Sunday, October 13, 2019

Cold Hands, Warm Hearts

The day after Fenya and I were at the Starlite Room, she, Glory and I took the Bride of Frankentrailer out to Jasper for one last weekend of camping and a highly anticipated visit to Miette Hot Springs. Audrey had work commitments and a church fundraising dinner she wanted to attend, but I think she was grateful for the opportunity to pass up this excursion.

Which is funny, because just before se moved to Ontario in 1995, the two of us had camped out at Pocahontas in a tent on the exact same weekend. Mind you, it was even colder and the zipper actually froze shut on our tent, so I certainly can't blame her for being apprehensive about a return visit. The girls on the other hand, were excited at the opportunity.

Glory has a spare at the end of the day, so I was able to pick her up mid-afternoon. By the time Fenya arrived from work, we'd gassed up the Flex, loaded all our gear, hooked up the trailer and had it waiting out front. We hit the road at 5:30, grabbing burgers at the McDonald's in Edson for dinner. As it grew dark, we listened to two Lonely Island albums I had downloaded and which we wouldn't have bothered with if Audrey had made the trip.

We arrived at our site a little before 10:00, met by our friends Shari and Dave from Red Deer. I am still hopeless at backing up with the trailer, and Dave said, "Not to mow another man's lawn or anything, but I could do that if you liked..." I leapt at his offer, and within an hour we had the Bride all set up, and a small space heater deployed to take the chill off.

I had picked up a larger, warmer sleeping bag over the summer, as I normally use our existing one like a blanket during warmer weather. Now, I wouldn't call my apprehension at having my arms immobilized claustrophobia per se, but even writing this now, I feel obliged to roll my shoulders and inhale deeply. My sleep that night was troubled and fitful, but I did manage to nod off, and even with the bag zipped all the way up on a couple of occasions.

We all enjoyed a lie-in that morning and decided to forego the oatmeal breakfast we had planned in favour of getting out to the hot springs as soon as possible. Most of the vehicles we had seen the night before had vacated the Wapiti campground that morning which left things very quiet and peaceful. Having arrived in the dark, seeing the mountains that surrounded us in the light of day was very much a joyous discovery, even though the weather was still quite brisk.

It was probably only 8 or 9 degrees C when we entered the hot springs at Miette, but it was sunny and bright. The pools were fairly busy despite the brisk breezes that swept over us periodically, and we marvelled at the number of different languages we could hear around us - French, Chinese, Korean Romanian, Italian and more I'm sure. What a privilege to have such a place in such a setting within a three-hour drive!

Glory remarked at how puzzled she was as a child when she first visited the springs: it's like a pool, but there is no jumping, diving, splashing or even swimming, really. At 17 though, she is grateful for an opportunity to soak and relax, to give her more petite sister the opportunity to hold her in a way most impractical on dry land.

For my part, I reminded Fenya about how I used to swim about with her on my back, which prompted a reenactment that was a little awkward but still endearing.

Boy, that sun was sure bright though...

It was hard to leave the warmth of the pools but after a couple of hours, we did and then made our way to Maligne Canyon. I hadn't been back since we brought Dad's ashes here in 2012, which was right around the same time of year.

It's a beautiful place no matter when you visit it, which is a big part of why it impacted Dad as much as it did. It's a simple downhill hike down to the fourth bridge (but a grueling ordeal on the return leg for someone who dresses out at over an eighth of a ton and should take more stairs), and before long we stood on the structure where we had bid farewell to my father's mortal components.

Seven years on, and while I don't miss him any less, I can at least recall him without pain most of the time. The bridge is significant, not as a resting place but more as the starting point of a journey that I hope never ends, and that one day I can join him on. Leaning across the edge of the bridge I was struck by what an amazing vista we had selected, but which I had failed to document at the time.

The small waterfall caused by a creek entering the Maligne River made it look as though the water was being generated by the roots of a tree tenaciously clinging onto the rocky ledge overhanging it.

