Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Good Faith?

Negotiations give me a gut-ache.

The inability, perceived or otherwise, of honestly disclosing or discussing an acceptable endstate in order to reach a compromise can be incredibly frustrating, whether you are buying a car or watching a billionaire psych out a municipality in order to get a better arena deal.  The fear of ending up with less than one might have had, or with nothing at all, forces most involved to overstate their positions so they can back away from the precipice later.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the necessity of it, I just don't like it, on a very visceral level.

Let me give you an example: Audrey's union is still on strike, having rejected the $200 overture they were offered last week.  Last Friday, the union made an offer to the school district, since the district didn't appear to be forthcoming with one.  They asked for time to look it over before responding.

When no response came on Monday, no one was really surprised.  Honestly, if there is not too much pressure from the public or parents about the missing staff, there is not much impetus for the district to resolve things quickly, unlike the way they would if, oh, say, the teachers were on strike and all the students had to stay home, not just those with special needs.  And it was unlikely the district's negotiating team would get together over the weekend, for many of the same reasons.

Tuesday came and went without an announcement as well.

When the same thing (i.e. nothing) happened on Wednesday, I was pretty disappointed.  The back and forth of negotiations prior to this point had transpired in days if not hours, but now it was going to take a week?  The union had scheduled a negotiation update meeting for Friday morning, were they going to have anything to talk about?

At the same time, some staff said they had received requests from their administrators to return to work, to cross the picket lines; that they had been told the union couldn't really do anything about it.  Some of them did.  Maybe they were opposed to the strike in principal, maybe they desperately needed the money, maybe they thought they were helping the children who couldn't attend without teaching assistants present.  At least one of them changed their minds and went back to the picket lines, perhaps out of principle, perhaps out of the practical realization that when the strike inevitably ends those who stayed away will once again be their co-workers.  It's hard to believe that the negotiators, many of whom were school principals and ATA members, would put their staff in such a position, but there you are.

Today, the district announced that they would meet with the union negotiators, at 2:00 Friday afternoon.  I saw this on the ECSSA website , and immediately texted Audrey, asking her to keep her fingers crossed, but the more I thought about it, the more disheartened I became.

If I was trying to demoralize strikers in a context like this, I would hold off on rejecting their offer right away.  I would wait until Friday afternoon, so there would be little chance of the result making the evening news.  I would let the end of the month come and go, so that the looming bills of month end, and the realization that September is gone could really sink in.  I would put these generally overworked, underpaid individuals, who see their hours shortened with increasing regularity, in a position where they are begging for a break on their rent, or some relief from their mortgage payments, or borrowing money from their own parents in order to pay for their children's school fees.

I'm really hoping that I'm wrong about this. but my aching gut tells me I'm probably not.

In the meantime, I hope the strikers don't buckle.  Yes, it is a hardship with Audrey being out of work, and the loss of her benefits would be even worse, if the union hadn't stepped in to cover the Blue Cross bills for the striking workers, but if it becomes a matter of principle, I am more than willing to go to the mattresses over it. On the ECSSA website, there is a fascinating article about the importance of trade unions and the right to associate, and the right to strike, not just to 'the West' or Christianity, but within a specifically Catholic context.  It's called Laborem Exercens, and it is a bit dry, but makes just as much sense now as when Pope John Paul II delivered it back in 1981, you know, back in the Solidarnosc, Lech Walesa days.  My guess is that the Catholic School District's negotiators either haven't read it, or question its applicability to current standards, which, given the reluctance of The Church to progress, would be ironic if it weren't so tragic.

Now, as then, it is encouraging to see others willing to take a stand. Here is a note from today's strike update:

Today a young man went to deliver food to the downtown school board office. When he got to the picket line he stopped. He put the food tray down on the ground and waited. When asked, he said that he was a former student and if it wasn’t for us and our help in the RAP program he would not be working right now and he would not cross our picket line. He phoned his boss. Boss said, “Deliver.” This former student said, “No, these people supported me, now I can support them.” Then he waited, proudly standing with us, because of us.
Eventually someone from inside the building came out and picked up the food. 
Our influence does not end at the end of our increasingly shorter shifts. With our patient guidance we are able to support our students to becoming principled members of society. We are continually a living model of social justice. We are not alone.

On Friday, the picketers are being encouraged to wear jerseys to the ECSD headquarters and St. Joseph's High School, in an effort to steer conversation away from the NHL lockout and the arena deal and onto the people who look after our city's children.  It's been suggested they customize their jerseys to make them more relevant.

