Sunday, October 15, 2017

Superfluous, Sumptuous, Haunting - Blade Runner 2049, Reviewed

Spoiler-free, for your protection!

I never wanted to like Blade Runner 2049, for the simple reason that I didn't feel the original needed one.

Let the record clearly show that I'm a huge fan of Blade Runner, having snuck into the theater to see it when I was but 15. Within a handful of months I'd purchased the 'making of' magazine, the Marvel comic adaptation (with way more backstory, it turns out!), and even written a set of rules for playing out replicant hunting adventures in TSR's old espionage RPG, Top Secret. I watched my VHS copy more times that I can count, and likewise for the Director's and Final Cut. Hell, there are a staggering seven different versions of Blade Runner already out there, so it is fair to say that the ground has been well and fully trod upon, right?

Enter Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, to chart fresh new ground. Fresh off the critical and audience acclaim from last year's Arrival, and another outspoken fan of the original. He shares my affection for both the theatrical and director's cuts of the film, and has spoken of the tension existing between the two versions as being a source of power and inspiration. Where the original film asks the viewer "What does it mean to be human?", Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 seems to ask "Where is the humanity in a society propped up by slaves?"

It is almost impossible to talk about the plot without divulging some absolutely wonderful and occasionally stunning surprises, so I'm afraid that's off the table. I will tell you that the cast is a splendid mix of new and established faces, and Ryan Gosling conveys a tremendous amount of thought and emotion despite having a fairly taciturn role and a lot of screentime to himself.

Visually, the movie is nothing short of amazing, and I am so glad I took Earl's advice to see it in IMAX. The production design perfectly emulates the cyberpunk look the first film practically invented with its mix of high tech and low-brow. A welcome return to model-based effects, and very little in the way of discernible CGI.

Nearly every prop has some sort of design element reflective of the future, from the variety vehicles,  both ground and air, to an automat-style diner that probably wouldn't look too out of place in the Ginza today, except perhaps for the pervasive and provocative holographic ads.

Frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins handled the cinematography, and does his usual amazing work. His use of light and shadow are right up to par with what we saw 35 years ago under Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth, but he trades in a portion of the overall noir look of the original for something with more variety (i.e. the occasional brightly lit room) and nuanced, and at times, almost painfully colourful.

Most important though, is probably the tone. Hampton Fancher's screenplay, which is what compelled both Villenuve and Harrison Ford to take part, makes it easy to believe that the derelict Los Angeles of 2019 was a real place, with real inhabitants, and a history that kept on going after the elevator doors closed on Deckard and Rachel three decades previous. The present story doesn't need to connect to the past, at least not initially, and when it does, that tone is both appropriate and respectful.

In terms of literal tones, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch wrap themselves in the electronic sounds of Vangelis, but aren't afraid to make them louder, angrier and more dissonant in places. This is remarkably effective in both ratcheting up the tension and reminding you of just how much eerier Blade Runner's opening scenes were because of them.

On top of all this though, we are treated to some big science-fiction ideas, the kind where you are given a beat to realize, whoa, if that's the case, then...the world is gonna change. Between Arrival and this film, we may well be turning the corner on seeing more gorgeous looking, well written and acted sci-fi with some real meat on it.

Or maybe not.

In case you couldn't tell, I quite enjoyed Blade Runner 2049, and I advise everyone who likes a bit of though behind their sci-fi, or those who like fully imagined visions of the future (I should probably say a future- at one point you see a holo-ad of a ballerina with the caption "CCCP - Happy Soviet") to go and see it, preferably in IMAX, and without delay.  Or even if you just appreciate a sumptuously visual and imaginative take on the detective genre, which is just one more way BR 2049 emulates its forebear.

But there is also no denying that it is a long film, clocking in at 2:43. It sure didn't feel like that to me (or my two teenaged daughters, for that matter), but that may be asking a lot of the modern movie-going audience. The complexity of the story, both in plot and morality, has Wired magazine asking if audiences are too lazy to appreciate it.

It's no secret that a relatively weak box office in the face of an enormous production budget means that financially, Blade Runner 2049 may end up classified as a flop. And if that happens, well, that will make for pretty tough sleddin' for the next director who pitches a thoughtful, detailed and languid film that takes time to explore its theme instead of just delivering the next summer tentpole or special effects spectacle.

On the other hand though, maybe it will end up being a sleeper, like its predecessor. The plot that I have taken such cares to step away from, is certain to generate conversation, as is the patina of ambiguity the viewer carries away from the theater. As the author Daniel H. Wilson says in that same Wired article, "If your friend hasn’t seen it, well then they damn well better go see it, so that you can talk about it, because I’ve got things I need to talk about,” he says. “That is how this virus spreads.”

If you haven't already seen Blade Runner 2049, I hope you take steps to do so, and soon - we still have a lot to talk about.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mountain Madness for Two

Mountains have, for me at least, always conjured feelings of awe and majesty, but in truth, they are pretty strange when you stop to think about it. They are at once sheltering and foreboding, inhospitable yet welcoming, where hot springs of mineral water spill out of cold granite.

