Saturday, April 27, 2013

Excelsior Indeed!

It's difficult for me to recall with any degree of clarity, but I am pretty sure my first exposure to comic books would have been the Marvel Westerns, like Kid Colt, the Two-Gun Kid, and my favourite, the Rawhide Kid. I have a vivid image of sitting in the back seat of our bronze International Harvester Travelall while Dad ran into a tiny shop with (now vintage) soda signage on it, coming out with whatever we needed, plus a comic book for me. I never thought to ask why not a superhero book, but I know the answer: the old man loved westerns, movies at least, with their stoic heroes and uncomplicated morality. Fantasy stories, whether based on science or fairy tales, was never his cup of tea.

I would come to superhero comics on my own later, at first put off by the continuing narratives, but eventually coming to cherish them. I read both Marvel and DC, but as a child one of the biggest differences discernible between the two publishers was the unmistakable omnipresence of creator, writer, editor-in-chief, and main promoter Stan "The Man" Lee.

In addition to creating or co-creating almost all of the first wave of Marvel superheroes including Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and the X-Men, he was also the face of Marvel Comics as an entity. You would see his name on the masthead, or in the credits, or often in an introductory note, and once you had read that comic 3 or 4 times, you might drift over to the news page to Stan's Soapbox, where his tireless self-promotion bordered on mania, but still felt genuine in spite of all that. Stan's relentless positivism and eccentric expressions like 'Excelsior!' and the 'Mighty Marvel Manner' made reading his rants a true delight, and I am sure he was instrumental in developing my love of vocabulary.

Stan's characters are often cited as being a real leap forward in comics due to their insecurities and 'hang-ups', something he felt distinguished Marvel comics from his Distinguished Competition. When he first pitched Spider-Man, he was told by the publisher he was crazy: the main character can't be a teen ager, you can't name him after a bug that scares people, and you can't possibly give him problems! He's a superhero!

Peter Parker only got his shot because a poorly performing magazine called Amazing Fantasy was getting cancelled, which meant no one cared what might go into the final issue. So Stan plugged in a story about a high schooler bitten by a radioactive spider, hang ups and all, featuring art by Steve Ditko, and it resonated with fans and ended up selling out, and the rest is history. Pretty good for a guy who wrote his first comic script in middle age, huh?

After all the comics, cartoons, t-shirts, posters, lunch boxes, action figures, television shows good and bad, it is hard to imagine a more important single contributor to pop culture than Stan Lee. What he didn't affect directly, his creations and his bold new approach and belief that everything is worth trying has influenced countless other artists, writers and publishers.

Decades later, there is now a generation of fans of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner that did not discover them in comic books, but through television or blockbuster movies. They are only finding out after the fact that the guy making all those cameos is none other than their creator, Smilin' Stan Lee.

Fenya and I had the great privilege to hear Stan talk at the Calgary Comic Expo this afternoon. Despite turning 90 years old in December and having recently undergone cataract surgery, he was still clearly ecstatic to be among his fans. He fielded questions from the audience (of all ages) for almost an hour, telling stories from the earliest days of Marvel Comics right up to the trials of being a committed cameo artist, like being told by wardrobe to put on these jeans, this white shirt, and these white sneakers, and being unable to convince them it's a waste of time because that's what you're wearing.

When I booked the tickets over a month ago, I told Fenya I had booked a photo-op with Stan Lee, and she immediately said, "Cool! Too bad I don't have any Marvel t-shirts to wear..."

I was a bit surprised, to say the least. "I didn't think you'd be interested," I confessed.

She cocked her head to the side, the way a dog might to acknowledge some nonsense you are saying to him. "Dad, it's Stan Lee!"

This obviously made me extremely proud.

Despite having a reserved time for our photo op, we still ended up waiting in line for over an hour, and since it was the end of the day, our feet were aching lumps at the end of numbed legs by the time it actually started moving. We killed the time by talking to the nice Jedi couple in front of us, and remarked that when nonagenarian legends run a bit behind schedule, you just need to accept it, which we did, albeit with grimaces transfiguring our expressions.

When we were finally ushered into his presence, it was a fairly rushed affair, where the previous subjects would be moved out while you simultaneously maneuvered into position. After the Jedis moved on, Fenya and I swooped in; despite being at the end of a day at least as long as ours, Stan smiled graciously and greeted us warmly. With very little time to waste, I thanked him and said, "Stan, could I trouble you to point at the camera like you're saying 'Face Front True Believers'?"

