Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ghost of Christmas Passed

The cousins and aunts and uncles having departed, the leftovers having been stowed, the gifts having been (largely) sorted, it looks a though another Christmas is behind us.  And us much as I enjoyed it, as grand as the company was, that's naught but a good thing from my perspective.

With Fenya entering Junior high this year, both girls doubling their rehearsals for choir and Irish dance, and me becoming chair of church council, 2010 carried the busiest fall I can ever recall.  Christmas seemed to swoop in from over my shoulder like a stooping hawk, on me before I really knew what was happening.  Work potlucks, helping to arrange cocoa for after the Christmas services and rehearsing for the pageant, getting the house ready for Audrey's sister and her family; I'm frankly stunned I remembered to get all my shopping done.

The relatives came Thursday night, and my sister and her beau and his son came over for Christmas Eve.  The Fitzpatrick side each opened one gift, as per the tradition (at least in my family; in Audrey's childhood, all the gifts were opened on Christmas Eve, since their church services were on Christmas morning).  We shared a table full of finger food before heading off to the 7:00 service together and although I had my concerns about the church pageant (with Audrey and I guest starring in addition Fenya's larger roles), but it all went fine in the end.

Audrey is in the choir and since she was singing in the 9:00 service, elected to say and serve the hot chocolate along with her sister Betty, which I thought was awfully decent of them.  By the time they returned, the younger children had been put to bed (although nowhere near asleep, obviously), and after helping us arrange Santa's cookies and milk as well the carrots in wooden shoes for his reindeer, the older kids toddled off as well.

The next morning went just the same as Christmas mornings always seemed to go in my childhood; full of anticipation and yet over before you knew it.  Everyone was grateful for what they received and gratified for what they gave.

After everything was opened and the holiday phone calls made, we were well behind schedule on starting dinner, which was to comprise of both a turkey AND a brobdignabian ham, and the things got even more complicated.  "I thought the ham was at least partially cooked," I confessed to Audrey.  "It's totally not, and at 20 min per pound, we are looking at serving him up around 8:00."  The irony of having listened to Stuart McLean read "Dave Cooks the Turkey" not 16 hours previously was not lost upon me, and I frantically scoured my brain for alternatives.  The turkey by itself would be woefully insufficient to feed 9 hungry people, and every other cut of meat in the house was frozen solid, whereas at least the ham was thawed.

"Let's switch 'em up," suggested Audrey.  "Cook the ham in the oven instead of the turkey, and we'll do the turkey in the barbecue.  If we cook them both in those Look bags, that should shave off some time, right?"  The bags she referred to have been our sole method of cooking turkey for years now, since we started cooking our own turkeys, and my mom's choice for as far back as I can remember.  It keeps steam around the bird to cook it faster and juicier, but allows enough radiant heat in to turn the skin nice and crisp, and I can't recommend it highly enough for that purpose.  However, we had never cooked a ham in one before, and Christmas day is hardly the ideal venue for experimentation on this scale.  After some quick and frankly dubious interweb research seemed to back up Audrey's position, we decided we had nothing to lose, and fired up the barbecue and got the bags ready.  I had a glaze ready for when the ham was finished, but the recipe I had read suggested that a cup of liquid was needed in the bag, such as fruit juice or wine.

"I've still got a bottle of McNally's Winter Spice Ale downstairs in the fridge," I told Audrey.  "It's got cloves, cinnamon and ginger in it as well as being 6% alcohol."  She nodded her assent and the libation was dutifully sacrificed.  Man, if this works, I thought to myself, I am gonna need to write this one down. 

Well, it did, and I am.  The ham turned out great, and the brown sugar and spiced rum glaze with black pepper capped it off nicely.  The turkey had a harder time of it, as our zeal to make up lost time had us overheat the barbecue and melt the Look bag completely, which looked horrific but was easily rectified.   It had cooked for almost an hour at that point, so removing the charred remnants of the mylar bag and replacing it with foil seemed to work just fine.

Wii games, conversation and Audrey's new 12 hour Christmas music playlist carried us late into the night, and when we dragged ourselves out of bed this morning, the Klooster family swung into high gear with their packing and van-loading.  I knew they had be in Rocky Mountain House that night since Betty was working early the next day, but I had really hoped for some more time with my nieces and nephew.  I needn't have worried; Betty had made an orderly preparation and departure a condition for going sledding prior to the trip home, so after a ham, egg and potato casserole from the crock pot (Sleeping in and having a hot breakfast? Sold!) we were off to Government House Park in the River Valley.

I've always thought of sledding as the poor man's ski trip, and it was a great day for it: very mild, with almost no wind to speak of, so everyone had a great time.

It also gave us a chance to test out the waterproof camcorder Santa had left in Audrey's stocking, with Glory operating the camera from my back as we plummeted downhill:

Clearly, the gap between Steadicam and Stevicam is fairly significant.  Far better results are obtained when operating as a witness rather than participant:

Parting was hard, but made better because we had shared some fresh air and inertia together, so everyone was all smiles when we left the hill.

But even though it was a lot of fun and I was genuinely sad to see them go, it feels good to be at a point of zero anticipation for what feels like the first time since September. Sure, we still have things to do and people to see, but at a much more reasonable pace.

I don't go back to work until January the 4th, the longest break at Christmastime I have had since Audrey and I got married.  What I am most looking forward to is doing a whole lot of nothing with my wife and daughters, and just seeing what happens.

All the best to you and yours over these holidays, and may the New Year bring you as many blessings as you are able to comfortably manage.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

1.8 Decades Later

I am finding this a hard post to write.  This blog is about things that are important to me, big and small, significant and trivial, personal and public.  I've written about my friends and my family, especially my two daughters, but I haven't written very much about my wife, Audrey, and that strikes me as an oversight that demands correction.

Not a day goes by that I don't realize exactly how lucky I am to have Audrey in my life, and to have shared my life with her for two decades now.  I've never been much of a salesman, but the best pitch I ever made in my life was back in university, when our relationship first took a turn towards the intimate and she was worried about damaging the friendship we had already forged.

"A lot of people like to use the term 'just friends' to describe a relationship with someone, especially a 'nice guy' that girls don't necessarily see 'that' way."  I told her.   "We've heard it so many times, my nice guy friends and I have abbreviated it 'JF' and call the little dance around it 'The Juliet Foxtrot'.  And there are two things that bug me about it: first, that it makes friendship out to be a consolation prize for a romantic relationship, and secondly, that it's dishonest."

"What do you mean?"  Audrey asked.

"I mean, it normally has very little to do with friendship, and everything to do with a lack of attraction, at least at that point in time.  You and I have been friends for a while, and that isn't going to change.  How can anyone expect to be in a relationship with someone without being friends first?  Isn't that why people break up, because they have passion but can't relate to each other without it?"

"Mmmaybe..." she agreed hesitantly.

"We already have the best foundation for a relationship because we are friends," I continued.  "We wouldn't do anything to intentionally hurt each other, so why wouldn't we explore things a little further, at our own pace?"

That was in November of 1990; two years later we were married.  In fact, it was 18 years ago today.  Fenya and Glory take up so much of our lives' bandwidth now that it is hard to imagine life without them, but we wouldn't have it any other way.

Now, if you know my wife, you already know that she is awesome, but you may not know precisely why.  There are a lot of reasons, and I discover new ones from time to time, but an anniversary seems like a grand opportunity to document them for posterity.

London tube steak - September 2005

Helpful - I don't think of myself as a lazy person, per se, but I do when I compare myself to my wife.  She is truly the ant to my grasshopper, and in addition to managing most of our household on a daily basis, she is always one of the first to volunteer when there is something that needs doing at work, church, school or elsewhere.

Creative - Audrey thinks I am more creative than her just because my imagination is maybe more vivid (or perhaps just unrestrained), but she puts together things like a 'Spooky Spa' for Fenya's birthday that I wouldn't think of in a million years.  She is also a gifted gifter, picking thoughtful and insightful presents for family and acquaintances that make the recipients feel truly appreciated.