It was this final dichotomy that compelled Glory and I to take Frankentrailer to Jasper for one final outing before sequestering him to the patio for the winter. In the weeks leading up to our sojourn, I had warned Glory that snow had already fallen a couple of times, and that the nights were likely to be below zero, but she was resolute, and confident in the insulation of her sleeping bag.

Besides, since the focus of our sortie was to partake in a final dip in Miette Hot Springs on the last weekend of the season, cold weather would make our soak seem even more worthwhile.

The other x-factor was our ability to set up camp as a twosome, something that had never been attempted before. It is certainly possible for one person to deploy Frankentrailer, but it is tedious, the real sticking point is my inability to back up with a trailer attached. In order to navigate in a rearward fashion, we must disconnect the trailer from the hitch, and while I grasp the front frame and lift it up, Glory (and whomever else is at hand) will push the trailer into to needed position.

We didn't get into our campsite at Wapiti until after 9:00, and it was well and truly dark, but we shouldered Frankentrailer into position, and Glory got the insides set up while I got the corner legs into position. We were safely ensconced in fairly short order, although it was cold enough when I woke up at 5:00 am that I was grateful we had brought along a space heater.

The next morning we breakfasted on cold smoothies and hot oatmeal, then made our way to the Jasper Skytram, discovering that Glory still qualified as a Youth and was eligible for a half-price fare until  her next birthday (Sunrise, sunset...) It was fairly cool and extremely windy at times at the top of the tram, but we were well bundled up and decided to take the trail to at least the false summit.

Alas, the footing and rate of incline worked against us, and we only made it about 3/4 of the way, pausing every 100 meters or so for me to catch my breath. When I saw the amount of fresh snow between us and the last two waypoints, and contrasted the environment with Glory's footwear, we decided that discretion truly is the better part of valour and turned back.

It turns out that the exertion of the ascent pales in comparison to the terror of the descent, as our return angle made us far more susceptible to slipping on the icy trails and loose scree and shale. Glory crabwalked and butt-slid for the trickiest portions, while I took a small spill but abbreviated my slide by barking my shin against an particularly immobile chunk of stone. Two days later it is still remarkably unappetizing to look at.

Eventually we hobbled back to the tram station, our necks and shoulders sore from the pent up tension of our tentative and tenderfooted declination. On the 7-minute ride back down, we marveled at the tidy terminator that demarcated the wintry upper mountain from the still autumnal valley floor, another example of mountain strangeness. Soon enough, we were sharing a cold lunch on our way to Miette.

22 years ago, Audrey and I had come to Miette on the same weekend, or perhaps the one before, just before we moved to Toronto for four years. At that time, there had been hardly anyone at the springs, but now we found the pool nearly at capacity. The deck turned our feet into tingling, ham-like slabs by the time we got into the deeper pool, but we could feel the tension melting away from our upper bodies as we looked up at the sleet falling from the heavens.

As we returned to Jasper, we though we were going to see two male elk battling it out, but it turned out they were disinterested in combat, and were only accidentally entangling their horns as they grazed to near to one another. Even more astonishing though, were the number of people getting out of their cars and coming within 15-20 meters of these massive and unpredictable ruminants.

A light rain was falling sporadically as we returned to camp, and we had an important decision to make: go back to the site, heat up our clam chowder and enjoy it by a campfire, possibly in the rain, or skip it in favour of North Face Pizza, a Jasper institution and family tradition?

In the end, the fact that we hadn't had a campfire all summer due to the fire ban convinced us to take a chance on eating outdoors, and I am glad we did. The rain never amounted to much and we were able to get a roaring blaze established in our firepit, finishing off the evening with hot s'mores and cocoa.

All too soon though, the wintry chill pushed us away from the flames and into the trailer. We turned on the space heater before we left to brush our teeth, and Frankentrailer was downright cozy by the time we returned, which was fortunate, as Glory was fighting a cold.

The next day, we crawled out of our sleeping bags at 8:08, briefly broke our fast with a few gulps of smoothie, and had the trailer packed and hooked up by 9:15. This gave us plenty of time to head over to the Best Western for their brunch buffet, possibly the best $12.95 I've ever spent on a camping trip.

Bellies full and spirits refreshed by our time in the mountains, we headed for home. We alternated our picks of albums as we traveled, limiting ourselves to soundtracks, just for fun. Conversation varied from vacations past and future, work, school, and how fortunate we are to live a stone's throw from an astonishing place that draws visitors from all around the world.

There were quiet periods too, which I do my best to respect, but after a while I broke the silence with a recollection I felt compelled to share with Glory.

"When I was in high school," I began, "I found teenage girls beguiling, mysterious and intimidating. There weren't many of them I was comfortable talking to, even though there were a few I dearly would have liked to. I swear, there were times when it felt like maybe we were two different species.

"When it turned out I was going to be raising two daughters, I was thrilled, but I always figured that once you and Fenya became teenagers, I would become less and less relevant. This is why I took so much joy in sharing your childhoods with you, making pretend, watching cartoons, that sort of thing.

