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Saturday, 02 July 2011 05:12

Fernwood Bites

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Bacon notwithstanding, I am no great fan of pork. Maybe because my grandmother – God rest her soul –served us pork chops coated in that tasteless sawdust called Shake N Bake roughly three times a week while growing up. Or maybe because I have heard a number of my friends and acquaintances who work in emergency services compare the smell of cooked human flesh to that of pork. It could also be that pork does not digest as easily as other meats, that cannibals refer to human flesh as “long pig” or that I have seen Babe: Pig in the City 12 times. Whatever the reason, I spend sleepless nights staring at the ceiling of my bedroom thinking, “I don’t understand what they’ve got against foreskins but I think the Hebrews might be right with this ‘pigs’ thing.”

Considering all this, most of the pork options available at Fernwood Bites, Fernwood’s second-annual celebration of local artisan cuisine, were of little interest to me. The lone exception was the Cuban-style pork with orange cilantro aioli being offered by The Little Piggy. It had a wonderful orange zest with a prominent but not overpowering heat. Though other items on offer caught my eye I have to say that this was my favourite. It was so good that even Yahweh might sneak a bite while his wife’s back is turned.

Held on Sunday, June, 26 this was the second annual Bites, held in Fernwood Square at the intersection of Gladstone Avenue & Fernwood Road. The event plays host to two dozen or so local restaurants, breweries & wineries offering up samples of their finest wares. The event is a fundraiser for the Fernwood Neighborhood Resource Group, an organization dedicated to preserving the spirit of Fernwood for its many dreadlocked residents.

The event is marketed directly at Victoria’s foodies, which explains why I had never heard of it before a press release from Fernwood NRG arrived in my mailbox. I am not a foodie - other than one being a vegetable and the other a bunch of fruits I couldn’t tell endive from N’Sync. Programs like “Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives” are exceptionally popular right now but personally the next place I would like to see Guy Fieri visit is the bottom of the sea.

The sold-out event was scheduled to run from 5:30-8:00pm and though Nicky & I arrived early there was already an impressive line-up. Rented steel fencing ringed Fernwood Square, which was filed with vendor tents and looked not unlike a festival beer garden.

I hadn’t read the e-mail from Fernwood NRG very thoroughly and so all I knew was that there would be food & alcohol. I was expecting to be handed a number of “sample” tickets which I would quickly burn through and have to replenish at great expense but was delighted to be wrong. Once inside the gate, I was told, you were free to sample as much or as little as you liked. I will forever remember the subsequent thunderbolt of joy which struck my heart and loins.

The aforementioned pork from The Little Piggy was my favourite but a few of the other vendors also stood out from the pack.

Kulu, an Asian Fusion restaurant across from the Belfry Theatre, impressed with their beef & cucumber-wrapped kimchi. Kimchi is a total mystery to me – I know it only as the crunchy, vinegar-tasting stuff I put on my plate at the Mongolian BBQ on Vancouver’s Davie Street. I don’t know what’s in it or why – I know it looks terrible, like something zombies might pull from a wailing victim’s stomach – but I know it tastes of vinegar and is often spicy. Pairing it with the crisp freshness of a cucumber and tender roast beef was a killer combination.

My insatiable lust for bread dipped in melted cheese was served here by the Oak Bay Bistro, a recent – and well spoken of - addition to the city’s food scene. They were also offering a selection of artisan cheeses on small, easy-to-steal slate tiles that everyone was kindly asked to return. No one laughed in the face of the person issuing the request but I pictured at least one of the assembled yuppies mentally weighing their lactose intolerance against the amount of cheese they’d need to eat if they wanted enough tiles to resurface their patio.

The Parsonage Cafe, too, was serving their pulled pork sandwiches on tiles, albeit wooden ones, and making the same request. Towards the end of the night their food was being served onto napkins and, eventually, your bare hands. I didn’t have a chance to ask the Bistro reps what their tile return ratio was but I can’t imagine they fared much better. For the record, I returned mine – I only steal from hotel rooms.

My final favourite was the table for the Fernwood Inn. They were offering one of the few vegetarian selections, a mixed veggie soft taco. As far as I’m concerned, vegetarian cuisine is to food as dry humping is to sex – something that appeals only to people afraid of getting their hands dirty & teenagers wanting to piss off their parents – but I would proudly order these tacos in a restaurant without caring what it said about my sexuality. I can’t remember what was in them – probably tomatoes, something green – but they were refreshing, filling and very spicy.

The event turned out to be a better time than I imagined. The amount of food and booze you can cram over the 2.5 hour duration makes the $45 ticket a steal and the quality of food is leagues beyond what you expect to be served within the confines of a chain-link fence. I’m no foodie but even I’m looking forward to next year’s Fernwood Bites.

