Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Like a Trooper

Even if you aren't a fan of the music, it is easy to be a fan of Iron Maiden's lead singer Bruce Dickinson. Articulate, well read, competitive fencer and commercial airline pilot, he has recently turned his hand to craft brewing, and I just came across his premiere effort, The Trooper, while at Sherbrooke tonight.


The beer is actually produced by Robinsons Brewery out of Stockport in the U.K., but as the back of the bottle declares, "being a real ale enthusiast, vocalist Bruce Dickinson has developed a beer which has true depth of character."


Like some other British session beers I've tried, this one is an ale with some of the characteristics of a quality lager; the bitterness of the three different hops offset by a hint of citrus. It would be all to easy to drink a a lot of this beer, but I'm unlikely too. If I'm in for the duration, I would probably lean towards something a bit more budget-conscious, like Rev. James.


Still, it's great to see the iconic album cover repurposed so well, and a the references to Tennyson's epic poem that inspired the song is muc appreciated. All in all, an excellent first effort, and I hope the next Iron Maiden beer takes on a less common style!


Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Star Blanket Does Not Cover, But Reveals

Our congregation was recently presented with an 8-pointed star blanket by the All Native Circle Conference. Normally such gifts are gratefully accepted without any special discernment, but thankfully, Rev. James' considerable experience working with native communities in Manitoba and elsewhere provided us with the additional insights and the protocols needed to properly receive such a significant offering.

At our annual general meeting last June, a speaker from the Alexander First Nation came to accept a tobacco offering and to share some thoughts and insights into the meaning and significance of the star blanket. Stan Arcand Jr. is the son of a former hereditary chief, and an earnest and honest speaker. His own learning was centred around a 7-pointed star, which he shared with us, saying that each point has its own symbolism: honesty, respect, kindness, humbleness, forgiveness, humility and love. The blue of our blanket represents sky and high honour, and the points radiate out, just as we radiate out as community, family, and individuals. Three strands of sweetgrass woven into the blanket symbolize mind, body and spirit.

James explained that such a gift could not be stored for special occasions or hung out of the way, but needs to be displayed in a place of significance to honour both the gift itself, and our commitment to right relations with aboriginal peoples. Stan suggested placing the blanket over a doorway with an appropriate smudging ceremony, and after James presented an empty space over the sanctuary doors, we all agreed that this would be ideal.

James made the appropriate protocols and arrangements for an elder to come in to help us with this, and last week Stan returned with his uncle Tony, a tribal elder, and they held a smudging over the blanket prior to its being hung over the sanctuary door.

James had asked prior to the ceremony if he might have the native-style prayer stole he received as a gift in Manitoba similarly blessed, and the elder was happy to oblige. After having delivered the traditional offerings of tobacco protocol and a gift of prints in the 4 sacred colours of the medicine wheel (black, white, red and yellow), James put on his stole and presented himself to the elder, saying, "My spirit name is Wapiskamikisew, White Eagle."

The elder smudged James and the stole with the smoke from a burning wick of sweetgrass, and this was followed by Stan singing an honour song and drumming on his frame drum. I found the entire thing profoundly moving, while James was actually a little embarassed, since he had thought the song was just going to be for the blanket itself, and had not wanted to be the focus of the proceedings.

I told him that I thought it was wholly appropriate, since without him we would not have known the proper manner in which to accept the gift, and that he was instrumental in our moving forward in a spirit of mutual respect and forgiveness. This is more important than ever since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is coming to Edmonton in March.

The TRC is an offshoot of "the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history [against both the Federal government, and the churches that ran the schools, including the United Church of Canada]. The agreement sought to begin repairing the harm caused by residential schools. Aside from providing compensation to former students, the agreement called for the establishment of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, for those affected to have an opportunity to share their stories." (From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission website.)

