Chipping away through a complete disaster

A snowy, muddy field leads up to a castle of snow at dusk.
Ice on Whyte’s iconic ramparts of snow are being melted away by the warm weather, and built back up by Delayne Corbett.

When the January cold dropped off into that warm, wild wind last week, I found myself sprinkling gravel on my sidewalk as quietly as I could in the morning. It was already an inconvenience having to address the fresh ice that had spread out over the walks, and when I saw a woman get out of her truck to move a branch that had blown down from our tree into the road… well, I’m not proud of it, but I slunk away with my bag of gravel, lest she think I threw the branch there or something, and harangue me into arriving even later to work.

All in all though, the warmth was a treat. Which made me wonder who’d be really annoyed by the weather. That’s how I met Delayne Corbett.

Delayne is the Artistic Director of the Ice on Whyte Festival — a fact I discovered when I penguined over to End of Steel Park and shouted across the gates that I had a microphone and I’d love to talk to anyone inside. Ice on Whyte, you see, is the local ice sculpting festival that spreads through Old Strathcona in January. I had a hunch that if anyone resented the temperature hitting 6ºC, it’d be the folk who had a week left to finish building a mini-empire of ice and snow. As an ice carver, Delayne said, 6ºC with full sun was a complete disaster.

Delayne was the only one working on the site at the time, and he let me watch him for a while as he ripped cardboard covers off 150-pound rectangles of ice. He clamped one of them with metal tongs he swore were older than him, and threw it on the snow so he could “walk the dog” and shuffle it into place with the rest of the ice slide he was building. The slide would bring you to the bottom of a mountain of snow his team had stomped into the ground. All things considered, he was in good spirits.

-15ºC, Delayne told me, is the ideal temperature for ice sculptors. The ice doesn’t crackle much when you add water, and the cold wicks away the sweat you’re building up. The warm weather made him want to rip off layers, but he couldn’t because it was so wet and goopy that he had to keep his rainpants on.

Even worse, the wind had blown sheets of cardboard all around the site. That would have been okay, except that the record-setting gusts also tossed an 8-foot tall plywood box into the fences “like a bowling ball,” and he spent most of his morning gathering cardboard that had sailed into nearby streets.

He said something that stuck with me though, about the ice slide and the whole business of working with ice. He was in the process of adjusting the slide to make it a little slower at the bottom, by adding a little more distance. I mused that people building roller-coasters didn’t have that luxury.

“Those are all so planned meticulously,” he agreed. “Basically when I get here, I don’t know how much snow I have… so I kind of have to just go with the flow, rather than pre-plan.”

That, I think, is a skill we could all stand to learn. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got.

I also told this story for a 3-minute story challenge on CJSR. Have a listen.

Civic Election 2013: Taking a Special Interest

In April this year, an anonymous source leaked a grainy video of a closed-door meeting among some of Calgary’s real estate developers. A grainy video worthy of media attention should be enough to make anyone caught on film gulp, and in this case the footage made some Calgarians furious. Cal Wenzel, founder of Shane Homes, was rallying fellow housing developers to pour fountains of money into the upcoming municipal election to kick out anti-sprawl candidates on city council. I’ve been trying to untangle why this video has made some people incensed, while a slew of other special interest groups supporting candidates in Edmonton have become local celebrities.

Wenzel tells the audience in the leaked video that he and other developers had doled out $1.1 million in donations to the conservative Manning Centre and Manning Foundation in order to defeat city council members on “the dark side.” The Manning Centre’s new Municipal Governance Project is aiming to colour Canada’s municipal politics a little bluer by offering training and guidance to right-leaning candidates. At least five of this year’s Calgary city council candidates have received training through the program: Joe Magliocca, James Maxim, Sean Chu, Jordan Katz and Kevin Taylor, who also received transportation and signage help from Cal Wenzel.

At the time, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi accused Wenzel of admitting that the developers and the Manning Centre had collaborated to severely overstep election finance rules. Individuals and organizations are only allowed to donate up to $5000 to a candidate in any year (no charges have been laid in this case, though).

While this wealthy group of developers may well be violating the spirit of the law, I wonder how much of the backlash (such a recent piece from David Climenhaga) has come from a feeling that this amount of influence is unfair, and how much has come from ideological opposition to the ideas.

