Chapter 3: Killer Memories, A Letter, Getting Smart

Read Previous Chapter Chapter 2: Canadian Justice is Hard

The company I worked for employed about 40 office staff — management, sales, payroll, administration. The six technical writers, TWs in office speak, occupied a 10 by 20 ft. room near the reception area. Although we were seldom all there at once, we dealt with every department and a lot of office traffic flowed through that room. I knew most of our employees by name and a few new hires by face. We nodded, exchanged pleasantries and were generally civil toward one another in our office dealings.

Baffles provided an illusion of privacy for the six workstations in the Tech Writers Room, three on each side of a wide aisle, but nobody said anything in the office they weren’t comfortable with as public knowledge. Bob Thorsby and I occupied the two areas nearest the door. Our workstations were across from each other and we would often roll our chairs back and talk across the aisle. He was the only person at the office I connected with on a personal level. 

Thorsby and I spent considerable work time speculating in the two weeks following the Cunningham killing. I wanted to talk about it in a way I hadn’t done after the other two. When the coverage faded, I needed to keep the feeling of it alive. Thorsby was in his late twenties then, a bit of a loser but with a sharp wit and a tongue to match. A politically incorrect, overweight guy with aspirations to be an ad writer. Can you imagine? There I am, the most celebrated killer in the city, discussing my crime with a guy who aspires to write advertising copy. 

Thorsby was likeably arrogant. He believed absolutely in his own strong opinions and expressed them often. He enjoyed being challenged and would argue endlessly, without getting mad, to make his point. He was refreshingly without guile. We were facing one another across the aisle, each exercising the springs in our leaning swivel chairs. The cops had predictably clammed up and the media had milked all the angles, including coverage of Cunningham’s funeral that featured interviews with politicians and judges outside the church. They recorded his grieving wife and children and profiled his long career. 

“It’s drugs,” Thorsby mused. “When an expensive criminal lawyer gets dusted there has to be a drug connection. Either he was using and did something stupid, or he was financing or facilitating a deal.”

“Maybe. But there are other reasons for killing lawyers. It could have been a disgruntled former client, or an acquitted client’s victim. It could have been his wife or the husband of his lover.”

“Sure. But it wasn’t any of those things.” Thorsby leaned back in his chair, his considerable gut flattened by the effort, until it appeared he might tip over. “It’s got something to do with the murder case for that drug gang. He got them off what should have been a sure conviction but in doing so found out more than was healthy. There may be loyalty among thieves, but it doesn’t hold true for murderous drug gangs. He could have been pressuring them to cut him in on a deal, using his knowledge of their operation as blackmail.”

“You’re reaching, Thorsby. Cunningham was too smart to get involved in anything illegal. He was financially set, and he wouldn’t have jeopardized his reputation for drug money. He made enough fucking the system. Maybe somebody just got tired of smooth-talking lawyers.”

“No. This was too well-planned to be the work of some psycho. That kind of killer just barges into the guy’s office and shoots him at his desk, takes out half his staff then sticks the gun in his own mouth. Bang. It’s over in a final blaze of glory. Crazed killers crave recognition for their handiwork.”

Hearing him in effect call me a crazed killer desperate for attention stung. Especially the part about sticking the gun in his mouth. I wanted to tell him it was about fairness and justice. That Cunningham had been convicted in a higher court and that his punishment had been meted out swiftly, cleanly. That the whole thing was pure and right. That his death closed the circle for the victims of all the scumbags he got off. But I didn’t say anything. I just leaned farther back in my chair and examined the ceiling tiles. Thorsby, sensing an advantage, summed up his position with finality.

“Nah. The guy who did Cunningham was a pro. He probably flew in and out for the job and is sitting as we speak in a Montreal bistro sipping cappuccino reading the stock pages, deciding where to put the cash. The killing will never be solved and in a month or two, with no leads and nothing to go on, even the cops will let it slide. The press has already lost interest. In a world full of killings, there are only so many stories you can write about one murder.”

Of course, I knew Thorsby was right. The killing would never be solved. Richard Cunningham, Q.C. would be reduced to a number in the year’s annual homicide tally. The execution had made a big splash. Disposing of high-priced lawyers garnered a lot more ink than dusting off your garden variety pimps and drug dealers. I followed all the media coverage but resisted the temptation to clip out articles or record broadcasts relating to the case. Thorsby was the only person I discussed it with at length. Kate had no interest in murder. Thinking about it upset her view of the world as a benign place in which people went about their daily affairs without menace toward one another. To her, violence was a horrible anomaly best ignored.

Only one reporter did the story justice. Greg Osterwich, a veteran crime reporter for the Vancouver Sun, had filed 14 stories on the case in the weeks immediately following the killing. He interviewed Cunningham’s legal colleagues, business associates, friends, former clients, the grieving widow. None could suggest any motive. Osterwich explored the possibility of a revenge killing, detailing controversial cases Cunningham had defended over the past ten years. But after a month, even Osterwich’s reports dried up.

The intense pleasure I experienced in the execution’s aftermath carried over into all aspects of my life. Kate and I reconnected; our lovemaking went from monthly to weekly. I phoned my brother Sam in Alberta. He was regaining his speech after the stroke but was still hard to understand and the phone call was awkward. 

“How are you holding up?”

“I’m doing okay. I got more movement in my arm and leg and I can get round now with a cane.”

The words came out slow, as if each syllable required special effort.

“Must have been a shock waking up in a hospital bed. How’s Amie taking it?”

“It’s been hard on her but she’s okay. She took time off work when I got out of the hospital.”

“No more smoking, I guess.”

“The doctor wants me to give it up. I guess I’ll give it a try.”

The guy was disabled, and he still couldn’t commit himself to quitting smoking. Pathetic. We talked for about ten minutes and made all the right noise about getting together soon. Truth is, I had no desire to see my brother, healthy or disabled. He was just somebody I used to know.

I didn’t let it affect my mood, though. I enjoyed going into the office and rarely worked at home. For the first time since my first few years on the job, I joined the technical writers at their Thursday night after-work whinge-and-whine session at a hotel lounge down the street from the office. 

The oldest TW was a gentlemanly guy named Ray. He was single in his fifties and gave off a feminine whiff. The other guys were all in their late twenties and thirties with plans to move on to their true calling. Writing advertising copy or Christmas card greetings. One guy was working on a manuscript for Harlequin Romance. Ray and I were resigned to our position in life. At least that’s what it looked like.

I bought a new bike and cycled to work once or twice a week. But the good times didn’t last. By summer, I was back sitting in the living room, looking through the bars as night closed in, suffering the effects of an intense emotional hangover. I had stopped going into work entirely. In mid-June, I had been assigned to write the annual report for an important client, Calvin Textiles, due in early fall to coincide with the company’s yearly shareholders meeting. It was a large project requiring more than a hundred pages of text that would be co-ordinated with graphics and tables. I convinced the tech writer supervisor this could best be accomplished in its entirety at home, away from distraction.

I assembled all the necessary information and did some perfunctory phone interviews with senior company executives but that’s as far as it got. When Kate left for work in the morning, I sat in my office staring at the wall. Hour after hour. By mid-July I was seriously behind and unable to do the most rudimentary organization of the material. Thorsby’s words—psycho and crazy killer—kept interrupting my train of thought.

I felt no remorse for any of the killings, except in the way a soldier who has killed in the line of duty might. I felt badly for Cunningham’s grown children, a boy and two girls, and for his wife, but not for what I’d had to do. Each of the executed had been responsible for his own fate. Each had put himself into the line of fire by choosing a course that was counterproductive to society. I remained convinced that in the bigger picture the world was better off without the three of them selling sex, drugs and snake oil. 

By early August, I was experiencing an all-encompassing numbness that manifested itself in varying degrees of mental and physical paralysis. I had difficulty lifting my body out of my office chair to move about the house or go to the bathroom. Simple everyday tasks like making a sandwich or emptying the dishwasher became an ordeal. Thorsby phoned once or twice but I was so abrupt he took the hint and quit calling. The contrast between my up time immediately after the killing and my near catatonic state a few months later so alarmed Kate she asked me to make an appointment with a neurologist.

One afternoon in the first week of July she came home from work to find me lying under a quilt on the living room rug, where I had been since before lunch. I had no idea how much time had passed and was surprised to see her come in.

“Why are you home so early, dear. You’ve caught me sneaking an afternoon nap.” I didn’t feel like talking but felt I had to say something. In those dark days of summer Kate was the only human being I was communicating with and I didn’t want her to know how far I had slipped over the edge.

“Early? Roger, for heaven’s sake it’s after six. I stopped at the grocery store after work to get a few things for supper.”

I couldn’t answer. To do so would have required energy that I did not possess.

“What’s wrong, honey? I’ve never seen you this low before. Are you having trouble with the annual report?”

The tenderness in her touch when she reached down and brushed the hair back from my brow triggered an emotional release. I began to cry, quiet and restrained. Tears of shame and frustration at my weakness, at my inability to cope. She got down on the rug beside me and crawled under the quilt. She stroked my face and neck.

“Nothing is as bad as it seems, Roger. No matter what happens I’ll be beside you at night, holding you. We’re a team. ‘Til death do us part.”

We lay like that for about an hour, the groceries Kate had picked up forgotten on the floor beside us in plastic bags. I tried to absorb her strength through our clothing. Neither of us ate that night. We went to bed when it was still light and Kate, as always, was sleeping soundly after a few minutes. I got up and went to my office and locked the door. I unscrewed the closet flooring and took out the gun. I put it on my desk amid the annual report papers and stared at its smooth steel surface, focusing my concentration, willing it to give me back the life force that ebbed out with each passing day. I stayed that way for a long time, maybe an hour or more, then replaced the gun and returned to bed. I tossed and turned and eventually fell into a restless sleep. In the morning I felt marginally better.

“Roger, I want you to get some help. You need to see someone, a professional who can help you get back on track. Your mood swings are becoming more severe. For a while in the spring you were practically walking on the ceiling and now you’re having trouble getting off the floor. Even your speech pattern has slowed. Maybe it’s something physical, something medication can help.”

Kate was standing at the front door, ready to leave for work. I was in the hall, unshaven for several days and still in my bathrobe. It’s hard to argue with someone speaking such an obvious truth.

“Yeah, I’ll look into it.”

“No, I’ll look into it, Roger. Just concentrate on writing your report. I’ll ask around, discreetly, and see if anyone knows someone who’s good. A psychiatrist or a psychologist. And when I find someone, I’ll make an appointment and drive you there. I want the old Roger back. The loveable but cranky guy I married.”

“So do I. So do I.”

I knew the old Roger was gone forever. And with good riddance. The old Roger was a faker, a phoney acting out every scene the way he thought it should be played. A weakling and a coward pretending to be happy and normal while the black dogs gnawed away inside. 

I can’t blame my mental state on a bad childhood. I grew up in a mildly dysfunctional family. Dad was distant but not abusive. Mom, who died of colon cancer when I was 12, suffered from intermittent depression. I remember coming home from school to find her in bed. Dad would say—”Mother isn’t feeling well today, boys.”—and fix us sandwiches or pancakes for dinner before burying himself in the paper and falling asleep on the couch. After mom died, he just gave up. 

He delivered milk for a living back when they dropped bottles right at your door. On his days off he worked with other milkmen paving driveways. Milkmen get up early and he was always tired. He did his duty by us boys, though, putting food on the table of our subsidized low rental row house, buying our clothes and schoolbooks. Paying for sports. But he never came to any games. He never told me he loved me. He was too tired.

Sam, who’s five years older, would go out at night and I would go to my room and read. He left home and joined the army right after high school, a year after mom died, leaving me alone with dad. The house was always quiet then, except for the drone of the TV. I don’t remember feeling lonely or particularly unhappy. I played sports, was a decent student and got along well at school, even though I didn’t socialize much.

