Friday, 27 May 2016


The Edgar Allan Poe Gardening Companion

Yesterday I dug a round hole wholly
And that’s the truth, not hyperbole

I planted a tree, yes indeed a muckle plum
Pretty pink shade from the hot prairie sun

I dug a foot deep before my spade hit clay
Compacted stuff that just won’t give way

And what of the body downstairs in the freezer
That murdered and petrified frozen geezer

A dear, dear old friend let me down
And so I slit his throat into a frown

Dave tried to stab me in the back
Me, I chose a much more lethal tack

Dismemberment seems the way to go
I can bury his parts hither and fro

I’ll dig six small shallow graves
For those butchered pieces of Dave’s

A pit for his head and one for his torso
Four more holes for his other limbs also

And what of the cats, Mungo and Scamp
Will they litter box the soil I tamp

A note to self re. Home Depot
Buy more grass seed and Miracle-Gro

Perhaps I’ll mulch his corpse in the copse
Surrounded by my Zen garden rocks

Or Dave can bloat in the water feature
Chewed upon by a nocturnal creature

Dave, Dave, welcome to Eden
Perhaps I’ll plant you ‘neath the sedum

Monday, 23 May 2016


Games Kids Play

About ten days ago I was asked to speak to a grade five class about Montreal. My hometown was a topic for their geography class and perhaps history too; I’ve no idea of current curriculum subject umbrellas and I haven’t attended grade five since 1971. I boned up on the facts as I was taught them and I boned up on everything else I’ve learned about Montreal since learning became a pleasure and not an institutional obligation.

Their teacher indicated to me that her class loved stories, personal ones. I was warned that if I started taking too many questions too soon the dynamic would shift and the kids would take over, overwhelmed by their curiosity. Sure enough, what I’d prepared quickly went out the window and we ended up talking about what it was like for me to be their age in Montreal way back when. The topic of sports came up because there were very few distractions from playing games back then, no colour TV, no cable TV, no computers. Most of the kids were shocked, shocked that my friends and I didn’t play soccer or much tennis, but they agreed hockey, football and baseball were pretty good sports too.

I was captivated by their enthusiasm. How they chattered on about their favourite activities and games, players and teams, as infectious as a hospital. Nothing was said about civic strong-arming for subsidized facilities, doping, cheating, graft, corruption, scandal, ticket prices, the machinery of global branding and growing the untapped Chinese market. Here was sport distilled down to its essence, the pleasure and joy it provides in its many forms; I’d forgotten those feelings.

The Port Ruppert Mundys, the nine featured in Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (and it is) are legendary in the sub-genre of ‘baseball’ fiction for their homelessness. The withering Montreal Expos evoked the Mundys as they straggled to Puerto Rico for home games in San Juan. The Canadian Football League Toronto Argonauts were nomads last season, displaced by the Pan-Am Games and the baseball Blue Jays playoff run. The Argos wore home blues and hosted games in Hamilton, Ottawa and… Fort McMurray. The catastrophic wildfires up that way have bequeathed Alberta at least two new Mundys. Life imitates art, again.

The Alberta Football League Fort McMurray Monarchs will play this season in Spruce Grove, a community about 20 minutes west of the green Edmonton City Limit sign and about five hours south of where they should be. They will play their games wearing uniforms and equipment donated by the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders. Other AFL clubs have pitched in with fundraising efforts and additional equipment.

Here in the capital there’s a ballpark on the flats of the North Saskatchewan, beneath downtown. Picturesque, and to date it has avoided the high and inside wrecking balls pitched by developers. This season the Alberta Major Baseball League Edmonton Prospects will share their home grounds with the Fort McMurray Giants, their expansion cousins. Watching baseball, any game in any park, has always been one of those small, constant and consistent pleasures in my life: I’m in grade five again except I can have a beer though my back might not tolerate nine innings. And I find crowds, cheerleaders and cheesy contests increasingly annoying, but still… from my perspective I’ll have two home teams to support during the short season (two months) and twice as many games to choose from.

