Sunday, May 31, 2009

Turning the Phrase (or is it the other way around?)

One of my tiny infamies is the fact that I do rather enjoy an oblique turn of phrase. The English language is so quirky and robust, that I don't think there is ever really an excuse that warrants boring conversation. The downside of this is that, on more than one occasion, a point that I feel I have made with crystal clarity like unto the optics of the Hubble Space Telescope has been met with either a dumbfounded stare, a sheepish grin, or outright hostility. I see this as just the cost of doing business, in addition to providing a litmus test for future interactions with that individual.

And so it is that when I am providing someone with cautionary advice that I will often say, "Well, you know what they say: 'forewarned is half an octopus'..." as opposed to the familiar and trite "forewarned is forearmed". I mean, how is the latter any fun at all, it's patently obvious and blatantly preachy.

Another stock answer of recent years comes courtesy of two characters from the short-lived "Muppets Tonight" television show from the mid-90s, Seymour the Elephant and Pepe the King Prawn. The two of them trot onto the stage in their vintage vaudeville costumes, and Pepe asks Seymour, "What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhino?" When Seymour confesses he doesn't know, Pepe looks at the audience, says "'Ell if I know!" and the two of them hold their hands out and wait for applause that never comes. It's a great bit, that has us coming back and seeing Pepe explaining the gag in his wretched Spanglish accent and using more and more detail to a slack-jawed audience that just cannot comprehend it. As a result though, when someone makes an inquiry of me that might necessitate a "How the heck would I know that?", I instead trot out, "What do you get when you cross an elephant with a rhino?"

The most recent story arc in the comic series Runaways, written by Joss Whedon, has a lot of moments that made me laugh out loud while reading it, which was unfortunate as I was reading it after midnight on a weeknight and my girlish tittering was interfering with my wife's rest, but I digress. In the first issue, one of the group gets saved from falling to his death by his telepathic pet dinosaur (long story, you should probably just start with issue 1. Trust me on this.), which leaps off a skyscraper, grabs the kid's coat with her teeth and sinks her great eviscerating toe-hooks into the building's side to stop their fall. Later on, when everyone else feels he must have perished, the team's youngest member, 11-year-old super-strong Molly, spins out an implausible survival scenario that perfectly matches the rescue the reader has just witnessed. The survivors crawl back up the building shortly after and the lad describes how they survived, and not a one of the listeners gives props to Molly for her supposition, which drives her to say, "I totally got it right what happened to Chase and nobody said anything! Why aren't you awesomed by me? " The second I read it, I knew Molly had just tossed a three-pointer into my lexicon. She has been my favourite character for while now, and seeing her almost kill The Punisher two pages later by punching him in the stomach ("How was I supposed to know he doesn't have super-powers?") is just icing on the cake; that guy takes himself way too seriously.

Relating this story to a friend of ours the other night at dinner, she mentioned sharing my affection for a good turn of phrase, and called her husband on the spot to make sure she was getting this one right. It seems they were watching Mythbusters recently, and there was something that required blowing up (as is often the case and just awesome). As they were setting up the charges, someone asked what they should do if anything went wrong. The explosives expert looked at the questioner, grinned and said, "Then we de-ass the premises, with the quickness." It immediately reminded me of the classic t-shirt caption "I'm with the Bomb Squad; if you see me running, try to keep up."

One of my work colleagues, a gentleman named Kevin, has expanded my vocabulary by at least two hand-made artisan words that I feel require immediate and widespread distribution, so if you readers could assist in this, I would be very grateful. Kevin has spent a fair bit of time studying and working in Mexico, and was telling some of us about his first trip out into the jungle. In his own words, "I had been really looking forward to this, you know, seeing the jungle, with the mystery and the exotic danger and all. Shortly after the bus dropped us off, I realized I had been there before. It turns out we have jungle in northern Ontario too, it's just that we call it bush. I was totally anticipointed."

"Say again?" I interjected. "You were what?"

