Sunday, June 28, 2015

Willful Defacement Under Jeffrican Skies - Risk Legacy

I'm not completely anal-retentive about the games in my collection.


I mean, sure, I like to sort out the components in an orderly fashion, and sometimes I will bag up sets of counters to make set-up a little faster, but it's not like I put sleeves on the cards or anything like that (although many do, and that is cool). It probably stems from a childhood spent seeing the game Mousetrap in the games closets of other families, recognizing it from the action packed commercials and asking to play it, only to be told, "oh, we lost some pieces so it doesn't really work any more." I never played Mousetrap until I bought a copy well after becoming a parent. And yes, we still have all the pieces for it.

Many of the friends I game with regularly are the same way, so you can probably imagine the discomfort we experienced playing Risk Legacy for the first time last night, a version of the classic wargame that demands you make permanent, unalterable decisions regarding the board and rules, write on it with a Sharpie, and destroy some of the cards to ensure they are never used. That's not to say we didn't enjoy the hell out of it though; it just never stopped feeling weird.


From our point of view, Risk Legacy was not just about taking over the world, but willfully engaging in behaviour which is frankly aberrant and disturbing to our cultural subset.


The game does not explicitly promote any sort of importance, significance or ceremony to the things you do in preparation for your first game, but overtones of it permeated the evening regardless. It's tough to avoid it when you have to break a physical seal with an ominous message just to get into the box.


Right out of the gate, after pulling the shrink wrap off the board, we were invited to sign the back of it, and acknowledge our responsibility for what was to follow. It wasn't like the Geneva Accords or anything, but it still felt at least a little momentous.

A survey of the components in the box reveals significant portions that you will not even use at that start; cards and pieces and even rules which will be revealed once certain conditions are met.

Unlike the abstracted armies of classic Risk, differentiated only by colour, Risk Legacy contains 5 unique factions, each with their own unique look and style.

By luck of the draw, I ended up with Imperial Balkania, resplendent in purple, and depicted as ceremonial guardsmen and tanks.


Earl's Die Mechaniker had scarlet soldiers and artillery pieces, Pete's Khan Industries were grey and had mecha, while Jeff's Enclave of the Bear had claw-wielding savages supported by armoured bear cavalry. These factions are derived from the updated place names of the Risk 2210 board. Each army also comes with a unique headquarters piece, instrumental in determining victory, and an alternative to driving all your opponents out of the game, which speeds things up immensely.


Before getting into play though, you need to choose one of two special rules for that faction from a sticker card, affix that rule to the faction's reference card and then destroy the other.

That's right: rip up, tear, burn, whatever, but there are no takesie-backsides with this decision. It really adds quite a bit of pressure to the choice, knowing it will affect every subsequent player who chooses that faction. Truth be told, ripping the cards in half in unison was surprisingly unsettling, given the reverence with which we usually treat our playthings.


You also need to select 12 territories and make them more valuable by affixing a coin sticker to the matching card; if you end up obtaining that card as a conqueror's reward (less randomly than regular Risk, but by no means a sure thing), it is worth more when you trade cards in for armies later in the game. We chose 2 apiece and then picked 4 at random, which ended up making Brazil worth 3.


Much of the board starts unoccupied, another departure from most Risk iterations, and each player starts with only 8 armies and their HQ. The first couple of turns are more of a race than a battle, as players try to secure their position while clamouring for the coveted continental bonus, or thwarting their rivals in that regard.


Each player started with a Scar card, which may be used to modify a battle but remains in play even into the next game, so North Africa now suffers from an Ammo Shortage (-1 to the Defender's highest roll) and Iceland is now buttressed by a bunker system (+1 to the Defender's highest roll). Later on, those scars might be overwritten, they have intrinsically altered this particular game board for the foreseeable future.

And this appears to be the guiding principle behind Risk Legacy: no two boards should ever be alike. With players empowered to modify the very board itself, the changes are far more than cosmetic, with far-reaching consequences we can't even understand yet, because there are so many rules and pieces yet to be discovered!

Every new player starts with a Red Star token, and wins by getting three more stars. You get one for each HQ you control, and can trade in 4 Resource (Territory) cards to get them as well.

In terms of our game, I overextended myself early on from Europe into Greenland and paid a price for it, and assumed the long term consequence would be Jeff's Enclave forces consolidating in North America with little opposition. Imagine my surprise when he instead continued to push from Greenland to Iceland to Great Britain, capturing my HQ! The Balkanian base traded hands a few times over the next few turns, but in the end, that is how he ended up winning. (Pro Tip: protect your HQ!)

As the victor, Jeff became the first of us to sign the board in order to commemorate his accomplishment, and to also secure further advantages in future games.


But wait, there's more! The winner also gets to choose from a variety of further board personalizations, including modifying a continental bonus by +/-1, placing and naming a major city, cancelling a scar or destroying a territory card. Jeff chose to name a continent (how cool is that?), something which can only be done five more times ever on this board, and yes, we will insist that all future players now refer to the continent encompassing Alaska, Alberta and Greenland as "Jeffrica".


As a type of consolation prize for not being eliminated from the game entirely, the rest of us losers had the choice of upgrading a territory card or placing and naming a minor city. The latter see edge far cooler, and prompted the founding of Boucherton in Easter Australia, Interzone in North Africa (hat tip to William S. Burroughs), and Stevograd in Russia.



