To Hell With Helmets (Monday Magazine)


To Hell With Helmets

Monday Magazine, September 5-11, 2002

I have been breaking the law daily for six years. As of September 1996, it has been illegal to crack your unhelmeted head open on the pavement while riding a bicycle without fear of penalty. In those six lawless years, I’ve been stopped by the constabulary a grand total of two times, each netting a warning. Every other time I’ve ridden past the police, they cheerfully ignore my wanton disregard of jurisprudence. If this is their idea of enforcement, is it any wonder there are growhouses on every block?

I must not be alone. A recent poll revealed that more than half of all Canadians don’t wear bicycle helmets. Not even when they’re on a bike.

I’m not saying I don’t like this particular law, just that I don’t like it for me. I’m of the belief I should be exempt from any number of them at any time as it suits me. Everyone else should wear a helmet while riding a bike. Helmets are sensible; I’m not. I know that. I’m tempting fate even writing about it. Potential irony is staring me in the face saying, “For God’s sake, don the lid.”

I really should. I didn’t like the seatbelt law either at first. Now, thanks to Big Brother, I buckle up each and every time I get into a car. Sure, it makes things awkward when I only want to vacuum the interior, but I just don’t feel safe otherwise.

These laws are passed for our safety, so opponents like me are in the minority. The federal government passes a law banning certain firearms and making registration of all other guns mandatory, though, and every Ted Nugent-wannabe out there takes it as a violation of his rights as neighbours of the shoot-em-up USA. Where are the conservatives on the helmet issue? In some U.S. states you can ride free as an uncaged helmetless bird on a motorbike, for Pete Fonda’s sake.

One interesting aspect to the bicycle helmet law is that people with giant melonheads are exempt. Mine is just under the wire, despite having the biggest head in my grade seven class, even bigger than Mr. Robbins, our teacher. I can’t imagine a bigger head but they must be out there. And they’re riding around sans helmet, guilt-free. Does the government value their mammoth craniums less than the rest of ours?

The very week the helmet law was announced, the feds instructed police to stop charging people with simple possession of drugs. The message being that citizens are permitted to mess their brains up with narcotics, but not with their bikes. Go figure.

Keep in mind I ride a bike like few others. Never in a hurry, I like riding slowly, carefully, defensively, with the wind blowing through me, er, scalp. I’ve been riding lidless for over 30 years with no harm to my person, save for a skinned knee as a pre-teen. But I’ve come a long way since then. I’ve even learned to ride one-handed.

I am aware of the dangers, though: a human skull can be shattered by an impact of seven to 10 kilometers per hour; helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and brain injury by 88 percent. That’s why I further break the law by riding on the sidewalk when there’s too much vehicular traffic on the streets. The odds of me getting scrunched by a road-raged bus driver are greater than me scrunching a pedestrian – and to much less severe effect.

Don’t get in a huff; I ride responsibly, sometimes even slower than the foot traffic, ceding all rights to the pedestrian. Similarly, I don’t exercise my rights on the road because, let’s face it, my rights don’t mean a heckuva lot to a driver paying more attention to his cell phone than the road.

In Europe and Asia bikes can go pretty much anywhere they choose. They can even fit as many people onto each bike as they like, and are not forced to wear helmets. Is there a higher percentage of head injuries overseas? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

They have the right attitude, which is that cyclists have no rights at all. Old people don’t cower and topple over when a cyclist approaches on the sidewalk. They walk straight ahead, knowing the cyclist will get out of the way.

And on the road, the cars are king. That’s the way it should be. Might makes right.

Of course, there’s the argument that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when careless cyclists wind up with fractured skulls. No more, I suppose, than when a big fat guy who smokes and eats cholesterol straight out of the can winds up with a heart attack or develops lung cancer. I went to school with a kid who was fooling around with explosives in his basement and accidentally blew off his hand. Should we have to pay for that? Of course we should! The argument is ridiculous.

We obviously don’t live in such a puritanical society. People make mistakes, accidents happen, and we should help our fellow citizens when they screw up. Wearing helmets will not stop screw-ups. Defensive driving will go a lot further to preventing accidents and lessening brain damage than wearing helmets.

I would encourage everyone to wear a bike helmet. I choose not to. Just like I choose not to own guns, do drugs, smoke or eat right – all things the government implicitly condones.