The sporting community taking care of its own in the wake of the social, economic and environmental disaster that was Fort McMurray’s fate may not seem like a big deal, but I got those old feelings about sports once again. The true teachings of competition are teamwork, fair play and a hand up if you’ve been knocked down. When the full extent of Fort McMurray’s miserable plight became apparent, Canadians, whether professionally or personally, exhibited those sporting qualities to the best of their abilities, gave it everything they had. These are the coached or raw personal and collective attributes we value in our society. Maybe some of them stem from kids playing games.

Thursday, 19 May 2016


This Town Is My Town

My flirty buxom moll Ann Fatale tightened the blindfold over my eyes. Her fingertips and day spa nails traced the angular lines of my square jaw. ‘Sketches of Spain’ was spinning on the hi-fi. She giggled huskily, ‘Go, big man.’ My gnarled fingers (I’ve busted a few jaws in my time) scrabbled for my Walther P-38 on the table between the ashtray and my four finger tumbler of single malt. I took the weapon apart, cleaned and oiled it, and reassembled it. Ann removed the sleek and sultry strip of Chinese silk and sighed through a cloud of cigarette smoke that curled like her eyelashes, ‘You’ve still got it, baby.’ I grunted my agreement.

My name’s Danger, Geoff Danger. I’m a fixer, the shadowy figure on the outskirts of your mundane and regimented little life. I don’t know how much humanity is left in my black heart, enough for my sinful angel Ann Fatale, and maybe you if you have the misfortune to require the services of a tarnished knight errant like me.

It was high noon. Our front porch was now beyond the reach of the overhead sun. Ann and I moved our private party outside. I left the front door wide open so we could still listen to Miles. I lit a cigarette and stood for a moment, searching the sky for any hint of rain. Edmonton, all of Alberta, needs four or five days of soft, steady rain. A torrent would just run off the dry and cracked landscape. And I need to be bathed by water from heaven; Ivory and Dove and a pumice stone cannot wash the metallic smell of blood from my hands. Killing clings to me like nicotine stains to a smoker; I know this. Know these truths all too well.

Ann whispered, ‘Are you okay, darling?’

‘Yeah,’ I grunted.

‘Can I freshen your drink?’

I grunted, ‘Yeah, thanks, babe.’

I adjusted the jaunty tilt of my fedora and gazed at our street in the heart of our town. Across the road and two doors down somebody like Hitler was building a luxury bunker, a cement cube. If I was a writer and if I wrote for Architectural Digest I would describe the design as Prairie-Brutalist, a jackbooted square peg amid lots of round holes. Every lawn except ours was measled and mumped with dandelions. The City will not spray its boulevards and parks because one unvaccinated vegan schoolchild with a peanut allergy may have a reaction. The R. Buckminster Fuller geodesic spores have won the flora lottery; that is until I take my butane barbeque lighter to them. Dandelions make everything look shabby.

Weeds. Last night I shot a dirty ace in the head. He had it coming and I wanted him to see it coming. Doesn’t matter how powerful you are or how expensive your clothes are, everybody looks the same lying in their own blood and urine. As I pulled away from the deserted social club in the city’s rundown and neglected north end I wondered if any of it mattered. Two more like him would spring up in his place. And the dirt bags might even be legit, selling payday loans or boosting the price of a $5 pill to $500. Weeds. Ugly weeds in the green, green grass of home.

Before heading home to Ann and to ensure I wasn’t tailed I stopped at a liquor store and bought a fifth of Irish. I opened it in the parking lot and gazed around at the commercial wasteland: vacant stores, LEASING OPPORTUNITY signs, dandelions in asphalt cracks, Coca-Cola litter beside trash bins, cigarette butts on the ground beside ashtrays. The reek of smoke from distant fires in the hazy, halogen streetlight air. Nobody gives a damn but they want to shop local even as they buy from their computers. This was my town now, the capital of despair.

‘Here’s your drinkie-poo,’ Ann sing-songed. ‘Hey, why are you staring off into space like that? Are you okay, big man?’

I shrugged. ‘The older I get, the more I know, the less I understand.’

She giggled like a champagne showgirl because she is one. ‘Are you having an existential crisis in Edmonton?’

‘I wouldn’t be the first,’ I grunted.

