Thursday, 30 April 2020


Toronto: Ifs, Ands and Buts

Ann and I were supposed to fly to Toronto yesterday morning, a bang-up holiday to celebrate her significant Beatles birthday. As her big day approaches, Ann has yet to lose her head; she’s still the brains of our modest operation. In our experience domestic tourism has generally involved dropping in on family members and so the idea of voluntarily spending time in Toronto was as remote as a getaway weekend in Winnipeg. Time has since erased some of the names in our increasingly skinny address book.

Queen Victoria designated Ottawa as Canada’s national capital in part to ease tensions between the newly federated and competing provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. But Her Majesty’s decree regarding her wayward dominion was more likely informed by the geopolitics of her era. Ottawa was a wise and strategic compromise.

Montreal, an island in the St. Lawrence River which connects the Great Lake Ontario to the North Atlantic Ocean, would have been a prime candidate except that the river serves as a natural border with the United States. Easy to cross and navigate. Toronto (York), at the west end of the internationally divided Lake Ontario, had already been razed once by American naval forces. Both cities were vulnerable to Washington’s aggression. Ottawa (Bytown) was less susceptible to sacking and could be reinforced and supplied from the British naval base in Kingston on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario via the Rideau Waterway – perhaps the greatest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Canada considering the technology of the times – or from Montreal via the Ottawa River, a crucial artery in pre-European North America.

Canadians have blamed Ottawa, the seat of the federal government, for everything for more than 150 years. Perhaps Ottawa can be held responsible for the rivalry between Montreal and Toronto, cities spurned by Buckingham Palace in its favour. They have always vied against one another: from the magical race to reach one million citizens, to Stanley Cups and Grey Cups, baseball championships and the unofficial designations of being recognized Canada’s cultural or corporate capital. Born in Montreal, I always perceived Toronto as an uptight, Protestant place to catch a connecting flight or visit on a dreary business trip.

Last February we noticed a banner ad in the Globe and Mail announcing a co-headlining concert in Toronto featuring John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett, two artists whom we greatly admire. The late April date, tonight, almost coincided with Ann’s birth certificate rollover. We did a little more research. The Boston Red Sox were scheduled to visit the Blue Jays last night. Ann could care less about sports but she’s never objected to sitting in a ballpark for a couple of hours. The beloved Canadian musical ‘Come from Away’ was still occupying one of the downtown theatres. Intent on walking everywhere we compared the low season senior rates offered by downtown hotels.

Ann said, “If we don’t do this now, we probably never will.” We’d both been to Toronto but we’d never actually gone to Toronto.

I suggested that a couple of afternoons spent at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario would not be a waste of our time. Somewhere near the Eaton Centre there was a ratty deli with a purple sign that served up exquisite corned beef sandwiches. There used to be a record shop on Queen Street, east or west, God only knows. There was also an opportunity to say hello to a few suddenly not so distant friends, have a drink and a laugh. And so together we booked and bought Ann’s birthday in the big town.

The world wobbled last month, March. We watched the calendar. The days began to flutter away, daytimer pages in a movie. Like a cat who eventually realizes that the lousy weather is the same outside the front door and the back, it slowly dawned on us that pandemics don’t exhaust themselves after a week or ten days, unlike a particularly nasty bout of the flu.

WestJet sent me an e-mail complete with a big blue REFUND button for our airfares. What that really meant was that the airline would deposit our money in a WestJet bank for future use – provided we flew with them again in the next 24 months; the fate of our money beyond that deadline remains something of a mystery. The helpful associate at the other end of the line had no clue.

We telephoned the hotel to cancel our reservations. The desk clerk respectfully inquired why. Well, gee. Surprisingly, we’ve had no issues with the ballclub aside from the fact that they’re not the Montreal Expos; I’d expected some sort of covid-19 raincheck. The usurious Shylocks at Live Nation/Ticketmaster have merely postponed the Lovett-Hiatt gig indefinitely. As for our theatre tickets, who knows? I mean, you know what those people are like.

Ann’s birthday tomorrow promises to be a memorable one for us isolated here in Edmonton; alas, we had other plans – but, you know, in the great, mysterious scheme of things they weren’t that big.                                                            
 meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative record of pandemic armchair travel since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

Friday, 24 April 2020


Gimme Some Truth

I wasn’t quite myself. I was feeling insecure and inadequate. So I bought some hyper-masculine body wash and cologne named for a primitive weapon. I bought a case of supposedly premium beer in aluminum bottles that would change colour as they chilled to perfection refreshment. I put them in the trunk of my car, a vehicle whose brand and sleek lines affirm my personal values and goal-achieving aspirations. I drove south into the badlands of Alberta intent upon picking up a pair of hitchhikers, gorgeous bi-sexual twin sisters who believe taboos are ink on skin.

