From the Vault: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Giant Metal Baseball Bat

Midlife 2 Hardcover
The clothbound hardcover edition of Midlife 2, in front of my trusty Smith-Corona Sterling typewriter.

Over two dozen of my university friends have collaborated on a new book called Midlife 2, and we’re only a few days away from its November 24, 2023, release. Are you excited? Because I’m certainly excited. It’s fun making things with your friends, and it’s even better when your friends are smart, funny and talented. 

I have an essay in the book about how I’ve found a curious passion for writing letters to friends and family at a time when everything around us is digital. If I have your postal address, there’s a decent chance you’ve received a letter – either handwritten or typed – or a postcard from me, probably adorned with a cool stamp I found at the local post office. I come from a family of letter writers, so it felt only natural for someone from my generation to pick up this particular torch.

But that essay wasn’t the first I wrote for the book. When the idea was hatched, the theme for the book was more firmly centered around the idea of home, and I took that and turned it into an essay about my own shifting relationship with Edmonton, the city I’ve called home for the majority of my life. The relationship is still complicated, but I’ve come to see it as my city, and whenever I’m away somewhere else, coming back to Edmonton always feels like coming home. Sometimes I wonder how much of this appreciation comes from Edmonton having changed since I moved here, or from how I’ve changed since moving here. Or maybe since moving here, Edmonton has changed me in ways I may not fully appreciate. 

To mark the occasion of the book’s release, and because Taylor Swift’s new Taylor’s Version albums have inspired me to dig around in the vaults of my own writing for snippets worth sharing, I’m posting the remastered version of the original essay I wrote for Midlife 2. This has nothing to do with Scooter Braun, so leave him out of it. 

While I know that the vast majority of visitors to this site have never been to Edmonton, and many more have never even heard of it, I hope you’ll see the universality in my essay. (American friends: It’s been said many times that Edmonton is to Alberta what Austin is to Texas, if that helps you at all.) So many of us dream of leaving the place we’re from, striking out to find the place where we truly belong, and only after some time away come to understand that maybe the place we were meant to be is the place we tried so hard to leave. 

If you like what you read here, maybe you want to consider buying the book? The physical book is a gorgeous clothbound hardcover that can be ordered through a couple of Edmonton-based indie bookstores, while the ebook version (only clothbound if your ereader has a clothbound sleep cover, alas) is available through Kobo. More information and links on where to find it and buy it are available here.

And so, without further ado, my own bonus track, plucked from the vault of my MacBook’s SSD. I hope you like it. 

Edmonton Downtown
Edmonton’s massive river valley in the distance, behind a handful of towers to the south of Jasper Avenue, the main road in downtown Edmonton.

The Joy of Settling

As an ecologically minded, book-reading teenager in Edmonton in the 1990s, it was easy to feel out of place. 

I’d been dragged to Edmonton by my dad, who moved us to the city for a job when I was in Grade 6, uprooting me from my familiar Winnipeg world of Slurpees, Alf cards and two-bag boxes of Old Dutch chips. I loved my flood-prone prairie city, and I resented Edmonton from the start for the simple reason that it wasn’t Winnipeg. 

What I knew about Alberta could have fit on a single page of looseleaf, but I was skeptical nonetheless. Didn’t they have bears in the mountains? What was with all the cowboy stuff? The Calgary Olympics on TV had piqued my interest, but Edmonton was home to the Oilers, the team that made life difficult for the Winnipeg Jets.

But I had no choice in the matter. We were moving to Alberta, and I was going to have to deal with it. 

Edmonton Downtown
The old Wayne Gretzky statue that used to sit outside the old Edmonton arena, which has been moved to the new Rogers Place arena downtown, where the Oilers now play. He may have been the Great One in Edmonton, but he was a nuisance for Winnipeg Jets fans during the 80s.

From the beginning, it felt otherworldly. We lived on the edge of town, in a newly built subdivision where you could see a pipeline flare burning in the distance. When you bought a comic book, there was no provincial sales tax. There were a bunch of glass pyramids poking out of the floor of the river valley. I remember the awe I felt when I learned that my new city had a manmade waterfall that cascaded over the side of a massively tall bridge into the river below, but only on special occasions.

As I grew older, I became more aware of the politics of my new province, that it didn’t align with my way of thinking, and that these provincial tendencies spilled over into Edmonton. I had little interest in religion, no knee-jerk desire to sing the praises of mighty oil and gas, and I didn’t believe that business and the invisible hand were the solution to all of life’s problems. I didn’t see why some people were so hung up on grumping about sexual minorities, and I didn’t understand the constant chip on the provincial shoulder that seemed to loom so large. Even kids my age at school had developed an irrational distaste for Ottawa, though when pressed, they could never explain why they hated it so much. The anger of the parents had trickled down to the opinions of their progeny. 

By this point, I’d started to explore my options to get out.

Edmonton Downtown
The swooping metal roof of the Art Gallery of Alberta.

I stayed put for university, but campus life made the provincial priorities clear in cold, hard budgetary terms. Engineers, science types and other fields deemed useful to industry got fancy buildings with fancy labs. Those of us studying English or other similarly pointless pursuits got the hand-me-down classrooms full of cramped desks and overhead projectors that squeaked whenever the professor rolled up the clear plastic acetate scroll. Even in relatively progressive Edmonton, it was clear who mattered and who didn’t. As liberal arts types, we should learn to be happy with whatever scraps we were given. 

