Friday, October 28, 2016

Pulpitations:The Affirmiversary Service

"Chad was 4 years old when he tried to kill himself."

Of all the places I might hear these words, I certainly wasn't expecting them to come from the podium at church last Sunday. But I did, and it was part of an amazing experience.

Back in 2009, our congregation voted to sanctify same-sex marriages by a margin of almost 2:1. Three years ago, our congregation underwent a process of education and discernment to become an Affirming Ministry, and two years ago this month, we did it. This certification from Affirm United allows members of the LGBTQ+ community to know that we are committed to committed to creating a safe and welcoming space for them.

I know, I know: "But aren't churches supposed to be welcoming for everyone anyways?" You're not wrong, and this was a hurdle we had to overcome with our own congregants during our process. At the time, the best analogy I could come up with was, "White artists were welcome to perform at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, but only Hall & Oates actually did it." Since then, the tone-deaf responses to Black Lives Matter give a better comparison; sexual minorities require an extra effort because of how they have suffered at the hands of those who claimed what they did was in the name of the Almighty.

One of the biggest challenges once a church reaches this point is to maintain the momentum and keep up the education and the awareness. We host movies for fun and panels for insight, march in Edmonton's Pride Parade, and observe the anniversary of our becoming an Affirming Ministry; our Affirmiversary, if you will. (Yes, I'm the one who thought the name was a good idea; so what?)

This year, a young fellow from Canmore came into the picture, talking about a documentary he had shot for Camp fYrefly, a leadership retreat for LGBTQ+ youth and allies. He was not only willing to bring his film, Over the Rainbow, to us for a Saturday night screening, but he would bring at least one cast member and some Camp organizers, and the main 'character' from the film, Marissa would even be willing to sing in our service the next day!

Well, we would have been fools to say no, and last Saturday night we screened the movie for 70-80 people in the sanctuary. I hosted a Q&A session that went really well, and everyone agreed it was a tremendous evening, even if hearing about some of the abuse these kids go through fro being different is pretty hard to listen to.

The next morning, the entire church service was organized by the Affirm Committee, from picking the hymns (which I was happy to let others do!) to delivering the sermon (which the others were happy to let me do...).

This was my 4th time delivering a sermon, but I still get just as nervous as I did the first time, maybe even more so this Sunday. It's an important topic to a lot of folks, and important to me.  Weaving together the somewhat disparate scriptures I was given, the topics discussed, the recognition of how far we have to go in terms of justice for sexual minorities, and the celebratory nature of our Affirmiversary.

But it all came together swimmingly; I think the video will attest to that.

It's 45 minutes long, and some people prefer to read, so let me break it down for you. Our choir sang a wonderful anthem, and then the scriptures were read (click here to go to that part of the video):

     Genesis 18:1-15 (NRSV)

18 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. 3 He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. 5 Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” 7 Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

9 They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

     Matthew 9:35 -10:8. ( NRSV)

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

10 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment."

After the readings, Marissa came out and sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"; a classic song, delivered with power and verve by a gifted performer to whom you knew it meant much more than just a nostalgic Wizard of Oz reference. There was a lot of eyesweat going around the church, and not just because of a bittersweet melody. You can see it here.

Then Marissa's mother, Carmen came to the lectern and spoke.

She talked about the challenges of raising a trans child, the shock of discovering that your four-year old is tormented in a way most adults cannot even imagine. The eventual realization, the commitment to make things right, struggle to make that happen, the toll it took on Marissa's school life and Carmen's first marriage.

It's in the video right here, and she is a great speaker with an awesome story to tell. She was kind enough to share her words with me so we could put them on our church's sermon blog, and it is the kind of message that just about everyone would be better off knowing, whether they hear it or read it.

Twenty-six years ago, while I was working in Tucson Arizona as a home care nurse, I visited an African American family. When I walked into that home, there were four generations of women, and all of them were screaming. Feeling pretty overwhelmed, I scooped up the baby that was lying on couch, and began rocking her while I explained to my patient that it was not good to get upset, it would just raise her blood pressure. As the baby settled, so did the women, and so did I.

I finally had an opportunity to look down at the baby I was holding and at that moment she
looked up at me - and smiled. She was beautiful. She had been eating something chocolaty and her little fists were covered in chocolate. She grabbed at my white blouse, leaving her chocolatey handprints on my heart. I smiled down at her and then it hit me. I didn’t have to give birth to love a baby. What if there was another little baby out there who really needed me? I knew I had to follow up.

You know that little voice in your heart. The one that tells you what’s right and wrong? I’ve
always found that when I listen to that voice, things seem to fall into place. Some people refer to it as divine intervention, walking your truth or fate. I call it destiny.

Four months later, my husband and I were the proud parents of a seven-day old baby boy that we named Chad. As we already had two children, Christopher and Chelsey, we found ourselves very busy. It was time to move back to Calgary as I needed my family.

