Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: "C" Squad

My third infantry squad doesn't differ a lot from the first two.  There are a couple of conversions, one intentional, one incidental:

The sergeant has been converted so he is brandishing a power sword to go with his bolt pistol, and the fellow in the back who looks like Bazooka Joe's chum Mort was a miscast whose face came out of the mold somewhat misshapen.  'Waste not, want not' sez I, I filed his face flat, painted it red, and called it a scarf.

To dress up the autocannon team, I added a small wall of sandbags to their too-big base.  I hadn't reckoned on having to cut the sandbags in half in order to make them fit properly on the base (I'd only ever used them in scenery projects previously), and puttying up the ends was a bit of a nuisance, but I think the effect works well.  Let me state now that I have absolutely no intention of claiming a cover save for the models, but stranger things have happened in the heat of tabletop battles; I ask my enemies for forebearance in advance.

I'm also not sure what I need to do in order to have the snow flock look more fluffy and less crystalline, but with thirty-plus models to go, that feels like unnecessary nit-picking!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Baby(sitting) Steps

This Friday marks seven months to the day of Fenya 'officially' becoming a teenager.  I tease her about it quite a bit, but in truth, I'm not that worried.  More than none, but not all that much, really.  She seems to be growing into herself really well, at least compared to how I remember it, and she continues to treat others with love and respect.

Last night Audrey and I went to a dinner party, leaving the girls to fend for themselves in terms of supper and the evening's entertainment.  Glory was a bit of a concern, as she'd been quite resistant to going to dance that morning, but as we prepared to leave, the two of them were in the shower together, singing The Arrogant Worms' "War of 1812" at the top of their bitty lungs:

And the white house burned, burned, burned.

And we're the ones that did it,
It burned, burned, burned.
While the president ran and cried,
It burned, burned, burned.
And things were very historical,
And the Americans ran and cried like a bunch of little babies WahWahWah
In the war of 1812.

As I kissed Glory goodbye, I whispered, "Please don't be a pain the ass for your sister at bedtime, okay?  I'll hear."
"I won't," she said. 
I went over and kissed Fenya.  "Don't be a pain in the ass tyrant to your little sister tonight, huh?  I'll hear."
She nodded.  "I won't."
When I called home to check on them at half past eight, Fenya was in good spirits; the quesadillas she had made for supper turned out well, they'd watched a movie, and Fenya had painted Glory's nails.  "That's great," I told Fenya.  "What movie did you guys watch?"  I assumed it would be something girly that I would balk at as a regular Friday night screening. 
"Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."  Fenya said.  I thought was a pretty cool choice for a twelve-year-old to make: a 2004 film that aspired to look like it was made in 1934, and largely succeeded, even if very few people appreciated it, and I told her so.
When we got home, both girls were curled up asleep in Glory's lower bunk, along with the dog.  Glory was lodged against the wall, using her bear Isabella as a pillow and with no real covering on her, so Audrey got her up and sleepwalked her to first the bathroom, and then to Fenya's bed.
In the morning we discovered that the evening had gone swimmingly, thanks in part to an agreed upon schedule of events, which Glory had written out in her journal.   Things followed this course right up until bedtime, which coincided with Earth Hour, which they had planned to observe, but had forgotten about. 
After turning off all the lights, they realized they'd forgotten to leave out something to see with.  They were unable to find the candle lighter in the dark, even with the illumination provided by their MP3 players.  Fenya did not want to try lighting a candle with matches (thank goodness), so Glory suggested they seek out a flashlight so they could at least get changed for bed. 
Shortly after that, Fenya had heard a noise, and told Glory to be quiet.  Glory started to bristle a bit at that, but when she figured out that Fenya was listening to something else, she got a little apprehensive.  Sure enough, our thirty year old house was creaking and groaning, but every now and then an unfamiliar sound filtered through that put them off. 

From that point on, it was pretty much all spin control for Fenya, keeping Glory calm and getting her ready for bed.  The two of them and Nitti did end up getting to bed safely and more-or-less on time, so we'll score that one as a win.  After all, character is who you are in the dark, right?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: Konskript Squad

It's quite a relief having the largest single squad out of the way, but daunting to realize that although it brings me to the 60-model mark, this is only a little over half way overall (sigh).

