Friday, April 29, 2011

On Brits, Balconies and Bombers

Having a day off today, I made omelettes for Audrey and the girls, and still had enough time to watch some of the Royal Wedding festivities from Old Blighty before they had to leave.  We missed everything at Westminster Abbey, obviously, but were in time for the balcony kiss, which, despite all the pomp, circumstance and orchestration, felt very sweet and genuine.

Frankly, the most impressive element were the British people themselves; a million people are estimated to have crowded outside Buckingham Palace in order to witness the kiss from the balcony. Maybe I'm a pessimist, but I have a hard time imagining a North American crowd of that size comporting itself in such an orderly fashion, not hemmed in by police in riot gear, but by a few rows of slowly walking bobbies. And yet, the deafening cheers when the happy couple finally emerged were just as excited as any I've heard during a championship sporting event.

I am by no means a staunch monarchist, and I certainly empathize with small-r republicans within the Commonwealth who would be happier with someone else's pictures on our coins and stamps, but my love of history and tradition will probably keep me from joining their ranks.

In all honesty, the institution I was happiest to see in the spotlight was not the monarchy, but marriage itself.  In an age where fewer and fewer couples are choosing to wed, it is comforting to see so much attention given to two people publicly declaring their intentions to remain together for the rest of their lives.  Sure, it doesn't always work out; you need look no further than the groom's parents to see that, but these are often failings of human components, not the institution itself.  I certainly hope for a happy life together for the Royal couple, and given the looks they shared today, I think their odds are good, despite the enormous obstacles presented by being two of the world's most famous people.

I can't speak for anyone else in my household, but after the kiss, my favourite moment was the Battle of Britain flyby of a Lancaster bomber and two fighters, a Spitfire and Hurricane.

Much of modern Britain has been defined by their experiences during WWII, especially the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, where pilots from the U.K. and other nations fought tirelessly to keep the Luftwaffe from establishing the air superiority needed for an invasion. Guy Hamilton's excellent 1969 movie  (with Michael Caine and Ian McShane) is a good depiction of the courage and stamina involved in this defense, which is what inspired Churchill's famous quote: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

When Audrey and I were in England in 2005 (for my 10th anniversary with Games Workshop), we were actually in London the day a memorial to these heroic pilots was unveiled by Prince Charles. We didn't go the unveiling itself, but came back later to get some pictures.

The names of every one of "The Few" are inscribed on the other portion of the monument, as are all the squadron insignias.

One side of the monument is a tableau full of striking images, and one of my favourites are the female factory workers building aircraft, probably made from reclaimed saucepans given up by other women for the war effort.

This monument is even more impressive when you consider it was built solely with donated funds, which is probably why it only came together six-and-a-half decades after the Battle itself, which is a bit of a shame if you stop to think about it.  It is very difficult to fathom an Allied victory had this defense against the Nazi war machine failed, especially when you consider that the U.S. would not enter the conflict for another year.

There was a massive police presence in London the day of the unveiling, so I barely noticed a yellow-jacketed bobby on a motorcycle when he stopped in front of me at the roundabout just before Trafalgar square, until Audrey noticed that the traffic signal was green.

The only reason I could think of for this was an approaching motorcade; this light bulb came on with just enough time for me to wrangle my camera into position and take a poor picture of the car as it passed around the corner.  Thanks to his, er, distinctive profile, you can just discern Prince Charles through the rear window.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: "E" and "H" Squads

At long last, the final group of regular Valhallan infantry are completed; for the time being at least, I have painted my last greatcoat.  (Can I get an 'amen!'?)  71 of them, all told.  I'll be quite happy to not paint another one for some time now, I would imagine.  Hopefully these don't look any more rushed than the rest of the army, but regardless, they are my favourite colour: done.

"E" Squad is the only squad with a mortar in it, and since I actually purchased the army back in 2007, I am not entirely sure why that is.  It certainly isn't because of any shortcomings of the model, which is fine.  Perhaps I figured the barrage capability of my armoured contingent was sufficient.  Regardless, I am glad I have at least one for variety's sake if not tactical flexibility.

The mortar team leaves a lot of open base to be covered, so the sandbag emplacement seemed like a good fit.  With a little better placement, I might have been able to put a wall on two or even three sides of the team.  On the other, since each of the half-bags needs to be puttied up (as they are hollow), maybe it's for the best that I didn't.

