Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Hills are Alive; or Organic Trans-Plants...

Penned June 25th, 2009

After twenty-seven years of perfectly satisfactory life in Canada, economic conditions led me pursue my career to the United States of America. To some, this may seem an act of hypocrisy, to others, a great opportunity, but to me it was just logical. I needed a stable job, and I got one. It just so happens to be in San Diego County, rather than the Kootenays or the BC mid-coast I would have preferred. So it goes.

Thus, I currently find myself in Palomar Mountain, California. Palomar Mountain rests about 45 kilometres northeast of, and about 1700 metres above San Diego. Palomar literally means ‘pigeon coop’, which is strange, since I have yet to see one on the hill, amid the healthy populations of turkey vultures, brown hawks, and bald eagles.

Other than the wildlife, there are several things of note on the mountain. One is Palomar Observatory, which houses the Hale telescope, which from 1948 until 1975 was the largest in the world (with a 5.1 m focal length!). The next is Palomar Mountain State Park, which offers fantastic views of the valley below, when it isn’t obscured completely by mist (which, in my opinion is more impressive, since the floor of clouds gives a decidedly heaven-like impression). The last is isolation, which draws the certain breed of people that give the town its unique cultural flavour.

On this topic, it should be noted that there aren’t many people on the mountain. Basically, the ten of us on this project from out of town represent about 5% of the population of the area. Of the permanent residents, only one is an attractive young lady, whose parents are missionaries and whose place of employment is the Christian Conference Centre a ways away. This could be a terribly long contract.

The remaining 199-odd residents fall into four general categories. The first is the true mountaineers, whose pappies were born on the mountain, grand-pappies were born on the mountain, great-grand-pappies were born on the mountain, great-great-grand-pappies were born on the mountain, and so on. A number of these families have been on Palomar for six generations, and have no intention of leaving.

The next group is retirees, who moved up to get away from the bustle of the city below. They are nice people, but are horrifically boring, enjoying mostly satellite television, and, well, that’s about it.

The third group is the weekenders, who live down in the city and come up Saturday morning for margueritas in the sun (it is sunny here 99.83% of the time- even at night). I would like to get to know some of these people more, so maybe we could arrange a time share. Then I could potentially take care of their house on the hill during the week, and when they come up on weekends, I could sleep in their place city-side at night, while lazing all day on the beach. No takers, so far.

The final, and by far most interesting group, are the crazies. Now, I don’t mean these people are bat-shit crazy, but they’re not just you and me crazy, you know? These are the kind of people that choose to live on a mountain because they are leery of society, and realize that you get much better rifle range from an elevated position. Now, these people aren’t essentially violent, but they do have a somewhat excessive fear of authority, and correspondingly vote for the Republican Party due to its doctrine of small government (while ironically pushing for stronger armies, and more cops on the beat). Far from being stand-offish, I’ve found these people to be the most willing to share their illegal fishing spots with me, an outsider, and are probably the ones best equipped to help me if I roll a vehicle into a ditch. The crazies, overall, represent probably 10% of the people on Palomar, but make up 90% of the character of the mountain. And Jim, for one, just happens to be one of these characters.

Jim is an engineer, of sorts. He originally studied physics, and later biotechnology at Berkeley. He has worked for numerous biotech firms, as well as running his own consulting company, and over his career has done numerous contracts for NASA, among other reputable organizations. His work is largely of the design variety: he makes metal bits that go inside people to make them better. There can be no doubt. Jim is brilliant.

When I first met Jim, he was drunk. Not plastered, but certainly good and drunk, what with some slight slurring, and excessive volume of speech. It was 9:30 am. He told me that though he had registered for the program for which I work, he had changed his mind, and no longer wanted in. He didn’t want any representative of the government on his property. I told him I understood, and we continued chatting a while about the role of the State, which led into a longer conversation about a number of topics. This eventually culminated in Jim showing me around his home office, a very impressive affair, which included a complete computer-controlled machine shop, a vintage radio (with jazz on), and a fridge full of Coors. He showed me the stupefyingly complex designs for his newest project, a prosthesis, designed to help those with musculature problems in their latter years. I was duly impressed.

Health sciences led to health care, and Jim and I got to talking about socialized medicine. Like many people on the mountain, Jim isn’t enthusiastic about the idea of publicly funded health care. Far from wanting to deny anyone access to services, he was concerned about people’s health being put in control of the government, the potential inefficiencies of such a system, and individuals’ ability to choose their physicians; the kind of arguments often heard regarding the topic. The kind of arguments that are getting thrown around quite a lot in America, these days.

Of course, the subject of health care is all the rage these days in the U.S. of A. President Obama is pushing for support in both Democrat and Republican camps to construct a universal health care system for the people of the United States. As a human being prone to reckless behaviour, I support this move, since as a US resident I am currently paying a stupid amount for health insurance. I assure you, it sucks.

