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.