Update February 26, 2013: The Moon Under Water is still open but under new management. I haven't been in a year and a half so can't say how this has affected the quality of the food and beer.

Update June, 2015:  The Moon's food and beer is still pretty solid

 

There is no end of talk here in North America about the “English Pub Experience”. We imagine quaint little buildings in the country where rumpled men in patched jackets talk about the weather, the footie, and make off-color jokes about their wives. Where a barman with rolled-up sleeves serves pints of nameless “lager”, “ale” and “bitter” from great brass taps and sets them down on the dark, polished bar. If a disagreement should arise it can be settled with a game of darts or, if absolutely necessary, a gentlemanly bout of fisticuffs outside after which the winner helps the loser to his feet and then buys him a drink.

Come in, have a laugh, get stabbed.
When I was living in England with Nicky the television liked to remind us that “country pubs” were closing at about the rate of one a day. In the pubs that remain you are more likely to find teenagers in short skirts screeching football songs than you are anyone who wants to talk about the weather. The barman is still there but he’s pouring out pints of Budweiser, Carling and Strongbow Cider to ratfaced men with wispy moustaches and the social graces of fire ants. If he can be bothered to put down his mobile phone long enough to work the taps, that is. Disagreements, if they arise, are settled with a knife in your back, or if absolutely necessary, a savage kicking outside by a group of hoodied jackals, one of whom will use his mobile phone to record the event for posterity.

It makes me wonder where The Moon Under Water fits into all this - advertised as an “English-style” pub it doesn’t look or feel particularly English and the menu is caught somewhere between the Old & New Worlds. It’s neither Coronation Street nor Clockwork Orange but the food is hearty and filling and their session ales are the best English beers I’ve tasted in the three years since coming home.

The restaurant itself is spacious, with tables a good distance apart, and it feels almost like a converted warehouse space or something like it. It’s nicely appointed with some very pretty (and expensive) original art and a smattering of sports paraphernalia. Considering that so many other places around the GVRD have more televisions than Best Buy (I’m looking at you, West Coast Tap House) I was expecting to find at least one here but came up empty and I cannot tell you how refreshing that is. Overall, the Moon is very comfortable even if conversation with neighbouring tables is unlikely unless one or both of you take up yodelling.

Orders are placed at the bar & you pay beforehand, in the English pub style. Some might have an issue with this but I prefer it as you’re free to go once you’re finished – there’s no wait for the bill. My only problem with having this reduced style of service here is that in England tipping is not compulsory and when it is done it is not to the level expected in North America. I find it hard to swallow tipping 15-20% at the beginning of a meal with no clue as to the level of service you’re about to receive. That said our server was very welcoming and made sure to keep checking in on us.

Ten Four.

It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the Moon and left the Monte Carlo in the lot. There were four of us but only two eating and we had our choice of spots. I was thinking about Blue Moon Wings ($9.95) followed by a steak & kidney pie ($12.95). Nicky only wanted a plate of onion rings & I said a pint of bitter sounds fine.

The Blue Moon Wings were covered in a mixture of blue cheese and hot sauce, a combination I don’t often see. The two elements made for a very creamy, spicy pairing and the heat they generated didn’t fade for a while after finishing. The only other plate of blue cheese & hot sauce wings I’ve tried in Victoria is over at The Beagle in Cook Street village and these were considerably better. It should be mentioned too that these wings were only lightly battered, making them less heavy than other offerings around town. Kelsey’s at Tillicum Mall is particularly notorious for over-battered wings.

Some people shrink from eating organ meats, which I have never understood. We’ve already divested the animal of its life and skin – isn’t it adding insult to injury if we then say “the rest of you is not good enough for my intestinal tract”? Besides, I’m still convinced that one day a cow is going to use his hoof to scrawl “Let my people go” in the dirt and we’re all going to collectively shit our pants and become Vegans, so we may as well enjoy as much of the cow as we can until then.

The Moon Under Water’s steak & kidney pie didn’t disappoint; it’s made-in-house pastry was tender and flaky, and the gravy, made with the house Bitter, was thick and rich without being cloying. My only real complaint about the meal is that the fries were a bit soggy.

The Moon’s award winning Blue Moon Bitter was the perfect accompaniment to everything and, as I’ve said, the best English-style ale I’ve had since coming back to Canada. It’s a strong-tasting beer that manages to stay very smooth and at only 3.8% you can enjoy a couple without being laid flat out.

It feels as though I’ve spent most of this review criticising the Moon Under Water when, in fact, I very much enjoyed my visit.

