“I Could Tell You Wasn’t a Roughneck”

The message coming out of Northern Alberta in the mid 70’s was a clarion call for young men such as Bill M. and myself. Everyone seemed to be talking about the “Big Money” being made in the Oil Sands north of Edmonton, and my friend Bill and I felt we were wasting our time slinging steak and lobster at The Keg in Richmond.

“I’ve heard of some guys making over $20 an hour”, said Bill, “starting wages are like $7 or $8 but there’s a lot of overtime” “Time and a half, and double time”, I said, “and I’ve heard that once you get in with a drilling company you can move up pretty quickly” “And if you’re good and stick with it, you can get in with better companies paying more money,” said Bill. We both paused, and salivated a bit over the prospect of “Big Money” before we took another sip of our beers.

Our Friday night shift at The Keg was over, all the cocktail girls and waiters had cashed out and were sitting around drinking, chatting and listening to Morris and Wetback (as he liked to be known) play guitar and sing. It wasn’t enough that Bill and I made decent money (with our wages and tips) surrounded by affable college-bound co-workers, in a warm, clean, safe and fun environment – no – our perceptions were being obscured by the overpowering lure of Big Money working in the oilpatch. “My cousin is working on a rig and he made enough to hitchhike around Europe for a year,” said Sue P., one of my favourite cocktail waitresses, and unfortunately, Morris’s girlfriend. “A buddy of mine just got back from Fort McMurray after 4 months as a Roughneck and made enough to buy a Camaro and pay for a year’s tuition at UBC”, said Higgs, taking a big gulp from his Harvey Wallbanger.

For Bill and I these additional stories added fuel to the fire of our 20-something, young male dreams of cash, cars and holidays. “Maybe we could earn enough to pay for a University education so we can become professionals and not have to work as waiters or Roughnecks”, I said. Bill pondered my comment for a moment, took another swig of his beer and said, “Naaah, that’s crazy dude,” he said, with a slightly inebriated smile on his face, “think of all that cash – we’re talking Big Money working on a rig…dream a little Georgie – maybe get outta that basement suite, rent a bigger apartment and ditch that crappy stereo you have for a new Kenwood… babes like a guy with money.” Large carbon footprints, were not yet looked upon with derision.

I knew Bill and I were on different life trajectories, but he spoke a mean game – I was sold on the idea. Without even really knowing what a Roughneck did, two soft-handed urban dreamers from Vancouver, decided to go and find out.

In short order, we quit our jobs, gave notice on our living arrangements, said goodbye to friends and family, stuffed some clothes and a toothbrush into a couple of backpacks, threw them – and a dozen cans of beer, or “road pops” as they were called – onto the back seat of my ’68 Volkswagen Station Wagon, and we were off.

Edmonton was our destination, where both Bill and I had family to stay with while we began our job search – calling up drilling companies out of the yellow pages that would hire untrained workers. How hard could “Roughnecking” be, we thought. We’d both had post-high school labourer type jobs in construction, pulp mills, logging camps and fishboats. We imagined that this would be a variation on a theme – resource extraction, another notable Canadian pastime as “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. Heavy physical labour with small groups of like-minded young men, good wages & benefits, sleeping and eating in bunkhouses away from civilization, with the constant threat of death or dismemberment lurking among machinery.

Before the Coquihalla connector was built our fastest option was a 1300 km trip to Edmonton on the Trans-Canada Highway – which we broke into 2 days with an overnight camping stop in Banff. Once you get beyond Hope, the scenery improves immensely, and we chose the Fraser Canyon through Spuzzum, Hell’s Gate and Kamloops into Thompson Country, and then on to Salmon Arm, Sicamous and Revelstoke on our way through the Kootenay -Columbia District, and the Rockies into Banff.

Under normal circumstances we would’ve turned this road trip through paradise into an open-ended journey of adventure, discovery and fun – camping, drinking beer, getting high and trying to meet girls, but we were on a mission and seemed unusually fixated (unusual for me at least, maybe Bill wasn’t cursed with my easily distracted Butterfly Brain) on getting to the oil patch, finding jobs and making money. “Let’s keep our eyes on the prize”, said Bill, “once me make Big Bucks in Alberta we can come back here and do it up in style.”

The trip from Banff to Edmonton the following day was relatively uneventful –  once we hit Calgary we turned north on Highway 2 and quickly acclimatized to the big vistas and long straight highways of Prairie travel, travelling in short order through Red Deer, passing Ponoka and Wetaskiwin enroute to Edmonton.

My uncle Carl and aunt Roberta – who lived in Sherwood Park, on the Eastern outskirts of Edmonton – had kindly offered to put me up for as long as it took to find work, but my first order of business was to drop Bill off at his cousin’s place in Garneau, an area of Edmonton just south of the Saskatchewan River. “We made it man”, I said, “got here in one piece” “Hard to say how long it’s going to take to find a job, but I’ll probably start calling around after I visit with my relatives tonight, how about you?”. “Yeah, I don’t want to hang around my cousins any longer than I have to, I’ll start job-hunting tomorrow”, he replied, “Here’s Gary’s phone number…let me know how you’re doing”, “Likewise”, I said, “you’ve got my uncles number but let’s check in” “Who knows, maybe we’ll get a job on the same rig.” “Ha ha!”, that would be great,” said Bill, “unlikely…but great…I’d probably move up the ladder faster than you and become your boss,” he said.” “Great”, I said, “then you could promote me”. We both laughed as I pulled up to the curb outside Gary’s place. Bill grabbed his bag from the back seat and popped out of the car. “Good luck man…stay safe”, he said, “you too bro’”, I replied. We shook hands and he turned and left – I never saw him again.*

After two days on the road, a big family meal and lively conversation with Carl & Roberta and my cousins, I was ready to hit the sack. “I think I’m going to call it a night.”, I said, “gotta get up early tomorrow to start calling around.” “Whatever you want to do,” said Roberta, “our home is your home, take as much time as you need…I wish we had contacts in the industry that we could give you but we don’t – we do know that they’re hiring right now and there are lots of jobs” “That’s good to hear, thanks a lot guys” I said, “I really appreciate your hospitality – Good Night.”

After coffee and a hearty breakfast the next morning, I grabbed the telephone, pen and paper and the Yellow Pages, and sat at the kitchen table, to start calling Drilling companies, getting names, and making notes – in what I thought would be an arduous, week-long search for employment. The first company I called was Gunnarson Drilling and the conversation went something like this,

“Hi my name’s George, I’m looking for work as a Roughneck, are you guys hiring?” “Yup sure are, have you ever worked as a Roughneck?”

“Yes I have”, I lied.

“Great, when could you start?”

“Immediately”, I replied.

“Have you got a car?”, he asked.

“Sure do – a blue Volkswagen Station Wagon”

“Ok, go to the corner of Jasper Avenue and 106th Street at 7am tomorrow – heading west – and one of our trucks will meet you there. It’s a dark brown GMC truck with Gunnarson Drilling on the door. Mike will be driving…he’ll wave at you when he sees you. You’re going to follow him to the drill site about 3 hours west of Edmonton past Whitecourt…make sure you’ve got gas”

And that was it…I had a job.

I spent the day getting ready for this unexpected escalation of opportunity. I’d never been hired before – sight unseen – so had to make sure I was as prepared as my limited knowledge of the job would allow. “Hmm…dirty yellow coveralls, hard hat and Dayton work boots from my logging camp days…socks, underwear, pants, shirts, harmonicas…yeah, all set”

I called Bill to let him know that I’d landed work – he hadn’t started his own search yet and was a bit surprized by my speedy hiring. “That’s wild man, and you haven’t even met these guys yet”, he said, “what about paperwork? Not even a job application?” “The guy on the phone said that the guy in the truck would have a form for me to fill out”, I replied, “You should give these guys a call, maybe they need more workers”. He wrote down the name of the company, “I’ll try them tomorrow, thanks for the lead…good luck bro’ gotta run the cousin’s here” “You too man”, I said, “take me for a ride in your Lamborghini when I see you in Vancouver!” We both laughed and hung up the phones – I never talked to him again.*

Carl & Roberta were also surprised (and likely secretly relieved) that I’d landed work so quickly. “I knew the oil patch was hot, but I’ve never seen hiring in action…sight unseen & over the phone…that’s incredible”, said Carl, as we sat having an unexpected final meal together before I left for the rigs. “And, you just meet these guys, in their truck, at a corner downtown…and wave to each other?”, he asked incredulously. “Yeah”, I replied, “I know it sounds weird, but I’ll probably run over and introduce myself, before I follow them into the Alberta wilderness…I guess they needed to know if I’d be riding in the truck or following in my own vehicle.” And then, as an afterthought, “Maybe you guys should write down the name of the company in case I die or go missing.” “Oh George,” groaned Roberta as she rolled her eyes, “that’s not very comforting, I hope you’re just kidding.” “Don’t worry guys, I’m just pulling your leg, I said laughing, “I’ll be just fine, but I do think you should have the company name, here, I’ve written it down.” “And I’m not sure if it was a good idea to lie about your work experience,” said Roberta, “they might expect you to hit the ground running” “Not to worry guys,” I said cockily, “I’ve had introductory labor type jobs before and you pretty much learn everything by noon on the first day and then just repeat that …or fake it til you make it, as they say…and I think hiring a guy over the phone shows they don’t expect much.” “Hmmm, maybe…”, said Roberta, “…hey, why don’t we have a look at your repetitive work skills in action”, she continued, “…you can give us a hand with these dishes again tonight.” We all laughed, and rose to clear the table.

I got to the appointed meeting place in fairly short order the next morning, parked and waited for Mike. As planned, a dirty, well-used, late model GMC Truck, with assorted oil patch-related gear piled in the cargo bed, pulled up beside me around 7, and a bearded 30-ish guy opened his window and said, “Hey, are you George?” “Yes”, I nodded. “Nice to meet you…I’m Mike, just keep following my truck until we get to the site parking area, it’s about a 3-hour drive west of here along Highway 43…are you all gassed up?” “Sure am,” I nodded again. And we were off.

We followed the Yellowhead Highway west for about an hour before hanging a right at Manly Corner when we hit the 43. The region is a checkerboard of large farms and flat prairie scrubland before it transitions into pine forest dotted with stands of Trembling Aspen and Balsam Poplar. By the time we hit Whitecourt and crossed the Athabasca River we’d left the better part of the farmland behind and were into a region of active drilling, extraction and exploration. Somewhere between Two Creeks  and Fox Creek – essentialy in the middle of nowhere – Mike hung a sharp right onto a muddy unpaved single lane road and headed north into the bush. I followed as best I could, bumping and swerving in the rutted track until we hit a clearing which was used as a parking and staging area. Mike stopped in the middle of the parking area and motioned for me to park my car off to the side, gather my gear and hop into the truck with him for the final leg of the trip.

I’m a fairly affable guy, some might even say “chatty” but I could tell from Mike’s more taciturn demeanor that bubbly conversation was not in the cards. “How much further to the rig?”, I asked, “About another 2 miles, your Volkswagen wouldn’t’ve made it…it get’s pretty boggy”, he replied, as he gunned the engine and carried on down the road. “Jesus, I thought, how much worse can this road get?”

It didn’t take long to find out. They’d had a heavy rain the night before and the road ahead– after we left the parking area – looked like a stream. Mike did the best he could, swerving, navigating and avoiding the worst of the sucking bog and giant puddles, but eventually the spinning of the tires and lack of forward movement let us know we were stuck. “Shit,” said Mike, “it’s gotten a hell of a lot worse since I was here 4 days ago…oh well” Without missing a beat he reached for his walkie talkie. “Anybody there?… crackle, crackle…”Hello! Dave!…you there?” And in fairly short order, “Hey…Mike is that you? Where are ya?” “I’m in a company truck with the new guy, stuck in the mud about a mile from you…can you come and get us?” “Uhh sure,” replied Dave … crackle, crackle…”I’ll fire up the Caterpillar and see you in about 20”

We hopped back in the truck waiting to be rescued. I shared a bit of small talk with Mike and we exchanged basic info about ourselves while we waited. Where we were from (he was from Newfoundland), what his position was on the rig (he was a Motorman – responsible for engine maintenance), and how long he’d been working in the fields. He’d started as a Roughneck 5 years earlier and had worked his way up….and showed no sign of surprise when I told him I was brand new to rig work. “Well,” he said, “I started the same as you…you gotta start somewhere, they don’t send you to Roughneck school…it’s pretty basic work, you’ll catch on…just try not to get injured.” Good advice I thought, but not exactly comforting.

Before long a big yellow dozer came slowly but surely down the road towards us, grinding away and belching diesel, and seemingly oblivious to the 4-wheel drive crippling conditions upon which it travelled effortlessly. Upon arrival, Dave hopped off the Cat, teased Mike for getting stuck, shook my hand in greeting, then released the winch, and let out enough wire to secure the front of our truck and drag us back to camp.

There was no rest for the road-weary, once we arrived in camp, we parked the truck, I was shown to my bunk in a 4-man trailer to drop off my stuff, and then followed Mike to the cookhouse trailer to grab a bite of lunch and meet the other crew before I started my shift. Dave who towed us into camp was another roughneck and was already face deep into a bowl of chili, as was Leasehand Andy – or handy Andy – as he was known, Mike, was already eating at the communal table, deep in conversation with Derrickhand Steve. I sat with my plastic tray loaded with basic camp food and slowly familiarized with the others I’d be working with. “The Rig Manager doesn’t join us too often, he seems to like his peace and quiet,” said Dave, “Which is kinda crazy when you work on a noisy oil rig that operates 24/7,” countered Mike, “Anyone seen Brandon?” Brandon, the Tool Push, or Driller as they are now known, was the crew’s boss, who worked under the supervision of the Rig Manager. Just as the crew speculated on his whereabouts – which included mostly vulgar observations about Brandon’s bodily functions – a wiry hawk-faced man in his late 30’s opened the door, scanned the room quickly and, gesturing at me, said “You…new guy…when you’re done eating come and meet me on the platform.”

