Saturday, November 17, 2018

Blended Retro Fun - Muse's Simulation Theory, Reviewed

Look, I'm not going to apologize for liking Muse's previous album Drones, okay? In the context of a band that is clearly addicted to change, moving from The 2nd Law to a more stripped down, blues-rock-driven album makes a certain degree of sense to me, and will always be one of those albums that sounds better the louder it's played.

But in retrospect, it is true that something is missing from their most thematic effort: fun. Perhaps that's not surprising for an album based on the dehumanization of modern warfare, but its seriousness makes Drones stand out in a discography built as much on playfulness as experimentation.

Muses's latest album, Simulation Theory, isn't necessarily a return to form, only insofar as the trio's mercurian nature seems to prevent them from having such a thing. You can safely say that the return of synthesizers and other electronic instrumentation feels a bit more in line with a 'typical' Muse album, but this time around the principal tool is actually a blender.

Simulation Theory blends a lot of things, principally musical eras. From the album's cover (by Stranger Things artist Kyle Lambert!) and many of the videos they released prior to the album, you won't be surprised to find a lot of the 80's up in here, but there are elements of '90s power pop, '70s guitar riffs and road-trip rhythms, and even record scratching reminiscent of the nascent days of hip-hop.

Genres are blended too, with lead off track Algorithm opening with a cinematic, synthesized bassline that The Guardian described as "none more jackbooted" and bears its nerdy, sci-fi roots proudly in the synthesizer leads before briefly turning things over to the graceful tinkling of a proper piano.

Thematically, much of the album deals with idea of our existence being a computer-driven artificial reality, but it isn't applied particularly coherently across the album. Since ST was produced one single at a time with a variety of producers, the simulation angle gives Matt Bellamy and company the ability to indulge themselves in whatever way they fancy, and to explore the idea of fantasy becoming reality.

For my part, I think Simulation Theory is Muse's most enjoyable album since The Resistance. Despite the sometimes jarring juxtaposition of styles and tempos, I've yet to find any skippable tracks, and the anthemic choruses of many of the songs make them a great fit for the band's high energy arena shows. (With any luck, I will go see them in Houston this February, so I will let you know how that works out.)

Most importantly though, the fun is back. Pressure is the catchiest Muse track since Knights of Cydonia, and incorporates some of the horns that made Panic Station so infectious, as well as some the fuzziest guitar I've heard from Bellamy yet. And the video featuring Terry Crews is straight-up brilliantly cheesy.

(What's that? Oh, you like horns? then check out this version by the UCLA Bruins Marching Band who backed the band on the deluxe edition of the album!)

Muse plans to release a video for every track on the album, actually, which I suppose makes suckers like me who buy physical media kind of suckers, huh?  But hey, you can try it before you buy it, and here are some of my impressions for no additional charge.

Road Trippiest Track: Something Human
A melancholy yet hopeful paean about finishing a long tour, this track somehow manages to blend Peter Gabriel rhythms, Kenny Loggins acoustic strums, and dreamy synths into a mellow yet insistently paced track. Those jangly beats and sing-along chorus make this a great highway song, or maybe it's just all the driving in the video.

Weirdest track: Break It To Me
Incorporating loosely tuned guitars, Arabian-themed vocal flourishes, a theremin, and the aforementioned record scratches, this may be the least accessible track on the album, and I still like it.

Vocal Treat: Darkside
Bellamy is renowned for his falsetto, used to great effect here, but he is also capable of richer sustained tones which we don't get too often. And you can't go wrong with another great bass line from Chris Wolstenholme and a wonderful '80s synth riff.

Slowest Burn: Propaganda
Full disclosure: the opening of this song kind of put me off initially, with its Cylon-vocoder-EDM-stutter-sample. It very quickly settles down and becomes, well, a Prince song, pretty much. And not a bad one at that - kind of a strange hybrid of the Paisley One's Kiss and Muse's Madness.

(Quick sidebar though: I have mad respect and appreciation for Prince, but if you're Matt Bellamy, why on earth would you want to be anyone else? Not that long ago, you could wake up and go, "Hey! I'm Matt Bellamy! I'm a musical polymath and bona-fide, electrified guitar hero who sold out Wembley with his schoolmates! I was married to Kate Hudson, who is not only gorgeous but also meant my father-in-law was Kurt Russell!" I mean, Prince is great and all, but dang...)