It wasn’t long after we moved that I knew there was something different about my new baby. He was slower to talk and walk then my older children were, but as soon as Chad was walking and talking he gravitated to pink. He loved playing Barbie and dolls with his older sister. In fact, he loved all of Chelsey’s toys and wanted nothing to do with the “boy” toys that he owned. One of his favorite games was dress up. He would put on my Mom’s old dresses and wigs and twirl and dance on his tippy toes, batting his eyelashes at me. I thought he was adorable but Chad’s father wasn’t as impressed. He became extremely angry at me for “encouraging” him and angry at Chad for his behavior.

Chad was four years old when he tried to kill himself. My sister and I were chaperoning our
children around the zoo and we lost track of Chad. Finally, we spotted him, perched precariously at the top of a pile of rocks. I rushed over and grabbed him saying “What were you thinking – you could kill yourself”. He looked up at me with his big brown eyes and said.
“That’s what I was trying to do mom. I have to die so that I can talk to God. I need to tell him
that he made a terrible mistake - he put me in the wrong body. I am really a girl”.

At that moment I knew that this was why I had adopted Chad. I knew that I could support my
child, no matter what that meant. I knew that this was my destiny.

Chad started school and life became more complicated for him. In kindergarten the teacher
asked all the girls to stand on one side and the boys to stand on the other. Chad stood in the
middle. From then on, every day was a battle. The staff were very supportive but, outside of the classroom, he was bullied. He attended school as a boy but as soon as he came home he would dress in girl’s clothes and be the girl he was meant to be. It was at that point that my husband made the decision to leave us. He was unable to provide us with the support we needed.

However, we were very lucky as my family was tremendously supportive. I’ll never forget the
doctor asking Chad what his Grandad says when he dresses up in girls’ clothing. Chad looked at him rather puzzled and said, “My granddad does up my buttons in the back.”
Within our family Chad was loved and supported. It was my goal to bring up this child so he would always feel loved for who he was, but I failed. What I learned was that my love wasn’t enough. The love and acceptance of my whole family wasn’t enough.

As I was a nurse and very familiar with the medical system I could ensure Chad was receiving the best medical care. He was referred to the gender identity clinic in Edmonton to confirm his potential diagnosis as transgender. Following that confirmation, his psychiatrist introduced us to the Harry Benjamin Standards of care and that is exactly what we followed.

Eventually we knew something had to change, Chad couldn’t continue leading this double life, going to school as a boy and then coming home to being a girl. With the help of his doctor, we finally got the school board to let him start grade 7 as a girl. At that time, we were told that we were setting precedent. We were also told that this must remain a secret – for Chad’s safety. As well, if other parents found out and complained this experiment would not be continued.

We were very busy during the summer between Grade 6 and 7 preparing for the transition.
Together, Chad and I chose a new name, Marissa, and then I made the legal name change. Our passports were also due for renewal so I took Chelsey and Marissa to the passport office to make the changes. When I presented all of Marissa’s documentation to the person at the window she informed me that I couldn’t change his name to Marissa – he was a boy. She argued with me for over an hour. At one point she told me, “Name him Pat – Pat can be either a boy or a girl’s name.” I explained that actually I had made the change to Marissa and we were going to proceed with her new name. She got her supervisor, who proved to be just as uncooperative. I was so frustrated I remember saying “Haven’t you ever heard of a boy named Sue – I can name her whatever I want.” Finally, she processed her paperwork but made a point of telling me “you can’t change his sex on the passport – that will always be male.”

That summer Marissa was referred to an endocrinologist who put her on Lupron. This is why it is so important to get to these kids early. Lupron does not make any permanent changes. What it does do is delay puberty, giving children the opportunity to figure out who they are before it’s too late. In Marissa’s case it prevented her from experiencing the development of male secondary sexual characteristics including the bone structure changes and the growth of facial hair. As she never wavered in her conviction that she was a girl, she was eventually put on female hormones and allowed to go through puberty as a girl.

When I was studying for my Master’s Degree, the statistics at that time stated approximately 1 in 100,000 people were transgender. Our family felt very isolated. We were warned by the professionals that this needed to be kept secret at the risk of Marissa’s wellbeing, and possibly her life. You see, most people didn’t understand. I was often accused of trying to make my son into the daughter that apparently I always wanted. After all, what does a child know about gender identity.

Marissa continued through junior high and high school living with this huge secret – always
afraid that someone would find out and she would no longer be allowed to be who she was. She was also diagnosed with numerous learning disabilities as well as anxiety and depression - more reasons to be the object of ridicule in her classroom. We could hardly wait until she graduated and could escape the continuous bullying. Music became her refuge. She had a beautiful voice and loved to perform and so that is what we focused on.

After graduating and turning 18, Marissa became eligible for gender reassignment surgery. We applied to the program in Montreal and were given a surgical date. We could hardly wait until she had surgery. I believed that would be the solution to all of her problems.

After we returned from Montreal I really thought she would finally be happy. But she needed
something we couldn’t give her; she needed to feel accepted for who she was by her teachers, her school, her community, her city, her province, her country. And I couldn’t make that happen.

She spiraled into a deep depression and I was terrified I was going to lose her. I had finally lost hope when her psychologist suggested she attend Camp fYrefly. I did some research and the more I learned, the more excited I became. That little voice inside of my heart was telling me that this was something special, maybe even the answer to my prayers.

