Tuesday, 27 June 2017

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Montreal, Mon Amour

My elderly mother rightly maintains that she is still in possession of all her marbles. Her pins however have betrayed her, those matchstick legs are no longer sturdy, and easily fatigued. She wonders if she should maybe upgrade her tricycle walker to one with a built-in seat to ease the exhaustion of a lap around the Westmount High School football field. Mom is angry with herself because she’s all too aware that she’s no longer capable of doing the things she used to love to do. Once in a while she flings her cane down an empty corridor in her seniors’ residence and cackles madly as she strides forth to retrieve it.

When Ann and I visited with her in Montreal last Thursday, Mom literally ticked off the dead, only four of her friends are still alive. Her substitutes are the dogs in the neighbourhood, all of whom she knows by name. Each week the administrators of her residence issue a double-sided 14”x11” paper bulletin detailing upcoming events and the choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. One of Monday’s options was pepper steak. Beside it in a still steady, elegant, convent school cursive was a single notation: “Crap.” Mom says she prays every day to die that night in her sleep. On the other hand, she allows that her dreams of life in the wee small hours are incredibly vivid and wonderful.

Because Mom has always lived in Westmount and my sister and her family resides nearby, and I used to live proximate to the old Montreal Forum, Ann and I stay in the west end when we visit, always stomping that same old ground. Last week was refreshingly different. Montreal is a busy place this summer. The city is celebrating its founding as Ville-Marie, a Jesuit mission, 375 years ago. Fifty years ago the future glided into town on a monorail in the guise of Expo ’67. July 1st will mark the 150th anniversary of our country’s confederation. The city was also gearing up for Quebec’s Fete Nationale, which used to be St. Jean Baptiste Day until the separatists co-opted it for pride purposes. Preparations were underway for the renowned jazz festival, a street party if there ever was one. While attempting to book our stay, Ann and I found that hotel rooms were at a premium and their prices reflected that.

Having lived in Alberta for 27 years, my knowledge of Montreal hotels was both limited and dated. In our den in Edmonton, Ann suggested altering our search parameters and tasked me with filtering Expedia, Trivago and Fuckknowswhatelse-dot-com. I saw an opportunity for us to maybe change out our traditional backdrop and embrace other parts of the city during our family downtime. I rolled the dice on a loft on de la Gauchetiere between Beaver Hall and St-Alexandre for $168 per night. Rue Ste-Catherine, the Main, Chinatown and Old Montreal were easy pedestrian destinations. My mother and my sister were 40 minutes’ distant on foot or less than half that for a cheap cab fare.

Our base space was minimalist industrial, sparse and bare with exposed concrete walls. Our view from ten stories was the tops of aspen trees and the belfry of St. Patrick’s basilica. A black water tower on the roof of a building to the right looked like a lunar landing module. Across the street was a park, a manicured urban ruin, the rectangular stone foundation of a long gone 18th century building left intact as a communal bench. Our building’s face was jagged, like one side of a lightning bolt. Consequently I could peer into our neighbour’s place. I realized that whoever it was must be a permanent resident because I could see a guitar on a stand, books and a very scientific-looking telescope – ideal for gazing into thousands of downtown windows. The centre of the loft building was a vertigo void, not quite a courtyard nor an atrium but a deep shaft of real weather. Ann and I got a kick from the science fiction funkiness; the only drag was that we had to collect our keys three blocks away from our Loft4U and humping our luggage through Montreal’s narrow humid backstreets after a day of air travel was a mildly infuriating hassle.

Our location however allowed for a delicate brush of nearly forgotten touchstones. The outdoor stalls in Chinatown sold bootleg knock-offs. We wandered through the bazaar and then turned north once we reached boulevard St-Laurent. Ann and I ate hot dogs in the Montreal Pool Room. I could see the CafĂ© Cleopatra sign across the street, the sleaziest peeler joint I’ve ever set foot in. I was there once with my late brother; we were between Ottawa and Dallas, in town together for the last two hockey games at the Montreal Forum.

Ann and I also lunched at Marche de la Villette on St-Paul in Old Montreal, a busy bakery and delicatessen sans proper personal space. Out on the street I scanned for a half familiar design studio; one of my first freelance writing jobs was interviewing a gentleman who was largely responsible for the graphic identity of the ’76 Olympic Games in Montreal and was later commissioned by Canada Post to design a stamp commemorating Treffle Berthiaume, the founder of La Presse, a newspaper that still publishes but no longer prints ink on paper.

