Sunday, October 28, 2018

Armo Virumque Canto

This post's title is the first line of Vergil's Aeneid, which translates from the Latin as, "I sing of arms and the man". Vergil is referring to the titular hero and his role in the Trojan War, but I couldn't help but think of it this morning in church as we sat and prayed for the 11 victims murdered in their synagogue the day before.

Every mass shooting will prompt a reflection in the U.S. on the 'right' way to bear arms in accordance with the 2nd Amendment to their Constitution, which seems an appropriate response, honestly, at least prior to its devolving into fractiousness, partisan finger-pointing and a collective shrug heralding a return to the status quo.

I had thought there was very little that the 45th President of the U.S. could do to surprise and/or disappoint me, but sure enough, he accomplished both yesterday when the Washington Post reported him as saying the following:
Earlier in the day, when asked whether he should revisit gun laws, Trump said, “this has little to do with it if you take a look. If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better.”
...When asked if he thinks that all churches and synagogues should have armed guards, Trump said it is “certainly an option.”
I have so many problems with this statement that I barely know where to begin, but my fear is that we are becoming so numb to nonsense uttered by the Dingbat-in-Chief that we no longer engage with it, rolling our eyes and murmuring, "well, what can you do?" So much fear, in fact, that I am setting aside my "no Trump in my blog" rule to address them.

First of all, what the actual hell? Is this the world we're looking for, where we are setting armed guards outside places of worship?  A balkanized, tribalized world, fearful of everything different? I suppose so, if your idea of a tidy organized workspace is in fact a corrupt police state.

Trump has already given us several indications that he would enjoy this a great deal, especially if he was in charge and no longer had to worry about pesky things like re-elections and could just do his thing Sinatra-style, like Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillippines (who today put the Bureau of Customs under Military Control) or Xi Jinping of China (back in March Trump said "maybe we'll have to give [President-for-life] a shot someday").

Worse still, given how Trump undermines confidence in governmental institutions and oversight, is how much comments like this will embolden fringe elements like American paramilitaries (militia movement, Freemen on the Land, Three Percenters, preppers) who already feel their country is on the verge of social collapse.

I would hate to think that Trump's reckless commentary was anything more than the deluded ramblings of a guileless narcissist, but what if he actually does have a larger goal? What if all the attacks, the hyper-partisanship and demagoguery and divisiveness is in service of a large narrative?

"Divide and conquer" is a strategy hearkening back to Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. Part of the reason we still talk about him (and his infamous offspring) is because this maneuver has proven successful time and time again. I sometimes wonder if the current mood south of the 49th is due in part to the Occupy Wall Street movement from  2011.

These protests drew together many disparate elements of American society; I remember Aaron Sorkin's program The Newsroom describing it as a potential "Arab Spring for the West". Obviously this was not to be, but it would not be unreasonable to assume that is was of sufficient scale to cause apprehension amongst the ruling class that no one wants to admit still exists in liberal democracies. And so the pendulum swings from progressivism to populism, and past it to tribalism and presidentially-endorsed nationalism.

Imagine if every synagogue, mosque and church felt compelled to follow Trump's advice, setting armed guards at their doors during their services and observances, turning away lapsed believers, curious neighbours, visitors, strangers. Growing communities that were once dynamic in their outreach become insular, static, and paranoiac.

(And to be clear, this would not apply to my privileged and largely homogenous community of faith - at least, not initially. We haven't been marginalized for a millennium-and-a-half, although we did get our start that way.)

Once thus divided, untrusting, and isolated, they become easy pickings when they become disruptive. Historically black churches fear to respond as synagogues become targeted, or feminists refuse to stand with trans women.

It galls me to think about how Trump's comments play into the historical arrogance that the Holocaust could never happen here. If only Poland had had a right to bear arms! If only the Jews had the foresight to smuggle arms into the ghetto, surely they could have stood up to panzers and Stukas of the Third Reich!

And yet, we watch children are locked in cages while their parents are deported without them, and troops are mobilized to secure the southern border against 7,000 Honduran refugees looking for a better life in a country that at one time had said:
"Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
And believe me when I say "we" and not "they"; if you think Canada is immune to this pernicious adversarialism while regressive, selfish, populist ideologies emerge across the globe, from the UK to Brazil.

Thankfully, there are wiser people around than myself, who point to solutions instead of inevitable despair. The mayor of Pittsburgh, addressing Trump's armed guards comment, replied that "I think the approach that we need to be looking at is how we take the guns — which is the common denominator of every mass shooting in America — out of the hands of those that are looking to express hatred through murder.”

I wish I was confident that this latest indignation, this freshest horror, would prompt a re-examination of priorities within our southern neighbour, but in all honestly, I gave up after Sandy Hook. If the gunning down of schoolchildren - which conspiracy theorists now brazenly report as 'fake news' - is an insufficient galvanic force, I can't imagine 11 middle-aged to senior minorities will merit even a pause.