Now, I have to admit here that I have a difficult time with white liberal guilt, and might feel that I have nothing to apologize for. After all, I never worked in those schools, and I never personally abused anyone, native or otherwise. The truth of it is though, that my church, at the behest of my (and probably your) government, tried to implement an assimilationist solution to "the Indian problem" that no matter how you dress it up, equated effectively to genocide. Children were taken from their homes and families, shipped to faraway places and told to forget their language, culture and identities. Looking back at it now, it seems as evil and fantastical an idea as any evil scheme concocted by a James Bond villain, despite the fact that the people implementing it thought they were doing good in 'civilizing' a 'savage' people.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, we now know that there was rampant abuse of every possible stripe in the residential schools: physical, emotional, sexual, and even scientific experimentation. How can we be surprised? If you put people in remote areas, require and encourage them to do terrible things to their charges with absolutely no oversight, how can we be express schock at the horrific tales that have come from the survivors of Canada's residential schools? It's like some perverse precursor to the infamous Milgram Experiment, where volunteers were willing to torture others with only the slightest encouragement from an authority figure.

And while you or I might not have had a direct role to play in those wrongdoings, most of us have benefitted, directly or indirectly from white privilege. As the people in power, as the 'establishment' we do have a role to play in the work of the TRC, and it doesn't need to involve personal shame; we just need to listen.

If we give the survivors a venue to tell their stories, but the only ones who come to listen are fellow natives and other survivors, then the TRC will have accomplished very little. This community is all too aware of the tremendous damage caused by the residential schools, and how long the healing is likely to take. There needs to be white faces, 'establishment' faces in that audience, and not so they can be blamed or shamed or ridiculed, although there will be instances where that happens, and brave volunteers present in order to take that anger and try to turn it into something cathartic.

No, the majority of faces just need to be there, to listen, and to nod, and to acknowledge the wrongness and hurt, and to agree that this should never have happened, and to ask for collective forgiveness so that true healing can begin. Think of it as supporting a friend who is grieving; there is little you can do to change how they are feeling, but being there to share the burden helps all the same.

There can be a temptation to think of the residential schools as something from the distant past, and that those who live in the present day should somehow 'just get over it', but the last federally operated residential school didn't close until 1996. Audrey works with children every day whose backgrounds and behaviours are a direct result of the Indian Residential Schools; parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins may be survivors, or might have vivid memories of those they loved being taken away. Many of the social ills we associate with urban aboriginals, like alcoholism, substance abuse, child abandonment, suicide and such, have their genesis in the IRS. She deals with children who might never have experienced the residential schools for themselves, but now deal with neglect, fetal alcohol syndrome, foster care, and gang violence as a result of them. We simply cannot be surprised when those affected by such a travesty cannot rise above such obstacles, or that they do not have the tools needed to raise healthy families.

Audrey asked a female elder who visits her school how long it might take to get things right with regard to this, and was told that the effects of the residential schools are likely to be felt for seven generations. Seven! It boggles the mind; I can't trace my own family history back more than three, and that takes me back to the 19th century, but it gives you a sense of the scale at least. Even though the goal of the IRS was assimilation and not extermination, the similarity to the Holocaust is hard to deny, especially in terms of those affected being able to move forward.

As challenging and sometimes horrifying a topic as the residential schools can be, the upcoming visit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to Edmonton from March 27-30 does bring with it the hope for a better future together. I feel obliged to go, since my church was so complicit in the IRS, and although I expect it to be extremely emotionally trying, I am still looking forward to its outcome.

For those outside of the churches involved, there are still good reasons to attend; if not for the acknowledgement of white privilege (which is a tough nut to crack), then the fact that the people telling their stories at the TRC are not 'others', but our neighbours. Edmonton is likely to have Canada's largest urban aboriginal population in the next 5-10 years, and it is in everyone's best interests that this group have the understanding, support, and access to healing needed to move forward. I hope those reading this will consider participating in or at least supporting the important work being done by the TRC.

I'm glad that on most Sundays I will now be able to look at the star blanket hanging in our sanctuary for inspiration and a reminder of how far we have to go; I hope that one of those 8 points shows the way to right relations, even if the route is difficult.


This coming March, the final national event for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
is coming to Edmonton.

