Helplessness Blues, Somewhere in Maine

It’s dark. It’s been raining. We’re on the side of a highway. Somewhere in Maine. Something is smoldering under the hood of our car. Waves of smoke waft up, an invisible cloud of heat is felt whenever we approach the source. The acrid smell of burning metal and steel fills our noses. This stench had caused us to pull over onto this gloomy stretch of highway in the first place.

We don’t know where we are. We’re outside a campground. Outside of Bangor, Maine. How far? We check our phones, both are nearly dead. No roaming data, no Google. Panic. Maggie pulls out her CAA card. I call the number provided and, thankfully, get a signal. And a dispatcher. Who breaks up every second word. We soon get transferred to a US agent and then wait. Each minute will cost $1.50 at some future date.

Our car continues to smolder, the smoke actually seems to intensify. We find what looks to be an ember, some super-heated steel below the engine. Should we douse it with water? I don’t know shit about cars. Would we crack a casing if everything around it is too hot? Maggie asks me this while I’m on the phone, now trying to tell the agent where we are, not knowing at all where we are. “We’re outside a Koa Kampground,” I say. “There’s a sign that says Camp Lane.” Is this sign real or kitsch, I wonder.

The trailer across the road is alive and a curious, shirtless teenaged kid wanders over. Maggie asks about dumping water on the smoldering steel. He says he’ll ask his dad. “He’s good with cars.” I tell the agent that there’s a trailer across the street. The kid returns home, where there’s been yelling and swearing since we arrived.

The agent says we’re in Canaan, Maine, but we only have an 11-kilometre tow radius coverage under Maggie’s plan. The nearest town that has a AAA-approved shop is 18 miles away. This will cost us $18. American dollars. I don’t have any American dollars. This is a problem. I ask her, “Don’t we have 100-kilometre coverage?” She says we don’t. I ask her to call up the Canadian dispatcher that I was talking to originally to confirm this. She complies and puts me on hold, at $1.50 per minute.

The kid returns, with two girls his age, and says he’s not sure whether to hit that spot with water. But his dad did tell him that he had something like this happen to him before. His dad kept driving with it though and then one day, it blew up and his car caught fire on the highway. “If he was wearing a seatbelt, he’d be dead,” the kid says. We thank him for his help. He heads home.

An SUV screams by and honks at us.

We don’t have the extended coverage. The agent says the tow-truck driver will take us to an ATM before dropping off the car at a shop. “Fine,” I say. She says the tow truck will be here within 45 minutes and she will text or call with a better estimate when she has one. I opt for the $1 text. She sends four.

We wait. The car continues to smolder and smoke. Maggie pokes a hole in a water bottle cap, turning it into an improvised fire extinguisher. I love her. We attack it from the wheel well, to no avail. Then we move on, taking precise shots at it through a small gap beside the engine. On the second try, we get it.

Then we wait. With phones dying. Without knowing what happened. Did the exhaust finally quit on us? Is this engine related? How much this will cost? Where are we? Where are we heading? Will there be a motel or a hotel or at least somewhere to set up our tent?

We stand by the car – or more accurately, a hot, smelly immobile hunk of steel in its current condition – having completely ceded control of our fate to fate. We listen to the cussing and fighting and crassness from the trailer across the street. I don’t want to meet that kid’s dad. I start sweating about money. We were on our way home, the second last day of our five-week trip. Bank account has looked better. Our $1,200 car has so far cost us nearly as much in repairs over the last six months. If this is an engine problem, we’re not pouring any more into this thing. But then what do we do? How do we get home with all of our bags and boxes and camping gear, crammed into the car? How will we get to Yellowknife, where I start work in two weeks? And how do we make any plans when our phones are dying, we don’t know where we are and we can’t Google? I miss the ability to Google car questions right now, even when the answer will definitely not provide any tangible benefit, and likely lead to more questions, wilder speculation and greater anxiety.

The tow truck driver arrives and he’s all business. After a few frustrating minutes, he manages to lug the Passat up onto his rig and we’re off. He speaks slowly with a slur, like someone who has put back 16 drinks. It takes me a few minutes beside him to conclude that he hasn’t had 16 drinks. He’s an ally. He says he’ll take us to Skowhegan, rather than Fairfield, because there are hotels near the mechanic shop.

