Friday, October 31, 2014

Piñata & Princess

Hallowe'en costumes provide a great opportunity to re-purpose old things in a new and creative way. This is how I turned an old GW work shirt, a belt buckle, a military style hat and an assortment of patches into a relatively passable Imperial Commissar costume for work today.

The girls did even better, though, and with almost no help from Audrey and I.

Fenya made herself into an elegant Irish princess using some vintage costume jewelry and the bridesmaid's dress her Auntie Vera wore for our wedding, lo those many years ago. She borrowed Glory's wig from dance to complete the ensemble and ended up with a very decent look overall.

Fenya' choir director has known Auntie Vera since high school, and was pretty amused to see Her bridesmaid dress in circulation two decades later. She even made Fenya stand on a pew and give a twirl for the other choristers.

As nice as it turned out, though, I liked Glory's costume even better. She attached strips of crepe paper to a dress from Value Village with a hot glue gun, then painstakingly cut the lower half of each strip into fringes with a pair of scissors. When that was done, she added the arm elements and a party hat, and just like that: piñata!

The black eye is supposed to show where a kid tried getting the candy out.

I have a lot of fond memories of childhood costumes, but I don't think any of them turned out as well as these!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Right Tools for The Job

Whether it is due to some ancient Celtic call to observe Samhain or simply an opportunity to put on a costume and eat molasses taffy, I love Hallowe'en. This year has been just a bit busy to prepare for it as fully as I would have liked, so once again I find myself cobbling together a costume together out of odds and sods around the house on Devil's Night.

On the plus side, I have outsourced the carving of the Jack O'Lantern to a contractor, which gave me a little bit of latitude this evening to sort out costume bits and other necessities. I had to source my own pumpkin, but managed to obtain one of a decent size and a bit of character.

I'm sure it's possible to get adequate results by freehanding the design onto the pumpkin with a knife, and I know you can achieve great effects by using a stencil, but somewhere between lies the sweet spot for our household: a sketch on a piece of paper, then drawn on the pumpkin with a marker.

In the interests of workplace safety and domestic tranquility, I agreed to treapanate Jack, and provide egress into his gooey interior by means of a large serrated knife.

Like most professionals, my carver makes good use of the specialized tools available for the task, starting with the scooper. No more bent spoons for this guy, and the wide mouth and sharp teeth make gutting the gourd quite a bit easier, though no neater.

Once sufficiently hollowed out and a smooth place created for the light source, it is time to begin carving in earnest. This dandy item has large and small tooth serrations, making it easy to move from long straight cuts to curves and finesse work.
Once the first eye is removed, the contractor explores some macabre levity, but time's a wastin'!

It doesn't take too long to get the mouth sorted out, but I complain that it doesn't look very scary.

The contractor sighs, and produces a box of toothpicks. "That's because he hasn't got any teeth yet."

The snaggletoothed grin of needle-like dentition adds a demeanour of demented, malicious glee that had been notably missing, and with lights off, the effect is even greater.

And just like that, we are one step closer to All Hallow's Eve!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hard, At Work

I'm sure there are probably some exceptions, but I imagine that every job under the sun has its share of ups and downs; even the most rewarding of positions comes with its share of bad news to be broken, even the best of fits has a portion of lamentable administration.

I'm in a new role in my workplace, as an educator, and although I find elements of it highly rewarding, it has been a harder adjustment than I would like to admit. A big reason for this is probably ego; having come from a position where I implemented a program of my own design and a fair amount of latitude, I now find myself learning massive amounts of new information and struggling to keep up at times, and having to ask for assistance with unfamiliar new tasks.

Obviously, a period of adjustment is only natural, and my new colleagues and superiors are only too happy to give me any support I need, but I'm still uncomfortable needing it, as ridiculous as that may seem. On the plus side, those I am instructing have responded very favourably, and with as much patience as anyone could ask for.

At the end of the day, working with good people is about as much as any of us can ask for, and on the days when things have gone imperfectly, I think to myself, hey, at least I am not a doctor, and had a patient die on table, or maybe a police officer who had to go home after defending himself with his sidearm.

Or my wife, working for far less pay as an educational assistant in a school that continues to challenge her despite having been there for six years.

The new school year is not yet two months old, and yet Audrey has now held marijuana for the first time in her life, after taking a suspicious substance away from a student. (It was a pair of sixth graders who confirmed what it was for her.). She has discovered that 4 of the students she knows are victims of sexual abuse, and that in some cases, the attacker was a relative.

