Sunday, April 23, 2017

Dawn of the (Dance) Dad

I greeted the morning with no small sense of trepidation today, knowing it was my first solo outing as a dance dad. I've been to a few competitions and even more performances in the near-decade that Glory has been involved in Irish dance, but Audrey has been the face of the Fitzpatricks in feis support (and a fairer face by far!). This weekend she and Fenya were away at her folks' place to touch base with a close family friend from Holland, so it fell to me to at last don the mantle of Dance Dad.

Thankfully Glory's age an experience means I have to do very little in the way of coordinating or serving in an intercessionary fashion; my duties as DD relates to three key areas: logistics, transport and support. And they started first thing in the morning.

At 7:00 am I awoke and immediately went to the kitchen to put together a turkey sausage and cheese omelette for Glory. A hearty breakfast is always a good idea on a busy day, and even more so since her nervousness makes it difficult for her to eat once we are on site.  Of course, she had an appetite because she had risen an hour ahead of me in order to sort out her hair and makeup.

I prepared a similar repast for myself while she ate, supplemented by a large cup of coffee from my favourite (and thematically appropriate) mug.

The night before, she had looked at last year's G&G jersey and said, "Y'know, if you wear that tomorrow, we will pretty much be matching..."

So that obviously had to happen.

We made it out the door a bit behind schedule, but still arrived at the Westin hotel before 9:00 and in plenty of time to register. After checking her dance card and determining that all of her morning dances save one were on stage D, we found midrow seats beside it and Glory checked her kit while she waited for her first call to come up.

After about an hour and a half of waiting (the bane of dance competitions, swim meets and hockey tournaments alike), her first soft shoe competition loomed, so she went to warm up, then returned to change into her solo dress.

And wait some more.

The numbers indicating which dance was being performed were slowly removed, and about two-and-a-half hours after arriving, she was finally able to take the stage.

Thus began a series of 8 consecutive dances, without respite. Some sets had as many as 16 other competitors in them, so she could often catch her breath waiting for her turn to perform for the adjudicators.
Judging these young dancers takes both a fine degree and significant amount of finicky-mindedness; it all looks amazing to my layman's eyes (which also suffer from undeniable bias), but they are looking for pointed toes, amount and number of leg crossings, and the bare minimum of upper body movement.

I had Glory's hard shoes ready for her as she finished dance 480 (slip jig) and needed to change from soft shoes for her next dance (treble jig), but as she unlaced her dance slippers, I saw that her sole dance on the other stage (slip jig special) was about to start, and asked if she needed to keep them on. She took a look, and I could see the calculations racing behind her eyes. "Yep," she said, with only the slightest amount of frustration, and she turned her eyes back down to her footwear and began re-lacing her shoes.

Returning a few minutes later, she sat in the dancers row immediately ahead of our seats and began picking at her laces yet again, but ran into a problem, These were new shoes, not yet stretchy enough to allow her to tie the laces into a bow, so she had used a double knot instead, and it was proving reluctant to undo. Breathlessly but without panic, she looked at me and quickly said, "I can't undo my laces; could you come help me?

I pushed the empty seat beside her out of my way and moved through the gap, happy for the opportunity to discharge the support portion of my duties at last, but wary of the ticking clock. Most of the other dancers were changing their shoes as well, but were progressing more quickly, and hold things up would do nothing for Glory's state of mind.

As I struggled with the recalcitrant fastening, I briefly considered asking if she had a spare set of laces, and cutting these ones off instead, but at last I got a thumbnail under an edge of the knot with some give to it, and got the slippers out of the way so she could bring her hard shoes into play. She even had the time and composure to take a sip from her water bottle, as her focus sometimes prevents her from hydrating properly. (Singularity of purpose is a trait that she gets from both of her parents, for better and worse, as it happens.)

There were 5 hard shoe dances to complete, one right after the other, and she was understandably breathless when she was finally finished. I unlimbered some of the lunch Audrey had packed for her while she got out of her solo dress, and she dug into a container of coleslaw while I noshed on a chicken and brie baguette beside her.

Her spirits lifted by food, she went to retrieve her results, coming back with a handful of hardware. Out of seven dances judged, she had earned six medals: two bronzes, three silvers and a gold!

As always she wished she had done better, but admitted it had been a while since she had received any silvers, so this indeed felt like progress.

