Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Peach of a Beer - Stanley Park Sunsetter

Glory came home from camp yesterday (with a cold), and today we found out my sister-in-law and nephew were going to be in town sorting out some business at the University of Alberta. I was already planking some sockeye fillets and there was more than enough for six, but not nearly enough beer.

In the course of stepping out for reserve salmon and spare propane (just in case), I came across Stanley Park Brewing's Sunsetter, advertised as a summer wheat ale, and thought I would give it a shot.

Wheat ales are a great, light, summer session beer, and Sunsetter is no exception. It is unfiltered, giving it a cloudy, hazy, but not displeasing aspect, and holding it up to the light brings to mind a celestial halo.

The beer itself starts out with a fairly decent head for a wheat beer, with sweet citrus scents due to the Citra hops used. In fact, it is so pleasant that Audrey even took a sip, despite my warnings that it is, in fact, still very much a beer.

A pleasant mouthfeel that argues eloquently for a second or third swallow before returning the glass to the table, the light wheat ale carries the added element of peach, but not an overpowering amount of it. Just as the peach might be overstaying its welcome, the crispness of the hops cleanse the palate in time for another bite of salmon, or perhaps another sip of beer.

It paired wonderfully with the salmon (glazed with brown sugar, stoneground mustard and Grand Marnier), but alas I was the only beer drinker at the table, with Betty and Audrey opting for cider instead. The bottle recommends serving it with grilled pork tenderloin and peaches, which I think I would like to try, but as an accompaniment to a meal, this peach wheat ale opens a lot of doors.

If you are one of those who prefers beer and fruit to keep a respectful distance from each other, I don't think Sunsetter will change your mind, but for the rest of us, it is nice to have another fruity beer for beautiful summer days like this.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Old Bird Goes Far

Back in WWII, Edmonton's Blatchford Field (the old City Centre Airport) saw 800 planes takeoff and land a day, many of them on their way to Russia to fight Nazi Germany. In all, over 8000 planes were shipped from Montana to Alberta, to Alaska and across the Bering Sea to Siberia under the U.S. Lend-Lease program.

Many of them were flown by young, inexperienced pilots in freezing and dangerous conditions, with 177 planes never completing the journey. It was also a chance to shine for many women in the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), as they shuttled the planes from factories across the U.S. to the base in Great Falls, Montana, but very few people are aware of this bit of aviation history.

An intrepid band of pilots and aviation buffs (Bravo 369 Flight Foundation) have refurbished some of the planes that were used, and are retracing the route as part of a documentary called Warplanes to Siberia. One of them overnighted in our neighbourhood yesterday at Villeneuve Airport west of St. Albert, so I went out to take a gander.
The plane is a T-6 Texan, known in Canada as the Harvard, and a familiar silhouette on the prairies thanks to the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. I arrived well after it had landed and passed pilot Jeff Geer and the crew of the Navion escort plane as they were walking away.

Apparently they had to divert from the Springbank Airport outside Calgary due to weather, and were hoping that the forecasted storms would pass through the Edmonton region quickly. I thanked them for coming and wished them well on their next leg, to Dawson Creek.

The canopy was covered, as you can see, but you could see the rest of the Texan clearly, and it is a gorgeous restoration job, but I was still saddened to miss the landing. Without motion, without the noise, there is little to distinguish the living, breathing machine from a static prop or replica.

It's been far too long since I've heard an engine at full military and I think I will remedy this by perhaps going back to Villeneuve for the Edmonton Air Show late August; they have a static display of a P-51 Mustang, but perhaps I can be on hand when it takes off. Or maybe I will head down to Nanton to see one of the engine run-ups they do with their Lancaster bomber; there is apparently a night run scheduled on August 21st, and I think it would be a great thing for the girls to hear before the endangered sound of those Merlin engines are silenced forever.

Lima Echo One Two was scheduled to take off at 1000 today from Villeneuve airport, and I doubt the weather was bad enough to hold her up. I'm a bit blue that I couldn't escape work long enough to see her come or go on her long trek to Krasnoyarsk, but I look forward to seeing the documentary some day.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

When A Flag Is Not A Flag

In the summer of 1998, Audrey and I, along with two friends from Edmonton, traveled from our home in Toronto to southern Pennsylvania in order to visit the historic battlefield at Gettysburg.

