Monday, December 30, 2013


Many political commentators predicted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to counter the growing popularity of Justin Trudeau, would this year unleash a charm offensive. Harper's charm had gone, so far, undetected, but political pundits said this would be the year. Less paunch, more charm.

Didn't happen.

Nor did he get his two Christmases wishes: (1) to have hair like Justin's; (2) to stop feeling like a character in "Law and Order" being cross-examined by Tom Mulcair.

But now Conservative insiders report that Harper plans to start 2014 with a big splash: the Prime Minister, wearing maple leaf trunks, nose plugs and hair net, will jet across the country, taking part in Polar Bear Swims from Newfoundland to Victoria.

Theme song by Bobby Darin.  (Stand well back.)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Consider the Box

Boxing Day, yes, but we're not going to talk about Boxing Day sales, scenes of significant mayhem, or the origins of Boxing Day, which stretch back to 1690; we are instead going to talk about the box itself, and its place in legend and literature.

But first, the word: Box--derived from the Late Latin "buxis."

In 1936, Rex Stout published a Nero Wolfe mystery he called "The Red Box"--not the most memorable in the Wolfe-Archie Goodwin series, but entertaining. The jacket copy tells us that the gargantuan New York sleuth was "in line for the supreme insult of his career--a murder in his own home. The only clue was an odd red box--and that had disappeared!"

The phrase "in the wrong box" means being out of one's element or in the wrong position. In 1889, Robert Louis Stevenson, in collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, wrote "The Wrong Box." Rudyard Kipling said he "laughed dementedly over it." Seventy-seven years later, "The Wrong Box" was filmed, with a cast including Peter Sellers, Tony Hancock, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. If you can find a copy, prepare to laugh dementedly. (As we often do, for no reason at all.)

Finally, the most famous box in legend and literature: Pandora's. Pandora, first woman on earth, was given a beautiful sealed box (actually an urn) by Zeus, but warned to never open it. But curiosity won, as it so often does. Pan pried open the lid and released all the evils that would afflict the world. She was, as one might expect, distressed, and tried to stuff the nasty things back in. But to no avail. However, one item remained in the box: the spirit of hope.

And so we hope for a good 2014. Pope Francis, fix it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Jack's Christmas Eve

Even though Jack Madison was, by this time, the voice of CSYM's flagship program, he drew the Christmas Eve shift, because he was the one unmarried announcer on staff.

That afternoon, he had been in the studio to introduce and talk around the program he and his team had recorded the week before at an orphanage. It had become an annual event--they took fruit and candy and a sack of small gifts, some musicians from Jack's show came to entertain, and Jack talked to as many children as they could fit in the two hours.

It was both a happy and sad time for the children, many with drawn and grey faces. On the drive back, Jack said, "I felt we were in a room full of Tiny Tims." "Or," said Leo, the engineer, "a lot of future Scrooges."

Crunching snow underfoot, Jack thought of the Christmas day show he would play tomorrow. As usual, it would be the CSYM staff party, at which all members were required to perform. Jack had the least embarrassing job, introducing performers and getting them off, and he could count on Gavin Stone to hide drinks under plants around the mezzanine for the crew packing up.

Twenty minutes to seven. He had time to stop at a house he had come to know well. The light inside was soft and mellow, and Jane met him at the door. She wore a deep burgundy sweater and a pencil-slim grey skirt and somewhere in the background a choir was singing. He wouldn't see her again until after Christmas; the next day she and her parents would travel the city, visiting her many aunts and uncles and cousins.

"It's almost five to seven," he said. "I know," she said. "I'll be listening. But I wish you didn't have to go."

And Jack felt the same. But it would be all right. They would spend the next sixty Christmases together.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

No Letter Today

"No letter today-I hope and I pray--the postman goes by--no letter today."

The old lament soon will be heard across the land, as Canada Post abandons door-to-door delivery in favor of community mailboxes (a feature applauded by break-in artists) and raises the price of individual postage stamps to one dollar (a move applauded by Jacquie Lawson).

