Category Archives: The Vancouver Series

The Evils of Alcohol

Chaos in Print

It’s a scene that I’ve played at countless dinner tables at countless gatherings. The most recent came that evening when we were at having dinner at L’s grandparents. As dinner was being served, the bottle of wine came out. When it came to fill my glass with wine, I politely declined. Now, I still don’t know what triggered this in me. Maybe it was L’s dad, whose mouth widened in astonishment and said, “Really?” Maybe it was because Chuck and L, always trying to be my guides in life, started reassuring me that it was OK; that wine is actually good in some circumstances. But, for the first time in my life, I felt like I had to be defensive about my choice. And, when I feel defensive, I feel like ranting. So, let’s clear this up once and for all. This is why I just say no to alcohol.

I don’t like the taste.

Yeah. That’s it. What were you expecting? Some sordid tale of an extremist upbringing where I was constantly lectured on what would happen if I sipped the devil’s drink? Quite the opposite. Especially on my father’s side, I come from a hard-drinkin’ family. Hell, my dad has taken to brewing his own wine, and, just to get it used up, he’s taken to having a glass every day after work. Every family gathering features every family bringing one cooler full of beer. My aunt has been manager of the Lacombe Liquor Store ever since the liquor stores were still government-owned in Alberta. Even though he’s now married with two kids, my brother still entertains me with stories about how he can drink anyone under the table. And my sister’s no slouch either. I hate to destroy your misconceptions, but my upbringing was actually quite liberal.

I still remember the first bottle of beer I had. It was at one of those family gatherings. I was about 17. It was a hot tub party. Of course, when you spend hour upon hour soaking in a hot tub, you tend to get thirsty. Since (as previously mentioned) the alcohol flows quite freely at these family functions, I decided to finally try and fit in with my cousins. I went to the beer cooler and got myself a bottle of Molson Canadian. Twisting off the cap, I held the bottle up to my nose and took a sniff. The fumes stung my nostrils. I climbed back into the hot tub, and began listening on the dirty jokes my cousins were telling. Trying to look like I do it every day, I grabbed my bottle and took a sip. Never had I tasted anything so bitter. My face must have contorted into something really weird, because my sister asked me if I was feeling alright. I said of course I was fine! I was having a beer! I took another sip, and again made that funny face. Out of politeness, I finished that bottle, but I could never understand how people could enjoy such a foul-tasting substance. That was also my only bottle of beer.

My experience with wine has been similar. I got my first sip of wine when I was about 7 years old. Again, it was at one of those family functions. I’m sure we’ve all went through it in our childhoods. It was Thanksgiving, and as the wine was being poured, I pestered my dad if I could try some. Dad, feeling I was old enough, gave me a little bit in my glass. I lifted the glass to my lips with eagerness and drank it all down. That was the most sour thing I had ever drank. I may as well have been sipping lemon juice. This scene played out at Thanksgivings, Christmas dinners, and Easter dinners over the next few years, as I thought that maybe it would be better the next time. But you know what? It never was. It was always lemon juice. I just finally gave up.

I guess the only time I ever felt that the world was out to get me drunk was when I turned 18. I’m sure you’ll all agree that going to the bar on your eighteenth birthday is one of the big rights of passage into adulthood. So, as my eighteenth birthday drew nigh, my parents were perplexed. Since I had shown no interest in going to the bar, how could they do something alcohol-related on my eighteenth birthday? The plan was made for my godmother to come up and join in the festivities. There, under the stars, in my backyard, I watched my mother and godmother get wasted and attempt to sing Shania Twain songs. My brother was there, of course, and once again trying to show how manly he was by downing a six pack. Me? Even though this was all being held in the hopes of getting me drunk, I barely touched a drop. It was my birthday, for heaven’s sake! I just wanted my traditional birthday movie. I kept thinking, “I’m missing Batman Forever for this?” I just grinned and bore it.

Of course, the attempts to get me drunk didn’t stop there. My brother felt that, perhaps, he should take me to the bar, just because no one else had tried. So, we went. Now, I’ve never really liked bars, either. The fact that that is where you get alcoholic drinks is just one of many factors. I’ve never liked the low lighting, loud music, and thin smog of cigarette smoke. It all gives me a splitting headache (that, and some nasty flashbacks to junior high dances). Again, I was just doing this to make my brother happy. He bought me a Screwdriver, a Vodka Slime, and some shooter. I drank them, just to make my brother happy. And, you know what? They weren’t half-bad. Except for one little factor.

That factor also became evident in my aunt’s birthday gift. The aunt who manages the Lacombe Liquor Store felt that this occasion needed a special something, so she gave me a gift basket of Seagram’s Vodka Coolers. I politely accepted it, and put the two bottles of coolers in the back of the fridge in the hopes that they would eventually be forgotten and claimed by some other family member. But no, every time someone went for them, the red flags went up. “Don’t touch those!” a parent would exclaim. “Those are Mark’s!” Since they were mine, I figured I’d better do something with them. So, over the next two days, I had one when I got home from work each night. My parents were so proud. And again, they weren’t half-bad. Except for that one little factor again.

