Friday, 18 June 2021

OF COURSE YOU DID


A Breathless Update


Three false starts. One barebones and very raw first draft. Five rewrites to flesh out the story but not pad it. Constant editing and correcting. Cover art and internal layout. Two sets of proofs. Perfectly aware that I’m entirely capable of tinkering with the manuscript to the end of my days in search of perfection, I’m perfectly satisfied that I have done the best that I can do. Time to go to press.


Of Course You Did tells the tale of two brothers from a broken home. Tom, the narrator, is the younger. He is a frustrated, failed science fiction writer. Big brother Pete is the more practical and literal of the pair, a successful engineer, and because of their age difference, something of a father figure. They are close, but a plot requires conflict, death and humour.


The 22 chapters are divided into thirds. Each one begins with an excerpt from Tom’s pulp sci-fi epic Atomic Space Rangers, an unfinished masterpiece. Maybe. The middles are Tom’s memoirs, growing up. Each chapter’s finale is immediate, present day. This structure took me some time to figure out because each section not only had to relate to its chapter mates, but reach backward and forward into other chapters like folds in time itself. The inspiration came from a book I’ve never been able to classify, let alone known where to shelve in the Crooked 9’s library, Wolf Willow by American writer Wallace Stegner, who grew up in northern Montana and southern Saskatchewan when the boundary between Canada and the United States was pretty much a prairie abstraction, a dotted line on a surveyor’s map. Wolf Willow is a wonderful triptych of memoir, history and fiction.


Of Course You Did is a novella, an awkward in-between length. As such, it will be priced accordingly in three formats: hardback, softcover and as an ebook. My first three novels were minor commercial disasters. My publisher dropped me after my first two. Fair enough, that firm was small time and I was even smaller. The Garage Sailor, my third, was self-published; the most commercial thing I’d ever written (advertising copy notwithstanding) - there was even a fucking cat in it, for Christ’s sake. I expect no more than another modest nadir from this latest work of fiction. Still, here I go again, time to get back on press. 


meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of creative complaint and angst since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is coming soon. Don’t miss out on the literary sensation of 2021. Bookmark this blog for more breathless updates

Friday, 11 June 2021

HUMAN WRECKAGE


The Skinny on Infills


Cities are a lot like me once I get to talking, they’re never finished. Since most Canadians live in urban environments, most Canadians will understand what I’m talking about. It’s always something.


I dislike other people as much as the next person. Consequently, if there’s a public issue raging in the agora and should I perceive it as having no direct or indirect impact on my life, I don’t care about it; let other people get worked up about nothing. Paradoxically, the grand unified theory of philosophy underpinning my existence postulates that for every human action and reaction in any sphere there will always be unintended consequences – and that fallout, that corrupted rain of incompetence, stupidity, never fails to piss me off. Ergo, I have an opinion about everything because everything is connected and my opinion is informed by the overarching Universal Law of Wham! “If you’re gonna do it, do it right, now!”


Canadian cities are the crumbling foundation of a tower of babble, federal and provincial jurisdictions and powers. Edmonton attempts to sustain its services and infrastructure by collecting property taxes, selling licenses and permits, charging user fees, and levying fines for bylaw violations. There’s no leeway, no alternative legal way to switch red budgetary ink to black. These increasingly dire circumstances have created a sort of utopia for developers, the infill movement.


Infills are new builds on old land. Imagine a charming home surrounded by greenery on a generous lot in an established neighbourhood. It’s for sale. The buyer isn’t its next occupant but instead a profiteer. Everything on the property is razed. The lot is divided into two legal entities, two street numbers surrounded by temporary fencing and populated with weeds. The turquoise portable toilet arrives (if I pissed that colour, I’d go to a clinic).  The noisy excavation(s) and reconstruction(s) are set to begin.


Since Edmonton’s city administrators don’t hold MENSA membership cards, density is perceived as a good thing; they just can’t appropriate land for civic sprawl as was the case in the good old days. The assessed tax on a single dwelling will be doubled. Permits and their application fees generate revenue. The pool of municipal user fees, garbage collection, water treatment, increases incrementally. And so, really, the infill movement is all “big picture” good; a jury-rigged solution for decades of poor urban planning and shortsightedness.