This year, special interest groups have also stepped up in Edmonton to test candidates’ support for queer issues, sustainable urban agriculture, and arts and culture. Several have published the results of surveys they sent out to the candidates, including Yuri Wuensch’s highly-visible Vote Zombie Wall campaign – focused on keeping out the hordes by combatting sprawl. Wuensch has appeared at election events all over town with little controversy. So have the leaders of Activat ED, a youth-led group endorsing progressive candidates. And in fact, both of the latter appeared on my own radio show, Terra Informa.

Each of these groups has advanced a special interest by lending resources and limelight to candidates, or highlighting their credibility on certain issues. We have a word for that: civil society. Civil society groups, such as think tanks, churches, blogs and non-profits, carve out an important part of the public conversation outside of government and business. They’re a vital part of becoming informed and active in negotiating decisions in a democracy, whether we’re debating suburb growth or clandestine chickens.

It may be more productive to make sure that civil society groups are transparent in their activity, and accountable to our elections laws, than to try to shame them out of town.

House full of eccentrics

rutherford fundraiser

You there, with the computer. I want to give you a chance to look swanky and meet some truly wild personalities. Just because I like you. All you have to do is answer a question. Are you in?

I’m on the board of Punctuate! Theatre, right? We’re pretty new, but we’re trying to create heart-palpitating, brainwave-inducing, challenging work. And next Friday, we’re taking over Edmonton’s Rutherford House for our first annual fundraiser to let you have a peek into the process and meet the minds behind the performances. You’ll get to see excerpts from the plays, costumes, the scripts we’ve worked through, and partake in some wining and dining. I want you to come. And lucky you, even if you can’t afford a ticket, I happen to have one to give away. You see, my lovely mother has asked me to purchase one on her behalf and find a good home for it. So in her honour (today is her birthday!), I am giving it away to the first person who can answer this skill-testing question, which will mostly test your skills of research:

Who was in the cast of the first show that Punctuate! produced? No hints which show it was. The first person to name at least two of the cast members in the comments below wins!

Find out more about our takeover of Rutherford House on January 11, from 7 pm – 10 pm.

Edit: We have a winner! Congrats to Steve Andersen.

Why didn’t he just ride down 83rd Ave?

The thing I appreciate about Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s novel of man who gets entangled in a family’s downfall, is that it’s a tragedy in the truest sense: all the ingredients of the last act’s misery are plain from the very beginning. As soon as you see how desperate the main character is to wrap his legs around a life of wealth and charm and wit, you can tell things are likely to end darkly.

University of Alberta student Isaak Kornelsen’s death cycling down Whyte Ave this week was not inevitable. But if you bike at all in Edmonton, you can plainly see the ingredients there for tragedy.

A white painted bicycle has been placed in a median on Whyte Ave. It is covered in flowers and cards for Isaak. A truck passes to the right.
A memorial set up by the Edmonton Bicycle Commuters for Isaak Kornelsen on Whyte Ave this week.

Isaak was riding his bike just a few blocks away from my house on August 27th. He was a cross-country and track athlete for the U of A Golden Bears, who’ve called him “a kind hearted and outstanding young man.” His family notes he was also passionate about his job serving and cooking at Café Mosaics on the other side of Whyte, and learning Swedish.

Whyte — or 82nd — Ave is mostly known these days for cupcake shops and nightclubs, but of course it’s also a major commuter road for cars, bikes, and huge vehicles trucking goods across the city. According to police, Isaak struck a mirror on a parked truck, lost control of his bike, and was crushed under a passing cement truck.

He was 21.

You might wonder why a cyclist would choose to bike anywhere with such heavy, dangerous traffic. I was on the bus the other day, and our driver was asking another passenger just that. As they shook their heads, the driver said, “Why didn’t he just ride down 83rd Ave? I feel bad for the driver.”

It doesn’t seem as if the cement truck driver intentionally struck Isaak, and in fact has said he didn’t even notice the bike had passed underneath him. But as soon as the bus driver asked this question, I felt like I could have guessed the answer.

Why didn’t he just ride down 83rd Ave? Because it would have made no sense to use 83rd. It’s a confusing, narrow road that starts out one way, was blocked off during the Fringe, makes it difficult to see traffic from other directions, and doesn’t even cross one of the major roads that are its bookends.