The person I had dropped off at camp was not the same person that I picked up. She was
transformed by the love and acceptance she experienced at camp. She vowed she would help others and volunteered to become a part of the Camp fYreflys in schools, talking to teachers and students about her experience and the importance of community support and acceptance. As she was reaching out to others, she was healing herself.

It was through Camp fyrefly that we were given the opportunity to meet some amazing people, people like Mikael. We became involved in the making of “Over the Rainbow” which is facilitating the discussions we so desperately need in our society. We are able to address the impact of homophobic and transphobic bullying and share the tools we all need to challenge prejudice and discrimination and to become effective allies. After all, we all know our children are our future. If we educate the youth, we can change the world.

Now many of you may be looking at me and thinking that this really doesn’t affect you, that we don’t actually have much in common. But we do. What we all have in common at this very moment is that we are all here today. I’m here because this is a part of my destiny.

Why are you here? Is this your path? Maybe, like me, you are supporting someone you love on this journey. Maybe you are here today because you think this is a great cause or you want to learn more about it. Whatever your reasons, you are here, even if you believe it is just a coincidence. But maybe you here because this is a part of your destiny?

Is that little voice inside your heart asking you to make a difference? If it is, please listen to that voice. The momentum is growing and change is happening, thanks to programs like camp fYrefly. I believe that if we all do our part we will make a difference.

Powerful stuff, that, which elicited a rare standing ovation from those who heard it. The gasps when Carmen talked about a toddler wanting to kill himself were audible throughout the church, and the empathy was almost tangible as Carmen described their journey.

And then it was my turn.

"Tough act to follow," I confessed at the mic. And then got into it (viewable here):

I would like to begin by thanking Marissa for her wonderful gift of music, and her mother Carmen, for sharing their story with us today.

For those of you that weren’t able to join us last night for the screening of Over the Rainbow, you missed a doozy.

We heard stories about teens and kids who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, queer or questioning or otherwise marginalized because of their sexuality or gender expression.

Their stories, and too many others like them, are stories about exclusion. About persecution. About bullying. And threats. And assault. And even worse.

They are tragic and terrifying stories, and they resonate with us, because we have empathy, and because of a righteous human instinct that seeks to protect children from harm, even the children of strangers.

What prompts these attacks? What is the source of this antipathy?

A lot of times it is ignorance, a lack of understanding. Sometimes it is a deep-seated self-loathing, directed outward. Most of the time though, when you boil it down far enough, and distill it to its essence, it is fear. Fear of difference, fear of change, fear of the “other”.

It is the same kind of fear that saw black churches set ablaze in the American south, the same kind that saw us put Japanese-Canadians into internment camps, the same kind that now prompts some western nations to close their borders to refugees, or consider electing reprehensible humans into high offices. (Ahem)

LGBTQ+ youth and adults are an unfortunately common focus of this fear.

Fear is a natural response to the unknown, but it needs to be overcome in order to move forward. How does God help us move from fear to hope?

In the reading from Genesis, we heard the story, familiar to many of us, that mixes fear and hope. Of how God comes to aged Abraham and Sarah, appearing as three strangers. Abraham, instead of recoiling from them, welcomes them,recognizing God in them, and offers them hospitality instead of hostility. He has bread and meat brought to them.

Before leaving, the strangers promise the two of them a son. There is some saucy talk in there about geriatric canoodling, mostly to draw attention to Sarah’s disbelief that she could have a child at her age, and then her denial of laughing at the idea. The laughter and the denial come from the same fearful place, but SPOILER ALERT: she does indeed have a son, because “is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

I understand the scepticism and the fear; I’m already apprehensive about changing diapers and dealing with midnight feedings and the like, and I’m only HALF the age that Abraham is when that stork flies in!

But Abraham and Sarah have their son Isaac, and thus begins a huge branch for the tree of Israel, a line that goes on from Isaac to Jacob and eventually to David then on down to Jesus. And it all starts with a visit from strangers.

Now, there's a lot to unpack in our Gospel reading, but let me paraphrase what I heard:

Jesus is helping people. People who need it.
The people to Jesus ratio is tilted heavily towards the people; despite his divinity, he only has two hands, and some helpers would be nice.
He calls his disciples together and deputizes them, giving them the authority and the ability to make things better.
He sends them out, locally, asking them not to cross any borders. (That comes later, after Pentecost.)
Jesus tells them to go out and spread the good news, and to heal people while they do it.
Lastly he reminds them they haven't paid anything for these abilities, and are working pro bono, and not to expect payment. (Kind of like interns, if you think about it…)

I'm not going to speak for everyone here, but I get a little uneasy talking about casting out demons and the like. And maybe a little jealous.

I mean, if bigotry was some kind of imp or goblin or flying monkey you could spot at a distance, or if intolerance was some kind of bugbear or wicked witch you could beat up in the street, that would make things a lot easier, wouldn't it? Wouldn't life be simpler if prejudice could be banished or even held at bay by a cross or garlic like Dracula?

But no, we have to do it the hard way.

