Sunday, May 30, 2010

Iron Supplements

So, another busy weekend, but not too busy to go see Iron Man 2, and I have to say, Favreau is two for two with this franchise. I thought it was just as much fun as the original, and the pathos wrought by Tony Stark's self-destructive behaviour was a great counterpoint to the action setpieces. The fact that Robert Downey Jr. brings a certain, let's call it method acting element, to this is just icing on the cake.

It was kind of cute to see director Jon Favreau's cameo as chauffeur Happy Hogan turn into a speaking role, and there were good turns from all the supporting cast, especially the new arrivals like Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johannson. Don Cheadle is a vast improvement over Terrence Howard as James Rhodes (and War Machine!), but I have to single out Sam Rockwell as military-industrial rival Justin Hammer for special praise though. It is not a huge role, and he doesn't get to drop any huge lines or do any real scenery chewing, but he plays his role with a fantastic balance between arrogance and insecurity with an ease that is hard to imagine in just about anyone else.

As well, Marvel Studios continues to knit a cohesive movie universe for their characters to play in, with Samuel L. Jackson making a welcome return as Col. Nick Fury, an only slightly disrespectful nod to Captain America (or at least his shield), and a post-credit shout out to a potential Avenger as well. There are also rumours of a S.H.I.E.L.D. movie with Jackson following The Avengers, which I am in favour of, at least in principle.

I wish Iron Man 3 was coming before The Avengers in 2012 and not after it in 2013, just because Chris Nolan is supposed to be releasing the as yet-unwritten and untitled third movie in his Batman series in 2012 as well. I love the idea that we could be seeing, for the first time ever, not just one, but possibly two excellent superhero movies that are third in a series. Consider the precedents:

Superman 3 - when the poster has Superman carrying Richard Pryor, it's hard to get excited about the film as a heroic endeavour. Your uber-villain is Robert Vaughn? And your action finale is a twin-fight? Sigh.
Batman Forever - if the nipples sculpted onto the bat-suits were the worst part of Joel "Not Gay Enough!" Schumacher's turn at the helm, they might have been all right. As it was, they were not, although I feel bad for Val Kilmer who looked like he was trying to work with the little he was given. (Oh, and for the record, I'm not a Schumacher hater; dude made Lost Boys.)
X-Men United - after two great films from Bryan Singer, a new director gives us a wretched mis-handling of one of Marvel's greatest stories, the Dark Phoenix saga. As a longtime fan of the comics, the only redeeming feature for me was the inclusion of 'the Fastball Special'. Not nearly redeeming enough, though.
Spider-Man 3 - again, after two great movies, what the hell happened here? At least with X-Men 3 there were two director shuffles, studio intervention and a number of re-writes, but Sam Raimi is damned lucky Sony Pictures didn't try to have him committed using the footage from this flick.

Geez, taken all at once like that, it almost looks know, like a curse.

Even if they weren't a year apart, Nolan has to be the odds-on favourite to be the first one safe at third. Iron Man and Batman are also drastically different films, despite being ostensibly drawn from the same subject matter. Jon Favreau can make good use of that extra year figuring out how he can re-make Iron Man's primary arch-villain the Mandarin into something modern and threatening and not just a Fu Manchu-derived cliche. I do like that he laid the groundwork back in the first Iron Man with a couple of throwaway references to an organization called "Ten Rings", since Mandarin's schtick is a ring on each finger with a different power. (Take that Green Lantern!)

Favreau's task may be less daunting in 2013, since in 2012 Joss Whedon's Avengers movie will have established a more comprehensive Marvel Movie-verse, complete with magic, Norse deities, alien invasions and the like, giving Iron Man 3 the latitude to be less Tom Clancy and more Jack Kirby, you know what I mean?

Unfortunately, Marvel's recent purchase by Disney has thrown a little doubt onto whether or not a third movie will be made, or if it is, who will distribute it. Remembering as I do that this nonsense is what kept Spider-Man from being made for a decade and a half (by James Cameron no less!), I am simply keeping my fingers crossed that the movie gets made at all.

In the meantime, I strongly recommend Iron Man 2 for enjoyable summer viewing, especially if you liked the first one. Like the first film, one of its greatest strengths is that Tony Stark is just as entertaining to watch as Iron Man, and the dialogue still has that semi-improvisational feel like Favreau's earlier film Swingers. It was good enough that I was able to forget for a little while that a significant chunk of my tooth had broken off only 24 hours before, which I think is high praise for any movie.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pac Man F(or)ever

Dear Fenya,

I saw today that the video-game Pac-Man has its 30th birthday today. You are always asking me about ways in which things were different when I was a kid, and this strange little game reminded me of a lot of changes.

