Monday, June 29, 2009

Dungeons & Daddies

A couple of weeks back, Audrey was visiting some friends of ours, and Bruce told her he had purchased a D&D starter set for him and his son Jonah to play. Even though it was a starter set, however, he was having a heck of a time wrapping his head around it, and upon hearing this, my wife immediately volunteered that I had probably logged more hours playing D&D in high school than he'd had hot dinners. Now, this is not to suggest that I was opposed to her doing this, because I wasn't. I had heard good things about the 4th edition of the game from people like Scott Kurtz, whose comic strip PVP often references pen and pencil roleplaying games. All the same, there was a sound in the distance, that though faint, is now clearly discernible as a siren.

Even looking at the attractive package made me think of Keith Richards pitching some kind of after-market methadone while exclaiming, "I Can't Believe It's Not Heroin!" But by then it was too late. Fenya had asked me about it enough times that I knew I wanted to play it with her at some point, so the three of us hadn't even finished our first encounter before I suggested we make this a weekly thing.

I shan't bore you with the details, but the new game is much more straight forward and enjoyable than previous editions, and the new tactical rules make it play almost like a boardgame which is just dandy by me. A week later I had popped into Mission Fun and Games in St. Albert and grabbed all three core rulebooks, a couple of miniatures and Fenya had grabbed her first set of dice. (sniff)

Last week, all four of us got together and played out a full encounter with no real problems or hiccups. The starter set comes with these dandy tiles and counters you use to lay out the room and show where monsters are, but I had enough models that were close enough so we used those instead, and a great time was had by all. All that remained was to get more appropriate models for the player characters.

The gray elf (sorry, Eladrin) wizard and halfling rogue had been easy enough to procure, but the dragonborn paladin was going to be more of a challenge. Yes, you read that right, old school gamers, you can not only start the game with the character who was almost impossible to roll up, but he can be part dragon and even use a breath weapon once per day. Lemme tell you, back when I was a level one adventurer I had to poke my own brother's eye out (-1 Dex) just to wrestle away a butter knife so I could kill a rat I thought was going to steal my crust of bread. Kids these days have NO idea...

Ahem. That's not to say that finding a model for Fenya's character, Zukenna, was easy, because my daughter has no time at all for models that bring 'teh sexy', or that even have their navels exposed. Obviously, as her father, this pleases me greatly. Or, it passes the time whilst I wait for the other shoe to drop. At any rate, we were happy to find this one, and Fenya picked out the colours and I painted her up.

While shopping for that one, I came across this halfling who is a bit more dangerous-looking to my eyes than the typical hobbit analogue, although the face turned out a little effeminate. On the other hand, according to Johnny Cash's "Boy Named Sue", that might be what toughened him up. At any rate, Bruce's rogue, Goddard is now represented.

Jonah's paladin Gendarr (a name that sprang from his mispronunciation of the word "gender" on his character sheet) was going to be tough. There are some pre-painted plastic models that might be appropriate, but they look like butt, so that left me for a conversion. I found a Games Workshop Lizardman model, sawed him up with my Dremel tool and puttied his head and neck onto a Chaos Warrior model (graciously supplied by my old colleague Ward who is now looking after the 4 prairie GW stores). I used the remaining putty to add a couple of ear-flap thingies so he looked a little more dragonny and a little less lizardy, and that didn't turn out too bad. A spare High Elf shield with a dragon on it seemed appropriate since Gendarr is a follower of Bahamut, the Platinum Dragon, and a Space Marine power sword finished him off once I removed the power leads.

And this angle pimps the earflaps. Considering I've never actually used putty for more than gap filling, I think they are all right.

Sigh. Once more into the breach, dear friends. After years away from D&D, it appears I am back, and Dungeon Mastering again no less. There is just something intrinsically cool about fighting monsters with fantasy heroes. I am feverishly painting up monsters from my old Warhammer Quest box, and am looking forward to a summer of adventuring.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


With his recent death, Michael Jackson is again the King of Pop, with his albums selling faster than they have in years. He also dominates a huge portion of the news cycle with retrospectives, analyses, and conjecture, as well as other articles on just how much bandwidth this latest bit of celebrity mortality is occupying. I'm sure if he were alive, Jackson would be pleased with all the attention.

I certainly can't call myself a fan of his music, but like Paula Simons said in the Edmonton Journal this morning, his tunes have been a part of the soundtrack of my life. From watching the old Jackson 5 cartoon show on Saturday mornings and getting my first exposure to the Motownalicious "ABC", through the ubiquitous 80s videos like "Billie Jean" that helped to define both the decade itself and the advent of Music TeleVision, and on to multiple comebacks and increasingly deranged behaviour and descent into self parody, Michael Jackson has been there: singer, actor, news item and punchline.

