Saturday, 30 April 2016


Waking Up Dead

A couple of weeks ago Ann treated herself to a new, sale priced pocketbook. It’s a soft and supple one, maroon and black leather, and there’s something beguiling about the smell of good quality leather even if it’s not Corinthian, Ricardo. New wallets allow a miniature personal refresh. They are sold free of moth corpses and those faded or folded mementoes which once seemed so desperately meaningful; there’s always a theatre stub in a spy novel or a police procedural, part of a secret service legend or a clue.

Alberta Health cards are flimsy bits of paper inked with teal and black. Like me, they do not age well. They are relics of 70s printing technology, in-line perforations! Plastic ones with a photo I.D. would go a long way to combating fraud in an already overburdened Medicare system, but I digress. Ann’s access to Canadian socialist healthcare was temporarily blocked last week because her personal card either disintegrated in her old pocketbook or was inadvertently chucked into the trash with it.

This was an inconvenience, not a crisis. A crisis is what happened to my friend Ian in Ottawa. A broken handle on his oven door led to a whole new suite of appliances and him ripping out his kitchen counters and cupboards; six months’ hard labour plus expenses. That’s a crisis; I know, I’ve seen the pictures. Alberta Health provided Ann with a replacement card in a matter of days, no charge.

‘Are you an organ donor?’ Ann asked me as she inserted her new card into her new pocketbook.

I didn’t remember ticking any boxes when I applied for my Alberta Health card 26 years ago after moving from Montreal to Edmonton. And it’s been at least a decade since I’ve had the misfortune to use it. ‘I am,’ I said, ‘but I think it’s all tied in with my driver’s license (actually a learner’s permit). They can harvest anything they want.’

Ann said, ‘Good to know. Me too.’ She added, ‘They probably won’t want your lungs.’

‘No,’ I agreed: 25 ciggies a day over 40 years. Nor my liver, I thought, because smoking and drinking go together like Mick and Keith. I don’t know what my pancreas does, but I’m pretty sure that organ’s been a slave to my grind too. ‘Are cremations charged by the pound? I mean, the more they remove the cheaper the process. How much does an eyeball weigh?’

I’ve always considered organ or tissue donation as a type of insurance. Maybe my father read me too many Edgar Allan Poe bedtime stories or I watched too many episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, because I have nightmares of coming to in the close confines of a sealed casket and kicking and scratching at the lid in the absolute darkness. My back aches and I can’t get comfortable. I’m thirsty. And just as the claustrophobia and panic rev into red insanity I realize my coffin’s a train, on a track into the crematorium furnace.

The thought of being dissected on a mortuary slab provides a sort of relief from an utterly irrational fear. However, I dearly hope I’m properly certified deceased, doctor,  my eyes cartoon Xs, and not just passed out from one too many beers before they begin cutting and sawing. That prospect is somewhat worrisome, but I figure I’ve still got time enough to figure a way around that scenario too.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016


You Could’ve Called

Last week the Globe and Mail reported that police officers in a Toronto suburb were summoned to a residence to intervene in a domestic dispute. Neighbours became concerned upon hearing repeated shouts of ‘I hope you die!’ The violent argument was between a man and his pet parrot. No charges were laid as the incident was a classic he said/it said situation. Alcohol was involved.

A couple of Googles and a few minutes online revealed that there are nearly 400 species of parrots. Some are as intelligent as a four- or five-year-old child, able not to just mimic speech but string together sentences. Parrots are notoriously high maintenance pets who become easily bored, bred with an avian ennui if you will, an unfortunate trait as they can live to be as old as 100. I got to wondering what could cause an eruption between a man and his parrot.

Man: Hi! I’m home, sorry I’m late.

Parrot: Squawk

Man: Oh, don’t be like that. I told you I was going to watch some playoff hockey at the pub.

Parrot: One period, you said. One pint, you said. Watch Crosby, you said. Look at the time! You could’ve called. You could’ve called.

