Sunday, October 31, 2010

Through a Lens, Darkly

I've always loved Halloween. My first Halloween - at least, the first I remember - happened in Leaf Rapids. It was an unseasonably warm October that year - "unseasonably warm" for northern Manitoba meaning that it was merely freezing, with wet snow chilling me to the bone. I only remember that wet snow and the ghost costume my mother hand-made for me sticking to my skin, soaking. I think I had fun anyway.

The next Halloween I remember happened in Leduc, grade five or six. I made my own costume this time; I was a robot. I stapled cardboard boxes together with a staple gun and covered everything in tin foil. There was a dance, and the costume was so hot that I felt the staples were jabbing into my body. It was extremely uncomfortable.

Here's a photo of Jeff Pitts and Kevin Kelly and me, ready to head out for some Halloween event or another in 1987. I don't remember anything about what we might have done that night; without this photo, I wouldn't have been able to tell you that I did anything for Halloween in 1987 at all. It's odd that this picture was taken at Mom and Dad's place in Leduc, since I would have been living at Lister Hall at the U of A at the time, in my first year of post-secondary education.

I do remember Halloween 1990, though; a bunch of friends gathered at Earl's on the university campus and then headed over to Lister Hall for the Halloween dance. I think Ron Briscoe's defrocked priest was the best costume, although Jeff and Susan as Prince and Princess Charming were pretty awesome too. Then again, so was Tony's genie...and so was Carrie's harem girl. I'm not sure who Steven Neumann was supposed to be...I think Michael Snyder was a pirate.

The next Halloween I remember was back in 1996, when Leslie, who was my boss at the time, took me to a GLBT-friendly Halloween party. She was a vampire, I was "Ensign Woods on shore leave." (That is, I wore my old grade nine home-made gold Star Trek tunic, beach shorts and carried around a frisbee.) No pictures of that event, unfortunately, but as you might expect because of gay stereotypes, the costumes were really terrific. The people were really nice, too, especially considering I was still pretty naive about gay and lesbian culture at the time.

Sylvia's birthday falls just a few days before Halloween. I don't recall what we did for the holiday that year, but it was Sylvia's 35th birthday - the first I'd experienced as her boyfriend - and we celebrated the milestone by throwing a huge party.

By 2006 we had our own home and were carving pumpkins together.
Only a few of the intrepid folks at the Official Opposition dressed up for Halloween in 2007, but our boss Judy was one of them, in an amazing Three Stooges mask.
In 2008, Sylvia borrowed my phaser and my old Star Trek command tunic (originally made in grade nine!) to gently mock my pop culture obsessions.

I wish I had more photos to prop up my Halloween memories, but these will have to do. Until next year...happy haunting.

The Waking Dead

Members of the University of Alberta Star Trek Club celebrate Halloween 1990. Taken just outside my dorm room at 139 Kelsey Hall, U of A.

While watching AMC's The Walking Dead this Halloween night, it occurred to me that only in parodies and comedies of science fiction, fantasy or horror stories do the characters show any familiarity with the dangers they face. They possess no genre awareness.

If you or I suddenly woke up to find that vampires, werewolves, or zombies were running amok, we'd be terrified - but we wouldn't be ignorant. Decades of books, television shows, movies, comics, even stage plays have shown us how to respond. Everyone in the Western world knows that you kill werewolves with silver bullets, vampires with a stake to the heart, zombies with a bullet to the brain.

On The Walking Dead, the protagonists discover how to kill zombies only by accident. They don't even use the word "zombies;" they call the living dead "walkers." It's as if they grew up in a world without George Romero and Night of the Living Dead, or even the works of Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide.

We see this over and over again in dramatic genre fiction. An unprecedented catastrophe occurs, and none of the main characters seem to have ever read a science fiction novel or seen a horror movie. If the heroes only had a little genre awareness, they'd be far better prepared to tackle whatever outrageous genre problems facing them. There would be no need to learn by deadly experience, to lose redshirts or other cannon fodder in the early hours of the catastrophe.*

Years ago, I mused about the possibility that writers and other creative types don't actually create anything, that they are in fact merely tapping into parallel universes with some as yet undiscovered sensory organ. Some friends of mine hated this idea, with good reason - it does, after all, destroy the idea of the human imagination - but I thought it might make a pretty good hook for a story or two...stories I haven't written yet, of course.

But during The Walking Dead's opening episode tonight, I remembered my idea and thought to myself, perhaps there's even more going on here than I originally speculated. Perhaps writers and directors and painters are somehow inoculating our world against such horrors merely by bearing witness to the awful things that happen on other Earths. Think about it: if Earth is ever faced with an alien invasion or a zombie plague or body snatchers that take over our loved ones, there will be millions of people who know how to deal with the problem from the first moment, because they've seen or read all the solutions already. In the face of that vast pool of knowledge, perhaps genre threats have declared our world, the "real" world, off-limits. If you were a vampire, would you set up shop here? You wouldn't last a week before a gang of garlic-wearing teenagers were water-bombing your crypt with holy water.

So here's to the dreamers, those who see beyond our reality into other worlds more terrifying than our own. Perhaps their dark visions have protected us from the lurking terrors that stalk the many universes, beasts and madmen that move on to other, less imaginative worlds...