There does not appear to be much rhyme or reason (or at least, none in Glory's eyes) as to why some dances are for medals while others are for trophies, but they only get announced when all the morning's competitions have finished, and all competitors must be present and in their solo dress in order to receive their prizes.

It turned out she had gotten 7th with her treble reel...

And 2nd for her treble jig!

As happy as she was with that placing, she was even happier that a classmate had won one of the big perpetual trophies

The team dances couldn't begin until all the solo dances were finished, and this ended up taking an astonishing five hours to complete, testing the patience of dancers, parents, teachers and judges alike. We took our leave of the hall for a while, checking the wares of the various vendors, and eventually meeting up with Auntie Tara, who had come in to watch the team dances.

Victory in team dancing continues to be an elusive goal for Scoil Rince Mahoney, but it feels like progress is being made, and Lori, their instructor, is certainly keeping a wary eye on their development.

From my point of view though, it is still amazing to watch the intricate interplay of these young ladies, especially when you know how much effort goes into memorizing it, let alone the execution.

"Five hours for last place?" one of her teammates moaned, and yes, that is certainly a bittersweet ending to a long day. But there are still two more feis's left in the season, so hope springs eternal.

In the meantime, I can express my pride and admiration for the hard work and composure Glory displayed in achieving her results today, and look forward to my next turn as dance dad!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Dis, Gehenna, and High School - 13 Reasons Why, Reviewed

On the recommendation of a co-worker, the family and I checked out a Netflix series called 13 Reasons Why. I couldn't in good faith call it a completely enjoyable experience, but it was some remarkable television that I would highly recommend to just about anyone interested in the medium.

13 Reasons Why is an adaptation of a young adult novel of the same name by Jay Asher. It was executive produced by pop artist Selena Gomez and was originally envisioned as a movie with her as the lead, but was expanded to a 13 episode series with a wholly new cast.

The story opens with 17 year old Clay Jensen receiving a set of cassette tapes (yes, cassette tapes!) recorded by Hannah Baker, a classmate, co-worker and crush who had committed suicide some time prior. Using 13 sides of 7 cassettes, she outlines the 13 people behind her decision to take her own life. The listener is one of those titular 13 reasons, and after listening to all the tapes, they are asked to give them to the next person in sequence.

So, as you've probably guessed, it ain't exactly a comedy.

Despite being some extremely tough viewing, I cannot say enough good things about this show. It may be the most brutally honest cross-section of the tribulations of teenage life ever committed to the medium, and is extraordinarily compelling viewing.

It's compelling because of the story's refusal to portray anyone involved solely as a high school stereotype. Jocks, introverts, geeks and rich kids all unfold into rich, layered and conflicted characters, none of whom act stupidly, although most act selfishly at one time or another, including Clay and Hannah.

As Clay learns more and more about Hannah's torments and his classmates' roles in them, he becomes more and more disturbed, acting out in larger and larger ways. Meanwhile, those who have already listened to the tapes, a disparate group of individuals linked only by a shared knowledge of a suicidal girl, try to figure out what Clay will do with his newfound knowledge, and work to protect their own interests.

Dylan Minnette's portrayal of shy, insecure, and tortured Clay Jensen is absolutely riveting. He brings a grounded and nuanced performance that runs the spectrum of adolescent emotion from disaffected to furious which never feels forced. Similarly, Katherine Langford's turn as Hannah Baker is amazing; smart, cute, insightful and compassionate, you know she deserves better than the fate that awaited her even before the series begins, and feel helpless watching the events unfold that lead her to commit suicide. It is nothing short of heartbreaking.

Along the way, 13 Reasons Why addresses all the concerns you perhaps remember from your own high school years: fitting in, finding someone special, avoiding those who take pleasure from the discomfort of others. But it also takes an unflinching look at the darker side: bullying, violence, mental illness, rape, and , obviously, suicide. It's a harsh ride in many places but worth undertaking.

Structurally, the show is nothing short of brilliant, weaving in Hannah's backstory and the current consequences of her tapes in a way that keeps you glued to the screen, The transitions between the now and then of the story are handled adroitly, with imaginative transitions that the four of us commented aloud upon more than once.

It is not all gloom, doom and angst; the characters depicted are sharp, smart kids. The dialogue rings true and there are some funny bits, and the soundtrack is fabulous, with lots of deep cuts from the 80s, both covers and originals. There is no denying that the program has an affect, however, which we are still feeling hours after having completed it.