If they really insist, the law should at least be grandfathered (with the possible exception of actual grandfathers, for whom I would add full body armour to the mandatory list). Children definitely should grow up wearing helmets, just as they are not permitted to smoke or drink. The smart ones will continue to wear them through adulthood. Then we can breed a society of helmet-heads that will live healthy and productive lives until they die naturally of drug overdoses.

Gannon credits Cellar with keeping jazz scene hot (Westender)

Gannon credits Cellar with keeping jazz scene hot

Westender, August 22-28, 2002

Oliver Gannon has never been in a hurry. Long considered one of the premier jazz guitarists in Canada, the long-time Lower Mainlander is only now, a year before his 60th birthday, putting out his first album as a leader.

Gannon has been the sideman of note on numerous recordings, however. He figures he’s been on at least 30 jazz albums since moving to Vancouver in 1969 from the Berklee School of Music in Boston, via Winnipeg. From the early days with the fusion group Pacific Salt to his numerous albums with long-time partner Fraser MacPherson, Gannon has proven to be the consummate sideman.

When you list the great guitarists in Canada, Gannon is right there along with Ed Bickert, Sonny Greenwich, Nelson Symonds and Lenny Breau. So, one naturally asks, what took him so long?

“It’s one of those things where I just never got off my ass to do it,” he says. “I’m just bloody lazy, I tell you.”

In the chapter devoted to him in Mark Miller’s 1987 book, Boogie, Pete & the Senator: Canadian Musicians in Jazz: The Eighties, Gannon is quoted as saying, “I’m not in a hurry. I feel things are happening, maybe at a snail’s pace. But I’m here now – right? – and doing my own thing.”

The past five years or so, his “own thing” has meant taking a sabbatical from performing and going legit. His brother is the programmer for the popular musical accompaniment software ‘Band in the Box’. Ollie has been working full-time for the company in charge of musical production.

But he’s back – and in a big way. Gannon credits the Cellar jazz club on Broadway for his re-emergence onto the jazz scene. His album was recorded live there on the club’s own record label, and owner Cory Weeds deserves the credit for making it happen.

“I’m getting out more and a lot of it has to do with the Cellar,” says Gannon. “It looks like a jazz club, and it’s got that feel. I just really like Cory and the staff down there and I like playing there. And we usually get good crowds. It’s nice when people are lining up to get in.”

For his part, Weeds couldn’t be more thrilled about having his “mentor” in his label: “It’s been a long time coming. I think it’s a good documentation of his playing, and I think it’s a very important documentation for the Vancouver jazz scene to have him recorded like that on a local label. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Will this album get Ollie out of the house and back on the road? After all, he’s played most of the world’s most prestigious festivals, did three hugely successful tours of the former Soviet Union, and crossed our own country several times. Don’t count on it.

“I did a lot of that,” he says, “but after a while, it’s kind of like the Peggy Lee song, ‘Is That All There Is?’ I’m not really in love with travelling. I’m actually quite happy to stay at home, as boring as that sounds.”

One thing is almost certain, if there’s to be a tour in his future, somebody else better arrange it. Gannon recalls one such cross-country tour he did with Swiss saxophonist George Robert:

“He said it took him basically an entire year out of his life just to put that one Canadian tour together. That’s how many hoops you’ve got to jump through. And when you start hearing things like that, you start thinking, ‘Gee, do I really want to?’ I mean, that’s a perfect example of when it’s great to be a sideman. You don’t have any of the worries that the poor old leader has.”

But Gannon is not only happy leading this group, which includes pianist Miles Black, bassist Miles Hill and drummer Blaine Wickjord, he’s happy with the final product.

“I like it – and I tend to be, like all musicians, very self-critical,” he says. “But what I like about it is it swings, you know? And that’s the most important thing to me. I sure like being a leader when it’s a group like this.”

The leader and his sidemen will be swinging at the Cellar on Wednesday (Aug. 28) for the CD release party. And here’s hoping he’ll swing many times more in the future.