What I question, however, about President Obama and his health care plan is the wisdom of his timing. Currently, in both Canada and the United States we are waiting on the wings of the largest relative retirement cohort in history. Now, I’m happy to see my parents’ generation take a break from middle managing and buying minivans, but what I’m not so stoked about is their general health. Of course, as people age their health tends to deteriorate. And as this happens, the costs to take care of them are bound to increase. Because of this, in every constituency of the OECD, health care costs are rising faster than the growth of the economy (even ignoring these current tough times). That means that soon, if not already, we will not be able to pay for the health care that the baby boomers require. This forces a real, honest to goodness dilemma. We either ring up unheard amounts of government debt (literally trillions in the US), or we limit the scope of our health care services, potentially leaving those with the most expensive services unassisted.

Now, I don’t want to see mine, or anyone else’s parents die. Death isn’t fun, and the void left behind by the departure of someone we love hurts, and never disappears as long as we’re around. But at the same time, it must be acknowledged that everyone certainly will die. We all want to have our families with us for as long as we can, but if we are spending literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, expending large amounts of scarce resources to extend someone’s life for just a few more years, we can justifiably start to wonder if maybe we could be saving a lot more people’s lives by investing those resources elsewhere. No one wants to think of it in these terms, but perhaps the greatest good isn’t served by trying to maximize people’s quantity of life just before the end.

I’m not going to question the use of ibuprophen for joint pain, or vaccinations for crippling diseases, or antibiotics for infections. I’m only calling for a reexamination of our desire to use medical skill and science to fight tooth and nail against the natural disposition of our bodies to break down as we age. I mean, we begin to age the moment we’re conceived, but from the age of eighteen onward, it’s a pretty much downhill battle. However, instead of living healthy lives to let our bodies do what they do best (which is live), we tend to ignore them until they start to fall apart at fifty or sixty, then expect our children to pay the debts for cobbling our bodies back together with artificial hearts, lungs and livers, because we feel entitled to live to eighty or more. To me it just doesn’t make sense. There has to be a breaking point. A point beyond which we have to say, ‘this is ludicrous’, and make some tough decisions. Tough decisions like the United States is facing right now. Like whether or not it should adopt a universal health care system, what form it will take, and how it is going to pay for it.

The tendency when weighing life versus dollars is to assume the former is sacrosanct and that the latter is ‘just money’. But the reality of the matter is that money and time are one and the same. Money isn’t free, and the time you dedicate to earning it comes at the expense of something else, like, for example, spending time with your family. So if you’re paying to extend dad’s life so you can spend more time with him (your family), but missing out on time with your children (your family) because you have to work more, is it really the best thing to do? What if you factor in the effect that extra work and financial stress has on your own life expectancy, and how that will affect the time you have with your family when you get old?

I’m certainly not saying that anyone should be denied a life-saving surgery because they don’t have the cash in the bank. That’s not fair, and in no way does it contribute to a happier, healthier or more functional society. But I do think that we should differentiate between true life-saving technologies, and life-prolonging ones, and use them accordingly.

These issues are never black and white, and the more you look into them, the greyer, and more muddled they become. I’m still a fan of universal health care, and I think there should be a strong social safety net to catch those who fall off the fringes of society. But I’m certainly concerned about what’s going to happen in the future given the rocketing cost of health care with an ageing population, and increased global economic constraints. Sadly, I have little expectation that there will be much health care accessible to me in my old age. I just don’t think there will be capacity bankroll it. The flipside of this coin is the impetus for me to actually take care of my body, and get as much life as I can out of it by giving it what it needs to do what it does best. I know it sounds crazy, but I’m going to eat right and exercise. I may not live to eighty, but that’s okay. I’m sure I’ll have a good run.

So in the end, I must admit that I’m opposed to what Jim is doing. And no, Jim isn’t making the next false kidney, or designing a drug to replace the spleen. I’m fact, Jim’s invention could neither be considered a life-saving, nor a life prolonging health care technology. So what is it that Jim is working on?

Jim is designing an artificial sphincter. That’s right, a device to keep human digestive wastes inside until an appropriate toilet can be reached. Prototypes are currently being tested on pigs, and, if successful, they will be available as implants for humans. Now, I want to deal with unwanted faeces as little as the next guy, but I’m concerned about what Jim is doing. Why?

I’m not opposed to Jim’s work based on any of the ideological or financial concerns raised above. I don’t feel that the invention will make people live longer lives than they are entitled to, nor am I afraid that artificial anuses will send the American empire into bankruptcy. No, my leeriness regarding Jim’s invention comes from a completely different place altogether. My issue is this: There are already so many regular assholes in the world today, I really don’t think there’s any need to be making more of them.

