Sunday, July 14, 2019

Looking Good and a Good Look at the North American Irish Dance Championships

At the Oireachtas this spring (a regional competition) Glory's dance team qualified for the North American Irish Dance Championships (NAIDC) held this year in Vancouver. Regardless of their chances of placing, their coach thought it was worthwhile to go - after all, this might be the only opportunity for some of them to go. I booked the time off and we arranged to camp on Vancouver Island afterwards. After a night's sleep in Kamloops and arranging to stow Bride of Frankentrailer at the city impound yard, we checked into the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver the day before their competition.

The competition was held at the Vancouver Convention Centre, an amazing facility by Canada Place, right on the seawall. All the other feis I'd been to had been at hotels, the hallways choked with dancers and spectators, but this one at least felt like it had sufficient room for the hundreds of dancers who'd come from as far away as Mexico and Australia.

Irish dance competitions feel like a strange mash-up between a track meet and fashion pageant; gym bags and water bottles are everywhere, and competitors not about to dance are divided between those applying stage makeup or false eyelashes to each other, and girls in t-shirts and shorts warming up or practicing their steps. It's all a bit surreal at times, but the amount of focus and determination in the air is positively palpable.

Various vendors are on hand as well, including the studio that designed the team dresses for Scoil Rince Mahoney, who the girls paid a visit to.

Another dressmaker promoted her work with a brilliant dress dedicated to the host city:

And a larger merch selection than most concerts.

As far as the dance itself went, the girls were happy to be the first of 33 scheduled competitors. They kept things tight and made no major errors, so they were happy, as was their teacher, Lori. Their goal was a modest one - don't come in last, and they didn't.

Afterwards, we killed some time taking photos around the convention centre, which also hosts the sculpture "Digital Orca."

And even the dance dads got in on one of the shots (with a little prompting)...

Afterwards, the girls changed into their team jackets and headed off down Burrard Street for dinner. If the huge hair and stage makeup weren't enough to turn heads along the way, what looked like roving glam-gangs probably was.

We may never return to as large a competition as this (although hope springs eternal!), so I'm glad our girls had such a good experience at these North American Championships!

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Adaptation and Campfire Cuisine

Following Glory's appearance with her team at the North American Irish Dance Championships in Vancouver, we hooked the Bride Of Frankentrailer up to the Flex and took the ferry across to Vancouver Island for a week of camping.

We are situated in a cozy little campsite at Whiskey Creek, about ten minutes from Qualicum Beach. Yesterday afternoon we dropped into their excellent local grocery, Qualicum Foods, to procure a handful of vittles and a bite to eat.

When I arrived at the table I saw that the ladies had arranged some egg/rice dumplings, some sushi, and what appeared to be a large rotisserie chicken but turned out, in fact, to be a massive serving of roasted potato wedges.

"It was supposed to be a 24 pack," Glory explained, "but the lady just kept stuffin' em in there..." Despite our well known appreciation for this humble tuber and our very best efforts, we could only account for about half of what we'd been offered.

"Pack them along in the cooler," I suggested. "Maybe I can fry them up for breakfast tomorrow along with pancakes."

The next morning saw us all sleeping in, however, and we left in a rush in order to get to the QB farmer's market. The spuds languished in an electric cooler that was struggling to keep things cool while condensation coated everything within due to the 80% humidity.

That evening, we roasted bratwursts over the fire and had a salad from the farmer's market garnished with a peach vanilla vinaigrette we'd found at the Goats on the Roof market in Coombs. When stowing the leftover dressing, I came across the mass of potatoes, and announced my intention to dispose of them, since we would be breakfasting on the road on our way to Ucluelet the next day.

As I was repacking the cooler however, Glory came over, picked up the bag and headed back to the fire. She selected a promising looking wedge, affixed it to the prongs of her roasting fork, and stuck it over the flames. "You never know..." she shrugged.

Five minutes later, she had a crispy and flavourful potato portion that was too hot to eat immediately, with just a hint of carbon around the edges. In fact,it was very better now than it had been originally.