We rumble through the darkness, our driver ignoring the prompts from the oddly impatient GPS lady-automaton. But then we turn down an illuminated main street and its lights bring us our first rush of familiarity and comfort. The driver, Guy, takes us to the drive-thru ATM and, thankfully, my card lets me take out money.

Guy drops us off at the shop and tells us where the two hotels in town are. We walk down to the coziest looking of the two, about three blocks away, and ring the bell. A grey-haired woman, eyes half open, answers and apologizes for not having any vacancies. “It’s all booked up with the fair in town,” she says, referring us to the hotel down the street. We head that way, down the deserted main street.

What are we going to do if there are no vacancies there? Where will we stay? How will we pay for all of this? What if they can’t find the part, like when we were in PEI and stuck for five days? We actually catch a lift with the tow-truck driver’s friend, on our way to the next hotel. We arrive and no lights are on and no one is home. The driver shrugs and takes us back to the shop. Where we go to sleep. In the parking lot. In our car. Which may or may not be making the trip home with us.

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Anachronistic Signal Hill

Atop Signal Hill, Newfoundland, a perpetually distracted young man tweets a message and photo link to a largely uninterested world by tapping a touch-screen on his handheld computer. From that same place, Guglielmo Marconi, 113 years earlier, fumbled with balloons and kites in a constant and biting December wind before successfully receiving a wireless message – a crude “” Morse code transmission, the letter “S” – that was barely audible over the static in his telephone receiver. The message, which originated in Cornwall, England, bounced off the ionosphere, across the Atlantic Ocean and into Marconi’s ear and news of the achievement spanned the globe. A popular Canadian Heritage Moment dutifully recounts the message came “Through the air, across the ocean. The first time ever.”

The young man on the hill takes a photo of a small vessel as it chugs out of St. John’s harbour, the focal point of the city. The boat is crammed full of tourists, who have allotted two hours of their vacations towards a sightseeing expedition, and they snap photos of the hill the young man stands upon, in part due to Marconi’s accomplishment. The young man and these tourists will show these photos to loved ones when they return home to demonstrate that they did in fact visit the harbour and the hill, and so they can also recite the few tidbits they learned during the brief breaks between photo-taking. Though today it is used primarily as a hiking or jogging trail by locals, the young man and the tourists will say that Signal Hill also has served as a lookout and communications hub for ships entering and exiting St. John’s perfect harbour, the most easterly port in North America. The hill’s information placards boast that the harbour is likely the world’s most sheltered and has nurtured communities for thousands of years, going back to nomadic Mi’kmaq hunters, and later European explorers and settlers. The mouth of the harbour opens to the Atlantic Ocean at the Narrows, as tight as 61-metres across at one point, before doglegging into the harbour proper, nestled between the magisterial green hills and today’s city. This anomaly allowed the city to flourish, providing safe haven for fishing vessels and as a strategic fort for both French and English troops during Canada’s defining skirmishes and later Western forces during the World Wars. Charles Lindbergh recognized St. John’s geographic importance, buzzing over the Narrows during his famous almost-34-hour maiden solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Through the air, across the ocean. The first time ever.

The young man hikes down the hill and stops to marvel at the ancient rock, trying to slow things down inside his head so as to imagine just how epically gradual the geologic and glacial forces were that created and later carved out the shapes of Signal Hill and the harbour. But this futile meditative time-travel exercise is interrupted by the roar of twin turbine engines: a passenger jet, taking off from St. John’s airport with 200 or so perpetually distracted humans aboard, accelerates assuredly overhead. The young man catches a glimpse of the giant metallic glimmering bird through a patch of blue in the fog and then it disappears just as suddenly, on its scheduled five-and-a-half-hour transatlantic voyage. Through the air, across the ocean. At least once a day.

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Bingo night in Hubbards, Nova Scotia

We went to the Hubbards Fire Hall bingo last night and, from the get-go, I was pleading with the gambling gods to lose every game.