We stood there for quite a while, not saying much, reassured by hand squeezes and arms across shoulders, not feeling that Dad was there, precisely, but definitely feeling he had been, and that was enough.

By the time we exited Maligne Canyon, the sun had begun to set, and it began to cool very quickly. We headed back to the campsite where Fenya and I used the propane firepit and our pie irons to try to put together a dinner of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches while Glory worked on her Biology project in the Bride. The first batch had a high carbon component, but the second batch was far more edible.

After supper, we joined Shari and Dave at their campfire where we shared s'mores, stories and a little whiskey. That night I slept far more soundly than I had the night before, even with more time spent zipped up. Whether this was due to some sense of contentment that had eluded me the night before or simply due to being exhausted, I cannot say.

We broke camp the next day without incident, each successive takedown of the Bride getting a bit smoother and more familiar. Shari and Dave graciously provided us with a big breakfast of Mexican eggs, and all too soon we found ourselves back at home.

Remembering Dave's observation about thinking of the trailer as a big wheelbarrow, I tried backing the trailer onto our lawn in preparation for its winter internment on the patio. In the past, we've had to lift and push it all the way from the alleyway, an exhausting and potentially dangerous maneuver that my brilliant daughters have never shied away from. This time though, I was able to get it all the way to the edge of the garage, leaving only a 90-degree turn and about 12 feet of pushing to do.

Some things stay the same while others grow and change, often in unexpected ways - this seems to be the enduring message of this late-season expedition to the mountains. I hope we can do it again next year.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Delain, Live with Anneke van Giersbergen and Amorphis

I'd seen Delain on two previous occasions as openers for Sonata Arctica and Nightwish, but missed them ont heir first headlining tour as they hit Edmonton during G&G last year. When I heard they were coming to the Starlite Room in October of this year, I was pretty excited, and the two new singles, "Masters of Destiny" and "Burning Bridges" (released just last week) did nothing to abate this.

So Fenya and I headed out to see these Dutch headbangers, along with two openers we'd never listened to. Her boyfriend Bobby joined us, dutifully taking notes for the same world music class Fenya had taken two years ago. Each student is required to visit a type of performance they'd bever seen before and then report back, and you could do worse for a power metal show than a band whose lead vocalist also has her masters in women's studies and has done papers on black woman s-f author Octavia Butler.

But first we got to encounter Anneke van Giersbergen. Anneke has been around metal and metal-adjacent acts for years(like Ayreon and The Gathering), and has recorded solo albums under her own name (and also as Agua de Annique) that rock fairly hard, but on this tour she is performing a stripped-down acoustic set.

She covers both her own material, her numerous collaborations and a few favourite covers, but what you need to know about Anneke is a) she has a tremendous voice and b) is completely adorable.

"I wrote this song 19 yeara ago," she said at one point, "which means I'm ... 30?" Pausing for the chuckles from the crowd, she said, "I was very young ... " (She certainly doesn't look the 46 Wikipedia claims she is.)

At one point, she said she wanted to play something a bit more uptempo, knowing a metal outfit was taking the stage immediately after her. Anneke confessed she only had two fast songs in her repertoire: one by Kiss and the other by Dolly Parton. She put the choice to the crowd as was delighted to hear a pronounced preference for The Smoky Mountain Songbird, and was grinning as the crowd of headbangers (and the three of us) joined in for a throaty chorus of "Jolene."

When Finland's Amorphis took the stage, I was pleased to hear a keyboard-heavy intro that bordered on the psychedelic prog rock my friend Dave and his brother exposed me to in my high school years. The crunchy guitars that followed were intricate and non-dissonant, but then lead singer Tomi Joutsen unleashed a deep, resonant and sustained death growl which you felt at least as much as you heard. Now, I like vocals and melody too much to be a fan of this vocal styling, but there is no mistaking its power and energy, especially live, where it had a literally visceral impact.

Astonishingly though, he switched effortlessly to clear baritone singing for the chorus, and Fenya and I shot each other a surprised look. Joutsen is no Andrea Boccelli, but his singing voice is quite solid, connects emotionally to his material and lets him provide his own counterpoint to the growls in his toolkit.

