Where Did Journalism Wente?

Tuesday morning, venti Pike Place in hand, I sat in my local Starbucks as I do most days. I plugged in my earphones, connected to the WiFi and tuned into CBC Radio’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi, then opened up my various inboxes and feeds to try and catch up on what I missed whilst asleep. A normal day would typically progress as such: discover nothing happened, post clever tweet, ‘Like’ friends Facebook post, confirm that the Leafs still suck, reply to my mother’s suggestion that I get a real job, order second venti Pike, write something for my blog that 42 people will perhaps read, poke at freelance projects. You know, a Tuesday.

And if it wasn’t for a message in my inbox from colleague Ian Orti with a link to Margaret Wente’s op-ed on Quebec students (or rather, as Peggy calls them: the baristas of tomorrow) my Tuesday would’ve merrily skipped along, ending in beer and whiskey, eventually becoming a Wednesday where the whole thing would repeat itself. Instead, I quickly wrote a response to the offending Wente column, posted it, the thing went viral, Maisonneuve picked it up, I went on CJAD radio, and for a few days my parents left me alone about the freelance life without a wife or children. It was a good week.

But that was Tuesday, and my 15 seconds of notoriety was fleeting. By Friday night my folks were again asking about the absence of wife and grandchildren. Whiskey and beer supplies were dangerously low. Wente continues to write. So here I sit Saturday morning, same Starbucks, same venti Pike, and unfortunately stuck reading the same newspapers that employ the likes of Wente to lazily write hypocritical and poorly constructed pieces that negligently fit into the modern paradigm of what passes for journalism in 2012.

A friend sent me a piece by Wente from early April, in which she celebrates her Boomerdom and notes that she left university debt free, got a job quicker than an arts grad can whip cappuccino foam, a bought a house in the Beaches with a small loan from her mother that is now worth a small fortune. Easy-peasy. And yet just a short month later, she was condemning students for just wanting just a fraction of the same advantages she had. And it led me to wonder, how does this tripe make it past the editing process? How, in this day and age, are we subjected to newspapers that fail to subscribe to the simplest virtues of journalistic integrity?

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O to Copa: Home and the Local

I miss a lot from my former lives. I’ve spent time living in Ottawa, Vancouver, Costa Rica, Montreal, and now Toronto, and with each move, each shift of life, I’ve left something special behind: a girl I loved, a friend I cherished, an apartment I felt right in, a diner that burned my grilled cheese just right, a quiet street I liked to stumble home, a spot on the beach to celebrate the eventide, a girl I loved. I like moving. I enjoy that sense of displacement. The rush of adrenalin born of fear of solitude and loneliness. The way a new place smells. The way it tastes. Of walking unfamiliar streets completely alone. And what I like best of a new place, a new temporary home, is discovering a local, a pub or tavern to call my own. And on a recent visit back to Montreal, I stopped by a former local to find it turned inside out, contemporized, changed. And I realized, much to my disappointment, that I haven’t had a local in some time, that I’m without a true home.

Many more intelligent folks than I have considered what we “need.” Virginia Woolf claimed that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Why this only applies to women and fiction is beyond my two degrees in English, but it didn’t turn out all that well for Ginny did it? Neil Young claimed a “man needs a maid” but Neil is notoriously messy, and that all turned pretty bad for Carrie Snodgress. Hunter S. Thompson told us “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me,” which some of us have tried to varying degrees of success, Thompson himself on the low end of that measurement. For me, a man needs a home, and that home is a local, a bar to call his own, a place where you can drop in at 11am without judgment for a cold 50 and read the paper. A place where a stool is always empty, where you can have both conversation and silence, where a hockey game plays on a TV quietly in the distance, where a friend will drop by, or not. And where it doesn’t matter.

My first local was an Irish pub in Ottawa called Gentle Annie’s. My friends and I went there because, well, it was close to our homes and they’d serve us even though we were sixteen. The owner, Des, whose nose had burst so many blood vessels it looked like an irrigation chart, and his staff very much knew how old we were, mostly because we would drunkenly admit it in the wee hours. We were peach-fuzzed little drunkards, but we could hold our liquor and we tipped well. We knew all the words to all the Irish songs, and we belted them out as best we could. The only problem with being so close to our homes, was that from time to time a friend’s parents or one of our high school teachers would come in. We’d all pretend not to see each other, except for on one occasion when a rather inebriated algebra teacher struggled to his feet to declare he was taking attendance, and proceeded to call on the five of us by surname over and over until someone settled him down.