The one thing Mayor Peduto said that did give me cause to hope was something I sincerely believe and agree with.
“We know that hatred will never win out — that those that try to divide us because of the way that we pray or where our families are from around the world will lose.”
Whether we are men or women; Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics or atheists; armed resisters or conscientious objectors, keep a wary eye out for those things that unite us rather than divide us. Keep the doors to your community open, and stand down your armed guards. I don't look for a lot of guidance in modern rock lyrics, but I believe Muse has the right of it in this instance: love is our resistance.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Once More Into the Boarding Torpedo - Return to Space Hulk

Space Hulk was the first Games Workshop game I ever bought. I had circled around their miniature games like Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 but was hesitant due to the lack of a clear starting point.

Sometime in 1990, the computer retail store I was working at got in a copy of the PC version and we demo'd it on one of the Compaq machines on display. We were encouraged to familiarize ourselves with such games, and I spent a few quiet mornings trying it out.

A very faithful translation of the tabletop version, you controlled a squad of Space Marines in Terminator armour as they attempted to rout the fiendish Genestealers from a the narrow corridors  of  a derelict spacecraft, or space hulk. With limited time and a clever foe, the marine player tries to balance out a limited number of actions between moving and combat in order to achieve their objectives.

The gothic atmosphere of this game set in the 41st millennium was on full display in the computer version, and the vaguely monastic briefings (recorded by GW game designer Jervis Johnson) were a real treat, with the Dark Angel commander exhorting his brother marines to bless their weapons and "purge with flame".

Encouraged by this first encounter, I soon after bought the first edition of the boardgame. It wasn't long before I'd taken my first stab at painting the Terminators and Genestealers that came in the box. When the first boxed edition of Warhammer 40,000 came out a year later, Island Mike and I both bought a copy. I traded him the Orks from my set for the rank and file Space Marines in his, and we started playing and building onto our armies.

Within a couple of years I had gone to work for Games Workshop and spent over ten years with them, with many models and games coming along the way. After leaving GW in 2007, I dropped in for a visit a year later and ended up purchasing a copy of the third edition of Space Hulk, and last night might have been the first time I actually played it.

Part of the reason for this is because it is a two-player game, and with limited opportunities to play, most of my friends and I prefer multi-player games. But Totty and I were the only ones available last night, and when I told him of my hankering to dust off this classic, he was keen to try it. Sadly, my plan to sub in my nicely painted Deathwing Terminators for the yet unpainted Blood Angels was upended by the fact that their bases are far too big to fit on the board spaces. Thankfully my extensive collection of Genestealers, from my Tyranid army, worked just fine.

Despite the infrequency of my playing Space Hulk, I've participated in the first scenario, Suicide Mission, numerous times, on computers and tabletops alike. I explained  to Totty that the Blood Angels needed to make their way to the control room in the upper left of the map and flame it to prevent Genestealers escaping the ship.

The game is intrinsically asymmetric; the Marine Terminators have tremendous firepower but are slow and ponderous, while the Genestealers are fast and nimble but have no ranged attacks at all. The Blood Angels player is also hampered by an egg timer, which exerts an undue amount of haste upon their turn, while the Genestealer player can take all the time they like. For these reasons, the ideal way to play Space Hulk is in paired games, with each player alternating between sides.

These insidious aliens start the game as amorphous "blips", so until they enter the line of sight of a Blood Angel, you don't know for sure if you are looking at one, two or three Genestealers. Three blips down a hallway might represent anything from three to nine enemies, complicating the ability of the Marine player to make anything approximating a plan.

Despite having far more experience than Totty, I accidentally exposed the Blood Angel with a flamer to a flank attack, which he quickly capitalized on, winning the game only three turns in. The speed of my defeat prompted me to ask for a rematch, and this time around I did manage to make my objective.

We then switched sides, with my opponent getting much further than I had in my first game, but losing similarly after the heavy flamer trooper fell under a hail of claws and teeth while negotiating a corner.

Totty appreciated (well, mostly, same as me) the tactical decisions that faced the Marine player at every turn: push forward, or set overwatch to thin out the Genestealer numbers instead? Keep the squad together or divide and conquer? With the hallways of the hulk only permitting single file, the order in which you deploy your Terminators is critical as well, and all the while, the clock is ticking - or the sand falling, in this case.

By 10:00; we had run Suicide Mission 3-4 times, and were ready to try the next scenario: Exterminate. It took us almost half an hour to reset the map, and this one was far larger and more complicated. The Marines begin dispersed amongst the various rooms, and need to stem the flow of Genestealers by moving to within six squares of their entry points. Totty did this at one end fairly quickly, but couldn't prevent me from killing one of his Blood Angel troopers, leaving his sergeant isolated from the rest of the battle. Eventually I was able to overwhelm the Marines at the other end, but the resolution was anything but inevitable as the Blood Angels on overwatch continued to blast my 'Stealers with impunity - at least for a while.

