Friday, July 24, 2009

Transitions in Transit

My workplace is moving offices in two weeks, bringing into sharp relief how much I prefer taking the bus downtown as opposed to driving.

I was only in my third day at my new gig at Alberta Pensions Administration (soon to be Alberta Pensions Services) when we were brought to a nearby hotel for an offsite meeting (complete with coffee and cookies) for the surprise announcement that we would be re-locating to "The Crossings at Windermere", west of the Henday, in less than a year. I guess the audio attachment of the gospel-sounding theme from "The Jeffersons" ("movin' on up/ to the east side/ to a deeeeluxe apartment/ in the sky-hiiigh") to the meeting invitation should have been a clue, but I missed it completely.

Obviously change is hard, or we would do more of it willingly, but humans are creatures of habit, so a lot of people were pretty choked about the whole affair. For myself, I was a little annoyed, not so much because it would be a quicker commute from Devon than from Castle Downs where I live, but because the bus is incredibly convenient for me: it stops not far from my house, there are no transfers and it isn't much longer than driving my car would be, especially once you factor in the search for parking. And with a couple of exceptions, all of my drivers have been very decent folks, a couple of them even having waited for me to trot the last block to my bus while I was running behind.

I've since made my peace with it, and will hopefully be shopping for a new car by the end of the year, aided by a relocation allowance from work and the possibility of a government-backed clunker trade in program that would net me $3500 towards the purchase of a new car for my 1994 K-Car with the peeling paint.

And while I am not going to miss the inflexibility, crowding and occasional physical discomfort of the people's chariot, there are some aspects I am going to miss, especially on the ride home.

Since I am one of the first three people on my bus at 3:57, I usually get my pick of the seats. Without fail, I grab the rearmost seat on the starboard side which nets me a wee shelf besides me to set my case, a little bit of extra leg room with a pseudo foot-rest, and a window to lean against if I want a short kip on the ride home (I guess I had better discontinue that habit once I am driving on the Henday; on the other hand, it is pretty clear other people do it). Even if the bus gets filled, I have a little wiggle room to my right instead of having my knee driven in to the back of the seat in front of me.

The bus affords me over an hour of dedicated reading time every workday, which in the morning is usually the Journal, but in the evening includes a number of selections from my own collection as well as the public library. As my wife will attest, I become practically oblivious to my surroundings while reading, with some exceptions such as loud noises or extreme deceleration, so this really makes the time spent riding home just fly by. I am thinking of digging out some books on tape (hey kids: 'tapes' or 'cassettes' were the audio storage medium of choice before CDs and memory sticks) as a pale substitute for next month's K-Car commuting.

There is a busker outside the Tim Horton's at Jasper Avenue and 106 Street with a shiny silver jacket who is always plunking away on his electric guitar in the warmer months (both of them)as we drive by. I don't hear enough of his playing to really make a judgment as to his quality, but he's got the biggest smile and is clearly enjoying himself as he plays, and there are enough people around to verify his joy is both honest and contagious.

The Khazana Indian restaurant has a huge photo montage on its wall, the center of which are two of the cooks holding up skewers of whole chicken with huge smiles on their faces. As a guy who loves food in general, chicken in particular and Indian chicken in specific, let me just say that I have never been half as happy eating chickens as these two gents are just holding them up for a photo. They never cease to make me smile.

I don't see him as much any more, but one of the houses on 97th Street around 115th Avenue has a dog who would, during the winter months, often lean on the back of the living room sofa and watch the people and traffic going by. Unlike my insecure hound who feels any detectable movement requires him to bark his fool head off, this laid back shepherd/cross-looking fellow just watches the parade, occasionally turning his head to follow a pedestrian. Eventually I came to anticipate his presence, and then began to lament his absence on the days he wasn't visible. He's a hairy beast, so I expect he has found a cooler venue for his late afternoon repose, but I still try to remember to look for him, if I don't have my nose buried in a book, and it is a pleasant surprise to see him from time to time.

Despite missing all these things, I am still largely looking forward to the move. A shiny new building and new graphic identity (corporate swag, huzzah!) will go a long way to replacing the things I will miss about my daily commute. Plus, my age may provide me with mid-life crisis leverage towards a cool ride for the first time in my life when I finally get the auto shopping under way this winter.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Not 'Camp' Like the Old Batman TV Show, Actual Camp

So, we dropped Fenya off at bible camp tonight, about an hour west of town. This was not something we had really planned on doing, but when some friends of ours decided to send their daughter and asked if Fenya could come along (and were willing to front the fees in this Summer of Our Single Income (TM), God bless 'em), we took a look, established the camp's legitimacy and said, "sure, why not?"

