Sunday, June 27, 2010

Us Versus Them

Watching the Ghana-USA soccer match on Saturday afternoon, a text crawled across the bottom of the screen saying that protesters had clashed with police in Toronto, the site of the G20 summit. How is this breaking news? I thought to myself. Since the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle, practically every multinational conference has drawn larger and increasingly more violent protests.

But at half-time they showed two police cruisers on fire, and I was shocked.

I understand the need some people have to protest. There are a lot of marginalized people and a lot of untabled ideas out there that really need to be heard, and our vaunted technological innovations do more to distract us from them than to engage them. I have nothing but respect for people who willingly give up their time, energy, and occasionally safety to publicly display their dissatisfaction with the status quo. I even understand the motivation behind civil disobedience; you don't get to be a fan of Martin Luther King Jr. without gaining an appreciation of what a struggle it can be to bridge the gap between legislation and justice.


Someone kindly explain to me how smashing a coffee shop window, throwing golf balls and stones at police and setting police cruisers ablaze is making the world a better place.

I do feel a portion of the blame lies with Stephen Harper. Holding the G20 in downtown Toronto not only paralyzed the entire city for days, with untold economic and safety repercussions (both Eaton Centre and Sick Kids Hospital had to go into lockdown mode), but in terms of security, this was like outlining the perimeter of your picnic area with sugar and then complaining about the ants. However, since the Prime Minister has been in full view almost the entire time that he has not been on camera, I am fairly confident that his weekend was arson-free.

Certainly I appreciate that the G20 provides an audience for protesters to air their grievances about a lot of things, from a lack of transparency in the proceedings themselves, to the increasing influence of multinationals like Monsanto on our courts and government. I even share some of these grievances, and even if I didn't, part of the price of living in a free society is that you have to listen to some ideas you mightn't agree with. Everybody should have a chance to be heard.


I just can't seem to make this leap from freedom of expression to a burning police car.

Here in Edmonton, our latest chief of police is slowing making some headway turning the Edmonton Police Service from an 'us versus them' culture with paramilitary overtones to something more community oriented. Growing up around police meant that I have always viewed them as people first and uniforms second, and I've never been afraid of them in a general sense, so I have never understood people who just don't like police on principle, who just find the very idea of police objectionable. If I were to talk to these people directly, I might ask them how they feel about traffic signals, and what they think might happen if we just abolished them some afternoon at rush hour, but I digress.

The police should be a means of maintaining order and protecting people and property. Your taxes go towards their upkeep. Instead of setting a police car on fire, why don't you take a bunch of your money, convert it to $5 bills, bale it, and burn it on Bay Street?

And aside from the police presence, what is your major objection to world leaders getting together? Would you rather they just insulated themselves from each other and refused to cooperate, they way they did a century ago? You know, like when they were so concerned with getting a leg up on each other that they allowed the first global war to break out, and in the course of sorting that out, set all the pieces in place for the most comprehensive and far-reaching acts of organized violence the world has ever seen? Did you forget that almost all of these people are elected leaders, and that one of them is representing you? Oh wait, with the federal voter turnout numbers now below 50% and shrinking, I guess that's outmoded thinking, huh? Time to write off democracy as one more failed social experiment and move on to the next phase, eh comrade?

And even if you have objections to the way the G20 goes about its business, how exactly are you improving things by actively seeking out unboarded windows and impacting some shopkeepers livelihood? Please don't tell me he's a pawn of the system, or a wage slave that you are trying to free, it just doesn't work that way Neo; you are not The One. Congratulations on instead becoming the oppressor, and giving the police in whatever city hosts the next G20 the authority to do pretty much whatever the hell they want, and the justification to spend more tax dollars securing an area from its own citizens, most of whom just want an opportunity to be heard.

Next go-around many people will be sympathetic to the cops when they outlaw masks at public demonstrations, and I'll reserve my sympathy for the poor lady in a burqa who gets hauled off just because she got off at the wrong bus stop that morning.

