Monday, 28 January 2019


Mildly Indifferent Mutterings

It’s that time on the sports calendar. The dead of winter. Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue is being airbrushed, prepped for press and poised to offend the sensibilities of some prim high school librarian somewhere. The National Football League is on Super Bowl hype hiatus for another week. My pal Stats Guy talks over his pint about pitchers and catchers reporting to baseball training camps. It’s also the National Hockey League’s mid-season all-star break which is when most Canadian fans take stock of their favourite team’s spring fortunes.

Iggy Pop: That TV, it just insults me. I do not consume much televised sports these days mainly because the concussed talking heads behind the semi-circular desk on the glitzy set make local news presenters, incoherent tellers of more important stories, seem somewhat articulate. Still, the national question at this moment in this election year is: Whither the Stanley Cup and will a Canadian team win it for the first time since 1993? The pundits care. Actual hardcore hockey fans do not. All that matters for me is Montreal or nothing at all. I cannot tell you who won the Cup last season because it wasn’t the Canadiens.

The Habs are surprisingly respectable this season despite an appallingly useless power play. They should be somewhat decent too, given that the squad is eight years into management’s five-year plan. They seem headed in the right direction even as the window gently closes on the primes of two of their best players, goaltender Carey Price and captain Shea Webber. My old friend Tim figures the Habs will be roadkill following the first round of the spring playoff tournament. Of course, we’ve had no expectations since Guy Lafleur retired the first time. The team’s last two Cups (1986 and 1993) were sweet but stolen. Opportunity may not be knocking but it’s standing outside on the WELCOME mat.

Meanwhile something is rancid here in Edmonton. When I was born I was swaddled in bleu, blanc et rouge, not blue and orange. Consequently I’m incapable of cheering for the Oilers but I feel for their fans (and non-fans like me) who ponied up public money for a new arena built to drive private profit and who, understandably, expected something in exchange, a winning team for instance. Okay, a modicum of hope. A professional sports team may not give much back to its host city in monetary terms but it sure can generate an incalculably positive civic buzz when its play is championship calibre. That feeling here has been dormant for too long.

Edmonton is a big town only if you were born in rural Alberta. I’ve always found it to be a charmingly schizoid place; it is at once a university town, a blue collar town and a government town. Its arts scene is dynamic. The mix makes for a unique quality of life up here in the near north. To my dismay and mild disgust the Oilers franchise has always emitted a whiff of arrogance; that the team is the best thing this city’s got going for it. Alas, the club has proven itself chronically incapable of skating the skate.

The Oilers are currently floundering in the beer bottle backspit of the NHL’s Western Conference despite icing captain Connor McDavid, this era’s Guy Lafleur on game nights. Their record is 23-24-3 or 23-27 if you discount the cheap points the NHL awards to losers who hang in for a face off beyond regulation time. Those winning and losing game totals also add up to the approximate number of general managers, coaches and first overall draft picks the Oilers have churned through in recent seasons. At the 2019 break there remain five teams for them to leap-frog into a playoff position. Trouble is those rival teams are able to rack up cheap loser points too. The Oilers are done.

A quarter century of whingeing “Whither the Stanley Cup?” suggests that sustained and grandiose ineptitude is not a new story in Canadian hockey. While Edmonton’s organizational plight vexes fans and observers alike, the club has yet to become the laughingstock that is the Ottawa Senators. There’s still a lot of time left on the clock however. If the Oilers were a publicly traded company shareholders would be screaming for the slash and burn intervention of an activist investor. They are more like a particularly thick winner of multiple lotteries, a player lucky beyond all odds and belief who repeatedly squanders his windfalls.

The Canadiens have been mediocre for years, inconsistent. “But,” as Tim says, “nobody does ceremony like the Habs.” His remark is the ultimate back-handed compliment. When your team’s marketing department elects to sell the Kool-Aid of past laurels to a new generation of fans “Let’s hear it for our legends!” you know you’ll be in for a long, dark winter. The Canadiens are very adept at promoting their history which is older than the NHL itself. Unfortunately, they had to get good working with video, lasers, smoke and mirrors as they’ve few other assets.

The Canadiens are similar to a corporate entity. There’s a mindset and a mantra that may not suit all employees. Bad decisions have been made and bad luck has been endured. Unlike the Oilers though, the Habs were never handed the keys to the kingdom by the league and city taxpayers only to keep losing them in the snow.    
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Wednesday, 23 January 2019


Tumbling Dice

When I fly way back home to Montreal I usually revel in walking her streets. Much of the city has changed throughout the thirty years I’ve been gone yet much remains frozen in time. I was there last week and it was freezing. Trudging to a depanneur for cigarettes and beer was all the activity I was able to muster up. There were other extenuating circumstances, my mother’s funeral for one. But when you’re cold, down and literally blue, that doesn’t mean magic and serendipity can’t muscle their way into your life.

