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.