Best of all, they called Anneke back on stage to sing on "Amongst Stars," as she does on their latest album, Queen of Time. It's a brilliant duet in the classic power metal tradition, and van Giersbergen provides the very model of a soaring chorus.
The light will lure youTo lands forged by demiseTo the shores of deathThe blooming meadowsSeduce and intoxicateWith a deceiving scent
Follow the thread of goldDrift on its tideIt's a path of starsRide on the golden streamAnd break the wavesIn a trail of stars

I downloaded the album via Google Play because of this and am enjoying it way more than I anticipated.

At last Delain took the stage, but not without their own challenges. Rhythm guitarist Merel Bechtold left the band amicably in June to do her own thing, and drummer Joey de Boer had visa issues that prevented him coming to North America, so Amorphis drummer Jan Rechberger has been playing for both bands throughout this tour, a stunning display of endurance.

Lead singer Charlotte Wessels is one of Fenya's favourite vocalists, period, which surprises some people, what with Fenya being a self-described vocals snob, but she is the whole package: resonance, projection, energy, range and enough power to push a train.

The Thursday night crowd felt a little small to me, and in truth, I think more people might have come for Amorphis, but that didn't stop Wessels from engaging the crowd and keeping them on their toes, bouncing through high-energy numbers like "Fire with Fire" and "Suckerpunch." Best of all I finally got to hear "Stardust" live for the very first time before Delain wrapped up with the brilliant anti-bullying song "We Are the Others."

There were no encores, but it was a school night so that wasn't a tremendous disappointment for my young companions. For my part, I can't tell you what I enjoyed more: hearing one of my favourite bands live for the third time or discovering two new performers with rich discographies I am keen to explore. All in all, an excellent evening of musical boundary-widening!

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Adios, el Diablo Yanqui

I try to be friendly with most people I meet; it's true to my nature, the way I'd like to be treated, and generally a safer way to proceed within a chaotic universe. But I'm not interested in having a high number of friends so much as being able to treat them well and maintain our relationships with a degree of care and attention. How does the transition from friendly acquaintance to buddy to friend even happen? The two most common denominators, in my personal experience, are a) when I'm not even paying attention, and b) with very little conscious effort on my part. As a case in point, allow me to introduce Jim, who we visited this week prior to his imminent move from Calgary to Illinois.

Audrey and I have known Jim for over 20 years. When we lived in Toronto, Jim came up from the Games Workshop HQ to run our trade sales department while I was in mail order. AT that time, there weren't a lot of church-going family types at GW, so we made a point of having him over to our little apartment in Etobicoke for pizza or a home-cooked meal or popcorn and a movie.

Jim has a yet-unmatched capacity for telling stories and a wealth of nerdly lore that encompasses tabletop gaming, comic books, period movies, antique firearms, history, the art deco period, pulp novellas, book collecting, and many others. Now, many of my friends have similar and similarly varied interests, but  Jim's characterful work experience in the games industry and his gentle Kentucky accent (where the h's precede the w's in words like "white" and "where") make him a delight to listen to. And I say that as someone who has been known to spin a yarn or two.

It's difficult to say whether we exoticized him or not, (as the sole American in an office full of Canadians and Brits, I delighted in tormenting him with the name "El Diablo Yanqui") but our simple homeliness made quite an impression on Jim. When Fenya was born, his grandmother sent up a beautiful christening blanket that we have to this day. But before Fenya turned one we had returned to Edmonton in search of a lower cost of living (and closer proximity to grandparents), and the following year Jim followed a girl out to Seattle before getting married to her and starting his own family.

We would touch base periodically, most commonly when he had a mutual friend in his home or car (Hi Aaron!) or after he'd read one of my blog posts that prompted a memory of something. When Dad passed, he was very quick to email me, and to post responses to blog posts written by a man with a broken heart so that not only I but others would know I had his support.