My complaints begin with the small picture, the architect’s rendering, a watercolour wash of the Platonic ideal of a two-storey skinny. Infills don’t resemble homes so much as commercial buildings. They should come with backlit signage, maybe a molar indicating a dental clinic or perhaps some other visual cue that jars with their domestic purpose: 7-Up: You Like It! It Likes You! The colour specification for the monolith now abutting the Crooked 9 is Ralph Lauren “Berlin Wall Grey.” And that choice was something of a relief because nothing looks goofier in a winter city than a new build slathered with an Arizona gated community pastel. Its walls are so tight to the property line that I could spray paint them with Rolling Stones tongue logos and neither the developer nor the future occupants would ever be the wiser. The narrow dead space along the now-wobbly fence line is at best a corridor for neighbourhood cats and local wildlife, hares, skunks and porcupines. It’s impossible not to be reminded of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow and The Great Chicago Fire.


Though the developer was rigorous about maintaining a clean work site, I’ve been picking up the detritus of construction for the better part of a year: wood off-cuts, screws, staples, shreds of packaging, coffee cups and energy drink containers. When the snow finally melted in May, some of it didn’t. The lingering white stuff was hundreds of thousands beads of Styrofoam. Stucco needs a surface to cling to and that is a skin of Styrofoam panels (which also do double duty as a layer of rigid insulation) and wire mesh. Its application process required that some of the crew’s scaffolding be anchored on the Crooked 9’s side of the property line.


This stage inspired me somewhat. I conceived a play in which the actors would enter an empty stage and spend two or three acts building the set, erecting the scaffolding. Like the stucco crew next door, a bizarrely arresting mix of backgrounds, language and idiom, they would spend two hours less an intermission talking about their lives, arguing, joking. Because drama requires drama, I as playwright would ensure internal conflict and a tragic, horribly fatal accident; or was it? Curtain would be the unfurling of the tarps before they spray the muck that has speckled my kitchen windows onto its Styrofoam base. Maybe some day, but as John Fogerty sang, “Some day never comes.”


The future neighbours’ expansive backyard deck has been installed. It is 42 inches above grade. The rickety fence between them and the Crooked 9 is just five feet tall. Any paltry suggestion of privacy has been cut off at the knees. Worse, the natural screens, the cedars and the shrubs, are struggling, their roots traumatized by backhoe blades. And God only knows the contents of those five-gallon pails of liquid waste the stucco crew poured into the soil. Should I ever write that play, maybe I will kill them all.        


meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of urbane notes on urban living since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is coming soon. Don’t miss out on the literary sensation of 2021. Bookmark this blog for breathless updates.

Friday, 4 June 2021

A FAN’S NOTES


Edmonton Elks


Edmonton’s Canadian Football League (CFL) club, established in its current incarnation in 1949, has officially changed its nickname. The Eskimos will now be known as the Elks. A hardy prey animal, as opposed to a predator, at least tops Ottawa’s REDBLACKS, RedBlacks or Redblacks (Rouge et Noir en francais and what the team should’ve done sans the anglais equivalent).


My personal bugaboo with sports teams’ marketing monikers is singulars requiring an article: the Lightning, the Kraken. Elks is an awkward though pleasing plural, like the Maple Leafs – my 1980 edition of the Canadian Press Style Book cautions cub reporters not to correct Toronto’s grammar. Terry Jones, the reigning dean of Canadian football writers, noted in a recent Postmedia column that Edmonton’s rugby football club competed for the 1922 Grey Cup as the Elks because the local Elks service club had provided and paid for their kit. Although Jones is getting up there, I’m certain he did not attend the game.