But then, I'm still young...


Spaced out...

Penned September 10th, 2008

It is an area filled with mystery. But here is not mystery of the conventional kind. It is not the mystery of Poe, Hawthorne, or King. It is a mystery of a different sort than is usually attached to the land. It is not the mystery of the dark and foreboding, the unknown and unseen, represented by creaky closing doors, shadowing canopy, or concealing mausolea. None of these are found here. You would be hard pressed to find much of anything, in fact. And that itself is the cause of the fear and wonder. The secrets held in these lands are not so much in what dwells here, but instead, what may have have dwelt here, but for a brief moment, and, some say, are bound to come again.

Again, this is a function of the land itself. If a man ill-prepared were to find himself here, it would not be long before hallucination would be upon him. If it was not the starvation-driven consumption of the local psychotropics, then the heat, dehydration, and fatigue would certainly give rise to mysterious visions. But even the well-fed, well-watered, and well-rested are prone to be rapt by the mystery of the land, and taken to seeing things that others may not. But I am being misleading. The land here hides no secrets. Amid the sand, sage and saguaro, there is little to hide. The snakes and scorpions are rare, their numbers held in check by the same want of water that curses all living things in the desert. There is little to fear on land, here. The mystery of this place is in the sky.

It's impossible to not feel a tinge of insignificance when you look into the night sky above Southwest desert. There is no end to the sea of black that spreads itself across your field of vision like a quilt, light piercing through the pinholes of the stitching to reveal the crude and imaginative renditions of hunter, bull and crab. Judaic mythology teaches of the firmament encompassing the planet, the abscesses in which showed us literally the light of heaven, twinkling just beyond our earthly grasp. Perhaps crazy to some, when you look into the sky over the desert, this view seems strangely real. To the Navajo of this land, the stars were ornaments placed above by the Holy Ones, when Coyote, the trickster, stole the bag of stars and swung it open, spreading a milky stream across the night sky. Perhaps it is the trickster still who fools some into seeing visions in the night sky here. The night sky that goes on and on, uninhibited by edifice, timber, or peak, whose end is dictated only by the disappearance of the stars, black otherwise persisting in all directions. Directions which, in the lack of a compass, become all but figurative to those illiterate to the stars, whose bearing is surely lost in the dizzying array.

And below this array lies the Very Large Array, deep in the desert amid the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico. The Very Large Array, a collection of twenty-seven massive radio telescopes arranged in a Y, continuously scans the sky for incoming radio waves, low frequency radiation emitted from bodies deep in space. When melded with skill and technology, this information is pieced together, and images are rendered of dying stars, supernovae, black holes, brown dwarves, red giants, and other wonders far off in the Kosmos.

But brown dwarves and red giants aren't the only strange visions to be seen in this desert. This is the place of science fantasy. To the north lies Area 51, the supposed examination facility for alien corpses and spacecraft. Officially, the area surrounding the base was used for the development stealth planes. Some allege these high tech aircraft were reverse engineered from alien technology. Others claim UFOs seen in the area were simply these advanced aircraft in flight. The truth, of course, remains unknown.

To the east is Roswell, the legendary UFO crash site. Far from denying this event, the recovery of a 'flying disc' was reported by the Roswell Army Air Field. Later that day, the statement was amended to admit the capture of a weather balloon only. Controversy has persisted ever since. Regardless of the validity of any of these reports, this area garners some of the highest numbers of UFO sightings anywhere, and feeds the imaginations of dreamers worldwide. Dreamers, well, like me.

I've never been a UFO aficionado, but I admit that there is this part of me that yearns for the knowledge that there is something else out there. The reinforcement that we are not alone in the universe. I mean, perhaps it's silly, given that there are plenty of intelligent creatures on earth: dolphins, bonobos, octopi, elephants... not to mention the 6+ billion of us that crawl the surface of this rock. I don't know, I guess it's perhaps just a lingering desire for that mystery, something that we seem to have so decisively banished from our psyche through reason. Maybe if we were to find extra-terrestrial intelligence, that mystery would, too, vanish, like our infatuation with the moon when we set foot on her. But that doesn't mean we should stop searching.

I'm sure I'll take criticism for this, but I think, regardless of anything, we can never cut the space program. I understand that people are starving, and kids can't go to school, and there's mercury in the oceans, and on, and on, but to me there is something greater at stake. I feel that there is something pure, almost altruistic in our desire to explore space. Just learning, and knowing that what we learn will do nothing to improve our lot. That our knowledge will be virtually useless, but for its own sake. It strikes to the heart of science, heartless itself, wishing only to comprehend, not to feed greed, or mouth, or build any empire but of understanding alone. And to me there is something beautiful in that. Almost like having a zen garden, or doing crossword puzzles with the heavens.