"Anticipointed," he replied. "I had been filled with anticipation, but it turned to disappointed right there in front of me. When you have that big build up, disappointment doesn't really cover it, so, anticipointment."

A number of people listening to the story were nodding sagely at this, and I was one of them. "That is really an apt word," I said. "Did you come up with that on your own?"

"Oh sure," he grinned. "I invent blended words in our house all the time. My current favourite gets used when I forget to eat lunch and get cranky."

"I get that too," I said, "Especially if I go too light on the protein at breakfast. What do you call it?"

"Hangry," he replied, "Hungry plus angry equals hangry."

I've shared his words with a few people now, and I have every confidence that they will enter common usage in the very near future. Everyone will be awesomed by them.

Except at my house, where they already have been.

Monday, May 25, 2009

That's About The Sighs Of It

This morning, as we all went about our morning ablutions and general ante meridiem routines, Fenya wandered into the kitchen with no shirt on.

This is not really a big deal; so much not so, in fact, that it took me a moment to notice. With four people sharing a single bathroom, modesty is something we have never really bothered with in our household, frankly. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and if that means stepping over someone on the biffy whilst en route to the shower, so be it. Many are the bedtimes where I have been bowled over by 1-2 clothesless children screaming "NAKED HUG!" at the top of their lungs, and we wouldn't have it any other way. The girls are still discreet in public and self conscious enough not to streak in front of the living room window, and they generally refrain from naked hug charges while company is over, and that sort of thing, so it has never been a cause for concern.

I know it can't last, and that the time for casual household nudity will draw to a close, and that's fine. Fenya has already started to ask that I wait for an answer before entering her room, which probably has more to do with her beginning to wear a training bra than any kind of shame about nudity. Her appearance in the kitchen this morning sans blouse really drew it into sharp relief for me though; there are probably not a lot of sunny mornings left where she will drift into the kitchen with no top and casually feed the dog, and I probably won't even notice the change until it has come and gone.

With a little luck, my children will keep a certain degree of childish outlook throughout their lives, much as I have tried to do. I worked with a fellow years ago, who maintained "Maturity is not acting like an adult, it's knowing when it's appropriate to act like a child." But childishness and childhood are very different in my estimation. Time is running out on so many things; things like a trip to Disneyland, funny faces, being dropped off at school within sight of their friends, general silliness, stuffed animals, naming and anthropomorphizing everything they come across, talking to animals like they are going to respond in kind, asking questions and not worrying about looking foolish, singing along with music or shows, et cetera, et cetera.

I can get pretty maudlin about matters like this. It is so vitally important to me that my kids look back on a childhood full of love and fun and support but most of all childishness, and I wear my heart way out on my sleeve in this, as I do in so many things. So much so, in fact, that I have started to withhold what I am actually feeling at times like these so I don't inadvertently make my daughters feel guilty about growing up!

And so it was, when Fenya stumbled into the kitchen this morning, wearing just her jeans, as she collected Nitti's water dish and brought it over to the sink to refill, and I looked but I didn't see her. I saw sand dropping through the neck of an hourglass, and every grain was a diamond of exquisite clarity and brilliance and I thought briefly about how best to catch them, when Fenya interrupted me.

"Daddy? What's the matter?"

I thought about telling her, but again, she already knows that as much as I love to watch her grow up, I miss the child she was yesterday, and just how selfish do I need to be anyways? Moments like these are like the chalk mandalas they draw in far flung monasteries, full of effort and detail and beauty, but ultimately ephemeral, like childhood itself. I'm still learning to enjoy the flower where it grows, rather than picking it and taking it with me.

I smiled and said, "Nothing, I was just thinking."

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Three Things You Should Try

(If you haven't already, that is...)

Since blogging should be about shared experiences, here are some pleasant surprises or novelties I have come across, and highly recommend.

1) Edmonton Public Library
Like my friend Earl, I have always been a big fan of libraries. Sure, there are a lot of books I would rather just buy outright, but the list gets smaller and smaller as my shelf space grows more and more restrictive. Besides, I don't seem to re-read my books half as often as I once did.

