Saturday, 31 March 2018


The Chattering Classes

It has been a remarkable morning inside the property lines of the Crooked 9 even though the temperature outside is an unpleasantly frigid -18. There’s a party going on in the backyard, about 10 feet above the two feet of accumulated snow. A massive, noisy flock of Bohemian waxwings are feasting on the frozen mountain ash berries and wizened crab apples that dangle above the rotted, collapsing back fence.

Birds have come to fascinate me these past four or five years. They are beautiful creatures, elegantly designed. The many, many species seem to work well together amongst themselves, as if the pairs or flocks constitute one collective brain. The nearby river valley provides a rich habitat for all sorts of singers and I am curious about my world, what’s wafting on the ether.

I’ve moved Ann’s late father’s bird books up from the basement and shelved them by the backdoor where the windows are. I did download the Cornell University Merlin bird app to my iPad, but when I want to learn more about a subject I’m inclined to reach for a book, old school. Ann’s dad told her that after he died he intended to come back as a woodpecker. And doesn’t a proud pileated woodpecker hang around the Crooked 9 in the late fall or early winter, tock-tock-tocking on the birch trees and back alley telephone poles. I lost my faith a long time ago because of science and customer dissatisfaction and yet I still give up hope for Lent every year, old habits. However, the constant kah-kah-kahing of a big bird with a crimson punk crest makes me wonder about the nature of existence and the nature of stardust motes in the cosmos.

At this time of year Bohemian waxwings are preparing to migrate north to a scrubby band of Canada which lies between the boreal forest and the Arctic tundra. They’re leaving town to nest and mate, ceding their Edmonton turf to incoming Canada geese. Nature knows spring is here even if humans are shivering beneath a blue sky and high yellow sun.

There was a strange magic in our frozen world earlier this morning. Said flock of waxwings, at least a hundred birds with enviable rock ‘n’ roll haircuts, swirled and swarmed from our neighbour’s towering willow tree and alit on an overgrown and under-pruned bush by our front walk, landscape scraggle growth we neglect for privacy purposes. Ann and I were outside, transfixed five feet away, unable to puff on our cigarettes. For a moment there was stillness and silence, nothing else existed, nothing else ever had.

The flock on some silent cue then exploded into an arrowhead, a laser-guided football Flying V formation cloud. Whoosh! I have heard some remarkable sounds in my life: the Who at maximum volume from the tenth row in the Montreal Forum, the leggy whine of cicadas on a hot, humid summer’s day, the buzzing whir of a World Cup cycling peloton, the who-are-you hoot of a great horned owl overhead at midnight and the howls of hungry coyotes in the dusk, but I have never before heard a sound like one hundred pairs of wings displacing air in concert. Maybe we heard the noise of the Holy Spirit, or a departing soul.

Monday, 26 March 2018


Lightfoot in a Vacuum

Nearly 30 years ago I sauntered into a downtown Edmonton pub called the Rose and Crown. I was carrying a hardcover book which I’d just plucked from the remainder shelf of a nearby Coles bookshop. I was on time to meet another ex-pat Montrealer for a social pint. The book was the translated memoirs of Rene Levesque, Quebec’s first separatist premier. My friend said, “Why would you read that?” I said, “Well, we’re both here, aren’t we?” A thousand miles from many places, especially a since departed home city and province in which neither one of us felt particularly welcome anymore.

I was seeking some insight, curious about the mind of a man who was a factor in prompting me to make an unwelcome and life-altering decision. And I needed to get some sense of Alberta, where I landed, and so I delved and dove into other books about the western Canada, history and fiction. I had to understand where I left and why, and where and why I went where I did. I craved context in order to get a handle on my displacement and my new, blossoming sense of another place.