(And when his dad passed after a surprising and terrible encounter with cancer, I was flattered to be someone he wanted to talk to. Both of us believe in God, but not magic, and that can put people at odds in terms of discussing the end of life and how we face it, regardless of what might come next.

Three years after Dad passed, Jim called me from Minnesota to ask what I thought about Calgary as a place to live because his wife was being considered for a CEO position there.)

Audrey, Glory and I met Jim, Carol and their son Jack in Calgary for dinner while they were up looking at houses prior to the move. I' hadn't met Carol before, but for someone with such a capacity for focus and intensity, she was delightful and friendly. Jack was a wonder: smart, curious, and polite, with his dad's charm and humility in plain view.

Calgary is not next door, and both our families are intensely busy, so there weren't as many opportunities to get together as we might have liked, but we got down there a time or two, and they came up to visit us as well. Jim even managed to make an appearance at my 50th birthday, at which he made me look better by charming all my guests. Who am I to have such intriguing companions from such faraway places?

As a birthday gift, Jim hosted the girls and I at the Calgary Comic Expo the following year (and myself the year after, where he amiably chatted up Star Trek Discovery's Anson Mount before having our picture taken with him). His ability to make connections with people and put them at ease within seconds of meeting them amazed all of us. Walking into the Cluck N Cleaver to pick up dinner, he shouts "Hello, chicken people!" and they are delighted to hear his voice.

But Carol's success in her CEO role has led to her being sought after and headhunted by a larger company in Illinois for a senior VP position, which is not only an extraordinary career opportunity but brings them close to both their families.

And so it was that we went to Calgary for a final visit with Jim, Carol and Jack having already relocated to Bloomington in time to start her new job and Jack's school year. In many ways, the simple interactions of the visit tell the tale of the man.

We picked up dinner (Cluck n Cleaver again) and shared a meal together.

He shared his dog, Sidney, for cuddles with both girls (which was especially appreciated by Glory, stricken as she was with a nasty cold).

He got Glory to model the Calgary Police buffalo jacket he got for a pittance by offering the cash he had left to a gentleman tired of carrying it.

We watched a delightful French comic book movie (The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec by Luc Besson, highly recommended!) and the next day, he took us out for breakfast at the Ladybug Cafe.

How do you know Jim, they asked us?

Oh, gosh, we said, we've known him for over 20 years, going back to our time in Toronto in the '90s.

We're going to miss him, they said, genuinely, and sadly, and without exception.

So will we, we replied.

And we will. Me most of all.

I know we won't fall out of touch, because we are both at a stage in our lives where we recognize the value of good friends (of which Jim is one among an astonishing number) as well as the importance of maintaining relationships, but knowing he is no longer a moderate drive away is a tough pill to swallow. It also underscores the fundamental mystery of friendship: what is it that we do that could possibly justify the inclusion of amazing people in our lives?

I can at least take comfort in the fact that this is a good, if difficult, move for Jim, Carol and Jack. And I am confident we will cross paths again before too long.

In the meantime, I will console myself by celebrating their good fortune and remembering good times, well spent.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Do Androids Dream of Eclectic Geeks? - Autumnal Geekquinox 2019

It began inauspiciously, actually.

Geekquinox had rolled around again and Pete had decided to (somehow) theme it around Ridley Scott's influential sci-fi/noir classic, Blade Runner. Released in 1982, its story is (was? will be?) set in November of 2019, so this is the closest one of these dinners will get to it. Blade Runner is one of my favourite films, but Audrey and I were disappointed at being unable to come up with anything thematic to wear for the first time in ages. A church commitment the next morning also meant we could not spend the nights as we usually did, and really should pack it in much earlier than usual.

Unsurprisingly, it was still a wonderful time.

In terms of dress, it is probably just as well that rush-shipping some appropriate t-shirts was prohibitively expensive, as Pete and Ellen's level of commitment and flawless execution would have left us looking especially meager in their resplendent get-ups depicting Gaff and Rachel.

(46 bobby pins in that hairdo, by the way.) Totty played his hand well, noting that in the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, Deckard is wearing a grey t-shirt... Japanese and advertising-influenced decor set the tone.