You could make an argument that a show like this should be required viewing by high school student, and it is with mixed emotions that I note how many of the sixth graders in Audrey's school are already watching it. There are some frank depictions of teenage sexuality and a lot of f-bombs in there that will be off-putting to some viewers (and their parents), but if you work with youth, or have children of or close to that age, especially if you are a teacher or a guidance counsellor, I would strongly suggest you watch 13 Reasons Why. I won't lie: watching it with the girls, one of whom will probably be starting a new high school in the fall, was pretty tough sleddin' at times. But I am glad we all did it together, and gladder still we could talk about the points brought up in it.

If you don't fit any of those pigeon-holes, but appreciate a well-told story with imaginative visual chops and a commitment to a realistic depiction of the social and emotional minefield that is high school that pulls absolutely no punches, then give the series a shot. We watched all 13 episodes within about 10 days of starting, which should give you an indication of just how coercive an experience it was.

Be advised that despite being an adaptation of a novel, there is every likelihood of a second season, which I personally found a little disappointing. Not every plotline gets resolved, and if you like your series to have a pretty little bow tying everything up, well, you might just be left high and dry in that regard, sunshine. Having said that though, if a second season should come to pass,  I will be there with bells on.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pulpitations: In The Midst Of Life...

It still makes me as nervous as all get out, but I've actually come to enjoy delivering sermons. Subbing in for our minister a couple of times a year is great public speaking experience and an all too rare opportunity to ponder ancient ideas and try to extract something meaningful that will resonate in modern ears.

Last Sunday's readings were about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and Ezekiel's vision of The Valley of Dry Bones. The gospel tale is familiar to most folks even if they've never set foot in a church, but the Hebrew scriptural tale is known to many of us thanks to the tune of an old spiritual:

(Rain Man is a good movie, I think, but it's an even better soundtrack, and that song is one of the reasons.)

It's fascinating to read what scholars and interpreters have wrung out of these millennia old tales, and they can often provide a context difficult to conjure for most of us 21st century types. For many of us, the idea of a valley filled with skeletal remains will barely make the needle quiver on the ol' Horrorscope, but nearly 3000 years ago, when burial rites were something you wouldn't even deny a hated enemy, one has to assume it would have far greater implications for the listener. So that's a bit of what I went with in my sermon.

In the Midst of Life...

Media vita in morte sumus.
That is to say, “In the midst of life, we are in death.”

It’s a sentiment used as an antiphon in church singing and chants going back more than a thousand years, commonly sung during the 3rd to 5th Sundays in Lent, in fact.

It’s an easy sentiment to appreciate, because it’s true, and it’s always been true. Humans have lived under the shadow of their own mortality since pretty much the beginning of humanity, regardless of whether you are looking in the fossil record or the book of Genesis.

Beyond the fear of death, many cultures are fearful as to what happens to our remains afterwards. This is beyond any hopes or fears about life after death, which, sorry folks, I am not even getting into today!

A lot of the ancient peoples, including the Israelites, held that the proper interment of remains was vitally important. In fact, the worst thing you could promise an enemy was to leave their remains on the battlefield instead of being buried or entombed. A curse in Deuteronomy assures covenant breakers that their “corpses will become food for all the birds of the air and for the beasts of the field, with no one to frighten them off.”

The dead were usually interred quickly, within a day, unembalmed, as much for their spiritual well being as for the prevention of ritual impurity among the living.

“In the midst of life, we are in death.”

It’s true, in many ways, we are surrounded by death.

We see reports from conflict zones in Syria, Eastern Ukraine, South Sudan, and see the body counts rise horrifically.

It seems like every other week there is a terrorist attack like the one in London recently.

Even in our community, we read the papers and read about terrible crimes, of passion and dispassion alike, leaving a trail of lost lives and traumatized memories.

Worse yet, you can’t escape into television even if you avoid the news! Death is all pervasive there too. In the past you had Six Feet Under, and Dead Like Me, now you have your choice of any number of vampire soap operas, iZombie or The Walking Dead, possibly the most popular show on television right now.

Beyond literal death, we invoke un-life on a regular basis in our harried, worrisome lives.

“I didn’t get much sleep last night, I’m dead on my feet today.”

“It’s so dead in here today.”

