early Morning Rain

Our mid-winter escape to Vancouver Island did not end well. Packing for home last Friday morning I picked up a pile of folded t-shirts and turned to place them in my travel bag. I felt the nightmare twinge in my lower back. Uh-oh. I was almost immobile for our relay flights back to Edmonton. The ache and shooting pains were exquisite. Ann was miserable, fighting a fever and flu. We were a pair; stop breaking down.

We returned to a grey city. The sky, the buildings and the ground all matched. It was freezing. I sat shaking in the back of a taxi, incapable of lifting our luggage into the rear. Once home Ann and I unpacked and left our empty bags at the top of the basement stairs. Mungo the tabby cat pissed all over them. In bed that night I was jarred awake by the white hot needle of a cold sore tingle in my lower lip. Swell. I lay there seized and seething. Ann spent Valentine’s Day with an ointment-smeared, infected invalid high on painkillers and beer. Come and laugh about our funny little ways

Now that I think about it, our Victoria vacation did not start well either. The 15-minute flight over the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Dash 8-300 really gave us the sensation of flying, heads bobble up, stomachs drop down. We unsteadily deplaned into teeming mercury rain splashing like protagonists in a black and white movie. I wished I was wearing a trench coat and a fedora. I wished I could mutter something existential and profound, a lit cigarette wiggling for emphasis between my compressed lips, ‘Maybe what we have doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this great, wet world. But we’ll always have Ottawa. I remember it well; the Mounties wore red and you wore blue.’

Ann’s brother Jim met us at the little airport. He’s retired now and every day is Saturday and these future days, each one his own, have been well earned. On our first full day in town Jim squired us down to the inner harbour. I was hoping to buy a birthday present for myself in The Turntable, a tiny record shop hidden away in Chinatown’s munchkin Fan Tan Alley. The crowded store smelled like a damp grade school cloakroom, wet woolen clothing steaming on hot water radiators. Bowie collectible 45s in picture sleeves were prominently displayed alongside Lemmy t-shirts and Eagles and Jefferson Airplane LPs. The death for sale depressed me. We chuckled when Ann pointed out Psychotic Reaction by The Count Five, but the $100 price sticker was less amusing.

Stymied, we retired to the Irish Times on Government Street. I’d been looking forward to the pub’s Dublin Dog, a bratwurst garnished with Guinness infused strong cheddar and Guinness mustard. Alas the menu had changed since our last visit. The new ‘Dawg’ was some sort of anonymous local tube steak smothered with bacon jam. Ick. Ann and I split an indifferent corned beef on rye while attempting to summon the zen of Warren Zevon: Enjoy every sandwich.

Everything in life comes with a cost. When the bill came Ann went through her handbag feeling for her pocketbook. She went through it a second time. The third frantic attempt came up empty too. The colour left her cheeks. Okay, okay, where have we been? Credit card, bank card, identity card gone. Okay, okay, we’ve still got our passports, right? We’re still able to fly home. I checked the back pocket of my jeans 17 times, kept touching my wallet, losing my wits.

Jim had parked his vehicle on the roof of an eight-storey parkade on Yates Street, that great street. We hurried back to the lot because Ann remembered fumbling for her phone to answer a text whilst in the backseat. While they waited for the elevator I went into the stairwell and nearly succumbed to the reek of piss. I sprinted up five flights and walked the rest, my legs shaky aspic, awful congealed Sunday salads bloated with mandarin orange segments and shredded carrots. I peered through the tinted windows of Jim’s black SUV and spotted Ann’s pocketbook nestled against a seatbelt buckle. ‘Thank Christ.’ I took a moment to breathe and enjoy the view of more rain clouds rolling through the slate sky into the harbour.

The misty mountain views along the Malahat were spectacular. Give me leafy arbutus trees, creepy Medusa-haired curly willows, moss and fog and rain. Ann, Jim and I drove to Shawnigan Lake to visit their brother Chuck who lives alone in a cabin in the woods with four cats; I don’t think he’s crazy. The four of us convoyed through the drizzle to Cobble Hill for a pub lunch. We ordered hamburgers at the Cobblestone. Whilst chewing my barbecue-bacon-double cheese I realized that Jim must be some sort of hamburger savant, a mystic Wimpy beef seeker, because the one I was eating rivaled the stupendous burgers we ate together last spring at Mojo’s in Christ Church, Barbados.

Jim ate another hamburger in the Beagle, a pub in Victoria’s Cook Street Village. We were a block away from Beacon Hill Park. At the t-intersection of Dallas Road and Douglas Street was a Trans Canada Highway sign that had stopped me in my tracks: Mile 0. Was this the end or the beginning? Are we to count down nearly 5000 miles or count up? Double the kicks found along Route 66 which only wound some 2000 miles from Chicago to L.A. I had the very real sense of being a long way from many places with an ocean view. Across the salt water Port Angeles, WA lay somewhere in the hazy distance. Ann wondered how Donald Trump might go about fencing the strait. Yellow submarine nets? And, anyway, who can stop the rain?

Thursday, 4 February 2016


Twenty-first Century Boy

I’ve had to dip my toe into the water of social media. It’s been warm and welcoming, a bit like a busy hot tub at a resort. A few years ago my friends stopped telephoning me. They said they’d all moved on to texting. To keep up I arranged for a personal e-mail address. My friends did not e-mail me. In an effort to stay in touch, I joined Facebook last week. I sent my friends ‘friend requests.’ Their digital silence must have something to do with our unreliable router.

While navigating the brave new world of Facebook I figured out how to follow the Montreal Canadiens, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. I feel a tight connection to these fellow Facebookers as they’ve been incredibly inclusive, sending me an insane amount of breathless updates I absolutely need to know about in the instant. I matter. I now belong to four tribes and it’s increasingly obvious to me that my real life friends have perhaps somehow alienated themselves from me. Maybe I’ve outgrown them, as you do. I mean, Springsteen and me, we’re like this now; after all he graciously supplied the titles of my two novels. I move in different circles, higher echelons since last Tuesday, thanks to Facebook.

The fun I have with Facebook is endless. I send messages from the desktop in the den to Ann’s iPhone while she practices her violin in the next room: ‘I’m on Facebook in the den (smiley emoticon thingy). What’s for dinner? Can you bring me a beer?’ If our relationship breaks down it will never be over a failure to communicate.

The glorious expansion of my virtual personality was prompted in part by Ann’s desire to upgrade her iPhone 4. She ultimately decided on the iPhone 8T, designed in California and manufactured in China. The fellow managing the pawn shop seemed reputable and knowledgeable enough. Ann haggled hard and he threw a couple of mini iPad 2s into the deal. The latest and the greatest, he swore. I chose the manly slate grey one as my personal device. The new technology is remarkably intuitive. You don’t actually have to pound the screen like the keyboard of a Smith-Corona.

Winter nights are long here in Edmonton. Ann and I play a lot of Scrabble. Well, we used to. I don’t lose anymore because I’m too busy creeping the app store, getting stuff for free. I’ve downloaded the official Montreal Canadiens app, the official Who 3-D Immersive app and the Rolling Stones app because it’s just cool having their tongue logo on screen.

The iPad has a camera too. I’ve never owned a camera in my life. Want a picture of the boys, our sibling tabbies Scamp and Mungo? I’ve got a thousand now. They’re so cute. I need to figure out how to post them on Facebook because I’m sure that Mick and Keith, P.K. and Carey, and Pete and Roger want to see them. I know it; we’re all close friends.