On one of my last visits to Gentle Annie’s, I accidently broke my buddy Joe’s front tooth with the end of my pool cue. Opinion on how it happened differs, as Joe claims I hit him and I maintain that he face planted into my cue as he bent over for his pint.  Joe, suffering from too many drinks and a bit of vanity, naturally called 911 from the bar payphone. We were a little surprised when two cop cars, a fire engine, and an ambulance showed up upon hearing of a broken tooth at a local not averse to the occasional scuffle. The cops laughed at us, the fire engine quickly departed, and after the ambulance attendant explained to Joe that he would be charged a $95 fee for the ride, he thought it best to just go home and sleep it off. To this day his cap doesn’t quite match his teeth, and his mother holds me responsible for his now slightly less than perfect smile. He’s still very pretty, though.

There were a few places when I moved to Vancouver that I considered my local, but I never really felt at home in that city until I found The Fringe Café. The Fringe was like a house party with all your closest friends, every night, all night. I would imagine that the party is still going on, but I haven’t been there in twelve years. The Fringe was special, in that you could go in at any time and feel comfortable whether you were reading a book or hitting on the barmaid or doing shots of Jäger. The staff was more than friendly, and it was not uncommon to stay drinking right into morning, and greet the day staff as they came in for their early shift. On two separate occasions I put my ball cap down on a candle, nearly setting fire to the table, and perhaps the bar. Another time I left the bar not by walking out the front door, but by somersaulting the length of the room and out the back. I remember once refusing to leave the patio, and being carried, pint in hand, by Karen the bartender to an indoor seat. I remember great music. I remember feeling light. I remember good people. I remember being three thousand kilometres from home, and not at all.

Eventually, the sane man sobers up and leaves Vancouver. And in the years that followed I was without a local. There were a few weeks in Ottawa where the Alibi Room was close, but it was too small and dark to find any real comfort. It was, however, the place that supplied my roommate and I with toilet paper, as we were broke and he was handy with opening the locked dispenser in the men’s washroom with his Swiss Army knife. But then one night a girl I was seeing decided to pour an entire litre bottle of water over my head in the middle of the bar, and after that it wasn’t really a place I wanted to go back to.

In Montezuma, on the Peninsula de Nicoya in Costa Rica, there were a couple of little hotel bars I liked, where eventually the staff acknowledged me as a pseudo-regular. If I was a true regular anywhere there, it was the breakfast place that would whip up my eggs and café con leche as they spotted me coming down the beach, or the groceteria that had cheapest pilsners and discounted guaro. But down there, we were always happiest to drink on the beach, and no one is in Costa Rica on any permanent basis. No one is home.

It wasn’t until I got back to Canada, and moved to Montreal that I found a local again. The Cock n’ Bull was one of the first bars I had been to in my youthful visits to Montreal, so it seemed natural to return. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I liked going there alone in the afternoons for pitchers of 50 and to read the paper, maybe try and do some writing. There were always these sad old men at the bar, Bukowksi’s without pens or poetry, drinking draught beer from white wine glasses, contently awaiting some kind end. I kind of admired them, their comfort in solitude, their confident quiet. It was here that I wrote most of my first book, where I could look into the future of my speakers as they sat at the bar next to me. As I found a community, when we called each other, we didn’t even need to say which bar to meet at, just when. The Cock n’ Bull became a home. Many nights would start at a large table, pitcher upon pitch being devoured, and inevitably end up with just myself and Nick McArthur as 3am rolled around, doing shots of Southern Comfort, wondering where everyone went, talking about how one day we’d be writers.

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The Habs Will Break Your Heart

I’m of a generation that grew up without religion, so I was a late convert to the Church of the Montreal Canadiens. I grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, so I knew disappointment at a young age. Following years of Leafs failure, my hometown Ottawa got an NHL team, and naturally I became a Senators fan, which was kind of like breaking up with your girlfriend to date her younger, less damaged cousin. The Leafs and the Sens formed The Battle of Ontario, and each spring we’d gather in seedy watering holes to watch the NHL version of a cat fight. The Sens would annually disappoint as well, and following the 2004-2005 lockout I found myself in need of a new team. Now living in Montreal, I fell hard for the Habs, told them I loved them after our first date, introduced them to my parents, gave them a key to my apartment. It was a torrid affair, filled with drunken fights and make-up pucks. But in the last few days I’ve come to realize something about the Habs that no one tells you going in. That they’re inherently flawed. That they’re more concerned with aesthetic than happiness. That they’re vain, and led astray by an all too influential French media. And I realized that the Montreal Canadiens, like a poem or a woman, will break your heart.