Further, post-committal research revealed that although the camp is non-denominational (good), they are fairly evangelical in their approach (spider-sense tingling). This unease was enhanced somewhat when we found that her Harry Potter books were not welcome additions at camp. This could be because hey, some kids are going to be rabidly pro-Potter and others vehemently anti-Potter, and this is without even getting into the whole "the movies are great adaptations" vs. "good grief, you can't give Harry the Firebolt at the end of the film!" conflict, so why provoke a donnybrook without need, right? It could be like serving pork at a multi-faith dinner. However, having heard the words "Nothing which glorifies the occult," at registration tonight, I don't think that is the case.

Now, while I personally may take objection to that, it is their camp and their rules, and I am perfectly willing to respect them, if not the rationale behind them. What, you're going to miss out on a fantastic children's adventure story, complete with tremendous lessons in values like honesty, loyalty and friendship, because you are afraid of children being drawn into 'actual' witchcraft? You don't think they'll wise up the moment they turn over a year's allowance for a stick whose only ability is depriving the owner of depth perception after they try to violently shake a charm out of it and poke themselves in the eye? For crying out loud, even the Vatican newspaper gave the latest film a Rosary-calloused thumbs up, what does that tell you? Truth be told, I can't help but feel this kind of knee-jerk reaction, whether it is to Harry Potter, Dungeons & Dragons, rock music or same-sex marriages, is borne out of insecurity in one's faith. But I digress...

So, for the past week, we have been trying to prepare Fenya for, let's call them, alternative views to the scriptures and how they relate to our daily lives. I think the Bible is a great book which is instrumental to providing some extremely good insights into our limited understanding of our limitless Creator, but that it makes an incredibly poor science text (The sun is literally a lamp in the sky? Who knew?)and/or rule book (I'm looking at you, Leviticus!), despite numerous attempts to do so. The challenge, obviously, is how do you explain this to a smart and sensitive 10 year old, who, like Rodney King and her dad, just wants everybody to get along, without putting her on her guard to such a degree that she feels dishonest or incapable of enjoying herself?

Well, it turns out you don't. We had a couple of chats about the perils of judging folk, and told her that when she came home, if she had any questions, we would sit down and sort out what they all mean. We told her that she is to be honest at all times, but to feel free to bow out of any conversation that makes her uncomfortable. That said, I did suggest that her new friends might not be ready to hear that our new minister is gay. (Oh, not just a little gay either; this dude does not hide his light under a bushel. He rolls into his first sermon with an earring in each ear and mentions how much he and his partner loves show tunes as a segue into "Getting to Know You". As a person of Irish descent who likes beer and the occasional pulling of a cork, I found his embracing of what many might consider 'stereotypes' both refreshing and disarming. I think he's going to work out just fine.) I also suggested that her recent foray into D&D be left on the stoop as well.

Having been to the place now, I feel a little more at ease. The camp director came out prior to registration and outlined how that process would go, and there was way more time spent on talking about health issues (we got therma-scanned on the way in to make sure no one had a fever, which I thought was wicked smart in light of the H1N1 pandemic) and cell phones ("Keep 'em; in our experience, they don't help, and they always get stolen. But if you want them to have them, go right ahead.") than about prohibited materials. We met both of Fenya and Carissa's cabin counsellors and some of their bunkmates, and they seemed really good, very outgoing and excited.

The quick and informal t-shirt survey I took tonight leads me to believe I am not the only one in the "I'm keen on the bible but not so much with the thumpin'" crowd. I Googled the slogan from the back of one gent ("The closer you get to the meaning, the sooner you'll find you're dreaming"), and found out it was the latest in shirts from (wait for it...) Black Sabbath. That's right, Ozzy Osbourne's old band. And yet, with the front of the shirt having "Heaven and Hell" in 2" letters on top of some medieval wood cut imagery of the damned, and no sign of the band's name, who's to know?

The same goes for the lady I saw wearing a "Lamb of God" sweatshirt. I recognized it as a band's name, but knowing nothing about them, I thought perhaps they were one of those Christian metal bands. ("Honey I know it has the same grunty vocals and screaming thrash guitars as that devil music little Johnny used to listen to, but at the end of the day, they're singing about Jesus, so that makes it okay...") A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals that LoG's original name was "Burn the Priest", so I figure we can chalk this one up to another instance of crypto-adolescent rebellion.

