Sunday, May 28, 2017

Water from the Rock

For years now, we've spent the May long weekend with members of our church and their families at Rundle's Mission on Pigeon Lake. It's a lovely spot with a fascinating history that predates a lot of the settlements in that part of the province. We play bocce and bolaball, share meals, and play boardgames in the evenings when the mosquitoes take over the outdoors.

On this visit however, I found my attention drawn to an artesian well found just off the boardwalk that takes visitors to the sites of some of the original missionary settlements from the 1840s.

It bubbles out of the ground unassumingly, meanders down a hillside and then under the road and into the lake.

On our earliest visits here, the girls loved to visit what they called 'the babbling brook'. Many a young visitor trudged back to the lodge with a soaked shoe after their sneaker failed to maintain its purchase on a mossy rock in the creek, but it is far too shallow to cause much more distress than that.

Sunday afternoon, I walked out on the boardwalk and spent some time by the spring, fascinated by the appearance of water, seemingly from nowhere, with only the faintest rippling to indicate any sort of motion at all. The pool itself maintains the same level, as if by magic.

I turned my attention to the path taken by the stream, meandering this way and that, drawn by gravity to the lake, making its way in a shallow bed that alternated between rocky and muddy as it passed underneath some fallen trees.

The sun was bright, when I squinted my eyes against it, it was easier to hear not only the sound of the water, but other sounds as well.
- the whistle of wind through the poplar.
- the tweeting of unfamiliar birdsong, as well as robins and blackbirds.
- the occasional crack as a swaying branch or trunk was pushed past its limit.
- the staccato tapping of a large woodpecker, which eluded my best efforts to spot him.
It's astonishing to me how much sanctity exists in such places. The Irish speak sometimes of what they call 'thin spaces', suggesting that there are spots where perhaps the veil between the world we understand and everything else is more permeable. I'd always imagined such places to be more soulbound; perhaps the site of a great battle or a haunting loss, or a familial tragedy.

Who knows, though; perhaps a spot where geological factors align and allow a subterranean aquifer to trickle forth onto the earth and into a lake could be a thin space as well. I felt no real presence, per se, nor any energy or suchlike, but I did experience a tranquility that has become rarer and rarer in modern life.

I can't tell you how much time I spent there; if I had found a comfortable place to sit, I might be there still.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Gathering for the Demi-Centurion

Eleven days ago I turned 50.

I don't mind telling you, it did my head in a little bit. I didn't feel significantly different and certainly no wiser on Thursday than I had on Wednesday,but this particular milestone had more of an effect on me than I had anticipated.

For most of my adult life, I've striven to maintain a certain degree of immaturity in a number of small ways, including the title of this very blog. The expression, "Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional" has become a bit of a rallying cry for me and many of my friends, it seems.

It annoys me to no end when people are exceedingly coy about their age, and many seemed surprised to hear I was turning 50, which is extremely gratifying, but then encourages me to let even more people know. By the end of the week, the clerk in the grocery store saying, "That will be $124.50," would be likely to hear, "I'm turning 50! Crazy world, innit?" in response, and that's not right either.

Mind you, others would crack wise about me not looking a day over 58, so perhaps it all balances out.

Quick sidebar: on the day of my birthday, my co-workers also completely surprised me with a Marble Slab ice cream cake! Working with awesome people is simply tremendous!
Jenny put the impromptu celebration together, as well as captioning the photo; I warned her that she is required by law to advise her subjects that her iPhone has a mind-reading app.

At any rate, after almost a decade of smaller scale birthdays, I decided it was high time to expand a bit. With Pete willing to loan me his kegerator (and facilitate the purchase of 20L of Alley Kat Amber), I hoped a night of burgers and brews would be enough to draw people out to our modest abode.

Previous parties had tapped out my theme ideas though (Hawaii Four-Oh, a Big Lebowski night with housecoats and Wii bowling), so I went with something accessible and asked people to Party Like Rockstars, and to wear their favourite band or concert shirts.

The day before the party I decided the burgers needed to be amped up a smidgen, and bought a whackload of bacon at Costco along with the cake, salads, and the other party staples.

Glory helped me to prep some cookie sheets so we could cook all the bacon at one go, which is good, because grilling up 60 burgers took a bit longer than expected (and over a liter of Cattle Boyz bbq sauce).

However, after a couple of Rammstein-looking hours, they were all tucked into the oven awaiting deployment, and I had just enough time to fish out the concert videos I wanted playing and stick up the last of the decorations.

Now, my appreciation for my friends is a matter of public record, but I had never attempted to mix so many different social circles together before, even at our Oscar party. We had two or three fairly distinct socio-cultural sets, plus my mum, my sister and her family, plus people from church  and a cohort from my workplace. One old buddy was coming all the way from Calgary and I hadn't even seen him in person yet this year! Would they have anything to talk about? Would they get along?

Turns out I needn't have worried.

