Places

Day 995: Little Rivalry On The Prairie

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Newcomers to the city of Edmonton inevitably have questions regarding our perpetual rivals to the south, or what has come to be known as the Battle of Alberta. They don’t ask me – I purposely sport a fanny-pack and 20 pounds of camera gear when I wander about the city so that tourists don’t talk to me – but they’ll ask somebody. The answer they’ll probably get is “hockey”, which is blatantly misleading and 100% wrong.

Edmonton and Calgary have held a semi-snarly relationship for much longer than the history of professional hockey in either city. Far from a rivalry of mere convenience (we are the only two major cities in the province), the Battle of Alberta extends to fundamental belief systems, to political preferential treatment, to bigotry, inclusion, and of course… money.

Which is truly the greater city? As a lifelong resident of Edmonton, my honest answer is that I don’t care. Both cities are gorgeous: they have the Stampede, we have the continent’s most impressive Fringe Theatre Festival. They have proximity to the magnificent mountains, we have an exquisite river valley. They are the economic home-base of the province, we have a gigantic mall.

But enough of the niceness. Let’s see how this got ugly.

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The Battle of Alberta extends for centuries before there was even an Alberta over which to battle. The Blackfoot Confederacy was the political union among the Blackfoot tribes who moseyed about southern Alberta and Montana, killing buffalo and living a northern version of the indigenous lifestyle of the American Indian. Up in the boreal forest that covered the northern half of the as-yet-undesignated province, the Cree and their allies (known as the Iron Confederacy, making the history of this region sound like a bad-ass Native version of Game of Thrones) lived a subarctic lifestyle, which involved trapping and fur-trading. Read more…

Day 988: That’s No Moon

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With only a dozen days remaining of my self-imposed sentence in this asylum of perpetual prose, I am scootching toward the realization that there are some topics I will never get to. The hidden subtext within the dialogue of each Misfits of Science episode will remain unexplored, and I’m afraid the sacred ghost notes that elevate the percussive harrumph of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” and Toto’s “Rosanna” will fail to make the kilograph cut.

Instead I must devote these dog-yawn final days to loftier, more resonant subjects – yesterday’s investigation into Mozart’s poop jokes notwithstanding. And so I look to the moon – that luminous gob of celestial spittle, that pearlesque voyeur who knows all of our funkiest sins, the swiveling muse of the incurable drunkard. The moon pours elbow grease on our tides and provides an alibi when we need one for our meandering sanity. And before we had the cognitive wherewithal to stack our chips on science, the moon provided the palette for some of our strangest superstitions.

The moon puts on a nightly spectacle; what earth-bound broadcast can compare to the thrill of a clump of rock bigger than our entire continent dangling in the air over our heads? And even with Neil Armstrong’s size 9½ prints on her cheeks, she still retains an exotic air of mystery.

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Before Georges Méliès stabbed it with a wayward rocket ship, the man in the moon had a starring role in olde-timey mythology. In the biblical Book of Numbers, one of the more cynical stories tells of a man who was sentenced by God to death by stoning for the heinous crime of gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Early Christian lore suggested that the man in the moon was that very man. Another tradition claims the man is Abel’s blood-bro Cain, forever doomed to circle the Earth. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West

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It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.

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The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 970: How One Woman’s Bad Advice Helped To Crumble An Empire

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A modicum of historical investigation, along with a smidge of fact-manipulation in order to build a semi-credible opening sentence has revealed a morsel of data heretofore unknown to me: the Roman Empire – the most mighty and triumphant political juggernaut of the early A.D.’s – was tipped over to a partial crumble, all because some guy listened to his mother.

That may seem like an exaggeration. A slight inflation of documented truth or the set-up for a bit of shtick. But history will back me up on this. By 476, the Roman Empire in the west had been sneezed into debris. It kept up appearances out east for another millennium, but the west had shuffled on to the Middle Ages, where the nightlife was more vibrant, despite the clothes being far less stylish.

History recalls the events of 235 AD as the start of the Crisis of the Third Century. Rome became a land with no leader, and with no one able to pick up a phone and coordinate their collective shit, the Europe-spanning Empire fell into troubled confusion. And the wheels were all set into motion by one guy’s mother, who passed on what could be viewed as some of the crappiest historic advice ever given.

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The story begins with Mark Antony, that kook from all those wacky Shakespeare movies. When he was smited by Octavian in 31 BC, the table was set for what’s known as the Pax Romana – a 200 year period of unprecedented peace. The Roman Empire inflated to the Atlantic, deep into the Middle East, and south into Africa, all with relatively little military flexing. Then along came Emperor Alexander Severus. Read more…

Day 965: The Inaugural Road Trip

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Roll down your windows, crank up the vintage Lindsey Buckingham and ready your innards for a deluge of fast-food grease – we are hitting the open road.

In 1903, right around the time those two bike-shop brothers in North Carolina were writing the first stand-up routines about in-flight meals, the general public was underwhelmingly embracing the automobile. Many thought it was a passing fad, that nothing could beat classic oat-eating, poop-dispensing horse travel. Those who disagreed were eager to test the physical boundaries of motorized transportation. They pushed for faster speeds, longer voyages and snazzier features. Even the kids were too enthralled with the technology to ask, “Are we there yet?”

It was a magical time of firsts for car fans. Among them were Toronto-born doctor Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic friend, Sewell J. Crocker. When the opportunity arose to break the bi-coastal barrier, they couldn’t resist. This is how they grabbed hold of their own little chunk of history.