In preparation for this significant time of listening to the stories of Indian residential
school survivors and coming to terms with the ongoing legacy for all of us as both a nation and a church, St. Albert United Church is hosting a series of preparation sessions:

Session I: November 30, 4:00-7:30 p.m.,
Understanding Why it is important that Churches attend the TRC.
(Includes stone soup supper. Please bring chopped vegetables to be included in the soup.)

Session II: January 18, 4:00—7:30 p.m.,
Understanding the History Part I

Session III: February 15, 4:00—7:30 p.m. Understanding the History Part II

TRC Event in Edmonton: March 27 - 30 at Shaw Conference Centre

Session IV: TBA: Sharing a Meal Together

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Moon Dragon (2013; multicolour ink and highlighter)

It is always heartening to see advances made in the field of applied childishness. Naturally this is an area which my friends and I tend to excel in, as evidenced by Earl's recent Lego Therapy post.


Where I work, we have a Spirit Committee that organizes various challenges from month to month, some focused on productivity, others on accuracy, et cetera. This month though, the theme is "Just For Fun" and the coordinator has put a fair amount of effort into setting up a variety of games and puzzles, and distributing a variety of treats labeled "Just For You! Just For Fun!"


I haven't had the time to do the word search or the sudoku-like brain teaser she has circulated, so I made an effort to participate in the most recent challenge: a colouring contest.


Yes, seriously.


Now, I may have coloured a couple of times with the girls when they were younger, but prior to that, I would have to say it has been literally decades since I coloured something. Even at a restaurant with paper tablecloths or menus, I am far more likely to bust out a game of hangman rather than colour. I do like to doodle though, and since there were extra points for using whatever items you happened to have at your desk, I decided to go ahead and take a crack at it.

I selected a fierce looking dragon to colour, looking not just for subject matter I found appealing, but something balancing out a limited palate with a variety of potential textures. In addition to a handful of likely looking highlighters, I had the ubiquitous 4-color 'study-buddy' Bic of my youth, courtesy of our CEO who distributed one to each and every employee earlier in the year.


I used my green highlighter to colour some of the scales around the dragon's face, and to help bring out the definition elsewhere. I used the green ink pen to draw single parallel lines on most of the face and much of the belly, then cross-hatched many of his scales. I did the stripes on his horns in a similar fashion with the black pen, and the tongue with the red.


Yellow and orange highlighter took care of most of the rest, although the orange barely shows up in this scan due to being, yeesh, three or four years old I reckon. I used a blue highlighter to colour most of the moon and to highlight the clouds, which pretty much forced me to use black Sharpie to colou rin the sky in order to establish thatit was, in fact, night time in my picture.


And that was about all I had time for. I am fairly happy with the results, but having seen some of the other efforts, I don't think I have much chance of winning. To be fair, that wasn't my intention anyways; the simple joy of adding colour to paper, working with my hands, adding some vibrancy to a black and white image, and working around the challenge of limited materials was a great way to spend a few minutes on break that otherwise would have been used to check on the latest Rob Ford debacle or Senate expense scandal. Mostly I was encouraged by how many people participated!


If you have an opportunity to revisit colouring at some point during this increasingly frantic time of year, whether on a restaurant's children's menu, or a workplace contest, do yourself a favour and take advantage of it.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Table vs. Tablet: Pandemic

Pandemic, a board game where the players work together against time to stop the spread of global disease, is the best example of cooperative gaming I have ever encountered. A brilliant set of game mechanics insures that each game is likely to be a nail-biter, and with each player having special abilities due to the role they play, everyone is going to feel like they were a part of either the hard-fought victory or ignoble and unlucky defeat.


The only shortcomings the board game might have as far as I am concerned is that I can't take it with me and it feels awkward setting up a full board game to play by myself, alternating between two separate pawns. I was very happy to see that Monolith Interactive and Fez Digital Media have released a remarkably faithful adaptation of the game for iOS devices that works brilliantly on the iPad.


My favourite thing about the Pandemic app is that it still feels like you are playing a board game; even though no hand moves the players' pawns from city to city, the cards that determine so much of your fate are shuffled before you before getting tucked away on the side of the display. You can see all the other player's cards, and even play their event cards on your turn.