Still, given that they are a big squad of plastic bullet catchers (I'm not much of a fan of the more popular colloquialism, 'meat shields') for the rest of the army, I'm pretty happy with how the "Konskripts" turned out.

The models are Cadian Shock Troopers, but I've replaced the helmeted heads with ones from the Mordheim  "Hairy Head Sprue".  I think they look sufficiently desperate and vaguely Eastern European enough for my purposes.

I'm a little worried about how they will look thrown in with the rest of my Valhallans; the Shadow Grey spray I used for their coveralls turned out a bit darker than I anticipated, but I am hoping the winter/urban camo will enough to make them look consistent with the rest of my force.  In light of their expendable nature, Audrey had suggested giving them all red shirts, in memory of all the hapless security men from the USS Enterprise, but I couldn't figure out how to pull it off. 

At least the heads help maintain the theme: the goateed gent in the middle looks kind of like Lenin on a bad hair day, and the fellow in front reminds me a little of Rasputin.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Dog's-Eye View: Garth Stein's "The Art of Racing in the Rain"

In one of Harlan Ellison's short stories, he recalls a dog he once owned and the life they shared: how the dog was a better judge of character than he ever was, and how he came to trust the canine's instincts with regard to the people in his life.  When the time came that the dog needed to be put to sleep, the vet told Ellison he did not need to be present, and left him to say farewell while the necessary items were arranged.

Ellison recounts how when he looked into the dog's eyes, he could tell exactly what the dog was thinking, which was "Please don't leave me here to die with strangers."  When the vet returned, Ellison stayed with his pet while the dosage was administered, held the dog while he expired, then went home and wept like a child.

It's a touching anecdote that serves as a sort of counterpoint to the main story, and although it is fleeting, the way the author is able to put himself into his dog's headspace as he nears the end of his life is both powerful and effective.  Garth Stein's book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, takes a similar tack, being a picture of life in a young family as viewed from floor-level by Enzo, a mutt of indeterminate heritage and lofty aspirations.

Enzo's master, Denny, is an aspiring race care driver, and one of Enzo's favourite activities is watching races, whether they are cockpit tapes of Denny's races watched by his side, or just replays on the Speed channel, which he loves.  As a narrator Enzo is compassionate, perceptive, insightful, and articulate.  He freely admits he is not like other dogs, and is only rarely prone to acting on instinct instead of forethought.  Indeed, he is regularly frustrated by the things he lacks, like thumbs, or a 'facile tongue', which leave him with only the crudest of gestures to get his points across.  Nothing he does is viewed as particularly miraculous by the humans in Enzo's life, and the book is delightfully short of the "and then I peed on his foot" sort of antics you might be expecting.

Much of the book deals with the illness that afflicts Denny's wife Eve, and how they and their daughter Zoe deal with it, and with each other.  Honestly, this sort of Oprah-fied NYT Best-Seller list fodder is not normally something I would feel compelled to read, but my sister had loaned it to Audrey, and Audrey had read it in a very short timeframe and suggested I try it out.

Gestures are all that I have; sometimes they must be grand in nature. And while I occasionally step over the line and into the world of the melodramatic, it is what I must do in order to communicate clearly and effectively. In order to make my point understood without question. I have no words I can rely on because, much to my dismay, my tongue was designed long and flat and loose, and therefore, is a horribly ineffective tool for pushing food around my mouth while chewing, and an even less effective tool for making clever and complicated polysyllabic sounds that can be linked together to form sentences. And that's why I'm here now waiting for Denny to come home—he should be here soon—lying on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor in a puddle of my own urine.

