Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Cardinal Rule

Our church bulletins often have some great photography on the front of them, and today's was no exception showing a bright red cardinal, head tucked back, plumage fluffed up. The cardinal is probably my favourite bird. No, that's not true; it is my favourite non-predatory bird. Thanks to The Hardy Boys, the peregrine falcon is my overall feathered favourite, but as far as your less aggressive types go, the cardinal stands out a fair ways. And I am saying that as someone who cares not a whit for either St. Louis baseball or Arizona football.

I've only ever seen a wild cardinal once. It was while we were living in Toronto, before Fenya was born. We lived in Etobicoke in a three story walk up (a 'triplex'), about two blocks from Lake Ontario. It was nothing to write home about, but we had the third floor to ourselves, and our proximity to the lake helped keep things a little cooler in the summer.

There was another triplex next door to us, and a narrow driveway threaded between them to the gravel parking lot where about a half-dozen modestly sized vehicles could conceivably park. Tall fence and a couple of significantly sized trees separated our lot from he back yards of the homes on the next street that backed onto us, so we didn't have to look into someone else's home at eye level. A tall wire draped between two utility poles passed directly above the centre of the small lot, where once I saw two crows working in unison to catch a squirrel between them. The crows were terrifyingly clever and methodical in their methods, but the squirrel was clever enough to twig to the scheme and leapt to the ground below in a daring dash to freedom, which made me happy, since I've no love for crows.

This same wire hosted a cardinal one winter, and I was completely spellbound. From the moment we had arrived in Etobicoke, I had noticed and appreciated the difference in birdsong. Given that in Edmonton magpies, crows and bluejays sit at the top of the ornithological hierarchy and dominate the springtime bandwidth with their raucous screeches and caws, even a robin can seem positively exotic at times, their red chests popping out like that pink dress in Schindler's List against the brown ubiquity of the sparrow population. But to see this cardinal in sharp relief against the white snow and brown gravel was to see something from another world.

I don't know how long I stood in the kitchen watching him, but my coffee cooled off like Joe Jackson's, so it must have been awhile. When he flew away, I felt better for the experience, despite the fact that the closest I have come to one since then is the decorative one Audrey puts on the tree every Christmas, or occasionally on a holiday card.

The bulletin today got me to thinking, though; what is the link between cardinals and Christmas? I'm no expert, but there is no mention of them in the gospels that I am aware of. No nativity set I have ever seen has tried to cram them in there, and trust me, given the sorts of things that merit inclusion these days, it can't be for lack of trying. At no point does a bright red bird lead Santa's reindeer on their appointed route, and there appear to be none in Whoville, one of the most colourful holiday communities.

It turns out in this case, it is simply a win for esthetics. The cardinal's scarlet plumage stands in stark contrast to the greys and whites of the winter season, and red being a festive colour is enough to bridge the gap and make the bird into a holiday tradition. Apparently the cardinal is the animal kingdom's David Lee Roth, wherein it matters less what he does, and more that he looks good doing it.

Which, at least in the cardinal's case, is certainly a hard point to refute.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Same As It Ever Was

Yesterday morning, while Fenya and I were peeling and chopping yams for stew, the doorbell rang. This in and of itself was rare, but certainly not unusual. Toweling off my hands, I went to the front door, accompanied by our dog Nitti, who barked incessantly. I recognize this is a territoriality sort of thing for him, but I admonished him anyways since it should be clear even to him that I was aware there was someone at the door.

I opened the door, and there was a brown lad of perhaps 15 on my front step,carrying a small snow shovel. Nitti wriggled out through the screen door as I opened it, and the visitor's first words were, "Is it all right if I pet your dog?"

Charmed by his courtesy, I said, "Sure. His name's Nitti and he doesn't bite."

The boy knelt down and exchanged pleasantries with Nitti while scratching him behind his ears. When he arose, he asked, "Is he the one I heard barking in there?"

"Sounds like he should be bigger, doesn't it?" which is true; he is a 25 pound Bichon cross with a deep bark that sounds like it is coming from a dog at least twice his size. "What can I do for you?"

"Some friends and I are just asking people if they want their walks shoveled," he replied. I did, but Audrey had already agreed to shovel ours in exchange for my cleaning the oven that afternoon. On the other hand, I didn't want to discourage his ambition.

"What's the going rate?" I inquired. He shrugged, "Five, ten dollars." I craned my head out the door. The snow had stopped and it wasn't too deep or heavy, but hey, it's Christmas.

"Tell you what," I said, "If you do my walk to the gate and the sidewalk out front, we'll call it eight bucks; does that seem fair?"

"Sure!" he beamed. I pointed out our shovel and broom if he needed it and learned his name was Aaron, and left him to his work.

I heard Fenya calling from the kitchen, "Who was that, Daddy?"

"A kid from the neighbourhood is going door to door shoveling walks. I haven't seen that in quite some time..."

"How long?"

"I think the last time I heard it, I was the one doing it." I was pretty sure no one had come to the door when we were at our townhouse in Wellington, and not in our first three years at this house, either. It was an unexpected but very pleasant and nostalgic association; anachronicious.

Looking up from her peeling, Fenya asked, "Is he poor?"

I knelt down and began picking up errant yam peelings from the floor where they orbited the wastebasket between her feet like an incomplete halo. "I don't think so," I said, "but it is hard for young guys to find actual jobs at this time of year, especially with the economy the way it is, and this is a good way to make a little pocket money for the holidays."

Thinking about it as I flicked the wet peels from my hands, if it took him less than a half hour to do my walk (and I would be quite surprised if it didn't), he would be making $16 an hour. For a moment I wasn't entirely sure if I made $16 an hour, and considering government deductions, union dues and pension contributions, I was even more unsure, and possibly even a little jealous. Still, one has to take into consideration all the walking and door knocking, the sheer number of people not home on the last Saturday before Christmas, and the fact that he was out there in the elements while I stayed in the warmth, teaching Fenya how to chop vegetables.

When the doorbell rang about 20 minutes later ($24 an hour? Clearly, I'm in the wrong line of work!), I stuck my head out again to inspect Aaron's handiwork. While by no means perfect, it was certainly as good if not better than any shoveling I had produced as a youth. I gave 4 toonies to Aaron, who thanked me, and I wished him the best of luck. Looking down the street as he walked away, I saw two or three other teens out shovelling, as well as a couple of my neighbours.

I think this may have been some of the best money I have spent this Christmas. For the price of two gingerbread lattes, I got a safer sidewalk, and gave my wife a tiny bit of the one thing she always needs more of during this season: time. It also felt good to encourage a young man and reward his going up to a stranger's door and trading service for currency, and to have it happen within earshot of my daughter. The memory of doing the same sort of thing in Leduc thirty years ago and the reminder of how much I might still have in common with 'the youth of today' was even more pleasant.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holidays, Holy Days, Wholly Dazed

Our Christmas tree got erected last night and decorated today, the latest it has been up in living memory. This is at least partially due to the disarray caused by our summer visitors (i.e. the bedbugs) and the fact that a lot of our seasonal doo-daddery is obscured by boxes, bags and Rubbermaid containers that contain the clothes that we can no longer trust to the embraces of our closets and furniture. It is partially due to having or being offspring or siblings, as in-laws and others drifted in for Fenya's choir concert and holiday visitations. But the tree is up at last, and we hope the Christmas cards will be sent out shortly, but I will apologize now for any that are late, and I am sure some will be.

I've never been the proselytizing type, but I have striven not to hide my faith under a bushel, either; at least, not once I started understanding I had one, at any rate. It turns out almost everyone does, really. We all do things or expect things based on a belief in things we can't prove or disprove, whether it is a Supreme Being, the Spirit of Creation, the Son of Man or more everyday examples like love or friendship or simple human goodness. I have a friend who is an atheist (one of many such friends), who I sometimes think has faith in a quantity that puts mine to shame, because of his devotion to democracy in a province with both a historical aversion to change and a cultural appetite for apathy. I recently came across a Franciscan blessing that made me think of him, and others like him:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

As a Christian, it's a foregone conclusion that Christmas should be an important time for me, and it is. Much the same can be said for my being an overgrown kid at heart, but I think Christmas has a lot to offer, both as a sacred and a secular occasion. For instance, I find it fascinating that two of my favourite Christmas stories have no overt references to the Nativity: Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

My love for the works of Theodore Geisel is a matter of public record, so we need not go into further detail here, but my favourite thing about A Christmas Carol is how, like Shakespeare, the heart of the tale can be imagined and re-imagined in countless ways, and still retain its integrity.

The Muppet Christmas Carol is one of my favourites, not so much because I am a fan of the Muppets, but because Michael Caine puts in a wonderful performance, and having a narrator (even one as unlikely as Gonzo the Great) gives us even more opportunity to hear Dickens' wonderful use of language. Even with as strong an example as this, however, it was still with no insignificant amount of trepidation that we all went to see the new Disney version, which is about as far from Alastair Sims as you can get and still be in the same medium considering it is not only a) in colour but b) computer animated in c) 3-D and projected on d) an Imax screen. I can picture Fenya or Glory talking to their grand-children in the distant future: "Oh, yeah, before Steve Jobs' clone created the iJack neural interface, we would go two or three hundred at a time into a darkened room where we had to put on funny glasses just so we could get even the slightest suggestion of depth from pictures they projected onto a blank wall!"