One of her students stopped eating for the weekend, and was, unsurprisingly, feeling ill today. Audrey discovered some of the boys, led by a particularly vicious youngster, have been taunting her and calling her fat, despite the fact that she has a build close to that of my youngest daughter (who I can't even describe as 'pleasantly plump' with a straight face). When Audrey sat down with the girl to explain why she can't simply stop eating for days at a time, she discovered that the girl's father, a 45 year old diabetic, recently had both his legs amputated, and has essentially given up on living and wishes to die.

"It's even more important then, that you stay strong: for you, and for your father," Audrey told her.

Hearing about the situations these children face every day, and knowing that Audrey is confronted with them on a regular basis, makes it churlish for me to dwell at all on whatever shortcomings I might face in the workplace. But even for her, it isn't all bad; today, her sixth graders used subtraction to figure out her age, and quite a few of them were surprised at the result.

Apparently, there is balm in Gilead; sometimes a little recognition and compassion can go a long way in salving a bruised world.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

It Takes All Kinds

A week or so back, I had to go to 7-Eleven for a jug of milk close to midnight, as we had guests and had run out. As I approached the counter, the two staff were conversing quietly, and apparently it was about me, as the gal ended their conversation by saying to the guy, "Well, why don't you ask him?"


The young fellow pointed at my chest and asked, "What is that symbol for?"


I looked down, and remembered I had worn my Tyr pendant to work over a black turtleneck that day, and hadn't taken it off yet. (I'm not much a of a jewelry wearer, but it's not like I can wear a concert shirt to work now, can I?) "Oh, it's just the logo of a metal band I like, called Tyr," I explained.


He shook his head. "I don't know them," he confessed, "but I thought it looked familiar."


"Well, they did make it look like a hammer of Thor, right? That same shape is a religious symbol for pagans, and they are full-on Odin worshippers."


They nodded and the gal began ringing up my milk. I felt obliged to add, "I'm not actually a pagan, I just like the music."


She told me the egregious price of 4 litres of convenience store milk, and while I got my debit card out, playfully asked, "Why not be a pagan?" And you know, I really had to think about it for a moment.


In the end, I had to say, "There's a lot of appeal, frankly, but honestly? I really like being a Christian, because when you do it right, it's tough to beat treating everyone with love, justice and kindness."


She seemed to think that was a reasonable answer, I exchanged money for milk, and we parted ways.


I had cause to revisit the conversation this weekend, as I emceed our church's Affirming Ministry Celebration. We have recently concluded a long process of education and discernment in order to be able to proclaim that we are a safe place to come and worship, even for those groups which might have been excluded or oppressed by folks calling themselves Christians. The most notable would be sexual minorities, like the LGBTQ community, but should also include indigenous peoples, especially those so terribly wronged by the Indian Residential Schools program.


Our keynote speaker was Rev. Nancy Steeves, a gifted orator who spoke of her experiences as a former Presbyterian minister, who was forced out of ministry in her chosen denomination, as she put it, 'because of whom she chose to love.' She talked about the United Church sticking its neck out 26 years ago by not only refusing to condemn gays and lesbians, but giving them the possibility to be ordained as ministers. Of our own church voting to solemnize same sex marriages 8 years ago, and this most recent step of becoming a recognized Affirming Ministry, and affixing a rainbow decal to our church sign.


We had Metis jiggers come and dance a set, which was very appropriate, given St. Albert's history as a significant trading post for the Metis and First Nations people. They were extremely energetic, and their choreography spoke volumes to the amount of practice they must do. The finale though, was spectacular: a 17 year old Hoop Dancer named Dallas Arcand Jr.


He came onstage in his full regalia, and opened his act with a haunting honour song played on a recorder-style flute. Then picked an acoustic guitar out of his case, and with a grin, asked, "Anyone here like blues music?" He explained how much of an influence Stevie Ray Vaughn was to his music and singing, and proceeded to play a tight cover of "Pride and Joy" to the surprise of some and the delight of many, including myself.


The hoop dance, however, was amazing. Before he started, Dallas explained the legend of the hoop dance, and how a young warrior who could not escape his enemies, prayed to Creator for help. The Creator sent down hoops which he said the young warrior could use to change his shape in order to elude his predators. "As I dance," he explained, "you may see many animals: the eagle, the snake, the butterfly...maybe even Mickey Mouse; just use your imagination as I take you through 13 hoops."