Not the friendliest of introductions to one’s boss, but not out of my realm of experience. It’s not atypical for niceties to be pared down or eliminated altogether in these “all male” labouring gigs where entry level positions see a pretty high turnover rate, and, as I discovered over lunch, my predecessor, a young guy from Timmins, had just lost four of his upper front teeth in a rig accident when a length of pipe bucked up and knocked them out a few days prior.

My meeting with Brandon was short and to the point. “Ok, new guy…I’m Brandon and I’ll be your boss on this rig, you told head office that you’ve worked on the rigs before…,” he said, looking at me with a mix of scepticism and disdain, “because you’re low man on the totem pole – as long as you can follow instructions from everyone else, even the other roughnecks, you’ll probably do OK” “For now, I want you to join Andy and Dave hauling mud up to the tank, they’ll show you where we keep it.” (“Mud” was a slang term for 100 pound bags of powdered lubricant which was poured into a giant slurry vat and fed into the hole in the earth created by the drilling pipes  – acting as a lubricant for the drilling )

As I was soon to discover, Roughneck work alternated between strenuous heavy labour – carrying around 100-pound sacks of mud – tedious low-maintenance cleaning of “the machine”, and nerve wracking, dangerous episodes where the entire crew sprang into action to change lengths of pipe. Dirty dangerous work with slippery mud belching onto the platform while giant clamps and chains were used to unscrew the existing pipe and attach new lengths….and then, repeat this sequence until lunch, dinner or coffee breaks gave welcome respite on the 12 or 16 hour shifts. And why not work for 16 hours? We were so far away from civilization that there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do, except drink – a pastime that I was already quite good at.

Sleep eat work drink…in the mid 70’s, in the wilderness, these four words would define the life of an oil rig worker. Maybe it was just the promise of “Big Money” that kept a lot of men going – as there were no cell phones, internet, or television, it wasn’t the lure of intellectual stimulation. If you were lucky, you made a friend or two. I didn’t stay long enough to find out.

A sore body greeted me upon rising, but I was young and undaunted. The crew and I got up, ate breakfast and headed for the platform. The oil rig is a machine, like a giant car engine, whose sole function is to drill into the earth and push lengths of pipe deeper and deeper through dirt and clay and rock – hundreds or thousands of feet – until oil is struck, and we, the crew, were there to perform our repetitive tasks until that primary mission was accomplished. Perhaps it was this numbing mindlessness that led my fellow roughnecks to seek distraction and entertainment through mischievous pranks. Handy Andy and Dave knew – almost immediately, when I met them in them in the cookhouse the day before– that I wasn’t a seasoned hand at rig work, and was, therefore, an obvious target for their introductory hazing.

The three of us descended from the main platform, and headed for the palettes of Powdered Lubricant Mud to begin our work for the day – each grabbing a 100-pound bag of the stuff, lifting it up to our shoulders and carrying it over to the giant cauldron of bubbling mud, where we would pull out our exacto knives, cut off an end, and dump the fine mixture into the tank to create a perfect lubricant slurry. After repeating this procedure two or three times, Dave and Andy stopped by the palette and Andy said, “Dave, can you do this?”, whereupon he lifted a sack of mud and slowly struggled to raise it over his head in a display of strength and male bravado, before dropping it with a thud back onto the palette. “Piece of cake”, said Dave, as I stood nearby, watching their antics. Dave grabbed a bag and slowly, grunting and grimacing, raised the 100-pound sack until his arms were outstretched over his head in triumph, before he too chucked it back onto the palette. “How about you Bathgate?”, said Andy, “why dontcha show us what Vancouver boys are made of.”

I know how these male prowess challenges work. The gauntlet was thrown and it would’ve been unthinkable for me to decline the invitation, without risk of alienating my new work pals. Participation meant bonding, saying no meant looking like a poor sport, or worse – a fearful weakling. I grabbed a bag.

Looking directly at Andy, who’d started the game and issued the challenge, I put all of my energy and effort into doing “the lift” in two stages, stage one was raising the bag to my chest level and stage two was doing a modified version of a weightlifters clean and jerk motion, dropping slightly, spreading and planting my legs firmly and then using the bi’s, tri’s and pecs to complete the lift.  Although I wasn’t a fearful weakling, hefting a 100-pound bag over my head – when my total body weight was likely under 140 pounds – was a little out of my physical comfort zone. Slowly, I inched the bag to my reddened grimacing face, and then grunted and gasped as the bag ascended past my forehead, trembling and quivering as I gave it everything I had to raise it up – almost to extended arm height over my head when suddenly, almost imperceptibly – I heard the sound of Dave’s Exacto knife opening up behind me.

In my focussed preoccupation, I’d forgotten about Dave, who had manoeuvred himself directly behind me, waiting for the perfect moment of bag apogee and victim distraction. With open blade he reached up and slit the bag completely in half releasing its powdery contents above my unwitting head. 100 pounds of fine clay powder began cascading down over my head and body. Luckily my youthful reaction time was better than my dead-lift strength and I threw the bag to the side, avoiding the worst of this slapstick clown moment – my hardhat and the left side of my body bore the brunt of Andy & Dave’s goofy hijinks.

Rule number 2 of male hazing rituals – unless you’ve lost an eye or an appendage, don’t get angry, take it as good-natured ribbing – the prank is not rejection, it is a test. “Hahaha!”, I laughed, “Nice one…do you do that with all the new guys?”. Realizing that I wasn’t about to attack them with my own Exacto knife, or rat them out to Brandon, they too laughed, “Hahahaha!”…you got lucky dude!”, said Dave, “some of the new guys get so covered in this shit they have to go take a shower”, “Powder’s so fine it can stay in your clothes for weeks!,” said Andy. “Anyways boys, that’s enough fun for now”, said Dave, “we gotta keep hauling this stuff or Brandon will rag on us”. And then, it was situation normal, we were back to work like nothing happened – unless I detected a slight warming in my relationship with these two goofs.

Day 3…up at 7, shower, eat breakfast, engage in small talk or, for those nursing hangovers, grunt accordingly and drink lots of coffee. Because I was unaware that alcohol – and drugs – were the sole form of entertainment on the rigs, I didn’t bring an adequate stash of my own, and was – therefore – spared the hangovers typical of my excessive nature. This clarity may have saved life and limb as I learned my duties and responsibilities on the job. My other crew mates were fairly generous and wouldn’t begrudge me swigs of their whiskey as we sat around in our trailers after our shifts were over – I told them I’d pay them back whenever I made it back to the nearest town to stock up during the next rotation – when our three-week shift ended and we got our week off.

In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner breaks – rig workers also received three 15-minute breaks per 12-hour shift, or four for 16 hours, and these breaks were often taken in a small bunkhouse on the platform to – briefly – escape the heat and clouds of mosquitos in summer, or the biting cold of winter. Usually, a thermos of lukewarm coffee and Styrofoam cups would be waiting there, and, not infrequently, a bottle of whiskey – depending on the predilections of the Tool Push or Rig Manager – ours had both.

After putting in a solid half day of mind-deadening, backbreaking grunt work I decided to head to the bunkhouse for my afternoon coffee. Andy & Dave were nowhere in sight so I assumed I’d find them there – my new best friends. I was half covered in a spew of drying mud that had belched upon me during the last pipe change. I was slowly learning where to position myself during the change to avoid this particular outcome but had miscalculated and had paid – once again – for my lack of experience. As I entered the bunkhouse “the boys” looked up from their coffees, smiled, and Andy said, “Hey man, c’mon in…you should try a little whiskey in your coffee, Bob’s left his bottle here for us to share.” It didn’t take much convincing for me to lively up my coffee so I grabbed the bottle of rye off the shelf and added a stiff two fingers to my half cup of joe and spoonful of Coffee Mate creamer. I sat on the bench, leaned against the wall, sipped my drink, closed my eyes for a moment and said, “Mmm mm, that’s pretty good…good idea” “And, Dude,” said Dave, “when we’re changing pipe you gotta jump back more when it’s being released or you’ll keep getting covered in mud”, “Yeah, thanks man,” I replied, “that shit can really squirt out everywhere…don’t worry I’ll figure it out”

“Hey Dave”, said Andy, “do wanna play “Cuttin’ Rope” while we’re hangin’ out?” “Yeah sure,” said Dave, “we’ve got another 5 or 10 to kill…you got a rope?” “Yeah, there’s one over here below the bench”, replied Andy, “why don’t you grab the axe?” Dave got up from the bench we shared, walked over to the adjacent wall and lifted the fire axe from its hooks, and sat back down. I sat quietly sipping my drink, watching with vague interest. “Here’s a blindfold,” said Andy, as Dave put the axe down and affixed the blindfold over his eyes. “OK, take off your hardhat, and I’ll position the rope,” said Andy, as he laid the rope on the floor a few feet in front of where Dave sat. Dave complied and picked up the axe. Now they had my attention…booze, an axe and a blindfold – what could go wrong?

As Dave held the axe in front of him, Andy grabbed the head of the axe and positioned it right above the rope and touched the axe blade to the rope. “OK, there it is,” said Andy, “you feel that?” “Yup, I think so,” said Dave. “OK, give it your best shot!”, Andy encouraged him. Dave touched the axe blade to the rope several times to get his bearing and then lifted the axe over his head and brought it down forcefully with a resounding CHOP! …cutting halfway through the rope but not, completely chopping it in two which – I assumed was the purpose of this, “Fun for the Whole Family” game. “Not bad,” said Andy, as Dave peaked under his blindfold, “let me have a try.” Dave and Andy exchanged places, as Andy sat on the bench beside me, affixed the blindfold, and grabbed the axe which Dave – in turn – positioned above the rope, touching it to the rope as Andy had done for him. “OK, there’s the rope,” he said, “you got it?” “Yup,” replied Andy, “better stand back”,  Dave complied as Andy now raised the axe over his head and then he too brought it down with a mighty CHOP!…this time missing the rope altogether but leaving a nice axe head shaped scar in the plywood floor. Peeking under his blindfold Andy moaned “Aww, shit…I missed it…give me another try.” Blindfold repositioned, axe in hand, Dave set him up again and Andy swung his axe with even greater force, and CHOP! Once again missed his mark.

Of course, as I sat watching this spectacle, with the whisky working its magic, I thought, “That doesn’t look too difficult, how the heck did he miss? I bet I could do better than Andy.” “Ha Ha!”, laughed Dave, “you didn’t even touch the rope…hey George, do you wanna try?” “Sure,” I said, “set me up.” “OK, you’ll need to take off your hardhat to get a good swing on the axe.” I took off my hardhat and set it on the bench, put on the blindfold, grabbed the axe from Andy, and let Dave guide my axe to the rope. “

“OK…you feel where the rope is?”, asked Dave. “Yeah, I got this,” I replied. “Ok, just let me get outta the way before you take your swing.” I touched my axe to the rope one more time to get my bearing then slowly lifted the axe above my head – I was going to show these clowns and nail this silly game. After I got the axe to a sufficient height, with my arms extended to the correct length and fulcrum to cut that sucker clean in half, I swung with all my might, and CRUNCH! Came the sound of a large red Fire Axe chopping deeply into my work hardhat.

Even before I managed to get my blindfold off and survey the damage to my hardhat, I could hear the hysterical laughter of Andy & Dave. “Hahahahah! Nice one man!” laughed Dave, “Clean through the top, chop chop.” I peeked under the blindfold at my aluminum hardhat, pierced and impaled on the axe. How the hell did I not see this one coming? I thought…oh yeah, I was blindfolded in a room with two mischief monkeys drinking whiskey. Andy had quickly removed the rope and repositioned my hat while I was concentrating on my swing.

Hazing Ritual #2 successful…check.

“Jesus,” I said as I checked out the damage and slowly wiggled the hardhat free from the grip of the axe, sticking a baby finger through the hole. “How many more of these fun games do you guys have?” “Ha ha!” laughed Andy, “you should’ve seen your face when the axe went into your hat C-R-U-N-C-H,” he embellished. Just then, Tool Push Brandon opened the door, stuck his head in, and said, “OK morons, coffee break’s over, c’mon, let’s get back to work.” Immediately subdued, Andy & Dave replied, “Sure thing Boss,” in unison, and I just nodded, sticking my wounded hat onto my head.

After prank number two, my radar was up and I was fairly confident that “the boys” wouldn’t be able to pull another fast one on me. We just carried on with our grinding jobs as I incrementally developed lift and carry muscles, and spotted the best position to be in for the pipe changes to avoid getting covered in mud. I’m a fairly quick learner, but I was already recognizing the drawbacks of working on the rigs. “Sure the money’s good,” I thought, “but only because you have to work 12 and 16 hour days to get overtime, doing this crappy job, eating their shitty food …with guys you don’t really like…while hearing stories about other guys getting injured on other rigs.” We’d just heard rumours of a nearby rig getting hit by lightning, injuring a couple of workers. “Great,” I thought, “getting injured seems to be a real crap shoot, it’s like a Bad Luck Lottery.”

Day 4 broke overcast and warm. It was September in Northern Alberta and mosquitos were slowly being replaced by clouds of blackflies and stinging wasps. Breakfast, at least, was substantial, typical and hearty – as it was in most camps. Bacon or Ham and Eggs, toast, hash browns, Orange Juice and a bottomless cup of coffee. I’d developed a coffee habit from my days hitchhiking across Canada at age 17, and staying at Youth Hostels where a pot of free coffee was always percolating – so this limitless access gave a heavily caffeinated start to my days.

Already the repetitive nature of the job was sinking in and I was getting the hang of what was expected of me. I met my “buddies” Andy & Dave on the platform and we proceeded with our duties with an occasional word or instruction from Brandon, or Bob the Rig Manager. We were so low on the totem pole that anyone else on the rig could ask us to do something  – even the Derrickhand or Motorman – and we’d have to comply. Thus far, most of the bossing had been reserved for the Driller Brandon, a no-nonsense kind of guy who seemed largely devoid of humour, compassion, kindness, or interest in others – which really means he didn’t seem interested in me, as I had no real idea how he got along with his own peers or superiors.