Why didn’t he just ride down 81st Ave? Because it’s blocked by a railway. Why not 84th? Another confusing road that’s partly one-way, blocked off by a parking lot. Why not 80th? You get the picture.

I commute through this neighbourhood regularly, and the only decent bike trails going the same direction are six blocks to the north or south, and both end just as abruptly as 83rd Avenue.

Bicycle infrastructure in Edmonton is getting better. The new bike corrals in Old Strathcona and the bike box intersection experiment will both make it safer and more convenient to get around. But by and large, traffic planning takes bikes into account as a distant afterthought. Patchwork bike routes that leave you staring at a set of train tracks push cyclists onto more dangerous roads that actually go somewhere.

Even more frustrating, there’s no reason Whyte Ave has to be this dangerous when trucks and bikes ride beside each other. As Edmonton Bicycle Commuters’ Chris Chan notes, “Collisions aren’t freak accidents. They’re the result of a series of decisions and events and the dynamics of traffic, taking place within a built environment and road design.”

Wide painted lanes for bikes, or separated bike paths, would make it safer and easier to get around. Some cities have even found fast, safe ways to clear bikes quickly from intersections without making roads any wider.

The most agonizing part of any tragedy is that its ingredients are visible from the start. Isaak Kornelsen did not have to die biking down Whyte Ave, but the factors that create dangerous situations like his are obvious. And they’re still there.

A Critical Mass bike ride in memory of Isaak will begin at City Hall on Friday, August 31st at 5:30 PM.

Satanic Circulation and 1000 Tiny Gestures

Today I come to you to make a humble request on behalf of Old Scratch himself, Satan. Or rather, on behalf of Punctuate! Theatre‘s great new play An Evening With Satan, on now at Edmonton’s Fringe. And two things have got me really excited to make this pitch to you.

Elliott James' Satan looks into a mirror, darkly
You’ll be close enough to bump horns with Satan at the show. (Photo credit: Killin’ Photography – April Killins)

First though, here’s the pitch. I’m a new board member at Punctuate!, and I am so so pleased that this is the first of our plays I’ve seen. An Evening With Satan is a dark, funny, and very rude show written and starring Elliott James (whose face just seems to hold an improbably number of disturbing expressions). The dark lord is summoned for an intimate evening to ask us why we live our lives in fear and regret, rather than embracing the joy of being alive. Along the way he shows a little of his vulnerable side, and you’ll probably show some of yours when he asks how many folks revel in bath salts, murder, and sodomy.

The Edmonton Journal’s Jason Markusoff called Elliott’s Satan a “seductive” and “charming, goateed high priest,” and we’re gearing up to take his dark delights on the road. After the Edmonton Fringe, Elliott and the (equally scandalous) director Elizabeth Hobbs will be heading to Vancouver’s Fringe Festival. As with all good endeavours, that’s going to cost money. So we’re in the middle of an Indiegogo campaign to make it happen.

Indiegogo, in case you’re not familiar with it, is an indie funding website like Kickstarter. You pitch in a little bit to make a big idea grow. In this case, you can get cool perks like complimentary tickets and signed posters. We’re aiming to raise $1000 to pay for these guys’ travel costs and hey, maybe eating along the way. We’re halfway there so far.

The first reason I’m so excited about this is I saw it last night at the Fringe, and it’s great. Elliott and Elizabeth share some genuinely outrageous moments, and made me think about my own ideas of pleasure, pain and vengeance. This is why I signed up to support Punctuate!: it’s a little theatre company with a big mission to create bold, intriguing original work that will grab you by the tie and make you sit up and pay attention to your life. And bonus, the play’s on tonight for half-price at 11:15 PM at the Daily Discount booth, too.

The second reason I’m so excited is because these kind of indie campaigns are warming the cockles of my heart lately. Roman Mars made a gigantic ask for his podcast 99% Invisible this month. He was raising money to pay a producer and get some videos made, and once he passed his first target he wondered if he could do something ground-breaking, and get 5000 supporters for his tiny show.

It didn’t matter how much you donated, he just wanted people to feel like they were part of creating something exciting, and it reminded me of something Stuart Mclean did. A couple of years ago Stuart Mclean was in Edmonton doing a Vinyl Cafe Christmas performance, and he was raising money for one his listeners, for medical expenses or something. I don’t remember what the money was for but I remember he asked folks not to donate too much, because he wanted the outcome to be the product of many small gestures, many people making a small choice to help each other out, to add up to something inspiring.