I needn't have worried; Dickens' tale is practically bulletproof, and say what you will about Jim Carrey, for a guy who made his bones doing little more than funny faces, he can be a hell of an actor with some decent material. Granted, there is a lot of theme-park, roller-coaster nonsense in-between the more familiar scenes to help justify the fact it is in 3-D, but the heart of the tale remains intact, and even the gimmick of having Carrey play all three ghosts comes off surprisingly well through some actual thespian exertions and some inspired design choices.

Most importantly, though, it is still a ghost story, and one of the best, which is what makes (Spoiler Alert!) Scrooge's eventual redemption so gratifying, whether it is shown to us by Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray or Jim Carrey.

Bill Murray's speech at the end of Richard Donner's Scrooged is another good one, which has little to do with any faith in particular but everything to do with values, the linchpin of Dickens' classic. Don't get me wrong, there is a lot of terrible stuff in Scrooged, but the bulletproofing holds up like Q-Division made it, and in the final scene, Murray's eminently hate-able TV executive Frank Cross has a moment of pure satori where he says "I get it now," and "It's Christmas Eve. It's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be."

I've always had more time for the "Don't forget the reason for the season" crowd as opposed to the "Keep CHRIST in Christmas" folks. I don't see any percentage in being defensive, and Jesus never struck me as a guy with a huge ego. I think he would see Frank Cross' speech and smile in appreciation, not glower in condemnation because he didn't get a personal shout out, but your spiritual mileage may vary. At any rate, whatever you choose to believe, December 25th will be Christmas, and you may as well have a merry one, which I encourage you to do.

As with so many things, I think perhaps the denizens of Whoville said it best:

Welcome Christmas, fah who rah-moose
Welcome Christmas, dah who dah-moose
Christmas day will always be
Just so long as we have we

Merry Christmas, my friends.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Picture Worth More Than a Thousand Nerds

My dear friend Earl J Woods' blog post about our recent return to Dungeons & Dragons (at has apparently scared off his regular commenters, but I found it to be an even-handed and temperate account of middle-aged nerdery and fellowship. Upon reflection, however, I have begun to find the lead photo highly incriminating on a personal level. And not just becuase my wife's first comment about the picture was, "Wow, look at all those bald heads; what the hell is up with that?" I mean, I have always worn my nerd cred way out on my sleeve, but that picture is tremendously unflattering, especially when you factor in the following:

1) I am the Dungeon Master, as is evidenced by the screen before me; very hard to top that in terms of pure uncut Colombian-style nerdery.
2) V for Vendetta poster, while extremely cool, is a) a sci-fi movie based on b) a comic book.
3) Just left of that is an even cooler poster made by Mike Parlow commemorating the performance of our a) alien rock band b) at a sci-fi convention in c) full costumery.
4) In the background is the work area where I built and painted the miniatures we are using at that very moment; while this is something I greatly enjoy, cherish and value, this is not an activity that someone who self-identifies as 'cool' would ever partake in.
5) For no good reason, there is a cow-skull string tie hanging from a door pull on the bookshelf. It might be okay to have one of these, but one should at least have the common decency to conceal it.
6)The two top shelves of the middle bookshelf contains nothing but comic collections and graphic novels, including the oversized 'Absolute Edition' of Watchmen.
7) Above that are all 28 volumes of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's 'Kozure Okami' ('Lone Wolf & Cub'): over eight thousand pages of b&w samurai revenge epic, lovingly re-mastered from the original Japanese.
8) Next to that is a Warhammer 40,000 Commissar's cap I made from a belt buckle and cap I got at a surplus store and have worn on several occasions (including as emcee of the 2007 Games Day expo in Toronto with over 1700 attendees), to the delight of many and the envy of still more.

The worst part of all this is that as revealing as these things may be, I can't bring myself to forswear any of them, except maybe the cow-skull tie. The rest of it is all stuff that is still very near and dear to my heart, and besides, it is way, waaaaaay too late for me to start worrying about what the cool kids think.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

At the Game

About a month ago, I won an essay contest sortathing at work, and the prize was two club seat to an Oilers game. I am not the hugest pro sports fan in the world, but I love my home team, and hey, I haven't had too many opportunities to sit in $200+ seats in my life, and it would have been churlish not to go, so off I went.

I asked my mate Kevin from work to go because a) he is a big Oilers fan and could clue me in on stuff and b) he is a tremendous helpmate at work and a generally excellent fellow, so it was good to throw a little karma his way. A karma carom, if you will.

We arranged to meet at the Gretzky statue on game night (classic!) and proceeded into the House that Wayne Built.

Even heading in to the arena was a great opportunity to people watch, and I started tallying jerseys:
current Oilers = too many to count
retro Oilers = not quite as many
Avalanche = three brave lads
Nordiques (!) = FIVE

Crowd wise, it as encouraging to see so many people from different walks of life all heading to the same place for the same purpose- blue collar, white collar, spiked collar, black hair, blonde hair, blue hair, no hair; you name it, they were there. The only other thought that came to mind was that if a heavyset white male in his late twenties or early thirties wearing an Oilers jersey over a hoodie with thin or short hair and a goatee decided to rob the box office, the getaway would look very much like the end of The Thomas Crown Affair, which you can see below if you like.

Now, Kevin and I are both husky lads, and the 1970s style seating in the lower bowl of the once-Coliseum really does not take this into consideration, and was lacking in both width and leg-room amenities. Kevin's solution was elegant in its simplicity: he simply brought his legs forward and bent the seat ahead of him by about 15 degrees before someone sat in it. While this became impractical later on, it did make for a slightly more tolerable posture during the first period. At one point I did lean over and say, "When they design this new downtown arena they keep talking about, I hope someone reminds them that not every dude comes to the game with a SKINNY CHICK." This made him laugh, which may have actually caused some beer to be spilled in the row ahead, but omelettes and eggs, right?

Of the game itself, the less said the better; it was certainly not what Stompin' Tom Connor had led me to expect, I can tell you that much. The Oilers played with little passion, energy or even a rudimentary evidence of skill, which ended up with them taking a 3-nil shellacking from what, on paper, I am told, should have been one of the worst teams in this year's league, but apparently no one bothered to tell this to the Colorado Avalanche. At 2-0, Kevin and I started playing sports column bingo, with me predicting "flaccid", "uninspired" and "lacklustre", while Kevin was offering me double or nothing on "flat" and "abysmal", but I never had the heart to go and check the next day.

The one gratifying moment was when a big hit got laid on a Colorado forward behind the net (by Dustin Penner maybe?), and his feet went almost all the way out like he had been clotheslined, which prompted some wag close to the glass to shout out, "OLD TIME HAAHKEY!" This prompted no small amount of laughter around our corner of the arena, and reminded me that I was long overdue to watch Slapshot again.

(As an aside, I consider Slapshot's screenplay to have one of the all-time best applications of profanity in the history of cinema. Curse words abound and give the film almost a blue feeling, especially considering it is a comedy made in the 1970s, but it almost never feels gratuitous. Full marks!)

Other than that, the best action of the night was when they turned on the 'smooch cam' and if you saw yourself on camera, you had to plant a smackeroo on your significant other for a chance to win a prize. It was pretty entertaining, but I turned to Kevin and said, "Even if it's a Corvette, it ain't happening."

"That's cool," he replied.

All in all, it was a very neat experience, despite the drubbing the home team got, and I was grateful for the opportunity, and felt quite a bit of sympathy for the people around me who may have paid enough money to buy a PS3 in order to watch some fairly dismal athleticism.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Too Much of a Good Thing

Here's one for you: what do you patriotism, faith, profanity, salt and Star Trek have in common?

Too much of them is a bad thing.

Obviously how much is too much is purely subjective; some people live bland, sodium-free lives, others listen to Kevin Smith and say, "Oh, did he slip an f-bomb in there? I hadn't noticed."

For a long time, I have considered the parallels between patriotism and faith. They both encourage devotion to something unprovable, and people are capable of extraordinary behaviour in the service of either one, and that's not always a good thing.

It seems to me that this devotion comes in two varieties. The first convinces us to do something we don't necessarily want to do, because we should. The other flavour lets us justify terrible things, because we can. Volunteering to defend your homeland against invasion, or to sock Nazis is good (at least, I think so), but putting your own citizens into internment camps to placate the xenophobia of the mob is not.

Robert A. Heinlein's character Lazarus Long says, "To enjoy the flavour of life, take big bites. Moderation is for monks." And that joie de vivre has a lot going for it, but there is clearly a place for moderation when it comes to what we choose to believe. (Or not to believe, for that matter; I don't appreciate anyone telling others they are hellbound or what-have-you because of differing beliefs, so why should it be all right for militant atheists to sling mud and label everyone whose belief system happens to include divinity as deluded? Did that 'two wrongs don't make a right' precedent get overturned by a recent court order on account of three rights do make a left?)

This border between positive and negative is not only subjective, it is a moving target, both personally and societally. Cultural shifts, personal growth, new discoveries all conspire to stamp many value judgments with a "Best Before" date. And in most cases (all right, maybe not profanity), values are what we are talking about here.