The final unit is "H" Squad, the platoon's sole heavy weapons squad.  I envision placing them on the high ground in an anti-vehicle role, which their two lascannons and lone autocannon seem well suited for, since that gives them two Strength 7 and two Strength 9 shots, and a reach of four feet.

I think the Perry Twins did a magnificent job with these Valhallan sculpts that are about 15 years old now, and the heavy weapon teams really showcase their historical research and attention to detail.  The lascannon spotter has a pair of binoculars, and his pose reads like a speech bubble of "Wait for it..."  The loader has a spare battery or capacitor of some sort in addition to my favourite feature: the little black box with the big red button for fire control.
The loader with a jumbo-sized clip of autocannon ammo is similarly well thought out, resting a heavy box of shells against his leg as he kneels and waits for the order to reload.

I'm very glad I did these 16 models in a single batch; it got a little tedious, but enabled me to finish them swiftly.  Now that I am back at work on a large plastic model for the first time this year, yesterday's ennui is today's passion for painting.

So long as it doesn't involve greatcoats.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Two Swords for Jesus

Like Doug TenNapel's brilliantly surreal character Ratfist (or, rather, his tail), I too find the Christ story compelling.  In addition to its theological and spiritual components, it also works as an emotional drama, a study in group dynamics, or even occasionally as a political thriller.

I recently asked our minister, James, why Jesus would tell his supporters to buy swords just prior to his arrest.  Was it because of banditry?   Because, say what you will about the Romans, they were pretty big on highway safety, so that seems like a bit of a stretch.

"That may have been a part of it," said James, "but there is some conjecture, in some circles, that he may have been considering beginning that revolt against the Romans that so many were expecting."

Now, that's interesting.

The Romans of the first century A.D. were pretty close to the height of their powers and the Empire's economy had gone quite a ways with their "Expand/Subdue/Tax & Tribute/Repeat" model, so they were about as oppressive as it gets, really.  Their puppet ruler, Herod, was a bit of a turd, so if the populace turned against the Romans, there was not likely to be a Popular Monarchist Front holding anyone back afterwards.  Between a repressive occupation force, a distant ruling caste, and religious leaders dripping with power and entitlement, the racial, social and economic tension was so thick, that to describe Jerusalem at this time as a powder keg is to be guilty of woeful understatement.

Jesus is already getting the stinkeye from the Romans, who probably dislike the idea of poor people gathering in groups greater than five, and from the Pharisees, who keep getting chumped by Jesus whilst trying to do the same to him, so entering the city of Jerusalem armed in any way is simply begging for trouble.  And yet, Jesus tells his followers to 'sword up'.  And he is not subtle about it either:
Then said he to them, But now, he that has a purse, let him take it, and likewise his money: and he that has no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. Luke 22:36
Pretty incongruous for a man of peace, right?  Now, the following verse gives some indication that Jesus is, in effect, playing a role:
It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."  Luke 22:37
I would say, yes, walking into a major urban centre, governed by the world's mightiest military power, at the head of a crowd shouting your name and waving some swords around is very likely to earn you that 'transgressor' label in a very short period of time.  Hence in the next verse, when two followers tell Jesus "Hey, look, we got swords!", he says it is enough.  The common interpretation is that Jesus is fully aware how things are going to shake down in Jerusalem, and that it is going to be a one-way trip for him.  He asks his followers to get swords so he can essentially play out his role as a villain in order to completely fulfill the prophecy he is referring to in verse 37.  And that seems like a very moderate and reasonable interpretation.

But I think one of the best things about the Gospels is that there are four of 'em, all told from slightly differing perspectives.  I sometimes think this is a convenient way of encouraging speculation; after all, if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John can't fully agree on the relative importance of things, it is pretty hard to be definitive, isn't it?

Just prior to his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus goes away to pray, and asks his Father to be spared what is to be asked of him, but ultimately submits to His will:
And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Mark 14:36
(And, for the record, no one presents this anguish better than Ted Neely in Jesus Christ Superstar.)