Athletic clubs select nicknames for their positive attributes. Should you play football in Edmonton in November, you better be tough and resilient. Same goes for the fans in the stands. Green Bay’s famed and redundant “frozen tundra” is south of 49 tropical. “Eskimos” is thought to be an English or French (the fur trade in the New World in the 1600s was very competitive) mangling of an Algonquian proper noun, their name for their Inuit neighbours and competitors who still inhabit the far north of the continent. I always assumed “Eskimos” was complimentary and not derogatory but then again, I never thought about it. Language is dynamic and organic, and the definitions of words necessarily alter or evolve over time, and the dominance of English around the globe constitutes a form of cultural hegemony. And so should a distinct nation say: “Don’t call us that and we’re not your mascots,” best to huddle up and listen.


Edmonton’s new logo is a slightly abstract line drawing of an elk as seen on the log wall of a hunting lodge. The design would also make a fine sticker on a tractor or thresher displayed at a farm equipment dealership. I’d been under the impression that the community-owned club was desperate for a nickname that began with the fifth letter of the alphabet in order to maintain the long established brand recognition of its EE logo, retain fan engagement by changing but not changing too much, and to minimize costs associated with any re-branding.


Elks President and CEO Chris Presson Tuesday told sports reporters that the team’s EE logo is “still within our ecosystems of brands and we still plan to use it.” Now, I know what an actual ecosystem is. And I also know what a tech entrepreneur means when she drops that co-opted noun in the business press. But, jeez, hell if I know what “ecosystems of brands” are. I assume Presson meant a suite of primary and secondary logos; sports franchises, like legacy rock bands, know there’s money in merchandise.


I had assumed too that Edmonton was intent on keeping EE on its helmets, just as the REDBLACKS, RedBlacks or Redblacks were intent on reviving the old Rough Riders capital R on theirs. Should the CFL somehow manage to stage a pre-post-pandemic 2021 season, the Elks will sport green antlers on their yellow helmets. Some points on those antlers have been modified to suggest the laces of a football. I’ve no idea who’s responsible for the graphic design, but the idea and its subtleties are clever and inspired. During the 60s, Montreal’s Alouettes had red skylark wings on their helmets. If you’ve never seen a single down of American football, you can still imagine the decoration on a Los Angeles – St. Louis – Los Angeles Rams helmet. I like the Elks’ new retro football kit, a revitalization of what had become an off-putting brand.


In these thoroughly postmodern days, it’s impossible for anybody to do anything right in the electric eyes of the social media mob. Controversy is standard stuff, like a password or an avatar. Naturally, Edmonton’s transition from Eskimos to Elks has come under some angry scrutiny. I have it on good authority that the Knights of Columbus, the Rotarians, the Masons and Odd Fellows are all mildly miffed.


meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of sports writing since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is coming soon. Don’t miss out on the literary sensation of 2021. Bookmark this blog for breathless updates.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

EAT ME


Thanks for Your Order(s)


It was early Friday evening, about the supper hour. I opened the rear passenger door of our Honda to slide in a box of pizza, a foil bowl of Greek salad and two individually bagged sandwiches. I heaved a great world-weary wheeze, a cigarette sigh. Ann looked over her shoulder from the driver’s seat. “Is everything okay?” she asked me. “You were in there for a while.”


“I did it again,” I replied.


“What?”


“I told a guy how to run his business, one I know nothing about.”


When I was 20, I knew everything and nobody could tell me differently. Knowledge is dynamic, elastic. I was a Dark Ages savant who knew all there was to know whilst not knowing most of it was wrong. I spent the next 40 years learning life lessons, most of them harsh. Because an income is crucial, I always viewed myself as a dedicated employee even as I resented hierarchy and process. I just wanted to be left alone to do my job without well-intentioned and unwelcome meddling. My code for “Will you please fuck off” to managers, colleagues and clients was “Thank you for your valued input.” Now aged 61 and pretty much retired, I now know more about everything than ever before. It’s not a miracle so much as an affirmation of a deeply personal journey of aggravation. Maybe I’m stubborn; maybe I’m arrogant: I’ve been called a lot worse by people who actually know and (used to) like me.