Humorous - Let's face it; with me as a husband, a sense of humor is not so much an option as it is a coping mechanism, but Audrey's appreciation for the absurd, funny turns of phrase, and the occasional bit of slapstick makes our house a happy one.  The girls seem to come by it naturally enough as well, for which I am very grateful.

Historical - Audrey shares my appreciation for what has gone before, from historical events to the ways in which people lived in other times.  When the movie 'Alexander' came out to almost universally bad reviews, her response was "Critics, schmitics; I just want to go for the elephants."

My 40th birthday - May 2007
Practical - I try to run my plans past Audrey before I commit to them,n because she can usually be counted on to point out some combination of tasks or an order of execution which is sure to save me some time.  She even brings this attitude when we are watching movies: when a character strikes out from a crashed plane or some such, she will be the one shaking her head and saying "They're going to regret not filling those little liquor bottles with water."

Tough - This extends to both the physical and emotional definitions of this word.  Following an accident on the family farm, she and her sister Vera had to look for two of the severed fingers of a hired man, and after finding them, Vera drove while Audrey held them on her lap, wrapped in a bag of frozen peas.  This is not a woman who shies away from stuff just because it has an ick factor.

Banff - August 2010
Compassionate - Audrey works as a Special Needs Teaching Assistant at a K-9 school with a lot of issues. An economically depressed area, under-educated parents, new Canadians from Asia and Africa with challenges both cultural and meteorological ("What do you mean you don't own any boots?"), and kids who have to deal with single parent homes, gangs, crime, drug use or violence in their homes, or just the knowledge that if their parents were not legally obliged to care for them, they probably wouldn't. It is a cold, hard, natural fact that if it was not for the love that Audrey brings the children she encounters on a daily basis, many of these kids would go without. And not just love, but responsibility, expectation, firmness and accountability. I hope she is able to stay at this school for a while, and not just for her own sake.

In a life full of many blessings, Audrey is the greatest one of all.  I am honoured to be her husband, and proud to have her as my wife for these 18 years.  Happy anniversary, baby.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Third-Hand Information

In the novel "The Mote in God's Eye" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, we are introduced to an alien race with three arms.  In the sequel, some people explain alternate perspectives or choices with the familiar adage, "on the other hand," but often continue with a third option, saying, "on the gripping hand, however...".  This just about sums up my feelings on WikiLeaks.

I'm a strong believer in confidentiality as well as freedom of information, at least generally.  On the one hand, I believe that those who work in sensitive areas like security or diplomacy should be able to speak openly with their colleagues, especially when that colleague has signed a non-disclosure agreement or taken an oath to respect that confidence.

On the other hand, there are whistles that need to be blown, and the people blowing them should be entitled to protection from reprisal.   Unscrupulous types cannot be allowed to abuse confidentiality in order to do something illegal, immoral, or contrary to stated policy.

On the gripping hand , however, is the murky question of motivation.  Am I wrong to feel that someone who exposes classified diplomatic communiques solely to embarrass their superiors should not be entitled to the same protection as the individual who exposes something widely regarded as a war crime?  And what if they are the same person?

The city of Berkeley, California, is considering a motion that would proclaim WikiLeaker Pfc. Bradley Manning a hero.  Berkeley is probably the most overtly and proudly liberal community in North America, and their opposition to most military ventures is a matter of public record (they recently tried to ban recruiters for the U.S. Marine Corps as "unwanted intruders"), so their support of a soldier exposing a cover-up of a Reuters photographer being shot along with 10 others by an Apache helicopter is both predictable and laudable.  But Pfc. Manning did a lot more than this; he uploaded more than 260,000 diplomatic cables and 90,000 intelligence reports on the war in Afghanistan.

Manning's rationale appears to portray someone more interested in spite than altruism; he says the leaks explain "how “how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective,”  and expresses how he wanted to change things.  However, he also writes:

“Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public.”

“Everywhere there’s a U.S. post, there’s a diplomatic scandal that will be revealed. Worldwide anarchy in CSV format. It’s beautiful and horrifying.”
To be fair, it's easy to be sympathetic to this guy; being gay could make for a brutal adolescence in rural Oklahoma, and the army's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding sexual orientation is certainly no picnic either, but his personal situation doesn't preclude him from the consequences of his actions.  Exposing covered-up deaths with a leaked video is one thing, and even without taking WikiLeaks into consideration, he should be protected from reprisals for pursuing justice, but what was the purpose behind leaking the diplomatic material, other than creating chaos and embarrassment for his own government, as well as those of other countries?  Frustration? Idealism? Vanity?

Pfc. Manning has been quoted as saying "“Information should be free … It belongs in the public domain.”  Clearly not all of it does, but exactly where the line gets drawn is subject to much debate and discourse.  I think we can all agree that operational information that could jeopardize the lives of those in the field, whether they are soldiers or undercover police officers, is better off being held close to the vest, but even that demarcation is subjective, especially to the U.S. armed forces.

Look at it through the lens of another sci-fi concept: telepathy.  It's easy to assume that the ability to read the minds of others would be the cat's pyjamas, and in old comic books and children's stories, it often is.  But more mature perspectives talk about the horror of facing the unfiltered thoughts and emotions of others, or how there can be no privacy when your thoughts are not your own.  I know I wouldn't want my thought bubbles being read by people who ask me, "Which parent do you love more?" , or "What do you think of the boss's new plan?" or even, "Do these pants make me look fat?"  Living in a glass house while wearing the Emperor's new clothes is a bad combination for all but the most forthright and confident individuals, and besides, you can play poker with everyone's cards face-up on the table, but it isn't much of a game, is it?

WikiLeaks has released quite a bit of 'sensitive' diplomatic information over the past few weeks, and the net effect appears to be a global epidemic of noses being put out of joint.  Regardless of the validity or source of this information, what greater purpose does it serve?  Are we really better off knowing how this leader personally feels about this diplomat or that head of state?  If they made those statements in confidence, shouldn't that confidence be upheld unless there is compelling reason to do otherwise?  Don't people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace, even if they are politicians and diplomats?

 The sad truth of the matter is this: no matter what the promises are of anonymity or protection, whistleblowers need to consider the very real possibility that they may end up called to account for their actions, and that their motivations will affect how their actions are perceived.  Judgment is going to come into play at several junctures, beginning with the decision of the leaker to forward the information, and then again for the broadcaster.  With a traditional news outlet like a newspaper or television station, we might ask an editor, "what makes it newsworthy?', but in the case of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange appears to be the one making that call, and a lot of what is being released is pretty much gossip.

I am not ready to call the founder of WikiLeaks a devil; we owe him too much but I am not ready to call him a folk hero either, and the same goes for the troubled Pfc. Manning, who now faces a court martial and the possibility of up to 52 years in jail.  So, on the one hand, more information can be a good thing.  On the other hand, too much of any good thing is usually a bad thing.  And on the gripping hand, I hope the people making these decisions regarding confidential information that they have the power to disseminate, are taking their own motivations and goals into consideration.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Here Comes the Cavalry

Despite painting tanks for the past few months,  cavalry has been much on my mind of late. I have found the strong WWII Russian theme of my Valhallan 40K army to have been a real inspiration and motivator in terms of actually getting my painting done, and suggested to my comrade Island Mike that he should find a similar theme for his side of our mighty Imperial Guard army.

In the first episode of AMC's zombie series "The Walking Dead", the main character awakens from a coma in a hospital, and after making his way outdoors, climbs a small berm to see precisely how the world has gone to serious hell. He views a post-apocalyptic tableau of shattered buildings, burned out cars and tanks, sandbagged emplacements, and a helicopter. The helicopter's nose bears the crossed sabres emblematic of the U.S. Cavalry and adopted by various 'air-cavalry' regiments, and also appropriated by Alberta musician Corb Lund to promote his album "Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!"  I think this is the first time I have seen them on a non-Vietnam era helicopter.

