Sunday, September 25, 2016

Until Next Time, Rev. James

I've always been pretty upfront about my resistance to change.

Philosophically, I recognize the  the danger of stagnation, the necessity of adaptation, importance of progress. But it's rarely been something I enjoy.

Rev. James, our minister and friend for nigh on 7 years now, is moving to Richmond Hill, and in a lot of ways, it is kind of a tough pill to swallow.

Again, the necessity of it cannot be questioned; his father is in declining health, and unable to come out west, as had been the assumed plan for many years. As the offspring with no children and a job that affords him some latitude in relocation, it is eminently sensible for he and Glen to relocate back east. As much as I recognize the rationality of it though, my inner Dr. McCoy is yelling "Damn your logic, Spock!"

Inner Spock will probably win, as he often does, with a relentless inevitability that is belied somewhat by the recognition that James is unquestionably doing the right thing, and for the right reasons, as well as the fact that it is clearly exacting an emotional price on him as well.

Today's farewell service and the pot luck that followed was not very elegant, but it was earnest and heartfelt and honest, all characteristics I value and admire, and see in James. For the first time I can remember, he had to refer to his notes during his sermon, because reading it afforded him a modicum of emotional control that simply speaking them from the heart could not.

He told us he was proud of how far we had come in our efforts to be more inclusive and welcoming, from becoming an Affirming Ministry and marching in Pride, to the work we did in respect to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. He choked up, telling us he loved us, and that he would continue to pray for us on our journey, as he knew we would for him.

The staff presented him with a brilliant painting by a local artist, and an envelope that started circulating only three weeks ago came back with a significant amount of cash in it, which seemed to rock him back on his heels a bit. The original intent was to turn part of it into a gift card for a posh restaurant (the thinking being that even $300 for food can be 20 x $15 fast food dinners or one spectacular night at someplace posh), but there was no time to arrange it. Also, many givers felt cash was a far more sensible gift due to its flexibility, and you have to respect those wishes. As one of the presenters though, I had a chance to hug him immediately after he received it, and whispered in his ear "A third of that must be spent in a single night!" in the urgent manner of a gypsy prophecy.

I repeated it to James' husband Glen, who was seated next to me in the congregation, and he grinned and said, "That shouldn't be a problem in Toronto!"

The pot luck was a bit chaotic because just so many people wanted to take part in this final farewell, and there were over 40 feet of folding tables laden with food. A mic was set up so that people could share stories or remembrances or public wishes, and a few people took advantage of it, giving heartfelt thanks and wishing James and Glen all the best in their travels and new home.

And of course I was one of them.

I began by recalling a couple of incidents early on in our relationship which occurred at Worship Committee meetings. At one, a gift basket had been prepared, but the aggregator was unable to gussy it up for presentation purposes. James immediately volunteered, saying, "Give it to me, I can make anything pretty."

Knowing his fondness for musicals, I grinned and replied with, "Pretty? Oh, so pretty? You feel pretty and witty and-"

"You cut that out!" he interrupted sharply. But he smiled when he did it.

At a different meeting, he took note of the Muse t-shirt I was wearing from a concert the night before. He asked if I had been there, and I was impressed he knew the band, since many didn't, but when I told him, yes, I had, he immediately held up his hand for a series of high fives, to punctuate his declaration of "Best! Concert! EVER!"

We then turned and looked sheepishly at the chair of the committee, who had no idea what was going on and was watching us with incredulity. James offered a mea culpa and said, "We were just having a moment, there..."

(For his part, James told me that he knew that he and I would get along famously when, at a church council meeting, we fell into an animated sidebar discussion about whether it made more sense to use sesterce or denarius to refer to the contents of a church's coffers, which devolved into the proper pluralization of these ancient currencies, when we were sharply called to attention by the chair of council. Even he grinned, though, as he threatened to put us in separate seats, like errant schoolboys.)

