Wednesday, 28 September 2016


Trigger Warning: What the Neighbours Think

America’s FBI requires a trifecta of blood to enumerate a mass shooting. There must be three or more victims wounded or killed. Mass shootings are a daily occurrence in the United States. Second Amendment slaughter is rampant and so commonplace down south that news editors tune the boldness of their headlines and story lengths to body counts. And the murder sites: location, location, location; churches and grade schools are especially good. Our feeling of shock and horror over each incident has since plunged beyond numbness into the banality of sports statistics.

For all the victims and their loved ones may their god bestow some grace upon them. While the dead may be worthy of a dated picture and a brief biography, the real news is the killer and the real interest is about what ticks and tocks in a misfiring brain. Why not ask the neighbours?

Naturally there were mass shootings over the weekend and on Monday. The Associated Press yesterday morning reported that a lawyer in Houston, TX described as ‘disgruntled’ began shooting at pedestrians and cars in his neighbourhood yesterday morning with an assault rifle. I’m not certain why his paycheque source matters unless legal is the new postal. Perhaps a disgruntled barista, a less exalted profession, might make for less compelling reading. Neither a lawyer nor barista actually needs to own a military grade weapon with a laser scope.

What struck me about this particular story were the actions of his neighbours, a married couple. The wife called 911 around six in the morning to report gunfire on the street. Her husband left for work anyway because it’s just another day in the US of A, right? This fellow must be the world’s best employee: ‘Sorry I’m late, I had to dodge a sniper.’ Or maybe he works for America’s worst employer: ‘I don’t care if you had to dodge a sniper, the fact is, you’re late!’ The good news is that the man fared better than the windshield of his Mustang.

The couple knew the rifleman casually. He drove a Porsche. The wife told reporters that the lawyer was a quiet man. ‘He’s a normal, average Joe.’ The sniper was wearing a Nazi uniform when shot and killed by Houston police.

Friday night in Mount Vernon, WA a kid named Arcan Cetin allegedly shot and killed five people in a shopping mall Macy’s store. The weapon used was a rifle. The Associated Press reported that the suspect confessed his crime to the authorities and will face five charges of premeditated murder. The cretin was known to police and described by a neighbour as ‘creepy, rude and obnoxious.’

These are the people in American neighbourhoods. Some of the villains are crazy and others are just plain evil. Their neighbours are either aware or they’re not. What’s troubling is the ease with which the lunatic fringe is able to arm itself.

Sunday, 25 September 2016


North to Lesser Slave Lake!

Why Lesser Slave Lake you might wonder?

Ann remembered a camping trip 20 years ago, a white beach and the illusion of being seaside. It would be the first day of autumn and the colours of the surrounding boreal forest would be gorgeous. Maybe all the species of migratory birds had yet to fly. The northern lights had been active in recent days and perhaps they’d put on a show for us if we drove closer to them, toward a bigger, darker sky.

Truthfully, we wanted a top-down road trip in Ann’s silver Miata while the dwindling summer weather still hung on but both of the two places we wished to stay in Jasper were booked solid. While the four hour drive west to the national park is not quite routine it’s still a bit of a scenic bore until Hinton. Lesser Slave Lake was 60 minutes closer and in a different direction, north.

Twenty-five years ago I went ice fishing on Baptiste Lake, the town of Athabasca was not too far away. We were eight or nine men in an unfinished albeit heated cabin with running water but no working toilet as of yet. We pissed outside into a five-gallon pail that steamed and stank of ammonia. The outhouse was unwelcoming as the temperature was minus-30 Celsius, difficult to unclench. The boys laughed at my Montreal urban winter clothes and graciously outfitted me properly so I wouldn’t freeze to death out on the ice. The gang’s cook was a fat guy nicknamed ‘Baby.’ I watched him gut a pike and then scoop out a crooked index fingerful of black roe and eat it. A second later one of the other dead fish on the counter began to flop around. I nearly unclenched. That was as far north as I’d ever been in this country until last Wednesday.