I was never that interested in playing Pac-Man when it came out, and it is still nowhere near the top of my favourite games of the period; I would far rather play Asteroids or Battlezone. Still Pac-Man brought some exciting innovations to the table:

Colour! Prior to this, games were largely black and white, with some cheaters, notably Space Invaders, putting colored transparencies over the display to make the games a bit more visually appealing. Pac-Man had blue glowing walls, 4 differently coloured ghosts, and a bright yellow hero whose only identifiable feature was his insatiable mouth. Pac-Man was far more eye-catching than most of his contemporaries.

Sound! The Pac-Man arcade cabinet did not have a lot more hardware to work with than other video games of the time, but it certainly used them to good effect. From the whimsical music that heralded the beginning of each game, through to the lament that accompanied the hero's inevitable fate at the, well, not hands, but whatever of the ghosts, Pac-Man's sounds are iconic even today. You haven't played the game a lot, but if I mimicked the 8 bit death march (wee-er wee-er wee-er wee-er bep bep, or thereabouts), I have no doubt you would recognize it. If I do this years from now, I would appreciate your not having me immediately committed. The familiar "wakka wakka" noise that signified the eating of dots remains an audio touchstone for consumption.

Character! Who flew the ship in Asteroids? What kind of tank did you drive in Battlezone? Those marching Aliens from Space Invaders, what are they called, and why is the last one so darned fast? Sadly, we'll never know, but every child of the age knows that Pac-Man's nemeses are Inky, Pinky, Blinky and...Clyde. Even though the other games had a less abstract and more accessible storyline, Pac-Man brought enough pop-culture cachet to justify lunch boxes, t-shirts, trading cards, a top 40 single, and even a television show, and this in addition to the countless spin-offs and sequels like Ms. Pac-Man.

Why would a giant yellow mouth race around a maze eating dots? Why did the ghosts object to this? What the hell was in those "energy dots" that made these same predatory spectres turn blue and grimace while they fled from Pac-Man in abject terror, lest they be devoured? It didn't matter. Even with this ludicrous and abstract premise, Pac-Man was one of the first games to introduce characters and a bit more of a narrative to its proceedings. I imagine the first time someone saw one of the little 'Intermission' animations, other onlookers mgiht have exclaimed, "how are you doing that?"

None of this really explains why the game was as much of a hit as it was, although some speculate that the single handed controls allowed players in bars to drink and play simultaneously, but whatever the reason, Pac-Man was the first arcade game to make the bold crossover into mainstream culture. This was the first domino to fall in a ripple that in less than two decades would see more children recognizing Nintendo's mascot Mario than venerable Disney spokesvermin Mickey Mouse.

You see Fenya, in my day, only the most primitive of video games could be played at home. To play really decent games, we had to go to dedicated spaces called 'arcades' where at one time pool tables and pinball machines ruled, and plug these infernal devices full of quarters. These were sometimes scary places, filled with unsavory or intimidating characters, but more often than not, just an average cross-section of adolescents enjoying themselves. Compare this to today, where an entry level video game console uses either wireless controllers or infra red sensors to control elements rendered in three-dimensional full colour glory, and lifelike characters can be given soiled or torn clothing, in addition to scars or five o'clock shadow. Pac-Man had a mouth, and that's it. The ghosts don't even have that.

The original Pac-Man can now be played without difficulty on the telephone I carry in my pocket, which is in itself a tiny miracle I have come to take for granted. I don't actually take advantage of this, as it would cost me a monthly fee of $2.99 for this privilege, unlike the Galaga game that currently resides in my phone and required only a one-time payment.

If Pac-Man is still being talked about when he gets to his 60th birthday, I wonder what you'll tell your children or nieces and nephews about it.

"I remember playing that game with Poppy on his whatyacallit, Playstation. We used wires to hook it up to a television, which was like a video display unit we used for entertainment."

"Wow, wires?"

"Yep, and not like the ones you use for those neural uplinks in your temples either. Other wires connected the controller..."

"Whoa, back up auntie; I get that they probably didn't have thoughtboxes back in the day, but you didn't even have a gesture interface yet?"

"No, and that's nothing compared to my dad. Poppy couldn't even play at home, he had to go to a special place and use coins to pay for each play session!"

