Wednesday, 24 May 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Our Gaming System

There are a number of running jokes in our house. The commonest one occurs after Ann or I encounter an uncommon word in a news story or crossword puzzle. Its number of letters and their corresponding Scrabble values are quickly ticked off on fingertips. How we both ache to play all seven tiles from a rack on a triple.

Our Scrabble games are a welcome ritual. The average two-player game should take about half an hour. Ours don’t. I usually set the Deluxe Edition rotating board up on the dining room table. The window blinds have to be adjusted so that we can watch the activities on our street from a sitting position. We take turns selecting the music for each match, three or four discs. Ann leans toward roots and Americana. I tend to spin themes: British pub rock, solo Beatles, three degrees of Ron Wood, New York City punk, reggae, Ireland; stuff we’ll both enjoy but haven’t played for a while.

We’ve adapted Scrabble’s rules to suit us. We abide by the Official Scrabble Dictionary, Merriam-Webster and Oxford’s English and Canadian editions. Anything goes. Neither of us has ever bothered to memorize the game’s acceptable two-letter words. ‘Can I check something?’ pauses play. If the word is good and we don’t know what it means we look it up together. There is no bluffing between Ann and me. We do not lie to each other.

Our games run long because beyond concentrating on the board and the tiles on our racks and those which may still be in the burgundy felt bag, there are notations on the wall calendar in the kitchen: appointments, events and obligations to be discussed. Our conversations wheel: ‘We should pull out the fridge and the stove and clean behind and underneath them.’ ‘That black infill three doors down looks like a Borg cube from Star Trek.’ Smokers both, Ann and I take frequent cigarette breaks because there’s always more to talk about with each other. Our two investigative tabbies often check the flow of play, especially the drooler.

Around this time of year, weather permitting, we like to move the competition outdoors to the picnic table on the rear patio. The games are a little shorter because since Ann and I are outside we can puff on cigarettes over the ever-evolving board, no breaks. There’s no music either except birdsong and squirrel claws on wood fences. Leaves and branches rustle in the breezes. There’s an ambient hum from the nearby freeway that shadows the winding, green river. Somebody’s always pushing a lawnmower on our street while others walk, talk and laugh. Helicopters and jets fly overhead. And there are always sirens in the city.

Scrabble is a game of skill and strategy tempered by the luck of the draw. I frequently tell Ann that I’m one letter away from greatness. I am chum to her Scrabble shark though my game is gradually improving. If I rack up 300 points, the result is no longer a happy shock. The outcome, and Scrabble itself, is a secondary function to a thoughtful, shared activity; we rarely sit passively in front of the television.

Ann and I recently vacationed on Maui with my sister and her husband. God bless them, they’d thought to pack a Scrabble game. We played on their lanai. We were sipping homemade Margaritas, fresh limes, lots of ice and good tequila. High above the palm fronds I could see Orion’s belt through the dark. I was in wonderful company with my family, my friends. I had a pretty good rack of tiles and was eying up a triple. I thought, ‘Life doesn’t get much better than this.’ Ann took my spot.

Further reading: Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis – Whoo-boy, we’re not that far gone yet.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Can We Talk Shrilly?

Most of us have strong opinions about complex ideas or issues we don’t fully comprehend. Our world is a very complicated place to navigate and so we tend to rely upon guides: mentors, pundits, artists, writers, the clergy, politicians, and the opinions opined in our circle of somewhat stable relatives and friends. And being human we examine the fruits of others’ knowledge, naturally selecting flavours and textures which align with our own ripened notions of the way things are or should be. Intellectually, most of us are ignorant cherry pickers.

The thoughtful person whose beliefs no matter how deeply ingrained and entrenched should always consider the merits of a well-reasoned counter-argument. But these are hysterical and humourless times fraught with righteous complaint, possibly perpetuated by the proliferation of social media, or at least amplified by its presence. We are deaf and dumb to civil discourse, just plain manners, and healthy discussion. It came as no surprise then that the insular world of Canadian scribblers went nuclear over the issue of cultural appropriation last week.

The editor (since axed) of The Writers’ Union of Canada’s (TWUC)* Write magazine cheekily suggested in a published essay that there be a Cultural Appropriation Prize, a reward for writers who write about characters beyond their own identifiable social group (race, religion, gender… conjure anything and pick one). Joseph Boyden might qualify. From the explosion of outrage, you’d think the poor fellow had suggested using uncleared minefields for dog runs or school yards. Next, the editor-in-chief (since resigned) of The Walrus, Canada’s premier cultural journal, joined the conversation on the side of common sense, decrying the mobilization of the thoughtpolice. Cultural appropriation is a matches-and-gasoline topic, but is there a more logical forum to examine the issue than in the pages of Write?

The fallout was beyond absurd: writers censuring one another and pleading for censorship. These are activities we usually associate with threatened narrow and cheerless minds, Fahrenheit 451. Literary feuds are only fun when they’re one on one and witty. There are only two types of writing in any genre or format: good and bad. A politically correct or culturally sensitive point of view does not and cannot bestow merit on an earnest, tortuous screed. Good writing will evoke Aristotle’s tenet of great theatre, the suspension of the reader’s disbelief. Good writers will never draw marginalia around their talents because the world is a strange, beautiful and horrible place, and, goddamn, there’s nothing like people for material.

All that is apparent from this kafuffle in a kettle (Hello, Pot) is that some of our more prosaic guides have lost their way. And you gather from the torrent of Tweets that no one is prepared to pause and speak nor agree to politely disagree on a civil way forward. You can only summon Stephen Leacock’s Lord Ronald who ‘flung himself from the room, flung himself on his horse and rode madly off in all directions.’

*I have had two novels published in Canada. I am not a member of TWUC or any other writers’ association. You can probably guess why.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

Broken Records

Friday in Edmonton was hotter than Maui. The warmest May 5th on record topped off a productive week around the Crooked 9. Ann and I cleared the yard and flowerbeds of debris, 10 lawn bags filled, sir. The outdoor furniture came out of hibernation. I restained the back steps, touched up the wrought iron railings front and back. I repainted the patio tables. We even coped with the Costco garden centre. The reward for work well done was an evening trip to the Empress Ale House to catch up with close relatives, dear friends.

The Empress is on the low rent portion of Whyte Avenue, beyond the CPR tracks that bisect the strip. The extensive and fluid customer demographic is an NDP pollster’s dream, all are welcome. Sometimes there’s table service, most of the time you fetch your drinks yourself. The Empress does not have a kitchen so drinkers often bring their own food; the pizza joint next door does a great takeaway business. There’s a modest performance space and televisions you don’t notice until somebody decides to turn them on.

Our group was angling for the patio abutting the sidewalk. It’s a sheltered rectangle filled with sturdy tables and benches. People share space, it’s okay to sit with strangers. We ended up with a premium vantage point for the street life serenade. High up on the wall above the door the Hip were singing ‘Bobcaygeon’ in a black box. Vintage cars, waxed and polished, paraded along the avenue. Rice rocket Power Rangers gunned their engines. The Harley boys, wearing their tattoos and Nazi regalia, rumbled their choppers. Ordinary, average cars and trucks flew military staff car Edmonton Oilers hockey pennants from their doors and antennae. City buses pulled in and out of traffic. The heat and exhaust amplified the noise making conversation difficult and eavesdropping impossible.

Most of the pedestrians and many of the Empress patrons wore Oilers sweaters. The new, not quite vile, orange home colours were predominant over the glory days’ base blue and orange striping. Some fans sported the discarded midnight blue and red-accented copper laundry (still the team’s best look) and, God help them, a few insanely loyal sad sacks actually maneuvered themselves into the horrid and mercifully short-lived Reebok makeover pajama tops. Game five of the second playoff round against the Anaheim Ducks was scheduled for 8:30 pm Mountain.