What does that look like? Well, a big part of it is creating safe spaces for people. This is the second anniversary of St. Albert United being an Affirming Ministry. It's a lot more than being allowed to put up a rainbow sticker, it's a commitment to making sure we are living up to our mission statement and creating a space where EVERYONE has room to grow. It’s not just about laying out the welcome mat and hoping people read it, or being hospitable the way Abraham made those three strangers welcome, recognizing God was with them. It's about making sure everyone feels equally welcome, no matter who they are or what they look like or who they love.

It's about education, a lot of times, beginning with ourselves and then reaching outwards. It's about demonstrating that there is nothing to be afraid of, that embracing diversity makes us all stronger and better.

When you create an affirming space that allows a gay teenager to come into our sanctuary and hear that critically important message that they are loved exactly how they are? That is how you help drive away fear.

When you hug a trans man and thank him for coming to your panel? That is how you help cast out oppression.

When you march in Pride under the banner of a church and proclaim God’s love is for everybody, that is how you cure our society from the delusion that our LGBTQ+ friends need to be cured or fixed or normalized in any way.

You are helping the the healing when you invite the community at large in to watch a movie like Somewhere Over The Rainbow, to share how important safe spaces are. Spaces like Camp fYrefly.

Camp fYrefly is a leadership retreat for LGBTQ and allied youth. fYrefly, with a capital ‘y’, is an acronym that stands for fostering, Youth, resilience, energy, fun, leadership, yeah! For a lot of campers, it is the first place they have been to in their lives where they feel safe, where they are accepted for who they truly are.

It's heartbreaking, some of the stories these young people bring to camp, and to the movie, but it shows just how much work remains to be done. Like the story from Matthew tells us, “the harvest is great, and the labourers few”.  

How does Camp fYrefly help? In their own words, they build leadership “through activities that challenge youth to explore their identity, build resilience, and enhance self- and social-esteem. Camp fYrefly would like each youth participant to be able to return home with a "resilient mindset" and a support network of positive friendships, trusted adult mentors, and an empowered sense of self.”

Youth leave Camp fYrefly empowered and impassioned, secure in themselves and supported by others, ready to make a difference. To make the world a better place.  And like Jesus in our Gospel reading, help is wanted! In fact,a young lady at the panel last night asked that very question:

How do we help?

There are lots of ways, and here are just a few:

By trying to be as brave as these kids are!
By continuing to provide not only a safe, but a welcoming space.
By being visible allies. (Fly that flag! March with that rainbow umbrella!)
By supporting allies like Camp fYrefly.
By continuing to educate ourselves and others.
By speaking out when we see our brothers and sisters being treated unjustly.
By recognizing our authority to drive out bigotry, cleanse intolerance, and banish ignorance. Not through battle, but by shining a light on them, leaving them no dark places to flourish in.

Friends, I know that at times, a mission like ‘making the world a better place’ seems like an impossible task, that victory is too much to hope for.  But we are making progress, we have a lot of people rooting for us, and God is with us.  A wonderful future for everyone lies not around the corner, but just over the rainbow. And like we heard in Genesis, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

I don’t think so!


My delivery was only so-so; my voice caught in a couple places, and I spent too much time looking at my notes, fearful I would lose my place, but it was very well received. After the service I collected some handshakes and a couple of hugs, as well as some suggestions that I should apply for the ministerial vacancy our church has. 

(It's all very flattering, but I told them I really don't want to lose my amateur status. After all, one of the keys to my personal success has always been setting expectations nice and low!)

But far better than the response I got was the reception that everyone gave to Carmen and Marissa. Hugs, and handshakes, earnest thanks, head-shaking, tearstained expressions of immense gratitude.

I told Marissa how impressive a young woman she is: the confidence, the power, the poise, the amazing voice; she is the complete package, and I hope she goes far. Catching up with Carmen, I told her how compelling her talk was, and how receptive our congregation was to her message. She praised my sermon as well, but paid the highest possible compliment to our crazy but loving little group:

"I wish we went to church here."

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Weird and Wonderful Return to Form - Sonata Arctica's The Ninth Hour, Reviewed

The favourite sons of Kemi, Finland, Sonata Arctica are kind of an odd band, even by the standards of power metal. Defying categorization and reflecting different facets over the years, they started out sounding a lot like their inspiration, fellow Finns Stratovarius. They then moved to a speedy, thrashier sound, then tentatively explored something more progressive in 2004's Reckoning Night before fully committing to thematic explorations driven by keyboards and cinematic sounds with 2007's Unia.

Sonata Arctica are one of my favourite bands, so I am glad they are willing to change, evolve and explore, but the truth is, I found the last couple of albums fairly disappointing; Stones Grow Her Name (2012) was just not very enjoyable and barely got any repeat plays beyond the excellent (if poppy) "I Have A Right", while 2014's Pariah's Child was more familiar in some ways but still felt pedestrian. Neither album had the energy, drive or catchiness that marked their earlier efforts, and I began to wonder if my favourite record, The Days of Grays (2009), would go down as the last great Sonata Arctica release.

I needn't have worried.

The Ninth Hour, released last month, reminds me a lot of Reckoning Night, the first album I heard from the band. SA's ninth studio album is full of ripping metallic anthems and powerful piano driven ballads alike.