For those of you who now have "Holiday Road" stuck in your head, I apologize.

For those of you who now have “Holiday Road” stuck in your head, I apologize.

While visiting friends at San Francisco’s University Club, someone bet Horatio a whopping $50 (which is about $1300 in today’s money) that he couldn’t drive from coast to coast in one of those new-fangled auto-thingies. Despite the initial handicap of not owning a car, Horatio agreed to the bet. He had faith in the technology, the kind of faith that propels men to stupid manly endeavors. Endeavors that either result in a comical or ironic death, or a dusty little corner in the cubbyhole of history. Read more…

Day 961: Knocking On Russian Wood

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For those of us who actively seek out ladders under which to stroll, or who have completely forsaken blessing those who sneeze, superstition is a delightfully goofy window into the obsessive-compulsive static residue of the mind. What racist hoodoo has condemned genetically black-furred kitties to the bad-luck pile? Why does connecting one’s knuckles to a slab of dead tree ensure misfortune will be avoided? Does crossing my fingers in my Edmonton living room whenever Peyton Manning drops back into the pocket ensure a likely touchdown catch? Judging by my aching digits after last February’s Super Bowl, I’d say that’s a hearty no.

But as strange and inexplicably arbitrary as our goofy good-luck rituals may appear upon introspection, they would no doubt appear even more bizarre to an outsider. To demonstrate, I’m going to take the outsider’s approach and have a look at some of the traditional placations of imagined magic within the borders of our neighbor to the west (just past Alaska, of course), Russia.

Many of these superstitions are documented on paganism.msk.ru, which appears to my untrained eyes to be a legitimate source. Others have been splashed onto a Wikipedia page with no reliable citation. So, any or all of these might be fictitious, but for the purposes of fuelling our xenophobic need to giggle at other cultures, we’ll just assume them all to be accurate and practiced by every living Russian citizen. That way we won’t feel so dumb for French-kissing the underside of our Molson Canadian cans to ensure our hockey team scores on a powerplay. Or whatever we do.

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Russians get to work early on children’s self-esteem. It is considered an invitation to rotten luck if a stranger looks directly at a baby before that baby has reached a certain age (somewhere between two months and one year). If the stranger does make eye contact, complimenting the baby is an even greater transgression. One should instead say, “What an ugly baby!” And if you want to buy that ugly baby a gift, you’d best wait until after he or she is born, otherwise it’s bad luck. For someone. Maybe for the mother, maybe for you, maybe for the ugly baby. Read more…

Day 957: All About Fucking

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When I rolled this project over and booted it out of bed more than two and a half years ago, I had to decide where to place that bar of ethics beneath which my words would never limbo. I have never sold out to become a corporate shill (yes, my bubbly praise over Big Rock Brewery did set into motion a timeline that would have me trading prose for pay, though given how much I love the product I don’t consider that selling out).

I have never cheated in my writing duties, despite having a stash of practice articles tucked into a corner of my hard drive. I have never scribbled my daily kilograph after midnight because “it’s technically tomorrow.” Screw that – I have lived my life by the scrolls of TV Guide, which begins each new day promptly at 5:00am.

Also, apart from a few dalliances into more blue subject matter (the kids love that stuff), I have maintained a relatively smooth PG-13 flow (my article about ‘Fuck’ notwithstanding). Today will be no exception, despite the fact that my topic of choice today is Fucking.

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With a population of 104 at last count, the village of Fucking, Austria probably sees more tourists per capita than any other place in Europe. The town was named after a 6th-century Bavarian nobleman named Focko. As the language of the region evolved, the spelling of the town varied: it was Vucchingen in 1070, Fukching in 1303, Fugkhing in 1532, and by the 1700’s it acquired its current spelling. The –ing suffix is an old Germanic denotation, meaning “belonging to” the root-word. So Fucking is “the place of Focko’s people.” Read more…

Day 942: The Hounds Of Golden Gate City

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Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.

Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.

Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.

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Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival. Read more…

Day 933: The Thin Red Line Of Being An Offensive Jerk

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As a writer whose surrounding landscape is the unfiltered cessbucket frontier of the internet, I don’t spend much time worrying about offending my audience. Conversely, as a Canadian awash in synaptic decorum and apologetic genetics (or, apologenetics as we call them here), I feel compelled from the meaty core of my innards to fight the potentially offensive word choices that might trickle untowardly from my fingertips. This is why I don’t refer to my friends as my ‘niggaz’, why I reserve the word ‘Oriental’ to describe an avenue in the game Monopoly and not a collective of people, and why I won’t likely pen a kilograph on the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The issue has arisen – both here in this compositional marathon as well as in “real” life – regarding the appropriate label for that group of peoples whose presence in this part of the world predates that of us whiteys. We grew up calling them Indians – a game of Cowboys ‘n Indigenous Peoples doesn’t sound nearly as fun.

It seems as though every few years I am told that the politically appropriate appellation I’ve been using is incorrect. With only 68 remaining opportunities to explore the weird wide world in this project, I think it’s time I put this issue to rest.

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We all know Chris Columbus plopped his feet down on Antilles soil believing he had found the fast-track to India. His bewildered hosts were dubbed ‘Indians’ as a logical consequence, though it didn’t take long for Chris to figure out his mistake. The misnomer stuck, however. The Caribbean islands were dubbed the West Indies, and every explorer who nudged their hull against the east coast called the locals ‘Indians’. It was easier to adopt and embrace the mistake than come up with a new word, I guess. Read more…