I'm old. And while I'm very capable of getting older, that's not the way I want to go out. Shot full of pain medication and steroids to reduce the swelling of my joints. Vision fogged with cataracts. Puffy, plasticky packages of Doggie Depends stocked in the pantry. I'm sure Denny would get me one of those little wagons I've seen on the streets, the ones that cradle the hindquarters so a dog can drag his ass behind him when things start to fail. That's humiliating and degrading. I'm not sure if it's worse than dressing up a dog for Halloween, but it's close. He would do it out of love, of course. I'm sure he would keep me alive as long as he possibly could, my body deteriorating, disintegrating around me, dissolving until there's nothing left but my brain floating in a glass jar filled with clear liquid, my eyeballs drifting at the surface and all sorts of cables and tubes feeding what remains. But I don't want to be kept alive. Because I know what's next. I've seen it on TV. A documentary I saw about Mongolia, of all places. It was the best thing I've ever seen on television, other than the 1993 Grand Prix of Europe, of course, the greatest automobile race of all time in which Ayrton Senna proved himself to be a genius in the rain. After the 1993 Grand Prix, the best thing I've ever seen on TV is a documentary that explained everything to me, made it all clear, told the whole truth: when a dog is finished living his lifetimes as a dog, his next incarnation will be as a man.

I've always felt almost human. I've always known that there's something about me that's different than other dogs. Sure, I'm stuffed into a dog's body, but that's just the shell. It's what's inside that's important. The soul. And my soul is very human.

I am ready to become a man now, though I realize I will lose all that I have been. All of my memories, all of my experiences. I would like to take them with me into my next life—there is so much I have gone through with the Swift family—but I have little say in the matter. What can I do but force myself to remember? Try to imprint what I know on my soul, a thing that has no surface, no sides, no pages, no form of any kind. Carry it so deeply in the pockets of my existence that when I open my eyes and look down at my new hands with their thumbs that are able to close tightly around their fingers, I will already know. I will already see.
(excerpt from

By the second chapter, I was completely hooked.  I was not only intrigued about Enzo's family and their challenges, but by the dog himself, and his assertion that he would be reborn as a human, and how he sees his current role  as a sort of training or perhaps an audition for his future life as a biped.  His love of speed in general, and the insights into racing he learns at Denny's side give him a fantastic set of anecdotes and allegories showing the commonalities between auto racing and life: the balance between being in control and knowing when to let instinct or inertia have their head; the idea that "that which you manifest is before you"; the importance of position, and of situational awareness; and above all, how to progress at speed despite an uncertain grip on things, like a Formula 1 car in the rain, or a worried husband and father faced with tragic and trying circumstances.  After a collision that results in his placing last in a race, Denny replies to a comment that it was 'not his fault' by saying that he shouldn't have allowed himself to be put in a position where someone else's error could cost him the race.  Later on, when he applies this outlook to something tragic in his personal life, it does not feel strained or forced at all.

I was mid way though the book at about 11:00 last night, and thought I would put it away at the end of the chapter.  When a new challenge arose for Denny (and Enzo), I was unable to put the book down until I finished it just before 1:00 a.m.   The Art of Racing in the Rain is a fantastic book that you should read even if you don't have a wife or child, even if you don't particularly like dogs, even if you have zero interest in motorsports.  Viewing human lives through the eyes of a dog is a tremendous experience, and could probably be compared pretty favourably to science-fiction novels told from an 'alien' perspective.  I don't think it would be fair to call it a tear-jerker, but it is very affecting on an emotional level, especially for those of us who have ever conversed with the animals in our lives.  Garth Stein is a tremendously talented writer who deftly weaves light and dark elements together to create a gripping tale which is at once fantastic and yet at times horribly accessible.  In Denny, he has created one of the most realistic, compelling and admirable male characters I have ever encountered, and in Enzo, a truly memorable narrator.  If you are interested in quality prose or well-depicted humanity, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Top o' the Mornin' To Ye!

Sure and another St. Paddy's Day has come around, bringing a rush of verdant colouring to the workplace and schoolyard, and a drop of food colouring to whatever the sassenach's idea of beer might be (as opposed to Guinness).  It's a jovial holiday named for St. Patrick as the patron saint of the Emerald Isle, but oriented around the Irish qualities of laughter, song and fellowship.  And, yes, I suppose beer as well.  (Speaking of which, I was stunned and maybe just a little delighted to see how many mugs of beer there were on the sheet of St. Patrick's Day window clings Audrey had bought for decorations when she still ran the dayhome.  I don't think too many other holidays can make that association.)

