Saturday, 27 August 2016


Twelve Mows

Summer in Alberta does not strictly align with its official dates on the Julian calendar. Its markers arrive early and generally don’t hang around. The Victoria Day long weekend in May signals that it’s relatively safe to plant your garden, the risk of frost is minimal. Classrooms dismiss in June around the solstice. Canada Day, formerly known as Dominion Day, welcomes the first of July as the Canadian Football League begins its regular season schedule. Early August is augmented by another long weekend encourages thoughts of murder in dwellings without air conditioning. Though summer’s warmth can linger through September like a Broadway melody and lyric, Albertans pretty much agree it’s gone by Labour Day just as CFL games really start to matter.

Everyone has their own system of measurement. My pal Stats Guy tends to get excited about summer in February when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. And there is always this cheery caveat: ‘You know, Geoff, seven months from now we’ll be freezing in the dark again.’ Swell.

Some years ago I became friends with a fellow named Sean, a third generation printer by trade. His plant and my ad agency’s office were proximate to a pub in an industrial area of Calgary. We met frequently at lunch. One gorgeous spring day we stood outside together on the pub’s verandah smoking and contemplating the parking lot’s artificial perimeter of plowed, filth encrusted windrows and the deep, forbidding lake of slush rising inside its melting walls.

Sean said, ‘Twelve mows.’ I repeated his statement back to him as a question. He said, ‘Think of it. Between the time this stuff goes and comes back, we’ll mow our grass maybe 12 times. That’s it. For the first six weeks you have to do the lawn weekly. Then you can stretch it out; it basically stops growing. Around the end of September you’re pretty much done.’

Last Thursday morning I took the Globe and Mail outside to the patio table along with my black coffee in an Apple Records mug. I went back inside to get a fleece to wear over my t-shirt; there was something in the air, and not just a honking formation of Canada geese: there was a crisp snap, a smell of decay. Spiky conkers drooped from the Ohio buckeye, stressing their stems. Fallen crabapples peppered the path to the back gate. Yellow leaves, windblown, were scattered on the ground.

I sat down and surveyed the yard. The grass was thick and lush, needing to be seen to; we’ve had so much rain. It would be haircut number nine when I got around to it later, still keeping pace with Sean’s theory of 12. For all the precipitation Edmonton’s tried to absorb, you can’t mow the lawn during a thunderstorm. And so three more mows to go after that one, then summer’s gone for good. No more gas left in the tank. Rakes, shovels and snowplows up next.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016


The Boys of Summer Have Gone Forever

We arrived late Saturday afternoon. At first Ann thought that maybe nothing had changed, but then maybe everything had. We wrinkled our noses at the smell pervading the village and agreed it was disgusting, something akin to the steaming waft of a city sewer or a stink bomb. So picturesque, this place, but no scratch ‘n’ sniff postcards, please.

Pigeon Lake 138A is a Cree reserve an hour’s leisurely drive south from Edmonton. The designated land is almost a perfect square of 1,920 acres, its western boundary the shore of the spring-fed lake. Its existence stems from Treaty Six talks and negotiations, when the Crown began cutting one-sided real estate deals with various First Nations bands in 1876, a time when massive, migrating flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons reportedly blotted out the sun.

The village of Ma-Me-O Beach is a modest little rectangle imposed inside of and upon the edge of Cree reservation. A band of soft sand recedes from the shore to parallel two avenues intersected by nine one-block streets. Ma-Me-O is an English bastardization of a Cree word or phrase that may have meant ‘woodpecker,’ ‘white pigeon’ or ‘many shore birds.’ My admittedly cursory research opened up a linguistic rabbit hole of meaning. (If you’re prone to thumping your particular holy book, you might do well to be mindful that oral tradition transcribed later from memory and then repeatedly translated may not always be entirely accurate.) The village was founded in 1924.