By Alberta standards Lesser Slave Lake is big water. She covers some 450 square miles of the province. Great Slave Lake, her sister namesake in the Northwest Territories, is an inland sea, drowning some 10,500 square miles of land (Lake Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes, has a surface of about 7,300 square miles). My slightly diligent research into the origin of the Slave name turned up two possible explanations. Slave is eponymous, an acknowledgment of a northern First Nations people known as the Slavey or Slave whose territory encompassed both lakes. Slave, as translated, may also be a contemptuous Cree epithet for a member of any other tribe. Fur traders and early cartographers differentiated the two lakes by their sizes, Great or Lesser. Lesser Slave Lake drains into Lesser Slave River which feeds the Athabasca River which eventually wends its way into the Arctic Ocean.

We left the city in the morning and picked up Alberta 44, an invisible low slung car on a heavy rig route. Our first stop was Westlock. Like most Alberta towns Westlock boasts its historic and depressed main street, decimated by commercial big box retail developments more proximate to the highway. The downtown grain terminal interested me as there aren’t many classic grain elevators left in Alberta. The shapes of the three steel storage bins hitched alongside the western castle by the railway tracks reminded me of the wooden tops I used to spin on the floor as a child.

We continued on to a hamlet called Jarvie. On the threshold of the general store we fell under the spell of an overly affectionate black cat. Inside we could’ve had sandwiches and coffee with a few of the locals at a table in the back. We could’ve bought hardware, packaged food, booze, cigarettes and candy. In fact, according to the Royal-LePage sign outside on the porch railing, we could’ve bought the building and the business.

Jarvie’s Cache Park parallels the Canadian National right of way. Apparently it was Alberta’s first bat and bird sanctuary. Across the tracks a beaver dam sat like an island in the Pembina River. Ann pointed at a tin shed, ‘There’s always a curling rink.’ The infield of the baseball diamond beside it was rife with weeds, no clean grounders ricocheting on this rusty, rain pelted shale.

Once we crossed the Athabasca River we noticed that the landscape had shifted. Behind us were cultivated fields and scrubby prairie. Now we were into a green and empty grid on the Alberta Motor Association roadmap, amid a forest of spruce trees, jack pines, white birches and trembling aspens. The land was green and gold, the asphalt black - its paint yellow, and the sky blue. As we travelled farther north our surroundings became increasingly spooky. There was unmistakable evidence of past forest fires. The new boreal growth was short enough to wade through but it was porcupine needled with towering charred and spindly tree trunks.

The modern town of Slave Lake warrants inclusion in the Bible’s Old Testament. It was flooded in 1988 and was almost entirely incinerated by wildfire in 2011. Hard times after the shoddy and generic rebuild have come again due to the machinations of Saudi Arabia and that country’s attempt to quash North America’s oil producing capacity and competitiveness, a sort of tap dance to make self-reliance too expensive even as we endeavor to alter our poisonous addiction to fossil fuels. (Saudi’s price cutting strategy is also a major contributor to the anarchy in OPEC confrere Venezuela.) Unlike Westlock, which has 2000 less citizens, Slave Lake does have an actual Main Street although it lacks the pretension of decorative signs and flapping streetlight banners. There are two or three well-tended and overflowing sidewalk flowerpots, a few angled parking spaces and five liquor stores. I HAVE MIXED DRINKS ABOUT FEELINGS yuks The Great Canadian Liquor Company sign.

When Ann and I pulled off the highway into Slave Lake we gathered our wits in an empty parking lot situated between a Canadian Tire and a Tim Hortons. I stretched my legs, got a beer from the cooler in the trunk and lit a cigarette. I garbled gibberish at Ann to get out of the driver’s seat and come see: two scruffy ravens the black-cyan colour of Superman’s hair in DC comics and the size of rugby balls were hopping about in a puddle and bullying a modest flock of angry gulls. We didn’t know it then, but the Canadian Tire sign, a red triangle perched upon a pole, would be the most distinctive feature of the northern night sky during our brief stay.

The Ridge Tap House is an ample space. There’s room enough for three pool tables, a dance floor and a stage. Lots of tables and booths too. Ann and I were the only customers Thursday night. There were no guests from the adjacent inn and conference centre. There were no oil workers. There were no long-haul truck drivers decompressing over a pint. There were no shady ladies with hearts of gold doing their bit for the local chamber of commerce.