Still there is a lot to be said for the scale and esthetics of the original boardgame though: the high quality cards, the big colourful board, with it's allocated space for the two decks of cards, and especially the petri dish containers for the cubes used to represent the diseases you get in the expansion pack. There is also something remarkably satisfying and visceral about seeing three grown men flip the bird to an inanimate playing card as we exult in the fact that an epidemic has just been prevented thought the timely eradication of one of the four diseases. As a result, if given the option, I am more likely to play with the original, but there are five areas the Pandemic app excels at that are worth drawing attention to:


  1. Audio/Video. Dramatic music accompanies your turn, but is mostly string-based and not too obtrusive. The music changes dramatically when an Epidemic card is drawn, or when an Outbreak occurs, and is accompanied by flashing lights. Disease cubes orbit the cities they are in, and if there is danger of an Outbreak, they move more quickly and gently pulse with red light, adding to the tension. There are some sound effects too, like the whoosh of a jet when you charter a jet to a distant locale, or jackhammers when you build a research station. Placing the cubes on adjoining cities during an Outbreak is bad enough, but watching an animation depict them racing along the connector lines, punctuated by a soft booming noise when they arrive, it is really disheartening.
  2. Portability. The iPad is one of the best things to have with you while travelling, period. Being able to take a half dozen board games on vacation without any fear of losing any pieces is a big part of this if you are with your family, and Pandemic's faithful adaptation makes it well worth the price ($6.99) and space. Being able to suspend the game and return to it later is handy too.
  3. Set-Up Time. Like most boardgames, Pandemic requires a bit of set-up time, probably 15-20 minutes. If you are in a situation where that time might make it difficult to play, crack open the app and you can be playing in about 60 seconds.
  4. Tutorial. I think I might be done teaching people how to play Pandemic, because the app's tutorial does such a great job. It explains the objectives and interface clearly, instructing the player how and where to move for the first few turns, but eventually folding in decisions as to where the next pawn should go, and what decisions should be made. The game itself posts tips and reminders which will be helpful to new players as well.
  5. Solitaire. As mentioned, there is nothing preventing me from setting up Pandemic in order to play the game by myself, except for my chronic lack of ambition in this regard. There are just too many other options for solo entertainment for Pandemic solitaire to be viable, unless I've left the game set up from a previous night's session. Since getting the app though, I find playing a round or two on the higher difficulty levels or with roles I am unfamiliar with are a great way to test new strategies.

The board game still trumps in terms of a social evening with friends, although if you have Apple TV or another means of streaming to your television, it might be fun to use the app in the living room with a big screen. I am also looking forward to trying some of the alternate modes of tabletop play from On The Brink, like Virulent Strain or Bio-Terrorist, but we all want to get a few more victories under our belts with the regular version before adding further complications.


I think we will get there though, since Pete, Mike and I managed to attain victory on Saturday night with only 2 of a maximum 8 Outbreaks having transpired. It is a credit to the games's remarkably well balanced design that we were still totally nervous until the second last turn, and it was only the timely playing of Event cards from near the beginning of the game that allowed us to do it!


Monday, November 18, 2013

It's All In How You Raise 'Em

For years, I've steeled myself against the years of Raising Teenaged Daughters. I've been realistic and forthright about the anticipated declination of my relevance as the nerdy patriarch of the household to anyone who will listen. As my two delightful young ladies begin fording the murky and inconstant waters between childhood and adult life, I recognize not only the challenges from having made a similar journey decades ago, but the impossibility of applying the lessons I learned to what they face due to our differing genders.

This is not to suggest I am abdicating my role as the pater familias; far from it! I still try to teach values and to lead first by example, though my success rate isn't what it perhaps could be. I am still a good listener, and always ensure steadfast access to an open ear and dry shoulder as needed. When they do something foolish or short-sighted I call them on it, but I make sure never to confuse the behaviour with the person making it. Most importantly, I am still their foremost cheerleader and never stop reminding them how awesome they are, even when circumstance has conspired to see me overserved and the only response they can muster when I come round to the topic for the umpteenth time is, "Thanks Dad; we know."