"Glory, I cannot even express how grateful I am that not only have I not become irrelevant, but we can still talk to each other about damn near anything. And you are not only willing to listen, and share your ideas with me, but you are happy to spend a weekend camping with your old man in Jasper in sub-zero temperatures! More mountain strangeness, I suppose.

"So, thank you for that."

In a weekend filled with astonishing moonrises, glorious wildlife and magnificent alpinetableaux,  her quiet smile may have been the most beautiful thing I saw.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Friends, Family, Food & Fall

Somewhere along the way I decided that I had a favourite season, and that autumn was it.

I'm grateful to live in a part of the world that has four distinct seasons, and they all have something to like about them, but fall is by far my favourite.

Part of it is the weather - the crispness in the air, a balance between the fleeting memory of summer's warmth and the impending chill of winter. Alberta in autumn tends to be a bit on the dry side, at least compared to my memories of Ontario. Every dry day beings to mind some task or chore that needs to be sorted out before the arrival of snow. The raking of the lawn, the digging out of the garden, cleaning out the rain gutters. Today we put away the patio furniture, in anticipation of putting Frankentrailer on the pad after Glory and I take it to Jasper for 2017's last camping trip next weekend.

The turning of the seasons also means another delightful Geekquinox experience. This year's theme was "Big Pig", a procession of pork-based plates, each progressive platter more pleasing than the previous - a veritable porkstravaganza!

Earl's blog entry has far better pictures than mine, but I feel compelled to immortalize the evening here anyways, for my own memory if nothing else.

The bacon-wrapped shrimp cooked on Pete's Big Green Egg carried all the smokiness you might expect, offset by the saltiness of the bacon.

Did the potato-prosciutto roses taste better than they looked, or look better than they tasted?


Pete busted out the largest pot I had ever seen in a private residence in order to cook the highlight of the evening: porchetta.

I'd never had porchetta before, and this is probably for the best. This Italian pork roast is symphony of flavours, but the percussion section that backs up the orchestra is full of lipids, and the strings are made of sodium, but it is so good, I would eat it again in a (rapidly slowing, irregularly rhythmed) heartbeat.

Pete had taken a full pig belly with the skin on, seasoned it with pesto and suchlike, then cooked it in his sous vide rig for an astonishing 36 hours. Now, at this point, a man with no teeth could have eaten the roast with little to no difficulty, but Pete was intent on a crispy skin, which is what necessitated the purchase of a pot big enough to cook up several children in the style of a Germanic fairy tale.

With a few inches of oil in the bottom, Pete fried the outer surface of the roast to a savoury golden brown, sliced the roast up and served it alongside bacon mashed potatoes and grilled cabbage.

Now, I should mention here that I am a big fan of pork. I like beef and chicken too, but if you told me I could only eat one animal for the rest of my life, it would be pork, without hesitation. Chops, roasts, ham, bacon, sausages - these are the staples our household menu rotates upon.

But Pete's porchetta is, hands down, the tastiest serving of pork I have ever had in my life.

That life may now be significantly shortened, since Pete generously gave the leftovers to Audrey and I, and since she found it too rich, I ended up enjoying it three times in the space of a week, which is probably two times too many. In my defense though, there just wasn't time to arrange to attend a twelve-step, and now there is nothing left to tempt me.

As great as the meal was though, the real highlight is always the conviviality. Such fellowship, set against a backdrop of brilliant eating and drinking, always makes me wish we got together more often as a group. On the other hand, between the porchetta and the liters of porch crawler Pete had on ice when we arrived (30 cans of beer, 40 oz. of vodka, and pink lemonade concentrate), maybe it's safer that we don't.

Pete's latest culinary escapade has also had a lingering effect on my on kitchen ambitions. I lack both the skill and patience to attempt the extraordinary dishes he makes look so easy, but at least I rediscovered my willingness to experiment.

An excess of leftover communion bread from church got me looking for bread pudding recipes, and I found one that could cook all afternoon in the crock pot. Jeff had told me about the wonders of planking meat loaf, so I prepared to do that as well. Audrey prepared a spaghetti squash, one of seven she grew in her garden this year. Then I made Audrey and I an autumnally themed cocktail with pumpkin spiced whiskey, apple liqueur and ginger ale, which turned out to be delightful.

While the girls cleared the table, I made a whiskey cream sauce for the bread pudding, again using the pumpkin spiced whiskey to good effect.

With Glory's dance, and Fenya's demanding schedule for work and university, family meals are becoming a bit of a rarity, so it was nice to have the four of us around the table for a change. Much smaller in both scale and scope than Geekquinox, it shared much of the laughter and joy of that event, and even with the chill in the air and overcast skies, the warmth in the house was unmistakeable.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Spy-Fi Spectacle - Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Reviewed

Given the number of sequels that have been made, it's astonishing that the list of those that are equal or perhaps even better than their predecessor is still as short as it is. Off the top of my head, I would start the list with The Godfather Part II, followed by Wrath of Khan, Aliens, and The Dark Knight. There are others, certainly, but it is not a lengthy list.