It was late morning and I found myself returning to the mud bag pile from the vat when Brandon appeared from somewhere within the machinery of the rig, and – in order to make himself heard -shouted, “Hey, George!” (it was the first time he’d called me by my first name…up to this point it had been “Bathgate” or “New Guy”) “I needja to do something…put whatever you’re doing on hold and follow me.” Obediently I trailed behind him along a narrow corridor into the belly of the machine which powered the entire rig. I was no longer in tedious/repetitive territory – it was hot, deafening and unfamiliar…and somewhere I’d not yet been, seen, nor dreamed of. We came to a three rung metal ladder leading up to a narrow aperture onto a 2-foot wide, 10-foot long platform, claustrophobically encased by what appeared to be the very heart of the machine – an endlessly roaring beast, giving power and drive to the primary function – drill baby drill.

Brandon grabbed my arm, stood me in front of the small metal ladder, pointed into the opening of the gates of hell and shouted, “Do you see that handle!?” He was pointing to a small handle which appeared to be the only visible, movable thing on the far wall of the roaring dark nook – about a 10 or 12 foot crouch walk up the ladder and along the narrow platform. “Yes!” I shouted back. “I want you to go in there and turn that handle to the left.” Well, that seems pretty straightforward, I thought, and, without further adieu, I reached up, and curled my gloved fingers around the metal housing surrounding the aperture in order to pull myself up. My left hand was immediately stung by an incredibly fast and forceful ZING! Running across all my fingers, startling me, and causing me to immediately pull my hand back and hold it protectively to my chest. I didn’t know if I was in pain or shock. “Take off your glove!” Brandon shouted. I looked up slightly bewildered. “Your glove..TAKE IT OFF!” he shouted again with emphasis. I took the glove off, to show him that none of my fingers had been cut off inside the glove. “OK…you’re fine…put your glove back on …pull yourself up with those rungs” He pointed at two hand rungs positioned especially for that purpose. Gingerly, carefully, I crawled into the cavity, reached the handle, turned it to the left and crawled back out.

When we exited the machine to the open air of the platform, where the deafening noise abated – somewhat – Brandon said, “You stuck your hand into the housing for the 10-foot fans that cool off the machine…be more careful…I’ve seen guys lose fingers.” Then he turned and headed back to whatever he was doing before our encounter.

There was a definite groove on my leather work gloves where the fan had whizzed across my fingers. I stood for a few moments reflecting on the significance of what had just happened before returning to work. Sweet, I thought, with a soupçon of sangfroid, I could’ve just lost my fingers…how much are these fingers worth? Big Money? Or are they priceless? “Hey man!” shouted Andy, as he came up from the mud bag palettes, “there you are…we’d wondered where you’d gone…c’mon it’s time to change some pipe.” My dark reverie interrupted, I turned and followed Andy up the catwalk to the drilling platform.

I was feeling a little off my game, realizing that my cocky “How hard could it be” approach to the job of Roughneck really didn’t factor in risk of serious injury. I elected to forego the 16-hour shift, in favour of the shorter 12-hour day so I could get off at 8, mull over my situation…and spend a few quality hours at night with the other louts swigging whisky from a 26’er while ogling the Penthouse centrefolds Mike had taped up on the walls around his bunk. Foremost on my mind was picking their more seasoned brains on the topic of “work related injuries” – who better to ask?

It didn’t take long to loosen up their tongues, they all had stories to tell and were willing – let’s say eager – to share increasingly gruesome incidents, both personal and anecdotal. When I mentioned my brush with near digit removal, Mike laughed and held up his hand which was missing half a baby finger. “I lost this the same way as you on the first rig I worked on…fuckin’ driller could’ve warned me,” he said. Then Andy piped up, “I broke my ankle slipping on the catwalk while carrying a bag of mud…gave me a nice little 6-week EI holiday.” “Yeah, I cracked 3 ribs on my left side when one of the clamps bucked back during a pipe change…God it was painful to breathe,” said Dave, “I was off for about a month with that one.” I’ve seen guys getting whipped when the chains break while they’re throwin’ the chains.”, said Mike, “Or having a foot crushed by a length of pipe if it slips,” he continued. “Moving the rig is pretty dangerous too…once ya hit oil ya gotta cap it off and take the whole rig apart and move it somewhere else…and then set it up – that’s pretty shitty work.”

Jesus, I thought, it’s not “if”, it’s “when” I get injured…and Mike’s observation that the Driller could’ve warned him and saved his finger stuck with me. Brandon could’ve done the same thing with me but was either testing me… or, just playing with me. I felt a bit disposable – working with guys and a boss who either didn’t care or actively disliked me. And the idea of disassembling this entire operation, packing it up and moving it just seemed too unappealing to contemplate. There were whole layers of this job that just sucked…except for the “Big Money”… which, I now envisioned, enjoying in my new motorized wheelchair with my prosthetic arm and eye patch.

“Guys, I gotta hit the sack,” I said, as I got up to leave for my trailer, “oh, and thanks for the shots of CC…I owe you.”

I rose the next morning, invigorated, despite my semi-sleepless night of rumination. A little bacon & eggs & coffee seemed like the best plan as I knew it was going to be a long day. My mischievous mates joined me and we ate and joked as the morning sun poured through the small windows of the Kitchen Trailer. We finished, got up and returned our trays to the stainless-steel counter before heading out the door to begin our shifts. As the boys headed for the platform, I said, “I’ll catch up with you guys later…just gotta see Brandon first,” as I veered towards his office. I knocked, and Brandon said, “Come in.” I poked my head in the door…he didn’t seem too surprised to see me, “What’s up?”, he said. I entered the Office Trailer where he and the Rig Manager both had desks, and sat in the chair nearest to him, looked him in the eyes and said, “I quit.” He held my gaze for a moment, expressionless, and said, “OK…get your gear from your bunk, and meet me at the truck.”

I didn’t bother to say any other goodbyes…what was the point? I’d made a decision, and the clarity of purpose and certainty felt good – I’d decided to terminate my 4-day career as a roughneck and head back to the coast. I stuffed everything into my backpack and headed for the parking lot. Brandon was already there with the truck running, so I threw my pack in the back and hopped into the cab beside him. We were both silent for the short 5 or 10 minute drive to where I’d left my car – luckily several dry days allowed the truck to make the trip without the assistance of a caterpillar. As we stopped in the cleared staging/parking area, Brandon turned to me before I got out of the truck and said, sarcastically, “I could tell you wasn’t a Roughneck.” I turned to look at him for a moment, “It’s weren’t,” I said, and got out of the truck, glad to see that my volkswagen hadn’t been vandalized in this remote area and feeling as free as a bird.

*Epilogue about Bill….these were the days without internet, Cell phones, & social media. When we said goodbye, our lives really did take separate turns, and we had little, or no way of remaining in touch. We didn’t know each other’s families, we had no addresses or phone numbers beyond the two we exchanged in Edmonton, and, like many young men, became so busy and engaged with our lives that reconnecting was not necessary nor a priority. I heard from a mutual friend when I returned to Vancouver, that Bill had found a job on a rig and – unlike myself – had stuck with it and may have chosen to continue working in “the patch”. I heard he made “Big Money”😊

The 4th Corner

“Can you help me with this flagstone? …It’s a bit unwieldy”

It was the spring of 2004, and I’d decided to transform my yard into a thing of beauty. Several tons of beautiful flat golden sandstone rocks for pathways & walls, several pallets of pavers for the backyard patio, and enough cedar 4 x 4’s, 2 x 10’s & antique wrought iron lay scattered about for me to fulfill my vision…an inviting 3 step staircase bisecting a low 30 foot wide & 18” high wall, with a lovely cedar trellis archway leading to a winding flagstone path into the backyard, where the patio would await the fun that was to come…and it did.

This was my post-marital home, which I’d purchased a couple of years prior, in the 2800 block of West 17th Avenue in Kitsilano. My ex-wife lived a short 5-minute walk away in our family home at 14th and Waterloo, and we divided parental responsibilities – willingly & comfortably – between us. It was a sweet little neighbourhood that I’d found myself in, with happy, kind – and forgiving – neighbours, who put up with my sometimes overzealous habit of people, parties and late-night jamming…as long as they were sometimes included.

On this warm Spring Saturday morning, several friends, my son, and my partner Cathy were scurrying about with various helpful tasks, as I concentrated on “the vision” and the heavy labour – breaking apart the existing walkway with sledgehammer & crowbar, while attempting to ignore the hangover which had lodged itself somewhere between my Bindi and my Man Bun.

Neighbours Liz & Darren were out doing a little garden work, Simon & Fandy had politely asked what I was doing before they hopped in their car to go shopping, Eros – who lived several doors East had wandered over to see what was going on and to give advice, and Maureen, who lived several doors West, stared balefully at our activities as if it were another imposition coming from “Noisy George”…the guy who parties too much. Which – in all frankness – I did.

In that moment, all was good. Everything & everyone on our little neighbourhood stage was happily fulfilling their small scripted roles, in a busy and predictable manner. Birds chirped, dogs barked, gardeners gardened, neighbourly pleasantries and advice were received and given, and the huff n’ puff of my hardworking “Team Landscape” was filtered through bad puns and good-natured banter.

And then, from down the block, came the unexpected bliss-arresting sound of high-pitched screeching…a noise that even Maureen would later agree was more “ear-itating” than my late-night jam sessions…as the squealing tires of a speeding out-of-control car fought with the too-late application of slammed-on brakes to unsuccessfully navigate the curve in the road heading south on MacDonald at 17th.

Collectively, we looked up, craned our necks, dropped wheelbarrows full of bricks, mouths agape, to watch – as a careening, late-model silver Toyota Tacoma Truck slammed into the curb, leapt up and then, almost airborne, cleared the sidewalk, gouging a path through the front-yard grass, knocking down the ornamental Japanese Maple, only to smash through the pyramidalis hedge on its unstoppable train wreck into the back yard…and beyond.

We stood – momentarily transfixed – as the sound of the truck crash carnage seemed to go on and on, with additional crunching, squealing and crashing happening now out of view. When it stopped, several of us ran toward the accident to see if anyone was injured or needed help. Liz and I arrived together at the opening in the pyramidalis hedge and climbed over the fallen bushes and made our way towards the truck which had continued on its destructive path all the way through the corner properties’ front & back yard, through their back fence and was now lodged under the back door neighbours deck, having snapped a couple of weight bearing 4 x 4’s, collapsing the deck onto the hood of the truck – which, amazingly, was still running at full-throttle, stuck, with blue smoke billowing from the spinning tires.

On my way to the truck, dodging broken bushes, destroyed flower beds, and smashed garden gnomes I noticed that there had been a large plastic multi-coloured children’s play centre directly in the path of destruction, which now lay strewn in pieces about the yard with part of the red kiddie slide visibly stuck under the trapped truck.

When I arrived at the passenger side of the truck, my first instinct was to get on my hands and knees to peer at the undercarriage to see if any children had been dragged along with the slide. Fortunately, my fears were not realized, and all I could see was a snowball of branches, garden plants, cedar fence pickets, and one red, badly mangled ,kiddie slide. Looking inside the cab, I could see that there were no passengers, just the driver who appeared to be having some kind of medical emergency – either a heart attack or a seizure – and was sitting stiffly, rigidly, eyes wide open, hands on the wheel with his foot still pressed down – pedal to the metal – on the gas. The passenger door was locked but luckily Liz was able to open the driver’s side, reach in and turn off the ignition.

The noise stopped and the blue smoke abated as we tried vainly to communicate with the driver – who was barely responsive. Neither owners of the two damaged corner properties were home to provide quick calls to emergency services, and cell phones were not as ubiquitous as they are now, but fortunately, Liz’s husband Darren had made the call while Liz and I were running to the crash scene, and the sound of approaching ambulances, fire trucks and police vehicles could be heard. We began to shed some of our adrenaline.

The ambulance took away the driver, we gave some brief statements to the cops, and a tow truck arrived with the awkward task of extricating the Ford from the mess.

“Good thing that didn’t happen on a weekday” said Liz, “Carnarvon Elementary is just a block away, and a lot of kids cross right there at that corner”, “God yeah”, I said, “that would’ve been a disaster”. “And a good thing the family wasn’t home too”, I said, “I hate to think what might’ve happened if their kids were playing on that playcentre” … We both paused to reflect on how the magnitude of this accident was so random before we wandered back to our respective lives and chores.

That was the south west corner…The First Corner.

“Ahh” I said, taking a sip of my 16-ounce dark roast – with a bit of milk – and settling into the comfy faux-leather armchairs at Bruno’s Corner Cup Café, at 4th and Blenheim in Kitsilano, “best coffee on the West Side”. “Can’t argue with that” said Jordy, a good friend and regular at the Cup’s morning coffee crew, “what else ya got?”, he added whimsically.

Twelve years have elapsed…It’s Autumn, 2016, and the habitués of the morning coffee shift were congregating at Bruno’s for their daily hot cups of Sumatran and oft good conversation. The cute little house on 17th Avenue with its beautiful landscaping job are gone, sold during the economic downturn of 2008, and replaced with a rental bungalow at the corner of 6th and Blenheim – making Bruno’s the closest, and best, coffee shop of choice. Hangovers are just a memory as I (and almost everyone I know) celebrate my 4 years of continued sobriety. The Advertising Sales Job of ’04 has been replaced by a Gallery Café business on Mayne Island, and at least one – if not more – of the faithful “landscaping team” have, sadly, tragically, passed on.

The iPhone 3 of 2004 has evolved into a 6+ and I’m adjusting to the larger size. “Don’t you find it awkward?’, asked Paul, another coffee circle regular, “I like to stick my 4 in my pocket.” “Not really, I’ve gotten used to it”, I replied, “In spring & summer it fits nicely into one of my cargo shorts pockets, and in colder weather I always find a coat pocket large enough…and I like the larger screen”

Jordy and another regular, Chris, sipped their joe and listened politely to our mundane, everyday conversation. We are the morning crew, the early shift if you will. Music played softly from the overhead speakers, competing for our attention with the ear-damaging coffee grinder and high-pitched espresso machine…with it’s steamed milk attachment kicking it up a notch to give staff long-term hearing loss. Other locals appeared, looking for muffins, breakfast sandwiches & newspapers. We were not readers or eaters, we were the comfy Naugahyde armchair coveting, coffee guzzling, conversationalists….and, from our strategic vantage point, we had the best view of 4th avenue, with its increasingly heavy traffic volume at its controlled pedestrian crossing at Blenheim and the South East Corner…. The Second Corner.