Writers With Balls (Vancouver Magazine)


Writers With Balls

Most players in the Twilight League are artists with a bat and glove. Literally. Meet the heavy hitters on their roster

Vancouver Magazine, May 2002

George Bowering has won two Governor General’s Awards for his writing. More impressively, the author and retired SFU prof has also taken two softballs in the face for his team, the Paperbacks, members of the city’s storied Twilight League.

“My reflexes aren’t as quick as they were, say, 50 years ago,” Bowering says of his second head-on encounter with a Pro Nine. “This really powerful 22-year-old guy hit a line drive that I never saw. Smashed my glasses to smithereens and blinded me for a few days. But I don’t care. Baseball’s important. More important than eyesight.”

The Twilighters started in 1985 as a softball league for artists and writers. Today, they number seven teams and some 70 players, supporting the theory that creative types really are just a bunch of jokes like the rest of us. Bowering, 66, is one of the most illustrious names to hobble the bases, though his career at the hot-corner was cut short five seasons ago when the old hand-eye coordination failed.

Even when he’s not in the field, Bowering participates in other ways. “He’s the biggest bench jockey in the world,” says league commissioner and Vancouver Sun movie critic Marke Andrews. “The thing about George is it’s like having a stand-up comic for the game. You get this cheap, live entertainment.”

Author George Bowering on heckling: "I see myself as an educator. So I see the young fellas out there who don't know quite as much about the game as I do – I like to inform them, give them a deeper bank of knowledge."

It’s not surprising some of the best entertainment happens off the diamond, given that many of the games are held at an East Van field affectionately dubbed Needle Park. When drunks are asleep in the outfield or the dugout, well, you just play around them. At the final one year, somebody stole writer David Beers’ shoes, which housed his wallet and keys. A posse eventually got everything back when they tracked down the thief at the beer and wine store.

International art star Stan Douglas spent some time in the league. “He wasn’t a bad hitter, but he wasn’t a great catcher or fielder,” says Vancouver Sun writer and original member John Mackie. “He was just like everyone else on the team, really. They had three really good players and then a bunch of artists.”

Other notable players over the years have included country/blues singer Suzie Ungerleider (better known as Oh Susanna), BCTV’s Keith Baldry, the Sun’s Katherine Monk, Western Living editor Jim Sutherland, the Province’s Jim Jamison and the Georgia Straight’s Kerry Banks. Victoria screenwriter Gerry Swallow (Black Knight and Say It Isn’t So) and controversial Los Angeles-based comedian Sarah Silverman (Seinfeld, There’s Something About Mary) have also made appearances – Silverman wearing a flowing scarf in the middle of July.

The Twilight League is showing its age. Andrews, 51, says, “I’m going to retire one of these days. And then somebody’s going to have to step up and take over if they want to keep it going. I’ve been hoping for a bloodless coup for years.”

But the real question is what will happen when Bowering retires completely.

“I think the league would just more or less disappear without me, to tell the truth,” he says. “It would be so ordinary.”

The Day the Taliban Came to Town (unpublished)

The Day the Taliban Came to Town

Unpublished, 2002

Abdolah remembers the day the Taliban came to town.

It was an unremarkable day. Just like all the rest. He arrived at the school where he taught around eight o'clock that August 11, 1998, morning. Most residents of Sar-e Pol didn't believe the Taliban would ever infiltrate their northern Afghanistan city. The Northern Alliance forces in neighbouring Mazar-e Shariff were strong. There was nothing to worry about.

Or so they thought. "It was absolute normally day," the new Vancouver resident recalled. From inside the school they heard the nearing gunfire and it was apparent to all what was happening. There was no other explanation. Everyone wanted to go home, naturally, so they piled out onto
the street. But the fighting was too close. It wouldn't be safe. Back inside they went. A few minutes passed before gunmen took over their school, shooting in the air. Two or three to a class. Staff and students were told to get on the floor. No talking.

"The children, they cry," he remembers. "They cry and the people from Taliban hit them. 'Don't cry! Quiet!' Hit the kids with the gun. I try to tell the kids to be quiet and he hit me. 'Don't speak!' The moment like a shock. Everybody shocked. Nobody says something."

After approximately twenty minutes, everyone was forced outside. It was from that vantage point that Abdolah saw fire and smoke coming from the principal's office. Some of the teachers and older students were marched off to prison. After a night in jail, Abdolah was interrogated.