Despite having most of the same players in place (director, writer, cast) and a novel enough premise, Kingsman: The Golden Circle does not make that illustrious list. It is, however, a tremendous action-adventure cut from much the same cloth as the first one; in fact, so much so, that may be what hinders it in becoming excellent.

The movie starts out with the independent intelligence organization Kingsman under attack, and effectively removed from the board early on. Their upending comes at the hand of Poppy, one of the most delightfully over-the-top supervillains ever to threaten the world, portrayed with unabashed joy by Julianne Moore.

From her secret lair deep in the jungle, which she has cleverly made out to look like a slice of 1950s Americana, (a la Fordlandia), she executes her plan for personal wealth and power by... well, you know what, it is hardly important, and more fun to discover yourself. Suffice to say that Moore's presence onscreen owes just as much to Martha Stewart as it does to Ernst Stavros Blofeld or Dr. No and is just tremendously fun.

Taron Egerton's Eggsy is on hand to save the day, obviously, and the filmmakers have followed through from the end of the first movie in some unexpected ways. Those of you, like me, who cheered the absence of a romantic subplot in Kingsman: The Secret Service should be prepared to see the new Galahad with someone in his life, but for the most part, this is handled pretty well. On the downside though, this doesn't have nearly as much storytelling heft as the the Pygmalion-like tutelage from the first film which transforms Eggsy from a near-hopeless, dole-seeking chav to a dapper gentleman spy.

This time around, the internal struggle is not class-based; instead, we are treated to a comparison between the methodology and styles of the preternaturally British Kingsmen and their American cousins, the Statesmen. Not tailors but liquor purveyors and not in bespoke suits but Stetsons, blue jeans and denim jackets (wait, isn't that actually a Canadian tuxedo?) , the louder, brasher, bolder Statesmen like Agents Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) stand out in sharp relief from their English counterparts, despite the shared affectations for all manner of spy gadgetry.

There is a more substantive conflict that arises out of Poppy's maniacal plot, which deals with our perception of those who use illegal drugs, which is not only how she accumulated her wealth and power, but also the lynchpin by which she intends to hold the world hostage. Not everyone is agreed on the correct course of action, which adds some internal tension and some grist for the debating mill, but is no substitute for Eggsy's trans-classist victory from the first film

Although it mightn't be as deep a film and the emotional notes not quite as sharp, The Golden Circle has a lot going for it. First of all, director Matthew Vaughn has lost none of his zeal for directing slam-bang action sequences, and now he has even more toys to play with: six-shooters, lassos and electro-bullwhips join the weaponized wristwatch and tactical umbrella from before. The admittedly ludicrous fights are a joy to behold, and despite the ceaseless camera movements and unconventional angles Vaughn adores, you always have a clear idea what is going on, even if what happens next transpires so quickly it has already happened by the time you perceive him setting it up. His imaginative framing continues to be one of the best elements of his movies.

I know Vaughn wanted to keep the return of Harry Hart (Colin Firth) a surprise, but the marketing fellows put paid to that despite his wishes, so let me just say that his appearance in this movie is handled appropriately, with a great deal of distance between the man he was then and the man he is in this film.

Is Hart's return, Poppy's plot, Eggsy's romance, any of it, really, at all plausible? Well, almost certainly yes, once you remember that The Golden Circle is a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book, which drew its inspiration from a legendarily popular series of spy films, which were in turn adapted from a series of far more seriously-minded novels from post-war England. All of these antecedents have played fairly fast and loose with their interpretation of reality, but none of them have leaned into the outlandishness of the gentleman spy genre and blended some of the best elements of both spy films and superhero films the way Kingsman has.

Abandoning verisimilitude for a far more entertaining larger-than-life ouvre, The Golden Circle continues to plow ahead through that same fertile ground that The Secret Service did, albeit perhaps not to the same depth. Vaughn and company have provided us with a fantastic bit of entertainment for the fall which tickles the same fancies as its predecessor, and knows exactly what kind of outlandish escapism it (mostly) is.

And while it doesn't really tread a lot of new ground and in completely unlikely to win over anyone who didn't like the precursor, fans of the first film are very likely to enjoy themselves almost as much as they did the last time they watched the world get saved.

Oh, and one of the best celebrity cameos ever, in my opinion.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Embracing Ambiversion

When I was in university, candidates for the Residence Life program were required to take a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test prior to their interview. It was the first of several introspective test I would take as an adult in order to gain some insight about myself, and perhaps a degree of quantification regarding my interactions with others.

In the interview, I was asked where I draw my energy from: by interacting with other people, or withdrawing by myself to recharge. Thinking in terms of the work I like to do, the service aspects and public speaking, extroversion seemed a pretty good fit. But that test, and several since, have placed me firmly on the fence as far as introversion/extroversion goes. And the older I get, the more sense that seems to make.

As much as I love people and social gatherings, and fancy myself a gregarious host, I can also be quite shy. I thought it was deeply ironic when I went to my first Toastmasters speech contest in Saskatoon a couple of years ago, that I was far more comfortable delivering a speech to three to four hundred strangers than I was going in to the banquet hall and wondering who to sit with, since I didn't know anyone.