Most Persistent Earworm: Thought Contagion
Best bass line on the album, accompanied by a soaring vocal chorus that was originally based on a theremin solo, some dramatic tempo changes, and a strong video that includes a Thriller-inspired dance routine make this one of my favourite tracks on this album. Now if I could only get that chorus out of my head...

Simulation Theory is a genuine musical smorgasborg; if you don't like synths or retro vibes, I doubt it will change your mind, but there's probably a track on here for nearly everyone who likes prog or alt rock and at least tolerates electronica. Blockades has best elements of the score to Big Trouble in Little China and a chanting chorus reminiscent of We Will Rock You. Get Up and Fight starts out dreamy and poppy, then explodes in a cacophony of power chords and a wailed chorus like early Weezer.

As discomfiting as it can sometimes be to follow a band whose zig-zags can sometimes leave even dedicated fans spinning in their wake, what a delight is to be surprised once in while. I assume at some point we can expect a Muse album that mashes up disco and bluegrass, but int he meantime, this nostalgic and creative pastiche is a wonderful experiment that turned out well, at least for me.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Empty Soapbox - Stan "The Man " Lee, 1922-2018

It is extremely unlikely that the world of pop culture will ever have have as imposing a shadow cast over it as the one belonging to Stan Lee, who passed away today just 46 days shy of his 96th birthday.

The brightness of his life was occluded in his later years by financial squabbles and possible family difficulties, which seemed to be drifting towards resolution if not actually resolved. Such was the drama, in fact, that when Glory showed me the news of his passing this afternoon on her phone, my first reaction after sadness was relief, and the hope that he is at peace now.

My people, the nerds, speak of Stan in largely reverent terms, although not exclusively. There are certainly those who felt he did poorly by his co-creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and there is certainly evidence to back up some of those claims. There are those who characterized him as selfish, while others attributed it to emotional carelessness; spirits burned by the white-hot exhaust of his rocket powered career. Stan Lee was clearly a man who enjoyed describing his life less in terms of a heading and more about velocity and altitude.

Stanley Lieber began his comics career by doing no more than keeping the inkwells filled at Timely Comics, but got into writing two years later with a text-filler story about Captain America in 1941. He took the pen name "Stan Lee" because he wanted to save his birth name for greater things, like a play or proper novel. During the war, he wrote training manuals and films, one of nine men in the U.S. Army with the military classification of "playwright".

After the war, he returned to writing and editing a myriad of titles for what was now Atlas Comics, but his heart wasn't in it. With nothing to lose, he created characters like The Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man - costumed, super-powered individuals who also suffered through family squabbles and financial turmoil - creating the Marvel Universe in the process.

Moving swiftly from writer, editor and editor-in-chief and finally to publisher, Stan was a relentless proponent of the medium, doing interviews, tv spots, public speeches and even college lectures on comics, a field once thought of as so sordid that writers would rather be associated with pornography.

Had Stan been content to punch a clock, writing and publishing the same westerns, romance and funny animal comics he had been saddled with, who knows how different the world of pop culture may have been? Stan saw to it that even if you didn't read comics, you knew who Spider-Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk were: you saw them on lunchboxes, t-shirts and stickers. You saw their cartoons on Saturday morning television, and at one point, even heard the theme song of one of them on Top 40 radio. Later on it was toys, and after that, it was video games. Wherever a colourful story of good versus evil could be depicted, Stan saw to it that a Marvel hero was there - bright, dynamic, unmistakable.

And even as publisher, he still took the time to write Stan's Soapbox every month, letting Marvel Zombies and F.O.O.M.(Friends Of Ol' Marvel) members alike in on the behind-the-scenes happenings in the Marvel Bullpen, and explaining the philosophical underpinnings to what many regarded as escapist fare:

Instead of turning a blind eye to things like youth unrest, racism, bigotry and chauvinism, Stan called it out from the Soapbox, and empowered his writers and editors to do the same in the Mighty Marvel Manner. The fact that there are still those who think seeing diversity in comics is a mere sop to political correctness, and that the word "Comicsgate" is even a recognizable term is a slap in the face to the progress that Stan and others like him have made. But have no fear, True Believers - there are way more of us than there are of them, and we will win in the end. Bu don't take my word for; Stan said it himself, in one of the last videos he released just over a year ago:

Despite a number of terrible false starts, including the decade that a Spider-Man movie spent in the courts while James Cameron waited to write and direct a movie about him, Stan finally succeeded in bringing his creations to the big screen, first with 2001's Spider-Man, by Sam Raimi, and the later Marvel Studios movies that began in 2008 with Jon Favreau's Iron Man.