Using faith as an example, you have the vast majority of Christians and Muslims who use their religious teachings as a means of evaluating and encouraging 'good' behaviour, and most encouraging is how much overlap these two sometimes disparate belief systems actually possess: the Golden Rule, the importance of treating others with respect, etc. On the other extreme, you have people shooting abortion doctors in America or blowing up schools in Afghanistan, and all in the name of faith. Most disappointingly, since the scriptures they quote from can be taken out of context to defend the most reprehensible acts, the base hypocrisy and contradictory nature of their actions appear lost on them.

In a much lighter vein, your Star Trek fan continuum works in a similar fashion: at the shallow end you have people who enjoy watching the shows and can name most of the characters, towards the middle you have those who know not only Kirk's middle name but also Khan's (Noonien! Whoops, tipped my hand there...), and making our way towards the end of the scale you have the example of a well-intentioned person who thought the best way to convey her conviction in the positive and cooperative future created by Gene Roddenberry was to wear her Next Generation uniform to jury duty, and ended up being dismissed for her efforts. I'm not sure what the basis was for her dismissal, whether it was for contempt or something else, but perhaps the 'land of the free' requires an assemblage of peers to adhere to some dress code. I guess I can understand how this could be a distraction for the other participants, and it would almost certainly impact the comfort of the other jurors. All in all, while the intentions were almost certainly positive and good, this was probably a poor choice on her part.

Somewhere beyond that though, is the gentleman who spent the first three years of his son's life speaking nothing but the made-up language of Klingon to him. Now, in this case, it probably has less to do with fandom than it does with scientific curiosity, being as he is an expert in computational linguistics.

Now, a lot of people will look at a a guy who is fluent in a make-believe language and say, "that dude has waaaay too much time on his hands," which I dispute. I am willing to wager he gets the same 24 hours per 1/365th of a planetary rotation that we all do, it's just that he has chosen to spend his chronal currency in a, let us perhaps say, somewhat unconventional manner.

Now, when it comes to being judgmental, let's remind ourselves that if we were to have the way in which we spend our time audited by our great-grandparents (just as a f'rinstance), not a helluva lot of us would get a passing grade either: "You actually have a hobby and spend quality time with your kids? Why haven't you gone out and gotten a second job filled with mind-crushing, soul-draining drudgery? Are you some sort of Bolshevik?" So I don't have any problem with people who want to spend their time mastering made-up languages, if for no other reason than it being used to brilliant effect in the Lord of the Rings films (except maybe the second one, right Rufus?).

That being said, though, I really have to call someone's judgment into question when they use their own offspring as the subject in an impromptu scientific experiment. Dad can pend his time any way he likes, but at the point where little Dakh'tag gets to playschool and asks someone for a serving of gakh before naptime, that's going a step too far. I understand that the types of actual grievous harm some other parents have done to their children makes a case like this almost irrelevant, but still.

"Success by Six" is an movement that places a lot of importance on the lessons learned during the pre-school years, and is very much in keeping with the saying, "Give me the boy until seven, and I will give you the man," which I believe is attributed to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. Kids are resilient, so I will not surprised at all if this kid turns out right as rain and has some great stories to tell about his eccentric dad, but in the meantime, maybe I will say a little prayer on his behalf, and one for myself to remind me to keep it between the lines, wherever they might happen to be.

Friday, November 13, 2009

No Response to 14 Words

The other day the four of us and my sister were at Kingsway Mall. I was in a good mood as we headed back to the parking lot, having just picked up the new Space Hulk boardgame. I was only mildly diverted by a group of 4 or 5 security guards talking to someone outside their office while several scattered packages and pieces of clothing lay on the ground between them. 'Some kind of shoplifting altercation,' I thought as Audrey unlocked the station wagon. As we loaded our parcels into the back and the girls scrambled into the jump seats, I looked to the far end of the parking structure and saw something that caused me to say, "You have got to be friggin' kidding me..."

Parked with its back to the wall was a light blue 1970s Cadillac sedan with a tint decal like the ones that say "No Fear" or some such, only this one said "14 Words".

I started to walk over to the car, and Tara said "Is that a movie reference or something?" "No," I replied. "That's a bigot's car."

With some concern, Audrey asked me what I was doing. The truth is, I'm not sure what I intended to do, but I called back, "I'm just checking something." I looked at the back window and bumper, but they were both unadorned. No Ku Klux Klan bumper stickers, no symbolic decals like the ones the Freemasons use, just an ordinary Alberta licence plate which I neglected to write down.

I returned to the car, angry and upset. "I wish the girls weren't here right now," I muttered.

"It's probably just as well," replied Audrey reasonably, "We did just pass half the security staff two minutes ago."

"What's going on?" asked Tara. "What is '14 Words' about?"

"It's a racist thing, a code," I spat out. "It's way for people with these twisted views to find each other, and thanks to the internet it's easier than ever. It's a quote: 'We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.'"

You could feel the temperature drop a little in the car just from my reciting the words. There was an awkward silence which I broke by mirthlessly grinning and saying to Audrey, "And you wonder why I go on to sites like the Southern Poverty Law Centre and Hatewatch even though they make me angry."

"I would have had no idea," said Tara. "I seriously thought it was an entertainment thing..."

"And that's what pisses me off so much," I said. "That a guy can take something so wrong-minded and emblazon it on his ride where everyone can see it and hardly anyone knows what it means, it's like they are laughing at us."

We talked about it some more on the ride home, about how important it is to be aware of things like this, and how knowledge is your first and most important line of defense. One example I used is if you were at the bar and a girl you knew was dancing with a guy who had "14 Words" written on his t-shirt, wouldn't it be good to be able to clue her in on the possible significance of this? But as good as that felt, and as positive as writing this blog entry might be, I still feel like I could have, should have done more.

I won't lie to you, I was completely capable of vandalizing that car while we were in the parking lot, and that disappoints the hell out of me. I like to think of myself as a rational and fair individual who believes in the rule of law, and the notion that I could justify destroying someone else's property just because I find their philosophy disagreeable kind of flies in the face of that, doesn't it? Freedom of expression is one of those things where we have to learn to take the bad with the good.

On the other hand, there's a lot of precedent for schoolyard rules; when an obnoxious kid gets punched at recess, we say 'it serves him right'. When a bully gets cornered and beaten by a group of his former victims, we shake our heads but say 'he had it coming'. When a shooting victim is revealed to be a high-profile drug dealer or gang member, we say "mess with the bull, you get the horn." The concept of consequence loses a lot of its effectiveness if we perpetually leave it to someone else to sort out.

In the end, I am glad I didn't do anything to that car, and not just out of a fear of getting caught. (Forget the security guards and police; what if the driver left it for bait hoping that some idiot took offense and tried to vandalize it while he and his friends waited in another vehicle? Brr!) I'm also somewhat relieved the girls didn't hear me wishing I could, because I need to be a better example than that, and I can't use the intolerance of others as an excuse to indulge in anti-social behaviour. Irony is already a hard enough concept for grade-schoolers to grasp.

I still feel like I could have done something more, like an opportunity was missed, and I have been wracking my brain for what that might be. One possibility involved writing "BIGOT" or "RACIST" in huge letters on a piece of paper or napkin and putting it on his window, or perhaps with soap or something else non-defacing. If you were extraordinarily prepared, affixing such a label to the back bumper with magnets could leave it undiscovered for days, which brings a degree of levity to the proceedings. Heading up the vandalism continuum, there are a variety of bumper sticker options intended to endear the owner to his like-minded associates, such as "Obama in 2008" or "I'm Gay and I VOTE!" I also invite readers to add any suggestions they might have to the comments section.

In the end, I will have to settle for this blog entry, and relating the story to more people wherever appropriate. Maybe I should be grateful for the hubris these crypto-racist gits display; there are probably a lot more people out there who feel the same way but would never dream of letting us know it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Why We Fight

The Edmonton Journal today printed an excerpt from a letter I e-mailed them last week. I wrote it in response to a letter stating that there is not a compelling reason for Canadian troops to be in Afghanistan and implying there was nothing good to be accomplished there.

For the record, I am not a military adventurist or cultural imperialist; I was extremely relieved that we did not send troops into Iraq, but I think our troops do have a positive role they can play in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Here is my letter in its entirety:

Many people wonder why we are allowing Canadian soldiers to fight and die in Afghanistan, and what benefit our presence there has. It's a tough question, made tougher by the violent history of that region, but we saw the results of leaving Afghanistan in the hands of extremists on September 11, 2001. The hatred that fuelled those attacks and others like them will not go away on its own, and by fighting there now, we might even avoid fighting on our own soil in the future.

More importantly, by helping Afghans to secure their own country against insurrectionists and the Taliban, and by assisting them in projects like schools and wells, we can provide an alternative to the hatred and intolerance taught in Taliban madrasahs since the Soviets left. I, for one, am grateful and proud that we have a military able to lend a hand, and the willingness to fight for such abstractions as the rights of girls to go to school so they can learn to read and write.