Growing up, we were always more proud of being Canadians first and foremost, which is how it should be, and also of my mother and I being Newfoundlanders.  Our Irish heritage was something that was often taken for granted until I glommed onto it as a young adult and became positively fervent about it.  And why not?

To be sure, I've never been to Ireland, and I don't know as much about its history or its culture as I might like, but I've found a resonance in the lilt of its language and music, and a familiarity in other elements as well, from spirituality to spirits.  I've found a people who share my wanton sentimentality, and who often possess an easygoing nature that belies a potential temper.  I want the girls to be aware of and grateful for their roots in Erin, (and in Holland on their mother's side as well, although, let's face it: the Micks have all but cornered the market on nationally geared festivities now, haven't they?) and to have an appreciation for that part of their ancestry.

For a country that has long been defined by bouts of horrifically misguided nationalistic tendencies and sectarian violence, there's more than enough positive qualities to compensate: the love of fellowship, the appreciation of songs and work, a willingness to stand up for what's right, an intrinsic hatred of injustice. The saying that on St. Patrick's Day there are two kinds of people: those that are Irish and those that wish they were may be a slight exaggeration, but who hasn't wished for the gift of Irish Diplomacy: the ability to tell a man to go to hell in such a way as he looks forward to the trip?  What non-believer hasn't smiled at the misdirected blessing that he should be in haven half an hour before the Devil knows he's dead?  Even as a spectator, who hasn't nodded at G.K. Chesterton's words:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the race that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad
Hal Boyle said it best in "What Is It To Be Irish?"  when he says that on St. Patrick's Day, to be Irish "is to know more glory, adventure, magic, victory, exultation, gratitude, and gladness than any other man can experience in a lifetime."

This St. Patrick's Day, I invite all of you to claim as much of the above as you are able, being sure to share it with everyone you come across.  Today, there is room enough for all who want to, to be Irish.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: Platoon Command + Commander Chenkov

The Company Commander is the general of the entire army, which can contain multiple platoons, each containing at least 2-5 ten-man squads and a number of other optional elements.  I will only be fielding one infantry platoon, but with all five infantry squads permitted, plus a heavy weapon squad and a unit of 20 conscripts, and the obligatory Platoon Command:

The composition of this squad is very similar to my Company Command, but I've swapped out the generic junior officer with Commander Chenkov, a special character from the Valhallan background.  I left the greatcoats ofthe troopers white instead of camouflaged, same as I did for the other command squad, but decided that looked a little too plain, so I gave them a black border evocative of the Chenkov's fur trim.  This looked fine, but also meant I had to go back and paint a similar border on the Company Command as well, this time in red:

Chenkov is mostly in this army because he is the only Valhallan-specific special character there is, but even if there weren't any specific rules for him, I still would have added him in just on the strength of his look.  The hat!  The jacket!  The enormous moustache!

To be quite honest, I find the skull on his bolt pistol a little overdone even by the ludicrous standards of the 40K universe, where the sardonic cries of "Needs more skulls!" have become a sort of shorthand for the motif.  Still, if a skully pistol is the price of getting that hat and moustache in there, I will pay it gladly.  And the jacket too, for that matter.

I had originally intended to use the Chenkov model as my army commander because, let's face it, he brings a lot more majesty to the party than the axe and cape I threw on the other fellow.  However, in reading the new rules for him I noted with interest his special rule, "Send in the Next Wave", which allows him to remove a decimated unit of conscripts on one turn, and bring them back at full strength on the the following turn!

The game background makes a pretty big deal about just how much affinity the Imperium has for tactics of attrition, seeing as their greatest strength is the teeming millions of men they command, but once you've picked your army list, you don't really get any sense of that...unless you can take the last five models from a unit of draftees off the table on turn two, and then bring on a fresh unit of twenty from the table edge on turn three!  I hadn't even planned to include conscripts in my force until that point, but once I read about the Next Wave, it was a foregone conclusion that I must have them, and now they will be the next unit I paint.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Giving Up (But Not Quitting)

[Updated Mar 10, 2011; please see below]

I'm not Catholic, and I'm not particularly orthodox or devout or ritualistic in terms of my personal faith, but for a few years now, I have really enjoyed the experience of giving something up for Lent, the 40 days preceding Easter.