When I was working at GE a couple of years ago, they had a company talent show at lunch one July 4th (since that meant it wouldn't be very busy), and a group of 12 new hires came out with an air-guitar/dance schtick that had them keeping their hands behind their backs until they snapped them forward in unison to reveal the single rhinestoned glove they all wore, after which they proceeded to do about two minutes of the zombie shuffle from the Thriller video, still one of my all time favourites.

I was struck by two things: first, that this was a gutsy group that I immediately liked because I can assure you, none of them had danced professionally. Secondly, since most of the group were under the age of 25, that meant very few of them had even been alive when the video made its debut in 1982.

What will Jackson's legacy be? As a record-breaking entertainer with a reputation as one of the last century's most electrifying performers, or as a disturbed creep whose fame may have allowed him to re-visit his childhood torments on other innocents?

Anyone who knows me knows that the abuse of children is a topic which holds considerable anger content for me, and not a lot of grey areas. My hero is Andrew Vachss, a man with whom I have almost nothing in common with except a hatred of those who prey on children. But the truth is this: we will probably never know whether Michael Jackson's bizarre behaviour was evil, misguided or just naive. While it is true that those who experience torture as children are at an increased risk to do the same to others, and that Joe Jackson is a long ways from winning any celebrity parenting awards, it is just as true that the King of Pop's wealth and fame made him a target for all manner of extortion and blackmail. While I do think it was incredibly irresponsbile for parents to leave their children in the care of a man with so many obvious idiosyncracies and warning signs, it is not impossible that here was a person just trying to recapture the childhood he felt he never had. It is not beyond the realm of possiblity that the sleepovers and such were no more than that, and that he viewed children as peers because they were the least likely to exploit him or seek to gain anything.

But, like I say, we'll never know, and without knowing, those parents who ran to the media first and the authorities last have a credibility gap that Evel Knievel would have a hard time getting over. There are certainly a lot of law enforcement types in southern California who feel he crossed the line, but were not able to prove it. Jackson's dream team of celebrity law were not really able to dis-prove it either, so make of that what you will.

So, what do we know? Not much. Even now, rumours are starting of how Jackson's admiration and emulation of Elvis Presley (including but no limited to marrying his daughter Lisa Marie) may have led him to fake his own death, which has a kind of appeal to it I have to say. Lord knows the man was no stranger to having his face worked on, so returning to the public eye wouldn't even be out of the question. How long before someone reports seeing Michael Jackson eating a Creamsicle on a park bench in Orlando, or playing chess in Washington Square Park?

I think most of us can agree with this: the man had a troubled childhood tied inexorably to early fame which catapulted him into a level of celebrity that may never be equalled as our media continues its fractured mitosis. This fame made us privy to an increasingly bizarre continuum of behaviour that ranged from the amusing ("Your best friend is a chimp named Bubbles?")to the terrifying ("What the hell is he doing on a balcony with a baby...holy crap!").

How do I feel? Strangely saddened. The world has lost an enigmatic entertainer who made a lot, and I don't mean a lot as in 'there were a lot of people at the mall today' but millions, of people happy. To his friends and family, fans and followers, I give my condolences, and wherever Michael Jackson ends up, I wish him peace.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tiny Victories

Working in pensions administration is usually about as exciting as it sounds. This may sound disparaging, but when I consider some of the excitement from my previous career in retail management (having a store manager arrested for theft, watching other ones walk off the job, trying to find a tactful way to tell another manager that his wife can't keep hitting on other employees and so on), a little predictability sounds absolutely stupendous. The highlights aren't nearly as stirring, but they can still provide an interesting diversion.

Take for example my colleague Kevin, a wicked sharp fellow with a background in economics (and the inventor of the term anticipointment) who dwells in the next cube at work. Because he actually understands a lot of the background operations that are used in pension calculations, he gets called upon to answer a lot of in-depth questions that would leave me (and even some of my more experienced colleagues) absolutely dumbfounded.

Some of these questions are from people who simply don't trust the calculations used to determine the value of their pension. Their concern is understandable; after all, it is their money, and they are going to be depending on this income for the rest of their lives, which science is working on making a very long time indeed. That said, when a firefighter or office manager who hasn't done hard math since high school wants to know exactly how their commuted value is determined, and you direct them to the Canadian Institute of Actuaries website which describes an immense calculation with something like 47 variables in it, and then they complain they don't get it and want you to explain it to them, Kevin gets that call.

