Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Tragedy: Hundreds Die of Hypothermia

Halloween on Richmond Street in London, Ontario is a sight like no other. No costume is safe from the ladies of UWO who seem determined to make the most benign object or animal into an inappropriate costume. Besides the usual collection of playboy bunnies and Marilyn Monroes, I witnessed trampish turtles, bimbo crayola crayons, and fire fighter tarts. That they could wander the streets in sub-zero temperatures made them even more impressive than the seven Osama Bin Ladens I saw.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Everything I Love: The Writing of James Lee Burke

My addiction to the written eloquence of James Lee Burke began when I borrowed my dad's copy of Sunset Limited for subway reading. I missed my stop by five stations the next day. His prose is one-of-a-kind and impossible to compare. Read the opening paragraph of a novel and you won't easily return from the Gulf Coast or the Blackfoot River. Better still, read Jesus Out to Sea, a short story published earlier this year in Esquire Magazine, inspired by Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Rant: The Dixie Chicks

"Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas."
-Natalie Maines, March 10, 2003.

"I'd rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do."
-Martie Maguire, Time Magazine, 2006.

The Dixie Chicks return to Ontario this weekend, their first visit since 2002's Top of the World Tour. Since Reba and Toby Keith are featured prominently in my play lists, I’ve taken the hint to sit this one out. Surely they won't bore the Lilith Fair crowd with the songs like Goodbye Earl or Long Time Gone that they recently dubbed "amateurish". As the hottest act on today's adult contemporary chart, the Erwin sisters have ditched banjo and fiddle accompaniment to play background guitar and electric violin for the obtuse Natalie Maines (and probably ask themselves how it all went south).

It’s a lazy performer who slams George Bush to whip up a Canadian or British audience. Sadly, they’d have drawn the same reaction in London had they denounced the United States itself. The Chicks don’t understand this any more than they do the fact that country fans don’t care if performers are Republican or Democrat (Tim McGraw will one day be Governor of Tennessee) or even that they oppose the war (it hasn’t hurt Merle or Gretchen Wilson). They might, however, ask for a little respect for their values and nationalism from performers they've enriched.

At Texas A&M, those who don’t embody Aggie spirit are labeled “two-percenters”. In the end, who do you think Texans are really ashamed of – George W. Bush or the Dixie Chicks, the ultimate two-percenters?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Islamic Poetry Wednesday

I was taught fifth grade by an outrageous liar who terrorized us with tales of man-eating snakes and blizzards that burried school children alive. He was an ogre of such depravity that he assigned obscure poems for us to memorize and transcribe, punctuation and all. Yesterday, deadlines loomed, I soaked my feet on a slushy walk to school, and my lunch leaked grease and mayonnaise down the front of my good suit. With Diet Coke dribbling down my collar, my despair brought to mind the opening lines of one cheesy poem (it's ironic that I still struggle with fractions, but I remember this). I Googled it:

DON’T QUIT
When things go wrong as they sometimes will
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill
When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile but you have to sigh
When care is pressing you down a bit
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit
For surely Allah is with those who believe
Surely the mercy of your Lord is yours to receive
After hardship there is ease
Sure after hardship there is ease.
(Sulaimon Afolabi Banjoko)


Now, I'm certain that my wicked instructor deleted the Islamic references because I know I'd remember a poem with these lines. I'd also have enjoyed watching the herd of parents storm my alma mater - in defence of secular education, of course.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Golden Words: Elizabeth May

On the occasion of Green Party leader Elizabeth May's decision to seek a parliamentary seat here in London North Centre, let's reflect on her golden words from this summer's Couchiching Institute conference:

"My parents put off having children for six years because they thought there would be a nuclear war."

"On the night of the Cuban missile crisis, my parents said good night and good-bye to each other."