What do I want? Well, for openers, I would like it if legitimate protesters started condoning the anarchy and vandalism that has come to mark so many of these occasions, but while I'm at it, I might as well wish for pony. These demonstrations have become a magnet for all manner of shit-disturbers and common criminals. The recent fan-riots in Montreal that followed the Canadiens being eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs contained a number of people wearing masks and carrying backpacks full of tools that they could use to break windows and facilitate looting, and I will bet their hockey affiliation was irrelevant to their behaviour. You know for a cold hard natural fact that not every jackass with a bandana tied around his head at the G20 is there to expand the social consciousness, right? Unfortunately, a lot of organizers are in a situation where they have a tiger by the tail, and fear that 'telling others how to protest' will cost them credibility with their own supporters. Besides, who wants to come to a protest with no police crackdown or television cameras, right? That's hardly exciting! That's not romantic!

I would like it if the moment that other 'protesters' starting donning masks or stooping to pick up a stone, the real protesters just legged it in the opposite direction. I don't know how many videos I saw yesterday of masked individuals pushing away cameras. But wait, aren't you trying to promote your ideas? How are you going to do that behind a mask? Isn't it odd that the people who occupied Tiananmen Square didn't need to wear masks, when they probably had a legitimate reason to? If they end up banning masks, how on earth am I going to realize my dream of becoming a costumed crimefighter? Maybe I should be grateful; perhaps the mask can serve as a type of shibboleth the rest of us can use to separate actual demonstrators from anarchist shit-disturbers.

Maybe I'm wrong though; maybe we are already living in the dystopian future we read about in 1984 and saw in movies like Blade Runner. Maybe due process and discourse really have run their course, and it really is just a case of Us, the people, versus Them, the forces of oppression, and those of use still wasting our time with voting and polling and the herculean effort of wrapping our tiny heads around ginormous, multi-faceted and constantly mutating issues need to step aside and let these Nihilistic heroes push the reset button for us so that human society can get a 'do-over'.

But I have a hard time believing that, and it is mostly because of how far we've come. Two centuries ago, you could own other humans in most parts of the world. One century ago, women were practically property. Half a century ago, your ability to vote was affected by your colour and gender. A quarter century ago, half the planet wanted to eliminate the other half based largely on how they felt property issues should be dealt with. We are in the middle of making our minds up on how much we give a damn whether two guys or two gals can get married or not.

And every one of those steps was preceded by the realization that there is no 'them', and that we are all us.

To the people in black: please, take off the masks, and tell us who you are and what you want. Please put down the rocks and pick up the people hit by them. Stop fighting your leaders, and if persuasion fails, vote in new ones. These are your representatives, after all.

There is no them.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Third Time's a Charm: Toy Story 3 Review

As part of our Father's Day observances today, we got to go see Pixar's latest, Toy Story 3. We've seen every Pixar release in the theater without fail, most of them on opening weekend. It's not as though there are going to be any mad spoilers if we don't get in straight away, but given how merciless the movie industry can be, and how much an individual picture's success or failure seems to reside on those opening weekend gates, it feels good to get out there and vote with our dollars.

Another factor is that Pixar has never failed to delight, amaze or, at the very least, entertain me at every turn. I have loved every film with the exception Cars, which I didn't necessarily dislike, but really had no passion for. As far as worst things one can say about a movie studio, they are batting pretty high.

Despite being a threequel, Toy Story 3 has all the heart, pacing, character and brilliant storytelling of its predecessors, and never seems to feel tired or forced. Even when they re-visit familiar ground, like Buzz Lightyear acting like he's just come out of the box again, they still manage to change it up enough to make it enjoyable and at least a little unpredictable.

Truth be told, there is a lot of familiarity here; the themes of childhood and its passing, loyalty and friendship are all present and accounted for, with the major challenge being that their owner Andy is 17 now and heading off to college. His mother brings in a box for the attic, a bag for the garbage, and tells him everything not going with him needs to go in one or the other. Strangely, you really start to feel things getting ominous when the green army men (led by perennial favourite R. Lee Ermey) declare their mission with Andy completed and let their tiny plastic parachutes carry them away.