And I feel that in some way, in this hunt for the unknown, we gain a better understanding of ourselves. I believe that in trying to understand what goes on so deep in outer space, we'll gain just a little more understanding of our inner space: who we are, from where we came, to where we are headed. That if we can find something else out there, then we no longer have to be the butt of some cosmic joke: the random planet, near a random sun, that looks for significance in everything to find a reason for its being beyond randomness. Or maybe we'd just feel like we weren't special anymore. Who knows.

But I've spent too much time in musing. We have to be in Dallas by tomorrow. I take one last look up at the night sky. It really is stunning. I fear having to enter a metropolis again, where the stars are all but drowned out by the noise of the city lights. But for now it's all just beautifully black and white. I try to soak it all in, close the shutter of my eyes, and let the image soak into film of my mind, an image I can take home with me, because no picture I take could ever do it justice.

I open my eyes as I head back to the car, and out of the corner of my eye, I see something flash across the sky. And I feel a tingle of excitement and wonder. I think that perhaps all those locals aren't so wrong. Perhaps there is something in the sky above this desert. Maybe there is intelligent life out there. And maybe, if we work hard, and keep searching, it will be revealed to us, and we won't have to feel so alone in the universe.

But then, there's very good chance it was just a weather balloon.


The 'Kusp of a New Era...

Penned June 1st, 2008

I turned on the TV today. This, in and of itself, is novel. I don't have one at home, and though I periodically catch a downloaded episode of South Park or The Boondocks, I definitely don't consider myself part of the 'viewing public'. The last time I can recall actually turning on a television to be mindlessly entertained was last summer in Grande Prairie, and I remember being curiously impressed by George Strombolopolous' "I'm changing the subject without you noticing" interviewing style. I hadn't turned on the power since.

But today, on the fifth of the five days I am slated to be in Nakusp, I caved and pressed the red button. I feel no shame about this. Well, almost none. It was genuinely out of curiosity. What are people watching these days? I hear snippets about idols and choppers, and I'm pretty sure I'm not losing out on anything, but it's sometimes good to take a glance at pop culture, so at least no one can say I don't know what I'm missing.

Pressure applied, there is a softened click, a louder pop, and colour rises to the surface of the screen, feeling its way across the flat glass of the tube. It settles into focus to reveal Charlie Sheen being lambasted by a stereotype of a vegetarian, a girl who tasted meat in his kiss. Well, it's good to know some things never change. I settle on the CBC for the national news to collect a few sound bytes, and maybe draw me from my (most enjoyable) self-imposed isolation.

There is hockey this, murder that… the usual fare. But one image intrigues me. It is of three people, standing near a grass hut. One is in the background, her colour pigmented black by natural dyes. In the foreground stand two men, their skin a vivid orange-red, bows arced in the air, arrows at the ready, a menacing gesture directed at the person on the other side of the aperture. These are a few of the world's remaining wild peoples, members of the up to sixty-eight uncontacted tribes left in the world, hidden only from the world outside by the dense, multi-storey ceilings of the Amazon jungle.

The images were released by Brazil to publicly prove to Peru, and those pursuing mineral and petroleum claims in the area, that these people do, in fact, exist. The rationale is that if international attention is drawn to the issue, then perhaps the government on the other side of the border (a border non-existent to the tribesmen) will disallow mines and well sites that would drive out or extirpate these peoples.

Of course the existence of this tribe in particular is no secret. Local farmers have lived in their vicinity for decades, and FUNAI, the Brazilian government's version of Indian Affairs, has well documented information dating back at least twenty years. The fact of their materiality is not novel, but the pictures of them certainly are. It takes but a moment for the gravity of the images to sink in. These are the only free people left in the world, the few who have no chains. By fortune and goodwill, they have been spared the vortex of complexity of which you and I are part. They are the ones who looked at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thought the fruit looked sour, and kept playing under the canopy. They never learned of their nakedness, were never ashamed, and never needed toil to squeeze from the soil their daily bread. They are the Adams and the Eves, what we once were, living in the garden to which, to our own detriment, we can never return.

With this thought, I turn off the television and go outside for a walk. To my right, well beyond its apex, the sun descends through its roundabout southern arc. One would not expect sunset so early this time of year, but the austere and lordly mountains project a dominating presence on the horizon, and by eight the sun hovers mere inches above their snow-capped ridges. Atop the peaks across Arrow Lake, hues of pink cum red cum orange are reflected off the clouds, which themselves are reflected of the water. There is dazzling colour in every direction, and I believe with sincerity that this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

But it's not the untouched aesthetic alone that seduces me. It's everything about this place. Despite its attractiveness, Nakusp seems free of pretense. Absent are the faux chalets of Jasper, and château of Lake Louise. The town is unique, but I resist the use of the word quaint, because although there is an innocence to this place, it is not to be confused with naïveté- the village subsisted off industry for many years before tourism took flight, and there is still that working class self-respect in the air. There are well-groomed flowerbeds, but they are tended by local citizens, not exorbitant property taxes and union wages. And Nakusp is virtually without chains. Aside from a grocery store and two gas stations, nothing in the town is run outside the town. No London Drugs, no Radio Shack, no 7-11/Mac's/Mike's Mart/Winks/Becker's/Couche-Tard, not even a Tim Horton's (*gasp*). Nakusp is indeed a unique place.

