Wednesday, 28 August 2019


Summer’s lease hath all too short a date

When Canada geese migrate north in the spring they honk like some impromptu victory parade, gleeful car drivers who had nothing to do with the big win. The birds generally don’t squonk during the dog days of summer. Ann and I never hear them in July. But come this time of year when our outdoor morning coffees turn tepid too quickly the geese begin to stir, noticing the new nip in the dawn air. For us the sunlight and the shadows it casts appear a little sharper, more defined, as if we’ve refreshed the prescriptions for our eyeglasses.

Leaves turn yellow and silently drift down onto surfaces where I appreciate them a little less. Crabapples and buckeye conkers fall like hard rain and bush berries ripen into red. A few late bloomers aside, the garden plants are tired, spent, especially the bleeding hearts. Time to think about cutting everything back down to the black soil; undo the frenzy of our green spring planting fever. The lawn might be worthy of two and a half more mows between now and Thanksgiving – the half merely to burn through the motor’s gasoline before winter storage.

This week Ann and I bought a pair of patio table umbrellas for next to nothing for next year. An inexpensive act of faith. They will not be unfurled until late next May, once the garden’s been attended to. We purchased the umbrellas more as a distant promise, that we will both be alive and healthy enough to relax under their cast shade next year for seven weeks because summer must surely come again. 

Ann made her career as a music teacher in Edmonton’s public school system. For her and other teachers and academics we know the end of August is the beginning of the new year; January is only relevant as a pinch-punch-first-of-the-month calendar page turn. I’d be insane not to embrace their ingrained optimism of a fresh start even as nature girds to run the Canada geese out of town, send them south for the winter.   

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Wednesday, 14 August 2019


Comes a Time

A summer tradition here is the Edmonton Folk Music Festival which Sunday night wrapped up its 40th anniversary. Ann and I spent a goodly portion of an overcast and unseasonably chilly Saturday on the grounds.

The venue is Gallagher Park, a large, groomed portion of the river valley surrounded by residential districts and adjacent to downtown. Despite its location, access to the steep, natural amphitheatre is limited. Factor in nearby summer City road and transit construction, and the migration of some 25,000 music fans, and well, gee, that’s some kind of jam.

This year’s festival artist roster might have been the most memorable in recent history had the legendary and very prolific of late John Prine not cancelled all of his appearances in Alberta this summer due to unforeseen medical issues. Advance tickets are sold with conditions only, including no refunds and no guarantees. It’s important to remember too that in a festival as well-run and tightly scheduled as Edmonton’s, the headliners on any night are obligated to perform abridged sets. In 1989 Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts described his tenure with the band thusly: “Five years of work and 20 years of hanging around.” Welcome to the pop-up commune! Enjoy the brevity! Share the boredom and irritation!

Ann stuffed a knapsack with rain ponchos and blankets. We shouldered our low-slung festival chairs and hiked half an hour to the University of Alberta’s Butterdome – a hot yellow local landmark athletic facility which has an official moniker nobody remembers – to board an Edmonton Transit shuttle to the site. Younger close friends and relations had arrived at folk fest earlier in the day and our mission was to spot a camouflage tarp staked down somewhere on the slope Main Stage right.

“What Beatles song did Ani DiFranco mess up during her workshop with Bruce Cockburn?”

Rocky Raccoon.”

Rocky Raccoon?”

“Erm, yeah, it’s from the ‘white’ album and what’s known these days as a ‘deep cut.’”

“A deep cut?”

“Erm, it was never released as a single.”

The only lines I find tolerable these days conclude jokes. Mind your queues to pee in disgusting portable toilets. You stand in another line aware that the hipsters running the food trucks have mismanaged their inventories and you will be gouged for any sustenance settlement you’re able to negotiate. You lineup for beer tickets and then join another line to get a beer. You fret about the likely and horrific possibility of having to use a Handi-Can again. Why are there dozens of them set in a semi-circle but only one impossibly long, snaking line? And because it’s an outdoor festival, there is mud; there is always mud, and other people gathered in the mud, and still other people with their muddy children but saints preserve us, there are actually a few streams of actual running water in the children’s play area. Just have to muscle in.