This obsession came after a quick scan of the room. My girlfriend and I were likely the youngest people playing by at least 20 years and I couldn’t help but feel that I didn’t deserve to take any money from the grey-haired dabbers, who eyed up us newcomers as we bought our cards and took our seats at the fold-up tables. I imagined they’d put in years of devotion, investing money into this local game – hobby? passion? – treating it like a community co-op and expecting the dividends to pay off due to their careful honing of meticulous superstitions, crafted through painstaking trial and error. (Some ladies in the room had as many as ten different dabbers lined up on the table, which they used selectively for specific games). They, far more than I, warranted the big jackpots – or the “cupcake” or “bonanza” or “lucky seven,” as the games and gimmicks were called. (It should be noted, the technical jargon of bingo ranks up there with the airline industry or brain surgery in its complexity and foreignness to outsiders.) Who was I, some young upstart from away, to come in and take part of this bounty that they’d been cultivating for months, years, decades? (I also recognized that there was likely some pension and retirement money in the room and I certainly didn’t feel comfortable taking any of that away.)

My sense of intrusion certainly wasn’t allayed when my girlfriend called a false “bingo” on the first game of the night, thinking it was a one-line winner, instead of the two-line or one-line-and-four-corners game. (Part of this had to do with Bingo’s aforementioned peculiar vernacular and with the accent of the Nova Scotian caller, who sounded, oddly, a bit like folk-rock troubadour Doug Paisley.) We heard frustrated sighs when she called it, amplifying my feelings of infringement, and then gasps and tsks when it came out that we had got it wrong. Her face turned beat purple. (She wound up winning the game with two other players, bringing home $17.)

It hit me last night that I don’t like to make waves in a new place, something that has been apparent throughout our Maritime road-trip this last month. I told my girlfriend, around the third or fourth of the 20 or so games, that I was rooting against myself, that I was terrified of possibly having to call “bingo” in this room of 50 or so seniors or near-seniors. She looked at me perplexed: “I want to win,” she affirmed, before scolding me subconsciously for distracting her and making her miss the most recently-called number. (She played nine cards per game, while I contented myself with three.)

As each game progressed, I would look at my card and see that I only needed a couple numbers for a winner and I’d get sweaty at the prospects of the required sequence being picked and having to single myself out in this room full of retirees. Luckily, I’ve never been a particularly lucky Bingo player, and really with lotteries in general. My only real run of success was during Quebec Carnivale week in grade school, where I’d get picked at random to wear a Bonhomme belt and get odd food and drink privileges during the festivities. Not much of a prize.

My cards would get darker each game, and my heartbeat would pick up, only to have the room fill with annoyed rumblings – filling me with relief – when a “bingo” was called somewhere behind or beside me. (One octogenarian at the table behind me would whisper-yell her “bingo.”) Despite a close call or two, things went as well as I could have hoped for during the first half of the night: I lost every game.

At this intermission, I spoke with the lady beside me, who told me the games at the Hubbards hall – located at the eastern tip of a beautiful stretch of the winding 329 highway that snakes around rustic coves and idyllic fishing towns – used to be much larger, with bigger jackpots. She didn’t have an answer for the drop-off, but I imagine it had something to do with that blanket legislation that slowly snuffed out smoking across this country over the last 15 or so years. (During said intermission, half the players ran outside to huff down a smoke.) The sweatbox of a room, which was heavy and humid due to the mugginess outside the last couple days, may well have played a part.

My aversion to attention had nothing to do with the friendliness of the folks at the hall, who were all really helpful. This sort of hospitality has been standard since we started our trip out east. I’ve always thought the ‘Canadians are too friendly’ stereotype was bullshit, and that it was really a superficial politeness that could be seen as almost standoffish or disinterest. But from Quebec City onwards, the people we’ve met, be it in rural PEI, or Tadoussac, Quebec or along country roads in Nova Scotia, have been genuinely interested in us, in our travels and in giving us memorable and positive experiences in their hometowns. At the bingo hall, a couple of old ladies at the table in front of us would tell us which one of the dozen or so coloured game cards would be up next. They “yoo-hoo”ed me at first to get my attention and inform me of the next card, before then giving me the thumbs up when I held up the card before the each game. Some of the volunteers in the hall would also come over and explain the rules for some of the more unique, obscure games. This was all very much appreciated and it made us feel much more comfortable in our new surroundings.

It was just after the intermission that my unease began to slowly morph into a disinterest in the game. Bingo doesn’t offer you the chance to change strategy or increase your chances of winning through tactical means, other than buying more cards, and so I found it stale that there was nothing that I could do other than blot out the number that was called out. I did enjoy thinking about the different permutations and combinations that I needed in order to win a certain game, but that excitement would be assuaged each time a different number was called.