The inspiration behind Lenten forebearance is based on the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, culminating in his being tempted by the Devil.  Near the end of the tale, Jesus is taken to a high place and shown 'all the kingdoms in the world', and told that all this can be his if Jesus if willing to worship Old Nick, His Infernal Majesty.  I've often wondered if Satan (from a Hebrew word meaning 'adversary') in this story is a wholly separate entity or if the whole affair is more like an internal dialogue, or perhaps discourse with diminutive shoulder incarnation.  Regardless, I appreciate how the story resonates with those of us who have wrestled with temptation, figuratively or otherwise, and even the spiritually unaffiliated can agree that it can be easier to achieve goals if you are unhindered by morality. 

For myself, the biggest reason for giving something up for Lent is to prove to myself that I can; it is not a feeling of obligation or penance, but an opportunity to go without something I enjoy for a not insignificant period of time.  Things I have given up for Lent have included chocolate, popcorn, desserts, and cussin'.  The best has always been chocolate, partially because there is always plenty of it around at the end of Lent, which happens to be Easter.  I remember buying a gourmet dark chocolate bar with espresso while travelling, and realizing afterwards that I couldn't eat it for another twenty-odd days.  It was a long wait, but I still remember how good it was come Easter morning!

I've never given up coffee, and find that to be a daunting prospect; I don't drink a lot of coffee, but when I do, it may sometimes be more an issue of needing than wanting.  This year, I've chosen to give up drinking for Lent.  Spirits, wine, beer, the works.  Cooking with these is still permitted, but alcoholic beverages are off the menu until Easter.  Audrey is jumping on this banned-wagon as well, despite the fact that she drinks less, and less often, than I do by far.  Not to be outdone, the girls are giving up television for Lent: no broadcast television or TV DVDs until Easter. They came up with this entirely on their own , which made me very proud.

A timely visitation by Island Mike provided us with an excellent opportunity to remove agents of temptation from the downstairs fridge, including a half-dozen Sap Vampire he was kind enough to bring.  We had Alley Kat's Coffee Porter and their Glenn Sherbrooke, as well as a Maple Porter from Fernie Brewing, and let me tell you, it sure beats the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake supper.

One of the things that has always discouraged me from doing this previously is the fact that St. Patrick's Day, which I am quite keen to observe, always falls smack in the midst of Lent.  But since it falls on a Thursday this year, and last year's commemoration consisted of Guinness stew and The Quiet Man, it felt like opportune timing for a booze-free Lent, probably followed by a wine-centric Easter feast.  Like so many things, I am sure self-denial is also best in moderation.

UPDATE:  It turns out that the Globe & Mail did an article on other people, including secularists, giving things up for Lent as well; of special interest to me is the brewer who will follow the 300 year old example of Trappist monks and live solely on Doppelbock for Lent.  He will be writing about it on his blog, Diary of a Part-Time Monk.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: Company Command

Since Command elements are only 5-man squads, I was able to  finish them off this weekend. This will be the HQ of my army, and while he doesn't bring a lot of shooty-death-kill or the like compared to, say, a Tyranid Hive Tyrant or a Space Marine Chapter Master, the Commander does give a few benefits to other units.

There is no such thing as a Valhallan Commander figure, or better yet, a Command Sprue, so a lot of improvising is called for.  The Commander (I'm not sure what rank to give him yet, but I am leaning towards Marshall) is a converted Sergeant, so you will be seeing someone very similar in charge of "D" Squad later on.  Once again, the hand-flamer is swapped out for a far more useful (if prone to overheating) plasma pistol. 

You don't see a lot of power axes in Imperial Guard armies, so I thought it would make him distinctive, while the fur cloak further distinguishes him.  I also decided that he and his retinue would not use camouflage coloring, and leave their greatcoats and such white.

Since there is also no such thing as a Valhallan Standard Bearer, further improvisation was required.  Following an example from this blog, I took a trooper running with his lasgun held one-handed and bent his other arm upwards.  Using a pin vise, I drilled out a small hole in the top and bottom of his fist and inserted some brass wire, then drilled corresponding holes in the haft of a bisected standard from a Warhammer Fantasy set, probably Empire soldiers.  I replaced the griffon on top with a double headed eagle, but since it faces front, you'll kind of have to take my word for it.