A decade later, there is far more to Stan Lee's legacy than the score of cameos he leaves behind in those Marvel movies, but I am glad for those cameos all the same. The reach and scope of cinema is far greater than that of comics, something The Man always acknowledged, and wherever his spirit resides, I am confident that Stan will will be grateful that his creations found that spotlight.

And I hope that future nerds will watch these films with their parents and grandparents and ask who that man is, and that most of them will say, "why, that's Stan Lee; he helped to create almost all these characters back int he late twentieth century." I don't know which MCU film will be the first without a Stan Lee cameo, but I am confident that when the realization dawns that I have just seen it, I am probably going to weep a little bit.

I don't know that Captain America: Civil War will have the staying power of something like Chaucer's The Miller's Tale or anything like that, but I know that character, and his humility, leadership and idealism has remained a part of our collective imagination for almost eight decades now. I don't think Peter Parker will ever displace Hamlet as the voice of moral consciousness, but I am confident that kids for generations will read the tale of a young man who tried to trade his gifts in for fame and fortune only to reap tragedy instead, and it will resonate with them in a way that the Dour Dane never will.

Stan held up a funhouse mirror to our lives and our world, lives which, if we were very fortunate, were humdrum, safe and ordinary. The images he held up were larger-than-life and more colourful than "reality", but we could still see our world and ourselves within its reflection. He strived to make the images bolder and the mirror bigger almost every day of his life, telling simple stories of good and evil in the biggest book or screen he could reach. These stories were meant primarily to entertain, but Stan knew they also presented the opportunity to moralize a little, a soapbox for idealism to an audience of young readers desperate for it.

He knew this audience and this opportunity represented great power, but he also recognized that with that great power...must also come great responsibility. And despite being a relentless huckster of wares and a blatant and shameless self-promoter, Stan Lee never shirked that responsibility, and pop culture in general, and millions of nerds in specific, are better for it. The soapbox may be empty for now, but it remains in place for new messages of positivity, idealism and heroism.

My greatest hope is that Stan knew how much adoration there was in the world for him despite his many troubles. Two weeks back, exalted fanboy first class Kevin Smith led a cheer via video from L.A. Comic Con to let him know exactly that:

I think that about says it all.

Thank you for everything, Stan Lee. Godspeed, and, of course, excelsior!

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Stan had a hand in creating some of the most iconic characters in comics, some of which Time magazine was good enough to list:

Heroes created by Stan Lee

• Ant-Man
• Ancient One
• Avengers
• Beast
• Black Panther
• Black Widow
• Captain Marvel
• Cyclops
• Daredevil
• Doctor Strange
• Fantastic Four
• Groot
• Hawkeye
• Hulk
• Human Torch
• Iceman
• Invisible Woman
• Iron Man
• Jean Grey
• Mister Fantastic
• Nick Fury
• Professor X
• Quicksilver
• Scarlet Witch
• Spider-Man
• Thing
• Thor
• Wasp
• X-Men

Villains created by Stan Lee

• Doctor Doom
• Doctor Octopus
• Green Goblin
• Kaecilius
• Kingpin
• Loki
• Magneto
• Sandman
• Vulture
• Whiplash

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Acclaimed comic writer Brian Michael Bendis recollects his interactions with Stan Lee in this wonderful comic-style New York Times piece.

Cartoonist Jon Rosenberg (Scenes from a Multiverse, Goats) recalls an interaction he witnessed at San Diego Comic Con:

One night at SDCC I was sitting in a lounge at someone's hotel, waiting for them. I don't remember the circumstances well, but I do remember Stan Lee walking through the hallway on his way to his room after a very long day.

An eight-year old kid ran up to Stan, and his chaperones moved to intercept. Stan waved them off and bent down to talk to the kid. I couldn't hear what they were saying but they talked for a while, took pictures. Stan signed something for him, and then he left.

This wasn't in front of a crowd of people. It was late, and Stan is very old, and SDCC is exhausting even for someone not in their 90s. But he stopped and gave this kid a few minutes he'll remember for the rest of his life. Not for personal gain, just because he loved to do it.

Anyway, that was the time I saw Stan Lee. He was a generous man who gave millions of kids something to be happy about. RIP.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Devil You Know? - Daredevil Season 3, Reviewed

Blind vigilante Daredevil made his debut on Netflix three-and-a-half years ago now, the first of four new 'street-level' shows set (ostensibly) within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Since that time, the movie side of that universe has swollen to the bursting point, while only half of the Netflix /Marvel stable remains.