When they end up in a utopian daycare environment, with the promise of perpetual play, it is not easy for Woody to convince them that this is not where they should be. In fact, it's impossible.

The new toys introduced at the daycare are great, especially Lots O'Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) and of course, Barbie's counterpart, Ken, voiced by Michael Keaton. Beatty's bear is a folksy charmer, with a hint of something else beneath the surface, while Keaton's Ken brings a strange mix of vapidness and sincerity to the proceedings at Sunnyside daycare. Tim Allen, Tom Hanks and the rest of the original characters do a marvelous job of voice acting, as they always do, but what I love most is how the Pixar crew have learned to let the characters be quiet and allow their faces to do the talking, a real tribute to the well-deserved confidence the studio has in their animators; 'pixel artists' indeed!

The movie is significantly darker in tone, hitting a lot of the same beats as a gothic horror, like alienation, betrayal, and confinement, without ever becoming horrific or full on terrifying. That said, if you had told me that a Toy Story movie was going to echo a lot of the elements from Dante's Inferno and Stalag 13, I would have found that pretty implausible, but it turns out that is just one more impossible thing the wizards at Pixar have accomplished again.

Due to my mis-reading of the schedule, we ended up seeing TS3 in 2-D, but I honestly think that may have been better. Director Lee Unkrich, who co-directed TS2 with original director John Lasseter, proves a deft hand with the film, although I have to say, he seems to spend more time than Lasseter on the escape and chase sequences, which may be an attempt to max out the 3D appeal. He doesn't do this at the expense of character, and the pacing is still robust enough to tolerate the diversion that these excellent gags and set-pieces provide. I'm really beginning to hanker for a straight up adventure film from this studio, even though The Incredibles came mighty close. Who knows, maybe that will come from Pixar alumnus Andrew Stanton with his adaptation of John Carter of Mars in 2012.

That's probably all I can really say about the story without inadvertently giving something away, and since every little surprise in a film like this is such a gem, I'd like to avoid that and encourage you all to see it so we can talk about it later. The one thing I'd like you to keep an eye open for, when you do go, is whether or not Toy Story 3 has something to say about the rewards of faith; not necessarily spiritual faith, but more than just faith in your friends. Woody never loses his faith in Andy, even though the shape and colour of that faith changes somewhat over the course of the movie. And there's even a little something for the three-eyed aliens and their faith in The Claw which chooses "who will stay and who will go."

As a guy who has always found significant change a little hard to deal with, the theme of this movie struck me even more than those of the first two, but at least there wasn't a childhood's end montage with a Sarah McLachlan song because even on re-watching, that scene destroys me. Seeing how Buzz and Woody and the other toys deal with Andy's maturity and the changes it brings was probably the perfect mix of bitter and sweet, and a great finale for the Toy Story series if they wrap it up here.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Something for Everyone

Even though I couldn't name half of the teams involved two weeks ago, I am now displaying multiple symptoms of World Cup fever.

* getting dressed in front of the television due to early morning games
* discussing team rivalries with my daughters
* lamenting France cheating their way in due to a blatant handball
* cheering teams based solely on the esthetic appeal of their jerseys
* watching people in other nations take this sport so seriously that Canadian hockey fans go, "whoa..."

I don't really have a dog in this fight, but have decided that I will cheer for the following teams, in the following order:
* England - great chant, plus it will make a lot of people I know very happy
* Holland - my wife's family is Dutch, and Ireland didn't make it in (boo France)
* Germany - young, high scoring squad, will make Island Mike happy
* South Africa - great jerseys, host nation, catchy name (Bafana Bafana)

And even though the games themselves aren't often as fun as they should be, what with most teams playing to not lose instead of playing to win, there are still elements of the World Cup that even non-sports fans can enjoy:

Desmond Tutu: I've been an admirer of the Archbishop for some time now, but his heartfelt welcome at the opening ceremony was absolutely wonderful: I loved his comparing Africa's metamorphosis over the last three decades to 'an ugly caterpillar' becoming a 'beautiful butterfly' but my favourite was his welcome: "Africa is the cradle of humanity so we welcome you all, every single one of you. We are all Africans; welcome home!" Plus, he cuts a rug pretty well for a 78 year old clergyman.