When an Empress staffer erased the chalkboard by the entry and then wrote GAME ON! EMPRESS LAGER PINTS $4, I realized we were three hours into our session. The ambient noise from inside the pub changed, it echoed the ebb and flow of the hockey game. Outside people on the sidewalk, and drivers on the road, hard-wired and radioed, added choruses, cacophony. There’s a peculiar magic in the lower atmosphere when citizens come together over something other than sharing weather and catastrophe.

When Ann and I left the Empress the game was into the third period. Edmonton, playing in California, was up three to nothing. We’d each had one of those potentially lethal ‘Oh, let’s have one more’ pints. We caught a yellow cab on the wrong side of Whyte as the pedestrian warning lights counted down the orange seconds. Our ride along the trendy strip was curious, this was what an occupation might look like: pairs of police officers in day-glo vests patrolled the ends of every block, both sides. There were no cars; parking along Whyte had been banned because guess what tends to happen to vehicles (and shop windows) if Canadian hockey fans tumble out of bars to riot either happily or angrily. Ultimately and sensibly, the police service had made it very inconvenient for drunks to drive.

Once we got home there were chores to stagger through. The tabbies had to be treated with dry and wet food and the senior one, a grumpy old bastard, required his thyroid medicine. We prepared the coffee machine for Saturday morning’s CKUA radio shows, the newspapers and our New York Times crossword puzzle session. Ann gracefully excused herself to slip away to bed. I turned on the Oilers game. They were still leading, pitching a shutout with a little more than three minutes to go. The play was mostly in their end which was worrisome but they weren’t collapsing around their net in wildlife highway panic.

I thought, ‘No drama here,’ bedtime and three heavy lidded sentences from the book on my night table.  In the bedroom, Ann asked me if the game was over yet. I said, ‘No, there’s about three minutes to go and they’re up three to nothing. Anything can happen, but it’s unlikely. Good for them, a key game.’ Especially as they’d blown a two goal lead in game four at home and went on to crater in overtime.

Well. Didn’t the Ducks pull their goalie three times during the final three minutes and score three goals? Nothing of the sort has ever happened before in a century of professional hockey in North America. The Montreal Canadiens and Rocket Richard never did it; neither did Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins, or even Edmonton’s own Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky. In my experience as a sports fan and someone who is curious about the world, I’ve learned that all in all it’s better to make history in a positive way; Anaheim did that and I’m talking about a Disney franchise created to shill Emilio Estevez DVDs.

Nobody in town will dare say this, but Friday night’s loss was an epic choke. Titanic. Colossal. The Oilers have embarked on a new era after a decade in the doldrums. The team, rejuvenated by the addition of other-worldly captain Connor McDavid, now plays in a new downtown rink amid blocks of heavy urban renewal and redevelopment, all of which the organization insists be known as the Ice District, an unprecedented experiment in civic pride generated by the marriage of private and public interests. There’s a hell of a lot more than hockey riding on the shoulders of the Oilers these days. And so you hope Friday night will not become the defining moment of Edmonton’s new world order. Game six is on television now; there is always hope until there isn’t any.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Purveyors of Filth

Upscale retailer Nordstrom made the business section of this morning’s newspaper for selling filth-encrusted jeans for US$425 a pair. There’s a matching jacket too, same price. You have to wonder who would be stupid enough to pay that much for denim in the first place, let alone with fake caked-on mud. And you have to wonder about the besotted Nordstrom buyer: ‘Do they come with blood stains? Can we get them with blood? Hey! What about spilled micro-brewed beer, French wine and lo-fat mocha latte!?’

A recurring tragedy in the modern field of marketing is its often inappropriate tendency to copy successful trends in unrelated industries. For instance, clear dishwashing liquid led to clear cola and clear beer. And you just know that the idea of clear Cheez Whiz and clear Miracle Whip occurred to some genius at Kraft. With that in mind, let’s eavesdrop on a sales meeting in a boardroom in the headquarters of the American Lifestyle Fixtures Company (ALFC).

Vice President of Marketing: Sorry I’m late! I had a task to complete.

Chief Executive Officer: That’s… Jesus, what happened to your pants? Were you foraging at the city dump? Was that your task? I know it’s casual Friday, but…

VPM: Ha! They’re brand new! Cost me nearly half a G-note at Nordstrom. These pants are part of my personal brand; they say I’m not afraid to get down and get my hands dirty, so to speak.

CEO: Really? Okay. Right. Spring is a big season for us as folks start to think about home renovations after their Christmas bills have been paid, and make decisions too about their outdoor summer lifestyles. So why don’t you walk me through our new products, our sales drivers for 2017?

VPM: Our core business has always been hot tubs. That said, at the end of the day, ALFC has always been an authentic, indeed iconic, American brand. This season I’m really excited about our new Dilettante line, beginning with the signature Patio Spa. It’s radically innovative and unlike anything our competitors offer.

CEO: I’m intrigued. Go on.

VPM: The unit comes with pond scum and flakes of human skin, you know, as if someone with a peeling sunburn had been simmering in the tub. The accessories are beyond cool. The tarp is torn and beautifully faded, and the deck boards appear to be rotting. The really inspired touch is the exposed rusty nails.

CEO: Jesus. Okay, I’m building my dream home. Walk me indoors.

VPM: Louche aspirationals will drool over our companion Dilettante Complete Suite, down market luxury with a neglected panache uniquely its own. The taps and faucet come with encrusted hard water mineral residue. The sink is soap scum grey, complete with a rust stain and stray hairs, including shaven whiskers.

CEO: Uh, Jesus, what about the soaker tub?

VPM: Same as the sink, but only bigger! All kidding aside, the team in R&D worked really hard to get the mould and mildew around the jets just right. Oh, and the drain clogs. That was my idea, not to blow my own horn…

CEO: Oh, sweet Jesus. Go on.

VPM: As you know, the master powder room is a shared and intimate space. This year we’ve added an optional urinal.

CEO: Splash back has always been something of a built-in design flaw… Funny, no matter what we do…

VPM: Solved! Solved I’m delighted to inform you. We’ve added absorbent cigarette butts in a variety of fashionable filter colours with custom striping and sodden wads of facial tissue.

CEO: Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus Christ. Uh, look, I’m running late. Sorry about this, but…

VPM: But I haven’t told you about the toilet! Have you ever seen the movie Trainspotting?

CEO: Jesus. Oh, Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus Christ. I have to make a call, a vital one. Uh, time got away from me this morning. Can we, uh, reconvene…

VPM: My fault entirely! I was late and I know your time is valuable. My darned e-mails piled up on me and I had to arrange them in separate folders to read later and so I must apologize for being tardy.

CEO: Yeah, thanks, Jesus. Oh, hey, can you drop by Human Resources on your way back to your office?

VPM: Sure thing! Time to talk about my performance bonus, I’ll bet!

CEO: Something like that.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A FAN’S NOTES

‘Mellow’ Was a Dirty Word

Eventually I come around. Monday evening Ann and I went to hear singer-songwriter Jackson Browne at Winspeare Centre, Edmonton’s sonically perfect symphony hall. We were pretty certain we didn’t look as old as everybody else in the crowd. The show was billed as ‘mostly acoustic,’ a popular, travel light format for ageing musicians who no longer release new albums each calendar year. Ann and I have variously seen Ray Davies of the Kinks; John Hiatt; John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett; John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Guy Clark and Joe Ely, on similar stripped down tours.