*Of course the real reason protagonists lack genre awareness is because professional writers know it would be tiresome to begin each and every story with their characters talking about how "they saw this exact situation on TV!"

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dark Tableau

Our Halloween tableau for 2010.
Carving a Jack O'Lantern is so much easier with a garbage disposal. Not that it's improved my carving abilities...
"I like you, Skully. That's why I'm going to kill you last."

"Skully, remember when I said I was going to kill you last?"

"Yeah! Yeah!"

"I lied."

Sylvia has decided to dress up like a Hula girl for Halloween. She clearly misses Hawaii. So will I, when winter hits.

In This Corner...Maurice Tougas

Maurice Tougas (left) photobombs an otherwise dignified portrait of former (and hopefully future) Alberta Liberal MLA Mo Elsalhy.

Anyone interested in Alberta politics, pop culture and sports should check out In This Corner, the blog of my former MLA (for Edmonton Meadowlark) and colleague, Maurice Tougas. Maurice is an excellent writer with what used to be called "mordant" wit; even when he's writing about sports, I find myself entertained. Maurice has been posting quite regularly, so check in often.

Kung Fool Fighting, or: Tae Kwon D'oh!

A week ago tonight, I accompanied my old friend Jeff Pitts to his Tae Kwon Do dojo for Buddy Night. Jeff didn't really say what "Buddy Night" was all about, so I was a little nervous at first. Was I to be used as some kind of practice dummy for his blows? My friends shouting "500 quatloos for the video!" in email didn't do much to inspire confidence, either.

Of course I didn't really have anything to worry about. Buddy Night is simply an opportunity for friends and family members of students to experience a class for themselves. Jeff already has his blue belt/red stripe, and he's on track to get his black belt by next summer, so this gentle Buddy Night class was a bit of a breeze for him - but educational for me.

Most of the students were children, with a smattering of teenagers and thirty- and fortysomethings tossed in. We began sensibly enough with a series of stretches, then learned how to block, punch and kick properly. All very basic, but still fascinating. I always knew that Jeff was in good shape, but holding targets for his kicks and punches was a little jarring - both physically and intellectually. There's a lot of power behind Jeff's blows, and I'm very glad that he was on target.

We even had a chance to break boards, in a sense - plastic practice boards with pre-set fracture points of varying strength levels. I have to admit, there's something cathartic about yelling "keee-yaai!" and smashing a board in half with your fist.

Most impressive was the demonstration put on by a group of advanced students. These young people staged mock battles, broke real boards, even bounced off the walls, all with confidence, grace and athleticism.

Jeff needs to bring in a certain number of buddies before he can advance in level, so I'm glad that my participation allowed him to move forward. I'm also grateful for the opportunity to catch a glimpse of another way of life that's somewhat outside my experience. We can all use a little horizon-broadening from time to time.

I only regret that I didn't bring someone along to take photos. Perhaps Jeff and the dojo will allow me to take some pictures of Jeff's graduation tests.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Dear Mr. Peanut

Dear Mr. Peanut,

Having just finished a 300 g bag of Planters Mixed Nuts (60% Peanuts), I note with some consternation that not a single Brazil nut was included in the package. For days I consumed filberts, peanuts, almonds and cashews, thinking how odd it was that my fingers had yet to brush against a noble Brazil. And now, gazing into the bottom of an empty foil bag, peering at the sad remains - a few peanut skins and some crumbs - the awful truth remains: no Brazils, despite their prominent appearance on the packaging.

It's true that Brazils are the last nut mentioned on the list of ingredients, but surely that implies that at least one such nut (or arguably two, since the plural is used) will be found in the bag. Why, then, did I fail to encounter a single Brazil - or even a fraction of one?

I can only assume that each bag of Planters Mixed Nuts (60% Peanuts) is assembled mechanically, with nut chutes pouring the appropriate proportion of goobers, filberts, etc. into each bag. Was the Brazil nut hopper not loaded for this bag? Or - horrors - did the hopper remain empty for hours? Days? There could be hundreds of bags missing the essential Brazil.

Please address this grievous error, lest the competition get a legume up on you.


Earl J. Woods
Concerned Nutty Fan

Monday, October 04, 2010

Hawaii Five Update

A few days ago, I explained why I thought the new Hawaii Five-O's title no longer fit the show. Perhaps the producers heard me, for in tonight's episode they provided a tacked-on reference to the famous "five-oh" reference.

During the denoument, the protagonists watch some of McGarrett's old football games over the internet. Apparently McGarrett was a pretty good quarterback, but one of the other characters asks "What kind of number is fifty for a quarterback?" (I have no idea why they would object to this number...some sports thing, obviously.)

"No, not fifty," McGarrett says. "Five-oh."

"Five oh?"

"Yeah, when my family moved here, we felt like outsiders and we started calling ourselves the the fiftieth made us feel like we had a place we belonged."

"Huh. Five-oh. I like that..."

Approving nods all around, but no reference to "five-oh" being slang for police, which is at least consistent, since as I explained in my last post on this subject, the characters inhabiting this fictional universe should have no reason to identify "five-oh" as such. You could sure see the writers struggling to come up with an alernative reason for the reference, though...