The first 15 games will apparently all feature this sort of irrevocable denouement, so I can't wit to get a few more under my belt. Along the way we will unlock more secrets, fill in areas of the rule book currently left blank in anticipation (!), and add more rules to the faction cards (based on the coloured brackets above the initial special rule).

Some day, we may even have played enough games to warrant opening this mysterious package, covertly placed underneath the tray that holds all the components:


In the meantime though, it is no easier getting used to destroying elements of something so cool, and I have yet to throw away the detritus or the remaindered cards.

Ironically, I am not even that big a fan of the original Risk, as I find games that require the elimination of all other players are both overly long and socially exclusionary. All the subsequent editions of the game have addressed this shortcoming, and Risk Legacy can probably be completed in 45-90 minutes from here on out, which means more games in less time.


And that's great, because it is now my favourite iteration of Risk ever.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Lambs, Still Screaming

For openers, let me just say that I never claimed to be a great parent.

The girls are getting old enough now that I find myself eagerly taking opportunities to build up their film canon a little bit.  For example, as I feel it is the best movie of the 20th century, full stop, I was compelled to watch The Godfather with Fenya a couple of years ago.  We watched Schindler's List with Glory a while back in order to give her another perspective on the Holocaust, which she was learning about in school.

I'm not sure how we initially got onto the topic, possibly through Fenya's recent absorption of the entirety of the BBC's Sherlock TV series (which I have seen a handful of and want to see the rest), but we got onto the topic of thrillers, or possibly the Hannibal TV show with Mads Mikkelsen, and I asserted that, at some point, she really needed to see The Silence of the Lambs.

Two nights ago, she sent me the link to one of the Epic Rap Battles of History, this one featuring a showdown between Jack the Ripper and Hannibal Lecter.

Don't get me wrong, it's well done and funny, but the not-good doctor has become such a staple of pop culture, this humorous video brought home the realization that genuine surprise is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain in this day and age. My eldest needed to see this movie while there was still a chance of one of cinema's greatest villains being frightening and relevant.

So we watched it tonight.

As the only 'horror' movie to win the Oscar for Best Picture (two others have been nominated, can you guess what they are? answers later!), Silence of the Lambs holds up as well as you might expect, maybe even better.

Even though it is not quite a quarter-century old yet (next year!), parts of SOTL still feel like a period film: not only does no one carry a cell phone, almost every other phone shown is corded.  There are no computers to be seen, although they are referenced; images are transmitted by 'electro-fax', and archived records are accessed on enormous microfilm viewers.  When Agent Starling (Jodie Foster, in an Oscar-winning performance) checks her weapon in before visiting Lecter, a speed loader is shown, and I had to explain to Fenya that the bullet-holder actually had a practical purpose.  The only people she sees using revolvers in films are typically cowboys.  Aside from big-bore handguns shown to make a point, I think the last cop I saw using a six-shooter may have been Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon.

Anyhow, the movie still works masterfully; the exchanges with Lecter, the courthouse escape, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team storming a house (to little effect); the tension never lets up. There is not a wasted frame in this movie and a ton is left unsaid.  Director Jonathan Demme is content to let the film unfold at a languid pace, far more suited to movies of the seventies, and rarely bothering with the jump scares so prevalent in modern thrillers.

Best of all, there is not a single stupid person in the film.  Buffalo Bill, Clarice, Lecter; they are all smart, and even Lecter's captors, like Dr. Chilton and the two unfortunate cops who end up at his mercy, are not stupid; they take reasonable precautions and either get a little sloppy or caught unawares by a superior intellect.

I still have a soft spot for the first portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal I ever saw, which was Brian Cox in Michael Mann's Manhunter.  It's a good movie from the man who would eventually bring us Heat, and Collateral, but you would never believe me if you watched the trailer; it is gawdawful.

Cox, however, plays Lecter with a similarly sinister and serpentine manner: still a genius, but less tormented and maniacal, and more bored, as masterful a manipulator as Anthony Hopkins, but with far, far less screen time.

Not that Hopkins got a lot; at less than 25 minutes, only David Niven ever won a Best Actor Oscar while being on screen less, and only by one minute, at that.  And yet Sir Anthony breaks all the rules, looking directly at the camera, almost never blinking, giving very little reason to have sympathy for someone who is a monster in any useful sense of the word,

Horrifyingly enough, we do though.

Fenya was curled up pretty tightly into the corner of the downstairs sectional by the time the credits rolled, but to her credit, she says she would like to see it again.  I'm glad, because in addition to just being the best thriller of the 20th century (please feel free to dispute this assertion in the comments section!), I think there are some lessons that can be taken away from SOTL, despite the grisly subject matter:

  • There are some scary, scary people in this world of ours.
  • But there are just as many brave and good ones, too.
  • There is, more often than not, a reason behind the things that people do, even the mad things.
  • Always treat others with respect, even when you mightn't feel they deserve it.
  • Keeping your wits about you in times of intense pressure will help you triumph, and may even save your life.

It is an intense film, far too much so for everyone to enjoy it, and certainly more than Glory is up for at this point, but expanding Fenya's film canon to include this particular winner of 5 Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay) was immensely satisfying.

Huh. Maybe I'm not so bad a parent as I think...

(Oh, and the other two horror films nominated for Best Picture were The Exorcist and Jaws; at least, as per IMDb.)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Dino Might... Or Might Not... - Jurassic World, Reviewed

You do not need to see Jurassic World.

But it is entirely possible that you should see it anyways.