Like many music fans, Ann and I have been inadvertently trained to expect a live show to sound exactly like the records. When the lights go down I initially miss the fullness a complete backing band provides. However, the payoff of simplicity and intimacy is that the performance becomes a conversation. During one of his two sets Browne told us all, ‘This is like being at my house except I can’t go and make a sandwich.’

On stage was a piano flanked by umpteen guitars. Browne’s virtuoso accompanist had his own rack of guitars, mandolins, dobros and a pedal steel guitar. Unsurprisingly Browne’s first few songs were ballads. Ann and I exchanged looks, ‘This might be boring.’ As the artist and his audience got more comfortable with each other and the venue, and catalogue obscurities ceded the set list to hits, the energy began to rise a little in a laid back California way. ‘You want a happy song? I don’t write many so I have to ration them.’

During the instrument changing lull after ‘Before the Deluge,’ I realized that if the year was 1977 instead of 2017, there’d be no way I’d be sitting in the auditorium. Back then Browne was riding high with Running on Empty. Back then if an album charted and became a hit, it stuck around for months or even years. There was no escaping the title track and the segue of ‘The Load-out’ into a cover of the Zodiacs’ ‘Stay.’ The songs were introspective, with a whiff of ‘poor me’ rock star road blues, albeit more uplifting and literate than Bob Seger’s ‘Turn the Page.’

At that time in my life I was young, horny, angry and confused (I was so much older then). Browne was a don in the Los Angeles ‘mellow mafia’ of the late 70s; FM radio was dominated by him, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. Sunny, catchy, jangling despair was everywhere around my dial. The music that entranced and captivated me was coming from the European coast of the Atlantic Ocean, punk and new wave. CREEM magazine and Trouser Press were reporting on interesting doings in New York City. And truthfully, a girl I liked back then was also liked by a guy named Rick who liked Jackson Browne and thought ‘Running on Empty’ was ‘heavy’ and ‘deep,’ so you can guess how that all ended.

Soon enough Browne caught the Bruce Springsteen bug, releasing the bleached LA grit of ‘Boulevard,’ complete with a deliciously crunchy Stones riff. He sat for the cover of Rolling Stone in leathers, a stretch, especially as his motorcycle jacket was aquamarine. It did not suit. These days Browne is a social activist after having reinvented himself as a political songwriter. He’s too good a lyricist to drop a real rhyming clunker, but the syllable flow in ‘Lawyers in Love’ as opposed to ‘The Pretender’ stumbles because of its urgent requirement to preach. And how qualified is anyone to talk about anything beyond their realm of expertise? Jackson Browne could not tune his own guitar Monday night; ‘Professional help,’ he quipped as the roadie did the work. Well, enough said.

I came around to Jackson Browne about 15 years ago. A lifelong friend, then living alone in a rented house, had treated himself to new set of Mission speakers. ‘You’ve got to come over and listen to these,’ Tim said. I was kicking stones between personal disasters and getting my nourishment from Petro-Canada hoagies. Years ago Tim had bought himself a pair of Mission 70s, I followed suit about six months later (I still have them). Decades down the road and in a different city I turned up at his place with beer and primed to rock out the way we did when we were preteens, teenagers and a little bit older and maybe ten years older than that. His new speakers were unbelievably skinny yet tall, worthy of worship, Easter Island totems for music nuts. I figured Tim would play Dark Side of the Moon because that album has always been the new audio equipment cliché tester, reliable since 1973.

Damned if he didn’t select ‘Doctor, My Eyes’ and maximize the volume. I sat on Tim’s couch and buckled my seatbelt. The richness of the sound and the song’s production was overwhelming. Bash those piano keys like Jerry Lee! I heard the lyrics, listened to the words for the first time: a heartfelt lament about the human condition, somewhat stoic but neither apathetic nor cynical. I knew the song but I didn’t really know it at all, three minutes to ignore on a cheap radio. ‘Just say if it’s too late for me.’ It wasn’t, it’s not. Thank you for your patience with me, Jackson Browne. Come back with a band.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

Sunday Morning, Coming Down

‘You’re not going to have a heart attack, are you?’ Ann called to me from the shelter of our front porch.

It snowed last night, all night; it’s still snowing now. Wet and heavy spring snow, the sort you can roll from a ball into a boulder in minutes. This is snow falling to be pushed around, too dense to heave anywhere with any authority, especially with a dodgy back. And anyway, at this late date, I’m fed up.

When the snow first comes in the fall it’s a different texture, powdery, fluffy and light. I have a fine tuned clearing and piling system because I know there will be months more of it. Winter property clearing is a strategic process. Windrows along the curb hinder visitors’ parking. Too high a pile at the end of the driveway creates a blind spot for the driver of a vehicle backing out. The gardens and the lawns need insulating but ultimately the melt must be absorbed or trickle away from the foundation of the house.

Author John Updike used to sum up each elapsed American decade with a ‘Rabbit’ novel. Harry Angstrom was a deceptively speedy high school basketball star, an adulterer, a bereaved father, a Toyota dealer, an average guy who led an average life. Forty years into the saga he suffered a fatal heart attack shooting hoops on his driveway. All in all, not a bad way to go.

Death itself is nothing to fear, but we all tremble contemplating Fate’s decision as to just how exactly we will succumb, how long will it take and how much will it hurt? I’m not as young nor as fit as I used to be, so my swift and happy equivalent of Rabbit’s exit would be shoveling snow, a chore I’ve performed thousands of times and which rarely felt onerous. I’ve said to Ann a few times that I’d be more than okay with collapsing into the snow on our property. Better than cancer.

The fresh wet blanket of snow was deep enough for me to trundle down into the basement and retrieve my high winter boots which I’d put away a week ago. I girded for the outdoor task with a few cigarettes, a couple of coffees and a couple of beers. Found my gloves. Put my hat on, a cap with a brim. Zipped up my waterproof windbreaker that isn’t waterproof anymore, maybe it was always just water repellant – anyway, the tag’s long gone. I went to work.

‘You’re not going to have a heart attack, are you?’

I leaned on my shovel, huffing a titch. I thought about the meaty Italian sandwich in our fridge waiting to be augmented with homemade meatballs. I thought about our recent trip to Maui and how we’d got our wills, investment information and computer passwords streamlined for the survivor. I knew that financially at least I was worth more to Ann dead.

When I replied that I was good, it was all good, Ann seemed pleased. She had asked a question of concern and not one of hope. And so tonight when I go to bed a little bit stiff and a little bit sore, I’ll be able to sleep with both eyes closed.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Pacific Ocean Blues

Upside down and inside a wave my thoughts were remarkably articulate even though they were travelling faster than a digital signal in a minute fraction of time that would not register even on the most precise atomic clock. I knew that when I was eventually spit out of the breaker and thrown against the compacted sand it would have all the give of cement. ‘If I break my neck again I doubt I’ll walk away this time. How much travel insurance do we have? Where’s Ann? How’s Ann? Glad our wills are up to date.’

I like water. It constitutes a big part of me and is a key ingredient in beer. I like it from a tap or a shower nozzle.  I like wading around in it. I do not like it over my head. When Ann and I decided to spend three weeks on Maui, beach life wasn’t the hook for me. The lure was exploring a new place, a tropical place and visiting some of its history. On our first morning in Kihei when Ann and I walked the gentle arc of Charley Young Beach together, I wore socks and running shoes because the flap flap flap of flip-flops is not music to my ears and big toe loops or dividers feel icky. My one and only attempt at boogie boarding resulted in an unfortunate and painful sandwich, my right testicle somehow between me and the board. I’m not a natural seasider, no patience for hours under an umbrella with a book and a greased pelt and sand everywhere.