Ann’s grandfather erected his family’s Ma-Me-O cabin by the water in 1922. Four generations of her family came of age in the Eden of Alberta’s premier cottage country. No one is certain but the land may have been obtained by virtue of a principle of British common law known as adverse possession, essentially squatter’s rights, one of the conditions of which is ten years of uninterrupted ‘ownership’ or squatting. Ann’s father, a World War II veteran, a lawyer, a judge and a humanist used to wonder when the Cree would “take it all back.” Ann and her siblings sold the property in 2008, a sensible solution to shifting family dynamics and usage informed by geography, her two brothers ensconced on Vancouver Island, her sister with another rural acreage of her own.

Our Ma-Me-O event was a reunion of the kids who spent their summer wild years by the lake. The old friends in the group were aged 60 and over, not 16 anymore by any means. Nature and suicide have exacted their tolls on the gang. The survivors spoke of hemorrhages and heart attacks. One impossibly thin woman trembled with Parkinson’s, spritzing up her goblet of wine. A bald, heavyset man with a fondness for pedicures announced that he’d ceased munching through bags of potato chips and had instead switched to pepperoni sticks for health reasons. One fellow who doesn’t drink anymore drank wine because it doesn’t really count, not like beer or whisky. Some guests had travelled a long way, some had never left; Ann from Edmonton now and Camrose then was from somewhere in between. Everybody paid too much attention to their phones making it even more difficult for an outsider like me to make a connection.

Too many people talk too much about nothing. Then they show you pictures on their cell phones to add another thousand words. I was staring up at the almost invisible darting bats above us, reminded of the ghostly hares that motor down our street during wintertime (Did I really see what I thought I saw?), when Ann asked me if I’d like to go for a walk in the twilight. Yes. Please. Thank you.

First Avenue was deserted except for a loose running dog, some shepherd in it, half wild, probably from the reservation. The ice cream stand was closed. The community hall was closed. The playground was deserted. There might have been one patron in the pub that makes pizza pies if you believe its window decals and I saw him leave. August was on the wane, a small town summer Saturday night dwindled into nothing, existing only as a horrid smell.

We strolled in step and held hands. I peered around as Ann reminisced about the teenage wildlife here back in her day. I’d just met some of the players and I tried to compose the tableau. The dance has begun but the room’s so hot the doors are wide open. Light and sound leaks out. There are muscle cars cruising the only avenue that matters, driven by boys in tight t-shirts who are too young to drink. Barefoot girls lean into the driver’s side windows for a puff of a half-smoked cigarette and a swig from a sweaty brown stubby bottle of beer. Eight-track cassettes blast Deep Purple and Foghat. Everyone is either good looking or better looking and they are immortal even as a Barracuda hits a highway ditch and somersaults. That’s just all part of growing up.

Ann and I found a public access pathway to the beach. She wanted pictures of what was once her family’s cabin. Where the water lapped the beach the sand was blue – and not just because of a function of the light. The inch-thick layer of blue scum on the placid water was like a crust. The smell was almost unbearable. The warning signs about toxic blue-green algae posted around Ma-Me-O suggest that the bacteria smells musty; it doesn’t: it smells like organic rot and death. Ann said, “When Grand Dad was here… it, well, we used to be able to drink the water. And we did.” She dropped her chin to her breastbone and exhaled. “I cannot imagine bringing kids out here and then telling them not to go near the water.”

Even the thickest child would hesitate before wading through the blue sludge encroaching the once pristine beach. The blue-green algae in Pigeon Lake is a bit like a glutton at a buffet in that it has overfed on everything that has found its way into the lake that never should have been in it in the first place. When we reached Ann’s family’s former property we saw Pigeon’s problems on a micro scale. The lot had been cleared of the trees and bushes whose root systems would filter the runoff from a fertilized lawn. There was a fleet of motorized water toys. There was no shade near the shore to prevent the muck at the waterline from photosynthesizing.

The new owners had done nothing illegal, just stupid. The village’s council consists of volunteers, itinerant summer residents; it is powerless to enforce non-existent regulations. We walked back toward the reunion along the empty avenue. Ann said, “I’m glad we came. I was hesitant, I wasn’t sure if I’d have regrets about selling. In retrospect, the timing couldn’t have been better. I guess the only regrets I have are about the state of the lake. It’s tragic because it was so easily preventable.”