Man: I know; I’m sorry. I didn’t want to disturb you. The game went into O.T. Anyway, it’s not as if you can answer the phone.

Parrot: You’re drunk. You’re drunk.

Man: Yep. And I’m going to have another.

Parrot: Squawk

Man: Hic

Parrot: What do you care about hockey in April? April! Your Leafs finished last again. Last again.

Man: Do you have to bring that up?

Parrot: Shanny and Coach Canada are going to right the ship. Right the ship.

Man: Shut up!

Parrot: Just like Dougie Gilmour and Mats! And Mats! Crystal Wendy made of glass! Made of glass!

Man: Shut up!

Parrot: Their last Cup in nineteen sixty-seven. Sixty-seven! I remember! I remember! You don’t. You weren’t born. You weren’t born!

Man: Shut up! Shut up before I…

Parrot: Before you what? Before you what? Loser! Loser!

Man: Hic

Parrot: Loser! Loser! Leafs Nation! Leafs Nation! Loser! Loser!

Man: Can we discuss this tomorrow? Please? I’ve got to get up in the morning.

Parrot: Burkie, Burkie rebuild!


Parrot: Harold Ballard.


Parrot: Squawk

Man: Hic

Parrot: Tie Domi.


Parrot: Gary Leeman.


Parrot: Darcy Tucker.


Parrot: Knock, knock. Someone’s at the door. At the door. Knock, knock.

Saturday, 23 April 2016


Street Life Serenade

Yesterday downtown I met a man who runs a hot dog stand.

During the early 80s I managed to put myself through university by working part-time at an A&P grocery store. The shop steward was a butcher, a squat, randy, frighteningly solid and seemingly fearless alcoholic Scot. He would derisively dismiss co-workers, AFL/CIO brothers and sisters, with the same snarl, ‘They couldn’t run a fookin’ hot dog stand.’ I once, once, attempted to point out to my shop steward that unions perpetuate mediocrity by placing more virtue on seniority than merit. I lost the spittle-laden, incoherent counter-argument.

I’ve since worked in advertising in one form or another for 30 years. Subtracting my own expensively executed miscues on behalf of various employers, my dealings with certain agency or client marketing weasels, professional incompetents, so vapid and thick, have kept me awake nights for decades. None of those wee small hours of frustration were billable. Funny what you remember lying alone with your thoughts in the dark: ‘They couldn’t run a fookin’ hot dog stand.’

Operating a franchised mobile barbeque on an Edmonton city street corner is a lot more complicated than I imagined. Rod is a friend of Ann’s. They play in the same orchestra and have for many years. Rod plays the trumpet; Ann is usually first violin. Until very recently Rod’s work was air traffic control. Two weeks into this much less stressful venture he’s still trying to get a sense of his daily inventory requirements as his business expands; half of a hot dog is bread so the bun must be fresh. He’d like to shave a minute off a customer’s wait time but not at the expense of a perfectly grilled frank. Periodically Rod has to close shop to go and plug his parking meter. Setting up in the morning takes time. The close of business takes longer, there’s the load-out followed by the chore of washing, scrubbing and sterilizing everything from his tongs to his condiment containers.

‘I go to bed at ten o’clock and sleep straight through to seven-thirty,’ he tells Ann, smiling. He makes sleeping properly sound like some kind of miracle. ‘I’m getting more exercise too,’ he goes on, ‘bending, lifting and hauling. I don’t just sit anymore.’ And finally after many years, Rod now has time to play paying gigs with his wife, an accomplished pianist. ‘It’s great! I feel great!’

Rod’s cart is located on Jasper Avenue at the corner of 106th Street, this is his turf. ‘I could be here 24 hours a day if I want.’ Workers from the surrounding office towers have come down to say hello and sample his modest menu. The manager of a restaurant and sports bar across the street has dropped by to introduce himself and to offer Rod carte blanche if he needs anything. ‘The people around here have been great!’ Rod is beginning to recognize faces in the passing lunchtime crowd; we are predictable, habitual, slaves to our grinding routines. Edmonton’s newest live music venue is two doors down. There’s a large tavern across Jasper. The 104th Street downtown farmers’ market will start up in May as will the touristy tram which runs between downtown and Old Strathcona during the summer. Incremental opportunity abounds.