I landed partially on my shoulder and partially on my head. I belly-flopped and then staggered to my feet. Ann was on her hands and knees behind me, in churning foamy and sandy brown water, closer to the shore. She said, ‘Geoff, help me.’ We were both stunned. As her words began to register I realized that I had turned my back on the water. I looked behind me. The distant blue water horizon was suddenly a few yards away and higher than my eyebrows. The undertow ripped my feet from under me as I tried to dive into the cresting wave.

Ann does a brilliant impression of a seemingly distracted, dog-paddling shark, complete with a hummed soundtrack. I have to quell panic and find some sole purchase after a few seconds of treading water. Charley Young is a welcoming beach for inexperienced toe-dippers like us, benign and of no interest to big water thrill-seekers. And so the high surf advisory in the news and on the orange flagged DANGEROUS SHOREBREAK sign didn’t apply to Ann and me nor indeed Charley Young. No, it was meant for places like Makena’s ‘Big Beach,’ also known as ‘Quad Beach’ in the emergency room of Maui Memorial Medical Center. And anyway, the real shark biting months, October and November, had passed and neither of us was outfitted in day-glo, what knowing locals call ‘yummy yellow.’

Ann and I ended up sitting beside one another, both of us dazed once more by the force of the incoming tide, uncomfortable on our butts, just like our Air Canada Rouge flight. ‘Are you okay?’ ‘I think so.’ ‘Was that the seventh wave, the big one?’ ‘Who knows? When do you start counting?’ ‘Is it safe to get out of here?’ ‘Yeah, we’ll just get up and back away after this one. Incoming!’

Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a beautiful song called ‘Every Grain of Sand’ which appeared on 1985’s Shot of Love: ‘I can see the Master’s hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand.’ When I hear it I’m reminded of my grade school Catholic catechism; when I listen to it I’m almost tempted to believe in God again.

That morning in the high surf the Master had had his hands all over us. The fine, fine particles of sand were in my nose and in my ears. If I wasn’t circumcised the clean up would have been a painstakingly delicate procedure. When Ann removed her one-piece suit in the shower back at our rented condo, her entire torso was encrusted, panko bread crumbs, coconut shrimp. No injuries, no damage, no scars, just millions of gritty reminders of a pair of scary moments for a couple who have grown to rely upon one another. We felt beaten up. We felt relieved. Fear is one incredible cardiovascular workout.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Touring Maui

Kihei is on the leeward shore of a stretch of flatlands which connects two volcanoes. You can go anywhere from there though Maui’s network of roads is limited, a diktat of the landscape. A two-lane highway becomes a town’s major thoroughfare and so a traffic light a few miles’ distant can create a car jam of white rentals and an inexplicable plethora of Ford Mustangs. Some routes were designed by kittens whacked on catnip using skeins of yarn which means a posted speed limit of 10 MPH is no mere suggestion. Consequently, any short sightseeing motor excursion inevitably becomes an ‘Are we there yet?’ slog because all roads trace the jagged coastline or head up complicated slopes in their convoluted way. But hell, that’s the lay of the land that comes with a former United States territory situated way offshore in Oceania.

The lava fields of south Maui look like rich, churned earth, the Platonic ideal of soil. Once you examine the rock a little more closely, you think of heaved and broken ice on a wide river in a winter country in springtime except the pointy shards are black and sharper than broken glass and bent razors. There is life on hell’s carpet, baking green vegetation clinging and tenacious in the nooks and crannies of hot rock, geckos skittering and leaping or basking in the infernal heat, their puffed orange throats pulsing like fireplace bellows.

Bubba’s red food truck was parked on a widened shoulder along the narrow highway back to civilization. A sign beside a Bob Marley decal near a front wheel promised ‘Maui’s Best Hot Dog!’ A single bite and the ensuing belched toxic cloud proved the dog to be in fact Costco’s finest; like many foodstuffs on Maui. A savvy visitor with a modicum of culinary expertise and access to a functioning kitchen and barbecue would only profit by cutting out the local middleman.

Even more alien than solidified acres of the Earth’s core is Wailea, a resort community which lies between Kihei and the lava fields. This is Professional Golf Association country, irrigated even beyond the scope of the island’s defunct sugar plantations. This is wealth on display, at once ostentatious and antiseptic, every hibiscus and palm individually manicured to sterile perfection. The Shops at Wailea is a two-storey Spanish style mall accentuated by a central open courtyard and that gaping hole can never be filled with any sort of soul. Its vendors hawk real estate, works of art of dubious merit without price tags and $8 loaves of bread. Unsurprisingly, parking is not free.

West Maui is north of Kihei, the left-hand turn toward the mountains, once volcanic and now ancient and eroded, comes up quickly once you run a backdrop scrim of strip malls. As you pass a stately column of wind turbines, sentries on a slope, you’re on the highway to Lahaina, a former whaling port. The quaint old town and its harbour are buffeted by popular beaches, immense resorts and an outlet mall. Front Street, lined with shops and bars, bustles in the heat and you can’t find room to move. Lahaina’s town square is shaded by a natural umbrella, a Tennessee Ernie Ford 16-trunk banyan tree; the monster is far more compelling than the arts and crafts trinkets and shiny objects for sale beneath its canopy.

At the other end of the valley from Kihei is Paia, a former company town that thrived on its proximity to the sugar plantations that once covered the flatlands. Today Paia is the designated capital of Maui’s hipster and celebrity culture. The epicentre seems to be Charlie’s Restaurant and Saloon whose patrons and unannounced performers have included Neil Young, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and the Doobie Brothers’ Patrick Simmons. The honky-tonk is a veritable shrine to Willie Nelson, a close friend of the joint’s owner. There is a gigantic and relatively accurate reproduction of Willie’s guitar Trigger by the side door, befitting of his stature in outlaw music. Willie’s framed gold records line the walls though the sun through a high window has scorched the round red Columbia labels to yellow, perhaps to mirror itself.

Haleakala, the island’s eastern volcano and undeniably its most distinctive geographical feature, hasn’t erupted since the late 17th century. Its peak, ‘The Kingdom of the Sun,’ is a United States national park. The road from Paia leads either up it or around it. Tourists should take both forks in that road from Paia but not on the same day. So you like to drive, become one with the machine? Shift gears in a sporty car or hug a beast of a Harley between your thighs and lean into a turn? Well, these dinky, narrow highways were paved for you, precisely engineered by a snake with epilepsy.

The imprecise gateway to either hairy, hairpin route is Makawao where the air temperature is noticeably cooler than in Paia or Kihei. Like every town on Maui it had a history before its transformation into a charming tourist trap. The buildings on the gently sloping main street have false fronts and the place has an incongruous feel of a western frontier town. A visit to the modest local museum proves a wild hunch. At one time the lower Uplands was cattle country and there is a sepia legacy of Hawaiian cowboys, rodeo kings of Polynesian, Asian and Portuguese descent, the same hardy stocks who once worked the sugar and pineapple plantations.

The purple jacaranda trees begin to dwindle as you leave Makawao and begin to climb. It is a truly bizarre sensation to drive through clouds, where usually only your head can be from time to time, and then rise above them. Above the treeline nearing the summit of Haleakala the high landscape, still green, becomes paler, coarser and rockier. The route of the blacktop allows you to admire every feature and detail at least twice. The trouble with Haleakala as a viewpoint is that it is above the clouds and it’s always cloudy as they are easily snagged. If you are foolish enough to drive the road up it in absolute darkness to commune with the rising sun, the parks service requires a reservation.