It was fairly boisterous in there but he raised his hand with a finger outstretched, and said, "I'm sorry, you wanted...?"

"Face front, true believer?" I said trepidatiously. The photographer's arm was beckoning us, but Stan's face split with a toothy grin, and he nodded. Thanking him profusely, we exited as gracefully as we could, which wasn't all that graceful, but was at least swift and efficient.

Catching up to the Jedis a moment later, all 4 of us were grinning madly. "Totally worth it!" beamed Miles, "The time and the money!"

I nodded in agreement. "My feet don't even hurt any more."

Mile's green-skinned partner's eyes widened; "Omigod, you're right!"

Sure, the pins and needles came back, but not until well after we had picked up our photos. Who would have thought that meeting a living legend would have such therapeutic effects?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Small Wheels Keep On Rollin

This is a somewhat unforgiving scale for the painting of stripes, but by cutting caffeine out for a day, I managed to get them almost straight.  The solid colors/solid spoilers look of the plastic cars that come with Formula Dé turns out to be incredibly boring when replicated on a miniature, so I had to improvise some racing livery and stripes.

My total ignorance of the world of motorsport has probably never been more obvious than when looking at the designs I ended up with.  Some of them are kind of traditional, but I was guessing all the while. And looking at them now, I think perhaps inspired by flag day.  Go Sweden!

Partially by design and partially by accident, I ended up with a mirror arrangement, so the red car with the yellow spoiler complements the yellow car with the red spoiler, and so on.  Having blue and green go together wouldn't have been my first choice, but all the other colour combinations sort of led me there.  There shouldn't be any difficulty mixing the cars up, but only time will tell.

For a time, I toyed with the idea of trying to sneak a superhero logo on the the appropriate colour scheme, like a Flash lightning bolt on the red/yellow car, a Green Lantern on the green.white car, and so on.  I decided to save myself the eyestrain this time around, and perhaps save them for the '60s  cigar cars which don't have much room for stripes and the like.

The toothpicks worked really well in terms of ease of painting, and also made varnishing much easier, since their small size made blowing them off my spray box a real possibility.  Stabbing them into a spare box lid not only prevented this, but also prevented them sticking to the box.

My original intention had been to spray the cars once with a glossy varnish ('Ardcoat) for maximum protection (they are gaming pieces, after all) and then hit them with some Testor's Dullcote for a matte finish which is typically my preference.  In the end, the shininess seemed extremely subject appropriate, so after consultation with my peers, I elected to leave it on for the time being. I did brush a little matte varnish onto the tires, since the shiny rubber was a bit offputting.

Sure enough, clipping the toothpicks off the painted and varnished cars resulting in the paint tearing off the bottom of the model in a couple of cases, but thankfully it never ripped in a visible area.

Formula Dé is a great game: easy to pick up, dynamic sequence of play (leader moves first, making passing critical), and most importantly, it supports up to ten players.  With custom cars, we now have all the more reason to play!  Too bad the additional tracks now go for up to $200 on eBay...

Friday, April 19, 2013

G&Getting Prepared

Our annual cavalcade of friendship, gaming and beer, Gaming & Guinness VIII, is but two weeks hence, and as always, much has been left later than it should. Still, progress is being made, and everything should click into place in time for our conclave of nerdery. Given the group, I shouldn't be surprised if we could pull off a satisfying event with no notice at all, but a little structure is good. Otherwise, it's impossible to go off schedule, and what fun would that be?
We are taking a respite from Wahammer 40,000 this year, and opting for the retro starship combat of A Call To Arms: Starfleet Battles for our miniatures fix. Since the initial outlay is a single ship, much less daunting than an entire army or even a squad, the nine of us should have a grand old time pitting a group of Klingon D7s against a squadron of Constitution class heavy cruisers.

Half of the ships being used were completed in the past 7 days and are in the picture above. Mike T. and Pete painted theirs last Saturday before D&D (top left and middle right respectively), and I finished the other four tonight: two for the out of towners and two for me. My dishless Constitution class won't be in the fight, but I wanted one for display and instructional purposes anyway. I plan to take advantage of Earl's generous offer to use his technical pens for the names and registry numbers; my days of being able to free hand stuff that tiny are clearly behind me, if ever had such days to begin with!