By most accounts Randy Cunneyworth is a good man. Cunneyworth was hired early Saturday morning as the interim head coach of the Canadiens after the club dismissed Jacques Martin. Cunneyworth is a hockey lifer. He lives and breathes the sport. He was a good NHL player, and following retirement he went to the AHL as a player-coach in Rochester for the Americans, and was soon elevated to the position of head coach.  He was considered for several head coaching jobs in the NHL over the past few years, but always seemed to come up short. And so one must feel for Cunneyworth in that though he has realized his potential by becoming an NHL head coach (and of the estimable Canadiens, no less) he is doomed to failure. Not because he isn’t a good coach, just a few games in we don’t know that yet. Not because he isn’t a hard worker, a dedicated employee. The man has lived in Rochester AND Hamilton for godsakes. I won’t drive through those cities. No, Cunneyworth is doomed to failure because he doesn’t speak French.

To the French Canadian media, the Canadiens’ head coach not speaking French is an unpardonable sin. I’m not sure what the French Canadian media does in the off-season in the absence of hockey, and after the death of the Expos. I imagine they take family vacations in Baie des Chaleurs and discuss David Desharnais’ ice time, and how to force Bob Gainey to rush Guillaume Latendresse into failure. There are likely some strange midnight ceremonies where they all bow to a burning Patrick Roy effigy. During the season they do their best to manage the team by proxy, even if it means manipulating facts and propagating fiction. In the past few days many a French journalist has supported their calls for a Francophone head coach with polls and statistics seemingly pulled from thin air. 83% of Habs fans want a French-speaking coach. 75%. 92%. These numbers could be real, but frankly I don’t care. The manner in which they’ve treated Cunneyworth in the past few days, and by extension the team in the past two decades, is inexcusable. See, the French Canadian media is the Habs’ daddy, an angry and overbearing father who is tirelessly meddlesome.

The mandate of the French media is to force their will on the Canadiens. They believe the team’s general manager and head coach must be able to speak French fluently, and preferably be Quebecois. They lament the lack of Quebec-born players on the team, but will forgive such a travesty as long as the hierarchy come from no further West than Rockland, Ontario. And if this was forty years ago, and the Habs got their pick of the best of the Quebec-born litter before the rest of the league, I could understand their position. But it’s 2011, and the Habs haven’t won a thing since 1993. The closest they came was in 2010, when an overachieving team took the city on an amazing journey, one that brought the Anglo and Franco communities together. One that I wish the French media would remember more clearly, to realize that winning trumps language, that the intoxicating pride of victory cures all.

The Habs run to the conference final in 2010 was one of the happiest and most memorable times in my life. I’m not an optimistic man, or a happy man, by nature. Anyone who has read one of my two books knows that I’m more concerned with loss and addiction than sunshine and lollipops. Some would say I’m bitter, but they’re assholes. But sometime during the first round against the heavily favoured Washington Capitals, I started to believe. I edged towards optimism. I crept towards the false light of, well, melancholy anyway. You had to. The city took on an aura, a collective feeling of hope and empowerment.

My friends and I would meet around 6pm at the Copacabana on St. Laurent to prepare for the games. We didn’t go to the games, because we couldn’t afford it. We were the masses, the fans the French media thinks it’s including in those suspect polls. We had to arrive early to ensure a seat as every bar, bistro, and dépanneur with a television was full by 6:20. We were fortunate enough to have a reserved table, but we enjoyed that feeling of privilege, and laughing at those who would show up after 6:30 expecting to find seats. We watched on the French-language RDS, because whether you were French or English whatever Bob Cole was speaking on CBC was unfamiliar to all of us. We did shots of Jagermeister when Habs’s assistant coach Kirk Muller was shown on screen. JagerMullers. It was the most involved I’ve ever felt in sport, more than any Olympics or World Junior tournament.

Superstitions were quickly born: ordering the same food, same drinks, sitting in the same seats. During one of the Capitals games, the team was up and one friend left our table to scold another for singing The Ole Song too early. And the table of offenders took their scolding, understanding where they had gone wrong. But it was more than superstition or idiosyncrasy. It was as if we were a part of the team, like our actions mattered as much as Jaroslav Halak’s glove hand or Roman Hamrlik’s defence. Watching those games could have you run the entire gamut of emotions, from desolation to euphoria. And there was a girl. A girl I loved dearly, who would join us and stay through the first few periods, then pay for my drinks and meet up with me after the game so that I could slur her the adventures of the third period, and occasional overtime. It was perfection.

