Saturday, March 31, 2018

Solar Reconciliation

The sun and I have never really been friends.

Like a lot of people whose ancestry goes back to the British Isles, my skin tone can be described not just as white, but as 'pasty', 'chalk-like', 'pallid', and even 'frog-belly'. I've been known to burn if the brightness is too high on my television - when I watched Lawrence of Arabia in high-definition for the first time, I had to apply Solarcaine afterwards.

When I was 17, my family went to Hawaii, where I got 2nd degree sunburn while snorkeling, and then sunstroke while standing in line at Jermaine's Too-Good-to-Miss Luau. Never in my life have I tanned; my skin appears to be a binary set with two conditions, pale or burned.

At yet, here I am with Audrey in Cuba, enjoying a second honeymoon in honour of our 25th anniversary last December. There is no time for such an excursion (or even a big party) at that time of year, but when the opportunity presented itself in February, I leapt at the chance to get away, just the two of us, during spring break.

There were some other options to be sure; seeing some shows in Vegas, snowmobiling in Revelstoke, shopping in Seattle. But it's been a long and tiring winter in many respects, and the prices of the all-inclusive resort vacations have an undeniable allure. 

In Varadero, we knew we could make a point of doing as much nothing as possible for 6 whole days, a welcome respite from our day-to-day schedules and obligations. Sure, there would be an excursion to Havana, and some local souvenir shopping, but other than that, we could enjoy an unregimented lifestyle for almost a week. Despite this though, we didn't have a real beach day until Thursday.

After lunch, we slathered on sunscreen, put on our swimsuits, threw our books into a bag and made our way to the beach. The resort residences are comprised of 11 two-story buildings, each with about 30 rooms, arranged in a circle, with the main hotel building at one end, the pool and swim-up bar in the middle, and beach access at the other end.

I have a tremendous dislike for the sensation of anything between my toes, so walking to the beach in my flip-flops was a trial in and of itself. Once I reached the beach and felt the warm, white sand seep in under the edges of my feet, my distemper quieted significantly.

The resort has a number of palapas (beach shelters) so we didn't need to bring an umbrella. We arranged two lounge chairs to take advantage of the shade, and sat down to read. Despite being a bit under the weather, the moment I laid my head against the back of the chair I felt 80% of my residual tension leave my body, as if it had been exorcised.

It was 29 or 30 degrees Celsius, with no clouds to speak of and probably 60-70% humidity, but we were in the shade and there was a strong, warm breeze crossing the shore, so we were immensely comfortable. A yellow flag was up, meaning that same breeze made sailing unadvisable, and the beach was not at all busy. Two pelicans swooped by, just over the surface of the water, and I briefly wondered what brought them to a place where there were no fish.

My restless night caught up to me, and I put my book down to doze, still just as comfortable as I'd ever been in my own home. When I awoke, a trip into the waters of the Atlantic was overdue, so I took off the t-shirt I'd been wearing and the two of us made our way perhaps 30 m from our palapa to the shoreline.

Removing the shirt may sound normal enough to you, but it felt strangely momentous to me. In addition to fearing the burn that accompanied almost every previous exposure of my torso to any degree of solar radiation, there is the self-consciousness of being a pale, amorphous blob in public view. But looking around, I noted that I was neither the chalkiest, nor fattest, nor oldest, nor hairiest man on the beach (although, to be fair, I probably would have made the podium for palest). Besides that, the moment I stood up, the thin, fast-drying shirt I had worn felt too warm, too constraining, too inhibiting, so I shucked it off, prompting a raised eyebrow from Audrey.

She knows that textiles are my preferred means of protection from my old nemesis the Sun, but I assured her the amount of SPF 60 lotion we had applied would be sufficient.

The sand was hot upon the soles of my feet (which are ridiculously tender) and the sun warm upon my shoulders, but the constant breeze sustained my comfort all the way to the water's edge. The first wave of salty water to hit our feet felt cool, but was warmer even by the time we were thigh deep. Walking out perhaps 50 meters, the water was still only waist deep in places, but shoulder high in others. We bobbed in the surf, laughing and gasping at the occasional wave that caught us by surprise.

The surf was just powerful enough to make us cautious about our footing on our return to shore, but with no rocks and only a few shells around, a fall would not have been catastrophic by any means. Emerging from the blue-green waters, the sun dried half the moisture from our bodies before we even got back to our chairs and towels. 

