Sunday, May 16, 2021

Pop Shopping Curiosities

Last Friday, when Glory and I drove out to Leduc, I saw an interesting store pop up on Google Maps - YEG Exotic Pop.

There was no time to go there that night, but on Saturday morning, Audrey, Glory and I tracked down this store after looking in wonder at the array of imported sodas on their website. Having just written about rock & rye a few weeks back, it seemed a natural enough thing to do.

We had a wonderful time but if you want to give them a visit yourself, you should be aware of a few things.

1) It is not a stand-alone store, it exists at the front end of a hemp shop. The store is clean, well lit, and the friendly staff person stayed masked at all times, but don't be surprised (e.g. like we were) at the fact that the majority of Smoking J's Hemp Shop is occupied with bongs, stash boxes and all the things that go with and in them. 

2) Importing sodas is expensive, so most of the single-serve bottles and cans rang up between $3-$4. It makes sense - after all, liquids are heavy, need to be shipped in a pressurized environment, and the majority of products are actually in glass bottles.

3) They don't just sell sodas - they have a decent assortment of exotic junk food as well, such as KFC flavoured potato chips from the U.K. and grilled ham and cheese Cheetos from - you know what, doesn't matter where. We grabbed some Arizona Green Tea fruit chews and a bag of popcorn with Butterfinger drizzle, and both were quite good. I could see this being a dangerous place for an attack of the munchies but perhaps that is just clever planning on their part?

Shopping there was a pretty good time, and there is a tremendous variety of flavours and styles, some common and others -  well, exotic.

We are pacing ourselves on the sodas having drunk only a Key Lime soda with our name on it as well as a Philippines-style coconut mint pop, and both were delicious.

The strangest flavour we procured is undoubtedly this charmingly named Rocket Piss: "bitter butterscotch soda that glows in the dark"! I am both curious and incredibly apprehensive about sampling this one but hold out hopes it might make a good mixer - not too good, because, you know, $4 a bottle... I am also unsure how to achieve the glow-in-the-dark effect before consuming without having the pop become tepid in the process. A flashlight in the icebox perhaps?

There is a strong nostalgia vibe with a lot of the packaging on display, such as this Grape Nehi. I am only familiar with this brand due to it being name-dropped by Radar O'Reilly on M*A*S*H, but they have been around since 1924 like it says on the bottle.

Best labelling goes to the Real Soda Co.'s Leninade though - they grab onto their theme with a tenacity that is stupefying to behold, and pack the bottle with all manner of jokes:

Best of all, every one of our sodas was made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.

Paying more for sodas than I usually do for beer was a neat experience, but probably not one I will repeat very often. Still, it is kind of cool to know there is a funky shop on 156 street that can sort me out if I want to try an old-fashioned cream soda from Brooklyn Bottling or a White Peach Fanta from Japan.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Fireplace Replaces Space

After a lot of indecision, supply problems and scheduling issues, we finally recalibrated our basement's coziness index last month by installing a replacement iron stove - this time a gas one.

We had started looking at this Berkshire model from Lopi in Washington state back in September, even before the old wood-burning stove had left the premises. Unfortunately, stoves and fireplaces rank right up there with new dogs on the "what my household needs to endure the pandemic" list, so it took months for Fireplaces by Weiss-Johnson to get one sorted out for us. 

Once they did though, booking the appointment was no big deal, and the cheerful crew figured out how to use the existing chimney as both the exhaust and fresh air intake for the new stove, and they had the whole shebang carted in and installed in under five hours. And I have to say, we are all very happy with how it looks.

Now, I am not going to say that this digitally-controlled, gas-burning mechanism is superior to a wood fire, because the pride of a successful ignition, the crackling of burning logs, the necessity of taking a poker to the flames periodically - these are all things I was loath to give up, and look forward to doing them all the next time I am in a campground. 

But having said that, the speed, convenience, efficiency and especially the cleanliness of a gas stove all have their own charms as well. Not having to endure a cold room because it is not worth the time and effort to put a wood fire together is now a distant memory because we can ignite this one with a literal push of a button. 