The service is efficient and amiable, the food good and reasonably priced and the restaurant itself open, airy and welcoming. The location, next to the Bay Street Bridge, is out of the way and not likely to attract foot traffic, particularly in the evening when the Rock Bay area transforms into Victoria’s “hoe stroll”, but the Moon’s “no tow” policy means that you can drive there, take a cab home if you’ve had a few too many & your car will still be waiting for you in the morning. The decor may be as British as Madonna but if you want fantastic English beer in a relaxed setting then the Moon Under Water is the closest you can get without a young man in a hoodie breaking a beer glass across your face.

Thursday, 11 August 2011 04:43

Recession? There's a Wicker Man For That

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Alan Greenspan's early policies were his best

An update for those among you who are either wilfully ignorant or living in a system of caves near Peshawar: we are now in the midst of an economic recession. To the uninitiated, me included, this didn't sound so bad at first. After all as children recess was a frolicsome time free of supervision. When you learned whether you were going to spend your life being picked first, second, third for kickball or whether you were going to be more or less permanently pinned under the monkey bars by Booger the school leper. So I confess that when economists started bandying around the "R" word I got a little excited and started looking for my knee shorts and bobby socks. Then I learned that recess is different for adults: the kickball team doesn't take resumes and Booger's too busy repossessing cars to return your calls.

Despite having investments I am trying to pay as little attention as possible to these most recent stock market fluctuations. If I wanted to tear out what little hair I have left trying to control things that are inherently impossible to control I would have had children. Also, my understanding of the stock market has always been terrible, so my comprehension of the current situation is that US Debt & the Tea Party have hopped into their Fleetwood Brougham and driven off across the badlands of the NASDAQ taking potshots at lawmen and your 401(k).

Really, I don’t even know what a 401(k) is other than it seems to serve the same purpose in your life as a dog in a country song: it’s the last thing the world takes from you before you decide to see what 9mm ammunition tastes like at speed. I would love it if most newsreaders and television pundits currently discussing “the markets” would be as honest.

Ben in simpler times


From everything I’ve heard, “The Markets” sound like the financial equivalent of a circus bear known for flying into unprovoked rages: everyone tiptoes around the subject and keeps their voices low so as not to set it off but in the end they have just enough time to tell “Gentle Ben, no!” before another clown is sent to the big top in the sky. The sole difference is that you can tranquilize the bear if “The Market” gets a wild hair it can easily bring down the whole circus.

The only other comparison I can think of is that of a pagan god – except even they could be sated with sacrifice. If Poseidon was battering your ship with waves you could toss an ensign or two overboard and soon enough the sea would smooth out. If your island commune had a string of failed crops you just duped Edward Woodward into a giant wicker man then set the bugger alight. If the trees still didn’t bloom you called Nicolas Cage and did the whole thing again.

It seems that there's no calming the market, however; no matter how much you rub its feet or bring it breakfast in bed it still won’t tell you what’s wrong, because “if you have to ask then you’ll never understand.”

Despite this irrationality, the people in my television talk about the situation, dropping terms like “Chinese bond market” and “fiscal irresponsibility”, as though they have any more idea than I do about what’s going on or how to fix it. There is a chilling vacancy in the eyes of those spinning bullshit about important things. The next time you watch a news report about the economy, remember back to when your parents said, “...but mommy & daddy still love each other very much” and try not to spit out your Mr. Pib when you realize they all have the same look on their face – a mixture of fear, regret and the deep hope that we’ll all get out of this intact.

And we will. But let’s build that Wicker Man just in case. Does anyone have Nic Cage’s number?

 

Don't forget the bees.

 

The oceans are vast, cold, unknowable sirens that have called to men since the day we left the garden and as with all distant maidens we are drawn back each time in the vain hope that they will soften - that they will show us and only us some tiny token of affection.

Instead of affection, however, all the oceans have ever provided are krakens, tidal waves and a place for barrel-chested fishermen to avoid their wives, sometimes permanently.

It wasn't affection that I was after this past weekend as I stepped into the sea at Vancouver Island's Long Beach for my first day of surfing. Instead I was trying to figure out exactly how I had ended up in that spot, with my considerable bulk squeezed into a wetsuit, a rented surfboard under my arm and the vicious expanse of the Pacific Ocean before me.

Though I own a gym membership my day to day fitness regimen consists mostly of walking back and forth between the sofa and the fridge, so when my friends enticed me to join them on a surfing holiday I was apprehensive.

My first concern was the wetsuit - after all, a 260lb man in a neoprene body condom was the sight for which the word "ridiculous" was devised. And I did look ridiculous as I stood there on the beach, the hot Tofino sun beating down on my shiny pate, but then so did almost everyone else. Unless you're built like Armie Hammer the wetsuit will seek out your every imperfection and broadcast it to the world whether they want to see it or not - like ugly people making out on a Jumbotron.