I believe that this qualifies Elizabeth May as, in the Road Hammer's parlance, a moonbat - or at least the direct descendant of a couple.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Canada's Bushplane Museum

It's Friday and I'm killing a couple of hours at Sault Ste. Marie's Bushplane Museum. An octogenarian volunteer welcomes me as the day's first visitor. With 90 minutes until close, I'll likely be the last. A film will be shown in the Ranger Theatre in five minutes and I can take a seat while she announces it. I'm at a loss as to whom she is making the announcement and, to no great surprise, no one joins me. Grandma Volunteer pokes her head between the doors and is startled that I'm alone. "I guess you'll be watching it by yourself." Guess so. The film, an elementary-school NFB-type documentary, traces the bushplane's evolution from a canoe with wings to a pick-up truck with wings and describes its role in protecting northern Ontario from fire. It asserts that Roberta Bondar's astronautical aspiration came from hearing the buzzing of DeHavilland bushplanes.

After the movie, the self-guided tour of the 25,000 square foot hangar holds my attention for about five minutes before I walk over to the Children's Flight Centre . I spend the rest of the afternoon building cars with Lego, flying a Noorduyn Norseman, and climbing the ranger tower to triangulate and call in a forest fire.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Dispatches: Sault Ste. Marie

Spending the weekend in Sault Ste. Marie. Pictured: St. Mary's Paper (foreground) and Algoma Steel (beyond the International Bridge). See you on Monday.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Everything I Love: Cheeseburgers

I’ve sampled cheeseburgers from racetracks and vending machines to roadhouses and bistros, and I’ve concluded that debates about the world’s best are irresolvable. I know it’s on a soft white bun that squishes and that it’s so laden with grease that it turns a brown paper bag a translucent grey. Garnished carefully, it's dabbed with relish and mustard, sprinkled with shredded lettuce and chopped onions, and crowned with a slice or two of dill pickle. With a nod to intemperance, gobs of cheese ooze from a melting plank of cheddar and bubbles of fat gurgle to the surface on each bite. It’s set apart from the crowd by an understated twist – barbecue or chili sauce replacing ketchup. Wherever this holiest of junk food grails is served, be it at a truck stop, a drive-in, or from a backyard charcoal grill, I am quite sure of how it tastes.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Rant: Lionizing Liberals

Liberals tend to canonize their standard-bearers after they’ve left office, revealing either short memories or a complete ignorance of reality. In the August 31 edition of NOW Magazine, the weekly wrote:

“[Michael Valpy’s] anatomizing of the many layers of Ignatieff’s personality made fascinating reading, and there were some touching anecdotes about his journey to Liberal ideas. But how could anyone in their right mind truly like the other face of Ignatieff that emerges – that of a smarmy preppie, prig and all-around prick? Is this the son of privilege really a standard-bearer of the party of Trudeau? We wonder.”
By NOW’s logic, Trudeau himself – a prig, a son of privilege (heir to his father’s fuel distribution fortune), and an all-around prick – surely would not have been qualified to bear his own standard.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Season's Last Catch

I caught this smallmouth late on Thanksgiving Sunday while pitching from the dock into Pocket Bay. As with the season's first fish, this bronzeback found the Blue Fox Vibrax Spinner, my go-to lure, irresistible.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Review: The Antrim Truck Stop

At Thanksgiving, mom treated us to an Antrim Truck Stop breakfast in Arnprior. For years, Antrim served greasy eggs in a dingy and squat red-brick building near Kinburn, but the twinning of highway 17 forced its relocation to a gleaming new complex on the White Lake Road. This did not affect the food, the bacon and eggs maintaining their decency and the hash browns their unpalatable stench of onions, but anything tastes good in the shadow of a giant tractor - a welcome reprieve from staring at camo-clad duck hunters and hung-over teenagers through your meal. We didn’t sample the butter tarts for which the Truck Stop is renowned, but the CFO enjoyed the coconut cream pie which she anoints Arnprior’s best, supplanting the ever-reliable P.J.’s.