It was the third visit for the two of us, and a significant trip for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, Audrey was in her second trimester of pregnancy with Fenya, and this was very likely to be our last vacation without children in tow.  This was part of the reason Pete and Brent came out to join us, as it was the end of an era, but the other was that there was a massive reenactment of the battle itself scheduled for its 135th anniversary.

Summer in that part of the U.S. is generally hot and sticky, but Audrey, ever the trooper and enjoying what was probably the most comfortable third of that pregnancy, dealt with the discomfort with her characteristic grace, even when sleeping in a warm tent with three blokes.

The reenactment itself was amazing.  Held in a farmer’s field outside of town in order to better preserve the battlefield, we took our seats in the bleachers early in the day and experienced the concussive might of an immense artillery barrage, watched reenactors from Tennessee march across a dirt field in their bare feet in a painful tribute to historic accuracy, and saw more soldiers conduct Pickett’s Charge than were actually at Pickett’s Charge.

As a souvenir, the four of us picked up commemorative t-shirts declaring “We Survived Pickett's Charge” and featuring a color photo of a battle standard belonging to a Confederate regiment, from Mississippi I believe, that had sustained 90%+ casualties during that fateful engagement.

The fact that this standard was, in fact, the battle flag of the Confederacy, gave us no pause whatsoever.

(In fact, I had another shirt with that now-controversial flag in the background behind an illustration of Virginian Gen. Lewis B. Armistead, and over the caption, “C’mon boys; give them the cold steel!”)

Back in the 20th century, this rebel flag, often mistakenly referred to as the flag of the Confederacy itself, had a less adversarial, more rusticated association. It was a symbol of southern pride or redneck stubbornness, the top of the celebrated ’69 Charger from The Dukes of Hazzard television show, and it was quaint, not frightful, like the first twelve notes of 'Dixie' heard when the General Lee sounded its horn.  Certainly not a racist icon, or at least, I had never thought of it that way.

On this same trip, we ventured into Washington D.C. in order to see the monuments and visit the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.  Never afraid of looking like tourists, at least when we are, I suggested we wear our identical t-shirts so we could more quickly pick each other out in a crowd, and the others agreed.

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Washington is laid out rather like two cities, the center of which is what you tend to see in movies and television and features the White House, the National Mall and its attendant monuments to Washington and Lincoln, et al.  Wrapped around this pearl is a crowded, noisy urban center like any other, where everyday people live, work and play, and a considerable portion of them happen to be people of color.

And to many of these people, that flag we were wearing had an entirely different connotation.

Touring the monuments close to the Potomac, there were a few people who recognized the shirt and the event it represented, some even approaching us to ask about it, and lamenting that they were unable to attend themselves.  Their accents represented a broad cross-section of America, at least to my ears, from the clipped vowels and broad ‘r’s of the Northeast to the soft slow drawl of the south, but without exception, those inquiring were always white.

When we began walking around Washington, to and from the Smithsonian, I was largely oblivious to the lingering glances, occasional stare and at least one glare we received from African-American Washingtonians, until Audrey heard someone say ‘Black Power’ in a menacing undertone, but within earshot.

Eventually, we finally put two-and-two together, and figured out that, regardless of our intentions, our naiveté regarding the symbol we had donned was causing offense. As Canadian tourists committed to maintaining our stereotypical reputation for politeness, this was particularly embarrassing.

Further to the point, if you know me, or have read my previous posts about the topic, you know I don't have a lot of time for racists, and even this tenuous association with them was almost too much for me to take.

At that point however, far from a change of clothes, there was nothing we could do but grit our teeth and push on.  We hailed a cab and on the driver's advice went to Hogate's for a seafood dinner, and of course our server was black, and seeing our shirts, was tremendously frosty (but not unprofessional) throughout the first half of our meal.