I freely admit that aboriginal music is an acquired taste, and it has taken me a while to get to as point where I can appreciate it, even if I can't tell the good stuff from the bad, and as the speakers began to ring with the drums and chants of Northern Cree, punctuated by screams, it was a bit jarring. But there is no denying the emotion and power behind the vocals, and, accompanied by the skillful dancing, the unfamiliar sounds soon became less strange and more natural.


Dallas' skill with the hoops is formidable; in a set that ran over ten minutes, there were two tiny imperfections, but his feet never stopped moving to the rhythm of the drums, and the hoops seemingly flowed from floor to leg to hand, interlocking in spheres and being tossed forward in a backspin, only to reverse course and return to his hand like they were called. And true to his word, you could see the shapes of the animals being represented.


I managed to record the first six minutes of his performance on the iPad; I don't think the medium does it justice, so if the opportunity to view a hoop dance in close proximity ever presents itself to you, I highly recommend taking advantage of it.


Afterwards, I thanked Dallas for an amazing and well-received performance as he caught his breath. "One question though, I need to get straight: a red man from Edmonton..."

"Yes?" he replied quizzically.

"...playing the music of a white man from Texas..."

"Ye-ess..." with a hint of a grin.

"In the style of black men from Mississippi?"

"Yes!" he declared.

"I love it!"


Our Diversity Fair and Affirming Celebration were great opportunities to meet people from other walks of life: different faiths, ages, sexual orientations, cultures and so on. Everyone was grateful for the chance to come out, talk about their organizations, and be appreciated for who they were. And for our part, it was good to host, and to have an opportunity to treat our guests with love and kindness, the way we're supposed to.





Sunday, October 19, 2014

Like Netflix, Only for Comics

I periodically encounter bouts of insomnia for various reasons: anxieties, changes in the weather, throwing my own circadian rhythms out of whack, but most often I'm kept up late baing caught up in a story that is not my own. Sometimes it is a news article or blog posting, other times it is a novel, but lately, it's been due to comic books.

When I bought the BluRay for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it came with a promotional offer for something called Marvel Unlimited; a one month trial (normally $10) for only 99 cents.

Marvel Unlimited is an internet-based subscription service that lets you access up to 15,000 Marvel comics, ranging from the formative days of the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s, up to ones that hit the newsstands only a few months ago.

Ideally suited to iPad aficionados like myself, I thought Marvel Unlimited was an intriguing idea, and certainly worth exploring for a mere 99 cents US. After a brief registration and payment process, followed by downloading the free app, I was ready to begin exploring.

The interface is fairly friendly for the most part, letting you browse that week's new releases (Wednesday is new comic day! Boy, it's been a while since I remembered that...), or peruse the extensive library. Sorting by title can be a little tricky, what with the multiplicity of similar sounding titles, or multiple editions that have the same name.

You can also sort by creator name, in order to track down a favourite writer or artist (or letterer or colourist for that matter), and you can further narrow down that search by character or title as well. In this case, Frank Miller, whose legendary turn on Daredevil is one of the things that pulled me into collecting comics when I was 13.

The 'Discover' page of MU is designed to show off the newest releases and most influential events, so it is currently highlight in Civil War, a massive crossover event from 2006. This title-spanning series not only pit hero against hero over the idea that super-powered beings might not have the same expectations of privacy as 'normal' folks, but is also apparently the notion behind Robert Downey Jr. appearing as Iron Man in the next Captain America film, so they can square off on the silver screen like they did on the printed page.

Some of these events can impact up to a dozen different titles (Secret Wars, I'm looking at you), so being able to simply click on one such event and follow it through all the attendant crossovers is a delight (and at $3-$4 a title, a real relief on the old pocketbook, I don't mind telling you!). Take last year's "AVX" event, which put the Avengers against the X-Men, as they decide how best to handle the potential return of The Phoenix.
Sure, I'm coming to the party after most of the guests have left, but I am having just as good a time, and there is no lineup at the buffet.

Having access to a comics stash that is, for all intents and purposes at least, inexhaustible, has enabled me to do a few different things, the first of which is to revisit old favourites, like Frank Miller's Daredevil run, or Mike Baron's on The Punisher. Rediscovering 'period' titles, like '70s favorite Power Man and Iron Fist has been a treat too.