“Poor thing, she is just dead tired.”

“He is dead-set against that guy leading the party.”

“Did you catch that flu bug going around? You look like death warmed over…”

“Stephen is just beating this point to death…”

Death is pervasive, there is no denying it; “in the midst of life, we are in death.”

Death takes center stage in our scriptures today too.

In our Gospel reading, John tells one of the most significant stories of Christ’s workings, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

It is incredibly dramatic, you could easily imagine parts of it depicted in a movie trailer. The disciples warning Jesus to stay out of Bethany, lest he be stoned! “Lord, if you were here, my brother would not have died.” (Pack your bags, you’re goin’ on a guilt trip!) And what a shot could be made out of one of the shortest verses in the Bible: “And Jesus wept.”

You can’t show the story’s ending in the trailer, but who isn’t chilled by the thought of Jesus raising his voice and calling with a clear voice into the now open tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” And darned if the dead fella doesn’t do exactly that, still wearing the wrappings they bound him in. But before that happens, Jesus weeps, and this is important, because as we weep, God weeps with us.

In case those of a skeptical nature want to take the position that Lazarus was in fact just a heavy sleeper, or had perhaps fallen into some sort of coma, John takes special care to remind us that Lazarus has been in this cave for 4 days. Without food or water in the tomb, a sickly man would surely have perished, but more importantly, in the Jewish tradition, the body and soul part ways after three days. What Jesus has done isn’t just special, it is miraculous.

It is the high point of Jesus’s ministry in many ways, rife with allegory. It is a key moment in the Gospel narrative, as after this point those in opposition to him quickly move to have him killed. Jesus bringing the dead back amongst the living also echoes the famous passage we heard from Ezekiel.

Ezekiel relates the story of his being taken in spirit by God to a valley filled with bones. Some translations call it “the” Valley of Dry Bones, imbuing it with some significance. Is there a Valley of the Moist Bones? Ick. Maybe this valley is a battlefield, maybe a bunch of cadavers just happened to end up there, who knows. What is important is just how unnatural it is.

It’s an ominous scene to us now, a valley full of bones, but imagine how it must have appeared to Ezekiel, a man who would have felt that even his enemies deserved a proper burial, and whose culture perhaps didn’t trivialize death and body parts the way ours does. I imagine it was pretty horrifying!

To make matter worse, God springs a pop quiz on our boy Zeke, asking him if the bones could live. Ezekiel, being no one’s fool, wisely hedges his bets with the scriptural equivalent of a shrug, saying, in essence, “God only knows”.

God then tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, telling them that God will restore movement, and flesh and finally breath to them. Ezekiel, being a faithful servant to God, does exactly this, and is probably not surprised when things unfold just as foretold. He describes the rattling heard as the multitude of bones begin coming together, ‘bone to its bone’.

Quick sidebar: how many of you, right now, are thinking of a particular spiritual that outlines the connecting of ‘them bones, dem bones, dem dry bones’? “Ankle bone connected to the leg bone/ leg bone connected to the knee bone/ knee bone connected to the thigh bone”? Just me? No matter, but like the songs says, “now hear the word of the Lord”!

After the bones come together, and Ezekiel preaches the breath into them, God reveals that he is not creating a legion of the undead, but is merely illustrating a metaphor: “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’”

Ezekiel is then commanded to proclaim once again, this time for real, this time to tell the people of Israel, living in exile in Babylon, that God will open their graves, He will bring them out of their graves, and return them to their native soil.

He gives hope to a people in bondage.

Part of me wonders- of the two amazing things we heard from the scriptures, which is the more miraculous; the raising up of a body without life, or the instilling of hope into a people who had none?

In the end, it doesn’t matter much, as they both come from the same source, and in much the same way: a messenger delivering the will of God, the word of God, the very breath of God.

We enjoy tremendous, almost unparalleled freedoms here in 21st century North America, but we still live in bondage, bondage to fear. Fear of chaos, fear of exile, fear of change, fear of the Other, and yes, fear of death.

Worst of all, there are those who propagate these fears, not because they share them, but because there is some political or financial benefit to be wrought from our fear.

A non-binding motion condemning Islamophobia was passed in the House of Commons last week, but not unanimously, and without a lot of popular support as 42% of Canadians were opposed to it.  Those opposed did so for a variety of reasons, semantics, precedent, or catering to bigotry.