It doesn't take a tremendous amount of insight to say that there will be gaps in any test trying to quantify any aspect of human interaction  or perception into one of four binary axes; life (like so many things in nature, it seems) tends to express itself as more of a spectrum, after all. Into this paradigm strides the concept of an ambivert: someone whose personality has a balance of introvert and extrovert features. And apparently, most of us are more likely to fit this descriptor than either extrovert or introvert.

Saturday was a perfect example. I was expecting to make dinner for a half-dozen or so people, so I figured I would brine a tenderloin. After driving Fenya to work and getting my groceries, I had the house to myself, as Glory and Audrey were in Saskatoon for a feis (a 4th place and 1st place medal, thanks for askin!).

By early afternoon, the washroom was cleaned, the tenderloin was soaking in salty water spiked with maple syrup and Guinness, and the potatoes were all cut. As I finished tidying up, the silence of the house became far more pronounced, but I strangely found myself hoping that my guests wouldn't be too early.

I grabbed a book (another all too rare occurrence, I'm sad to say!), and sat on the recliner with Nitti to read. Maybe it was the knowledge that the quiet time would soon be ending, but I found myself relishing the sunny, muted afternoon.

As you may well know, reticence is not one of my hallmarks, so I was glad when the first of my guests showed, and we were able to exchange greetings and beers in short order. When everyone arrived, we shared an enjoyable meal of delightful pork and sadly undercooked potatoes and enjoyed getting caught up with one another. Afterwards, we trotted out Risk Godstorm (congratulations Colin!), and laughed and chatted until after midnight. Well after midnight for the last three of us, in fact.

Beyond the good time, I hope I remember Saturday as a lesson in balance, and the importance of taking time by myself, for myself, in order to get more out of my time with others.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Long Divisions by Three Percent

It was bad enough when I read about the Three-Percenters in the United States, but then they came to Alberta.

The Three Percenters are an American Militia group, pledging to resist their own government based on their judgement that the U.S. Constitution has been infringed. They take their name from a dubious assertion that only 3% of the population of the British colonies in America actually fought in the Revolutionary War, while scholars ("or socialist eggheads", depending on who you ask) say that number was probably over 15%.

But you see how clever that is, right? If the sole surviving superpower was founded by a violent minority, well, it means anything is possible, even now! It means these guys and their camo-wearing, 'tacti-cool' wearing buddies aren't a fringe element, they are the backbone of the next revolution.

Make no mistake, this is a group of disaffected individuals who relish the thought at taking up arms against what they feel is an oppressive government, so in addition to promoting anti-immigration (and largely anti-Muslim) views, they also make a point of demonstrating that they have access to firearms, releasing videos depicting their 'drilling' and practicing 'small unit tactics'. These individuals feel that armed struggle against a 'co-opted' army and/or police is not an if, it's a when.

Worse still, they claim a significant part of their membership is ex-armed forces and ex-law enforcement, and it is easy to believe, since back in 2013, a number of Jersey City police officers were disciplined for wearing patches that read "One of the 3%".

Armed militias are nothing new, but at least in the past, they felt obliged to maintain a low profile. Not the Three Percenters though; they post videos on YouTube, have open Facebook groups, hold rallies and host demonstrations on the steps of courthouses and city halls to protest lax immigration enforcement and what they fear is the creeping manifestation of sharia law in North American society.

And these demonstration sites include Calgary.

Vice ran a feature on them back in June, describing the inherent danger of  a group "playing with the potentially lethal cocktail of xenophobia and firepower", and estimated their real-world numbers in Alberta alone at between 150 and 200. Their online registration is claimed to be over 1600.

They have showed up as 'volunteer security' at a couple of Calgary events, including a "Deplorable Day" (their words, not mine - well, mine too, I guess...) at City Hall that ended up attracting far more counter-protesters.

I have to tell you, the parallels to the 1930s are getting to the point where I am half expecting toothbrush mustaches to come back into style. As the world continues to shrink, and cultures mesh together with increasing force and friction, and more and more people are wistfully recalling the good old days that never were (well, unless you were a straight, white, Christian male of at least the middle class), there seems to be a greater and greater reflex among a growing number of people to reject it all, and become more insular and isolationist.

And while these exclusionary, totalitarian ideologies are on the rise, who is defending the rest of us against them? Antifa? The Black Bloc? The same yobbos who seem to be just as eager to bust heads as those on the other side? Didn't WWII get fought so we wouldn't have to sort this stuff out now?

Well, yes, but maybe not in the way that you think.

In a great piece for The Guardian entitled "Why we have to cut off the head of fascism again and again", novelist Patrick McGrath describes the fascist movement in Great Britain, both before and after the Second World War. Thanks to some superb historical fiction in comics and novels, as well as Sir Ian McKellen's fantastic adaptation of Richard III, I am well aware that Mosley's blackshirts and other pro-fascist, pro-Hitler elements were a movement up until England went to war, when they were sent to prison.