The depression was periodic in my late teens and throughout my twenties, seemingly coming out of nowhere and settling in for a few weeks or a month. I’d always managed to get through it, burying myself in work or a hobby. I learned how to play chess and joined a club in university but after a year or so my interest faded. I built model ships. I started riding a bike. People who knew me then would be surprised to hear that I was experiencing inner turmoil. I kept it well hidden. 

The depression escalated in my thirties, the episodes became longer and the periods between shorter. I compensated by socializing more, forcing myself to join in when what I wanted to do was isolate. In the first few years after I started work at my present job I was known as somewhat of a social animal. I went out for drinks after work and attended all the office functions. 

Drinking made me feel normal, but it always wore off. I could be charming and attentive when required but it was all an act. I engaged in conversation and put on a happy face but inside I was empty, disconnected from humanity.

Kate came into my life during a low period. I was attracted to her even disposition and rock-solid moral values. She knew who she was and she liked herself. I turned on the charm during that first lunch date and the effort in doing so lifted the depression I’d been cloaked in when I walked into the insurance office that day. 

Kate said later that she sensed I wasn’t as happy as I pretended to be in the first weeks we dated but it didn’t matter because she knew I was decent, not a phony like other men she went out with who put on airs. We dated for four months before I proposed. Kate was only the second woman I’d gone out with for any length of time. 

My father died suddenly when I was in university. He collapsed on the milk route. A heart attack. I didn’t cry or feel sad like normal people do. I just felt depressed that the old man’s life came to an end in a puddle of buttermilk. That’s what they told my brother and me. He stepped out of the truck with a tray of milk and had a massive heart attack. Two quarts of milk hit the curb and busted. He had nothing to leave us but a couple boxes of papers and junk, a few family photos.

I met a girl I liked at the university chess club during my graduating year. My first girlfriend. I’d thrown myself back into chess to help fight off the depression that took over when the old man checked out. Her name was Melanie and she was majoring in education. We played a lot of chess and made awkward love a couple of times in the two-room basement suite I was renting near campus. At the end of the school year she went to her parents’ home in the Kootenays and never came back. I think she got involved with an old boyfriend. 

She wrote me a letter saying she wasn’t returning to school but that she’d look me up when she came to the city. She never did. It didn’t bother me. I remember feeling relieved that I wouldn’t have to pretend I liked her more than I did. She was just someone to play chess with; the sex was an afterthought, an obligation, something expected.

I went out with other women over the years, especially in my Good Time Charlie period immediately after starting with the company. The other tech writers kidded me because I’d bring a different date to every office function. I slept with some of those women but there was little passion and no emotion involved. One-night stands and weekend affairs that always seemed to conclude by mutual agreement. 

One woman, Rachel, took a real liking to me. We spent a weekend together on the Sunshine Coast and I must have triggered some need in her to nurture because she phoned every couple of weeks for about six months before losing interest. I wasn’t rude to her or anything; I just kept putting her off. I didn’t want to let anyone in to see the weakness. The darkness.

I thought about my past life a lot during those bleak July days—about my parents, my distant older brother, Melanie and Rachel and the others. You have to think about something when you spend hour upon hour staring at the wall or laying on the rug with your eyes open. 

I suppose in immersing myself in the past I avoided dealing with the present, with the annual report and Kate and the emotionally crippling numbness. Though I didn’t consciously think it at the time, I was searching my memory for a seminal event in my life, something I could point to and say, “This is why I kill people.” I wanted a reason, not an excuse. I didn’t want to be Thorsby’s crazed psycho killer. It didn’t fit with the image I had of myself. I was judge, jury and executioner. Someone with the balls to do what had to be done. Someone to make things right.

I didn’t feel like someone with balls, then, though. I felt weak. A sneak.

Coverage of the Cunningham killing had long since tailed off. If the police knew the shots had been fired by the same gun that killed the pimp and the drug dealer they weren’t saying. I knew they didn’t have any cartridges. I thought about the police a lot. I wondered who was working on the cases, and if they thought about me as they tried to figure out a motive. I didn’t fear the police then. I considered them kindred spirits. People who wanted the bad guys eliminated.

The idea came to me as I lay on the rug, in the heat of a mid-afternoon sunbeam angling through the venetian blinds in zebra stripes. The thing missing was accountability. Without someone taking responsibility the killings were wasted. Just more random violence in a world saturated with senseless brutality. The more I thought about it the better I felt.

Two days later, a Thursday, I kissed Kate on the cheek as she left for work. A peck. She squeezed my arm.

“Everything’s going to be alright, Roger. You go see the counsellor tomorrow and I’m sure he’s going to help. Laura said Paul’s had a complete turn-around since he started seeing him last fall. He recommended medication and Laura said there haven’t been any side effects.”

Laura Carter was Kate’s boss. Her husband Paul had sunk into a deep depression in the months after his fiftieth birthday. We went to the party and Paul had dutifully presented himself as a content middle-aged man, blowing out his candles in two breaths and declaring himself to be a half-century young. They lived in a luxury downtown condo with an expansive view of water, mountains and city lights. Both had been married before, Paul twice, and had grown children. They enjoyed living well.

Paul had been one of the city’s top realtors in the boom years of the late 80s and early 90s. He had wispy grey hair combed down over his forehead and the thin-veined, ruddy complexion of someone who has lived a dissolute life. He was slightly built, handsome in a lived-in way and he exuded confidence that made him seem more attractive than he was. I knew he was a weak phony the first time we met. His handshake was too firm, his eye contact too direct, too much like something out of a Dale Carnegie book.

Laura was Kate’s closest friend. They went out to the theater and movies, sharing women confidences in pre-show dinners. Kate had told me Paul’s sales had dropped off, that he was drinking more than Laura liked. That he had problems with his children and that his second wife was initiating legal proceedings to get title to an apartment they jointly owned in lieu of delinquent alimony payments. None of this was apparent at the party, though. Paul danced and drank and acted the good host, the birthday boy. I wondered if I was the only one who could see through the act.

The counselor’s name was Don Adams. He was a psychologist, but Kate didn’t like that term. She called him a doctor. When she told me his name I laughed, a cynical laugh but the first one for a while.

“Don Adams.? Isn’t he the guy who played Maxwell Smart? Get Smart. It fits.” I said it bitterly.

“He knows his stuff, Roger. If you don’t give him a chance, he won’t be able to help you.” 

Kate replied with uncharacteristic irritability. She was alarmed by my deterioration and I knew the counselor wasn’t optional if I wanted our marriage to continue smoothly. I planned to keep the appointment, go through the motions and emerge a few months later a cured man. Another happy client for Maxwell Smart.

In truth, I was already feeling better. The idea that arrived via a zebra-striped sunbeam had germinated into a plan. As soon as Kate’s car disappeared down the block I went to the basement to the corner where the box containing all that was left of Dad’s life was stacked. Papers and picture albums. A jar of cufflinks and tie clips. A few foreign coins. A small manual typewriter I couldn’t recall him ever using

I took the typewriter up to my office and cleared a space on my desk. I put on a pair of the surgical gloves I kept locked in my desk and inserted a sheet of computer printer paper. I typed a few lines of gibberish to test the ribbon. The first words were faint, but the type darkened as the ribbon loosened up. I took it as a sign. I put in a clean sheet and began to type:

Dear Greg….

I enjoyed your coverage of the Cunningham killing, particularly your conjecture about the killing being carried out as revenge by a victim of one of his clients. You weren’t far off the mark.

He was killed because of his sleazy legal maneuverings, alright, but not by an enraged victim. I executed Cunningham on behalf of the people of this great country who were all victimized by his unrepentant subversion of the justice system.

While that killing garnered all the attention, the police and media have characteristically failed to zero in on the bigger picture. Cunningham’s removal was not a random act but part of a plan to neutralize that element of society that by its perversion, weakness and disregard for the greater good threaten our way of life.

Richard Cunningham, Q.C. was preceded into the hereafter by two others of his ilk, the pimp Tremaine Evers and the drug dealer Tran Doc Ho, both executed while plying their unsavory chosen professions.

If the police are on the ball, which cannot be taken as a given, they will have already identified the bullets in all three killings as having been fired by the same gun, a .357 magnum.

Moreover, while no other candidates have been targeted for execution at this point, all those who put self-interest above the rights of ordinary citizens to carry out their daily lives unimpeded by legal, criminal, political or bureaucratic encumbrance should consider themselves to be in the line of fire.

Sincerely,

The People’s Wolf

I’d thought about making obvious spelling and grammar mistakes in the note for deception purposes but decided against it. I knew my communication would inevitably become public and I wanted to avoid Thorsby’s psycho killer label. It was important that the People’s Wolf was deemed to be rational, that the killings were seen to have a purpose so people would realize they could fight back, that they weren’t powerless. 

Sending the letter was risky in that it would likely jump start the investigation and could be the impetus behind the formation of a task force. But the change in mood I experienced in composing it and planning for its delivery more than nullified any increased risk. I’d bought the paper the previous day at a large stationary store, being careful to pick the most common type and pay for it in cash. I wore surgical gloves while handling the paper and envelope, which I sealed with a wet sponge. I posted the letter in a downtown mailbox on my way to the appointment with Maxwell Smart.

Don Adams’ office was located on West Broadway near Vancouver General Hospital, a 10-minute drive from the site of the drug dealer’s execution in an area favored by doctors, dentists, x-ray clinics and medical labs. One-stop shopping for the sick of body and mind. 

The office was on the second floor of a commercial mall on the southeast corner of Cambie St., above a Thai restaurant. I pulled in and parked in a spot reserved for restaurant patrons. The address Kate had given me was posted on a door sandwiched between the restaurant and a convenience store. My appointment was for 10 a.m. I was a few minutes early so I dallied in front of the restaurant feigning interest in the menu. I walked to the office door, hoping it would be locked. I pushed and it opened. There was no lobby, just a stairway, an elevator and a notice board indicating the upstairs occupants. A notary public, an accounting firm, a chiropractor and Don Adams, Suite 203. 

I took the stairs to the first landing two at a time, then paused to catch my breath. The window on the landing looked out onto a lane. A faded and soiled single mattress protruded from the dumpster. The kind a child would sleep on. Or a widowed senior. Two street people sat on the pavement in its shadow smoking. The window was streaked with dust. I leaned heavily against the wall and fought an urge to return to the car and drive away. And keep driving. Anywhere but here. I had no intention of sharing my weakness with a stranger. Letting him into my private place. 

I took the rest of the stairs slowly, one at a time, and paused for a moment at the top to orient myself. The hall was dim. Dreary. Adams was at the end on the left. He pried into peoples’ minds from behind an anonymous solid door distinguished only by the suite number.

The door opened into a surprisingly bright reception area. An odd-looking woman with wine-colored hair and oversize red-framed glasses looked up from the reception desk when I entered.

“Roger Delaney?”

“Yes.”

“You’re very prompt, Mr. Delaney. I’m Gail Whitesong, Mr. Adams’ girl Friday. Actually, I’m his Monday-Wednesday-Thursday girl. The office isn’t open Tuesday and Friday.”

She seemed pleasant, outgoing. White with some Asian stirred in. I put her in her mid-thirties, but you can never tell with that mix. She had large almond-shaped eyes, black, and her skin was a creamy blend of white and yellow. Her forehead was concealed behind reddish-purple bangs that hung to the top of the huge round glasses. 

She parted her hair in the middle and it fell just above her shoulders, in a stylish semi-circle of deep red wine. I pegged the banter as her standard ice-breaker with new ‘clients.’ That’s what they call you. A client. As if you’re there for legal advice. A phony way to begin. I didn’t laugh. 

