I am Canadian…

Before microbreweries sprang up all over the land, “beer” in Canada meant something made by either Labatt’s, Molson, or Carling-O’Keefe. Or so goes the view from central Canada. Outside of Ontario and Quebec, regional breweries and brands ruled. Oddly enough, it was interprovincial trade barriers that played the biggest role in the diversification of beer brewing across the country.

Essentially, it was against the law to transport beer across provincial borders. Going way, way, back before the railroads or the Trans-Canada highway linked two of our three coasts, regional breweries worked hard to pump out the suds that were in high demand among working people in local markets across the land. Back then, beer drinking was considered to be a healthy endeavor. In fact, there was some truth in this. In Montreal in the early 19th century, for example, the water system was very unhygienic, drawing directly from the polluted St. Lawrence river. Typhoid and Cholera were common. Beer, however, was made from water that was boiled, which killed the germs. As a result, those who drank beer instead of water were actually healthier — prompting the army of the day to decree that every soldier should drink a minimum of six pints of beer per day.

As transportation technologies improved, the larger central-Canadian breweries (Molson, Labatt, Carling-O’Keefe, and Dow) started shipping their beer outwards, challenging the sovereignty of the smaller regional brands. Somewhere along the way, the government — in the interests of the regional breweries — introduced the interprovincial barriers, to prevent the central-Canadian breweries from putting the smaller regional ones out of business.

It worked to some extent. Over time, however, the trend was for the larger breweries to simply buy the smaller ones. This worked well for the big breweries because it meant they were serving markets from east to west, and it worked for the locals because it meant the local breweries did not shut down and throw all those people out of work (they simply changed owners).

These trade barriers still exist, although they have been relaxed somewhat. They are something of a thorn in the side of the big breweries, because they would rather follow the American model, where gigantic central breweries brew up suds and then truck it to consumers all over, crossing state lines without a whisper. After all, one massive brewery is more efficient than six or seven smaller ones.

The breweries are now using branding to fight the trade barriers. The big name Molson and Labatt brands are available coast-to-coast, although they are brewed in the region in which they are chugged. In other words, that Molson Ex you sipped in Saskatoon didn’t come from the same brewery as the one that you shotgunned in Chicoutimi. But the central branding idea is to get you hooked on Ex, or Canadian, or Blue, so when the day comes that the trade barriers come down, they can shut the local breweries and centralize, since the brand loyalty is already established.

Oddly, the reverse is also happening. For example, Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale — the Nova Scotian beer — has been available in Ontario since about 1997, and here in Quebec since about 2000. The Keith’s we find here is indeed brewed in Nova Scotia (Halifax, specifically). And you should believe the ads — Keith’s really has been brewed in Nova Scotia for almost 200 years. I grew up there, and I can testify to the fact that only oddballs drank anything else. I never laid eyes upon a Molson Ex until I took a trip to Ontario when I was 20.

good old London glaciersAnyone who has stood on the west-bound platform of the green line at the Berri/UQAM Metro station over the past couple of weeks has seen the enormous ads advertising the arrival of Kokanee to Quebec. Kokanee, as the ad suggests, is a regional beer from British Columbia. Like Keith’s in Nova Scotia, Kokanee has a long history in it’s home province, the brewery having been founded in the mountainous interior of B.C. back in the late 19th century. It made it’s name brewing fresh lager from crystal clear mountain glacier water. Mmmmm, refreshing!

Now for the bad news. Although Keith’s India Pale Ale is still brewed in Nova Scotia, it has been owned by Oland Breweries since longer than I can remember, and Oland has been a partner of Labatt’s since 1971. Kokanee, which conquered Ontario in 1997, is not only owned by Labatt’s, but the “fresh taste of B.C. glaciers” we can now enjoy in Quebec comes straight from the Kokanee brewery in — London Ontario.

those were the daysHere on the Plateau in Montreal we’re pretty spoiled. There’s an abundance of really excellent microbrews available at every depanneur and in every bar. Heck, I don’t think you can even get a Labatt’s Blue at Else’s. Downtown, however (and some would say in the rest of the country) is virtually owned by the big breweries. (Try to find a St. Ambroise or a Boreal Rousse on Crescent Street.)

That’s fine with me, as I don’t hang out in downtown bars anyway, and if I do need refreshment in that part of town I’ll repair to Hurley’s or McKibbins, where I’m assured of a properly drawn Guinness or some other notable import. Just don’t give me one of those fake Kokanees, because you know, the glaciers in London Ontario just aren’t up to par.

Revenge of the Google…

Like many people, I am slightly obsessed with Googling former acquaintances such as people I went to high school with. In the case of people I didn’t like, there’s a nasty part of me that wants to find out they’re in jail or otherwise miserable.