My other, more pressing concern was the sea itself. In addition to being an ardent H.P. Lovecraft devotee I have seen Wolfgang Peterson’s The Perfect Storm several times and reason that if something can be both home to mighty Cthulu and executioner for bands of rugged seamen led by George Clooney then maybe it’s a bit beyond me. Perhaps, I suggested to my friends, the surfing experience could be approximated by covering me in cling film and having me sit in a tub of cold water.

The suggestion was pooh-poohed and I was accused of being “dramatic” but my apprehension remained and every time the sea hurled me end over end like a discarded cigarette butt I wanted to scream, “See what you’ve done, you bastards! It took Swooney and now, for my hubris, it will take me too!” That I survived is a testament not to the mercy of the sea but to the pleasure it takes in toying with its prey.

The capriciousness of the ocean was confirmed when, once I’d gotten the hang of walking my board against the current and even managed to catch a wave or two, I noticed that my friends seemed to have swum a great distance away from me, and, strangely, so had the beach. After a great deal of furious paddling failed to remedy the situation I realized that I had been caught in a riptide, which sounds like a sea-faring G.I. Joe villain but is actually an ocean current that pulls hapless idiots like me away from the beach and into Cthulu’s clutches.

I don't know how but it looks hungry


I vaguely remembered being told that if you are caught up in a rip tide the worst thing you can do is try to swim directly towards the shore, against the current, and so, clinging to my board I tried to move diagonally towards a patch of ocean not intent on my murder. My frantic movements brought me no closer to safety and the coldness of the water slowly gave way to icy tendrils of panic that worked their way up my spine. Every mouthful of seawater became harder to expel than the one before it - hoisting myself up on the board was only a temporary solution because the movement of the waves and my total lack of balance meant I could only stay atop for a few moments. Suddenly I regretted paying in advance for two nights at the hotel.

It was then the sea tired of its sport and I felt a wave pushing me towards shore. After reaching an area shallow enough for my feet to touch bottom a warm wave of relief washed over me and I heaved a great sigh standing there in the waist high water. I was still standing there when the sea delivered one bracing final bitch slap and I decided to break for lunch.

Afterward I hesitated to go back into the water but eventually realized I didn’t have much choice; the final wave had knocked out one of my contacts and without it I couldn’t eye up toothsome young bathing beauties without closing one eye and squinting the other so I that I took on the aspect of a lecherous pirate. Defeated, I pulled out my other lens then hauled my board and bulk back into the waves.

The jealous, frigid sea had made sure she was the only woman for me.

Run the other way, you idiot

Thursday, 01 September 2011 04:11

Meet Your Olympians: Jay Cutler

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This is the beginning of my coverage of the 2011 Mr. Olympia Competition. Further updates will be published on largelythetruthmrolympia.wordpress.com


Current Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler is exactly the kind of person you want as the spokesman for your sport – he’s conventionally handsome, personable and capable of assembling words into sentences that express thoughts more complex than “protein!” and “woman!”. Granted, many of those sentences concern either the mechanics of lifting heavy things or plugging the various supplements for which Cutler is spokesman, but then this is the sport of bodybuilding and not the National Poetry Championships. That’s not to say Cutler isn’t intelligent – he has an Associate Degree in Criminal Justice & has invested his contest winnings into real estate rather than, say, an Escalade made out of cocaine – it’s just that erudition and business acumen are not what get him on the cover of Muscle & Fitness.


What gets Cutler’s name in lights is the fact that he looks the way Pinocchio would have if Gepetto had been wishing Sherman tanks into life instead of wooden children. In an interview given two weeks ago he gave his current weight at 275lbs, which at 5’9” and with a body fat percentage he claims gets as low as 3% (the bastard), means that Cutler is more or less the human equivalent of the marble statues Miami drug lords buy to decorate their atrium.
Born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1973, Cutler grew up in nearby Sterling and attended Wachusett Regional High School where, at least by his own account, his teen years more or less resembled the happier parts of Friday Night Lights.
Football, along with working on the family farm & in his brother’s concrete business meant that Cutler had a well-developed physique even before he started bodybuilding on his 18th birthday. But, apparently it wasn’t enough to look like the proverbial brick shithouse, he wanted to be able to life one too.


It didn’t take long for his competitive drive to take over and in 1993 Cutler won the National Physique Committee’s (NPC) Teen Nationals Middleweight competition. In bodybuilding, the National Physique Committee is the organization which governs amateur athletes & in order to progress to professional status in the IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilders) an athlete must first win an NPC pro qualifying national contest. With help from mentor Bruce Vartanian, a Worcester businessman and bodybuilder, and diet guru Chris Aceto, Cutler swept the 1996 NPC nationals and turned pro.