I have a sneaking suspicion that this generation might look at our early electronic play experiences as something quaintly comparable to Morris dancing, but I bet they will still know what you mean when you mention Pac-Man.

Trying to Tell Me Something

Driving to work today on the Anthony Henday, I was trying to make up time with an appropriate increase in velocity. There was light rain falling at the time and Edmonton had received a real soaking last night, so there was some perceptible slickness, but none of that horrifying emulsion I sometimes encounter as I motor past Refinery Row on the east side of the city.

I watched a merging vehicle throw up a huge rooster tail of water from a pool that had formed in the stripey zone. The CBC traffic report noted that there were no collisions or the like, but advised caution. They drew specific attention to the dangers of hydroplaning, which is a term that usually makes me think of times in high school when my friend Kelly and I would look for stretches of road where we could attempt to do this on purpose. I wish I could tell you that this is the dumbest thing we ever did with a vehicle.

At any rate, all these elements orbited my mind, and although I am a rational man who doesn't hold a lot of truck with the supernatural, I began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, the universe was trying to tell me something. I casually looked over the lip of the roadway, and tried to estimate if my current speed would be enough to carry me ballistically across the green belt between the eastbound and westbound lanes and into oncoming traffic. I wondered how long it would take me to drive out of the ditch in my Corolla, having seen trucks sturggle with this in the past. As I mused, I also happened to glance at the track display for the MP3 CD I was playing at the time.

The track title was "Reckless".

Message received; I took a little pressure off the accelerator.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

May Day

Hottish and stickyesque summerlike day
Bodes me to hang up my hammock and sway
The lawn being mowed and the dog having run
My nape starts to dry twixt the breeze and the sun
With duties complete I'm inclined to recline
While the pendulum swing of my hammock keeps time
About an hour away I see other jobs beckon
Which leaves enough time for some reading I reckon
Earbuds secure with a payload of music
Masks out the road and the engines that use it
A hum makes me wonder if an aircraft I've heard
But it's only a bumblebee as large as a bird
And although I still long for my family's return
I've layed here some time with no cries of 'My turn!'
A bright bolt of sunlight through clouds finds a gap
Which compels me to snug down the bill of my cap
Sol's rays through the branches are deliciously warm
And all that I need is in reach of my arm
The spiciest chip and the hoppiest beer
A paperback book and perfection is near

Friday, May 14, 2010

G&G V: The Specifics

(My gratitude to Mike T. and Earl for providing the pictures!)

Beyond the obvious and desired factors of beers and games, there have been two other traditions at Gaming & Guinness, and the first is comic book movies. The first G&G was the same weekend as the opening of V for Vendetta. We are all mad fans of the original comic, so an outing to that had to be factored in, we have been fortunate enough that there has been a decent comic book adaptation in theatres for every G&G save one:
G&G: V for Vendetta
G&G II: 300
G&G IV: The Watchmen
G&G V: Kick-Ass

For this most recent iteration, we also had the option of seeing Iron Man 2, but decided that those of us with families should take advantage of seeing the ruder of the two films with a like-minded group. (And despite departing from the source material pretty strongly, it was still a very enjoyable time. Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl was nothing short of awesome, and a big chunk of my re-watch value will be found in Nic Cage, who channeled just the right kind of Adam West-flavoured crazy for his role as Big Daddy.) Hopefully, our luck in this regard will continue, and if we keep with the May scheduling, I like our odds.

The other tradition is that snow is usually a factor. Not unexpected when holding an event in Edmonton in March, but May?

Although, so long as the weather doesn't keep us from the airport, the rest is negotiable. Coming back from G&G II on Vancouver Island, the weather outside the van wasn't nearly as dangerous as the punchiness (and gassiness) inside of it, and G&G IV was worse, thanks to a ferry delay in leaving the island.

Thankfully, most of the snow was gone by the time we got things underway on Thursday. I picked up the out of towners Wednesday night at the airport in a very official looking vehicle thanks to the magnets Pete had produced with the Pint o' Dice logo on them, and we got the table set up for the following day's huge Warhammer 40,000 battle.

We played pretty hard for about six hours, Mike, and Scott and I, their combined Ork and Chaos forces trying to wrest control of an Imperial planet away from my Genestealer Cult who had stolen it fair and square in the first place, with the help of a bunch of Tyranids from Hive Fleet Polyphemus.