After a false start with the keg followed by a rapid away team mission searching for CO2 in the west end of the city, it seemed like no time at all before a ton of well-wishers were ensconced in my basement (and a handful upstairs to boot), chatting, having a pint, and watching Muse in concert from the Rome Olympic Stadium.

I spent much of the evening just trying to catch up with folk and thank them for coming, but there was also time for laughs and toasts, and selfies with as many people in concert shirts as I could manage. I missed a lot and wished I had been more on top of things, so if I didn't get a chance to selfie it up with you, my apologies!

I was especially impressed with the church folk who got their offspring to help dress them and committed so wholeheartedly to the theme. Y'all genuinely ROCK.

Truth be told, our place is probably a bit small for three-dozen partiers, but the cool, wet weather conspired against us and restricted us to the indoors. I wouldn't have described it as crowded necessarily though, maybe just cozy.

Soon enough the cake was brought out, the song was sung, and after some teasing, I was asked to say a few words.

And you know, what? It was HARD. So many feelings about the scope and scale of wonderful people in my life; I tried to convey the sense of gratitude and privilege and inadequacy at being the hub of such a magnificent wheel. I don't think I did it justice, but I think the feeling came through anyways.

And besides, it's not like I'm going to stop articulating my thanks just because my birthday is over.

Not as many people stayed on to play Rock Band as I had hoped, but the usual suspects still got a few licks in before we finally pulled the pin at 3:30 am. Not bad for an offically auld fella, eh?

Best of all though were all the comments I heard afterwards:

"So nice to finally meet the friends you are always talking about!"

"I loved talking to your Mum, and her dog is ADORABLE."

"Glad you brought the church folk over to liven things up!"

"You work with such awesome people."

"Your sister was a treat to talk to!"

It's all a bit humbling but an encouraging reminder of the sheer number of tremendously awesome people I am fortunate enough to be able to call my friends. If you couldn't make it, no worries, we will catch you another time, but if you did manage to make it, even for a little while, I am grateful that the Venn diagram of my demicentennial could bring us all together, even for a single evening. Cheers, all.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

G&G XII - Races, Chases, Fights, Escapes and Coins

Due to a particularly overscheduled May this year, Gaming & Guinness XII was moved to the first weekend of the month, but this did little to prevent us from having a wonderful time, as usual.

What began as a Fri-Sun event over a decade ago has undergone significant schedule creep in the intervening years, to the point where most of us were on site and ready to go late Wednesday afternoon. In fact, most of us got together for lunch at Five Guys before splitting up: Pete to deliver the keg to the venue, Jeff and Rob to the Airport to pick up Island Mike, and myself and Totty to the dealership so he could pick up his sweet Focus RS which had finally arrived.

Pete and I were the first ones back to the house, and kicked off the event with the first of many pints of the black stuff.

Once we had all reconvened at Belongamick, we got into the games, with a couple of unconventional debuts. The first was Vintage Miniature Deathmatch, a homegrown concoction utilizing an old set of man-to-man combat rules (The Fantasy Trip: Melee) designed by Steve Jackson before he started his own company, combined with some of the oldest miniatures I possess.

Some of these had come out of the old Grenadier D&D characters box I had persuaded my folks to get me when I was 13, most were pretty awfully painted!

Melee uses a fairly elegant set of mechanics, actually: 24 points spread across 2 stats, Strength and Dexterity. The higher your Strength, the bigger and more damaging a weapon you can use, but you have to roll under your Dexterity to score a hit with it. Armor negates hits, but modifies your Dex even further downwards and slows your movement as well.

Jeff's platemailed fighter with greatsword spent most of the game just getting into the fight, and still found it difficult to connect.

The idea is that once a miniature is killed in the arena it can never return, so if we ever return to this game, three players have to find new models in the motley assortment I had provided. I almost immediately regretted taking a slinger, but will push him into the fracas much more quickly the next time we play!

After devouring the pizzas we'd ordered for dinner, Rob and Island Mike unveiled this year's commemorative swag: beautifully executed challenge coins!

These are a military tradition that has been picked up by many other groups, including the Residence Life program at my alma mater. The idea is that once you receive such a coin, you can be called upon any other bearer to produce it, and if you cannot, you are on the hook for buying the next drink or performing some manner of service.

Since we have two teetotallers and drink communally when together anyways, we need to sort out some parameters pretty quickly here, but it was fun doing 'coin checks' for practice anyways.

After supper we played JenG&Ga, an upscaled version of the tower blocks game with drinking rules written on various pieces (give one, take 2, etc)

Strangely enough, we have never played a drinking game at G&G (never needed to!) but this one was pretty fun, and I am confident it will make a return appearance as well.

The dice-based version of Bang! made an appearance, as did Exploding Kittens for the first time, and perennial favourite and guilty pleasure Pimp: The Backhanding.

The evening was fun but ended at a civilized enough hour that the next day, we were able to actually get a game in before lunchtime, and played 7 Wonders. It is a wonderful game, combining luck and skill in an intriguing manner, and supported by cards with wonderful art. It can also make you carefully choose where you sit, as you can only trade and war with your immediate neighbours.

