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.
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…
It was late one February night in 1992. Edmonton’s winters don’t even call their travel agent to book their flight out of town until at least March, so the snow on the ground was thick and slothful. My friend Josh White and I were exercising our teenage stupidity in a place we called Beggar’s Canyon – it was the local zoo’s parking lot, but in the winter months when the zoo lay stagnant, it was the ideal locale for spinning our cars upon the ice, and generally undertaking whatever foolishness we felt to be worthy of our adolescent immortality.
This night, we were hood-riding. That is exactly what it sounds like: one idiot drives the car while the other idiot lays flat upon the hood, trying to syphon just a droplet of action-movie adrenaline into our otherwise mundane lives. I know – don’t do this, kids. We were stupid, and living prior to the age of internet pornography. Were there any cosmic arbiter presiding over nights like those in Beggar’s Canyon we’d have escaped into adulthood with at least one limb missing apiece.
On one run in particular, while Josh was clinging to the hood, aiming a non-existent pistol at me through the glass, I hit a snowbank. Josh flew forward into the (fortunately) pillowy cold, taking the Buick hood ornament clean off with his crotch. The karmic judge let us off with a warning (and for Josh, an ass-bruise) that day. But ever since then, I have held an odd curiosity about hood ornaments. These seemingly useless statuettes upon the tip of a car’s nose perplexed me. Why did we even have them?
The first hood ornaments had a functional purpose. They were called motometers, and they were actually the car’s radiator cap. More specifically, they screwed into the radiator cap which was mounted on the outside of the hood, and displayed the temperature of the fluid within. The early motometers were ugly distractions, so manufacturers began jazzing them up with wings and funky knobs. The Boyce MotoMeter Company was the first to snag a patent for this technology back in 1912. Read more…
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.
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…
As my fingers bluntly stab my keyboard, weighted down by a hangover from sun and loud music, I wonder how I’ll get through today’s chosen topic on Chinese science education without passing out. It wouldn’t be my first afternoon spent with the lopsided grid of a keyboard’s footprint etched into my forehead.
This morning has found me in the blissful yet listless afterglow of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, an annual celebration of everything that brings light into the universe: music, family, friends, sunshine, beer, and deep-fried foodstuffs. It has also found me ready to scrap my topic in favor of a drowsy reflection on what I feel is Edmonton’s most profound and spiritually elevating annual event.
For those who have never attended this magical collective, I hope you have found a similar event – an yearly renewal of your inner chi and a simultaneous escape from the humdrummery of life. Here’s how the dusty reset button of my inner balance was pushed this weekend, and why I recommend a hearty dose of Folk Fest to everyone I know:
One can make it through Folk Fest with very little actual folk music. I hardly ever listen to “hardcore” folk. From Joan Baez’s warbly vibrato to the up-tempo thump of modern Celtic music, I’d just as soon hide under my blanket with an old Muddy Waters record. But more often than not, that lyrical fruit-filling that gives folk its flavor can be found within the pastry shell of a myriad of styles. We watched Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite give folk music the blues; Cody Chesnutt threw folk into funk; the Blind Boys of Alabama raised folk into that holy and delicious confection of gospel. Read more…
As the summer weeks amble past that first premature sploosh of sun, sweat and network television’s filler programming (the latest season of Fox’s 24 notwithstanding), we are reaching the time when the season becomes entrenched in whichever little cubbyhole we wish to place it. For some, it’s the season of swimming in a sun-soaked pool. For teachers and their flock, it’s the season of delectable freedom and a furlough from responsibility. For those of us who live with both a teacher and a student, it’s the season for drinking heavily to compensate for the globby paste of envy we feel at watching everyone else in the household sleep as we leave for work.
But for a number of geographically-encumbered folks, the sub-surface pillow-down of summer brings with it more grave and ungroovy consequences. Hurricanes and tropical storms are gearing up to spank the Gulf of Mexico with a debris-wreaking fist. Droughts will speckle farmland country, crapping its dusty fury upon a smattering of unlucky agriculturalists. And inevitably the funnel clouds will open up their peppery maws at the vengeful sky, bullying rural settlements and trailer parks alike on the ground.
Edmonton has seen but one tornado in our 100+ years as a city, and it left its mark on everyone who lived through it – even for those of us who saw nothing worse than the dog-spittle of rain against our windows. But in the interest of public safety – and as part of my court-ordered restitution for ‘liberating’ those pet store frogs into the IKEA ball-pit – here are some safety tips.
Remember that viral video in which a Kansas TV crew near El Dorado fled from a nearby tornado and took refuge beneath an overpass? Yeah, don’t do this. If you happen to be caught on an empty two-lane highway with a tornado sneering at the hairs on the back of your neck, you might be tempted to tuck yourself under a concrete canopy, but you’ll really only be worsening your chances of survival. That TV crew happened to pick a rather odd overpass – there was a hollow crawlspace at the top of the embankment where they could grab hold of the exposed girders to stay stable. Read more…
To my knowledge, there has never been a commercial airline disaster on a flight that has departed from or been on its way to Edmonton, the city where my fingers do most of their keyboard-thumping. One could take that as optimistic reassurance or as a terrifying taunt to the Odds Gods, depending on one’s personal perspective. But I recently learned that my city’s perfect streak of flight safety was very nearly foiled in 1983.
It was Flight 143, a routine flight from Montreal that was run every day. The aircraft was a top-end Boeing 767, a model which hadn’t yet seen two years in the air. The plane wasn’t shiny-new, but it was new enough that mechanical trouble should not have been a concern. In this case it was, though the technical flaws on the plane were minor compared to the very human glitch of not pouring enough fuel into the tank.