I watched the third installment of DD within a week or so of it becoming available, and although it remains quality television even under its third showrunner, Erik Olesen, I didn't find it as compelling as its forebears. I think part of it was because it felt the least comic-y of the 4 previous ventures (including The Defenders).

The NMCU's refusal to return to the status quo has been the strong point of its best series, so having Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) using the presumption of his death at the end of The Defenders to abandon his civilian identity is a great jumping off point for S3. Having him heal up in the basement of a church in Hell's Kitchen evokes some of the imagery from Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli's Born Again series, a clear source of inspiration for this season. But a crisis of faith also sees him forsake his signature outfit - he eschews his comic look for the entirety of the season, choosing instead the Man In Black look from season 1 (and the updated comic origin story Man Without Fear, and maybe a little bit of the Dread Pirate Roberts for good measure).

But don't fret, you will still get see old Hornhead in action, as the newly introduced Bullseye wears the costume to discredit the hero with a series of ruthless and brutal attacks. Bullseye is one of DD's greatest foils in the comics, and his origin here is one of the high points of S3. Ably portrayed by Wilson Bethel, a short-lister for Captain America many years ago, he somehow manages to balance Bullseye's cruelty and lethality with a troubled childhood and a struggle with mental health issues. I won't say they make him truly sympathetic, but they make him understandable and relatable, and for someone who likes killing his targets with whatever he finds laying around, that feels like quite an accomplishment.

A hero is only as good as his villains, it is said, and pairing Bullseye with Vincent D'Onofrio's Kingpin proves to be almost too much for Murdock, and almost too much for me as a viewer. As a series, DD has never shied away from showing the brutal, murky and morally convoluted side of crime and vigilantism, but I found this season's level of darkness and cynicism almost unbearable. To be fair, this might have something to do with the even more depressing and divisive political situation we see in the news almost constantly, but watching Wilson Fisk's machinations play out, and the ease with which he is able to co-opt and corrupt decent people may be good storytelling, but it isn't necessarily a good time.

D'Onofrio's gravitas and semi-stilted vocal delivery take the Kingpin from being a caricature to something proto-Shakespearean, and his obviously sincere commitment to the love of his life Vanessa (Ayelet Zurer)  may be the only vulnerability he allows himself.

The real lynchpin to the story this season though is FBI agent Ray Nadeem, played by Jay Ali. A family man and loyal FBI agent with some financial troubles from helping pay for his sister-in-law's medical treatments, Nadeem is the one on hand when a prison assassination attempt prompts Fisk to begin providing valuable intelligence about organized crime. Hoping to parlay this leverage into a promotion at the bureau, he is quickly drawn into a web of complicity and truly fiendish choices.

Looking back on it now, I wonder if I was perhaps too harsh in my initial assessment; after all, it is a golden age of nerdy television right now, appealing to all tastes, and S3 of Daredevil has a lot going for it: great characterizations, a non-cookie-cutter storyline, and some of the best action sequences and fight scenes on tv. I just hope that next season they dust off just a smidgen of the grittiness, and bring in some of the adventure and joy I remember from the comics. There are hints of this in the coda to this season, so for now I guess it is a question of whether or not the Devil of Hell's Kitchen gets the opportunity to return for a fourth series.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Armo Virumque Canto

This post's title is the first line of Vergil's Aeneid, which translates from the Latin as, "I sing of arms and the man". Vergil is referring to the titular hero and his role in the Trojan War, but I couldn't help but think of it this morning in church as we sat and prayed for the 11 victims murdered in their synagogue the day before.

Every mass shooting will prompt a reflection in the U.S. on the 'right' way to bear arms in accordance with the 2nd Amendment to their Constitution, which seems an appropriate response, honestly, at least prior to its devolving into fractiousness, partisan finger-pointing and a collective shrug heralding a return to the status quo.

I had thought there was very little that the 45th President of the U.S. could do to surprise and/or disappoint me, but sure enough, he accomplished both yesterday when the Washington Post reported him as saying the following:
Earlier in the day, when asked whether he should revisit gun laws, Trump said, “this has little to do with it if you take a look. If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better.”
...When asked if he thinks that all churches and synagogues should have armed guards, Trump said it is “certainly an option.”
I have so many problems with this statement that I barely know where to begin, but my fear is that we are becoming so numb to nonsense uttered by the Dingbat-in-Chief that we no longer engage with it, rolling our eyes and murmuring, "well, what can you do?" So much fear, in fact, that I am setting aside my "no Trump in my blog" rule to address them.