Since then he’s been top dog in 15 other competitions, including 3 wins at the Arnold Classic, the Golden Globes to Mr. Olympia’s Oscars, but it wasn't until he claimed the Mr. Olympia title from reigning 8-time champ Ronnie Coleman in 2006 that Cutler became king of the bodybuilding world. After a surprise loss to Dexter Jackson in 2008, Cutler came back to win 2009 & 2010 and heads into the 2011 Olympia the defending 4-time champion.
The $200,000 Mr. Olympia prize purse is just the beginning of theperks that accompany winning bodybuilding’s top title – there’s also opportunity for product endorsements (Cutler reps for MuscleTech, among others), guest posing spots (paid, non-competitive appearances onstage at bodybuilding events), and merchandising (Cutler’s online store sells his line of apparel and a host of other products).


It's well that there are other ways for a championship bodybuilder to earn a buck, as the title does not come cheap – in an interview with Muscle Mag, Cutler claimed to spend $30,000 a year on massage therapy alone. His dietary requirements, between 4,000 and 7,000 calories a day including a full 5lbs of fish (which he despises), translate into an estimated $100,000 annual food budget and in a 2009 interview with the blog Vegas Deluxe, Cutler joked, “I am single-handedly supporting CostCo.”


Showing the kind of foresight one rarely sees in professional athletes, Cutler acknowledges that his career as a professional bodybuilder has an expiration date and he has planned for his future, “I have invested in real estate. I have contracts and sponsors that I continue with even after I retire,” he tells Vegas Delxue. “I will still promote bodybuilding to the best of my ability.” He says too that while he intends to continue weight training, his retirement will mean the end of the intensive training he goes through for the Olympia, “I am going to shrink down,” says Cutler. “And I’m going to throw the fish out the window.”


Die-hard fans have said that going into the 2011 Olympia Weekend Cutler looks confident and happy but based on the few interviews I’ve seen I don’t know that I agree. Physically he looks good but he seems tired and unenthusiastic, but then maybe it’s difficult to summon energy when a camera is shoved in your face shortly after you’ve finished throwing around a few hundred pounds.


One imagines that if Cutler were to lose this year’s Olympia to a contender like Phil Heath or Kai Greene we could see his retirement announced shortly after the Sheru Classic in Mumbai, India, on September 23-24. Bodybuilding is a heavily political sport, however, and the IFBB could certainly use a spokesman like Cutler for a few more years.


Time will tell.

 

Other Meet Your Olympians profiles:
Kai Greene
Phil Heath

 

Friday, 17 February 2012 04:32

So You Think You Can Write: Nicolette, Tennessee

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Last September, just before heading down to Las Vegas to blog the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition, I entered the Victoria Times-Colonist's "So You Think You Can Write" contest. In a previous post I mentioned I was chosen as a finalist and urged (some would say threatened) my readers to vote for me. My attempts at coercion failed and, alas, I did not win the contest. I did, however, write some fiction, which I had not done before and it came out nicely, if I do say so myself.

Over the course of the contest I wrote five pieces, including my qualifying story, and over the next little while I'll be posting the assignments here. This first doesn't have a title but is about growing up in the (nonexistent) small town of Nicolette, Tennessee:

 

 

The men of the Delaney family are not known for being long-lived. Our grandfather, Lee David Delaney, died in the Number 52 mine collapse in 1964 and his son, our father, David Lee Delaney, died twenty years later from a lung infection caused, it is widely accepted, by working in Number 53. And believe me, when I say ten years, I mean to the day. We tried to console ourselves by saying that at least we could confine our grief to a single day. It would have worked if it hadn’t been Christmas.

Neither death made the newspaper, Grandpa Lee David’s because Christmas 1964 was about when all those rivers in Oregon got to flooding and daddy’s because one man dying isn’t news, especially if he was a good man. We remembered them though, each in our own way - grandma for one developed a fear of going underground. This wasn’t a problem until she came to visit me in New York City and screamed the entire way through the Holland Tunnel.

The policeman who pulled us over was very gracious once he figured out that this 102lb senior citizen from Nicolette, Tennessee was no threat to any part of America except its eardrums. Between her accent and my grandfather’s too-big dentures he barely understood anything she said - he made out the word “Yankee” once and took it to mean that she was a baseball fan. I didn’t correct him.

My younger brother David & I were affected by the elder Delaney’s deaths in a different way - having died as a result of their jobs managed to impress upon us that toil was not conducive to good health and should be avoided. David excelled at this –by the age of ten he could sit in one spot on the front porch for up to sixteen hours. Jim Abramson, the tobacconist, would hire him to wear a headdress & pose as an Indian statue in his smoke shop, paying him in Prince Albert cigarettes – Jim always meant to have a proper carved Indian made but artists were in short supply in Nicolette in those days. Now David teaches yoga in Cosmos, California and can’t believe people pay honest money to be taught to stand still.