However, things are changing in Naskusp. Last year, the Revelstoke Mountain Resort announced its plans to invest, get ready… One billion dollars (that's a one followed by nine zeroes- more than even your dad makes) into the facility, with the intent of creating the longest skiable slope in North America. This has triggered real estate speculation all though the area, including Nakusp (a mere hour away) driving property prices up as high as the mountains. Now, of course, it's all supply and demand, so if there was more land to go around, then perhaps it might remain affordable for the people who grew up here?

Enter Pope-Talbot. Or, perhaps, exit Pope-Talbot. The lumber mill, and Nakusp's major employer, recently closed its doors due to skyrocketing fuel costs, the weak US housing market, and the strong Canadian dollar. This now creates a dilemma for the town, as its people struggle with the decision to move in search of work, or attempt to make ends meet in tourism.

But the fallout doesn't quite end there. Pope-Talbot's holdings, due to be liquidated under receivership protection, includes 6 400 hectares of property in the Nakusp area, much of it waterfront. With the price of land as it is in the region, the company's creditors, mostly American financial institutions, potentially stand to see a good portion of their money returned.

The mayor of Nakusp, Karen Hamling, has been entreating the provincial government to disallow the sale, a sale which would devastatingly alter the character of her town. And, in this case, Mrs. Hamling has the law on her side. Because the land falls under a provincial tree farm license (TFL 23), it cannot be sold outright. Unfortunately, precedent is against her, since the province allowed Western Forest Products to sell some 28 000 hectares on Vancouver Island under TFL to developers in 2007.

Regardless of whether or not the sale of the Pope-Talbot properties go through, things are bound to change in Nakusp, The development in Revelstoke, coupled by the economic crippling of the timber industry is almost certain to result in a major demographic shift as the middle class migrate outward, and the upper class move in.

It's strange. Before I even knew about the economy and politics of this town, I had this impending feeling that this oasis was to be dashed. Maybe it's just my Marxist leanings, but I knew that this was going to happen. As it almost always does. People who care make something worth caring for. Then they get priced out. Like Kensington. Like Kitsilano.

When I walk down the street now, I want to grab people, grab them and shake them and scream:

"Understand! Understand this thing that you have here! Don't allow money to destroy this beautiful community!"

But of course it's out of their hands now. There are forces larger than them at play. There's a billion dollars sitting on top of a hill a hundred clicks away betting against them. Just like there's a billion dollars in the office of an oil company somewhere, betting against the last remaining tribal peoples on the planet.

Market forces are an undeniable reality of our modern existence. And far from just affecting those of us who are born into this lifestyle, it reaches beyond to those blissfully ignorant of them, pushing them in ways they cannot even comprehend.

I'll refrain from any attributions of right or wrong, my finger is tired of wagging these days. I'll say only that it's sad. Sad because I really like this town, and, like many of the currents residents, I won't be able to afford to live here. Short of striking it rich on some South American oil prospect, of course.

I'm not much of a skier, but I hear the powder at Revelstoke is to die for. Last year my roommate kept saying that I should book off a weekend and hit the slopes with him out here. I was captivated by the pictures he showed me, and I'll admit that it was tempting, but it just never worked out. I said that we'd do it the next season, for sure.

In light of everything, though, I think I might not go skiing in Revelstoke this year. At least I won't have to burn oil getting out here.

No, on second thought, I think I might be better off just staying at home and watching TV.


Spring Chickens and Ham-lets...

Penned June 22nd, 2007

It's not often that one gets to experience a hamlet. I've been to many cities before, and even more towns. I've seen a few municipalities, some villages, several unnamed communities, and even dwellings calling themselves 'corporations'. But hamlets, well, you just don't see them as often. Maybe a hamlet is more of a European thing, like marmite, or technopop, or environmental responsibility. Maybe the hamlet was once commonplace in these parts, but over time developed into full grown hams. Or perhaps the very nature of a hamlet is to be hidden. Maybe the hamlet aims to be something tucked away in the corner, avoiding the limelight, trying to carry on its generations-old way of life independent of the world rapidly advancing around it. I think that just what a hamlet might be: a small group of simple folk, leading the simple life. Because more than anything else, that is what I found in the Hamlet of Grovedale, Alberta.