With EPL's excellent hold system, I am able to put requests in for anything in their catalogue, which now includes DVDs, graphic novels and comic collections, and even video-games for the Wii and X-Box 360 (!). The requested titles are brought to the branch of my choice, and an e-mail is sent when it is ready to pick up. Even with a $12 per year user fee, it is still marvelous.

2) Runaways
This Marvel comic series, written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Adrian Alphona, came to my attention through an interview with Joss Whedon (of Buffy and Firefly fame, but you probably already knew that). In the interview Whedon gets asked about what comics he likes, and he confesses that he would love to write a few issues of Runaways. Shortly after that, I noticed Vaughan's name listed not only as the writer on one of the Buffy 'Season 8' comic collections, but also as a writer and producer on Lost, one of my favourite TV shows.

Using the aforementioned EPL hold system, Fenya and I have now read the first 42 issues, and they are a treat. Set in the Marvel Universe (and thus paving the way for guest appearances or cameos by Spiderman, Captain America and Wolverine), Runaways deals with 6 adolescents who discover that their parents are actually a group of super-villains known as The Pride. While escaping their guardians and figuring out what to do with their newfound knowledge, they discover their own powers, gadgets, gifts and abilities.

Working from the premise that every teenager thinks their folks are evil, but what do you do when they actually are, it spirals out into a brilliant adventure story full of humour, pathos and some fantastic art that straddles the comic/cartoon line in a brilliant balancing act. The fact that he is able to do all this in a book suitable for ages 12 and up (which not nearly enough comics bother to do these days, sadly), is nothing short of amazing. I can certainly see why Joss Whedon likes it, and I can't wait to read his contribution in the next volume. Marvel Studios is also looking at bringing it to the silver screen, so here is your chance to get in on the ground floor.

3) Chicken Shawarma
I've always enjoyed the Mediterranean take on kiosk food, most notably the donair. Why on earth did it take me so long to come around to the chicken shawarma? Two separate articles in the Edmonton Journal in the last couple of years have not only extolled the virtues of this delicacy in general, but they have both singled out Sunbake Pita Bakery in Little Lebanon, a mere 2 km from my house, as having the best chicken shawarma in the city! So tonight, as Audrey was driving me home from work and we were passing by, I suggested we take the plunge.

It would be only too easy to dismiss the shawarma as a chicken donair, but you miss the mark by leagues if you do so. While they are both served in a rolled up pita, and the meat is carved off a large vertical spit in both cases, the similarities end there. Instead of a tzatziki sauce, the flatbread is covered liberally with a rich garlic paste, to which is added the spiced chicken as well as purple onion, peppers and spears of pickled cucumbers and turnips. Being messy and virtually impossible to eat in a moving automobile would perhaps be the third similarity to a donair, so we didn't even try. The girls weren't too keen on the pickles, but they loved the rest, so we will be returning to Sunbake in the very near future. The article about the various shops in Little Leb is here: (Photo by Greg Southam, Edmonton Journal)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Greatish Outdoors

There will be no update this weekend as we are going out to Pigeon Lake with our church. I have referred to this as camping in the past, but since we are staying in a cabin, I don't think we qualify. For that matter, I have to bite my tongue pretty hard when people talk about 'camping' in the 25 foot holiday trailer with stove, fridge, washroom and satellite television. There are undoubtedly those who look down on me since I don't pack my own water into the backcountry on foot, or kill my own food, but that's all right. Roughing it is obviously pretty subjective, but to me, if you are sleeping in a tent, it's still camping, even if you are just in your backyard.

A work colleague said yesterday that his idea of camping is a motel that only has basic cable, and I have had many of my friends express a similar sentiment. I love camping though; in addition to being a fabulous way to maximize your family vacation dollars and experience the unsanitized outdoors in all its filthy glory, it can also be incredibly liberating.