On a go/no-go scale, I give the Antrim Truck Stop a “Go”.

Monday, October 16, 2006

10 Best Places to be a Marriage Counsellor

When the avalanche season slows, adventure and outdoor magazines fall back on their favourite feature - the best places to live and play in America. Climb a crevasse over lunch in Boulder, raft every weekend in Taos, commute by kayak in Missoula, and fish during your coffee break in Key West. Escapist photos bring this list to life as men toast their climb in a Jackson Hole saloon, unload the canoes in North Conway, and weave down mountain bike trails in Burlington. What you will not see are their wives or children. This is because these guys fell for an illusory life created by magazine editors who are gainfully employed in Manhattan. They fail to describe the mechanics of how one convinces a spouse to remove the kids from school, quit her job, trade the house for a yurt, and shelve books part-time at the Boise Public Library while you whitewater raft.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Apple Day

In support of Scouts Canada's 74-year tradition, I bought an apple from my old troup at All Saints' Kingsway Anglican Church. When I was a Cub Scout, we were sent across Bloor Street to Park Lawn Cemetary where we'd play hide-and-seek among the headstones. This was safer, albeit more ghoulish, than our trip to the McLaughlin Planetarium where half the pack was lost on the subway. One hopes the caliber of leadership has improved over the last twenty years.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Everything I Love: Playoff Baseball

America's game is best played under the lights on cold October evenings. With managers exhausting bullpens and dramatic home run endings, the post-season is electric. Its tension is reflected in the hopeful eyes of the players draped on the dugout rail and on the faces of fans silently mouthing words of prayer. Case-in-point: on Wednesday night, protecting a three-run lead, and with two out on a full count, the Tigers loaded the bases for Oakland's Frank Thomas. You could hear Motown's collective sigh of relief here in London when The Big Hurt flew out.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rant: Shop Talk

Next to golf, there is no more mundane subject than work. Unless you’re a coast guard captain, a rodeo clown, or a Playboy photographer, the only people with whom you should speak about your job are co-workers and your spouse. The rest of us don’t know “John” or “Michael” or about what an EBX report is, and we don’t care. Within five seconds of your work story, we’ve tuned out and are thinking about sports, sex, or politics.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Thanksgiving in the Valley

You rise early because the fire went out at 4 a.m. and the buzzing of outboard motors en route to the duck blinds keeps you awake. You dress in cold jeans and shirt to restart the fire. The sun’s not up, but through the fog you hear shot guns popping at the mouth of the Mississippi. A pot of coffee must be remade because you misread the proportions. From the dock, you watch steam rise from the water and drift into Pocket Bay; at the beach, you examine skeletal reminders of the summer’s catfish kill. After an afternoon nap, you gorge yourself on Grandma’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies and butter tarts. When the wood boxes are filled for the evening’s fires, you lift the cedar strip canoe from its rack and set in the bay. Into a blinding sun you paddle, breathing the cold air and recording the deciduous brilliance in the soft light. You float in Goodwin’s Bay and watch the sun dip behind the hardwoods, the filtered light casting a lattice over the still water, before turning home towards a golden harvest moon.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Dwight Yoakam Plays Massey Hall

With a voice resonating like a slide guitar, Dwight Yoakam hiccupped and yodeled last Thursday at Massey Hall in one of the most complete concerts I’ve seen. Gliding and twisting and sliding and kicking, Yoakam, a genuine showman, generates enough energy in the five-by-five space between his guitarists and drummer to power a three-continent Garth Brooks tour. From taking the stage in a maroon-and-white western suit to the encore two and half hours later, the music was interrupted only a handful of times to thank the crowd or change guitars. Transitions between songs were so seamless that the concert felt like one long medley in which he played from twenty years of material including Little Sister, Pocket of a Clown, and Guitars, Cadillacs, paid homage to Owens, Jennings, Cash, Smith, and Haggard, and ignited material from2005's Blame the Vain. The show featured the most robust country and western instrumentation I have heard live. His four-man band masterfully complemented the standard four-piece accompaniment with banjo, mandolin, tambourine, maracas, and piano. I may have even heard the drummer break out the spoons during a Jimmy Smith bluegrass tribute.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving, see you on Tuesday. Best wishes to the Webber who begins his western Canada odyssey this morning.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