Papa Moore, my grandfather, an engineer, walked the provinces of Quebec and Ontario evaluating the futures of villages and towns, and whether or not they’d require a telephone exchange. His office was in the Bell building on Beaver Hall. “Do you have a place for a hard working young man who has served his country?” And so my father began his career inside it until he accepted a transfer to Ottawa in the early 70s. This succinct tower of stone, this whole damn city, shaped my life.

Westward ho! We ate dinner in the old Dominion tavern, once a respite on my lengthy record shop, book store and newsstand route, and now an upscale eatery. The delight was that nothing inside had been changed, from the wood and the ceramic tile and the hunting lodge decorations, so much so that for a brief moment in the men’s room I mistook the trough pissoir for a sink. Time had passed and I’d forgotten the way things used to be.

The Canadiens play their home games at the Bell Centre on de la Gauchetiere. The last game I saw there was against Nashville. I took my mother. Mom dolled up, lipstick and fur, the way she did when my stepfather escorted her to Saturday night games in the Forum in the 70s. Mom wanted a hot dog and a beer, I was delighted to oblige. “Mary Riley, Mary Riley,” Mom loves people watching but she points at them as she criticizes. Dear God, I’m equally snide and snippy but I like to think I’m less obvious. Ann frequently shushes me in public because I guess I should probably think “Jesus Christ!” instead of muttering it a little too loudly. I can’t hold my peace if I see someone with a green tattoo that looks infected. And stupid bad haircuts, ninja Hitler Youth, I can’t cope.

On departure day my sister offered to drive Ann and me to the airport. My mother, desperate to escape her residence for any reason, insisted on coming along for the drive. I got into the backseat beside her. Mom elbowed me in the ribs. I leaned over and down and asked, “What?” She said, “Nothing, I’m just moving my arm. You’ll shave when you get home, won’t you? I hate beards.” We took the scenic route through NDG and Montreal West so Mom could have a look around. She kept pointing at things, shops and businesses she used to frequent when she was independent; trouble was my left eye was often in the way.

We were early for our evening flight so naturally boarding was delayed for almost an hour. And of course flying east to west against the prevailing winds takes longer. Ann took the window seat. I squeezed into the middle one. The passenger on my right was Bogart in The Caine Mutiny; he played and fiddled with a yellow plastic ball for four hours. I couldn’t make out its embossed logo. I couldn’t concentrate on the novel I was trying to finish, Medicine River by Thomas King. Someone inserted a hot curling iron into my sinus cavities. My right nostril leaked like a faucet. My eyes teared up; my ears plugged up. My back began to ache. My four ounces of complimentary club soda ballooned down in my belly. I stared down at that fucking yellow ball.

Ultimately there was a touch of grace in the Air Canada cabin even as the trio of children across the aisle added their shrieks to the canned air. I am my mother’s surviving son and though Ann and I had just spent three days in her company, I did not mutter, “Jesus Christ!” I did not shout it. I did not scream it. I just thought it. Repeatedly.

Monday, 19 June 2017

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Whyte Avenue Freeze-out

After listening to our two favourite CKUA radio shows and completing Saturday’s New York Times crossword puzzle, Ann and I decided to break free, move beyond the boundaries of our property. Our destination was Whyte Avenue, the south side’s shopping and nightlife strip, and home to Blackbyrd, maybe the city’s last pure record store. We wanted the new releases from Willie Nelson and Jason Isbell, and I knew that with the leisure to browse we’d find some ancient catalogue gem from someone at a reasonable price.

The day was sunny and breezy, the solstice imminent. The bikers and hot-rodders were congregated in the Timmy’s parking lot, showing off their clean machines. The day drinkers were in the darkness of the Commercial Hotel’s blues bar. The sidewalks were tight with people and their dogs and children meandering on weekend time. Some of the pubs and eateries erect temporary street-side patios so patrons can enjoy the crush of humanity in the sunshine from behind a barrier. Pedestrians then must navigate boardwalks that extend onto the road which makes vehicle traffic flow like blood through an artery rimed with cholesterol. Everybody move over, that’s all.

Ann and I were impeded by a group of gym-rats and their skinny little molls. There was jostling, a molten shoving mass and raised voices. Somebody shouted, ‘Let’s go into the alley and fight it out!’ Ann said, ‘Somebody should call the police. Should I?’ I looked at the puffed up corner boys with their oiled haircuts, their muscle shirts, their baggy track pants and pristine leather sneakers. I said, ‘Fuckit, let ‘em cull their herd.’ I’m not afraid of youngsters but I don’t approve of the way they present these days; green ink tattoos scream infection through toxic clouds of sweat and Axe.