Unfortunately, it turns out that there is very little correspondence between being able to paint figures and draw freehand, but I am enough of a doodler that I was able to make a passable flag for the Valhallan XXII by penciling in a simple design and then painting over it.  Once that was done, I glued it into place and voila.  All things being equal, I'm pretty happy with it.

I also finished constructing all my foot models this weekend, which is good because it's done now, but it's bad in that it's kind of intimidating looking at all that unpainted primer.  I have pretty much eight weeks now to paint up 7 infantry units; two of them only have 5 models each (H'ray!) but the unit of conscripts is actually 20 strong (Boo!).  I really should get on to the Platoon Command so that I can have a playable army on hand while I finish off the rest, but I have an idea how I might paint the Conscripts quickly, so they are next on the list.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Rango ze Tango

It turns out that Gore Verbniski's latest film, Rango, is a wonderful movie to be surprised by.

It's surprising that a guy with a string of successful blockbusters (Pirates of the Caribbean) would make such a quirky and offbeat film.  It's surprising that it would be made by Industrial Light and Magic, and not Disney, who made the Pirates movies.  It's surprising that Johnny Depp, more than modestly in demand currently, would agree and be available to voice it.  It's surprising how well it blends a family adventure-western-comedy with a deeper adult story.  It's surprising how effortlessly it mixes slapstick humour with references to things like Don Quixote, Chinatown, and Hunter S. Thompson.  Given all that, mostly it's surprising that the film got made at all.

Frankly, the less I tell you about the film the more likely you are to enjoy it, and there are a lot of reasons to see it.  Good story, great laughs, very good voice acting and probably the best character design and animation I have ever seen in a family feature, especially in the eye department.  Like a proper western, there are a couple of languid patches in order to let things percolate, make you feel dry, or just to force you to appreciate the vistas, but it keeps a pretty good pace overall.

Massawyrm at Ain't It Cool News liked it even more than I did, calling Verbinski 'this generation's Steven Spielberg' in his review.  I'm not quite there yet, but I can what he's pointing at.  As it is, I'm glad we went to see Rango this opening weekend, and I heartily encourage you to do the same, if you are able. With so little original fare coming out of Hollywood these days, as opposed to remakes, sequels and adaptations, here is your opportunity to back something that is actually unique.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: "B" Squad + Commissar

Second infantry squad down now, which means as soon as I paint up the two command elements, I will finally have a playable army!  It will be entirely overbalanced by armour for a while, but there are worse problems to have than too many tanks, I figure.

Not a lot different here from "A" squad, except perhaps for the Melta-gun in the front row there, but I would like to draw attention to a handful of figures, beginning with the heavy bolter crew:

Mounting the crew served weapons on 60mm bases as opposed to two 25mm bases might make things a little unwieldy, but since you then treat it as a single model with two wounds, it does make the piece more survivable.  The bases are far too open by themselves, and even the snow flock isn't enough to overcome the vacant lot feel, so I threw on an ammo crate from a tank accessory kit.

The Sergeant originally came with a hand-flamer, an outmoded weapon harking back to Warhammer 40,000's "3D Roleplay" roots, so I snipped it off and replaced it with this autopistol.  I think the variations make the army look like they are hanging onto scavenged arms, trophies, or gifts sent from home.  A Strength 3 popgun like this won't intimidate anyone, but the power sword might let the squad hang on a little longer in a melee.

I am extremely happy with how Commissar Sark turned out, with his frogged coat.  Commissars are political officers with an ominous reputation in the game, since if a squad they are with fails a morale test and tries to run, he summarily executes the officer and takes command!  In two years of playing against Jeff's Cadian Guard, I never once killed his commanding officer, since his Commissar always beat me to it, but it's these kind of random elements that make the game fun.  Besides,I'm not obliged to put him close to the army commander the way the old rules coerced Jeff, so I plan to keep with a combined squad of twenty men who can run up, go to ground and take an objective.