Next up is a set of cars for Formula De. I found two sets of miniatures for the famed racing game at a shop in Vancouver (Checkpoint Charlie's maybe?) probably 7-8 years ago, but every time I went to paint them, I would balk at their tiny size and lack of places to hold them while painting. Then I would rationalize my way out of painting them with thoughts like "I have so much other stuff to paint..." and "the plastic cars that come with the game are just fine" as well as "how often do we even play Formula De?"
They are a neat set of figures, albeit tiny, based on classic F1 cars of the '70s. Not being a motorsports fan, I can't say I recognize any of them, but they have the look of the period for certain. I have a second set of cars from the '60s, but they lack the variety of bodystyles I was looking for, so they will wait for another day. (Or possibly eBay; they are reputed to fetch a pretty price!)

The first thing I needed to overcome was the lack of places to hold the cars while painting, since these did not have any sort of base that would normally assist in this. Thinking back to my earliest days of D&D figure painting, I remembered gluing baseless Grenadier models to a popsicle stick to facilitate their manipulation while painting. While I longed for an excuse to eat ten Fudgsicles, I thought those sticks might be a bit big, and went with toothpicks instead.

Snipping off the tapered end to provide a flatter area for the glue to make purchase, I put a dab of superglue on the underside of each car, pushed the toothpick into place and voila, a convenient painting handle.
Now they are all primed up, and once they're dry, I just need some time to apply the appropriate bright acrylics and some varnish to be ready to play. Although a jeweler's loupe or magnifying glass mightn't go astray either.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Dearly D&Departed

Last night, the group of adventurers sometimes known as 'The Unusual Suspects' met their collective end in the dreaded Pyramid of Shadows.

Ironically, it was only a short time ago that one of the party members observed how unusual it was that their membership had not changed at all since their initial formation almost four years ago.

The end came in the fabled Library of Whispers, as the adventurers were attempting to navigate their way through the Pyramid and find the infamous Tiefling, Karavakos. Immediately after entering the room the company was beset on all sides by a variety of other-planar servants of Vecna called Eaters of Knowledge. It is difficult to say whether overconfidence in their own luck or unfamiliarity with the creatures they fought led to their demise, but high initiative rolls enabled two Thoughtbow archers perched atop the library shelves to daze them with their 'arrowstorm' power. Two Voidblades also attacked the group in melee while incapacitated, making it difficult for the adventurers to coordinate their response for several turns.

By the time the party had taken down two of their opponents, a powerful psionicist known as a Mindstrike had joined the fray, to devastating effect. Possessing a high armour class and more than double the hit points of the other Eaters of Knowledge, the Mindstrike's most devastating ability was a aura that caused damage to any nearby, making closing for hand-to-hand strikes a dodgy proposition at best.
(Artist's conception)

The Elven ranger, Rilion Celevandal was the first to fall, valiantly trading blows with both a Voidblade and the Mindstrike until he went down beneath their flashing scimitars. Both Lannea Rookmarque the paladin and Timbre Wavecrest the bard tried vainly to reach Rilion, but after having passed more than a half-dozen death saves, he finally failed his third one, and became the first party member to pass beyond the veil.

Warryn Weyvold, the Gnomish warlock, gamely scrambled up the ladder to the top of the shelves and directly engaged one of the Thoughtbows, weakening him enough that a magic Missile from pyromancer Pyrus Lucifuge was enough to dispatch him. Emboldened by his success, Warryn foolhardily ran through the northern doors. Whether he was seeking an escape route, or perhaps some treasure that might assist in their fight, we will never know; he triggered some manner of warning glyph which shocked his system and rendered him unconscious, and some time later, behind the now-closed door, he too passed on.

The three survivors fought on bravely, and managed to take out both the remaining Thoughtbow and Voidblade, but the Mindstrike proved to be just too powerful. Standing toe to toe with the Eater of Knowledge despite the psychic onslaught of his powerful aura, first Timbre and then Lannea fell to a pair of critical strikes from his scimitar. Pyrus's attempts to maintain a safe distance while he engaged Vecna's servant at range were to no avail, and it was only a matter of time before he was caught and dispatched,

The whereabouts of the party's final member, a Eladrin warlock known as Aramil, are unknown. It is possible he succumbed to the wounds sustained in an earlier battle, but with the rest of the party dead, it is assumed that if he somehow yet lives, it cannot be for too long,

While by no means the most accomplished or even famous adventuring group in the Nentir Vale, news of the passing of the Unusual Suspects has broken the hearts of many who dwell there, most notably the villagers rescued from Gnollish slavers in the Thunderspire Labyrinth, and Lord Padraig, Master of Winterhaven. "Adventurers come and go," he said in a prepared statement, "but their compassion and commitment to saving Winterhaven from a terrible fate, even after we had tried twice to turn them away, will never be forgotten."