Beyond its astonishing catalogue of recorded music I do not know the full story of Three O’Clock Train. This is hometown bias speaking but the band should be in the same national conversation as Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. Who’s to say why the dice tumbled as they did? A twisting tale of the rock ‘n’ roll road remains to be told. All I can say with any assurance is that group’s frenetic mash of country, rock and punk was unlike anything I’d heard or seen before in Montreal clubs in the late eighties. No synths, no fey icky-sticky hairdos.

Three O’Clock Train kicked off its latest tour last Friday night, my circumstantial lucky night, in Old Montreal at the Centaur Theatre’s bar. The dead of winter, the northern chitlin’ circuit, tell me what else are you going to do? I figured I could walk to the gig through Montreal’s Underground City until I realized that show time and the open hours of some of my avenues did not coincide. I instead descended into the Metro for the first time in decades. There’s something about olfactory memory: forced canned air, oil, hot rubber and commuters obviously overdue for baths despite the cloak of their parkas. Litter on greasy tiles beside trash bins. I took the Green line, changed to the Orange line and emerged where I knew I would, greeted by the Notre Dame Basilica lit electric blue.

I believe Three O’Clock Train’s founder and leader Mack MacKenzie and I are about the same age. Our musical foundation was our parents’ and older siblings’ record collections, hot wax from the fifties and sixties. I began to buy my own vinyl in the early seventies, my stuff, my sound, and became enamoured with punk about the time I was eligible to vote and buy booze. I’ve a hunch Mack embarked on a similar journey. I have interviewed Mack and have written about him before. We are acquainted ever so slightly. His music resonates with me perhaps because we share a slice of time and place. As Mack sings, “Her name is Montreal.”

Cobblestones, muck and ice but no horseshit, I slithered my way uphill to the stone temple that housed Montreal’s original stock exchange. Inside I secured a bottle of Sleeman’s and a good table. I was proactive regarding the toilets, learned where they were and made sure they were clean because once you reach a certain age complete with certain hang-ups small things become big and so I was hugely relieved by the state of affairs in the facilities; this is fundamental stuff, just as there’s a proper way and no other way to load a dishwasher. Anyway, I’d be able to enjoy the show and leave the frets for Mack’s guitars.

The first set featured ballads and a couple of well chosen covers, notably soaring renditions ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘Bring It on Home.’ Mack’s own songs stand up to a stripped down approach. His observations are sharp; his lyrics are often poignant, sometimes humourous and always clever. His phrasing is clear, concise, a bonus for a word freak such as me. And gee, who else would sweat the fate of the Wicked Witch of the West’s unemployed flying monkeys? “The scarecrow got a Ph.D.”

The night got hotter and faster once the drummer took his place behind his kit. The second half was this fan boy’s fever dream: Did I write the set list? The hits kept coming like rabbit punches in a one-sided hockey fight: ‘Be My Baby (He Says),’ ‘Train of Dreams,’ ‘The Devil Likes Me,’ ‘Love to Rain’ - Bam! Bam! Bam! Let me up, I’ve had enough. New material from the just released Cuatro de Los Angeles EP including ‘It’s Not Worth It’ and ‘Lucky Day’ blended seamlessly with the band’s road tested catalogue. Sometime around midnight Three O’Clock Train ripped through their final number which was ‘Down at the Arcade,’ possibly the only upbeat song Lou Reed ever wrote.

As I slid back down to the Metro station I marveled at the wonder and mystery of it all, life; the synchronicity, the yin and the yang, the nature of coincidence. The day before I’d listened to a Catholic liturgy, delivered a eulogy for yet another immediate family member and had shoveled wet, black earth in the Cote des Neiges Cemetery. Damned if one of my favourite bands wasn’t playing an intimate barroom just when I needed a hefty dose of three-chord medicine. What were the odds? Lady Luck had blown on the dice as they’d tumbled. There exists a sort of grace for us all.   
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Monday, 21 January 2019


My Mom and Montreal

My mother died on the first of January, a couple of weeks after her ninety-first birthday. She’d been praying for her fateful day for some time. As much as my mother fervently desired the big sleep, her last months were an excruciating exercise for her, her caregivers and her family. It took longer than she’d expected to get her way.

And so as Ann and I packed our bags in order to be present at a liturgy in Montreal multiple strains of melancholy reverberated through the Crooked 9. As I chose clothing and inventoried my shaving kit thousands of coherent thoughts bounced around inside my skull: caroms, ricochets and rebounds. I was grieving my mother but I’d been grieving for quite some time. I pitied her because I imagined I felt her pain on some level although that’s impossible. I mused about the ethical and moral dilemmas posed by modern medicine and its practitioners’ oath to “do no harm,” and the seemingly contradictory palliative care process, comforting is not a function of needless prolonging.