The bartender told us that he commutes daily from High Prairie, a further hour north, because there is no hospitality work up there anymore. His previous employer had closed his restaurant and then its separate bar a year later. Our bartender is married and has two kids. He figured his eldest son was a pretty good baseball player. There’s nothing he can afford to do to nurture his son’s talent except maybe drive him to games provided he can afford the gas. Up here in Slave Lake, in the Tim Hortons or the Ridge Tap House, nobody knows nor has read nor cares about The Leap Manifesto.

Our sense was that the population of 6000 works mainly in food services. With the tourists departed Pizza Hut employees serve lunch to their counterparts at McDonald’s and vice versa. Talk in the town revolved around food. The Fix bakery and cafĂ© was a welcome addition to downtown. A Mr. Mike’s casual steak and dining had opened on the highway but the best meal to be had was at the Gilwood Golf and Country Club because Chef is from Edmonton. This proved to be true as I ate the best bison burger of my life in the clubhouse.

Ann and I climbed six kilometres of bad road to the top of Marten Mountain. We stood by the fire lookout and scanned our surroundings. If the lake seemed immense, the enveloping golden forest seemed to stretch on forever. At the base of the mountain in the deserted provincial park was a white sandy beach. Our only companions on the windy shore were hunks of driftwood. We later walked through the woods at the Boreal Centre where ornithologists have been counting and banding species of migratory birds for two decades. We heard nary a note of birdsong. The silence and stillness in the trees was eerie. Perhaps we’d arrived too late in the morning. Perhaps we’d arrived too late in the year: summer was over and the birds had flown.

Monday, 12 September 2016


Workers of the World Unit!

A few hours ago while hastily flipping through the now standard skimpy and vacant Monday Edmonton Journal I noted an odd column headline: ‘Seniors should enjoy sex but take precautions to avoid scratching STDs.’ That gave me pause so I turned the page back over. I’d read ‘catching’ as ‘scratching.’ I’d added yet another s and what the hell, dropped in an r to make a proper word in my mind.

The written alphabet renders language, a complex series of sounds intended to communicate thought, visible. I’ve noticed over the past couple of years that I’m prone to garbling the written message from the sender. I’m intimately familiar with all of the symbols that comprise our words but I may add or subtract some in an instant. It’s as if my auto-correct has some type of mischievous glitch. I worry about my brain, cognitive degeneration. I should probably get my eyes checked. I think perhaps I’ve developed a bad habit from staring at computer screens; I scan, I don’t actually concentrate hard enough to read and absorb electronic type as thoroughly as I do ink on paper.

Sunday morning Ann and I attended a funeral. The early hour did not bode well for sandwiches afterward. There were large numbers of mourners and the rite was delayed somewhat as the bereaved families and funeral home staff coped as best they could with the crowd. So I let go of Ann’s hand and wandered around to kill a little time.

The narrow escalator up to the mezzanine reception lounge was reclaimed from the dying Eaton’s department store in 1980. There were display cases of elaborate wooden models of horse-drawn hearses. A framed page of Gothic type explained the sociological concept of the funeral. Most of the pictures on the walls were floral: lady slippers photographed on Prince Edward Island, prairie lilies from Saskatchewan. The sole religious portrait in the space attracted my attention. The rendering suggested medieval iconography, sort of flat and at peace. It was a study of a painting, a mosaic or stained glass. The fellow in the picture reminded me of Brian Wilson in the 70s, longish hair parted on the side, a beard. Certainly not Jesus.

I wasn’t wearing my glasses so I sauntered over for a closer look. There was a little copper plaque about the size of a name tag screwed to the wooden frame. The font was elegant, an ornate cursive, etched. The unfrosted bulb light from the chandeliers glinted off the metal. I read: ‘St. Joseph the Wanker.’ I thought, ‘That can’t be right.’

Friday, 9 September 2016


Hey Joe, Everybody Hurts Sometimes

meGeoff has no idea if songwriters and musicians Lee Michaels and Joe Jackson have ever crossed paths, let alone became friends. But if they did and if they lived in the same neighbourhood and if they got together once a month or so for a pint in their local at their preferred table by the window, it’s very possible we might have overheard a conversation much like the one imagined below.

Lee Michaels: Hey, uh, been forty days since I don’t know when –

Joe Jackson: Look over there!

LM: Where?

JJ: There! Here comes Jeanie with her new boyfriend.

LM: Is she really going out with him?