As our neighbours to the south struggle to get anything done in government, and as the jibes amongst Conservative leadership candidates get more and more barbed, the level of divisiveness is almost overwhelming. It can leave a person without hope, feeling as one dead. There is a temptation to stop Lazarus on his way out of the cave and say, “You don’t wanna come out here, buddy; in fact - make room in there for one more.”

There are days when I need God’s breath to enter me, as it entered those bones that He raised up in Ezekiel’s vision.

The same breath that reanimated the house of Israel.

The breath in the voice of Jesus, commanding Lazarus to come out of the tomb.

Deep in my cave of fear, my valley of hesitancy, my tomb of loneliness, I need to feel that breath, hear that voice.

It takes a bit of bravery, like it did for Thomas when he said to the other disciples, “Let us go, that we may die with him.”

And it can be tough, but if I try, if I strain, I can hear it - no, feel it. A compulsion to remain hopeful, to maintain some kind of optimism, to have faith that I am not yet dead, and that others have felt the same stirrings.

And working together, we can accomplish God’s will, and accomplish things that might seem impossible now, but will be called miraculous later.

“In the midst of life, we are in death.” It’s still hard to refute. But what impedes us more as we try to build the world God wants for us: death, or the fear of death?

Think about it, and then consider how many times in the Bible we are told to ‘fear not’.

As the season of Easter draws near its end, with death and resurrection yet to come, let us never forget: with God as our breath, and Jesus as our teacher, we can rise again, out of despair, out of hopelessness, out of the many tombs we find ourselves in.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Spring Break 2017 - Return to Radium

So here's the thing: you're feeling like a dip in the hot springs whilst the spawn are out of school, but Miette is closed for the season and Banff is crowded even when Parks Canada isn't giving away free passes for the sesquicentennial, so despite the risk of the adventurous becoming rote we returned like spawning salmon to Radium Hot Springs. Should we come back yet again at this time of year, I am listing the following reminders about the place for myself, and posting them publicly in the hope that others may find them useful, or at least distracting.

The drive from home to Radium is 8 hours via the Icefields Parkway, not 6.
Damned if I know how I got that mixed up, but it meant a speedy peregrination through the passes in order to get to the aquacourt before closing time, let me tell you. Not so much that we couldn't stop for a selfie at a scenic viewpoint though.

A soak in the hot springs with your family is an ideal way to unwind after a long drive.
Seriously, if not for the pruning I would be there still.

Entering into a semiconscious state while floating may result in your facial hair getting braided, unbeknownst to you.
Between the high concentrations of minerals in the spring water and the fact that my body is probably 30% lipids, buoyancy comes easily to me and I have often wondered if it might be possible for me to actually enter an alpha state of light sleep while floating on my back. Attempts to determine this are usually undermined by the aforementioned spawn doing something they find amusing, whether it is turning me over in the water and comparing me to a deep-fried Dutch confection called ollie bollen or attempting to style my chest or facial hair, and then photographing same.

Horsethief Creek Pub And Eatery stops serving minors at 8:30.
Arriving in Radium at about 7:00, we decided to get in a dip before heading out to dinner, and having given up red meat for Lent, I was (surprisingly) really looking forward to their veggie burger, a hearty patty made out of spinach and egg, but when they asked if our girls were of age, we were foolishly honest and ended up getting takeout pizza from across the highway instead. The silver lining? Wildside Pizza was really good, and they had one of those F'real milkshake machines what let you set the thickness of your beverage (which facilitates the adding of potables one may have brought for such an occasion, such as a delightful toffee whiskey), and of which we availed ourselves the following evening.

There's more than one way to dry a swimsuit.

'Nuff said, I suppose.

There is a lovely walking trail alongside Sinclair Creek.
The lady at the liquor store suggested we take walk this way now that it was finally dry enough, and it is lovely. We drove down past the sawmill because I was simply not up to the elevation changes inherent to the other route, and enjoyed about an hour-and-a-half''s worth of creekside stroll full of educational tidbits provided by the guidepost mascot, Alvin the alevin (the larval form of the kokanee salmon.
In addition to the fresh air, exercise and gorgeous scenery, it was worth it just to able to introduce the expression 'yolk sac' into the family lexicon.

I'm still astonished at how well these two girls get along.