Campus Pizza first fired up its oven in 1981. It’s been in our neighbourhood a lot longer than I have. The business has changed hands many times but the Campus brand has remained remarkably consistent. The new owners have moved beyond mere paper flyers and have since created an understandably skinny social media presence. They say they want to hear from Campus customers. Careful what you ask for.


Ann and I are of a generation that still considers a take-out or delivered pizza something of a treat. We easily skip the dishes purveyed by Uber Eats. Campus is our go-to and we order out more frequently than our parents ever did. The modest operation reminds me of a neighbourhood joint I discovered in Calgary after I was transferred there in the early nineties. I’d rented a two-bedroom unit in one of those squat, low-rise apartment buildings whose builder had dodged the obligation and expense of elevators by sinking the ground floor, thus cutting off half a legal storey. The area was called Sunnyside; I could cut up two back alleys to catch a train out of there, but I liked to hang around.


On Tenth Street NW at its t-intersection with Kensington Road there was a record shop and a newsstand, conveniently located side by side. Along Kensington, past the Austrian consulate, the Polish Combatants’ Association, the cinema and the bookshop, were a couple of pubs who enjoyed my patronage. Beyond the pubs was a tiny bakery and delicatessen whose proprietorship changed at happy hour; it became Kensington Pizza. I suppose the shared space was what we would now describe as a ghost kitchen.


Tony and his Tatiana were from the Black Sea port city of Odessa, Ukraine. He had black hair and black eyes. His nose wasn’t exactly a beak but it was hard to miss. Tatiana was petite and very pretty. The first genuine conversation I had with her was when I’d wandered in and interrupted her reading of Len Deighton’s Berlin Game. Spy thriller! I said something like, “I’ve read everything he’s written.” Tatiana replied that she wished to satisfy her curiosity about what the “other side” was thinking during the Cold War.


Their all dressed pizza was called “The Godfather.” My problem was that green olives and shrimp just wouldn’t do. I customized the toppings and remained steadfastly consistent: “Hello, Geoff! The usual?”


Sometimes when I telephoned for home delivery Tony would come inside to chat in the living room for a quarter of an hour. A couple of times he buzzed my apartment from the vestibule, wanting to sit and chat even though I hadn’t ordered anything. I did what I could, offering him a cigarette, a beer and an ear. It’s not easy trying to start a small business in a foreign country; what could I presume to tell a stranger in a strange land otherwise? I worried that our relationship would turn Saul Bellow – The Victim weird, but mostly I fantasized about “Geoff’s Usual” earning a numbered line on Kensington’s Pizza menu, which, I guess, spoke to the dormant state of the aspirations and dreams that once drove me.


Twenty-five years later I strolled into Campus Pizza. “Hi, a pick-up for Ann,” I announced.


The owner shuffled his chits. He’s gym-fit with a shaved head, but he’s got the skull for it, so more action hero than egg man. “Your meatball sub needs another minute in the oven.”


I said, “You need a Philly cheesesteak sandwich on your menu.”


“I’ve been experimenting with it. I can’t quite get the flavour right. There’s no point selling it until I do.”


“You know, if you had steak on hand, you could also make Montreal-style steak and pepperoni subs. That’s at least two new menu items with a single additional ingredient. I had them try to make me one at Route 99 (a popular south side diner), but it didn’t work out.”


“Okay, your sub is ready. That’s everything. Anything else?”


“Yeah. Ann says your spinach pizza is missing something. Maybe some garlic or dill?”


He swivelled from his hips up and said to the cook, “You hear that?” He turned back to me and handed over the debit machine. I selected the “You Rock” gratuity option because I figured my advice was worth paying for. I knew my feedback, my input, was valued.        


meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of refined culinary criticism since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is coming soon. Don’t miss out on the literary sensation of 2021. Bookmark this blog for breathless updates

Saturday, 22 May 2021

HUMAN WRECKAGE


Say Hello


I was talking with a friend of mine who lives in Calgary last Saturday night. Checking in long distance, my landline to his cell: he made a choice; he decided to take my call. I’m not sure our conversations have changed all that much over the course of some 50 years. I find that aspect as reassuring as his voice coming down the line. We generally cover current topical slices of life and work; all that is righteous on E Street; the Montreal Canadiens. The indignity of public toilets is a bizarrely frequent subject, something of an increasingly unhealthy phobic-fetish as we’ve aged.