I didn't start my game as the Space Marine commander until after midnight, but after all the work of setting up the map, I couldn't imagine turning in without trying out the scenario. Thanks to some hot dice on overwatch and some fortunate placement of the Terminator with assault cannon, I eventually manged to win by destroying the very last of the Genestealers after Totty's reinforcements finally ran out.

Eager to turn in before the clock hit 2:00 am, I left the clean-up for the following day, but was hampered in my efforts to retire in a timely fashion by another kind of inter-species incursion in my sleeping area:

Playing Space Hulk again and introducing it to a someone else was a tremendous experience. Totty and I both left the table intrigued about future scenarios, which include new weaponry, mission-specific rules and even a boss for the Genestealers called a Broodlord. Two-player game nights are kind of rare, and that's all right, plus we also want to return to Totty's Battle of Britain game int he future, but I am confident that the two of us return to the labyrinthine corridors of the derelict code-named "Sin of Damnation" at some point!

I guess it's time to dust off my paintbrushes so the Blood Angels look a bit more presentable next time around.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Most Natural Thing in the World, Sadly

I wasn't the first fellow in my circle of friends to lose their father, but of late, there appears to be more and more of us dealing with the possibility or near-certainty of imminent mortality where our male parent is concerned.

One friend recently called to talk about it specifically because I had already gone through the experience and because our faiths are aligned along similar axes; we both believe in God, but neither of us believes in magic.

My dad's passing was sudden, whereas they discovered an astonishing number of tumors throughout his father's body at the beginning of treatment for something else, far too late to be treatable. The swiftness of my father's passing may have been a blessing, in a perverse reckoning of the term, and I certainly don't envy my friend having to witness his father going through this ordeal, but I also know that he is glad for the opportunity to be there for his dad, to lend him what strength and composure he can.

Something he has come back to time and time again, is the limits of preparedness and rationality. "You can tell yourself you're ready, but you aren't." How can one possibly prepare to journey alongside someone who looms so large in your life as they encounter the most trying circumstances of their existence?

During a visit, a well-intentioned but misguided person of faith kept telling his dad about the importance of faith, of how the very real possibility of a genuine miracle was not to be discounted. This was no doubt intended to be a comfort, but ended up having the opposite effect. My friend acknowledges that spontaneous remission, often under mysterious or unexplainable circumstances, can and has happened; his difficulty is in accepting a supreme being receiving endless submissions and petitions for mercy and selecting them based on some sort of piety scale. The offering left him angry and unsettled instead of hopeful and comforted.

Faith helps, but I think it is simplistic to call it a solution. The miracle I needed was to not lose myself in grief and confusion, and I did pray for it, and I got it, some of the time at least. That's a gift that reaffirms my faith without requiring magical intervention that circumvents the self-determination so critical to our humanity.

Faith helps. Faith in the knowledge, both rational and emotionally based, that our fathers went through this loss before us, and that our children are likely to do so afterwards. Faith that the end of our parents is not the end of all, much as we feared it was so when we were children. Faith that we will adapt to this loss as we adapt to so much else, and that even though we can't imagine it now, faith that we will laugh when recollecting them in the future.

Sadly, loss is the most natural thing in the world. This doesn't make it any easier to cope with, but can perhaps add some perspective, even if it comes after the fact.

Even though I consider myself a Christian, I have drawn tremendous comfort from faiths that are not my own, like the Buddhist stories found in collections like "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones". Here is the one I shared with my friend over the phone as we talked our way around the edges of the infinite and our inability to fully perceive it.

78. Real Prosperity 

A rich man asked Sengai to write something for the continued prosperity of his family so that it might be treasured from generation to generation. 

Sengai obtained a large sheet of paper and wrote: 'Father dies, son dies, grandson dies.' 

The rich man became angry. 'I asked you to write something for the happiness of my family! Why do you make such a joke as this?' ‘

No joke is intended,' explained Sengai. 'If before you yourself die your son should die, this would grieve you greatly. If your grandson should pass away before your son, both of you would be broken hearted. If your family, generation after generation, passes away in the order I have named, it will be the natural course of life. I call this real prosperity.’

Retracing my feelings after my dad passed away six years ago hasn't been what I would call pleasant, but it's nowhere as tough as it was the last time I did so. That time was marginally easier than the time before that, and I expect that trend to continue. And I remember all the support I received from those around me, and recognize what a gift it is to be able to help others in that encounter. Whether talking, listening, or just being accessible, it doesn't feel like fulfilling a debt so much returning something borrowed, with appreciation rather than interest.