It even has a built-in thermostat you can set to maintain a specific room temperature as opposed to careening between too hot and too cold like the rumpus room equivalent of Goldilock's porridge. As a means of heating a basement that tends to be on the cool side, it is vastly superior to both the previous stove and the similarly shaped electric space heater we purchased and over-used last winter while I was working from home (which I will be continuing to do until at least January 2022).

The flames don't really have that almost hypnotic quality that wood fires seem to possess, but they are soothing nonetheless, and we have had many occasions to use the Berkshire as Edmonton slowly muscles its way through multiple false springs.

Most fascinatingly to me, the fireplace came with replacement embers - synthetic rock-looking accessories that add a convincing level of detail to the illusion of a wood fire. 

They even maintain their glow for a few moments after the flames are extinguished. Clearly, some sort of sorcery is at work here.

The worst part of all this though is that the pandemic means that this remote-controlled hearth can bring no succour to our friends or relatives since protective measures are increasing and the third-wave gets a toehold that seems ever stronger.

But sunnier times are coming anyways, and when the all-clear is finally sounded, and temperatures are no doubt lower than they are now, it is a comfort to know that our eventual visitors will find our basement cozier than it has been in years.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Spirit of K-9 Radio

As I prepared our dinner yesterday afternoon and chanced to look out the kitchen window, I saw our dog Canéla standing outside. 

It was windy, and she stood stock-still in the breeze, her fur rippling, her head turned slightly into the wind and her nose held high, actively sniffing the air. From time to time though, with no other apparent influence beyond what she perceived in the air, she would wag her tail briefly, then stop. Three or four languid wags from an upraised tail fluttering in the breeze like a flag, and then slowly stopping, perhaps resuming a few moments later. 

I wondered what sort of scents might be carried to her from the north that made her smile the way they did - there was no movement of her mouth, but her intermittent circular wagging made me think so much of a whimsical smile gracing a human face that I couldn't shake the image.

I imagined someone might be barbecuing down the road, or perhaps she caught the scent of one of our neighbours' dogs. Or with most of the snow finally gone from our neighbourhood, perhaps she was simply smelling earth or grass or even freshly uncovered deadfall from a park.

For two minutes or more I watched her, this dog who is probably less than two years old and seems perpetually restless while on her feet, as she smelled, and wagged, occasionally shifting the angle of her head but never moving her feet from where she stood. It amused me to no end, but it also reminded me of something I could not put my finger to.

Last night in bed it occurred to me: memories from my later teens, of sitting in the driveway in my battered 1974 Maverick, dialling the needle of my car stereo from one end of the AM frequency range to the other with painstaking slowness. I had discovered that during the day, my car radio in Leduc could pick up transmissions from as far away as Calgary on occasion, but at night, if the atmospherics were favourable a the ionosphere cooperative, I could listen to broadcasts from as far away as the United States.

I had mentioned this to my father at some point and he nodded sagely, relating similar tales of ships at sea picking up signals from distant shores but only at night. He explained how this was due to the radio waves literally bouncing off the upper atmosphere, often repeatedly, in a phenomenon known as "skywave propagation." But despite this reasonable explanation, the notion of sounds from faraway places being carried to me invisibly over the air, far beyond their expected range, still felt like magic to me.

And so I would slowly, slowly turn the right-hand dial of my car's radio, listening intently for any shifts in the static or the occasional scrap of conversation or even a hint of music - in the '80s, some AM stations still played music, whereas the few existing stations are generally an all-talk format.

One time I picked up an instrumental from the 1940s, an Artie Shaw and His Orchestra sort of thing, and for a moment - the briefest of moments - thought perhaps I had picked up a signal from out of time, perhaps returning to Earth after having been reflected off some object in space. Had I picked up an episode of The Shadow or Little Orphan Annie or The Inner Sanctum or any of the other radio dramas my parents had listened to in their own youth, I might believe it still. But the radio announcer that came on afterwards sounded all too modern, reading the temperature in Celsius from wherever he was.