To be completely honest, I wasn't even that interested in going.  The marketing completely failed to capture my imagination, dirtbike-riding Chris Pratt playing 'Leader of the Pack' to a quartet of velociraptors didn't make any sense to me, and the new hybridized dinosaur Indominus Rex (and the possibility of it having thumbs) left me entirely cold.  If you have run out of stories to tell with actual proper dinosaurs, I thought, maybe it's time to just hang up your axe, y'know?

But Audrey and Glory really wanted to go, because dinosaurs. And Audrey kept referencing how we felt coming out of the Eaton Centre Cinema late at night those two decades back, our pulses still racing from the thrill ride we had just experienced, and half expecting to see a behemoth from the late Cretaceous round the corner of the parking garage, and the next thing you know, I actually was looking forward to it.

And once we sat down, we watched the internal struggle play out, as Park Director Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) laments how now that the park has been around so long, people aren't excited by dinosaurs any more; they look at a stegosaurus the same way they would at a giraffe in the zoo.

And if that's not good enough for parkgoers, the same can probably be said for moviegoers, right?

I had no idea Jurassic World was going to be such an exercise in meta-filmmaking, such as when dino-behaviorist contractor Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) comes to inspect the enclosure for the new beast, and asserts the dinosaurs should be 'wow factor' enough.

Now, I don't think I am giving anything away, and certainly nothing not already in the trailers, but just in case, brace yourself:


Indominus Rex escapes.

I know, right?!

Stop me if you've heard this one: the scientists, all too eager to blaze new ground, gleefully rush off the reservation and into the mad scientist territories at the behest of their corporate masters, eager to maintain profits, and prepared to sell off the naming rights for the new 'asset's' exhibit to Verizon Wireless.

(Interestingly enough, despite the blunt and notable presence of Coca Cola, Margaritaville, Pandora and Mercedes, IMDb trivia informs me that no one actually paid for product placement in Jurassic World; it was actually done by director Colin Trevorrow to lampoon such deals.)

In their futile attempts to once again dominate nature/play God, HAVOC is unleashed; oh, the hubris! Oh, the humanity! And once again, it is all about the tiny, frail featherless bipeds trying to avoid being dramatically re-positioned within the food chain.

In fact, Jurassic World is so much of an homage to the 22 year old original (and one of my all-time favourite adventure movies), that this 4th entry in the franchise rarely gets a chance to step out from beneath its lumbering shadow.  Two kids whose parents are breaking up are brought to the island so a relative can keep them occupied.  Later on they are terrorized by a giant carnosaur while trapped inside an upside down vehicle, but this time it is a 'gyrosphere' instead of an electric Ford Explorer.  At some point a drastic decision has to be made in mission control in order to protect the guests, but someone will need to go into the danger zone to rescue the kids!

Nothing really new here.

And yet, there are shadows of a good science fiction story lurking about the edges of this adventure and effects epic, as ruthless InGen contractor Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), is constantly looking for an opportunity to field test his premise of weaponized velociraptors, which, as he is clearly Chekhov's asshole, you know for a fact will come to pass.  And the scariest part is, by the time it comes around, you are ready for it, because they do a great job making the Indominus Rex into a terrifying foe, and siccing the ruthless pack-hunters on it is a long way from the worst solution you've seen in a monster movie.

There are a couple of good discussions about whether the responsibility for the I. Rex failure belongs to science or commerce, largely between the new owner Mr. Masrani (Irrfan Khan) and the sole returning character, Dr. Henry Wu (played with characteristic poise and aplomb by B.D. Wong).

Dr. Wu: Nothing in Jurassic World is natural, we have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals. And if the genetic code was pure, many of them would look quite different. But you didn't ask for reality, you asked for more teeth.
Masrani: You created a monster!
Dr. Wu: Monster is a relative term. To a canary, a cat is a monster. We're just used to being the cat.

It is always appreciated when a movie doesn't rely too much on stupid people to advance the plot, and while there are a number of bad decisions made in this film (beginning with 'hey, let's hybridize a bigger, scarier dinosaur!' 'great idea! let me just give my kids some matches to play with and I can help out!'), but they are usually decisions made out of greed or curiosity or desperation, not an apparently innate desire to vacate the gene pool via a bloody demise.

There is some lazy screenwriting though; the cell phone service on Isla Nublar is atrocious, rendering these handy telecommunications devices almost worthless at three different points in the film.  A single line about how sunspots were in full force or that the mercenaries later needed to rein in the dinos are intentionally jamming those frequencies would have been much appreciated.

Chris Pratt is a good choice for the action lead in this film; he has great comic timing that Trevorrow has the good sense not to overuse, he comes across well as both a smart cat and credible burly alpha-male type who is secure enough not to need to preen, and he has charisma to spare.

(You're welcome ladies.)

In the end though, there is only one reason to see any movie with the word Jurassic in it (after the first one, at least), and that is for the dinosaurs.  Here, they do not disappoint.

The mosasaur shown so prominently in the trailer (and poster above) is a wonderfully presented spectacle that makes you feel like you are joining the in-park audience in the splash zone.  The scene with Owen facing down the raptors he is training within their own enclosure is very well staged, but best of all, the pteradons and dimorphodons that Spielberg and Co. have been trying to get into the movies since the very first Jurassic Park, FINALLY get loose, and watching these winged terrors diving into a crowd while a WWII air-raid sirens warns panicing guests to take cover (wow, really?) is as terrifying as anything seen in the franchise to date.