Eager to redeem ourselves in the eyes of at least one of our southern neighbours, we turned up the charm: smiling, making good eye contact, asking her opinion of various menu items, and thanking her for filling our water glasses.  At some point, she asked where we were from, and when we explained a) we were from Canada, and b) that we had come down to watch the 135th Anniversary reenactment, she warmed to us considerably. I can picture the thought bubble over her head, cartoon-style: "(gasp) Why, they aren't bigoted at all - they're just unbelievably dense!" Just to be sure though, we tipped pretty well to boot.

Once we returned home, I wore the shirt infrequently, and never in a situation that would see me in any sort of crowd. Part of me was, and maybe even still is, a little indignant that I could be viewed as intolerant because of wearing a shirt commemorating a period in history.  After all, it was hardly an endorsement; in point of fact, a person from the South could potentially take offense to my displaying the battle standard of a vanquished regiment, or because the flag in question is full of bullet holes. I mean, it is not as though Bo and Luke Duke were poster boys for the white supremacist movement, right?

In the end though, such arguments and rationalizations are wholly irrelevant. The intention behind the symbol is trumped by the significance of what that symbol has become.  

Remember that in the case of South Carolina, the standard that is often mistakenly called the flag of the Confederacy did not fly above the capitol building for the entirety of the twentieth century.  It was raised in 1961, ostensibly in recognition of the centennial of the start of the American Civil War, but stayed up as a sign of resistance to the then-nascent civil rights movement.

I'm trying to imagine someone with a geographically appropriate drawl trying to explain this particular and peculiar vision of progress: "It is not as though this flag is a symbol of our desire to buy and sell other humans as property based on the colour of their skin, no sir!  That ship has sailed.  This here flag symbolizes our great southern heritage and our opposition to granting voting privileges to people who aren't white.  Or perhaps Asian."

Regardless of whether we are talking about extreme racists and hate groups who have used the Confederate flag in their imagery, or people with, let's call them 'racially motivated isolation' issues, who have used it as a sort of password or shibboleth to find like-minded individuals, it is now impossible to separate the flag's historical context from what it has devolved into. As a tool for divisiveness, the flag has effectively and unfortunately become weaponized.

In the final analysis, lowering that flag is about courtesy, a subjective quality that some people care about far more than others, and respecting the unintentional impact of symbols.  

Let's say you were having a friend over for dinner who was recently released from the hospital after having been stabbed in the thigh with a steak knife by some crazed drifter; it wouldn't exactly be the pinnacle of hospitality to bust out the t-bones and extra-sharp serrated cutlery on that particular night, now would it?  Maybe this is better viewed as a great opportunity to dust off the wok and chopsticks, or perhaps tacos.  Is this a concession?  Is it a compromise? After all, you have every right to serve grilled steaks in your own home, and you aren't going to eat them with your fingers, are you?

Maybe, I guess, if you are tremendously committed to eating steak, but in the end, it is hoped that one will act unselfishly, and err on the side of compassion and empathy.

There are people in South Carolina and other areas on the far side of the Mason-Dixon line who are understandably aggrieved and even personally hurt at the negativity now surrounding the Confederate Battle Flag, folks who are not hateful or willfully racist, or still harboring faint hopes for eventual secession as the South Rises Again.  But in the final analysis, they and their heritage are the unfortunate collateral damage in a battle between people struggling to move forward together and willfully ignorant gits who have cloaked their intolerance and xenophobia behind this standard.  There was a time when that flag meant something different, but that isn't what it means now, and to a growing number of people.

I'm sad it took the actions of a damaged racist youth claiming the lives of 9 black churchgoers to prompt South Carolinan legislators  to finally move the Confederate flag off the capitol grounds, but it was clearly the proper thing to do.  Look, when one of the first groups out of the gate to protest the issue on the grounds of capital-F Freedom are the Ku Klux Klan, that is a pretty good indicator you have ended up on the right side of history.

Since the shooting, toy manufacturers have announced that they will no longer sell replicas of the General Lee with the Confederate flag on the roof, and a number of retailers have removed merchandise containing it, including Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon. The Apple Store tried to follow suit, but most pundits agreed removing Civil War battle games because they (inevitably) contained the flag was probably going a bit far. I imagine the Duke's ride will look a bit plain with a plain orange roof, but alternatives are difficult to agree on.

