Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Someone please tell me why Edmonton is worth staying in?

From a chorus of discussions over this past week culminating to a quiet corner conversation tonight at Martini's, I have come to a semi conclusion: Edmonton has no heart. People leave, come and go, and it's simply expected. Transient city. No heartbreaks. Shallow ties. Unstable roots and unable to grow.

Talking with Shawna Dempsey this past week, a Winnipegger all the way (from Scarborough), I couldn't help but try and compare Edmonton and Winnipeg as similarities accumulated: both midsized prairie towns, murder capitals of Canada rank #1 and #2, blue collar, unwalkable, frigidly cold. Arts wise, there are opportunities in both cities, where with enough gumption, you can live however you like and curate shows about the city you live in in a major public gallery . . . Only Winnipeg is Edmonton with heart. When people leave, it is heart breaking. People leave Edmonton and rarely look back. People leave Winnipeg fondly thinking of the city in their hearts. Maybe not always, but they stay for heart, not money.

The main difference is the mentality of money. There is money here, meaning potential, prosperity, a boom, that will be eventually followed by a bust. People are attracted by wealth, and a few of them stay after it dries up, having invested time and perhaps property. It's a cash grab, like that vacuum on that old game show where bills swirl and the participant tries to grab as many bills as they can, before time is up and they vacate their hollow tube. There are no foundations in place for real development. I am again thinking of arts, such as real art schools, film schools, contemporary galleries, and an audience that thinks this is some place to be, to grow and spread from the ground up.

I used to believe that in order to stay, you had to leave. Often. As the opposite seems ridiculous: that once you leave, you visit. Often. So why stay at all? I have been fighting the urge to leave for years, resisting the collective push to think elsewhere has to be better than here. I still don't think elsewhere is better; it is simply elsewhere.

It is a beautiful summer and the people are always solid, yet, I continue to question why I remain still and what I anticipate to come of this next year.

Friday, July 25, 2008

seeing what i need to hear

“Any closer, any wiser and you would be dangerous” he said to his daughter- a tiny bald baby in a car seat.

I wanted to hit him but since I was another car and not driving I couldn’t.
Nor could I be sure that is what he said but while we were both sitting there, waiting for the light to turn green, green against the grey sky of summer weather, a rain storm to disrupt barbeques and baseball games I thought I could read his lips. I thought I could sense what asinine things he would be saying to her, her whom I assumed was his baby.

When the light changed and my friend started driving again I said to her, “Did you hear that?” to which like a sensible person she replied, “heard what?” We were in a silent car with not much noise coming in from the outside. Anything for the most part that our ears were picking up was urban white noise and not much to notice. “Well I guess you couldn’t hear it, “ I said “but that father in the car next to us was already berating his baby daughter with sexist remarks”.

By the time I got the sentence out of me and it hit her ears I was over it and pretty sure I was wrong. Now my mind was wondering and I was thinking about an old dollar store I use to go to in a mall I once worked in. the Dollar Store was near a tailor shop where the owners had a photo up of them with Elvis Presley. It was an enlarged photocopy of the photo really that it its self had already gone yellow and flakey but still it was exciting and provided a good prompt for small talk while the foreign workers who worked for the tailors would collect the repaired garments.

It was one of many dollar stores that existed in the mall. 1 of 3 actually at the time. Now it along with the other two are closed and in its place is another one, a mega one with seemly countless isles with product placed together with no rhyme or no reason.
At first when it opened I was glad for it. Before when there was more than one store I use to have to go to all 3 to get everything that you wanted and even though they were called dollar stores they all carried things at slightly different prices- the cheekiest among them, a family run dollar store use to charge as much as $9 for things.
The mega dollar in the food court changed all that. Now there was one stop where everything was a dollar.

A friend of mine who I always mean to call says that dollar stores are a sign of a blue-collar community and sinking economy. He says a lot of smart things because he is smart but more than that he is a reader, and understander and a thinker so when he says something I am not afraid that I am hearing recycled ideas I am hearing the real deal from the horses mouth. When it comes to his theory of dollar stores I agree.

Across the street from me was a dollar store in the new urban strip mall that was actually a perimeter of 1-story buildings that surrounded a parking lot. Aside from the grocery store that had good cheese buns, the best cheese buns there was also a great dollar store that for me replaced the 3 dollar stores in the mall long before they closed and the mega dollar store opened up. It was all-cheap, though not all a dollar didn’t smell like cheap candles (wasn’t open long enough to) and had everything I needed.