I'm not sure if the title refers to this being their ninth album, or a reference to the hour of his crucifixion in which Christ called out, asking why God had forsaken him. It is even more thematic than Reckoning Night, with a lot of songs dealing with the crude way we treat our planet, and yet it never devolves into an environmentalist screed. Instead, there is a hint of cynicism but more a tragic acknowledgment of our species cognitive dissonance at the heart of "We Are What We Are":

We could save our world, but we are what we are
We should love our Earth, but we are what we are
It takes care of our loved ones
But we are what we are…

Something that continues in "Fairytale":

It’s cold and we’re all snowed in
Vote yes for the global warming
Reaping the things the poor are sowing
What then are the polls showing?

Who’ll be the superseder,
The builder of the walls; a great leader
He’ll rape us all and say surprise….
and everything is fine.

(Sidebar: I dunno when he wrote this, but if he didn't base it on Trump intentionally, he may be precognitive.)

The variety of song subjects are still there though, with a tragic love song in "'Til Love's Done Us Apart", another werewolf tale in "Under the Shooting Stars", and best of all (for me anyways) is a full-on heaping serving of optimistic positivism in "Life".

"Life" is the second single for The Ninth Hour, and it is so cheesy it should come with cubes of French bread for dipping, but I emphatically don't care. Look at these lyrics:

Life is better alive
It is a dumb thing to say,
But the fact won’t wane away
Sing with someone today
When your team makes a game winning goal,
Get ready to sing

With a friend who’s right beside you

Not since Opus' "Live is Life" has there been such a blunt but truthful tribute to the wonder and glory of not being dead. It embraces its cheeriness (and cheesiness) with giddy glee, and draws the listener in with a soaring, sing-along chorus full of actual la-la-las that I would love to hear live. (And they are in town on Nov. 26, so it is not out of the question!) The way I see it, regular metal has drama, death metal has psychodrama, but power metal has melodrama, so there is something for everybody, right?

Tony Kakko is one of my favourite male vocalists and a fine songwriter to boot, despite his occasional struggles with English prepositions and such (I can hardly fault the guy, since I don't know two words in Finnish.). Listening to him wail on the opening track and croon softly on the closer are a real treat, and he balances style and power majestically through this album.

Instrumental variation permeates The Ninth Hour too. Troy Donckley of Nightwish provides his trademark mournful pipes on "We Are What We Are", while the metronomic double bass drums of Tommy Portimo keep up the tempo on "Closer to an Animal". Blistering guitarwork by Elis Viljanen that has the sense and taste to fade into the background at will and solid basswork by Pasi Kaupinnen in his second outing with SA give the album its melodic backbone and power metal pedigree, but piano and soft bass take centre stage in "On The Faultline (Closure to an Animal)". The review by Angry Metal Guy has the right of it, I think: "...if Jim Steinman had been born in Finland, Meat Loaf would have sounded like The Ninth Hour."

All in all, I am having so much fun with the album on repeat that I have almost forgotten the trepidation that gripped me when I ordered the album unheard. Sonata Arctica is back in their sweet spot, with their strongest offering since The Days of Grays.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Friends In Hard Times

One of the more common questions directed at Audrey and I of late is, "how is Fenya doing up there, anyways?"

Fenya's work experience in housekeeping and dishwashing in Churchill continues apace; she has established herself as a responsible and hard worker who also tries to brighten the spirits of her coworkers when she can.

After someone in the kitchen switched out The Phantom of the Opera for Slipknot in order to maintain the needed energy levels for the remainder of a breakfast shift, the two of them fell into a discussion of bands they both enjoyed. When Nightwish, Delain and Sonata Arctica came into the discussion, she lamented that she had not been able to attend the concert with her family.

"What do you mean, your family?" the confused cook inquired.

"My family: my mom, my dad, my little sister; they all went to see those three bands at the Winspear in Edmonton."

He shook his head in disbelief, but said, "Your family is awesome!"

That kind of exchange takes a bit of the sting out of a 5 am start time, and certainly made Glory and I feel good when Fenya shared the story with us over Skype.

Being able to relate with people when the chips are down can be a very important coping measure, as Fenya has discovered over the past couple of weeks.

Long story short, a dryer caught fire at the Tundra Inn; there was no structural damage, no injuries, but lots of smoke contamination and no place to do the massive amount of laundry needed once the all-clear was given. Everything from the bedskirts and the mattress covers to the sheets, blankets and pillowcases had to be laundered, and in short order.

The one housekeeper able to drive took all the washing to a series of laundry rooms in various residences, including her own and the one Fenya is currently residing in. Once completed, she collected them all and brought them back to the hotel, so the staff could get to work getting the rooms ready for visitors again.

This has necessitated a lot of flexibility on the part of the staff, including my daughter. In order to re up more staff at the hotel she has been working triple and double dishwashing shifts, putting in close to twelve hours of gruelling work in one day.

On another day, she came over to the hotel during her break between dishwashing shifts at the pub directly across the street, and things looked grim; glum faces, audible strain in the cracking voices, someone in tears on the telephone. She went over to one of the senior staff and said, "I've got an hour; can I help with anything?"