Most people outside the County of Grande Prairie have never heard of Grovedale. Many people inside the County of Grande Prairie have never heard of Grovedale. It would seem a bit of a challenge for a place to simultaneously be a hamlet, a grove, and a dale, and sadly, Grovedale falls short, a true hamlet requiring the absence of a church, something one would never find up in Alberta farm country. However, the community is located just off Highway 666, and this could nullify the presence of the church, perhaps rendering the name accurate.

With a population of 500, there is a sense of predictability and ease in this place, and news is exchanged the old fashioned way, at the General Store, or on the way to it. To some, this sort of life may seem a bit dull, but in this small town, the ho-hum existence is offset by an event so exciting and extraordinary that it punctuates the entire year like a exclamation point scribbled in soy ink. Yes, I speak of the Grovedale Summer Fair.

Many agricultural communities in Alberta have summer events. In these parts, it is difficult to drive a highway in August without being accosted by signs for the harvest festivals of a thousand small towns, each one promising the biggest hogs, the tallest sunflowers, and the sweetest corn. But Grovedale is not numbered among them. When competing with such heavy hitters as Valleyview and Sexsmith, it is difficult for the smallest of the small communities to compete. So Grovedale doesn't.

You see, some time long ago the wily townsfolk of Grovedale realized that the glut of proximate harvest festivals combined with their diminutive population put them at a competitive disadvantage. They were afflicted by the curse of our generation: Too much choice. If the people of Grovedale were to put their hamlet on the map, they would have to do something different. And so they did.

Rather than try to compete with the myriad of communities hosting events at the end of the summer, Grovedale tried the opposite approach. They put their summer fair not at the end of season, but rather, at its beginning. And it just seems to have paid off. Grovedale is the only farm fair held in the month of June, but it attracts visitors from as far as, well, Vancouver, BC.

To say that I was surprised at the number of people in attendance would be an understatement. Shocked would be more accurate. There must have been almost a thousand people there, each with a corn dog in hand, carefully scrutinizing the lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and the few other dwarfed specimens cultivated before their time. Every farmer in the area had brought out his prized animals: pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, cows, each carefully washed, brushed and decorated with ribbon, tassles, and brass tags. Judges weaved in and out of the rows of livestock, carefully scrutinizing each animal, petting, poking and prodding, testing both demeanour and aesthetic, looking under lips, legs and loins. The animals responded with ambivalence, perhaps irritated, but accepting it as par for course in the life of organism awaiting a dinner plate denouement.

There was entertainment for children; ponies to be ridden, local residents masquerading as clowns, piles of hay hiding toothpicks to be redeemed for China-made toys, and a maypole, rendered a tangled mess by momentary lapses in nine-year old judgment. There was a children's rodeo, where boys would prove their mettle by putting their eight seconds in on a two year-old hog. The girls didn't seem so interested. On the whole, the atmosphere of the event was festive, but laid back and down to earth, much like the people of Grovedale themselves.

The height of the fair came in the late afternoon, when the dust in the air clung to skin sheen with perspiration coaxed forth by the summer sun. A crowd had gathered around a small enclosure. It was no more than three by three metres, the outside lined with chicken wire, with wooden stakes driven in the ground at the corners to support it. Inside it was the silty gravel typical of these parts, but it had been divided into squares of equal size, four wide by four across, demarcated with bright orange spraypaint. Each section had been numbered from one through sixteen in a random pattern, and bets were being placed on these with even odds. To what end I was not sure.

Then a clamour began to rise up from the crowd, which had grown stiflingly close and deep. To one side the sea of people began to shuffle. Something, someone, was coming forward. A path was forming, and despite the tight clustering of people, the person making his way to the square met with no opposition. Deference was shown to him and his precious cargo, a cardboard box he held under his arm. When he reached the side of the small fence, he looked back to the crowd, and it fell silent. He set the box down beside him, and cautiously opened it, one flap at a time. When its contents could see the light of day, he reached inside.

When he again stood, his hands were in the air, and over his head was... a chicken. A roar rose up from the crowd. With a motion borne of ritual, he cast the animal into the pen. It flapped its wings gracelessly, but landed softly on the ground. And as the mob continued to rage, the hen, disaffected, walked about the space.

Hundreds were pressed around the fence, and all eyes were fixed on the bird inside. Some were screaming at her, others to themselves, and a few to God. Sweat-laden hands clutched cash and tickets, wishing, praying for chance to favour them. The smell of desperation mingled with those of bodies and fowl, and rose into the air with the curses and howls. Never before had such breast and thighs inspired so much passion.

The hen seemed to take notice of the madness about her. Her demeanour shifted, and she began to strut, to show off for her throngs of adoring fans who cheered all the louder to her response. She seemed to take pride in her position, her moment of fame. Perhaps she knew her fate. Maybe she thought she might stave it off if only she could justify her existence, put on a real display, become the show hen, the one that would return, and be the life of the fair for years to come.