Soon after I mover into the neighborhood and begun taking the place for granted it shut down. For the longest time the space it once took up stood empty and I took it as a sign that if the area couldn’t even sustain a dollar store than it would never make it.
Not soon after that thought came the new business that would take over the space- Marble Slab- an overpriced ice cream shop that caters to those who think they deserve to treat themselves.

While the dollar store was never busy the ice cream shop was never really dead- even in the winter when it was too cold to be outside people would wait in their cars and stare into the shop not going in until there was enough to form the line inside and not outside like the summer.

It was during the winter and witnessing all the idiots idling for ice cream while I schlepped my groceries home that maybe my friend was wrong. Maybe dollar stores are just markers of a time. Maybe the truth was the area couldn’t sustain a dollar store because it thought it was better than cheap Chinese made goods. Maybe the neighborhood wanted overpriced empty calories in stead. Not having to pay for bad choices was the providence of the rich so I guess my area was moving on up

In the summer the ice cream place is such a hot spot that people park their trucks and cars backwards and treat the parking lot like a park, which is sad because there is a park right behind the ice cream place but people either didn’t know or care about it or want to be by their cars.

I guess a season after realizing that my neighborhood was changing I realized that I was becoming disenfranchised with it. I use to feel like I lived alone in the area, like woman in Wigginstien’s mistress who thinks that she is the last woman on earth and basically writes that on the streets in front of the Louver in Paris.

Seeing people hang out in parking lots made me realize that whether or not I liked it I belonged in the neighborhood because by being- even if I was never acknowledged or liked or thought of I still existed in the same space and there for still was a part of…

Full parking lots typified the overall dissatisfaction I was having of no longer being able to convince myself that I was all-alone. While I use to actually love parking lots because their emptiness as proof of man gave me hope, seeing them filled with lard chomping idiots filled me with doom.

Same thing happened when all the cranes on main street disappeared and where once stood derelict buildings and then gaping holes with cranes emerging now stood forgettable impenetrable buildings of banality lacking in imagination and humanness- not to mention humor.

I stayed here for so long because I thought it was going to become something that I could believe in. I thought because I had spent so much time scaling its walls and traipsing through its streets it might in the smallest and most magical of ways reflect me or at least on some level serve me but it doesn’t and it hasn’t and it won’t.

Getting out of the car as my friend drops me off I feel bad for spending our last few minutes in the car daydreaming about how miserable I am, acting like a disappointed hippy father whose kid grows up to be a model or politician walking around begrudging my own youth, wondering where all the time went and craving the dirty past that probably never existed the way I wanted it to.


Thursday, July 10, 2008

Riding Towards Myself or Picking Streets

Riding my bike from Commerce Place to the Royal Alexander Hospital I took 97th instead of 101st. Something about 101 makes me feel competitive with buses and fast cars whereas 97th makes me feel apart of a chaos and not a potential victim of it.

On the way I was thinking how much of how people turn out in life is a result of their parents and how much they do or don’t want to be like them. I have always understood that about myself but it was on my way to see my Dad in the hospital for the first time since he had been diagnosed with esophagus cancer that I realized in this very moment I was becoming exactly who my dad was the minute he first disappointed me.

At the age of four he left me at the hospital to be collected by social welfare. It was not a conscious decision on his part but a series of poor choices he made stemming from his own poor mental health. Here we were 24 years later and the table had turned. He was in the hospital and I couldn’t bring myself to be there for him.

Having not been to the Royal Alexander in a long time I was surprised at its post apocalypse feel. The obvious newer external renovations making the blight of the internal of the hospital seem that much more bleak. By the time I got up to the 5th floor I felt as thought maybe I was an extra in Vietnam era film Coming Home.

As soon as I got off the elevator I heard my mother’s voice say my name but I couldn’t see her. I looked around in the 3 directions where her voice could be coming from. Amid the chaos of a functioning hospital nothing took root for a few seconds after coming off the elevator. It wasn’t until my Mom was right in front of me that I saw her. My parents are not particularly close so seeing the profound stillness and sadness in my mom’s eyes clued me in that my Dad was not getting out today as expected.

We walked around for about 4 seconds when finally she just stopped, moved closer to the wall and looked at me for a second before launching to telling me new secrets that neither she nor my dad were ready to share yet. New secrets that could wait until after my cousin’s wedding that was happening in the coming weekend. I am glad she confided in me or else the cancer that I am sure lingers in her would have been watered by the suppression and been allowed to grow. I ingested their secrets letting them become mine.

My Mom and I walked down the narrow halls littered with chairs, walkers and IVs and busy with slow patients and nurses. When we got to his room his bed was empty. We looked to his roommate for an explanation. “X-rays” he said.