I don’t remember what we were talking about, and in fact, it likely wasn’t important, nor germane to this little story, but what we all agreed upon was that the distant sound of sirens seemed to be getting louder and louder and was soon to pass our field of vision – racing east on 4th.

Events unfolded rather quickly. Moments before the police car appeared, a light metallic green late-model Toyota Corolla burst onto the scene, careening impossibly fast for the 90-degree corner turn it was attempting to make, up Blenheim Street, lost control of the vehicle, jumped the curb, and crashed through the 5-foot high cedar fence which ringed the entire 4 story apartment. Speed and momentum kept the auto-projectile crashing through 3 or 4 of the small 10’ x 8’ ground level patios, with their planters, blue vinyl Adirondack chairs, knick-knacks, bicycles & barbeques. Everyone at Bruno’s  – even Bruno – stopped what they were doing, whether mid-sip, mid-pour or mid-opinion, got to their collective feet and rushed outside – as the prospect of a terrible, live-action accident incident, seemed for the moment, vastly more interesting than dissecting Donald Trump’s latest verbal indignity…although, as we were all soon to sadly discover, Trumpian indignities would get far more mileage than the now totally totalled Toyota, smoking on a patio across the street.

The Second Corner – after all the repair work. The corner post has been replaced by a brick pillar – good idea

The police car – lights flashing & sirens now silenced – screeched to a stop, blocking Blenheim, as two officers flung open their doors, jumped from the vehicle and raced toward the crash scene – obviously in pursuit of their prey – in what now appeared to be the getaway vehicle. And indeed, from the far end of the apartment property, we could see a youngish guy – maybe in his early 30’s, climb over the cedar fence, run east on 4th and then duck into another property half a block down, in an effort to avoid capture. More sirens wailed in the distance as other patrol cars raced in response to the “event in progress”.

Because we had great window view seats, and the cops seemed to have everything in hand, and none of us had “the jaws of life” to help remove the second hoodlum who was apparently trapped in the getaway car, we went back inside to watch the drama in comfort, to speculate, and, most importantly, to get back to our coffees before they cooled off any further. We definitely had our priorities sorted out.

“Probably two guys fleeing from a robbery in a stolen car”, said Chris, “this city is getting edgier”. “Looked like two guys out for a joy ride that went wrong” said Jordy, “not a lot of robbery going on in Kitsilano, we live in a bubble”. “Good thing there were no pedestrians at that corner”, I said, “or anyone hanging out on their patios – wrong time of day I guess – reminds me of a car crash I witnessed at 17th and Macdonald back in ’04…” I began, as Paul interjected, “Maybe it was a guy racing his friend to the hospital because he’d had a heart attack”. This made us all pause and reflect for a moment on the various places our minds had gone…and not gone. “Naah, I doubt it”, said Chris, why would he be running away like that?” We all nodded our heads in agreement. “Did you hear what Trump said last night on CNN?”, asked Chris, “There’s no way he’s going to win the presidency next month…he’s such a dick…”

This was the south east corner…the Second Corner

It’s November 30, 2020 – a Monday – and we are 9 months into the global Coronavirus pandemic. Canada has just had one of its worst “Daily New Case” load days at 6,103 cases, and numbers appear to be rising everywhere. Governments worldwide are attempting to respond to the real or perceived health crisis with business closures, mask mandates, distancing, science & sanitizers and God & guesswork.  It’s not a fun time to be running a little coffee shop in Kitsilano. Staff layoffs, no indoor seating & “take out only” made for drastic income reductions but, thanks to Government largesse, a supportive clientele, Bruno’s “roll up your sleeves” work ethic, and a small, slightly covered outdoor seating area, Bruno was optimistic that he’d be able to keep the “Corner Cup” sputtering along. “Thank God I’ve still got covered outdoor seating”, he said, “people still want to go out, grab a coffee, sit somewhere that’s not wet, and socialize”.

We are 3 weeks into a Biden presidency, but this win will not come easily, with recounts, challenges, and allegations of ballot rigging and fraud coming from the former President and his followers. “Stop the Steal” will soon enter our lexicon, with much worse to come.

Despite all of this distraction, and perhaps, more importantly, it was Bruno’s 50th Birthday. Now, many lesser men may have taken a well-deserved Birthday break after 9 gruelling months of ever-changing Pandemic rules & restrictions, the dreary and furtive uncertainty, the 8, 9, or 10 hour fully-masked retail shifts, with diminished income and life-threatening work – a kind of barista hell. But Bruno was committed to his craft – he had loyal customers, who still needed his coffee and his muffins, so he would get out of bed, kiss the wife goodbye, hop in the car and drive the 40 km, hour long commute from Coquitlam, to open his Corner Cup Coffee House in Kitsilano. And we, his loyal and appreciative customers…nay, his fans…were glad he did.

But today was to be a different kind of day, not a day of cakes & candles, gifts & Best Wishes, but a day that will take Bruno’s mind off Pandemics, presents & Presidents – today was the day of The Third Corner.

The drive in from Coquitlam was taking a bit longer than usual, traffic was bad, there was a light rain, and a fender bender on the Barnett was adding 15 or 20 minutes to his usual 1 hour slog…but Bruno wasn’t worried, his trustworthy nephew Matteo was working with him now and had agreed to “open up the Cup” so Bruno could have a slightly more relaxing start to his “Special Day”…plus, he was listening to some chill tunes on his favourite radio station, Jack 96.9, and he knew that his wife had some kind of birthday surprise planned for when he got home later that night…it was all good.

After all of his regular staff had either been let go, or resigned during the mass Pandemic Purge of employees during the closures of 2020 (a Canada Wide, if not Global phenomena), Bruno had managed to convince his nephew Matteo to pick up some shifts as the Café slowly sputtered back to life. We were no longer at the “fearfully hand coffee –  wearing plastic gloves – through a plexiglass hole at the front door of the café, to equally fearful, masked, sanitized and distanced customers using only credit cards because touching money might mean instant death” phase….no, now, customers could actually enter the café – masked, sanitized, distanced and fearful – but get their coffee at the cash register, rather than in the rain at the front door, and go and sit outside in the cold and rain  – a vast improvement.

On this day, Matteo had arrived at about 6:45 to get the ball rolling for an 8 am open, he didn’t expect to see Uncle Bruno until about 8:30…”Don’t forget to wish him a Happy Birthday” he thought, “and don’t say anything about the surprise party”. It was the same drill everyday…turn on heat & lights, hot water & espresso machine, grind the dark & medium roast for the drip machines, turn on the drip coffee machine and put enough coffee into the filter for the process, make sure bathroom is clean, remove covers from the baked good display case, get milk & cream containers ready, turn on the music…it was somewhere around this moment in the hour long opening process when Mateo’s concentration was broken by the sound of a car, tires screeching, as it tried – unsuccessfully  – to navigate its turn from 4th Avenue, north onto Blenheim – and turned just in time to watch the 15 foot shade tree on the small boulevard beside the café crash through the large plate glass window beside the front door – knocked down by an out-of-control, white 2015 BMW i3.

“Jesus!” gasped Matteo, as he ran towards the door, dodging shards of glass that spilled over the floor of the café. He scanned the sidewalk, as he reached for the glass door, to see if anyone had been hit by the car or the falling tree. Several people that had been waiting at the nearby bus stop also ran over to see if the driver needed help, or if anyone had been hit. The driver of the BMW, shaken but uninjured, emerged from the vehicle, shaking his head and feeling his shoulder where the seatbelt had given him a jolt during the sudden stop.

“You OK man?”, asked Matteo, “Yeah, good thanks, I think”, he replied, “better than my car…or your window” as he surveyed the scene of the accident. “Not sure how I screwed up that turn, I’ve done it dozens of times”, he continued, “roads a bit slippery, might’ve been momentarily distracted”, he said (which is code for “looking at cell phone but am reluctant to admit to anything that might engender a ticket”, as he got his story straight before the police arrived – which would be soon judging by the approach of sirens). “Well, you and our regular customers are lucky you didn’t arrive half an hour later,” said Matteo, “there’s usually a small line up of regulars at the café before we open at 8…which is like right now”, he said as the usual coffee zombies were making their way to Bruno’s, rain or shine, for their daily cup ‘o joe. The lovely little shade maple lay forlornly, branches poking through Bruno’s window, and covering one of the outdoor tables – where we habitually sat – having also knocked over the outdoor metal chairs. “People sit right there”, said Matteo, “Jesus”, said the driver as he rubbed his chin and pondered circumstance.

Broken window at Corner Cup Café, The Third Corner

I arrived just as the tow truck was removing the BMW, and a City Crew was cutting up and removing the tree. The driver, after giving his statement to the police and turning down any need for medical assistance, walked the last few blocks to his home on 2nd Avenue.

“Well, this isn’t the surprise I expected on my Birthday”, said a familiar voice. “Oh, hey Bruno,” I said, turning, “little fender bender, car lost control and knocked down that shade maple onto your outdoor table…no one’s hurt…oh, and hey bud, Happy Birthday”. ”Yeah Happy Birthday Bruno!” chimed in Matteo and the other regulars who were standing around gawking. “As if running this joint during a pandemic isn’t shitty enough, now I gotta spend my day getting a new window” “Geez, I’d give you a hug Bruno, but I think it’s against the Law”, I said, as everybody laughed. “Matteo, you got the coffee up and running? asked Bruno, “let’s get these monkeys their coffees so they can get on with their day – just like we hafta do”. “Great idea Bruno” we all chimed in, “Hey”, said Jordy, “Maybe talk to Karly’s partner Matthew, “I know he does window repair”

This was the north west corner – the Third Corner.


This story is an illustration and is not meant to give you a fear of corners. Despite sensing that I am – on occasion – standing on my own allegorical 4th Corner, there seems little need to worry or obsess. Living without fear certainly seems preferable to the alternative.

That being said, whatever corner we find ourselves on, at any time of life – allegorical or otherwise – looking in all directions, for greater clarity, would appear to be wise counsel……except, of course, for that North East corner at MacDonald and Broadway in Kitsilano, The Fourth Corner…it’s the beast and should be approached with utmost caution, fear, and loathing. You’re welcome. 😆

“Why Don’t You Just Kill Rambo?”

Rambo Barked at Butterflies

Rambo Barked at Bees

Rambo Barked at Sunshine & the cool Autumn breeze

He lunged and snapped at babies

Fangs bared at you and me

Rambo Barked at everything

Die now Rambo…die now… please?

We suspect that the Real Estate agent asked the neighbours to hide their dog Rambo in their house while she was showing her listing to prospective purchasers, such as I and my 8 and a half months pregnant wife Elaine, on that sunny but crisp February morning.

We were a young couple with a baby on the way and this was our first house purchase so we were operating at maximum busy, excited and optimistic. Perhaps – because of this – we weren’t as attentive to important details, such as the character and compatibility of our new neighbours, but on that day, none of that mattered, all seemed well, and our offer was made…and accepted.  We were the new owners of a sweet little stucco bungalow on West 17th Avenue in Vancouver! We took possession quickly, loaded up a truck with our belongings, and enlisted the help of friends to make setting up our nest as smooth and fun as possible.

I don’t remember when Rambo started barking. We were so busy in those early days, setting up house, working at our respective jobs, buying baby things, and getting ready for Elaine’s due date – which was just weeks away – that everything else dropped off the radar. We’d met our new neighbours – a seemingly pleasant  middle-age Greek couple – who ran a restaurant up on Broadway, and were the proud parents of five daughters ranging in age from 6 to 16. And we were vaguely aware that they owned a rather large German Shepherd which seemed confined to their back yard.

Dogs bark, it’s normal for them to do so, and is part of the background noise/ fabric of city life…lots of people…lots of dogs…lots of barking. I like dogs – a lot – and always try and befriend them wherever I go. In fact, I’m a complete idiot when it comes to dogs and will crouch down on one knee in the street if I see someone walking a dog in hopes that I can pet them…”Do you mind if I say hello to your dog?”, I emplore, “Oh yes, go right ahead, Bart (or Fluffy or Rex) is very friendly”…and then it’s all sweet luvvins, hugs, and ear rubs. Rarely am I warned off with, “No no, please maintain your distance…Satan is trained to kill and will lunge for your throat without a moments warning”…but there are such dogs.

Our son was born on March 11, just weeks after we had moved into our new home. The delivery went smoothly and soon we were cuddling and fawning over 7 pounds 9 ounces of joy that would transform our lives. Elaine only needed a day or so in the hospital before she and our new baby Cameron were deemed safe to go home.

A typical Vancouver lot is 33’ feet wide by 120’ long. Usually, there is a thin 3 or 4 foot strip along one side of the house, with a sidewalk, allowing for access to the back yard, and a fence separating the neighbouring property. We parked on the street and for some reason decided to walk along this sidewalk with Cam bundled up in my arms, to enter via the back door. It was a lovely day, and Elaine walked on ahead as I navigated the narrow sidewalk while learning how to safely carry a baby. Suddenly, I heard rapid movement in the neighbour’s yard and then – out of nowhere – 80 pounds of unexpected German Shepherd ferocity was leaning over the fence, lunging, snapping and barking  – fangs bared – at me and our days-old baby. I automatically protected Cam’s head with my hand as I pressed him closer to my body and crab walked sideways into the back yard, with my face almost scraping the stucco wall, trying to avoid Rambo’s bite.