Ann orders a jumbo dog with cheese and bacon on brown. I opt for the spicy Italian sausage. Rod apologizes because its casing has a slight split. That’s fine, that’s the way I like ‘em. I dress it with sauerkraut, Dijon and a squirt of sriracha. There’s a squeeze bottle of something salmon coloured called Korean mayonnaise that I’m afraid to experiment with. The street food is delicious.

Rod asks us to mind the store and his cash box for a few minutes, his meter time is due to expire. We stand behind his cart listening to his amplified iPod mini: Nazareth pummeling Joni Mitchell and then Dylan knocking on heaven’s door and I hoped that wouldn’t come to pass anytime soon because 2016 has already been an incredibly tough year on music fans. And I hoped Rod wouldn’t be too long because if someone wandered up wanting a hot dog we’d quickly descend into a Monty Python skit: ‘May I please have a smokey?’ ‘No.’ ‘But they’re right there on the grill.’ ‘No they aren’t. Ann, do you see anything? I don’t.’ Fortunately Rod returned before I was given the chance to kill his burgeoning business. I couldn’t run his hot dog stand.

Saturday, 16 April 2016


The Importance of Reading Bad Writing

I have tried in my way to become not only a writer, but a good one. I’ve gotten better at the craft although I’m not there yet. I’ve got time to improve but I don’t know how much of my time remains nor how much I can improve upon the voice and style I’ve spent years sharpening. Like most scribblers I began with writing what I know. Surprisingly, even that approach involved research. When I wanted to write outside myself I learned that that sort of expansion required even more research, a lot more. These explorations were always guided by sound advice to read good writing and learn from it, examine it, dissect it. Put it back together again. Think. Maybe the road chose me but I chose my companions wisely.

One of the modest joys in my life as a reader is American detective noir. I have exhausted the output of the literary masters of the genre: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald. Lately I’ve been haunting used bookshops seeking out their third-rate knock-off mass market competitors. Gold Medal or Popular Library paperbacks from the late 50s and early 60s with insanely lurid covers, vulnerable curvy dolls clad in sheer unmentionables posing for armed, cynical, Playboy witty, cigarette smoking men.

Most of these pulp authors are deservedly forgotten. Their prose makes Mickey Spillane’s read like Shakespeare’s sonnets. Shall I compare thee to ‘I, the Jury?’ Yet who am I to sneer? They were more prolific than I am and they sold many, many more books than I ever have. Who is more obscure?

After all hell breaks loose, the world-weary protagonist gets mad as hell. Chances are he will fall madly in love with a femme fatale who wantonly offers up her plump/pert/firm fruit/melons/cantaloupes for his lusty enjoyment. It’s not easy being a shamus or a gumshoe with a gat. Still, it’s a living, tough as it is to adhere to a strict personal code of conduct in a corrupt and dirty, naked city where mercy came to die. And there are some seductive, albeit deadly, benefits besides.

Clichés are true because they are broad, everybody understands them. They are without nuance, cleavers not scalpels. But at the end of the day, nobody wants to read them again and again. By the same token, no reader wishes the enjoyment of their experience to be hindered by the exclusivity of jargon and acronyms. Bad writing begs translation into English, but there is no key, no Rosetta Stone for the reader.

Bad writing, provided you’re able to recognize it, teaches you what not to do. Time is precious and two hours weren’t wasted snickering my way through ‘The Computer Kill,’ a Sam King suspense novel from 1961 written by a fellow named Raymond Banks. I reabsorbed a lesson about writing, and life too: knowing what not to do is as important as knowing what to do and how to do it, which may or may not be the same thing. It’s simple, but complicated, much like constructing a sentence.