The shade had migrated during our dip, so now my legs were laying in direct sunlight, but, strangely, I let them remain, knowing they would dry faster, and because it felt good, which was a novelty to me. I lay back in my chair, contented, comfortable, relaxed, and looked at my lovely wife as the sun crept up my body. I wondered why I felt so good when it hit me.

I wasn't afraid.

At outdoor events, I move from shade to shade like a vampire, broad-brimmed hat or umbrella at the ready. If I am playing a game of badminton at Rundle's Mission, I am keenly aware of the time, and limit myself accordingly, and even then I am rarely comfortable, and can never shake a certain degree of apprehension.

Here I lay in the tropics, with the sun warming me and my skin practically drinking it in, outdoors with my shirt off for the longest time since I was perhaps 12 years old. I couldn't tell you if my lack of fear stemmed more from complacency, fatalism, ignorance or confidence, and it didn't matter.

On a white sand beach at the edge of the Caribbean, next to warm waters that somehow touch the place of my birth in Newfoundland as well as two polar icecaps, I feel like I have made peace with a lifelong adversary.

On a resort that keeps us sheltered and fed with almost no need for thought on our part, my wife and I have become more like the people we were when we met, half our lives ago - optimistic, carefree.

The ocean is wholly different, but I can't help but think of Morgan Freeman at the end of The Shawshank Redemption:

I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.

His hope is mine, as is my joy at being with my very best friend in a place with no cares or worries, soothed by healing waters, warmed by the sun.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Faces Of Child Abandonment

This is us in the Belgian Beer Cafe at Edmonton International, waiting for a flight that will take us to Toronto, and from there to Varadero, Cuba. Shocking, I know!

This is our first vacation without the girls since 2005, and our first warm weather vacation together EVER. 

I normally prefer vacations where you do things, but this time I am completely content to do as much nothing as possible with the wonderful woman I married a quarter-century ago, but in a warmer clime.

My gratitude for her is almost eclipsed by that for the two awesome daughters who we know will have no problems fending for themselves for a week. That said, the pantry is full of tinned goods, just in case.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Culinary Craftsmanship - Vernal Geekquinox 2018

For eight years now, Pete's extensive hospitality is pushed to its limits twice a year as he brings his nerdy friends together for a big dinner party. Since 2011, they have been strongly themed, often around popular culture.

This year he made one of his craftiest thematic decisions: he would base his dishes around the comprehensive collection of cooking contraptions, most of which only get trotted out for his twice-yearly shindig, and some of which have been languishing since their initial use.

With "Hardware" as his theme, Pete quickly tied the menu and other visual elements to the obscure 1990 cyberpunk movie of the same name.

The movie's 5.9 IMDb rating is probably pretty close to the mark, but it gets bonus points for giving roles to music legends Iggy Pop and Lemmy Kilmister (Motorhead). Thankfully there were no traces of dystopia in the fantastic meal he put together, futuristic or otherwise.

The icons along the right side of the menu signify the various pieces of equipment used to construct this fabulous repast, from the more mundane (microwave, slow cooker and blender) to the more esoteric (sous vide rig, smoker, and pressure cooker). The enormous pot falls somewhere in between by my reckoning.

The meal opened with some spicy pappadums prepared in the microwave.  It felt a little strange eating them without a curry nearby, but they made a fantastic starter on their own.

They were soon joined by two warm dips served in his chafing dish, one of spinach artichoke and a red pepper garlic cheese variation, fortified with a shot of Frank's Red Hot!

Then, with a little help for dispensing, he blended a scratch-made mushroom soup and served it up piping hot. This was one of the richest, smoothest soups I have ever had, and even an attendee who is no fan of fungi was forced to confess how tasty it was.

While enjoying the soup, I chanced to glance again at the menu and asked Pete if I had slept through the cheese course. He leapt up and fetched a platter of cheeses he had smoked himself, including cheddar, mozzarella, brie and cambozola (a soft cheese with hints of blue mixed into it ). I'm glad I mentioned it, as they were absolutely amazing!

Following the cheese course, Pete went over to his largest pot, and extracted a steaming whole artichoke for each of us. We chatted while plucking the leaves, dipping them into melted butter and then scraping off the fleshy bits. The hearts were then devoured in similar fashion.

Photo: Earl J. Woods

This is not the kind of meal one eats in a rush, and it takes considerable time to get the various dishes sorted. No one was famished when the entree made it to the table a little after midnight (after all, such decadence is a primary component of our enjoyment of the evening, and no one is in a rush at any rate!).