Soon, both forks were in play, and in very little time at all, the four of us had finished off the errant potatoes. Kudos to Glory for for thinking outside the takeout box!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Pause, and Consider; Selah

Fenya has talked about getting a tattoo since her 2016 gap year in Churchill. She'd originally had plans for an image of a flag tree, a common sight up in the sub-arctic, where fierce north winds scour the north-facing branches off a tree, leaving it looking similar to a flag. It's a powerful image and great symbol or resilience and adaptation in the face of adversity, but in the end, she felt that half a year (and not even a winter) in that environment was insufficient justification for such a permanent souvenir.

This thoughtfulness is the reason I am unlikely to ever get a tattoo. Actually, my indecisiveness and capriciousness are probably more culpable - who knows where the heck my preferences will lie ten years from now? I'm a work in progress, and also only rarely walk around with my shirt off at any given time, so it also feels a bit wasteful, to be honest.

Last weekend, Fenya took the plunge and got her first ink, and for a good cause too.

The Our House Addiction Recovery Centre held a BBQ fundraiser on the weekend of the summer solstice that Fenya was made aware of through her volunteer work at UAlberta's Peer Support Centre. Our House has recently begun shifting their focus to a broader mental health awareness program, and they've borrowed some of the imagery from Project Semicolon to do this.

I love subjunctive clauses, so I already have a lot of affection for the semicolon, but this humble and elegant piece of punctuation can have an even deeper meaning as a symbol of mental health:

At the fundraiser, tattoo artists were offering to ink people up with semicolons for $65 (which I guess is a good price?), so Fenya and her boyfriend Bobby decided to go ahead and get it done.

I don't have a lot of hangups about tattoos, but when Fenya told me she wanted hers on the back of her neck, I was still concerned. It doesn't feel all that long ago that neck tattoos were the sole provenance of the hard case or career criminal, but yeah, things have changed, and her rationale made a lot of sense in terms her not wanting to hide it, but allowing her to be selective about displaying it.

She came home bandaged up, tired but proud, and later that night showed us her new permanent marking.

I think it looks simply marvelous, and I love the significance of it.

The idea of a reflective pause has merits even beyond Project Semicolon's brilliant repurposing. Within the book of Psalms, you will often come across the word "Selah," which directs the reader to pause and consider. It is probably not altogether surprising that I first became aware of this concept within the pages of a comic book. Issue #16 of J. Michael Straczynski's excellent series "Rising Stars," actually.

In the story, a woman with telekinetic powers who was co-opted at an early age to become an assassin is preparing to unite Arabs and Jews in the middle east by simultaneously destroying the Wailing Wall and Dome of the Rock. A formerly estranged but insightful colleague begs her to stop and consider an alternative.

He suggests a way that she could use her powers in a more constructive fashion, to create more arable land in the region by telekinetic liquefaction of the desert sands, which would allow fertile soil buried deep below it to rise to the surface.

The final "Selah" in the last panel makes it clear that such an effort is likely to kill her, and I love how the panel arrangement creates additional dramatic pauses in this pronouncement. But there is still something distinct and special about explicitly requesting that the listener or reader pause, and consider.

2019 has been a trying year for me in many ways, and I have only recently returned to work following some time off due to it. I never found myself standing on the edge of a bridge or anything as dramatic as that, but I'm glad I took the time to sort myself out and re-prioritize things for myself a bit, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to do so.

And every time I look at my daughter's neck, I will see a permanent reminder there of the importance of taking that time, and allowing oneself the time for a reflective pause.

Thanks, sweetheart.


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Our First-ever Inter-Provincial Beer-Off

My sister-in-law Vera and her fella Neil came out for a visit this weekend. Neil, having been reliably informed of our shared interest in craft beers, sent me an email with an intriguing proposal about a month beforehand: why not pick some of our preferred styles of beer and each of us present a provincial representative of that style in a head-to-head match-up?

As much as beer drinking is a dodgy enough hobby without bringing competition into the mix, I found this notion too compelling to resist and agreed to it right away. A few emails later and we had agreed on our categories:

  • India Pale Ale
  • Brown Ale
  • Red Ale
  • Stout 
  • Novelty

(Sours had been included initially but sadly, Neil's failed to join him on the train ride out west.)

Joined by Vera and my nephew Mark on Saturday night, we proceeded to sample some of the favourite beers that our respective provinces had to offer.