The plan now is for aircraft to drop bundles of mail in open fields. Citizens will then be encouraged to dive into the pile to retrieve whatever they can find--love letters, cheques, rejection slips, medical test reports, chain letters, ransom notes, etc.

Essential mail will be handled differently, and receive priority treatment. This will include pizza coupons, Chinese restaurant take-out menus, real estate flyers, and letters from your Member of Parliament.

That's the plan for 2014. In 2015, Canada Post will move to smoke signals.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole

When Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, his acceptance speech began with these words: "No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the prize can accept it other than with humility." Although he did not name those writers, certainly Proust and Joyce would have been among them.

We thought of this today on learning that Peter O'Toole had died. O'Toole was nominated eight times as Best Actor by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He won not once.

In all of those nominations, the performance for which he most clearly deserved the Oscar was in "Lawrence of Arabia." By not winning, he joined a most distinguished list of players who should have won--Peter Sellers, for "Dr. Strangelove," Jean Hagen for "Singin' in the Rain," Richard Jaeckel for "Sometimes a Great Notion," Paul Newman for "The Verdict."

 O'Toole finally was given an honorary Oscar, one of those lifetime achievement things, and Newman was given a best actor Oscar for "The Color of Money" as a kind of apology for messing up on "The Verdict," but really, one wishes the voters would get things right at the right time.

Tonight on our small screen, O'Toole and Omar Sharif will meet again, riding camels across the Arabian sands.

Happy Surprises

Okay, so maybe 2013 hasn't been a great year, but there were still a few happy surprises. Here are three of them:

1. The much feared new coach of the Vancouver Canucks, John Tortorella, turning out to be a very likable guy.

2. Now that the CFL season is over, Vaughn Palmer's "Voice of BC" becoming the most interesting TV show on the air.

3. The agenda of Pope Francis, which, whatever one's faith or politics, or lack thereof, is proving a blessing for us all.

And now we say, along with ever optimistic sports teams, no matter how 2013 went, wait 'til next year.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Christmas Faire P.S.

Since posting our viewing-reading-listening recommendations for Christmas, all tested in the Pointless Digressions kitchens, others have jumped into the snowball fight with their own Yuletide choices, some of which, we have to say, are okay. And we have remembered one or two worthy runners-up ourselves, so here goes:

Additional Christmas listening: "England's Carol" by the Modern Jazz Quartet, as cool and pristine and perfect as an early morning at a frozen pond. Which then reminds us of the MJQ's equally elegant "Skating in Central Park." And, if you can find it, "Away in a Manger," a lovely duet channeling Brahms by George Shearing and Don Thompson. There is a rousing Christmas gospel number by Nina Simone, the Nefertiti of jazz singers, and essential to the season must be Louis Armstrong's "Zat You, Santy Claus?"

More Christmas viewing: "Love, Actually," a film by Richard Curtis, who gave us "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill," and "The Tall Guy," which deserves to be much better known. In his spare time, Curtis also created "The Vicar of Dibley." "Love, Actually," an ensemble piece, tells a number of Yuletide tales which suggest the pathways of love are about as predictable as the workings of a pinball machine. It involves such engaging actors as Hugh Grant, playing a Tony Blair-style prime minister, Billy Bob Thornton, playing a George W.-style president, and Bill Nighy playing (and singing) an aging rock star. And then, there is "The Bishop's Wife," with Cary Grant as a harp-playing angel who takes Loretta Young (the bishop's wife) ice skating. David Niven plays the bishop with a very stiff upper lip, held in place by his moustache and his clerical collar.

And that's it for now. Off to dip more sugar plums.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Dressing Up for Christmas

A Vancouver bus driver who was told by his employers he could not wear a Santa Claus suit while behind the wheel has now been given an okay. His superiors, caught in a reindeer stampede of public outrage, relented. "Okay, fella," they said, "go ahead and wear your (expletive) Santa outfit. Ho (bleeping) ho."

Emboldened by this, several other drivers have announced their plans to wear costumes. Farley Dingleby says, "I'm going to go as Batman. I've got my cape and mask all ready. And I'll wheel that bus through the streets like the Batmobile."