I mean, if I wander into my neighbourhood grocery store wearing my dirty sweats, mud-caked hiking boots, a floppy boonie hat with a sweat stain circumnavigating the brim covering my sun-pinked face and a hoodie smelling of wood smoke with a three-day-old egg stain on it, I can expect to be dealt with at arm's length by most of the people I encounter. If I bring the same ensemble to a government office in, say, Jasper, I get a big smile or a look of jealousy. While camping, you are not only allowed but in many ways encouraged to look like the Unabomber; at least, if you are doing it right.

The inherent freedom in camping transcends mere sloppiness, and the way things get re-prioritized in the bush, like, "if I turn all my undergarments inside out to facilitate re-wearing, I can put off laundry for another four days; six if we go swimming," are a great way to stop taking ourselves as seriously as we tend to do back in 'the world'.

Still, this is Alberta, and we learned long ago that the May long weekend, while in many ways the starting gun for summer fun, is a harsh and unpredictable mistress when it comes to outdoor appreciation. It was actually snowing a bit this morning as I came to work, adn our new tomato plant comes in every night like Fred Flintstone's cat. Our first year at Pigeon Lake, we brought our tent, and withstood the rain and a pinch of snow without complaint, but when the heavy winds had the tent collapsing so the roof was within 8 inches of the floor and then popping outwards in rapid succession, we moved into the lodge. It was after we did this that Audrey confessed that she had been a little un-nerved seeing a coyote walk between our tent and the cabin whose washrooms we were using a mere 20 feet away.

But we will be in sleeping bags at night, and there is a wiener roast planned for Saturday, and a bird-watching hike, and it gets dark enough you can really see the stars (cloud cover notwithstanding), and I am bringing a night-vision monocular so maybe I can see a coyote, so in a lot of important ways, it really is like camping.

Except we are bringing a coffee maker and rice cooker.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Nothin' Goin' On But the 'Rents

This is not a movie review, but I watched Speed Racer with my family the other day. I have never seen the cartoon it is based upon, nor, to the best of my knowledge, have any of my friends. The extent of my Speed Racer experience was limited to hearing the theme song on the "Saturday Morning Heroes" CD at Games Workshop and seeing it mocked on "Robot Chicken". Needless to say, I wasn't expecting much.

Which was good, because I didn't get a lot either. Don't get me wrong, I see what they were shooting for, and it was a very clever homage to innocence and simpler times, despite its theme of corruption and intoxicating over-the-top visuals, and it was fun. Seriously though; I have never dropped acid, but if I did, I hope it would be as deliriously colourful and creatively realized as some of the scenes in this movie. But just past the middle of the film, I'll be damned if John Goodman (who can't redeem every movie he's in, but you can see him hefting like Atlas every time without fail) doesn't go and drop in one of the best parent speeches I've seen in a long time.

Speed is leaving home against his father's wishes. When we see his brother Rex doing the same thing years earlier, to work for another racing team, Pops Racer (Goodman) tells him, "If you go out that door, don't bother coming back." When Rex dies in a suspicious crash a short time later, it's a pretty bad scene at the Racer household, with super-size servings of guilt and misplaced feelings of responsibility. Speed's departure is shot in the exact same way as his brother's, so you are waiting for the inevitable replay. And it doesn't happen.

"I didn't lose Rex when he crashed," Pops confesses, "I lost him here. I let him think that a stupid motor company meant more to me than he did. You'll never know how much I regret that mistake. It's enough I'll never make it again. Speed, I understand that every child has to leave home. But I want you to know, that door is always open. You can always come back. 'Cause I love you."

Out of a lot of other mouths, these words drop to the floor like lead weights, but not Goodman. He plays the melodrama straight, no chaser, and it works. And he's not finished:

Pops Racer: I couldn't have been more proud of you, son. Not because you won, but because you stood up, you weren't afraid, and you did what you thought was right.
Speed: It didn't amount to anything. It was completely meaningless.
Pops Racer: How could it be meaningless? I saw my son become a man. I watched a man with courage and integrity drive the pants off of every other driver on that road. This is not meaningless. This is the reason for a father's life.