An even rarer occurrence that pre-noon gaming was time spent outside, but the weather was too nice to pass up, so we enjoyed some time in 'the blue room' as some call it, and played a few games of Bolaball.

By the end of this year, half of the eight members we had on hand will be at least 50, but it was still a bit discouraging that so many of us found ways to excuse ourselves to take naps in the afternoon after the fresh air and sunshine had exacted their toll on us.

After supper, Earl arrived from his new job, enabling us to get in a big game of Star Fleet Battles in an every-man-for-himself, random objective match.

My D-7 got caught in the explosion from another Klingon ship that I caused with (frankly) excessive disruptor fire, and was vanquished shortly thereafter. I believe Scott's Constitution Class and Island Mike's battlecruiser were the only ones left standing by games's end, and Mike was juuuust outside the range he needed to claim his objective. Rob's USS Poltava may have survived as well.

The next day saw us travel to Escape City to partake in their breakout room, Neurological. This was only the second time I'd done an escape room, and it was a first for most of the G&Gentlemen. A clever idea, that is brilliantly executed, the game is set inside the mind of a woman injured in a piano accident. You are immediately broken into two groups and sent to the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and need to establish contact with the other half in order to escape your respective sides and reconvene in the center for the final puzzles. Neurological only has a 20% success rate, but we managed to squeak through with two minutes to spare! Highly recommended.

Earl again joined us for supper after work, but the mysterious disappearance of the host's tortellini put a number of the group to work cobbling together a delicious spaghetti dinner. Such fellowship is the real core of G&G, more so even than the titular drinking and pastimes it revolves around, and I couldn't resist asking Scott to commemorate it with a photo from my selfie stick.

After dinner we broke out Formula Dé, a favourite of mine because it lets up to ten players game at once. It was also our first on the Circuito De Estoril in Portugal, a blisteringly fast track in places.

I managed to eke out a win here, but others were more disheartened by the Oiler's loss to the Ducks due to a controversial call.

Afterwards we played some Jackbox party games on the PS4 I had brought along, including a combative t-shirt design game called Tee K.O. Most of the entries ended up being unsuitable for publication, but one winner used my slogan and art, referencing a gaming quote that has been in our circles for probably thirty years now.

Yeah, I think we will very likely need a future post to decrypt that particular reference.

We kicked off Saturday with a game of Wits and Wagers, an exceedingly clever game that combines trivia with betting, and I provided the questions for that, culminating with "The President of the U.S. is always accompanied by an officer with a briefcase called the 'nuclear football', as it contains the codes necessary for launching America's missiles; how much does it weigh?" Players make their guesses, then they are arranged in order on the board and players bet on what they feel is the closest answer without going over. The extreme ends provide the highest odds, and the person who guessed closest gets a bonus as well. (Oh, and the briefcase weighs about 45 pounds, according to Wikipedia.)

In the afternoon, Earl trotted out a well thought out X-Wing scenario, with prearranged ships and pilots with all their respective upgrades in place. This accelerated things immensely compared to last year, and finally gave the elegant mechanics of this prepainted miniatures game a chance to shine.

Sadly, our Rebel's attempts to race off with a prototype TIE Fighter and defecting pilots was undone by the Empire, who withstood our attempt to run an oblique line on them, and gunned us down with ruthless efficiency. (Apparently the pilots have better gunnery instructors than the Stormtroopers do...)

After a run for propane and the resulting later-than-planned steak dinner, the most highly anticipated event was held: the Circvs Maximus chariot race!

With three of the eight contestants fielding heavy chariots (with scythed wheels), I fully anticipated a full-on bloodbath, but this year's event had a well balanced mix of racing and ramming, with everyone focused on finishing the race, not just eliminating their opponents!

Once again the walls proved to be a deadly element, and three players ended up wrecking their chariots in the corners.

Jeff has his name on the Circvs Maximvs trophy more than anyone, even finishing first in a heavy last year, and tore through the turns with reckless abandon this time, including one roll at seven over the safe speed. Alas it was enough to get him to the podium but not to the top, as I won the event for the first time ever (and probably only my third CM victory ever in the 10+ years we've been playing it)!

With the game finishing as late as it did, there was not much else to do afterwards, and so we called it a night, although some of us stayed up until an unreasonable hour.

The next day, after the out-of-towners had been ferried to the airport, and I had packed up a Flex-load of games and suchlike, Mike, Pete and I sat down for a final game of Turbulence, possibly the best three-player game I have ever encountered.

And then it was done.

Some years it feels like there is more emphasis on gaming, some years it is more about the Guinness (or this year, Pete's divine keg of Alley Kat Amber this), but Gaming & Guinness XII felt like one of our better efforts to balance game-playing, beer-drinking, and shared fellowship.

The event persists as a basic and yet sublime reminder of how much all of us enjoy each other's company while partaking in simple pleasures. I'm already looking forward to G&G XIII, and I know I am not alone!