It was a good scrap, largely because Scott and Mike are a lot of fun to play against, but in the end, the forces of ChaOrk were victorious. It was a closer game than previous years, however, and my large beastie did manage to devour infamous ork Warlord Ghazghkull Thraka, a character who has been my bane for over a decade of 40K gaming.

One of my personal highlights was watching Scott's ludicrously big unit of Orks (100 strong at the onset!) roll 172 attack dice on the charge, the most I have ever seen. It should be noted that you do not precisely roll this many dice, so much as dump them.

And it was very gratifying to see my opponents change their plans on the fly when they realized my buggy brethren had liberated heavy weapons, some APCs and a super-heavy Baneblade tank from the planetary defense force armouries. "Bugs got tanks? How long's this been going on then?" Still, the Baneblade didn't do too much other than winnowing the Big Mob of Orks into a more reasonable two score or so.

Still, in the end, it came down to a single set of rolls, which makes for an entertaining and suspenseful game, even when you come up on the wrong side of victory.

After the big 40K game, we had dinner, and more people began to drift in. After supper, we played an improvisational story-telling card game called "Aye, Dark Overlord! which took a while to get into but ended up being a lot of fun. After this, a little bit of team Trivial Pursuit, and then, just for strangeness' sake, tops.

Our friends in the Land of the Rising Sun re-engineered our childhood game of Battling Tops, replacing the simple pull strings of yesteryear with a toothy strip designed to mesh with a fairly decent gearing system in a top made of not just plastic but toothy metal. Now, this is all well and good, you might say, but why would grown men play with toys clearly designed for children? It turns out that there are several compelling reasons; here are the Top Ten:
10. Don't judge me sucka, it's just fun!
9. It's kinetic
8. It's frenetic.
7. It's a nice change from the cerebral games we usually play. (snort)
6. Why should kids have all the damned fun? Our toys were never this cool!
5. Or this dangerous. (There's a graphic on the box that clearly indicates this game should never be played on a table, for instance...)
4. It's dramatic and you can place bets on whose top will survive.
3. There is a rather decent chance that at any given moment, a top will launch itself out of the ring and attempt to buzzsaw someone's junk to the delight of the onlookers.
2. Even when the tops stay in the ring, the sheer force deployed when hefty men exert themselves on an over-engineered toy designed for much smaller people means that they are prone to just full-on coming apart upon collision.
1. You show me another game that produces shrapnel as a byproduct, and I will buy it.

Seriously dude, shrapnel. We were still picking up bits of shattered top on Saturday night. You can't buy entertainment like that. The flinching alone was priceless.

Friday morning we tried out a more harmless game called Cloud 9, which is sort of a 'dare ya' game where you choose when to jump out of an ever-climbing balloon. Do you leap out early and risk losing points, or stay in and lose it all when the balloon plummets to the ground? I can't see it toppling Texas Hold 'Em as the bluffing game of choice, but a lot of fun nonetheless.

After returning from Kick-Ass, we tried Earl's new Zombie game, Last Night on Earth. It's a team game, where one side plays the zombies, and the other controls the townspeople trying to survive. Very cinematically oriented and tongue in cheek, it has great production values, excellent playing pieces and fairly decent game mechanics. It even comes with a soundtrack to add atmosphere.

After an awesome but ominous supper of chili, we broke out the Rock Band and laid into it in teams of four. Everyone rotated through the different instruments, and it seemed fairest to let the vocalist pick the track.

We had downloaded quite a few songs prior to starting, and had a pretty good mix of tracks to choose from, including two by Spinal Tap, one by Muse, and the controversial "Gay Bar" by Electric Six. We even challenged Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills", a track so difficult it replaces the normal circles on the chart with little devils for 4 out of 5 categories. I don't think we'll start touring anytime soon, but I am extremely pleased that we made it through without being booed offstage (thanks in no small part to Island Mike's solid vocal track!), even before we re-discovered the 'no-fail' mode which keeps things moving along nicely.

All in all I think everyone acquitted themselves nicely, and even when people were playing to fields out of their comfort zone (vocals for some, drums for others), no one quailed or faltered and everyone had a good time whether playing or cheering. Does a little bit of liquid courage help smooth things along? Perhaps.

The next day we re-visited a number of games, including Last Night on Earth, and after supper we broke out this year's marquee event: Circus Maximum.

Pete re-made the board of Avalon Hill's classic chariot racing game Circus Maximus and had it printed onto a 6' long vinyl banner, Mike got hold of 2 dozen 15mm Roman chariots, and yours truly assembled and painted the pieces into something usable. Everyone was quite impressed with the finished product, which took a game we already greatly enjoyed and amped up the scale into something spectacular.