She handed me a clipboard with a single sheet of paper attached asking a bunch of nosy questions. Did I smoke? Consume alcohol? How many drinks a week? Were my parents still alive? Was my relationship with them good or bad? How many siblings did I have? Did any family member suffer from depression or any other mental illness? Did I get headaches? 

A load of crap. I answered all 25 questions in a minute or so—yes, no, not applicable. A lot of not applicables.

Gail Whitesong took the clipboard back. 

“You’re quick as well as prompt. Or maybe you’re prompt because you’re quick. I’ll tell Don you’re here.”

The reception area had four or five chairs and a couple of magazine-strewn coffee tables with tissue boxes. I walked to the window and looked down on the alley. A different perspective on the dumpster. The mattress appeared less soiled from this angle. The street people had moved on. The windowpane was clean of dust and dirt. A brighter day. 

“Mr. Delaney. I’m Don Adams. Come into my office and have a seat in the easy chair. We like everything easy here. Can we get you coffee or tea? A glass of water? A soda. Gail brings in cookies most days.”

She handed him the clipboard and he looked it over as he ushered me in. Adams looked to be in his late thirties. He had jet black hair swept back in a pompadour that covered his ears and flowed to his shirt collar in back. The front overhang defied gravity. It looked like a wig. Too dark. Too big to be real. 

He was a small man with a deep voice, maybe five foot six, with a medium build, dressed conservatively in a white shirt and tie. The shirt was tucked into cheap blue dress pants that didn’t quite reach the tops of his black lace-up walking shoes. The kind seniors wear to Walmart. What could this pipsqueak tell me about life? I pegged him right off as a hypocrite. A guy who’d built his whole life with smoke and mirrors. Convincing weak people he can help them when he’s so fucked up he wears a jet black wig.

Adams played host. Polite. Solicitous. Sizing me up.

I was on his turf. At a disadvantage. He knew I had a problem. This first meeting was about taking stock. How much would either of us give up to get the result we wanted.

He had faded blue eyes, a smallish straight nose and a strong chin. A friendly face crinkled with laugh lines. He could be handsome with different hair. I knew I couldn’t get mental help from a little man wearing sensible shoes and a bad rug.

I took the easy chair and accepted a glass of water from Gail Whitesong. She set it on a side table beside a small plate of cookies and left the room, closing the door. Adams grabbed a straight-backed chair from against the wall and placed it directly in front of the easy chair. Maybe five feet away. Too close. He sat down, his back straight, shoulders squared, knees together, and looked at me. Neither of us spoke. 

The silence went on for a full minute. A long time for two strangers to have a stare-off. The longer it went on the more hostile I felt. I thought of giving him a bad hair day by dumping the glass of water on his head. Instead, I reached over and took a sip. The motion broke the stare-off.

“So, Roger, what do you want to see me about today.”

He shifted in the chair, turning his legs slightly to the side while anchoring those black lace-up shoes. His tone was kindly, concerned. I wondered what he’d say if I told him I killed people. The thought of it brightened me.

“My wife thinks I need help. I guess you helped her friend’s husband and she thinks you can fix me too.”

“What do you think? Do you need fixing?”

“Not really.”

He leaned closer, just for a second, before standing up.

“Well, you seem like a man with a handle on life. I have enough trouble helping people who want my help. In my experience people must be desperate to facilitate lasting change. You don’t appear desperate and by your answers on the questionnaire many possible areas of concern aren’t applicable to you. I can’t help you and it wouldn’t be right to take money and pretend otherwise.”

Adams kept his tone even, non-confrontational. One smart guy to another. An easy out for both of us. It threw me off.

“That’s it. I came all the way over here for that.”

“I don’t know why you came, Roger. But that is it. That’s all I have for you. I can only help people who admit they have a problem. It’s a team effort. I don’t work alone. And if there’s no problem you shouldn’t be here.”

He laughed easily as he moved his chair to the wall. I leaned back in the easy chair unable to move. I didn’t want to leave the room, to go back into the world. Back to the fear. The black dogs. Spinning the chamber.

We had another moment of silence. Not a stare-off this time. He was off to the side and I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me. I figured he was, so I used the quiet time to look around the office. The walls were a warm brown colour, dark enough to make the room seem smaller than it was. Cozy. I didn’t notice the sliding balcony door when I came in because the curtains were partially closed. I could see enough to know it opened onto a small deck with planters and a table and two chairs. 

He had a modest desk and chair, with requisite framed degrees on the wall behind, where clients were sure to see them. There was one plant in the room in a huge pot. It grew up the side of the patio door, across the top and down the other side. A leafy green serpent. Green metal filing cabinets took up most of the wall space beneath the window. I wondered what secrets were concealed there. And about how easy it would be for someone to break in and find them out. 

I don’t know how much time passed before Adams shifted slightly. A subtle signal from one smart guy to another.

“Okay, you got me. I’ve got a problem.”

I choked a bit at the end. It surprised me the way it came out. So feeble.

Adams stepped forward and lowered his voice: “Is it something you can’t solve yourself? Do you want my help?”

The sneaky bastard wanted a verbal commitment. To get me onside with the program. On the team. I knew what he was up to. Pure psychological bullshit. But the smart little prick had me backed into a corner. I had to answer in the affirmative or get up and leave the office. Things might have been different if I’d just got up and left right then. I can’t explain why, even now, but I didn’t want to leave that room.

“I’ve been depressed since I was a teenager. It comes and goes but for the last while things have gotten bleak. I’ve lived with it for 25 years but it’s bleaker now, and I’m married. My wife is concerned… and so am I.”

Adams grabbed the chair again and set it down in front of me, back to front. I thought for a moment that he was going to sit with his back to me as some kind of bullshit psychological ploy. But he straddled it instead, placing his arms on the back and resting his chin on his arms. He looked at me with concern.

“What is the depression like?”

“What do you mean?” 

I hated him at that moment. Fucking charlatan. I wanted to drop kick his chin right off the back of the chair.

“Depression is just a word. I mean what does it feel like to you? How does it affect your life?”

“It feels like reality.”

“Hmm. Interesting, but what does reality feel like?”

He wanted to play word games.

“Reality is seeing the world for the shithole it is. It means understanding that nothing matters. People are born, people die. Things happen. Nothing anyone does means shit. Reality feels like nothing. A big empty void.”

“Is that your view of the world?”

“It’s not my view, it’s just the way things are. I see it clearly, that’s all.”

“Well, I’m not qualified to debate the state of the world. How about we start out by getting to know a little bit about each other,” he said. 

His voice was compelling. It offered hope. 

“I’ll go first. I have a Phd in psychology from the University of Alberta. I’m from a small town in Saskatchewan called Kepsie. It has three grain elevators and two commercial streets, each a couple of blocks long. The town is surrounded by empty prairie on all sides. I went to high school there. Kepsie Senior Secondary. 

I wasn’t a super popular kid. Not one of the in crowd. A little too intellectual for a teenager. But I was quite good at baseball so I got along okay. My dad worked for the provincial highways department. He operated a grader in summer and drove a snow plow in the winter. My mother was a homemaker. She had four children. I’m in the middle. She died of breast cancer when I was 13. She died at home. A hard death. My father carried on. We all did. We had no choice. But dad was never the same. He remarried in his late 50s and still lives in Kepsie.”

He’d probably told a hundred sad sacks the same pathetic story.

“I came out to the West Coast a few months after graduating, new diploma in hand, out to set the world on fire. I wanted to help people. I wanted to change things for the better. Of course, I didn’t know enough to really help people back then and I struggled to make it financially for the first few years. Not many people wanted to share their lives with a guy who looked like Doogie Houser. Then I met my wife; she’s a physicist and a brilliant woman. We have two great kids.”

He paused to reach behind for a framed picture on his desk. He brought it around, looking at it as he did, then turned the picture so it faced me. It was a standard studio shot, Adams and his wife behind, two small kids in front. His wife was matronly, with a wide nose holding up large librarian glasses. Stout. The intelligence came through in her face, though. The boys were homely. They had the worst features of each parent. Both had thick, black hair. 

“Nice family,” I said.

“You’re probably asking yourself how a guy like me can help you. As you know, a psychology degree doesn’t come with any special insights. It certainly doesn’t qualify me to advise other people how they should live their lives. Getting the doctorate took six years. It was an endurance event. An exercise in perseverance. You just put your head down and plough through it to the end. Then they give you the piece of paper and you go out into the world pretending to know more about life than other people. You don’t.

“I have many failings as a human being and I’m a long way from being a perfect husband or father. What I do have is a gift. The god-given ability to empathize and connect with other people. And I say god-given with a small g because it’s not about religion. What I mean is I was born with the ability to get inside people’s heads, to feel the things they’re feeling. I’m not talking about reading minds. I can’t foretell the future other than to say that if you work with me it’s very likely things will get better for you. I can’t say when, or even how it will happen but experience tells me that it will. I’ve helped a lot of people over the last 10 years.”

I sat there fuming. The smarmy little Elvis impersonator actually imagined he could get inside my head. Here I am, the People’s Wolf, soon to be the most talked about person in the city, and this little prick is telling me he can get inside my head. To feel things I feel. That was the first time I thought about killing him. Not a serious thought. Just a milli-second in a moment of intense rage. If he could really feel what I was feeling, then he was feeling hatred. Hatred and fear. 

Fear kept me there on that first visit. Fear that walking out would mean walking into unrelenting blackness. I didn’t want to explain to my wife that things hadn’t gone well. I didn’t want to spin the chamber on the gun again. I didn’t want to kill anyone else. Most of all, I didn’t want to get caught. 

“My mother died when I was 12. I guess that’s at least one thing you can empathize with.”

The words sounded distant. Like they were coming from my mouth but not from my brain. 

Weak. Fake.

“My father was a milkman. A nice man without ambition. He did what he could after mom died but her death took the best part of him. I don’t remember him doing anything but work. Nobody ever came over and he didn’t go out. When he wasn’t working, he read the paper or laid on the couch and watched TV. I remember him being tired. Always tired. My older brother left home the year after mom died. He joined the Canadian military. He moved around a lot and I never saw much of him after that. He stayed in the service long enough to pension out in his early forties as a Master Seargent. He lives in Red Deer, Alberta, with his wife, no kids. He worked as a rent-a-cop for a security firm until he had a stroke. I haven’t seen him in years. Wouldn’t know what he looked like if I passed him on the street.”

“That’s too bad, Roger. Family is an important connection with the world.”

He inserted his comment at exactly the moment I paused. Smooth. A smooth little prick.

“I like to wear sports coats.”

I said it to put him off. To ruffle the smoothness.

“I’ve got a dozen sport coats in my closet, one for every occasion. Colour-coded on their hangers, from light to dark. Does that mean I have an orderly mind?”

“My best guess is that it means you like to dress well and take pride in your appearance. Therefore, you care about what people think about you. I like the jacket you’re wearing today. It’s a nice colour and cut. When I was single I always wanted to dress sharp but I could never seem to get it right. I’ve never had much fashion sense. My wife has the good taste in the family. She does all the shopping. She knows my size and the colours I like.”

I had to give it to him. He was hard to ruffle. And he had me talking. I told him I was an English grad and that I made my living as a technical writer. I got into my university years and that first girlfriend, Melanie. How she left and I felt relieved. 

He cut me off before I could get into my Good-time Charlie period. Before I met Kate. He ended our session by asking me to try fifteen minutes a day of quiet time.

“Just find a quiet place. Somewhere you won’t be disturbed. Get comfortable. I prefer to sit up because I usually fall asleep if I lay down. Let your mind relax and see what comes.”

“See what comes?”