First of all, what the actual hell? Is this the world we're looking for, where we are setting armed guards outside places of worship?  A balkanized, tribalized world, fearful of everything different? I suppose so, if your idea of a tidy organized workspace is in fact a corrupt police state.

Trump has already given us several indications that he would enjoy this a great deal, especially if he was in charge and no longer had to worry about pesky things like re-elections and could just do his thing Sinatra-style, like Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillippines (who today put the Bureau of Customs under Military Control) or Xi Jinping of China (back in March Trump said "maybe we'll have to give [President-for-life] a shot someday").

Worse still, given how Trump undermines confidence in governmental institutions and oversight, is how much comments like this will embolden fringe elements like American paramilitaries (militia movement, Freemen on the Land, Three Percenters, preppers) who already feel their country is on the verge of social collapse.

I would hate to think that Trump's reckless commentary was anything more than the deluded ramblings of a guileless narcissist, but what if he actually does have a larger goal? What if all the attacks, the hyper-partisanship and demagoguery and divisiveness is in service of a large narrative?

"Divide and conquer" is a strategy hearkening back to Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. Part of the reason we still talk about him (and his infamous offspring) is because this maneuver has proven successful time and time again. I sometimes wonder if the current mood south of the 49th is due in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement from  2011.

These protests drew together many disparate elements of American society; I remember Aaron Sorkin's program The Newsroom describing it as a potential "Arab Spring for the West". Obviously this was not to be, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that is was of sufficient scale to cause apprehension amongst the ruling class that no one wants to admit still exists in liberal democracies. And so the pendulum swings from progressivism to populism, and past it to tribalism and presidentially-endorsed nationalism.

Imagine if every synagogue, mosque and church felt compelled to follow Trump's advice, setting armed guards at their doors during their services and observances, turning away lapsed believers, curious neighbours, visitors, strangers. Growing communities that were once dynamic in their outreach become insular, static, and paranoiac.

(And to be clear, this would not apply to my privileged and largely homogenous community of faith - at least, not initially. We haven't been marginalized for a millennium-and-a-half, although we did get our start that way.)

Once thus divided, untrusting, and isolated, they become easy pickings when they become disruptive. Historically black churches fear to respond as synagogues become targeted, or feminists refuse to stand with trans women.

It galls me to think about how Trump's comments play into the historical arrogance that the Holocaust could never happen here. If only Poland had had a right to bear arms! If only the Jews had the foresight to smuggle arms into the ghetto, surely they could have stood up to panzers and Stukas of the Third Reich!

And yet, we watch children are locked in cages while their parents are deported without them, and troops are mobilized to secure the southern border against 7,000 Honduran refugees looking for a better life in a country that at one time had said:
"Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
And believe me when I say "we" and not "they"; if you think Canada is immune to this pernicious adversarialism while regressive, selfish, populist ideologies emerge across the globe, from the UK to Brazil.

Thankfully, there are wiser people around than myself, who point to solutions instead of inevitable despair. The mayor of Pittsburgh, addressing Trump's armed guards comment, replied that "I think the approach that we need to be looking at is how we take the guns — which is the common denominator of every mass shooting in America — out of the hands of those that are looking to express hatred through murder.”

I wish I was confident that this latest indignation, this freshest horror, would prompt a re-examination of priorities within our southern neighbour, but in all honestly, I gave up after Sandy Hook. If the gunning down of schoolchildren - which conspiracy theorists now brazenly report as 'fake news' - is an insufficient galvanic force, I can't imagine 11 middle-aged to senior minorities will merit even a pause.

The one thing Mayor Peduto said that did give me cause to hope was something I sincerely believe and agree with.
“We know that hatred will never win out — that those that try to divide us because of the way that we pray or where our families are from around the world will lose.”
Whether we are men or women; Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics or atheists; armed resisters or conscientious objectors, keep a wary eye out for those things that unite us rather than divide us. Keep the doors to your community open, and stand down your armed guards. I don't look for a lot of guidance in modern rock lyrics, but I believe Muse has the right of it in this instance: love is our resistance.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Once More Into the Boarding Torpedo - Return to Space Hulk

Space Hulk was the first Games Workshop game I ever bought. I had circled around their miniature games like Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 but was hesitant due to the lack of a clear starting point.