I can go on at length (and have!) (and likely will again!) about how the American Civil War was as much about economics and state's rights as it ever was about slavery, and I have no plans to incinerate my Pickett's Charge anniversary shirt, but I am choosing to recognize and respect how the flag on it can make other people feel, and act accordingly.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Less Can be More - Ant-Man, Reviewed

The ancient maxim of 'acta non verba' - deeds, not words -  is sometimes applied by screenwriters as "show, don't tell".  Don't waste time on exposition what you can depict in a flashback; don't use dialogue to reveal emotions, frame up a smoky stare or lingering glance instead, and don't state your theme, show it to the audience via the actions of your characters.

Bearing that in mind, I can describe Ant-Man as a great adventure movie that is a lot of fun to watch despite its troubled production history...but it doesn't have a whole lot to say.

And that's okay, it doesn't need to have a lot to say. Its primary purpose is to entertain, and it does that in spades.  Paul Rudd has a ton of charm and is very convincing as Scott Lang, a reluctant thief who ends up involved in a scheme to keep Hank Pym's (Michael Douglas) shrinking technology out of the wrong hands. Evangeline Lilly plays Hope, Pym's estranged daughter, whose emotional distance from her father hasn't prevented her from embracing his principles.

Additional support comes from Lang's roommate, Luis, played by Michael Pena, who not only brings great humour to the scenes he is in, but gives director Peyton Reed an opportunity to depict some of the story's exposition in a very entertaining way.

The real star of the movie though, is the visual effects.  Depicting the adventures and terrors of humans shrunken to a tiny size has been a Hollywood staple since its earliest days, but has been largely absent since Honey I Shrunk the Kids back in 1989.

Like that film, Ant-Man's best moments come from watching him negotiate a familiar world from a vastly different perspective, as Scott Lang, reduced to perhaps a quarter-inch in size and unsure of his abilities, avoids being washed out or drowned in his own bathtub, only to end up clinging to the grooves of a spinning record, and then having the negotiate a jungle of crushing feet on the dance floor.

The shrinking effect itself is pretty much a strobe, similar to how it is depicted in the comics, but the rapid (and occasionally panicked) transitions are well handled, especially in the fight scenes. Likewise, the interactions with the various species of ants that Pym's technology allows communication with are imaginative and well handled.

If the film has a weak spot though, it is probably the villain.  Tom Hiddleston (Loki) once said that Marvel's genius, both in comics and in their films, is that they make their heroes flawed, and their villains heroic. It's not like everyone wants the Red Skull in their wedding party, but none of the villains in the first phase of the Marvel movies were straight up megalomaniacs bent on world domination for its own sake, and they often have some redeeming characteristics, or at least a relatable motivation.

Pym's former protege, Darren Cross is just another smug corporate bigwig, passive-aggressively trolling his old boss as he tries to replicate the shrinking tech the Pym now conceals out of fear over how it might be misused.  Despite being an able scientist, Cross displays very little in the way of smarts, and even though he is by implication a solid businessman, you are never given any insight as to how.

Corey Stoll does a decent job, given what he has to work with, but the best opportunity to make him even the least bit sympathetic, the referenced but never depicted falling out, is squandered. When you consider how well this worked in humanizing the villain Syndrome in The Incredibles, it feels like a rare mis-step for Marvel's Kevin Feige and company. By the time Cross becomes Yellowjacket, he is just another cardboard villain, which is a bit of a shame. As a result of this, the picture's theme, such as it is, has to focus on redemption and the reconciliation of two men separated from their daughters.

On the plus side, in an adventure-comedy-heist picture, a villain is practically superfluous anyhow, the real menace is the Ticking Clock, or Consequences of Being Caught, or, in this case, Failed Redemption, and Ant-Man plays the angles very well on these other three elements. It may also be the most accessible Marvel film in a while, being well paced, extremely funny, and requiring no interstellar world-building or convoluted backstory. There is a joyful 80s vibe running through this film, and despite his having departed the project, original director Edgar Wright's fingerprints are still visible throughout it.