"I went to some office with a bearded guy who start to ask me some question, but in Pashto language." Abdolah learned Pashto in high school the way we learn French. He understands bits and pieces, but speaks Dari (Afghan Persian) and German.

"He was too fast. I didn't understand," he says. "He cry, 'Why? You Afghan! You have to speak Pashto!'" And so the interrogation continued in Pashto.

"Who do you work for? For which group?"

"I work for nobody. I'm a teacher. I taught in the school, that's my job," he replied. In Afghanistan, in order to bypass military service, you can opt to teach for six years instead. So Abdolah, a math and physics major in university, taught math and phys ed at a local boys school.

"I know you taught Communist ideas. You are a Communist," he was accused.

"I'm not Communist. I'm teacher. I taught everything."

Abdolah, a clean-shaven non-practicing Muslim, was then questioned on his appearance.

"Why are you shaved?"

"I'm a teacher. I have to be shaved. You have to be clean."

"You are not Muslim because you don't have a beard!"

After some more questioning, Abdolah was sent back to prison. There he met two other teachers, some government workers, store owners, and not one knew why there were being held. Their families didn't even know where they were. Whenever someone would ask why they were there or what they did, they'd get smacked with a rifle. Abdolah was a quick study.

"I didn't ask, but I want to ask why I'm here," he said. "Know my family that I'm here? What happened on the outside? What's the government? We don't know. I see that the people have a question, nobody answer and they hit you. I think, okay, I don't need to ask because I ask and they hit me, too. And I didn't ask. Never."

Day turned into night. Over and over again. Everyday they got a little bit of food but never enough. And every morning it was early to rise for bathing and prayer. "Actually, I don't know how I prayed exactly," he said. "But I did the same how the other guy did, you know?"

Months passed. Four, five, six. After that length of time, prison life becomes your reality. You stop thinking about life on the outside and worry only about that night's sleep, your next meal.

"You think about sleep. How can I sleep a little better?,” he recalls. In a small cell with 15 or 20 other men, it's impossible to all sleep at the same time. “Or how's about tomorrow? Maybe good food? You think just that; not about [going] home. You forget it."

There were only five or six thin, filthy blankets. But so many people squeezed into such a small area had its advantages. Sort of.

"We are just happy to close the door and [with] all the people in the room, it is warm,” he says. “It is not air, but it's warm. It stink, too."

But these were just inconveniences compared to the other thoughts that wouldn't go away. "From beginning you think, 'They kill me, they kill me.' But after you see that everything was bad – no food, no sleep, and everything – and you think it's better if you are dead than this life here. I was scared. I was scared they kill me. But later I was not scared. I was not scared."

His mother, in fact, was convinced her youngest son had been killed, as had her oldest boy and her husband, a doctor, who heard the firing of guns the day Abdolah was arrested, grabbed his own firearm and headed outside to investigate. The Taliban saw him and shot him dead.

By chance, a local store owner who was briefly jailed with Abdolah, ran into Abdolah's uncle. They started talking, and the store owner mentioned being in prison with the nephew. This was joyous news to his family.

"The people don't know I'm in jail," he says. "The people think I'm dead. It was a surprise to my uncle to believe I'm still alive. And he told my mother and everybody's happy."

And then one night they came for him. After 22 months locked away, a guard came in, handcuffed him, and led him to a waiting car. "I thought hundred per cent they kill me today. But I was not too scared." Sitting amongst four guards, Abdolah, now with a beard down to his stomach, is blindfolded for the first two kilometres of a 24-km journey to the other side of the
city. Nobody says a word.

Nearing a small village, they stop the car. The guard up front orders Abdolah's handcuffs removed. This is it, he thinks. He is convinced he will die. Figuring he was as good as dead no matter what, he hatches a plan. "I think now to find a chance to take the guns from one guy. I try
to take the gun from him and shoot all of them. Really. In this moment, I'm not worried, I think just like this. It's a chance like this sometime takes in the movies. We have the chance, we can do that. Why not? If I do or not, they kill me."

But it doesn't come to that. The guard up front says he's free to go.

"Why I'm free?"

"Don't ask. Thank your uncle for that. You can go."

At first, he thought they'd let him walk five metres before shooting him in the back. But when he heard his uncle mentioned, he knew something was up. And it was. His uncle had bought his freedom.