All in all, despite being extremely derivative, despite treading very little new ground, despite not using nearly enough practical effects for my taste (More puppets and animatronics, dammit! At least Trevorrow used motion-capture to animate most of the dinosaurs, making them feel a bit more organic.), I enjoyed watching Jurassic World.

You can't look too closely at it without revealing its many flaws, but it does as good a job as any of the other sequels in reminding us how cool dinosaurs are, and how lucky we are that they aren't around any more.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Able Seaman M.A. Fitzpatrick

Not too long after Audrey, Fenya and I moved back to Alberta in 1999, Mom and Dad went gyppo.

They sold their town house in 2002, bought an RV  took off to Newfoundland, and my sister Tara went along with them. No fixed address and if it didn't fit in the motorhome, it didn't go with them.

As sad as I was that Fenya's Nanny & Poppy were now going to be 4 time zones away, I was also envious of their audacity and proud of their courage at such a huge lifestyle change, especially with Dad turning 70 that year.

They'd already downsized quite a few artifacts moving from the split-level years earlier, but moving into an RV meant an even more ruthless assessment of belongings, some of which were given away, others sold, and a bunch came home with Audrey and I.

Going through some of these old belongings in preparation for the building of BatCan, I came across a battered manila envelope from the U of A Hospital Radiology Department that I presume had once contained x-rays, but was now home to a thick file folder full of certificates and photographs of Dad's.  It seemed appropriate to paw through it tonight in order to see if I could find a good shot of the Old Man for Father's Day, and I did, but stumbled across some others as well.
Maurice Fitzpatrick, RCN, 1955
Dad talked a fair bit about his ten years in the service from 1950 to 1960, particularly his 5 years in the Royal Canadian Navy.  As a young man fascinated by aircraft, he had actually joined the Air Force at the age of 17, but left after they had mixed up the marks on his officer's candidacy exam with someone else's, and didn't speak as much of those five years.

As a sailor, becoming an officer eluded him as well, but for what reason I can't say; possibly he had his eye on a trade in civilian life, working as he was towards an airframe mechanic's certification at one point, but eventually following his proficiency for ground-based radar into a career in air traffic control.

One of the many things I take from my father is his humility, so when he talked about his military service, it was never out of pride or bluster or braggadocio.  His stories typically centered around people he had met, things he had seen, or times that his quick wit and smart mouth had gotten him into trouble (yes, quite possibly another dominant gene).

Often his anecdotes were incidental, a way of setting recent events into a proper scale or context, such as when he was animatedly relating a near collision in traffic on his way home in the rain.  When I asked how scared he was, he looked at me and paused before saying, "Well, it's not like the time I was sitting in the back of a sub-tracker and about to land on the deck of aircraft carrier in shitty weather in the North Atlantic when the pilot turned around and said to me, 'I sure as hell hope the landing gear came down this time'...but it was no picnic, I'll tell you that."

Dad grew up on a farm, loading pulp-wood (which he spoke of far more than any other agricultural endeavours he might have undertaken; so much so that for years I assumed his father had a pulp wood farm) and driving teams of horses, so he was no stranger to hard work by the time he got to the armed forces, and in good physical condition (despite being a smoker at the time).  Any complaints I might have as a child regarding physical exhaustion were typically met with suspicion, if not outright scorn, and often a relating of one of two tales from his time in uniform.

The first was when an officer took exception to Dad's attitude about something (which may have been justified, or the officer in question may have been a  martinet; I can't recall), and made him jog around an airplane hangar on a hot day with his rifle held high above his head as an alternative to more formal punishment.

Dad completed his lap, and stood there dripping with sweat and panting while the officer asked if he had reconsidered his position.  When Dad indicated he was unsure, the officer suggested he take another lap to see if that might modify his perspective, so he hoisted his .303 Lee-Enfield (a bulky bolt action number still in service with the Rangers of Canada's north) and trotted off.  Momentarily, his chest heaving, he faced the officer again, but neither of them proved malleable on whatever point of contention they had, and Dad being stubborn (I'm seriously starting to question how many of what I consider my own behaviours are just more things I inherited from him at this point...), he once again lofted his rifle and began another lap.

I'm not sure how many laps there were in total, but whatever the number of the last one, Dad didn't finish it, as he woke up in the sick bay with heat stroke, and with the officer in question terrified that he had actually killed one of the men under his command. They never gave each other any trouble after that incident, as I recall.

The second benchmark for exertion in my father's world was the survival course he took at CFB Shearwater in 1958, and I think these are pictures from that same course. It's possible that this was a different course at CFB Cornwallis, but the legibility of some of the records leave a fair bit to be desired.

It is not unreasonable to assume that a Survival School would include some degree of obstacle or 'confidence' course as part of its curriculum, and that such a course would include some tried and true features of such conditioning tools.

Fear of heights? Don't want to hear about it; enjoy the rope bridge.

What's that? You're not infantry? Oh, my mistake! Tell you what, finish climbing under this barbed wire and we'll sort it all out back at the base, no hard feelings, right?

Just kidding; please negotiate this ravine without permanently destroying your ankles or knees, as they are government property until your day of discharge.

Say, is that water cold? It looks kind of cold, which is why myself and all the other instructors are wearing bulky coats in most of these pictures.

As mentioned, physical exertion and discomfort didn't slow the Old Man down a heck of a lot (one area we obviously do differ in), but there were elements of this course I distinctly remember him describing as extremely unpleasant and discomfiting. 
One of them was having to stay inside a boarded-up shack as it filled with smoke, and waiting for the sound of the instructor's whistle before making your way out of a window.  I'm pretty sure a couple of candidates passed out and had to be removed by the instructors.  