I followed up these anecdotes by mentioning that I had watched The Shawshank Redemption with my nephew Mark the night before, as he had never seen it. (I should mention that there were appropriate gasps of disbelief at this revelation.) I described the scene where convict Andy Dufresne strides outside the authority of the warden by barricading the door to his office and broadcasting an aria from The Marriage of Figaro over the prison P.A. system, mesmerizing the inmates, and earning himself two weeks in 'The Hole'; solitary confinement.

Frank Darabont, in the commentary that I watched last night, says, "The whole movie is in that scene: he is [trapped] in a place. He does the best he can. And he shares his soul with the people around him."

He gives them hope, a strange overlapping of the Venn diagram between a two-decades-old prison movie and modern Christianity.

To me, this describes James to a 'T', and I told that to the assembly.

In a spirit of honesty and commitment to right, he presented us uncomfortable truths and asked what we were prepared to do about them.

He taught ancient wisdom, but carefully explained the historical and societal context it came from.

James spotlighted injustices and cruelties in the world around us, some of which we ourselves were complicit in, and suggested ways we might do better.

Onstage, my voice caught when I turned to James and thanked him, and told him how much I hoped he knew the extent to which his shared soul had galvanized us, and how he had forever changed the way in which many of us view the world, and how grateful we were for his leadership and for showing us what being a loving and inclusive community really means, How appreciate we all were, that I was, that we had him in our lives for the time that we did. How happy Audrey and I are for the influence he had on the lives of our daughters.

I reached across the table to shake his hand again, but he was having none of it, and came around for a hug. Again.

There was a lot of eye-sweat going on in the Friendship Hall of St. Albert U.C. that day I can tell you.

The week previous, Audrey and I had James & Glen over for drinks after supper, ostensibly to say goodbye, but in truth, it was a way for us to extend our connection, and to offer the two of them a bit of respite, some non-obligatory decompression time in a familiar space. We had talked about watching a movie: I had lent James the Firefly DVDs some time ago (two years, perhaps? I'd lost track, having an extra set that I had subsequently replaced with BluRays...) abd he'd had yet to see the theatrical movie, Serenity, which capped off the series.

After everything today, and heading out tomorrow at 7 am, they swung by after dinner to check it out. My nephew asked to stay, instead of heading back to his residence at UAlberta, because of the gratitude he feels for the influence James has had on his life. We lounged, snacked on chips and popcorn, downed a few beers and ciders, and watched a decent sci-fi movie, but mostly, we just enjoyed the pleasure of each other's company.

We paid no mind that it may be some time before such an opportunity presents itself again, and the only indication that tonight was any different than our regular Monday night Game of Thrones viewing was the fact that I got Glory to snap a picture of the four of us at the door when it was all over.

I'm tired and sad now; my keyboard hasn't been this wet since I sat here and wrote out my Dad's eulogy, which is stupid. I mean, Canada is a big place, but it is not as though we will never see each other again. James & Glen have already made plans to return next summer. We are due to return to Ontario at some point, and in the meantime there is Skype, and long distance, and both James and I keep a blog, so the connections will be stretched, but not broken. Never broken.

But for the time being, I am giving myself permission to be miserable, and to lament this change, and the fact that in addition to a swell couple of friends, a tremendously influential mentor are no longer going to be as accessible as they once were. The Sunday sermons, the Oscar parties, the Game of Thrones viewings, the Canada Day celebrations, they are all going to be a little bit diminished because a couple of intelligent, compassionate, smartasses that mean the world to Audrey and I are moving a couple of time zones over, and if the ocular humidity that I saw going around the Friendship Hall this afternoon are any indication, I am not the only one who feels that way.

Godspeed, James and Glen. You will be missed, and we all count the days until we can see you both again. (The Oscar party invite is decidedly not perfunctory.)

(Nov. 2014)

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Highs and Lows of Summer's Last Weekend

The highlight of this imminently-autumnal weekend is always Pete's Geekquinox dinner, this time re-using the Star Trek theme in honor of the 50th anniversary of the franchise. I had ordered some appropriate nerdwear back in August, but by Friday afternoon it had not shown up, leaving me extremely disheartened.  On the plus side though, my BluRay of Captain America: Civil War had arrived, and Glory and I enjoyed watching it Friday night after supper.