One of the fighters jogged ahead to get ready for the dumpster cage match. When Ann and I reached the crosswalk at the end of the block, he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, unable to make the turn into the fight site or even cross the street. ‘Do you got a lighter? A lighter? Do you got a lighter?’ A cigarette butt burned down to the filter flipped up and down between his lips. The end appeared sodden. He hadn’t been alive long enough to ask for a match but he was jitterbugging on some drug that had yet to be invented when I used to take them. ‘Do you got a lighter? A lighter? Do you got a lighter?’

Have I a lighter? Me? Us?

There’s a Toronto Blue Jays Bic in the kangaroo pocket of my sweatshirt right now but only because I could not find a Montreal Expos one earlier this spring. There’s a winter use Montreal Canadiens at home in one of my bedroom bureau drawers. I’ve got two Elvis Zippos that need flints and fuel. I’ve got a heavy metal Rolling Stones American tongue logo lighter that’s a bit too tacky to use. There’s an emergency Bob Marley Exodus tour lighter that I bought in Bridgetown, Barbados, on the shelf by the kitchen door staging area where I do all my standing, staring and thinking, and its purchase was a misremembered mistake because I actually caught the next year’s Kaya tour at the Montreal Forum. There’s an emergency 7-11 lighter in a tray of our Honda’s console. Ann’s got about six plain Bics secreted about her person because she knows she’ll likely mislay five of them. Do I have a lighter? Do Ann and I have lighters? Do we have lighters?

I said, ‘No.’

Friday, 16 June 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Tragedy and Farce

Because Earth is not flat Canadians look down on Americans geographically. Since most of us are settled within a two-hour drive of the world’s longest undefended border, it’s nary impossible to look away from our neighbours to the south. The viewing has become cringingly compelling of late, yesterday’s papers for example - oh man.

There were at least two mass shootings in the United States on Wednesday. One was rather ho-hum, a San Francisco UPS worker went postal, killing three and wounding two before committing suicide. The aftermath of the second one, unfortunately, is not shaking down as the game-changer it should be. A squad of Republican congressmen, their aides and their preferred lobbyists were playing baseball on a Virginia field just beyond the confines of the District of Columbia when they were fired upon by an attacker wielding an assault rifle. The late shooter was identified as an unhinged man with an arrest record, a vitriolic social media profile, and a former volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s rival Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Perhaps because his victims were only wounded, and Republicans at that – made of tougher stuff than the school kids of Sandy Hook Elementary - there have been no outraged calls to tighten what little gun legislation is on the books. Instead, the usual ‘come together’ panacea has been trotted out with sniffy asides about ‘the left’ becoming hostile.

And on…

Megyn Kelly used to be a talking head at FOX News, America’s most reliable and trusted source of alternative facts. She now works for NBC, one of America’s most unreliable and mistrusted sources of fake news. It’s possible that Kelly made her career-limiting move because she eventually tired of being groped by dirty old men impenetrable behind shields of power and money.

Alex Jones is the impeded frontal lobe behind InfoWars, an alarmingly popular conspiracy website and its related Internet channels, as such he wears the Grand Poobah’s tinfoil wizard hat. The Sandy Hook slaughter was a hoax. Anything else that ever happened in America was an inside job. Incredibly, the White House has provided the man with full press credentials. Even a conspiracy theorist might suspect he was being gently conned into the role of a mouth-piece patsy.

Kelly will have Jones on her new Sunday night show because she wants to ‘shine a light’ on the lunatic fringe bringing the FOX model mainstream because it should coax some ratings from the curious, those who can’t stop looking at the freaks. Jones is more of a personality than a journalist, he’s no Seymour Hersh, the dogged, independent investigative reporter who exposed the My Lai Massacre and subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting; that was real. This weekend two vapid people famous for being media personalities but who haven’t actually done anything will talk to each other and their conversation will constitute news.

And on…

Closer to home, Ottawa has been without an American ambassador since Washington’s regime change in January. There was an unsettling rumour that the preferred nominee was reality television star Sarah Palin. Fortunately, she was refudiated. The actual pick is one Kelly Knight Craft, renowned in Republican circles for her fund-raising capabilities. Craft is not a career diplomat. Her husband Joe is a coal baron, an industry that provides jobs, good jobs, many jobs, many good jobs. If the US State Department okays Craft in her new role, things could get a little awkward for Craft up here on the cocktail circuit what with Canada’s socialist carbon taxes, Canada’s adherence to the Paris Accords on climate change, and Canada’s goal to phase out the use of coal as an energy source. Palin would’ve been an insult; Craft just might be a dig.