Watching Justice League cartoons with them when they were small and talking about what is good and heroic, and what is selfish and evil, and what makes people do bad things is a considerable distance from the Socratic Method, but it gives a great opportunity to explain that no villain ever sees themselves as the bad guy. Or, conversely, to express gentle disappointment in their animation choices when I come across them watching Scooby Doo, and giving them 3:1 odds on a bet against their allowance that the ghost or monster is just some real estate speculator in a cheap rubber mask that earlier in the show somehow had the ability to articulate its mouth and blink.

As they grow older and become concerned (but not infatuated) with their clothes and hairstyles, I've stepped aside a little bit so that Audrey can teach them about both style and substance, with equal attention paid to both practicality and panache. The circumnavigation of fashion, boys, mean girls and the impacts of estrogen are best handled by someone who has been there, and it has hardly been a surprise that she has handled it so brilliantly.

Still, there are moments...somewhat rare, but definitely occurring in a statistically encouraging manner, in which they show themselves inexplicably and undeniably to be Daddy's girls.

Watching Pixar's Toy Story of Terror just prior to Hallowe'en, I was charmed to discover that black action figure Combat Carl was voiced by none other than black action hero Carl Weathers. Re-watching the scene where he is introduced by whispering "Over here" while out of sight, I exclaimed, "Hey, it's a Predator reference!" and was both delighted and pleased with myself... for about a second and a half, until Fenya, with no trace of guile said, "Really? You didn't get that?"

I was so shocked, it never even occurred to me to respond with, "Pfft, why would I? It's not even his line, it's Bill Duke's..." but that's pretty weak sauce, so it's probably just as well.

A few nights back we were all watching Once Upon A Time and it seemed like they were legitimately lining up one of the major characters to die. During one of the commercial breaks I said, "They wouldn't really kill off Prince Charming, would they?"

Glory sat bolt upright on the couch, turned to me and asked, "Who makes this show? Like who writes it or directs it or whatever?"

At first I wasn't sure why she would ask, but the honest worry on her face provided the insight I needed to respond. "Not Joss Whedon," I reassured her. She returned to reclining with an audible sigh of relief; Agent Coulson appears to be back, but I don't know if she will ever forgive him for Wash.

Fenya's birthday a couple of week's back provides a few good examples:
  • She wanted to kick back with her friends and just watch a couple of movies, so she picked a double-feature of The Avengers and Iron Man 3.
  • Instead of ordering in pizza, she had me fetch shawarmas from Sunbake Pita for everyone, which I was only too happy to do. (If you don't get why this is awesomely thematic, the short video below will save you having to fast-forward through the credits.)
  • Her gifts included a Harley Quinn figurine, Marvel mug, a tiny Swiss Army knife with randomly coloured buttons printed on it AND one of 4 custom screened Harry Potter t-shirt one of her friends made for the group of them.
  • When I congratulated her the next morning on both the quality of her friends and a successful but low-key party, she wryly replied, "Ha, Loki," and once again it took me a second or two to catch on.

Best of all, they are no longer taking their cues from me, but picking up on their own nerdy things to love. Yesterday they finally got me to watch one of their favourite films of late, Pitch Perfect, a comedy about a college freshman who reluctantly joins an all-girl a capella group trying to rebuild its reputation. The main character is played by Anna Kendrick who I know primarily as Scott Pilgrim's sister, but even the coolest character in the group is still nerdy by the standards of the popular kids. There is a bit of a hierarchy of dorkiness they play with in the course of the story, but even the love interest gets teased for being a movie nerd. I was a little scared that I might be in for a musical rendition of Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, but I ended up having a much better time than I expected to. if it drifts across your transom, I highly recommend checking it out.

When one of the characters says, "I love you awesome nerds," I looked at my daughters and thought, I couldn't agree more.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Test of Character

Yet another post inspired by the Earliad! The internet abounds with 'personality tests' and sundry parlour games designed to tell you which Disney character, Jedi, superhero or mythical creature you are most like, but the majority of them serve principally as randomizers, and have all the depth and insight of a fortune cookie.