If you find yourself driving down 109th Street on Friday, and see some people in jerseys, carrying placards that talk about ideals like 'fairness' and 'security' and 'dignity', I hope you will give them a honk.

It can get lonely and depressing out there, and no one seems to know how much longer it might go on.

Or if they do know, they certainly aren't telling.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Strikes Me As Ironic

So, the first year that my wife was not laid off due to insufficient funding is the year that contract negotiations have broken down so she is on strike now.  Does that count as irony?

The first strike vote was pretty marginal, as a lot of people just wanted to keep working, but as the support staff learned more about what was being offered, the second vote gave an even stronger mandate to reject the offer, and subsequent offers have been borderline insulting.  The Edmonton Journal published most of my letter to the editor regarding this, but left off the juicy bit at the end; I'm assuming it was for space, but one never knows, I suppose.  Compare the closing of "It is ironic hearing the school board cry there are no funds for wage increases after the election of a premier committed to education" to the original below.

     My wife has been a special needs teaching assistant with Edmonton Catholic for nearly five years now, and was initially reluctant about going on strike.  The longer the strike progresses though, the more resolute she becomes.  Having worked without a wage increase this year, the union's proposal of a modest 1.5% increase was met with a counter offer of a lump sum of about $200.  True, this would be fairly close to the same amount, assuming the worker in question makes less than $14,000 a year.  Professional librarians, dedicated administrative staff and SNTAs that deal with frankly harrowing experiences on a daily basis commonly earn (and deserve!) more than this, however, so it is small wonder this overture was so soundly rejected.
     Hearing their employers cry that there are no funds for wage increases after the election of a premier committed to education, as well as having to part the picket lines in order to permit the delivery of new exercise equipment to the Edmonton Catholic School Division offices might be ironic, if it weren't so tragic.

Hey, I just noticed they took out the exclamation in "and deserve!"  How disaffecting.  I pity the school division official who had to present that equivalency with a straight face; I keep thinking the appropriate response would be a clip of Magneto in the first X-Men movie dryly remarking, "I thought you people lived in a school."

Hopefully the strike doesn't drag on too long, but the effect on students and parents has been pretty small in scale, and unlikely to provoke the public outcry needed to goad the school division back to the table with a new offer.  Besides, most Edmontonians have their labour action bandwidth occupied by the NHL lockout, which could turn out to be even more ironic if the Oilers should end up moving to Seattle or something.

Regardless, I wrote the letter to create a little more awareness of details like "$200=1.5%" since they don't seem to make it into the reported stories.  If others could help spread the word, I would be immensely grateful, and so would a great number of parents,students, and teachers.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Blends, Books, and Brewing

Few things are as wonderful to me, personally, as when two things I enjoy separately are given the opportunity to overlap in some fashion.  For instance, for years I described Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the best comic book television show that was never a comic.  The combination of juicy dialogue, well-crafted story arcs and commitment to continuity reminded me of nothing so much as a classic 'tights and fights' comic book, with high-school drama there to round things out and provide a tremendous allegorical structure.  Small wonder then, that when Whedon got picked to write and direct The Avengers for Marvel Studios that there was so much rejoicing amongst the geekdom.

Likewise, consider one of my favourite actual comic books: Nexus, written by Mike Baron and drawn almost exclusively by Steve 'The Dude' Rude.  Nexus is a sci-fi pastiche that blends a lot of my favourite things together in its tale of a reluctant executioner who is tasked to be the conscience of humanity among the stars, and compelled to seek out and destroy mass murderers or be destroyed himself.

Nexus is a delightful and compelling read that combines classic adventure, pathos, space opera, and political satire, all dressed up in a clean and elegant design style that mixes elements of Jack Kirby and the classic Hanna Barbera cartoon Space Ghost.  Steve Rude is a gifted artist who can convey anguish in an alien visage that makes it indistinguishable from our own, and do it with an economy of line echoing some of the greatest cartoonists to ever pick up a pen.  If you have never read Nexus, I highly recommend it, and so do Chris Claremont and Harlan Ellison, for what it's worth.

Something else I like to see combined with other elements is beer.  Sure, I like a straight up lager or stout as much as the next fellow (more, probably), but a Lime and Black Pepper Lager from Dead Frog breweries is a real treat on a hot day, and the exquisite Neapolitan ice cream stout produced by Alley Kat for Sherbrooke Liquor, Neapolean, is nothing short of brilliant when it comes to choosing the final beer of the evening.