I know Mike to be fan of both Corb Lund and the logo, as he bought the t-shirt shortly after I introduced him to the album. He had also talked a couple of times about making his force airmobile using the new Valkyrie Assault Carrier model, so I e-mailed him and suggested he consider doing an Air Cav themed army. Using Catachan Jungle Fighters for troops and decorating his vehicles with those crossed sabres (or perhaps crossed chainswords would be more fitting for 40K). He thought the idea had merit, and I look forward to seeing the results once he claws some time back from his various responsibilities.

With its reputation for gallantry and guarantee of arriving in time to save the day in countless western movies, the cavalry have always been an evocative branch of the military, from the original horse soldiers, through the helicopter troops in Vietnam, to Edmonton's own Lord Strathcona's Light Horse tank regiment.

The U.S. Cavalry's distinctive yellow scarf often reminds me of Robert Duvall's character Col. Kilgore from Apocalypse Now and his "Charlie don't surf!" bravado, but I'll always have a soft spot for the men in John Ford's great 'Cavalry Trilogy' of Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. Even though I count myself a fan of John Wayne, I can't really call him a great actor, but no one got better stuff out of Duke than John Ford, even when he is really playing second fiddle to Henry Fonda and character actor Victor McLaglen in this scene from Fort Apache:

It guts me that they cut this scene just before McLaglen, having been ordered to get rid of the whiskey, finds two more cups, hands them to the other sergeants and says, "It's a man's work ahead of us lads, and no mistake," but it's still wonderful stuff, and 'pour me some scripture' is definitely going into my lexicon. Fonda's Colonel Thursday epitomizes both the best and the worst of the cavalry of this period: forthright, responsible and brave, but also inflexible, closed-minded and bigoted. John Wayne's Capt.York, with his appreciation for the skill and courage of the Apache, makes a great counterpoint to his commanding officer.

Ward Bond (the village priest from The Quiet Man, another Ford classic), also gets some great material, as this dialogue reveals:

Lt. Col. Thursday: This Lt. O'Rourke - are you by chance related?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: Not by chance, sir, by blood. He's my son.
Lt. Col. Thursday: I see. How did he happen to get into West Point?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: It happened by presidential appointment, sir
Lt. Col. Thursday: Are you a former officer, O'Rourke?
RSM Michael O'Rourke: During the war, I was a major in the 69th New York regiment... The Irish Brigade, sir.
Lt. Col. Thursday: Still, it's been my impression that presidential appointments were restricted to sons of holders of the Medal of Honor.
RSM Michael O'Rourke: That is my impression, too, sir. Will that be all, sir?

It's one thing to ride in a helicopter or to crew a tank, but not everyone who does so gets to call themselves cavalry. Cavalry units carry a connotation of speed both tactical and strategic, as well as tremendous striking power; being 'fastest with the mostest' as Nathan Bedford Forrest put it. Thousands of years have passed since mounted soldiers first appeared, (possibly creating the legend of centaurs as they rode against infantry and chariots), and the word cavalry still holds allure, and is protected by those who bear it. Cavalry never rests, never secures, never defends; cavalry charges, with or without bugles.

I hope Mike gets an opportunity to putty some yellow scarves on his Ogryn squad if he gets the chance, and I am trying trying to figure out how to fake up a 28mm stetson like Col. Kilgore's for his platoon commander. I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm jealous of Mike's theme, even if it does have cooler modeling potential, but, yeah, I wanna be in the cavalry...who doesn't?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Test your Metal

After having encountered Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" on Rock Band, both my girls had asked on a number of occasions, "why don't we own this song?"  A reasonable question, really, and as I did not have a reasonable answer, I took it upon myself to pick up their 'best of' album, Somewhere Back In Time the next time I was at HMV and found it in the 2 for $20 rack.

Strangely, I never gave much thought to Iron Maiden in high school when their breakout album Number of the Beast came out.  It was years afterwards that someone pointed out the dubious logic of judging a band by the quality of the people in high school who wore their t-shirts, something you thought I would have learned after Led Zeppelin, but there you go.  Island Mike pointed out that not only did lead singer Bruce Dickinson bring some seriously operatic vocal chops to the scene, but not a lot of dummies or sell outs would record a thirteen minute musical adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner".  The album also opens with bits of Churchill's speech about the Battle of Britain as a lead in to "Aces High", which certainly appeals to me as a history buff.

Maiden has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years due largely to their reputation for epic live shows, but is also gaining a new generation of younger fans through their concert DVDs like Rock In Rio or the more recent Flight 666.  With much of their back catalogue unavailable, they put together Somewhere Back in Time as a sort of primer of the band's older material, including both live and studio material, and placing it in the order you could expect to see them in at a concert.  It's pretty savvy, and a great collection with all the lyrics to the songs and some good liner notes to boot; I highly recommend it.

A little later in the week, I had this album in the CD player along with Led Zeppelin and Dragonforce, and mentioned to the girls that these groups were all considered to be heavy metal bands, even though they didn't sound very much alike.  I don't suppose that metal is any different any other form of musical categorization: Louis Armstong, Miles Davis, and Michael Buble are all jazz musicians; Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Jack White are all regarded to be rock musicians.  At the end of the day, these labels shouldn't be proscriptive, they are just a handy form of shorthand, to help lead you to similar sounds from different players.  With heavy metal now believed to encompass over a dozen different sub-genres (including power metal, speed metal, black metal and death metal), two people can call themselves metal fans and not enjoy the same music.  They aren't too unlike Christians in that regard, I suppose, eh?

I'm too big a fan of old-timey musical concepts like harmony and melody to be a supporter of  the darker end of the metal spectrum.  My tastes lean more toward power metal bands like Rhapsody of Fire, and their symphonic and folky sound, but the technical virtuosity of Herman Li and Sam Totman in Dragonforce has a lot of appeal to me as well.  The fact that they both use talented vocalists as opposed to screamers and populate their lyrics with fantasy themes is just icing on the cake.

At the Dragonforce show I attended two years ago, Pete and I both took note of a number of people wearing t-shirts of a band called Sonata Arctica, and both commented on the coolness of their logo.  I didn't give them much more thought until about a week ago when their album Reckoning Night showed up in the 'check it out' bin at the library.  Since I did indeed want to check them out, I, uh... checked it out.

On the first listen, I have to say nothing really leapt out at me, and I said as much to Fenya.  On the second and third go-around, a couple of tracks began to distinguish themselves on the chorus, and after that there were definitely discernible head motions of a rhythmic nature going on.

Sonata Arctica is five piece band: drums, bass, guitar, vocals and keyboards.  I love the peanut butter counterpoint between crunchy guitars and creamy keyboard, so this is a good fit for me.  Overall, I would describe their sound as the bastard offspring of Dragonforce and Trans Siberian Orchestra as raised by vikings, but if you enjoy Iron Maiden, the Scorpions or even Queen or Rush, I figure the odds of you liking Sonata Arctica are at least 50/50.

Having enjoyed Reckoning Night as much as I did, the next step was to get another couple of albums from the library to see if the first taste was a fluke or an aberration.  One of these, For the Sake of Revenge, is a 2006 live album and DVD recorded in Tokyo, with a good sampling of music from their first four albums.

Make no mistake, these guys are not Muse or Iron Maiden; they are a 'working class' metal band from Finland and do not bring a lot of extreme production values to the table.  Their patter is also a little stilted, but hey, they are a bunch of Finns speaking English in Japan, so kudos just for being understood, I say.  It is certainly evident that they are well-loved in the land of the Rising Sun; hands stay up for most of the concert, and the crowd sings along for a good part of the show.  We've played the concert all the way through twice now, and it is really good stuff.  Sonata Arctica lack the commitment to fantasy of Rhapsody of Fire and are nowhere near as proficient as Dragonforce, but lead singer Tony Kakko has a tremendous range, and his voice is clear and powerful.  He is also casual and friendly between songs, while keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg comes off as little creepy and pretentious, but no less talented.  Some of my favourite tracks are the slower but still powerful ones like "Shamandalie" and "White Pearl, Black Oceans", which feature prominent synthesizer or piano parts.