I know for a fact I have a peculiar trace of claustrophobia in my makeup; I have no trouble in elevators or small rooms, but if I can't move my arms freely or have my elbows pinned to my side, even in a crowd, I start to get pretty agitated.  It wouldn't surprise me a bit if some of that came from Dad too, and I hope I remember to check with Mum on Canada Day.

If that is indeed the case, then I am amazed he was able to make it through this part of the course, which involved crawling through an narrow underground tunnel for a considerable distance.  

At one point the tunnel took a sharp turn that was extremely difficult to negotiate while pushing a rifle in front of you, and necessitated some careful maneuvering around the corner in pitch blackness, and taking care not to get the firing assembly of the rifle dirty, as this would mean having to traverse the tunnel a second time.

Regardless of whether this represented an obstacle course or a confidence course, Dad apparently passed it, and kept the certificate to prove it.

It's no secret I am proud of my Dad, and with good reason I think, but looking at these pictures and records is a bit bittersweet as I regret not having looked at them when he was still here to ask about them.

Still, I'm grateful some of these artifacts lasted long enough for me to scan them and share them.  Encountering my father at a time when he was considerably different individual than how I tend to remember him and when he was significantly younger than I am now has been a fascinating exercise in time travel.

Maurice Fitzpatrick: front row, second from right - Aug 1958

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Serenity Gulch Stories: The New Kid

Beauregard regarded his gang’s newest member uneasily. He sat alone at a corner table, watching the other saloon patrons from over a warming mug of beer, his expression varying only as it shifted from disinterest to disdain. The young man was still dressed for riding, or work on the range, wearing his batwing chaps in the saloon, seemingly oblivious to the looks and snickers it generated.  He was clean shaven except for a carefully trimmed patch on his chin, and a long, dark lock of hair fell across his face, nearly obscuring his right eye. His red linen shirt had probably been considered fancy when he’d bought it, and was still one of the most colourful items worn in the Emporium that evening. Well, worn by men, anyways. 

One of the saloon girls strode over to the table and asked him something, but whether offered a stronger drink or the promise of companionship, he only shook his head.  Rose shrugged and began to return to the bar, but saw Beauregard beckon her over with a subtle raising of his chin.  She sat at his table and reached for the bottle of rye at its centre, pouring a glass for each of them while pointedly ignoring the others already sitting there.

“Doesn't seem like he’s much interested cher,” the gang leader drawled, drawing a snort from his right hand man, Cole.

Rose didn't rise to the bait. “Not in much of anything, so it pays not to take it personal.” She downed her whiskey and pushed the empty tumbler towards the table’s center. “He was talking a little bit earlier.”

“And about what, might I ask?” inquired The Daragh, the thoughtfulness of his question contrasting to the leering grin that seemed a permanent part of his countenance.

“How much better everything is in Missouri, for the most part,” replied Rose. 

Cole nodded.  “Just like Kansas City used to,” referring to their recently deceased partner.

The saloon girl shook her head.  “Not this one, he's from a ranch in East Missouri, out by Chesterfield.”

“Mopey bastard,” chortled Cole.  “The only folks say they’re from Chesterfield are ones what don’t want to say they’re city slickers from St. Louis.”

Rose smiled without showing her teeth. “That’s possible too.”

Beauregard frowned and scratched his jawline under his beard. “I might draw some exception to that remark, less’n you think Baton Rouge is sufficiently rusticated fo' y'self. Or maybe you think I’m soft too, eh?” Two seats to his right, Lafitte, sensing tension, stopped his endless card shuffling and sat back in his chair, hands dropping softly into his lap.

The significance of the other Louisianan’s posture either went unnoticed by Cole, or he wisely decided to pay it no heed.  He raised his glass to his lips saying, “Keep your shirt on, gumbo; everything is tougher in them swamps, present company included,” gesturing over his shoulder with his thumb at Lafitte. This garnered a chuckle from the sharply dressed man, who visibly relaxed but still left the cards untouched in front of him.

After a short pause, The Daragh spoke up. “Sure and does everyone in East Mo’ cut their hair that way then?”

The table erupted in laughter, but trailed off as the kid, who had obviously heard them, stood up from his table, purposefully, but without haste.  Beauregard noted for the first time that the young man wore his Colt in a cross draw rig, cavalry style.  A subtle and familiar click from beneath the table told him that Lafitte had thumbed back the hammer on at least one barrel of Heloise, his trusty sawed-off. Cole regarded the cowboy dismissively, while the grin never left The Daragh’s face as he locked eyes with the kid.

For his part Beauregard was content to see how events unfolded; a man can’t abide willful disrespect, but calling someone out over a comment on their hairstyle was the kind of prideful recklessness the Cajun’s particular brand of ongoing criminal enterprise simply did not need.

Anger was notably absent from the cowpoke’s face as he stared down The Daragh dispassionately, and his drawing hand hung motionless by his side, with nary a movement towards his holster.  When he finally spoke, he didn't even deign to raise his voice, almost whispering, “Don't think you know me,” before slowly walking out the doors of the Emporium and into the street.

The doors hadn't even stopped swinging before The Daragh slapped an open hand on the table in approval.  “Lad’s got some salt, and no one can tell The Daragh different, that's for certain.”

Cole nodded as well.  “Looks like the Missouri Kid is a steady hand at least; that's good.”

“East Missouri,” reminded Rose, prompting more laughter.