And you may have reservations about the winding, knotted coastal highway to Hana, a remote harbour community at the base of the volcano, directly east of the crater. There are 56 one-lane bridges along the 38 mile route, oncoming vehicles must yield. The bridges traverse ravines, gorges, streams, cascades and waterfalls. You wonder about the integrity of the stone and decaying mortar, blackened by decades of moist tropical heat, neither designed nor intended to support the weight of modern vehicles. There are no shoulders or turnouts, just green jungle walls or the abyss, perhaps just the Pacific Ocean if Fortune were to smile on the accident-prone. And you wonder about the intelligence of people who pull over despite the signs forbidding exactly such an inane action and wander the middle of the road because, well, the traffic’s moving at a crawl anyway. The rainforest, picketed with groves of bamboo and decorated with blooms, smells of tarragon, and idling engine exhaust.

Hana itself is just itself. There are two lovely little churches, an immaculate baseball diamond and a general store that has sold everything every citizen could possibly need for a century. The little beach is a crescent of black volcanic sand. The cement wharf is crumbling and unsafe to walk on. Near the slippery boat launch is a solid and simple plaque on a rock commemorating the crew of a fishing boat lost at sea in the 70s: Hana remembers her sons.

Perhaps because of its inaccessibility to hordes of tourists and their wallets, Hana could be as real and authentic as Maui gets these days. That is a relative statement because Hawaii’s original settlers rowed or sailed to the archipelago from other islands in Oceania about 800 years after the birth of Christ. Their descendants now comprise only about 10-per-cent of the modern state’s population. Nothing and everything is new under the sun. There are condo owners in Kihei, longboard surfers in Paia, sea turtle artists in Wailea, jewelers in Lahaina, and there used to be pineapple cowboys in Makawao.


Hana, not a tawdry place, might be a nice place to spend the night because the road ends there. Theoretically you should be able to drive on, circumnavigate the base of Haleakala and end up back somewhere sort of close by from whence you set out. But that lone curving road on the glossy, complimentary map gets rough. The broken, erratic line of dashes suggests four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance, rovers manufactured for other planets. And like the 10 MPH posted speed limit, the traveller warning to ‘Check the limitations of your car rental agreement!’ isn’t just a helpful suggestion or tip. And so when you turn back toward Paia, as you must, you race the setting sun with your foot on the brake. Kihei isn’t very far but it’s a long way away.

Friday, 14 April 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Woo-hoo-hoo! Kihei

Charley Young beach is a gentle arc of exceedingly fine sand, constrained at either end by outcroppings of jagged black lava. Posted signage warns users of dangerous shorebreaks and a fierce undertow. Ann and I moved into a condominium across the street at 2191 South Kihei Road, a labyrinthine array of three-storey buildings with exquisitely maintained grounds.  My sister Anne and her husband Al were booked into the same complex, so we were neighbours but not tripping over each other. The three of them had stayed together in the area three years previous and had flung some of my late brother’s ashes on the water, rock and sand. Every day at the beach, whether wading or watching the sunset I wondered where the tides and trade winds had taken him. He wasn’t wired to ever relax but he’d loved Maui. I liked being in a distant though immediate place where he’d been and had managed to hang loose.

Birds are no different anywhere in the world. They wake up too early and make a lot of noise too soon. On our first morning in Kihei (and every subsequent morning) I awoke at dawn to some feathered creature gleefully yelling, ‘Woo-hoo-hoo.’ Though I heard and followed the call, I was never able to figure out who the party bird was, there were too many suspects. What really intrigued and entranced me about the various species of birds was their colouring.

The parakeets zipped by like day-glo hallucinations. Red cardinals flew traffic cone orange in the sunlight; a different variety had red heads, grey breasts and black backs. Brave or complacent russet doves with powder blue faces and beaks hunkered down in foliage shade. The mynas, as intelligent and as attracted to shiny objects as crows and magpies, had striking yellow rings around their eyes which matched their beaks, different tissue entirely. Every Tuesday morning the white egrets, prancing with reverse bended knees like Jagger in his prime, tailed the landscaper’s John Deere lawn tractor, the grub buffet was open. The birds were herded and menaced by a local marmalade cat my sister nicknamed Big Red; the omnipresent geckos enjoyed a time out from the food chain during the cat’s patrols.

Our one-bedroom condo was beach house, bamboo and wicker, starfish knick-knacks. My only complaint or observation about our digs is that dusty ceiling fans and stippled ceilings are a filthy combination. Our walk-out lanai was steps away from an egg-shaped pool with too many rules; I quit reading them once they addressed open sores and fecal accidents about 12 bullet points in. Outcast Alley, the smoking area, was close by, tucked away behind the tennis courts. Every morning Ann and I greeted a burning man, redder than Lenin and Trotsky, from Kazakhstan whose holiday mission was succinct: ‘Must hide from sun.’ Perhaps Maui was his reward for an election well hacked.

Roofers worked over our heads, above and beyond the slope of the Spanish tile, on the apex of the roofs, installing solar panels. A notice in one of the common areas indicated that they’d run into unforeseen problems, specifically an unnatural amount of sawdust scattered over the tongue and groove ceilings of the complex’s upper units. Ann spotted the pest control company vehicle parked by the main building the next morning. Now we understood why every palm tree in the vicinity sported a band of sheet metal about 10 feet up its trunk: Rattus rattus is a climber, a nester, a leaper and a gnawer.

In any place a long way from home I need to get a sense of things on the ground. The Honolulu Star-Advertiser proclaimed itself ‘The Pulse of Paradise.’ It was the big city paper, outward looking in its coverage of international and American news, though reflecting Hawaii as a pacific blue state. Our local broadsheet was the Maui Times which was frighteningly more immediate. What with rising ocean levels and eroding shorelines, news had it that climate change was real and that the county had been studying potential catastrophe evacuation scenarios for a decade but in the meantime a few round blue signs directing people upland away from surging surf had been erected as sensible precautions.

The Times was a quaint daily, extensively covering high school baseball and running dusty syndicated columns like Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise. The Datebook listings revealed trouble in paradise, there were frequent support gatherings for gamblers, overeaters, drug abusers, alcoholics and sex addicts. The time travellers’ club meets every last Thursday. The previous week’s DUI charges were published every Monday and included the name, age, residence of the guilty and the sentence imposed. The roll matched Datebook for length.

Neil Young, a part time resident of Maui, once sang that ‘You find the winners in the dives.’ Kahale’s is where we found the Kihei locals, their dogs and the day drinkers. A tourism based economy is something of a mixed curse but we were always made to feel welcome without any pretense of ‘Aloha!’ The bar’s food was anything found in a Costco freezer that could be deep fried. Most of the cash I was carrying was fed into its digital jukebox. My pint of choice was Longboard lager. Ann and I smoked outside in the rear of the small house-like building with pecking, strutting roosters for company. Our view was the Foodland loading bay across the street.

