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.