After university, I watched as most of my friends moved away to other places where they found jobs and built new lives in exciting cities. I had always assumed that I would need to leave Edmonton for work, and the mass migration of my friends confirmed it. Nearly every junior-level media job I wanted was in Toronto, so assuming one of the leads I’d applied on panned out, I’d be packing my bags soon enough. And while I wasn’t thrilled about the starting salaries, I was excited to move somewhere less politically exhausting.

And then an unexpected thing happened. After a few years cobbling together cheques as a freelance writer, hoping to land a junior staff writer position in Ontario, I found exactly the kind of job I was looking for. And somehow, to my eternal surprise, it was in Edmonton. 

Even after being laid off from that job less than a year later, that first job somehow led to another job in Edmonton that was even better than the first. 

This remote metropolis was ruining my escape plans. 

While I felt grateful for the opportunities I’d been given, part of me felt that all of this was only delaying my inevitable departure.

Edmonton Downtown
Edmonton’s Valley Line LRT, open at long, long last.

For most of my adult life, I’d avoided putting down roots in Edmonton, assuming that at any moment, I’d be moving to Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal or some other city where I felt I truly belonged. I’d be trading up, moving to a place where I felt less like I was swimming against the provincial current, where people with English degrees were valued a bit more, and where anti-intellectualism wasn’t quite so rampant. Why buy a house and fill it with things when you see your city as a temporary place, a stop along the way to greater things?

After half a decade in a newsroom I loved, I got an offer to leave for a new job in a new city. But it wasn’t to the exotic far-off lands of Ontario or Quebec, or even to eye-wateringly expensive Vancouver. The position was in Calgary

Unlike many Edmontonians who harbour fierce loyalties to sports teams, I’d never had any strong feelings about Alberta’s other urban centre. I’d enjoyed trips to the city before, and I was willing to give it a chance. It helped that I already had a few friends in town who could point me to the good coffee, important brunch spots and decent specialty food shops that make a place worth living in. 

And so I took the risk and moved 300 km south, feeling like I’d at least half fulfilled my destiny of leaving Edmonton behind. Maybe this would be the first U-Haul ride on my journey east.

It didn’t take long before I noticed the early signs of homesickness. It took me a good year in Calgary to stop calling the C-Train the LRT. I would speak wistfully of Edmonton to colleagues, regaling them with stories of bakeries and restaurants, and attempting to answer questions about the cultural significance of the giant metal baseball bat

Whenever I’d come back up to Edmonton to visit family, I’d always somehow bump into people I knew. A friend would be sitting a few tables over at the Sugarbowl, or I’d nod knowingly to someone I knew from university while walking on Whyte Ave. 

I had a familiarity with the city that I only understood after I left. The tree-lined streets of Garneau, more pothole than asphalt, were my streets. The suburban strip malls of Riverbend were my strip malls. Whenever I opened the car door after the drive up from Calgary, the smell of Edmonton — full of trees and greenery and soil — would hit me in the heart. When we drove back a few days later, it always felt like I was leaving home, not returning to it. 

At some point, I finally clued in. Calgary was fine, but Edmonton was my place. Edmonton was home.

After three and a half years, we packed up a fresh U-Haul and drove back up to Edmonton, where a new job and a completely different career awaited me. I’d been dragged to Edmonton against my will in elementary school, but now, as an adult, I was choosing to move to Edmonton all on my own. I’d seen another city, I’d had a chance to play the municipal field, and I’d picked Edmonton with my eyes wide open. 

Moving to Calgary taught me that a city is all about the people who choose to live there despite the frustration that can accompany being an odd duck in barn full of chickens. I’d met plenty of Calgarians who’d decided that Calgary was their home, and they’d be damned if a flock of corporate roosters in Hugo Boss plumage would come in and rule their roost.

The pandemic only served to reinforce what I’d figured out when I moved back. I’d spent my earlier years in Edmonton listening to the irate, ornery voices of the loud, selfish, angry oafs who claimed to speak for a city, when they are a tiny, tedious minority. 

Kindhearted, genuine, friendly people — regardless of political affiliation — are at the core of my city, and there are a lot of eccentric oddballs who choose to call it home. Other people have chosen to build their lives here, people who don’t fit the standard definition of what outsiders like to think of as Albertan. They start bookstores, they make art, they install solar panels on their suburban homes, and they sell vegan baking at the farmers’ market. Edmonton is a lot of things to a lot of people, but this is my Edmonton. It’s a city where even the oil company execs put out a blue bag, where you can drive an F350 to work on the job site and also volunteer for the Fringe Fest in your spare time. It’s a complicated city, but I like my cities complicated.

Do I still sometimes nearly get run over by SUVs speeding through a crosswalk? Yes. But more often than not, the driver stops, waits patiently for me to cross, and sometimes even returns my wave of acknowledgment. 

We spend so much time focusing on the few times we’re nearly flattened by a Range Rover that we fail to notice all the times we made it through the crosswalk alive, with a friendly nod between driver and pedestrian, an understanding that we’re all in this together. 

Edmonton Downtown
Bob and Doug McKenzie, cast in metal and painted in a mostly vandal-proof coating. A perfect piece of public art for Edmonton’s downtown Ice District, in front of the arena where the Edmonton Oilers hockey team plays.

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