And so on…

With the decline of empire comes distraction, frivolity and spectacle, circus maximus. The year’s biggest sports hype isn’t really a sporting event at all. Two grandiose and mouthy self-promoters will go toe-to-toe inside the turnbuckles for 200-million reasons. Retired pugilist Floyd Mayweather, undefeated and a champion in four different weight classes, will don his trunks once more to fight Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight blowhard Conor McGregor later this summer in the desert for social media bragging rights. Las Vegas is twitterpated. This is a P.T. Barnum event, a glitzy fleece and unfortunately, a sign of the times.

Canada, on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Confederation, is almost a century younger than the great American experiment. Given a few more decades, we too may stagnate and then regress because there is no guarantee that existing internal worldly and progressive views will remain fashionable and, anyway, this country’s got its own rap sheet of crimes and misdemeanors. Still, while watching what unfolds down south with dreadful fascination, it’s important to take notes and at least record what not to do.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Russia Rocks the Free World

This morning former FBI Director (“You’re fired!”) James Comey testified before a United States Senate intelligence committee. This was probably the most compelling, must watch television since, say, November 8th, 2016. Here at the Crooked 9 Comey’s testimony was streaming on an iPhone and a desktop computer, a fraction of a second out of sync but very bad news for traditional broadcasters. But this is the modern world and the modern world is a very confused and complicated slice of space in time, which Comey’s words drove home.

The crux of the matter is the Kremlin. The Russian security services are very good at what they do. The days of the Soviet KGB infiltrating trade unions and radical students’ groups, and providing financial backing for Marxist-Leninist tabloids are long gone. Divisive and disruptive techniques to destabilize what Comey described as “the shining house on the hill” are now far more elegant, sophisticated and shadowy.

Perhaps it’s not quite fair to describe the 45th president of the USA, a billionaire, as a bumpkin. Still, the new White House regime seems to be a cadre of inexperienced, immaculately groomed regressive zealots, some of whom might be half-wits. Perhaps it made perfect sense to open a Batshit-crazy Backdoor Red Phone to a hostile foreign power using their technology because it had somehow hacked the outcome of what was believed to be a free and democratic election. Deposed national security advisor Michael Flynn was the head of the wedge or perhaps the supplicating hand (tough to tell with liars); the retired military general is now registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent because he actively promotes the interests of Turkey, a fast failing quasi-democracy.

All we really know is that the most admirable and powerful country in the world is awash in harsh partisan confusion and that the Russians cleverly fracked those fissures. Comey chose to pledge his allegiance to America’s constitution and not to a star of reality television. But Comey may become an actual reality television or live stream star himself. When thanked by one senator for appearing before the committee as a private citizen, he quipped, “I’m between opportunities.”

The core of Comey’s testimony was sheer common sense. Ultimately, there are no Democrats or Republicans, just Americans. Something happened and he believes his country is at risk. These are not the good old days of midnight spy exchanges at Checkpoint Charlie. There’s no need to speculate on Russian interference in the last US election. Comey said, “There’s no fuzz on this.” In other words, the evidence is hard, solid in the eyes of US intelligence services. Alarmingly, Comey raised the possibility of American inside help and that prospect goes far beyond the realm of troubled whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Meanwhile, the president just wants all of this fake stuff to go away.

The Senate intelligence committee this morning did teeter toward the oxymoronic. Republican senator John McCain, a Vietnam War hero branded “a loser” by the current commander-in-chief and who thought Sarah Palin had the right stuff to be vice-president, doddered into the Kremlin’s e-mail funhouse without a stamp or an envelope.

As Director of the FBI, Comey was compelled to investigate the stupidity of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reliance on an unsecure and private e-mail server. Under scrutiny, the senator from New York erased or lost some 30,000 pieces of correspondence, security levels and national importance unknown. But this was crusty stuff, dating back to President Obama’s first term. No charges were laid because, alas, you can’t jail someone for simply being an idiot.

The 2016 presidential campaign was something different altogether. The Democratic Party’s computer systems were invaded and confidential information wasn’t leaked so much as poured onto the Internet. Very possibly, maybe, this flood turned the tide of the election. The key here is whether the Russians did or did not do anything to effect the outcome last November, and if they did or didn’t, people are unsure if they did or didn’t. Win-win. Comey said, “This is a big deal.”