And as always, the menu itself was a treat in both its presentation and the tastily tenuous ways it connected to the film.

The very first dish was a Hungarian fried bread called langos because Hungarian is one of the languages used in the film to create the dystopian patois of Cityspeak. I was astonished that something so simple could taste so good, but the crispy exterior, chewy insides, and toppings of garlic and a bit of coarse salt made this a very popular appetizer.

Since Blade Runner is based on the Philip K. Dick novel "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", it was appropriate that the next course was"lamb lollipops." These were very generously cut lamb chops with the bones neatly frenched so you could eat them with your fingers. Seasoned with rosemary and other spices and cooked/smoked to perfection on Pete's Big Green Egg, these may have been my favourite dish of the evening.

The lamb was followed by shots of tequila poured from a bottle in the shape of a .45 automatic Pete had picked up when the two of us visited Texas in February. It paled in comparison to some of the other tequilas he had around, but the novelty of the receptacle was sufficient to pique our interest, even amongst some of those disinclined to do such shots. A worthy stand-in for the iconic blaster used in the movie!

Referencing the tortoise flipped on its back in the empathy test from the movie's opening scene, the mock turtle soup was a real treat. Almost more like a chili or stew than a soup. it combined ground beef and shredded boiled egg to create a number of intriguing textures in a thick, savoury base.

In terms of broth, it would be difficult to top the delicious shoyu ramen Pete made from scratch, topped with seaweed and served alongside four pieces of succulent wagyu skirt steak prepared on the Egg. Far better than the streetside dumplings or sushi the Harrison Ford's Deckard is eating when we first encounter his character in the film.

I must confess: the current cachet that ramen carries had escaped me up until this point, but the texture of the noodles coupled with the aroma and lingering taste of the soup made it clear that I have given this treat short shrift. And of course, the wagyu beef was astonishingly tender and tasty, prepared with Pete's custom rub.

The final meat course was crispy skin duck breast Pete had prepared in his sous vide rig, in honour of the derogatory term "skin jobs" used to refer to replicants in the movie. I'm not usually the biggest fan of duck, but this was indeed a pleasure to eat. Less crispy than one might expect from the name, the pieces of duck were tender but firm, without being chewy.

And as the main, the duck was served alongside hashed-brown potatoes and Swiss chard, both of with were delicious.

For someone who doesn't have much of a sweet tooth, Pete is a dab hand at producing tasty and intriguing dessert courses, often eschewing complexity in favour of a dramatic presentation. Last night was no exception, as he put together a simple but comprehensive ice cream sundae bar (complete with chocolate, raspberry and butterscotch sauces made from scratch!) and topped with a pane of caramelized sugar.

This delicious brittle was listed on the menu as "shattered glass" in tribute to the demise of the first replicant in the film, Zhora, who is sent crashing through a succession of plate glass windows by Deckard's blaster. Breaking this sheet was done in a likewise dramatic fashion:

As promised, it made the ideal topping to the ice cream sundaes, adding both a smoky sweetness and a contrasting texture to the ice cream and toppings.

As good as the food was though, the real treat was the company.

It was after 1:00 a.m. when we finished dessert, but approaching 2:00 when Audrey and I finally said goodnight and made our way back to the north side to catch 4-5 hours of sleep before church the next morning. We left earlier than we have at many other Geekquinoxes, but perhaps a bit later than we had anticipated. It was well worth the sacrifice, and we didn't dream of sheep, electric or otherwise, but of friends, and food, and grace and hospitality and the simple joy of getting together.

Thanks again, Pete and Ellen!

Sunday, September 15, 2019

James Peter Robertson, VC

The Victoria Cross may be the most storied decoration for military gallantry in the Western hemisphere. It was created in 1856 and is awarded for valour in the face of the enemy for the British Armed Forces and those of the Commonwealth, although most nations now have their own. The vignettes depicted in the citations for this award are dramatic and nigh-impossible sounding, which is probably why such a high percentage of them are awarded posthumously.