And they kept winning. We kept winning. One friend had to travel during some of the games, and so in the waning minutes of wins we’d call him and put my cell phone in the middle of the table so that he could hear the sounds of the bar, be part of the moment. Strangers would come by and speak to this ghost of a Habs fan, and talk about the game, about Halak, about PK Subban, and about the city. And the city was united, French and English, for one cause, for one hope, a hope of a Stanley Cup victory. We wanted the chalice to come home. We wanted the late spring of our birthright. We wanted the parade to take the usual route. This is what the French media so conveniently forgets when the team is less successful, that winning is the language of Habs fans, not French.

Then, it all ended when the Habs hit a wall called the Philadelphia Flyers. As game 5 of the conference final wound down, the city stood as one to thank the team for the most memorable spring since 1993. The Copa bartender, Carlos, a Habs fan like no other, brought a round of shots to our table and we toasted the team in silence. Soon after that feeling was gone. And we tried to figure out where we went wrong, if we had erred in some way, if we were responsible. If only we had tried harder. If only we hadn’t taken it all for granted. If only we could have given more.

And the girl was gone. And we tried to figure out where we went wrong, if we had erred in some way, if we were responsible. If only we had tried harder. If only we hadn’t taken it all for granted. If only we could have given more.

And Montreal went back to being just another city awaiting summer, which would turn to fall, and with it the promise of another run, the hope of another spring that would have us collectively holding our breaths, holding each other, believing as one in the impossible, of a return to greatness, of another love. But they never came.

And the sense now, removed from that time, and living in Toronto, watching from afar as the French media does its best to take down a good man, is that it will never come again. The Canadiens’ management will inevitably bend to the will of the French media and hire some over-matched French coach. It’ll be the Mario Tremblay era all over again, and the Habs will continue to struggle as an also-ran, instead of being the crown jewel of the sport, the New York Yankees of hockey. There will be no parades on the usual route.

As a Habs fan, I don’t care if the coach speaks Inuktitut, as long as I can have that feeling of 2010 back. To see a great city come together again, to be empowered by hope, to have that girl back, and maybe go home again. The optimist in me, what little is left of him, thinks: maybe. But the true me, the writer trading bitterness for book deals, knows that it’s far more likely that we’re destined for springs in perpetuity of broken hearts.

Thanks, Earl McRae

Earl McRae, an institution in Canadian journalism, died this past week. It was reported that he passed away at his desk at the Ottawa Sun doing what he did best, writing. And if we should all be so lucky, to die doing what it is we love most, what we do best and are most respected for, well, that would be okay with me. Of course, that would mean I’d die streaming episodes of The West Wing, but whatevs. I dig Sorkin.

I grew up in Ottawa, and Earl McRae was the first newspaper columnist I can remember reading on a regular basis, certainly the first opinion not of my parents that I cared about. He was a sports writer then, with the Ottawa Citizen, and coming from a non-sports family he was my first adult entry into the sports world. His style was unique in that it was a gonzo approach to sports writing, not simply telling the reader the scores, who got injured, and adding a handful of clichéd quotes, but instead inserting himself into the narrative. It is a style that was not common then, certainly not common in Canada, and is underused, abused, and misused now (see: Simmons, Bill), filling column inches with ego at the expense of narrative.

At a very early age I was acutely aware of the politics of sport; how the little league coach’s son got more at-bats than others, how the gym teacher’s buddy’s kid got the last spot on the high school basketball team, how what would later be affectionately labeled ‘grit’ and ‘heart’ and ‘character’ didn’t garner the same respect in a sports world made up of 12-16 year olds. Earl McRae provided me with a template for participating in the world of sports without being tainted by it, but rather inspired and entertained. He was a gateway drug which led me to Hunter S. Thomson and beyond, and then eventually to the low-paying, low-reward world of CanLit in which I now toil.

For an all to brief period in the early 1990s Earl McRae had a call-in radio show on an Ottawa AM station. This was long before sports radio, before wall-to-wall minute-to-minute coverage of sport. It was on Sunday nights and I’d listen to it while not doing my job a local restaurant called The Cajun Attic. One week, after running into Earl McRae’s father in line at a Harvey’s in Ottawa’s Westboro Village, Mr. McRae, upon his father’s urging, dropped my name into conversation during his radio show. He gave me a shout-out, long before that was a part of the lexicon. It was the first time I had heard my name outside of the context of my own little life, and I loved it. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe, but it’s the same feeling I get when I’m introduced to read, or spot a review of one of my books, or see my name on the line-up for a reading. It’s some strange mix of pride and wonder, and it’s that same combination that keeps me writing. Or part of it, anyway.