This morning McCain was caught up in a web of counter-espionage, hook, line and sinker. The creaky senior from Arizona wondered why the ancient Clinton e-mail investigation had been closed because obviously it related to the election leaks investigation, those innocuous internal Democratic e-mails, and wasn’t this some sort of double standard, what with the FBI looking into the White House’s connections with the Russians when it’s really all about Hillary? Sure. The Kremlin won this round; well played, comrades. 

Monday, 5 June 2017

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

The Somewhat Greener Grass of Home

A couple of years ago the City of Edmonton launched a public service campaign encouraging its property owners not to bag their grass clippings and put them out with the trash. The persuasive argument stated that sheared clipping were 70-per-cent water anyway and that they would quickly dry up on lawns and act as mulch. This free mulch would keep tonnes of waste from making like more sardines in landfill. I bought in, the premise seemed rational.

Urban Albertans mow their lawns about 12 times a year by my count. The frequency diminishes as spring and summer dwindle into late September. I’ve always enjoyed the chore because I can get a lot of thinking done, multi-task as it were, but was pleased to learn it was now acceptable to skip a step. I was also mildly taken aback by the fact that something I’d been raised and taught to do was now wrong, but wasn’t always wrong because nobody knew better back then and had never considered the consequences of trying to dispose of hundreds of thousands of giant plastic bags of grass clippings year after year. The flame of enlightenment was tiny, it wasn’t “You mean Earth isn’t flat and the sun doesn’t revolve around it!?” Still, it gave me pause while mowing a diagonal pattern in the backyard. What else do I believe that is hopelessly misguided?

The City’s slogan was WE GO BAGLESS, sort of lame cheeky, saucy, ‘going commando,’ a smiley faced official spin on a slackening of standards. One morning, I left the house and encountered an election-style ‘bagless’ lawn sign on the property. I was a tad disturbed because I’d no idea who’d put it there. Also, was this promoting an initiative or just shaming my neighbours? Or both? Ironically, the sign was silk screened onto corrugated plastic. Plastic is indestructible, it won’t fade away into organic molecules like grass clippings. Any action whether progressive or regressive will always be accompanied by a retinue of unforeseen issues and consequences.

This town, my town, perched on both majestic banks of the meandering North Saskatchewan River is gorgeous, a very fine place to live, renowned for its setting and extensive greenspaces. In 2015 Edmonton ceased the use of herbicides in the city’s parks and on its boulevards. One of the rationales was that some of the city’s citizens were allergic to chemicals. My take on that was, “Too bad, cope with it,” because I’ve learned over the years that if you peel away the layers of most do-good complainers and self-described activists, you will often hit a deep vein, a mother lode, of narrow self-interest. The second City rationale was the mounting and unintended scourge of herbicides on the world’s bee population. Bees are a vital element in the planet’s complex ecosystem; everything’s connected. I bought that argument, albeit with reservations.

The result has been unbecoming for a provincial capital. Edmonton now appears neglected in a post-apocalyptic kind of way. Dandelions and noxious weeds have partied like it’s 1899. I’m convinced too that a fair number of citizens take their cue from the City. If municipal properties look shabby, then who cares about smaller tracts of private property? Unsurprisingly, addressing one problem has created another problem that needs addressing. So it goes.

The proposed solution is either insanely clever or bat-shit crazy. I haven’t made up my mind because I can’t get past Julie Andrews warbling, “Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo,” the lusty words of the lonely goatherd. The City’s latest weed control pilot project involves 200 goats, herders mounted on horseback, guard dogs to ward off curious coyotes and temporary fencing because goats apparently tend to wander rather than stand and graze like sheep.

Our over-reliance on fossil fuels and petroleum products has led to a near disastrous state of planetary affairs in something less than a blink of an eye in cosmological time. The internal combustion engine alone is responsible for dehumanizing urban design. We plan and build and maintain our cities to accommodate cars, not people. But I can confidently state that the streets of my town are no longer unsanitary quagmires of mud and horse shit.

Goats are like horses and us too, what goes in must come out in some form or another. My hunch is that a grand public park dotted with goat droppings will be more attractive than one overgrown and populated with weeds. Everything will be fine until an Alberta scientist isolates some previously unknown type of goat scat virus and designates it a threat to public health. If that scenario shakes down, then what? Grass. I’ve just written nearly 800 words about grass, so simple and yet so complicated – just like everything.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Hello, Big Brother

I’ve had a fender bender with the future, a low speed crash course.