Red eyes blinked back, then comprehended that assistance was being offered. "God, yes," they said, "Go up to two and see what Sam needs."

As she related that story, I struggled with how to tell her how proud she was making me without embarrassing her, or giving her a swelled head, but then she went one better.

The following day, she brought a goodie bag over to the hotel staff, and she told Glory and I how she picked everything.

"I couldn't buy wine because I am not legal for, like, another two weeks - it was so frustrating - because I wanted to get them a bottle of wine, but I went and got them a bunch of colas to stay caffeinated and hydrated, something that it seemed they needed, and some of those nutritious energy bars because I care about their health, and then some chocolate because I don't care that much about their health, and then some cheese to go with the wine that, I'm sorry, they were just going to have to buy themselves."

I was gobsmacked, beaming at Fenya over Skype on my iPad..

Fenya then laughed, recalling how one of the desk staff, who hadn't been there when she dropped off her care package, came into the restaurant to express her gratitude to Fenya in person, but ended up blubbering in the middle of the restaurant. But it sounds like everyone understood; after all, there are less than 700 people in the whole town.

She was tired and a little punchy, but her spirits were still tremendously high, buoyed up, I presume, from being able to help her colleagues a little during a trying time.

"Sweetie, I have to go, but one last thing before I do," I told her. "I know you give me a hard time for saying stuff like this, especially if I have a drink or two in me, but you need to know I don't drink during the week these days unless there's company, so I am stone sober when I tell you what I am going to tell you, okay?"

A little apprehensive, but nodding. "And what's that?" she asked.

"You're awesome," I replied, my face split with a grin so wide it made my cheeks hurt.

She blinked a little, and her cheeks reddened a bit, but she smiled, and nodded.

I wished her good night, and handed her off to Glory.

My heart felt full. I remember learning my way around the work world when I was close to her age, the myriad motivations of coworkers, the sometimes contradictory requests of superiors, discovering the need to subvert oneself on occasion in order to get things done. It's not like school, or volunteering, or anything else, and it will likely be the biggest part of your life for the rest of your life. The kind of job doesn't matter, but how you approach it does.

It is arguably the most important part of being an adult, and no matter how you've prepared your children, there is no way to predict what their experience will be or how they will respond.

How wonderful to discover that the child I love so much appears to be growing into the kind of young lady I would be grateful for a chance to work with!

The 4-5 weeks until she returns home feels even longer now, but there is enough happiness to offset the longing, for a little while at least.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sweet Christmas - Luke Cage, Season 1 Part II, Reviewed

Two weeks back, I reviewed the first half of Luke Cage. In the intervening  fortnight, I have watched the remaining 7 episodes, bought the soundtrack, and watched episodes 1-4 for the second time with Glory and Audrey.

Suffice to say, I liked it quite a bit.

Why? Well, there's a few reasons for that. First and foremost is still the cast, a who's who of modern black actors, from Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard to star Mike Colter. In this second half we add Erik LaRay Harvey as Cottonmouth's arms supplier, Diamondback. He brings a ruthless, Joker-like combination of charm and unpredictability to the table, grinning like a latter day Tony Todd (Candyman) and pursuing Luke Cage with the singlemindedness endemic to comic book adaptations.

In honesty though, the latter half of this inaugural season is less about Luke Cage, and more about Cottonmouth's cousin, Mariah Dillard. One area where the MCU movies can take notes from the Netflix series is the care and attention they give to their villains, an area the silver screen has flatlined on pretty much since Loki. If part 1 of Luke Cage is about establishing his origin, part 2 is about establishing Black Mariah as a worthy nemesis, balancing greed, vengeance and pragmatism in equal measure, which they do admirably. And she is only one of several smart, strong, female characters of colour. Simone Missick establishes Marvel mainstay Misty Knight to such a degree that many are calling for her to get her own show, which I am okay with so long as it doesn't prevent an ongoing Heroes for Hire at some point.

Showrunner Cheoi Hodari Coker also uses this latter half to establish a little more connective tissue to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rosario Dawson makes a welcome return as beleaguered nurse Claire Temple, the woman we were sure was to become the MCU's "Night Nurse" until it was rumoured Rachel McAdams would play that role in the upcoming Doctor Strange, but then Marvel uberlord Kevin Feige denied it, so now...well, nevermind, it's not important and we can talk about Night Nurse another day.

The important thing is that there is a connection beyond just references to "The Incident" of the first Avengers movie. Frankly I could have done with more allusions to S.H.I.E.L.D. or Tony Stark, but gunrunner Cottonmouth does mention that a lot of his tech comes by way of Justin Hammer, secondary villain of Iron Man 2, Turk from Daredevil shows up, and the downfall of Wilson 'The Kingpin' Fisk from that same show gets a mention, so I am content.

All in all, Luke Cage is a solid addition to the Marvel/Netflix canon, but there are two criticisms that bear addressing. The first is that hey, for a superhero show, there isn't nearly as much action as you might expect, and the fight scenes lack a lot of the panache shown in Daredevil.