And as I got more bingo weary, and the games ended anticlimactically, it suddenly hit me: Oh shit, I think I want to win now. I no longer viewed the game as a charity donation, or as a low-key night with my girlfriend, a bag of Hickory Sticks and a couple Cokes. My growing annoyance wasn’t from the deterministic nature of the game, but my shitty Bingo-playing abilities.

As I got more comfortable in the room, I suppose I got greedier. (What does that say about humans?)

Each game wore on, and the losses kept mounting, and I felt more and more disappointment. No thoughts about taking a pensioner’s nest egg anymore. I could use this money for gas. No worries about singling myself out amongst this tight-knit crowd. Just numbers I didn’t need, being called at random, affecting my mood.

When the “bonanza” and the final jackpot were called, the hall emptied at light speed and we were back in the car, driving that twisting road home, and I was confused as hell about my bingo experience. Was there a moral somewhere here?

If you set your expectations low, you won’t be disappointed?

You should do something for the fun of it, because as soon as you start getting selfish and taking things too seriously, you’re bound to be let down?

Or was the moral just not to play stupid games of chance?

Yes, that’s the one.

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Patente et Machin


Patente et Machin is happily lambasted by the Trip Advisor community for its hipster proclivities, a title both well-earned and tremendously unfair. The staff kindly make allowance for my English, going so far as to take five full minutes to give the daily menu its due. The menu itself is a carnivorous monster, all heavy meats and rich sauces; even the pulled pork doesn’t escape the deep fryer.

I’m seated at the bar, which feels a reasonable fate for a lone patron at a restaurant which sells its mains primarily as shareable endeavours. I order the strongest IPA in the house and await my meal, a seared duck breast on a bed of fresh-made polenta, with a scattering of root vegetables.

My fellow bar-mates are a middle-aged duo of well-dressed (if overly colourful) business women to my right and an older lady to my left who seems to be on her third dish, provided we’re counting her charcuterie plate, which naturally we are. The grill man, a rather gregarious looking fellow, wears an ages-old white t-shirt greased at the fringes from countless wiped fingertips and seems to speak only when spoken to (happily, this happens often). His tradesman’s tools, all cast iron and used beyond the normal call, look to hail from my grandparent’s kitchen in Newfoundland. Based on this alone, the meal promises great things. Later, he will personally ask me how I find the meal, and will show genuine sincerity in doing so; my plate, scraped clean, will be my ultimate response.


It’s surprisingly easy to find the obvious touches of this place beguiling: the unfinished table, the profusion of beards, the folksy québécois tunes on the radio. There are more liquor bottles in this place than anyone could find time to serve, almost as if the proprietor’s personal collection, curated from days of wild teenage parties, found its way in on opening day. The walls are either brick or uneven drywall, and it all can’t help but feel… intentional. I suppose I don’t mind, insofar as it’s a more pleasing aesthetic than the usual pleather chain resto fare. The beer’s good, and the crowd is unreadable, a mix of demographics so broad as to be mostly unclassifiable, with the obvious and unavoidable caveat that everyone here is white. Consider that a side effect of the city itself.

The largest cut of beef I’ve ever seen resides on the grill top, the grill man himself now wearing a safari hat, no irony in sight. Oysters border the day’s menu. I’ll be skipping them. The sounds of Québécois French register as a harsh and heavy buzz. I await my meal.


The food itself is savoury, without the overbearing weight I’d expected. In the midst of parcelling out my experience and writing some notes, I somehow forget to continue drinking my beer throughout the meal. Literally speaking, this never happens. The plating hides how full I will feel upon finishing my food. If it initially seemed like a slight portion for the price, it will take more than the 10 minute stroll back to the hotel to walk it off. A good excuse to peak into the old town, then, where people are paying far more and, in turn, receiving far far less.

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Taste of Italy™

These obviously aren’t real people.

But there’s something that I find really depressing about this commercial and it’s not the farcical portrayal of Italians, or even the state of these actors’ careers.