I would often turn off the radio while leaving the dial tuned to the phantom station, but would never be able to pick up the same one the following day, even if I waited until after sunset to attempt it. Every reception felt like an interception, a lucky grab out of the ether that would never come again.

And I know full well that our dog does not comprehend random scents on the wind in the same way, but I still can't stop the linkage in my mind between the dog on my patio and the teenager in that car three decades ago - her wagging and my smiling, both grateful for a random signal from somewhere beyond.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Legacy of the Shield - The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Reviewed

(Spoiler-free or your money cheerfully refunded!)

Marvel's The Falcon and The Winter Soldier wrapped up its six-episode run last night, and it is another solid entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon.

While Kevin Feige and company could have taken an easy base hit and given us six hours of rock 'em, sock 'em action, they instead swung for the fences and supplemented the mandated fisticuffs and action setpieces with dynamic characters as well as poignant insights into race, globalization, and the treatment of veterans.

My favourite element though, is how tightly FAWS ties itself into the lore of the Marvel movies that have preceded it - this series probably has more connective tissue to the MCU than any other film that has gone before it, with the possible exception of Avengers: Endgame.

While a newcomer to this mythology could probably catch themselves pretty quickly, it helps to know that Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier, played by Sebastian Stan) is still coming to grips with his actions as a brainwashed Hydra assassin, while Sam Wilson (The Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie) is wrestling with what it means for a black man to carry Captain America's shield. By the end of the first episode, Sam has given the shield to the Smithsonian only to see it removed and given to anew Captain America, and he and Bucky find themselves at odds with a group of post-nationalists calling themselves the Flag-Smashers. This group and their leader Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman) want to keep borders dissolved like they were before half the world's population returned at the finale of Endgame.

I won't lie, I felt like Anthony Mackie brings a smidgen too much sass and swagger to play a convincing Falcon, let alone heir apparent to one of the most iconic symbols in the Marvel Universe. In truth, he brings a tremendous balance of humor, pathos and compassion, harkening back to when we first met him as a veteran's counsellor in the second Captain America movie. In addition to superhero existential issues though, we also see him struggle with saving his family legacy and business, and dealing with discriminatory lending practices. (And I really wish they had dug a little deeper into the infamous bank scene, which dares to ask the questions we all have about just who pays the rent for these superheroes?)

Sebastian Stan continues to bring his own blend of smart-assery and brooding to his troubled character. He makes tremendous uses of silence and pauses, but his banter is elevated through his chemistry with Mackie. One of his best scenes has him simply reacting to the sound of someone reading the Russian words that activated him as the Winter Soldier in that film, with almost no dialogue on his part.

The two major themes explored in FAWS are legacy and consequences. It would have been easy to say that after the undoing of Thanos' snap in Endgame that everything returned to normal pretty much immediately (or at least off-camera), this series establishes that a multinational entity called the Global Repatriation Commission is trying to return things to a status quo, but not in a way that meets everyone's liking. This makes empowered freedom fighter/terrorist Karli and her Flag Smashers far more sympathetic than any traditional comic baddies like Hydra or AIM.

Likewise, Sam's feelings about the shield become even more convoluted when he is introduced to Isaiah Bradley, a black man who received an experimental super-soldier serum before Steve Rogers. This nod to the groundbreaking comic series "The Truth: Red, White & Black" is a fantastic testimonial to the way that funny books can tackle serious topics.

But for those of us who love the source material for all its other reasons, there is a lot to like in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. The return of Sharon Carter, references to Bucky's recovery in Wakanda, a great portrayal of John Walker (who has been both Captain America and USAgent in the comics) by Wyatt Rusell (Kurt's boy!), and best of all, the reintroduction of Daniel Bruhl as Baron Zemo in a brilliantly updated version of one of the silliest costumes in comics.