There is no denying this; Luke Cage is unquestionably a slow boil that metes out its action sequences like methadone to someone coming off horse. And the fight sequences aren't as imaginative or creative as the hallway fight in Daredevil. You know why?  BECAUSE LUKE CAGE IS BULLETPROOF AND SUPER STRONG, FOOL. He doesn't like to fight, He has nothing to prove. I love the internet commenter who described his fight style as "annoyed". I do love that the people he does hit fly back a significant distance, but the lack of flash is frankly refreshing; a violent vanilla sorbet meant to cleanse the palate just before the flashy kung fu of K'un Lun shows up when Iron Fist arrives on Netflix next March.

The second is that, wow, this may be the blackest comic adaptation to date; one person confided in me that, because they don't listen to a lot of hip hop or have other exposure to black culture, they were experiencing a degree of 'cultural whiplash' they found a little daunting.

Any you know what? That's fine too. You think a lot of young brothers and sisters in areas like the one Luke Cage is set in share our memories of The Facts of Life and M*A*S*H and even Justice League? A little turnabout here is not just fair play, it is long overdue, and all of it, from the slang, to the fact that the episode titles are all track listings from rap pioneers Gang Starr to the whole Harlem Renaissance angle you see in the show, is a critical ingredient. I will go on record as declaring Luke Cage as the most blacktacular show I have ever watched, and anyone who wants to characterize it as being 'too black' (whatever the hell that means), just needs to imagine a person of colour saying the same thing about Star Trek or Lost or Big Bang Theory being 'too white'.

The most telling reflection of Luke Cage in today's world, especially today's America, is a tweet I cannot currently find but in which a viewer said that watching a strong black man in a hoodie get shot and remain standing, literally reduced him to tears.

In short? If you like the idea of  something like a superpowered version of The Wire, a languidly paced potboiler that doesn't talk down to you and tells it like it is in terms of the modern black experience in America, Luke Cage is just the ticket.

And now a word on the soundtrack: this is some great stuff right here. I grabbed it on iTunes the day it became available, and have not regretted that choice.

Hip hop producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge have crafted a thoroughly modern and urban score, unencumbered by gratuitous record scratches and cussin', and which still echoes with traces of the jazz and funk that established Harlem as a musical incubator beyond compare.

Better still are the full tracks that we hear as source music in the Harlem Paradise club which is a key setting in the show: The Delfonics, Faith Evans, Raphael Saddiq, and my personal favourite, Charles Bradley.

How in the hell have I gone this long without hearing more about this guy? A man who ran away from a basement bedroom with a sand floor at 14, who worked as a cook most of his adult life, whose first band got drafted away from him to fight in Vietnam, and only started recording with modern soul saviours Daptone Records in 2002, when he was already over 50? If nothing else, I owe the show and the soundtrack for introducing me to this artist, who was tragically diagnosed with stomach cancer earlier this very month. (And check out how young and white his band is in the video; crazy!)

Music plays a big role in Luke Cage, no more so than in episode 12 (my favourite) where a chance encounter with rapper Method Man from the influential Wu-Tang Clan results in him creating a track on a radio show later on called Bulletproof Love.

A satisfying superhero show, with brilliant music, tremendous performances and great insights into modern black culture in America. The best thing about Luke Cage though is that it shows how much great television can be wrung out of a character originally established as a way to leverage '70s blaxploitation flicks, while still respecting the source material and the fans (like me) who love it.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Worse Than Trump?

As I write this, it is (checks watch) 15 minutes until the start of the second presidential debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. The bingo cards are printed, drinks for the drinking game are standing by. Since Friday, all anyone can talk about is the leaked footage featuring Trump describing how his fame and wealth enable him to approach, including married women, not only in an aggressive manner but in a way that is essentially sexual assault.

What followed was a simultaneous dogpile from the left (and a lot of folks in the middle) and immediate repudiation of Trump by dozens of down-ticket Republicans who have apparently only now realized what a boat anchor he is to their political careers.

Tonight's debate is expected to contain a number of deflections from Trump onto Secretary Clinton's husband, who, it turns out, is not only comparably famous, but also has a lot to answer for from an alarming number of women. In anticipation of this, Trump held a press conference with many of Mr. Clinton's accusers less than two hours before the debate. We will have to wait and see if this strategy  helps Trump in any way beyond reinforcing his already rabid base, but the smart money says otherwise.

But let me refocus on someone else and their response to Friday's video for a moment: UK Independence Party Leader and Brexit architect Nigel Farage. Farage was quoted as saying,

"Look, this is alpha male boasting. It's the kind of thing, if we are being honest, that men do. They sit around and have a drink and they talk like this.

"By the way, quite a lot of women say things amongst themselves that they would not want to see on Fox News, or the front page of a newspaper. I'm not pretending it's good - it's ugly, it is ugly."


You don't have to listen very long to the Trump tapes to hear an insecure weasel of a man seeking approval and validation from, of all people, Access Hollywood host Billy Bush, Trump is an egotistical man-child, a wealthy and entitled idiot so convinced of his own brilliance, he has convinced millions that he is as smart as he says he is, with almost no evidence to back the assertion. We can't expect anything good from him.

But for Farage, a selfish and short-sighted but generally accepted to be sane individual to say that mean everywhere are talking about pushing themselves sexually on women against their will? Unbelievable.