Melba Lepoole says, "As soon as the warm weather comes, I'm wearing a bikini. And maybe have mai tais in my Thermos."

Finally, Jethro Muldoon will be driving his route in a "Star Trek" costume. "And," says Muldoon, "all the on-board directions will be delivered in Klingon."


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Yuletide Fare (or Faire)

We worked once at a radio station that had a fast rule regarding Christmas music: none to be aired until December 15. And we attended a church where the priest was stricter than that--no carols until midnight mass, when Christmas Eve turned into Christmas Day.

With those thoughts in mind, we move on to this department's not-so-strict recommendations for pre-Christmas (i.e., Advent) reading, viewing and listening.

It wouldn't seem proper to go thru the season without re-reading "A Christmas Carol." There is a handsome Modern Library edition containing this and two less familiar Dickens Christmas stories: "The Chimes" and "The Haunted Man." It carries an introduction by John Irving, who tells us that Dickens, in a preface to the 1843 edition, wrote "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me."

Other choices for bedtime reading, neither well-known, but greatly rewarding: "A Likely Story," by Donald Westlake, about a hack writer attempting to produce the ultimate Christmas coffee table book, and Somerset Maugham's "Christmas Holiday," set in Paris, and truly conjuring an emotionally bleak midwinter.

Christmas listening (unless you have rules about this): Bach's "Christmas Oratorio," of course--but also "Sleighride" by an Art Pepper-Richie Cole quintet, with Roger Kellaway on the keys. The saxophonists take their sleigh on some very crazy but happy leaps. And, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Dexter Gordon--not as poignant as the Garland original, but a cheerier, lightly swinging version, the audio equivalent of a mug of mulled wine.

And finally, viewing. Only two choices for us--the Alastair Sim film of "A Christmas Carol " (which John Irving remembers watching in northwest India while traveling with the Great Royal Circus) and Bill Murray's "Scrooged," which offers, among other Christmas treats, Miles Davis busking as a street musician.   "A Christmas Carol" and "Scrooged"--bookends.

And now, thinking of mulled wine...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Private Eye on the Weather

Business has been slow for hard-boiled private detectives since Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald checked out. Now Elmore Leonard is gone too, and Lawrence Block says he's breaking the pencil, leaving Matt Scudder out in the cold.

So several of the private eyes--aging and unable to take as many slugs on the head as they used to, packing walkers instead of gats--have moved into broadcasting. Let's tune in and hear Philip Marlowe, who works now as a weather forecaster.

"It's colder than a grifter's heart out there. Sunny, yeah. Beautiful. Beautiful and cold, like a dame I knew. And that wind--goes into you like a shiv's ice pick.

"Watch out for flurries of snow--naw, not that kind of snow, the legit stuff. And in the morning, these mean streets could be layered in black ice like a floozy's pancake makeup, slick and tricky as a con artist's spiel.

"Okay, that's the weather, chumps. Stay tuned for my amigo Sam Spade with the sports news. Sam's still after the falcon. But this time, it's the Atlantic Falcons. Sam, baby, you'll do better putting your bucks on another bird--the Seattle Seahawks."

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

TransLink Polar Express

We boarded a TransLink bus the other day and found it festooned with glittering tinsel and ribbons. The driver was wearing a Santa Claus toque, and seemed to be channeling Tom Hanks in "The Polar Express."

And there was music playing--all the Yuletide favorites, from "O Little Town of Bethlehem" to "Santa's Comin' On a Boogie-Woogie Choo-Choo Train." I would like to report that the passengers joined in and sang along, but that didn't happen. Maybe it will closer to Christmas, after the driver passes around the egg nog.

It was a pleasant, almost magical journey thru the frosted streets, and after the bus pulled away, and the driver doffed his toque and wished us a "Merry Christmas!" I thought--perhaps that really was Tom Hanks. I mean, he was in Regina for the Grey Cup, so why not?

Stand at a bus stop, and watch for it: the garlanded vehicle playing "Santa's Comin' On a Boogie-Woogie Choo-Choo TransLink Bus."