Thursday, October 19, 2006

10-15-2006 -- Highway 1, generally eastbound

The mountaintops are in cloud, the road’s damp, the light’s grey… a Rocky Mountain afternoon in September, the woods wet with childhood memory.

As an Edmonite family we were basically Jasper people – even in the early Eighties we sour-graped that Banff was “too commercial," “overrun” – but the terrain, the trees, the air, the olive-and-mustard signs and glyphs are the same, and I’m back in the Alpine Bungalows, shooting plastic giftshop bow-and-arrow sets, chucking rocks into the Athabasca, hiking up to Old Fort Point with Uncle Rick bellowing nonstop foolery to warn off the bears.

I really ought not to let my mind wander too far in time and space; I might need it at a moment’s notice to, you know, make driving decisions. That’s how it works, isn’t it? I’m pretty new to this – this is my first solo highway drive, the mass (1767kg gross vehicle weight) and speed (90km/h) of my girl’s Cavalier combining for the most physical energy I’ve ever had at my command… unless you count the time in Air Cadets when I had my hands on the yoke of a Hercules for like five seconds (I don’t). I’m actually not as nervous as I thought I’d be, my only concern the growing ache down my left leg – how did it happen that I’m a first-time driver at an age when my problems include sciatica?

Console clock ticks to 4:20 as I roll through Canmore, park and town and the hillside citadel of the Banff Centre for the Arts behind me. A strange space and place… a brief two days of rambling distractedly through its paths and pavilions as a WordFest entourageur. Mountain air opens my psychic receptors wide, and as my poet and I went from reading to reading to panel to bar to hotelish dorm room, I caught years of echoes from every corner -- cycle after cycle of residency having laid down layers of pocket cultures, private dramas, brief epics, temporary autonomous zones… how many novelists kissed how many printmakers under that tree? Erato and Calliope smokin’ up and making plans back behind the actors’ shacks…

John Ralston Saul spoke – well… was spoken to, and then responded, talk-show style – last night, one of the flagship moments of the festival, and it was OK… which was disappointing. Was I wrong to expect more than okayness from the Smartest Man in Canada? Chatty and informal, a sermon to the organist, glib, a bold call for the gathered literary lefties to continue in their established Alberta views… none of the rigor and conceptual chasedown that makes the man’s mind exciting... JRS-Lite. Or, maybe, I was unreceptive because I’d had my bullshit detector tripped prematurely by this passage from his fawning introduction:

“…he argues that we as humans are not adjusting intelligently to reality…”

…at which point my partner-in-crime and I turn to each other and simultaneously whisper "…fuckin’ stop the press…”, and after that it was all church-giggles and eye-rolls. We ditched out on the Q & A, knowing how those things go; there’s only so much one’s eyes can roll before you run the risk of serious nerve damage. Your face can and will freeze that way.

And that’s a problem, if the CanLitPubCult world is one in which you want to move – eye-rolls, derisive snorts, under-the-breath “fuck you”s are unwelcome among the tweedy book-fetishists, gentle sensitives, earnest thinkers and displaced 19th Centurians that’ll be moving with you. Even the iconoclastic drunks will only countenance so much obvious guttersniping, and the ways of barroom and bush-party are ape-ugly in buildings named after millionaires… rightly so, I guess…

Rainclouds over Calgary; I get a little fishy in my lane trying to figure out the windshield wipers. Cowtown traffic’s ahead, and my nerves give a panicked little tingle at the thought before a calm comes, radiating out into my body from an invisible zone at the base of my left ring finger, and I can handle anything. Mountains and magic, books and bullshit… hello, future; what took you so long?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

FunStation One

There’s a feel to cheapass knockoff plastic that’s somehow delicious. Brittle, light, flimsy... bird bones or insect chitin – the grey delicacy of the “FunStation One” was a stick-insect in my hand, an arthritic old cat, something requiring more care in handling than the fifteen dollars (tax included) I’d handed over to the disinterested old Chinese dude at the Spadina hole-in-the-wall import warehouse would otherwise call for. I wanted to protect the FunStation One; I wanted to tell it everything was going to be OK.

All the FunStation One wanted to tell me back was that it’d been assembled somewhere standards for electrical-equipment manufacture were lax to the point of triviality, a regulatory regime wholly alien to my CSA-coddled way of thinking. The electrical system in my buddy’s Bloor street apartment shrieked as the unisolated, off-frequency transformer made itself known – the TV spazzed into frenzied houndstooth snow, the stereo set up an ear-splitting goat-bleat of feedback, and the satellite receiver simply slipped into NO SIGNAL and waited testily to resume its orbital conversation.

I slapped the FunStation One off the powerbar in a panic; wrecking a pal’s AV setup was one thing – it was all pawnshop-replaceable, and he could probably do without Galaxie Classic County for a day or two – but at that moment I knew FunStation One had enough malice within it to reach outside the apartment, to work its mysterious sweatshop sabotage throughout the building. An image of the eager young Vietnamese who’d just opened their noodle shop downstairs (“Pho’Ever”; clever) weeping over piles of spoiled banh xeo in a defunct cooler flashed through my mind, and I knew I could never live with that on my hands; their girlfriends were too adorable.