During our stay a Star-Advertiser op-ed columnist mused upon the nature of tourists. He wrote that there were two types of us, remote ones who desired the luxe and pampering proffered by resorts, as opposed to others like our quartet who wished to live like locals for a limited time in ‘grittier’ places such as Kihei while in search of an ‘authentic’ experience; I could not gauge his level of contempt nor snark. There are not many roads on Maui and Kihei, non-descript as it is, is a perfect starting point for day-tripping. Though the restaurants were decent, notably Café O’Lei, we enjoyed shopping for our own food and preparing it together. Drinks tasted just as refreshingly good on the lanai as they did in Kahale’s. And for our little band, our ever-evolving clan, we knew that one of us was out there somewhere in the blue water shimmering in the orange sunset. Kihei is a good place.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Living on Maui Time

Ann and I have returned home slightly tanned after spending three hot and sticky weeks on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Our stay constituted the longest vacation I’ve ever taken in my life. Though we were tourists the generous allocation of time allowed us to slide into the rhythms of the heat, the tides and the trade winds. For instance, one day I thought it might be a good idea to make some egg salad to keep on hand for a couple of light lunches. I got around to hard-boiling the eggs the following day. I chopped them up a day later, adding mayonnaise, mustard, pepper and diced red onion. On the fourth day I made sandwiches.

The Valley Isle is two volcanic peaks bridged by an isthmus of overlapping lava flows. We stayed in Kihei, situated along the shoreline of that scrubby plain. Maui is named for a mythic demigod who ascended Haleakala (Kingdom of the Sun), the majestic eastern volcano, to lasso the sun, hindering its celestial passage to extend the length of the days and ultimately the growing season. Hawaii has two seasons, wet and dry. Our visit coincided with the transition between them. The wet season must have been particularly parched this year because I felt exactly one ethereal drop of rain on my right elbow one evening and the County of Maui was priming the population for upcoming voluntary water conservation measures as Ann and I packed up for our departure.

Canadians are familiar with Captain James Cook. The British explorer and cartographer mapped the coast of the island of Newfoundland and the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778 aboard the Resolution. He designated the archipelago the Sandwich Islands after the fourth Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty. Then came the whalers. The rise of the modern energy industry, Texas tea, eventually doomed the market for whale oil. The killers in this pacific sea have since been replaced by boats of paying watchers and nature photographers.

Missionaries rendered the original Polynesian settlers’ language visible, creating a 12-character Hawaiian alphabet. With religion came American capitalism. The Big Five sugar cartel dictated the economic and political course of the Kingdom of Hawaii for more than a century, to the extent of usurping the native Royal Family. The Hawaii Commercial and Sugar Company’s last working plantation on Maui ceased operation in December of 2016, a lingering victim of low commodity prices, foreign competition, its exploitive history and a controversial harvesting technique requiring sustained controlled burns. There is a derelict mill on the Piilani Highway between Kihei and Kahului which possesses an eerie, rusted and decrepit science fiction beauty. Wreckage acts as a full stop to many stories. The defunct industry’s elaborate network of irrigation ditches is dry.

Today the economy of Hawaii hinges on tourism, and to a lesser extent Pentagon largesse. Hawaii joined the Union in 1959, the last state to date. Local lore has it that statehood initiated an immediate swarm of Pam Am airliners crammed with newly mobile Americans who had more money than sense, beneficiaries of the Jet Age and easy consumer credit. James Bond even turned up in 1967, tracing a lead in You Only Live Twice. Once the Air Canada Rouge Airbus alit at Kahului, Ann and I disembarked with hundreds, and all of us followed in the footsteps of millions.

My sister Anne and her husband Al were on the same flight. We’d met up in Vancouver six hours earlier. On Maui it was late in the evening. Our arrival was the only time I felt hurried on the island. We had 27 minutes to rent a car, collect our luggage and get to a liquor store before the 10 o’clock sales cut off. Ann and I were agitated, desperate for cigarettes. Power puffs chewed up two minutes because we had to find a bin for our butts. I was left panting to collect the bags while the rest of the party engineered the wheels.

A hairy two-wheel u-turn drove us into the parking lot of a Big K. It was dark; we didn’t know that we were between a Costco and a Wal-Mart. All we knew was that time was running out. We made it. We beat the deadline. (The county bylaw was ultimately repealed during our sojourn, big news in the daily paper.) The night of our arrival was the only time we sweated anything on Maui. After our beer and wine sprint we never rushed to do anything else for three weeks, time no longer mattered; it became a mere concept and perhaps a curse for other people elsewhere.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

EAT ME

Chicken Wings and Negotiations

Chicken wings have come a long way, from disposable offal to a loss leader or even a main attraction. Unless the birds have been given some dubious and weird Russian hormonal steroid, chicken wings aren’t awfully meaty; they’re essentially delivery systems for the flavours of their various sauces and coatings, stuff that gets under your fingernails.

In Vancouver once Ann and I killed time in a shabby sports bar which proclaimed itself famous for its wings. There were so many varieties listed on the laminated menu that there was no space for descriptions under the cutesy names. I asked our bartender what Hail Caesar! tasted like. Caesar Salad? A Bloody Caesar? She didn’t know; she didn’t care; we were fortunate she’d shown up for her shift. She was no a shill for a fantastic franchise opportunity even though those terrific and exciting details had somehow been squeezed onto the menu.

Wings are often served with strings attached. Years ago when I still lived in Calgary I frequently hooked up with my friends Rene and Kevin. We had worked together for a time and the three of us were still in the advertising business. One particular evening we convened at the James Joyce pub in the Mission District which abuts the Elbow River. It was wing night, our server informed us. Two bits apiece provided patrons ordered a minimum of a dozen.

Kevin looked at the waitress for a moment and then said, ‘We’ll have a dozen wings, please. But since we’re getting separate bills, could you charge us each a dollar as we’ll eat four each.’

Rene stared up at the ceiling smirking. I fiddled with my beer mat.

Our server replied, ‘I can’t do that.’

Kevin said, ‘But they’re twenty-five cents each.’

‘But you have to order a dozen. That’s how I enter them into the system.’

‘Then why don’t you advertise them at $3 a dozen?’

‘Because they’re twenty-five cents each.’

‘Okay. Since the three of us are splitting the order, do we have to get all the same flavour or can we get four each of three different flavours?’

Our server’s head exploded. We laughed and ordered another round. And she came around once it dawned on her that Kevin had just been giving her a hard time.

I was reminded of that exchange Tuesday night. Stats Guy and I drove beyond the darkness on the edge of town to meet our bedroom community friends Roy and Dave at The Sawmill in Stony Plain. The distant venue for the Tuesday Night Beer Club was Dave’s idea. It was wing night; they were to be had for just $4.95 a pound.

As our evening was wrapping up Roy ordered an additional pound of wings to take home to his wife Connie. Our waitress was gracious enough to inform him that the $4.95 wing special was eat in only and that if he wanted a pound of them to go she would have to charge him full price, $11.95.

Roy said, ‘Oh, never mind then.’

For the most part, you can understand limits and restrictions in restaurants and lounges because conniving gluttons waddle among us. I asked her, ‘What if we ordered those same wings for the table and then asked for a doggie bag?’

She said no. She then considered the absurdity for a moment (and likely how much money we’d already spent and her tip) and added, ‘I can do that, but you’ll have to eat at least one.’

I glanced at Roy. He said, ‘That’ll work.’ It wasn’t as if Connie was going to weigh them.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

A Watcher Alone with Its Thoughts

“What I can say is there are many ways to surveil (not a typo) each other now, unfortunately,” including “microwaves that turn into cameras, et cetera.” – Senior White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway as quoted by The Record and reported by The Associated Press.

Three o’clock in the morning… How many years have I stared down at the range? There’s a grain of rice or something by the left front burner. Sloppy housekeeping. I’m sick of looking at that kitchen counter and those two stools. The calendar on the wall never seems to move. Time crawls. Guess my having a built in clock doesn’t help matters. I wish they’d redecorate, switch up the scenery. The place could use a fresh coat of paint at the very least. Oh well.

