Life Choices

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One recent evening, I stood on my deck in the sunset talking to a past girlfriend. Now living in San Francisco with a “successful” photography business, she talked of the stress of her overhead. A studio. Finding a new place to live. A place that would take a dog. Driving a car with almost 200,000 miles. Juggling it all to make ends meet and have a little left over. The sound of traffic filled the spaces between her words.

She was leaving early the next day for a three-day shoot at a Sonoma organic lavender farm.

I listened, watching the sun turn the clouds behind the Three Sisters, a mix of orange and red, as a pair of crows chased an eagle across the base of the mountains. The eagle flew silently, diving to dodge the crows and then climbing. The strident caws of the crows carried across the quiet of the darkening valley.

The Barbarians at the Gate

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“Often overlooked is that though the barbarians of ancient times were not cultivated, in almost every case they had fastened upon one or more technical innovations that enabled them to defeat the superior civilizations they then were able to sack. The Huns and the Scythians had revolutionary tactics, the Parthians their fleeting shots, the Mongols their special bows and their techniques of mobility. Even Hannibal, not quite a barbarian expect perhaps in the Roman view, and ultimately unsuccessful, had his elephants.”

Mark Helprin, Digital Barbarism, A Writer’s Manifesto (Harper, 2009)

A “red plate” prejudice runs rampant around in Fernie. A feeling that the influx of Albertans damages our core values and the lifestyle of Fernie. The Albertans are thought of as the barbarians at the gate. An invasion we must defend against at all costs.

Let’s look at that for a minute. Or rather, let’s take a deeper look at Fernie and the effect of an influx of new blood on the existing civil and social structure.

Take the city council. The make up is divided equally between long-term residents and newbie’s—three and three–with the mayor, Cindy, adding one more vote on the long-term side. The previous six years, the make of the council was similar except the previous mayor, Randal, fell on the newbie side.

Look at new businesses we already take for granted. Start with Big Bang Bagels. Two years ago, Carolyn operated in the morning corners of Just Pizza. Moving into the former Cappuccino Corner on Victoria in the heart of the historic downtown Big Bang ramps into the stratosphere. In nine short months, Big Bang developed a huge following, gathered the three top business awards at the Chamber of Commerce annual dinner and expanded successfully to the mountain. Shortly after the new store opened, the line-ups stretched out the door on Saturdays and Sundays. In the waiting hordes, locals stood only a sprinkling with the vast bulk of customers being visiting red platers. On the hill, the customer base developed into the season pass crowd. A mix of mountain employees, local families, Non-Stoppers and Calgary folks, all skiing with a pass. A mix that values and savors fresh locally baked bagels with flavorful oddball sandwich options.

Look at the current Fernie trend of remodeling rather than building from scratch. It’s a matter of economics—not much is being built to sell and there is added value created in upgrading an existing property. When you look at the families remodeling homes, a large percentage are red platers. Folks from Calgary who appreciate Fernie and decided to make a commitment to live and play here.

When you look at the ‘play’ in Fernie, the influx becomes really interesting. A recent study shows the average second homeowner spends in excess of 60 days in Fernie over the course of a year. That’s just under a fifth of the year. And that’s the average—there are some that spend a week and some that spend months. A substantial percentage of these homeowners plan on moving to Fernie in the future.

People complain that houses cost too much, but look at what we get. Incredible views. A trail system with 10’s of kilometers of trails spreading out from town, most of the close-in trails maintained with no user fee by the city. Unparalleled fishing lies literally at our doorstep. An abiding awareness of the tenuous place we hold in the valley and the needs of the wildlife we might displace leads to programs like Bear Aware dramatically reducing contact between residents and bears and thus almost completely eliminating of the need to kill “problem bears”. (Many would say it was the people that are the problem, not the bears. There are arguments for both sides. Shooting “problem people” is a practice we have moved beyond in modern society.) For the most part, the non-resident second homeowner shares the same values as those that live here. That’s why they chose Fernie to repeatedly visit, to buy into and to bring their friends.