It could happen.

The premise of advertising is subjective third party information with an implicit potential promise attached. It’s a lot like evangelical faith, buy in and nothing is impossible. But when the message tilts from supply and demand, from avarice and acquisition into the ethereal world of branding and emotional response, the twist from purchasing to pseudo-philanthropy can be more awkward than high school students at a mixer.

My friends in the LGBTQ community quickly realized that marketers’ pride rainbows weren’t so much about social change as spare change – as they’re a very attractive double-income-no-kids demographic. And now we’re in the middle of this pandemic pivot. The advertising messages I’m receiving are saccharine and disingenuous: hashtag (insert proper noun) Strong and ‘We’re all in this together.’ Maybe to some extent we are as family members, relatives, friends and neighbours earn their salaries from corporations whose primary function is to reward their shareholders at the expense of humanity in general.

When a communications provider declares from its wifi heart that it’s more important than ever to connect with the ones you love, well, there’s probably a new plan for that and a penalty fee for altering your current contract. Your benevolent bank says it’s okay to skip a mortgage payment while neglecting to mention the small print, the actual future cost. But they mean well because, you know, we’re all in this together. Kumbaya.

Consumers are encouraged to rise to the bait of cause marketing. An international fast food corporation is currently promising a token donation to a local food bank for every delivery order. The ultimate feel-good hook; yet if any of the parties involved in the sandwich transaction really cared, they’d just support their food banks anyway without a calculated commercial enticement spun as a novel topping. Pickles and charity.

The only advertising pandemic parallel I can draw upon is Earth Day; that day this week in April when the world’s great brands and greatest polluters pull together for a few hours to pay homage to the planet their emissions poison and their packaging litters while attempting to goose the positive perceptions of their loyal customers. ‘There is a molecule of organic matter in your plastic bottle of tap water! Live, love, floss and don’t forget to breathe!’ Well, can’t they all just fuck off with their big and little lies?

What I crave now is an honest, salty snack food company. ‘Home alone watching TV in the dark? Our chips are gluten free and contain zero trans fats, whatever they were but they tasted good. Anyway, our chips now taste better than ever! Munch through a bag or two tonight! Munch through a bag or two every night! Please! We’ll make more! We’ve got your back! We’re all in this together!’ I’d buy in to that message though wary of its source.                                                       

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative record of pandemic commentary since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

Sunday, 12 April 2020



It all went down like a crucial plot twist in a noir thriller. In the hands of an auteur it would’ve been a scene wrought and fraught with tension and dread.

Netflix Derek and his wife Alex telephoned Ann and me from the end of our driveway. Our good friends live around the corner and have their own bottle of whiskey in our liquor cabinet. Alex is well known in the rackets, a respected opponent on the local tennis circuit. Netflix Derek is a psychologist, sometimes I wonder how that makes me feel.

We’d agreed previously that the exchange would take place at the Crooked 9. A package was on our front porch, on the red cushion of the tete-a-tete. I slipped out of the house to retrieve it and replaced it with one of our own. I went back inside. Following the nervy transaction, we chatted amicably outside from a distance about our respective states of mental health. It was cold. The four of us shivered beneath the shroud of the collapsing leaden sky, heavy metal.

The MacGuffin Alex and Netflix Derek collected was a 500-piece jigsaw of a London Underground route map, the epitome of wayfaring design. Ours was the cover of Abbey Road broken into a thousand pieces. I’d assumed I could get the Beatles back together with my eyes closed: I’ve been looking at the sleeve for 51 years and, besides, Ann and I had walked the walk as recently as last October.

Zebra stripes angled by perspective, John’s suit and the 28IF Volkswagen, all white; flesh tones: three profiles, the tip of John’s beak, three hands and Paul’s bare feet. A puzzle cut for ages fetus and up. As Ann and I laid the pieces out face up on our dining room table I realized to my horror that the iconic image, now enlarged to 27”x20” was grainy – an analogue word for pixilated, too little reproduction information. The dark greens, navy blues, charcoals and blacks were all essentially monochromatic blurs.

I calculated that if Ann and I managed to assemble 25 pieces per day, the entire puzzle would take the two of us… a lot of days. Thankfully, quarantine time isn’t terribly linear. And our task would simplify as we reduced the volume of stray pieces and therefore our completion pace would necessarily increase. We began with the pennant of pale blue sky top centre. From there we worked left and right into the dappled greenery and into the dark shadows to assemble the top edge. We turned the left and right corners and dropped down from the darkness onto the pavement. We then proceeded to fill in the bottom of the frame.