I couldn’t keep the edge out of my tone. The goofy little faker wasn’t connecting very well with my mind. My whole life was quiet time. I didn’t have to find a special spot. I already knew what would come. Bleakness. Poison.

“Yes, see what comes.”

He didn’t acknowledge the edginess. He said it pleasantly, then asked me to stand. I had to apply pressure with my legs to get the recliner back up. I stood awkwardly and faced him, about five feet away.

“I like to end sessions with a mutual show of respect.”

He put his hands together as if in prayer, tilted them forward towards me, then bowed his head slowly, the overhang of his black bouffant obscuring his face. The session’s end had a weird uplifting feel to it. A kind of silly symmetry.

“Gail will set you up with another appointment. I think we should see each other every other week to start. See how things go.

Rich Man Poor Man in the Time of Pandemic

Yacht styles of the rich and famous

Yacht styles of the rich and famous

Looking across the lake at the orchards and vineyards on a sunny spring day in the South Okanagan it’s easy to momentarily brush away the fears of a global pandemic. Not the worst place to be locked down.

With the infection rate and death toll rising at a fearsome pace and the economy tanking in the virus’s toxic wake it is a moment for quiet contemplation. One thought that comes to an idle mind is that the global pandemic presents the ‘haves’ of the world an opportunity to step up or to be held to account.

Last year we were in Fort Lauderdale at spring break walking the boardwalks and, from the safe vantage point of age, enjoying the scantily clad revelries of the young and carefree. Good times. Great vibe.

During a canal tour showcasing a stunning array of waterfront mansions with massive yachts docked in front, thoughts of something amiss dulled the holiday glow of the Florida sun. As the guide noted the palatial pile of this or that captain of industry, I couldn’t stop wondering about all the employees toiling away at barely liveable wages to keep the titans living so large.

How many workers annual salaries would it take for the upkeep of a boat that burns hundreds of gallons of fuel an hour. How many minimum wage hours to pay the taxes on a second, third or even fourth home? How much more could the workers make if the captain of industry gave up the boat and the holiday house in Fort Lauderdale and put that money back into the workers’ kitty?

The ostentatious consumerism on display during the Fort Lauderdale canal cruise is nothing short of obscene in a country with millions of kids reliant on school lunches for their daily nutrition. It is said revolutions begin with the rising price of bread or rice. Maybe in today’s world of conspicuous consumption a global pandemic will affect change.

Governments in all countries considering industry bailouts should make it a condition that the CEOs and other executives take massive salary cuts. If the head of a cruise company, airline, hotel chain or casino is making 50 million a year cut it down to one. They might have to sell a home or two, but they’ll get by. Call it the cost of corporate socialism and put the savings into the pool for the workers worried about keeping food on the table.

It is time for the super wealthy athletes and owners to do more than kick in a few bucks for laid off stadium employees. Tom Brady is reportedly ready to sign a $30 million a year deal. After 20 years in the NFL he is already fabulously wealthy. His super model wife makes more than he does. If Brady was a real hero, he would throw the whole $30 million into the communal pot to help mitigate some of the damage his friend the President has done to the country.

Defenders of Brady and other overpaid athletes like Lebron James, Tiger Woods et al, will point to the many charitable endeavors they champion. True and good, but what personal sacrifice does it require of somebody like Woods or James to give a few million here or there as a tax write-off. Give enough so you can only afford the Bentley and one palatial home and I’ll be impressed.

The same holds true for Hollywood A-listers, rock stars and business titans. I’m talking about you Michael Douglas, Bono and the Walton family. Give back enough that it hurts a little. Donate the private plane to the pandemic effort and fly first class instead. Give the Rolls, the Range Rover and the Porsche Cayenne to a food bank and buy yourself a used Lincoln to keep the economy going. Sell the New York apartment and the place in Aspen and put all the money into pandemic relief.

Even ‘poor’ politicians like Bernie Sanders have two or even three homes. Bernie keeps a place in Washington in addition to his regular residence in Vermont and a summer place better than what most Americans live in. Senator Richard Burr, whose name shall go down in infamy for profiting while his constituents face financial ruin, is said to be a politician of modest means. Even so, he was able to offload up to $1.7 million in stock before the market collapsed, which should help in his coming retirement with a fully indexed government pension.

The Senate and House are filled with millionaires and the Trump cabinet with billionaires. Ousted politicians use their connections for cushy jobs in the private sector at ten times the salary of the average worker. Former Presidents parlay their fame into tens of millions on the speaking circuit while taxpayers making minimum wage foot the bill for their security. Yes, I’m talking about Liberal icons like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who just augmented his Washington D.C. manse with a million-dollar-plus summer home on Cape Cod. Nice place to self-isolate between cruises on even richer friends’ yachts. It’s a long way from working with Chicago’s poor to the Cape.

To be clear, I’m not a raving communist begrudging those better off than me for enjoying the fruits of their labour or unique abilities. Smart, talented, hardworking people are entitled to live well. It’s the capitalist way most of us believe in. How well? That is the question in these low times of the pandemic. And how much should they give back for the common good with millions of their fellow citizens worrying about feeding their families.

 

The Last Great Generation…

mom and dad maloney 001

Mike and Germaine Maloney wedding photo 1939

Watching the moving rituals following a Presidential death in the U.S. brought tears to my eyes, especially when George Jr. choked up at the podium while delivering the final words of his historic eulogy for his father.

President and son to President and father.

All the sentimentality and talk about the passing of the last great generation brought my parents to mind. Mom, a devout Catholic, went peacefully to her maker at age 96 a couple of years back. Dad, her partner in faith as in life, predeceased her by 14 years at age 88. They were together 63 years.

Uncelebrated at their deaths for great accomplishments, they were born into circumstances less privileged then the late H.W. Bush.

Mom’s family moved from Quebec to Alberta when she was a young child. Her father eventually ran a one-man dairy from a rented acreage on the outskirts of Edmonton, delivering milk from his cows to the General Hospital run by the Grey Nuns.

The acreage was not connected to water, so my grandfather mounted a huge tank upon a trailer which he pulled down to the city water hydrant at the main road and filled up periodically for drinking water for the family of two adults and six kids, two boys and four girls. One of the kids’ daily jobs was to scoop water into buckets and carry them to the house for drinking and washing dishes.

Calling it a house is an exaggeration. It was a two-room shack with a loft for the boys. The girls slept in the living room crossways on a fold-out couch, four to the bed, the parents a whisper away behind a thin wall. The toilet was 50 feet from the house, a frightening and discouraging distance for a child on a frigid Alberta winter night. Throwing out the contents collected in the pots the night before was another daily childhood task.

The kids worked from the time they could walk, milking cows, feeding chickens, cooking, cleaning and shovelling cow shit. The boys did the heaviest work and the girls learned the domestic arts they would need in adulthood.

Mom started school in Edmonton wearing her older brother’s boots with English as her second language. Her father pulled the girls out of school as soon as they reached the legal age. Their place was working in the home, he told them in French, leaving no room for argument.

My Dad finished Grade Eleven. He grew up in more prosperous circumstances on a farm outside St. Albert.

The big house had running water and more sophisticated bathroom facilities than Mom’s. He had two sisters and five brothers. His father James was gassed in the trenches in WWI. The son of one of St. Albert’s prominent pioneers, James became a farmer and sometime small businessman. My great grandfather Daniel Maloney’s local celebrity was gleaned in part when he travelled to Ottawa as part of a delegation to convince Sir John A. McDonald’s Conservative government to construct a bridge over the Sturgeon River. The St. Albert RCMP station is called Maloney Place.

The celebrity didn’t translate into dollars for Daniel’s offspring and Dad and his seven siblings learned early that life required hard work and grit. Dad bore scars from being kicked in the head by a horse as a young boy and all the kids had calluses on their hands. The girls helped their Mom with laundry, cleaning and daily meals for 10 and the boys learned to build barns and sheds, to repair machinery, and to handle six-horse teams, my father’s early lesson about never walking behind a frisky horse notwithstanding.

His older brothers hauled horse-drawn freight when barely into their teens. Dad was pulled out of school periodically in spring and fall for planting and harvesting.

Mom first noticed him at Church. His scars from the horse hoof burnished away by the sun, he wore his wavy hair in a period pompadour that soared six inches above his forehead, and made him appear hair, if not head and shoulders, above the male competition in Mom’s tiny family and church social world.

Family legend has them meeting at a softball tournament in St. Albert at which he bought her an ice cream cone. He was tall, fit and handsome and she was what was called a looker, a dark-haired French beauty with fine features. They married only months later, Dad at 25 and Mom at 19, at the end of the Depression and on the cusp of the conflagration that would be World War II.

Dad was rejected for service because of flat feet, an ironic military decision considering he spent most of his working life walking from house to house delivering milk. They started life together in a series of small rental houses. Mom even stayed in a tent for a time to be with her new husband as he worked on the Alaska Highway. Before moving in with Dad she had never lived outside the family home.

They lost their firstborn son at birth and went on to have four other children, two boys and two girls, a standard number for the time. With memories of the Great Depression burned into their being, they lived a frugal life, eventually buying a small house, moving the family to a more comfortable bungalow after ten years of saving for the down payment. Mom was a homemaker and Dad worked on his days off from the dairy where he became a foreman and remained for the rest of his working life. He was a highly skilled carpenter and jack of many trades, but outdoor work was unreliable in the cold winters of Edmonton.

When they bought their first new car with the children older, Mom took a job at the General Hospital where her father once delivered milk, sewing sheets in the basement for a dollar an hour until the new car was paid off. They bought a basic model Rambler with vinyl bench seats, standard transmission and hand-powered steering and windows. Mom quit the hospital when it was paid off.

They paid bills on time and met the responsibilities of parenthood on a limited budget by doing what needed to be done. Mom canned vegetables and washed clothes in a wringer washer, hanging them on the line to dry in summer and to freeze in winter. Dad did all house repairs, yard work and car maintenance, changing the oil in the driveway of the garage he built.

They were the original recyclers. Nothing was thrown out that had any material use. Torn clothes were mended, shoes repaired, and Dad spent many an idle evening darning the toes of his socks, worn through by miles of walking on his milk routes on flat feet. Nothing was disposable, least of all diapers, which were soaked in a bucket and washed separately.

Meals were basic and wholesome, lots of hamburger and liver, with emphasis on stomach fillers like potatoes, pasta and bread. Well-cooked roast beef was a Sunday ritual. Full family attendance was expected at every evening meal and picky eaters were not countenanced. No vegetable tasted so bad that it could be left behind on a plate with people starving in India and China. On extra special occasions, Mom and Dad sipped at glasses of Mogen David Wine.

Sunday mornings were reserved for Church. Attendance wasn’t optional for the kids even into their late teens. Dad did not work for money on Sundays, using it as a day of rest to do jobs around the house. There were times when Dad had to borrow change from the float in his milk pouch but he never missed his weekly donation at Sunday mass. He was one of the men who passed the collection basket at Church, walking ramrod straight in his only suit. When it got so out of style Mom became embarrassed, he had it tailored to narrow the lapels.

Mom and Dad always put their children first, instilling integrity and ethics in their offspring as best they could, by example. They did not look to put one over on anybody by paying less or charging more on anything they bought or sold. Lying was not a misdemeanor in Mom and Dad’s book, but instead a major offense to be punished by a spanking, or even worse, a period of ostracization from their affections.

They believed in working for everything they got and did not look kindly on shirkers, whatever their social status. Devoutly religious, they tried with limited success to pass their beliefs on to their children but did not proselytize to friends or strangers of non or different faiths. I never heard them speak ill of other religions or people of different colours and cultures. They took their measure of people by the way they lived.