I also appreciate how Google artists up my snapshots every once in a while, although it is maybe a little unsettling to boot.

'Escape terrain' is a term used to describe geographical or topographical features used to evade predators.
I've done this for years in video games, and finally have a name for it. In this case however, it refers to the hoodoos used by mountain goats and sheep to stay out of the reach of cougars and coyotes.

Bighorn sheep are impressive despite their ubiquity.
It took us a while to see the first few, but then it seemed like there was a herd to be spotted fairly regularly.

They are gorgeous and inspiring animals, and their bearing is difficult to articulate, never mind duplicate.

Old-timey cutout photos can still be fun.
I shared this one of the girls on Instagram with a caption about "Kids sometimes get your goat."

And although Audrey was purportedly amused about my referring to her as a cougar, it turns out that jokes about underpassing were out of bounds.
She's a good sport though.

For a small town, one can eat damned well in Radium.
There are two German restaurants (one we dined at last year, and other we will try out when we return to the area for camping in August), a Hungarian diner, a first-rate coffee shop, an English pub I have yet to try, and my favourite, the Fired Burgers and Breakfast Place (F'd Up BBP for short). The two best examples from this go-round were Glory's banana-stuffed French toast...

...and my Monte Cristo Eggs Benny.

It's not quite OEB, but that place is just too far from here, and Fired Up has less of a line up, at least this time of year.

Sinclair Canyon is amazing.
It's like this mythical stone gateway to a valley of wonderment; I can only imagine what it must have felt like passing through here in the cowboy days.

The iPad is the second best thing to bring on a road trip, after one's family.
Having driven the whole way out and through the Icefields Parkway during a winter storm on the return leg, I felt entitled to decamp to the back seat with Glory and watch Captain America: Civil War on the iPad during the less-than-riveting Hinton to Edmonton portion of the journey.

There's a lot worse ways to close out a three-day mini-vacay than that, I can assure you.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

It Appeared Mysterious-Lee

Sometime around Christmas, a package arrived without fanfare nor identifiable origin. It was a bright red box adorned with the famous signature and telltale sunglasses of pop culture icon Stan Lee.

Being a fan of the man (yes, in spite of his many flaws and almost embarrassing relentless assault of self-promotion), I tore into it right away.

The box contained items from the "Stan Lee Collection", a swath of knicknackery and apparel that was staggering in both range and whimsy:

A letter welcoming me to the association of "Friends and Fans of Stan", praising me for my judgment and insight.

A reprinted comic featuring The Inhumans (coming soon to Marvel TV) and a lithograph featuring The Man himself in a pose reminiscent of his most famous creation.

A trio of items featuring Stan's ubiquitous expression "Excelsior!", a pin, badge, and collectible coin (with a comic cel insert).

Then a ring (a really nice weighty one too), emblazoned with the selfsame exclamation, and a membership card, and an...ocarina? Of doom, apparently? Like I said, whimsical.

And a high quality notebook embossed with a caricature of Smilin' Stan, and possibly the oddest item, a set of shirt buttons, spelling out S T A N  L E E. Crazy! But cool nonetheless. There was also a cute figurine shaped like a soda can, but it went very quickly to my desk at work.

Oh, and maybe my favourite current tshirt:

I've approached those I thought most likely to have provided this windfall, but they have all professed ignorance (and in one case, a degree of jealousy).

If you are the benefactor in question and happen to be reading this, thank you very much! I really appreciate this strange assortment of items in honor of a major influence and creative legend.

One of my favourite little things in it is this passage in the welcome letter, outlining Stan's Code of Conduct:

Word to live by, right up there with "Face front, True Believer!"

Excelsior, indeed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Marvel's First Misstep? - Iron Fist, Reviewed

Well, it was bound to happen, I guess; Marvel has finally misstepped. Netflix’s Iron Fist is not just a poor comic adaptation, it is pretty poor television across the board.

It pains me to write this, because I was beyond thrilled when a C-level Marvel Comics hero spawned in the 70s was chosen to round out Netflix’s ‘Defenders’ lineup. Because he had the most fantastical origin, which involves leaving the monastery where he was raised in order to battle a dragon barehanded and steal its power, it made sense to leave him until the end of the batting order after Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. But amidst all the hubbub about cultural appropriation and whitewashing, the showrunners committed a far greater sin: they made a boring show. About a comic book character.  And not just any comic book character, oh, no.