Myself, I made up stories. At first they were about people I knew, like my mother. Shortly after David was born she ran off with Tor Engvall, a local farmhand who also performed a Johnny Cash tribute act in retirement homes. At first she’d send postcards but they thinned out as the months passed & I sometimes imagined the two had been swallowed up by a whale, like Jonah.

Eventually I made up other stories and with both television and literacy being a luxury in those parts, people would come by Grandma’s house at night to hear me tell them.

Now I live in New York City and can’t believe that people will pay honest money to read about Nicolette, Tennessee.

Friday, 24 February 2012 04:26

So You Think You Can Write: The Knife

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For the second assignment in the 2011 Times Colonist "So You Think You Can Write Contest" we had to tell the story of an item about which we have ambivalent feelings. This is largely the truth (groan) about an angry time in my life and how I came to possess a handmade knife:

 

 

The drawer to the left of my kitchen sink contains a bizarre inventory of items: there are Ziploc bags filled with wet naps, ancient elastic bands, and various foreign coins left over from vacations past.

At the very back is the centrepiece of my little collection: a homemade knife. The pockmarked blade was machined from industrial steel; the handle from plastic cutting boards. It’s worn and without practical use yet I’ve taken it with me every time I’ve moved, from house to apartment to house, for six years.

I keep the knife because even though it represents a miserable part of my life, it’s also a reminder of the lessons I learned from the man who gave me it to me and how his sadness helped me to let go of the anger that had come to define me.

My final year of high-school was torturous; I’d always been a promising student but in Grade 12 the creativity that had served me so well was suddenly less important than being able to repeat what was in the textbook. I became resentful of the people around me, who I came to regard as little more than organic tape recorders.

After graduation I stayed in my hometown of Revelstoke, a small community five hours west of Calgary, as a kind of idiot protest. I told myself that my menial job was a thousand times better than the alternative — university and vying for Gold Stars from pedants in tweed coats. I would preserve my self-respect by living outside “the system” and pursuing my muse.

Except I never did pursue my muse; I lacked discipline, never pursuing any goal loftier than getting falling-down-drunk on weekends. It helped to dull the rage I felt at my own laziness and at my peers for passing me by. So much for self respect, then, and so much for my “promise”.

To cover the costs of living The Lost Weekend I began taking extra work as a day labourer. In December ’05 I took a job unloading trucks on a route that would eventually wind its way south into the Okanagan. The money was good but I’d have to find my own way home — a 200km journey.

Since a bus ticket would have eaten heavily into my day’s wages I decided to stick my thumb out and see what happened. I had never hitchhiked before but the $50 I’d save was good for at least 9 pints of inner peace come Friday night.

Winter’s premature dusk had settled over the highway by the time I set out for home. My first ride came quickly, a maroon Crown Vic driven by an elderly man who said only two words after hello. Those words, said 40 minutes later after dropping me off at a wooded crossroads near nowhere in particular, were “God bless.”

The moon, so bright before, had hidden behind clouds and the only light came from a single streetlamp by the side of the road.

Since it had been a mild December all I’d brought for warmth was a thin pair of work gloves that were of no use when the blizzard set in. For hours I shivered under falling snow next to an empty highway. Anyone who hasn’t lived in the mountains can never know the seeping chill that sets into the deepest places inside of you and how, in the silence, you become able to hear the Wendigo panting in hunger just beyond the treeline.

A rusted white pickup truck slammed to a halt next to me, jolting me from sleep I didn’t know I was having. The driver, who looked to be in his mid-30s, with a beer gut, and a thick horseshoe moustache, threw open the passenger-side door. He took one look at my frozen, snow-covered frame and told me to get in. I didn’t argue.

He introduced himself as Len, a 38-year-old labourer headed east in search of work. Originally from Ontario, Len said he had been a promising craftsman who split town after graduation — what he called “the dog and pony show” — and headed west. Between sentences he sipped from a can of Pacific Pilsner that he had pulled from underneath his seat. Finished cans went back underneath the seat, always to be replaced with a fresh one.

The plan, he said, had been to open his own machine shop but as the years slipped by all he got around to opening were cans like those around his feet. He laughed a little at that, a dry bark with no humour in it, and looked away out his window. His voice was thicker when he started speaking again, this time about how the little work that was available to a craftsman with no craft had dried up like the flow of correspondence from his family back home. He didn’t speak again for an hour.

Len insisted on driving me to my door. As we were saying goodbye he asked if I had anything to protect myself with on future hitching trips. Given how the first had gone, I said, I didn’t know there would be any more. He smiled then, the first real smile I’d seen on him, and reached again under the seat. This time he came back up with the knife I now know so well. Len said it was the first thing he had ever made, the project that had inspired him to think there was something bright ahead of him.

“Take it,” he said. “Just in case you decide to try again.”