They raised four children, none of whom were incarcerated, who went on to live mostly respectably, working to buy homes and paying their bills and taxes.

This peon is not meant to infer that my parents were saintly people who raised the ideal family. They had the imperfections inherent in the human condition and held firmly to some of the now politically incorrect views of their time. Their marriage, though enduring, was not a perfect union.

Mom revealed herself to be an artist of considerable talent in later life and Dad was a skilled craftsman who could build a house or a fine piece of furniture. If they had dreams for themselves or disappointments for personal aspirations unfulfilled, I never heard them.

They were working class people, decent, with a moral code they would not compromise, regardless of short-term advantage. In my view, their ordinary lives were lived with a steadfastness and heroism underrated by the want-it-now pay-for-it-later generation that followed them. They left this earth without the pomp and praise bestowed upon H.W. on his final journey but with no less value for the lives they lived. George JR. said of his father he was the best a boy could hope for. I put my Dad and Mom right up there with him. They exemplified all that was right about the last great generation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shoveler’s guide to the digital galaxy

With the new millennium roiling in its awkward teenage years and the digital world, even in its infancy progressing at a dazzling pace, we are living in interesting times.

I like to tell dinner guests of a certain age that their place in human history is unique and will remain so to infinity. The more modest among them find it hard to accept that they are special. Others express puzzlement.

People born between 1945 and 1965 are the last generation to grow up without computers. For as long as human history is recorded, there will always be the time before computers and the time after computers.

The Last Ones will always hold their place.

It’s been snowing here in the desert, a foot in two days, and as most Canadians know, shovelling snow is a good time for reflection. The technique doesn’t change much whether you’re clearing a sidewalk or a long curving driveway. Push the snow shovel forward until the volume bogs you down, then throw as much as you can comfortably lift to one side or other. Repeat.

The world is changing so fast it seems quaint to reminisce about a time when teenagers were thrilled to get a tinny sounding transistor radio for Christmas that would almost fit in their shirt pocket.

If you had told a teen back in the fifties that in their golden years kids would be carrying their entire music collection in a device smaller than the new transistor; that it would double as a phone and could also take pictures and better video than Dad’s bulky movie camera; that you could ask it arcane sports questions and it would answer in real time; that it would provide detailed maps and directions almost anywhere in the world; well, he would likely have accused you of smoking wacky tobaccy.

Except there was no marijuana in Edmonton in the fifties and early sixties. Not in my circle. We started to hear rumours about such things about 1967. But if you wanted to partake of the herb you had to go to Van, man. Maybe down to the Retinal Circus.

Edmonton was still a small city, perhaps 150,000 people. The bread man delivered to your door and the milk man was a neighbourhood regular. You could pet his horse on the nose or just watch it drop a load on the street in front of your house.

My older brother’s summer job was clop-clopping through the streets of Edmonton in a horse drawn milk wagon, one of the last Edmonton milk men to pull on the reins before horses were phased out in the late sixties.

If my brother wanted to talk to his girlfriend on the family phone he had to stretch the cord into the bathroom and leave the door open a crack. He didn’t have a stereo in his room as a teenager. It wouldn’t fit between our beds and the closet.

My sisters shared the room next door. I think they might have had a shiny, new clock radio that my older sister got for Christmas. I can’t recall for sure though. Their room was off limits for the boys.

My dad was a working man who took on extra jobs so we could afford to buy a small house. They paid $3,000 and eventually sold it for 10. Mom was home every day making breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just like June Cleaver, the Beaver’s Mom, but without the fancy dresses.

There was no fast food. Mom made everything from scratch. We had a garden and she did a lot of canning. A lot of Moms did back then. She put the sealed glass jars filled with vegetables under the basement steps where it was dark and cool year-round. It cut the cost of food for a family of six, a smallish number back then. Many of my friends had six or eight brothers and sisters. Always someone to play with.

We got our first TV in that house, a small black and white with rabbit ears on top. It got three channels that shut off after the late night movie. We watched wrestling or hockey on Saturday night and Walt Disney after supper every Sunday. The Ed Sullivan show was the hottest thing on the tube. (TVs had tubes then. Lots of them.) Ed stood with his arms crossed and stiffly introduced his guests in a staccato voice. He was a newspaper man before TV.

We all watched together, with Mom and Dad in the most comfortable chairs and some of us lying on the floor. We decided what to watch by consensus and there wasn’t much arguing because the CBC shows were mostly lame. Tug Boat Annie. Father Knows Best. Mike Hammer. Only three channels and something for everyone.

Push snow until shovel bogs. Toss left or right. Repeat.

I started in journalism in the early eighties at a far-flung outpost of the then powerful Thomson Newspaper chain, The Kamloops Daily Sentinel. We typed stories on sheets of cheap pink paper using 30-year-old Remington typewriters with worn keys, cigarettes dangling from our lips, overflowing ashtrays perched precariously on stacks of paper beneath clouds of smoke.

Good times.

Reporters did most of our fact gathering by phone, scribbling in notepads with a free hand. If we needed to check out a document at City Hall we had to go there, and if we were lucky, somebody might photo copy it so we wouldn’t have to copy it by hand.

My first week on the job I screwed up on a court document and wrote a story accusing a prominent city lawyer and a sitting provincial judge of breach of trust. On the advice of Thomson’s Toronto lawyers, the paper printed an obsequious front page retraction above the masthead, hoping to mitigate any financial damage. The headline, in 72 point bold face usually reserved for the outbreak of war, read, simply: “Oops… we goofed.” It was rumoured to be the largest retraction printed to date in a Canadian daily newspaper.

After an investigation that involved higher ups in far away corporate headquarters, a copy editor was deemed most responsible and demoted. Having nowhere lower to go except out the door, I was left to slink around the courthouse in shame on future assignments.

I was working in Vancouver in time to get a media pass to Expo 86, where technological marvels of the world were on display. Newspapers were profitable in those days, with no hint of the gloom and doom that would settle on the industry as the Millennium came to an end.

The paper I worked for was expanding, replacing its typesetting machine with clunky computers connected by complex wiring taped to the rug by technicians with tool belts.

I was in my mid-thirties by then, and already technically challenged. To keep up, I bought a home computer for two month’s pay and for the next several weeks poured through how-to books trying to master the intricacies of DOS. That first computer weighed 25 pounds and had the power and memory of an I-pod Shuffle. It functioned as a typewriter with floppy disks for information transfer. A year or so after I bought it I couldn’t give it away as a boat anchor.

Keeping up with the latest technology, the company bought a Fax machine, which saved reporters a lot of shoe leather. No more trips to City Hall, only short walks to the Fax, which spewed out a small forest of press releases 24/7. What a great invention, except when you phoned a Fax number by mistake and got a loud gronking noise instead of hello.

The first cell phones were big and heavy. You needed a holster to cart one around. One day a slick political operative came to the office to do an interview. I was impressed when he pulled a small flat object from his shirt pocket and flipped it open to take a call. I wanted a flip phone but the company hadn’t caught up yet and I couldn’t afford one on my own.

Oh, the times they were certainly changing.

When I retired in 2009 the Fax was a historical curiosity. Photographers didn’t use film anymore and I didn’t have to size actual pictures for reproduction in print. All journalists carried cell phones and lap top computers that provided instant access to the world. Like the Eagles Song, ‘everything all the time.’

Push snow shovel. Lift and throw. Repeat.

The first year of Donald Trump’s Presidency is relegated to its place in history. The year when Reality TV crossed over to politics and brought us into a new universe of alternative facts.

A year when lies from the leader of the Free World became the norm and sexual assaulters were outed by the score.

A year of Breitbart and Fake News.

A year in which sleazy media opportunists like Sean Hannity and spineless Republican politicians denigrated American patriots like Robert Mueller, James Comey and the dedicated men and women who work at the FBI and in U.S. intelligence.

A worrying year for all nations who stand by the principle of truth and the rule of law.

A year of outstanding journalism from mainstays like CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

A year of substantive online reporting from new media like Politico and the Daily Beast.

A year of record-breaking mass murder in a divided country upon which the stability of the world hinges.

A year of ominous signs of climate change. The winds blew hard and the fires burned hot in 2017.

A year the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord.

The Last Ones are the only living connection to the pre-computer world. Even though our memories are distorted by the lens of nostalgia we alone know firsthand about life in simpler times. I cannot say whether the world is better or worse for the technological achievements I have seen in my life. I know it is faster, smaller, better informed, immensely more complicated and stressful in the extreme.

I can’t help wondering if the digital age will end well. for humanity.

Push snow shovel. Lift and throw. Repeat.

UnChristians debase faith

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Judge Roy Moore’s run for the Alabama senate seat provided the state’s Christian community a golden opportunity to live the tenets of the faith. The Christian conman Moore gave them a chance to show their children that those who use the Lord Jesus Christ to further political goals or as a rationale for misdeeds must be held to account.

They failed themselves and their children while righteous Alabamans banished the mall-cruising teen predator into history’s political swamp, there to croak piously about the forces of evil who conspired to put him in the muck and slime where he belongs.

Alabama’s Evangelical Christians supported a deeply troubled man because they prefer his far right agenda to that of any Liberal Democrat, no matter how virtuous and God-fearing. They tarnished the faith they blindly defend and compromised its core values.

I say this with considerable insight into the devoutly religious mind. I was born into a faith-based family. My pro-life parents fervently believed in the teachings of their Church. We prayed on bended knee at home on important dates in the religious calendar and attended church together on Sunday. I went to religious schools from elementary through high school, receiving instruction from Church-vetted teachers throughout.

One ideology was drummed in from Grade One on–‘ours was the one and only true religion.’

I believed everything I was told. As fervently as my parents. Many guilt-ridden nights were passed in terror-filled trepidation at the prospect of burning in hell for eternity because of a childhood transgression against one of the Ten Commandments. I prayed for forgiveness and vowed to do better but couldn’t quite suppress a sliver of thought that God was harsh and vindictive. Even to a child, eternity in hellfire seemed overkill for taking His name in vain or thinking impure thoughts.

Bigger cracks in my faith emerged in my teens. I began to question the virtue of the Christian teachers, both laymen and those who wore the cloth, as they revealed themselves through the familiarity of daily contact to be no better and sometimes worse than non-believers I knew outside the Church. Despite early indoctrination into the “true” Christian faith, the kids I went to school with often came up short in character comparisons to neighbourhood friends who went to public schools.

It became inescapably clear that my religion had no monopoly on righteousness.

Still, my parents provided a powerful example of Christianity in their daily lives. My Dad tithed to the Church every week even when we had to dig in the couch for change to come up with money for a loaf of bread for the family. He worked three jobs but still found time for charitable work. My mom kept her nightly home vigil with muted complaint when he went to meetings and volunteered at Church events that raised money for families even poorer than our own.

Mom and Dad did not look down upon those who worshipped in other faiths, be they Muslim or Buddhist or Jew. Their God would never denigrate a person of another belief, unless that person distorted and twisted the teachings into hot-air blasts of hate.

Mom and Dad did not look down on First Nations people, as so many other faith-based friends, school mates and relatives did at the time. They were colour-blind when it came to people of good character, believing integrity shined as brightly on a black, yellow, red or brown face as on white.

Mom and Dad held strong faith-based views on hot-button Christian issues like abortion and homosexuality. The former they viewed as akin to murder and the latter as an abomination and a sin. But they did not proselytize and I never heard them speak derogatorily about anyone regarding either issue.

Mom and Dad did not lie. They placed high value on the truth.

During a discussion late in his life, Dad refuted my assertion that five per cent of the population was gay. “How could that be?” he replied with great conviction. “I’ve never met a gay person in all my years of living.”

This kind of delusional thinking is impossible to overcome with logic, as we have seen so often in the era of Donald Trump, but I loved him no less in his wilful ignorance.