When a popcorn film based on a ludicrous premise, written by the same guys who brought you the Matrix sequels (and, to be fair, The Matrix) can throw something like this into the mix and make it credible, it's not just a surprise, it's positively staggering.

Whatever my occupation may be at any given time, being a father is the most important job I will ever have, so anytime I catch even a glimmer of a similar sentiment in a medium that typifies most dads as bumbling morons, if not outright selfish ingrates, I sit up and take notice. I certainly wasn't expecting to sit up in Speed Racer. What a pleasant surprise! A dad who has humility enough to recognize a past mistake, honesty enough to admit it, and courage enough to let his son go, with the assurance that he is loved and can always come home. And this is after beating up a ninja, no less. Although there might not be as much competition as I would like, Pops Racer strikes me as one of the great movie dads.

I realize this probably seems a bit incongruous, what with it being Mother's Day and all, but hey, parents, we are all in this together. We had a great Mother's Day here, with my Mom and Dad and sister coming out for brunch and me making mimosas and eggs benedict for everyone and chilling out all afternoon.

I am so grateful for not only my mother, who set a great example for me as a parent, but also my wife, who sets the bar for me now with our own fantastic children. These two women who make me think of something my favourite writer, Andrew Vachss, said once:

"Mother is not what you are, it's what you do."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Path Less Listened To

Me old china, Island Mike (aka in the comments section), and I have a longstanding and willful misunderstanding of each others' definition of musical value. It has provided us both with a lot of entertainment over the years, or I have really missed my guess and it has been driving him completely mental ever since I once referred to him as a 'musical Nazi'. Maybe it only provides entertainment for one of us at a time, I dunno.

I have, on occasion, characterized him as a reactionary, hidebound dinosaur, revelling in the glories of ages long past, a musical conservative with about as much inclination towards experimentation as the caterer for the Leduc Alberta Wednesday Night Lions Club. He, in turn, has regarded me as a shallow, musical dilettante, prone to auditory self-injury, who is about as discriminating as Paris Hilton's social secretary and who displays a horrifying tendency to tolerate admittedly bad music simply because it is fun or danceable, which is ironic and (perhaps even horrifying) when you consider that I dress out at more than an eighth of a ton, and am hardly light on my feet.

That said, I appreciate all music much more because of Mike. He schooled me up on the blues roots of bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin that I might have dismissed as the sole provenance of the kids in school who majored in shop class and wore lumberjack shirts instead of jackets. He and my friend Rob taught me the joy of liner notes, and the subtlety needed to appreciate quality session musicians. In exchange, I exposed him to things like Suicidal Tendencies (through the Repo Man soundtrack), Sinead O'Connor, Yello and most recently, Corb Lund. I have much wider parameters than he does in terms of listenability, but he is unequivocating in his criticism of dishonest or lazy music and musicianship. Our "What is best in radio, Conan?" discussion continues unabated to this day, and leaves its smoldering hoofprints in the comments section under my post "In Defense of 80s Music".

Driving home tonight I heard this band, Christian Hansen & The Autistics, and their song "Cocaine Trade". I am still not sure if he is referring to cocaine or disco in the chorus:
"Oh my god, it's comin' back, comin' back
It was lame the first time 'round
Oh my god, it's comin' back, comin' back
I can't stand to hear the soooouunnd"

... but I am leaning towards disco, and for a song that opens with the word "Cowbell", that is ironic and funny, and it made me think of Island Mike immediately.

I also read an article about the band and it's founder, a former folk singer who still hasn't made up his mind whether or not he hates dance music or not, but who hasn't let that stop him from playing it. They are an Edmonton group who were the Sonic Band of the Month in February, and have started to get a little traction and I wish them well. There is no motion in the 'video' (snort) link below, but it provides an opportunity to hear the tune without endless radio scanning, and it may bring you a smile. Yes, rufus, perhaps even you.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Audrey's 80s Party

Well, it has been a week now since my lovely wife's 80s-themed 40th birthday party, and I miss it terribly. First of all, not everyone who wanted to come could make it due to limitations of time or geography, but most importantly, everyone who did make it seemed to have a great time.