And yeah, if I am going to sing along with your chorus, it's nice if it has a sentiment I share, even if it isn't too deep, like my current favourite, "Don't Say a Word":

Mother always said "my son, do the noble thing..."
You have to finish what you started, no matter what,
Now, sit, watch and learn...
"It's not how long you live, but what your morals say"
Cannot keep your part of the deal
So don't say a word... don't say a word
Fenya and Glory have already made me promise to take them to see the band if they return to Edmonton at an all ages venue; they were last here in 2009, so I hope they don't wait too long to return.  In the meantime, I'm hoping a few of their tracks turn up for Rock Band; I think they would be a lot of fun to play.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Making Tracks: Chimera APC

My Valhallan army, when completed, will have six armoured vehicles, of which this Chimera is the fourth.  Heading in to the back half of vehicle construction has me looking at the various bits, bobs, sundries and accessories I have collected over the years that might be affixed to a vehicle.  Clearly the time has come to 'use it or lose it', and as a result, this troop transport has over a dozen such additions to the stock kit.

It's also important to understand that from a practical standpoint, an armoured personnel carrier (APC) for the Imperial Guard is kind of a ridiculous concept.  Every other race in the Warhammer 40,000 universe is either faster, stronger or better equipped than the puny humans who make up the rank and file of the Guard, and often in more than one category.  The idea of using an armored transport to get closer to the foe is more than a bit foolhardy.

That said though, 40K is still a game, and you can't win the game by hanging back and shelling the foe into compliance (sigh); objectives have to be taken and they have to be held, and shielding some of your troops with a protective metal shell could be the difference between them getting to the objective with enough strength to hold on to it, or getting there in the first place.

And then of course, there is the aesthetic side of things, which gives me just as much enjoyment as the game-playing component. I only have one Chimera, and figured it would go to either my regimental command element or my veterans. Once I saw that the veterans could be upgraded to a demolitions team (hands up if Crazy Harry is one of your favourite Muppets!), my decision was made for me.

Because the Chimera is not a fighting vehicle per se, I opted for a distinctive paint scheme, different from both my artillery and tanks.  My plan is for the squad that rides this track to be very much a 'character' unit, something with a cachet like that of 'The Dirty Dozen' or 'Kelly's Heroes'  (failing that, perhaps 'The A Team'...), so I thought the Chimera should reflect this as much as possible.

I also figured that if this vehicle was going to be right in the thick of things, there was no better place to depict this than in the turret, with a crewman blasting away with the heavy stubber, clearly trying to keep enemy infantry at bay while his comrades use the assault ramp in the rear to get out and plant their deadly melta bombs.  Using a Valhallan heavy weapon crewman as the commander also meant that I had to make a decision regarding the camo I will use for my infantry, and I went with a simply pattern of grey and black blotches, since I will be painting an awful lot of it.

The extra-large searchlight also seemed to fit the theme of both mine-clearing (which a demo team might reasonably be expected to do) or just blinding enemy troops inside a bunker while the bombs and flamers come into play. 

The Demo Team vehicle needs a an evocative name, and I ended up choosing Petrograd Express, and painting this just below the turret on the starboard side.  (I realize Petrograd was what they called St. Petersburg back in the days of the USSR, but as a pseudo-Slavic version of Oiltown it proved impossible to resist. Still, I think I will be leaning heavily towards more Imperial themes for my two remaining tanks.)  Both sides of the Chimera's hull include auxiliary fuel tanks as well as racks of spare lasguns in case ammo should get low or the situation become sufficiently dodgy. 

The pick, shovel and crowbar are all meant to cultivate an aura of preparedness as well as independence; after all, none of the other units are going to want to get too close to a squad carrying that many explosives, even they don't happen to be in a minefield at the time.

The most striking feature of the Express however, is no doubt the mine plow on the front.  This is an add-on made by Dragon models for use on an M1-A1 Abrams tank, and is called a 'track-width mine plough'.  The scale is not precisely correct, but is certainly close enough for me.  Ironically, the instructions for this one accessory are actually more detailed than the vehicle it is attached to, but I managed to get enough of it completed that I could mount it to the piece that normally holds a bulldozer blade on the Leman Russ.  The black and yellow 'danger stripes' I added for no better reason than I just thought they looked wicked, and masked out the stripes with tape, my first time doing so.  It was by no means a perfect job, but I left the marks where some leakage occurred on the advice of my wife, who rightfully pointed out that I was going to weather and chip the blade anyways, and would never achieve such organic results intentionally.  I'm certainly glad I listened to her!

It's a long ways from perfect, but I am already looking furtively at the approaching deadline, and I am pretty happy with the Petrograd Express given the time I had available.  I don't anticipate having a lot of painting or building sessions in December until my Christmas holiday begins, and I have to crank out two more Leman Russ tanks before the end of January if I don't want to be rushed painting my infantry or their air support (dun dun DUN).

Friday, November 26, 2010

Huddle Town Hijinks

Glory and I popped into Churchill Square briefly today to check out Huddle Town, a set of exhibits and activities celebrating Edmonton's hosting of the Grey Cup this Sunday.  Let's be clear here, I am not a huge sports fan, and Glory's not entirely sure which sport football even is, but we both like festivities, so off we went.

It's kind of trade fair-ish, with lots of booths giving away swag, media and product and financial services sponsors all out hawking their involvement.  Plenty of food tents with chili and hot dogs and the like, but I didn't spot the ubiquitous Edmonton green onion cake; perhaps they were serving them in the Boston Pizza sports bar they had setup in a tent on the square.  The line-up for the immense zip line was fairly manageable, but Glory was intimidated by both its height and its speed, and I'm just too big for it, so we had to pass it by, although we saw quite a few people enjoying it.  She did have some fun running an inflatable obstacle course though.

There's a mini-field set up right in front of city hall where amateur teams are playing over the weekend, and CN has a locker room set up where you can try on a jersey and helmet from every team in the league.  The majority of the square is covered by a huge tent that TSN is broadcasting from and that a number of sponsors have set up all kinds of event in, from autograph sessions with CFL players, to obstacle courses, exhibits from the CFL Hall of Fame and video games controlled with either your body or your cell phone, depending on whether you are at the Kinect or Telus booth. 

The Edmonton Journal was giving away cardboard helmets and photos of attendees with a virtual Grey Cup, and Glory and I won a bandana and some lip balm playing a bean bag toss game.

The live stage was just getting set up, and acts like Bif Naked and Big Sugar will be performing there over the next couple of days.  The volunteers were all smiling, friendly and helpful, and this is all helping to make Edmonton look very good indeed to all the sports fans coming here for the big game on Sunday.  it's a bit of a sad counterpoint to what might have been had the federal government elected to support Edmonton's Expo 2017 bid.

Still and all, it's easy to enjoy the Grey Cup as a great bit of Canadiana, even if the majority of players are from the U.S.; a (mostly) outdoors game, with the championship coming to a northern city on the cusp of winter, and pitting East against West in a way the National Energy Policy never could.  Memories of watching Grey Cup games at the Legion or at home with my folks in the glory days of Tom Wilkinson and Warren Moon put a bit of a nostalgic veneer on practically everything I saw, but what I appreciated most was the sheer variety of people I saw there: old and young, working class and posh, hipsters and squares.  Huddle Town was a great place to spend a little time with Glory while Fenya and Audrey are at choir camp this weekend, and I am glad they will return in time for all of us to watch the game this Sunday, even if the Eskimos aren't in it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Mom's Super, Thanks for Asking

Some years ago, my mom and dad were at the Legion one Saturday night, enjoying a beer with some friends as was their custom at the time.  At a nearby table, a couple of younger men (which in the Legion will mean someone either under the age of 50 or 40, depending on who is making the observation at the time) became boisterous and argumentative.  As their argument got louder and more provocative, people wondered if it was going to turn into a fight, which is not something that happens very often at the Legion.

