Monday, June 25, 2012

Happenings At The Shipyards

Despite having any number of models I could be painting for Warhammer, 40K or even D&D, I found it impossible to resist the siren call of Mongoose Publishing's new Star Fleet models, inspired by the original Star Trek television series.

I had explored the original Star Fleet Battles game many years ago and just found it too tedious to be enjoyable, with its cumbersome energy allocation and damage recording piled on top of a turn with 32 separate phases for moving and shooting. It was like they had taken the premise of starship versus starship combat and sucked all the fun out of it, and accordingly created a game more amenable to budgeting and scheduling ("Shutting off power to the zero-gravity washrooms Captain!") than tactics or drama. For years I kept the original rulebook in my night table since it duplicated the effect of a Class II soporific without a prescription. The game certainly has its fans though, and is still being played more than two decades after I set it aside in favor of the FASA Tactical Starship Combat Simulator and GW's excellent Battlefleet Gothic.

Mongoose's game, A Call to Arms, borrowed a lot of the good stuff from BFG, abstracted it even further, and used its Babylon 5 licenses a setting before creating their own sci-fi background. B5 has drifted away from relevancy in a way that Star Trek never has, so they have partnered with Amarillo Design Bureau, makers of the Star Fleet Battles hexagon-based boardgame, for this new joint endeavour.

Rules notwithstanding, the big appeal for me is the esthetics. The new Mongoose models are a significantly larger scale than the models I painted up for STCS in the mid-eighties (feelin' old much?) and have even more detail than the very nice looking models FASA produced at the time. The licensing agreement means that only ships and races featured in the original series, the animated series, or created by ADB can be used, so my third favorite Star Trek ship, the Reliant from Wrath of Khan, will not be making an appearance.

The ADB designs are drawn from form over function, with larger, more powerfully armed ships requiring three or even four additional warp nacelles, so many of their ships lack the grace of the Enterprise's iconic lines, or the gunslinger menace of the Klingon D7 battlecruiser. They don't usually stray too far from the original principles though, and you can usually tell what fleet a given ship is associated with, and usually a sense of its role or at least relative strength just by looking at it, which is pretty critical to miniatures gaming.

Past experience has taught me that before exploring the rules or models, I needed to be sure there would be opponents for me to put my fleet up against, so I asked noted Star Trek fan (Trekker? Trekkie? If you are splitting those hairs, the odds are you've already lost, my friend) Earl if he would be interested, and sealed the deal by giving him first dibs on the Federation, with myself angling for the Klingons. Earl suggested his brother Sean might be interested, and he quickly oriented himself to the Romulans.

The ships and rulebooks arrived last Thursday, and I emailed the other commanders that evening so we could arrange to get together and begin laying hulls. Because the release agent they use to get the models out of the molds easily often prevents undercoat and glue from adhering as well as it should, I washed all the models in soapy water before Sean and Earl came over, although the resin dreadnoughts apparently don't require this.

I got my Klingon ships built and primed before the others arrived so I could focus on helping them with removing the mold lines and getting the models assembled from their Federation and Romulan squadrons. Sean has some experience working with miniatures having played 40K, but it had been a while. Luckily 3 of his 5 figures were single piece castings that required no assembly at all, including his immense dreadnought! The nacelle wings on the classic Romulan ships don't offer a lot of purchase however (not too unlike the Klingon ships, really), and were a bit of a challenge to glue. The best feature of the Romulan ships though is that some of them have the classic 'Bird of Prey' heraldry etched into their keels, so you don't have to draw them on or use an unwieldy decal.

Earl was not so lucky, and as the modeler with the least recent experience he of course received the fleet which required the most construction; his five ships had more pieces than mine and Sean's combined. The tiny sensor dishes on the secondary hull are an individual piece, and I almost discarded one by accident when I was washing them, thinking it was a piece of flashing or sprue! On the plus side though, they are probably the best looking craft in the game, and he aligned their many components admirably.

While we were waiting for the primer to dry on their fleets, I took the opportunity to put some 'kolor' on my Klingons with a vintage can of Dark Angel Green spray. I would have preferred to use a shade with a bit more grey in it, perhaps Catachan Green, but I'm certainly not one to turn his nose up at convenience like that. Besides, with some drybrushing and a bit of highlighting, they should end up looking pretty striking against the black starfield playmat we intend to use for our games.

The most important thing is to get the ships to a playable state as quickly as possible so we can commence tactical operations at the earliest opportunity. In the meantime we can also struggle to come up with some evocative ship names.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Childish Things

My literary hero,  Andrew Vachss (rhymes with 'axe') , writes gritty crime novels that often depict how our society grows its own monsters by virtue of the way our children are treated. As someone who has worked in maximum security facilities for minors, and as a social worker, and as a lawyer whose practice solely represents exploited and abused children, he speaks from a position of considerable authority, and his views have fundamentally affected my own, both politically and personally.