Many of those in attendance appeared in period dress, which lent an even greater air of festivity to the occasion. I think Best Effort has to go to Heather Pitts, who jokingly told her hairdresser, "I'm going to an 80s party, d'you want to, like, crimp my hair?" The stylist thereupon, by all accounts, lost her mind, and Heather ended up with a 'propah' high 80s 'do, complete with color and yes, glitter. And to those who might think her husband Jeff is opting out, it is true that for much of the 80s he did in fact look just like this.

My sister turned out to be the driving force behind a lot of what made the party a success. First of all, she and my wife spent the better part of two days (in 1-2 hour increments) scouring Value Village for vintage items, which was neat because since I don't play the VLTs, the sensation of going broke $5 at a time was a new experience for me. But there is no arguing with the results, as you can see. She also managed to obtain something like 300 80s videos on 2 DVDs from a friend of hers, which really helped set the mood for the party. And the best part was not all the great videos that you remember from the time, it's the one-hit wonders and obscurities that you've practically forgotten about. (Donnie Iris anyone? How about Peter Schilling, whose 'Major Tom (Coming Home)' has been recently covered and featured in a freakin' Oldsmobile ad?) I am glad to discover that my dislike of Culture Club was not, in fact, thinly veiled homophobia, but a genuine distaste for their music, but watching Doug and the Slugs was a little bittersweet, given the circumstances of his death just a few years back.

Veronica was most successful at nailing the 'off the shoulder' look so prevalent at the time, while the highlight of her husband Brian's ensemble was the Edmonton Oilers Stanley Cup Champions shirt with a mere FOUR cups on it! I forget how long he had been waiting for the opportunity for this garment to show its worth, but I am certainly glad he did, and happy to aid in his validation; a glorious day for male packrats everywhere.

I have to say, though, for the y-chromosone set, the high water mark was unquestionably set by Pete, who not only rocked the Don Johnson look with stubble, aviator shades, no socks and a snappy sport coat, but a current issue (!) pink sport shirt and skinny white leather tie. Damned hard act to follow, so I am glad I didn't try too hard... It is also worth mentioning that Pete did his best to keep his drinking themed up with the Bartender's Root Beer he mixed up for many of us. That said, it was good not to mention it too loudly the following morning. (Forget the hooch, ain't none of us old-timers can process all that sugar the way we once did!)

Even our girls got a chance to get into it, and I think they did pretty well, especially considering that they have never even seen a John Hughes movie. Just think, if this party was even a couple of years later, we'd probably be getting mercilessly mocked by a tweenaged Fenya (doubtlessly cheered on by some West Coaster who will remain nameless) on her own blog...nah, probably not, actually. At any rate, Fenya spent most of the evening hanging around listening to the adults reminisce and checking out the music videos, which left me scrambling for the remote at one point as I had no idea which version of the video for 'Girls On Film' by Duran Duran was beginning to play, and that video was responsible for the spontaneous commencement of my puberty when I first saw it at age 14. (


Huh? Oh, sorry, went somewhere else for a moment there... The party! Yes, a great time. And there was cake. And after the cake we played a guys versus gals round of Totally 80s Trivial Pursuit, which I cannot recommend highly enough. Perhaps this is because it was one of the most highly contested and competitive games of TP I have ever played, with both teams having all 6 pies and criss-crossing the center of the board several times before Jeff won it for the dudes with an NFL question. (Big shout out to Brian for keeping us in the game with "Hurricane" Helen Kelesi for the sports pie though!) But while winning is always nice, the goodly amount of Canadian content (especially for a game invented in Canada) (in the 80s, no less...dang this theme is strong, huh?)makes it a winner, as do the tubular colours and graphics and themed playing pieces of a Care Bear, CD, microcomputer and Mead Trapper Keeper binder (!).

Cake, games, drinks, fashions, videos; all great, but what makes it a party are the friends who come, and Audrey and I are fully aware of how lucky we are in this regard. Thanks to everyone who came, I think you can count on revisiting the 80s again at some point in the future!