I should mention here that in his younger days, my father was no stranger at throwing hands in a recreational context.  (What does that mean, Daddy?"  "It means Poppy liked to fistfight for fun, honey.  Now let Daddy tell the story.")  He and his best mate Torchy Smith even used provocative techniques as a questionable means of generating suitably energetic altercations, such as wandering into a bar in Halifax's notorious and shamefully named 'Africville' and, supposedly ignorant of the fact that they were the only Caucasians on the premises, ask to be served.  "We're of age, we have money," the argument would go, "what possible reason could you have for not serving us?"    Those rebuttals might come sooner, they might come later, but they rarely came from an open or empty hand.  My Dad spoke of this matter-of-factly, neither really ashamed nor truly proud, saying, "I never started any fights, but I was around for the end of a few.  More than a few, maybe."

At the time when there was this imminent possibility of a donnybrook at the Legion, Poppy's fighting days were well behind him; he was in the latter half of his fifties, and had served on town and city council, and might even have been mayor when this was happening.  I've never spoken to him about what might have been going through his mind, whether he was prepared to step in or try to calm things down, because as it happened, he was never given the opportunity, such was the speed with which it finally coalesced into an event.

The two belligerents stood up simultaneously, never a good sign, their chairs falling behind them, glaring at each other, nostrils flaring, fists clenched.  A table separated them for the time being, but before they could move around it, my Mom was upon them.

Nanny and Poppy at his 75th birthday party, 2007
Helen is a tall lady, nearly six feet, of medium build, and if one thing can be said of her it is that she does not suffer fools gladly.  Her countenance is mercurial, able to swing from condemnation to bemusement in the blink (or the twinkle) of an eye, and she is not a woman inclined to split hairs or wax melancholic.  As such, she had had quite enough when she stood up and marched over to the table in question.  She's long leggedy, so I don't imagine it took her more than a few strides to make up the distance to their table, where she clamped an iron hand on each of their shoulders and pushed them down into their seats.

"You assholes need to SIT DOWN RIGHT NOW and BE QUIET!" Mom growled.

And they did.

I assume they were too dumbfounded to do anything else, but whatever their motivations, the important thing to bear in mind is that there was going to be a fight, and then there wasn't.

I gather that when Mom got back to her seat, Dad was pretty much hooting with laughter in his, referring to her alternately as "The Dragon Lady" and "Batwoman".  When he related the story to me later, he had to pause several times to brush tears of laughter off his cheeks; he clearly had a better time talking about the fight Mom prevented than any of the ones he had ever actually participated in.  At least once a year or so the story comes up around the family table, and regardless of who tells it (which never includes Mom for some reason), Dad's reaction never varies that much.  Neither does Mom's, really; her lips tighten, the better to suppress the smirk that threatens to sneak out, and she bears it all with quiet dignity.

I wish I had even half of my Mum's chutzpah; some situations require a little less Zen and a little more Old Testament, and this was one of them.  I'm proud of the way she asserted herself and stopped a bad situation from escalating into something tragic, stupid or, most likely, both.  I'm proud of her for lots of other reasons too, but that one is the funniest.

Photographer Sacha Goldberger is proud of his grandmom, so when she got depressed, he decided to dress her up in a superhero costume and take some photos of her.  She wasn't too keen on the idea right away, but once they got into it, she couldn't stop smiling.

"Super Mamika" (aka Frederika), risked her life saving a bunch of Jews in Hungary during WWII, so Sacha has every reason to be proud of her, but I think most of us are pretty proud of our moms, even if their heroism is less extraordinary.  After all, they made us, right?  Seeing the picture above, in particular, brought me back to that night in the Legion, where my mom showed that a person without fear is a lot closer than Hal Jordan and Matt Murdock.

This article on My Modern Met talks a little bit more about Super Mamika and her grandson, and has a lot more of these fantastic photos.  They also mention how a lot of people have now reached out to Frederika

Call your mom, if you're able.  If she's your hero, tell her so.  If that doesn't feel right, tell her something else.  In the meantime, I don't think I can talk Mom into a cape, but maybe a motorcycle or club jacket with "Dragon Lady" written on it in one of those brutal asiatic fonts will do the trick...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Making Tracks: Manticore

A manticore is a mythical beast with the body of a lion, wings like a bat, the face of a man and some manner of spiky tail; sometimes like that of a scorpion, in other renditions, able to shoot the spikes at its prey.  All the Imperial Guard artillery is named after some sort of monster (Basilisk, Medusa, Hydra, etc), and with its 4 massive Storm Eagle rockets mounted on a rearward turret, this Manticore comes by its moniker honestly enough.

This was the first Imperial Guard model I ever purchased; although the Manticore is now available as an all plastic kit, for the longest time it was initially only possible to build one out of a Basilisk kit and then replacing the big Earthshaker cannon with a resin add-on kit by Forgeworld containing the turret, missiles and hull extension.  Having the opportunity to buy one of these kits while at the US Games Workshop HQ in Baltimore, I immediately gravitated to the Manticore for its Red Square May Day parade aesthetic; the immense firepower was only the most distant of associations.  In fact, it is only allowed a maximum of four shots per game, but many of my tanks get blown up well before that anyways, so that hardly seems like a setback.

Resin is a chore to work with and is also somewhat dangerous.  (True story: the head of sales for GW Canada told me about visiting Forgeworlds' production facility and his guide had him wear a full-on dual can respirator like you'd see them wearing in an autobody shop.  When Gary asked why, the rep told him that the resin dust was carcinogenic.  'Why aren't you wearing one then?' Gary inquired.  His guide smiled and said, 'It's too late for me, mate.'  Brr!)  I used my Dremel tool to sand off the unnecessary bits and mold webbing, and did it on my front step, with the wind at my back and a dust mask firmly in place.  Once that was done and the hull extension glued on, it primed and painted up the same as any other vehicle.  I left the missiles off until the very end, since they would be hard to reach around once they were glued in place.

The driver is another Forgeworld model, bought when I was exploring a Steel Legion or Death Korps of Krieg army, who all wear gas masks.  When I placed my final staff order with Games Workshop in 2007, I knew I had to get as much of my Guard army as possible, or it was never going to happen, and the knowledge that my 'Commie Rocket Tank' (as some of my co-workers referred to it) was languishing in the wings led me to choose the similarly Russian-inspired Valhallan Ice Warriors.  Still, I thought the gas-mask tanker was distinctive looking and made a degree of practical sense given the amount of fuel and exhaust he would be likely to encounter in the course of hauling those Storm Eagles around.

In the universe of the 41st Millennium, our modern day languages have been ostensibly replaced with High Gothic, Low Gothic and a host of lesser dialects, now that humanity exists on almost a million worlds.  In naming my vehicles I could probably get away with using a Russian word or two, but it's better to sneak in the occasional Cyrillic-looking letter and Eastern European name, like Little Anechka here.  I'm largely happy with it; it is certainly an imposing presence even if it doesn't match the picture in my mind's eye, but it got to a point where I had to weigh putting more effort into it now versus the disappointment of having it destroyed before even firing a shot later on during gameplay.  Most importantly, after more than ten years in a box, my Manticore is finally ready to take the field.

You know, once I have painted up an army for it to support...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Bridge Not Far

We were in Rundle Park this morning for the observances at the Eleventh Hour; past the pedal boats and the frisbee golf course, there is a footbridge, and that is where we ended up.