My mom and I sat down in front of his bed. Looking at the empty bed was harrowing. My dad is a large man but through my mother and my brother and sister I had heard that because he wasn’t keeping food down he had lost a lot of weight. I tried to imagine before he came in to the room what he would look like in the bed. How much space he might take up now.

After a few minutes of catch-up conversation to establish a sense of normalcy my Dad was wheeled in. He was smaller. His skin looked like his own Dad’s skin did not many months early before he died. His nose was redder. He was weaker. He made his way to the bed, a nurse came in and unknowingly flirted in the way young women who don’t know how precious their young female energy do. Through barley veiled questions my dad tried to find out if I knew any secrets. I am good at keeping secrets from him so he was satisfied and none the wiser.

Sadly and mercifully I shine in times of awkward conversations. I am good at avoiding the elephant in the room, I am good at diverting attention- I think it is a skill people who realize they are different at a young age pick up early with earnest.

My dad feigned tiredness and pretended to fall asleep, easier than avoiding the elephant. My Mom and I got and started to leave. She touched his foot and said good by- a touching moment that almost made me loose it for the first time since I found out he had cancer. I followed suit and touched his foot- one of the first times I had made physical contact with him in years. He opened his eyes and said, “I am sorry we didn’t talk”. “That’s okay” I said, “We’ll talk next time” He closed his eyes.

Once out of the hospital while I waited for the bus with my Mom, my bike in hand, she said “you know what this means” to which I said “What?” waiting for a cliché yet truism roll off her tongue and down my back. “That we will have to have a family meeting to plan how we are going to deal with this.” Not coming to the hospital, not hearing the secrets, not seeing my shrunken Dad had given me anywhere near the same pit in the stomach reaction that I had after what she just said.

As I found myself somehow biking down 101st street this time going towards Commerce Place I found myself once again thinking about the action connections between my Dad and I. In reaction to the idea of family, togetherness, accountability, familia vulnerability I flinched, balked, and attempted to rationalize away. It was in this moment that my Dad’s cancer seemed so unfair to me, too much for me to handle. It was here at this moment when my family needed me and I wanted to abandon them, wanted to flee, look out for myself first that I become most like my father.

After grabbing a coffee and cookie I sat down in the Commerce Place atrium watching all the people go by and began to wonder what I could do differently than my father did.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Hood by hood

where should we live if we move to edmonton? that was the question i got in an email from two potential new colleagues the other day. no fool, i could see immediately the procrastinatory potential in a city tour, so i stepped right up as colleague of the year and offered to ferry IS and MW about e-town.

first i dispensed with the obvious neighbourhoods. parkallen i see as a grid whose main feature, affordability, has been gutted by the recent market craziness here (though i admitted it would permit you to walk to a bar or 30). belgravia/mckernan: lovely little area, the kind you could show off to your parents. windsor park, where faculty used to buy, is gorgeous -- if your idea of gorgeous is rotting away in a showy piece of real estate you'll never pay off in this lifetime. if you're into the package deal, buy in garneau, and it'll be like the ghermezians said when they finished phase 2 of the mall: "you never need to go to europe again!" i didn't even mention strathcona.

our tour started with mill creek, my single concession to south-side living. i pulled into an avenue -- i'm not even sure which one now -- and parked in a keyhole. "let's get out, and i can show you how beautiful the river valley is here." then i promptly got us lost in said nature. i honestly didn't intend to; it's just that the river valley is so very wild and complex there that it's hard to get your bearings. i walked us unwittingly into someone's backyard. "oops," i said. "is that someone's backyard?," they asked. "incredible!"

we found the car just before a huge thunderstorm took over, but i think they got a decent view of Thunderhead Obscuring the High Level Bridge. i can't be sure, though, since i could hardly see the road. i yelled to the passenger seat, "it's like this in alberta." my would-be colleague yelled back, "what?" rossdale shows well even in the rain, and how can you not be impressed by a 30-minute commute through the woods? oliver advertises itself, those stately old houses on 99th and 100th aves, and although even strangers roll their eyes at the "westmount architectural heritage area" moniker, the neighbourhood is pretty nice. "wow," my companions said, "edmonton architecture is much more diverse than we'd expected." it is? "and it has a lot of designated bike lanes." it does? i will say that 124th street is intriguingly weird, what with its corsets and longboards, greek orthodox churches and money marts, art galleries and worrying numbers of prosethesis stores. (my personal favorite: karl hager limb and brace.)

i had to blindfold my colleagues to drive 111 ave until we got to norwood. the italian centre! zocalo! lotus soul gym! all the yuppie treats, with the barbershops and mustard seed church keepin' it real. what i love best about norwood: all the other report-a-john neighbourhoods "do not tolerate prostitution," but norwood "does not tolerate exploitation." there's a sentiment i can get behind.