Toward the end of our chat, I asked after a mutual friend whom we first met in high school and who also lives in Calgary. I said, “I’ve telephoned him a couple of times. They always go through to voicemail and he never returns my calls.”


“Oh, that’s funny. I was texting with him just last night, providing some Springsteen listening instructions. I think he only responds to texts these days.”


I said, “Oh.”


I suppose I cannot communicate with one of my oldest friends as easily as I used to because I am a Luddite. I am “Beechwood 4-5789,” a telephone exchange designated by a proper noun, while he’s got a supercomputer skinnier than my package of 25 king size cigarettes in his pocket. The Marvelettes meet Kraftwerk. I do know that when old and new technologies somehow mesh and allow us to speak again, we’ll pick up our previous conversation from the middle: “As I was saying….” We will find a way to ensure our friendship endures relentless, confusing and sometimes frighteningly dehumanizing change.


One of the charms of Bruce Springsteen’s latest record with the earthquaking, legendary E Street Band is its quaint title: Letter to You. The 12 tracks are not exercises in nostalgia, glory days. The album spins like a missive to any rock and roll soul who ever set a sneaker on E Street, “This is where we were; this is where we are; this is what happened,” the Boss just checking in.


Because my mental bombe functions with plug-ins and punch cards, I’ve contemplated creating an exhaustive list of once-popular songs whose narrative devices hinge on archaic ways to younger ears. You know, “Return to Sender,” “The Letter,” “Operator,” “Switchboard Susan,” and such. A big job for someone who never figured out Lotus Notes and those are just a few titles. What about scene setting opening lines? That “Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee…” plea from Chuck Berry or Rod Stewart and Faces, “Just a telegram as your plane touches down…” that lovely and forlorn introduction to “Jodie.”


There’s no avoiding technological advancement. New habits can only be delayed before they’re formed. According to last year’s “Living in a Ghost Town,” Mick Jagger spent his first months of lockdown looking at his phone. My hunch is it wasn’t an elegant “Princess” push button model from Bell Telephone. The godfather of Caledonia soul has recently weighed in with “Why Are You on Facebook?” The consensus among music fans is that Van Morrison has always been a prick as a person, but that aspect of his character never manifested in his music. He’s always presented as a spiritual, romantic soul. Have I told you lately that he’s now a crabby old crank too? Van makes curmudgeon Don Henley seem like Raffi. This new song is so cartoonishly mean-spirited as to be uncomfortably hilarious.


The latest and best song about modern times is John Hiatt’s witty “Long Black Electric Cadillac.” The long black ride is a common trope and image in blues, country and rock music, as classic as the mystery train. Hiatt’s driver can cover a thousand miles between charges and, anyway, he’s “been running on artificial intelligence ever since I was a little boy.” The lyric fragment I’ve excerpted suggests a “Slow Turning” childhood memory: “I always thought this house was haunted because nobody said ‘Boo’ to me…” I am hooked by his new song’s sly nod to “Memphis in the Meantime,” Hiatt’s breakthrough: “After we get good and greasy, babe, we can go on home, put the cowhorns back on the Cadillac and change the message on the Code-A-Phone…”


John Hiatt’s tangential check in reminded me of “Boots and Hearts” by the Tragically Hip: “Well, I left myself on the answering machine, said I’m back in town tonight…” Answering machines, Code-A-Phones, how’d I forget about those? Sometimes I think I’ve spent half my life talking to a spooling reel of tape or responding to pre-recorded verbal prompts: “If you would like to speak to a human being, hang up.” If I wasn’t a lapsed Catholic, I swear to God my prayers would go to voicemail.   


meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of aged, innocuous and meaningless observations  since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is coming soon. Don’t miss out on the literary sensation of 2021. Bookmark this blog for breathless updates.