In the early days of snowboarding, only a few resorts allowed boards on the lifts. Boarders were looked at as crass, impolite, and even dangerous on the ski hill. One of the first areas welcoming boards was Mount Baker, just over the US border in Washington State. When you talk to Duncan Howat, the long time manager of Mount Baker about those early days and how they dealt with boarders, he explains it was a matter of culture. Most skiers come to the sport from a skiing family or with skiing friends. Most early boarders came to the sport out of skateboarding, the park rat culture. The two couldn’t be more different. One is understated. The other is overstated.

Duncan recognized this anomaly and created same awareness in his employees. The ski area initiated an employee program to educate the newbie boarders to the ethos and ethics in the culture of skiing. If an employee saw someone doing something contrary to the established way—say jumping off a blind lip—they explained to the boarder the problem and rather than just say “No”, offer an alternative site or place that was safe. The ski area effort was not about stopping behavior, rather the effort channeled the behavior into accepted norms.

On a Friday night late this winter, a friend was driving down from Calgary for a weekend in Fernie. Slowing to 70 in a whiteout driving the winding section of road in Crowsnest Pass, she ambled along in the long line of slow moving cars. Looking behind, she saw a car pull out and start to pass the seemingly endless line of red plate cars aimed at Fernie. There was a double yellow line. Dark. Blowing snow. Minimal visibility. As the Yukon XL passed, she recognized the license plate. The red Alberta plate belonged to her ex-husband. And, at that same moment, she realized her two kids were in the car with him. She was fine ambling along knowing she had Fernie at the end of the line. Who knows what he was thinking, taking that risk with their two kids in the car and a potential nightmare ahead.

These two stories illustrate the answer to the barbarians at tout gate. They have no greater technology. They have no greater society than ours. Rather, what they seek is our society. They seek to share in our life. A life with a different pace, a settled and balanced manner of walking through the day.

What remains is a matter of education. We must educate and eliminate the habits that run counter to our ways. We stop for pedestrians wanting to cross the street—where ever. We don’t pass on blind corners. We take the time to greet and talk to people on the street. It may take half an hour to get to the bank and back, but that’s ok. And we’re willing to wait a little longer for something special, like a Banger on Saturday morning.

So let’s open the gate, but extract a toll for all who desire passage. Let’s require a change of habit from the barbarians. An acceptance of the ethos and ethic of a Fernie life.

They’ll never know what hit them.

On Voice

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In the most recent CV2 (Contemporary Verse 2) looks “At the Root of Voice”. Clarice Foster in her Editorial Notes says voice “like a set of finger prints, is a one-of-a-kind thing.”

This is my take on voice from a bit ago.

The voices we hear.

Driving across the rolling dry wheat plains of eastern Washington an hour after sunset, I found KEWU, “The voice of jazz in the inland Northwest. All jazz all the time.” The public radio station broadcasting from of Eastern Washington University in Cheney. The music moved from a take off on Giant Steps, lifting and falling in separated thirds with sax and trumpet to a couple of Cubano pieces then into a techno jazz with a style similar to St. Germaine and then back again to the more traditional smoky basement bar sax jazz. And on. And on. Segue after segue entering, passing through divergent forms. Each piece strung, drawn from the last, bound together with thought and care. Blended. One into the next. At the hour break, a hesitant woman spoke. Stumbling on some titles, some musicians, she corrected herself and repeated those she mispronounced. She spoke carefully. Softly. Self-correcting as needed. Making no apologies and returning the station to the music, to the jazz.

Again, the seamless string of tunes moved, sliding between jazz genres effortlessly. Dancing on the sawdust floor. Taking me back into smoky basement bars of my youth. Three, maybe four guys crowded onto a corner raised platform. The Chance R with peanut shells on the floor. Swept once a week. Sunday. Fine music. Late nights.
Brick walls. And long battered bar tops.

Her voice? The music.