Flight 143’s tale is terrifying, but it’s a triumph of pilot awesomeness that prevents it from being a tragedy. Canadian aero-lore calls this the story of the Gimli Glider. I call it the near-miss bullet that almost pierced my city’s pristine record of commercial air safety.
The fuel tanks of a 767 are regulated by the Fuel Quantity Indicator System (the FQIS). There are two channels which cross-check with one another, though the plane could be flown with either of them failing. If the FQIS fizzles entirely, the fuel gauges in the cockpit don’t work. I’m no pilot, but I suspect this would be kind of a big deal. On this particular aircraft, the FQIS was half-functional, but due to a sequence of botched last-minute maintenance (which made it non-functional) and faulty communication between ground crew and air crew, the flight was allowed to proceed. Read more…
Last week, while another icy winter blast was gossiping through our beloved city streets, I heard a familiar question discreetly uttered in my office tower elevator. It’s a question that inevitably falls from the cliffs of quivering lips every year when the onset of March is mocked by November-esque climate.
“Why did anyone decide to settle a town in this spot?”
It’s true that, while our swirling stripe of river valley parkland is an emerald jewel among modern urban nature triumphs, and while we perpetually possess a bountiful bevy of artistic talent that vastly supersedes expectations, our winters also display a wicked longevity. And the earliest Edmontonians had half a country of gorgeous parkland to sift through, none of which had an established arts scene. So why here? Why plant one’s flag amid such an unforgiving tundra?
Money, baby. A businessman goes where the customers are, and in 1795 there were scads of Blackfoot and Cree folks in the region, not to mention a raucous cavalcade of settlers headed west. No one knew there was a generous cauldron of bubblin’ crude below our terrestrial waistline (that surprise was 150 years away); back then our town was all about hocking pelts to the locals.
Today, Edmonton’s premier tourist attraction is inevitably our monstrous Mall, which sucks more than 30 million shoppers and gawkers inside its yellow brick shell each year. Ironically, a mall is exactly how Edmonton started out. The North West Company picked out the spot where the North Saskatchewan River shook watery hands with the Sturgeon River (near modern-day Fort Saskatchewan) and opened up a trading post in 1795. The Hudson Bay Company joined them shortly thereafter, giving us two anchor stores. For all your pelt and survivalist needs. Read more…
This year the news has been splattered by alarming weather reports like a silent film soundstage wall after take thirteen of an epic pie fight. Much of the western world has been grappling with weather that we in Edmonton call ‘regular winter’. I’m not trying to minimize the unusual meteorological hip-check nature has bestowed upon my more southernly friends – after all, up here we’re well stocked with snow tires, city plows and vehicle block heaters. The folks in Texas, not so much.
Perhaps the most common and least valuable platitude here is “it could be worse.” The bone-scraping cold and soul-squishing wind are brutal, but at least they’re unleashing their fury during the vacuum of the winter months. When the silver light of spring shows up, nature’s insipid polar fart will be nothing more than a series of old photos, buried deep in the tomb of distant newsfeeds.
In 1816, there was no such relief. The winter was winter, but spring and summer were slaughtered like calves en route to becoming veal marsala, cut down in the prime of youth. Historically they call it the Year Without A Summer. Its effects were cruel but the wonky residue may have given birth to the Old West, the Model T, the Book of Mormon and the Depression-era fad of spooky horror flicks. That’s a hell of a weather pattern.
It all began with the massive eruption of Mount Tambora, located on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. This was one of only two VEI-7 eruptions in the past millennium – and that scale only goes up to 8. This occurred on April 15, 1815, and while the 100 cubic kilometers of solid earth the volcano blasted into neighboring communities caused a virtual apocalypse for locals, the ash and toxins pumped into the atmosphere would sneak up and bitch-slap the rest of the planet several months later. Read more…
It’s time once again to clear the room of friends, family and suspicious strangers by cranking up the worst of the worst. You know, the most urethra-scrapingly awful thing about these terrible songs is the fact that they have each achieved a grotesque level of popularity. People who toil for eight, sometimes sixteen hours in a day, who often pay only the minimum payment on their Visa bill and who have likely contemplated buying the store-brand mayonnaise in order to save a little extra money for lottery tickets have nevertheless flushed some of that precious cash down the crusty-sewage-lined pipes of the recording industry to own these.
And we know these songs are awful – we all do. I’m not talking about stuff like Chicago’s “You’re The Inspiration”, which is more harmlessly schmaltzy than outright offensive, or “Ice Ice Baby”, which grew exponentially more ridiculous until Vanilla Ice turned Amish and the tune shifted into ironic-nostalgia country.
No, these are the inexcusables. I’m pulling off of Blender magazine’s “50 Worst Songs Ever” list, one which I’m loathe to trust, due to its inclusion of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence”, Huey Lewis’s “Heart of Rock & Roll” and The Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” But despite these grievous errors, the list makes a few points. It also puts Starship’s “We Built This City” at #1, so kudos for that one.
Number two on the list is inarguably more insipid, more soul-draining than Starship’s 1987 trudge through knee-deep fetid hoopla. Yes, I’m talking about Billy Ray Cyrus’s biggest single, a song so astoundingly wretched it is now considered to be an attempted mass murder in three states if someone tries to perform this as a karaoke number. “Achy Breaky Heart” is the song whose video introduced the 90’s fad of line dancing to popular culture. Remember when people used to make fun of the Ramones because their songs only contained three chords? This one features just two: A and E major. Read more…