When it came to light after his death that one of the grand-kids was gay, Mom put family and right from wrong over blind faith. “It doesn’t matter what the Church says,” she told me. “God knows who’s good or bad. It doesn’t change my opinion even a little bit. He’s a good person and that’s all that counts.”

Dad showed his measure as a Christian man daily throughout his long life but the instance that stands out for me is the time he stood on principal and resigned from his cherished Christian men’s organization.

Like most fellowships devoted to good works it had rituals and ceremonies and lifelong friendships developed among its like-minded members. It is an international organization with community branches and officers who oversee various charitable projects. Dad had served on the executive of his council and volunteered countless hours over the years. His involvement wasn’t selfless. He enjoyed the camaraderie of the group and valued the friendships he made. To say it was a large part of his life would be understatement.

After decades of service, he came to believe that improprieties occurred in the appointment of a member of the executive of his council. Nothing sordid or financial. Instead the conflict centred on the passing over of deserving men for a position on the executive in favour of a man he deemed to be a lesser candidate with more Church clout. Although not personally involved in the outcome, he believed in his heart it wasn’t right.

My Dad left school in Grade 11 to work on the family farm. He was not a man of letters and he turned to his sons for assistance in drafting a painful letter of resignation from the organization he so loved.

It didn’t matter to my brother and I whether he was right or wrong in the executive dust-up. He took the hard way and followed his conscience when it would have been easier to go along, setting an example for his sons that would resonate long after he left this life.

Those Christians who follow false prophets in pursuit of political goals, like fanatics in all religions, debase the faith they hold so dear and do a disservice to true Christians like my Mom and Dad who knew the difference between right and wrong.

 

Forget Billy Bush, Darwin made them do it

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Darwin’s Wall Street broker ponders the after-election market

No matter who wins the 2016 presidential election American democracy has been exposed. By putting forward two deeply unpopular candidates as the only realistic choices to lead the nation, the power brokers in the country that bills itself as the world’s beacon of government by the people for the people have shown the world how far the great experiment has gone astray. The candidates, in their race to the bottom, did the rest.

And the villain is human nature.

To many Americans, Hated Hillary personifies everything that is wrong with the U.S. political system. A power-hungry insider, a double-speaker who has relentlessly pursued her self-perceived political destiny in a cynical partnership with a sanctimonious sex pervert and known public liar, she has earned the people’s mistrust with the better part of three decades of bending the truth to her own means. But what she lacks in likeability she more than makes up for in her ability to raise money.

And nothing is more important in the U.S. democratic process than the big money controlled by the elites in the top one per cent.

On the ‘family values’ ticket is the Christian Right’s billionaire saviour, a thrice-married philanderer and proud tax-avoider who boasts about groping women, a narcissistic, bullying braggart born with a silver spoon in a foul mouth that spews lies and insults that appeal to the basest human instincts of his followers. He is a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan as the best person to Make America White Again.

There is no better symbol that the U.S. is an empire in decline than Donald Trump’s run for President. Consider this, no matter what happens on Nov. 8, there will be a sex pervert living in the White House.

But should we be surprised by the choices offered? Can the people really be trusted to pick altruistic leaders? Would selfless humans interested only in the common good apply for the job?

Think of it in scientific terms, specifically the science of evolution. If human beings are animals subject to Darwinian principles, the best human predators will rise to the top through the process of natural selection. Note, the best predators should not be confused with the best intentioned people. In fact, they are opposites.

Human beings sit at the pinnacle of the food chain, the planet’s most successful predators by any scientific calculation. As a species we subjugate all other species to our will, altering the very earth we live on to make things better for us, regardless of the consequences to competing species. Honesty, integrity and compassion do not come into play in the natural world. In fact, it can be argued that the higher traits that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom are hindrances to getting ahead in human society.

Take any field of human endeavour—the military, politics, business, religion. At the bottom you have a mass of people striving to make their way into positions of influence, positions that will benefit them and their families, their allies and close friends.

Who among the masses will make their way up the human food chain? Will it be the people who are restricted by conscience or the concept of fair play? Or will it be the sociopaths who expertly mimic the traits needed to gain advantage while using every underhanded means at their disposal to achieve their goals?

Science says the sociopaths will rise through the ranks and history has shown it to be true, from Caligula to Genghis Khan to Hitler to Donald Trump. There has been a truism throughout human existence–If an industrious person/family/tribe/nation, through hard work and sacrifice, obtains something of value to other humans, be it gold, silver, wheat or salt, it will be taken from them unless they can protect it.

This has happened at every step along the human evolutionary path, from the first ape-like man who clubbed a rival to death over a dinosaur carcass to the tyrants of the modern world who plunder the weak and leave them to rot in mass graves.

Despite the best intentions of the founding fathers, the world’s most powerful country’s third act is playing out according to the human script. Built on slavery and the cultural genocide of its indigenous people, the land of the free and home of the brave has exploited and murdered its way around the world to attain and then protect its exalted position. It should not come as a surprise to well-meaning Americans that the sociopaths in the one per cent elite who have lead the charge throughout the country’s 240-year history are now firmly ensconced at the top in full defence mode.

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Is it over yet?

 

Meandering Home

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Message received loud and clear, now about those other commandments...

It is the best of countries; it is the worst of countries;

Apologies to fans of Charles Dickens’ for borrowing, then tweaking, the opening lines to his iconic novel A Tale of Two Cities, but it seems a perfect fit for a nation whose citizens fervently believe they are blessed by God and ordained by his heavenly approval to be the world’s standard-bearers of freedom and democracy.

It’s quite a stretch, this ‘God‘s on our side’ thing, beginning with the Pilgrims who escaped religious persecution in the Old World and established their presence on Cape Cod by placing the severed heads of hostile heathens on poles outside their stockade.

Stand in the way of religious freedom at your peril, godless savages.

It’s no secret that the world’s most powerful country owes its foothold and initial prosperity in the New World not to the godliness and industry of its earliest immigrants, though industrious they surely were, but instead to ruthless exploitation of indigenous people and the evils of slavery. The country’s revolutionary hero and much-venerated first president (he who it is said could not lie through his wooden teeth) was a wealthy plantation owner whose various businesses flourished on the backs of black slaves. The redemptive value of Washington setting his slaves free upon his death is mitigated by the lack of cotton fields and whiskey distilleries in heaven, or for that matter, hell.

Before America’s friends and sympathizers tune out in a huff muttering about a lefty, pinko diatribe, it should be known that the Dude believes the U.S. to be the greatest country in the world. (Patriotic Canadians note, he does not claim it’s the best country to live in.) Its place in history as a safe haven for the world’s downtrodden is indisputable, as is its defense of individual freedom.

Beyond that it is an endlessly fascinating nation to travel. Starting in the rugged wilderness of Maine, the Meanderers proceeded down the densely populated east coast past towns that blended into cities then back into towns that blended into more cities–a mind-boggling congregation of ethnicity from every point on the globe brought together under a star-spangled banner that is flown with a naked pride that is inspirational to behold. Think of the Eastern Seaboard as a long human strip mall.

Though located on the same Atlantic coastline, the vibe in Yankee Bangor is as different from genteel southern Savannah as Donald Trump is from Bernie Sanders. Native New Yorkers are as close in temperament to the Texans in San Antonio as a Londoner is to a Greek in Thessaloníki, and separated geographically by about the same distance. But when called to arms in defense of their universally shared love of freedom, they are all Americans first.

And they are frequently called to arms, visitors to the nation’s capital are reminded at every turn. No country venerates its military like the U.S., from marching bands and flyovers at sporting events to nation-wide military discounts at golf courses, tire stores and restaurants. Nowhere is this reverence for the military more apparent than Washington, D.C., where tourist buses are stacked 10 deep at war memorials scattered around the national mall.

These defenders of liberty have waged war on both their North American neighbours, Canada in 1812 and Mexico in 1846. When the cavalry ran out of hostile Indians to massacre in the second half of the 19th Century the armies turned on each other in a civil war that is now known in the world of political correctness as the War Between the States. America fought in the far-off Philippines at the turn of that century and has been more or less engaged in continuous conflict since; in Europe during the First and Second World Wars, in Korea in the 50s and Viet Nam in the 60s and 70s. To keep the military sharp in the 80s, the U.S. invaded the tiny Caribbean country of Grenada, before taking on Iraq in the 90s and Afghanistan in the New Millennium. Its thriving military industrial complex exports instruments of death and destruction wherever they are needed to support U.S. interests. It is the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in anger and at least one of its current presidential candidates is threatening to use them strategically in the Middle East, claiming it is “a big place.“

Military hardware aside, the U.S. is the world’s predominate exporter of pop culture. Its movies, music and TV shows are embraced by a world audience and have spawned global phenomena like the coonskin cap, the hula hoop and the peppermint twist. Its cultural icons stride across the world stage crossing language and cultural barriers with an impunity reserved for the larger than life, from Davey Crockett to Elvis Presley, from Paul Bunyan to Madonna, from Babe Ruth to Michael Jordan to Muhammad Ali.

 

Its innovators have changed the course of history, from Henry Ford to the Wright Brothers, from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs, from Walt Disney to Alexander Graham Bell, who while technically a Canadian made his bones in the U.S. In this technologically advanced country that put a man on the moon more than 50 years ago, businesses still prefer checks (older Canadians will remember them as ‘cheques’) to a credit card. And in most states the credit card chip is new-fangled foreign technology, even in large national chain stores that favour electronic sketch-pad signature validation.

America gave the world Hollywood, Disneyland, jazz, the blues, and rock and roll and its stars shine the brightest on the world stage–Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong; Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn; Bob Dylan and The Eagles; Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Joan Didion, Ernest  Hemmingway and Ayn Rand; Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Mark Twain; Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry; John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor and  Marilyn Monroe; Abraham Lincoln and Donald Trump.

Okay, just kidding about that last guy but he makes a good segue to politics, which perfectly illustrates the best and worst theme of this narrative. In a presidential election year, the country’s news stations become de facto producers of the best reality TV since Ozzy, Sharon and the kids turned off the cameras. The Donald and his supporting cast of lesser buffoons made the boys and girls from Jersey Shore seem like intellectuals in comparison. Forget about binge-watching House of Cards, the presidential election was on every night, month after month, with special episodes thrown in where the entire cast assembled to exchange insults and schoolyard taunts. Behind the scenes, the GOP establishment, the same people who brought the world George W. Bush, wring their hands because their party is being crashed by a thrice-married, often-bankrupted, bronze-tinted man who sports an orange aircraft carrier on his head in place of hair.

And that’s just the Republicans. The Democrats decided on a smaller cast, pitting a rumpled professor-like favourite uncle character against a Machiavellian schemer with a questionable financial past who despite some hard political miles on the odometer and an ass two axe handles wide sold herself to Wall Street for $200,000 a pop. Not to be outdone by the Republicans, and no doubt playing on the public’s fondness for family fare like the Osbournes, Hillary ramped up the tackiness factor by including her philandering husband on the dais when she speaks, looking gaunt and guilty but smiling angelically beside his only acknowledged daughter.

This is a man who relieved the stress of being boss of the world by sharing quality cigar time with a White House intern barely out of her teens; a man who then threw her under the bus on national TV by referring to her as “that woman” while carefully parsing weasel words on the meaning of sexual relations; a man once accused of rape by one of his campaign workers. In what other country would a leadership candidate stand proudly with a proven liar and sexual predator who paid a victim (remember Paula Jones) $850,000 to go away so he wouldn’t have to perjure himself (which unlike lying on TV is an impeachable offense) when questioned in court about his notorious serial philandering.