Approximately 179 pieces were now connected but we were missing one border piece under Ringo’s right shoe. I scanned the dining room table. I crawled underneath it to pat the carpet. I felt the seats of the chairs. I checked the empty box. I repeated the process. I repeated the process. I repeated the process. We could have continued, maybe with George’s denim but I was obsessed with this single, seemingly missing piece, as feverish as an Edgar Allan Poe character. How could I not see it amongst some 800 other pieces? It was impossible. It should’ve been shining like a nugget of gold.

I had to get a grip on myself. I opened a can of beer, lit a cigarette and went outside to watch the falling snow. I began to contemplate the character of our alleged friend Netflix Derek the psychologist. Wouldn’t it be just like him to run us like lab rats for one of his insane social experiments? Of course it would: one missing piece to make me crazy. And then his test of my character: would I return his and Alex’s Abbey Road puzzle admitting a piece was missing, apologetic because perhaps Ann and I had lost it, or would I say nothing?

Clever bastard. But little does he know that the London Transport MacGuffin puzzle box he got from us contains only 499 pieces. He’ll know no joy on the Jubilee line.                                         

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative record of pandemic distraction since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

Thursday, 9 April 2020


Grocery Shopping in the Time of Coronavirus

Ann is a retired music teacher. To this day she rings in the new year on the Labour Day long weekend. We all receive insidious training through our careers, schools and churches. Ingrained perceptions die hard. I’m retired too. Even as the pandemic calendar becomes something of a blur, there’s still something about Mondays. They will always be blue even if they don’t matter anymore. The habitual dread I always experienced Sunday evenings is now feverish, another weird week ahead.

I generally enjoy shopping for groceries. The industry paid for my post-secondary education. It opened my portal into the world of advertising. Out of the game now, I enjoy scoffing at hopelessly misguided brand extensions such as Heinz mayochup because I can remember sweating the launch of vitamin-infused Diet Coke, doomed from its conception as a healthy alternative to... to something else. Kraft Dinner (KD! in hip, modern parlance) cheese-flavoured powder is now sold separately to add zest to nachos and popcorn, perhaps even Timbits breakfast cereal. When Ann and I travel I enjoy taking stock of the brands populating foreign grocery shelves.

One fine pandemic Monday morning, Ann and I had to go out, our supplies were dwindling. Our dreadful excursion had required as much pre-planning as a heist, a caper. Hand sanitizer? Check. Disinfectant wipes? Check. Gloves? Check. Masks? Fuck ‘em, they look stupid. We agreed we were limited to shopping at one of the two stores we habitually frequent because we were familiar with their layouts. We agreed too that we’d be on a clock with no time to closely examine the fruits and vegetables we wished to buy or debate the merits of an impulse purchase.

The tragic flaw on display every day in your average grocery store is that its configuration allows customers to shop the perimeter and stay out of the aisles where the larger margin goods are shelved. The irony is that the industry’s accepted model of traffic flow actually impedes consumer spending, hinders the acquisition of those profitable incremental dollars.

We agreed upon a store. Ann wrote down a shopping list, broken down by department and designed to minimize our forays into the narrower internal aisles. All I really wanted were a few boxes of facial tissue. I assume the major paper companies have retooled their mills to concentrate on the production of toilet paper, but in my case they’ve no idea how much snot resides in a human head. We understood that our grocery list was something of a fantasy, a child’s letter to Santa fated to a Rolling Stones reply.

When I was a student doubling as the relief produce manager at the A&P on rue Ste-Catherine near the Montreal Forum I always chuckled at the weekly chaperoned visits from the Soviet consulate delegation. I read spy thrillers then and I still read them now and so I assumed half the group operated as KGB agents. How many cultural attaches does an evil empire bent on global domination really need? And all that delighted Cyrillic chatter about capitalist excess and abundance, happy sounds because maybe in the 70 years following the Russian Revolution political assassination, genocide and a succession of failed Five Year Plans hadn’t brought much to a kitchen table in Moscow, Petrograd or Kiev.

Lately I’ve been counting weeks by the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle, 15 squares across and 15 down the grid. Precision. Order. But, oh God, Monday came again as it will and it must, and with it, our COVID-19 mission. As we made our final preparations to depart the Crooked 9, I recalled my A&P cold warriors and their plum Canadian postings. Ann and I were headed out to shop an under-supplied, picked-over grocery store with traffic control arrows taped on its floor, aisles closed off, and perhaps a queued delay for entry. How Soviet can we go? I’d sneered and sneezed at those Russian strangers; all I wanted this Monday morning was a couple of boxes of Kleenex.                                   

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative record of pandemic consumerism since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.