How to Drink from a Pineapple

It is a commonly accepted fact that virtually all drinks* are improved in both quality and presentation if they are served in a pineapple. Sipping your favourite beverage from the hollowed out recesses of the delectable fruit they call 'Nature's Candy' not only increases the average imbiber's state of relaxation by 2-8 milliDudes (mD), but can also provide enough citric acid and Vitamin C to stave off scurvy for brief periods of time.

Many are daunted at the prospect of transmogrifying a pineapple into a drinking receptacle, but it is, in truth, a relatively simple process. Due to the presence of sharp objects and the aforementioned acid, the likelihood of some degree of pain is fairly significant unless suitable protective equipment or cautionary practice are put into play. By following these basic instructions, you can partake of the potable of your choice in a manner both stylish and biodegradable!

Use a sharp implement to remove the top of the pineapple. Placement of the cut should be the highest point on the fruit before it tapers in toward the greenery. Ideally, a machete will be used for this,but if space or safety constraints make this implausible, a large serrated knife also works well. A chainsaw should not be used since it not only damages much of the edible fruit, it also wastes a considerable amount of juice.

Cut a notch in the top of the pineapple so that your straw will have ample access. A more precise opening can be obtained by using a drill or moto-tool, but this is not only impractical but also does not allow for lateral movement of the straw in order to stir or muddle the drink.
The only specialized tool required in this endeavour is a pineapple corer such as the one displayed above, obtainable from many grocery stores for less than $10. Even when not used for drinks, the corer makes it significantly easier to eat every subsequently purchased pineapple, which can only be a good thing.
Line up the corer with the eponymous portion of the pineapple, place some weight upon it, and twist the handle clockwise. The more pressure brought to bear upon the corer, the thicker the slices or rings of pineapple which result, which is why I, and not my wife, needed to preform this operation upon 8 pineapples for Glory's luau-themed birthday party this evening.
Care must be taken to insure that an inch or two of pineapple is left in the bottom, lest the structural integrity of the vessel be compromised, a tragedy typically proportional to the value of the liquid lost. For this reason, single malts are discouraged for drinking from pineapples, although blended whiskies are generally acceptable.
Removing the fruit from the hull of the pineapple can be a tricky bit of business, since a suction effect is often created during the coring process. Thankfully, removing the handle of the corer makes for easy removal of the fruit from the corer, simply by inverting it.
The screw design of the corer means the fruit comes out as a single coiled piece, which has a certain amount of both engineering and esthetic appeal, it is ultimately impractical and ill-suited for sharing. A single vertical cut will leave you with a stack of fresh pineapple rings, suitable for drink garnishing, general snacking or even grilling.
Despite its name, the corer leaves that part of the pineapple behind, so you will need to extract it. A serrated knife will allow you to slice it off at an angle close to the base. Care must be taken not to accidentally pierce the bottom of the pineapple, since this would undo the work done thus far.

The umbrella not only adds a certain degree of flourish, but also makes the lid a bit more stable. A regular toothpick can be used of course, but really, if it's too much trouble, maybe you ought to drink out of a red Solo cup instead, hmm?

In terms of content, my preference is for a mixture of ginger ale, fruit juice and silver or other light rum, but the possibilities are nearly endless. Enjoy this pleasant means of fending off scurvy!

* Exceptions include, but are not limited to, coffee, tea, certain flavours of milkshake (i.e. not pineapple) and porter.


Friday, April 12, 2013

Glory Days


I have no delusions that attending an arts school will make my children either more likely or better prepared for a career in the arts (whether or not that is a comforting idea in the first place), but one of the tangible benefits for me as a parent is how enjoyable it is to visit the school for performances and the like.

Being an arts school, the teachers at Victoria are usually very conscious about things like staging and timing, especially the limited amount of time you often have to engage the attention and imagination of a diverse audience that probably has siblings as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles, caregivers et cetera.