Round 1: India Pale Ale

Canmore Brewing - Railway Avenue Rye IPA (AB)
Cowbell Brewing -  Doc Perdue's Boxing Bruin IPA (ON)

I went out in the weeds a bit on this one, selecting an award-winning IPA brewed with rye as opposed to barley. This gives Railway Avenue a distinct tang and earthiness, but at the cost of some smoothness. The hoppy freshness was there, but Boxing Bruin had an irresistible fruitiness about it that made it the clear winner amongst the four of us.


Round 2: Brown Ale

Troubled Monk Brewing - Open Road (AB)
Neustadt Brewing - 10W30 (ON)

Like Neil, I initially read the tin on 10W30 as being "multi-grain", not a "malty grain" ale. Both of these were delightful, with Neustadt having a wonderful roasted nuttiness in its flavour, but Open Road's tremendous smoothness gave it the edge here.


Round 3: Red Ale

Cowbell Brewing - Doc Perdue's Bobcat West Coast Red Ale (ON)
Canmore Brewing - Rutting Elk Red (AB)

Rutting Elk is one of my go-to beers with a meal when I come across it on tap in a restaurant; nothing spectacular, but a solid representative of the style. Doc Perdue's Bobcat was another solid entry, but more of us found the "quaffable" characteristic of the Canmore beer sufficient to tip the balance in its favour.

Winner: AB

Round 4: Stout

Railyard Brewing - Nitro Stout (AB)
Killanan Brewing - Men Who Stare At Oats (ON)

My initial impulse for this category was to dive into the deep end with Elbeck Brewing's KGB, a brilliant Russian Imperial Stout, but knowing the number of beers we had to get through in a single night (even in sample sizes) persuaded me to grab the Nitro Stout instead. The lads and I came across this at last year's beer fest and loved its silky-smooth texture and innate maltiness. MWSAO is almost as creamy but uses oatmeal instead of nitrogen to gain that effect. Plus I love how sketchy the plain can with a mailing label looks, and this is also a beer from Neil's hometown of Owen Sound. In the end, we could not reach a consensus on this one and scored it as a draw.

Winner: Draw

Round 5: Novelty

New Level Brewing - Wizard's Revenge Strawberry Milkshake IPA (AB)
Spearhead Brewing - Moroccan Brown Ale (ON)

The final round was both hard-fought and surprising. The idea of an IPA with added lactose to smooth it out and with added fruit flavour was a surprise to some on our panel, but a delightful one. The Spearhead offering, however, brought cinnamon and figs to the table in a bold attempt to convey the tastes of North Africa's Maghreb region in a brown ale and was a real delight. Ordinarily I would prefer the brown to the IPA, but having only recently embraced the milkshake IPA as a style (and the kitchen being warm, and this being the dessert beer of the evening), my vote went to Wizard's Revenge. The rest of the panel preferred the Moroccan Brown, giving it the victory.

Winner: ON

Overall, our first Inter-Provincial Beer-Off ended in an overall tie, with one draw and two wins for each province. This suited Neil and I just fine, since the objective was less about establishing regional deer beer dominance (especially with Ontario having a bit of a leg-up with triple the number of craft breweries compared to Alberta), and more about discovering new beers we might not come across otherwise.

Even more importantly, it was a wonderful way to spend the first Saturday evening of summer, with friends and family in attendance and a number of tabletop games getting played to boot. I'm tremendously grateful to Neil for suggesting it, and to Vera and Mark for participating. Hopefully we can arrange a re-match in Ontario before too long!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Here Comes the Bride of Frankentrailer

Last September, we said goodbye to Frankentrailer after a catastrophic structural failure while attempting to deploy it during a mountain storm in Jasper. While never reaching the status of beloved, Frankentrailer was still a highly appreciated part of our household, enabling us to camp in significantly more comfort than provided by any tent.

A month later, while lamenting our loss, friends from church confided that they too had a seventies-era tent trailer that they had used on many an adventure, particularly while their boys were in scouts. With their offspring having grown and left home, their 1974 Bonair 850 was languishing in a storage lot, their Subaru not even having a hitch to tow it out. They were unwilling to part ways with both the memories and the heritage of a conveyance that had passed from grandfather to uncle to them.