JJ: Her and Bobby are steppin’ out. They don’t know I found out. They’re married now or engaged or something, so I’m told.

LM: I just saw her yesterday, had nothing to say. Do you know what I mean?

JJ: They say that looks don’t count for much and so there goes your proof.

LM: She’s a dandy, yes indeed, and I just saw her with your best friend, if you know what I mean.

JJ: Is she really going to take him home tonight?

LM: I asked her if she still cared. She didn’t hear me, she just stared. Do you know what I mean?

JJ: I washed my hair. I kid myself that I look real smooth. If looks could kill…

LM: You haven’t loved her in nearly four years. You didn’t notice that she held back her tears. Now you have, but it’s really too late. Better find yourself another girl, another girl.

JJ: I’ve had my fill. I get so mean around this scene.

LM: Better find, uh, another place. Lord, do you know what I mean? (To server): Can we get our tab, please?

Find legal versions of ‘Do You Know What I Mean’ by Lee Michaels and ‘Is She Really Going Out with Him’ by Joe Jackson on YouTube or other services.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016


Time Waits for Us All: the Beatles and the Stones

Reg, a proper British man, used to live across the street from us. Reg saw the Beatles in the Cavern Club and not just once, but many times because that’s what he and his friends used to do back then, go to shows. Reg is a smug bastard. I’ve been down inside the Cavern Club a few times myself. My Cavern Club is a slightly reconfigured, renovated tourist trap. Reg’s Cavern Club was the sweaty, primordial antithesis, the real deal.

My friend’s eldest brother had a ticket for a Beatles concert in Maple Leaf Gardens, in 1965 or 1966. For whatever reason, his parents would not allow him to attend. Perhaps a trip downtown was deemed too risky for a wide-eyed kid. I suspect that that considered and best intentions decision led to years of simmering resentment.

Grief is a bit like art in that I cannot define it but I really know when it hurts me. Run over household cats aside, sometimes I think the first true grief I experienced was the break up of the Beatles in 1970. I was ten. I could not comprehend how four best friends who surely shared a house or a clubhouse which in no way resembled the house I lived in could go their separate ways.

For many the Beatles are a documented abstract: they exist only on vinyl, celluloid or paper. Nobody’s seen them perform in concert since they gave up on the futility of touring more than 50 years ago. Whatever their emotional responses to the cessation of the grind may’ve been, technology had dealt them a double whammy. The audio equipment of the time was inadequate for baseball stadiums crammed with orgasmic, screaming teens. Also Beatles songs had become more complex as the group began to experiment with the sonic possibilities of the recording studio, using Abbey Road as another instrument. Too many tracks on ‘Revolver’ were too tricky for just the four members to attempt to play live even if they could’ve heard themselves on stage.

‘Eight Days a Week’ a documentary film detailing the Beatles’ increasingly frustrating years as road warriors opens in theatres the third week of September. Later that week the Rolling Stones unveil ‘Havana Moon’ for one night only in cinemas world-wide. The movie captures their massive free concert last fall in Cuba. Since the Stones have been ripping through the same set list pretty much since 1989, the hook is the setting, a crumbling Marxist paradise. I want to see both films, ideally on successive nights.

With the Beatles semi-retired the Stones essentially created the rock touring industry as we now know it. Their 1969 American tour laid the blueprint: a small roster of two or three acts, extended sets, proper amplification for venues never intended to host musical performances and expensive tickets – some as costly as $9.

The Stones were always grittier, especially when you compare their early recordings to the Beatles sides. The band’s image was louche posing, but what did I know about manipulation and improper public relations? I loved their disheveled look and I loved their music. On some level maybe I realized that trading in Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau and our hip parish priest in his pinstripe suit as heroes in exchange for Mick and Keith meant there was no turning back.

Imagine the music of the Rolling Stones as a simple horizontal line. While there’s a psychedelic or reggae squiggle or two, their regurgitated American sound for the most part has been churned out straight and true since 1962. Unlike the Beatles the Stones did not inadvertently imprison themselves in a studio trap. They could play just about everything in their catalogue if they felt like it and crucially, however they felt like playing them. The live album ‘Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!’ released in 1970 is a case in point. None of the hits sounded like the studio 45s and ‘Midnight Rambler’ was completely retooled as a chugging, nightmarish theatrical piece, their very own ‘Threepenny Opera.’   