The second thing it has let me do is to fill in gaps in the canon of beloved characters like Daredevil. With the Netflix TV series featuring ol' Hornhead coming early next year, there has been a lot of mention of favourite story arcs in the comics. Some of these, like the Elektra saga, Born Again, or his revisionist origin story, Man Without Fear, I had already read (since they were all Frank Miller, I suppose). It turns out some of the stories from Brian Michael Bendis were equally memorable or influential as well, such as a courtroom drama where his alter ego Matt Murdock, a prominent New York attorney, defends White Tiger, another costumed vigilante, in court.

Instead of gambling on a trade paperback collection, I can dip into the series and peruse these influential tales at my leisure. In fact, one of the fill-in tales during the Bendis reign turned out to be a cracking courtyard drama that involves a wealthy businessman suing Daredevil for damaging his greenhouse during a fight - and hiring Matt Murdock to do it. The mystery ran for six issues and kept me guessing up until the very end, and turns out to have been written by Bob Gale, one of the co-writers of the Back To The Future trilogy. I never would have come across it without Marvel Universe, and an offhand reference by Vincent D'Onofrio (who, by the way, I think is a fantastic choice to play The Kingpin) to Bendis' work.

Likewise, lots of people have tremendously good things to say about Matt Fraction and David Aja's much more recent monthly book Hawkeye, featuring the Archery Avenger on his days away from that group. What a tremendous comic! Art reminiscent of David Mazzuchelli's Batman: Year One, and dialogue straight out of Moonlighting, it was compelling all the way through their run.

(Also, I was very glad to see trick arrows returning not only to this comic, but also to Arrow on TV.)

The last thing MU lets me do is keep (relatively) current. There are a lot of neat things happening in comics now, but I just don't have it in me to head down to Happy Harbor every week or so and grab the latest issues as they come out. I've preferred collected editions like trade paperbacks for years now, and the only exception I am willing to make is for Saga by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples, which I buy digitally in addition to the TP. I did buy the first issues of Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel for the girls, and while they enjoyed them, none of us found it compelling enough to purchase too many further issues. With MU, we can now keep (mostly) up, and stay abreast of current developments in the Marvel Universe.

Another recent title I've found really interesting is the reimagining of Ghost Rider from flaming skull motorcycling stuntman Johnny Blaze to East L.A. teenager (and muscle car fan) Robbie Reyes. I'm only two issues in, and they are playing the origin fairly cagey, but the art and design in this book is way beyond anything in the spinner racks I frequented as an adolescent.

Being able to follow along on as many new(ish) comics as I can read in a month as a subscriber for less than the cost of two issues off the newsstand (a year's access is $69) is a pretty good deal, as I see it. If you happen to see me yawning or rubbing bloodshot eyes during the week, Marvel Unlimited is probably to blame. Feel free to ask me what's keeping me up, especially if you have a soft spot for larger than life heroes battling it out panel by panel on the both the printed page and the iPad screen.

UPDATED: I guess if I am going to tag this as a review, I should include some of the shortcomings of Marvel Unlimited.  One of these would be the occasional crash, but this may be related to my recent adoption of iOS 8, so I don't want to blame MU without cause

Double page spreads are handled pretty poorly, generally speaking; in portrait orientation, when you try to enlarge the picture, the software 'docks' it, which makes the bottom quarter or so slide off the bottom of the screen and be unreadable, unless you manually drag it up and hold it in place, which is, indeed, a drag.  Turning the iPad on its side will usually give you the full spread, but sometimes they aren't coded correctly, so you end up with a tiny 2-page splash on the left of your screen and a third one on the right.  Nothing insurmountable, but the comments in the review section of the app seem to indicate this has been an issue for some time.

Far worse, however, is the tendency for incomplete comics to be posted as though they are intact.  I downloaded the first issue of "Dr. Strange: The Oath", but after reaching the fifth page, the comic ended, and I was prompted to read the next issue. Something similar happened to Daredevil #28, where I believe the story ended two pages early, since the final page lacked the "To Be Continued" tag all the other issues in the arc had.  Does this happen often?  Thankfully, no, but if you've read the first five issues of a story and this happens to the sixth, your disappointment is likely to be palpable.

Something similar happened when I read "Old Man Logan", a post-apocalyptic tale set 50 years after all the superheroes have been killed or driven underground.  When I got to the fourth part of the six-issue tale, I got a message saying I couldn't read it as I was not connected to the internet.  This was strange and annoying since a) I had downloaded all six issues to my iPad in anticipation of reading it offline anyhow, and b) I was at home and actually was connected to the internet at the time!