I suspect the festival’s most intoxicating performance area was Stage 1. The expanded beer garden, still demarcated by snow fencing, encroached significantly onto the audience’s traditional tarp and chair space. Atop the hill, a well-appointed and very comfortable and civilized smoking area sponsored by a pot company drew a steady stream of visitors, all of whom evidently still possessed a modicum of lung capacity. My hunch is that Stage 1 performers imagined they were giving the concert of their lives, that this set was the grail or the Grammy, that ever-elusive career breakthrough gig. “Everybody came to check us out and stayed!”

Ann and I had our wristbands applied outside the main gates of the festival camp a little before three in the afternoon. I was ready to bust out of there inside of an hour. I dislike being herded and directed by minions however cheery whilst paying to be treated like a privileged refugee. Five hours later I had my still-game face on and decided I could tolerate the 27 minutes’ wait for Bruce Cockburn to grace the Main Stage. When he finally did, he wasn’t exactly seated or exactly standing, he was sort of perched on the edge of an anchored, ass-high prop. Then again, Cockburn is 74-years-old now. By this time of the night, I would’ve welcomed my own ass-high prop. My knees and lower back were aching, colluding to inflame my pain threshold. There were mosquitoes too; mosquitoes the size of ‘Naked Lunch’ hallucinations.

The folk rock icon and guitar virtuoso deserves to be in the same national conversation as Gordon Lightfoot. I wonder if Cockburn’s prickly and articulate social and environmental activism can sometimes be something of a yoke rather than a badge; casual fans can’t always withstand a barrage of rhyming harangues. Somewhat incongruently, his stage outfit was full camo and his white hair was short back and sides, creating a very precise senior’s discount Hitler Youth look. Cockburn’s lyrics continually astound me. His way with words is cinematic, sort of Soviet montage: “Grey-suited businessmen pissing against a wall/Cut to crumbling guardrail, slow motion, cars fall!” I may not know the makes and models but I can vividly picture metal lemmings framed in 35mm black and white.

Saturday’s finale was Blue Rodeo. I thought they should’ve supported Bruce Cockburn and ceded him the extra ten or 15 minutes to play but what do I know. Ultimately the sequencing shook down in our favour. Ann and I have seen Blue Rodeo so many times before; we admire them and have paid for their music in many ways in various formats. But Blue Rodeo has become a Canadian summer festival circuit cliché akin to ‘Kind of Blue’ being the sole jazz LP in a rocker’s record collection: brilliant yet all too obvious. The multitudes would cheer the stoned sunset line from Hasn’t Hit Me Yet as they always have.

Consequently the decision to exit ahead of the hordes and be back at the Crooked 9 before midnight was not a difficult one to make. Home is where the plumbing is and where the chairs on the front porch are at a comfortable height, the beer in the fridge is reasonably priced and there’s no petty regulation dictating us to walk 200 metres uphill to enjoy a cigarette.

In the lead up to the excruciatingly long day, Ann was more enthused about folk fest than I ever could be. Although I don’t like to think of myself as a cranky, middle-aged drag, sometimes I become a little anxious about my involvement in events whose scope is way beyond my control. I am afraid of getting lost in the crowd. Ann jokes that I’m “delicate.” I’d prefer “peculiar.” At home, alone together, outside communing with the bugs in the peace and quiet of the darkness we concluded that maybe paying for a faint promise, enjoyment, never properly fulfilled isn’t worth the expense anymore. We agreed there comes a time when enough is enough.   

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Thursday, 8 August 2019


The Portions Seem Small

I was unsurprised though highly amused by a small item in this week’s Economist. A recent survey revealed that fully one-quarter of American food delivery drivers admit to nibbling on their customers’ orders. Not so lean times for some in the gig economy apparently.

