Saturday, August 20, 2016

We All Have A Favourite Tragically Hip Story - This Is Mine

It was a Friday night.

The Canucks were in town.

The Hip were in town.

It was Canada-Day-in-October here in DC.

I looked at the half-dozen or so different iterations of Vancouver Canucks jerseys in my closet, and pulled out the goldenrod, Flying-V for maximum obnoxiousness.  One of the ugliest, yet most distinctive jerseys in the history of pro sports, its high visibility turned out to be a catalyst for one of my favourite nights out in DC, ever.

Meeting up with Ana & Scott before the game, I was already feeling pretty festive. The Canucks only play in DC once per season, and to have the game lining up with The Hip’s seemingly annual visit to the 9:30 Club made for a perfect double feature. 

Looking around the arena, I saw a handful of Canucks jerseys scattered around the crowd, but not many – certainly nothing like what you see at Penguins, Flyers, or (oddly) Sabres games.

The puck dropped and two minutes in, Daniel Sedin scored to give the Canucks a 1-0 lead.  Right around then is when things got nutty.

I can’t remember if it was me jumping out of my seat when the goal was scored, or something else that triggered it, but I do remember Scott tapping me on my arm and saying “Hey, that guy over there seems to know you…”

I glanced one section over to the right, and standing there, arms spread wide, wearing the same goofball grin I hadn’t seen in 8 years, was Chad, with his old sidekick Regier right there next to him. 


“Chad!  Holy $#!^ What the #&@^ are you doing here?”

<at that point, someone else sitting in my section asked me to watch the cursing. Chad and I decided we would meet on the concourse at intermission>

The first period ended with the Canucks up 2-1, at which point we got the download.
Chad, and Regier had been following the Canucks around on an Eastern road trip as it’s cheaper to see the Canucks this way than it is trying to get tickets back home.  They’d seen them in Detroit and a few other cities already.  DC was the last stop on the trip.

As we stood on the concourse, getting caught up on our lives and revisiting old UBC stories, I got it in my head that I wanted to call my old roommate, Matt, just to let him know that this crazy thing had happened.

Me: “Matt! It’s Brian – I’m at the Caps game tonight.  The Canucks are in town, and you’ll never guess who I ran into one section over: Chad and Regier!”

Matt: “Wow, that’s really crazy that you just called me just now.  I’m actually at the hospital – Jo just went into labour.”

Me: <silence as brain explodes>

After stumbling through some congratulations and sharing the news with the rest of the hockey-watching crew, we noted that the intermission was coming to an end.

Wanting to lock in a way to keep the party going, Chad made the first move.

“We should hang out after the game – Do you guys have plans?”

Did we have plans?  I couldn’t believe what was just about to fall into place…

“Uh… well… you’re not going to believe this, but we’re actually going to go see The Tragically Hip right after this”

Needless to say, Chad and Regier decided they would join us.

The Canucks won the game 3-2, but by the time the game ended, its outcome was totally inconsequential to me.  This night was all about riding this incredible wave of happy coincidences as far as it would take me.

We arrived at The 9:30 Club for the show, picked up a couple of extra tickets for Chad and Regier, and staked out mine and Liz’s favourite spot along the mezzanine stairs.

A bit of context for Canadian readers – The 9:30 Club is the best live music venue in DC. It has capacity for about 1000 people. The Hip would play there frequently to an audience made up almost exclusively of Canadian expats.  The idea that, as a Canadian expat, you get access to see one of your favourite, arena-filling bands in that kind of venue is an underrated perk of living abroad.

I can’t remember what The Hip opened with (edit: it was Yer Not the Ocean – thanks internet!), but they played New Orleans next, during which I looked back to see Chad on the phone with his wife, gloating about where he was at that moment.  And why not?  This was certainly a night worth gloating about.  I’ve seen The Hip play several times since that crazy night, and every show has been great, but nothing will ever top the amazing confluence of circumstances that made this particular night possible.

As a Canadian living amidst so much of the USA’s mythologized history and ideology, the constant assimilatory pressure of US culture can sometimes threaten to overwhelm competing elements of one’s personality.  Even other Canadians get erroneously claimed by Americans simply because that’s their default view of things: I once got into a heated debate with someone who was 100% sure that Barenaked Ladies were from Boston.

But The Hip could never be mistaken for anything else but Canadian.  There are too many inside jokes, and deep-cut references that only Canadians can claim.  It has probably harmed their prospects of “Making It” in the US over the years, but we’ve never cared. That very quality, that unapologetic Canadianness has always made them a key touchstone for me, and for nearly every other Canadian living far from home, the opening strains of every Track 1 serving as a reminder of where we all came from and what we all share.