We watched the chariot race from Ben Hur just prior to playing, which certainly helped to set both the mood and the expectation of bloodshed, but which also underscored my wife's assertion that the teams should be matched, whereas the way I had assembled them, no chariot was drawn by more than two horses of the same colour...d'oh!

By far the most challenging aspect was converting the models of the drivers into those unfortunates whose chariots had been destroyed and are now either being dragged around the oval or have cut themselves loose and are frantically running for the walls and safety. I'll post a nerdier step-by-step at a later date, but let's just say that I was gratified that players were so cautious about moving these pieces as gingerly as they did.

I also glued some wings to the first prototype chariot I had built for scaling purposes, painted it gold, and with aid of some cake pillars and assorted wooden bits from Michael's constructed a trophy of sorts, on the off chance that competitive spirits might be flagging by the end of the event.

Looking back, this was clearly unrealistic thinking, and I needn't have worried. In a hotly contested run (at least for the three race leaders), Jeff again showed his intermittent mastery of all things swift (and in a Flash t-shirt no less), and charged to a clear victory, followed by Pete and Island Mike.

The race had only one fatality: our host, Mike, had his chariot shatter beneath him and was unable to disentangle himself from the reins before being dragged to death.

Jeff's early burst from the peloton (wait, can I use Greek terms from bike racing in a Roman chariot game? Too late!) meant that most of the other competitors focused almost exclusively on catching up and not flipping in the corners, with very little ramming the other chariots or even whipping the other drivers taking place.

And so, yet another sub-tradition is born, and I am sure that next year's race will bring an even headier blend of speed and mayhem as we battle it out for our right to inscribe our names on the Winged Chariot of Victory.

At this point it was too late for another race but too early to retire, and so Rock Band was deployed again and we played until the wee hours without care for neither teams nor points.

The next day, I drove the out-of towners to the airport, gathered up a station wagon full of gear (which only covered half of what I had brought), and we closed the book on yet another successful weekend of fun and fellowship. One of the most telling before and after photos of the whole affair might be these two:

(Should I even mention that an additional 4 dozen beer are not accounted for in these pictures? Perhaps not...)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Gaming & Guinness: In General

When we first moved into our house in February 2006, I took one look at the long, carpeted basement and thought, "This is a great space for gaming."

I like games a lot and I like a lot of games, and this is in addition to having worked for a company that sells toy soldiers and wargames and such for over a decade. From high school and university friends playing things like Dungeons & Dragons and Battletech through Warhammer 40,000 and some historical wargames and including mainstream games like Cranium and Blokus, games have been an integral part of the way I relate to my friends. There is nothing I like better on a Saturday night than to have some friends over, put some chips on the table and have a beer while we pursue some arbitrary goal, either collectively or competitively. I suppose that sounds a little sad, but, hey, the drinks are cheaper than a bar, and I get to choose the company I keep, so I have no regrets.

It's a pretty clean split among my friends between family men and the kidless, and over time, some of them have moved out of province, people who have been an important part of my life since high school, for heaven's sake. The basement immediately suggested to me a means of collecting everyone together, and playing some massive games, ones that support 8 or even ten players. Everyone could sleep over so there was no chance of drinking and driving (even though my friends range from abstainers to ambitious with everything in between), and we could share some meals and some stories in a time of dedicated fellowship.

In hindsight, I really don't know how we pulled it off. Audrey and I moved into the house in early February, and the first Gaming & Guinness (or G&G as it has since become known) happened about 5 weeks later, right around St. Patrick's Day. My lovely and understanding wife agreed to visit her sister in Rocky Mountain House with our two girls in order to allow we men to burp, fart, scratch and curse without fear of offense or impacting anyone's sleeping patterns but our own. In short, we had most of the elements of a hunting or fishing trip with none of the hardship or safety concerns. Besides, it is not like any of us hunt or fish anyways. In fact, one of the guys who doesn't drink doesn't curse either; go figure.

It is my experience that these sorts of events have a much better chance of being self-perpetuating if they have their own identity, so they definitely need a name, and there are some other elements that help a lot too. "Drinking beer and playing nerdy games" isn't very catchy and doesn't acronymize very well, and being so close to St. Patrick's Day, Gaming & Guinness seemed a natural. (Brew-Ha-Ha would be another candidate, but seems a little hokey and is probably taken besides.)