Some people I Google are from more recent times, like the guy who gave me my first job in Montreal. It was 1987, and this guy hired me to be a “photographer’s assistant” in his studio. He specialized in high school graduation photos. He differentiated himself from the other photographers by providing (for an extra fee) a second set of “casual” portraits outside of the traditional “cap & gown” stuff.

He was very good at it, and his business was thriving. So he had decided to expand — quickly. By my third week on the job he was sending me off to schools on my own. I was no longer the photographer’s assistant, I was the photographer.

As I said, the guy was good at what he did. He was a natural clown, a hit with the teenagers. He would photograph a dozen or more people every hour, each getting three or four cap & gown poses and another three or four casual poses. He made a huge profit by selling armloads of highly-priced prints. It bought him an expensive house on Nun’s Island, three cars (including an antique two-seater roadster), a trophy wife, a sailboat, and real estate investments all over the West Island of Montreal.

So there’s me — with less than three weeks training — expected to go out and produce portraits at the same speed and quality as he did. Right.

It was tough work. I’d be at the studio at 7:00 AM, loading up the van with equipment, and at the school by 8:00. I’d be shooting by 8:30. It would be busiest at lunch time, so I’d inhale a sandwich during a ten minute break before noon, and would work through until 3:00 or 3:30 in the afternoon.

Then I would pack up and head back to the studio where I would deal with the exposed film and do paperwork. I wasn’t allowed to leave until 5:00 PM, even if I had done all my work, because “business hours are from 9 to 5” (regardless of the fact that I’d been working since 7:00 AM and had only taken a ten minute lunch break). Sometimes there was so much administrative work that I wouldn’t get out until 6:00 PM or later.

One day, just before 5:00 PM, he announced that he was really tired and didn’t want to go shoot the photos for an award ceremony at one of his high schools that night. (He had agreed to shoot the ceremony in exchange for getting the portrait contract for the school.) So I had to go. I had 90 minutes to go home, change into a suit, get back to the studio, pack up the equipment, and go find some auditorium in Laval. I didn’t get home until almost 11:00 that night, but next morning at 7:00 I was back at the studio gearing up for another day.

I didn’t get any extra pay for that, nor even much of a “thank you.” Although the guy was really popular with the students, he was a self-centered prick with a massive ego and a complete lack of empathy for those around him. He initially paid me only $250 a week for that gig, but after a few weeks he bumped it up to a whopping $375 after I mentioned I was starving. You see, he was one of those “entrepreneurial” types who figured he had to drag me down and then build me up again in his image, and that I had to pay my dues. If I survived, maybe I’d have a crack at a big and rich life like his, or so went his logic.

I stuck with it because I needed the job and because part of me thought I might actually learn something. I clung to it even when his ego was unbearable and he made me feel utterly stupid. Nothing I could do for this guy was ever good enough.

I didn’t complain about the long hours because we had a “gentleman’s agreement” that I would work my ass off from September until school closed for the Christmas holidays, and in the new year (the slow season) I could take it easy and work part time (at the same pay) until things got busy again in the late spring.

But sales dropped. I tried to do a good job, I really did. And I didn’t do so badly. Most of my work was decent, some of it even good, but I couldn’t match this guy. While I’d be at one school struggling, he’d be at another whizzing through it like it was nothing. He expected that with double the photographers he’d get double the profit. His plan was to hire even more people to follow in his footsteps so eventually he could just sit back and rule his empire. “I won’t be doing this in ten years” he said to me from behind the shutter one day.

But it didn’t work out, so a week before Christmas he fired me and that was it.

I few years later I noticed that he had closed the big expensive studio and moved to a smaller one in a cheaper part of town. I’ve never seen any advertising or Web sites for his operation. I saw him once in the early 90s at the Atwater Market but I did a quick 180 and went the other way.

Today I Googled him. I found a handful of references to other people with a similar name, but only one hit referred to him. It was from some kid’s blog, dated 2001, in which the kid complains about something stupid that the grad photographer had done — something about retouching the posing chair or whatever. The kid then wrote “stupid <that guy’s name>.”

And there’s my nasty little revenge. Fifteen years later, in a world transformed by the Internet, where a Google search of my name returns more than 150 direct hits, this guy is still snapping grad photos in obscurity and his only presence on the Web is a one-liner where someone calls him stupid.

Churn time?

I’ve been getting text message SPAM on my mobile phone. To fully understand the gravity of this, you must be aware that I am not a phone person. I love talking with people, but I hate talking into a damn piece of plastic. This isn’t some sort of post-modern proto-luddite affectation or whatever — it’s just something that I’ve come to realize about myself.

I just don’t like it. Phone talk interrupts my personal time, my TV shows, my cooking, my blog writing, you name it. When the phone rings I swear at it, no matter what I’m doing and before I even pick it up to see who’s calling. Unless it’s a far-flung friend whom I can’t speak with face-to-face, I want the phone call to be over as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, I sometimes comes off as being very gruff because of this, but the simple truth is that I just want to get off the damn phone.