You couldn’t make this stuff up, and probably wouldn’t want to. It’s too over the top for a pitch for regular TV. It’s hard to believe the political pickings are so lean in the world’s most powerful democracy. Can these really be the best of the best in a population that numbers 320 million? But then again George W. was elected twice, albeit the first time with an asterisk. (Remember those contested chads in the deciding state coincidentally run by his brother Jeb, and the resulting disastrous Iraq war that owes its legacy to 20,000 befuddled Florida seniors.)

For a country that places individual freedom above all else, the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country, more than two million in total, a disproportionate number of them non-whites. One cannot drive its breadth and width without passing frequent highway signs that warn drivers—Prison area. Do not pick up hitchhikers. Penitentiary names are ingrained in the public consciousness the way famous resorts are in other countries—Attica, Sing Sing, Walla Walla, Fulsom, San Quentin, Alcatraz. Beer drinkers at the Soggy Bottom Bar outside the tiny town of Florence, Arizona, where the principal industry is incarceration, watch prisoners in orange jumpsuits walk the yard while sipping pints on the patio.

The U.S. tops the world on gun-related deaths at more than 33,000 annually, with another 84,000 non-fatal incidents. In 2010, gun violence cost U.S. taxpayers approximately $516 million in direct hospital costs. Despite these appalling numbers, gun nuts continue to have their way with U.S. politicians. During our stay in the south, Texas passed legislation making it the latest open-carry state. That’s right folks, you can now walk the streets of Laredo fully strapped. The gunfights in the streets might not be staged and the ‘cowboy wrapped up in white linen’ could be you. The sporting goods section in Walmart would pass for a respectable military arsenal in Canada, and the customers are scary enough without easy access to guns. There are armed guards standing outside banks and in dicey sections of town the super market greeters are packing. Pocket that broccoli at your peril, vegetable breath.

Despite the political pandering to the Born Agains, America makes it easy for sinners to lose their way. Booze is not only available at every gas station and corner store it is priced to tempt the most stalwart teetotaler’s willpower. You can buy 48 beers at Costco for under 30 bucks (that’s four dozen for the math-challenged) and passable wine at Trader’s Joe’s for $2.49 a bottle. In party places like the French Quarter in ‘Naw Lins’ and Nashville’s honky tonk district, drinking in the street is strongly encouraged, with bars pushing four-ounce rum drinks in To Go Cups. Smoke your face off at half the cost north of the border. And that’s just tobacco. While Liberal-minded Canadians dither about legalizing marijuana, pot heads are growing herb in Washington, D.C. with full government approval. Gambling is ubiquitous, with card rooms and full-on casinos never more than a short drive away. And no need to trudge outside to suck back a butt when playing the slots, just lean back and take a deep breath for your nicotine fix. Chances are the slot players on both sides are chain smoking.

The founding fathers ingrained the separation of God and State in the constitution but with so much sinning going on from the political top on down, it’s no surprise that Americans are god-fearing people. They have good reason to be afraid of the final accounting. Not to worry, from the pulpits of grand cathedrals, to the alters of ornate temples and humble country barns, from shopping mall mosques to lavish flower-festooned televangelist stages, prophets and preachers, imams and rabbis, priests and a host of other pretenders proffer the party line. America is blessed and God is on the nation’s side. The President says it’s so.

What a great country.

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Finding our Pismo

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Pismo Beach where surfing is the reason for the season

The short run up 101 from Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach is like driving from Oprah-land into a Beach Boys album. While still technically a freeway, the highway cuts a divided two-lane inland route through green hills and valley farms and pasture land, affording an occasional glimpse of the far-off coast.

Traffic thins out north of Santa Barbara and freeway frenzy is replaced with the somnolence of driving on an uncrowded road through bucolic countryside, where people still work the fields and cattle and horses graze placidly in lush meadows.  The rounded hills and palm trees dotting the landscape give off a vibe that is more laid back Maui than Surfin’ U.S.A., but that changes the moment we turn off the freeway at the city that bills itself as the Clam Capital of the World.

Pismo Beach is located on the Pacific Ocean in the heart of what is known as the Five Cities Area, a cluster of small communities strung out along the coast a few miles south of San Luis Obispo. The Pismo Village Resort, located on the beach a 10-minute walk from the giant clam sculpture that marks the edge of downtown, is a considerable upgrade from our unpleasant experience in Santa Barbara.

The park has a pool, a general store and a restaurant with nightly specials served on the outdoor patio with an impressive selection of draft beer and wine. The sites are spacious and easy to get into and the West Side of the park is fronted not by a concrete wall but instead by a berm that protects campers from the surging ocean. There are no pissed-off parakeets, only wild birds that swoop and shriek from a respectful distance. Best of all, it’s 20 bucks cheaper.

Pismo Beach is Beach Boys country. Its compact downtown area is sprinkled with board shops and unpretentious bars and eating establishments with prices tailored to a young surfer’s budget. Nearby San Luis Obispo is a college town, home to Cal Poly State. Its downtown streets bustle with the energy of the young and hopeful beneath an umbrella-like canopy of hundred-year-old shade trees. A refreshing contrast to the sequestered geezers guarding their privacy and possessions in the walled cities of the Coachella valley.

Up the road a stretch, in the beach-side town of Morro Bay, down main street to the waterfront, past a conglomeration of seaside eateries, bars, small hotels and board and beach shops, hard by a fenced-in power plant with nuclear-like concrete smoke stacks, to a parking lot at the end of the road, serious surfers don wet-suits and paddle into chilly 10-foot waves beneath towering rock faces dotted with the droppings of thousands of sea birds. Seals surface in the shelter of the bay, competing with the gulls and herons for the bounty of the sea, oblivious to the humans in the water and those who line the shore aiming telephoto lenses at the action.

Just another winter day in California.

But wait. A black stretch limo joins the fray, slowly cruising the gravel parking lot, its occupants concealed behind tinted windows. In another beach-side setting, say on the East Coast or the Gulf, the limo might look out of place among the surfers’ SUVs and pickup trucks but this is southern California. Maybe Dennis Wilson has risen from his bed in search of material for another Beach Old Boys tour. Could it be Oprah, chauffeured up from Santa Barbara for a picnic by the sea with Stand-in or, more likely, Gail?

As it nears the water’s edge, a tinted back window lowers to reveal a white man training an expensive camera with a long lens at the ocean scene. Is Mathew McConaughy reverting back to his shirtless surfing persona. No. He’d be in a Lincoln with his dogs. A woman in a facing seat takes a quick peak at the water before retreating back into the darkness within. Too young for Dennis Wilson, too white for Oprah and Stand-in. Maybe someone motored up from the country club in Palm Springs for a breath of ocean air.

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It’s not art until you put a little crap on the rock

Always with the sharks, bringing back those childhood nightmares!

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When the singing diva thing ends Madonna has a back-up plan down here

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For those of you who wondered where David Lee Roth ended up after Van Halen….

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“Can you believe this guy, he still thinks we’re in the water”…

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After a tough day at the beach, a little downward dog to get your muscles loosened up

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Or, there’s the beer option….

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The Pier at Pismo Beach or as locals call it “The Pis” (I totally made that up)

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Need a surfboard or your self-esteem jacked up, this store can help

Peabody Ducks

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Blues, Barbecue and the Peabody Ducks, which of these things is not like the others

Everything is just ducky at the historic Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, a short walk from Beale Street where the blues and barbecue rule supreme.

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Apparently attitude will only get you so far on a chilly winter’s day

But the Peabody is a world away from the rough and ready atmosphere of this southern city’s music scene. To call the Peabody a class establishment is understatement. It is the place to stay in Memphis if you have the wherewithal.

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Not a cowboy hat or boot to be found on Beale Street, you can honky tonk your butt on back to Nashville for that

Famous guests of the original Peabody Hotel, built in 1869, include Presidents Andrew Jackson and William McKinley. Jefferson Davis once lived in the hotel while working in Memphis. The current Italian Renaissance incarnation was built a block from the original site, which closed in 1923.

The hotel has played a pivotal role in the Memphis social scene since it reopened in 1925. Elvis Presley attended his high school graduation party in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. Neil Diamond wrote Sweet Caroline (with a young Caroline Kennedy in mind) in his room after serenading hotel guests at the lobby’s grand piano.

And what a lobby. In the weeks leading up to Christmas it is festooned with a two-story Christmas tree with more glitter than Liberace, who likely stayed here when in town. The tree is matched in grandeur by the bar on the opposite side, which rises behind the lobby’s centrepiece fountain, its rich wood shelving gleaming with an array of libations to tempt the most devout teetotaler.

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The Dames’ massive cranium is dwarfed by the Peabody’s Xmas tree

Not that you have to imbibe alcohol to soak up the Peabody’s atmosphere. Tastefully uniformed servers are happy to serve tea, hot chocolate topped with Santa Claus hats of rich whipped cream or even root beer floats, a house specialty. All accompanied by bowls of crunchy aperitifs.

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This is where Elvis shopped, a few of his 70’s psychedelic shirts remain, prices however, have gone up slightly

The lobby is adjacent to the requisite high end shops, including the gentleman’s clothing purveyor where Elvis liked to shop. It is said he often ordered his unique rock and roll outfits (pre-white jumpsuit phase) by phone and the proprietor, knowing his size and taste, would send over a van load of clothing for the King to peruse. On more than one occasion he instructed the delivery driver to leave it all.

The scene is overlooked on all sides by a second story walkway from which hotel guests can lean on the railing and watch the action unfold. On our visit the action included a lot of men in athletic gear, all of them closing in on seven feet, emerging from the elevator to walk through the lobby. A discreet inquiry revealed that they were not NBA players in town to take on the Grizzlies but instead college players getting psychologically prepared for a game against the University of Tennessee. No billets in college dorms for these amateur b-ballers.

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The tourists fill the lobby to capacity at the Peabody, the ducks aren’t the only ones getting fleeced here. Eight dollar hot chocolate anyone?

In late afternoon, the lobby fills to capacity with tourists and hotel guests, all of them focusing on the magnificent fountain, and pool, built from a single block of Italian travertine marble, that is the lobby’s centrepiece. Athletes, entertainers and political luminaries walk unnoticed among the gathered, who have their eyes on a man in a red, gold braid-embossed tail coat who moves about the room, gold-knob walking stick in hand, with the calm but welcoming authority of a man who knows he’s in charge.
He is the famed Peabody Duck Master, a man who by force of will alone will lead his feathered charges from the fountain, down three stairs and along a red carpet that is rolled out from the fountain twice a day for the march of the Peabody ducks to the musical accompaniment of John Phillip Sousa’s King Cotton March.

The tradition dates back to 1933 when the hotel’s general manager returned from a duck hunting trip which included liberal draughts of Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. He thought it would be amusing to put some duck decoys in the fountain. It was, and the Peabody Duck March was born when hotel bellman Edward Pembroke volunteered to care for the ducks. He served as Duckmaster for 50 years until his retirement in 1991. The list of celebrities who have served as honorary Duckmaster includes Oprah, Joan Collins, Kevin Bacon, Emeril, Peter Frampton and Queen Noor of Jordon.

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The Duck Master leads his charges back to the elevator after a busy day at the fountain

The Peabody ducks, always a mallard drake and four hens, take the elevator at 11 a.m. from their $200,000 glassed-in home with private pool on the hotel’s roof down to the lobby, which they march across on a red carpet to the magnificent fountain and pool, there to while away their day, paddling and quacking, in the midst of the lobby’s coming and goings.

The ducks are raised on a farm. They stay at the Peabody for three months before being returned to the farm where they are free to fly away. They are not ducks to be toyed with. Petting and feeding are strictly prohibited, as is throwing coins into their pool. They do not leave the water to fly about or to solicit treats from hotel guests. These ducks know a good thing when they see it, and their part of a bargain which includes free food and luxurious accommodation in the city’s premier hotel, is to cavort in the water until it is time to walk the red carpet to the elevator at the Duck Master’s behest.