I had no idea that once the war ended and they got out, they got right back into it, marching speeching, scrawling swastikas in the dark. Which is where 43 Group comes into play:
The 43 Club was founded in early 1946. It was comprised, at first, of tough, well-trained Anglo-Jewish former servicemen. These men set about disrupting the public meetings of the resurgent fascist movement. They also infiltrated it, at great personal risk, to gather intelligence – to learn their enemy’s plans so as to then sabotage them. They fought the fascists on the streets of British cities, and attracted increasing numbers to their cause. They were disciplined, principled and restrained. They were highly effective tactically, and didn’t hesitate to use brute force when it was required. By 1949 the fascist movement in Britain was effectively finished. Mosley had moved to France.
(BTW, one of those members was none other than world famous hairstylist Vidal Sassoon!)

So here's the thing: as the world these days becomes more and more uncertain, I don't see the appeal of fascism becoming any less attractive to groups like the Three Percenters.

I don't see the Three Percenters realizing that the majority of people in either the U.S. and Canada would prefer not be be represented by them.

I don't see a bunch of thrill seekers in black watch caps, bandanas and sunglasses sorting them out when they get rowdy; "disciplined, principled and restrained" do not seem the most apt of descriptors.

And I don't see anyone like 43 Group willing to stand up to militia-like groups when they begin acting up in public.

So where does that leave us?

Well, I hope you didn't come here looking for answers, because I am fresh out, junior.

Unlike a lot of folks, I didn't laugh a lot when alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer got slugged in the face on camera. Many were of the opinion that punching a Nazi is just a great idea, but I had my doubts. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of it as a delicious piece of schadenfreude, but I recognized it as a guilty pleasure. As a precedent, I still find sucker-punching people with objectionable ideas to be a questionable way for any society to do business.

But I have a bad feeling there will be more opportunities for those of us with convictions to see those convictions put to the test. Maybe it will be on a bus, or in a food court, or on our way into city hall to file some paperwork, and we come across someone in a wanna-be biker outfit, flying the Three Percenter colours of a Spartan-style helmet with a Roman numeral III. Maybe they are haranguing someone for wearing a hijab, or blocking the way as part of a civil disobedience number.

I'm a middle-aged fat man who hasn't thrown a punch in anger since 4th grade, but I have a weird and unsettling feeling I might be in for a fight that day.

43 Group is alleged to have taken their name from the number of people in the room at the time of their founding. With any luck, no actual lines will get drawn up, so no one will need to actually toe them, but if it comes to that, I bet I will find more than 43 people in my corner.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Not Close Enough Encounter

(Please note: this post contains some spoilers for a 40-year-old movie.)

Glory and I rushed home from the family reunion in Picture Butte today in order to pick up Fenya from her UAlberta orientation and go see the 40th Anniversary print of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Fenya hadn't seen it for years and remembered next to nothing of it, and Glory had never seen it at all.

I was excited for our chance to see a great example of Steven Spielberg's early work (only his third movie!) in its natural environs-the movie theater- and for my girls to see older filmmaking in a modern cinema.

On our way to the campus, I told Glory about seeing the movie in 1980, and how the first few times I saw it I was left with more questions than answers - something I found frustrating then, but came to appreciate as I grew older.

In the end, though, I think she found the experience more off-putting than inspiring.

Most of her discomfort began during the finale, when the first, spindly-legged alien emerges from the mothership, almost spider-like in its presentation, but her real consternation was the departure of Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus).

"So, he just leaves his wife and family?" she asked, with a hint of judgment. And she is right; it is hardly the most accessible of happy endings, despite the triumphal sounds of John Williams' brilliant score as the mothership departs.

Before the movie began, a featurette about the making of the movie was shown, and I was gratified at how interested the girls were. A lot of archival footage and some of Spielberg's own home movies were included, but there were also current-day interview with himself as well as modern day aspirants J.J. Abrams (Super 8) and Denis Villeneuve (The Arrival).

Abrams focus was on the way in which Spielberg changed movies, how he strove to show real, recognizable people who lived in clutter and chaos instead of sanitized and idealized archetypes. Villeneueve, on the other hand, made his case that CE3K is a movie that captures the ordeal of a director creating a movie.

As someone who has sometimes struggled to convey creative ideas to others, it is an appealing allegory. Who hasn't felt like Roy Neary at some point though, feeling a nagging compulsion about the way something should just be, an inalienable rightness, that does not invite action so much as compels it.

In following their vision, a creator risks alienating all those around them who do not perceive it in the same manner they do. In the end, the final production is often carried less on storyboards and precisely measured story beats, than on the strength of will of the director and the faith that their confidence generates almost as a byproduct.

Just before heading off to bed, Glory told me that she did appreciate the film, and was glad we went. I was initially a little disappointed that she didn't share my sense of wonderment at the end of Close Encounters, but on the other hand, it is also encouraging that she is willing to make her own assessment about the happiness of a Hollywood ending, and that her empathy is as much with the family left behind as it is with a star struck voyager. It feels as though there may be a parable in there somewhere, about both the power and the cost of belief.