The structure spanning the North Saskatchewan is called Ainsworth Dyer Memorial Bridge.  If the name sounds familiar, it's because you heard it several times in 2002 after 4 Canadians from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were killed in a 'friendly fire' incident by US airmen that April, one of them being Corporal Dyer.  He would have been 25 in July.

Ainsworth Dyer proposed to his fiancee on the bridge, as attested to in the plaque, not too long before he was killed. After his death, his fiancee's father, Aart Vansloten, and others campaigned to have a memorial stone and plaque erected there, and the bridge was named after him.  It's an appropriate spot, not only because of his proposing there, but also trained there for the 'Mountain Man' competition.

Each year, Ainsworth's would-be father-in-law makes a small wooden cross for each Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan.  Each cross bears their name and rank in addition to a green-centred poppy, and has a nail in the base so it can be planted in the ground easily.  This year he made 152.

Some of the crosses are placed by friends or family of that individual, should they happen to be in Edmonton, but the members of the public who have come out to attend this brief ceremony are asked to set the remainder.  Glory was uneasy about participating, but Fenya placed Pvt. Kevin Dallaire, Audrey Cpl. Andrew Eykelenbloom, and myself Cpl. David Braun, the 23rd, 26th and 27th Canadian casualties in Afghanistan.

It was by no means a polished ceremony; there were starts and stops, frequent interjections of feedback from the tiny PA system they'd brought, and somewhat shaky renditions of "Last Post" and "Oh Canada" on the trumpet, but despite all this, it was still one of the most memorable Remembrance Days I have ever experienced.  So what if the trumpeter wasn't smooth?  I would rather listen to shaky human than a perfect recording on any November 11th.  The feedback was annoying but not deafening, and the entire affair had elements of simplicity, sincerity and honesty that far exceeded larger presentations with colour parties and artillery salutes.

It takes a long time to read 152 names.  They were read aloud in pairs, each pair of crosses having been placed in the frosty ground not far from the bridge and those carrying them having had a chance to pause, or bow, or snap off a crisp salute before the following pair were read.  I'm guessing it took close to half an hour to read them all, but the crowd of close to two hundred stayed to hear the list in its entirety.  It was only a little above freezing, and the sneakers I had flung onto my feet as we rushed out the door were entirely insufficient for the task of keeping numbness from my toes, but I thought of colder places, like Flanders and Korea, and kept my complaints to myself.

The chaplain who assisted with the ceremony was very clear about remembering all Canada's fallen, not just these most recent ones.  He specifically mentioned the two World Wars and Korea, as well as Canada's peacekeeping efforts around the world.  His feeling was that all of these men and women, their lives spanning a globe and almost a century had one thing in common: that they had died in the belief that the world can be a better place, with security and safety and the rule of law.

I wish I could tell you that I can remember all 152 names, but obviously I can't.  I am still grateful for the opportunity to have heard all these names, even once, and to realize that they are not numbers, they are not statistics, and to remember that they are individuals, and sons and daughters and husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and friends and lovers, and some of those who were touched by their lives were stood with me today.  And others, strangers like myself, felt compelled to step forward and commemorate at least one name, by carrying a cross a little ways.

All in all, I felt this was a moving and incredibly personal way to observe Remembrance Day.  I am grateful to Mr. Vansloten for his efforts making these crosses every year, for giving all Edmontonians an opportunity to participate in Cpl. Dyer's memorial.  I am confident we will return to this bridge next year as well.

(An Edmonton Sun video about the bridge ceremony; of all the people to show placing a cross, I had to be one of them?)

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I was a little late getting into church today, so I missed the piper's entry that we always have for the Remembrance service.  I entered the narthex just as the two minutes of silence were being observed.

If accuracy were an issue, we might call this the 'two minutes of relative quiet'; how does one achieve true silence in this day and age?  Even in a church full of well-intentioned folk, there is shuffling, the occasional murmur or cough, the sounds of traffic outside, a faraway door closing.  And of course, very small children can't be expected to make observances, and I am certain they must find the sudden change in ambient noise unsettling.

Heck, if I'm being honest, I kind of find it unsettling.  Two minutes can seem to be a very long time for focused reflection, especially on something as sombre as remembering the honored dead.

My kids no longer experience Remembrance Day the way I did; with a school assembly and a parade to the cenotaph to see wreaths being layed.  Today, schools are closed and shops are open, which strikes me as being more than a little backwards.

I'm not saying we should spend the entirety of the day clothed in sackcloth or wailing in the streets, or attending some government-sponsored form of obeisance; everyone should be allowed to commemorate in their own fashion, and the freedom that we celebrate in concordance with the sacrifices of our war dead means that people should be free to not observe at all, if this is their wont.

Still, are our lives so busy that a day given over specifically so that observances can be made needs to be spent shopping?  Do we really need to be hustling between Booster Juice and Sport Chek at 11:00 this Thursday just because we can?  Would the retail engine that drives so much of our economy misfire if we held off on opening until, oh, I don't know, noon?

It's not as though dying in the service of your country is less relevant now than it was during the First and Second World War; there are Canadians doing it right now in Afghanistan, as they have in Sinai, Cyprus, Kosovo and countless other places since 1945.  There is a tendency to draw special attention to the veterans of WWII, perhaps because there has never been a situation or an army quite like that one.

It's difficult to imagine a scenario that would require a mobilization of a citizen army the way that the Second World War did, but the idea of career people walking away from their jobs, sons leaving home to take up arms, fathers leaving their families to secure a safer future for them, and women taking up the jobs left by these men, both in uniform and as civilians is impossible to picture in our current age.  The type of sacrifices made and the prices paid by both the victims and survivors of the horrors of war don't superimpose very well over a society resolutely engaged in maintaining the status quo.

The last veteran of the First World War has passed on, and the ranks of those who returned home from WWII grow thinner and thinner every November, and soon they will be naught but memories, and I worry a lot about how long they will persist in that state.  Once they are forgotten, how long before we forget the sacrifices of those currently in service?  Or has it already happened?

So far we have never missed an opportunity to pay our respects on Remembrance Day as a family.  I think a deep sense of gratitude for those who have served and are serving is critical in raising our daughters to be good citizens, and we talk at length about why wars are fought, and why good people might volunteer to fight in them.  In dulce et decorum est pro patria mori the Romans once said; it is noble and good to die for one's country.  I prefer how Robert Heinlein paraphrased it: "The noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and the war's desolation."  The people we remember on November 11 have done just that, but their deeds will mean so much less if the people who did them should be forgotten.

In previous years we have gone out the Legislature to see the wreaths layed and the artillery salute, but with 2011 marking the end of Canada's combat operations in Afghanistan, I think we may go to the Garrison  this time around, if it is open to the public.  Anyone who wants to is welcome to join our family, whatever we end up doing.

I hope everyone reading this takes the time to observe in some fashion, even if it is to simply participate in two minutes of silence at 11:00, or to watch part of the Ottawa ceremonies on television.  Ask your friends or co-workers how they are observing;  if you have plans, invite them along.   Remind them to remember.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Making Tracks: Leman Russ Vanquisher

The Leman Russ tank is the workhorse of the Imperial Guard army, appearing in more than a half-dozen variants, with weaponry ranging from a stock battle cannon to the Executioner plasma cannon.  The Vanquisher is a dedicated anti-armour tank, and draws heavily on the German Tiger of WWII as its inspiration.

All Russ variants are built from a standard chassis, so modeling a lower profile hull requires more time, energy and experience than I am prepared to expend.  I settled for using the resin turret I purchased from Forgeworld ages ago, which not only sports the immense Vanquisher cannon, but is also about one third lower than the standard turret.  To keep the aspect lean and mean, I left off the optional side sponsons, which, while increasing the firepower, also brings a matching increase in the points value of the tank.  I did opt to upgrade the hull-mounted heavy bolter to a lascannon, so if the turret should become disabled, it can still serve as a tank-hunter of sorts.  I added the track-guards initially out of esthetics, but also use them to reflect the extra armour upgrade, making the tank a bit more resilient. 