Every alcoholic beverage I’ve tried outside of beer and wine has had this factor. Just as it reaches the back of my throat, and I’m thinking that this drinking thing isn’t so bad, it stings. It’s a very uncomfortable sting. In some cases, I have to repress a gag reflex. It’s just a very unpleasant thing and I don’t like going through it. Maybe, over time, a resistance to this sting is built up and that’s how breweries have become the multi-million dollar industries that they are. But I don’t think I can hold out long enough to develop my resistance.

To recap: beer is bitter, wine is sour, everything else stings my throat. Therefore, I don’t like it. And, if I don’t like it, logic must dictate that I don’t drink it. I guess this is just symptomatic of a larger problem. I need to start to smashing the perceptions that I’ve led this sheltered existence. Just because I don’t like something, doesn’t mean I’ve never experienced it. So, I will continue saying no every time it’s offered. I will start getting defensive when you reassuringly explain that it’s OK. I’ve tried alcohol, and I haven’t liked it. GET OVER IT!

Now, don’t get me started on why I don’t drink coffee.

Settling In

Chaos in Print

The first morning in a new place is always the most exciting. The confusion and feelings of displacement that come with the arrival seem to die with the setting moon, and you awaken refreshed and ready. That was how I felt my first Sunday in Coquitlam. I should point out that Chuck and L don’t actually live in Vancouver, but the sunny suburb of Coquitlam. But still, that community is wedged so tightly against Vancouver that it was hard to tell when the city ended and the suburbs began. It felt like one big metropolis to me, and I was ready to boldly go where I had never gone before. I just needed my tour guides to wake up.
Continue reading Settling In

Strange New Worlds

Chaos in Print

To boldly go where…ah, we all know it.

There is something strange about having grown up in a small town. So many of my classmates had disregarded travel as something they would do in their future. The sun rose and set on this small gathering of communities. The western border is marked by Wildwood. To the east, there is Wabamun. A trip into town means heading to Drayton Valley. And, if you were really in the mood for adventure, you could summon up your courage and head into Edmonton for a day. To so many of my classmates, success meant getting a house right across the street from the parents, and getting a job on one of the many oil rigs that surround the landscape. I was one of the few who realized that there was more to the world than this grouping of villages. I was going to go places, and look back at those trapped in those small towns, and laugh. But, sadly, when so many around you are convinced that there is nothing more to the world than a few villages, you come to believe it on some level. Thus, my first day was a blur.
Continue reading Strange New Worlds

Prequel

Chaos in Print

I guess there’s just one central question. What possessed me to head out to Vancouver in the first place? Yes, that’s where Chuck and L have taken up residence, but when did I first start getting it into my head to go visit them? As I cast my mind back, I guess it all began in the summer of 1999. Chuck and L had been going at it pretty steady for the better part of the year, and he decided to go home with her that summer. For those first few months after graduation, I’d hear from Chuck over ICQ almost daily, about all the wondrous new things he was seeing out on the west coast. And, there would always be an interesting anecdote or two about the new things he was learning about L. (She and I were still just acquaintances at that time.) As the boredom of unemployment set in, I began to fantasize about hopping on the train, heading west, and joining them in their adventures. The fantasy even began to grow to include meeting that special someone on the train and having romantic interludes with the comfort of friends; both familiar and unknown the same time. But alas, the summer ended, L came back to Augustana, and Chuck got himself a job at Video Update in Camrose. The dream, for a time, was over.

The dream seemed to return around the spring of this year. As L’s graduation grew imminent, and plans for them to head back out west for the summer began to cement, I think I made the offhand comment about maybe going out to visit them in August, when Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back came out. L said that I’d be more than welcome. The months grew on, and the occasional invitation would be tossed out and/or fished for. In my usual manner, I was indecisive about the whole thing. As always, I needed the proverbial kick in the butt to finally get going.

I got my kick at the start of September. Chuck, L, and L’s father had finished packing up the rest of Chuck’s stuff, and were having a camping road trip back out to the coast. They would be breezing through Entwistle, and able to stop in and visit for an evening. They showed up, and as the night grew long, there were still so many things I wanted to do with them and say to them. It was just one cosmic tease, to be given a few short hours with my best friends when there was so much left to do. As they were walking out the door, and the invitation was casually thrown out again, I glanced at the calendar. “Let’s do it at the end of this month,” I said. I’m sure that they took it with a grain of salt, as I make cryptic statements like that quite often. But, I had given myself something I was very used to working under: a deadline. If you want to get something done in life, don’t set a goal, set a deadline. I had given myself two and a half weeks to get time off and book passage. The clock was ticking.