My good friend Peter and I talked at length about what a good iconic image might be: a Space Marine with a pint glass on his shoulder? A giant dice with pints for pips? We wrestled with it for some time before I came up with an idea:

Pete is not technically an art & design professional (that is to say, it is not the primary reason for his employment, per se), but his kung fu is pretty strong, so if he is impressed with something you've done, you are probably on the right track. I got some basic white tees from Work Wearhouse and some iron-on transfers for the computer printer and made t-shirts before everyone arrived. They were no great shakes and didn't have a lot of durability, but since no one had expected them in the first place, they were delightedly received.

We played games of all kinds, but my preference is always for the games that have the most people playing simultaneously, so there were some big Warhammer 40,000 and Lord of the Rings games for miniatures, Formula De (a great car racing game), some Risk of one fashion or another, some Zombies, and I don't recall what all else. There were usually some retro video games being played at the other end of the basement by those who had opted out or been knocked out of play, very much in keeping with the theme of growing old but not up.

There were around ten people at peak, with some coming and going in accordance with their various commitments. One friend flew out from Vancouver Island, and another from Ottawa, and at a time in my life where I need to schedule a D&D game three weeks in advance to achieve quorum, that seems more amazing in hindsight than it even did at the time. It also snowed a ton that weekend, something which has pretty much become a tradition in its own right, and we ended up pushing more than one car out of the drifts just in my neighbourhood, including the one which had just finished delivering our pizzas.

A wonderful time was had by all, and a spontaneous wish for some fun male bonding time has become a full-fledged tradition with its own customs and language. The following year, Island Mike invited us to his home on Vancouver Island, had custom screened t-shirts made. The year after that, Pete ordered up two sets of custom dice, one with a pint where the "1" should be, the other with a G&G III logo of his own design to serve as the six. We returned to the island the next year (and it looks as though we will in 2011 as well), and in addition to t-shirts added personalized mugs with "G&G IV" engraved on them (plus customized M&Ms!). More than one person has wondered aloud: How long until the one-upmanship leads us inevitably to tattoos? I've already said it would have to be one hell of a logo, because that is really not my bag, but you never really know, do you?

We have just wrapped up our fifth G&G weekend. We moved it from St. Paddy's Day to May to avoid the repeated conflicts with school breaks, sports tournaments and Easter. I am incredibly fatigued, having endured clinical levels of sleep deprivation since Wednesday, but happy, with a midsection tender from so much laughter. I made it home in plenty of time to take my family and parents out to dinner at Spago, along with my sister. I am looking forward to getting more than 4 hours sleep tonight as a change-up to my recent pattern, and hoping that not too much of it is REM-based, as last night's sleep was full of random dreams and was actually kind of tiring.

My friends are dear to me, and special, but I am not writing to brag about this or even to express my gratitude, which is plentiful, but rather to encourage others to do the same thing or something similar. Have a weekend at least once a year, dedicated to fellowship, and anything else you share joy in, whether it is a hobby, pastime or craft. Give it a name. Give it a logo. Make a t-shirt or a badge. Show your co-workers and associates that your relationship with your friends is something you are committed to.

It's probably a bit morbid, but it is kind of a neat feeling to know that the event I created with the help of my friends would live on if I were to accidentally step in front of a bus at some point, and that our trivial exploits and tiny victories might achieve a legendary status, at least in our own minds.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Best Wish Granting Ever

This story on io9 details how a great number of the citizens of Seattle and the Make-A-Wish Foundation helped a kid with liver cancer to be a superhero for one day.

This not only involved Electron Boy racing to the scene of the crime in a Delorean on a closed road with police escort, but a chance to save a sports team and have a showdown at the Space Needle. If this doesn't make your eyes sweat a bit, get on a transplant list, because your heart just doesn't work.

My hat is doffed to the creative and compassionate people of Seattle for staging a city-sized LARP for a great cause!

Update: more details in the Seattle Times story here: Apparently, the villains (Dr. Dark and Blackout Boy) taunted Electron Boy via the Jumbotron at Qwest Field. Classic.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Unintended Consequences

(This is the story as best I recall; it is likely I have gotten some details wrong, but the gist jibes true enough, and all the names but mine have been changed.)

A friend of mine back in college, Bob Hanks, had an issue with with the occupant of the dorm room that adjoined his via the bathroom; what we called a 'canmate'. Now, this canmate, who I will call Fritz, was a bit of a pill: somewhat arrogant, rather outspoken and only too willing to highlight both his ignorance and his parochial mindset.