John Prine Played Toronto

Two Saturdays ago, the Rubber Duck and I joined a packed house at Massey Hall for a stirring performance by John Prine, one of the premier country and folk music writers of our time. Prine’s is a comeback story for the movies, having survived throat cancer to produce last year’s Grammy Award-winning Fare and Square. His voice deep and grainy after his battle, Prine has added a rawness to his music that infuses the lyrics with resonance. Grinding out classics like Angel From Montgomery, Fish and Whistle, and Dear Abby, he set up the crowd for his inspiring new works like Some Humans Ain’t Human.

Prine's talent is phenomenal on its own, but he treats the crowd by bringing a one-man folk music circus in opening act Dan Reeder, who sings Work Song - a single-line tune ("I got all - all the fucking work I need") to which he claps for five minutes. But more peculiar than Dan is the John Prine audience, which has dropped enough acid to have inhabited a barracks at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. This was easily the worst audience for screaming out requests. Seriously, has anyone ever been at a concert where the play list was changed to accommodate these jackasses? Prine's reply was gold: "Yep, I know them all". One guy, in a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater, jumped up on stage and was ejected - 20 minutes before the curtain was raised. Further proof that Leaf fans are yet to set foot on the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder.

Tonight the Duck and I return to Massey Hall for Dwight Yoakam – a show I’ve been looking forward to all summer.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Rant: In the Middle Lane

Drive on any of Ontario’s 400-series highways and you’ll observe a nose-to-tail Freight Train of Death steaming down the center lane at a blistering 108 km/hr. To the outside, empty lanes afford ample room to pass, but these drivers hold their positions as though drafting at Indianapolis. The middle lane is not an easy place to drive with cars merging from both the left and right, but these convoys are as inevitable as Monday. I suspect that the Freight Train of Death contains a disproportionate number of minivans, easily the most dangerous motorists on the road.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Golden Words: Restrictor Plate Racing

This weekend the Chase for the Nextel Cup visits the NASCAR heartland at Talladega, Alabama. A lot of the drivers don't like Talladega because NASCAR requires restrictor plates to reduce the cars' horsepower. Most decry this practice because it compresses the field and increases the risk of a calamitous wreck. Dale Earnhardt, the all-time winningest restrictor plate driver didn't like plates because they slowed his car down. In response to the argument that plates ensured safer speeds at Talladega and Daytona, Dale Earnhardt uttered these golden words:

"Well, get the hell home. If you're not a race driver, stay the hell home. Don't come here and grumble about going too fast. Get the hell out of the race car if you've got feathers on your legs or butt. Put a kerosene rag around your ankles so the ants won't climb up there and eat that candy butt!"

Monday, October 02, 2006

Leadership: Two Tales

Former Privy Council Clerk and CN Rail honcho Paul Tellier commented recently on working with two Prime Ministers:

"Brian Mulroney is a very sensitive, people-oriented person. At one point, my sister got involved in a bad car accident. Afterward, every time I would walk into his office, he would ask, 'how is your sister?'. Something could happen to my children, good or bad, and he would phone. Pierre Trudeau, on the other hand, would never take the time to say 'thank you', ever. Trudeau had an outstanding mind and he was able to define a problem and look at options; to write a paper for him and discuss it and have him take it apart was a real joy. Mulroney, on the other hand, was a very practical guy. He would ask, 'What is the practical solution here?' And you know, maybe it was only second best, but that's all we can do... They were two outstanding individuals but very, very different."
Now, who do you like better? (The original version of this post disguised the identities)