So yesterday, Kevin has an "a-HA!" moment, and proudly produces a sheet with some kind of regression analysis or Tralfamadorian calculus or some such all over it. Seriously, it wasn't that big, but so many letters and numbers and strange symbols, it looked like Sesame Street ate the Klingon alphabet and then threw up. (The illustration is simply how it looked to me, another guy who has ducked math instruction since high school.) "Got it!" he says.

"I'm extremely flattered that you think I might recognize the significance of this," I replied honestly. "What does it do?"

He dumbed it down enough for me to understand that he had found a document that detailed exactly how the rate of interest is determined in one of the calculations used int he pensions business. "I have a guy who is constantly trying to work his own way through this and who thinks I'm his private arithmetic tutor. Now I can just give him this and tell him to go fish. It's the peacemaker, man."

I took another uncomprehending look at it, and then at him. "So you're telling me," I intoned seriously, "that you've found a weapon of math destruction?"

"That is just so awful," he said as he walked away. But that didn't stop him from using it a minute later, so I am chalking that one up for Team Liberal Arts Grad.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Small Things

As I was driving to church this morning, there was a lane closed in the road coming towards me for a bicycle race, or so the signs said at any rate. At first, there were no bikes in sight, but after a bit I saw some school age children peddling up the mild grade on Boudreau for all they were worth. Some of them had better bikes than others, and some of them were clearly more competitive or better equipped; one little girl not only had the drop down racing handlebars that were standard issue on the ten-speeds of my youth, but also had the additional posts facing upwards for further positioning options. One young lad had a number written on his arm in black marker, which made me wonder if I had wandered into a mini-triathlon of some sort, an "Ironkid", if you will. As I approached the Fountain Park Pool and saw more kids, including some running ones, I felt sure this was the case.

As I watched them running and biking, I had to wonder what would push a kid into that kind of competition. I mean, I swam competitively as a child, and largely enjoyed it, even if I wasn't too serious about it. But I enjoyed the meets and even training, as a lot of my friends were there. But triathlons are heavy duty, and I had a hard time picturing a 7th grader watching grown men and women pushing themselves beyond the limits of human endurance and collapsing in tears at the side of the road and then saying, "Hey, I want to try that!"

I was still stuck in my reverie when a girl of perhaps ten came peddling along. There was nothing extraordinary about her bike or equipment... except for the pinwheel she had jammed into her handlebars.

She had a big smile on her face as she peddled her way up the hill, and she singlehandedly made my morning. Fenya is close to that age, and I am sure that she would have second thoughts about putting something that 'childish' in view of her classmates, but this girl clearly didn't care. She had her pinwheel, and she was happy, and it was spinning so hard I could see the stick bending in time to the whirring and clacking.

Back in high school or junior high math class, I once became entranced with a wooden ruler I had perched on top of my pencil through the binder-ring hole in its centre, and was slowly turning it, trying to keep it as level as possible. The teacher came up from behind me, grabbed the ruler and put it firmly on my desk. That's fine, I was clearly day-dreaming, but I thought her comment, "small minds are amused by small things" was a bit out of line, and I still do.

There were a number of supportive adults spectating and volunteering along the route, clapping and cheering on these young triathletes, and I hope some of them enjoyed seeing that girl and her pinwheel as much as I did. I think if more of us allowed ourselves to appreciate or be amused by small things, whether they are miniature tri-athletes or their pinwheels, we might be better off.

Monday, June 8, 2009

More Insufferable Than Actually Handy

We have been meaning to replace the garage door opener for some time now as it burnt out last winter, and have been looking at Sears for one since a friend told me he got his installed for $30. So when we saw one for sale at $100 off, that seemed like a pretty good deal.

Except the installation is actually $170, and they haul off the old one for $30. I am wondering now if my friend's conversation with me went:

HIM: Yeah, and not only do they install it for you, they even haul the old one away!
ME: Wow! What's that cost?
HIM: $30!

SO, yeah, the indeterminate pronoun strikes again. I suppose I should be grateful I didn't get the beak blasted off my face by Elmer Fudd.

At any rate, I was already on the hook for getting the opener, so it was time to man up and just build it, which first meant disassembling and removing the old one. Now, this particular mechanism has dwelt in our garage rafters since ca. 1979, an approximation that is substantiated by the gargantuan solid-state remote which has a footprint rendered ridiculous in age where your phone is a camera and so forth. So it was heavy and dirty and above all else, greasy, and not a lot of fun to balance while perched precariously on a stepladder. My favourite part was slowly extending my arms while climbing down, with this greasy clunky monstrosity on the wrong side of the ladder, moving further away from my chest with each step of my descent.