In comics though, writers and artists come and go, and there is a tendency to return to the status quo at the end of their run. FAWS leans heavily into change - maybe they have no choice, given the events in the MCU they are following on from... - but despite having wrapped up this story as comprehensively as they have, showrunners Kari Skogland and Malcolm Spellman have set the stage for a number of great follow-up tales in the MCU. I can't wait to see what's next!

Sunday, April 18, 2021

From Hair to There

When Fenya was a little girl, if she told me that she would be going out for a haircut at some point, I would invariably say, "Go out for a haircut? Now, why would you want to do that? I can cut your hair here at home and for free too!"

"Really?" she asked (the first time, anyhow).

"Absolutely!" I would reply confidently. "I can't do any fancy stuff with it, but if you want a haircut like mine..." I would add while running my hand along my shaved head for emphasis.

Her responses would vary over the years from shock to laughter, to disgust, to eye rolls and similar dismissive gestures, but sometime around junior high she started saying, "Hmm...not this time, but thanks." Somewhere along the way, she had glommed onto the idea that hair was more a matter of expression than identity, which is also when she started colouring it (after talking about it for years). Did this mean someday she would actually want me to shave her head?

Last week, she brought up the idea again, largely because there would never be a better time to try it out. She was not working a full-time job, she was not attending in-person classes, and the vast majority of people she knew would think it was pretty cool, myself included. By this fall, even a close-cropped shave will have grown into something short but styleable. And besides, multiple colourings had damaged her hair enough that a healthy grow-out from scratch over the summer made a lot of sense.

So when she finished her most recent exam this week, she said, "Hey, let's shave my head this weekend."

As always, I was happy to help - and frankly, when it comes to the girls' hair, shaving it off is really the only thing I am remotely qualified to do.

So we brought the stool and clippers out to the back patio, draped one of my old t-shirts over her and tightened the neck opening with a clothespin, and got to work.

We started out with scissors, and we took turns cutting off some tendrils of her hair. 

We tried to leave a mohawk, but without product to make it stand up, this side project was doomed to fail. We did manage to leave her a proper '80s rat tail long enough to photograph it, which she appreciated.

It was soon time to switch to the clippers, my one area of 'expertise', having used them at least monthly for about a quarter-century now. We ended up trimming everything down to my second smallest comb (the #2 - for reference, I use no comb and come away with a proper 'pig-shave' as the kids used to say,  which was more severe than what Fenya was looking for. 

On more than one occasion she remarked on how soothing it felt, and I had to agree.

Before too long, her curly locks were all gone. She was happy and I thought she looked great.

This morning when I went to get her for breakfast, her hand came up reflexively to her head and after the briefest of pauses, she smiled broadly and said, "I don't have to do my hair!"

"Liberating, isn't it?" I said. And she agreed.

To top it all off (so to speak), tonight she asked me to give her scalp another go-over with the number 1 comb, for no other reason than to see what it felt and looked like.

I told her it was maybe a little more government-issue looking, but still tidy and cool. Now to see how long it takes to grow back in - an endeavour there is, sadly, little point in me joining her in.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Birthday View from the Top

For Glory's second COVID birthday (sigh) we took another trip to the mountains but decided we would stop in Jasper for some sightseeing so that Canéla wouldn't be trapped in the car all day. And what better place for sightseeing than a mountaintop accessible by tram?

The $5.70 it costs to have our new canine companion accompany us was a bargain, and although the ascent up to the chalet left her disquieted, Canéla behaved herself very well, and didn't even bother the other dog on our car overmuch.

Glory and I had been up here together a few years earlier, here being the top of Whistler's Mountain by way of the tram. At that time, our attempt to hike to the summit was not only a failure, but the ice and snow made our descent treacherous enough that I fell, arrested my tumbling plummet by grabbing onto a sturdy boulder with my shin and was in considerable pain for the remainder of our excursion.

This time around, I only went up as far as the second bench, and after getting a few pictures together, I wished the others well as they attempted to reach the false summit. (The actual summit had enough snow covering it that snowshoes were actually required to proceed.)