No, success won't be fast, and it won't be easy. Yes, there are corruption and cultural issues to overcome, but in the end, I can't imagine a worthier use for our military than to help make a dark corner of the world a little brighter, and perhaps the rest of the world a little safer as well. I pray that their many sacrifices will not be in vain.


Stephen Fitzpatrick

As we approach another Remembrance Day where so many of our friends and neighbours are in harm's way on the other side of the world, please take a moment to remember them and the sacrifices they have made and continue to make on our behalf. I look forward to a day when we can bring them all home knowing that they have left this troubled region at least a little better off than it was before they got there.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hang Ups

I stopped at the door of the director's office while he was talking to my boss today, and they looked up expectingly. "I did something I need to get off my chest," I confessed.

"Really?" said Lilly. "What's that?"

"Well, you know how the new director is moving into the empty office next to David's here?"

"Yes..." replied David.

"I hung up one of those really cheesy 'Hang In There, Baby! Friday's Coming!' posters; you know, the ones with the kitten having off the branch?"

"Yeeess..." said David uncertainly.

"Yeah, I hung it up in the new fellow's office, and I put a post-it note on it saying it was from you guys, so now he is going to feel obliged to keep it up because it's a gift."

There was a short pause, and then they figured out I was putting them on, and David had one of those silent laughs while leaning his head back. Lilly said, "No, wait, I like that!"

I'm not sure if she meant decorating a newcomer's office as a gift, or the pranking someone with one of history's most awful posters and having them think it came from a peer, or better yet, a superior. It certainly has potential as a hidden camera gag: "So, Johnson, I see you are getting settled in...say, what happened to the poster I gave to you?"

Monday, November 2, 2009

All Hellos Eve / All Saints Daze

I am sure it is somehow my fault, but Fenya missed being a Hallowe'en baby by a matter of hours, making her arrival on All Saints Day instead. It is close enough that she has already had several Hallowe'en themed birthday parties, which sits just fine with me, although a Samhain birthday has an undeniable resonance.

This year we kept the birthday and Hallowe'en in separate corners, but it still makes for a busy weekend, especially since we were also attending the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society Buddy Walk with our good friends (one might even say buddies) the Wywals on Sunday. Fenya, bless her heart, had her birthday partiers come with us on the walk, which I thought was grand of her.

Afterwards we headed to The Big Mall for the sea lion show and a trip downstairs to see the huge aquarium, touch some stingrays and watch a feeding frenzy. (In the shark tank, not with the cupcakes Audrey baked.)

Hallowe'en itself was, as is often the case, a mixed bag. We team up with our friends the Nicholsons every year, as trick or treating with their daughter Carissa in their downtown neighbourhood is contra-indicated, so they come up to our place and we alternate walking and handing out treats between the moms and dads. This year Colin and I were on the home front, and he never puts a lot of prep into any kind of costume, but he does like to participate,and we can usually improvise something with all the odds and sods we have around here. Using Fenya's prop hands and placing his sweatshirt's hood strategically, he was able to achieve a chilling effect:

Having a dramatic nature, Mr. Tales-from-the-Hood here would keep his hands out of sight at first, then extend a gruesome claw with the candy in it out the door, making a number of trick or treaters seriously reconsider how much they wanted those fun-size Twix and Snicker bars. I heard at least one older kid yell, "Holy crap! Scary!" to one of his friends, which was very encouraging, but the effect never lasted long since Colin would practically giggle with glee over these reactions, and his tittering would kind of break the spell. Still, it was awesome to see him enjoying himself so much.

Glory went with your standard cute devil sort of outfit, although it was cuter before we had to insulate it for outdoor trick or treating, and the plumpness variations ended up making me think of Kirstie Alley in hell, sort of:

Fenya had planned for months to be a dead version of the Wendy's Hamburgers icon. And, no, before you ask, it was not my idea, and no, I don't have any idea where she gets her ideas from, either. That being said, I can't help but feel my dear old dad would find my consternation both familiar and more than a little amusing. Dead Wendy turned out pretty well, even though a lot of people at school mistook her for Zombie Dorothy, which is simultaneously understandable and baffling, oddly enough.

Carissa's costume was The Sock-Hop Ghost, which I thought was another original pick, and even more accessible than Dead Wendy.

Audrey put on her spider-witch outfit to go trick or treating (sans hat due to wind considerations), I threw on my Batman duds to hand out treats, and we were off and running.

A number of people I have talked to have lamented the poor turnout of young ghosts and goblins this past weekend, and our house was no exception. I didn't take a formal count, but if we had more than 40 kids, I would be surprised. Now, I know neighbourhoods aren't as neighbourly as they once were, and a lot of parents prefer to go to the mall for trick or treating because it's warm and so forth. Some people might even have stayed home out of fear of H1N1, or maybe dragged their kids along to a house party since Hallowe'en fell on a Saturday this year, who knows. Regardless, I was pretty disappointed. Notwithstanding the general sissification of parents these days (and I can often be found wearing that label myself), I see Hallowe'en as a social contract: I am trading treats for a chance to see kids from my neighbourhood or thereabouts, dressed up in costumes. It's a chance to say "hi" to some of my neighbours, and for some of the older folks, it is a rare chance to have someone on their step not trying to change their telephone or utility provider. Mall trick or treating is wholly dis-satisfying, especially from the point of view of those handing out the candy to barely costumed children, some barely old enough to walk, others pushed around in shopping carts while their parents expect shopkeepers to just fire candy into the basket as they speed by.

At any rate, the gaps between trick or treaters got longer and longer, and Colin soon asked me if I had tried Arkham Asylum, the new Batman video game. Now, being a fan of the DC cartoons, I was pretty excited about this game, despite not owning a system that can play it. Written by Paul Dini and featuring Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill (glee!) as The Joker, I was highly interested in seeing it, and said as much to Colin. Well, in addition to having the software in the car, he also had his X-Box 360, as he often brings it to the group home he works at as an additional incentive or reward for his young charges. A few minutes later he had it set up in the living room and invited me to give it a try.

I picked up the controller, sat down, and realized something a little horrifying:

I was about to play a Batman videogame while dressed as the title character.

Turning to Colin, I said solemnly, "Of course, you can tell no one of this."

When he finally stopped laughing, I got into the game and had a wonderful time. There is a good mix of stealth, investigative and fighting gameplay, and the characters all ring true, from Commissioner Gordon to Harley Quinn, but most especially Batman and The Joker. Highly recommended!

The following day, I asked Jay Wywal on the buddy walk if playing the game in a cape and mask was the high point or low point of nerdity. He gave it some thought, and said "On any other day but Hallowe'en, it would probably be unforgivable, but since it was, it's probably just awesome."

Which is good, because that's kind of how it felt.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Be Mused

I heard Muse's track "Knights of Cydonia" on the radio back in 2006, and because there are no vocals until two minutes into this almost seven minute track, I first thought I was listening to a twangy instrumental. Now, I love instrumentals, and often lament the dearth of musicianship in modern music, so this was all right with me. The twangy, spacy sound reminded me a little bit of "Telstar", an instrumental by British band The Tornados that I heard courtesy of my mom's 45. (Note to the kids: a 45 rpm record is how they used to sell single tracks of music before the internet. (Addendum: a record is a disc of pressed vinyl or wax that plays music or sound through a needle which traces grooves on it while it rotates.)) "Knights of Cydionia" was surfy, trippy and had a nice change up that made listening to it feel like you were getting three songs in one. The video is an even trippier piece which not only makes you feel like you are watching a terrible post-apocalyptic space western, but one that was filmed in Eastern Europe in 1981.

I picked up the album "Black Holes and Revelations" and fell for the band like a blind roofer. Three guys playing inventive rock with a progressive feel, solid musicianship and songwriting, occasional Queen-like harmonies mixed with Radiohead-like vocals and containing multiple science fiction themes and references? It's like a rock and roll wish list, as far as I'm concerned!

Muse is not a band for every taste, obviously. What group is? But I have pitched the band to a number of people as Radiohead on anti-depressants with overtones of Brian May and Freddie Mercury, and possibly the spiritual inheritors to Rush, another power trio with epic scope. (This is not meant to be a diss on Radiohead as I have mad respect for Thom Yorke and company, but they can get to be a bit much sometimes, can't they?)

The new album, "The Resistance", seems to be doing well; the lead single "Uprising" was number one on the local modern rock station for four weeks, and initial listenings place it very close to the previous album in enjoyability, which is great since "Black Holes" is one of my favourites. Their "Exogenesis: Symphony" in three parts still leaves me a little cold, but who knows, I may yet warm to it, and there are at least three more solid singles on this album or I miss my guess, and that is without counting the version of "I Belong to You" they recorded for the soundtrack to the "Twilight" sequel, "New Moon" .

The real revelation for me, though, came when I got Muse's concert album and DVD, "HAARP" from the library. I can recommend viewing this concert for just about anyone who likes rock and/or roll. I had heard from a number of sources that Muse's live shows were really something; in fact a British magazine listed them as one of the 15 bands one must see prior to dying, and that is probably a very reasonable position to take.

First of all, they have some serious presentation chops: good entrance (walking to the stage while flanked by stagehands in yellow rad suits and gas masks while accompanied by Prokofiev's "Romeo & Juliet", followed by front man Mat Bellamy ringing out the five notes of the theme from "Close Encounters" as a lead in to "Knights of Cydonia." Glee!), big satellite dishes on stage, an aerialist performing while suspended from a balloon directly over the crowd, excellent jumbotron usage, et cetera.