All in all, the removal was pretty straightforward, as it is always easier to destroy than create, and even I find it hard to damage the structural integrity of a garage by accident. On purpose is another story. You didn't pay to see those cards. I'm not the one on trial here!

Putting the new one up was a daunting prospect for me, as I am not really mechanically inclined in any way, or even very handy. Once I realized that there was very little chance of electrocution (since the opener itself just plugs into an outlet), I threw caution to the winds and had at it.

While my handyman experience is minimal (if even that), years of model-building have given me a penchant for following instructions like a lemming in the Gestapo, and a decent eye for diagrams, so I decided to treat the opener like any other kit, albeit in a somewhat larger scale. And just like a modelling project, what separates the sheep from the goats is one's ability to improvise when the instructions diverge from reality at very nearly right angles. Case in point: since the central rail was longer on the old opener than the new one, the opener was a little short of the beam I needed to attach it to. So I sawed up a 2x4, ran to Rona for some ginormous screws, tried to screw them in with my drill, removed the screws by hand, drilled out some pilot holes for them, reattached the screws with washers, and hey presto, it all fits. Now, the whole time I have been doing this, the opener has been attached to the rail, which is attached to the header bracket above the door, and the opener itself is balanced on the top of the stepladder, since the torsion spring above the door won't let me set it on the floor. But the stepladder isn't really tall enough, so I take the sturdy wooden crate our bocce set came in and put that on top of the ladder, and it still isn't tall enough. So I take a an empty tub of Costco dishwasher detergent, invert it, put it on top of the bocce box, and set the opener on top of that. When that turns out to still be a couple of inches shy, up goes the Panago box from the recycle pile, and we are at last in business, if by business you mean an enterprise designed and executed by Wile E. Coyote. So there is improvisation the first.

Improvisation the second comes when I realize that the height I have mounted the opener at does give plenty of clearance for the door, but the wee slidey bit (the trolley) is now impacting against the underside of one of the beams. Argh! So now it is time to reassemble Junkyard Towers, remove two 2" lag screws holding the opener, rebalance it while I plot two new holes, slide the entire ladder two inches to the left so I can re-drill them and them reattach the opener with the lag screws and a socket wrench while leaning against a roof beam and balancing the opener mechanism on my gut, 5 feet in the air on a stepladder. Not my best moment, no.

Surprisingly, this worked out pretty well, and it's clear sailing until I plug it in. Sensor eyes? Check! Motor? Runs like a top! Control button? Uh, no light... This is not completely unexpected, since in the spirit of recycling (or just laziness), I had attempted to recycle the existing wires from the previous opener. I mean, not only did the wires look similar, but the openers are the same brand for heaven's sake! But no dice, so those have to get yanked and new wire pulled, twined, attached with insulated staples, stripped and plugged, and eureka, it works! I attach the control button to the wall...and the light goes out. Pull off the button, light goes on. Replace it...light goes out. I pull off the plastic button and see the little nubbin that trips the switch, bring it over to the bench and work it over Marsellus Wallace style with the sanding drum on my Dremel tool. Yep, just like when dealing with an uncooperative model, the only thing missing was glue. (Remember kids, glue is like force; if it doesn't solve your problem, you just aren't using enough of it.) And thus ends improvisation the third. The garage door works, the electric eye obstruction detector thingamajig works, and it even comes with a remote we can plug in the house to confirm that the garage door is still closed.

I was pretty happy to have finished the thing in a single weekend, even knowing that the pros from Sears could have probably had it up in 2-3 hours. The time is well spent in the pursuit of smugness, and it looks like the missus was impressed, and that's worth a bundle. And hey, since we saved the $30 we thought the installation was supposed to cost, we got to have pizza Saturday night. Chalk it up as a win, I say.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Google Yourself

Years ago I googled myself (ssh! don't tell mom!), and found there was a neurosurgeon or some other medically inclined individual who shared my name somewhere in Southern California. It didn't mean a lot to me, but I was glad there wasn't a serial killer or Klan official I might get mistaken for in my travels. I mean, it should make no difference, as it is not like I have an uncommon name or am even vaguely famous, or even infamous. It is probably just more evidence that I concern myself far too much with what other people think of me (and my name).

I googled myself today though, and discovered that the lead guitarist for waif-rock band Veruca Salt is also named Stephen Fitzpatrick, which is 4-5 shades of awesome, because I rather like Veruca Salt. Now, he joined the band in 1998, so he wasn't crunching out chords on the first run of Seether, my favourite VS song, but he probably does so now, and for some reason, that makes me feel pretty good.

To that end, and for your listening pleasure, Confessions of a Middle-Aged Adolescent is proud to present Seether, by Veruca Salt. (Updated with working video!)