There were a few interesting characters like Fritz on campus: Hitcher, an offputting but harmless fellow, who, looking back, strikes me as maybe occupying a shade on the autism spectrum. Hugh, a more entertaining but less harmless gent of questionable sanity, whom the rumour mill had as eventually getting thrown out of school for unsupervised extra-curricular activities with explosives. A residential college is a great place to find out more about who you are, and some take the opportunity to find out who they might have the most fun being, at least temporarily. But Fritz, for better or worse spoke from the heart; his obtuse, insensitive, provincial heart, like when he tried to justify the use of a pre-emptive poison gas strike as a possible defense against the Warsaw Pact during history class.

Anyhow, Bob's problem was that Fritz would wander into his room while they were talking, and casually, possibly unconsciously, leaf through items on Bob's desk, like his mail.

"Hey," Bob would say, "There is nothing there of yours, you know that, right?"

"What do you mean?" Fritz would reply, dropping the envelopes like they were hot.

Bob would simply shake his head and let the matter drop. After a number of recurrences, it was clear that things were coming to a head, which was when we came up with our own idea for an aversive therapy program.

Using Bob's computer printer and a portion of the letterhead from a federal student loan confirmation, we made up something that, at a distance, might pass for correspondence from, say, the Ministry of Defense. The body of the letter contained something along these lines:

Dear Mr. Hanks,

Thank you for your recent correspondence. As per your request, we have conducted an initial survey of our files regarding FRITZ LANNING of CORSWELL, ALBERTA and have some concerns. We would appreciate it if you could fill out the attached questionnaire at your earliest convenience so we may conclude our investigation...

I know it sounds daft, but you need to picture the little flag in the letterhead. Now read it again. See?

Bob left this letter in his mail stack, and set up a small mirror by his computer desk so he could see if it was being touched without turning around. It hadn't been there for two days before Fritz came in and sure enough, began fiddling with Bob's mail.

It was a struggle for Bob to keep up his end of the conversation as he simultaneously pushed random keys on his Amiga and kept an eagle eye on his guest. Obviously, timing was a critical factor, what with the prankee holding evidence of the two of us masquerading as a government entity and all, but without letting Fritz get to the letter at all, the whole affair was for naught. How to tell when he had taken the bait?

We needn't have worried.

Fritz bit off one of his sentences right in the middle. His posture stiffened, evident even in the tiny reflection Bob was scrutinizing. His jaw dropped a little. "What in the f...?" he started to say.

Instantly, Bob whirled around in his task chair. "Hey! That's my mail!" He leapt out of his chair and snatched the letter from Fritz's fingers, bolting to the bathroom as Fritz's mouth continued to open and close, bereft of anything even remotely word-like.

Once in the bathroom, Bob frantically shredded the letter into quarters, and then into sixteenths, and promptly flushed it down the toilet like a proper spy, taking care of the evidence portion of our complicity while Fritz, having recovered his power of speech, bellowed "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!" repeatedly.

I don't recall what happened immediately following this. Either Bob went back into his room and ejected Fritz in a contrived scene of righteous indignation, or he simply exited the bathroom on Fritz's side, then proceeded out into the hall and to the nearest exit, presumably at top speed. Either way, he met up with me, related how it had gone down, high-fives were exchanged, and we headed off to the cafeteria for supper in high spirits.

In the cafeteria, another one of the Usual Suspects was making his own entertainment. Hugh had obtained a small water pistol, and was targeting random students after uttering the words, "Time to pay the power broker."

Now, a lot has been said about this individual, and for my part, I found him abrasive and coarse, but not stupid, and certainly not without humour. In class, with a professor to hold him in check, Hugh would advance an unpopular position just to see if anyone could knock it down, and when they did, nod like a sparring partner and withdraw to a neutral corner in an orderly fashion. I once heard him describe a poorly articulated position as "not just a straw-man argument, a straw-man soaked in high test gasoline and hit with an arc-welder", so he knew how to turn a phrase. On the other hand, he was also a big defenseman on the school hockey team who was rumored to have sent a dead animal to an ex-girlfriend, so I was not particularly interested in getting to know him better. Thus, when he told me about the power broker and exacted his watery weregild, I shrugged and said, "Okay Hugh." Seriously, it was not a big water pistol, and it was not as though I had gone to dinner in the school cafeteria wearing my dress shirt.