Everyone is waiting for Marvel to stumble, but Ant-Man is a good, if basic film, with solid but simple ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the last film of Phase Two, Marvel's True Believers can rest easy; despite having to take liberties with the source material, Marvel has kept the faith and not only made a solid adventure film, but have also left the door open for Scott Lang's participation in the wider MCU.  In that tradition, if you are a fan, you will probably want to stay until the very end of the credits.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Return to Riverdale

I told Audrey I had done something for the first time in at least 35 years, but, on reflection, I'm not sure that's true; it's possible that I never bought an Archie comic before today.


Growing up in the 70s and 80s, when a much larger chunk of the comics spectrum was intended for, well, kids, I had always maintained a certain respectful distance from humour and funny animals and gravitated instead towards the action and adventure of superhero, war, and western comics.

That's not to say I didn't read and enjoy them. I still have fond memories of Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck adventures, which presented a globetrotting and swashbuckling sensibility to the genre that, looking back, was a gateway to adventure stories like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on the screen. And even Archie wasn't bad in moderation, but the simplicity of the stories and art always made me feel I wasn't getting my money's worth for the 25 cents I was spending on used comics at Leduc's second-hand Book Shop.

The Andrews lad is ubiquitous though, and you could be assured of coming across him at a relative's house (even if they no longer had kids your age) or in a waiting room, or in a musty box in the cabin you were staying in.

I quickly learned that Riverdale was a place like no other, where teenagers drove vintage jalopies in one story and then joked about playing video games in the next, and even more encompassing was the range of quality in art and writing. Many of the stories were labouriously constructed efforts designed to 'pay off' with a grizzled or grisly pun (why can I suddenly hear a sad trombone?), but some of them showed genuine insight and charm as they presented the timeless travails of adolescence, linked prepetually to period clothing and hairstyles, and frozen like flies in amber.

As a fan of the medium and student of the history of comics, I was forced to sit up and take notice when I heard the publishers of Archie were releasing their first new #1 issue in 75 years. When I heard who they were putting at the helm of their flagship title, I became personally interested.

Like a lot of comics fans, I read Mark Waid's Kingdom Come years ago and was intrigued by both his encyclopedic knowledge of the DC superhero canon, as well as his uncanny ability to extrapolate from it in an unexpected but thematically consistent fashion, imagining a world where the original superheroes have faded away or retired, while the next generation has become wild and indiscriminate in their battles against wrongdoers. Like an in-universe Watchmen, Kingdom Come simultaneously honours and deconstructs the mythology of the DC Universe, while admonishing the medium for how 'grim & gritty' it had become.

In more recent years, Waid has had a remarkable run on Daredevil, one of my favourite characters, brilliantly balancing the hero's swashbuckling roots with the tragic noir elements of his more recent iterations. He has a tremendous gift for both dialogue and monologue, and a delightful sense of humour that would not be out of place in an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, so the potential for Archieto have a great story was firmly in place.

Hearing that Calgary's Fiona Staples was doing the art was enough to bring me on board. In addition to being one of the few popular female artists working in comics, Staples has an unparalleled ability to convey expression in her facial work, most notably in the work she does with Brian K. Vaughn on Saga, possibly the best comic out there today. Such is the degree of my appreciation for her work that I would probably get a subscription to the Hansard if I heard that Fiona Staples was illustrating it.

Last week I took a look at the preview pages of Archie #1 at the Comic Book Resources website, and I was hooked. In just six pages, I was drawn into the high school drama of Riverdale like never before, as young Archie Andrews introduces himself directly to the reader, Ferris Bueller style, as well as some supporting characters, but mostly laments his recent breakup with none other than Betty Cooper, due to something called 'the Iipstick incident'.

A Greek chorus of three nameless friends trying to repair "Bettchie" make their play, aided, as unconventionally as you might expect, by Jughead Jones.

A chance opportunity at a high school dance drags him onstage, which not only opens the door for Archie as a musician, but also a chance for a great writer like Waid to shut up and let Staples take the lead for a while, and to great effect.