Pachyderm Traffic - The US team has been delayed twice now by elephants on the road; you can't make stuff like that up.

Flag Day - Seeing so many different flags flying from cars and balconies. There is no "Greece Town" or "Little Chile" in Edmonton, so seeing people sporting their colours is wonderful, like the librarian the other night with her Portugal jacket, jersey and t-shirt. Plus it's been great playing "whose flag is that?" with my daughters and nephew

African Teams - Bafana Bafana is just fun to say, and how can you not love Cameroon's team, the Indomitable Lions? It's too bad that the African teams aren't faring so well against the Europeans, but hopefully some of them will make it out of the first round.

Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium - 'Nuff said.

Wavin' Flag - I don't listen to a lot of pop radio, so I am still enjoying K'naan's song and it's childish, cheerful chorus. Plus I am a huge fan of his 'you don't need gangsta cred to be a successful hip-hop artist' stance.

It's Early Yet... - but none of the four teams I am cheering for have lost a game so far.

"Hand of Clod" - the British headlines about their goalkeeper Green and the spectacular fumble that ended up giving the US a tie against them have been great. My favourite: "That's one spill the Americans can't complain about."

Fresh Commentary - In hockey you might hear, "there's a scoring chance, oh, just wide!", but with British sportscasters you get, "here is an opportunity for England to prosper..."

Nicknames - A lot of the team nicknames are simply the colours of their jerseys, but I found a list that covers things like Greece being known as "To Piratiko" (The Pirate Ship) and Algeria as "Les Fennecs" (The Desert Foxes).

The Waka Waka - The official World Cup 2010 song by Colombian artist Shakira and African band Freshlyground incorporates Latin rhythms as well as bits from an African soldier's song called Zangalewa. In addition to being infectiously catchy, it is also being used to promote world literacy. Victoria School will be dancing the Waka Waka next week and uploading it to YouTube, so I will post a link as soon as I can.

(Does anyone else love that lion logo shown at the start where his face is an outline of Africa, or just me? Someone find me that t-shirt please!)

Despite how ferocious the competition can get, or how contentious the fans, or how noisy the vuvuzelas, everyone seems to appreciate a good competition, a surprise upset, an artful goal, a daring save, and it is a great reminder that despite its size, the world really is not too big a place. 32 nations from every corner of the globe congregating to find out which country has the best football team might not be the greatest of human aspirations, but if it reminds us that we all share common ground, even North Korea, it can be a step in the right direction.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Watching the World Cup and seeing so many national flags on cars has reminded me of my first trip to England in 1996 for a Games Workshop sales conference. I was new to the company and eager to make a good impression, and also very excited about my first journey overseas.

Meeting international colleagues was a real treat as well; people passionate about the same things you are, a lot of overlapping interests, an invariably great sense of humour, a lot of what my boss would call 'switched on blokes', and so on. That said, however, a lot of them were too distracted to worry about being good hosts, since the European Cup was not only going on at the time, but was actually being hosted in England, with some games being played right in Nottingham, where GW is headquartered.

After the FIFA World Cup, the UEFA Euro Cup is the world's largest soccer event, with all the sportsmanship and international pride and rivalry this entails, both positive and negative. Bringing people together over a common passion is often a good idea, but sometimes pride or one-upmanship can drive people to do funny things, such as in 2006, when Dutch fans wore bright orange WWII-style German helmets to symbolize their 'invasion' of host nation Germany.

Well, all in good fun, one would hope, but, still.

At any rate, I have never been a huge soccer fan, enjoying scoring as much as I do, but the enthusiasm among my British colleagues was infectious. Far better than the events on field, however, were the challenges, taunts and boasts among the many nationalities present. The Americans, Australians and Canadians, having no dogs in this fight, were free to either sit back and watch the fur fly, or, if feeling impish, exacerbate things by misquoting other co-workers or simply lobbing easy meat into the crowd, like, "This is pretty much Britain's national sport isn't it? You guys must win international tourneys all the time, right?"