Sometime in 1990, the computer retail store I was working at got in a copy of the PC version and we demo'd it on one of the Compaq machines on display. We were encouraged to familiarize ourselves with such games, and I spent a few quiet mornings trying it out.

A very faithful translation of the tabletop version, you controlled a squad of Space Marines in Terminator armour as they attempted to rout the fiendish Genestealers from a the narrow corridors  of  a derelict spacecraft, or space hulk. With limited time and a clever foe, the marine player tries to balance out a limited number of actions between moving and combat in order to achieve their objectives.

The gothic atmosphere of this game set in the 41st millennium was on full display in the computer version, and the vaguely monastic briefings (recorded by GW game designer Jervis Johnson) were a real treat, with the Dark Angel commander exhorting his brother marines to bless their weapons and "purge with flame".

Encouraged by this first encounter, I soon after bought the first edition of the boardgame. It wasn't long before I'd taken my first stab at painting the Terminators and Genestealers that came in the box. When the first boxed edition of Warhammer 40,000 came out a year later, Island Mike and I both bought a copy. I traded him the Orks from my set for the rank and file Space Marines in his, and we started playing and building onto our armies.

Within a couple of years I had gone to work for Games Workshop and spent over ten years with them, with many models and games coming along the way. After leaving GW in 2007, I dropped in for a visit a year later and ended up purchasing a copy of the third edition of Space Hulk, and last night might have been the first time I actually played it.

Part of the reason for this is because it is a two-player game, and with limited opportunities to play, most of my friends and I prefer multi-player games. But Totty and I were the only ones available last night, and when I told him of my hankering to dust off this classic, he was keen to try it. Sadly, my plan to sub in my nicely painted Deathwing Terminators for the yet unpainted Blood Angels was upended by the fact that their bases are far too big to fit on the board spaces. Thankfully my extensive collection of Genestealers, from my Tyranid army, worked just fine.

Despite the infrequency of my playing Space Hulk, I've participated in the first scenario, Suicide Mission, numerous times, on computers and tabletops alike. I explained  to Totty that the Blood Angels needed to make their way to the control room in the upper left of the map and flame it to prevent Genestealers escaping the ship.

The game is intrinsically asymmetric; the Marine Terminators have tremendous firepower but are slow and ponderous, while the Genestealers are fast and nimble but have no ranged attacks at all. The Blood Angels player is also hampered by an egg timer, which exerts an undue amount of haste upon their turn, while the Genestealer player can take all the time they like. For these reasons, the ideal way to play Space Hulk is in paired games, with each player alternating between sides.

These insidious aliens start the game as amorphous "blips", so until they enter the line of sight of a Blood Angel, you don't know for sure if you are looking at one, two or three Genestealers. Three blips down a hallway might represent anything from three to nine enemies, complicating the ability of the Marine player to make anything approximating a plan.

Despite having far more experience than Totty, I accidentally exposed the Blood Angel with a flamer to a flank attack, which he quickly capitalized on, winning the game only three turns in. The speed of my defeat prompted me to ask for a rematch, and this time around I did manage to make my objective.

We then switched sides, with my opponent getting much further than I had in my first game, but losing similarly after the heavy flamer trooper fell under a hail of claws and teeth while negotiating a corner.

Totty appreciated (well, mostly, same as me) the tactical decisions that faced the Marine player at every turn: push forward, or set overwatch to thin out the Genestealer numbers instead? Keep the squad together or divide and conquer? With the hallways of the hulk only permitting single file, the order in which you deploy your Terminators is critical as well, and all the while, the clock is ticking - or the sand falling, in this case.

By 10:00; we had run Suicide Mission 3-4 times, and were ready to try the next scenario: Exterminate. It took us almost half an hour to reset the map, and this one was far larger and more complicated. The Marines begin dispersed amongst the various rooms, and need to stem the flow of Genestealers by moving to within six squares of their entry points. Totty did this at one end fairly quickly, but couldn't prevent me from killing one of his Blood Angel troopers, leaving his sergeant isolated from the rest of the battle. Eventually I was able to overwhelm the Marines at the other end, but the resolution was anything but inevitable as the Blood Angels on overwatch continued to blast my 'Stealers with impunity - at least for a while.

I didn't start my game as the Space Marine commander until after midnight, but after all the work of setting up the map, I couldn't imagine turning in without trying out the scenario. Thanks to some hot dice on overwatch and some fortunate placement of the Terminator with assault cannon, I eventually manged to win by destroying the very last of the Genestealers after Totty's reinforcements finally ran out.