I’m currently reading a book about another prominent Canadian who has also had an impact on my perception of this country and my place in it because “there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” Lightfoot by Toronto-based music writer Nicholas Jennings is the first in-depth work I’ve read about Gordon Lightfoot, our blonde troubadour. Good memoirs and biographies reveal their subjects to the reader in part by inserting the reader into the subject’s environment. A portrait of a person cannot exist on a plain white canvas; there must be a backdrop, context. Lightfoot is a curiously dry and colourless rendering of a towering figure on the Canadian songscape.

To be fair to Jennings, these past months I’ve immersed myself in Canadian music literature. Robbie Robertson’s Testimony guided me through northern Ontario, Toronto, upper New York State, the Big Apple and Los Angeles during tumultuous and ever-evolving times. With Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man I walked the streets of Montreal with Leonard Cohen and shared a room with him in New York’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. Tom Wilson (Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Lee Harvey Osmond), the adopted son of a blind, alcoholic Royal Canadian Air Force rear gunner, held my hand in the back alleys of Hamilton’s toughest neighbourhood, and again as we endured the shakes and sweats of rehab in Beautiful Scars. Still, these titles are the competition; these are the books on the shelf alongside Lightfoot.

Prior to Lightfoot’s birth in 1938 his hometown of Orillia was best known in the guise of Mariposa, the provincial Ontario town portrayed and gently lampooned in Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town (1912). Jennings describes Leacock as Canada’s Mark Twain, a lazy analogy which does not constitute context about anything. Ronnie Hawkins, one of Canadian music’s most charming and certifiably lunatic characters, is just a “friend.” Lightfoot played the Gaslight where his idol Bob Dylan had once performed; perhaps that joint’s in Yonkers.

The simplistic Dick and Jane premise of Lightfoot is that Gordon Lightfoot is Canada’s Bob Dylan. He is not. Nobody is anybody’s Dylan. Dylan has zigged, zagged and worn so many masks that a chameleon like David Bowie died trying to keep up. Even rival Canadian contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Neil Young (both absented from Jennings’s narrative for the most part) have always taken the fork in the road, exploring genres far beyond the realm of their musical roots and rote comfort zones. Mingus? Trans?

An element of creative genius is an innate understanding of what not to do. Once Lightfoot established a sound that perfectly complimented the timbre of his voice, his precise enunciation and the emotional depth of his lyrics, that rich acoustic six- and 12-string blend of folk and soft rock virtuoso stylings, he stuck with it. The crash course in Lightfoot is the Warner Bros. release Gord’s Gold, produced by Lenny Waronker. Crucially, the set features rerecorded versions of Lightfoot’s earlier hits waxed for United Artists label. That album is the definitive sonic definition of Lightfoot’s unique oeuvre. This is how we hear him.

Gordon Lightfoot is his own artist. No Dylan, and no one else either. My hunch is that Gordon Lightfoot is not as bland and boring as the character portrayed in Lightfoot. The author of ‘Don Quixote’ and ‘Minstrel of the Dawn’ deserves a more thorough and colourful study. With more context. Lightfoot reads something like a lengthy obituary: dry as dust, slight bon motes.

Until the ultimate book about Gordon Lightfoot is written, there is silly succor. Visit YouTube and search ‘Burton Cummings (Guess Who) sings Gordon Lightfoot.’ The footage is barely three minutes, it’s a brilliant parody performed with affection. It speaks more to Lightfoot than Lightfoot does, more telling. It puts Gordon Lightfoot in his rightful place, revered by a fellow legend, with context.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018


Take This Job, Please

A recent issue of The Economist featured a four-page spread headlined Executive Focus. Though essentially career opportunities most of us are unqualified to pursue, I was nonetheless intrigued.

America’s Central Intelligence Agency was recruiting according to a half-page, vertical, full-colour ad. No specific work background required but candidates with experience in business and marketing were deemed highly desirable. I thought, “There it is, the job I’ve wanted my entire life, and I finally fit some of the criteria!” America’s bloated intelligence industry which inflated insanely following 9/11 is facing a crisis. Though operations have become increasingly digitized in the Information Age, the best and brightest minds are instead drawn to Silicon Valley, lured by better money and less stringent working conditions. I thought, “The CIA will hire anybody now,” until I read the fine print: I could not join the drug-free workforce without possessing United States citizenship. “Can’t go for those, no can do.” Glee gone.