Elaine turned in horror as I scrambled to safety with Cam. “Jesus, are you guys OK?” She asked, as I handed Cameron to her. Who was, by the way, still sleeping and completely nonplussed by the situation. “Fuck, that scared the shit outta me”, I said. “We’re going to have to mention that to the neighbours” “Be super careful if you ever need to walk alongside the house until we get this sorted out”

That evening, I wandered over and rang Dmitri’s doorbell. One of his daughters answered the door and called out, “Dad!” We had already met the neighbours and they seemed like very amicable people. When Dmitri appeared I explained our scary & awkward encounter with his threatening dog and he was most apologetic. “Oh no…we are so sorry about that…and with the new baby” “Rambo is very protective of my girls and we have him because we work late at our restaurant. He keeps our girls safe when they are home alone. He’s just not used to you yet as you are new” “We’ll keep him on the back deck so he won’t lean over the fence at you again…so sorry” Thus assured, I went home and told Elaine about the “solution to our little problem”…all seemed well.

The next few months were a haze of new parenthood, settling into our new digs and grappling with all the demands that life throws at 30-somethings in the late 1980’s. We discovered – quite quickly – that “Rambo’s deck” was on the back of the neighbour’s house, on the same side and level as our bedroom…about 10 to 15 feet away from where we would be – trying – to sleep…and that, as well as his violent demeanor, Rambo was an incessant barker.

I have a gift. It is the gift of sleep, and I am blessed to be able to sleep almost anywhere and through nearly all conditions. Noise had never been an impediment to sleep – until Rambo. And I should explain that in fact it wasn’t Rambo’s barking that woke me up at night but Elaine’s sharp elbow and insistent voice. “George” jab jab “George!” jab jab “GEORGE!”…”Rambo’s barking and it’s going to wake the baby” “That’s every night this week” “Uuh…ok” I said rousing from my deep sleep…”what do you suggest?” “That dog has been barking almost constantly since we moved in two months ago…it can’t go on… between breastfeeding Cameron and Rambo’s barking I’m not getting any sleep” “Why don’t you go over and knock on their door and ask them to keep their dog quiet.”  “It’s only 2:00 am, I don’t think Dmitri or Sophia are back from the restaurant” “Well then, go and talk to one of the daughters, they can deal with it”…”Uuh ok” I said pulling myself out of bed. I slipped on my housecoat and some shoes and headed out.

Most of the houses on the street were built in the 40’s and 50’s and were equipped with the “old school” round white plastic doorbell button. I pushed it twice. Then a third time before I could hear the sounds of someone stirring inside, against the background of Rambo’s  – now feverish – barking. A young girls trembling voice came through the door “Who is it?” “Hi” I said, “It’s George your next door neighbour” “Hey, Rambo is barking a lot and it’s waking our baby” “Can you bring him inside or something” “Oh, sorry” she said. I think it was the 12 year old. “Ok, I’ll bring him in” “Thank You, g’night”

Problem solved, I thought. It seemed like such a simple solution – just bring Rambo into the house at night as we were all getting ready to go to sleep…ahh…I felt a wave of relief, and satisfaction that I had effectively completed my “man duty” and protected my own family from this noisy disruptive beast. Going one step further, I vowed to get their phone number in case I was ever in such a situation again and would just phone rather than looking like a sketchy guy in a housecoat standing on a porch at 2 in the morning.

The “system” seemed to work – for a while. Rambo was still a crazy threatening barkaholic from his porch, but the girls made an effort to bring him in at night, and if they forgot, I could just phone and they would oblige. But then, they seemed to lose the thread of the agreement and either forgot to bring him in at night or just wouldn’t answer the phone.

After several more months of this hit and miss solution, as Elaine’s late night elbow jabs were becoming more frequent and insistent and I was becoming more irritated at the neighbour’s intransigence, I came up with the bright idea that perhaps I could recondition Rambo not to bark through negative reinforcement – or punishment – in layman’s terms.

We left the hose out at all times and I would spray Rambo anytime we were walking by and he was going rabid on us. But he figured this game out fairly quickly and would go to the other end of the porch to avoid the cold water and continue barking. Late one night, I got out of bed to have a cigarette and spray Rambo when Dmitri – who happened to be home – leaned out the window and said, “Hey! Why are you spraying my dog?” “Well Dmitri”, I said, “He sounds like he’s getting a little hoarse from all the constant barking!” “No one answered the phone when I called” “We didn’t hear the phone” he said, “Well, can you take him in now?” I asked, “No, he’s all wet” I put the hose down and went inside, angry, “the system”, which also included civility, seemed to be breaking down.

Elaine had gone back to work after her maternity leave ended but we were still wrestling with “the Rambo problem” after a year of seeking possible solutions.  We griped about this situation to friends, family, and coworkers because it had become a seemingly insoluble problem that we were obsessed with. During one dinner party after a few glasses of wine our friend Dave said “Why don’t you just kill Rambo?” we all paused at this suggestion, and looked at Dave to see if he was serious “Sure, you just need some kind of poison, wrap it in a piece of steak and chuck it up on the porch” After this length of time it almost seemed like a good idea, but no, we couldn’t do that – we both liked dogs too much to even contemplate such an act, and realized that this wasn’t really Rambo’s fault, it was the owners fault, because they hadn’t trained him properly and weren’t dealing with a viable solution. “Maybe we could kill Dmitri and Sophia” I suggested…our guests laughed as they were used to my dark sense of humor.

I may have a solution for you guys said Elaine’s co-worker Milo. Milo was a very clever guy who was a skilled technician with BC Tel. “I could set up a high pitch sound feedback device, that would blast Rambo with a high pitch noise, only audible to a dog’s ears, every time he barked” “It’s kind of an immediate feedback loop…his bark triggers a switch on a noise sensor which triggers the other high pitch noise amplifier” “Essentially the high pitch noise would hurt his hearing and train him not to bark through negative feedback” “Wow” said Elaine and I in unison, “What a great idea Milo, I mean, it sounds like a long shot but we’re willing to try anything.”

Within days the affable and earnest Milo returned with the device which he had fabricated in his workshop at home. He had even attached it to a wall bracket which would screw into the side of our house, close to our bedroom window so we could run a power chord to an inside wall plug. It looked a little cumbersome, like a 1950’s Sci-Fi illustration of a death ray machine, and if that was the net result we would not be heartbroken, but we were hoping that Milo’s hi-tech solution proved worthy of it’s promise…we plugged it in.

Rambo, of course, had been barking incessantly since Milo showed up, outraged by the appearance of this stranger doing strange things in our yard. When the device was finally installed and plugged in we all held our breath, hoping that Rambo would collapse in a puddle of furry whimpering discomfort with each bark. We watched closely, trying to detect any sign of “negative feedback loop effect” which might indicate that Milo’s device was working. “I think I saw him wince”, I said. “He’s got a kind of puzzled quizzical look…I think”, said Elaine. “Maybe I need to turn it up to 11”, said Milo. “Yes! Yes!”, we agreed, “11 – 12 – 19- max it out Milo! Let’s see what this baby can do.” After a few more tweaks and adjustments, we all stood in the yard, intently looking at Rambo, which infuriated him into a spasm of frothy barking.

Whatever behavioural modification benefits the inflicted pain might have given us seemed to be offset by the additional frenzy Rambo was exhibiting from receiving it. This new discomfort just made him crazier, plus, wily beast that he was, he moved farther back on the deck, seemingly to get away from the “range of pain”. “Give it a week”, said Milo, “It’ll take a little while to see if it works”

We gave it a month. It didn’t work. And we fell into some kind of despair. “Well honey, we’ve tried everything”, said Elaine, “Do you think it’s time to exercise the “Dave Option”?” “No, I can’t even seriously contemplate that”, I said. “There is the Noise-ByLaw Infraction” “Maybe it’s time to get City Government on our side, show Dmitri and Sophia we mean business” “Hit them in the pocketbook where it hurts, with a nice big fine” “Leave this one to me, honey, I’ll call the City”

The Vancouver City Dog Barking Noise ByLaw Infraction process is – in itself – a descent into a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare. After eighteen months of frustration and fruitless effort, this appeared to be the last avenue open to us –  short of exercising the “Dave Option” – a labyrinth of paperwork, identifications, reporting, discussions & explanations, delays and perhaps most unfair of all, the need to “Use a log (called a barking package) to record the day, time, and duration of barking, and impact it has on you” which was, at that time, several months. If the Animal Control Officer thinks you have a case, it goes to the City Prosecutor to set up a Court Date, which you must attend and if successful a Fine is set. From start to finish this whole process took about 4 or 5 months, countless hours of my time, and in the end they were fined $75 for a first offence – with a warning. And all the while Rambo barked and barked.

“Well that was a complete waste of time”, I said with resignation, “Five months of effort and they get a $75 fine and a warning, and our problem hasn’t gone away” “How shitty is that?”…We sat in the front room and looked out the picture window as 2 year old Cam played happily with his toys, as toddlers do.  

“Maybe they’ll make more of an effort to control Rambo”, said Elaine, “If we continue with the noise bylaw, the fines get heavier and I think they can have their dog impounded” “Money doesn’t seem to be a problem for those guys”, I said, “And if Rambo gets impounded they’d probably just get a bigger, meaner, noisier dog to protect the girls from monsters at night…a Rottweiler with a personality disorder…or a Mastiff with childhood Trauma…something so psychotic and big we’d never be able to sleep or access our sidewalk again” Elaine could tell I was embellishing for playful effect…and she smiled. “I dunno” she said “I guess for the time being we have to go back to square one and call them at night if we’re woken up…what other option do we have, being as you’re too cowardly to do the manly thing and go over there and break Rambo’s neck”…now it was my turn to smile. “Yeah, let’s just take it one day at a time”, I said, “I guess we’ll need a fresh supply of earplugs”.

Whatever reprieve we were hoping for was short-lived. 2am, days after the Court decision. Bark Bark Bark! Jab-Jab-Jab… “George, Rambo’s barking” “I know, I know, you don’t have to jab me with your elbow anymore, I hear him, you’ve effectively conditioned me to be as noise sensitive as you”, I said testily, “I always hear him…there is no escape” And from down the hall…Waaah Waaah Waahh! “And Cameron’s crying, he’s probably still a bit feverish” “Why don’t you go deal with Camy, and I’ll try calling the neighbours”

I threw on my housecoat and went to the phone where the Kakavelakis families’ number was written on a yellow sticky note. Bark! Bark! BARK! went Rambo…Waaa Waaah! WAAAH! Went Cameron. Bark! Bark! Waah! Waah! …Bark! Wah! Bark! Wah! I thought I was losing it as I anxiously dialed their number. Ring Ring Ring! Ring Ring Ring! Ring Bark Wah Ring! Please God make it stop! Then, someone picked up the phone. There was no greeting so I just launched in, “Hi, it’s George next door, our little boy is not feeling well and Rambo’s barking is disturbing his sleep…and ours”. There was no reply, a brief hesitation, and then they hung up the phone.

Where does mercurial anger start?…from the toes? Does it build and flow from our extremities? rushing carelessly like a raging river through our veins, gaining strength as it cascades through our hearts on its way to the brain where it explodes and washes away the dykes and dams of learned civil behaviour?

The pent-up anger and frustration of two years of dealing with this issue boiled over and I “totally lost my shit” as they say. I grabbed my shoes and headed out the door. “J’en ai Ras le Bol Tabarnak!” I swore in my passable Quebeois. “Hang up on me when I’ve got a sick baby, you fuckers!”, I muttered under my breath. Having a sick baby can add a sense of righteousness to indignant rage, so I definitely pulled that card out of my anger deck. I marched across their lawn and ran up their stairs and began leaning on the doorbell.  Ding Dong Ding Dong Ding Dong! I didn’t let up on this for 5 minutes and it’s probably good that no one came to the door – I had become the monster that Dmitri was trying to protect his family from – an enraged man who had taken leave of his senses. While on the porch I started kicking their aluminum screen door as well, putting a sizeable dent into the lower half, and then, realizing it might be time to leave before the police showed up, managed to kick all their potted plants off the front steps on my way back down.

Good thing I wasn’t drunk or it could’ve gotten…ugly.

The next morning, we sat in the kitchen having coffee, discussing this new escalation in events. I think Elaine may have been secretly pleased by my outburst, because it served as a long overdue release of her own pent-up frustration and anger, but also horrified because it represented a new low in our neighbourly relations. “I totally get why you did that”, she said, “we’ve really been put through the wringer on this, if I hadn’t been looking after Camy I might’ve gone over and gotten into some kind of scrap with those guys myself”.  “Now, it’s not just Rambo we have to worry about…it’s Dmitri’s reaction, and our emotional well-being” “God, what if he gets a second dog for the front yard to protect his girls from late-night angry neighbours. Sigh” “Such a shitty situation…I don’t even like living here anymore…any ideas?”

We sat for a while in silence, sipping our coffees and pondering our situation when there was a knock at the door. “Shit, that’s probably Dmitri coming to chew me out and seek restitution for damages, I’ll get it”, I said.

I opened the door and there was a smiling bright faced woman with short blond hair, holding some pamphlets. “Hi”, she said, “My name’s Sue Clayton-Carroll, I’m a realtor, and I’m dropping off some flyers because I just sold a house down the street, which is quite like yours, for $250,000, and I’m checking to see if you have any interest in selling.” My eyes widened at this amount – maybe I salivated a bit – as it was fully double what we’d paid just two short years earlier.  I could see, out of the corner of my eye, Elaine sit bolt upright on the couch when she heard the amount. “Hi Sue”, she said, “I’m Elaine, I co-own this house with George…so…if we wanted to sell with you, would you be willing to ask our next door neighbour to take their dog Rambo indoors during the Open House? He’s a little noisy” “Oh, I’m sure that wouldn’t be a problem”, said Sue, “We realtors are asked to do that all the time”.

Elaine and I looked at each other, “Why don’t you pop in and tell us a bit more?”, I said, “can I get you a cup of coffee?”.

Well…that didn’t happen

Lesson # 1: Let go of attachment and expectation during a Pandemic and an era of Climate Change

I came to the painful awareness, on or about January 7, that I had packed on an overabundance of seasonal pounds, developed an undeniable couch/laptop habit, and was feeling – in a word – depranxious.  