Or maybe she was just enjoying that sense of empowerment, that fleeting feeling of control you have when all eyes are fixed on you, and you are the one who decides the outcome, although you know fully well that once that decision is made, your power disappears. And so you hum and haw and drag it out as long as possible to maintain that supremacy, not wanting to give it up, but trying to keep face while you dither.

And just then the hen looked at me. And I could see in her eyes that she was done. It was all just a game, and when it was over, so was she. She had had her fun, but the time had come for the round to end. The inherent sadness was tinted with relief, and the hen almost appeared as though she was ready for what was to come. And with this realization, she relaxed. She stopped moving, and stood there, looking at me, and then with a look of consternation, shat on the ground below her.

Cheers of victory from those who had predicted the correct square, and moans of defeat of those who had not took to the air, and within a few minutes, the crowd had dissipated. The same man who had brought in the hen picked up his box, stepped over the fence, and placed the animal inside. I was the only one left.

"What's going to happen to her?" I asked.

"Soup," he smiled, then walked off.

I crouched there a while longer, reflecting. I looked inside the pen to square number two, the one containing the cooling guano. I wondered if it was significant. That the hen had defecated atop the number with which I have always associated. Maybe as she looked into my eyes, she was trying to say something. That, compared to those hooting and hollering, I was no different. That some disdain should be felt, for I should know better. Or maybe more simply, like the hen, that we all just get shit on, sometimes.

But by that time, is was starting to get late. The fair was beginning to wind down, and there were still a few things I wanted to get done while I was there. I took one last look at the fenced square, and thought for a moment about the hen, and wished her well, and hoped that whoever ended up eating her would not trivialize what he was doing, and instead would appreciate the full extent of what he was experiencing. That one animal should die, so another can live.

And with that thought I left the ring. I headed to the ticket booth, collected my winnings, and headed off to get another beer.


Isn't Life Grande..?

Penned May 6th, 2007

What really got me was the pure and utter convenience of it all. I've never been situated near one of these things before. In fact, I've tended to the opposite, tried to get as far away from them as I possibly could. But now that I've been situated so near one, virtually on top of it, I've been given a new perspective. If you were in my position, you'd understand, too: how perfectly damned convenient they are. You really gotta hand it to them. They made one hell of a shopping centre.

It's just a stone's throw away. Literally. And I don't mean an Olympian hurl. I mean a lolly-gagging lazy Saturday sort of upward toss that you might have done while pacing yourself down a gravel road on the way to the corner store to buy candy as a child. And where that stone would land would be on asphalt, in front of the London Drugs, which I can see from my window. Behind it is the Save On Foods, which faces a dollar store, across the pavement from the local pub, which is itself northeast of the Cinema, butted against Totem Lumber, which is adjacent to the local Wal-Mart (McDonald's included). This is ringed by a liquor store (open until eleven), a post office, a health food store, Future Shop, Rogers Video, MoneyMart, and Payless shoes. Past the nearby intersection there is a gas station (serving an *ahem* environmentally conscientious 6% ethanol blend), and to its left, another fueling station, Starbucks, with drive through [italics and correct spelling added], and Burger King. Facing its back, a Staples/Business Depot/Bureau en Gros, ninety degrees to a Mark's Work Warehouse, from which, if you were to cross the street to the east, you would be standing back in the place where you'd thrown your stone, on the campus of Grande Prairie Regional College, facing the Rio-Can power centre.

It's crazy, really. It has everything I could ever need. Please don't misunderstand me. I am usually the first to rail on suburbia, and everything it represents: the automobile, cultural homogenization, pavement, communal fragmentation, and aesthetic crime. But, when you think about it, you really have to acknowledge, that man, they have got this shit figured out.

From a market standpoint, it's a win-win-win situation. The consumer fulfills all his wants in one place for a low cost. There are enough overlapping niches that it prevents the monopolization of any one product type, so I don't have to go to Future Shop for a webcam. Wal-Mart has them, too. The sellers themselves have a complementary advantage: someone comes for paper, but leaves with rice, petunias, Jim Beam, and a DVD player (it was only 59.99). kaaa-ching. The property owner just collects cheques and plows snow. In this way, numbered pieces of paper are pushed around, people get stuff, and savvy businesses capitalize.

A major caveat people have against these megaplexes is that they aren't designed to be pedestrian friendly. And I'll admit, indeed, that the walker was not in mind when the Rio-Can was built. But that in no way means that you cannot get around on foot. Granted there may not be the urban luxuries of sidewalks and crosswalks, but there are ample grass medians which practically connect with the concrete strips in front of all the buildings. And, yes, the stores themselves may not be that close together, but let's be frank: Practical stores aren't that close together in the city, either. When you go out on foot to do errands downtown, you will need to plan properly, bring a backpack, and probably walk a number of kilometres between stores over the course of an afternoon just to get all the things that you need to carry on a functional and happy existence. The same applies to car-free shopping at a power centre. There's just not so much shit in between.