I turned the page to face a double-truck, black-only, bilingual ad seeking a new president and chief executive officer for Canada Post and its trio of subsidiaries. Lately I’ve been re-fighting the Second World War on YouTube, watching ancient episodes of Garrison’s Gorillas, The Rat Patrol and Combat!. Each series boasts a similar scene: some poor, perspiring bastard on his hands and knees poking at the dirt in a minefield with the tip of his bayonet. This is the job the Government of Canada hopes someone other than me will apply for, in confidence.

Times have changed since the Upper and Lower Canadas confederated in 1867. Canadian Crown corporations sport spotty histories. For the most part, these bastards of a mixed economy were created to supply essential services that the private sector was incapable, unwilling or distrusted to provide. In theory Crown corporations are models of enlightened capitalism in that profit is not their main goal but nor is draining the national treasury and so breaking even each fiscal year is the middling, sensible bar set for these entities.

Every Canadian taxpayer is a stakeholder in every Canadian Crown corporation. Every Canadian should derive some incremental benefit from the existence of any government administered business. The hitch is that Crown corporations are government businesses. They are subject to the philosophy, will and whims of the ruling party in Ottawa; long-term vision might last for three years or less because there’s always an election on the horizon. Senior executive positions, patronage plums, used to be doled out to committee room fixers, bagmen, party acolytes deemed too greasy for more prestigious Senate appointments. All a bit like the CIA these days: not much experience necessary.

Canada Post is a venerable 19th century institution attempting to cope in the 21st. Besides, telegraphs and telegrams were never a threat. Nor was Bell Telephone: people kept writing letters because long distance was so expensive. Cell phones were expensive toys for busy salesmen. Electronic mail was destined to remain an internal corporate communications tool. The disastrous parallel is Kodak blindly convinced that people would always require its film for their cameras (and high school drug dealers its canisters).

Faced with a rapidly declining volume of letter mail, unwieldy labour contracts and fearsome pension obligations, Canada Post finally began to pivot. The proposal that irked Canadians coast to coast to coast was the cessation of home delivery in favour of community mailboxes. Fewer carriers, inexpensive part-timers, could cover more walks. This was not a radical innovation. The method had already been implemented in apartment buildings, condominium developments and new suburban sub-divisions. Canada’s population is getting old; a goodly portion of us remember when the postman always rang twice and turned up again on Saturdays. And by God, we fought for the ongoing household delivery of nothing rather than walking a block for no reason.

We’re fortunate at the Crooked 9. By some quirk of fate we still have home delivery. However, our regular carrier has not been striding her route for a week now. I hope she’s on holiday and not been rotated to another neighbourhood in the city. Her substitute is some kid who wears a black flu mask – probably over his eyes because any mail we’ve received recently needs to be redirected to our neighbours. Maybe he could get work with the CIA, they’ll hire anybody, although dead letter drops might be tricky.

Canada Post’s venture into the digital world has met with middling results. Essentially the Crown Corporation was years late and an algorithm short. The other two pillars of continuing viability present an interesting juxtaposition. Direct mail, addressed or unaddressed, junk to you, works, does its job for marketers. Quaint though still remarkably effective, flyers, pamphlets and postcards draw consumers to sellers in their towns.

Cannily, Canada Post plays both sides of the country’s diminishing main streets. Revenue comes in e-commerce cartons, parcel delivery. Here, ironically, Canada Post competes against itself because Purolator, its courier subsidiary, does the exact same thing. A logistics analyst might describe the situation as a dual delivery stream. All I see are conflicting brands, and redundancies of services, jobs, fleets and facilities. A formal unification of the co-habiting cannibals only makes sense.