I've always taken this to mean that Jesus' mortal side is having a hard time dealing with his imminent torture and death; like many oppressive powers, the Romans had made torture and execution into a comprehensive interdisciplinary study, incorporating psychology, anatomy, sociology, communications and iconography within it.  It's one thing to know that you are risking death, but a whole other thing to realize that your final hours will be spent in excruciating agony while on public display, as much for the entertainment of the mob as for its edification .

But from a strictly dramatic viewpoint, what if that wasn't it?  What if Jesus' anguish is because he had decided that if he is indeed going to die in Jerusalem, as has been foretold, then his sacrifice should be in starting the uprising that will push the Romans out of Jerusalem, and perhaps all of Judea?  It's what so many people wanted, and surely God did not want His people to suffer under Rome forever, right?  As an accomplished speaker and respected teacher, Jesus could be the spark to catch the tinder, and ignite Jerusalem in a righteous conflagration.  If he were to die doing that, no one would question the value of his sacrifice, least of all himself.

An article on an Anabaptist webpage describes it far better than I can:
Luke depicts Jesus’ struggle in the unnamed place near the Mount of Olives (22:39-46) in terms of his reluctance to go through with the ‘cup’ of suffering. But what alternative was there by which he might accomplish his Messianic task? – it was a choice between the way of suffering or a campaign of violence. Perhaps the thought came to Jesus that those two swords could be wielded in a dramatic break-out, and that, having once resorted to violence, he could subsequently lead a peasant army to victory over the hated Roman occupying forces. If we try to read the account as a genuine struggle – without a pre-determined view of its outcome – then we may imagine that Jesus had no exact blueprint in his mind as to what would transpire. Of course, he had the outline of betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection (9:22; 9:44; 18:32f.), but his preoccupation with scriptural fulfilment indicates that this could be filled out only in limited ways.
Imagine Jesus returning to his disciples having decided that the time had come for the Romans to learn the old proverb about what happens to those who live by the sword, when, suddenly, Judas returns, leading a crowd with some soldiers in it.  You probably don't need to be the Son of God at this point to know this guy is a fink, but Jesus is, so there is no doubt. Now, it's not like the high priest has a photo or even a composite sketch of this guy Jesus, but Judas has arranged to kiss him in greeting so they know which one to grab, which makes the whole affair feel even more duplicitous and is pretty bad behaviour even for a traitor.

And then things go off the rails.

One of Jesus' followers, Peter maybe, realizes, "Hey!  I don't have to stand for this crap; I've got a sword!"

It's not a big sword, nor terribly well made, nor awfully sharp, really, but it makes a very satisfying sound coming out of the scabbard, and look at their faces now, they're scared; they weren't expecting this!

The sword raises up and then flashes down; one of the high priest's slaves cries out in pain and clutches the right side of his head where the disciple's sword has taken his ear clean off.

For the briefest of moments, everything stops.

This could be it.  If there is going to be a revolution, it could start right now, in this garden, out of sight of most of the Romans.

Blood, dripping from between the slave's fingers as he clutches the side of his head, falls towards the dusty ground, catching the eye of Jesus.  Perhaps he thinks, This is just the beginning.  If the Romans are to be defeated in war, it will be years upon years of brutal, bloody, struggle, pitting our numbers against the armour and discipline of the legions.  How many fighters will die?  How many innocents?  How many children?  And suddenly, his Father's plan, all the prophecies, and his wishes for his countrymen all coalesce, and he knows what he has to do.

Jesus shouts, "No more of this!" and tells his followers to put away their swords (both of them).  And he tends to the slave, healing him.  Afterwards, he allows himself to be taken, but not before chiding the chief priests for bringing a mob into a garden to arrest him, when they could have taken him from the temple without incident on so many previous occasions.  He is taken to Jerusalem, where he is tried, whipped, humiliated, and finally killed by crucifixion.

And wins.

As fascinating as it is to speculate what a Jesus-led insurrection might have looked like, and what such a defeat for Rome might have meant for the world we live in today, it really doesn't seem very likely.  It is terribly inconsistent with Jesus' message of loving one's enemies, which historically at least, seems to be a key component to lasting peace, even though examples are rare.  And my fanciful and overdramatized depiction of Jesus' arrest owes much more to my love of cinema than any sort of theological insight.  I do find it interesting that all four Gospels talk about the ear incident, John even naming the slave as Malchus, but only Luke describes Jesus healing the injury.