On Saturday morning, I whipped up some scrambled eggs, sausages, and toast with lime curd before we took Glory in to St. Albert where her Irish Dance school was conducting a bottle drive. It went pretty well too, and in about 4 hours they had pretty much filled a 30 foot trailer with refundable empties. That should go a long ways toward financing some team dresses!

While she was dong that, Audrey and made out way out to Leduc (but not before stopping at Warp Comics to grab a Star Trek pin so I could improvise something remotely thematic) so we could help my mum empty out her motorhome.

With Tara and Jerry relocating to Texas, Mum will be moving into the other upstairs bedroom and setting up a small sitting room in Tara's old office so she can look after the place for the three weeks of every month they will be stateside. It's a big change from driving a humungous RV out to Osoyoos for their milder winter, but I know Tara is grateful that the house will not be so empty.

We got her place around noon, and was gratified to discover that there may be a genetic explanation for my affinity for smart-ass t-shirts:

True to form, Mum had already moved out most of the stuff she could, holding some back for an end of season campfire event they are having at her campground in Leduc next weekend. There wasn't a lot for us to do except a little technical support on her iPad and moving one awkward metal rocking chair that her dog Willow has pretty much claimed as her own.

After getting that situated, we made our way back up to Ellerslie Road and Geekquinox. It was a wonderful time, as always, filled with great food and better people, and official lexicographer Earl has done a marvelous job documenting it at The Earliad.

Not everyone dressed up, but those who did looked fantastic, evocative of one of the most positive futures ever depicted in science-fiction, and even my slapped-together effort didn't look too far out of place.

There was even a neat moment where esthetics met practicality, as Pete used the dry ice he had procured to make dramatic, steaming beverages to cool down a pot of beef broth in a hurry so he could more easily remove the fat.

There was much catching up, revelries galore, and even a couple of games of Star Trek Trivial Pursuit (in a suave shuttlecraft Galileo carrying case). The main course (a chuck roast that had spent 30 hours in a sous vide bath before getting smoked in Pete's Big Green Egg for another three!)was served up just before midnight, and people began breaking orbit a couple of hours after that. The diehards playing a small game of SpaceTeam at three in the morning signalled the end of festivities. After brunching together the next morning, we were back on our way to Castle Downs..

The grocery shopping still needed to be done, and I was on tap for preparing Sunday dinner, so part of me hoped to find a lasagna or something else that required minimal effort. Seeing rib roasts on sale and knowing my daughter was hankering for Yorkshire puddings put paid to that, however!

After dinner, Glory volunteered to go up on our roof to try and sort out the squeaky turbine vent that had been niggling at us the past couple of weeks. I showed her some pictures to give her an idea what needed doing up there, and she scampered to the top in great form.

Unfortunately though, the squeak persisted, and I ended up joining her on the roof. My reluctance was due less to any sort of fear of heights than an acute awareness of my mass-based proclivity for gravitational attraction. There was also an element of not wanting to place an undue burden of 1/8 ton on an aging roof, but in the end, there was nothing else for it.

Getting onto the roof and scrambling to the pinnacle to join Glory was surprisingly easy, and once ups there, we used our vantage point to take a good look at our neighbourhood and the setting sun, and took a selfie or two before getting down to brass tacks.

With one of us lifting the whirlybird itself and the other spraying some lubricant roughly in the direction of the spindle, we were able to make short work of the squeak in a very reasonable amount of time. Glory then scuttled over to the over turbine to repeat the process as a preventative measure while I crab-walked my way down the other side of the roof in order to remove about three dozen pine cones, and to note that the far side eavestroughs now had seedlings sprouting up from them.

The two of us then reconvened to remove perhaps a decade's accumulation of pine needles and other detritus, shoveling them into pails which I then levered over to Audrey at the end of a gardening hoe.

I managed to thrash the sweat pants I was wearing while scooching around on the shingles, and am not sure if the sap from the pine cones will ever come out of the work gloves I was wearing, but in the end it felt like a very productive evening, with a bit of fun in it too.