The energy ouput by this band is palpable even through as deadening a medium as television, for pity's sake. Watching the concert with someone who is not really a Muse fan, they noted the difference between the studio recordings and what was seen on stage as to be so significant they are practically different bands. Even as a fan, I find this hard to dispute.

Lastly, the musicianship, in particular, vocalist, pianist and lead guitarist Matt Bellamy. I've been listening to Muse for three years now, and while I have always regarded the band as being musically proficient, I never thought of Bellamy as a particularly gifted guitarist. A lot of this probably has to do with my ignorance when it comes to the actual mechanics of playing a guitar ("Oh, is that hard? He makes it look easy."), and also the fact that I usually hear music as a gestalt first and as components later, if at all.

I had no idea, for instance, that "Knights of Cydonia" is a featured track on Guitar Hero Smash Hits, or that Bellamy is an unlockable character in Guitar Hero V. Or that the song from that game, "Plug In Baby" features a guitar riff voted by readers of Total Guitar magazine as the 8th best of all time in 2007 (just to put it into perspective, "Smoke on the Water" was #17). It's a darned catchy riff, and I get sympathetic arthritis just imagining trying to play it in Guitar Hero. So Bellamy brings some serious guitar credibility to the table.

And that's just playing them, not playing around with them. Before kicking into "Plug in Baby" he exhorts a very convincing air raid siren out of one, and at other points in the concert he gets murmurs, rings, wails, rhythm and even a theremin effect out of them. Fancy pickin' doesn't usually generate a huge response from Audrey, but even she was mesmerized by some of Bellamy's antics. "That is one outside-the-box-playin' so-and so," she was heard to say. And the drummer and bassist aren't slouches, either.

Muse are currently touring as an opening act for U2, so the recent news that U2 is coming to Edmonton in June has me hoping that Muse might be coming with them, or perhaps showing up nearby on their 2010 North American tour, whoever it might be with. It's been a long time since I was excited about a popular modern band, which makes the idea of going to a full-on arena rock concert feel a little strange, to be honest. Not strange enough to stop me, but still.

Oh, and it turns out that my "Telstar" association was probably not accidental: Matt Bellamy's father was the rhythm guitarist for The Tornados.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Auto Motives

Alas! Once again I have seen the lamb of style sacrificed upon the altar of practicality.

For all my love of the retro-muscle design we are seeing in modern domestics, two facts remain: the first being that I just don't have as much confidence in Motor City as I once did, and the second being that it is just irresponsible to get something that isn't at least somewhat miserly with the fossil fuels when you are commuting 80 kilometres per day. Dammit.

For another thing, when the $3500 "Cash for Clunkers" program failed to materialize in Canada the way it did in the U.S., it took most new cars off the table, even the eminently practical yet stylistically polarizing Nissan Cube I was looking at. That said, it is not as though I have faith in the 1.5 decade old Plymouth getting me around for a year or so while I sock away enough shekels to make a play at something fun, so when I spied an ad for lease-back 2009 Corollas, I did some research, and we ended up getting one last Monday.

It's been quite an adjustment, but almost all positive. The Corolla appears to be near the zenith of 'good, reliable transportation', and, whining notwithstanding, that is exactly what we need right now. It is a fairly comfortable ride for a compact, but I am glad I didn't get a Yaris. I mean, as it is, getting out of the car looks more like some perverse bio-mechanical birthing than an elegant disembarkation; if I wore a red sweatshirt and climbed out of a red sub-compact like the Yaris, people would be apt to think they had just seen an automobile undergo mitosis. "Holy crap, that car just calved off a whole person! Those Japanese engineers can do anything!" Still, I keep hearing the Mexican farmer talking to Steve McQueen in "The Magnificent Seven", who is turning down their job offer because it doesn't pay enough. The farmer says, "I understand; you can make much more money as a grocery clerk. It's good, steady work." The look on McQueen's face is priceless, and I saw it as clear as day when I wrote "good reliable transportation" above.

It is not particularly exciting to drive, but has enough guts to pass slowboats on the Henday, which is about all the chutzpah I am going to require. The clock offers a number of alternate displays, though, one of which shows your current fuel economy in L/100km, and I have seen it go from 5.2 to 16.1 in the course of ten seconds of passing speed, so leaving that display on as a default could save me some money in not only gas but also speeding tickets.

Still, it is very nice to have a proper sound system again. Nothing fancy, but very decent sound quality. Even though there are so sub-woofers, the bass is beefy enough that I was honestly fearing that the new Muse album I was enjoying was going to deploy my airbags, and the bass was only set to 3 out of 5. I kept thinking back to that description of "The Quivering Palm" from my high school D&D handbook, and how the monks could achieve all manner of horrifying effects through their attunement to certain vibrations; I turned the bass down to 1 just to be safe. Still, if you could get video of it, it might make a good prank: "Bass fo' yo' face! KaBLAM!"

Yeah, maybe next time I can get something a bit more distinct, or more fun to drive, but like I wrote previously, I don't have a lot of ego tied up in my vehicular choices. I mean, it's more than none, and sometimes I wish it was less, but belly-button car or not, it's nice to have some confidence in the item most responsible for getting me to work in an orderly fashion and keeping my family safe while they ride in it. Oh, and I even got $300 for the old beater from the Fed's "Retire Your Ride" program. Sure, maybe I could have held out for $500 from some high school boy thinking the red interior and tinted windows on a '94 Plymouth Acclaim could overcome peeling paint that made the car look like it was sunburned, a wrecked driver's side door lock (thanks to the skells who stole it from in front of my house IN BROAD DAYLIGHT a year ago; that was a Batman moment I am happy didn't pan out...) and the fact that any dipstick with one thumb and a chopstick can now make off with the car at will if The Club isn't attached to the wheel. But the moment I pictured who I might be dickering with, I signed up for the $300 and never looked back. Part of me is thinking I should re-attach the plate and do something liberatingly stupid with the car before it gets towed, but then I remember that they don't call it Murphy's Theory now, do they?

Friends of ours have a Corolla they have driven for years; in fact, the body has become so rusted that they jokingly refer to it as the Toyota 'Corrode-a', but it still runs, and runs well. Given how little I enjoy purchasing cars, I hope to get the same sort of longevity out of this one.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Fools Rush In

So, it was Glorianna and I on our own tonight, as Audrey and Fenya are at the Cantilon Choir dessert auction. It's a strange event for me, emotionally speaking, because while I love the music and an elegant night at the Winspear with excellent company, I dropped, like, $80 on a tiramisu from the Italian Centre one year, and neither my wallet nor my scale need that kind of challenge at this point in time. Which is not to say it wasn't worth it; it totally was. It's just way too easy to justify that kind of behaviour when you can hang your guilt on the 'it's for a good cause' peg, so missing out this year was all right by me.

Regardless, I asked Glo-bug what she wanted to do after supper as we drove home, and she mused a bit before saying, "What about Rockband? We haven't done that in a while..."

"Capital idea!" I replied, and after I explained what that meant, we hit Wendy's and proceeded in a homeward direction, and got to the Rockbanding shortly thereafter.

I am finally at a point where I can play a brand new song in medium and not get booed off the stage every time, which may not seem like much, but it's huge to me. Glory's the drummer in our band, The Roofgoats, and we played for about an hour together tonight. Her favourite songs are Paramore's "That's What You Get" for singing and Beck's "E-Pro" for drumming (which I concur with wholeheartedly). I only recently made the transition from easy to medium on the guitar, so I couldn't pay her as much attention tonight as I would have liked, but she consistently gets 90% or so on most songs, and watching her freestyle stuff is hilarious. She did try medium, but the simultaneous hand and foot action is a little too much for her at this point, and at all of 7 years of age, I thought it was way cool of her to attempt it at all.

A major part of the game's appeal for both girls is the ability to customize your Rockband 'character', from the haircut to the shoes and everything in between, so we ended up having to play a few tour gigs in order to feed Glory's shopping monkey. A new hairstyle and dress devastated her evening's earnings, but I hardly think Rockband 2 is the tool for teaching your kids about fiscal responsibility and thoughtful purchases, and besides, wardrobe is really more of an investment for a musician, right?

Afterwards, we checked our gig options to see what had opened up and I spied one in Montreal spotlighting Canadian artists. Pulling up the details, I noted with glee that the closing number was Rush's "The Trees". Glory had no clue why I was so excited, so I found the song on YouTube and played it for her.

She enjoyed it greatly, as all right-thinking people do, even though she was initially concerned about the complete and total lack of drumming in the song until 44 seconds in. Once it started, she was suitably impressed, which pleased me greatly. I went on to explain that in addition to being a brilliant lyricist, Neil Peart is widely considered one of rock's best living* drummers. I didn't go too much into his increasingly bizarre and outlandish time signatures and the like, because, well, I don't really understand them, to be quite honest. But I did tell her about how I got to see him perform his signature drum solo "The Rhythm Method" live in concert back in 1990, on the "Presto" tour. My friend Jim Opp invited me to the show and we drove up from Augustana to Edmonton and got our socks knocked off. (Thanks again, Jim! I still have the pin from that show!)