We can never be privy to the thoughts of someone as influential and controversial as Jesus, and attempting to replicate his mindset two millennia later from a comfortable basement almost an entire planet away from Jerusalem is probably the acme of foolishness, in addition to being remarkably pretentious and potentially heretical.  In the end, the story of Jesus is compelling not because of his motivations, but because of his words and actions, and how they represent the capital-T Truth: Love always wins.

Whatever your beliefs, I hope you have a Happy Easter, and perhaps take a moment to consider the story behind the holiday, and be grateful for the truth in it, and for all the other blessings in your life.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: Techpriest Enginseer and Servitors

The fact that the universe of the 41st millennium (M41) is an entirely depressing and awful place from pretty much any angle at which one would care to view it is not really surprising; Warhammer 40,000 is, after all, a war game, and how much more depressing would it be to juxtapose medieval Gothic oppression and explosive combat with some sort of utopia?

The Imperium of Man is a blinkered, xenophobic, intolerant, bureaucratic dictatorship overseen by the Twelve Lords of Terra who serve (or claim to serve, depending on whom you ask) the undying God-Emperor, who has been entombed in his Golden Throne for more than ten thousand years.  It is a wonder that anything gets accomplished in a system wracked by internecine power struggles, superstitious demagoguery, and constant, ever-increasing paranoia wrought from without by humanity's very real enemies, as well as from within by institutions like the Order of Blessed Inquiry, more commonly known as The Inquisition.

The fact that such a society exists in a place like M41 Terra is again, not surprising.  The fact that the Imperium represents the closest thing to a good guy in this universe though, that is a bit of a shocker!  Still, paragons are the worst heroes from a dramatic point of view, aren't they?  All the best protagonists have their flaws, their dark sides, and the Imperium has them in job lots.

Take this unit, for instance: a Techpriest Enginseer and his work crew of servitors:

In the ten millennia since the Emperor walked amongst men, human society has regressed.  The secrets of lost technology are now revered as sacred mysteries, and only the Tech-Priests of Mars are permitted to dabble in them.  The Enginseer is half-mechanic, half spiritual advisor, but in game terms, he can give me the opportunity to get a disabled tank moving or firing again.

The servitors are a sad case; mind-wiped criminals or heretics with extensive cybernetic modification, who will serve the Emperor in this role for the rest of their lives.

This is actually a model I have had for years as part of the crew of a Space Marine artillery piece called a Thudd Gun (goofiest template in the game, but fun nonetheless), which has since become outmoded.  Originally I had two, but I've no idea where the other one got to.  (If you find a blue one behind the sofa sometime, please let me know.)

This is another old one (later renditions actually gave the poor unfortunates footwear) that I found unpainted in my bitz box, dredged up an appropriately pinchy arm, and voila!  Two servo-arms are better than one, or in this case, an extra servo-arm is easier by far to glue on than an organic one is.  I hope the mind-wipe keeps them from feeling itchy...

It's difficult to see the servo-arm from this angle, but I love how this guy has had his other arm replaced with a bundle of cables, like the network engineer of the future; "Hang on, one of these has to be an Ethernet connection...ah, here we g- ah, nuts, is that CAT5 on there?"
(Again, I have no clue why the white in this picture turned out more blue while the others insist on maintaining that orange tinge.  It's not as though I am changing cameras or setups or anything.  Suggestions?) 

In lieu of a forklift style servo-arm, this servitor has been kitted out with a multi-melta, a potent anti-armour weapon capable of knocking a tremendous hole in just about anything foolish enough to wander in front of it.  On the other hand, it is limited to a single hole each turn, so if a mob of Orks attacks this cogboy and his retinue, I have to hope that having one less 'Ardboy will make all the difference.  The gun arm also meant this servitor has far fewer fiddly wires and the like to paint, which made me happier.

The Enginseer himself was a lot of fun to paint, and I could have taken more time to bring out all the excellent details the sculptor has managed to include, but my deadline is just too merciless.  Thankfully, the level of texture makes drybrushing and ink washes an effective way to add depth to the model.  I am also pretty happy with how the red turned out, as I used Mechrite Red from the Foundation paint range to cover the black I primed him with.  I had initially primed all these models white, but when I sat down to give everything metallic a coat of brushed-on black, I realized there would very little white left, and re-primed the lot of them in black to save time.