Come to think of it, our rooftop adventure was indicative of the weekend as a whole: a change in perspective, a bit of work and some fun as well.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

England Visit 2005 - London

Twenty-one years ago, I took a job with Games Workshop, purveyors of fine metal miniatures and tabletop wargames, which means eleven years ago they flew Audrey and I to the company HQ in Nottingham for the Veterans Dinner. (Honestly, why didn't I write this post last year? Well, better late than never, I guess...)

It was a pretty compelling perk: after ten years with the company, they not only flew you and your wife to the U.K.. but they also rented you a tuxedo for the big night, and presented you with a Burberry leather jacket with your name and start date on the label.

I'd been to England a few times previous for company conferences and the like, but going with Audrey was a treat, and after getting the girls situated with Oma and Opa,we arranged to spend a few extra days in London before heading up to Nottingham.

London is an amazing city, and I would love to return and spend more time there, especially with the girls. We never made it to the Imperial War Museum, or to a show in the East West End, or any number of other not-to-be-missed experiences, but we still managed to have a good time.

We rode the London Eye to get a bird's-eye-view of the city.

Afterwards, Audrey successfully defended her $9 hot dog against a voracious pigeon.

A double-decker bus took us to see the rest of the sights from ground level, and we drove by Tom Hanks shooting The DaVinci Code (too slow to get a camera on him though).

Great name for a pub, don't you think?

Walking about, we saw a member of the Life Guards on horseback. I can only imagine what level of upkeep those boots require!

We made our way to the gates of Buckingham Palace, but too late to see the changing of the guards, unfortunately.

Audrey chatted up the only Bobby we could find who was not totting around a submachine gun, due to a member of the Royal Family being on the move, and he kindly agreed to have his picture taken.

Later that day police motorcycle stopped the traffic in the roundabout by Trafalgar Square shortly after the dedication of the new Battle of Britain memorial, and I somehow managed to put two-and-two together and realize a motorcade must be coming. Sure enough, a moment later HRH The Prince of Wales and Camilla came racing around the corner. Not long enough for me to get a good picture, but sufficient to capture his distinctive silhouette.

Trafalgar itself is dominated by Nelson's column, the same height as the mast on his flagship, HMS Victory.

The lions at the base are powerful symbols of a once-mighty empire, but alas, deceitful.

We only found out later that real lions are actually incapable of sitting with their rear legs posed in such a manner; pressed for time, the story goes, the sculptor had used his housecat as a model.

The next day we got to see the (then) only recently unveiled memorial for the Battle of Britain, financed solely with private funds.

As a sculpture, it is an awesome piece, full of dynamism, character, and amazing detail.

As a history buff, seeing the names of every single one  of 'The Few' inscribed on the plaques, as well as all the participating squadron insignias was an even greater treat.

A boat tour on the Thames gave us a different perspective on the city, and showed us us how a clever bouillon company managed to dodge the ban on riverside advertising.

And we made it to the Tower of London, a visit which I recommend to everyone, but perhaps not for the reason you think. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of history on the site, and granted, the Crown Jewels are very impressive, but the best part of the tour is that it is given by Yeomen Warders, sometimes know as the Beefeaters.

To become a Yeoman Warder is very difficult as I recall being told: they must have 22 years of service in Her Royal Majesty's Armed Forces, and attained a rank of Sergeant. There is a rigorous interview process for both the candidates and their wives, as these men (no women at the time, and I don't knwo if that has changed as of yet) not only represent the face of the Tower to thousands of visitors every year, but they must also live on the premises.

Our guide said it's a great job, not unlike life in the army: marching around, shouting at people, telling them where to go, but at the end of the day, having a mailing address of "#7 Tower Green, Tower of London, England" is in many ways the best part of it. He was friendly, knowledgeable, and had both a great delivery and wicked sense of humour.
Yeoman: As you might imagine, the cellars underneath the White Tower are very damp, and quite cold, creating the ideal conditions for...what?
Tourist 1: Torture!
Tourist 2: Executions!
Yeoman: (Disgusted) Wine, you savages, wine! It's where they kept the wine!