‘I’m digging these hep sounds. Is that the way you jazz cats talk?’ Ann graced me with a full throated smoke and whiskey laugh; I began to feel better. ‘Seriously,’ she added, ‘I love this record and I’ve never been to Spain.’

‘The ladies are insane there,’ I said, ‘but not as crazy gorgeous as you.’

‘I’d like to go back to England,’ she mused. I admitted I kind of liked the Beatles. ‘Maybe we should think about a holiday cure for you, big fella.’ Ann paused to light cigarettes for the two of us. ‘This morning drinking,’ she continued, ‘after your night wet work…’

I said, ‘Sorry. Duty called.’

‘It’s not that I’m drowsy,’ Ann winked, ‘but I could sure use a nap if you know what I mean.’

I grunted my assent and stubbed out my cigarette.

Monday, 16 May 2016


America Is Swill

Like economics, advertising (influence) and marketing (sales) are not exact sciences. The dollar value of a particular brand, its name, its wordmark or logo, and its built-in historic equity, is thought to be worth some ten-to 20-per-cent of the revenue it generates on behalf of its stakeholder(s). A brand is essentially an abstract asset, something organic, something that has evolved. Yet more often than not its managers and advertising agency partners will ham-handedly attempt to project their own fantasy characteristics upon their brand, ones they believe consumers should want to share and pay for; sort of manipulating the cart before the Clydesdales, if you will.

The Beaverton is an amusing Canadian news parody website. It recently ran a story accusing our Tim Hortons coffee shop chain (now a foreign owned sister brand of Burger King) of exploiting Canadian nationalism and Canadians’ hockey passion for strictly commercial purposes. Any pretense of satire was lost by The Beaverton simply repeating the hooks of an orchestrated and emotionally-tinged, long term and well executed corporate advertising strategy. The piece read like an overly earnest university newspaper pseudo expose or one those left wing diatribes you come across in the complimentary vestibule weeklies you flip through whilst sitting alone in a dark bar in the afternoon. It’s too easy to sprinkle maple sugar on donut holes in a takeout box: ain’t nothing funny; ain’t no news here.

The Onion, the American equivalent to Beaverton, did not last week report that Budweiser beer was re-branding itself as America beer from now until November. My source was Adweek, a reputable advertising industry journal. Still, I glanced at my Elvis Presley desktop calendar to make sure its pages had moved far beyond the April fools. I thought, Jesus, this isn’t some lame joke; this is not a misguided attempt at satire.

Budweiser is an Anheuser-Busch brand of lager beer, first brewed in the United States in 1876. The brand is now the property of AB InBev, headquartered in Leuven, Belgium. AB InBev services one-quarter of the planet’s beer market. AB InBev is a corporate octopus, the spawn of mergers amongst Belgium’s Interbrew, Brazil’s AmBev and America’s Anheuser-Busch. Ricardo Marques, Vice President of Budweiser said in a statement, ‘Budweiser has always strived to embody America in a bottle, and we’re honored to salute this great nation where our beer has been passionately brewed for 140 years.’ The campaign’s slogan is ‘America is in Your Hands,’ stray caps and all.

Nostalgic nags aside, Budweiser has always hitched its brand to sports. It’s common for a brand to alter its packaging to commemorate a major sporting event for which it has paid sponsorship rights, or celebrate its own heritage with an anniversary retro look. In this case Budweiser is taking the opposite tack, relying on its classic and easily recognized packaging to alleviate any consumer confusion over its temporary name change to America. The rationale for America lager is, to quote Marques, ‘…celebrate America and Budweiser’s shared values of freedom and authenticity.’ Rio 2016 is just around the corner. ‘We are embarking on what should be the most patriotic summer that this generation has ever seen…’ And sales are declining, swallowed by micro-brewers and vintners.

Bud Light rivals Diet Coke as the absolute apex of a successful brand extension. Their shared subliminal message was deviously simple: Drink more! Bud Light launched its politically themed, tongue in cheek Bud Light Party campaign during last February’s Super Bowl. Budweiser’s, erm, America’s ‘America is in Your Hands’ seems to be a more sober attempt orchestrated from Europe to seek some common ground in a New World country deeply riven by partisanship. The duration of the ad campaign aligns with what could be the grimmest and most divisive presidential campaign in the history of the United States. And while the rest of the world white knuckles the outcome, why not add alcohol to the shouting in contested open carry states?