"People think I do what I do out of a love of children, and I don't; it comes out of a hatred of predators."  It's hard to think of someone saying this as anything but a cynic, but this is an unfair simplification as well.  Vachss wrote a collection of illustrated stories he described as "a children's book for adults" that he entitled "Another Chance to Get It Right," which is what is what he views children as: one more chance for a dangerously flawed species to do better for itself.

There are a lot of reasons that I find myself concerned for children on occasion:
  • I have two of them. 
  • I used to be one myself. 
  • I encounter them through work, friends, and family. 
  • My wife works in an inner city school where she sees and hears things that will make even the most libertarian individual think that our society needs to take a sober second look at the eugenics movement. 
  • Our news stories continually resonate with tales of damaged individuals revisiting that harm among associates and strangers alike.
As simplistic as it sounds, if we made the security, well being and love of all the world's children a priority, we would be looking at a profoundly improved world in about two decades.

A world without child labor, child soldiers, and children victimized by monstrous lusts would be a better place for all of us.  This is probably what the UN had in mind when it came up with its "Declaration of the Rights of the Child". It contains ten points, the first of which explains that all children are entitled to these rights, but the second point really sums it up:
You have the special right to grow up and to develop physically and spiritually in a healthy and normal way, free and with dignity.

Now, its easy to think that because we don't have child soldiers in Canada, or because we have a minimum age for workers, that this Declaration is an opportunity for other countries and cultures to catch up to our sterling example, but this isn't really the case, and quite often this is the result of individuals, and not governments.

Point 4: "You have a right to special care and protection and to good food, housing and medical services." Children come from all over the city to Audrey's school, because they know the children will receive both breakfast and lunch.

Point 9: "You have the right to be protected against cruel acts or exploitation, e.g. you shall not be obliged to do work which hinders your development both physically and mentally." Putting aside for a moment the number of johns who will happily bed children selling their bodies, and the 'family' members who willingly pimp them out, there are children looking after children in my city while a single parent works two part time jobs with no benefits to keep a roof over their heads.

This declaration was written in 1978, and I suppose we must have made some progress, but it feels like we have a lot further to go. Why am I thinking about it now?

Would you believe Scandinavian power metal?

My favourite Finnish band, Sonata Arctica, came out with a new album last month, and it only made it into the car last week. One song in particular stuck with me due to the almost chant-like repetition of its chorus:

Give me the right to be heard
to be seen, to be loved, to be free
to be everything I need to be me,to be safe, to believe…in something

I have a right to be heard
to be seen, to be loved, to be free
to be everything I need to be me,to be safe, to believe…in something

There is also a spoken word portion in the middle of the song that sounded familiar to me, and checking the liner notes (we can still call them that, right?), sure enough, the song is actually based on the Declaration of Rights of the Child. Lead singer and songwriter Tony Kakko talks about it in a blog entry copied onto the YouTube page hosting the video:

"I Have A Right" was the very last song I wrote for this album. At that point Tommy had already played his last track for "Stones Grow Her Name," gotten ready to go to sauna AND opened his first beer for that night, when I sms'd him to check his e-mail and record yet one more "easy track".

He was mildly pissed. And perhaps fueled by that he nailed the song on the first take. It was a very emotional moment for him, I was told. The song hits home, if you know the subject and can relate to the subject.
To put it short it's a song about how we should not pass the burden we get from the past generation on the shoulders of our future offspring. Children's rights subject. Not the most metal subject ever, I suppose, but then again I think it fits our band well and is pretty universal. Funny to actually have fans from each age group this songs speaks about. Let's see what comes of it.
Choosing the first single and video from this album was not very easy this time around as we had so many candidates. The best possible problem to have! "I Have A Right" won the vote.
The playing parts for this video were shot in our home town Kemi, here in Finland. The location was an old, abandoned school building. Somehow spooky and COLD. It was mid march. Could say we were lucky the weather was unseasonably warm, yet way below zero.
Director Tuukka Temonen and his crew did a great job with editing and all the additional footage. All in all, from my point of view, this was the easiest ever Sonata Arctica video to make. No 12 hours standing in a room filled with bird shit, no freezing my ass off on the ice in the middle of the sea from 8am to 10pm, or running in the woods in the middle of the night and not sleeping for 48 hours...had all that with the past videos. I am more than pleased. I hope you like the song and video as much as we do.

Knowing this has made listening to the track even more enjoyable.  It is a catchy track with more Queen overtones than the guitar heroism of their early efforts, and sports a well-made video to boot.  Most importantly, it reinforces this simple but still misunderstood concept, that every interaction we have with children, from love and support, through detached indifference all the way to exploitation and abuse, shapes the world we will be living in tomorrow.

Please consider the effect that your interactions with children, both direct or indirect, can have. Every one of them has the potential to either support or undermine point 10 of the Declaration: "You should be taught peace, understanding, tolerance and friendship among all people."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Numbers Game

Part of me was hoping to have come across another topic by this point in the week, so I could perhaps avoid writing about my first Father's Day without my Dad, but alas, it was not to be.  And maybe that's as it should be.

Mum and Tara joined us at church today, largely due to Fenya singing a solo, but it was also a good place for a family to be together: comforting, reflective.   We had missed the opportunity to get together for Mum and Tara's birthday earlier in the month, and Jerry and Jason came as well. 