Since then that's just what I’ve done — put down the booze, pick myself up and try again. I’ve done it because every time I look at that knife I remember the pride in its maker’s eyes as he talked about it, the sadness when he talked about everything else and the cold, lonely road walked by the angry and the prideful.

Wherever Len ended up I hope he did the same.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012 04:20

So You Think You Can Write: Juliette

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For this, my third assignment in the Times Colonist "So You Think You Can Write" competition, I was tasked with creating a character in 500 words or less. Descriptive writing was not something I often did and so this was an intimidating assignment, although it was easy compared to the one that followed.

 

 

Gliding between Formica tabletops, her slender fingers around the handle of a coffeepot, Juliette remembers when John would take her dancing and, when the diner is quiet, she can almost pretend it’s still spring 1967 and the air smells of gardenias in bloom.

She closes her blue eyes and remembers the summer before John was drafted: drinking iced tea on the porch with her parents before sneaking away to make love by the banks of the Atchafalaya Basin. Juliette trembled in the moonlight, a tall, slim girl even then, and he handled her like something precious and rare.

There have been others in the 30 years since a folded flag came home instead of him but John’s picture is the only one on her nightstand and in her best dreams her breath is quick and two hearts beat under cypress trees spread out against the stars.

The clatter of fallen plates brings her back to the present where Tara, the new girl, has dropped her tray. Julie hurries to help, wincing a little as her knees pop, and shushes the younger girl’s apologies.

Some nights Tara comes to Julie’s Galveston home where the two gossip and laugh until long after the orange Texas sun has dipped below the horizon. The 18-year-old is fascinated by the blonde tresses that hang to Julie’s waist and Julie is fascinated by the girl’s vitality, her ability to talk endlessly about nothing. The house is always too quiet after she leaves.

Julie hadn’t gotten around to having children by the time four long-haul truckers in Beaumont left her bleeding in a pile of dead leaves and took away the option. It was fall 1986, about the same time as the first dead girl was found in the Calder Killing Fields. The thought that there was someone worse off than her was all that kept Julie together in the long months that followed.

Her shift over, Julie hangs her apron in the staff closet, drops her tips into a paper bag from underneath the till and slips on her denim coat. One of her regulars wolf-whistles from the counter when she lets her hair down and she playfully swats him with the paper bag before giving him a delicate peck on the cheek. The old man blushes, the way he does every time.

The chimes above the door announce her arrival into a bright winter day and as she watches traffic zip past along the Gulf Freeway, Julie drifts back across the years. To cypress trees and the heady smell of the swamp. To tears and pain and how even they are playthings of time. To the dead and the living and the thin line she’s walked between them.

Through all of it she’s still standing and with money in her pockets, no less. Juliette breathes deeply and holds her head high. Her smile, as she walks to her truck, is a special one. One she usually saves for the picture on her night stand.

Thursday, 08 March 2012 04:17

So You Think You Can Write: Shadows and Light

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The focus of this assignment was dialogue - we had to write a conversation between two people where both were hiding something. The assignment scared the hell out of me at first - fiction had been hard enough but creating speaking characters? Eventually I had to force myself to sit down at the computer and wing it.

I couldn't stomach the idea of writing about some kind of domestic discord or tragic medical diagnosis so I reached into a different place. Being raised Catholic I've always been fascinated by the struggle between good & evil so for this assignment I decided the two should have a conversation. Four years later, I still cringe while reading it but it was a good way to learn my limits.

 

 

Except for a single light burning atop a worn desk the room was in darkness. Behind the desk sat an old man, his broad shoulders slightly stooped and his thick hands criss-crossed with the marks of age. His eyes were fixed on the desk, on an object at the fringes of the light. It was a globe — the world in miniature — the green land freshly charred, the blue seas newly boiled away.

God stared at the scale model of destruction and sighed. This had been his world, its inhabitants his children and his children had destroyed themselves. “Not for the first time,” spoke a voice inside him. The old man cradled his head in his hands as the unbidden emotions of a life long ago burst forth — the joy of creation, the wrath of wounded pride, and the ache of separation.

Shadows beyond the light began to shift, irregular shapes swirling in the dim until finally a lithe figure took form. Without looking up the old man said, “How did you get in?”

“The same way I used to,” said a soft voice from the shadows.

God regarded the darkness. “And you were not seen.”

The shadows smiled. “Of course not.”

The dark figure approached the desk, stopping before the light where, uninvited, he took a seat. His insolence made the old man rigid with fury and it was a moment before he calmed himself enough to say, “This is the first time since your banishment that you have dared to return. Why have you come, Lucifer? To gloat over your perversion of my world?”

“Not at all,” said the fallen angel. “I came to offer my condolences. The humans were petty, limited creatures but they held promise and in my way I loved them. Perhaps more than you did. Leading them to self-destruction gave me no joy, save for in the hurt it brought to you.”