A statement like this was guaranteed to open up a row even if there were only British people present. If there were any German fans there, you were assured of hearing someone (often a lot of someones) quoting the announcer of the 1966 World Cup and his, "there's someone on the pitch...they think it's all over...well, it is now!" with a group usually chorusing in on the last four words.

There had been some minor trash talk going around the office before we boarded the buses for the West Retfords Inn, where the conference proper was being held. By the time we arrived there, you would have thought that soccer, sorry, football, was why we had come in the first place.

At registration, each participant was given a laminate showing their name, what division they worked in, and a flag denoting what country they were from. I walked away with mine, happy with how well my maple leaf had turned out, when I heard the person in line behind me say, in clipped tones, "What's this then?"

I turned to look, and saw Paul Sawyer, then editor of Citadel Journal, holding his laminate like a dead rat and showing it to the staffer handing them out. The staffer was not having any of it, so he simply answered, "What's wot?"

Paul tapped the Union Jack on his laminate. "This."

The staffer shrugged. "Everyone's got 'em, so we know who's from 'ere and who's, you know, Johnny Foreigner. You're from England, so.."

"That's right," interrupted Paul, smiling in a not entirely friendly fashion. "I am from bloody England. So you will get that Union Jack off there, sharpish, and put a proper English flag on there. It's not as if the bloody Cup isn't on, you know."

The staffer turned to his colleague, who shrugged in turn. "He's not wrong, you know. We do play Scotland on Sunday."

"All right then," said the first staffer agreeably. "One St. George's cross, coming up."

A moment later, a beaming Paul Sawyer, head held high, marched away from the registration desk, a proper English flag on his badge. This took him, not coincidentally, into the path of studio supervisor and Scotland backer for life, Gordon Rennie, who wasted no time accosting Paul with a grab of the arm and an interrogatory "Wot's all that then?"

Here we go again, I thought.

A moment later, Gordon had pushed his way to the front of the line and flipped his laminate at the staffer who had just re-done Paul's badge. Anyone who felt slighted took one look at Gordon's face, broken nose, creased brow and all, and thought better of mentioning it.

"I dunno why ye put the wrong flag on there, and I dinna care, but I'll gi' ye a chance t' fix it.," Gordon's burr proclaimed.

The staffer sighed. "I don't even know what the Welsh flag looks like, Gordie..." Looking up, Gordon's reddening face prompted a comment about some people not knowing a joke when they heard one, and two minutes later, Gordon walked away proudly, a St. Andrew's cross adorning the flag on his laminate.

Seeing the exchange, one of the American attendees whispered to me, "I hope I'm still here for that England v. Scotland game!"

I nodded, and whispered back, "Save me a seat at ringside."

The following day, I was in a seminar early in the morning, and as jet-lagged and hung over as we all were, we were all rapt with attention. Ronnie Renton, one of the legendary sales managers of the company, was telling us a very personal story about corporate dishonesty, and the importance of humility and doing the right thing, even in the face of failure. It was great stuff, and you could hear a pin drop when a knock came at the door near the end of his talk. He opened the door a crack, accepted a piece of paper that was passed through, nodded, and returned to his presentation.

When Ronnie finished, we all sat back in our chairs, stunned by what he had told us, deeply impressed by his courage in sharing it and all agreeing that it was a brilliant illustration of his point, when he said, "If there aren't any questions, in conclusion, I just want to say... England is going to the semis against Germany."

The place went apeshit. While the non-Europeans sought cover, all the Englishmen leapt from their seats, cheering and hooting, and eventually all joining in singing "One World Cup and two world wars, doo dah, doo dah..."

Well, this all came as quite a shock to the politically correct Americans and the quintessentially polite Canadians, but we were soon joining the irreverent Australians in enjoying the spectacle of the affair, and by the time we left the room, my sides ached from laughing.

There was no hooliganism, no serious repercussions, and in all, it was probably healthier than many North American sports rivalries I've seen (Edmonton? Calgary? I'm looking at you!). Despite the competitive nature of the affair, the tournament was a means of bringing people together from different parts of the continent, and many a pint was shared, and many a good play admired, whatever country it might have benefited. Maybe that's why they call it, 'the beautiful game'.