At the end of the service, James asked how I was doing, and I said, "Pretty well."  Because he is astute, he said, "No, really, how are you doing?"

"So far, so good," I told him.  "The day is young though."  He nodded understandingly, the fact that he has my back not even needing to be said, but no less appreciated.

Everyone came back to our house, and we laid out a few snacks while Audrey dove in to preparing a late lunch/early supper (lupper?) of barbeque ribs, and we presented Mum and Tara their gifts.  Being the kind of holiday it is, I wasn't really expecting any gifts or anything, but Mum gave me a lovely card.

Mum's never been one to gush in the messages she writes in cards, that's more my forte, but the thing that caught me off guard was the realization that the verse on the card is written to a son, like so many others I've received over the years, but for the first time, this one was written from the perspective of an individual, and not a couple. Parent, not parents.

I thought of Mum in the card shop, looking at card after card saying "We are proud of you," or "From both of us," and how she would have patiently looked for one that she found agreeable, and all I could think was, "Please God, don't let it have been too painful."  I looked at her, and her face gave away nothing, and I know how much she hates a scene, so I hugged her, and thanked her, and hugged her again.

The rest of the afternoon was lovely; we chatted over drinks, watched some videos of the girls from school performances and choir concerts, shared a fantastic meal, played a couple of games of Tsuro, had some cheesecake together, and then Jerry and Jason and Tara took Mum home so they could go to his Mum's place before it got to be too late.  Only then did I mention the lack of plurality to Audrey.

Since Dad's passing I've been the recipient of a number of prayers, good wishes, and powerful sentiments from a great number of people, but the one that affected me the most said, "I didn't know Maurice very well, but in many ways my recollection is that, having met and known Stephen, I've met and known most of the best qualities of his dad - all which would make him a wonderful dad, grandpa and friend."  I may lack perspective at this precise moment in time, but I have a suspicion that if I reread that brief homily a year, five years or twenty years from now, it will still very likely be the nicest thing anyone's ever said about me.

Anyone who knows me knows that being a good dad is the most important thing in the world to me, and it can be a lot of fun, but it isn't often easy.  It is a constant balancing act between the demands of work and home, one's self and one's family, the short and the long term, and with my eldest only now entering her adolescence, I am fully aware that the greatest challenges are yet to come.

Still wouldn't trade it for anything though.

There's a Zen story told about a rich man asking a master and calligrapher to write something down signifying continued family prosperity that he would be able to hand down from generation to generation to come.  After taking a moment to think, the master wrote, "Man dies, son dies, grandson dies."

The rich man became furious, telling the master he wanted something signifying the happiness of his family.  The master said, ""If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly. If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken-hearted. If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life. I call this real prosperity."

The simple truth of this story brings me comfort, the way that the elements of my father that others perceive in me brings me happiness.  

Change is hard, and will continue to be so, and even more so for Mum than for myself.  But we will struggle on, hurting but surviving, coping with the heartless grammatical evolution that changes 'they' to 'she', and 'we' to 'I'.  And we'll learn to deal with things, and hopefully the girls will pick up on the manner in which we do this, and we will continue to be strengthened in each other and to enjoy each other's company, until the only way to do so is in our memories, and in the stories that we share.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Pride Rocks

I'd never even been a spectator at Edmonton's Pride Parade before yesterday, but that didn't stop me from walking in it this time around. When I'd heard that some people from our church were going, Fenya and I agreed to join them, at least partially due to the irony of a church group marching in a parade named after one of the 'Seven Deadly Sins'.  My sister came up from Leduc and joined us too.

I'm glad we did. The event has come a long way from the largely symbolic one-block walk that initiated the tradition; those participants wore bags over their heads for fear of reprisals. Now it runs the gamut from humdrum supporters of equal rights like myself and this year's marshalls, the Edmonton Public School Board Trustees, to the uh...let's say more flamboyant members of the city's LGBT community.

Our group joined a number of other United Churches, and I also saw representation from Unitarians and even a Flying Spaghetti Monster from the Edmonton Atheists. The thing we all seemed to have in common was a distaste for Rev. Hunsberger's recently revealed comments about gays spending eternity in a "lake of fire"; a sign in our contingent read, "Hate and Intolerance Create Lakes of Fire". Alas, I never did see any of the infamous, "I went to the Lakes of Fire and all I got was this lousy t-shirt" shirts, or I certainly would have bought one.

Speaking of which, I was relieved that no Westboro Baptist types showed up either. There were a few inflammatory or adversarial sentiments expressed, often towards religion, but one needs to remember what causes this, and endeavor not to take it personally. Most of the spectators seemed thrilled to see us, which was very gratifying, and there was as much colour in the crowd as there was in the parade itself.

Personally, my opinion on sexual identity used to be, "hey, none of my darned business, consenting adults and all that..." but that's come to feel more and more disingenuous to me over the years. It felt good to take a stand for what feels fair and just, to allow people to express themselves honestly, and to do it in such a cheerful and colorful environment.