An Evening With Satan made me smile and cringe in all the right ways, and I think it’s worth a bucketload of support. If you can chip in anything, $5, $10, $25, head to Indiegogo before August 30th, you’ll be helping make something magic happen. The perks are nice, too. But that’s my pitch.

The 99% Invisible gang did it, by the way. I know we can, too.

Our Shareable Neighbourhood

We were looking for a horseshoe.
Some of the folks out at last weekend’s Backyard Gardens walk.

I’ve had some time on my hands this summer to brew a couple new projects, and I think one of them is ready to open up a bit to the world. It’s called Shareable Neighbourhood.

Well, it wasn’t always called Shareable Neighbourhood. Technically this is the first time that’s ever happened. Initially I just called it Neighbourhood Walk, and between the two names you kind of get the idea: monthly tours of our neighbourhood in Old Strathcona/Mill Creek, to let people share what they know about local history and nature.

It was an idea born out of Next Up, the leadership program I finished this year. I’d been trying to dream up ways to get people jazzed about the nitty-gritty of where we live. Partly because I’m intensely curious about how and why things got to be the way they are, and partly because I think when you know more about what’s in your soil and who’s lived on it, you’re more likely to stand up for it. And partly I hoped that if we were all learning and sharing this stuff together more often, we’d feel like we had a more natural community of people to turn to when we need help getting a group solar panel discount, or bringing people out to a city council meeting — you get the idea.

The twist is that while we’ve had three so far and it’s ready to be murmured about online, it’s also young and needs fresh minds. I’m really trying to encourage folks in the neighbourhood to feel confident leading their own walks, even if they don’t have a degree or letters behind their name to qualify them in the idea. That’s why last weekend’s theme was Backyard Gardens: six of us who aren’t professional horticulturalists got to show off what we know about making tomatoes and delphiniums look good. So I want to decentralize the planning behind this as soon as possible, and we also need theme ideas.

So if you’re reading this, and you live in and/or know a lot about Edmonton’s Old Strathcona and Mill Creekish areas, drop me a line. If you have a tour you’d like to lead, great! We’ve done Plants of the River Valley and History of Immigration to Edmonton so far, and I think this month we’re going to investigate the local railways. And if you’d like to get involved in organizing, I’d love to hear from you too. Shareable Neighbourhood also has a Facebook group if you want to join. It might need to become a likeable page at some point.

By the way, this project owes a lot to the Jane’s Walks. They’re these annual walks all around the world that work exactly this way. Locals lead walks around topics like how an industrial heart became an urban park. I didn’t even realize how inspired I was by Tim McCaskell’s tour of Toronto’s gay village until someone pointed it out to me.

Also the name change was inspired by the great podcast 99% Invisible, which has much the same mission to explore the unseen story behind everyday parts of our lives. They tell beauteous stories about everything from how a picture gets on a stamp, to why US currency is so ugly, to how a Walt Whitman poem became wrought in an iron fence in Brooklyn. Just listening to the host, Roman Mars, this week made me more pumped about getting people to show off these unseen stories right beneath the surface of where we live. I highly recommend you check it out.

Orbinski: Refuse government funding being used to quell dissent

James Orbinski looks into the camera at a conference table in the Jubilee Auditorium
Dr James Orbinski spoke at the Jubilee Auditorium on June 13, 2012.

Last week, I had a chance to interview Dr James Orbinski for The CJSR Edition, our freshly-minted local news show. The former international head of Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders was at the University of Alberta to accept an honourary degree. I met a few folks who saw his convocation speech, and they seemed kind of shell-shocked at how persuasively he had convinced them to do the hard thing and take some responsibility to make things better.

What struck me when we spoke was this comment about whether vocal civil society groups should risk taking federal funding or charitable status these days:

“The most important and powerful tool that any citizen has is his or her voice. The free and public expression using that voice is very much in my view a duty and a responsibility of citizenship. And if government — in this particular case, the Harper government — chooses to use tools of government, funding for example, in an effort to quell expression, and voice, and public engagement and public criticism, then citizens and citizen organizations should just simply refuse that funding.”

You can listen to the full interview below.