You see, when writer Matt Fraction teamed up with Ed Brubaker to create a new book for Danny Rand’s alter ego ten years back, he was asked what makes the character a good fit for comics. His reply was reputedly, “What, are you kidding me? Kung fu billionaire.”

I don't know how you make that boring, but Netflix and showunner Scott Buck? They managed to find a way.

There are hints of a family struggle as Danny Rand (Finn Jones), returning to New York after being presumed dead for 15 years, tries to reclaim the birthright of his father’s corporation from the son and daughter of dad’s former business partner. The fact that he is also the legendary Iron Fist barely comes into play the first few episodes.

Obviously I can only speak for myself, but I did not actually tune into a show about a kung fu billionaire in order to watch protracted scenes of boardroom machinations and familial skullduggery. But for a while, that's what you get.

The family drama is not uninteresting, but takes far too much time to unspool, and worst of all, I found myself not caring too much about any of the characters, including Danny. There are a few unexpected moments that perk things up from time to time, but on the whole, things just take too long to happen, something not altogether uncommon for Netflix’s Marvel shows, sadly.

The biggest problem though, is Finn Jones himself. His Danny Rand goes from Zen-like grace and compassion to a man needing anger management with very little in the way of rhyme or reason (although that may be a factor of multiple writers over the season). He is not a particularly expressive thespian, and spends way too much time sulking pensively.

And, worst of all, he isn't a very good fighter.

Don't get me wrong, dude is fit and all, and some of the blame needs to go to the directors, and I appreciate you sometimes have to spend a little from the Laurence Olivier stack in order to bump up the Jackie Chan pile, but the kung fu is lacking in both quality and quantity. In fact, I think there are some episodes where you get more hands being thrown in the animated opening credit sequence than in the rest of the episode. Seriously.

Now, Jones is an actor, not a fighter, and soft, circular forms like kung fu are much harder to pick up than hard linear forms like karate, but ask anyone who has seen both shows who would win in a fight between Daredevil and Iron Fist, and no one is going to say ‘Danny Rand with a k.o.', I assure you.

There are a few other things that burned me up: inconsistent powers for a major villain, a cell phone plot hole near the end, the lack of comic book influence beyond the title character, and so on.

So why watch it? I mean, besides being a glutton for punishment like me, I mean? Well...
  • Colleen Wing, played by Jessica Henwick (a former Sand Snake from Game of Thrones) is absolutely awesome: beautiful, tough, compassionate, complex, and good at kicking ass barehanded or slinging around a katana. 
  • Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) aka Netflix’s Agent Coulson returns. She is not only great in her role (as usual) but also gives Iron Fist a chance to pass the Bechdel Test, surprisingly. (Hey, here’s an idea: team up Colleen with Misty Knight from Luke Cage like they do in the comics (as The Daughters of the Dragon), add Claire to the mix and give them their own show. I would watch the hell out of that!)
  • The first time Danny summons the Iron Fist, it is actually pretty cool.
  • Complex motivations - Danny’s childhood friends, Joy and Ward Meachum, alternate between being his rivals and his allies in his return to Rand Corporation, and are far more than just villainous cutouts or potential love interests. Their relationship with their own father takes a number of twists and turns over the course of the series.
  • The episode directed by Wu Tang Clan's RZA, "Immortal Emerges From Cave", is not bad at all, with intriguing opponents, some imaginative production design and set dressing, and a couple of visual nods to Fraction's "Immortal Iron Fist" run.
  • About ten seconds of smuggled b&w footage taken by the Chinese military in the 1940s that tease what might yet come.
  • They do build a larger story leading up to The Defenders, aka Netflix’s Avengers. Fingers crossed?
I'm not giving up on Iron Fist yet, I have too much invested in the character and there is sooooo much good stuff to be wrung out of the comics: the legends and legacies of the many Iron Fists that preceded Danny! The Steel Serpent! The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven! The Immortal Weapons Tournament! Fat Cobra!