Eager to turn in before the clock hit 2:00 am, I left the clean-up for the following day, but was hampered in my efforts to retire in a timely fashion by another kind of inter-species incursion in my sleeping area:

Playing Space Hulk again and introducing it to a someone else was a tremendous experience. Totty and I both left the table intrigued about future scenarios, which include new weaponry, mission-specific rules and even a boss for the Genestealers called a Broodlord. Two-player game nights are kind of rare, and that's all right, plus we also want to return to Totty's Battle of Britain game int he future, but I am confident that the two of us return to the labyrinthine corridors of the derelict code-named "Sin of Damnation" at some point!

I guess it's time to dust off my paintbrushes so the Blood Angels look a bit more presentable next time around.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Most Natural Thing in the World, Sadly

I wasn't the first fellow in my circle of friends to lose their father, but of late, there appears to be more and more of us dealing with the possibility or near-certainty of imminent mortality where our male parent is concerned.

One friend recently called to talk about it specifically because I had already gone through the experience and because our faiths are aligned along similar axes; we both believe in God, but neither of us believes in magic.

My dad's passing was sudden, whereas they discovered an astonishing number of tumors throughout his father's body at the beginning of treatment for something else, far too late to be treatable. The swiftness of my father's passing may have been a blessing, in a perverse reckoning of the term, and I certainly don't envy my friend having to witness his father going through this ordeal, but I also know that he is glad for the opportunity to be there for his dad, to lend him what strength and composure he can.

Something he has come back to time and time again, is the limits of preparedness and rationality. "You can tell yourself you're ready, but you aren't." How can one possibly prepare to journey alongside someone who looms so large in your life as they encounter the most trying circumstances of their existence?

During a visit, a well-intentioned but misguided person of faith kept telling his dad about the importance of faith, of how the very real possibility of a genuine miracle was not to be discounted. This was no doubt intended to be a comfort, but ended up having the opposite effect. My friend acknowledges that spontaneous remission, often under mysterious or unexplainable circumstances, can and has happened; his difficulty is in accepting a supreme being receiving endless submissions and petitions for mercy and selecting them based on some sort of piety scale. The offering left him angry and unsettled instead of hopeful and comforted.

Faith helps, but I think it is simplistic to call it a solution. The miracle I needed was to not lose myself in grief and confusion, and I did pray for it, and I got it, some of the time at least. That's a gift that reaffirms my faith without requiring magical intervention that circumvents the self-determination so critical to our humanity.

Faith helps. Faith in the knowledge, both rational and emotionally based, that our fathers went through this loss before us, and that our children are likely to do so afterwards. Faith that the end of our parents is not the end of all, much as we feared it was so when we were children. Faith that we will adapt to this loss as we adapt to so much else, and that even though we can't imagine it now, faith that we will laugh when recollecting them in the future.

Sadly, loss is the most natural thing in the world. This doesn't make it any easier to cope with, but can perhaps add some perspective, even if it comes after the fact.

Even though I consider myself a Christian, I have drawn tremendous comfort from faiths that are not my own, like the Buddhist stories found in collections like "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones". Here is the one I shared with my friend over the phone as we talked our way around the edges of the infinite and our inability to fully perceive it.

78. Real Prosperity 

A rich man asked Sengai to write something for the continued prosperity of his family so that it might be treasured from generation to generation. 

Sengai obtained a large sheet of paper and wrote: 'Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.' 

The rich man became angry. 'I asked you to write something for the happiness of my family! Why do you make such a joke as this?' ‘

No joke is intended,' explained Sengai. 'If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly. If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken hearted. If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life. I call this real prosperity.’

Retracing my feelings after my dad passed away six years ago hasn't been what I would call pleasant, but it's nowhere as tough as it was the last time I did so. That time was marginally easier than the time before that, and I expect that trend to continue. And I remember all the support I received from those around me, and recognize what a gift it is to be able to help others in that encounter. Whether talking, listening, or just being accessible, it doesn't feel like fulfilling a debt so much returning something borrowed, with appreciation rather than interest.

Wherever you draw it from: spirituality, philosophy, the love of friends or family or something else entirely, try to have faith as you face these challenges, and even as you help others to cope. The strength we draw from it, and from those around us, is real, and profound, and possibly as transfiguring as loss itself.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Most Civilized Dinner - Autumnal Geekquinox 2018

Due to some travel timing, Geekquinox was 1-2 weeks later than normal this year, but that is nothing but a good thing, for a couple of reasons.