Thankfully people are jumping on these claims: Jake Tapper on CNN did one of the best jobs, pinning Trump surrogate and non-apologist Rudy Giuliani like a bug on a board:
"I have been in locker rooms. I have been a member of a fraternity. I have never heard any man, ever, brag about being able to maul women because they get away with it -- never."
Folks, this is not just talk.

Men, when you hear garbage like this, I hope you are calling it out.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

About D*mn Time - Luke Cage Episodes 1-6, Reviewed

It's interesting how things change.

Currently, blockbuster movies are taking a lot of their cues and subject matter from comic books, but in the 1970s, it was the other way around.

Having put most of their romance and western comics out to (ahem) pasture, and after establishing their newer, modern superhero characters in a shared universe, Marvel Comics was looking for new ground.  The first place they looked for inspiration was the movie screen.

Movies like The Omen and The Exorcist prompted a greater pop culture interest in the occult and Satanism, spawning comics like Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night. Kung-fu flicks were the motivation behind Iron Fist and Shang Chi: Master of Kung Fu. Eventually, the wheel stopped on blaxploitation, and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire was born.

A man convicted for a crime he didn't commit, experimented on behind bars and who emerged from captivity with tremendous strength and bulletproof skin.

Despite having pretty much the same origin and power set, Netflix's Luke Cage (as played by Mike Colter) bears little visual resemblance to that character (even though the showrunners carefully work in a great reference to his original look during his origin flashback!).

In the comics, Luke Cage has gone from being the brash, confrontational fellow whose loud facade concealed a thoughtful and calculating man, to a quieter, more self-assured one who doesn't raise his voice too often because he doesn't have to. Colter's Cage is cut from the same cloth.

I mentioned how impressed I was with Mike Colter's casting in Jessica Jones, and he brings the same reflective intensity to his star turn here. Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker and his writers have not only brought Marvel's first black superhero to the screen in a big, big way, but they have also given us the fundamentally most decent person to star in a Netflix show yet.

It's a bit of an unfair comparison: Jessica Jones didn't ask be to doubly traumatized, first by her origin and then later by her captivity under the mind control of Killgrave. The plot of Daredevil often seems to rely on Matt Murdock making bad decisions and alienating those closest to him, just like in the comics. Luke Cage is a superpowered hip-hop western, about a reluctant fighter looking for peace. Later on, when he finds himself having to fight more often, it is clear that he will not kill anyone, even though he has the means.

We meet Luke Cage working in Pop's Barbershop, sweeping hair and supplying towels, being paid under the table. Not glamorous, but he's happy to help Pop provide an oasis of sanity in Harlem, a salon and meeting place where youngbloods play videogames in the back, while men play chess and talk basketball up front. The sign on the wall says profanity is NOT allowed, and offenders pay their levies to the swear jar, a battered coffee can on the shelf.

Later on we see that this easygoing social hub is Pop's real mission: a chance for young men to see grown ups working, in uniform, taking pride in themselves.

The blackness of the show is prevalent, without being offputting. The majority of both crew and characters are people of color. Harlem, in all its glory and tragedy, emerges as a character in its own right: inspiring, revealing, and concealing in turn. Every place with a name brings a layer of meaning: Martin Luther King, Crispus Attucks, Jackie Robinson.

This undercurrent of self-improvement and empowerment is the foundation that Luke Cage is built on. Later on, a former ball player laments that he learned the game from his father, and now, no young black men want to play, because the fathers are all gone; bitter stuff.

Others are content to build their progress on the backs of others, like club owner and ganglord Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes and his cousin, city councilwoman Mariah Dillard.

Cottonmouth is played with suave, dangerous tension by Mahershala Ali, who can play the thug with one hand while keeping time as the sophisticated businessman with the other, and all over an underlay of regret as we learn more about his past.

Meanwhile, Mariah Dillard preaches about the Harlem renaissance and the rich, black history of the neighbourhood, pulling funds for an ambitious real estate development from her unscrupulous cousin while telling him she doesn't want to know where they came from. Alfre Woodard brings the same charm and intensity but in inverse proportions and aspect, to amazing effect.

From a comic book perspective, Luke Cage is a bit of a slow boil, with only a little action to begin with, and a main character unwilling to reveal his abilities. Eventually he gets there, but the journey here, at least in the arc that covers the first 6 episodes like a mini-season, is a lot less about defeating the villain, and coming to grips with oneself.

The opening credit sequence is Luke Cage in a microcosm: a punch that takes almost a minute to reach its target, while landmarks and street signs from Harlem illuminate the back and arms of the man punching. The funky breakbeat and guitar give way to the soaring strings from scores like Shaft and Rocky, and horns finish the build as the fist finally reaches its target and debris falls away to reveal the eponymous title. Oh, and let the record state that the moment they release a soundtrack for this show, featuring its hip-hop score and source music with a pinch of jazz, I will be getting it.

I'm 8 episodes in, believe that most high schools would benefit from showing Luke Cage every February, and cannot wait to see how it all turns out, and how it will tie into the next chapters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Netflix, Iron Fist and The Defenders.