The morass would lay ahead, in the stew of negotiating to unite two different corporate cultures, one heavily unionized and the other not so much. A family discussion becomes a heated screaming match, dirty work. The elderly, the disabled, grandstanding politicians and union stewards will shriek about the demise of the old ways even though the status quo is ultimately the gateway to a wasteland haunted by the ghosts of Kodak and Toys “R” Us; a smoking moonscape populated with the broke spirits of Canada Post pensioners who like former Sears workers depended on their employer for a dignified retirement. Do you want this job? Are dissent, pizza flyers and hamburger coupons your passion?

Monday, 12 March 2018


It’s a Wash

Eventually you get around to sitting down at the kitchen counter and doing the math. Ann and I had become almost intimate with the gentleman who maintained our 30-year-old Maytag washer and dryer set. The washing machine leaked transmission fluid and sometimes water. But it was a top load with a proper agitator and immense capacity. The gas dryer’s igniter failed frequently which meant, if we weren’t paying attention, the machine would spin forever without heat.

Facts must be faced. After our repairman threw up his hands for the final time last week, he suggested a stacked unit on sale at an appliance store which extended additional discounts to his customers. After he left, Ann and I rushed out and bought his recommendation. Neither of us slept that night because we both had doubts about the viability of a tall, low capacity condo unit jury-rigged into the defined spaces of a bungalow constructed in 1955; we agreed we had made a poor decision in haste.

The salesman understood when Ann phoned him in the morning and cancelled our order. “Better now than after delivery,” he told her. Trouble was, we’d have to go back to the appliance store, and some days hell for me is shopping amid the company of strangers. Following a burst of online research including Consumer Reports, we returned to the store and settled upon an energy efficient washer and dryer finished in very fashionable graphite tones. They were on sale and also qualified for a modest government rebate. They would also fit into their allocated spaces.

The trouble with modern appliances is that all their electronics make old fashioned, mechanical repair moot. Front loaders become immense mouldy Petri dishes if they’re not cared for properly. Our salesman was forthright: “I’ll tell you right now that these won’t last 30 years.” Swell, consumer durables are disposable but at least they look cool.

After the new appliances were delivered and we'd re-hung a couple of doors (an inch matters), we phoned our repairman to book their installations because we trust him and, anyway, we helped his kids through college. He said to me, “Don’t tell your wife but you’ve made a big mistake.” He added, “And don’t ask me to repair these. Ever.” Finally he pronounced that the 220-volt socket above the dryer emitted only 110 volts and consequently our new dryer had no heat. Swell, right back where we started. “You should’ve kept the gas dryer!”

“But, you said…” You know what? You flicked the switch on this whole, maddening merry-go-round! You know what? I’m much happier when my day-to-day routine isn’t disrupted! You know what? I don’t like milling about appliance stores! You know what? I’ve got other things on what’s left of my mind, like trying to get my third novel on press!

The circuit breaker panel in the Crooked 9 is just off the kitchen, conveniently situated behind a bookshelf which is anchored to the wall. Before the electrician arrived I cleaned off the shelves, removing my plastic, spring-loaded American eagle jumpsuit Elvis, a cheesy, frowning tiki (wisdom and patience) purchased at a Maui souvenir stall, a Bob Marley Exodus lighter I bought in Bridgetown, a tin of AC/DC Australian hardrock beer with Black Ice artwork (brewed in France), Ann’s cookbooks and my bird books. All of this labour for a fix that took an expert less than five minutes.

With everything finally working, and the house to ourselves, Ann and I washed the laundry room floor. It sparkled the best it could. The new haute mode machines looked good. But didn’t the walls, the window sill, the trim, the door now seem worn, tired and drab? Of course they did. Best to repaint a dreary basement room before spring arrives and the days get long; best to keep that big, hellish, ball of disruption rolling downhill while the momentum is still palpable. What’s another few days of agitation?