Thursday, 14 April 2016


This Town Was My Town

What looks large from a distance, close up, ain’t never that big – Bob Dylan, ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’

Childhood memories are deceptive. Growing up, everything around me seemed massive. Visiting Montreal last week, I went home again to the Town of Mount Royal for the first time since I can’t remember when. Thirty years? Thirty-five? Forty? How long have I been addicted to cigarettes since that first and ultimately fatal puff on a Kent behind the clubhouse at Mohawk Park?

My big sister Anne drove us back in time through the wind, the rain and the snow in a Mazda. We paused in the centre of town so I could get my bearings. Sunken train tracks: check. St. Joseph’s School was still there but the doors were no longer painted green and the name had been changed. Monsieur Poirier’s subterranean barber shop was gone. The Bluebird store where my mother once humiliated me by informing the tittering gals who ran it that I was now old enough for underwear with a ‘window’ for tinkling was gone. (Anyway, it’s easier to just tug the elastic waistband down, always has been. I’m a quick study.) The balcony of Nana Kirlin’s apartment on Regent Road used to face the meat department receiving door of the ‘big’ Dominion store. Nana took me to my first Canadiens game when the expansion and garish Los Angeles Kings visited the Forum on February 7th, 1968. God, she loved hockey; God, she missed Rocket Richard since his retirement in 1960, the year I was born. Her husband Charles (my middle name) died shortly after my birth; generations come and go. Her balcony’s still there, the grocery chain is defunct. The post office next door is now a bank.

We drove down the alleys that run parallel to Graham Boulevard toward Dobie Avenue. They were so narrow. We paused behind 1217 Graham where Nana and Papa Moore lived. Their green Rambler must still be in the garage. I looked up at their third storey kitchen window. I saw a stick of butter softening in a dish on the hot water radiator. I smelled bread toasting for cheese sandwiches at lunchtime. In their living room George the canary is in his cage and Rommel the cat is on ‘Coronation Street.’ On the floor beside Papa’s chair is that day’s La Presse; he’d been trying to learn French since he emigrated from Bristol, U.K., prior to the First World War. Nana was from Brighton originally; a summer holiday in Canada turned into a life because war broke out in Europe. Nana and Papa met in Outremont, in church. Papa told me he once asked himself, ‘Who is that beautiful lady in the choir walking up the aisle?’

We turned onto Dobie. Seventy-seven was where Marty lived. We played together before we were old enough for kindergarten. He lives in North Vancouver now and has for years. I live in Edmonton. We are still close friends. One-eleven, that was us, the Moores. The house has been renovated, but man, it seems so small. (We also lived at 145 Graham across from the 7-Up factory but I’ve no memories of that even smaller place.) My old bedroom window is over the front porch. There used to be a bit of tin outside of it, sort of a pan before the shingled slope, I loved the sound of rain pocking the tin sheets. Over my bed hung a crucifix, and a portrait of my guardian angel, fetching in a blue gown, who kept the monsters confined in the closet. (I cannot to this day be comfortable enough to fall asleep in sight of an open closet.) I’d lay in bed and watch the searchlight beam from Place Ville-Marie all the way downtown on the other side of Mount Royal pierce the dark. Early on I got an AM/FM radio for Christmas; there was magic in the night, rock ‘n’ roll and Expos baseball or Canadiens hockey broadcasts from the west coast.

Mohawk Park is at the end of the block and the block used to seem so long, we recited family names as we splashed past their former homes, the Clelands, the Chowns, the Hanchets (I wonder what’s become of my friend Mark). The park’s tennis courts are still there but there was no evidence of hockey boards. In 1971 my older brother Robert encouraged me to become a decent hockey player. ‘Go to the rink and play with Marty because he’s better than you. That’s how you get better, by playing with guys who are better than you.’ He tracked my progress on a calendar; my rink attendance record was 42 consecutive winter afternoons or evenings. Marty still plays; he’s still better than me, slick.