“Why am I so inert?” I moaned, “Why such difficulty focusing?” I bleated…”Why so little purr in my purpose and so much meaninglessnessmess?” …faced with this existential angst, I knew what I had to do – call up one of my coffee-shop Gurus for a session. I reached for my iPhone…

Lesson # 2: Pause for awareness, take time to assess & understand – go for coffee with a friend

When last I posted on November 7th, I was looking forward to my slower Fall/Winter schedule at my Gallery/Café on Mayne Island https://shavasana.ca/ . This was – theoretically – going to free up some time for creative projects that I wanted to work on – a new mask, maybe a painting, definitely some writing, and extra time to refocus on my Podcast, which had been languishing.

Luckily, I did manage to produce a new podcast on Nov.10, https://www.theaccidentalcurator.ca/ and had a fabulous weekend at Shavasana Gallery & Café, Nov. 11 – 14th  – which coincided with the annual Mayne Island Studio/Art Tour…and then the Atmospheric River hit.

New terms have shown up recently in our weather lexicon that we have not heard before – Atmospheric River, Heat Dome and Polar Vortex are three relative newcomers that have arrived with their concomitant disasters and associated worries.

The November Atmospheric River Event brought record-breaking amounts of water to BC and Washington and catastrophic flooding to the region, which destroyed roads, bridges, dikes, homes, farms, lives & livelihoods

The scale of this event is almost unimaginable – these few photos are but a glimpse of some of the regional destruction – including a massive fire which destroyed 100 RVs at an RV Park and gave the carnage an “end of the world with a sense of twisted irony” quality

This biblical flooding occurred shortly after Vancouver had a small – but unprecedented – tornado on Nov. 6.

We. Don’t. Get. Tornados.

And all of this came on the heels of one of our worst summer fire seasons on record when we were introduced to the term “Heat Dome” with its punishing heat and destructive fires.

I had two more sessions with the Gallery on Mayne – early December and mid December – to pick up some Christmas business and visit with some of my community there. Mary Jane who bakes all my cookies went the extra mile and produced a fabulous selection of Christmas goodies for my appreciative customers. My dear friends Famous Empty Sky and Bill Maylone graced the walls of my Gallery with their art, as did the late Cedar Christie, via a loan from her friend Pat Gaston.

Like other regional Cafés, who are not required to ask customers for proof of vaccination, I had adopted a stringent mask policy that allowed people to come in, sit down, take off their masks, and have a coffee. It felt, briefly, like a return to normal. I had even expanded my seating to near full-capacity as coffee shops in Vancouver were doing. It was great – the buzz of happy people visiting and chatting…such a long-awaited relief. But then, in early December Mr. Omicron announced that he may be coming to spoil the party.

For a while it looked like maybe we were going to be spared – this new variant, which was raging in South Africa & Europe, hadn’t hit our shores. But news, and Omicron, travel fast. During my last few days of business – Dec.13 – 16 – conversations started to turn to Xmas party cancellations, and plans to “hunker down” before this next wave of the pandemic – inevitably – hit. By mid December we were still hovering around 4300 cases per day (Nationally)…and then on the 16th …my last day…they jumped to almost 7,000 cases. It had arrived. Within ten days we’d be seeing unprecedented numbers like 50 and 55 thousand cases per day. I felt like I was closing up shop and fleeing back to Kitsilano before things got really bad – with half an eye on cancelling my own Christmas plans.

On the ferry back, Thursday night, I had time to reflect on some other tragic news I’d received the day prior. A sweet & gentle man, I knew in Vancouver – Justis Daniel – a 77 year-old musician who was operating as the park caretaker at Tatlow Park in Kitsilano had been murdered. There seems to be no shortage of senseless in this world, and this was one more WTF moment to add to my own backpack of worries – an unsolved murder…of a friend…in my neighbourhood. As of today’s date (Jan. 15) police still have no leads in his death.

Justis Daniel – sweet dreams chum🙏

Despite the stresses of pandemics and regional disasters and senseless murder, life goes on. My partner Cathy and I still had to figure out our Christmas. Maybe this is the antidote to tragedy – as the Brits say, “Keep Calm and Carry On”…what else can you do? “Ok, we’ll buy & decorate a tree..that’s outdoors so can’t be too risky”…”Gifts?” …”Are they really necessary?” “Is it worth getting sick doing all that crowded indoor shopping?”…lineups and masks and squirt bottles of sanitizers with furtive, military precision excursions into shops to buy stocking stuffers for your loved one. Eagerly exiting shops so you can rip off your mask and breathe the cool refreshing air, before planning your next life-threatening purchase….and then, hardest of all, making decisions about Christmas dinner.

A large part of the gruelling stress of this pandemic has been the complete overdose of conflicting bits of information & misinformation we’ve received, the polarization this has created, and the uncertainty this has engendered. As cases of the new Omicron outbreak kept growing exponentially from mid to late December, and with mixed reports coming in on the severity of this particular strain, we were left perplexed about what to do with our 6 anticipated guests (8 including ourselves). All info that we were gleaning from our various sources, screamed reduce, diminish, cancel & postpone. The fact that my son & his new wife were flying to Quebec for a 4 day excursion, where the outbreak was particularly nasty, and returning the day prior to our dinner – pretty much sealed the decision to not have an indoor sit down dinner, and instead enact “Plan B”. Turkey sandwiches for just we four, meeting in our cars in an oceanside parking lot, to have a little picnic, and visit through our open windows – despite the snow and minus 8 degree weather!

It started getting uncharacteristically cold in the third week of December with temperatures below freezing. The Polar Vortex delivered a very rare ten inches of snow on Christmas, followed by a record-breaking -15.3 degrees on the 27th. This bone-chilling cold coincided with our worst-day ever Covid case count, with 49,148 cases nationally, a ten-fold increase in 12 days. Provincial restrictions came back into being, some businesses were shut down, events cancelled, lineups for goods and services returned and – most cruel of all – coffee shops started to limit their indoor seating again, or in my case, close down completely.

I’m a social animal and, for my mental and emotional well-being, I must get out of the house, and away from my home-office – at least once a day – to interact with the world. Visits with friends at coffee shops plays an important role in that process. By late December, with the Omicron numbers off the charts, indoor seating was not an option and finding someone – anyone – willing to bundle up and sit in subzero weather wasn’t happening …except for my good friend and coffee shop Guru – Jordy B. Our mutual love of coffee and conversation and proximity to each other in Kitsilano has made it relatively easy to scoot out for a cup o’ joe and have some of that invaluable human interaction that has been in such short supply – for many – over the past two pandemic years.

There came a time in early January – a few days – which felt like the emotional low of the past two years. “What exactly is this feeling, this state I’m in?”, I wondered, “Is this Ennui?”… “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement”…close, but not exactly, maybe it’s Lassitude…”a state of physical or mental weariness; lack of energy.”…hmm, kinda…Languor? …”the state or feeling, often pleasant, of tiredness or inertia”…no, definitely not, nothing pleasant about this. Torpor?…”a state of physical or mental inactivity; lethargy.”…So many terms describing variations of what I’m feeling, but none of them seemed quite bang on. It wasn’t Anhedonia…”the inability to feel pleasure.”…because I still enjoyed lying on the couch, eating chocolate, and looking at my laptop. There was only one way to find answers to this riddle and break the deadlock of this emotional morass in which I found myself trapped…time to book a session with Jordy B. – my coffee shop Guru.

“I’ll see you at Bucks in 15”, came the reply text, “sounds serious, better order a Vente” The outdoor seating at Starbucks on West Broadway in Kits has been a cherished meeting place during the pandemic, as it provides a modicum of protection from the elements. “OK, see ya there” …

“It sounds to me like you’re moribund” he said, when I described my plight. “Stagnating…lacking vitality or vigor” “Everybody’s been experiencing some version of this…just look at all the shit that’s going on…we’re two years into a pandemic that’s just recently gotten worse…we’ve had 6 months of disastrous weather anomalies, almost everybody has overeaten during the festive season…so we’re sluggish & justifiably a bit depressed”…”Just recognize it, accept it, forgive yourself & the world for this moment we are all going through…and get your head straight”…”Oh…and, be nice”

Lesson # 3: Forgive Self, Forgive Others and seek forgiveness from others you may have harmed

Always good to sit with JB and receive some of his eclectic wisdom…”Moribund”…yeah, that seems about right….and sure, I probably do need to get my head straight. And I was pondering his last bit of advice to “be nice” and thinking “Hmmm…no, that seems to be asking a bit too much, I don’t think I’ll do that” When this “Regional Civil Emergency Advisory Alert” came in warning about an impending Tsunami😳

…Well…that galvanizes the ol’ Moribundity! Gotta run for higher ground!…see ya!

The Return…Getting Back to my Creative Process

It’s been eight months since I’ve posted anything on this website and six months since I’ve created any new episodes on my Podcast: The Accidental Curator https://www.theaccidentalcurator.ca/ . Although most of my creative energy had been directed towards the podcast since its inception in mid-2020, it was still my intention to use Clay and Bone as an outlet for my mask-making, painting and short story writing. Whereas writing can take place anywhere and anytime that inspiration and the muse allow, regional travel restrictions prevented me from using my Studio/Gallery on Mayne Island for any of my 3 and 2 dimensional artwork. All creative projects hit a wall in June as regional Covid restrictions were lifted and I was able to travel – once again – to Mayne Island to re-open my Gallery Café https://shavasana.ca/ .

Although I haven’t painted much during the pandemic I did manage to sell one of my pieces, “Winter Pond”, when my Gallery re-opened for business this past summer

When I finally managed to re-open to the public in July – after a 21 month hiatus – I had no idea what to expect. Given that we were still in the midst of the pandemic, would islanders and tourists show up or would I be left in my empty Gallery/Café vaxxed, masked, and holding a bottle of hand sanitizer. Well…they showed up…in droves…and I had the busiest summer, albeit shortened, that I’d had in 8 years in business. Perhaps this was due to an unprecedented fire season we were having in the interior of BC which drove people to the coast for vacation, perhaps it was due to the US border re-opening to Americans (but not Canadians) such that they flowed up here but we had nowhere to go, maybe it was the new dynamic of people leaving the cities, discovering ways to continue working online thus liberating them from offices and the urban environment…maybe it was just that islanders after a year and a half of pandemic limitations, were in need of somewhere else to go and grab a coffee on a small island with few options. Anyway you slice it, it was a busy, busy summer at the Gallery Café and all plans of Podcasting, Posting or Painting were off.

This was my last day of Summer hours – October 3, 2021 -and I had a quiet moment to do a walkthrough to capture the Shavasana vibe, a little momento of a fabulous summer – despite the pandemic👍

This outcome was not such a bad thing. I actually love working at Shavasana Gallery & Café. I feel blessed to interact with such a – generally – happy group of people. Whether they are tourists who are on vacation euphoria or islanders who are joyous at their good fortune, my experience, as a barista/curator on a small Gulf Island has been one of sublime bliss.

And I could carry on this way indefinitely but for two realities, “shoulder season” arrives, and my inner creative neanderthal needs to abandon the hunt for nuts and berries and go into the cave and make art, or tell stories, or beat a drum. “Shoulder Season” for a small Gallery Café proprietor on Mayne island is that period – roughly – from October through March where I become, as one friend described it, less of a gregarious summertime social maestro, and more of counsellor for those suffering mid-winter cabin fever blues…all for the price of a cup of coffee.

I did manage to paint this mask, “Pandemic Pan”, which I made in 2020

Thus…a perfect time to work on my creative projects. I’ve already started to prepare more clay for a new mask I have in mind, and have been gifted with a lovely set of Fallow Deer antlers from one of our island hunters – Bob – which will grace this piece.

Preparing “Clay and Bone” for the next mask project

Another project which has kept me moderately busy is an ebay store which I set up in late 2020. It occurred to me during the pandemic that I had collectibles (comics & sport cards from my childhood), antiques and art that I was willing to part with so I took some time to populate my ebay store https://www.ebay.ca/usr/shavasana9 with 200 items for sale (follow the link if you wish to have a look). This has been going surprisingly well and has been a fun pastime in lieu of running Shavasana Gallery or making art at my studio. I think the next stage will be reaching out to artists and friends who have art which they’d like to sell through my store. I already have a few items from friends for sale and have had interested inquiries from others.

And then there’s life…and death. Joyously, my son Cam got married in September to his sweetheart Nekita, and then tragically two of my dearest friends lost their son in October…this capricious universe, so dynamic, so organized yet chaotic. I am often left in awe of this experience, yet always try to find some way to express gratitude.

And when all else fails? Go to a Bond movie…although the pandemic postponed the release of “No Time To Die” for 18 months, when it finally hit the screens in October I beelined to the neighbourhood cinema and caught a Sunday matinee. I slouched into my seat with a box of hot salted buttered popcorn… and Bond delivered…all is right in the universe👍

Nothing like a little Bond & Buttered Popcorn on a rainy Sunday afternoon to make everything right in the universe…at least for a short while🙏


“Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime”

“Be my little sugar and love me all the time”

Sugartime” – song written by Charlie Phillips & Odis Echols in 1957, and popularized by The McGuire Sisters in 1958, Kitty Wells in 1959, and yes, even Johnny Cash in 1961

When we gain sobriety, one of our primary tasks is to try and understand where our excessive habits came from. “How did I get here?” sang David Byrne of the Talking Heads…the trail of self-discovery was, in my case at least, not sprinkled with breadcrumbs, but sugarcubes and candycanes, leading all the way back to my early childhood…

Is this the face of an addict?…apparently yes 🙂

It was the mid to late 1950’s, I wasn’t yet toilet trained and already I lived for sugar. The world, and everything that found it’s way into my tiny mouth seemed sprinkled, dusted, coated, dipped, rolled in, spread with or completely fabricated of sugar. It was everywhere…it sweetened every social event, it was baked into the major holidays, it kidnapped Halloween…the birthday parties with their inch-thick icing cakes, the visits to family with their gauntlet of well-meaning candy-proffering Aunties & Grannies, and the ubiquitous bowls of assorted bonbons & mints presented as offerings of supplication to we God-children by fawning neighbors.