I found "The Rhythm Method" on YouTube and played it for her, and needless to say, she was dazzled from pillar to post.

First of all there is the skill, which I feel speaks for itself and is considerable. Secondly, there is the stamina, because an 8 minute drum solo separates the sheep from the goats pretty swiftly, in my opinion. "How does he keep going?" Glory marvelled, "His arms must be really strong." Thirdly, there is the creativity: when I hear "8 minute drum solo", I am drawn against my will to Iron Butterfly's legendary "In a Gadda Da Vida", which, let's be honest, gets a little stale by about minute 5 of the drum solo. The piece is not without its merits, especially the way it is used in Michael Mann's film "Manhunter", but even its defenders have a hard time denying it is an indulgent work. There is not much room for boredom in "The Rhythm Method" (bow-chicka-wow-wow)(stop that!) as Peart works between what I believe are four different drum kits and a cornucopia of percussives. He even wraps up with a big band sound, which is simply fantastic. There are a lot of great drummers out there, but a real shortage of drum instrumentalists, I wager.

Lastly, there are the drums themselves, which my youngest daughter looked at longingly and sighed, "I wish I had a drum set like that." I laughed and explained that since Peart's setup used at least three full drum kits, a couple of synthesizers and enough cymbals for half-time at the Rose Bowl, there were several thousand dollars worth of skins at play there.

Now, when you are 7, 20 bucks is a lot of money, and you know a thousand is more, but you don't really know how much more, so I wasn't expecting her to be too impressed, which is good, because she wasn't, but it did get me to thinking about how she saw a set of drums in a flyer the other day, and suggested maybe she could learn the drums for real.

So having shown her Neil Peart directly on the heels of Rockband's ersatz drum participation, I wonder if maybe I have flipped open the lid on Pandora's box here a little bit. And now I may actually have to weigh the clutter and noise of a proper drum kit in the house against the incredible coolness factor of elementary-school-girl-rock-drummer. It's quite the conundrum.

One of my favourite musician jokes is "what do you call a drummer with no girlfriend?" The answer, of course, is "homeless", but maybe it could also be "my kid, Glory!" I can always get headphones for when she practices, I suppose.

* Hardly an exhaustive list, when you think about it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Defense for the Hondo Rush

Back in early September, we purchased a Wii. There were a number of reasons for this, not the least of which being that I really needed to find some form of physical activity that I would actually be motivated to do. Since my workplace has a Personal Wellness and Development Account that would cover the cost, we went to Costco and took the plunge.

We ended up leaving with the Wii itself, an extra controller, the Wii Fit balance board, and a game called Active Life Extreme Challenge, which sounds like a Japanese game show, but isn't. Well, probably isn't, anyways. Two weeks later Nintendo announced a 20% price drop on the Wii hardware itself, which in many ways is the story of my life, but I digress.

Using mostly Wii Fit (which doubles as a scale), I managed to drop 11 pounds in the first month of using it, and the whole family enjoys the thing, so it has certainly been a worthy addition to the household. In a mad fit of bedbug-related retail therapy, I also purchased Rockband 2, and the girls have been mad for it; score another victory for the family the plays together. Despite the whole 'rockstar' oeuvre that the game is shooting for, however (it is produced by MTV Games, after all), I do have to confess to getting a weird Partridge Family vibe when the four of us play together; thank goodness there isn't a keyboard peripheral.

Since the Rockband 2 'incident', I have been (ahem) actively discouraged from any further Wii purchases until after Christmas, which hardly seems unfair given the circumstances. But as mentioned in an earlier post, the Edmonton Public Library now has a selection of Wii games, which has been a great help not only recreationally, but also as an evaluation tool against future (and by future, I guess I mean 2010) purchases. For instance, despite that fact that you can check games out for a generous 7 day period, Pirates Vs. Ninja Dodgeball was like the little yellow cat of song and went back the very next day. Ghostbusters was quite a bit of fun and a natural for the Wii's motion controls, plus it features the original cast members, which is a treat.

Yesterday I got an e-mail from EPL informing me that Punch Out was on hold for me at my branch, so I wasted very little time in getting over there after work to pick it up.

As a child of the 80s, I have fond memories of the original Punch Out arcade game, although I wasn't very good at it. The frantic computer play-by-play ("Uppercut! Uppercut! Left hook! Jab!"), coupled with the satisfaction of knocking out even the easiest opponent, Glass Joe, meant the loss of a lot of quarters back in the day.

I know Punch Out went on to be a popular title on the old NES and Super Nintendo system, and as a Mike Tyson license no less, but I never played it on those platforms. In all honesty, the idea of a boxing game that would tire out more than my thumbs really appealed to me, the game reviewed really well on Metacritic, and when I read that it supported the balance board, I knew I had to give it a try.

Long story short, despite the fact that dodging and ducking with the balance board is a very sketchy proposition, I played my way through the first 4 boxers last night ending up with the Minor Circuit belt. By the end I was a sweaty mass and today had a noticeable tremor in my legs from all the actual ducking I had done.

It has that great video-game compulsion factor that bled my pockets dry of caribou coin back in the day, that notion that this time, THIS time, I would be victorious. Never mind that the whole proposition probably more resembled Daffy Duck loading a musket ("First the powder, THEN the wadding...BLAM") than anything else, hope springs eternal. Coupling that 'one more time' geas with a physically engaging activity is just what the doctor ordered for this sofa spud.

Graphically speaking, the Wii doesn't have a lot of horsepower, which is good, because it puts a lot more focus on the gameplay where it belongs, but Punch Out is a pretty good looking game. It uses cel shading and cartoonish caricatures to give it a real Saturday morning feel. The opponents are brutally steretypical but inoffensive and fun. Piston Hondo, of the titular Hondo Rush, hocks sushi between rounds. My most recent opponent, Bear Hugger, hails from Salmon Arm, BC, which shocked me, since all other Canadian game characters seem to hail from Toronto or Montreal, if they come from a city at all, and as cliched as a bearded lumberjack who drinks maple syrup might be, there is an undeniable appeal to a character who has a punch called the 'Salmon Arm' and is prone to yelling 'Sockeye!' before punching you in the face.

So I threw Fenya on the game tonight and watched her tie a whuppin' on Glass Joe, Von Kaiser AND The Disco Kid without a single loss. It took me half an hour just to beat Von Kaiser the night before. Then we tried playing head to head, and, surprise surprise, she kicked my ass, much to the delight of those in attendance. And this despite my gaining some sort of power-up in the second round that turned me into an Incredible Hulk sized abomination. So now I can go to work tomorrow and when someone asks me why I am making so much noise getting out my chair, I can tell them I am sore from the savage beating my 10 year old administered on me the night before.

Well, whatever. I still have the belt.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


(Despite the title and timing, this post has nothing to do with Roman Polanski.)

If you take a look at Hollywood's offerings over the last, say, three years, and take away all the remakes and sequels, you thin out the herd pretty substantially. If you also remove adaptations, which began fairly earnestly with novels and short stories but which now include television shows, comic books and even video games, you aren't left with a whole lot.

As much as I lament the dearth of original ideas making it to the silver screen, I'm clearly part of the problem; I loved last year's Iron Man and Dark Knight films, and I have to admit to also getting guardedly excited about the upcoming Predators movie from producer Robert Rodriguez.

As a director, Robert Rodriguez is one of my favourites, and not because of his visual style or skill, but rather because of his attitude. After making El Mariachi on a shoestring budget, he was given Tinseltown money and equipment to shoot the sequel, Desperado. I had a wonderful photo of him on my desk at work at the time, courtesy of Premiere magazine, with him wearing baggy shorts and a cameraman's vest, the pockets bulging with lenses and light meters. He is carrying (or rather, wearing) the steadicam he taught himself to use, and he has a bandana on his head to protect him the sun. There is a bandage across his nose, making look like a boxer due to an eyepiece crashing into his face while shooting a scene, and a flaming car provides the backdrop.

In the accompanying article, he talks about the gap between his studio watchdogs and his guerilla filmmaking crew. At one point, he spies a better shot and discusses setting it up. The studio reps are bemoaning how long it is going to take to pull up the dolly track, and how they are losing light, and how the shooting schedule will be impacted if they have to do it tomorrow, when Rodriguez cuts them off and says, "Look, just get me a shopping cart and a steadicam, and I'll do it myself."

So it is with mixed feelings that I am mostly looking forward to his upcoming Predators movie, which will revisit the alien hunters first seen in the Schwarzenegger classic directed by John McTiernan. The mixed feelings are entirely appropriate, since I also had them going into the original film. It was always a crap shoot with Arnie: were you heading into Terminator 2 or Commando? Kindergarten Cop or True Lies? At any rate, I loved the first film but have been underwhelmed with the sequels, starting with Danny Glover in Predator 2 and right through to Aliens Vs. Predator, which cartoonist Scott Kurtz summarized succinctly as '30 minutes of awesome wrapped in 90 minutes of suck'.