The K-6 students staged their "Magic and Mayhem" concert Wednesday and Thursday night, which included Glory and her fifth grade cohort singing and dancing their way through "We Are the Brats", which positioned itself delicately between adorable and ominous. Cute grade 5 children in 'thuggish' looking denim or leather jackets supply the former, while lyrics like "there are five of you, but lots of us" supplied the latter. This is not even taking into consideration the fact that loud children's choruses are always a little intimidating, (c.f. "We don't need no education", et al.).

Prior to the girls coming to Vic, I would struggle to be attentive before and after the appearance of my own offspring, but the acts presented at Wednesday's concert were very decent, even those performed by the younger grades. Sure, they were often unpolished, and there is always unintentional comedy to be had (sometimes of the "now where the heck do you think he's off to then?" variety) but that is part of the allure, at least to me.

We also had a chance to view some of Glory's art projects from the year, like this self portrait,


...this colourful piece,


...this dark bit of business from a collage drawn onto old, damaged book pages,


...and my favourite, this depiction of Oma and Opa coming to Canada and starting a family.


She spent a fair bit of time and no small amount of thought on it, and I thought it turned out really well. If nothing else, their time at Vic will have given both girls some valuable tools for self expression which can be invaluable no matter what they end up doing in life.


Tuesday, April 9, 2013

TCB w/ RB (of BTO)

Some sounds, ubiquitous sounds, can have the effect of ingratiating their way into your life without your evening being cognizant of it. You replace a furnace, and perhaps the new fan doesn't make that distinctive click every few cycles that reminded you it was still working and keeping your house safe. At the start of the school year, your classmates sing the national anthem in a subtly different key. These pervasive sounds become the soundtrack of our life and times unconsciously, sometimes only distinguishing themselves by their absence. Sometimes it is even that way with music, wherein the active mind says "I've heard that song before, a hundred times in my youth; find something fresher," and we often listen, sometimes to our detriment.

Good friends of ours bought us tickets to Randy Bachman's show tonight in Edmonton, and at first, I was a little apprehensive. I mean, sure, I appreciate The Guess Who; I'm Canadian after all. And who doesn't like to hear "Takin' Care of Business" once in a while? But the idea of sitting through a Randy Bachman concert only intrigued me, it didn't excite me.
Now, I've never listened to his CBC radio show, Randy's Vinyl Tap, and that is clearly going to have to change, because on the show, he plays music from his own collection, and tells stories about how and when they were made, and about the people who made them, and this tour is all about him telling the stories behind his own music, a half century of unapologetic rock and roll originating in Winnipeg and winding its way across North America and the globe.

Bachman is a fantastic and humorous storyteller, a gifted raconteur who has lived the fascinating and challenging life of a professional musician since he dropped out of high school to pursue his dream. Ignoring his father's advice to have something to fall back on for fear that he would fall back on it instead of moving forward, he talks frankly about the kind of confidence and courage I could never see myself possessing.

Each anecdote would end with a (sometimes shortened) rendition of one of the songs from his tremendous repertoire: These Eyes, She's Come Undone, American Woman, Let It Roll, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (recently voted Best Stuttering Song by the Stuttering Foundation of America,) et cetera. Learning that the "killing floor" mentioned in No Time Left For You is a reference to Vietnam that he overheard a serviceman tell his hippie friend in San Francisco, or how many songs he made no money from because they were just too close to something by another artist (like the Doobie Brothers) was eye opening and always related in an entertaining and self deprecating manner.

I had no idea, for instance, that while Bachman was playing with his Winnipeg High School band, Chad Allan & The Expressions, they sent a tape with their cover of Shakin' All Over to a record company. The company surreptitiously promoted it as a bootleg recording of semi-famous British musicians signed to various labels, under the cheekily mysterious name "Guess Who", which is how that band's name came to be.

The most interesting story to me was about a time in the '60s when filling up their bus just south of the border on their way to a gig in Texas, the station manager determined they would be playing in the Selective Service building. He kindly explained that their 'green cards', formally known as Resident Alien cards, not only entitled them to work and reside in the U.S., but also made them eligible for the draft and service in Vietnam, where his son had been killed. He advised them not to turn around, but suggested they turn left, drive down the road and cross the border back into Canada somewhere else, and not to come back until the war was over.

And they never did.