Monday, 15 August 2016


Advertising, Marketing and the Fomentation of Popular Discontent

The Edmonton Journal last week reported that Lexus drivers will have access to 30 pre-paid, preferred and branded parking stalls at Edmonton International Airport (EIA). That leaves 1,170 spaces in the sheltered parkade for the rest of us. The EIA has sniffed, and rightly so, that parking revenues are crucial to its non-profit operation and that the airport boasts more than 13,500 slots on site, and anyway, it’s up to Lexus to enforce their exclusive usage. Still, the average traveler is inclined to mutter, ‘Grrr.’

On the same day that story was published Ann and I tried to buy a pair of tickets for the Dixie Chicks show in the soon to be completed downtown arena. (Disclosure: rock is dead and has crumbled into an expensive exercise in nostalgia; we have increasingly gravitated toward roots music which is equally authentic and at least current; and I admire the Dixie Chicks’ politics.) We kept selecting seats we were disqualified from purchasing because we did not possess an American Express card. I said, ‘Grrr, fucking grrr.’

Lexus and American Express are high end brands. We all know it’s tough out there trying to pitch a product or a service. The marketers behind these two familiar logos are trying to provide value added benefits to their current crop of clients while trying to lure new ones up and onto their elevated peaks. Status is all some of us aspire to. Perception is everything, especially when it’s a construct of persuasion, a false want needlessly created. Have these two brands done themselves any favours by fumbling toward elitism?

As a car owner or card holder are you comfortable with the idea of an ethereal entity presuming to speak for you and your beliefs? Do you enjoy being singled out as a conspicuous consumer and subjected to the envy and anger of strangers, is that the sort of club for which you covet a membership card? And how big is the slight to others when a multi-national corporation effectively says: ‘We know you want that parking space or those tickets, but sorry, you’re not good enough, you don’t belong, you’re not eligible.’ If Lexus and American Express cause others to nurse grudges, why, it’s easy enough for the snubbed to peer around and question everything else that constitutes civilized society and identify other wrongs, real or perceived.

We know that no one single cause or factor facilitates an event or an era. The ad industry has shilled nothing but great expectations and inflated promises since it came to the fore with the advent of mass production and the invention of the steam powered printing press. We cannot blame marketing and advertising solely for the rampant disenchantment with pretty much everything that now seems endemic in western countries. Yet the industry has played its modest role, there are those drive-by, roped off parking spaces and lousy concert tickets here in Edmonton, and it has spread or spun the messages of dissatisfaction trumpeted by special interest groups around the globe. Everybody everywhere has a lot to complain about. Pick a scab, any scab, the deck’s stacked.

Resentment is an easy bed of hot coals to stoke. An orange populist, a demagogue somewhere, say in a country south of Canada, might bellow that a portion of the seething populace is right to believe they’ve been jammed by liberal elitists, Lexus drivers and American Express card owners, excluded and forgotten, and that everything is rigged against them, always has been, and how about those ringing endorsements from the American Nazi Party and the Klu Klux Klan’s former Grand Wizard! ‘Make America Great Again!’

The irony is that the Trump brand with its ostentatious gold capital letters has always aspired to the aerie heights occupied by established luxury brands. One of the advertising adages I still adhere to is that a person cannot be a brand. However a personalized brand will not only gratify the ego of the founder but reflect their traits and qualities as well. The range of Trump lifestyle products (he doesn’t exactly manufacture Reardon metal), hotels, casinos and golf courses, premium meat and vodka, scattershot (real esteak?) and vulgar, were never meant to be marketed to the core constituency that now supports him because to get the best of the best, the absolute best, the best there is, you need a lot of money, a ton of money, a pile of money. Come November, a segment of registered Republicans will cast their votes for a man who, in his uniquely gauche, indeed signature way, has contributed to their sense of alienation.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016


City Magic

We’ve had nothing on the calendar for most of the summer except a wedding down south in Kananaskis Country, a happy obligation which forced Ann and me to miss our favourite Edmonton hot weather music festival, Interstellar Rodeo. Weddings are superior distractions to funerals - those less happy occasions which insist too upon a communion of the tribe. (I must confess the sandwiches served at the reception following the most recent funeral we attended were sublime, to die for, though sadly, a one-off.) But when you don’t make plans the days fill themselves anyway somehow. Consequently we’ve been a little tardy diving into music this summer in the city.