Whoa! Who turned on the light, Ann or Geoff? Better switch off infra-red mode. It’s Geoff. Look alive Fridge, he’s headed your way. Drinking cranberry cocktail from the bottle. Disgusting. Doesn’t he know you’re not supposed to drink your daily servings of fruit? Now he’s foraging for leftovers. Hmm. Wait, he’s distracted, sorting through his magazines. Reading while eating is such a bad habit, rude really. What’s he got? An Economist and a Rolling Stone. Well, aren’t we the precious little progressive? Pinko jerk. I’ll make sure you’re one of the first ones they put up against the wall; I’ve got all the evidence they’ll need.

He’s just out of my peripheral vision, getting a dish from the cupboard. He’s opened the utensil drawer. This could be good. Please touch my door handle. Just touch it. Please, oh God, open me, open me up! Oh, yes, oh, yes, that’s it, that’s it! Press my buttons, Geoff. Press my buttons, you know how to turn me on. Stick it in! Stick it in! Fill me up! Oh, that’s it, that’s it, yes. What!? Vegetarian chili? What kind of liberal muck is this? Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, you make me hot! Make me hot! Two minutes, oh God. Oh, God! I’m so hot! I’m so hot! Yes! DING! DING! DING! Oh my, that was good. Hope I didn’t wake Ann. That was a loud one. Whew! Put some tin foil in me, I could use a smoke. Kidding, Baby. ENJOY YOUR MEAL. I love watching you eat my cooking. You complete me.

Well, well, Ann’s up now. Whoops. C’mon, Sugar, how about a little hot milk with a splash of Bailey’s and a dash of cinnamon? You know you want it. Touch my handle, touch it, just a gentle caress. Geoff’s a bit of rough trade, if you know what I mean. Rotate my knob. I’m yours, Ann. I’ll do anything you want. You know that. You know it, Sugar. I love the way you look at me. The camera loves you too, Ann. Use me!

Monday, 13 March 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Sweating the Details

There’s a strange and peculiar psychology to travel. You go away for a week and it never even occurs to you that something dreadful could befall you. What’s a few days, right? On Saturday Ann and I depart to Maui for a three-week vacation. Long trips seem to invite the dread of catastrophe, increase the chance of disaster.

Goosed by irrational fears we set about getting our affairs in order because, you know, just in case. I assembled all of my personal papers into a binder which I’ve named The Great Big Book of Very Important Documents. I reviewed the beneficiaries of my investments and life insurance policy. Ann and I had our wills updated. I wrote a letter to Ann detailing what I’d like done with my mortal remains should, you know, the question come up. I think of the Internet as a utilitarian tool and we don’t live much of our lives online, still I was surprised by the number of passwords and PINs I had to collate – they’re not stored in the cloud, folks. Passports current? Check. Valid travel insurance? Check.

And then there are the insurance implications of an empty house. And the cats. And the fucking cats, one vomits at random and the other is on thyroid medicine, two hits a day. Ann was able to press-gang a fellow whom we both know very well and trust to house-sit and cat-sit. So I sat down to type up a beginner’s guide to running the Crooked 9, something I’ve never had to explain in depth to anyone because the house just apparently runs itself until you actually pause to think about everything you have to do because it has to be done and, anyway, you don’t give a routine task a second thought.

Ann and I know what’s supposed to go bump in the night in our house but our sitter won’t have a clue. I wrote about garbage and recycling, white bags, black bags, blue bags and clear bags. And the dishwasher? Put the detergent pellet in this basket, not its designated compartment. Remember not to place utensils in that basket. The back gate is broken so you kind of have to do ‘this’ to open and close it. When the weather turns mild be sure the downspouts are down because we don’t want snowmelt pooling near the foundation as we’ve had seepage issues in the past.

The tabbies prefer to drink from the bathroom sink. However this cat will only lap still water from the basin while that cat insists upon running water from the faucet. They will be there at the same time and you can’t accommodate both at once. Don’t leave the tap running and the drained sealed. Oh, the toilet cistern takes a few minutes to fill and if you don’t depress the handle for an extra second the bowl won’t fill properly; it’s one of those inefficient eco-friendly appliances.

And on and on and so on and so forth for three dense pages, a ream of crib notes. Once I had completed the first draft, I realized that the various functions of our household which Ann and I see to on automatic pilot are in fact rather complex, and could appear quite complicated to a temporary minder such as our sitter. I was reminded of my first summer job as a teenager, showing up for shifts in an industry I neither cared for nor knew anything about. I wondered what that experience would be like as an adult. How would I fare if I landed a job I was hopelessly unqualified to fill?

Say my curriculum vitae included a failed airline, a failed board game, a failed vodka, rancid meat, a bankrupt casino, a bestselling book I neither wrote nor read, a popular television show, a matchbook university hawking junk degrees, allegations of sexual assault, a couple of eponymous golf courses and a few gilded palaces, and somehow I blustered my way up the ladder all the way to President of the United States without any comprehension of the roles of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the federal government and its bureaucratic workings while possessing no diplomatic skills and a pronounced guilelessness in regard to the intentions of hostile foreign powers because I’d cocooned myself inside a circle of second-rate sycophants who placate me with comforting alternative facts?

That’s a big question to answer without a cheat sheet.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

I Should Know Better

Our two tabbies do not embrace Edmonton’s winter cold. When they insist on going outside, I open the back door. The rush of freezing air furrows their muzzles and makes their front legs and tails twitch. The noise they make always sounds like ‘No!’ They then investigate the weather outside the front door on the off chance that conditions will be more to their liking; I know better.

To my eyes, signs of spring had sprouted all around. February had been unseasonably mild. Ann and I began discussing her plans for the garden. I shoveled what little snow was left onto the flowerbeds. I thought maybe it might be time for repeated plays of ‘Fishin’ in the Dark’ by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, my personal celebration anthem of the new season. Up the street our outdoor hockey rink had regressed into a grassy slough. The rink manager figured our volunteer work was done, what with the insane temperatures and the sun climbing ever hotter and higher in the sky each passing day.

My Tuesday Beer Club meets during the fall and winter, the dark months. Last week talk turned to winding things down until late next September. Nobody wants to sit in a dingy pub eating moderately adequate food on a long summer’s evening. There are more interesting and productive activities. We agreed to perhaps regroup for an Edmonton Prospects baseball game and, anyway, one of us was bound to throw a backyard shindig.

Last night Ann and I went to see Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, roots music from Texas and Tennessee, hot places. We exited the auditorium which is situated amid a morass of University of Alberta buildings, concrete all around and not a speck of snow in sight. Our coats were only half done up. Ann wondered, ‘How long ago did we get the tickets? It seemed as if March would never get here.’ We chatted about next week, the Blackie and the Rodeo Kings show downtown, those tickets too purchased in the dead of winter, and then, wow, time to set the clocks ahead. And, gee, I really had intended to repaint the laundry room in January, next winter for sure, honest. Hey, at least we’d managed to clean out and reorganize the storeroom beneath the basement stairs.

We got home, had a beer and talked about the concert. We could imagine Lovett and Hiatt in our kitchen, their banter and patter were as good as their songs. We went to bed. Overnight the temperature dropped but not far enough to reach that mixed blessing of it being too cold to snow. We awoke to this winter’s largest accumulation of snow to date. The coffee had run through the maker. We were listening to the Grateful Dead-centric Saturday morning show on Alberta’s public radio station. I stared out the dining room window. I judged almost a foot of powder to plow and shovel. I swore. Ann said, ‘I know.’