At the table, Bob & I told our dining companions about the gag we had pulled on Fritz, and the consensus seemed to be that it was, if not altogether perfect, thoughtfully targeted and skillfully applied. Had Fritz given up his intrusive habit as he had been encouraged, there would have been no joke to pull, and was hoist by his own petard in classic fashion. As it was, Fritz's general behaviour and reputation meant that finding a sympathizer to his plight would have been difficult at any rate.

The tables around the edge of the cafeteria are elevated above those in the centre, so we had a clear view of Fritz as he walked with his dinner tray past where Hugh was sitting, and things began to unspool just a tad.

Certainly, I wasn't surprised when Hugh informed Fritz he had to pay the power broker. Likewise, I was anything but surprised when Hugh tagged him in the ten-ring a couple of times with his water pistol. Shaking his head, Fritz strode past Hugh in a response that was not only un-surprising, but typical.

No, my surprise came when Fritz reached the table behind Hugh's, dropped his tray and threw a headlock on Hugh, a man who outweighed him by at least 75 pounds and was easily 6 inches taller.

From the look on Hugh's face, I was not the only one surprised. Despite the amount of exertion showing on Fritz's reddened face, Hugh's own expression was not so much angry as it was bemused and shocked. Rather than grab Fritz's arm, or even stand up, Hugh's hands stayed directly in front of him, fingers splayed, the water pistol on the table.

Fritz's, I don't know what to call it, attack, maybe?, lasted only a moment, after which he threw up his arms and stomped out of the cafeteria, leaving his tray on the table behind Hugh. Hugh looked over this shoulder in disbelief, then back at his teammates at the table who were vacillating as a group between amusement and bewilderment, with an aggregate behaviour of head shaking and guffaws.

Bob and I looked at each other. "I guess we'd better come clean with Fritz before..." I said, letting my words trail off.

Bob nodded. "I'll take care of it."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

That evening, Bob came to my room in the Freshman residence, where I was a residence assistant. Bob was an RA in one of the halls across the ravine where more senior students lived. (That's right, we were both in positions of authority when we pulled our little prank, Don't judge us, man.) I don't remember who was there with me, but I remember it was a little late, because I mentioned this to Bob, who had a bit of a fatalistic air about him, and he explained why.

"I just got back from the hospital," Bob said.

"What?" I gaped.

"Hugh went over to Fritz's room to get an explanation about what happened at dinner. Fritz was a little jumpy and tried to shove Hugh out of his room. It escalated and Hugh popped him in the jaw."

"You have got to be freaking kid-" I started to say.

"Laid him out cold," Bob continued. "It doesn't look like there is a concussion, but they will keep him overnight to be sure."

The fracas in Fritz's room was enough of a schmozzle, what with there being no witnesses, Fritz probably throwing the first punch (and first headlock for that matter), and Hugh being in the room uninvited, that no real repercussions arose for either of them.

Bob and I took the earliest opportunity to set things straight with Fritz, and sat with him at breakfast the next day. We outlined the whole thing, explained (a couple of times) that the investigation was both unjustified and completely ersatz, and apologized for letting things get out of hand. Fritz nodded throughout.

"You understand that we were just trying to wind you up for going through Bob's mail, right? I mean, you get how that could get under a fellow's skin, yeah?" I asked him.

Fritz continued to nod, a small smile at the corners of his mouth. "S'aright," he said. "Prob'ly shouldn'a reacted like I did..."

"Well, I'm glad that's all straightened out and that it didn't turn out any worse than it did," Bob said hurriedly, cleaning up the last of his plate. "I'm off!"

"Me too," I added, tucking away the last strip of bacon. "Wait up, Bob."

I zipped up my jacket as we exited the cafeteria and started across the bridge. "I think that went pretty well, don't you?"

"Absolutely," asserted Bob. "But that's hardly surprising."

"What do you mean?"

"Did you see his pill bottle? Those muscle relaxants are the size of horse tranquilizers. Hell, they probably are horse tranquilizers. I wouldn't put it past Fritz to get his prescription filled at a vet's."

"Is that why you left so quick?" I asked.

"I had to!" Bob exclaimed. "I started wondering about how susceptible to suggestion he might be. I had to get out of there before something else happened."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

(Addendum: In the midst of writing this story, Audrey wandered by and asked what I was writing about. When I told her, she clucked her tongue a little bit, and shook her head in that way. "What's that about?" I demanded. "Eh? You think I'm a bad person, is that it? You maybe feel sorry for Fritz, eh?"

"No," she said, calmly hefting a laundry basket as she exited the room. "I don't feel sorry for Fritz.")