And now, sold with mutual gratitude, to us.

We towed Bride of Frankentrailer back from Villeneuve in late October, and wheeled it into the garage. Some ne'er do well had seen fit to punch a hole in the thin aluminum roof, but we were able to patch it up with some silicon compound.  The tongue of this trailer also has a wheel on it, which meant I didn't have to hold up half the weight of it while we schlepped it onto the patio for winter storage. Once in place, we tarped it up, and waited for the spring.

Spring was inconvenient and untrusted, as most Edmonton springs are, so we only got around to unwrapping the Bride this past weekend (but summer doesn't officially start until next week, so we are counting it as a win!). I jacked it up pretty much by myself, such is the quality of the mechanism - I needed to raise and lower it a few times until I had a semblance of what I was doing, and Glory came out at one point to marvel at how both sides went up at the same time.

Wayne had opened up the trailer for us on the lot before we agreed to purchase it, and I knew it was in good shape and very clean for something that had sat dormant for around a decade, but once we had everything in place, I was astonished as to just how good its condition was. No lie, there are places in my house that aren't as fastidiously clean as the corners of this trailer. There were pinches of dust here and there (possibly from the gravel roads on the way to our home).

We pulled everything out and opened all the windows to let it air out, and the next day took to cleaning it in earnest: vacuuming the floors, storage areas, cushions and drapes, washing down most of the surfaces with Pine-Sol, and taking some vinegar in a spray bottle to a musty area of the canvas roof where some moisture must have snuck in.

Neither ArrKan RV, Woody's RV, nor Camper's Village had canvas cleaner for sale, but I did find some waterproofing agent at Canadian Tire. While I was out looking for it through, Audrey took it upon herself to pull out the propane stove (since we keep camp in bear country sometimes and that means keeping food out of the trailer), and I jigsawed up a piece of hardboard to cover the hole. Fenya and I also patched up the screen windows where needed.

Today, Fenya and I fixed two tiny holes we found and I applied the waterproofing to all the canvas, taking care not to get any on the vinyl windows, lest they end up looking like the foggy cockpits of so many plastic airplane kits of my youth.

And speaking of my youth, my second-favourite thing about the trailer interior (after its immaculate condition) is the nostalgia of the orange and brown floral print that covers both the cushions and curtains inside the Bride.

 For that matter, the floor is about a half-step off from what I remember in our kitchen in Willow Park...

The original Frankentrailer had originally come with, of all things, carpet on the floor, which Audrey's mother was so disgusted by, she tore it all out and burned it before we came down to pick it up. As a result, the floor never really looked or felt clean, despite the many hours we spent cleaning and disinfecting it. Bride of Frankentrailer has been a delightful step up in this regard.

We also uncovered a few intriguing artifacts from the late-20th-century over the weekend:

A set of McDonalds cups promoting the 1994 Flintstones movie.

A travel mug featuring some vintage NHL logos, including the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and the best use of negative space in all sports imaging, the Harford Whalers.

And most intriguingly, a stack of branded, brown paper grocery bags.

Man, it is so odd that something so mundane can trigger such a vibrant sense of time and place! I've been fighting the urge to buy more groceries this week just so I could re-pack them in vintage brown paper, then haul them out of the Flex and into the house like I used to with Mom and the old Town & Country station wagon.

Ah, it probably wouldn't be the same without the bagged milk.

Nostalgia notwithstanding, everyone in the household is thrilled at the prospect of camping in the Bride of Frankentrailer!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

A Poor Movie With Good Fan Service - Dark Phoenix, Reviewed

Before I talk about the final Fox X-Men movie, Dark Phoenix, let's talk a bit about the source material, shall we?

Chris Claremont's 100+ issue run on the Uncanny X-Men comic is an often imitated (and very rarely duplicated) high-water mark in long-form serialized storytelling. Over the course of a decade, Claremont had legions of followers caring deeply for (mostly new) characters he did not even create but developed extensively through events both mundane and epic. During his tenure, Wolverine went from being a crazed berzerker to a stoic ronin, Storm grew from being an idealistic goddess to a street-savvy punk rocker, and Kitty Pryde metamorphosed from a hapless teenager to a lynchpin on one of the world's most recognizable superhero teams.