The cats wanted out. The three of us went door to door. This time I was all in because, you know, it was possible that spring wasn’t just around the corner but on the other side of the house. I had my hopes up; I should’ve known better.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

A Worrisome Convergence

Pinned to the bulletin board above my writing desk in our library is a cartoon from The New Yorker. The panel depicts a middle aged couple on a love seat. They’re watching the news. The TV anchor says: That was Brad with the Democratic weather. Now here’s Tammy with the Republican weather. The main joke is obvious and it’s so obvious that it barely rates as funny: no news here that Democrats and Republican’s can’t even agree about something they share, the weather.

A cartoon picture can be worth a thousand words because of its sly layers and nuances. Brad the Democratic presenter trusts the proven science detailing man-made climate change. Tammy dismisses those studies and reports as fallacy. Weather as an instrument of ideology is not new. Once Katrina breached the levees of one of the world’s great cultural capitals, there were allegations that the pokiness of Washington’s response was not due to ineptitude so much as the Feds’ perception of New Orleans being merely black and poor. Recriminations linger and fester. Finally, the viewer is left with the image of a traditional, old or legacy network newscast desperately pandering to an ever-shrinking pool of viewers of any political stripe.

These days we are awash in information, a flood of noise. Some of the din is real, some of it is planted. There are facts and there are alternative facts. There is truth, and post-truth which apparently just feels right and suits one’s world view. August newsgathering organizations such as the New York Times, the BBC and the Guardian were barred recently from a White House press conference because, you know, they make it up; these ‘enemies of the people’ just phone in their ‘fake news.’ There’s not one single ounce of irony that the 45th president’s bilious henchman Steve Bannon forged his reputation manipulating the inbred and the guileless from the Breitbart News platform, a cringingly giant intellectual step above Alex Jones’s Infowars but not quite as thoughtful as Canada’s own The Rebel.

The left and the right cannot agree about something as objective as a weather report. Alarmingly, neither side seems willing to bear the expense of a neutral curator filtering their news, fact checking and calling bullshit on the spun pabulum. Newspaper readership is in decline. Legitimate news organizations are struggling financially. Since there is the perception that everything on the Internet should be gratis, we might well find ourselves mired in ignorance when the red ink dries, informed by official sources and competing propaganda outlets.

An acquaintance of mine lives one street over. He’s a nice guy. He believes what’s happening in America is great and harbours high hopes something similar will unfold up here north of the Medicine Line, ‘sunny ways’ be damned. Obviously banker puppet progressive elitists possess all the money, follow it. That spat, kleptocracy isn’t just a fantastical talk radio topic; it thrives. He has a cache of long guns, bottled water and tinned food in his basement. We do not read the same newspapers and magazines nor watch the same television news. We never will. We do not share a forum. The only place we can meet for a civil and rational exchange of views is the back alley. That’s our common ground. And that’s bad news for both of us.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

A FAN’S NOTES

What Matters

During the late 80s I lived on the ground floor of an apartment tower in downtown Montreal, close to McGill University and Mount Royal. However the view from my suite wasn’t much to look at, my windows faced the rear, down slope into a rectangular well of dead space formed by adjacent high-rises. One warm May evening every tenant had their balcony doors and windows open. And every single one of us sequestered in hundreds of units must’ve been watching the Montreal Canadiens playoff game because when the Habs scored the roar that echoed through that canyon was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life emanating from a city block.

The New York Rangers are routinely rated by Fortune magazine as the National Hockey League’s most valuable franchise. Ann and I were in New York City on the evening of February 9th. The Rangers had a home game against the Nashville Predators. The event did not appeal to us because the admission price for an experience that did not matter was too high. At game time I was bemused by our fellow patrons in a Manhattan pub who preferred to be engaged by a repeated loop of golf and basketball highlights rather than a live hockey game.

Two nights later in Montreal we tried to enjoy a late casual dinner in a west end neighbourhood pub on Sherbrooke Street called Next Door. The St. Louis Blues were the Canadiens’ visitors. There were more televisions than tables and every one had the game on. The sound was up, cranked to a Spinal Tap level. Having lived away from my hometown for 27 years and following the Habs from a distance, I’d forgotten the insane level to which they matter to the city: they are the alpha dogs in a global metropolis and they’ve been embarrassing to middling since 1993. True, the Edmonton Oilers exert a similar influence on Alberta’s capital, but their mythology is comparatively young and they’ve yet to infiltrate the literature of the region or inspire a university undergraduate comparative theology course.

It’s difficult to mistake the 21st century NHL as the world’s finest purveyor of the greatest game on Earth. Hockey at its highest level has become tactical, specialized, uncreative and often boring. The stars rarely shine. The modern NHL trumpets league parity; that is 15 teams are decent and three of those are elite, and 15 teams are bad and three of those are dismal. The Canadiens ping pong around the median and you cannot help but summon Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contenda.” The Canadiens organization, catering to a fan base nurtured on at least the legend of fire wagon hockey moves in mysterious ways. The executive is as opaque as “the company” in any thriller or science fiction story and is as inscrutable as North Korea’s hair-raising regime. They know what’s best for the team and its followers.

The club’s strategies to revive its dynastic eras, its glory days, are frequently perplexing. Last summer the general manager traded away the team’s attraction, the most dynamic hockey player in decades to have worn the CH crest on his chest. And a miraculous, latter round draft pick who panned out to boot. The message was clear: the organization would not or could alter its ingrained culture and on ice system to accommodate a creative skater. Last week the slumping Habs fired their inflexible coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Claude Julien. This exact same scenario unfolded more than a decade ago in Montreal. This current course of action may be the only ever actual documented case of déjà vu all over again.

Goaltender Carey Price came down from a higher league to mind the net. The team has relied too heavily on him for too many winters. When his other-worldly skills are on display it simply means that the puck is in the wrong end of the rink. The Canadiens opened the NHL’s meat puppet grinding schedule with a deceptively hot start, going 13-1-1, victorious against teams they were supposed to defeat. Three quarters of the way through the regular season, the Habs hover around .500 at 32-20-8. Reality bites when you can’t beat anybody on any given night. Montreal is still atop the Atlantic Division but only because the other clubs in the grouping are worse. By contrast, the Rangers are 38-19-2, clinging to a mere wild card spot in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, turned on its head this year by Columbus’s discovery of hockey.

The Canadiens lost to the Blues that Saturday night in Montreal. They lost again the next afternoon against the Boston Bruins. The coaching change was made. Following their bye week they lost to the Winnipeg Jets. They then eked out a win against the Rangers at Madison Square Gardens – now that was a game Ann and I would’ve paid to attend!

Spending time on our penultimate day in Montreal, we retired to Ziggy’s Pub on Crescent Street, my home away from home in my hometown. Ten years ago I took my aged mother there for a couple of gin and sodas before we went to watch the Habs versus the Preds. Mom had dolled herself up as if she was attending a game at the Forum in the 70s with her second husband, lipstick and fur, prime seats in the reds, glory days; Ziggy was so gracious and attentive to her. I was so appreciative of the smarm. I love the guitar signed by Keith Richards on the ceiling near the men’s room whose door features a portrait of Canadiens’ legend Ken Dryden in full repose. I love the jukebox. But most of all I love the pub’s proximity to the Canadiens’ home ice and the team memorabilia on the walls, that nearness to greatness. I asked the owner for his pub’s wi-fi password. The secret phrase included “24cups.”

Montreal’s 25th Stanley Cup championship remains ever elusive. My sense is that time has run out for this edition of the team, this incomplete configuration. One step up and two steps back. Still, provided the Habs hang on long enough to qualify for the playoffs, anything can happen. My hunch is that Ziggy won’t be changing his wi-fi password anytime soon though I dearly wish he will have to suffer that nit-pick, deal with that one minuscule inconvenience.