Wherever you draw it from: spirituality, philosophy, the love of friends or family or something else entirely, try to have faith as you face these challenges, and even as you help others to cope. The strength we draw from it, and from those around us, is real, and profound, and possibly as transfiguring as loss itself.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Most Civilized Dinner - Autumnal Geekquinox 2018

Due to some travel timing, Geekquinox was 1-2 weeks later than normal this year, but that is nothing but a good thing, for a couple of reasons.

The biggest reason is that it not only allowed all the usual suspects to attend, but permitted Rob to jet in from Ottawa for the first time ever, which was delightful!

Pete had sent out the theme, "Cradle of Civilization" a couple of weeks earlier. Not knowing how to incorporate Mesopotamian fashions into our dinner wear, I assumed this meant that Audrey and I would not be able to dress up like we often do.

Audrey had other plans, and leaning on the Fertile Crescent of the Nile region instead of the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates, she glommed onto a couple of Egyptian outfits courtesy of a co-worker with a costume dependency (like I should talk!).

Suitably attired, we were treated to a number of old (really old) world dishes by our host Pete. I was too busy having a good time and being impressed and rolling my eyes at the tastiness of what was being served to photograph all the dishes, sadly, but here they are in his own words and my commentary:

We started out in Lebanon, for Tabbouleh and Grape Leaf Rolls. I love tabbouleh, but it does involve a [shit]-ton of chopping, let me tell you! And since you want it fresh it's always a bit close to guests arriving. (I like tabbouleh, but would have put myself down as a 'meh' for grape leave until this night. Pete's version had firm, well-packed leaves that not only didn't fall apart when you bit them, but were brilliantly savoury as well.)

Then off to the North Mediterranean for some Saganaki, or flaming Greek cheese. They say you can do it with feta, and I tried, but at the last minute I also found some halloumi cheese at Superstore. The lesson here is stick to one kind of cheese; the feta was well liquefied and the halloumi wasn't gooey enough in the middle when I stopped. (To my mind this simply proves what I have long suspected: that it is nearly impossible to go wrong with toasted cheese, frankly. Very tasty, especially after squeezing some lemon juice onto it.)

Then some Roasted Eggplant with Tahini, Pine Nuts, and Lentils. It's kind of like a deconstructed baba ganouche. Tasty, and (though I didn't realize it until after I made it the first time and deemed it worthy) actually vegan. Not that I care, but you know. It's true. (Vegan food is not only edible, but can be tasty as well! Tell your friends. Seriously though, I was not expecting the creamy richness of the tahini; well done Chef Pete!)
After that it was the Middle East & Africa for Kofta & Aliyyeh, the beef-and-lamb kebabs with the cilantro walnut "pesto" sauce. A repeat, but thematic and really tasty so I didn't feel bad bringing it back. Followed by Ostrich in Blueberry Sauce. (The aliyyeh made a most welcome and appreciated return, but the ostrich was a real treat. The blueberry sauce also involved jalapenos so it was both sweet and spicy, and made a great complement to the meat, which I never would have guessed came from a birde; much closer to venison in both taste and texture than any chicken.)

The main course was from Ethiopia, which was Doro Wat (chicken stew), Sega Tibs (beef in onion paste), Injera bread (a kind of sourdough spongy flatbread), and finally Zebra... pasta in garlic and oil. There's probably zebras in Ethiopia, right? Actually it was just black-and-white-striped pasta, which I saw in the Okanagan in the spring and thought would be fun to use for Geekquinox. In fact it's probably the source of the whole Africa theme in the first place. (The zebra pasta made me uneasy only because it so strongly reminded me of the sandworms from the movie Beetlejuice. The Ethiopian dishes were tasty, spicy and saucy, so having a sourdough pancake on hand for wiping one's plate was ideal.)
Finally dessert came courtesy of Africa, specifically South Africa, in the form of koeksisters, essentially a wheat and corn flour braided donut, covered in a ginger cinnamon syrup. ("I ate the doughnut from Aaaaafrica  /Gonna take some Tums because it's almost two ay eh-hehe-hehe-hemmmm...")
The dining went until well past 1:00, another tradition, and the drinking and socializing a couple hours past that, for some of us anyways.

Pete always outdoes himself in terms of food and hospitality, but this time managed to get every single course to the table with no eliminations or substitutions, which is a most difficult trick (possibly the Geekquinox equivalent of a triple-play). More importantly, he delegated the late-night deep-frying to the two teetotallers in attendance, and even left himself enough time to sit down with a glass of wine in the middle of things (possibly a first).

In many ways, Thanksgiving is a perfect time for a Geekquinox - it's a time for family and friends,and friends who feel like family. Certainly I am thankful for both the friends and the opportunity, and most especially, the host - well done once again, sir!