The U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor has been around almost as long, but has been awarded 3,520 times, compared to a mere 1,358 for the Victoria Cross. In addition, the VC has only been bestowed 15 times since World War II, and not to a civilian since 1879. Legend has it that the original metal for the Cross came from cannons seized at Sevastopol during the Crimean War, but a metallurgist has determined the brass to be from Chinese guns instead, hinting at a story yet to be told.

The VC's rarity and the exceptionalism behind it make it one of the most intriguing and sought-after decorations in the world. And I got to touch one the other day.

Our good friend Peter gave Audrey, Glory and I the opportunity to view it a week ago, the day before he and it flew to Ottawa so this august decoration can take its place in the Canadian War Museum.

It came to Peter by way of his mother, and to her from her uncle, James Peter Robertson. He is Peter's namesake, having preferred his middle name. Born in Nova Scotia, Robertson moved to Medicine Hat at a young age where he lived with his mother until he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in June of 1915. His papers tell us he was 6'1" tall, with dark brown hair and blue eyes, and had been employed as a locomotive engineer.

Two years later, he was dead in Passchendaele. On his last day on Earth, Robertson distinguished himself under fire on two separate occasions. His Victoria Cross citation tells the tale:

For most conspicuous bravery and outstanding devotion to duty in attack. When his platoon was held up by uncut wire and a machine gun causing many casualties, Pte. Robertson dashed to an opening on the flank, rushed the machine gun and, after a desperate struggle with the crew, killed four and then turned the gun on the remainder, who, overcome by the fierceness of his onslaught, were running towards their own lines. His gallant work enabled the platoon to advance. He inflicted many more casualties among the enemy, and then carrying the captured machine gun, he led his platoon to the final objective. He there selected an excellent position and got the gun into action, firing on the retreating enemy who by this time were quite demoralised by the fire brought to bear on them.
During the consolidation Pte. Robertson’s most determined use of the machine gun kept down the fire of the enemy snipers; his courage and his coolness cheered his comrades and inspired them to the finest efforts.
Later, when two of our snipers were badly wounded in front of our trench, he went out and carried one of them in under very severe fire.
He was killed just as he returned with the second man.
The decoration has lived in a safety deposit box now for many years, with a framed replica on the wall in Pete's mum's place. Notionally it was to be handed down to male heirs or, failing that,  presented to the Canadian War Museum. As Pete is an only child with no children of his own, the decision was made to arrange the transfer now, so Mum can rest easy knowing this cherished medal has gone to the proper place. Only 99 Canadians have ever been awarded the Victoria Cross, and the Museum has 39 of them - presumably, Robertson's will bring it to 40.

As such, the Cross is in spectacular condition (at least to a layman's eyes), as is the original presentation box.
Presentation box

Presentation box lid interior

Reverse of the medal
The VC also came with a miniature to be worn on the ribbon bar when the Cross itself was not worn.
The miniature VC
And lastly, the Memorial Cross GRI (Georgius Rex Imperator) presented to Robertson's mother.

Memorial Cross GRI
Memorial Cross reverse.
Robertson's bravery and sacrifice are remembered in other ways as well. A Coast Guard Hero-class patrol vessel bears his name, and there is a marker in his honour in the Hillside Cemetery in Medicine Hat. Stories on the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War web page tell of a burly giant of a man nicknamed 'Singing Pete' whose unit mutinied in Medicine Hat due to a delay in getting them into action, and who got into a fistfight with a civilian over their inaction as well.

If you should travel to Belgium, Pte. James Peter Robertson's remains are interred at the Tyne Cot cemetery there, along with so many other Canadian and Allied soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the so-called "war to end all wars."

After two generations in the hands of a grateful family, this particular Victoria Cross now moves to a public institution, which is perhaps how it should be. Now even more people can see it, appreciate it, and hear the harrowing tale of how it was earned, as well as the cruel irony of how the recipient died - not while taking lives, but saving them.

What a privilege to have been accorded a personal encounter with such a piece of significant and moving history! Thank you, Pete.