As a result of this, a certain portion of my cognitive processing power that should be worried about my eldest daughter's first week at camp is instead wondering, "What sort of shirt should I wear when I pick her up?" Suggestions are encouraged in the Comments section.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


I've always considered Disney's "The Lion King" to be one of the best of the family cartoons, so when my mother (bless her heart) bought us all tickets to see the touring version of the Broadway musical for our birthdays this year, I was expecting to enjoy myself. I was not expecting to be gobsmacked.

If you have children, or at least someone young at heart who can sit through a 3 hour musical theater experience, this is an awfully good show to see. Even if you don't, however, I still recommend it. This is an amazingly staged production that you should see if you have the slightest interest in animals, Africa, music, puppetry, stagecraft, costumery, makeup, dance, masks, or percussion. Don't get me wrong: if you didn't like the original animated feature, this is probably not going to change your mind, but otherwise, it is a sound investment of both time and money. Thanks to Nanny's generosity, we had very good seats (5th row on the floor, off to one side) so we could see everything going on, both on the stage and occasionally in the aisles.

The addition of even more African and African-inspired music, complete with singing and dancing helped me to forget that what I was watching was product designed by a clever corporation, and just enjoy the experience. My sister said she thought Fenya was going to end up one row further ahead because of the way she kept edging forward in her seat; I am not sure she ever touched the seatback.

Glory also mused a lot about the ages of the actors who portrayed young Simba and Nala, who it turns out were both 11 years old. We talked at length about how much work it is to put on a show like that, as well as the amount of rehearsing that would need to be done, and how some actors (the understudies) have to learn another part as well, so they can play that role if the original actor can't go on for some reason.

With both girls going to a school with a focus on performing and visual arts this fall, I was really grateful for the opportunity to show them how powerful a live story can be, and how much effort is required to pull one off. The cast and crew of "The Lion King" made it look easy, but it was great that we were close enough to see them sweat.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Redemption Song

Redemption is one of my favourite story themes, whatever the medium. The simple yet complex act of a character realizing they've wronged someone and seeking atonement or forgiveness is both powerful and rare, as it is in real life, I suppose.

Don't get me wrong, I like a tale of bloody minded vengeance as much as the next red-blooded fellow, from Batman to the Count of Monte Cristo (or better still, Inigo Montoya), but in the long run, understanding and forgiveness stand to trump. "When you set out for revenge, first dig two graves," James Bond intones, drawing from a supposed Chinese proverb, and it stands to reason that in seeking to wound, more damage can be done to oneself. In "V for Vendetta", Evey Hammond has the opportunity to seek revenge simply by cutting a rose blossom and handing it to the title character, but she says instead, "Let it grow."

A recent re-watching of "The Lord of the Rings" got me to thinking though; there are a lot of spurned opportunities for redemption or reconciliation in this story. Theoden refuses to call his nephew Eomer back to Helm's Deep. Grima spits on Aragorn's offered hand, even though Aragorn has just saved his life. Denethor, in his madness, would rather be immolated with his son than try to heal him. Saruman refuses to cooperate with the victors after the fall of Isengard, and in the book, he goes on to take over much of the Shire. Even though the themes of friendship, loyalty and goodness continue unabated, few are those who avail themselves of the hands offered.

This appreciation for redemption is probably why one of my favourite scenes is Boromir's defense of the hobbits at the end of "The Fellowship of the Rings". It's almost an afterthought in the book, related by Boromir as he lays dying, confessing his weakness to Aragorn who absolves him and praises his valour. Sean Bean's portrayal in the film is fantastic, his face laden with guilt and shameful anger which he dutiful parcels out to the orcs pursuing the hobbits. The tragedy of the scene is mitigated a bit by the scores of slain uruk's surrounding him when Aragorn finally arrives. (As an aside, I do wish they had followed the book's lead and heaped the weapons of the vanquished on the boat with him before they sent it over the falls, but given the sheer number of fallen, they may have needed a bigger boat.)

Boromir's valiant but ultimately futile effort to save Merry and Pippin is one of the few examples where a character recognizes his wrongdoing and tries to make up for it in any real fashion; in fact, it is so rare it is practically the exception that proves the rule. The fact that the heroes of the tale continue to offer mercy in the face of nearly constant refusal speaks more to their virtues than to their opponents' shortcomings, I think. Still, I wonder if this was an intentional choice by Prof. Tolkien, to reflect the rarity of such transformations in both art and life.