The Stones last released new music in 2005. At the time I wondered if the title ‘A Bigger Bang’ was a response to Paul McCartney’s lovely album of that year ‘Chaos and Creation in the Backyard.’ Were they still that competitive? Not that it mattered anymore. The Stones have long given into the wrong-headed conceit of decrepit baby boomers who expect live performances to sound exactly like the records. Technology has since allowed McCartney himself to replicate the studio effects on any Beatles song he cares to on stage. This relatively new-found ability cannot help but tweak a bittersweet ‘What if…?’

This month offers me a sort of Cineplex roll ‘n’ rock omega and alpha narrative. I will watch and listen to the Beatles in the context of their times all the while knowing their as yet unconceived back to basics ‘Let It Be’ experiment will fail. When the group in matching suits in the movie runs off a baseball diamond in the final frames it will signal the beginning of the end, the winding down. The next night, 50 years later, the Stones, scarred and tired top dogs, will wind up an entire country – albeit a small one, and by rote. It’s only, well, it is just what it is and was.

Sunday, 4 September 2016


Dreams of a Distant Signal

When I was still living in Calgary the household received an unaddressed mailer from the City asking residents not to bag and dispose of their grass clippings. Who knew that shorn blades of grass were essentially 70-per-cent water and made fine natural mulch if left to decompose in the sun? Who knew that yard waste clogged landfill sites? Suddenly one of the most basic lessons of exterior property maintenance that my father instilled in me and which I diligently followed was fundamentally wrong. That moment was a minor epiphany.

The Observer last Sunday reported that Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) scientists were very interested in a strange signal, possibly purposely beamed from Hercules, a constellation 95 light years away from our home base. To add to the intrigue, the Russian Academy of Science had detected the anomaly apparently emitted from deep space over a year ago but had suppressed its findings.

I’d been playing foosball with this news since August 28th, kicking it around. First I considered the source: the Observer has been published every Sunday since 1791 and is not affiliated with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire of hysterical tripe. The scoop originated with a respected science blogger who had read the existing documentation. While Ivan Semeniuk, the Globe and Mail’s science reporter, had yet to weigh in on the story, the National Post did address it the following Wednesday morning albeit with an irksome brevity although skepticism was warranted: nothing was certain, nothing was proven, more research and study were obviously required. Still, two reputable publications have taken note.

Around the time my perception of grass clippings was changed forever, I remember riding a packed bus along Ninth Avenue into downtown Calgary. I was crammed up beside the driver, almost invading his space. He nodded at a billboard on our right which trumpeted an insane amount of millions to be won if we bought tickets for that week’s government lotto game. ‘What would you do with all that money?’ I said, ‘I’d get the Beatles back together and have them play in my backyard.’ He nodded, watched the traffic shifting in the lanes ahead, checked his review mirrors and said, ‘But two of them are dead.’ I said, ‘As if I’m going to win. I don’t even play. But if I’m going to dream, it might as well be the impossible.’

Reading the news daily my sense is that our planet is staggering toward the verge of an epochal reset. Progressive forces have secured some remarkable beachheads advancing human rights, social policy, environmental stewardship, and fewer restrictions on trade and migration. Digital technology may yet prove to be the great global equalizer. Artificial Intelligence may direct or influence a new phase of human evolution. The equal and opposite reaction consists of tired, sectarian wars, corporations with no greater goal than a positive quarterly report to shareholders, extreme nationalism, social unrest and a regressive entrenching of the boundaries of protectionism and isolation as government policy. Odds are even that we may yet extract ourselves from the quagmire of our basest, primordial muck. What is the solution and where is it?

HD164595 is a star in Hercules much like our own sun. The implications, ramifications and consequences of an artificial signal from somewhere in its vicinity would have been Earth shattering. Hold on to your tinfoil hat because everything, the foundation and essence of our existence, life, would have abruptly changed in a cosmic nanosecond. We are not alone; it’s time to pull ourselves together and look our best. There’s no app for that kind of wake up call. Come Friday morning the dream was over, worthy of a mere inch of newspaper column type. The mysterious signal’s source was confirmed to be terrestrial in origin, give or take a margin of error of 95 light years, faulty data. Radio telescopes are delicate instruments utilized by clumsy operators. This is us.