Dunrae Gardens School is still there. The first girl I was smitten with went there. Not only was she, fittingly, named after an opiate flower, she was Protestant too. I remember her performing in ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ I went to see it in a gym filled with rows of folding chairs, a sophisticated, buck-toothed, pimply and awkward pre-teen. We spent hours on the telephone together; there was a sleek (and often clammy) Princess model in my parents’ bedroom. If I’d had an ounce of savvy back then I would’ve just biked over to her house and called on her, but she had parents and an older brother and they would’ve squashed me like a bug.

I once asked my sister Anne about the difference between Catholics and Protestants. She said something like, ‘Prods don’t believe in the Virgin Birth.’ ‘What’s a virgin?’ ‘Someone who hasn’t had sex.’ ‘What’s sex?’ ‘Shut up.’ Dad was Protestant. He didn’t come to church with us on Sundays. No, he put his Columbia Record Club copy of ‘Johnny Cash at San Quentin’ on the hi-fi, opened a beer and got down to his chores. I thought Protestants had a pretty good deal.

From the top of  'the Hill' (Where'd the evergreens come from and who moved the baseball diamond?) at Mohawk Park I could see the green and white façade of what used to be Mount Royal Catholic High School on Rockland Boulevard. Robert and Anne went there, I was sent to Loyola because ‘Rock High,’ as my brother referred to it, was repurposed as a French school. Beyond it I imagine I can see the chain link fence along l’Acadie Boulevard, the demarcation between our town and grittier Park Extension where the Expos played at Jarry Park, about a half an hour or 40 minute walk from 111 Dobie Avenue. As a member of the Bank of Montreal Young Expos Club (President: Rusty Staub) I could buy a bleacher seat for four bits instead of a whole dollar. The trouble was leaving the safety of the Town for the Saint Roch Street gauntlet. Townies were like chum to Parkies, they enjoyed beating the shit out of us. I had two strategies to reach the ballpark in one piece: sprint or stealth.

We trudged through the slush back to the car in the Mohawk Park parking lot. I pointed to a big house off to the right, beyond where the putting green used to be. ‘Didn’t somebody important live there? I remember soldiers during the October Crisis.’ My sister shrugged, ‘Probably. Anyway, they’re long gone.’ Anne added, ‘I couldn’t live here now. It’s too small.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but it was good place to grow up.’ My sister said, ‘We were lucky.’

Tuesday, 5 April 2016


The Wonderful World of Words

I remember an amusing conversation with my brother Bob. It would’ve been sometime in 1995, around the time of the second Quebec referendum on sovereignty. The circumstance is vague, perhaps he was in Calgary on business or I had run up to Edmonton for a weekend visit. Anyway, he described the separatist premier of our native province as corpulent. I said something like, ‘Great word!’ Together we decided that the bilious buffoon was porcine too.

Bob went on to say that one of his very favourite words was anthrax: ‘Even if you have no idea what it is, you know it’s bad.’ And isn’t anthrax a nasty word? It’s ugly on paper, in cursive or typeset, no screen font can make it attractive, and it’s harsh to speak or hear. I’m dubious that a rose named anthrax would smell as sweet.

Some words are so aptly coined that they suggest their definitions. Others are not so transparent. I always need a moment to remind myself that hirsute simply means hairy and has nothing whatsoever to do with being particularly astute or incredibly intelligent. An interlocutor is not a murderous midnight rambling house-breaker, just curious, and a sinister questioner would be more of an inquisitor.

Friday night Ann and I hosted a houseful of young people who played board games around the dining room table. We sat at the kitchen counter playing tunes and Scrabble. We stayed up a little later than we normally do. The next morning as we prepared to scrub and gussy up the back porch and steps, no point showering, Ann allowed that she felt a little grotty. ‘What a great word!’ I said. I was feeling the same way but had been thinking: thick, dopey, slow. I’d forgotten such an evocative word as grotty.