Or as evidenced in this brief excerpt of his description of Traitor's Gate:

He also provided a brief rhyming shorthand for remembering the fates of the wives of Henry VIII which I still remember clearly a decade later: "No, it's like this, see - Divorced, Beheaded, Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Easy, ennit?"

Of course, there are two other famous denizens of the Tower worth noting; first, the Royal Guard, who, though ceremoniously and archaically dressed, still carry modern and fully functioning bullpup-style IW assault weapons...

And of course, the ravens.

It turns out these ominous corvids are looked after by a Yeoman called the Raven Master (how cool would that look on your resume?) and have their wings clipped to prevent their flying off. I don't recall getting a direct answer when I inquired if this was related to the infamous prophecy that if the ravens of the tower depart, the Crown will fall and take Britain with it, but now I find myself wondering if anyone has checked on them since the Brexit vote...

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Half-Century In The 23rd Century

We moved to Leduc in the spring of 1974, when I was most of the way through first grade. My new schoolmates were friendly, and we spent recess one day drawing on the chalkboard. One boy drew a set of parallel cylinders joined by a couple of rectangles. Speed lines came out the back, and two thin beams lanced out from the bottom of the topmost cylinder.

More details filled out the shape; windows, lights, some letters and numbers. I was intrigued, and asked, "What's that?"

"It's the starship, Enterprise," he said,"from Star Trek, on television."

After school, I rushed home so I could be in front of channel 13 at the appointed time, and I was transfixed- or maybe better to say transported.

I was immediately drawn in by the strange locales, the outlandish adventure and the bravery and gallantry of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Any chance I got to see more of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy (and the rest of the crew, of course), I took it. I remember Mum laughing when I told her about this new show, and how disappointed I was when she told me it had been cancelled when I was three. It meant that there was a limit on how much of this strange new world I would be able to experience, but I was determined to eke out as much as I could.

Like many of my peers, I bought a model kit of the Enterprise and assembled it in a slapdash fashion, but was puzzled by the sheet of decals included with it. Barely familiar names like Lexington, Potemkin, Intrepid, Hood, and their associated registry numbers suggested an even larger imagined universe, with links to real military history. Years before I would read Lord of the Rings, this was my first exposure to the tantalizing allure of world-building: the creation of an imaginary place particularly suited to the telling of specific stories.

I would watch these stories on television, and devoured the James Blish novelizations from the public library. At a bookstore in Southgate mall, I spotted the Star Trek Concordance and the Star Trek Puzzle Manual, and begged Dad to get the puzzle manual for me. It turns out the Concordance would become a valuable collectible in later years, but I was enthralled with the manual, written as excerpts of various Starfleet Academy training manuals.

The ardour of my classmates cooled somewhat as I entered junior high while my passion for Star Trek remained, but it was changing. The ethics of the crew, the morality of the stories, they began to inform my own sense of right and wrong. Even when I didn't agree with how Kirk handled a situation (which was rare), I respected his courage and commitment.
Kirk: "Let me help." A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over "I love you." (from City On The Edge Of Forever)
(If my ethos has a cornerstone, 'Let me help' is it.)

I came to understand the Enterprise's true purpose: as a vehicle for ideas, and ideals.

I was too young or sheltered to recognize how progressive it was to have a black woman officer on a television show, but the ethnically diverse, multi-racial and multi-species bridge crew of NCC-1701 showed me a multi-coloured world that worked.

When I saw other students bullied, or was a victim myself, I knew it was a fear of the Other that provoked it. It was a fear I had as well, but maybe a little less, and perhaps a little more controllable because I knew where it came from, and how illogical it was.

In the snarky interchanges between the passionate Dr. McCoy and the stoic Mr. Spock, I saw the value of both emotion and logic, and how much more effective each is when tempered by the other.

During the long dry spell between new episodes on television and the eventual movies, I discovered role-playing and tactical games set in the Star Trek universe, and played both in high school with like-minded fellows. I learned to tell stories in an established setting. Novels began to trickle out, giving us even more insight into the idealized future of the 23rd century.