The Techpriest's servo harness highlights a lot of the aforementioned detail, including the Adeptus Mechanicus cog-and-skull crest.  I also like the wee pistons on his legs.  It is interesting to note that while the servitors have no choice about their modifications, the tech-adepts replace much or their organic material by choice, in order to make themselves more useful to the Machine-God, and more durable as well.

The servo-arm itself also has a lot of nice details, very much giving the impression of the Enginseer as being some sort of nightmarish hybrid between man, garage hoist and Swiss army knife.

This small squad made for a nice break from the regular Valhallan infantry, but now I need to get stuck into the final 16 of them, which I intend to do en masse.  I am still pretty much on schedule, but I am not too optimistic about how much time I will have for painting on Easter weekend, plus I have added an additional unit in case I should have time to paint it.  The end is in sight though!

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Best Use of a Morning Off

By working a half-hour later every day and taking a half-hour lunch instead of an hour, I am able to take advantage of a 'compressed work week', which basically means I have every second Friday off.  Today is that day.

It's a good opportunity to get things done which are inconvenient or time consuming on the weekend: banking, shopping, the bathroom cleansing, et cetera.  Often it is a chance for me to get in some 'me' time by playing a video game, or sometimes watching a movie no one else in the household is interested in (and you'd be surprised just how many of these there are) (or maybe you wouldn't, come to think about it), or lately, catching up on some painting.

Waking up to the radio newscast and wishing I didn't have to get up, and then realizing that I don't , and then rolling over and going back to sleep is the second best thing to do on a day like this, but that isn't what I did today.

I've been inexplicably waking up around 5:00 am every day for the past week (with one exception), and been unable to get back to sleep.  Since I was up when Audrey and the girls were getting ready for school anyway, it gave me an opportunity for my favourite flex-day activity.

Fenya and Audrey staggered into the kitchen to feed the dog and get a bowl of cereal (no, as far as I know, the dog has never gotten Corn Pops instead of kibble or vice versa) when I asked them which would be better, pancakes or waffles.  After a short discussion, it was decided that regardless of relative appeal in terms of taste and texture, pancakes were a better fit for our timetable, so I started grilling them up.  While they were cooking, I was able to get a pot full of Diamond Mountain from Transcend Coffee brewing as well.

15 minutes later, Fenya and Glory had set the table with plates and cutlery as well as maple syrup, homemade apple butter, jam and brown sugar, and were able to start tearing into a stack of flapjacks.  I scrambled up some eggs with crumbled bacon and cheese because I don't like the idea of them starting a long day without protein of some sort, and then joined them and Audrey for breakfast.

The girls had an altercation two nights previous, so Audrey and I had forbade them talking to each other or interacting in any way, but after speaking to them individually last night before they went to bed and exacting the required teargeld, they reconciled easily this morning.  We all talked about what we thought the day had in store for us, and agreed that in terms of setting out from the right place, sitting down to a hot breakfast together was vastly superior to wolfing down a bowl of Special K individually while reading the paper.

Grilling breakfast is something I regard as chief amongst the dadly arts, and our weekends are usually frantic enough to make it difficult to pull off then, between various rehearsals, practices, church, and other commitments.  Besides, making a hot breakie for my wife and daughters is only my favourite thing during the week, when there is still a timetable to be followed.  On those rare occasions where there is nothing scheduled until afternoon, it is not unusual to find the girls joining us for a lie-in, and you can usually find Nitti in there as well.  Nothing gets accomplished on these mornings (unless you count laughs or cuddling), and it usually means cold cereal or instant oatmeal for breakfast, but that's an easy trade to make.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Valhallan Infantry: "D" Squad

I'm really looking forward to fielding this army, but I have to be honest: I've reached my saturation point with Valhallan troopers.  Halfway through this lot, which will bring me to a little over 50 ersatz-Russian squaddies, I became acutely aware of my desire to be done with white greatcoats and brown blanket rolls.  Every model in this squad is something I have painted previously, and as I trudged on, the hobby dial swung a couple of millipoints from "Play" to "Work", which is never a good sign.