finally, the highlands gem, its modest post-war bungalows to the east, ada boulevard mansions to the west. ada boulevard is the most honest high-end real estate in any city, what with its views of refineries and sunsets: cause and consequence in one sweeping vista. and i love the highlands strip. even though rob buttery sold collectiv to move to winnipeg with his filmmaker wife renee baril (incidentally, my next door neighbour in the very last '60s -- no kidding), sabrina butterfly set up shop in his old space. angela's closing swish to sell on ebay, since her landlord jacked the rent, but bacon is full all the time. mandolin books deserves a citizenship medal for sharon's openness to local art, and if i knitted -- right, i was going to take that up as a hobby, what happened to that plan? -- i'd shop at that little yarn store right there.

anyway, i told them, that's my edmonton. you can live in any of those neighbourhoods and be my colleague.

Pulling out all the stops

uranium has a shorter half-life than sibling rivalry. i didn't get my dad a father's day gift, which isn't exactly unusual, but when i heard my sister offer to take him for lunch, i figured i better get my act together.

that's how i ended up at the winspear centre for the free concert on the davis organ. of course i've been to the winspear plenty of times; the pipes have become a familiar backdrop. and of course i'm familiar with all the hoopla: the two millon dollar gift, the five semis to get it here, the "world-class" sound -- but there's something so off-putting, so aggressively yet vacuously optimistic, about the adjective "world-class" that i've never made the time to actually hear it.

my bad. because this instrument is magnificent.

they roll what i think of as "the organ" onto the middle of the stage. the players face the pipes, which means they have their backs to the audience. this surprised me, but then i realized it's because that way you get to see the organ itself: all four hand keyboards and the foot keyboard -- "manual" and "pedal" keyboards, i should say -- the 96 stops and the little while buttons that might or might not be the 122 ranks. it is so complicated that i still have no idea how it works, even though my dad explained it all. i'm so flat-footed where these things are concerned that i just wanted to know things like, "where do they hide the rest of the 6551 pipes?" and "how is the organ connected to the pipes?" "oh," said dad, breezily, "it's all electronic."

when marnie giesbrecht and joachim segger started to play a piece by bedard, a canadian composer whose sinfonietta shows off everything this baby can do, i had the terrible epiphany that i have reached the age where i'd probably like to listen to wagner. there's just nothing like that low, low hum, the one you feel in your crotch, the tone so low you can count the vibrations per minute. there it is, augmented by a fifth, then a sixth, harmonics jarring so off kilter that you think nothing will ever be right again in the world, and it's just getting louder and louder, worse and worse -- okay, you want to say, you win! i cannot stand undismayed! -- until the chord resolves and everything is amen and hallelujah and you wonder how you could ever have worried.

as the show went on, i realized that an organ can have a sense of humor, too. barrie cabena takes you from bach to scooby-doo in one unforgivable variation. and, come on: organ duets? who writes a composition for a dozen bellows, four hands and four feet? it's funny just to watch their bums jostle for space on the bench.

the show is part of a summer series of freebies celebrating the year of the organ. (who knew?) once you add up the performers, the copyright fees, the tech, and the front of house, you realize it's a not-inconsiderable gift. especially by my father's day standards.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Summer Drop-Bys

The summer drop-bys are starting again and on the first day of a supposedly productive week. This Monday afternoon, Sarah Patterson rings from the VV down the street and pops by soon there after with a synthesized LP and Thin Lizzy woven leather shoes. As another twenty-something retiree, we actually have become ladies of leisure for at least one more summer. Wanting an adventure, or at least a cheap sandwich, but with too many things to do, I summon a field trip out of errands and we're soon on Princess Elizabeth Rd and heading towards downtown.

First stop: Vue Weekly to pick up gift certificates I won in some sort of lottery. Posing as my intern for the day, Patterson picked up an envelope filled with Fiore Cantina gift certificates. But before a complimentary lunch could be had, we drove by the still-burnt out Arlington where security cameras and lights are now fixated on the North/West side of the building. "Who's watching?" I wondered. Clearly no one as this lot is downright shameful. But we pass as I had to drop things off at the Elizabeth Fry Foundation, a provincial or perhaps national NFP that aids the reintegration of women back into society who's coming directly out of the justice system. Getting a tip from Pamela Anthony that they took donations, especially things such as work clothes for job interviews, I had lots of "office" clothes I've accumulated over the years that outlasted many of the jobs they were bought for. Embracing that I should never have an office job again, these items have yet to see their best days.