Whoever is running The Defenders gets another stab at the character before any decisions get made about a second season, and hopefully that sets Iron Fist back on course a little bit. If a second season dos get greenlit here are my suggestions for having the Living Weapon of K’un L’un get his mojo back:
  • New showrunner- sorry Scott Buck, I just don't think you get it. Is Steven DeKnight free? Could RZA run a show if Jeph Loeb reined him in a bit?
  • Yeah, you guessed it - MORE KUNG FU
  • And better kung fu, for that matter. Get Yuen Woo-Ping and his wire wizards from The Matrix on the case. Use slow mo creatively, strive for longer takes, get some wild angles in there.
  • Improved Iron Fist f/x: and I'm quoting here: “until that hand begins to smoulder, to glow, and to harden...until it becomes...LIKE UNTO A THING OF IRON”. Make the glow bigger, make it hotter, give it a sound effect, make it a bigger deal.
  • The Costume: use it, man, use it. Let comic shows look like comics for pity's sake.
  • And this goes for the rest of the Netflix Marvel crew as well: try to smile just once in a while, huh? Surely there is some joy to be had in being a super-powered so-and-so? I mean sure, Daredevil has his guilt, and Jessica Jones has her PTSD, but Danny Rand? Kung fu billionaire? Can we make him just a smidgen more fun to be around?
Luke Cage? Don't change baby, just get out of jail and bring some righteousness to The Defenders; they might need it.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Saints Preserve Us - Vernal Geekquinox 2017

Because of its proximity to St. Patrick's Day this year, Pete declared that the theme for this Geekquinox would be "Drinking With The Saints". In addition to the always extraordinary culinary component, each course would be paired with a signature libation.
The amount of effort and attention the our host puts into these shindigs simply cannot be overstated, and it is a joy to watch him work his way through the menu. Sometimes it calls for specialized equipment, such as the gloves and goggles needed while chopping habaneros for salsa.

Sometimes the situation requires a small amount of actual derring-do, as when he rose to the occasion while decanting the delightful Licor 43, a vanilla-scented liqueur from Brazil.

Or chopping onions and peppers and placing them atop marinated pork before wrapping the entire affair in banana leaves so they stay moist while cooking in his Big Green Egg bbq/smoker.

Some of the dishes presented were an explosion of colour, such as the rodizio chicken. (Need I mention that it was also succulent and delicious?)

But one of the night's favourites, by all accounts, was one of the simplest; the pan seared scallops.

The drinks likewise encompassed a broad swath of styles and tastes, from pickleback bourbon... the elegant Aviation cocktail, probably the best-smelling concoction I have ever imbibed. It brings together an artisanal gin (in the most art deco bottle I have ever seen), creme de violette and maraschino liqueur to tremendous effect and garnished with a brandy soaked cherry; a real Gatsby-level cocktail to be sure.

I couldn't help but notice the absence of St. Hubertus from Pete's list. This patron saint of hunters is famed for seeing the vision of a cross between the antlers of a great stag, an image which now graces the bottle of a somewhat infamous potable. Being a gracious host, he allowed me to rectify the oversight during a lull in the proceedings. He even let me bust out a bit of verse for the occasion:

A Visit From St. Hubertus

T’was the evening of Geekquinox, and all through Pete’s pad
There were appies, libations and laughs to be had
We arrived just in time, and our fellow guests beamed
For our host had us drinking with saints as a theme

I perused the rich menu with both foods and potables
But I discovered an absence I considered quite notable
Some saints were there listed with imbibable purpose
But no trace could I find of the great St. Hubertus!

Pete confessed this not a purposeful omission
It was space, not intentional sin of commission
Last year's Canada theme was a hit with geography
But Hubert’s absence struck me as poor hagiography

Hubert, you see, was a huntsman in Germany
Whilst out in the woods a great stag he did chance to see
But a cross twixt its antlers did cause him to stay
And a herb based elixir is his legacy today.

Thankfully this shortcoming was anticipated
To add to Pete's party left me feeling elated
I rushed to the downstairs and into the freezer
And brought up a green glass of party increaser.

“Eat stew and fried green beans, eat endives and chicken,
Eat scallops, eat pretzels, but whatever you’re pickin’,
Stay true to the saints, don't bow out like a shyster
Step up to Pete’s bar for some cold J├Ągermeister!”

The shots were all poured and imbibed in a line
And while not all partook, all there had a good time
You could hear folks proclaim as the glasses were cleared up
“That's pretty good stuff, though it tastes of cough syrup!”

Of course, there are others who have a differing interpretation of this divine vision, particularly if they have become inspired to partake of multiple servings:
As always, a wonderful time with wonderful people. Thanks again Pete!