Despite the newness of everything ("#lipstickincident"), Waid's writing captures both the quips and pathos of high school melodrama (and the best instances of same in the Archie canon), while Staples' art continues to seamlessly blend the best elements of realism and cartoons. Everything old really is new again, and both creators wear their affection for these characters and the setting way out on their sleeves,

I'm not going to tell you if or how the plan succeeds at bringing Archie and Betty back together, but in terms of setting the stage using well established characters and settings, Waid and Staples have accomplished something really amazing with this, well, let's not call it a reboot; howzabout 'refreshing' of the title.

Archie #1 is well worth checking out for a number of reasons: history, nostalgia, reference, permanence, but mostly because it is a well written and well drawn story that is entirely relatable, regardless of whether your memories of high school see you wearing Archie's letterman jacket, Jughead's beanie, Veronica's bangs, or Betty's ponytail.


Sunday, July 5, 2015

Trailer Tales and the First Real Weekend of Summer

This weekend was the first full one since school let out for Audrey and the girls.  We took off down to High River to pick up an old tent trailer that Audrey's Uncle had found for us, and that we were told needed a little work and a lot of cleaning, which was fine.

Unfortunately, there were some issues with the wiring, which I am fully helpless with, but Audrey's brother Garett has helpfully agreed to sort out for us. We were disappointed to leave our new purchase 4 hours to the south of us, but can do so knowing it is in good hands.  There will still be some cleaning and patching to sort out when this hab module eventually makes its way into Edmonton, but with a little luck, we will get to try it out at least once prior to the family reunion on Labor Day weekend.

I try to look for the lessons and insights taught to us by the everyday, and our tent trailer experience came with a few, as it turns out:

  • The easiest way to get plain, honest advice from people is to abandon all pretext of coolness and to not be coy in the slightest: let them know that you are as helpless as a baby duckling in a shark tank and that you are relying on them, and the vast majority of them will rise to the occasion like champions.
  • "Easy" may well be the most subjective word in the English language, especially when applied to tasks the listener knows nothing about (in my case, wiring or tent trailer repairs).
  • Highway travel has a broadening effect upon the palate of some families, enabling them to willfully try items they might otherwise turn their nose up at.
  • Related to the above: Poutine Ruffles are a thing now.
  • (Also related: And not a bad thing either, surprisingly.)
  • Unlike a motorized vehicle, one does not need proof of insurance to register a trailer.
  • Although the online Yellow Pages state the contrary, there are no registries offices open in High River on Saturday.
  • Related: Highway 2A from High River to Okotoks provides a lovely drive into a scenic town which happens to have a registries office which is open until noon on Saturdays.
  • Okotoks also has a Costco now, which surprised me a bit.
  • A lot of the people in Audrey's family are the type that you do not need to actually ask for help; you simply need to let them know there is a problem (like the wiring on your second-hand tent trailer), and if they are at all able to help, they will do so, and at the drop of the proverbial hat.
  • Our societally entrenched distaste for the very idea of summer school means that if your eldest daughter has enrolled in Math 30-1 over July, relatives may look at you askance in pitiless judgement when they discover this, even after she tells them it was her idea and not yours.
  • Related to the above: the degree of askancity is inversely proportionate to the age of the person in question.
  • Sportscraft Trailers were not just made in Canada, but assembled right here in Alberta at a factory in Lethbridge.
  • There are a lot of places where a breakfast buffet can go off the rails: cold bacon resting in a congealing pool of its own grease, overcooked sausages, or (worst of all) watery scrambled eggs.  What a joy, then, that when we took most of the extended family to brunch at the Heritage Inn this morning, everything was tickety-boo, and they even had eggs Benny and a tureen of gravy on hand for the fried potatoes. Marvelous!
  • The first two digits of the serial number of your Sportscraft trailer may be the year of its manufacture (77, in our case).
  • Our girls indirectly received some very high praise from their Opa today, when he mentioned that the plywood they had scrubbed down in the trailer the day before looked like a new sheet.
  • As much as I claim to revile the tastes of the 1970s, a growing appreciation for period kitsch has me lamenting the fact that we will most likely need to put opaque coverings over the nostalgic orange and yellow floral pattern of our trailer's upholstery.
  • Working outside on a hot day without the benefit of a cold beer at the end of it (or potentially in the middle of it) will not kill you, but it won't do you any favours either. Better not to chance it.