The ruined planet hung between them as the old man said, “Your ego decided that this vendetta against me was worth inflicting misery and devastation on billions of lives? If these are the wages of your love then you have learned nothing in exile.”

The seraph sprang up: “Exile has taught me everything — to trust my own judgment again, to find joy in solitude. It has taught me that while I may be riven by pride and hypocrisy, you are no better.” He leaned into the light and for the first time since before the Fall, God saw Lucifer’s face.

God’s heart ached to see how the once-cherubic face had become hard and angular. The angel’s cheeks were sunken, his forehead deeply lined. His eyes were cold and reptilian beneath black razorblade brows. Once, the two of them had been inseparable, the Lord and his faithful Morning Star. Now the old man barely recognized the face that confronted him.

“You talk of humility and grace, but banish me when I challenge your judgment. You create a race who exists only to praise you and when they question their world as I questioned mine you inflict upon them such suffering as no one should be expected to bear. Look at me. Tell me these are not acts of cruelty. Of ego. Of hypocrisy.”

The angel leaned towards God, his eyes searching and the old man looked away. Lucifer withdrew, disgusted, into the darkness. God reached to him, “Please — try to understand that what I have done I have done with the best intentions.”

“With the best of intentions you promised life after death in exchange for their love when such a thing was not in your power to give? You must have known they would become drunk with the notion that their actions had no weight because another world awaited them.”

The old man protested weakly, “I wanted to give them hope.”

“You wanted to control them! If man knew that with his every act he teetered over oblivion he would have made better choices. If you had been honest with him, tried even for a moment to understand him this wouldn’t have happened. He’d still be here! Where he belongs! With you!”

His last words were a strangled cry and Lucifer swept the light from the old man’s desk where it burst — a brilliant supernova. When the brightness faded he was gone, leaving God alone in the darkness with his blackened globe.

At length he spoke to the empty room.

“I'm sorry.”

This restaurant review is from 2011 and was originally published on "Hot, Fast, Dirty", a website I'd intended to be for 500-word-or-less reviews of independent and lesser-known fast food joints. HFD has long since been closed and I've gradually been migrating the content to this site. As with all my food writing, you'll be able to find this and other reviews on the Restaurant Review Index.

Update February 26, 2013: This particular Lee's has closed it's doors. A new location in Campbell River has sprung up although they no longer seem to make the spicy chicken wings I loved so much.

 

 

There is no hope for the chicken. The first nail in its tiny coffin is that it is a graceless, unlovely beast whose daily routine consists of wobbling around a farmyard looking like an owl gone to seed. Not having a majestic bone in it’s body, it is eaten even by those who refuse the flesh of wild game because once upon a misty morning they saw an elk silhouetted against the rising sun.

The second mark against poultry is that it is annoying. Admittedly, being nature’s alarm clock the deck is stacked against it but with a little effort the chickencould have overcome. Instead it just dodders around making awful sounds and picking at the ground all day. There are ugly animals, just like ugly people, whose natural charisma allows others to see past negative characteristics like a body made of spare parts (platypus) or a nose straight out of the magazines that stores keep behind the counter (Proboscis Monkey). The chicken is not one of these animals.

The third and final strike? God made chickens delicious. This is the most damning trait possible for an animal with the defensive capabilities of a sofa.


Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken is a chain with a number of locations in the American southeast and 2, somewhat incongruously, here on Vancouver Island. Usually I opt for the 6 Piece Strip Meal ($10.99, includes a drink & 2 sides) and small buffalo chicken wings ($5.29 for 8 wings).


The strips are generous portions of all-white meat, offered in Famous or Crispy, of which Famous is my preferred choice, a slightly chewy and mildly spiced breading. The fries are fast-food standard, thin and crisp but with nothing to set them apart. The centerpiece of the 6 piece meal, or of any meal at Lee’s, is the gravy.


The thick, peppery elixir is the river that drives Lee’s turbine and easily outmatches the gravy from competing outlets like Popeye’s, Church’s or the dreaded KFC. The small container that comes with the meal is never enough and it’s so good that you can power right through the guilt that tries to stop you from buying a second round.


The other thing I adore about Lee’s is their commitment to serving up buffalo wings that you cannot eat in polite company. When ordering wings at many places it’s common to get short-changed on the amount of sauce you get – not so with Lee’s Buffalo Wings. On every visit they come covered in (literally) eye-watering amounts of hot sauce and are impossible to eat without looking like a two-year old tackling spaghetti for the first time.On occasion I’ve given into temptation and purchased the large order of wings ($8.99) but this is ill-advised as your sinuses will go into full shutdown and you’ll have to power-wash the sauce from your fingers.

They're worth the trouble, though, and Lee's is a chicken joint worth coming back to.

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