We changed it all up last weekend.

Blues on Whyte is self-explanatory, a juke joint located in the historic Commercial Hotel where you’d be loathe to book a room these days unless you were desperate, armed with a pistol and a habit and on the lam. The passenger trains don’t chug to a stop across the street anymore and they haven’t for a very long time. The performance bar, once a dingy, delightful and edgy stinking dive was recently renovated, gussied up into an attractive and sanitized space with better sightlines, perhaps reflecting the angelic aspirations of crippled and dying baby boomers. Our urban myth has it that the venue is owned and operated by a biker gang and, ergo the safest place to hang out in the provincial capital. The only bikers I’ve ever seen at the Commie wear their leathers on the weekends and Harry Rosen suits the rest of the time.

Boogie Patrol is probably Edmonton’s hottest local band. Think James Brown and Mad Dogs Joe Cocker fused. We caught their free Saturday afternoon set, an intense 60 minutes with few pauses between original numbers, and a prelude to the weekly, welcome all comers blues jam. The headliner would return to the stage later that night for three hours and a modest cover charge. What’s not to like about drinking beer in a dark bar on a sunny day? Rotten Dan is Boogie Patrol’s front man; he’s got the voice, the moves and the mouth harp chops. I approached him after the music ended to purchase the band’s new live album Alive. He was saturated in sweat and smelled as funky as a hockey bench late in a game. A hard working man.

Gallagher Park is a natural amphitheatre that offers a breathtaking view of the downtown skyline from its upper rim. It is the long time home of Edmonton’s Folk Music Festival. Ann and I were on the grounds Sunday anxious to see Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, the weekend’s closer. They’re a high voltage Stax ensemble, you can hear the influence in the organ and the horns. The group is currently riding the success of the catchiest song ever written about the personal toll of alcoholism: “My head is achin’, my hands is shakin’, bugs is crawling all over me. Son of a bitch! Gimme a drink!”

Once we got our pink wristbands I began to regret our decision to attend. There were six hours to go before the Night Sweats. There were 14,000 other people milling around and gangs of unsupervised children darting about and having the time of their young lives. There was hot August heat. There were rows and rows of revolting portable toilets. The lines for every available service were long. Smoking pariahs had long treks to ashtrays. I descended into a state of despair enhanced by beer garden roulette: How can I enjoy this frothy, delicious, chilly beer if it means I will actually have to use one of those disgusting Handi-Cans?

As much as I dislike being lost in a large crowd and surrounded by people I don’t know, folk fest itself is inherently social. We quickly hooked up with friends and family, invaded their tarp space and co-opted their low slung folding chairs. A day like Sunday reminds you of the ease and convenience digital technology allows users: We’re near the top by this green tent (photo), come join us.

Ann and I arrived too late in the afternoon to catch Calexico and that was my fault because the idea of a full workaday shift on site, what with those toilets, seemed too much to bear. Ultimately, the music won the day, as it will. We were entranced by Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter) and an artist who calls herself LP and who has recently garnered enthusiastic kudos from Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman who compared her voice to Kate Bush’s. Members of our festival family were jacked about seeing Head and Hands.

Our horizon turned a fiery orange, only to be squashed by a descending quilt of navy blue. Across the river the city turned on its lights and preened. Edmonton’s no London or Paris or even Montreal, but she appeared mighty fine from our vantage point. The Night Sweats came on and I couldn’t decide what I wanted to concentrate on; everywhere I looked there was magic in the air.