I think one of the strengths of the original film is the ensemble of great characters and character actors, many of whom went on to do some impressive things. Obviously, there aren't too many action flicks that can boast that not one but two of their cast members went on to become state governors (what, you forgot about Jesse 'The Body' Ventura already?), but you have also got Bill Duke who became a respected director, and Shane Black (as the comms officer, Hawkins) who wrote a number of successful screenplays including the first Lethal Weapon.

Not a whole lot is known about the new film, but some rumours are suggesting they could be heading towards ensemble country again. According to sci-fi blog io9,a number of tough guy tropes are brought to the Predator homeworld for some Most Dangerous Game style action, including:

* Cuchillo A Mexican enforcer from the drug cartel, who is Danny Trejo's character.

* A Russian named Nikolai with a four barrel gas powered rotary machine gun....close to The Body's weapon.

* The token female role goes to Isabelle, a "tough as nails" lady who can speak French and carries a sniper rifle.

* A possible skin head convict, who is armed only with a prison made knife, is also in the group.

* Plus a Japanese enforcer who appears to be carrying a samurai sword,

* a member of the Sierra Leone death squad,

* and a small "unassuming" man named Edwin who was on the FBI's most wanted list.

I love ensembles, so if Predators heads in that direction, I will be happy. The news that Rodriguez regular and general hombre machismo Danny Trejo has been cast, is also very encouraging. Many people are listing their dream cast for the other roles, and it does seem like a good opportunity for some under appreciated actors to gain some exposure and possibly make a breakout. Still, you have to think the bar has been set pretty high as far as the cast from the first movie goes, don't you? Maybe guessing which cast member will hold public office in the future can be part of the marketing...

No, probably not.

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UPDATE: has an article about Adrien Brody joining the cast, and apparently Topher Grace from "That 70s Show" is in negotiations as well... come on ensemble!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Swiss Cheesed

So, Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland yesterday. He was arriving in Zurich for a film festival showing a retrospective of his work and never made it. He was arrested by Swiss police and detained for possible extradition to the United States, where he is still wanted on a criminal charge relating to his having sex with a minor in the late 1970s.

A number of Swiss people (and as many French) are pretty incensed about this, and I guess it is understandable; if my country had a globe-spanning reputation for neutrality, I don't imagine I would want my officials bird-dogging for the U.S. But I heard a fellow on the news tonight who was "ashamed to be Swiss" because Polanski "is a great man, a genius, who has entertained millions of people and made one little mistake all those years ago..."

Whoa, back up a sec... I wonder what mistake he is referring to? Having an unsupervised minor over to Jack Nicholson's house for a topless photo shoot for the European edition of Vogue? Giving her champagne and part of a Quaalude? Ignoring her objections and having sex with and sodomizing her? Maybe I just have an old-fashioned, provincial mindset, but while all of those things sound like mistakes, not one of them seems all that 'little'.

Now, none of these 'mistakes' are disputed; most of them are part of Polanski's plea agreement. His story is that the sex occurred, but that it was consensual. But when he heard that the media-hungry judge might renege on the agreement, he fled the United States for France, and has not been back since.

Shortly after the judge in the case died, Polanski started popping up in the news again. Prior to this, his last topical appearance was in Steve Martin's monologue from the year he hosted the Oscars ("I see Roman Polanski has joined us here tonight...GET HIM!"), but an appearance in Rush Hour 3 (?) and a documentary ("Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired")about the case brought him a bit of public exposure which some people speculated might have been an overture towards his asking to have the case dismissed. The documentary alleges that the judge in question had a real axe to grind and that some misconduct on the part of the courts might have been a factor. In February however, a judge declared that Polanski would have to appear in court to request the dismissal, and that appeared to be the end of that.

There is also the question of Polanski himself: the Holocaust survivor who lost his mother to Auschwitz as a child, the man who lost his wife to the depredations of the Manson gang. It has been suggested that any amount of prison time could have been tantamount to a death sentence, and there is no questioning the fact that the man has suffered.

But this changes nothing.

There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that the director of the movie "Powder" (Victor Salva) had been convicted on child molestation charges prior to being hired by a Disney subsidiary to make a family movie with young stars. Not huge enough to stop him from coming back and making a horror movie years later about a busload of teenagers being menaced by creepy trenchcoat-wearing monsters (hmmm...), but still, people were upset that young actors may have been put at risk. Others said that since Salva had paid his debt to society, it was irrelevant, which seems disingenuous at best. But in this case at least a debt was paid; Polanski has yet to face the music. His offenses took place in the 1970s; I can't even imagine the furor today if a famous Hollywood director was even accused of the kinds of acts Polanski described in his plea agreement.

My understanding is that three decades later, he still downplays the fuss. I do not believe he has ever admitted having been in the wrong, and makes statements such as "I like young women...I think most men do." There are many others who would like to see the matter done away with, including the victim herself. I am sure she has to be tired of having this traumatic experience re-visited in the media periodically, and I sympathize with her, so if it is determined that the judge acted inappropriately and the case ends up dismissed, so be it. But I have no sympathy for Polanski, who fled justice on hearsay, and didn't ask for an inquiry or his day in court for a third of a century, and in fact, still hasn't, because he has fans and apologists to do that for him. Strange as it may seem, I am reserving a portion of my sympathy for Barack Obama, who will probably end up mired in a diplomatic dilemma once he is asked by the French Minister of Culture or Nicolas Sarkozy to intercede on Polanski's behalf.

Regardless of how long ago it occurred or how the victim may feel about it currently or what sorts of things Polanski has accomplished in the meantime, plying a thirteen year old girl with drugs and alcohol so you can have non-consensual sex with her is not only wrong, it is evil. But don't take my word for it: Smoking Gun has the original victim statement available online, and it paints a pretty clear picture. Polanski was initially charged with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy, lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance (methaqualone) to a minor. He plead guilty to lesser charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor, which might seem like a slap on the wrist, but was brokered in part by the attorney of the victim, who did not want to have to testify in court. The spectre of being held accountable for even that small portion of his acts was enough for Polanski to choose exile instead, and he has remained there until yesterday.

Since learning the details behind Polanski's 'controversy' several years ago, I have not watched a single one of his films. Some might criticise me as judging the artist and not the art, but that guy does not see a nickle of my money until he has faced justice. As imperfect as that justice might be, it's all we've got. I'll see "The Pianist" and "Chinatown" after he's pushing up daisies, if that is what it takes. On the plus side, it did give me an (additional) excuse to pass on "Rush Hour 3".

Perhaps I am mis-reading the shamed Swiss citizen, and Polanski's flight from sentencing is the 'little mistake' he is referring to. If so, he should be glad that there may now be a chance to hear the other side of the story. If not, and this person honestly believes that Polanski's skills as a filmmaker somehow excuse his exploitative and criminal behaviour, then I hope his comments get plenty of circulation.

Because at that point, I am sure a number of other people may be ashamed to be Swiss as well, but for a different reason.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

I Feel Pretty...

"I feel pretty
Oh so pretty
I feel pretty and witty and gay
And I feel pity
For any girl who isn't me today..."
"I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story

So I have had the opportunity to chat with our new minister on a few occasions now, in a variety of contexts, and the more I get to know him, the easier he is to like.

First and foremost, Rev. James is a very good speaker and teacher, with an excellent way of taking Gospel stories and applying a layer of context that makes them far more significant and applicable, which is something his predecessor, The Sermonator, did as well. He doesn't like standing behind the pulpit, and doesn't need to, as he can expound without the benefit of notes for the ten or so minutes he takes for his reflections. (He doesn't like to think of them as sermons, which I guess means I need to come up with a more appropriate and less lazy nickname than 'Sermonator Too.') So obviously he is an easy guy to be jealous of if you have ever done any public speaking, but I digress.

He's a sociable bloke with a sharp wit, and I get the sense that if he were to take his sarcasm off the leash, it could be devastating to anyone within the blast radius, but he doesn't, because that would probably be inappropriate at the very least for a man of the cloth. At a post-retreat barbecue we talked about a number of things, and it appears we share a weakness for sentiment, and he mentioned having a difficult time getting through his vows with his husband since he was weeping like a baby. I threw up a hand and mentioned a recent situation that produced a lot of 'eye-sweat' for me, and discovered we both enjoy a good turn of phrase (as previously documented in this very blog). After a little more conversation, Rev. James mused aloud as to whether any of my Irish ancestors might have had something to do with the mining, installation or perhaps even the promotion of the famed Blarney Stone. I confessed he was not the first person to make that observation, and he postulated it being highly unlikely he would be the last, so like I was saying, you might not see the sarcasm, but if you watch closely, you can his hand gripped tightly on the halter.

Last week I attended my first worship committee meeting with Rev. James in attendance. This is the committee that handles a lot of the nuts and bolts details about what happens during a worship service, from the scheduling of music and guests to which way communion will be served, and it has been a fascinating experience for me, largely due to the excellent people I get to work with. At this meeting, it was decided that we would donate a basket of goodies to the silent auction we are holding as a fundraiser this October 3 (tickets still available! e-mail me for details.), since we had done this the year before and it had gone over pretty well.

The lady who had done most of the collation, arrangement and presentation of the basket last time around, said she would not be able to do it this year, and wondered if someone else might be able to put it together. Well, anything beyond a sloppy gift bag is beyond my ken, so I clammed up immediately. Rev. James, bless him, jumped right in with, "Oh, give it to me; I can make anything look pretty."