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On the other side of the tracks, this bird works for tips as a door-bird at a seedy Beale Street establishment, dreaming of the day the ducks leave Memphis

At precisely five p.m., the Duck Master taps his walking stick on the pool’s marble edge, signalling his feathered charges that it is time to go. They jump from water to marble with a barely discernible flap of the wings, then down the steps one stair at a time before waddling their way to the elevator, taking little or no notice of the surrounding throngs snapping pictures in their wake.

The elevator doors close to a flash of cameras and the Duck Master and his feathered charges chalk up another ducky day at the Peabody Hotel.

Incidentally, Duck does not appear on any of the hotel’s menus.

 

The Road Not Taken

Dog & dude on pier

Surf, sand and siestas, throw in a couple of Marguerites and I do think we’ve found paradise

Leaving the sultry perfection of Charleston and Savannah behind, we point Big Dodge south, to the land where French Canadians famously bake on sun-drenched beaches in sling shot swim trunks, a place where a mouse and a duck reign supreme in a fantasyland of castles and pirate ships in the shadow of sleek metal missiles aimed at the stars. Or at least that’s one possibility.

Cotton fields

The land of cotton continues on the Florida Panhandle

Florida is a magnet for Eastern Canadians wanting to de-ice their northern bodies. And what’s not to like (overweight men in those sling shot swim suits aside), white sugar beaches, cheap booze, Disneyworld for thrill seekers and the Kennedy Space Centre for real adventure seekers. Then there’s the Keys, the magical string of islands made famous by Hemingway and Buffet, where real men fish and waste away on their porches pounding back scotch and marguerites.

White sand beaches

A whole lotta beach for a few lucky condo owners

In the end, we decide against the 10-hour drive to southern Florida and point Big Dodge west towards New Orleans. But first we instruct GPS Gertrude to find the shortest route to the Florida panhandle, the narrow strip of land on the sunshine state’s northern flank that extends along the Gulf Coast to Alabama. She takes us to a tiny town called Destin, where real pirates once plied their trade.

Creatures on walkway

Who needs Disney-world when you got this in Destin

Apparently we’re aren’t the first to discover the charms of this beachside dot on the map an hour’s drive east of Pensacola, where the U.S. Navy now rules the pirate roost. With its luxury hotel and condo developments rising majestically from the white sand between palm trees and a plethora of seafood shacks, beach towel stores and surf shops, Destin brings to mind Hawaii. Folks from every northern and mid-west state have set up camp down here.

2 dogs on a beach

Condo buildings rise in the background as The Dog readies himself for an attack by the canine beach patrol

In this bastion of capitalism, developers buy up the foreshore and fence off beaches for the private use of the money class. Long stretches of the white sugary sand are fenced off. Wouldn’t want one of the plebes kicking sand on your Abercrombie & Fitch picnic basket. Fortunately, there’s plenty of white sand to go around.

Bubba Gump

Who says crass commercialism is dead in the south

We decide to chill out for a week at Navarre Beach and take our rightful place amongst the money class. Our campground has its own private beach, with swings and long fishing dock for watching those beautiful Gulf sunsets away from any bothersome locals. The site is close to an outlet shopping mall and a short bike ride away from several of the Dude’s beloved seafood shacks. Oldsters commute around the neighbourhood on their street legal golf carts. The temperature is mid-70s perfect and our two weeks on the panhandle passes in a sunny blur of blissful nothingness.

Church van

Late for church, Billy-Bob drops the van into overdrive and flips us the bird

The drive from Destin to New Orleans turns out to be a true meander. It involves crossing three states (Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana) through a violent tropical rainstorm that beats Big Dodge’s windshield wipers into submission and forces a white-knuckled Dude to turn on his four way flashers to avoid being rundown by an 18-wheeler. The perilous journey ends in sunshine after crossing the Pont Chartrain causeway, which the Guinness Book of Records calls the longest continuous bridge over water. PEI’s Confederation Bridge seems quaint in comparison.

signs

Dancing in the streets, on the walls, do watch out for that puddle friend

The approach to our Big Easy campground is shocking despite the reviews we’ve read online warning that it’s not in the best neighbourhood. Ten years after Katrina, the pothole-filled, heaving road to Pontchartrain Landing runs between the levy that was breached during the hurricane and a string of derelict warehouses and water-logged ditches.

Katrina art

Katrina ten years later, brought to life by this sculpted tree showing a battered home caught up in it’s trunk

Not to worry. The campground emerges from the debris next to a working marina. It has security patrols, a large store, an upstairs bar and restaurant with live music and is snugged up against a canal with pricey boats and new waterfront condos. The below-sea-level RV park, underwater after Katrina, is now a placid gated community of expensive Class A coaches and fifth wheels with four slides. A walk around the park reveals licence plates from most northern states and Canadian provinces, including several from far away British Columbia. Home away from home, a short shuttle ride from Bourbon Street. What’s not to like?

The shuttle to the French Quarter leaves twice a day, in morning for the geezers and late afternoon for the party animals. For six bucks the driver will drop you and pick you up again at a pre-arranged location after a day of sightseeing or a night of imbibing. Our driver, a self-described itinerant from Connecticut, cheerfully makes the trip multiple times daily, seven days a week. You meet a lot of people on the road who sign up for campground duties in exchange for free or reduced rates on staying. The mind-numbing dullness of driving the same route every day answering the same geezer’s questions is too horrible for the Dude to contemplate. He shall remain unemployed for the duration of the trip.

Superdome

The infamous Superdome we are told it will never be used again as a disaster centre for obvious reasons

We’ve all seen pics of the French quarter during Mardi Gras where inebriated visitors on balconies along Bourbon street throw cheap strands of coloured beads at anyone willing to flash a little somethin’ somethin’ at whoever yells the loudest. By day, the Quarter is a different animal. Beer and liquor trucks line the streets, replenishing stocks depleted by the previous nights’ festivities. The sidewalks are freshly wet, workers hosing off the detritus of spilled substances everywhere. Given the amount of liquor consumed it’s best not to think about what you are walking on.

Wedding day in the big easy

Freshly married in the Big Easy

Music is a Big Easy mainstay. Street players work hard and long for a buck, with random bands setting up on street corners, lead singers enticing the gathering crowds to drop bills into open guitar cases. Psychics set up shop alongside the musicians to work the overflow, with two folding chairs and a small table for a crystal ball or candlelit skull. This is the city of the evil eye. Shops overflow with voodoo paraphernalia, from tee-shirts embossed with multi-coloured death heads to the high-hatted, high-stepping devil figures who dance in shop windows.

Jazz group 2

You better have a big guitar case for the tips these guys get

Drinking in the street is strongly encouraged, as long as the libations are in a plastic ‘go cup’. Glass bottles, deemed a safety hazard, are verboten. The city is a dichotomy, leave the latticed balconies of the Quarter behind for the Garden District and you’ll discover a gentile, moneyed area where the actors Sandra Bullock and John Goodman keep mansions.

Toxic baby

No “Go Cup” for this concoction, drink at your own peril

Our Hop and Go tour guide dispenses a valuable tidbit for geezers on a budget. World renowned white table cloth restaurants, like the Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s, offer set menus for lunch at half the price of a dinner soiree. No shorts or t-shirts allowed, of course. Dinner jackets are required at night, with the establishment happy to provide one form their freshly dry-cleaned selection. It’s hard to restrain the vibrating Dude from hopping off the bus when he hears about The Commander’s famous 25 cent lunchtime martinis. Back at Pontchartrain Landing, he tossed and turned throughout the night in anticipation and in the morning dutifully dressed in wrinkled cargo pants and a collared golf short for the day’s revelry.

Commanders restaurant

Commanders Palace, let the martinis begin

Our lunch at Commander’s Palace, a short walk from the mansions of John and Sandra, is a rare foray into the lives of the other half. The historic restaurant, across the street from Lafayette Cemetery, the favourite above ground burial spot of Hollywood directors, is a study in slightly faded elegance. Multiple dining rooms on two levels are well-patronized even at noon on an uneventful weekday. Well-dressed patrons sip wine with their lunch, while immaculately turned out wait staff hover discreetly. Each table has three servers, one for cocktails, one for food and another for miscellaneous duties like determining whether guests prefer dark or light linen to drape across their hillbilly laps.

Service at Commanders

The girls are horrified when Buffy choose the dark linen for lunch

We both opt for the light linens, as one does on a sunny day.

The food is delicious, the martinis are insanely good with a full generous pour. Lunch comes in under 50 bucks, including a $1.50, six-drink bar bill, and we exit the restaurant with a light step and cross the street for an afternoon visit to Lafayette Cemetery.

The thing about a three-martini lunch, is that emerging post-lunch into daylight can disorient even well-seasoned veterans like the Dude, let alone lightweights like myself. Unaccustomed daytime drinking hits you hard, and fast. Getting down the stairs and out the door past the welcoming restaurant staff at the entrance did not prove a problem. We took our leave in a dignified fashion, crossing the street arm-in-arm, like any well-heeled happy couple filled with fine victuals might.

Disaster struck as we mounted the curb on the cemetery side, stepping carefully between boulevard shrubbery. Being the lightweight, in my light-headed condition, I failed to notice a small strand of wire strung along the curb to prevent mid-block interlopers from trampling the plants. I went down, pulling the Dude with me and we landed between shrubs with a thump on our ample (thankfully) asses.

New Orleans Day 2 Graveyard, Commanders 074

The cemetery view after a three martini lunch

I need not point out that in a moment like this one does not feel the physical pain of the fall but instead becomes enveloped with the acute shame of a mid-afternoon collapse in full view of the staff and guests leaving the staid Commander’s Palace. It can be said the Dude, perhaps being well-practiced in such episodes, took the collapse in good-natured stride and after a quick glance at the Palace entrance to discern our fall had gone unnoticed, regained his composure and helped me to my feet. Our subsequent giggling cemetery tour may have seemed inappropriate to other more somber visitors.

Beer on street

Beer cases lined up for the evenings festivities

The Commander is said to be reviewing its 25 cent martini policy.
But seriously folks, what better city to suffer an inebriated indignity than the Big Easy. Our Commander’s Palace lunch was a mere prelude to a night outing on Bourbon Street, during which the Dude paid a roaming cocktail waitress 30 dollars (U.S.) to jam six tubes of coloured water into his mouth and blow the contents down his throat. Being a Dame, I made due with one. To say the music blaring from one of a hundred or so establishments along the mile-long strip creates a party atmosphere is like saying the Super Bowl is a football game. Recognizing the limitations age has placed on our partying abilities, we retired to a restaurant in a quieter part of the Quarter, where we ate a fine Italian meal accompanied by the accomplished stylings of a veteran New Orleans piano lady who pointedly informed diners she would not play Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

Mardi Gras

What do Nefertiti and Elvis have in common? Why absolutely nothing but hey it’s Mardi Gras let the bead-throwing begin

Our stay included trips to the incredibly comprehensive World War II museum and nearby Mardi Gras World, where the giant floats are custom-created and stored in anticipation of the city’s biggest party. The cavernous warehouse, crammed to the roof with 10-foot high likenesses of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, pirates, creepy kings and queens, alligators and party animals of all descriptions, sits on the banks of the mighty Mississippi, where visitors can sit in a courtyard surrounded by their tacky souvenir purchases and watch the river flow.

See ya later

‘Gator

Next up for the party-happy Meanderers: Nashville, Tennessee, where the cowgirls swoon while the cowboys croon and smoking is allowed in bars.