Test your webs

Last weekend was kind of like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one, but with more pink glitter. Some friends I hadn’t seen for years came to town just in time for the Pride parade, and taught me about a fascinating idea: the need to test the invisible webs around you. This week, I needed to test one of mine, and it was harrowing but marvelous. Before I get to my little web though, let me explain what happened.

Dear friends Kathleen and Daltry smiling at the tiny concert

As the Edmonton Journal noted, there was plenty to celebrate at Pride this year, and I was happy to march with friends in Camp fYrefly, a leadership retreat for queer and allied youth. The creamy pink frosting on top of this cupcake, though, was finding out that my friends Kathleen and Daltry were both in town. We went to a tiny, intimate concert together at CKUA, and sat cross-legged on the floor together surrounded my sweet music.

Of course, what brought them back to Edmonton was not so sweet. A friend took his own life recently, and they’d come for his service.

Daltry’s mom was there too, and we were exchanging stories and proverbs by the punchbowl when the conversation turned to this friend, and what had led to his suicide. If only, she said, he could have seen the massive web of love that coalesced around him for that funeral, seen it while he was still alive. If only, she said, we had more chances to test those webs and see what they look like.

It was funny because someone else at the concert had just told me about another kind of important test. She was about to travel to Montreal, and I asked her if she planned on joining the protests there. She sighed, and said probably, but she was pretty anxious about getting arrested. A fine would basically ruin her finances at school for the next year, but she said the Quebec government’s new laws to restrain the movement made it hard for her to shut up.

It frustrated her because it seemed to confirm a theory of Nietzsche’s: that in Western democracies, we never really exercise our liberty because we trust that it’ll be there when we need it. That in a moment of crisis, the state would give us space to claim it. To her, the laws banning masked protests, unannounced gatherings of 50+ people, and fines in the tens of thousands of dollars for students group illegally organizing, smacked of a promise that was shown as false the moment it was tested.

What occurred to me was that the Pride parade is just such an event: an opportunity to test the webs of liberty and love that we hope are there. Twenty years ago, marching down the street declaring this kind of love here meant getting chased down the street and called faggots, and risking beatings from homophobic crowds. In most places in the world, it still does. This year, that test was honoured in Edmonton by the appearance of our province’s premier, and hours of rainbow flags and heavy mascara and dance music downtown.

Which brings me to my own harrowing test this week. After the glitter settled, I realized I had mixed up a deadline and had less than 24 hours to make a gigantic job application, with three sealed references, physically manifest itself across the country to be hand-delivered. It happened.

I’d like to say it was incredible, but it was really just implausible. So many brains working so hard to get these documents together, and printed out in another city? I felt like I was facing sub-District 12 odds of making it. But friends and old bosses pulled through in a way I was honestly astonished by. It was humbling.

It’s not often we get a chance to test those invisible webs. I am truly blessed to say that when I needed mine, it was there. To every one of you out there who’s part of it, thank you.

I want to take you out on a date

So here’s the thing. I wish I was an expert on everything — Byzantine history, jump-rope, sedimentation — but I’m not. Consequently, I’m always looking for people who are better-informed than me to help with stories I’m working on.

The cutest mug in the world, featuring a teddy bear surrounded by hearts.
I'd be beary happy to take you out for coffee.

Earlier this year, I was trying to brainstorm ways to meet people outside of my areas of expertise. I decided to make my friends a standing offer for 2012: I’ll take you out for coffee in exchange for the names of three interesting people in Edmonton who know a lot about something.

I’ve already had one person take me up on the offer. We had a lovely breakfast, and I learned who to talk to about technological savourism. Now I’d like to open it up to anybody. That means you!

Media types, environment types, and queer issues are all easy for me. Pretty much anything else goes, though. If you know someone who has been collecting highway signs for 20 years, I want to hear about them. Your eccentric neighbour who can answer any question about girls’ basketball teams in town? Let me take you out for a bevvie so you can tell me all about them.

This pairs somewhat well with a more public project I’m working on for the Multimedia & Multiculturalism project in town. We’re working on a database of resource people from under-represented ethnocultural communities in town, aimed at journalists. If you’ve got people in mind for that project, I’d love to hear about them too.

Give me a shout if you’re interested, and in the meantime have a look at the Community section, where I’ve added details about some upcoming dinosaur talks, a new job posting for a bike workshop coordinator, and the Coming Out Monologues.