This was the latest of the videogaming disappointments in my Toronto excursion, a string of gamey fuckups that began with remembering my DS and PSP but leaving behind the bag of brand-new games I’d meant to review in transit – and then picking up Deep Dungeon in a shabby Queen St. game store, thereby discovering the shittiest portable game I’d played since Mortal Kombat Advance. I was, I thought, fucked for material – I suppose I could have attended the Sony event to which I’d been invited, but… well. You know how it goes; I got sidetracked by the Henry Moore exhibition at the art gallery, and the day just went by. By the time I’d have got up to the distant club where the thing was going down, my vultrous colleagues would have long since snarfled up the last crumbs of Sony’s canap├ęs.

It wasn’t til just this afternoon, as I was despairing for an angle – was I going to have to write about web games again? How worn can that dodge get before editors and audience see through it? – that the reality of the week clarified for me: games-playing, video or otherwise, is as much a part of human life as breathing, eating, shitting and/or making love, and without even trying – well, trying but being falsely frustrated – I’d spent part of every damn day gaming on reflex, in natural flow.

Start with Sunday’s street hockey, the away opener for my time in TO. A grinning gang of Edmonton expats playing on the concrete patch beside a park rink – too few people, in too poor shape, to use the full-sized surface without hearts exploding – dodging light-poles, dirt-piles, mud-puddles and broken glass in pursuit of… mere fun, simple exercise; these are office-sitting and floor-standing people, and a few hours of hardfought road-shinney ass-hockey beat (I’m told) any whirring, clanking machine in some TV-encrusted gym any day. So what if I had to double-dose on Motrin for the rest of my trip, my unconditioned legs stiff as sticks as I hobbled around town? I scored two goals and got two assists! I heartily recommend goals and assists as mood elevators; ask your doctor.

Then there was the little “let’s just have one more pint” pub that happened to have one of those plug-n-play Atari decks up on the bar, where I did a quick level-one speedrun through Adventure, showed off my insane Yar’s Revenge skills and got confused and annoyed (as I always, always have been) by Haunted House before the brick-breaking castle-to-castle combat of Warlords turned one more pint into two more pints, two more pints into two more pints and a round of Jack-n-soda, two pints and a Jack into “Fuck! Fucking Warlords! Why would they put this game on a deck with no fucking paddle controller?!”

And so on, gaming through a long, expensive, boozy, brilliant, laugh-a-minute rumble through Hogtown. When you’re a gamer, you’re a gamer whether your DS is charged or not, whether or not you’ve got electricity and wherever you are – and if you’re human, you’re a gamer. Crib on the bus, I Spy in the dentist’s waiting room, Hangman (clue: “ Awesome record”; C_ec_ _o_r _ea_) in the back seat of the car… even the little, life-changing daily games of people and people… we’re gaming always, everywhere, forever.

(POSTSCRIPT: I guess my electrical system is better than my friend’s, ‘cause I just got the FunStation One to work without assassinating my XBox. Turns out the 9,999,999 advertised games are Super Mario Bros., the ten events of Track & Field counted individually, and what I’m guessing is a Columns knockoff [it doesn’t run] repeated 833,333 times. Caveat emptor.)

photo: D. Martineau

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bodhisattva

10-03-2006 -- Toronto

An exquisite young lady on Yonge street, eyes bright: "Are you guys from Toronto?"

Hands and minds full of overloaded Polish sausage, we answer no, that we are in fact from Edmonton. Her face falls.

"No! I've been looking for you all day!" She glances over at her camera-toting companion with a look of frustration: "Why isn't anybody from here!?"

Seems they were some kind of journalism students -- students of a very lite school, apparently -- working on a fashion streeter, and no natives were rocking the look they were after. So there's your tip for the day, cool hunters; "cleaned-up prairie hoser" is the new black. Load our rural thrift-store racks into cube vans and send them back East, make a killing.

The time is right for Western style to echo back into this grid of gloss and polish; certainly, we've got enough money now to earn the respect of these bottomliners. Toronto is ripe for a renaissance of Albertan bush-party chic... and it'd better happen soon, before Alberta's great pillow of cash smothers our style in the crib -- have you heard, Calgary's getting a motherfuckin' Tiffany's? -- and there's no place left for us but Winnipeg.

It really is a transcanada cosmopolity out here. I never feel more Canadian than when I'm in Toronto. I mean, what could possibly reek more of maple (and other aromas) than playing pickup street hockey in the shadow of the CN Tower with a bunch of Edmonton exiles, passing water-break time discussing the Oilers with a guy who's going to TV comdey-writng college? And also, your goalie's an Indian? All that's missing is the haunting flute theme from Hinterland Who's Who, and maybe a picturesquely beached dory.