I have had the misfortunate honour of eulogizing my brother and my father. Mom was next. This is a task no one wants to get good at performing. There’s just my sister and me left from the original five now. While we were working out Mom’s funeral over the phone, I said, “I’ll be damned if I have to do you too. You and I are like Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood squinting at one another under the sun in a spaghetti western now.”

There were practical considerations at play too. Ann and I made arrangements for our house to be checked on, snow shoveling if required. But this time there was no scramble to address the welfare of our tabby pussycats, both of whom are now prowling the territory of their tenth lives. Or napping. When we eventually returned there would be no “Tails up!” greeting at the front door; we still miss our overly curious welcome. Then again our airline reeking bags dumped by tired arms in the front hall would not be pissed on either.

I was rolling a Rolling Stones t-shirt for nightwear when Ann mused aloud, “Do you think this will be our last trip to Montreal?”

A lifelong connection had been cut, sawn slowly not deftly snipped. God, we’ve been so often these past few years to visit with my mother that I’m confident I could pilot the Airbus jet even though my driver’s license is designated a learner’s permit. I at least know the route, and the seats must be more comfortable up in the cockpit. And well, we could always meet up with my sister and her family elsewhere in the country or even beyond Canada’s borders. My future forty-fifth and fiftieth high school reunions hold an allure, circumstances permitting; I’ve still friends in my hometown. “Never say ‘never’ again, Mister Bond,” I thought.

I replied to Ann with a phrase I find myself uttering more frequently as I age and keep relearning old lessons while learning new ones, “I don’t know.”

We are Canadians. Many of us were born in the cold. Many of us have died or will die in the cold. Alas, whatever the temperature may be, death is a lonely, private process. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. The trouble with winter interments is that the already cold, cold ground is frozen solid even as the deceased’s ashes are still warm. While folding thick, practical socks in Edmonton for the graveside ceremony in Montreal I could not help but summon Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man’ with its chilling scene of Harry Lime’s wintertime jackhammer burial in Allied-occupied Vienna.

The Cote-des-Neiges Cemetery on Mount Royal is the Catholic one, on the west side of the old mountain’s middle peak. At this time of year they bury cremated remains on Thursdays only, provided the family plot is not situated on too steep of a slope. A hole had been bored at the site, two feet in diameter and two feet deep, a perfect cylinder big enough for an urn in a green velvet sack. I remembered my glass marbles and their storage, a purple Crown Royal bag. The pyramid of soil beside the hole was black, wet and heavy granulated curds of dirt. There were crumbled crusts of sod and snow around its base, icing.

The family took turns burying my mother, one spade at a time. I fought the inclination to do it all myself and save the gravediggers at least one task on a cold, clear day. Once we were done and our last respects had been paid, I took a moment to look around. Perhaps longer than a moment because somebody tapped my upper arm and asked me if I was all right.

Behind me there were crumbling crypts, grey and green, buttressed temporarily with painted plywood and angled struts. Before me were the armoury, the green dome of Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and a tornado column of white smoke from the physical plant of the hospital where I was born. Mom was in Saint Mary’s when she first got sick and she enjoyed the view of the oratory from her room, two hundred and eighty-three steps and rosary bead prayers for the committed and converted. There was traffic on Cote-des-Neiges, honking and slip-sliding on the icy hill; there was workaday life on just another Thursday in Montreal.

Somebody tapped my upper arm and asked me if I was all right. I looked around. I knew I would never be in this cemetery again, here by the headstone. And, maybe, I may never be in Montreal again. I said I was okay, perfectly fine. Ann took my hand. We were getting cold. It was time to go. 

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Sunday, 13 January 2019


La Belle Province

Ann and I are preparing for another trip to my old Montreal home. Although my appetite is not what it was, when I think about Montreal, I think about food. Studies have shown that the food I think about, the food I miss, hot dogs, smoked meat sandwiches and steak-and-pepperoni subs, cause heart attacks and cancer; crusty sweat levels of sodium and  nuclear reactor heavy water processing, they say. There are well-meaning approximations of these delicacies to be found across Canada but nothing tastes like home.

Food has been on my mind for a couple of other reasons as well but not because I’m hungry. Since the odious vulgarian south of 49 absurdly insisted on renegotiating NAFTA into CAMUS or USMC or whatever, the last family dairy farmer in this country has been angry over the erosion of his subsidized artificial market. Additionally, news stories concerning the federal government’s efforts to update the pantry-dusty Canada Food Guide have amused me. The tempest swirling in an orange juice carton constitutes the dilemma of political rule: How important is the well-being of the many as opposed to the commercial interests of a select few?

(I’m reminded of a point-of-purchase Coca-Cola campaign I had the misfortune to be involved with a number of years ago. The target demographic was Latinos in California. The message was blatantly bad advice: Coca-Cola with breakfast!)