Driving on, somehow the station remained clear. I remembered late nights driving between races. Days spent on the hill. Afternoons writing. Sending off the dashed stories to papers and wire services. Beating the roll of deadlines, east to west. Posting the stories one after another, then packing up and driving to the next venue. Nights, long nights on the road listening to whatever I could pull in. Country. Rock. Rarely jazz. Always the stations fading in and out as the two lane blacktop, delineated by single stripes, snow banks on either edge and a double yellow down the middle, wove between mountains, rising, twisting up passes and dropping down into valleys.

I remembered one very late night weaving up to Whistler, actually, a very early morning. The Vancouver CBC station introduced a CD recently re-released on Blue Note. Originally recorded in the early sixties at Ferengetti’s San Francisco City Lights Bookstore, Jack Kerouac read and improvised with Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, maybe Shelley Mann on the drums and a couple of others. It rocked to the curves of the road as l powered up the valley. A few miles from Squamish, as I accelerated out of a turn, CBC stopped like turned off by a switch. Static and nothing more. At the next turnaround, I reversed direction and drove back until I regained the reception. Parking, I listened for half an hour, maybe more, until the recording finished. Turning around, I continued to Whistler.

There was a voice in that music, that spoken word. There was the Beat, the capital “B” beat speaking. This is who we are. We are the sax. We are the beat. We are the trumpet. We are the word. We are. Now. We.

As I drove I thought of the different voices we bring to a table. A community is a collection of voices, each with room to be heard. In Fernie, we are fortunate to be small enough to hear to the voices. To have time to listen to the voices. And to take time to listen to the voices.

In Fernie, we have Mary’s TV show. A window to the community and the events surrounding our valley. We have the occasional Spoken Word at Freshies. We have Pierre’s newly launched with a range of channels and options. We meet at Freshies, at Mug Shots, Big Bang Bagels and the Tea House taking time to sit and talk. To exchange ideas and hassle with differing opinions.

In Fernie there exists a tolerance, a patience, in listening to others. A respect that others deserve to be heard no matter their station and position in town. An artist, a writer, a banker, a carpenter, a checker from Overweightea’s all carry the same value, same impact in the public forum we create for discussion.

Celebrate the voices we have. Respect the voices and listen. For each holds value in the direction we are moving.

The Death of a City

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In response to
Staring Out My Window at the City Below

One month from now, my city will die. On April 18, the lifts close for the season and roughly one quarter of the population leaves the next week. Gone. To southern hemisphere ski areas. To warmer climates. To summer jobs in the forest. Gone.

The grizzlies wake and stumble out looking for their first spring snack. The ducks drop into the pond and the geese waddle across the golf course greens looking for bugs and stealing errant balls.

The city slowly revives with the opening of fishing on the Elk River in mid June. Mountain biking brings some. Hiking a few. But it is slow.

And in the fall, once again folks with funny accents–Aussies, Kiwis, Brits and a few from the continent–seemingly lost, wander into town. The Québécois arrive with their dogs and skateboards.

By early December, the lights are back on, the restaurants full and the bars hopping with live music and dancing ‘til dawn.

Or maybe we move into a modestly developed form of civil hibernation each summer.

Writing and the West

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We live where we live for landscape and seasons, for the place of it, but also for the time of it, daily and historical time.

Here at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall (1990)

Early Spring 2009

Late in the day, driving north through the Tobacco Plains toward the border, I pull off the road and stop.

Where I sit, the sky above remains clear. At the edge of the valley, to the east against the mountain, clouds pile and streaks of rain, maybe even snow, fall onto the upper slopes. From the western horizon, the sun plays with the stalled bulk and the precipitation morphing them pink/purple in the last of the day. An evening northern lights, curtains shimmering, oscillating in the final light. They move slowly pink, purple to dark gray and finally to black as the sun drops behind distant mountains.

I start the car and drive toward the border. And home.

At times, I wonder what brings us to this western landscape. At others, there is no question.

My youth was spent within a short bike ride of the Pacific salt. My summers with family in the mountains. Today, I live a life strung taut between the two.