Anyone who ever held a summer job or made a career in the hospitality or food services industries cannot feign surprise at backstage shenanigans. As with every human activity, some of those involved are stupid, lazy, disgruntled or perhaps too clever by half; regulations are ignored and corners get cut. Customers are people too and so they insist upon playing kitchen roulette. The vegan option at the steak and seafood house is probably not a wise decision and neither is the strip loin for the person with a severe shellfish allergy. There’s no way of knowing what inadvertently touched what on which surface even in the finest establishments.

When I was a kid ordering out for supper was a treat beyond ecstasy, akin to a green glass bottle of Coca-Cola instead of a can of Canada Dry cola. Back then there were two incredibly exotic choices: all dressed (pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers) or plain (cheese only) pizza or westernized Chinese food (egg rolls, fried rice, sweet and sour spareribs and pineapple chicken). We didn’t know any better but by God we were happy.

Times have changed. Since the Internet segmented into thousands of cell phone applications the food delivery business has exploded. Certainly sub-contracting logistics to a third party while benefiting from an enlarged pool of potential revenue makes sense. Yet, there are absurdities. My local 7-11 is a fine example. It’s situated in a sort of nether zone, a DMZ that borders good, bad and crazy. If I were the franchisee I’d never permit an employee to work a solo shift no matter what time of day or night.

The store is clean enough I suppose, perhaps even cleaner than the kitchens of some of the pubs and restaurants I’ve dined in. Then again, I’ve never experienced the humiliating misfortune of having to use its toilet; the state of an eatery’s toilet usually reflects the cleanliness of its food prep area. I heave this up because one afternoon last week I was struck by a pink food delivery app decal on the window of my 7-11. I paused long enough to impede the nicotine addicts, lottery aficionados, Slurpee thirsters and shoplifters.

Who would pay a premium for home delivery of 7-11 pizza, gooey chicken parts and potato wedges? Made in-store (sort of)! Who!? If I was on a detective noir-shabby motel-crystal meth rip, I’d careen a stolen car to the 7-11 and pick up my takeout order at gunpoint. I mean, that’s just logical, it follows. But the question remains, who on this once-blue planet would order orange and green 7-11 food for home delivery?

Upon reflection, if I was overly concerned about the icky prospect of a grazing stranger turning my as-yet-undelivered meal into a mini-buffet, I suppose I’d dial up some really unappetizing food as a preventive measure.   

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Tuesday, 6 August 2019


The Morning I Found Myself in Germany

Have you ever experienced that strange, conflicting and concurrent surge of panic and joy when your spouse breaks their leg but your favourite team wins the championship in the exact same moment? I’ve not either but I’m certain the Germans have a word for it.

I am a middling writer; neither terrible nor terribly successful. Avant-garde auteur Jean Cocteau quipped, “The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.” Consequently there are six or seven dictionaries in the Crooked 9; none of them have been overly beneficial to my career. Because it’s 2019 I also have a Merriam-Webster app on my iPad.

My routine most mornings is consistent. Two cups of black coffee while perusing the print edition of the Globe and Mail. I then check the news apps on my iPad to learn if anything happened in the world between the time the Globe was put to bed and I woke up. I check the weather report and my e-mail. I look at Facebook. I review the air traffic over Edmonton International Airport because there’s an app for that. Following two hands of Klondike solitaire I get curious about Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day.

Up to date for the moment, I smoke a couple of cigarettes and contemplate the flowers in the garden, the birds flitting about the two feeders hanging from the birch and the miniature Easter Island head nestled in the shrubbery. Moai are thought to be clan totems and so I think about my family’s dead, remarkable people I knew and loved. I pray my own passing will be short and sharp, rather than a prolonged period of agony. Then I go deep: will the Rolling Stones ever again release an album of new material; I’ve no memory of the world without them. One year into the first draft of my fourth novel I've written myself into a midway plot jam even though I know the ending; I just have to get there, find my way. The Canadiens' Stanley Cup window has closed, and modern baseball, strikeouts and home runs, is boring beyond existential ennui.