The Tragically Hip will never play The 9:30 Club again. As they embarked on their final tour across Canada, Liz and I gave serious thought to flying back to Vancouver or Toronto to take in one last show.  But after thinking long and hard about it, worried that a nosebleed seat at the top of an arena wouldn’t deliver what we were hoping for, we decided that we would prefer to make this night our last great memory of The Hip. 

He sang, 'I'll die before I quit'
And this guy's the limit
Stares into the queer of the firefight

It can't be Nashville every night

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Never Tell Me The Odds - On Playing PowerBall

You know the scene.  Han Solo is about to take the Millenium Falcon into an asteroid field to shake Imperial pursuit, when C3P0 chimes in:

"Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately three thousand, seven hundred and twenty to one!"

Han of course replies “Never tell me the odds!”

But in today’s information-saturated, over-metricized, infographicked, post-Moneyball world, we are always told the odds.

And we are poorer for it.

Distilling all things down to algorithms and models and stats is great for a lot of things.  It’s great for science and technology and sports banter, but there’s a cost to it as well.

It kills the fun.

In an operations management class I took, there was a case study contrasting Yamaha’s piano manufacturing systems with Steinway’s.  The case study was written to highlight how Yamaha’s use of automation, and standardization allowed them to produce a consistent, high-quality piano at lower cost.  This was supposed to come across as superior to Steinway’s hand-made methods that produced very expensive pianos that all sounded different from one another.

All of that is true.  Democratising music by making high-quality pianos broadly affordable to Tiger-moms all over the world is surely a good thing.

But isn’t the thought that, somewhere out there, there is an outlier piano tuned perfectly for your playing style and your living room, kind of magical?  That’s the essence of The Human Factor in all things.  You never know when the laws of variation might give you an instance of transcendent perfection.

This is where the 3-POs kick in: Problem number one – you’re a crappy piano player.  Problem number two – you’ll never afford one.

Again, all true.  But why kill the fun?

Later today, a PowerBall jackpot worth around $1.4 Billion will be up for grabs.  And predictably, the internet is already full of smug quants reminding all of us that we won’t win, given that the odds are stacked 292 million to 1 against us.

Don’t tell us the odds.  We know the odds.  We’ve always known the odds, and when it all comes down to it, it’s not about the odds.

It’s about that magical possibility.  That “1” in 292 million to 1. 

Yes, our daydreams and grand plans for Porsches, Yachts, and a University Cafeteria bearing our name are ridiculous.  But they are also fun. 

The gleeful thought of your entire department resigning en masse after hitting it big, leaving only an odds-spouting troll and the boss behind is kind of a terrible thing, but again, pretty damn fun to think about.

That narcissitic vision of starting your own foundation and (say it with me) “making the world a better place?”  Yes, totally rote; yes, totally cliché.  But, oh, how much fun.

Yes, lotteries are, by and large, a tax on the ignorant and hopeful.  Yes, winning the lottery often winds up being less pleasant than people think.  And yes, gambling addiction is a real thing, and can have some pretty destructive consequences.

But you know what?  Screw all that.  There’s $1.4 Billion out there with our names on it, and we’re in it to win it.

Just remember:

Never tell us the odds

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Bladerunner: Deckard is a Replicant - But of Whom?

Recently, I had a twitter conversation with some old friends about BladeRunner, one of my favourite films as outlined here.  Specifically, we were kicking around the theory that Deckard is a replicant of Gaff, with Gaff’s memories being implanted into Deckard’s brain in order to fool him into thinking of himself as human.

It’s an interesting theory, but one with which I disagree.  Twitter is not the best medium for outlining a path of reasoned thought, so I figured that this was deserving of some long-form discourse.  The Deckard-As-Replicant-Gaff theory does have some evidence going for it, so I’m going to begin with some rebuttals.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

From Captain Canuck to President Canuck - Welcome Back, #16

Despite my love for the sport, I don’t often blog about hockey.  The sports blogosphere is already overfull of armchair-types who spend too much time watching and not enough time playing.  But today is an exception.

It has never been easy to be a Vancouver Canucks fan.  And it has been even less easy to be a Vancouver Canucks fan living outside of Vancouver, as I have been for most of my life.  Aside from being woeful at playing hockey for most of my youth, the Canucks were also prone to questionable design decisions regarding their uniforms, being on the losing end of nearly every trade they made, and having a nickname that conveniently rhymes with “suck.”  You know you have it bad, when even your high school computer science teacher would talk smack about your favourite team…

Things started to get a little easier in 1988, when the Canucks drafted Trevor Linden.  This was before the internet, blogs and twitter made everything so much more instantly researchable.  I didn’t watch him play major junior, I didn’t know anything about his play in the Memorial Cup.  Nothing.  All I knew was that the Canucks had drafted a really good prospect who could maybe help the team turn things around.