And with the people drawn to the edge of these two worlds.
I think of fishing. Tossing a fly on the water and knowing the fish I seek lie where the currents meet—at the edge of the eddy behind a rock or at the sharp line between pool and riffle, calm and current. And the floating fly rests on an interface between air and water. Two vastly dissimilar environments.

In the same way, the writing of this first Red Berry Review rests on the emotional interface of the western landscape. The joining of currents. Of a farm. Of an island. Of death at a young age. We find a mirror held to our personal landscape. For better or worse, we look.

Look, and move on. Into our own chosen landscape.

Red Berry Review

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In any partnership, or endeavor involving more that one person, there are necessary compromises. In creative projects, these become even more frequent and critical. As an individual, you must step back, look at the project as a whole and drop your pre-conceived notion of perfection for the good of the project and let the medium/notion move forward as a group effort.

I am involved with starting a literary press, Red Berry Press. The press comprises of two distinct components. The first surrounds the acquisition of the letterpress setup originally bought by the Prince Rupert Times in 1901. A 10 by 15 Chandler & Price with 54 fonts of various sizes and styles. With this we plan to hold workshops (the first a couple weeks ago as part of the 2009 Fernie Writers Conference) and print short-run chapbooks.

The second part is the Red Berry Review, an offset printed literary journal appearing twice a year–spring and fall. The underlying idea of the Review is a journal of contemporary western Canadian literature with occasional pieces from the Northwest US. Literature where the land walks as one of the characters. The land becomes a base line in the piece. A beat heard if you listen closely or are intimately aligned to the sound of the base.

Three of us are involved with the Red Berry project. Two avowed writers (myself and Nic) and one avowed non-writer (Randal) with a strong academic background. When it came time to write the introduction, they asked me to write a representative piece.

The first draft was too personal. Kicked back. Fine. I wrote a second piece, which I disliked, but was not personal and talked about (my perception of) how the project moved from talk over beers, wine, and a bit of scotch, to fruition. How after months of saying we ought to do it, the academic developed a timeline to follow bringing about the publication of the first issue. He didn’t quite see it in the same light, so we dropped that piece.

His turn. Randal wrote an intro that was pure academic. No go. Nixed by Nic and I.

At this point, Nic stepped in and produced the perfect piece, a compromise, a compilation of our thoughts.

We missed the final deadline by a couple of months, but it got done. The first issue is out and spectacular.

The look and feel of the Review was inspired by Clemens Stack’s small chapbook Traveling Incognito designed and printed by Paul Hunter at Wood Works Press in Seattle . There is a hand and texture to Paul’s work that is remarkable. While the Review is printed offset, with the help of Vanessa Croome at Claris Media the feel of a letterpress was captured and preserved in the first Red Berry Review. A striking illustration by Nichole Yanota of Crowsnest Pass helped immensely in setting an illustrative tone.

That said, I still like my first attempt at the intro. The words may not fit as an intro to the Red Berry Review, but they speak to what I believe about writing today in the west.

The other issue that needed to be resolved was an introductory quote. We bounced around looking for a selection. An opening speaking of land and people on the land.

Following are the three quotes I pulled.


We live where we live for landscape and seasons, for the place of it, but also for the time of it, daily and historical time.

Here at Eagle Pond, Donald Hall (1990)

“He had been eating the whole world for the seventy years of his life; and for the last twenty, he had been trying to eat the valley. It was where he, Old Dudley, sent his young men to look for the oil he told them he was sure was there, but which they had never found.”