It’s possible that on the morning of Wednesday, November 9th the American electorate will come to and wonder just what the hell they did the day before. Budweiser is one of the globe’s great brands, but by jingo that doesn’t mean it’s great beer. And so before that fateful fall morning the Vice President of Budweiser might wake up regretting what he has wrought, the potential damage to his brand’s equity and integrity, because I can now truthfully say without fear of offending our neighbours, friends and the lunatic fringe to the south that America has lost its way.

Thursday, 12 May 2016


Flirting with Distractions

Sunday night we made like Horton and went to hear who’s left of the Who. The band’s 50-year-old pop art brand is bigger than Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, the quartet’s two surviving members who would probably prefer to tour billed simply as Pete and Roger if business and marketing allowed. The elephant in the hockey rink was the incineration of Fort McMurray and its boreal environs. Some of the 80,000 evacuees were housed nearby on the Northlands fairgrounds. After more than two hours of performance and 22 songs Roger said to his Edmonton audience, ‘I hope we’ve provided some distraction.’ Yes, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll and thank God for it.

The Who did not sell out. Pete acknowledged that the concert had been postponed for six months and he thanked us for hanging on to our tickets. The Who have remained massive despite decades of intermittent activity and certified and possibly certifiable legends do not face the twilight from a stage under a tent in a casino on First Nations land. Our tickets were expensive. For too many Albertans a rock show is now an unaffordable luxury. We are mired in bleak economic times. Money talks louder than a Hiwatt amp when paying bills and buying groceries.

Ann and I are incredibly fortunate because the bust and the Old Testament parade of drought, wildfires and high water have not yet aversely affected our provincial circle of friends and relatives. Our sense is that, despite perceptions, Alberta is more than a one-trick tar sands pony - even if 44 years of Tory rule and Mother Nature conspired to leave the barn door open. Part of the plight is pixilated and partially manufactured: there’s no flight from the hard news cycle nor the karmic, conspiratorial lunatic fringe pissing infected vitriol over social media platforms. All the world’s a stage for everybody now and sometimes I think it should just be left to windmilling guitar players who are crankier and more intelligent than talk radio hosts and twits who tweet.

Tuesday we hit the highway searching for distraction. J&C Gardens is a greenhouse operation located on a range road south and east of a rural community called Beaumont which used to be relatively remote until Edmonton began to sprawl like a spilt barrel of oil. In the gravel parking lot I overheard a woman telling the girl loading her plants into her vehicle that she’s shopped J&C for 30 years, from ‘marriage down to grandchildren.’ In one of the greenhouses Ann showed an employee a picture of last year’s spectacular variegated leafed sun impatiens which she’d potted at the front of our house. Another employee came over to admire the shot. Me, I looked for the charcoal and ginger cat that’s usually curled up asleep on the petunia table; I’m not sure if it has changed its position since last spring, maybe it stretched once.

We flipped the rear seat of the CRV down and loaded the space with bedding plants and flowers. The gardening rule of green thumb in Alberta is to refrain from planting anything prior to the Victoria Day long weekend because of the risk of frost and snow. My hunch is that we’ll be busy with trowels this weekend, seven days early just like last year, as neither cold nor any form of precipitation seems likely. The province is under a fire ban. The sustained drought seems to have compacted the ground. A brick planter abutting the house in the backyard has left a visible line indicating where it used to be. Visiting a neighbour yesterday I tripped over the stark three-inch cliff between his garage pad and his driveway, the entry slope to ours is steeper too. Ann and I have noticed squirrels and birds hanging around our sealed rain barrels; they can smell what’s inside. We are seriously contemplating the purchase of a birdbath. The good news is that in these conditions Killex works as advertised on dandelions.