The best part about being an Albertan out here is telling Ontarians about what's happeneing back home; they really don't get much in the way of Western news in their crummy papers, so it's fun to watch their faces when you give them the rundown. We were having a toke with a friend outside the Victory Lounge -- some killer weed out here, by the way; that's something we ought not to be smug about -- when we let her have it:

"Yeah, Fort Mac Murray? It's literally being destroyed by money. Housing's so precious, people are paying like five hundred bucks a month for a half-share of a couch to sleep on, or for a driveway spot where they can sleep in their car."

"What?!"

"Oh, yeah! And they're having to close down coffee shops and shit because there's no staff; it's impossible to pay enough. Guys shop at the Wal-Mart in shifts, one guy shopping while the other guys stands in line, because there's only one till open and the lineup goes all the way around the store."

"Fuck!"

Et cetera; by the time we mentioned about the thousand-dollar hiring bonuses at McDonalds, and got through a brief sketch of our one-party state where even River City lefties and toughass unionists are buying Tory memberships just to have a voice in who's running the show, the pot was kicking in and she was pretty freaked out.

And, to be honest, so were we; saying that shit out loud, even with only two days and a comfortable westjetting of distance between ourselves and home, makes it sound just as crazy and gross and money-sick as it actually is. Buzzed on Quebequois biker weed and drunk on unfamiliar draughts, Devo (by way of Nirvana) started running through my head:

Take a step outside the city
And turn around
Take a look at what you are
It is revolting
photo: D. Martineau

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

In the last of the arcades...

Shuma-Gorath is kicking Spider-Man’s ass all over the hellscape of his home dimension. I guess it makes sense, that a primordial nightmare evil that was ancient when the gods themselves were young might stomp all over an irradiated nerd from Queens; but this? Pathetic, like some geriatric lucha libre washout pulled on Spidey’s tights and bluffed his way through interdimensional security for a shot at the cosmic title. He doesn’t seem to have web-shooters, some kind of joint ailment is keeping him from ducking under Shuma’s tentacular blows, and the cheap throw that got him past Iron Man doesn’t seem to work on amorphous blobs. Looks like the dream dies here, El Arana.

Wow… good to see my capacity for conjuring bright-side narratives from broken toys is undiminished from the days when the jagged flange of metal jutting from my GI Joe’s wrist became an awesome cybernetic knife-hand. But, really, what else am I going to with a fucked-up joystick that won’t register a downward push? Scream and beat the shit out of the cabinet like the frustrated skid at the Bubble Bobble machine next to me? There’s more than enough negativity in the Calgary Greyhound terminal without me adding to (subtracting from?) it.

With all the petrodollars swirling around – every second overheard bus-station conversation is about wealth: "Hey, remember that bumper sticker? ‘Please Lord, let me have another oil boom and I won’t piss it away’?" – you’d think we could keep our goddamned arcade cabinets in working order. Where are our priorities? Are we that quick to abandon the fundamentals of our culture? How many Lethal Enforcers units with a frayed length of cable where one gun (usually the pink one) used to be can we walk past without acknowledging the problem?

The racing games seem to have it worst of all. Player One on Calgary’s Winding Heat sit-down might be OK, but something’s seriously gibbled in Player Two’s RGB situation. One of the channels has dropped out or something, leaving all the cars with these nauseous paintjobs and the road looking like a mud track, a Hershey highway. It’s motorsports in the Land of Dairy Queen: "There’s a nasty chicane just past the giant pineapple! Watch for falling chunks of fudge!" Meanwhile, back in Edmonton, a Cruisin’ USA upright offers a harrowing simulation of the optical experience of a night-vision soldier overdosed on Viagra. What is it about racers that makes their visuals go blooie? Is the action just too hot to handle?

Not all the games in these places are broken. Edmonton’s Revolution X machine, for example, appears to be in perfect working order for those who might enjoy an hour or two of machine-gunning the police-state thugs who’ve kidnapped Aerosmith while they wait for the midnight run to Peace River. And in Calgary, there’s a Wonder Boy in Monster Land cabinet (mislabeled in dot-matrix as Wonder Boy III) that’s functioning beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that this one dude happily continued away at it for the entire hour and a half I spent waiting for my connection, the bastard. God, to be near that wonderful game and unable to adventure within it! I pretended to play the nearby Demolition Man and The Shadow pinball tables (all the hits of ’94, here) for a while, just so I could listen to the Wonder Boy theme music, but I think the dude was on to me; even distracted by Wonder Boy’s epic quest, he must have realized that nobody could honestly play The Shadow more than once. And, besides, who am I to impose poorly-compressed Alec Baldwin samples on another guy’s time in Monster Land?

These places are the last of the arcades, final reverves of that particular atmosphere, and we’re letting them go to shit. Can we, like, start some kind of fund or preservation society, or something? All this money around, and we can’t be bothered to preserve a key part of our hoser heritage… it’s sad. Every Simpsons unit with the logo burned into the screen; every 1943 that glitches out so bad it can’t be played; every Operation Wolf with the aiming sensor so fucked it’s like you’re playing Parkinson’s Patrol is another knife in the belly of arcade culture.