One of Sherbrooke's other projects involves craft brewer Paddock Wood in Saskatchewan, and entails 12 beers released quarterly, each in honor of a different pantheon's beer god.  Being a significantly committed nerd, mythology and I go way back, but rarely as far as Bullfinch.  My Norse knowledge came less from Snorri Sturlison's eddas and sagas, and more from Walt Simonson's run on the Thor comics.  Most of the remainder came courtesy of the venerable Deities & Demigods sourcebook for Dungeons and Dragons. Neither was much help in identifying the first Beer Gods release, a (delicious) Baltic Porter called Ragutiene, named after a Lithuanian fermentation deity.

Comely maidens on beer labels is nothing new, but there was something both appealing and familiar in the artwork presenting Ragutiene.  At first, I was reminded of some of the Greek characters from Eric Shanower's copiously researched graphic novel of the Iliad, Age of Bronze, but some time later I came across the startling truth: the label was drawn by none other than The Dude!

It turns out Steve Rude will not only be designing the labels for all twelve Beer Gods, but they will be collected into a calendar and sold by Edmonton's Happy Harbor Comics to boot.

I also love the fact that thus far none of the deities presented have been familiar ones, prompting many a revelationary journey to Wikipedia and the like. Only the first three have been released to date, and the entire slate will take three years to get to.  Of the three, I have only tried Ragutiene, but I aim to change that directly.  Silenus is a Belgian-style Tripel, while Yasigi, despite being an African goddess, is described as a Belgian Hibiscus beer.

I believe it was coming across the artwork for obviously Japanese-inspired Siduri, above, that finally completed the circuit in my brain between Steve Rude and the Beer Gods.  I'm not sure what style it or the Norse Aegir will be, but I'm just happy to have an opportunity to combine one of my favourite beverage styles with one of my favourite artists for a couple of years yet!

I've always been more of a reader than a collector, per se, and I don't expect my well-read issues to appreciate much at all, but I have to say the idea of owning some of the original art, like that for the Egyptian goddess Hathor which Rude auctioned off on eBay in the spring, is pretty compelling.

Friday, September 7, 2012

bradbury (verb) - to dream, constructively and without limitation

When personal memory retrieval technology becomes commonplace, and we can revisit our own pasts in immersive detail, there is an evening early in the 1990s I look forward to experiencing again.

College friends of Audrey and I were visiting Edmonton from Killam, and had tickets to something called "An Evening with Ray Bradbury" at Grant MacEwan College. There had been promotions about their upcoming stage production of  "Something Wicked This Way Comes", so I anticipated excerpts from that play and perhaps some of his other works, like The Martian Chronicles.

Imagine my surprise when the man himself took the stage and spoke for almost two hours, without notes.

Ray Bradbury, talking about his childhood friend, who was a magician capable of animating toy dinosaurs on film and having them eat your father (Ray Harryhausen!), and of being a starving writer and an affluent producer, and of his love of public libraries, and about the importance of creativity and imagination in our daily lives, especially for children and everything in between.  Most vividly, I recall the energy and joy that he effused so effortlessly, despite being in his seventies at the time.

Bradbury's work was often called science-fiction, and often dealt with technological themes like interplanetary travel or computers, but I have always regarded him as more of a fantasist.  His stories always focused on how ordinary people react to extraordinary circumstances, but even when dealing with spirits, or monsters, his compassion and humanity were evident.  When he passed earlier this year at age 91, I remembered that unexpected encounter with great fondness.

I was reminded of that evening this afternoon when I stumbled across a deadmau5 video based on Bradbury's short story The Veldt.  It is well done, using simple animation to act out an element of the story in a way that plays with our protagonistic assumptions, especially for those of us who haven't perused the source material in decades.  I wonder if he had a chance to see or hear it before his passing, and if he would have enjoyed it.

I've made creativity and imagination and play as much a part of my life and the lives of my wonderful family as I have been able.  I have to wonder if Bradbury planted a seed that evening we saw him, if he merely watered what was already there.  Regardless, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to him in person, even if my recollection is vague and imprecise.

An opportunity to return to the GMCC theatre two decades ago and listen again to this masterful storyteller would be worth quite a bit to me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Southern Winds

Regardless of your inclination, proclivity, intent to purchase or ability to imbibe, you will not be afforded the opportunity to have a beer on a patio in Pincher Creek, Alberta.

Audrey's sister Vera had flown in from Ontario for a visit over the Labour Day weekend.  Rather than simply dropping her off in High River to rendezvous with the parental units, she suggested we go camping in the vicinity, which is how we ended up at Chain Lake, about half an hour west of Nanton in the Porcupine Hills.