We drove home through Nisku, the industrial muscle of the oil patch. Normally its roads teem with pickups, fleets flecked with magnetic company graphics and logos. The hotel and energy industry service company parking lots were eerily empty. Nobody was around to buy lunch in any of the fast food restaurants. Everything seemed dusty. Used, unsold heavy equipment sat on the enormous Ritchie Brothers lot awaiting a second chance at another auction. The sign said the public is welcome June 14-15. Anybody need a crane or a larger than life-sized Tonka truck?

This morning was hazy. For the first time we could really smell the northern smoke on the arid breeze. The arborists arrived early and pruned all the dead wood dangling from our trees and thinned out their crowns. The patio screening ‘Wuthering Heights’ scraggle bush permeated with cat piss which reeks on scorching days was cut down; the stump will be ground to mulch. The two birches in the front seem primed to live well beyond their allotted 40 years of living. They are delicate and fussy trees rooted in a less than ideal climate zone but Ann has been a careful tender. A soaker hose now snakes around their bases, the neighbourhood sparrows, chickadees and robins frolic like children dashing through backyard sprinklers; our two tabbies are only mildly interested in all the chirping activity, undistracted from doing something next to nothing. Next month’s utility bill will display a spike in water usage.

It’s all coming together, hot fun in the summertime amid the flowers and the trees. My 30-year-old Coleco NHL Power Play table hockey game is out of storage and has been painstakingly Zambonied with a damp cloth. The Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Colorado Rockies live to die another day. Plans are askate for a ‘Welcome Summer!’ patio tournament and barbecue. I’m hearing the Who on the iPod through the Bose dock at maximum volume all evening long. And once we accommodate everybody’s schedules and secure a date, well, if it rains, God, let it rain down on us.

Thursday, 5 May 2016


Miles and Me

My father liked jazz although I can’t remember him playing any at home on the hi-fi. I think his taste lay more toward traditional Second World War era big band and Dixieland. My own explorations into jazz were initially academic: here was an art form, an important one that I felt I needed to know about and try to understand. I found myself being moved in much subtler ways than the opening riffs of rock ‘n’ roll songs. I’ve realized that if I had seen Charlie Parker or Horace Silver in a New York club all those years ago my world would have changed. Friday night Ann and I went to see Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s new film about Miles Davis.

During one of our last face to face conversations Dad mentioned that he saw Miles at the Black Bottom, one of those legendary clubs that helped Mafia-cement Montreal’s reputation as one of North America’s premier sin cities. I said, ‘You saw Miles Davis in a club, in his prime?’ My father was a hep cat? Dad said, ‘Yes, but I didn’t get it.’

My sister Anne’s husband, Al, a scientist and a rollicking amateur jazz pianist saw Miles much later in his career at another Montreal venue. ‘He just stood there on stage. I think his horn was blue, or maybe red. Once in a while he’d give it a toot. But it was Miles, you know?’ Four or five years ago Montreal’s Musee des Beaux Arts mounted an exhibition from Paris called We Want Miles! which Al and I coursed through, taking our time. There were listening stations that allowed visitors to get a sense of every stage or segment of Miles’s career. There were artifacts: instruments, acetates, clothing and original LP cover artwork.

What amused me in the exhibit was the surviving correspondence written on behalf of Miles by his management. ‘Miles wants a villa in the south of France…’ ‘Miles wants sole composition and production credit…’ ‘Miles wants to ensure that no other musicians are mentioned in the liner notes…’ All neatly typed. I got the impression that Miles might make another cosmic and notoriously prickly artist like Van Morrison seem like a nice guy.

‘Improvisational’ was probably bopping through Don Cheadle’s head while he wrote, directed and starred as the barking, borderline lunatic. Miles Ahead isn’t exactly a biographical film because most of it never happened. Instead, the movie attempts to illustrate, not explain, the relationship between an artist and his art. Miles Davis possessed a profound gift and there is no empirical explanation for his genius. The new, requisite 10,000 hour theory does not apply to Miles or the few like him who have graced this planet with their work. So why not sketch the ethereal essence of an artist with a boozy, coke-addled caper fable? Miles’s truth was in his music and the truth about Miles might best be depicted in a fantastical tale of fiction. Maybe Ann and I didn’t get all of it, but it was Miles, you know?