I was unsure exactly how I was going to set up the camo pattern on my tanks, but a staffer at The Game Store in Red Deer (great place if you get a chance to check it out!), told me how he had used Silly Putty as a mask on his WWI models, so I bought a couple of eggs worth at Toys R Us.  After priming the entire model white, one egg was sufficient to cover about half the hull and turret in a vaguely striped design, which I then sprayed with a can of positively ancient Shadow Grey spray, which has been out of production for many years. 

It only took about ten minutes of shaking to get the marble loose enough that I was willing to gamble using the spray; removing paint from plastic models is exceedingly tedious and not always effective, while re-priming the model always results in a significant loss of detail, so I was a little skittish, but it turned out pretty well.  The Silly Putty worked well and came off fairly easily once the spray was dry.  The only down side was that the colour of the spray was not only different from the Shadow Grey I had in a pot, but required a mix of Shadow Grey, Space Wolf Grey and a touch of Scaly Green just to get close!  This meant touch ups and corrections were going to be a real chore.  On the plus side, the colour settled well and left its own highlights on many of the edges and high points, so I will definitely be using it again.

I used a wash of Devlan Mud to weather the hull , but it didn't dry evenly, and made a bit of a mess in some places.  I was mostly able to cover it up, and where I couldn't, it ended up looking like a little more grease or grime, and did help to contribute to making the tank look more lived in.  I added some black triangles to reinforce the disruption pattern of the camo and to provide a little contrast as well.

I had already decided to use white uniforms on my officers and veterans, so I painted the tank commander likewise.  He had more detail than I expected to find, which made him a bit more difficult to paint, especially as I was trying to complete it before Sunday's Halloween and birthday shenanigans.  Still, I am pretty happy with how he turned out, and intend to use him as tank ace Knight Commander Pask.  The tank itself I intended to call 'Snow Tiger' from the get-go, and added the name to the turret, with some Cyrillic letters thrown in here as well as in the tank number for good measure.

Looking at it now, I realize I still need to finish off the backpack sitting on the back of the hull, and also want to find a space to add some 'kill markings', but it is certainly ready for the tabletop as is, and those additions shouldn't take more than a moment or two next week prior to varnishing it.

Having had some of the pieces for this army for over a decade (like Snow Tiger's Vanquisher turret), and the rest from when I left Games Workshop in 2007, it feels really good to finally be putting paint to it, and and more importantly, to be excited about painting the rest of the army as well.  Last week I traded some product still in shrink wrap for the rest of the vehicles I need for the army and did a quick tally of the 80 or so foot models that will make up the non-tracked complement.  It will be a bit of a slog in places (i.e. 80+ foot models), but I am confident I will have a field-worthy force by the time G&G VI comes around!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Could Cartoon Dragons Win the War on Terror?

Hear me out.

The four of us recently watched the CG animated film How to Train Your Dragon, having heard a lot of good things about it, and a good time was had by all.  This is not just a movie for kids or families, either; if you enjoyed the first Shrek or slightly older films like The Iron Giant, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

It's a great little fantasy tale set on an island populated by Scots-accented vikings and their American-accented children.  As the narrator, Hiccup, explains, it's a nice enough place, except for the repeated dragon attacks.  Now, fighting off legendary beasts is the bread and butter of any self respecting viking, but Hiccup doesn't have a lot of brawn, so he tries to contribute by creating traps and weapons he hopes will help defend his village and redeem him in the eyes of his father.

Right away you have all the components for your standard-issue 'believe in yourself' young adult morality tale; take an outsider, add some parental estrangement, real skills unappreciated by peers, and you can just about start colouring in the numbers, right?  But after Hiccup successfully captures one of the fiercer varieties of dragons, the real story begins.

I don't want to give too much away here, and I sincerely believe anyone who considers this blog even vaguely entertaining should just go and watch this film right now, but in short, Hiccup has to juggle new-found knowledge of his people's mortal enemies against his learning to slay them, and the cultural acceptance this is going to bring him.

The writing and pacing are deft, there are no dull moments, the voice acting and characterizations are brilliant and the action sequences, especially those focused on flying, are spectacular.  In fact, I found myself really regretting not having seen it in 3D in the theatre.

The creature work on the differing types of dragons is terrific, and the animation on Toothless, the principle dragon, is priceless.  I can't remember the last time I saw an animated creature this expressive, but I bet Chuck Jones drew it, whatever it was.  And watching the making-of features on the DVD shows just how much care and attention they put into the smallest details, such as the characteristics of the differing types of fire each species of dragon produces,

Where I started thinking about the movie as metaphor though, was a moment when Hiccup looks at Toothless, realizing how much they have in common, and says, "Everything we know about you guys is wrong."  This scrawny, sardonic viking became my new benchmark for courage when he goes to his father and tries to explain how they don't have to be consigned to an eternity of conflict because it turns out they may share a common enemy.

Next year will be ten years since 9/11, and despite the fact that there have been no other attacks on the United States, I don't think too many of us would consider the world a significantly safer or saner place to live.  Canadian troops will be removed from combat operations in Afghanistan, and unless deliberate care is taken, it could be very easy for groups like the Taliban to exert control again.  Still though, there is resistance and apprehension about inviting the Taliban to peace talks and the possibility of government representation.

I have a hard time with this; ten years of trying to build peace through primarily military means hasn't led to a lot of gains.  While a lot of Taliban camps and troops have been disrupted , relocated or killed, new recruits pour in all the time, and territories purchased with blood in prior campaigns has been ceded back due to an inability to hold them.  It is difficult to see the point in non-military ventures like schools, roads and wells, if Afghan residents are terrified of using them for fear of retaliation by the Taliban.

It is imperative that any chance to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table be seized, even if it means an amnesty to those who have killed our troops with IEDs or buying them outright.  A military-only solution will only work if the potential for killing every last single man-jack of them exists, and as long as the west appears to be motivated by vengeance or greed (thanks Dubya), this is a mathematical impossibility.  Let's face it, when your opponent lives like a caveman and has absolutely no fear of death, you've lost an awful lot of leverage as far as conventional warfare is concerned.  (I'd be terrified to read an alternate history where the two cold war superpowers were the British Empire and a Taliban-style hegemony, where the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction was replaced by the fear of not getting your shots in first, but that's another story...) 

The moment the extremists come to the table and feel they have a voice, lasting peace becomes a lot more viable.  I don't know how you address the fact that the Taliban are the original 'nothing to lose/better to burn out than to fade away' crowd, so I have no idea how you keep them at the table, or even force them to abide by decisions made at the table, but without a dialogue, no long term solution can be reached.

I've been a vocal supporter of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan since it began, and still believe in it, but the lack of gains in building infrastructure and winning the 'hearts and minds' side of things makes me very fearful of the future, especially after Canada and the other western nations start pulling out.  I still have hope, though, foolish as it may be.  "They've killed hundreds of us!" Hiccup's father rails at him.  "We've killed thousands of them!" retorts Hiccup.

It should be mentioned that this movie is not just a thinly veiled metaphor for current events, but the timeless truths behind alienation, suspicion and the shifty, blurring line between defense and revenge seems to resonate with this particular struggle really well.  Despite having a worthy message and theme, How to Train Your Dragon deftly manages to avoid being preachy or ham-handed, and is a ripping adventure tale to boot.  It has a lot of good things to say about not just taking a stand, but the consequences of taking one, something often overlooked in family movies.

I dearly wish someone would translate this film into Arabic, and Israeli, and Pashtun, and Urdu, and Congolese, and Tamil, and a hundred other languages as well, and air drop it into conflict areas along with the containers of distilled water and Pop-Tarts.  (I'm not sure how they would watch them, some other blog can sort that out.)  I hope a bunch of kids all over the world see this movie, like mine did, and they hear Hiccup say, "I wouldn't kill him because he looked as frightened as I was. I looked at him and I saw myself." 