A plate of asparagus risotto, accompanied by butter poached carrots (sous vide) and seared Brussels sprouts garnished a rack of rosemary lemon roasted lamb fresh off Pete's Big Green Egg barbecue/smoker.  It was amazing. Some people started on the meat with their forks and knives, but before too long, everyone was gnawing them off the bone to ensure none of it fell by the wayside.

The lamb was aromatic and savoury, a delight for the senses, and so tender a man with no teeth could have enjoyed it.

After clearing the table, we slowly migrated back to the living room, drinking and chatting until it was at last time for dessert (perhaps a little before 2:00 am): an amazing chocolate peanut butter cake.

Sadly, our zeal for this sweet end to a delightful meal meant that we neglected the whipped toasted cream Pete had prepared, but at least Audrey and I got to try some of it with the leftovers the next day! (It was just mas marvelous as you might imagine.)

Pete's precise planning and plentiful preparation precluded his needing to do quite as much work during the meal as he often does, gifting us with an unprecedented amount of access to our wonderful host. And as good as the food is, and as fascinating as the gadgetry is, it is always the people that make the meal most memorable, so this is nothing but a good thing.

Thanks again Pete!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

That Thing You Be

I saw John Carpenter's The Thing when I was 14 years old. It was the first scary movie I watched in a theatre with my friends, and for 100+ minutes of its 109 minutes runtime, I was wound up tighter that an alarm clock spring. The staff at an Antarctic research station find themselves pitted against an alien that perfectly mimic any of them, leaving them incapable of trusting one another. It is a brilliant thriller with some absolutely brilliant practical creature effects work, including the messiest shapeshifting and assimilation ever captured on film, which underperformed tragically at the box office.

Looking at the other genre films that came up in 1982, it's perhaps not completely surprising that The Thing's dark and insidious vision had difficulty 'finding its audience' as Carpenter says in the commentary: Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, Wrath of Khan, The Dark Crystal, Tron -oh, and that other little show about an alien - E.T.

Saturday night saw a half-dozen of us gathered in the Batcave for some Korean Fried Chicken and long-overdue boardgaming, but Star Trek Risk caps out at 5 players. I had picked up Mondo Games' The Thing: Infection at Outpost 31 while in Texas, which supports up to 8. That number makes it a likely play at G&G XIII in a couple months, so getting familiar with the rules seemed like a good idea, so we busted it out.

I found a version of Ennio Morricone's haunting film score on Google Play and put it on for additional atmosphere. Rather than leave the tv screen on the album cover, I found a collage-style poster with an unsettling tagline and threw it on as my wallpaper:

The thing is a slightly collaborative boardgame, insofar as most of the players are working together to get the equipment they need in order to board a helicopter and escape the station.  The problematic element, of course, is that one of them is the titular Thing.

This rogue player is chosen at random by a set of blood test cards, and will work to sabotage the missions without giving themselves away to the other player. I was relieved to see my blood test reveal I was a genuine human, especially as I had gotten first pick and taken Kurt Russell's character, MacReady, as my avatar. You see, I am full on terrible at deduction-type games, from Clue on up. Maybe it's the downside of a fertile imagination, but I can see so many permutations and possibilities from the data provided that I am simply incapable of rendering them down to something manageable and data driven.

As the game's first captain, I drew the mission card which directed me to take 5 other players to the room of my choosing to look for the rope we needed. When that mission was anonymously sabotaged by one of the participants, we all knew that meant Garry (Pete) was clear of suspicion, but that any of the rest of us could be.

Whether it was my failure as first captain (the role proceeds clockwise around the table) or something else, Childs (Earl) suspected me right out of the gate, which in turn made me observe loudly that he perhaps protesteth overmuch. After all, I couldn't prove it, but I was a human!

Until, you know, we completed the first of three phases, triggering another blood test and suddenly I found myself on the other side...with absolutely no idea who my teammate was.

Now, however, my protestations were laden with falsehood, and despite my usually canny ability to misdirect and mislead others, it turns out I have zero poker face when it comes to my false innocence. Before too long, Earl had convinced others at the table that I was probably not to be trusted (which was true now, but hadn't been when he started!), including Garry, who now had the party's flamethrower.

The flamethrower can be used twice, ostensibly in combat with the Thing when it shows up, becoming progressively larger and stronger. It can also be sued to incinerate another player, if the rest of the table agrees to it! This exhausts the asset though, so Garry/Pete instead chose to use one of its charges to prompt a test, which compelled me to show him my blood test card.