It's hardly a surprise; this is the price I pay for having done all my tracks at the onset of the army.  Mind you, that was nine months ago, and I have only 16 infantry left to do, and 4 other models I can work on between to cleanse my palette, so to speak.

One bit of detail I really enjoyed painting up, strangely enough, was the bit of sculpted resin rubble I affixed to the base of the missile launcher team.  I've had an assortment of basing material like this for ages now, and this Valhallan project seemed a likely place to start using some of it up.  (Like hobbyists in general and wargamers in specific, my tendency to hang on to things because they might be useful 'some day', or to save things I can use right this instant for a bigger or grander project in the future, means that I run a much greater than average chance of being profiled on that "Hoarders" show.  As a result, I have tried to be more discriminating when the temptation to save something for later that I can use right at that moment, usually following the realization that I have a finite and steadily decreasing amount of time just to finish the considerable amount of projects I already have at hand right here in my basement.)

There's not a lot to it; a bit of girder and wire, a bit of ventilated pipe, and a chunk of ruined masonry with the inevitable Imperium themes of wings and skulls carved into it, but it adds a bit of detail, flavour and dimension to the base, and gives me a couple of different places to pile up fake snow to boot.

Despite the toll it has taken on my gumption, I still think my 'All armour first/ all infantry second' approach was a good choice.  A month from tomorrow I will be hauling a brand new army over to Belongamick for G&G VI's 40K Apocalypse game.  Sure, the fact that I will probably have never played a game with it means I stand a really good chance of getting my ass kicked six ways from Sunday in that first outing, but so long as the paint is dry when the Valhallan XXII hit the table, I'll still be happy.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


I'm not proud of it, but I have the been following the trial of accused murderer Mark Andrew Twitchell pretty closely.  The Edmonton Journal has had pretty good coverage, and their Ben Gelinas has been maintaining a vairly comprehensive live blog from the court building.

As to why I am bothering to keep up with the proceedings, I have a hard time articulating it.  I can assure you it is not out of any kind of prurient interest, or fascination with either serial killers (or would-be serial killers) or police procedurals.  It is not because of any desire to learn any particularly graphic details of how the murder was accomplished or how the body was disposed of, most of which have mercifully been omitted from the evidence viewable at the blog.  It's not even because I want to have the facts straight before the network news programs begin packaging the whole sordid tale for mass consumption.

The closest I can come up with is that I hunger for justice, and more than even justice, I have an almost palpable desire to see Twitchell's arrogance punished.

Even a cursory examination of the facts showcases the appeal this case must have to the producers of Dateline NBC or a potential TV-movie: Edmonton man Johnny Altinger goes missing in October 2008, and his friends receive an e-mail explaining how he has met an amazing woman who has taken him to the tropics on vacation.  When his friends listen to their instincts and break in to his place, they find Altinger's toothbrush and passport, and notify the police.

The police look up Altinger's online dating profile, and find the correspondence inviting him to meet a woman for a sexual encounter at a south side garage.  Forensic evidence is found at the garage, including bloodstains revealed by luminol.  They question Twitchell, the person renting the garage, who explains he has been using the garage as a workspace and set for some independent films he is making.  When asked why he is in possession of the victim's Mazda, Twitchell claims to have bought it off a stranger in a parking lot who told him a rich 'sugar mama' was taking him on vacation and buying him a new car upon their return, and sold the vehicle to him for $40.

Despite having a suspect and evidence of foul play, the police are unable to turn up Altinger's body, but arrest Twitchell on Hallowe'en.  In his car, they find a knife, a book featuring fictional serial killer Dexter Morgan, and more bloodstains, both on the knife and in the car itself.  They also come across a laptop, and on the laptop, a deleted file entitled "SKConfessions".

In SKConfessions, the writer, agreed to be Mark Twitchell, describes himself as an independent filmmaker fascinated by the idea of killing someone.  The narrator shares a number of attributes with Twitchell: they are both fans of Dexter, they both make prize-winning costumes for Halloween parties, they both have troubled marriages and they both share an afternoon of making out at the movies with an ex-girlfriend (who, in addition to having a name only letter apart from being the same as Twitchell's real-life ex-girlfriend, but also has a similar Celtic neck tattoo, designed by him).  Clearly, there is a lot more at work here than just life imitating art, starting with SKConfession's opening line of "This story is based on true events. The names and events were altered slightly to protect the guilty."