The "What Kind of Dungeons & Dragons Character Would You Be?" (link below) is a long ways short of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, but asks more questions than the abbreviated yet illuminating True Colours test we've done at work. I tend to overthink the questions on these sorts of quizzes, and made a point of going with my gut response as much as I could (which was easy, since the stakes were so low).

I Am A: Lawful Good Human Paladin/Cleric (3rd/3rd Level)

Ability Scores:

Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment when it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Humans are the most adaptable of the common races. Short generations and a penchant for migration and conquest have made them physically diverse as well. Humans are often unorthodox in their dress, sporting unusual hairstyles, fanciful clothes, tattoos, and the like.

Primary Class:
Paladins take their adventures seriously, and even a mundane mission is, in the heart of the paladin, a personal test an opportunity to demonstrate bravery, to learn tactics, and to find ways to do good. Divine power protects these warriors of virtue, warding off harm, protecting from disease, healing, and guarding against fear. The paladin can also direct this power to help others, healing wounds or curing diseases, and also use it to destroy evil. Experienced paladins can smite evil foes and turn away undead. A paladin's Wisdom score should be high, as this determines the maximum spell level that they can cast. Many of the paladin's special abilities also benefit from a high Charisma score.

Secondary Class:
Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron's vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity's domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric's Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Despite their largely undeserved reputation for pomposity, the Paladin has been one of my favourite character classes since I was a lad, and my penchant towards spirituality makes the Cleric split class a nice fit as well. I was a bit surprised though, thinking of myself as more of a Neutral Good than Lawful, but my tendency towards order is such that I actually scored higher in Lawful Neutral answers than Chaotic Good!

Chaotic Neutral - XXXXXXXXXXX (11)
Lawful Evil ----- XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Chaotic Evil ---- X (1)

The fact that you are allowed behind the curtain to see the detailed results of your answers is one of the neater aspects of this page, and I will probably ask the girls to do the test at some point to see where their answers take them. There's way more evil in there than one might expect from an LG Paladin Cleric, but that fits in with my view that the root of evil isn't money, but selfishness, and I succumb to greed or short-sighted thinking on occasion, as I imagine most of us do from time to time. I'd be lying if I said I was unconcerned as to where that single Chaotic Evil answer came from though.

I also thought I would be further along than 3rd level by this point in my life, but giving the extremely limited amounts of healing and slaying I've done, I really can't complain. Plus, it shouldn't be too, long before I can summon my warhorse, or destrier to be precise.

As a true personality test, I don't think "What D&D Character Would You Be?" would fare well under any sort of academic scrutiny, but as a conversation piece and potential tool for personal insight, it does its job far better than the associated whimsy might suggest. Well done Easydamus!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Thor: The Dark World Reviewed

Monday afternoon we had the opportunity to see the latest Marvel Studios release, Thor: The Dark World, and had a great time at it.


It needs to be said that this is in spite of the story and not because of it, since it is not a plot-driven movie in the least, which is a bit unusual for a comic-book film. Since superhero 'tights 'n' fights' comics are traditionally a means to an end, and that end is two larger than life characters in outrageous regalia beating the living shinola out of each other in Act III, it is not uncommon to give the movies based on them a free pass regarding story quality anyhow.


As our blockbusters have grown just slightly more sophisticated in recent years, modern audiences are demanding more than just epic scale and bombastic set-pieces, and if that itch is not scratched by the McGuffin-ish plot, is The Dark World worth visiting anyways, and why?


Director Alan Taylor moves authoritatively from the small screen (notably several episodes of A Game of Thrones) to the large with a well paced family drama counterset against an implacable foe and huge conflict. The Marvel Cinematic Universe's take on the Asgardian royal family is one of the best things about it, allowing the storytellers to nearly bring a familial intimacy to an operatic and contrived setting. The complex and dynamic relationships between wise but tempestuous Odin, firm but loving mother Frigga, impetuous but noble son Thor and his gifted but jealous adoptive brother Loki make for a compelling enough story that the only thing needed from the villainous Dark Elf ruler Malekith is to kick things off.