With any luck, she will get to see it again at some point, and I can ask if her perspective has changed at all, as mine did over the years.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Young Man and the River

Rafting on the Kootenay River was an amazing experience and our guide Mitch was a big reason for that.

We didn't start out enamoured of him. There were two guides and Ian was clearly the more seasoned of the two. Friendly and confident, he chatted up the passengers as we rode a rickety school bus down 93 out of Radium and onto Settler’s Road, supervised the unloading of the equipment and handled the safety briefing after we had donned our splash gear, helmets and lifejackets.

 After being told in no uncertain terms about the perilous relationship between our paddle's t-grip and the dental safety of those nearby, we were shown how to properly hold one, then broke into two groups, and those of us on the full-day trip went with Mitch.

There hadn't been much chance for Mitch to make an impression prior to this, because while Ian had engaged us on the ride out, he had clambered on top of the pile of lifejackets at the back of the bus to catch a nap.

After Mitch introduced himself to us, he explained that the teasing he was receiving from the other staff was due to his wrecking the last camera he was given for taking pictures on the river. Despite this carelessness, however, he was still entrusted with a raft carrying 11 souls: a mum and dad from Victoria with their two small children (10 and 7 maybe?), a Swiss couple and their 15 year-old son, and ourselves.

Mitch got us on board and went over the various commands we could expect to hear on the water, explained how it was the job of the front paddlers to set the pace for everyone else, and got serious when he said he would fire anyone from that position if they proved to be ineffective.

Otherwise though, he spoke in the confident slangy patois of the surfer-athlete, despite being from Ontario. He advised us to ‘get stoked’ and described the various rapids we would encounter that day based on not only their established classes which he was very conversant with (I-V being navigable, II-III being the order of the day), but also subjectively on their gnarliness. He was easygoing and funny but clearly knew his business, and was obviously committed to everyone enjoying themselves on the river that day.

Most importantly though, he had a tremendous and earnest appreciation of the river and outdoor life that he was only too willing to share. In fact, his roommate was supposed to be our guide while Mitch was scheduled for a day off. But he was ‘so cranky’ and Mitch had never done the full-day on the Kootenay so he agreed to take over.

The Kootenay was low enough that the raft needed to be dragged across a gravel sandbar before we could actually get out float on, and Mitch got us underway in good order. Once on the river he tested us with various commands: team forward, right side reverse, left side forward. When he shouted for us to hang on, we all grabbed for the centerline that ran the length of the boat, only to have Mitch admonish almost all of us for releasing our grip on our t-handles. Then he paused and said, "Wait, back up; I never showed you guys how to do that. My bad!" We had much better results the second time.

Before too long we were feeling much more confident, and ready for our first bit of whitewater. Mitch exhorted us to "GET HYPE!!", and we did. His transparent affection and exuberance for the river life was infectious. 

The rapids on the Kootenay are fairly mild, so Mitch maneuvered our craft to ensure we hit them sideways, maximizing the amount of splash and cheering afterwards, "Sideways, yeeeeaaahhh!" As we approached the next one, he exalted, "I'm so stoked- who's stoked?"

Again, not California, Ottawa. And not a put-on, either, just a young man very happy with where his life had taken him this particular afternoon.

Lest you think Mitch is nothing but a long-gone hard-charging adrenalin junkie (which, to be fair, he probably is), I should mention that he took as much delight explaining the river topography to us. He pointed out which cliffs were in fact glacial moraines, carved out after the last ice age. He explained how some of the trees on the banks had to grow parallel to the water before curving upwards to get the sun, a phenomenon called phototrophism. 


When we passed a trickle of water running over the rocks, he pointed out how the pale colour beneath it marked it as a mineral spring, meaning it was drinkable.Mitch also seemed to take tremendous delight in explaining exactly why drinking groundwater is a bad idea. "I mean, for all you know, some grizzly has dumped a deer kill 200 metres upstream, and its laying their in the water, its guts all hanging out and stuff..." embellishing the effect with dramatic disemboweling hand movements.

Whatever he was doing, he did in the most irrepressible way possible. When it came time to take a photo of the other boat, he would bellow "PHOTOOOO" at the top of lungs to get their attention. When we reached an eddy and said we could actually swim in this part of the river if we wanted, he demonstrated by standing on the back of the raft and doing a backflip into the Kootenay. When the Swiss lady grabbed the troat of her paddle and stretched the other for him to grab, he shouted "T-grip rescue, YEAH!" before clambering back into the boat.

He reassured everyone by demonstrating how it was impossible to fall out while holding the centerline, contorting himself every which way, half his body suspended over the beautiful cloudy waters of the river (a side-effect of glacial flour, the fine sediment created by the weight of the glacier grinding against sedimentary stone), but remaining dry throughout.

At 45 km, the Kootenay run may be the longest whitewater trip in North America, if not the world. The whitewater wasn't what I would call thrilling, but it was fun, and just the right speed for the girls' first time out. And the float portions were great too, with all the remoteness and tremendous scenery we had been promised. We even spotted a bear on shore, a first for Mitch.