Now, knowing him to be a fan of musicals, I lofted one over to him: "Pretty?" I said, "Oh, so pretty?"

"Yes," he smirked without looking up from where he was scribbling in his daytimer, "Pretty and witty and don't go there."

I don't know if how many others got it, but the two of us thought it was pretty funny. In fact, we got mildly admonished for giggling about it at the church council meeting the following day when he brought it up and I said, "Dude, it was a low road, but you have got to respect how fast I got there..."

He laughed and said, "You have no idea how much I enjoyed that," which is right about when the chair called us back to order, and there was much redness of the faces. But hey, those moments are a gift, and it's almost as much fun to revisit them as it is to share them in the first place.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Better Part of Summer II: Trail of the Calcinite Wolf

(Warning: the Calcinite Wolf proved impervious to photography and his image is not to be found within, but I liked the title too much to give it up.)

Our next excursion was out to Cathedral Grove, an old growth rain forest on the way to Port Alberni. This was mostly an excuse to take a leisurely walk around some gorgeous old trees. How old? In this case, you'd have to ask Fenya.

How big? 76 metres tall in the case of this 800 year-old Douglas Fir.

The forest is not as dense as it once was, due to a windstorm that knocked down a lot of the oldest growth. It's tragic to lose so many trees that were already old when Columbus sailed over, but it's fascinating to see new trees growing out of them in the fashion of nuresry trees. Plus it is almost a bonus to see deforestation not caused by bipedal carbon units, if you know what I mean. Cathedral Grove is not far from Cameron Lake, one of the preferred swimming spots in these parts, so we took a dip.

The next day we took a trip to Port Alberni. The main purpose of the trip was to ride a steam locomotive to Canada's sole operational steam-powered sawmill (Why? What do you mean, 'why?' Because steam-power is cool, and 54 inch head saws are cool, and combining them is AWESOME, that's why!), but we also went to the Maritime Centre to learn about the tsunami that struck the port in 1964 and which I was completely unaware of until I read about it in my AMA tourbook. The museums left a lot to be desired, but it was interesting reading and hearing some of the recollections from the tsunami. No one was killed, but imagining sitting in the attic of my house as it detaches from the foundation and ends up coming to rest on the golf course while you sit in pitch darkness inside wondering if you are being carried out to sea was pretty chilling, as were the signs both here and in Tofino which show you exactly when you enter the tsunami danger zone and mark out the route to safety should an offshore earthquake strike.
Port Alberni is also Vancouver Island's only deepwater port, which let me get a really neat picture of Fenya in front of a massive ship:

I really like this picture, and I can't articulate why. I'm not much of a photographer once you take the Rule of Thirds out of the equation, so I am not sure if it actually is a good picture or not, and if it is, why that is. (I know at least two of you are photographically inclined, and your comments would be appreciated either way!) I do like the tiny image of the crewman painting the side from a scaffold in the background, and the colour is very nice, but other than that, I am unable to say.

I certainly wouldn't call myself a train buff, but having a steam-powered locomotive pull you up to an old, out of the way locale like the McLean Mill is pretty cool.

Young dramatists (The Tinpants Players) acted out the roles of the many varied camp inhabitants from the mill's glory days in the 1940s, and even staged a production called "The Adventures of Douglas Fir". Fenya volunteered to go onstage, which was impressive in that there is virtually no chance I would have done that when I was her age, and not a lot better odds now, come to think of it. Good thing we got her into an arts school.

The mill demo itself was pretty interesting, and they actually sell the lumber they produce. What a great story behind someone's reno project! I spoke to the head sawyer, because he had mentioned that they still use the original engine the mill had started with in the 1920s, and I wondered about the boiler. "Oh yeah, it's all replaced with a new propane one now," he said. "The original, it was, you know, a bomb."

The next day had us heading on a narrow and winding road into the lake country and up to the Horne Lake Caves. I would have to put this one on the must-see list if you are ever in this part of the island. It's a decent hike up to the cave and then about an hour underground with a guide and the only illumination coming from your caving helmets.

The only other caves I have been in are the Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana, which are partially illuminated, you rearly have to even stoop and they have handrails throughout most of it. Not so the Horne Lake Caves; a lot of improvised handholds and butt-scooching and the like.

Our guide, Nick, had a lot of caving experience and was able to point out a number of fascinating mineral deposits, including a helactite, a spiraling variety of stalactite.

I was very pleased that Fenya was able to explain the difference between stalactites and stalagmites using a mnemonic I still remember from a comic featuring the Mighty Atom I read three decades ago and passed on to her. ("There's a 'C' in stalactite, let it stand for ceiling! And the 'G' in stalagmite stands for ground!")

Nick also spun a great yarn about a formation shaped like a wolf near the cave entrance, which he swore would animate in defense of the various calcium formations in the cave because they take so long to form and can be damaged irrevocably just by touching them. In fact, he told us that when they formally opened the caving centre, they had celebrities on hand, including Winnie-the-Pooh, who lost his head and started eating the formation called the Ice Cream Waterfall. At this point, the Calcinite Wolf burst forth from his shell and howled his anger, which scared the hungry bear so much that he tried to tunnel his own way out rather than face the wrath of the cave's defender. Alas, it was to no avail, as he became stuck and the wolf loped down and bit Pooh on his hindquarters, turning him instantly and permanently to stone, as this picture of hs stony bottom attests:

(In fact, if you look carefully in the background of the picture of Nick above, you can also see poor Piglet's little hooves, as he was unable to escape either.) I loves me a good folk story, especially a moralizin' one, and I can't say who believed and who didn't, but every kid in that cave was pretty conscientious about keeping their hands to themselves I tell you what.

The following day, we found ourselves at Little Qualicum Falls. It is a gorgeous walk with tremendous scenery, which again, my photography is only a pale imitation thereof.

(Please disregard the sign in the foreground, they're perfectly safe, I assure you...)

On our last day in B.C. we went swimming in this river. Our attempt to swim in a pool carved out of the stone by the waterfall itself was thwarted by virtue of the fact that there was absolutely no shallow water within the pool at all. It was a classic swimming hole: barely accessible, wicked cold, and with steep stone sides. When the girls are stronger swimmers, you can bet your bottom dollar we will be going back. As it was, we headed up above the falls to a more conventional swimming area and had a great time. The girls let me tow them to the middle of the river on a floaty board, and by thrusting their goggled faces under the water, they were able to see all manner of trout and stonefish swimming through the 4 metre deep bend. In the rocks by the shallows were plentiful amounts of crayfish, 6-8 inches long. I tried to catch one with my hands, but they displayed not only a belligerent attitude but also tremendous alacrity, which brought to mind the warning signs at the Asian grocery stores I frequent regarding how the management will not be held responsible for fingers severed as a result of ill-advised crustacean interaction. And yes, belligerent, for reals; I fully expected these wily arthropods to dart back beneath the rocks from whence they came once they caught a glimpse of myself via their beady eyestalks. Not so much because I am particularly formidable per se, but rather because I am an omnivore of considerable size with opposable thumbs and the like. But they not only failed to retreat, they advanced onto the taller and taller rocks, holding their little pincer claws up as if to say, "I wonder what the big one tastes like?" or perhaps, "you want some of this?" At any rate, this is another spot I long to return to, and the next time I will be bringing a camera in a Zip-Loc, a dipping net, and a Cajun cookbook. Dipping in the river also meant we hit the waterbody trifecta, and had swum in a lake, ocean and river all in one trip.

We also had the opportunity to spend time with Island Mike's excellent in-laws, Trevor and Laurie. They are tremendously cool people with a pair of equally cool daughters, and they also took us over to visit their neighbour Josh and his Newfoundland ponies. These hearty little animals came within a hair's breadth of extinction, and now here are a score of them on the other side of the continent pulling carts for show. I had expected them to be stockier, like Mongolian Steppe ponies, but they look like nothing so much as perfectly formed horses in miniature. Film-makers take note: if you want Gary Cooper to look bigger on-screen, put him in the saddle on one of these.

Running this kind of operation is a lot of work, and I think it was incredibly hospitable of Josh to not only show us the ponies and provide some rides, but to let Audrey take a turn at the reins, no less! The quality of people that Mike and his family choose to associate with never ceases to amaze me. (I don't actually include myself in this, due to the fact that my association with Mike dates back to a time when he was, frankly, disreputable.) And that wrapped up our time on Vancouver Island.

On the way back, we stopped at Hell's Gate on the Fraser Canyon, but it was a bit disappointing actually, as the drought meant the water level was a little less than half of what it had been when Audrey and I had last been there 14 years ago. More like Heck's Gate, really. On the plus side, it is a dog-friendly attraction, which meant we didn't have to rush through and hurry back to keep Nitti from overheating in the car.

Thanks to that detour, we ended up arriving home at 4:00 a.m., but with no close calls on the road despite much caffeination, and nary a complaint from the girls.

All in all, a very satisfying way to wrap up the summer, and we hope we will be heading back to the island before too long. Now I just have to explain to my daughters exactly why Daddy can't get a new job out there...