One of the arresting officers was quoted as saying he has never seen a stronger case in terms of evidence in his entire career: fingerprints, bloodstains, the victim's car, and a written description of events that is almost indistinguishable from what actually befell Johnny Altinger.

Throughout the prosecution's case, Twitchell has come across as someone who considers himself smarter than just about everyone else around him, an arrogant pseudo-intellectual who seems exactly like the kind of person who would slay a stranger for the experience.

Twitchell took the stand in his own defense today, a maneuver that surprised me, and claimed that although he was responsible for the death of Johnny Altinger, he is not a would-be serial killer, but that the death was a tragic accident that came about as he used unconventional marketing in an attempt to create an 'urban legend' about a serial killer luring men to their deaths with the false promise of easy sex, all in order to create 'buzz' for his film project.  Never mind that the narrator of SKConfessions shows no remorse, and that later discussions Twitchell has with his wife, girlfriend and online buddy give no indication of fear or apprehension, other than perhaps the fear of apprehension itself.  I suppose when placed in relief against an actual murder, the idea of manipulating and terrifying a complete stranger and making them fear for their life in the name of marketing seems marginally less evil, but no more reasonable.

Tomorrow the prosecution gets to have a go at this individual, and I fully anticipate a lengthy list of all his lies, going back to when his girlfriend first dumped him for lying about his age and background, to the false profile he created to lure Altinger (and another individual who fought his way to safety before Altinger's death), the lies he told his wife about working a day job when he had actually quit to try to find financing for his film, how he told her he was at the gym when he was either cheating on her or plotting a murder, how he claimed to be writing an article about married men using online dating services to philander, and how he got an actor to pose as an editor when she phoned to corroborate his story.  The way he lied to a friend to get them to move Altinger's car since he can't drive a standard, and the unbelievable yarn he spun about a big guy with a Celtic tattoo on his neck (what another one?) sold him that car for $40, and how he didn't bother to get a bill of sale.

I hope the Crown presents all that, and then says something along the lines of, "...and despite all of those lies and many others besides, you want this jury to believe that the death of Johnny Altinger was not a calculated, thoughtfully planned and pre-meditated murder,but rather, an unfortunate accident that left you no other choice than to use all the equipment you had conveniently assembled, including a real, that is to say, not a prop, game-processing kit, to dismember this unfortunate man, and stuff his mortal remains down a sewer, exactly as detailed in the document you admit writing entitled SKConfessions?  Mr. Twitchell, you cannot possibly expect anyone to believe that, can you?"

The real question will probably be a lot less dramatic than that, since the prosecutor will have an actual background in law, and not just a haphazard approximation of it based on what transpires on most episodes of Law & Order, but I hope it gets asked, one way or another.  I hope Twitchell's hubris and arrogance get called into full account, and I hope this selfish creature spends the remainder of his life locked into a 6 foot by 12 foot cell eating rotten food and wondering where it all went wrong for him.

I am not happy, or thrilled, or even mildly intrigued that Edmonton has its own sensational murder trial going on, but a part of everyone hungers for justice, and I am no exception.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Poisson Avril

The tradition of April Fool's Day dates back to the 16th century, probably in France.  Given their affectations and inexplicable attraction to Jerry Lewis, this makes perfect sense, as does their preferred nomenclature for those gulled by pranks on this day: poisson Avril or April Fish.

When I was 10 years old or thereabouts, every Saturday saw me getting up bright and early so I could race downstairs, grab a bowl of cereal and head to the family room to watch cartoons.  The newly accessible American network channels meant that I could watch a block of childrens programming dominated by animation from 7:30 to noon, where sports typically took over and I would head outside to play.  And none of that pseudo-animation crap like Professor Kitzel either, although in retrospect, the quality probably wasn't all that far behind other offerings, like Spider-Man or Rocket Robin Hood.