It was during these quieter moments that Mitch would often pause before earnestly advising us to "take it all in", and Lord knows we did our best.


Near the end of the trip we stopped by an amazing waterfall for some pictures, which can't possibly do it justice. Do yourself a favour and take the trip sometime.

Kootenay River Runners runs a great trip, breaking up a six-hour trek with a morning snack and early afternoon lunch (with treats from Invermere Bakery!). Enjoying a cold cut sandwich and Caesar salad so far from civilization makes everything taste just that much better, especially after a morning of cold splashes and often frenzied paddling.

On the day he took us on the river instead of taking his first full day off in four weeks, Mitch only had ten days left in the Kootenays. He planned to visit with his family before returning to school and take the second year of his Outdoor Adventure tourism course at Algonquin College. As part of his studies, he had taken a grueling 80-hour Wilderness First Responder first aid course, since paramedics don't normally come in to remote areas.

Not bad for a kid who isn't even 19 yet!

We really enjoyed our time on the river, and now I want to go back and do the Kicking Horse at some point, maybe when the river is a little deeper, but it was Mitch's impressions and passion for river adventure that made our trip so memorable. His energy and enthusiasm even inspired me to jump into the river before we got to the end of the run.

And if he didn't have my respect before, he certainly had it, along with my gratitude, after hauling my carcass back into the boat all by himself!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Frankentrailer and the Site for Sore Eyes

A few years back, Audrey's uncle Harry told us he'd found a salvageable tent trailer in Lethbridge for under $1000, and her folks were wiling to pick it up for us, sight unseen, and take it back to their place in High River. When we finally got around to seeing it, we discovered that the concept of salvageability is entirely subjective, and worried we might have bitten off more than we could chew.

It was a 1977 Sportcraft, manufactured in Lethbridge Alberta. Inside it was fairly dirty, having sat unused for 15-20 years, but nothing insurmountable, and we were willing to put in the sweat equity to clean and fix the interior if it meant we could spend our future camping trips sleeping up off the ground. The roof had taken a lot of hail damage as well, but we knew there was a sealant that could sort that out.

The fact that it took a twelve-pound sledgehammer to close it though, that was daunting, but still not a deal breaker. The fact that the wiring had a short, which meant intermittent running lights and the possibility that turn signals and brake lights might not be visible to other drivers, that put me on edge a little bit.

We managed to get it over to Audrey's brother Garrett though, who graciously reinforced a bit of the structure and rewired it for us so now everything works. At last we have a trailer that will win no beauty contests but can (theoretically) keep the rain off our heads.

I still find driving with a trailer to be an intimidating experience though. I am terrified I'm going to have a brain fart one day and try to take it through Peter's Drive-In in Red Deer, incurring the wrath of hundreds of drivers as I try to extricate myself. I have to remind myself of the added length at every intersection and with every lane-change, and I still cannot navigate while backing up worth a damn.

This week was our first camping trip since 2014, and our first ever with Frankentrailer, so we set out with a combination of anticipation and apprehension. The drive to Radium takes a little under 7 hours, but I worried about backing into our site the entire way. Imagine my joy then, when we arrived and discovered that our site was actually a pull through, with no backing up required!

Frankentrailer is light enough that the girls and I can muscle it from the street to our patio at the end of summer (although it is not easy by any stretch), so that was how I had planned to get it into position if there were any difficulties. As it was, we took advantage of the lightness to spin the trailer 180 degrees so that our door would face the campsite instead of the road.

In fairly short order, we had a comfy looking little outpost all set up, including the Chillax hammock we'd gotten from Costco months earlier, and which I cannot say enough good things about.

The site itself (E-10 in Redstreak, if you are curious) had a lot going for it: we were right next to the washrooms and showers (too close for Audrey but just fine for the girls and I), and also adjacent to the water we would use for cooking a cleaning. We had a decent amount of trees (critical for hammock deployment) and a lot of level ground to spread out on if we needed too.

It is very close to the village of Radium Hot Springs, but is about 300 metres higher, so you get very little in the way of noise or traffic.Sadly, we couldn't use the firepit due to the campfire ban, and the ground was incredibly dusty, even after an evening of decent rain. Still, a very good campsite, all in all.

Sadly, our proximity to the water also meant that mealtimes would usually see 2-3 wasps buzzing about, but we even those interactions were non-dramatic and inconsequential. We purchased a wasp trap with an intense-sounding warning on the packaging ("No drink wasp!"), but only set it out twice, and captured none, sadly.

Like most federal campgrounds, Redstreak has a few amenities such as an amphitheater and some hiking trails, including one that goes straight down to the famous hot springs themselves. One we took has an elevation gain of about 250m, but does give you a tremendous view of the Columbia Valley, as well as other photo opportunities along the way.

Redstreak is an especially good place to camp if you enjoy wildlife, as we often saw the ubiquitous Big Horn Sheep grazing at various places in and around our loop, as well as a group (flock?) of wild turkeys that meandered through our site early on the morning we left.

The next time you get shut out at Jasper, give some thought to the Redstreak campground at Radium; I'm pretty confident Frankentrailer will return there some day.