I had a much better time at The Vinyl Tap Tour than I expected to, and while the music was great, the stories and insights from a true CanadianRock veteran were even better. The talk to music ratio was about 2:1, which felt just about right. I hope they put it on DVD, because I would love for the girls to see it, both for the music I grew up with, and the times and people that produced it. The next time I hear BTO or The Guess Who on the radio, I hope they are in the car so I have a good reason to turn it up.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Dinner At The Final Frontier

Stardate 130406.6: We arrived at the planet Harris VIII in time for the seasonal observance of Geekquinox. While many of the male crewmen opted for casual dress, the women maintained a strong Federation presence in their Starfleet regalia, which was both unanticipated and delightful.  The nostalgic hairdos sported by some of the ladies were also extremely well received! 
Our host, Peter, had prepared a sumptuous repast of a number of courses and beverages, all strongly themed to our starfaring proclivities.  As he was kept busy with his preparations, his main viewer outlined what we could expect as the evening progressed.
The question was raised, however, as to which was more telling: the fact that our host had meticulously researched the appropriate stardates for the menu display, or the fact that one noted officer was able to confirm them with but a glance.
As the LCARS display indicates, there was a significant Engineering component involved in the preparation of many of the dishes, such as the heart of targ, prepared using a 'modernist' technique dating back to the early 21st century known as sous vide.  Leaving nothing to chance, computerized PID systems were used to maintain a stable temperature of the fluids used to cook the vacuum-packed meat.  Unconventional as it was to most of us, there was no denying how delicious an entree it resulted in.

It should be noted that the tetrahedral potato accompaniments were hand-carved by the host, which caused one observer to suggest that Garth of Izar may no longer be the benchmark for insanity amongst fleet officers, but all in good sport.

The sous vide technique also enabled Peter to produce a delightfully inside-out version of Eggs Benedict he playfully referred to as the 'Transporter Accident'.

Peter's commitment to presentation extended beyond the menus and even into the way some of the appetizers were served:
Another unconventional aspect was a seafood appetizer served in a single-serving drinking vessel; the Gorn Gunpowder Shot (known in other regions as a hamachi shot) melded a fascinating combination of exotic ingredients, including hydroponically grown sprouts the host had cultivated himself. These were muddled together with a small amount of ponzu sauce before being 'shot' back, and produced an intense array of flavours and textures that saw everyone who sampled it return for another serving, even those with historically timid palates.
It is said that only the bravest venture into Vulcan cuisine, but his interpretation of Vulcan plomeek soup was virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
The Smorgas-'Borg' cubes of risotto accompanied by tasty duck were another triumph of taste and presentation.

In terms of libations, being outside the territorial borders of the Federation proper allowed us to imbibe of the fabled Romulan ale (or perhaps a less potent derivation, according to one individual who claimed to have sampled it before), but a far more exotic treat was the Warp Core Breach, derived from a Ferengi recipe. 
The Warp Core Breach boasted a tremendous presentation, bubbling and steaming in its insulated container, but as advertised, it was capable of inducing three day's relaxation, due largely to the high concentration of Terrestrial rums.  The solid carbon dioxide which served to keep the beverage refreshingly chilled also necessitated its being drunk through a device similar in construction to the South American yerba maté straw, for safety. 

It wouldn't be a Starfleet operation without some sort of anomaly cropping up, however, and due to a fissure in the spacetime continuum or perhaps a temporal flux in the reflex-schedule capacitators, the Food Cubes failed to materialize in time for dinner.   They were still amazing looking though, and tasted delightful the following day.

Better still than the food was the spirit of conviviality and fellowship that pervaded the evening's observances, which went on until the wee hours.  Our various missions and deployments give us far too few opportunities to enjoy each other's company, so we were all grateful to Peter and the hospitality of Harris VIII for this chance to share a wonderful time together, as well as an opportunity to dine where no one has dined before!  

Monday, April 1, 2013

Lookin' Over and Over Looking

If you want a clear picture of how much we have changed since we first willingly held out your wrists to accept the comforting shackles of maturity, consider your interactions with the grass.

There was a time in our lives when a lush, green lawn wasn't the sigil of yardwork obligations, but a gateway to a multiverse of exploration and play, the carpet to childhood's greatest playroom. Laying on one's belly to peer between blades of grass, imagining the forest it represented to the ants and daddy long-legs we observed there; following the peregrinations of arthropods and gastropods amidst the slowly dawning recognition that your modest childhood backyard might represent a county, a nation, an entire universe to the tiny denizens you shared it with.