A few days ago I went to see Alien: Covenant because I will always go to a Ridley Scott science fiction film because I know I will be in for a visual treat, a feast of battered technology and dripping ruins. ‘Covenant’ is a sequel to Prometheus, but the two films are not prequels to Scott’s original Alien so much as a more complex reboot of a franchise which essentially began life as a haunted house in space. In our age of burgeoning artificial intelligence (AI), there are looming existential questions and possible outcomes to speculate upon.

Michael Fassbender is electric in dual roles, one as David, the surviving ‘synthetic’ from the Prometheus mission, and as Walter, his more dutiful, upgraded version aboard the Covenant. “Hello, brother.” At its core, Alien: Covenant is a remake of The Forbidden Planet spiked with a queasily gratuitous homage to the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As the script addresses humanity’s need to know its creator and our species’ search for a new world of milk and honey, the plot only thickens with a shocking Judas Kiss.

1843 is a culturally themed sister publication of The Economist which first went to press that year. The latest issue carried a feature story detailing the difficulties scientists and programmers face as they attempt to instill and install morals and ethics into AI entities. The example cited read like the set up for a joke, a robot walks into a restaurant – an absurd, though explanatory premise. The logical machine would go straight into the kitchen because that’s where the food is stored. However, social norms dictate that restaurant customers sit at a table, perhaps order a drink, choose their meals from a menu and then wait for a server to bring their food to their table. Baby steps before robot warriors that will not rape and pillage engage in firefights with brainwashed child soldiers high on crudely synthesized opioids.

Following the flick I left the Cineplex theatre and crossed the parking lot to The Rec Room, another Cineplex property. The space is massive, an industrial chic gallery of bars, food counters, hi-def screens and new fangled games. I’ve never been able to make the conceptual leap of acceptance from card games, board games and, hell, even pinball to video games. All require degrees of skill and strategy but video games have always struck me as frittering away the benefits of new technological resources. A waste of time for everyone involved; my generation gap, I suspect.

I have since learned that gaming technology has enhanced training simulations and that those who pilot C.I.A. drones probably spent too much time in their mothers’ basements. Very recently The Economist ran a story explaining how video game codes are being altered for use as learning tools for AI units. For instance, a driverless car will recognize the Platonic ideal of a STOP sign, a graphic in a learner’s manual. A ‘drive’ through Grand Theft Auto will teach it to recognize STOP signs “covered with mud” and presumably, shot full of holes. Who could have predicted that whilst sparking up a doobie and playing Pong for the first time? The hi-tech rapture of ‘The Singularity,’ the synchromesh of humanity and AI, David and Walter, may be upon us sooner than visionaries have hoped.

The future was a lot to think about, so I ordered another pint and went outside for a contemplative cigarette. When I reentered The Rec Room the bouncer said, “May I scan your I.D., sir.” I replied with my best Roger Moore arched eyebrow. He repeated his question. I said, “I’m sitting right over there.” He said, “I know that, sir” and repeated his question which wasn’t really a question at all. I asked, “Why?” He repeated his question. Our tones of voice were changing. I was attempting to have a conversation with an automaton.

Was a kid in a black t-shirt with yellow SECURITY printed on it and a Bluetooth sticking out of his head going to be my hill to die on? How much personal information had I already freely volunteered to various levels of government, Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook and God knows who else? I saw my beer waiting at the bar. I reluctantly handed him my driver’s license. I said, “Let me see your screen.” He spun it toward me. There I was out in the parking lot looking shifty. “That’s your I.D. photo beside it.” I said I was familiar with my I.D. photo. “Why all this?” He provided the inarguable and Orwellian explanation: “For the safety of our patrons, sir.” Bad guys in the world and on the grid. I pointed at myselves, “What happens to this information?” He said, “Cineplex cannot access it. It’s stored on a private and secure server and then erased after 30 (maybe he said 90) days.” I said, “There’s no such thing.” He looked past my shoulder at the line of kids I was holding up.

So I walked back into the future with its virtual gaming rooms, its electronics, its utter sterility, annoyed with myself because I’d acquiesced to Big Brother who turned out to be a little prick in a cheap uniform wielding a modicum of power. “So this night might be how it will all shake down,” I thought. “The Jehovahs are starting to look pretty good.” I told the bartender to pour me another.

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 clichĂ© 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.