“Too long it takes to say, t-il pas?” mused Beauregard, “Reckon I will call him… the E. Mo’ Kid.”

Cole drained his whiskey and started to refill his glass.  “The Emo Kid?”  He paused to consider this, then shrugged non committally.  “Has a ring to it.”

Monday, June 15, 2015


Every day is likely to bring changes, some big, some small. Usually you don't recognize these transitions until afterwards, but sometimes you can discern their presence, and it always easier to detect them occurring to another.

I had the house to myself for a while this weekend, which is unusual. Glory and Audrey attended a feis in Calgary, so they left early-ish Saturday morning, right after waking me up to tell me our vehicles had been rifled through in the garage, again. Did the door fail to close properly on Friday night, or did some skill pry it open with a letter opener? In the end, it is of little consequence; little buggers knicked all my change but left the little spring-loaded widget I keep it in, and that appears to be all that goes missing, so I'm calling it a win.

Prior to this feis, Glory had been down on the whole dancing thing. She lost a lot of practice time with her broken toe and school events, and the competition gets harder and harder as the girls in her age group get more and more dedicated.

Thankfully her teacher Lori is absolutely excellent, and explained to her that she has seen the effort Glory is putting in, but it will take some time to pay off. The girls that dancing came easy to are beginning to drop out, and if Glory perseveres, she will see better results. Her daughter went through the same thing at this age, Lori told her, but stuck it out and sure enough, she started placing better and enjoying herself much more
Glory took it to heart, worked some extra practices this week and came back from Calgary with her first gold medal in months, plus a few silvers to boot. Her placements weren't great across the board, but she can see the improvement. I'm proud of her medals, but even prouder of how she got them: determination. Did I have as much at her age? Not likely!

Fenya, on the other hand, had a formal engagement as grad date to a young man we know from church. She got her nails and hair done, found a cute and affordable dress at H&M, and was beaming when he and his mum (no license for him yet either) picked her up Saturday afternoon. His mum had arranged for her to sleep over if it went late, so when he held open the door for her (good stuff, that), the expectation was I wouldn't see her until church the next morning. I had the house to myself.
That's not a lot of good to me, so I invited Earl over for a burger and game of Legends of the Old West set in Serenity Gulch. Earl was stunned to discover that Fenya was off to a grade 12 grad, and that she would be attending her own next year at this time. "That's impossible," he protested, "I feel like I only just got out of high school a few years back, so how can people I know from that time have children who have nearly graduated? It doesn't make any sense!"

I nodded sympathetically. "Time flies when you're having kids, I guess."

Earl has played a lot of games over the years, but this was his first exposure to a tabletop miniatures campaign. As a sort of hybrid between wargaming and roleplaying, he took to it immediately, naming and equipping his Lawman posse, selecting the most characterful models and imbuing them with significant backstories within minutes of getting them onto his roster, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him.
We rolled up the 'Vendetta' scenario, familiar to us from G&G X, with my outlaws, the Carson City Crawdads, holed up in the Emporium Saloon, and his Lawmen coming to chase them out. I left half my gang in the hotel and sent the other half dashing across the street to the hardware store to try to get the drop on Sheriff 'Bulldog' Lightfoot, his deputy Big John, and a rifleman.
Photo credit: Earl J. Woods

In the end, a lucky shot dropped one of his deputies and gave me the advantage in the street fight, and my prizefighter Tyrone took a wounded Bulldog down for the count. Banaczek, one of Earl's posse, got right up to the window of the saloon, but merciless Lafitte let off both barrels from a sawed off shotgun out another window before he could fire, and nearly took out two more of his vigilantes at the same time. (Including Tennessee Tess, who shrugged off so much lead in the game I figure she is either a revenant or a terminator.)
After the game, you roll on some tables to determine the fate of those taken out of action, and the Lawmen were rather the worse for wear with both henchmen succumbing to their wounds. However, all Earl's heroes withstood their injuries, and even ended up tougher for having done so! On my side, the Crawdads lost one of their henchmen, Kansas City, but the surviving heroes got a fair bit of experience and loot out of the deal, so that worked out all right. And most importantly, Earl is enamoured enough with the referee-less campaign system and the intriguing notion of models developing reputations that he seems eager to revisit the Gulch again.

Tonight I finally cleared away the junk between me and the painting table and got back to painting for the first time in a long while. I picked a hired gun, hero and henchman to add to my reserves, and painted the hero figure first because he looked fairly badass and I had a colour scheme in mind.
It was never my intention to make him into the worlds most dangerous looking leprechaun, but that's how he started taking shape, so I went with it, and if one of the lesser heroes (or "kids") in my posse goes down, I know who is coming in from the wings.

But the transition for me is the realization that painting is not nearly as easy for me as it once was. Part of this, I know, is lack of practice, and I hope to get a little more painting done over the summer to clear out some of the backlog of denizens for Serenity Gulch. But I also know a lot of it is in my eyes. My last major painting project, my Valhallan regiment for Warhammer 40,000, was done well before my eyeglass prescription required transitional lenses, or what we would have called bifocals in the old days.

Laying the colours on the coat, finding the trigger guard on his scattergun, even the shading was not too difficult, but the faces I used to take such pride in may be a thing of the past. I had a dickens of a time just getting the ember placed on the cigar in his mouth, and the eyes aren't awful, but a long ways off from what I have painted previously.