I’ve had this mobile phone (from Telus, formerly ClearNet) for at least three years now. It occasionally comes in handy, so I don’t regret having it. I only turn it on when I want to make a call, so incoming calls are exceedingly rare. (People know how slim the odds are that the phone is turned on, so they don’t call that number unless it’s been pre-arranged that they will.)

Last year I got the brilliant idea to switch off the $25/month plan (which was actually $40 after taxes and other costs) and instead use the “pay-as-you-go” option. A $10 Telus card gives me about 30 minutes of phone time, and expires in 30 days. Typically, I’ve used only half the value by the time my 30 days are up. A few times I’ve probably made only two calls in that period. By some people’s accounting that means I’m making $5 phone calls, but that’s better than making $20 phone calls — as I was under the old plan.

So I have a cheap phone that I almost never use. Fine. Lately, however, when I turn on the phone to make a quick call, there’s often a text message waiting for me. So I go bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop…, punching in the various menu items and codes to access the message, and it ends up being some dumb-ass SPAM advertising some lame event around town or some product I don’t want. In some cases it’s coming directly from Telus.

The worst part is that it usually takes a couple of minutes after I turn the phone on for it to realize there’s a text message waiting for me. The result is that I’ll be in the middle of a call when my phone starts to ring, signaling that I have a text message waiting!

The first time this happened I panicked. What…? What the…! What’s happening??? How could my phone be ringing when I’m in the middle of a call? Now I know what it is, but it still takes a moment for me to rememeber what’s happening, and it makes my blood boil. I swear I’m going to just throw it across the room one of these days…

I’m thinking about telling Telus to stop spamming me (and to stop selling my number to spammers) or I’m going to switch to another service provider. In telecom talk that’s called “churn” (when customers switch companies). Churn is the most frightening word in the mobile phone vernacular, so maybe they’ll listen. But then, the other companies probably have the same SPAM problems, so what’s the point?

Reason to listen to CBC Radio #234:

People like to joke that all Hollywood movie previews are done by the same production crew, using the same earnest but formulaic narrator:

In a time…
When [situation that describes a norm…]
One [man/woman]…
[Behaviour that defies the norm]…

This reminds me of how TV shows used to begin in the 60s and 70s. Back then, advertising was important, but not to the extent it is now, so they were not always trying to squeeze every second of advertising time in where ever they could. As a result, TV shows took a couple of minutes to begin (unlike today’s 5-15 seconds).

A show would begin with some bad and too loud orchestrated music made worse because it was blaring through a cheap two-inch speaker on the front of the ol’ Philco-Ford television. Then some stern but enthusiastic-sounding man’s voice (and it seemed to be the same man for every TV show) announced the name of the show:

The FBI!

Behind the voiceover you would see fuzzy images of men in hats (60s) or loud shirts (70s) chasing bad guys and smoking cigarettes. The music would continue to blare and the announcer would say “Starring…” and would list the star’s names while their images appeared, looking either heroic and intense, or kicked-back and smiling (from having caught the bad guy). There would be three or four stars, and then there would be the “guest stars.”

I figured out that a “guest star” was basically a B-grade television actor who couldn’t get a regular gig on a series, yet was known enough to be able to make the rounds on a per-episode basis, showing up as a bank robber on one show, a DA or maybe a crime victim on another, and so on. Often there would be one “special guest star” but I could never figure out what made them so special.

By the time they cycled through all the stars’ and guest stars’ names, and showed various men in hats or loud shirts driving big cars on big California roads while chasing bad guys and smoking cigarettes, several minutes had passed.

One of my favorite shows of this era was “The FBI” (1965-74) starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. I liked it because it taught me that all American federal agents are virtuous, and because I loved to hear the stern but enthusiastic man say “Starring Efrem Zimbalist Junior!” I couldn’t even imagine how such a name would have come about, or even how you would spell it. It was the most insane name I had ever heard in the eight or so years I had been alive.

I thought it was particularly nuts because if he was Efrem Zimbalist Junior then there must be an Efrem Zimbalist Senior out there. My God, two of them! At some point I decided the name must be fake, some kind of nom de tube, because by then I had learned that nobody in Hollywood uses his or her real name. The “junior,” I decided, must be an affectation (another word I couldn’t then spell).

Tonight, however, I was listening to CBC Radio late night classical music in the background and I’ll be damned if the announcer didn’t talk about some piece of work having once been interpreted by the famous violinist “Efrem Zimbalist” (no junior). So I Googled around a bit and discovered that Junior is indeed the son of Senior, and that Junior was a known film and TV actor since long before “The FBI.” Apparently, junior has spawned another, Efrem Zimbalist III, who works as a high-falutin’ publishing executive.

Reason to have a blog #462:

So you can write about such utterly useless trivia and maintain the mistaken belief that by doing so you make it somewhat useful.