None of these transitions are as well-known or influential as the Dark Phoenix Saga, a story of absolute power corrupting absolutely co-plotted by legendary artist John Byrne. Two nine-issue arcs tell the story of Jean Grey's adoption of/by a cosmic force, and three years later, how it finally overwhelms her.

Trapped between the vengeful Shi'ar empire (led by Prof. Xavier's alien lover, Princess Lilandra) and her own guilt over the literally billions of lives she has ended, Jean and an expanded team of stalwart X-Men defenders are being beaten by a Shi'ar super-team on a breathable region of Earth's moon, when she feels her darker persona reasserting herself, and in a final moment of clarity, permits an ancient booby trap to destroy her in front of her boyfriend, Cyclops. So much angst! And Jean remained dead for six years, which is quite a long while by comic standards.

This is a roundabout way of saying that this is far, far too big a story to be adapted into a single two-hour feature. I don't believe there is a director on earth who could make a satisfactory adaptation in this medium, but long-time X-Men writer turned director Simon Kinberg, has taken his second shot at one of his favourite comic stories. Sadly, he does not manage to achieve the impossible.

But there are those who would have you believe that this is the worst X-men movie ever produced, and friends, I am here to tell you that this is simply not the case. (And as long as X3 exists, that is unlikely to change.)

Overall, Dark Phoenix fails to make us comprehend or care for Jean's (Game of Throne's Sophie Turner) transformation as well as her eventual fate. In lieu of consuming a star and consigning five billion asparagus people to death, her confusion and anger lead to the death of a teammate, which, though tragic, does not have nearly the same impact.

Kinsberg's story reimagines Jean's origin as being related to childhood trauma and the death of her parents. The biggest story repercussions stem from the manner in which Prof. Xavier (James McAvoy) chooses to help young Jean deal with her hurt, shifting the theme away from "power corrupting" to "paving the road to hell with good intentions." It's a neat angle, but yet another departure from the source material in an adaptation already forced to compromise in too many ways.

Look, three of my favourite actors - James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and  Nicholas Hoult - so it pains me to tell you this movie isn't very good, but the truth is, it ain't. But I still don't consider my time or money wasted in seeing it.

In terms of characterization, Dark Phoenix does a much better job than Apocalypse did, and every X-Man ( and X-Woman!) gets an opportunity to shine. The movie is at its best later int he second act and through most of the third, when it goes into full-on action-driven thrill-ride mode.

Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is at his most effective and affecting since 2003's X2. When he finally allows his temper to get the better of him, he becomes a lethal, feral whirlwind, terrifying in aspect. In addition to being the tragic love interest, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) finally becomes a tactical asset, using his optic blasts creatively as he so often has in the comics. And Storm (Alexandra Shipp) has never looked more devastating, wielding multiple lightning bolts in a relentless battle she knows she cannot win.

Watching these beloved characters from my youth being depicted so vibrantly was enough to turn this movie from about a 4 to around a 6, at least for me as an X-fan; your mileage may vary.

I also greatly enjoyed the idea of the X-Men being treated as heroes instead of outlaws, and the team really looks the part in their spiffy new uniforms, reminiscent of Frank Quitely's run in the comics. And smaller, quieter moments, like Storm creating ice in Cyclops cup or seeing Dazzler performing at a mutant beach party after an early victory, evoked the familial connections established by Claremont during his tenure.

So why are the reviews so bad? Why is Dark Phoenix's Rotten Tomatoes score the lowest in the history of the franchise, regardless of whether it "earned" that distinction or not?

Well, for openers, I think any superhero movie, especially one with such cosmic aspirations, is going to fare poorly when compared to either Captain Marvel or Avengers: Endgame, which only came out, what, 40 days ago? The bar for these movies is much higher now than when the very first X-Men movie came out in 2000, 8 years before Marvel Studios rewrote the playbook with Iron Man. And that's a nice problem to have, as a movie watcher!

There is also a rumour that Kinberg had initially pitched a two-part movie instead, with sufficient room to depict Jean's slow corruption and a larger canvas on which more of the space opera elements could have been drawn. Instead, we have to settle for a cosmic veneer crudely bolted on and which criminally underuses Jessica Chastain in the process. Imagining her as Empress Lilandra in a more epic retelling of this classic tale is a torment worthy of Dante.