Next was lunch, and heading down 106 St hill, I had confused Fiore for Chianti, which I wasn't wild about either, but as neither of us had ever eaten at Fiore, this had to be tried. Strange I had never been even through university, living in Grandin, and just simply walking by it on a weekly basis. But after a mediocre bit of surf, bit of turf lunch, there remained no further reasons to return--except to finish off the remaining certificates.
Okay, one reason: a cantina sized drink, which is 3 oz, but oddly enough in a regular sized martini glass, hits you slowly, but firmly. Shopping at Superstore became an overwhelming task. Patterson tried on swimming suits and I seriously considered rhinestone sunglasses. But eventually standing in line to buy detergent, I was again taken aback as to why the shelves behind the customer service counters are completely empty or covered. The 'out of sight/out of mind' approach to tobacco products is probably the smartest move this government has made in a very long time, but I can't help but speculate what they will fill that prime sightline with next.

Next up was the Antique Mall on Gateway Blvd in search of a new kitchen chair. Finding a white chrome table that has made the entire kitchen much lighter, I needed a single chair to match. Going through the various rooms of compacted old farmhouses, I fondly recalled Saskatchewan, where Saskatoon was first painted as the Paris of the Prairies, but then does that make Edmonton the Moscow of the Prairies? Picking up a light wooden chair that I would sand and paint white if I ever felt like doing that sort of thing, we headed back downtown and up 101 St. Stopped at a light with a real assortment of people crossing the street, Patterson couldn't help but ask aloud if "You'd ever see a more rag-tag downtown than this?"
It's true, our downtown just looks like the biggest small town you'd ever seen, and it doesn't look like it's going to change any time soon. We have an informal rating system of Edmonton fashion that varies from a) Going camping b) Just came back from camping c) Still camping. Until this system fails, we'll know Edmonton is still the Dirt City we know and sometimes like.

Stopping last at the Sprucewood library to pick up items I ordered, and doing a bit of weeding before an evening of work, which involves possibly transplanting some vines and investing into the future, it never ceases to surprise me how much easier it is if you just do instead of think.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Revamping Walking in The City

So the last few messages have been admittedly cranky, and as summer peaks and the fall grows increasingly more real, this site will be going through some content changes.

Aiming to look at Edmonton through the eyes of a few who are interested/intrigued/invested in the construct of this city through various capacities, Walking in The City will now be a shared document between myself, Amy Fung along with Heather Zwicker, Ted Kerr, and possibly additional authors.

A brief primer:

I started this site in 2006 because of this photo*:

You can't really see it, but this was (I think) taken in the fall of 2006 of friends Daniel and Thea walking ahead as we cut through the Legislature. As two of the best people to discuss writing with--and not so coincidentally--to walk with, I grew very fond of this moment frozen in a flash that captured a very significant moment for me as an individual living in this city. D being a vagabond roamer of the city who slept on random roof tops and knew every ridge and fact about Edmonton; and T being a flaneur at heart who was also writing her thesis on the very subject, the two had probably never hung out before or again after this night, but I felt that this deserved a record beyond my own memory bank. Of the night, I surmise that D and I were walking Thea to the foot of the bridge before I crashed on the floor of his then-apartment down on the flats. Fleeting and forgettable, I wanted to begin tracking these transient tales for better or for worse. At the time, these two were always writing short stories about moments in Edmonton, but I was more interested in just tracking the raw unedited versions of what has just transpired.

*(A notable mention must also go to ACD, who started it all with 90 Avenue, but has since quietly moved on.)

However, a couple of years before this photo, Heather taught the first Edmonton undergraduate course at the U of A. On a whim I registered in the course and four years later has decided to extend the basis into a directed reading graduate course. Heather will once again be teaching the undergraduate course in the winter term and will be directing my course in the fall. This site will most likely be a catch all of ideas from the course, but will hopefully stay more public than academic (a balance that frighteningly remains theoretical).

I left the city after school and returned indefinitely to Hong Kong (where I'm originally from, but wasn't sure if I belonged there anymore). Estranged and alienated in my "home" country, I began wondering more about the sentiment of identity and place. After returning and resuming freelance writing for local newspapers, I began getting involved specifically in the arts and exploring how Edmonton was being construed and memorialized through its contemporary arts. (See Prairie Artsters for my ongoing investigation)

At the same time I started this blog, I met Ted who quickly became a frequent collaborator and continues to be a source of inspiration as an engaging artist/writer/curator/activist/producer etc. As the very definition of "community" through his many manifestations, Ted brings heart and wit to everything he does and is a seemingly limitless individual of action and generosity. Many of my previous posts have involved Mr. Kerr in one form or another, and between the three of us, I look forward to seeing the different views unfold.