It’s the implicit lack of culture and tradition in North American suburbia that the creators of this commercial are inadvertently hinting at that gets me. It’s that emptiness they say to fill with “ciabatta” and that Taste of Italy™, which was surely concocted in some flavour laboratory in a business park in New Jersey. It’s the unimaginative friends spontaneously meeting to choke down some processed food on the Wendy’s patio, adjacent the parking lot, outside the local mall complex before heading back to the office. There are no customs or traditions to follow – we’ve already started eating our shitty meals before you even sat down because we’ve got to get back to work. It’s the lunch crew pretending to be Italians and making fun of each other because they’re so uncomfortable with themselves. (No one has ever said “When in Wendy’s” because why would anyone ever say that.)  We don’t typically greet each other warmly because we’re not actually sure if we like each other. And, hey look, that guy doesn’t even know who we’re sitting down to eat with.

In many cultures around the world, the meal is the focal point of a social gathering. It’s not meant to be raced through, but rather enjoyed.

It’s the gang getting together at Wendy’s after work before doing what exactly?

These obviously aren’t real people. But this conservative corporation has carefully produced this ad – and endorsed this message – with a targeted audience in mind. And obviously that demographic is comprised of real people. And I find that profoundly saddening.

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Calvin and sobs


Although this has basically been proven a hoax (read: fan-created strip) it still hits me square in the feels.

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Donald Rumsfeld: The Known Known

The_Unknown_Known_posterThere’s a scene near the end of Errol Morris’s new documentary ‘The Unknown Known’ when you think you might actually see Donald Rumsfeld crack. Is he finally going to acknowledge, on a human level, the role he played in the conflicts that led to the deaths of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people during his two stints as U.S. Secretary of Defense?

Rumsfeld, now 81, talks about a visit to a military hospital where he met the wife of a gravely injured solider who hasn’t been given good odds to survive. Rumsfeld, who had an affinity for recording and dictating memos and who waged as much of a war on language as he did on ‘terror’ in the early-2000s, fumbled and stammered and choked up in this retelling, ironically remarking that he didn’t know the word that could articulate this moment where he was forced to confront the real-world consequence of one of his many backroom decisions. But then the story takes a turn. Rumsfeld describes how he returned to the hospital weeks later and “wouldn’t you know it, the fellow made it.” And there’s your happy ending.

Except, it’s not. Instead, it is at this point that you realize, as an audience member, you’re not going to get any sort of cathartic climax, or at the very least an honest instant of self-reflection. (Don’t expect to see anything close to Robert McNamara’s tortured confession at the end of Morris’s ‘Fog of War.’) Rumsfeld regains his composure and the horrifying truth hits you that he really believes every single thing he’s said and done in office, no matter how twisted the logic. It’s the one-in-a-million story he wants to sell us. He’s obviously bought this version. There is no time for the other 999,999 sad endings.

This is a tough movie to sit through. Part of this is due to feeling oddly complicit in the wars and conflicts he led us into – some of which are ongoing today – because you didn’t do enough to oppose the blatant deception being perpetrated by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and Co. You sit there and marvel at how they duped us into invading Iraq. Honestly, it still doesn’t make sense.

The other, more glaring reason for the discomfort is Rumsfeld’s absolute certainty about the choices he made. Sure, he deflects, confuses and misleads, but he won’t admit to having regrets, as his own misdoings, even in hindsight, would have been committed by anyone else in his position, he assures us. (Rumsfeld’s smugness is one of the vilest film villains in recent memory.)

Humans will have evolved if they are ever able to breed out the Donald Rumsfeld worldview: that peculiar, paranoid and hopelessly cynical view of humanity that says that in order to protect (and expand) your own interests, you must punish, bloody and kill anyone you (rightfully or wrongly) view as a threat. (“If you want peace, prepare for war,” is one of the idioms he repeats over and over.)

Rumsfeld played Don Draper during the Bush years, selling a non-sequitur war in Iraq that nobody wanted and that ultimately ended more than 100,000 lives. And he shows no remorse. But why should he? He did all his dirty work from behind a desk, approving strategic air strikes with a quick signature or stamp, completely disconnected from the actual blood and guts and death that marked his most recent tenure as Secretary of Defense. He saw that one solider beat the odds and that’s what he chooses to remember. And that’s what he’s trying to sell us, and history, in this film.

At some point, this salesmanship will obviously come to an end – likely, with Rumsfeld’s passing. If you can take any solace from this film, it’s that, in the very long run, history is rarely spun successfully and despite his best efforts, Donald Rumsfeld will not be remembered fondly by future generations.

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