Friday, 5 August 2016


Attention Shoppers: Mick Jagger Is Live on the Meat Aisle

I like going grocery shopping. The store we frequent is a Save On Foods, modest in scale and delightfully devoid of harsh vitamin piss yellow lighting and signage. Ann and I know where everything is, including the items that are a dollar or two too much. We groan every Thursday morning when Darrell, the chain’s president, writes something like boneless, skinless chicken breasts this week are “cheap, cheap, cheap!” Of course we have “flipped” over specials on sirloin burgers.

Ann and I have really enjoyed our experience at Save On since the obese cashier with bad hips retired. Jackie used to lean against the counter to support herself while examining every item from every angle before scanning its bar code, making remarks and asking questions. The pain of purchasing for us became acute. Life lifts up and turns around. At the store lately I’ve been rocking out in front of the Triscuits and the Cheese Nips. The best incidental music I’ve been bopping to these days is playing, God help me and saints preserve us, at the grocery store.

Commercial classic rock radio has reduced the Who’s entire catalogue to three songs. ‘Join Together,’ a non-album single from their early 70s heyday did not make the short list. Yet it was playing in Save On while I selected a cart with a handle that didn’t seem overly icky – in the winter you can keep your gloves on and not present as a little odd. It took most of my willpower not to air windmill in front of the green, red and yellow peppers. Ann was intent on her list; she didn’t hear the magic in the air. This ain’t Muzak!

Next up was the Rolling Stones butchering the Temptations. Not their note by rote cover of ‘My Girl’ but ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’ inelegantly and gorgeously pummeled. If you cover somebody else’s hit you better put your stamp on your version. I couldn’t help myself, my elbows sharpened, went up, and my lips pouted, a half pirouette in the bakery twisting the meat counter into view. Moments later I was Mick Ronson strumming and watching that man, Bowie, as he sang ‘Rebel Rebel,’ honey.

For a finite amount of time in the mid-70s it seemed as if Aerosmith had discovered rock music’s philosopher stone. Rocks was their fourth and finest album and they’d somehow managed to meld the Stones and Led Zeppelin together over two sides; it’s the only record of theirs I still play with infrequent regularity. One of the radio hits was ‘Back in the Saddle:’ “I’m baaaaack!” As I pondered the selection of frozen thin crust pizzas mouthing “I’m riding, this rig is gonna rattle” I was bemused by the fact that ‘Sick as a Dog,’ the album’s best song and perhaps the band’s best song ever, was never a hit. ‘Sick as a Dog’ is the funhouse mirror of prime Aerosmith songwriting. The drawn out verbal hook “Pleeease” predicates each new line of a verse rather than signaling the chorus as in ‘Last Child’ or ‘Sweet Emotion.’

Things got weird in the dairy section by the milk and cartons of free run eggs laid by relatively happy chickens who are free to exhibit some forms of natural behaviour within a controlled environment. I heard my death song. More specifically, a song I believe I might like to have played at my funeral (the celebration of Geoff’s death) even though I probably won’t get to hear it and nobody will pay attention to the words anyway. I should probably write the selection down somewhere too because if I don’t choose my deep six music Ann will and she will only be able to tell herself and others, “I’m pretty sure I think that’s what he would’ve wanted.” (Ann knows all about ‘Tumbling Dice’ so I know we’re golden all over the place anyway however it all shakes down.) Joe Walsh’s mariachi flavoured ‘Life of Illusion’ nails the human condition: “Pow! Right between the eyes! Oh, how Nature loves her little surprises.” And perhaps offers some startled insight from the sifted cremains in the urn: “Wow! It all seems so logical now!”

Checkout was a breeze. But as I collected our bags I felt a pang about Jackie, I kind of wished she was still working because a song I haven’t heard in 20 years started playing over the sound system. If we’d been in her lengthy, crawling line I could’ve listened to Dave Mason’s ‘Only You Know and I Know’ in its entirety. Unfortunately it was time to go, don’t you know?