The love-story between Thor and mortal Jane Foster, featured so prominently in the posters, doesn't get quite as much play as you might think (or fear), but Thor's long absence is addressed, and the relationship is treated respectfully. One of my few complaints about the movie is that two great actors, Natalie Portman and Christopher Eccleston, aren't given nearly enough to do. Portman comes far too close to being a damsel in distress in the film's second half, despite having the technological solution needed for the movie's climactic battle. Eccleston's malevolent Malekith is so unidimensional and forceful that he is practically a force of nature; it's like watching him play the personification of cancer. He is simply an evil guy doing evil things for an evil reason, and without the internal conflict that made him so effective in 28 Days Later, there just isn't enough opportunity for him to make an impression with the audience, despite how chilling and effective he is.

This leaves Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and especially Tom Hiddleston to pick up the slack, and they are more than up to the challenge. Despite the scale of the action, some of the best exchanges are quieter moments shared between two of these three, or with Rene Russo's Frigga. The script balances pathos and humour deftly, which could make the movie resonate even more with those unfamiliar with the previous films or source material. Best in show goes to Hiddleston, who moves between Hannibal Lector menace to Tony Soprano uncertainty without missing a beat.

The other real star of The Dark World is the production design work; Asgard looks more lived in and detailed than the previous film, with Taylor bringing the immersiveness of Game of Thrones to an even more fantastical realm. Having said that though, there has been a very conscious decision to bring more sci-fi to the setting, and the Dark Elves don't travel on a rainbow bridge, but in ominous and stony spike-shaped spacecraft. It is a bold choice, and the science-fantasy angle is unlike anything I've read in Thor's comics, with the possible exception of Beta Ray Bill from way back in the day.

There are no real surprises (well, maybe one), but Thor: The Dark World is still worth seeing if you enjoyed the first one or any of the other MCU offerings. As an added bonus, 3D viewers get to see a scene from next April's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which I am already excited about.


And of course, no Marvel movie would be complete without a post-credit sequence, and after Iron Man 3's Seinfeldian denouement failed to amuse the fanboys who patiently waited for it, this one gives us a tiny insight into the cosmic side of the MCU which I expect will not only tie into next fall's Guardians of the Galaxy! but also Avengers 3. That's right, not 2, but 3; Ultron doesn't enter into this one, but a fairly prominent actor does, which is good, since mainstream audiences know nothing at all about GoG.


Monday, November 11, 2013

Cloth of Thy Mother

After some fascinating debate at The Earliad over symbols of war and remembrance, the decision came today as to where our family should make our observances.  Our good friends the Hawkins were up from Camrose with their two young boys, which eliminated any lengthier services, regardless of whether they were indoors like the one at the Butterdome, or outdoors at Ainsworth Dyer Bridge.

As luck might have it, today was the dedication of the new Patricia Park in the Griesbach neighbourhood right next to ours, dedicated to Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.  Two battalions are stationed at the nearby Edmonton Garrison, and much of the regiment was on parade today; I would guess somewhere around 200 serving members plus a number of individuals in civilian dress but wearing their medals or berets.

Short speeches spoke not of the many accomplishments of the regiment, nor of battle honours won, but of the sacrifices needed at times of war and unrest, from its inception at the start of WWI, through to those lost in WWII, Korea, the Cold War, the Balkans and Afghanistan.  Representatives from the provincial and city governments, as well as Edmonton City Police and RCMP "K" Division laid wreaths at a centerpiece adorned with the regimental crest.  Gratitude was expressed to the support given by the city and its residents, especially those of the Griesbach and Castle Downs neighbourhoods.  I also appreciated the Chaplain  explicitly inviting those who may not be believers to perhaps take a moment to reflect, when he asked those who believed to join him in prayer.

There was a good amount of people in attendance, which is always gratifying to see, especially those who were there with younger children.  The mission in Afghanistan is finally winding down, for better or worse, but it dawned on me today that the faces of the servicemen and women I saw at Patricia Park are now closer to Fenya's age than my own, and I know they will have to work grueling hours in often dangerous conditions for little in the way of pay or recognition.  It is important to me that as many of us who are able to, continue to come to these events to show our support, as well as paying our respects for the comrades they remember, whether recent victims of war and unrest or from nigh on a century ago.