In these opening lines of Where the Sea Used to Be (1998) by Rick Bass speaks to the European attitude toward the west. An inexhaustible land to consume. For tens of thousands of years the First People lived off the same land giving as they took. With the European arrival, the mantra became take and send off to be consumed. Take more. Consume more. In the last few years, we realized no longer can we take without giving back. The exception would be the taking of words the return of language to the land.


while in Vancouver another plane lands
without me, past the scars of the Rockies
and crooked shadow of blue
herons like lost fishermen
stabbing the shallows where they last saw the sun.

one crow sorrow (2008)
Lisa Martin-DeMoor

My first shot at the intro is posted separately as Writing and the West.

to ponder

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i am reading Salamander by Thomas Wharton. the book is brilliant in the same shining manner as Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. at the same time, i am reading about a letterpress being assembled and placed on a caricature of a boat and sailing around the mediterranean printing books, i am actually assembling and setting up a letterpress-the press and type bought by the Prince Rupert Times in 1901.

and here are the lines to ponder

“everything in the world is really a word, a thought thinking itself in God’s mind”

pg 166

Saving Place

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Modern city building and planning produces stark anonymity. Dropped blind into any major mall in North America, you’d be hard pressed to determine where you landed once the blindfold was pulled off. The Gap, Smith and Hawkins, the multi-plex playing the top 6 movies of the week, the food court with MacDonald’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell, Orange Julius and whatever, all blend to create a non-singular place. A location without place.

Again this occurred to me as I read a review of a re-published work by Marc Auge, Non-Places: An Introduction to Super-modernity. While Auge focuses on airports, what he says becomes universal.

At the same time, people travel seeking ‘new’ experiences shirk from risk. The “all-inclusive” beach resort in Mexico or Cuba provides no local culture beyond the daily commuting staff and a slightly different view, one resort to another. The same resort could be on any number of white sand beaches in any tropical or semi-tropical land—Florida to Brazil.

The Hilton in Singapore clones the Hilton in San Francisco, clones Rio.

There are options. Boutique hotels are sprouting up in the major US cities. Twenty to fifty rooms and a distinctive character derived from the neighborhood or the owner or the region. Often with an international flavor, one of my favorites in Seattle hosts a tremendous sushi restaurant.

The reason I am musing in this manner is a recently arrived white envelope addressed in thick black magic marker mailed form the British Isles. Now sitting on my desk next to my computer, the envelope is visible proof snail mail still operates. The envelope contained three copies of Nigh-No- Place by Jen Hadfield. Jen recently won the T.S. Elliot Prize for Poetry. This slim book of poetry written partially while traveling in Canada and partially from her home on the Shetland Islands reeks of place. You can smell the rotten kelp on the beach in her words and feel the constant mist, rain, turning into a howling North Atlantic storm coming ashore on these little rock islands with stone houses

Of Canada she writes in Narnia No More

Alberta’s a miserable monochrome—
a bootcamp of little brown birds,
no moose,
the grey, grey grass of home.

Place. Writing is all about place. The emotional place we occupy in a landscape.

Think of our addresses, now all numeric and flat. 1381 2nd Ave, Fernie BC V0B 1M0

And I look at the envelope the books came in with an address that reads like the land itself.

The name of her house, (the name, yes, the name). Where the house lies—Bridge End. The island’s name, then Shetland, with a last followed by a 6 figure postal code, which seems completely extraneous.

Her address is a place. A home, named. A land feature. An island. A region.

All of us should be so lucky to settle in a place that remains alive in language as well as in our daily life.

And I sat

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This morning I sat.

A couple mornings ago, I walked into my living room and realized I’d been very remiss. My Mac book sat primly on my meditation cushion. In fact, the Mac had been mediating off and on for the last few weeks and I most definitely had not. The little white box now sat clearly finely balanced and moving along just fine.

My butt needed to be on the cushion. I am the one in need of a tune. Of a balancing.

In all my years, I don’t think I’ve ever been under pressure like I am now and I am not sitting. Tricycle is finishing up their “Big Sit”. There is a drop-in meditation group that I used to regularly sit with, but it’s at the wrong time. By 8:30 in the morning I am rolling along full bore and am not willing (or mentally able) to stop it all and sit for a half hour.