There was always a rush to be the first to give a child candy. The giver knew intuitively that it bestowed an immediate bond…sugar was love.

Sugar in the morning. By the time I started eating solid foods a typical day would start with a good sugar-saturated breakfast cereal…Sugar Pops, Cap’n Crunch, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Apple Jacks, Froot Loops, Lucky Charms, Apple Cinnamon Cheerios…and for those “healthier” cereals (Special K, Rice Crispies, Cheerios) there was always the

ever-present bowl of sugar in the middle of the kitchen table, to help oneself – unsupervised – to as much sugar as one could tolerate…and yes my friends, young Georgie had a very high tolerance. And who am I trying to kid?…I put sugar on all of my cereals…whether they came pre-sugared or not. “It’s Sugartime Folks!”.

The alternative to cereal was toast slathered in jam, honey & peanut butter, with weekend treats of pancakes & waffles swimming in syrup, or batches of my Swedish Grandma’s Plett (small thin pancakes) sprinkled with spoonfuls of sugar butter and cinnamon.

I had a particular love affair with the sugar bowl and would often find myself  – at age 3 or 4 – kneeling on a chair at the kitchen table, leaning over and methodically channeling spoonful after spoonful of sugar into my mouth while my mother was downstairs doing laundry…bliss.

By the age of 5 or 6 my teeth started to resemble those of Shane MacGowan from the Pogues.

Sugar in the Evening.  If we were sick, sugar was there to “help the medicine go down”. I remember my mother crushing whatever pill may

have been prescribed or bought over-the-counter and mixing it with jam or honey to make it more palatable for my little pill-averse taste buds. If ever we had a cold, flu or fever, Dad was there with a Hot Toddy (Hot Whiskey, Honey or Sugar and maybe a little lemon…a Scottish thing) before we went to bed… hovering somewhere between a sugar coma and boozy delirium.

One “cute story” that my mother (bless her) used to tell from my early childhood, was of little Georgie – perhaps age two – going into the bathroom, climbing on top of the toilet to reach the medicine cabinet above the sink to retrieve the Benylin cough syrup (a rather

potent medicine laced with Codeine – an opioid linked to addiction –  and sugary syrup)…and downing the entire bottle. Mom found the empty bottle and me – staggering around the house. She gave me small amounts of coffee and forced me to keep walking so I wouldn’t pass out.

Sugar at suppertime. I received a weekly allowance of 10 cents, and permission to walk the two or three blocks to my favorite store in our neighborhood (and likely the only one I frequented at the age of 5) called “Kiddie Korner”, a candy store where I would load up on penny candy.

C’mon kids…first one’s free!

Ten cents  – at two or three pieces per penny – could fill a small brown paper bag and provide an afternoon of addictive* cavity expanding distraction. Green Sugar-Coated Jelly Mint Leaves, Pinkish Sugar

Strawberries, Yellow Bananas, Little Black Licorice Babies, Candy Necklaces, Red Shoestring Licorice, Bazooka & Double Bubble Bubblegum (no suckers or Jellybeans thanks, they’re a little too pedestrian), Lik-M-Aid, Candy Lipstick, Candy Bacon…and on and on. If you build it they will come. Kiddie Kokaine as my friend JB calls it, and as it turns out…he’s right.

When I quit drinking in 2012 (thank you AA) my desire to eat sweet things (ice cream, chocolates and sugary baked goods) spiked, as if I was replacing my adult drinking obsession with my more primary childhood sugar craving. I wasn’t eliminating addiction, I was only transferring it…reverting to the mean, as it were. Shortly after receiving my 1 year “Sobriety Cake” in 2013 (also slathered with sugary irony), I came across across this article in the NatGeo titled “Sugar Love” which said:

*“When we eat sugar the brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two mood-boosting hormones that stimulate the area of the brain associated with reward. In a process similar to drug addiction, we get sugar cravings. However, our sugar rush releases insulin that creates a sugar crash, triggering more cravings and a vicious sugar cycle”

Bingo. If not a smoking gun then at least a prime suspect.

Although I still indulge in the sweet stuff, and may indeed be powerless** over a well-crafted cookie or piece of chocolate, my life is not unmanageable…unless you take away my coffee…don’t even think about it.

** Step 1 from AA, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives had become unmanageable”

The Three Injuries

Rule # 1 – just because you have one injury doesn’t mean you can’t have another

Rule # 2 – just because you have two injuries, doesn’t mean you can’t have a third

I know that these are contentious times but can we all agree at least, that Holly Trees are malevolent and dangerous beasts? From their poisonous red berries to their skin-piercing needle-festooned leaves they are a menace for all seasons. They seem to grow incessantly and beyond reason, and if you are one of the unfortunates – like myself – that has two of them in his yard, you will inevitably be called upon to tame their unwelcome expansion through pruning.

The offending beast

I don’t think I’m a particularly accident prone guy, but, those who know me well may agree that I lack a certain amount of caution and forethought.  I sometimes take risks – wittingly or unwittingly – and don’t always preface my activities through the filter of self-preservation. 

And I’m not bereft of tools, being quite well-equipped for the job of pruning…I’ve got Pruning Shears, Bypass Lopper, Saws, Hedge Shears and even an 8’ Pole Pruner…and of course, for the task of fighting with my Holly Tree, heavy leather work gloves.  As it turned out, the only thing I was really lacking on this day was… Safety Goggles.

Rule # 3 – Never try and prune a Holly Tree without Safety Goggles

You get where I’m going with this, right? It was Sunday, Father’s Day in fact, when I found myself – without Safety Goggles – standing on a chair, stretching to prune branches over my head…not a good idea. A cautious, safety oriented person would have – while wearing protective eyewear – switched to a ladder to be able to prune above the falling branches thus avoiding potential injury.  Not I, or should I say, not eye?

The falling holly branch scraped across my eye on it’s way to the ground leaving me with what is known as a Corneal Abrasion. On a scale of 1 to 10, the pain was about a 7, but of greater concern was an immediate reduction in vision by about 50%. The eye closes involuntarily and through the tears, painful blinking and blurred vision I knew that the bad haircut I’d given the Holly Tree would have to wait …”OK fucker, you win this one, but even if I have to finish this job looking like a pirate with one eye, I’ll be back!”

With my one good eye, I went inside and consulted Mr. Google to see what I should do – hoping to avoid Doctors… on a Sunday…during a Pandemic…on Father’s Day. But no, beyond a little rinse in Saline solution, the risks – blindness – were too great and a trip to emergency was in order, where I expected to see a room full of hapless Dads, bleeding and broken from their various ill conceived yard duties.

As I was unable to drive, my lovely partner Cathy volunteered to be my ambulance and risk-management adviser, reminding me – once again – of the benefits of precaution. I promised I would heed her good advice.

At Emergency, it turns out that bleeders, strokes and organ failures get fast tracked through “Emergency Room A” whereas those who are just broken and in pain – like myself – get put into “Emergency Room B”…with it’s lengthy waits. We are there to endure and build character.

Emergency Room “B” at VGH…patient patients

After my obligatory four and a half hour wait I was able to consult with a specialist who informed me, while looking deep into my eye –and my soul – that my injury was not very bad and should slowly heal over the coming weeks. “It’s a rather small scratch Mr. Bathgate, you’ll be fine, here are some drops” It’s all I really wanted to hear, even though it still felt like my eye had been slashed with a bayonet. The next day I went and bought Safety Goggles.

Despite my ongoing discomfort (mild pain, blurred vision and an eye that wouldn’t stop blinking and weeping) I needed to get over to Mayne Island to work on my Gallery, which had been shut since October. The yard was an overrun mess of waist-high grass, weed families, and a long-neglected California Lilac that was in dire need of…pruning…I stuffed my Safety Goggles into my back pack, and made my way via public transit to the ferry.

The lovely California Lilac

Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, my Gallery/Café will likely remain closed for the season.  Where I would have normally done all my spring-cleaning, gardening and preparatory work in March and April for a May opening, I only started to make tentative forays to Mayne Island in mid to late June. The extra 3 month absence has allowed my yard flora to run riot and I have my work cut out for me. This is good as it gives me focus and a sense of productivity as I self-isolate on Mayne.

Rule # 4 – You can never wear enough protective gear to prevent all possible injuries

The California Lilac is a beautiful bush and the bees love it. I love it and I love the bees. It has grown considerably since last year, gaining height and breadth to give us a beautiful display of its fragrant, buzzing, blue flowers. It seems to allow its lower branches to die out, creating a canopy of support for the upper display, and has gained enough width to prevent us from accessing our path into the back yard without ducking. It is this barrier, and the tangled mess of dead branches which I have to tackle…luckily I have my Protective Eyewear.

Crouching under the Lilac to gain access to the dead branches, sometimes on my hands and knees, puts me in some pretzel-like yogic positions for pruning. Although I’ve got my protective eyewear, my injured eye is still weepy and not giving me clarity of vision…and here, on Mayne, I don’t have the complete contingent of tools…all I have are pruning shears, which are like pliers… with sharp blades. It’s all going well until I encounter a rather thick branch which requires two hands to apply enough pressure to make the cut. Where’s a Bypass Lopper when you need one? While exerting maximum pressure, my thumb slipped into the crushing/pinching fulcrum as the cut was made and I gave myself a nasty blood blister.

Not my thumb, a gift from Mr Google, but gives the general idea

Swearing comes fairly naturally at these moments…I’m under the bush with my weepy damaged eye, holding my injured hand between my legs with my teeth clenched going f…u…c…k! It hurts but I know the drill, I’ve had these before, all you can do is wait, grimace, and clench your teeth…the pain will subside in 5 or 10 minutes. Some choose to lance the blister to let the blood and pressure out – and I may do this later – but at this moment I’m looking at piles of pruned dead branch debris thinking, “OK…I can do this…I’ll just clean up this mess and then wrap up for the day and have a look at my wound”.

I start to gather up handfuls of dead branches and ponder where I’m going to toss them. It’s a 10 acre parcel of land and we don’t have an official burn pile so I decide to throw the organic material into the bushes. All I have to do is wander through a small patch of innocuous-looking waist high plants to chuck my load.

Rule # 5 – Know what poisonous plants thrive in your region – avoid them

There are two kinds of people in this world – those that recognize Stinging Nettles and avoid them and those that don’t and suffer accordingly – I fall into the latter category. Maybe if I hadn’t been wearing shorts and sandles it wouldn’t have been so bad. I’d never had an encounter with Stinging Nettles before and, it truly is, an unforgettable experience. By the time I was 10 feet into the patch I knew something was seriously wrong…my legs were on fire and, as a novice to this problem, it took me a moment to understand my plight and make a plan of escape. The pain was so great it dwarfed my earlier injuries, but all I could do was ditch my armload of debris, turn around and rush back the way I’d come, adding further injury.

Stinging Nettle – I know…they look so innocuous…

The Stinging Nettle is covered with thousands of filaments that pierce the skin of the unwary and inject poisons that result in burning, itching painful sensations. Hundreds of mosquito-bite like blisters form on the exposed skin and even with washing can remain with the victim for up to 18 hours.

I felt like I’d just experienced medieval torture with my nasty thumb pinch followed in such short order with my blistered burning legs. I was reminded of Ving Rhames as Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction when he asked his homies to “bring pliers and a blowtorch” to deal out rough justice to his hillbilly tormentors.

Bruce Willis & Ving Rhames in “Pulp Fiction”

Luckily I have a sense of humor and was able to sit back with my damaged eye, blistered thumb, and ravaged legs and laugh…at myself and unforeseen circumstances. And, due to “The Rule of 3” (not to be confused with Rule # 3 above) from the Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete…I’d had my three perfect accidents and was now complete – I was safe from further harm.

The Forever Month

I’m writing this from my home/office in Kitsilano on April 22, 2020. It’s a good day to sit down and write because, well, it’s raining out and I have little else to do. It’s not yet time to go out for my furtive human-avoidance daily walk, nor am I ready to venture out on my weekly life-threatening shopping excursion. Although the Coronavirus arrived locally in January, its impact was not felt – personally – until voluntary self-isolation & social distancing kicked in on March 19th…the beginning of this minimized and repetitive, Groundhog Month existence we all now share.

We British Columbians are – uncharacteristically – grateful for the rain, as we’ve just experienced the driest April in recorded history, and, as a forested province had begun to worry about our summer fire season. As we are not, as yet, experiencing complete societal lockdown, walking – albeit furtive, fearful and weird – has become one of our primary pleasures – a chance to leave the house/apartment and get much needed fresh air and exercise. This blog/journal is my attempt to keep a record of photos & observations from these local excursions, during this longest of months.

Luckily, I’d returned from a holiday in Mexico on March 6 – before the chaos of airports closing and airlines shutting down had begun. By March 13 though, everything had changed. Friends flying into Vancouver from Ottawa cancelled on the 13th, and my son and his partner Nekita had to cancel a trip to Peru, scheduled for the 14th. Another friend’s son made it to Peru on the 15th just as the airports closed and the country shut down, and Nekita’s mother is still trapped in Hungary with no hope of getting home until late May. I stumbled across these images on my my daily walks, which seemed to reflect the news. Chaos was coming closer to home, “Should I Be Worried?”

If I wasn’t worried previously, early forays into stores with depleted shelves set off some primal inner alarm bells that created a fear-based urge to stock up. My inner lizard had been unleashed. The media were stoking this fear with stories of “toilet paper hoarding” (still not sure what that was all about), and images of vast lines at grocery stores and people greedily clutching at their overloaded carts. I didn’t become one of the human-locusts, but my behaviour was definitely modified to make sure that Cathy and I had enough supplies at home to last for a month if the whole thing fell apart ….hence the Legume Shelf, our protection against the feared collapse of supply chains, and also a great food to assist with social distancing 🙂

I have a lot of faith in the essential goodness of my fellow citizens…it’s humans that I sometimes worry about. Knowing what they are capable of under duress adds a certain edge to ones decision making process in such times. Until rules were put in place by grocery stores ( socially-distant lines, entry limits), and people overcame their initial panic-buying, shopping was unpleasant, slightly fearful and greedy – and quite likely fraught with danger due to the proximity of potentially Covid-infected, clutching hordes of shoppers.