Still, life is change: we grow up, we grow older, and then...whatever's next. The weakening of the eyes is just one more side effect of aging, a terminal condition but one with only a single alternative which is even worse. This is small potatoes, so I intend to keep painting, as much as I am able, and if the figures aren't pretty, at least they'll be done. Maybe I will even relent and get one of those magnifying lamps people have suggested to me for a couple of decades now. Regardless, I'll lament not having done more when it was easier!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mercurial Muse's Modern Warfare Monstrosity - Drones, Reviewed

Suffice to say, Muse's polymath frontman Matt Bellamy considers himself a man with an axe to grind with the military industrial complex.

Fair enough; as long as his axe is this sharp and sounds this good, I say more power to him. And power is something the British power trio's seventh studio album, Drones, has in spades.

Following their 2012 excursion into dubstep and electronica, The 2nd Law, Muse felt a call to return to basics. The result is an album with both feet planted firmly in a rock stance, but maintaining the musical complexity and layering of their progressive roots.

In addition to presenting a strong theme about the dehumanisation of modern warfare ( and modern society, to some extent), Drones also visits the old school by virtue of being an honest-to-goodness concept album:
To me, drones are metaphorical psychopaths which enable psychopathic behaviour with no recourse. The world is run by drones utilising drones to turn us all into drones. This album explores the journey of a human, from their abandonment and loss of hope, to their indoctrination by the system to be a human drone, to their eventual defection from their oppressors

The narrative is fairly implicit and not thrust upon the listener, and as such, the concept can be taken or left as one desires.  Thematically, I think it works, but it lacks the cohesiveness of something like Pink Floyd's The Wall, which I suppose is pretty much the gold standard for concept albums.  And while us grown-ups may turn up our noses at choruses like 'Yeah, I'm free/free from society/you can't control me" (Defector), it is hard to dismiss the central message about the cost and convenience of using remote control to exercise lethal sanction from one's home country.

So philosophically, this album is not particularly nuanced, and 'war is bad' is an irrefutable but potentially naive position in a lot of respects. Musically though, Drones is one of the best Albums To Be Played Loudly Or Not At All that I have heard in quite some time. So much so, in fact, I put on my headphones so I could listen to it while mowing the lawn, despite having already paid my youngest to do that for me!

Now, maybe I'm still carrying a torch for Guardians of the Galaxy's groovy retro soundtrack, or maybe it's because my copy of the Spirit of 77 rulebook came in the mail last week, but I got a tremendous 70s vibe off Drones on its first listen-through a couple days back.  Is it the 'stick it to the man' attitude that pervades the album? Is it the blistering arpeggios from the beginning of Reapers, so reminiscent of AC/DC? Is it the clever and understated (seriously, I missed them the first time around) use of police sirens (including the 'phaser' effect used to clear intersections) on Revolt? Listen carefully and you can hear echoes of Ziggy-era Bowie and even the arena rock operatics of Queen running through Drones.

In short, I think it is the leaner, purposefully stripped down 'rawk' sound, achieved in part by their first collaboration with a producer, their previous albums all having been self-produced.  Robert John "Mutt" Lange is best known to some as the former Mr. Shania Twain, but he has produced great stuff for artists as diverse as Nickelback, Foreigner and Lady Gaga.  At The Warehouse in Vancouver Lange exhorted some truly powerful music, with a little less reliance on keyboards on most tracks, and giving the band's musicianship a chance to shine.

The lead single, Psycho (featuring voiceovers by Tom Sizemore as an overbearing D.I.) is actually based on a riff Muse has used as an outro to various songs during their legendary live performances, and as trite and potentially embarrassing as I might find a song with a prominent f-bomb in the chorus, I still find myself singing (shouting) along.

The token power ballad, Aftermath, does little for me, and the repeated "From this moment" had Fenya wondering if it was meant as a wedding song.  I don`t think it is, having such an undercurrent of desperation in it, but it is a lovely sentiment that supports the concept.  I don`t think it`s awful, it just pales in comparison to so much else on the record, and has never been one of my favourite genres at any rate.

In terms of dancing with the prog-rock that got Muse where they are, Mercy is probably the best example, balancing a powerful, mixed-tempo beat, great guitar work supported by keyboards content to work the sidelines, and Matt Bellamy`s powerful voice on the chorus.  And a solid music video to boot:

Overall though, this is a stripped down effort for Muse, that while still complex and ambitious in its own right, hearkens back to the raucous, blues-influenced guitar dominated rock sound I grew up with.  And as possibly the greatest living interpreters of arena rock, I simply cannot wait until they return to North America so I can hear these tracks played live.  The accompanying DVD depicts 4 tracks played live in the UK and is a great teaser for the yet unannounced world tour, probably coming to Canada in 2016.

There are some nice callbacks to the classical world so influential to prog rock: The Globalist is a ten minute epic that incorporates elements of Edward Elgar`s `The Enigma Variations: Nimrod`, while the eponymous acapella track is based on an Italian madrigal called 'Sanctus and Benedictus', and is a tremendous capper to the album.

In another nod to the good old days, a big chunk of the CD booklet (Yes, I continue to maintain my addiction to physical media. Leave me alone.) is devoted to haunting artworks inspired by the tracks, like this evocative one for Psycho:

You can't please anyone, and there are certain to be those who feel Muse has strayed from their roots with Drones,but part of the appeal of the band is their fearless willingness to experiment.  It takes just as much courage to present such a 'basic' sound compared to more recent efforts, and you can still clearly hear the musicians of Absolution and Origins of Symmetry in these tracks, so if they have roots at all, they haven't strayed far. It's a Frankenstein monster that incorporates the best of what Muse does, in many ways.