When he told the other players that yes, in fact, I could not be trusted, I tried to spin it as Pete lying about my provenance, but that dog, as anticipated, just did not hunt. I spent the remaining turns pretty much as a bystander, still unwilling to admit my inhumanity, and silently cheering on my unknown teammate.

This turned out to be Fuchs (Scott), and since the base ended up destroyed before the humans could escape, that meant my side had won. Hurray, I guess? I'm, still unsure how to feel about the outcome, since the character I'd chosen at the outset had effectively died offscreen and been replaced in between turns. I can't help feel that a bit of my agency has been co-opted.

Had the base survived, the game's Final Captain would need to choose precisely who to allow onto the helicopter, and only then would everyone's blood samples be revealed. Leave a human behind or permit a Thing to board the chopper, and humanity has lost; only by getting all the surviving humans off the base and leaving the Thing to freeze can the human side prevail. No easy skate, if you ask me!

Even under these bizarre circumstances, I am still appreciating the win, though. And I learned that my forthrightness, my strong suit in many a game (and much of life), is perhaps my greatest liability in games like Infection at Outpost 31. I think next time I will make it my goal to bamboozle both sides, and see if that gets me a little further along.

Meeting John Carpenter at Calgary Comic Expo in 2013

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Brick-by-Brick, To The Moon

On Family Day this year, Glory and I sat down to assemble the final souvenir of our trip to Texas: the Lego Saturn V Rocket kit. After having been sold out for ages and going for up to double the retail price, it had returned to stock in November, and I was astonished to find it still available after we returned. I placed an order with, and Tara graciously agreed to mule it up to Alberta for me.

We had been planning this day for a while. so after a modest long weekend lie-in, we had our breakfast and got down to brass tacks. It took a bit to get things set up the way we wanted so that a) we had adequate space and light for our task, b) we could have appropriate cinematic inspiration on the tv, and c) we could set up a camera in hopes of making one of those cool time lapse recordings.

Once the camera was rolling, we unpackaged 12 bags of bricks totalling 1,969 pieces (a beautifully significant number). The paper manual is almost 200 pages long, but thankfully I found a downloadable pdf version online I could refer to on my iPad, which sped things up immensely.

We took a bag apiece, ripped them open and started building, while Gravity played on the big screen. Sometimes the movie prompted discussion about what we were working on, or advancements in space travel, or the sheer courage it must take to work in such a hostile environment, but how we would still visit there given the opportunity.

The instructions are extremely well laid out, and the sub-packaging is a stroke of genius on their part, reducing the intrinsic sorting to a much more manageable degree. There were a couple of pages where the arrows weren't highlighted very well, or the instructions to rotate a sub-section or hinged piece weren't as clear as one might like, but for that big a manual, it feels petty to quibble.

We threw a pizza in the oven for lunch, and much later, a chicken florentine lasagna for dinner. On the tv, we rolled through Interstellar, Apollo 13 (with commentary by director Ron Howard), and Men In Black. This final movie didn't really fit the theme, but it was important to inject some levity into the proceedings because Glory discovered, to her horror, that two subsections were not connecting due to a misplaced brick somewhere in the assembly process of the second stage booster.

Her frustration was evident on her face, but, like a trooper, she resolved to break two whole bags of assembled rocket into their components and then re-build them in order to assure a proper fit. I think some of the replicated sub-assemblies could have stayed together, but she was adamant that a limited do-over would give her the greatest odds of success, and knowing she draws far more of her fortitude from her mother than from me, I immediately recognized the futility of standing in opposition to her.

(Looking at Glory's face in the video below, both before and after her terrible revelation, might lead you to believe I press-ganged or otherwise coerced her into service - not so! This is simply the expression she wears when she is bring her not inconsiderable focus to bear on a task. When questioned about it, she described this countenance as her "RBF", which I believe stands for "Resting Brick Face.")

I finished my final bag, built the (unused) stand for horizontal display, and fetched Glory some cake and ice cream for dessert. It took a while, but at long she had the final pieces in place, and we assembled our tiny version of one of humanity's most impressive vehicles.

I was unable to find software that would perform the necessary time compression, but Pete graciously offered the services of Rare Hipster Productions and did a bang-up job somehow making 9 hrs of brick building look and sound entertaining -my thanks, sir!

The Lego Saturn V represents a fair amount of work and almost the entirety of a holiday Monday, but I'm glad we did it, and ecstatic that we could do it together. The assembled model (and LEM, and capsule) now stands proudly on a corner shelf of the Batcave, a towering reminder of not only a tremendous chapter in history and a wonderful vacation, but also of time well-spent with my youngest in the most constructive of endeavours!