The biggest reason is that it not only allowed all the usual suspects to attend, but permitted Rob to jet in from Ottawa for the first time ever, which was delightful!

Pete had sent out the theme, "Cradle of Civilization" a couple of weeks earlier. Not knowing how to incorporate Mesopotamian fashions into our dinner wear, I assumed this meant that Audrey and I would not be able to dress up like we often do.

Audrey had other plans, and leaning on the Fertile Crescent of the Nile region instead of the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates, she glommed onto a couple of Egyptian outfits courtesy of a co-worker with a costume dependency (like I should talk!).

Suitably attired, we were treated to a number of old (really old) world dishes by our host Pete. I was too busy having a good time and being impressed and rolling my eyes at the tastiness of what was being served to photograph all the dishes, sadly, but here they are in his own words and my commentary:

We started out in Lebanon, for Tabbouleh and Grape Leaf Rolls. I love tabbouleh, but it does involve a [shit]-ton of chopping, let me tell you! And since you want it fresh it's always a bit close to guests arriving. (I like tabbouleh, but would have put myself down as a 'meh' for grape leave until this night. Pete's version had firm, well-packed leaves that not only didn't fall apart when you bit them, but were brilliantly savoury as well.)

Then off to the North Mediterranean for some Saganaki, or flaming Greek cheese. They say you can do it with feta, and I tried, but at the last minute I also found some halloumi cheese at Superstore. The lesson here is stick to one kind of cheese; the feta was well liquefied and the halloumi wasn't gooey enough in the middle when I stopped. (To my mind this simply proves what I have long suspected: that it is nearly impossible to go wrong with toasted cheese, frankly. Very tasty, especially after squeezing some lemon juice onto it.)

Then some Roasted Eggplant with Tahini, Pine Nuts, and Lentils. It's kind of like a deconstructed baba ganouche. Tasty, and (though I didn't realize it until after I made it the first time and deemed it worthy) actually vegan. Not that I care, but you know. It's true. (Vegan food is not only edible, but can be tasty as well! Tell your friends. Seriously though, I was not expecting the creamy richness of the tahini; well done Chef Pete!)
After that it was the Middle East & Africa for Kofta & Aliyyeh, the beef-and-lamb kebabs with the cilantro walnut "pesto" sauce. A repeat, but thematic and really tasty so I didn't feel bad bringing it back. Followed by Ostrich in Blueberry Sauce. (The aliyyeh made a most welcome and appreciated return, but the ostrich was a real treat. The blueberry sauce also involved jalapenos so it was both sweet and spicy, and made a great complement to the meat, which I never would have guessed came from a birde; much closer to venison in both taste and texture than any chicken.)

The main course was from Ethiopia, which was Doro Wat (chicken stew), Sega Tibs (beef in onion paste), Injera bread (a kind of sourdough spongy flatbread), and finally Zebra... pasta in garlic and oil. There's probably zebras in Ethiopia, right? Actually it was just black-and-white-striped pasta, which I saw in the Okanagan in the spring and thought would be fun to use for Geekquinox. In fact it's probably the source of the whole Africa theme in the first place. (The zebra pasta made me uneasy only because it so strongly reminded me of the sandworms from the movie Beetlejuice. The Ethiopian dishes were tasty, spicy and saucy, so having a sourdough pancake on hand for wiping one's plate was ideal.)
Finally dessert came courtesy of Africa, specifically South Africa, in the form of koeksisters, essentially a wheat and corn flour braided donut, covered in a ginger cinnamon syrup. ("I ate the doughnut from Aaaaafrica  /Gonna take some Tums because it's almost two ay eh-hehe-hehe-hemmmm...")
The dining went until well past 1:00, another tradition, and the drinking and socializing a couple hours past that, for some of us anyways.

Pete always outdoes himself in terms of food and hospitality, but this time managed to get every single course to the table with no eliminations or substitutions, which is a most difficult trick (possibly the Geekquinox equivalent of a triple-play). More importantly, he delegated the late-night deep-frying to the two teetotallers in attendance, and even left himself enough time to sit down with a glass of wine in the middle of things (possibly a first).

In many ways, Thanksgiving is a perfect time for a Geekquinox - it's a time for family and friends,and friends who feel like family. Certainly I am thankful for both the friends and the opportunity, and most especially, the host - well done once again, sir!