And by the time England played Scotland, Gordon and Paul were far too exhausted to do much more than watch quietly from the patio loungers of the hotel, side by side.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Poppy & Dad

I miss my dad, a bit, even though he and my mum came over yesterday afternoon and stayed for supper.

We get together less often than I would like, but it isn't through any neglect or willfulness on anyone's part; life just continues to be that thing that happens while we are busy making other plans, I guess.

They are pretty much gyppoes now, nomads; they live in their motorhome year-round, spending winters near Oliver, B.C., and their summers in Leduc. Mum doesn't like to drive at night, which makes week-night visits to Edmonton difficult, while our need to get the girls in bed at a half decent hour keeps us out of Leduc except for the weekends. Still, we do what we can and have a very nice time when we do get together.

A few years back, my dad had a series of micro-strokes, which, in the big picture, were not as destructive or debilitating as they could have been, but which did have a pronounced effect on him. His once excellent memory now fails him in unexpected ways, which he finds incredibly frustrating. Why can't I find anything? Who moved that? What's going on? It's been very difficult on Mum, but she soldiers on indomitably, which will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows her.

Some time after this, the sudden realization that there were certain conversations that I simply was not going to have with my father any more, certain insights it would just be pointless to share, reduced me to tears. The fact that my daughters are never going to meet the Dad I remember, except through my own recollections, still saddens me greatly.

Audrey and her co-workers were having a discussion along these lines, prompted by a colleague whose husband had a massive stroke and required tremendous levels of care before recently slipping into a coma. So cruel to prolong the end, one had suggested, to nods of agreement. Better to have the heart attack accompanied by the sound of fingers snapping, the sudden exeunt.

Don't be so sure, another said. A heart attack or a car accident leaves so much unsaid, there is no chance for closure, no opportunity for farewell. Half a goodbye is better than none.

The man my girls know as Poppy is quite a bit different from the Dad I grew up with. Poppy is quieter, more withdrawn. Less insightful, and prone to faking his way through certain exchanges. Still, it's not as though he's a total stranger; the same laugh, the same sense of humour, the appreciation of many of the same things.

Even a lot of the same recollections; after supper tonight, Mum was telling a story about an incident that happened when we lived on a farm in New Brunswick, nigh on forty years ago. She'd been watching our dogs play through the kitchen window, wondering what toy they were fighting over, when it turned out to be a mouse...which, as if on cue, came apart at the seams, messily. Never the strongest of stomachs, Mum became quite sick, and despite being at the kitchen sink, decorum prompted her to run at flank speed to the nearest washroom, thirty feet away, right past Dad and an official from his union. "What was his name, Maurice? Bill something.."

"Jim Davidson." Poppy asserted, without hesitation.

"That's it," confirmed Mum, "Jim Davidson! Well, all he saw was a blur.."

Even though Poppy can't recall everything he's done, and recent incidents are actually more difficult to recall than those from the distant past, there's still a lot there. He remembers occurrences from childhood, his and mine, like names and faces of family members from a motel stay in Manitoba when I was three, which I mostly recall through association with an ancient picture of my then baby sister, looking up out of an ad hoc playpen made by folding a motel cot to ninety degrees, flipping it on its side and moving it to a corner filled with blankets. Poppy remembers who was there and who wasn't.

It's almost as though Poppy and Dad are two different people who travelled in very similar circles, knew all the same people, and so on. Like an unknown brother, or best comrade. Poppy is a great fellow to have around, and I know he speaks to Dad. I don't get the impression of one person who is trapped inside another; it's more like a shape where formerly precise edges have been worn smooth with time, only all at once, rendering it into a subtly different form.

Most importantly, we still get the opportunity to break bread with him, to watch him hug his granddaughters, to see him smile and laugh and to know that he is loved. Every time I see him, I give him a big hug and get a huge smile in return, and so do the girls. To me, that still speaks of a certain quality of life, even it is not the same as it once was.

Much more than half a goodbye.