I hope they remember it, and they don't let that feeling get coerced, co-opted or beaten out of them by jaded adults who will try to convince them that it isn't that simple, that the world doesn't really work that way, because it could if enough of us wanted it to.  The real enemy, the true terror, is being afraid to try.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Summer in the City

"All around you, people lookin' half dead
Walkin' on a sidewalk hotter than a match head..."

This photograph was originally in colour, but I recently scanned it in black and white because that's how I picture it in my mind's eye.

It is from our trip to Toronto in the summer of 2004; Glory had recently turned two and Fenya was five-and-a-half.  We stayed with Audrey's sister Vera as well as some friends from church.  Despite having lived there from 1995-1999, we'd already forgotten how oppressive the heat and humidity could be, although the additional moisture had a wonderful effect on Fenya's curls.

I took this picture as we rode the streetcar on Lake Shore Blvd. from downtown to our old neighbourhood in Etobicoke where we were staying with the girls' godparents.  I don't recall where we were coming from, but we were sticky and hot and worn out.  We had the streetcar practically to ourselves, so the girls made their way to the open window just ahead of where we were seated to take advantage of the breeze.  Glory was interested in the scenery drifting by, while Fenya was satisfied with closing her eyes and letting the cooler air pass over her.

The almost art-deco chrome of the dated Toronto Transit Commission seats, combined with the brick storefronts (which are far more visible in my memory than in this photo), and the way Glory's sundress strap has almost completely fallen off her shoulder somehow combine to remind me of my childhood in the 1970s, perhaps not exactly as it was, but as an amalgam of my own recollections, movies and television shows I had seen, and books I had read.

There was no place in Leduc in 1975 that looked like 'Sesame Street', or in Edmonton either for that matter.  Bus trips were reserved for school field trips or, once or twice, as Park n Ride excursions to see an Eskimos game at Clarke Field.  I took out a book on marble games from my school library that referenced blue collar New York neighbourhoods like Yonkers and The Bronx, but none of my friends had an interest in playing the ancient games that came from there, even though we all had marbles stashed in a jar or Crown Royal bag.  When I had asked Dad if we could crack open a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, he looked at me in a peculiar fashion and set up a lawn sprinkler instead.

Seeing my daughters at that photo places me simultaneously in the sticky heat of a Toronto summer and in the confabulated warmth of my own childhood memories, when going anyplace was better than being someplace, when I had to climb before sitting, and when a hint of breeze was the best thing in the world.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

With a Little Help from Her Friends

In less than a month, the countdown begins; Fenya will turn twelve, and it will be less than a year until she officially becomes a teenager.

I recognize that a birthday is an arbitrary calendar date, and not a very good benchmark for maturity or anything else, but some of these arbitrary dates carry some philosophical heft nonetheless; no longer considered a child for admission or restaurant kid-menu purposes; able to get a learner's permit; able to drive; able to drink; able to vote.

There is also the shadow of my own mortality that will come hand in glove as my eldest daughter passes another human milestone.  Already she has started the second half (!) of her schooling; there are only five more grades until graduation (not including this one).  Will I be there for her cap and gown or step into a manhole someplace?  Will I see her leave college and start a career or her own family, or will I seize a piston well before that?  Truth be told, I have exactly enough Zen in me to keep myself from worrying too much about things like that; I try to focus more on the things I have a little more influence and control over.

Junior high school was a real time of transition for me; I didn't stay chummy with any of my elementary school friends, and I am at a loss to tell you exactly why that was.  It wasn't a falling out, but I had started hanging out with a different fellow in Grade 6 who ended up going to Catholic school in Edmonton the following year.  I ended up making some new friends in Grade 7 and even better ones in High School, some of whom I am still in contact with, but those transitions weren't always easy.  My kids have never had neighbourhood playmates, and in this day and age, with children who need daytimers to pencil in playdates across town, that seems unlikely to change, and a time without friends is rarely a good time.

I also know that when boys have a falling out, the fists may fly, but when it happens with girls, it is a hundred times worse, as battle lines are drawn, rumours are whispered, allegiances are sought and the weapon of choice is ostracization.  Fenya is a sensitive kid, even more so than I was, so I am probably more anxious about her socialization than she is.  At her age, friends are a key part of developing the attitudes and opinions and behaviours that are going to define her as an adult.  Will they be creative and imaginative, or passive consumers?  Do they look for a tastemaker or support each other in their explorations?  How much authority will they question, and how much will they accept at face value?  Beyond parental fears about drugs and pregnancy and all the rest, there are a hundred little minefields ready to catch a growing young person unawares, and they will look to their friends for strategies and assistance, as well as to the values you've hopefully instilled in them.  With any luck, those friends won't be so obsessed with Jersey Shore or their facebook updates that they neglect their duties as friends.

A parent's role in this is not unlike that of a baseball manager: you train, you advise, you drill, you arrange...and then you let them step to the plate and you pray like hell, because the moment they leave the dugout, there is not a whole lot else you can do.

Still and all, there are positive signs, if I keep my eyes open and wits about me

Fenya recently attended a birthday sleepover with 5 other girls, and the following day, I asked her how it went.  I didn't expect a whole lot of disclosure, and that's fine; what happens at sleepover stays at sleepover after all, but I knew that if it had turned exclusionary or otherwise ugly, she would find a way to let me know, and we could talk it out a little.  Apparently I needn't have worried.

"It was good," she said.  "We went swimming for two hours, and then came back and had pizza, and then watched some movies.  We stayed up until 2 a.m.!  And Autumn's little brother kept coming down and wanting to play Pokemon on the tv, but we said, 'oh, you don't want to stay down here because we are going to be talking about nail polish and boys and stuff like that,' and then I turned to Emily-Claire and said, 'oh my gosh, that shade is just awesome, where did you get it?' and she said, 'oh, I got it at Claire's because it reminded me of this cute sweater I just got...' and then her little brother went like, 'bleah!' and just left, and we went back to watching movies."

"Wow, till 2 a.m.?" I replied.  In my mind, I pictured them all curled up in sleeping bags watching Twilight (even though Fenya is not that big a fan of the movies) or perhaps Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants.  The viewing preferences of tweenaged girls as a whole is rather a closed book to me, and regardless of Fenya's tastes, she is obviously going to run with the pack or defer to the host.  "That's pretty cool.  What all did you watch?" 

"All three X-Men movies," she said.  "And I don't think the last one was nearly as bad as you made it out to be, and it has Kitty Pryde in it.  Oh!  And the first time Professor Xavier showed up, Autumn and I looked at each other and went, 'Captain Picard!' and just started laughing, and I don't think all the other girls got it, but they all laughed anyways.  And between movies and afterwards we all talked about what sort of mutant powers we would like to have."

"That's awesome," I said.  "I mean, seriously, that's awesome."

She looked puzzled.  "What do you mean?  Why is it so awesome?"

"Aren't most girls your age watching crap like Big Brother and Another Scary Movie and stuff like that?"

Fenya was dismissive.  "Pfft," she said.  "I suppose.  I dunno."

"It is nothing short of awesome that a group of girls your age, very conscious about their peers and so on, would choose to not only enjoy some non-current adventure films based on comic books, which a lot of other girls would dismiss as guy films based on guy media, and then follow it up not by talking about how cute Hugh Jackman is..."


", it's okay, he is pretty cute, but talk about things in the movie in the context of your own lives.  That is great stuff.  It reminds me of the kind of friends I had in high school, and in college.  Guys like Island Mike and Uncle Jon in Camrose."

She thought for a bit.  "Yeah, I suppose it is kind of awesome, when you put it that way."

"You bet it is," I replied.  "You hang on to those friends.  Those are keepers."