How many times, as a third-grade outfielder, would I squat, mesmerized by the comings and goings of diminutive animals, or subtle variations in the structure of the grass we played on? How much clover did I sift through in pursuit of the elusive four-leafed variety, only to be interrupted by the crack of the bat and having to scramble to my feet to determine if the ball was coming my way, or to discover that my team was actually hitting now (only once, thankfully!).

I never did find a four-leafed clover, and I am not at all sure when it was, exactly, that I stopped looking. Did the ground simply get too far away? This seems unlikely, even impossible; it has never been further away than the bottom of my feet. Perhaps it is better to say that I grew too far away from it, eyes drawn to tantalizing horizons and tempting corners, even fences where the grass could be argued to be more verdant. By the time I crossed those fences, however, my fickle interests were undoubtedly drawn upwards and elsewhere again.

On a warm June day some five years back, I went to pick up the girls from school, about a kilometre from our house, so we could walk home together. Fenya was in 4th grade at the time, Glory in 1st. I waited for them in a parking lot on the edge of school property, getting them used to notion of finding each other at day's end and making their own way from the school. Seeing them cross the field, hand in hand, was about as rewarding a vision as a man could ask for, and they would wave with their free hands once they saw me waiting.

Before I could even ask them how their day had been, Fenya blurted out, "Guess what I found at recess today?"

"Something dangerous? A coin? A frog?"

She shook her head. "No, I found a four-leaf clover, a real one!" She wriggled her fingers into the chest pocket of her jean jacket and extricated it as carefully as she could. "Ashley thought one of the leaves was torn, but I think it is a proper one so I kept it to show you. Do you think it's real?"

I took the tiny item from her hands, taking care to be gentle. True, one of the leaves was quite thin compared to the others, but on closer inspection, it appeared to have been folded upon itself. Using my thumbnail, I was able to slowly unfurl it, and said to Fenya, "I think you're right, kiddo; I think this is the real McCoy." Seeing her puzzlement and realizing she was probably trying to connect her discovery to the doctor on Star Trek, I quickly added, "I think it is a genuine four-leaf clover. Well done!"

She beamed on the walk home, while I told her how much time I had spent at her age, scouring lawns for the legendary clover, and how jealous and proud I was that she had found one. I told her that if she let me, I would put the clover on or in something to preserve and protect it, to which she gladly agreed.

The next day, I went to Michael's and bought a tiny, unfinished wooden box, a child's treasure chest, perhaps three inches wide. I mixed up a batch of thick epoxy varnish I had used previously to make miniature rivers for wargaming, and after placing the clover carefully on the lid, poured it over.

The chemical reaction between the two components created heat, and the heat created bubbles in the varnish. By blowing through a straw, you could use the carbon dioxide in your breath to draw out the bubbles and create a smooth, clear finish. I worried that the heat might damage the leaves, but had no better means of sealing this discovery, so I left the varnish to dry and trusted to fate.

Appropriately enough, luck held, and the clover remained visible and undamaged, if perhaps not quite as green as we might have liked. I used a fine tip marker to put a small inscription on the underside of the lid, to affix the find to a moment in time so it wouldn't become yet another tragic and ambiguous amalgamation of childhood memory.

I'm not entirely sure why Fenya's four-leaf clover came to mind this weekend; the delayed promise of spring perhaps, or the appearance of grass in our yard as the recent snow makes its reluctant retreat. Perhaps the reflection we heard on Easter Sunday, as James reminded us that the significance of Jesus's resurrection might have less to do with creating an otherworldly kingdom of heaven than illustrating our ability to create a heavenly life on earth by standing up to oppressive powers. Maybe his illustration of how brutal life was in first century Palestine and even medieval Europe reminded me of just how lucky I am, how lucky we all are, to be living in our deeply flawed yet occasionally fair and gentle world.

I asked her today where the clover box was, and she took it out of another box so I could take some pictures of it. I opened it to see the inscription, having already forgotten the date, and saw a small plastic bag inside. "What's that?" I asked.

She shrugged eloquently. "Some stones I found, and a bone." I nodded, understanding. The treasures of childhood: nothing fashioned by the hands of man, but carved and polished instead by time and erosion. Nothing purchased or traded, only discovered and cherished.

Last fall, we were finally able to get the landscaping done to our yards that they so desperately needed, which included new sod to replace our uneven, yellowing, crabgrass-riddled lawn. I hope that when spring finally does arrive to stay, that in addition to mowing and fertilizing it, I take some time away from the hammock and spend some time at eye level with the ants and beetles again, exploring the underfoot world so long unvisited.