Glory got the furthest, but eventually, even she turned back.

Even though it was cold on the mountaintop, it was a bright, clear, beautiful day, and we still had daylight following our ride down the mountain, so we went exploring in the Flex for a bit. We ended up walking across a recently refurbished bridge to Pyramid Island, on Pyramid Lake (natch). 

It turns out the island can be rented for private gatherings (outside of COVID, one presumes) and there are a set of benches by the lakeside that would make a wonderful spot for a wedding or renewal of vows or some such. Even with "only" a birthday to celebrate, it was one more wonderful new spot to visit in Jasper for us, and a great place to finish out sightseeing before picking up a pizza from North Face (white garlic sauce, crabmeat, onions and spinach) and returning home.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Seven Reasons to Watch The Night Manager

 Audrey and I recently finished watching The Night Manager (2016) on Amazon Prime Video, and this espionage thriller may well be worth your time as well.

1) The Story 

The Night Manager is based on the 1993 novel of the same name by legendary spycraft author John Le Carré (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Updated to the modern day with outstanding effectiveness, it follows Jonathan Pine, the night manager at a posh Cairo hotel, who, in trying to do the right thing, ends up being drawn into the world of multi-million dollar arms deals, and all the secrecy, murder and betrayal that entails.

2) The Cast

Tom Hiddleston (Loki from Thor) plays the titular manager, Jonathan Pine, while amiable and humorous Hugh Laurie (Dr. House from House) takes a darker turn as Pine's foil Richard Roeper, a philanthropist and arms dealer. Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth Debicki (Tenet) as Roeper's conflicted girlfriend and Oscar-winner Olivia Colman (The Crown) as the increasingly desperate British intelligence officer working to get the goods on Roeper. A great core cast, and no slouches among the other players either. And Hiddleston is a charmer and a half; I'm beginning to think I could watch him in most anything.

3) The Tension

Although this BBC series was released in 2016 and you could binge all six episodes in a night or two, both Audrey and I were too wound up by the end of each episode to continue, sometimes breathing an audible sigh of relief when the end credits rolled. Perhaps you are made of sterner stuff, but I would recommend pacing yourself.

4) Smart Characters

Looking back, of course there are characters who display poor judgement at times, including (perhaps especially) (perhaps inevitably) the main character, but not a single plot point is advanced because anyone is careless, lazy or stupid. There are surprises both pleasant and unpleasant, but overall, this a group of sharp and canny individuals who have solid reasons to pursue their goals as intently as they do.

5) Looks Like Bond...

A plethora of exotic locales ranging from posh hotel lobbies in Egypt and Switzerland, to a paramilitary camp in the desert, to Roeper's magnificent estate in Mallorca keep your eyes entertained while your brain spins its wheels trying to anticipate the next development. And a great variety of costuming from fancy to frumpish helps set the various stages this story plays out on. This is apparently the most that the BBC has ever spent on a single production, and it looks marvelous as a result.

 6) ...But Feels Like Hitchcock

No secret gadgets, no car chases, and no karate fights, the people who use violence in The Night Manager tend to be terrifying professionals who use intimidation as much as their fists. Moreover, the political side of things, as Colman's Angela Burr fights for resources to investigate Roeper while others in her own government are intent on maintaining the status quo, was just as intriguing as watching Pine's slowly unfolding infiltration.

7) Small Investment, Big Payoff

Originally optioned way back when as a major box-office release, having six hours to let the story unfold really allows it to take its time in getting underway, which may leave some viewers initially restless. Audrey and I were intrigued right off the hop, and knowing that this was a novel and not a franchise greatly increased the sense of peril throughout. When all is said and done, no every single thread is tied off, but you don't come away feeling like a sequel would be of any use either.

If you are looking for a spy yarn that is a tinge more realistic and less bombastic than Bond or Bourne but no less dramatic, I can firmly recommend The Night Manager.