I booked a two-room apartment for Ann and me on Mackay, across the street from Concordia University’s massive, brutalist Henry F. Hall Building. I wondered if we’d be staying in the old journalism faculty, a three-storey greystone where I’d spent so much time as a student. My old turf. Once the digital confirmations were transmitted I began to have second thoughts as I scanned them. Once I read them through I was in a panic.

I would have to download an app and re-input all of the information I’d already provided. When we arrived at the address in the freezing dark weighed down by luggage I would be e-mailed a pass code. The pass code in turn would facilitate a virtual check-in. After that I supposed I’d need a 3-D printer to make a key for the unit. It was all a bit too James Bond. Anyway, I don’t own a cell phone; I exist beyond the fringe. I cancelled our reservation.

(An unhappy memory played a role in my decision. A few years ago I booked us into an industrial loft south of St. Patrick’s Cathedral: fabulous price, an even better location. Trouble was the key was awaiting collection five city blocks away – which is nothing provided you’re not humping suitcases uphill after a long and irritating day of travel. You don’t even want to speculate on what aircraft cabin pressure does to my gut. Perhaps the balloon effect is related to my diet.)

So I booked Ann and me into something resembling a proper hotel located at the corner of Sherbrooke and Peel. I realized we’d be proximate to gourmand glory, La Belle Province.  The long, narrow restaurant faces Dominion Square and is situated between two storefronts I remember fondly, the Rymark Tavern and Murray’s Sport Shop. They no longer exist. La Belle Province is the type of place where the guys in t-shirts and jeans behind the counter and its sneeze-guard assemble your order with their bare hands, no dainty plastic gloves allowed. The d├ęcor is bleu, blanc et rouge, Montreal hockey laundry. The seats are hard. The translucent napkins are crammed into metal dispensers; they come out five at a time should you manage to hold a grip on a fold.

La Belle Province serves up my three preferred food groups under one roof:  hot dogs, smoked meat sandwiches and subs. There was no such emporium when I moved away nearly 30 years ago. Back then each specialty required a trip to an exclusive destination.

My friends and I used to attend Montreal Manic indoor soccer games, human pinball, at the Montreal Forum mainly because of the venue’s concession stands’ toasted hot dogs. The limited entertainment value of the nascent and ultimately failed sport was entirely secondary. Even the misguided vendors who shilled salmonella at the Olympic Stadium during Expos baseball games tried to copy Forum hot dogs. I’ve never been a swift study myself but, goddamn, serving up a decent hot dog isn’t quantum physics unless of course they don’t exist as handy, hand-held malnutrition in a parallel universe.

Smoked meat sandwiches were a fussier proposition because the competing delicatessens used their own seasoning formulas. This is the way WE did it in the old country. Should you ever wish to start a fight in Montreal, skip ideology and language and opine instead on the texture and moistness of a particular establishment’s smoked meat. Then again, the argument may be as tired as day-old rye bread because some of the classic joints are no longer in business and the survivors have changed hands, gone corporate.

Mike’s was the sub shop that created the ‘Co-star’ for delivery from modest premises, a toasted foot-long steak-and-pepperoni sandwich layered with Provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato slices, and drizzled with Italian dressing. Initially the only competition was the cheap micro-waved ingredients purveyed by Mr. Submarine. I believe the Mike’s chain was spooked by the incursion of Subway. Its management’s grandiose counter strategy of emulating the successful formula of western Canada’s Boston Pizza which offers patrons a licensed, casual sit-down atmosphere was too much, too fast, too soon and hence a headlong dive into expansion, corner-cutting mediocrity and shuttered locations. A trade mark registered signature dish will prevent a neighbourhood pizza parlour from lifting the name but not replicating it and selling it for less.

And so, hello, bonjour, La Belle Province. I’ll be dropping in for a bite. Or three. But not everything all at once. I’m thinking breakfast, lunch and dinner? Or maybe three successive days.

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Wednesday, 9 January 2019


Goop and Saccharine

Suzanne Somers wrote the answer
Three’s Company cures all cancer

Anthony Robbins grew a goatee
And short’ed his name to Tony

Deepak Chopra and Lululemon
Talking aphoristic New Age heaven

Live, laugh, love and floss
Lap up all that sugary dross

Gweneth Paltrow sells real Goop
Using colonics to make her soup

Repurposed the rocks in her head
Shoved them elsewhere up instead

Bring me the head of your ESA
Not tomorrow, I mean today

Well good God, Morrie, it’s all too much
Mitch Albom, Ellen, an Oprah crutch

Am I the poster boy epitome
Of really callous insensitivity?

I know, I know, life is hard
Thank Christ you got a loyalty card

You are different, you are special
Not just your average human vessel

Recall that Earth is big, older than you
And you, my friend, are nothing new

You might step outside yourself
And leave the charlatans on the shelf

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