Six years later, the Canucks were in the Stanley Cup Final, and Trevor Linden had cemented his place as my favourite professional athlete ever.

It’s difficult to love and hate sports figures as a grown adult.  Each year broadens your perspective and introduces you to other things that make sports so much less important to you than they used to be.  But in 1994, at the age of 17, nothing mattered more to me than that Canucks team, and no player on that team mattered more to me than #16.

Today, Trevor Linden was named President of the Vancouver Canucks.

It’s a great PR move.  I’m far from the only Canucks fan to put Linden on a pedestal.  Trevor Linden could say that he wanted to invade Ukraine, and half the Lower Mainland would be ready to throw the first molitov cocktail.  At a time when the team is imploding, and the Vancouver fanbase, replete with bandwagon-jumpers, is waffling on their season-ticket decisions, nobody can secure that season ticket revenue better than Linden can.

But is it a great hockey move?  There is a lot of noise on Twitter and likely more than a few articles being written that will decry Linden’s lack of hockey management experience.  That’s not a fact to be argued with.  He has none.  There is no way to deny it:  This isn’t the best hockey move the team can make.

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be.

Being a Canucks fan has always required a nearly absurd amount of faith, belief, and optimism.  Noone has ever answered that better than Trevor Linden. 

And even then, we still fell one goal-post short of winning it all with him.

Nonetheless, we all remember that team, and we all remember Linden as the guy who scored two goals in Game 7 of the Cup Final while playing with broken ribs.

The Canucks, as a franchise, are a mess.  They’ve traded away two all-star caliber goalies in two years for pennies on the dollar.  They’re built around an increasingly fragile and aging core, with too little depth.  Their coach may be a certifiable lunatic with no idea as to how he should play his roster.  If Linden needs time to fix this mess, time to learn how to be an NHL executive, the fans will give him that time – he’s earned it more than anybody.

In today’s Vancouver Province, Jason Botchford suggested that Canucks fans would rather lose with Linden than win with somebody else.  That’s a ridiculous statement.  Canucks fans want to win.  And there is nobody else in the world we want to win with more than Trevor Linden.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

On Being a Chinese-looking, half-South African, and Family Stories That Should Be Told More Often

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela, as well as a few events in my own family have had me thinking of my South African heritage a great deal in recent days.

I always enjoy the reaction I get when I tell people that my mother was born in South Africa.  Reactions range from:

Outright denial - "No way!"

Trying to go with the flow - "Oh... really?  That's interesting..." <smoke seeps from skull>

Immediate bonding - "My family's from Nigeria! We're practically family!" <hugs>

Immediate joking - "Well of course - you totally look South African! /sarcasm"

That last one is particularly fun, because for most of the 20th Century, if you were from South Africa, how you looked mattered a LOT.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Cute & Creepy Asian Kids Love Panera

Lunch during a rough day at work is going to go one of two ways:

Option 1: The most unhealthy, comforting food your can find, consumed in huge quantities with the goal of putting you in a pain-killing, carbohydrate-driven coma for the rest of the day


Option 2: Something fast and reasonably healthy to keep you kicking @$$ and busting heads for another four hours

Recently, I was having a bit of an Option 2 day, so I cruised down the road to Panera, getting there at 11:45 to make sure I beat the lunch rush, only to find...

That I was in the middle of the lunch rush.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Strike A Pose - There's Nothing To It

Aydana had just finished ringing up my thousand Rubles or so of souvenir purchases.  Armed with a friendly smile, fluent English, and a just-aggressive-enough brand of salesmanship, she had managed to up-sell me on a bunch of tchotchkes I didn’t need.  But then, I figured that if you’re going to get up-sold, it might as well be done at the hands of a pretty, young Kyrgyz girl, right?

As we wrapped up our transaction, I asked if it would be OK if I took a photo.  Ayadana replied that it would be no problem, and backed up, out of the shot.

The field of view, a generic souvenir store, half-full with stragglers from an Asian bus tour, was decidedly uninspiring.  I turned back to Aydana.

“How about a photo with you in it?”

A raised eyebrow.  A split second of feigned shyness.  And suddenly, the situation took a turn.
Glasses off.  Hair smoothed, and gathered, tossed over a single shoulder.  A partial turn towards the camera.  Arms crossed.  Just a hint of a half smile.

Smiling myself now, I took the photo.

Lowering my camera, I nodded my thanks and moved to leave, but my new Kyrgyz friend wasn’t about to let me get away without some quality control.  Cutting me off, she peered over my arm to get a look at the photo.


Taking me by the arm, she took me further into the store, setting up in front of a wall of amber jewelry.  Feeling better about her backdrop, Aydana struck the exact same (apparently well-practiced) pose.

Take two.

Another QC check, this time a pass.

Girls in Russia do love to take a pretty picture.