Then, the movies, followed by a return to television in The Next Generation. The Star Trek universe was not only robust enough to survive two set re-dressings and costume changes in a short space of time, but could leap ahead almost a century and populate itself with new characters, in a future where enemies had become allies. (I'm not saying that the Klingon-Federation peace had any real bearing on the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, but...)

More shows followed, and more movies, and some were hits, and some were misses. But through them all, this optimistic and inclusive future, a future of abundance and exploration, remained.

This quirky little show with the astonishingly original looking spaceship, originally pitched as "Wagon Train in space", premiered on this night 50 years ago - September 8, 1966. Star Trek has been a cultural touchstone ever since,

Martin Luther King begged Nichelle Nichols not to leave the show, so she could be an example to other people of colour, and especially women.

James Doohan and Deforest Kelly received hundreds of pieces of fan mail from engineers and doctors who were inspired to take up these professions by their fictitious portrayals.

Cell phones, jet injectors for inoculations, modern computers, medical scanners - they can all trace their roots to a silly space opera that barely ran three seasons, but the lasting impression, the perpetual gift of Star Trek, will always be its idealism.
Capt. Kirk: They used to say if man could fly, he'd have wings, but he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn't reached the moon, or that we hadn't gone on to Mars and then to the nearest star? That's like saying you wish that you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut like your great-great-great-great grandfather used to. I'm in command. I could order this, but I'm not because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this, but I must point out that the possibilities - the potential for knowledge and advancement - is equally great. Risk! Risk is our business. That's what this starship is all about. That's why we're aboard her. You may dissent without prejudice. Do I hear a negative vote? (from Return to Tomorrow)

In January, Star Trek returns to television (well, via a streaming service in the U.S., but still...), and there are numerous indications that showrunner Bryan Fuller is intent on taking the franchise back to its progressive roots. Half a century later, the rallying cry of Trekkies through the lean years, "Star Trek lives!", has never been more true.

I have every confidence that I will be referencing Trek until I am too old to remember it, and that phrases like "Live long and prosper" will continue to resonate until we reach the 23rd century. Perhaps this sentiment and the spirit that spawned it will eventually echo into a future that looks more like the utopia that is the United Federation of Planets, and not our troubled little globe.

Monday, September 5, 2016

(Someone Else's) Family Reunion

Family trees aren't as straightforward as they used to be. At the Oldenburger family reunion this weekend, I met a lot of Audrey's aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and more.

Over the better part of a century since Jakob and Fenje Oldenburger founded the clan back in Holland, their children and children's children have experienced miraculous births, tragic deaths, marriages, divorces, remarriages, adoptions and all other manner of associations and affiliations.

A young man of 21 is asked if that 5 year old he is talking sternly to is his younger brother. "No, he's my nephew," is the reply. "He lives with us because his mom is...troubled." A knowing nod, indicating both understanding and respect, is given to show that the matter needs no further elaboration.

So many different people, so many branches of the same family tree, and sometimes it is difficult to even fathom that they share a common trunk. And sometimes they don't; I have no blood here except the daughter I brought.

And yet, I see similarities in the eyes of some of the cousins, the smiles of some of the aunts, mannerisms and expressions of children brought up around similar lifestyles and cousins, whatever age they may be now.

Best of all, they make room for others, like myself. This year they asked me to run the auction they use to fund the reunion, and two hours of sweaty shouting later, they had somehow made about $500 more than they did last year.

But our biggest contribution for the past three years has been the games we bring, and for a lot of the younger attendees who are just not into canasta, the reunion is a great opportunity to try games they haven't been exposed to before.

This year saw three games of Formula De, including a 9 person heat using the megaboard of two adjoining tracks. We also played Risk Godstorm, Timelines, Bang! The Dice Game, and Dutch Blitz. Uncles, cousins, nephews, brothers-in-law, and friends.

After packing up Frankentrailer today, these people whom I only see once a year hugged me, and thanked me for my help, and said how glad they are that we come. And I'm glad too.

Because it turns out they are my family after all.