To me, grotty, utterly unrelated to grotto, denotes organic filth, not just a film of grime that can be rinsed off, but minge like moss secreted in human nooks and crannies where the sun don’t shine. Maybe the dank cave imagery is appropriate. Ann just wanted to rinse her face, so obviously I was feeling a whole hell of a lot grottier than she. We set up the iPod outside but did not listen to grunge. I knelt and worked, sweating beer as the sun burned the back of my neck red. Applying dark stain to the planks seemed somehow apropos. I would still be grotty when the job was done and I would be grimy too. Still, all things considered, a better state of existence than that of a clownish fat pig in a bad mood.

Monday, 4 April 2016


A Modest Proposal to Put a Face to the Name

Approaching the 150th anniversary of Confederation Canada remains an earnest understudy on the global stage. Our slightly modernist flag (consider the elegant Canadian National Railway ‘worm’ logo designed in the same era) still isn’t old enough to qualify for the seniors’ discount at a pancake house. In 1867 railway spikes were the ties that stitched a big, empty and regionalized would-be state together. The face of the nation has changed since the CBC since went live on air in 1936 and the benevolent Canada Council for the Arts crown corporation was created in 1957. (Both institutions were granted welcome boosts in funding in the recent federal Liberal budget; culture was akin to black bathroom mould and mildew to the deposed Harper regime.) Twenty-first century multicultural Canada, established and stable, is blossoming into a diverse and complex country.

A vibrant culture provides a sense of self and a sense of place. Our stories, songs and poems, our still and moving pictures, are the cues that enable us to recognize and tolerate one another, familiar threads that unify this entire awkward federation. Culture is informed by our shared or divergent histories, and the landscape which overshadows us all. It’s the nature of human existence that virtually any era may be cursed as ‘interesting’ times. Since nation-states will not become anachronisms anytime soon, Canada’s future entails embracing its immigrants and engaging its young. But, yet, jeez, frankly, many of us harbour fears of both groups because they might constitute an insidious fifth column or become radicalized; anyway, they’re both vaguely threatening: they dress funny.

To counter this imagined insurgency I propose a modest ‘Face to a Name’ national campaign. I suggest that every new Canadian receives a year-long family Parks Canada pass alongside their certificate of citizenship. I suggest too that every young person between the ages of 18 and 21 who casts a vote in a federal election for the first time receives one as well. My idea is neither propaganda nor brainwashing. Instead, it is an invitation to join the national conversation with context, the means to consider Canada beyond the abstract of a government wordmark, to get a handle on this vast territory.

Want to know how the First Nations hunted buffalo on the prairie or who built the citadel in North America’s only walled city? Want to see what’s left of the glaciers that inspired the paintings of Lawren Harris? World Heritage Sites? Check. National Historic Sites? Check. Viking settlements? Check. Battlefields? Check. Nineteenth century railway spans and tunnels, and military and industrial canals? Check. Cod fisheries and salmon canning factories? Check. Dinosaur footprints? Check. Tundra? Check. Sandstone hoodoos and etched hieroglyphs? Check. Risk of being buried alive in an avalanche or mauled to death by a wild animal? Medium threat level, but watch your back. All of this is us.

While I have quibbles with our various levels of government I’ve never once objected to paying the fee of a Parks Canada pass. My giveaway scheme may seem expensive and silly given the department’s budgetary struggles and its mounting upkeep costs. But nothing happens in a vacuum and the number of annual visits to our parks has been declining steadily. Here in Edmonton the city’s library network and the Art Gallery of Alberta have dropped their user or admission fees to encourage traffic. Visitors to anywhere generate incremental dollars en route: fees, fuel, food, taxes, sundries and accommodation. And they create buzz through word of mouth or social media: You really should go there.

Where is there and how far is it from here? In Canada there is far from here and here is a long way from many places. It’s critical to get a scope on the sheer enormity of the country and everyone mixed up in it, to put a face to a name: Canada. New Canadians should ditch their old country baggage at the border; young Canadians should drop their digital devices; everybody should get outside themselves and just go outside. Explore, learn, muse upon some of the many parts of this place, ponder those and these bits and pieces of us. A Parks Canada pass is not just a ticket to then, but context for our here and now, this land we live in together.