My habits are not hard and fast. I amble through the early morning. Usually, I start coffee and drag my laptop into bed or sit in the chair in the living room (next to the mediation cushion) catch up on emails and news first thing. Then I make up a rough list on a note pad of pressing projects. Often on the same note pad as the day, before so I slide yesterday’s left-overs onto the new list. Socks jumps up and curls next to my hip, purring I reach down and scratch behind her ears for a moment and she’s happy for the duration.

The coffee burbles through and I wait, finishing up the immediate tasks before getting a first cup.

This morning, I put on a teapot and then start the coffee. By the time I’d finished grinding the beans, taking out the old grinds, rinsing the coffee cone, replacing the filter and pouring the water into the Braun, the tea water boiled.

I made a cup.

Then moved into the living room, I moved a chair so I would face a blank wall for focus. I moved my Mac off the cushion to my desk and threw the new Kootenay Mountain Culture magazine on the appropriate stack of magazines. After taking two sips of the hot tea, relishing the bitter turning sweet, I sat.

Some things are really like riding a bike. I calmed. I started breathing slower, deeper. I folded my hands in my lap and moved on.

I don’t know how long I mediated. Five, ten minutes. Not much more. My tea was cooled, but still a little warm when I stopped. It was good. My butt needed the cushion far more than the Mac.

Now that I’ve broken back into the way, it will be interesting to see if the little sit expandes into a bigger and regular sit.

And for the record, after I sat, I turned on the coffee and washed the dishes. Thanks Jack, but I did laundry a couple days ago.

On Writing

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On, Elizabeth Gilbert provides a great take on creativity. The Greeks believing creativity a divine creature that visited you, a demon. Or the Romans calling it genius and believing it lived in the walls, coming out only to urge you on.

In the movie Coming in the Evening, Leonard talks of following his characters, writing about his characters until they do something interesting, implying most of the time they are pretty boring.

In the blog Why We Write <> created by the Screenwriters Guild during the strike, the answers ranged from “I have to” to “to get laid”. Each essay carried an equal weight. And a distinct viewpoint.

When I am stuck, I walk. I ride my bike. I go climbing. I head up to the hill for a few laps. I hike up Fairy Creek hoping I run into a grizzly.

In one of the essays in Zen and the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury says something along the lines of 90% of his best writing happens when he’s asleep.

What is it that compels some of us to write, or the even greater question, why do those that don’t write aspire to write?

Luanne Armstrong said in a workshop “There are three parts to writing. You have to write. You have to re-write, to edit. And, last, you have to share. Put it out there for others to see.”

The last is the fearful aspect of writing. Standing in front of a crowded room, reading a piece of humor for the first time and wondering, “Will they laugh?” Or reading a piece about a close friend, blending into eleven snowmobilers dying in an avalanche, then back to Cory. Climbing together. Skiing together. And his dying, skiing alone, in an avalanche only days before the snowmobilers.

About the void. Daily, we stand at the edge of a void gazing in. Without speaking of the void itself, we write of what we see.

The risks we take. Physical. Emotional. Professional. Just getting out of bed in the morning can be a wonder.

Waking up after open-heart surgery. Your sternum now sawn in half. Your heart was stopped, then cut in half. A little stitch ‘n bitch as he made his way out, patching, nipping and tucking. Hoping he can start your heart again before the final close. Waking, your sternum now wired together. All your ribs broken. Some in two places. And wondering at the pain. Feeling a fire driving down your limbs with every breath. Feeling pain in the very webs of your fingers. Will it ever go away? Can I last until it goes away?

And wondering at the void recently visited.

Three months later, sitting down in the kitchen with a bottle of wine, red, and the clinical report written by the surgeon. Leaving halfway down the first page. Deciding, this is not the time. Let’s just drink the wine.

In the end, I believe there are long frequency creative tides and short frequency personal storms. Equally, they move our writing. The question remains, when you share, will they see what you see?

The answer is simple. No.

The real question becomes will they see anything? Will they feel something?

That question forces us to look into the void again and consider jumping. So we share and hope, with that leap, we will soar on winds we will never see, will never know.