Unless you're a fisherman or a boater, there isn't a whole lot to do around the lake itself, but there is lots to see and do within an hour's drive, so we drove down to Lundbreck Falls, on the Crow's Nest River.

A lovely spot, but it doesn't take too long to see, so we took Vera's suggestion and drove to the Oldman River Dam, a structure surrounded by controversy while we were in college.

If you ever have the opportunity to drive around this area, I highly recommend it.  Beautiful vistas or plain, ridge, and coulee, from the Cowboy Trail of Highway 22 to the Dam itself, it is a topography that fires the imagination.  Aside from the highway itself, there are landscapes where only the telltale power line or gigantic wind turbine serves to let you know what century you are currently residing in.  No wonder so many Hollywood westerns have been filmed in the region.

After the dam, we ended up at the Heritage Acres Farming Museum, a 180 acres of land donated by the province to a club dedicated to chronicling the agricultural past of the region, and containing many buildings moved there to avoid being flooded when the dam went in two decades back.

Hot and thirsty, we drove into nearby Pincher Creek, (named for the valuable piece of equipment lost there by prospectors from Montana and discovered almost a decade later by Colonel Macleod's men) hoping to have an outdoor beer before returning to camp.  Alas, many motels, and some lounges, but nary a patio in sight, despite a population of 3,600, and enough consumers to justify a Wal-Mart.

"Do you suppose it is just too windy for them to support a patio?" I mused as we drove out of town.  "You can't really have a patio without umbrellas, and this whole area is dotted with wind turbines.  Maybe it's just unfeasible?"

No one really wanted to argue the point; we were all too tired, and there were beers back at camp.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Kid Stuff

Despite the chilling and sometimes horrific acts of violence in Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight, there is not a visible drop of blood spilled in the entire film. Seriously, go check. Despite this, when I was at Toys R Us and saw Joker toys aimed at 6-8 year olds, I found this a little questionable. Every parent needs to make their own choice about this kind of thing, and every child will be different, but I had no intention of showing TDK to my kids; that film nearly gave me nightmares, I didn't want to see what it did to a 9 year old. Which is maybe a bit disingenuous, given the number of movies I saw as a kid or teen that were 'out of scope' age-wise.

The Gaiety Theatre in Leduc had a pretty liberal attitude towards age limits for the movies they screened. I don't mean that in the sense that they were all about freedom of expression, or anti-censorship, I just don't think they cared. My Dad brought me to see Excalibur when I was 12, and that movie was not only drenched in blood, but had a number of fairly explicit saucy bits too, if you catch my meaning. Truth be told, it was a bit embarrassing to see that kind of thing next to your father, and I suspect it was even more discomforting for him, given that he was probably expecting something closer to Disney's Sword in the Stone. Still, he didn't pull us out of there, and never let on that there was anything out of sorts, even after a man in full plate armor lustily bedded the wife of a rival. I sometimes wish I had asked him about taking me to that movie, but by the time I was ready, with kids of my own, it was already too late.

1982 was a great, great year for genre films, many of which I should not have been able to see on my own, like Blade Runner, which I saw at least twice at The Gaiety. I was completely spellbound by Ridley Scott's vision of the future, and bought the comic and the movie magazine from the Smoke Shop on 50th street, and used this to write my own supplemental rules for TSR's Top Secret espionage role-playing game. (I don't remember too much about it, but I will tell you this: Deckard's pistol did a ridiculous amount of damage for a handgun, but the Nexus Six could still take it.)


In the movie magazine, I was surprised to see an ad for vehicles from the film done in a Hot Wheels or Matchbox style. Maybe it was different in the US, but in Canada, you were supposed to be 18 to see Blade Runner, and at that time, the idea of grown ups playing with dinky toys was pretty implausible. Today, adults spend millions of dollars on 'collectibles' their parents would have considered toys or novelties, but in 1982, not so much. A few years earlier, they had made a toy based on Scott's space-horror, Giger-inspired Alien, so the Blade Runner cars perhaps shouldn't have been such a surprise.

1982 was the same year I saw John Carpenter's The Thing, so when I came across this 'ad', it really made me chuckle; the idea of action figures based on a movie that set the bar for gore, paranoia and terror for years to come is nothing short of brilliant.

Also, please let me know if you ever went to even a tenth of the lengths kids allegedly go to in these ads with their action figure set-ups: snow, sand, full cityscapes, tiny bricks stacked into walls for cars and heroes to crash through, etc. I think perhaps this is the reason we didn't seem to have as much fun as the children in the commercials.