Sometime last week Merriam-Webster’s random Word of the Day was luftmensch: “an impractical contemplative person having no definite business or income.” The Germans have a word for me. Of course they do.   

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Sunday, 4 August 2019


Impact Is Not a Verb

Did your affect effect a defect
Creating criticism to deflect

Aver versus avow, wow
Explain their usage somehow

Will you defer, infer or imply
‘Cause clarity’s the reason why

Shall we gerry-rig or jury-build
Leave latent structure unfulfilled

Ruminate, cogitate and speculate
Perhaps perseverate then hesitate

To take a meeting with our lexicon
Reach out, keynote, before it’s gone      

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Saturday, 3 August 2019


High Flying Birds

Sometimes the Canadian Football League thrives and sometimes it merely survives. More often than not it manages to do both at the same time. Montreal’s Alouettes are Exhibit A when trying to explain the league’s often goofy dynamic.

The club up until relatively recently was a CFL stalwart, a pillar with an operating model for the other eight franchises to learn from and perhaps copy. They won consistently in a cozy, sold-out stadium and were an integral part of the sports conversation in one of Canada’s largest markets, one dominated by the hockey Canadiens at that. As is the case with Alberta’s notorious boom-and-bust economic cycle, the wheel must turn; as losses mounted these past few seasons paying customers dwindled. The Alouettes are now ownerless, a ward of the league. The team fired its head coach before the start of the regular season and then fired its general manager two losses into 2019. Business as unusual in the CFL.

The only sports marketing strategy guaranteed to obtain positive results is winning games, lots of them, especially the important ones. Since victory is rarely a genie finger snap away, Plan B for the moribund usually involves changing the laundry, refreshing the official merchandise. Last February the Alouettes managed to drum up some media coverage for themselves by catwalking new uniforms and a new logo.

The colours of course are bleu, blanc et rouge. The jerseys and pants, home and away, are decorated with simple red stripes, over the shoulders up top and from hip to knee from the waist down. Classic old time football: mud, and leather headgear. The logo on the other hand is a stroke, or perhaps a continuous line, of avant-garde genius. In retrospect, this latest skylark was subtly grandfathered in during the 2018 season when the Als ditched their cartoony and overly elaborate angry bird helmet decals and instead rotated stylized and simplified reproductions of the emblems used and then discarded throughout their lengthy history in Montreal.

Upon first glance the 2019 red line drawing resembles the flattened, heraldic crest of some obscure 19th century German duchy. A closer look suggests high flight and reveals that the bird’s wingspread forms the letter M. Add the head and tail feathers and suddenly the whole suggests a fleur-de-lis, Quebec’s national symbol. Fittingly, the logo adorns the top of the team’s helmets, not the traditional temple space above the ear holes. The design soars.

To these eyes, the Als’ new logo evokes the clean and clever graphics which marked Montreal’s two pirouettes on the world’s stage in the latter half of the 20th century. The Expo 67 logo was based on a primitive glyph resembling a capital Y augmented by a middle ascender to form a trident, a stick person with their arms raised. Laid out in an overlapping circle the symbols created a multitude of subliminal hand-held upper case sans serif Ms.

Montreal then hosted the financial fiasco that was the 1976 Olympic summer games. But the official logo was brilliant. Arches were added to the uppermost three rings of the five-ring logo. They formed a French window lower case M but with a third hump in the middle of a now fantastical letter. The design alluded to Mount Royal, the island of Montreal’s main geographical feature, as well as the tiered steps of Olympic medal podia. Rules of reproduction were firm: simply solid red, black or knocked-out white on a red background. One slinky line connected all the curves.

Off the gridiron the Als are looking great, skylarking. The team is making an effort to reconnect with Montrealers and the province of Quebec on a subliminal level evocative of past glories which serves to accentuate the importance of thoughtful and meaningful design. Je me souviens – I remember. Arcane and arty aesthetics aside, what really matters is that this season Montreal is playing entertaining football and winning some games, three of six so far; they’re looking almost as good as their new logo.      

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