Just as a sagely parent will find cunning ways to work unwanted vegetables into a child's meal, so too would the networks include a number of educational or informational vignettes scattered amongst the cartoons.  I assume this was some sort of requirement, but perhaps it was just cheaper than original programming.  Schoolhouse Rock was probably my favourite, and I still crutch on it for rules of grammar from time to time.  Other snippets might focus on sports or current events or health and nutrition, but one fateful Saturday morning there was a historical feature about April Fool's Day, since it happened to be April 1st. 

It wasn't a very long segment, probably less than 5 minutes, and they talked a bit about the history of April Fool's Day, but what really grabbed my attention were the 'classic' pranks they described.

The year before, Dad had called home early in the morning, Mom put me on the phone, and he growled, "How many times have I told you about leaving your bike leaned up against the side of the house?"

It had been more than once, and I said so, and assuming I had done it again, I said I was sorry.  "Well," he said, "I didn't see it there and drove over it with the car this morning."

"Aww, no..." I started to whine, but Dad cut me off curtly.

"April fool," he said, and hung up.  I ran out and checked, and sure enough, my bike was safe in the garage.  Feelings of relief mingled with anger at being so readily duped.

A year later, the idea of payback had an undeniable appeal, so I watched intently as the featurette described lame japes like short sheeting the bed, changing the times on alarm clocks and such.  Then they got to one that was simple in execution but significant in affect, so I raced upstairs to set it up.

My parents have always had a tremendous sense of humour, and they are both very sharp, but that has never stopped them (or me, truth be told) from dipping into the shallow end of the humour pool, as it were.  Pranks and novelties were a big part of growing up in that house, and squirreled away in various corners, drawers and high shelves were a number of items of incredibly questionable taste.  Compared to these, the fake ice cube with a fly trapped inside, the innocuous sugar packet which was impossible to open, and even the venerable whoopie cushion were practically Swiftian in their wit. 

One of my favourite recollections was Mom getting eggs out of the fridge for breakfast one morning and quickly lobbing one underhanded to Dad, singing out "Think fast!"  Dad, who had his hands full of the Edmonton Journal at the time, dropped the paper, and shot out a hand to catch the egg before it hit the table, only to discover that is was actually made of plaster.  I couldn't tell you whose face was funnier, Dad's look of consternated frustration, or Mum's expression of Puckish satisfaction.  Not big laughs, to be sure, but if there are enough of them, it turns out that the volume will carry you a fair ways.

Anyhow, when my parents came downstairs, I was already at the table polishing off a bowl of Honeycombs.  Mom rarely had much breakfast, but started a pot of tea for herself, and popped some bread into the toaster.  Dad went to the pantry and got a box of Special K and poured himself a bowl.  I snuck the funnies out of the Journal (the colour comics were in the Saturday paper at that time) and kept my face down so as not to tip my hand.

A few moments later, Dad looked up at Mum with an expression of distaste and said, "I think the milk's gone off; my cereal tastes odd."

Mum nodded.  "My tea as well," she said, and began to pour it down the drain.

My moment of victory was at hand!  "April fools!" I crowed.

They regarded me with stony silence, and a look of reluctant expectation.

"I put a layer of salt into the sugar bowl!  I saw it on tv, it's a classic prank.  April fools!"

They slowly turned and looked at each other.  Mom, exasperated, poured her mug of tea out into the sink while shaking her head.  Dad looked down at his cereal, then up at me, who sat grinning, and waiting for him to reciprocate, with a "Good one, son!" or some such.

Alas, this was not to be.

Dad slowly, carefully, pushed his bowl of Special K across the table to me.  I looked up quizzically at him.

"Eat it," he said.

Thinking he was still joking, I said, "But Dad, it's got salt in i..."

"EAT IT." he bellowed. 

Please note the lack of exclamation point; this was not a shout, so much as a thunderous amplification of volume, with almost no change in vocal inflection whatsoever.

Man, I tore into those salty flakes like a dog eating a dropped sausage, pausing only long enough to tearfully apologize between spoonfuls, droplets of sodium enhanced milk going every whichaway.  And you had better believe I ate the whole thing.  I can't recall if he suggested I drink the milk from the bottom of the bowl, as was (and remains) my custom, but I'm pretty sure I did regardless.

I don't think an April first goes by that I don't think about that morning, but it still makes me laugh and think of my parents.  My pranks these days tend to be somewhat more low key, and don't usually require me to sort salt from sugar afterwards.