Fans of loud music should definitely give Drones a shot.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Rainbows On Whyte

This year, for its 35 year anniversary, the Edmonton Pride Parade and Festival moved from downtown to Old Strathcona. Because this is marginally less convenient to me, personally, I was initially upset by this change in venues, but it makes a lot of sense. Churchill Square was already getting too small to hold all the attendees and vendors, the grass at Strathcona Park is a lot nicer on a hot day than the downtown concrete, and the new LRT construction is going to take the area around City Hall out of play for a couple of years beginning in 2016, so getting ahead of this change is more than reasonable, it is laudable.


Still, parking round Old Strathcona is a chore, and our timetable didn't make Edmonton Transit a viable option, so there was some concern about having to park miles away, then march in the parade, and THEN trudge all the way back past the marshalling area to retrieve our vehicle.


Then I remembered the High Level Streetcar.

This vintage trolley runs from north of the river to within 4 blocks of Tipton Arena, where we were to meet, and two blocks from the festival, at the Old Strathcona Farmer's Market, so it was ideal to our needs. Plus, we found parking ridiculously close for only $2; a great find after the first lot wanted $24 for 4 hours or $35 for all day.


Considering it is the first year for this large a parade, we got assembled fairly quickly. Best of all, there was a food store across the street where I could purchase an ice-cold Caribbean lemonade prior to marching.

An amazing cross-section of humanity comes out for Pride; our church was beside a group of Lutherans and the UFCW local, and in front of the Edmonton Atheists and their Flying Spaghetti Monster, and everyone got on just fine. Some of the costumes you see, range from the provocative to just shy of assaulting the senses, but I didn't speak to anyone so much shocked as they were perhaps surprised and even, in some cases, delighted at the range of expression to be found on parade day.


This was also only the second time our whole family of four could march together, since Glory's next feis is not until next weekend, and Tara came out from Leduc to join us too, despite having tickets to the Women's World Cup Opening Ceremonies later that same day.

Decked out in our most colourful accessories, we had a great time marching with our rainbow umbrellas. I'm told that next year we may be working up a 'routine', but we will have to see; this year, smiling and twirling were sufficient. The breeze was not so strong as to jeopardize our umbrellas, but helped to keep us cool as we marched in the noonday sun; even more invigorating were the cheers from the crowd.

(This is also one of the few selfies not containing Justin Trudeau, based on most of the others I have seen since...)

After the parade, Glory was feeling the effects of the sunburn she had gotten the day before, but we had just enough time to grab some lunch from a food truck. In this instance, it was the sublime Duck Tots from Attilla the HUNgry: crispy tater tots topped with tender braised duck legs, lime sriracha sauce, hoisin aioli, and a combination of green onion, cilantro, and peanuts on top. Delicious!


On the way back home, I tried for a High Level selfie with Glory, out the window of the streetcar, and it mostly worked. A great day, over all.


Saturday, June 6, 2015

Doublegood Day

Two things I never had as a child were braces and patience.


Both our daughters needed orthodonture, and thankfully both of them were accepted into the Graduate Students Clinic at the University of Alberta, so the combined benefits plans of Audrey and I were able to cover the works.

Glory's treatment only lasted 14 months, but she was still very excited to have them removed on Wednesday morning. Just like her sister's, it turned out to be a smile worth waiting for:


She's not completely done; the retainer went in later that day and needs to be worn full time for a year; after that it is only required at night. Still, it can be removed for sports or eating, so croutons, popcorn and corn on the cob are all back on the menu, which makes her happy.


In terms of patience, I remember as a child how frustrating it felt to save up for something, and was well into my later teens before making any major purchases. Glory, on the other hand, has recently displayed her superiority to myself in this arena.

She has always had a knack for picture taking, and has a good eye, not so much for composition, but for contrasts in texture and lighting. She has always wanted a proper camera like her Auntie Betty's (and who is a respectable shutterbug herself), and I told her that if she saved up half of the money needed for the package she wanted, I would front the other half.

When I was Glory's age, there always seemed to be an opportunity to spend money; on second hand comic books at the book shop, or in the small arcade they had in the back; Dragon magazines and D&D modules at Henke's on Main Street; Scholastic Book order forms at school and so on. Glory had to resist a lot of school book orders, but every time she felt tempted, she thought to herself, would I rather have this or a camera?

And so, aided by the occasional babysitting or lawnmowing job and Christmas or birthday gifts from people who knew her goal, this is how she somehow managed to save over $400 in a specially labelled mason jar between last Thanksgiving and this past Wednesday.


She mowed the lawn after school the same day her braces came off, and after she took her total, I suggested we pop over to Costco after supper and see if the kit she was interested in was any cheaper as a cash-and-carry item than online.

Long story short, it was, and the price was only in effect for another week, and as other Costco shoppers know, that means buy it now or prepare to be disappointed. Now, Glory didn't have quite enough to finance her half of the purchase on her own, but I negotiated a set of 8 pre-paid lawn mowings in exchange for the difference, and a short while later, we were unpackaging her Canon EOS Rebel T5i kit.


She can't take photography at school until grade 10, but is already looking over the manuals and learning what all the buttons and switches do. She has already figured out how to blur the foreground and background while keeping the mid-range sharp, something she thinks of as an earmark of a proper photographer.

Me? I hope she enjoys using it, and I am confident she will, but I am already proud enough just from the discipline she's displayed in getting it.