The next morning I began looking at getting the time off. As my mother pointed out, it should be fairly simple, as I had been working for a year and a half at Extra Foods with little more than a long weekend now and then. But, she forgot that I’m just a part time employee. When you’re part time, time off tends to be first come, first serve. Plus, it was just my luck that the boss had the better part of that week off with “personal matters.” It was Tuesday. The boss wouldn’t be back in until Friday. It was an agonizing few days. Luckily though, when I showed up to open the store on Thursday, the boss was there, catching up on paperwork! As we began making idle chitchat about her personal problems, I casually asked, “So, I don’t suppose I could get the last week of this month off?” She looked at me, looked at the calendar, and said, “You got it.” It was just that simple.

Two weeks left, and I still needed transportation out there. Driving was out of the question, mainly because gas prices are so high and I pretty much hog the family car as it is. The bus had very little personal appeal. So, I limited my choices to either flying or taking the train. I really wanted to take the train. There’s always been a certain mystique to rail travel for me. The train used to stop in Entwistle, up until I was a teenager. I had always dreamed of hopping on the train and going anywhere. Plus, the Rocky Mountains by rail! What could be better? It looked like I would be going by train. I did the research online. By train, it’s a 23 hour trip, with stopovers in Jasper and Kamloops. To go economy, there’s no comfy place to sleep and no access to the dining car. Cost: $500.

I started looking at the airlines for something to draw a comparison with. Flying has little interest for me, as ever since the first grade, my dad had been taking me to work with him on the days when he needed to use a helicopter. Since there are lots of horror stories in the press about the current state of Air Canada, I went straight to the West Jet website. By air, it’s a 1.5 hour trip, nonstop. Complimentary bag of peanuts and a drink (but alcoholic beverages cost extra). They have no classes on West Jet, so it’s all economy. Cost: $250. I let my wallet be my guide. The day after terrorists hijacked planes to take down New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I walked into a travel agency to buy a plane ticket. I had one more step to go.

I’ve always traveled light. I plan out exactly how many sets of clean clothes I’ll need, and bring exactly that. When it comes to toiletries and personal effects, I bring the bare minimum. With a travel routine like that, it made little sense to pack a whole suitcase that I’d have to wait extra hours at the airport for. There was only one person to call: my sister. Having gone backpacking across Europe in 1999, she has this huge backpack designed for light travelers like myself. It’s the maximum allowable size for carry-on luggage, thus allowing you to grab-and-go when you reach your destination. If she stuffed a month’s worth of stuff in that pack, surely I could stuff a week’s worth. As I spoke to my sister, she was overjoyed that I was doing something like this. Many agree that I spend too much time in the basement. It was time for me to fully explore what the surface world had to offer. A family function was coming up that weekend, and so the exchange was made there. I was set, with a week to go.

The final days before my departure date were rather dull. There was nothing left to do but wait. Working in a grocery store, I would remember to pick up the things that I still needed on my way out: some travel sized toothpaste, an extra roll of film, stuff like that. I even got a coil bound notebook, with the idea that I’d keep a pseudo-journal to store ideas for columns. The big day drew closer. I had to start fighting tooth and nail to keep the time off I booked. For some reason, cashiers tend to choose the fall to quit. “Mark, we’re going to be short handed next week. Are you sure you can’t just work the first few days of your vacation? How about the last few days?” The answer was always no. That disappointed my boss, as she originally had me scheduled to work a seven hour shift as soon as I stepped off the plane. Two nights before the day, I packed my bag, as the night before my trip I had to work until midnight closing the store, and I wouldn’t have the chance.

The day came. I tossed the fully stuffed backpack into the back of the truck, and the parents drove me off to Edmonton International Airport. That’s when it finally hit me. I’m going to Vancouver. I had two and a half weeks to be nervous, but it finally clicked in at this moment. Is my backpack too big? Will the X-Ray machine fry the film in my camera? The butterflies were fluttering in my stomach. This was the biggest trip I was ever taking in my life on my own. Would Chuck and L be there at the airport? Would they forget I’m coming. The anxiety became overwhelming. When I presented my ID to the clerk to get my boarding pass, my hand was shaking. It was still an hour before the boarding call, so I paced the halls of the airport. My parents did their best to offer comfort. It was soon time to go. I hugged my parents good-bye, and made my way to the plane.

I got through airport security without a hitch. I got to the gate. The fear was starting to subside. The excitement was starting to kick in. As the pre-boarding call was made and the elderly started heading on the plane, I cleared my mind. I took one last deep breath of Alberta air. There was only one thought in my mind: I am ready. Finally, the call came for my section to start boarding. The deadline had come. The clock stopped ticking. It was time for a two year old dream to come true.