Remembrance should not be a solely intellectual exercise; it should involve community and recognition on a face to face or eye to eye level wherever possible, whether with those in uniform or our neighbours.  I wonder sometimes if the discontent that some people have with Remembrance Day and the traditional red poppy stems from the professional army of today overshadowing the volunteer army of yesteryear, but it doesn't matter.  The freedoms fought for and gained by our veterans include the right for individuals to treat this day as any other, and the opinion that somehow our November observances have moved beyond commemoration and into glorification is just as entitled to protection as any other I don't agree with.  At least those who wear the white poppy seem to agree how important it is that we not forget.

August 10, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and there will be a ceremony at Patricia Park that will include depositing a time capsule where the wreaths were laid today, to be opened in 50 years.  I hope we can be present for that as well.

In anticipation of the anniversary, a song was commissioned about the regimental camp flag, the "Ric-a-dam-doo" (allegedly Gaelic for "cloth of they mother") which was actually hand-made by Princess Patricia of Connaught herself.  The song was written by Bryan Adams and performed by the wives of the regiment, who call themselves Homefire.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fiend or Foe

Last year, while we were in California, we did some Hallowe'en shopping at the Target across the street from our hotel. We found a couple of neat things, including the goggles for Fenya's aviatrix costume and a very creepy mask in the style of a Venetian fiend.


I had no plan for the mask at the time, you understand, but I hoped to find some complementary elements before next year's Hallowe'en. If I came across an appropriate period shirt, something vaguely renaissance or piratey, but not too flouncey, I figured I could use that, otherwise, the aging oilskin duster I had in the basement.


The real problem was headgear; something to add shadow to the face, height to the body, and de-modernize the silhouette. A bandana might work in a pinch, or maybe a hooded robe, but after giving it some thought, I really began wanting a tricorn.


While in San Diego, I happened across the largest hat shop I had ever seen, and lo and behold, they actually a full-on, revolutionary war style, felt tricorn for sale. Unfortunately, the white rim of the hat gave it all too much of a 1776 touch for my tastes, and I also felt $62 (US) was a bit out of line for something I would only wear one night a year.


Looking around an Edmonton party store prior to Fenya's recent birthday, I stumbled across a large, brown, three-sided 'pirate hat' for $20. Close enough for government work, I decided, plus it gives me a go-to for International Talk Like A Pirate Day.


The night before Hallowe'en, I put the three elements together. The mask would work better on a face less spherical in aspect, but still did its job. The duster still fit, and there aren't too many things I bought in college I can say that about, I can assure you. The hat on its own was fine, but its low position on my brow coupled with the highness of the mask made it press into my forehead with considerable force. After considering a few unlikely options (adhesive felt pads, putty, etc) I simply wound up a bandana and tied it around my head to blunt the pressure, and it worked just fine.


The next morning I added some black makeup around my eyes and headed off to work. I had never worn a 'scary' costume before, and was curious how people would respond. I like making people laugh, but on Hallowe'en, a different response is desired.


I needn't have worried; a number of people told me point blank that my costume was 'creeping them out', and it's a little embarrassing to tell you how gratifying that felt. Turning slightly askance during a meeting, I waited until a co-worker made eye contact with me, and then stopped blinking. "Stop that," he hissed, sotto voce. A couple of people visibly started when they turned and saw me standing behind them, and one of the HR staff was clearly discomfited by my presence, having encountered similar masks when visiting Venice, and having been creeped out by those ones as well.


Thankfully there was enough work to be done to keep me from getting into too much trouble. I confessed to my boss having dangerous thoughts, most of them centering around the idea of finding out who in the building had the loudest scream. He laughed, and then I told him I was going down to the parking garage to lurk in the corner and hum nursery rhymes.


"Okay, no, don't," he said, in the most serious of tones.


Trick or treating with Glory produced a few similar responses; small children and pets shied away, adults smiled flickeringly and broke eye contact early. Few had the nerve to ask me what I was supposed to be, but if they did, I would grin, and shrug, and say, "Just a fiend."