I emailed the folks at Marvel to see about getting this sorted out, and didn't receive the perfunctory 'Thanks for letting us know, we will do what we can' email for 13 days.  Now, I'm a reasonable man, and I understand how resources work, and I appreciate that there are only so many resources to go around, especially with a lot of the Marvel back-catalog waiting to get added to the library, but from a customer service perspective, that is a pretty brutal turnaround time when all you are saying is 'we're dancing as fast as we can'.  (On the plus side though, I just checked, and it appears to be downloadable and viewable now.)

One positive element I left out of the original post is the ability I alluded to above: being able to download up to 12 issues to your portable device so you can read them offline.  This would be of limited use if you are going camping or on a transatlantic flight, but is more than enough content for a three hour wait in the periodontist's office, just to give one example.  Being away from wifi for extended periods is becoming rarer and rarer in today's world, but even when it happens, there are other apps if you want to scratch that comics itch while travelling.

There are a few other glitchy little things, and I would appreciate some sort of bookmarking to make it easier to pick up where I left off when I get pulled away from a series, but none of them, including the ones I've listed, are what I would consider to be deal breakers.  I think it is in Marvel's best interests to correct these issues and work to improve their level of responsiveness for customer service, but in the meantime, I will continue to be a subscriber; even if 1 in every 50 comics has some sort of issue, that still leaves me over 10,000 to check out.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Waiting Begins

What a great Thanksgiving weekend! We hosted the family for Turkey dinner on Sunday, which gave us all a chance to say farewell to my Mum as she heads out to Osoyoos in her newly re-floored motorhome.


A bunch of us got together on Saturday to play some D&D, drink some beers, and watch people eat horrific tasting jellybeans. The smell alone of the skunk spray ones were enough to make a person 3 feet away blanch, and the dog food ones were almost as bad. The final fight took us until after 1:00 to finish, but featured a lot of player characters getting knocked down and getting back up again, as well as some treachery by an NPC and some comeuppance for that, so definitely time well spent.


There were chores done and dishes washed, Fenya got some work done on her Macbeth presentation, we watched "X-Men: Days of Future Past"... oh, and my 2014 Beer Advent Calendar came in!


It was a complete fluke that I got in on the first iteration of what is now a beloved holiday tradition, given how fast they sold out. I just happened to be in Sherbrooke as they hit the shelves, got the green light for the missus, and walked out with 24 mysterious beers, none of which had been previously available in Canada. I've blogged about the contents as I've enjoyed them, and see no reason not to again, so be prepared for many beer-related posts through December.


The first such calendar featured all European beers, while the second set were all from North America; 2014 brings us to the 'Intercontinental Edition', featuring 24 beers from 17 countries on 5 continents. I believe 880 of them were produced, and most stores with pre-orders have sold out of their allotment (although I overheard someone being told that Little Guy Liquor in Sherwood Park might have some on the shelves).


Looking at the side of the box reveals a few interesting details about the contents, including the countries of origin and the amount of alcohol by volume.

  • Only 4 beers originate from the Southern Hemisphere (French Guiana just missed the cut there...).
  • Only 7 of them come from the New World. (None of them are from Canada!)
  • Only 5 beers clock in at or below the 5% ABV of a 'normal' beer.
  • More than half the beers are 7% ABV or higher. (!)


When I picked up my calendar, the gentleman at the til asked if I had been told about care instructions for the box; when I told him I had not, he recited a number of facts about it, many of which I knew: not to tip it, not to swing it, not to freeze it or leave it in direct sunlight or by the water heater, etc.

Then he looked me in the eye and intoned, "Severe repercussions for opening the box or any compartments early." Seeing my uncomprehending stare, he continued: "Puppies will die. Weather patterns will shift. Economic indicators may become unreliable. St. Peter will stop letting people in altogether..."

I nodded. "Cats and dogs living together, total chaos; I get it."

As intrigued as I am as to the mysterious contents of the box, I wouldn't dream of opening any of the compartments early; I mean, the beer is great and all, but the surprise is by far the best part of the Advent Calendar. The anticipation, the joy of discovery, all the packaging is meant to heighten this, and yet, there are those who, as we speak, are not only tearing into their calendars but tasting the beers and posting their reviews online! The perfidy of it!

I can't imagine there is an effective way to prevent this (although I hope that if they are discovered it prevents them from pre ordering next year's edition, at least from that store), but let's all agree to shun these individuals and their grievous works as best as we are able to, eh? In the meantime, I think I will find a towel or something to throw over my own beer calendar, or perhaps I will set a table lamp on it until the first of December.

It could be a long 47 days, but hey, who's counting?