And far from being threatened, pedestrians at the Rio-Can are regarded by drivers with the caution and novelty of a black bear: something perhaps unwanted, but unfamiliar and therefore unpredictable. Thus, due diligence is applied, and right of way is given to the pedestrian, even when undue.

Of course it doesn't have that Parisien cobblestone allure, but then, it never pretended to. When planners set about making the Rio-Can, they didn't sit around a boardroom and say "how can we fool people into thinking this isn't a modular chain-based retail centre?" No, they just looked at a map of the exploding city of Grande Prairie, and said: "People need food, clothing, shelter, and love. We can't sell them love, but we can make damn sure that they get the first three, and a DVD player." And so the Rio-Can was born. It provided people with all the things they needed in the city, but in one central, easy to navigate location.

In a way, they've already done my shopping for me. I hate trivial decision making, and this eliminates that for me. I don't have to decide where to go to get what I need. It's all there. If I needed a pair of steel-toed boots, I could get then. If I wanted to get a flame broiled veggie burger at midnight, I could get it. If I wanted my C-41 black and whites printed in sepia-tone on Agfa paper (glossy, no borders) in duplicate with high quality .jpegs copied to a 256 meg flash card that I just got for 5.99 - I could do that, too. Really, at the Rio-Can, there's nothing I can't do.

The sheer convenience of it, how there's everything I would ever want, right there. It's kind of reassuring… That I'll never be left in want. That all hell could break loose, and I'd still be able to get turnips, TVs, and T-shirts. Like it was designed to provide me with what I need. A sense of ownership is almost implied. The Rio-Can centre. My Rio-Can centre.

We could do it all, the Rio-Can and I. The doors of ownership flung open, the world would be my oyster. Boundless entertainment, epicurean delight, material possession, it could all be mine. I would have no need to go anywhere else. My home-work-outing loop would be completed, and all of it within one kilometre of where I sit. Spectacular convenience, the product of generations of human toil and the education of trial and error, the better life for their grandchildren for which our grandparents worked the soil until knuckles bled. So this could all be mine. And it could all be mine.

It could all be mine, if…

If only…

If only I could cross the street to get there.



Fuzzy, or l'ours goaleur...

Penned May 19, 2006

I don't know how many of you listen to the CBC, but for those of us in the wilds of Northwestern Ontario, Radio One is just about our only source for the daily sound byte. Frankly, I sort of like it that way. If you have to choose one source for your news, should it not be the state-run media?

Regardless, on the CBC there was discussion recently about a biological anomaly that sprung up in the Far North. A tracker on the hunt for a polar bear was successful in gunning down a large trophy specimen. However, upon closer inspection, he realized that there was something bizarre about this particular bear. It had a larger head than most polar bears, and its eyes were ringed by dark circles. He brought the corpse to the MNR, which could make neither heads nor
tails of it. A sample was brought to the nearest university, where it was revealed through genetic screening that it was not simply a polar bear, but rather, a half Grizzly, half Polar bear. Numerous monikers were suggested for this creature, such as those listed above. Besides
the quandary of naming the beast, there was the more unique problem of deducing how this fascinating animal had come about.

The biologist who had determined the make up of the bear theorized of its origins. It was a might bizarre to hear him do so, as he described the only possibility, the mating of a Grizzly and a Polar bear. He spoke of the amorous encounter in almost human terms. He stated that could only have been their first time, and that since it was the winter in the North, it was dark. The two were likely confused, and as it was getting late in the season, they were both a bit desperate to do the deed. Hence, when all was said and done, there was a most noteworthy aftermath.

And as this university professor spoke of the romantic union in the way he did, it began to sound more and more like the first time, for I'm sure, a lot of people. For many of us, myself included, it was a confusing affair. It was dark. And for some of us, it was getting a bit late, and we *just* may have been a bit overeager. Just a little. It was a fumbling, bumbling experience, but eventually everything worked out. All parts made it into the right place, and all of a sudden,
everything felt right. And you opened your eyes, and you realized that your lover is absolutely the most beautiful polar bear in the world...

O... kay... So maybe that wasn't necessarily the case for all of us. But regardless, the first time was likely a bit of an awkward experience, and for some of us (particularly the ladies among us, I'm sure) more than a little unsatisfying. But as time wore on, we hopefully started to figure it out. With increased experience, we actually learned how to navigate those uncertain waters of human sexuality, and discover how magical, pleasurable and satisfying sex can be. And we come to realize, that, in the end, sex really is much better with a grizzly bear.