Self-isolation has unique challenges for couples, individuals, and parents at home with children. Emotional strain is being experienced by all. I feel fortunate, during these times, to share these duties – and my life – with my pragmatic & lovely partner Cathy. Whereas my own proclivity is to ignore, forget, or pick and choose from the growing list of rules that are designed to save my life, Cathy’s cautionary wisdom is there to help save me from myself. If not for her, I’d likely be SOL in an ICU at VGH 🙂 ❤

I suffer from mild Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) …this, coupled with my first attempt to do my own taxes in…oh…30 years, using unfamiliar software, while the rain drizzled down under a grey sky and the Canada Revenue Agency was inaccessible due to the Covid-19 outbreak, made self-isolation and the prospect of Global Pandemic especially…….fun. Every now and then – in life- we get to experience new shapes and flavours of misery that we never even dreamed existed…this was one of them 🙂

Coffee…learning to adjust to a coffee-shopless world

I love coffee, and coffee shops. So much so that I run one called Shavasana Art Gallery & Café on Mayne Island, where I, in fact, live when I am open for business…6 months of the year. So I can truthfully say that “I live in a coffee shop”, albeit part time.

One of my personal disappointments that has arrived with the Covid-19 shutdown, has been my need to close my business til further notice. I love my little endeavour and the wonderful community of friends that I have made there. Due to a shortage of medical professionals & facilities on Mayne Island, and a demographic dominated by seniors, the island is especially at risk for the Coronavirus outbreak, and has asked those of us who have alternate accommodation (as I do in Kitsilano) to remain in place.

One of my favourite coffee shops in Vancouver is Bruno’s Corner Cup, which is a short two blocks from my home and is – under normal circumstances – my first stop of the day where I grab my morning coffee and sit with “the boys” to discuss…”important things”. Bruno makes a great cup of coffee, best in Vancouver by my reckoning, and has had to repurpose his place since the shutdown, as indoor seating is disallowed. He’s a very resourceful guy and after a 3 week closure is now selling bags of coffee and doing takeout.

In his absence I played the daily game of trying to find those rare coffee shops that were still selling takeout. It almost felt like a drug deal…furtive and dangerous. I would take the occasional photo to send to my good friend and morning coffee buddy Jordy as a kind of game, “look what I found”. It’s good to have Bruno back …when the shutdown is over and we all return to some semblance of normalcy perhaps I’ll introduce Bruno’s blend to my Mayne Island audience.

Finding Joy During Crisis

Despite the weirdness & worry, and the upset of our comfortable routines, we adapt and find new or forgotten joys to replace what we have lost: We were very lucky to have 2 – 3 weeks of sunshine, which made walking so much better; I found great pleasure (all winter) feeding birds (my new little friends) on a ledge outside my office window; Traffic was cut back which made the city quieter, easier to navigate, and less polluted; Acts of kindness sprung up everywhere, including appreciation for our essential workers & health care professionals, hearts & signs everywhere and random individual acts like the “Table of Freebies” in front of someone’s home; Moments of tranquility at Lolly’s bench where songbirds abound; the joy of access to golf courses – which are closed to golfing – but open to walkers; and, lying down in a field of daisies.

Nature & solitude can be excellent companions during this – and any – time, and are great substitutes for whatever self-important things I may have been doing previously. Just one recommendation though…if you have an opportunity to lie in a field of daisies, by all means do so…just check for Canada Goose poop first! 🙂

“Adventures in Leather”

The rewards of running a Gallery Café on a small island are not always financial…as I think about it, in my own case, they’re not financial at all,  because I really don’t make a lot of money at this gig. What the Art Gallery Café may lack in remuneration though is more than compensated…well, mitigated perhaps…by a depth & breadth of experience that I have come to cherish…tolerate…endure…and fear.

Mostly it’s been good…fabulous actually…how can you not love it when friends and neighbours drop in with fresh baked scones and home-made preserves just out of a spirit of generosity. It’s a very giving community and I’ve been the happy recipient of so much largesse…food of all sorts: smoked salmon, various teas and coffees, baked goods of all kinds, numerous bouquets of flowers, award winning sunflowers, canned items from homegrown gardens, and perhaps one of my favourites, the friends who showed up with an entire ice-cream maker full of freshly made blackberry ice cream…God that was good, perhaps the best ice cream I’d ever dipped my spoon into.

And the fearful? Well, at the moment the bucket of ice cream scares me as I try and shed 20 pounds after my winter excesses. All kidding aside though…it’s people. When you run a retail operation, as I do, it’s a public space open to all, and you never know who is going to walk through the front door. I’ve been fortunate, I know, as I can safely say that 99%+ of those who have graced my Gallery with their presence have been kind, funny, happy, bright and engaging.

And the <1% ?…mostly a garden variety of quirky individuals whom we all encounter from time to time who trigger our awareness mechanism in a way that speaks of unpredictability. We know that our ability to communicate and understand might be challenged and may try our patience. But these individuals are – ultimately – harmless and wander off on their quixotic journeys. Then there are the in-your-face recovering drug addicts who generate wariness and, of course, the irritating drunks who wander in eliciting anger, wariness and thoughts of self defence…

….and then there’s Colin*. Colin was the “1 in a 1,000” deeply troubled individual who walked in one fine spring morning and stayed for a year and a half. I’m not going to go into detail but suffice it to say that Colin’s depth of personal pain had created a malevolence filled with hair-trigger anger, paranoia and threats of violence which I became privy to on an almost daily basis. His appearance, and my exposure to his toxicity made me seriously consider closing my shop…and then, one day, he was gone!

The experiences I have come to value the most (next to buckets of ice-cream) are those which feel unique and fresh and unlike anything I’ve previously encountered. Situations or events which arouse my sense of the absurd….friends who drop in by horse, performance artists appearing with giant puppets, phone calls to help move a giant pot-bellied pig to a Church Fair, a friend showing up with a truckful of retrievers, a hunter coming in with a bag full of bloody deer hooves for “my art”, and, one of my faves, an elderly friend dropping off her late husbands collection of retro leatherwork magazines which I’ve captured in this short video “Adventures in Leather”

“Adventures in Leather”

The magazines went to a good home as I decided against a new career in leatherwork. The adventure – now in its sixth year – continues 🙂

*Colin is the name I have given to “He who shall remain nameless”…

The Blüthner

It was there, waiting for me, when I got back from Vancouver. Black, lustrous and imposing, it now occupied the space I’d left for it against the far wall between the two cabinets. Possessing a certain presence and grace, it sat there patiently, as if expecting me. My new roommate had arrived – the Blüthner was here.

The movers had obviously found the “secret key” and managed to access my Gallery and wrestle its awkward bulk into place, without my assistance. For this I was grateful as pianos are notoriously difficult to move. Three-men with a truck, a special dolly and straps is still no guarantee of safety – for the piano or the movers. This is why you’ll find many pianos being offered for “free”…if you pick up the moving fees.

In fact, the piano was not mine – a friend had received it, for free, when the local Community Centre on Mayne Island decided to divest themselves of their two pianos. His impulsive agreement to take the piano was short-lived though, when he realized that he didn’t have space for it. Pianos are beautiful instruments and have an intrinsic allure, even if you don’t know how to play them – like myself. When offered a chance to “store it indefinitely” in my Gallery Café, I readily accepted, and now, it was here…what to do?

It looked lovely in its new home, fitting perfectly between the two cabinets, allowing for stylish art displays on the wall in the alcove above, and on top of the piano too. But what of the piano itself? What is a Blüthner? A name I’d never heard, before one showed up in my Gallery. I was curious.


It all starts with a little Wikipedia…

Julius Blüthner Pianofortefabrik  manufactures pianos in Leipzig Germany. Along with Bechstein, Bösendorfer, and Steinway, Blüthner is frequently referred to as one of the “Big Four” piano manufacturers. Established in 1853, Julius Blüthner, a deeply religious man, spoke the defining words that would allow his company to survive and flourish for the next 167 years, “May God Prevail”. The age of any particular Blüthner piano can be determined by matching its serial number to the age table freely available on the Blüthner website”

Blüthner pianos have won international awards consistently since their inception, and have been prized by pianists all over the world, including Rachmaninoff who said, “There are only two things which I took with me on my way to America…my wife and my precious Blüthner”.


“Hmm…impressive pedigree…and I can determine the age of my Blüthner?,” That’s cool I thought…I had to look. Lifting up the lid, and exposing the Hammer Action I saw the Serial number stencilled on the metal frame, “92989” Returning to the computer and the Blüthner website I was able to determine that my Blüthner was built in 1914 – exactly 100 years earlier (I was doing all this sleuthing in March 2014).


100 years. I paused to reflect for a moment on this significant date. I think we naturally accredit a special respect for anything that is celebrating a century of life on this earth. If the Blüthner was not technically alive, it had experienced a lot of life at the hands of its various owners. And, significantly, it was born in Leipzig Germany at the start of World War 1 which began on July 28th of that year. Where did it go? How did it get here?

My curiosity about the Blüthner’s journey was piqued and I wanted to know all I could about her…but all I had was the piano sitting before me – and she wasn’t speaking. I grabbed a flashlight and a screwdriver and started to explore.

Removing the bottom panel just above the piano pedals I peered in with my flashlight and saw the Serial number again, handwritten in pencil along with what appeared to be a signature. My first thought was of a young German piano maker leaving his mark for posterity – a little Saxon graffiti – and immediately wondered what might have happened to him with the advent of War.


Without knowing for certain though, I sent a photo to my German friend Rainer Schroeder (Valhalla Tours ), for translation. Rainer said that although “it’s definitely a word…the font is in Old German “Suetterlin” …but I’m not sure”.

Undaunted, I went online and found Katherine Shober of SK Translations who works in this field to see if she could help. (Chasing this one word translation becomes a story in itself: Katherine was too busy but directed me to Geneologist Dr. Ellen Yutzy Glebe. She too was busy but gave me three Facebook Translation Groups – which I joined – and within hours had a viable translation from Georg Patrzek – “Tschempel (or Tschumpel/Tschampel)” which is a family name…God I love the internet)

I was glad that the word I’d discovered was a family name and didn’t mean “right piano leg” in Sütterlinschrift . Knowing that M. Tschempel decided to sign this instrument upon which he (or she) worked creates, for me at least, a whole thread of historic inquiry to ponder or pursue. Was he young, old, married with family? What happened to Tschempel? World War 1? 2?…in a last grasp at trying to understand, and complete this circle, I found one Tschempel reference online – again on Facebook, a Marie Lea Tschempel whom I have messaged…I await her reply.

The next and most obvious clue in the Blüthner’s journey was a small metal plaque attached to the keyboard lid which read: “Bowran & Co. Ltd – Newcastle on Tyne”


I knew that Newcastle on Tyne was in England, so the Blüthner had to have made it’s way safely between two warring countries, but I had no way of knowing when it made that perilous trip. Mr. Google was there to help and gave me a little tidbit from the Newcastle Journal August 4th, 1916…a small classified ad indicating that E. O. Bowran was indeed engaged in piano sales, representing several makes & models of new & used pianos. Bowran survived the war but not the great Depression, and had to be “wound up due to liabilities”, as published in the London Gazette, February 5, 1935

Screen Shot 2020-02-04 at 6.04.05 PM

So, somewhere between 1914 and 1935, the Blüthner made it’s way to England, sat in a Piano Shop in Newcastle upon Tyne and was sold either new, used or as part of a bankruptcy liquidation.

Sometime during it’s long life, an aspiring pianist, or perhaps a child who didn’t know better, sat down at the piano with a pen and piece of paper, and forever scarred the keyboard cover while writing out the notes and lyrics to a song:


Their scribbling moved around too much for me to identify the song, or tell what era it’s from. I visualize a young student or budding musician from the 60’s or 70’s copying or creating a piece for personal enjoyment or to entertain family and friends. I find these words add a human element to the Blüthner’s almost indecipherable journey.

The trail goes cold here until August 10, 1986 (or perhaps October 8) when the Blüthner was tuned up by Cliff Brownlee of Penticton, BC.


I’ve attempted to fill in some gaps with the Blüthner’s history but have been unable to do so beyond the plaques, stickers, and graffiti that were left attached to the piano. The 50 year gap between Newcastle & Penticton is long so I decided to take a chance and call Cliff Brownlee in Penticton to see if he could remember anything about the piano – 28 years after his tuning job. It was a long shot.

Much to my surprise, there he was in the directory, no longer listed as a piano tuner and living at a different address but I felt compelled to call him. What possible harm could it do? Again, surprisingly, Cliff picked up the phone after a couple of rings. I could tell by his voice that I was not dealing with a young man. I explained who I was and why I was calling, that I was on a crazy mission to try and understand the life of a piano. How did it get to Pentiction?…and then to Mayne Island?

Cliff was friendly but admitted that – after this length of time – he really had little memory of working on my Blüthner, but – again with the surprises – he would look into his files, and call me back. He did just that. Two days later I received a call from him, unfortunately, he wasn’t able to elaborate much more on my pianos journey. He did recall coming to Mayne to tune David Hodges Grand Piano back when he was still in business, so we speculated that perhaps the Blüthner was here at that time, and not in Penticton, and that Cliff had picked up some additional tuning jobs.

I had one more lead to try – call the Community Centre and see where they got the piano and talk to whomever donated it. A chat with Lauren led me to Lise who gave me the final word on my quest. A couple named Don and Nina Thompson had made the donation to the Community Centre but they were now both in a seniors care facility in Victoria and should really not be disturbed. The thought being that perhaps they would be dismayed to know that their “donation” had changed hands and was now in a Gallery Café.

After all my sleuthing I certainly wanted to call them, or their family members but I honoured the suggestion. If Don and Nina’s intent when they made their donation was for the Blüthner to be cared for and played lovingly, I’m sure this little video that I made: “Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner” would warm their hearts and assuage any concerns they may have…

“Eleven Pieces for the Blüthner”