In the end, though, that's not what we got. Whether due to studio interference, a lack of institutional courage or a lack of resources, we are left with a watered down version of an epic tale, a molehill with Olympian aspirations.

But for fans of the X-Men, there are still enough likable bits to warrant a trip to the theatre - at least on a Tuesday.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Feelings First, Facts Follow - Rocketman, Reviewed

There is nothing worse than a cowardly biopic.

This cravenness can manifest in myriad fashion; a failure to examine its subject objectively, a narrative slavishly mired in chronology, or a depiction that is wrought from imitation as opposed to inspiration. Thus I am happy to report that, while imperfect, the musical Elton John story Rocketman struts boldly and unapologetically upon the screen, delighting in the excesses of the time it depicts and anchored by a truly fearless performance by Taron Egerton.

It's important to understand though, that this is not a film particularly concerned with reality in almost any context. This seems fair, given the film's tagline of "Based on a true fantasy." In addition to the standard liberties similar films take with time and place, there are quite a few scenes and relationships that differ significantly from the record, particularly when it comes to John's manager and lover John Reid.

Portrayed with a suave detachment by Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones), Reid comes off as much less affable here than he does in Bohemian Rhapsody (where he is played by another GoT alumnus, Aidan "Littlefinger" Gillen). In fact, the degree of charming sociopathy he is capable of makes me think they are on to something in considering him as a potential replacement for James Bond after Daniel Craig's final outing next year. More to the point, the movie gives no hint of the fact that Reid continued as John's manager for decades after they broke up romantically.

To be fair though, the movie's disregard for materiality is worn way out on its sleeve, presenting itself as a full book musical which I fully expect to see adapted for Broadway before too long. You would obviously expect to see some musical numbers in a movie about a rock star with 58 Billboard Top 40 hits, but not necessarily an elaborately choreographed dance number of "Saturday Night's Alright" set in a brilliantly costumed, period-perfect British funfair. While others may find them disagreeable, I found the brief ska and Bollywood flourishes in this song to be a delight, if perhaps anachronistic, and a wonderful way to depict a shy boy with a showman's verve coming of age while playing piano in a pub.

Like Bohemian Rhapsody, a picture like this rises or falls on the shoulders of its principal star, and Taron Egerton really delivers the goods. In addition to doing all his own dancing and singing, in his own voice and not an impersonation of Elton himself, Egerton leans into his character's sexuality and human flaws. Director Dexter Fletcher (go ahead and say that out loud, it's quite amusing) deserves a lot of credit for not following the mainstream cinema trope of two men kissing passionately and then quickly traversing to fluttering curtains or some such nonsense. Homophobes will be made to feel quite uncomfortable, but I believe that is rather the point (or perhaps just a bonus).

This transparency goes a long way into underpinning the tragic loneliness that largely defines the first half of Elton John's life, something articulated extremely well by Lee Hall's screenplay but made painfully accessible by Egerton's performance. From the dismissive manner in which he sends away his legendary songwriting partner Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), through periods of lost introspection denoted in excruciatingly unforgiving closeups, and eventually to awkward attempts to reconnect with his parents, Egerton brings a humanity and relevance to his portrayal of a truly larger-than-life figure, playing up his gifts and foibles in equal measure, and his voice is awfully good as well.

I should also commend Rocketman's commitment to depicting the period, and not just in regards to costuming (which I fully expect to garner an Oscar nomination for). There is a brilliant shot of Sunset Boulevard, taken from a high angle and encompassing at least three city blocks, and I marvelled at the dozens of non-descript vehicles and '70s ads for things like Kool cigarettes, wondering how they managed to pull it off. It turns out that they took stock footage, digitally cleaned it up and matched it for lighting and inserted it into the print just so, firmly establishing the time and place in a way that no chroma-keyed billboard and street-level shot out a car window could never hope to equal.

As a fantasy musical biopic, Rocketman is without peer, largely since I believe it invented the genre this past weekend. The four of us had a great time at it, and so long as you can begrudge a little latitude to reality, fans of Elton John should not miss it.