The guards drive off. And for the first time in almost two years, he's a free man. Abdolah walks quickly to the village where people are waiting for him. He's told that if the Taliban attacks this village, and they find him, they'll kill him immediately. So after an hour's time, they walk to
another village in the mountains where the Taliban won't go. He is weak from his captivity, but was more than happy to walk. And walk. Which is a good thing, considering. He is told everything is arranged for him to go to Pakistan. On foot.

So off they go, six adults and two children. Thirty-three days later, through the snowy mountains of middle Afghanistan, they arrive and separate. It is in Pakistan where he meets his uncle, who sets him on his way to Canada.

He is met at the Toronto airport by two men and he can finally exhale.

"I'm in Canada," he remembers thinking. "Nothing can happen with me in Canada." They drive non-stop to Vancouver, where they deposit him at Immigration.

At Immigration, he finds out exactly how lucky he is to be alive. A United Nations team, he is told, found a gravesite containing the bodies of 188 teachers killed in one day by the Taliban.

As part of his personal philosophy, Abdolah immediately starts to integrate into Canadian society. He registers in English classes. Soon he gets work painting. A hobby magician, he hires himself out at children's parties. He eventually starts his own painting company.

"In each corner in the world where you are, be open-minded is very, very important," he says. "And accept the culture from the country."

While he loves his new city, there's no place like home. He wants to go back as soon as possible and help in Afghanistan's rebuilding process. With American bombs blasting away his homeland, it's somewhat surprising to hear his opinion on the war. He bristles at the suggestion by some that the Americans shouldn't be there.

"Yeah, but who care about Afghanistan since Taliban kill million people and the Russian military killed the people? Nobody has said that is good or bad." He believes now is Afghanistan's best chance in a long, long time. His opinion of war is strictly utilitarian. Innocents will be killed, but if their deaths provide a greater good for the greatest number, it's a sacrifice he's willing to make.

"Some Afghan people don't like [the war], too. For me, it's okay. Russia killed a lot of people. They bombed each cities in Afghanistan. After fight, after war, they did nothing. [Later], the Mujahadin and the Taliban did the same. They killed the people, too. They killed million people. But I think if America went there and kill the people now this time, it's different. A lot of the people from the Taliban, they are bad for Afghanistan; they are bad people. You have to kill them. If they kill some other people, children, woman, okay. That is war. That, to me, is war. If
they kill 20,000 civilians, that's 15 or 20 million Afghan have a nice way of life after. That's okay."

Of course, he, like most of us, can't understand why the Americans haven't found bin Laden yet. He reasons that the US has satellites that can see inside the earth and find oil and uranium, so how hard can it be to find a guy in a cave?

Sometimes cynicism gets the best of him. "I know where bin Laden is," he'll suck in a friend, before offering up the punchline: "I think sometimes he drink whiskey with the Bush together! Believe me!"

Abdolah figures he'll spend at least six more months here before moving back home. In six months, he predicts, the Afghan people will have fully comprehended that the Taliban is gone. The bombs from the US will have stopped. And companies from all over the world will come to help out.

"Then it is time to go and work with them together," he says. "And then if the people have a job, if the people busy, nobody think to fight or do something. Everybody is like before. You go to your job, come back home, your family. The young people, they live for 20 years in a war. They don't know without fighting. That is the problem in Afghanistan."

He's not sure yet what he will do, but he knows he must do something. And rather than his next meal, sleeping arrangements or his imminent death, Abdolah has other, more pleasant, thoughts these days.

"I think all the time, what is the best for me to do in Afghanistan?" His answer: "To help the people and to make money, too.

"Each country want to do something in Afghanistan," he says. "There's a lot of job now, a lot of hard work. You know, all the street is broken. And the bridge. The construction of Afghanistan need a lot of job."

You can't help but feel his excitement when he talks like the president of the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce.

"Canada, America, Europe, Japan, Iran, all country, they want to help to Afghanistan. If they really give the money to work in Afghanistan, I give you guarantee that after five year, Afghanistan is nicer as Hong Kong. Believe me."

President of the Chamber of Commerce? How about president of Afghanistan?

"No, I don't want that. I want to be alive for a little longer, you know?!"