Westboro Village is where Earl McRae’s legacy will live on, for it is there that he founded the Elvis Sighting Society along with Newport Pizzeria owner Moe Atallah. Part faith, part laugh, all in fun, the Elvis Sighting Society has raised countless dollars for Ottawa charities over the past 20 years or so. And I imagine that many a glass was raised to Mr. McRae over the past few days at the legendary local eatery, and will continue to be raised for years to come. The Elvis Sighting Society contends that Elvis Presley is still alive and well, and living in Tweed, Ontario, a small town of just under 6000, west of Ottawa.  This contention was included in a short story from my collection, Distillery Songs, called “Emulsification.”  It was a subconscious inclusion, but a pleasant reminder of how random parts of our lives make it into writing. And now that Earl McRae has passed, it feels good that something of mine will forever include something of his. Below is “Emulsification,” for Earl McRae. Thank you, sir.

Emulsification                                                                                                  

Okay, there’s a goddamn dead hooker named Crystal or Shelley or Raven or something duct taped to my couch and it’s one twenty-four in the afternoon and my notoriously punctual parents will be here for dinner at five-thirty and wouldn’t you know it I’m completely out of almonds and cumin, the former which I can do without but without the latter I might as well not even bother cooking, and then to compound my problems the bastards at Lapointe’s gave me salmon filets instead of darns, the incompetent motherfucking fishmongering assholes. And I’m not even the sort who would normally pick up a goddamn hooker let alone a goddamn dead one, but it was Thursday yesterday and on Thursdays I like to watch CSI, the original not the Florida one or whatever, but it was pre-empted for some fucking Katie Couric special on teen sex, and, well, give me teen sex and two hours with Katie Couric and suddenly I’m at the kind of bar where a fat middle-aged man like myself might be able to get laid. But the place is full of other fat sorry men who are similarly disappointed in the pre-emption of CSI and similarly aroused by Katie Couric and teen sex and so it’s just a sad room filled to the rim with drunkards getting drunker so when Raven came in and sat next to me I hardly noticed. Then she grabbed one of my smokes and normally a drunk would get a punch in the fucking head for filching a smoke in a bar like this but I’m all filled with the drink and Katie Couric fantasies, so I say hi and Crystal says hello and can I buy her a drink and of course I say sure ‘cause every other drunk useless fuck in the place is jealous ‘cause I’ve got the one woman in the joint that still has teeth and I buy her a rye and ginger and she sucks it back like it’s the cure so I order two and three and four and five and ten more until I’m seeing sideways and she asks do I live close by and do I like to party, and by that I wonder if she means party like hors d’oeuvres and cocktails with fruit and conversation about rounds under par and politics and celebrities and maybe a game of Cranium but we’d need two more people but she flashes an eight-ball from her purse and I say ohhhhh, party, sure I like to party and ya I live close by so let me get the tab and the entire crooked room sneers and sways in a contemptuous envy as it sees me leave with her and I feel about nine and a half fucking feet tall.

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Ottawonomy

Minced Oaths cont’d: I’m Aware There Are Two 11s

11. At a pharmacy in Poughkeepsie, NY, February 2010:
Cold sore medication, condoms, Pepto Bismal.
The date went as expected.

11. It was late, and the bottles were empty.
He stole my last smoke, looked and me,
and said: “It’s all Veronicas, man. No Betties.”

12. She was a big fan of my sterility.
Every time she got her period,
she called to say how much she loved me.

14. They’re both online.
They each have avatars
of cats wearing cowboy hats.

15. I sent a drunk text to Betty, to make sure she knew
I was still alive. One to Veronica, too.
You know, just in case.

Ottawonomy

I’m headed home to Ottawa for a few days, which has made me nostalgic. It has been a while since I’ve seen the Ottawa kids. And even longer since we’ve all gone out for adult beverages. Too long. My favourite of people, they are. A fitting detour, kinda, as I was writing about Cobain this week, and these folks were with me for that era. Found myself jumping around YouTube, looking for songs from playlists of times gone by. Not that time so much, as just some songs that got lost in roommates collections, dead laptops, missing mixed tapes, scratched CDs, and the like. They’re after the jump, for those who care.

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