Saturday, June 30, 2012



There is no poetry here
Despite all the noble and foolish history
The bleak snowdrifts of January
Or autumn's fragile bounty

There is no poetry here
For nothing rhymes with "Regina"
Save for ribald words fit only

For limericks.

Friday, June 29, 2012



I don't remember the day I came in Fifth.

I was surprised when I found the faded old ribbon
Hidden at the bottom of a wooden Alberta Springs whiskey box
(I had three such boxes begged from my father -
They were perfect for storing bubblegum cards)

The ribbon proved that at least once I wasn't last
Wasn't first
But wasn't last.

How had he done it, the boy I was?
Had he woken with new reserves of stamina and speed?
Had a girl he liked smiled encouragement from the bleachers?
Was he simply sick of finishing last?

He must have been shocked
To find himself nipping at the heels of the medalists
Perhaps he even thought - just for an instant - that he could pull ahead
And hear the cries of disbelief from his friends and tormentors

That moment was too much to ask from an indifferent universe
But Fifth was good enough to keep that gold ribbon
To hoard it for his future self
A talisman to ensure remembrance
Of his brief brilliant moment. 

But I don't remember the day I came in Fifth
And I'm sorry.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Scotty's Final Fate

Back in the 90s we had a Sony VHS camcorder with a stop motion feature. My friends and I put it to good (?) use on a number of occasions. In this short, silent vignette Mr. Scott is devoured by a giant space monster. In a chilling coda, Spock and McCoy meet and shake hands. Did they collude to eradicate their old friend?

There was no sequel to explain this macabre sequence of events.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Observing the Observers

Here's another enigmatic image from our 1983 journey to Glacier National Park in Montana. For reasons lost to time, I used my little Kodak 110 camera to shoot a photo of some tourists looking skyward. What had they spotted? A mountain goat? A cougar? A mountainside forest fire? A UFO?

I'll never know, for my 14 year old self thought the observers were more interesting than the observed. Clearly my shutterbug instincts needed honing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Earlvengers

Many years ago - when Ronald Reagan was still President of the United States - I found myself in the possession of a blank Avengers ID card. I told myself back then that one day I'd paste in my picture and signature. Twenty-four years later - at least! - the task is complete. For authenticity I used a Reagan-era photo of myself, though about as late in his presidency as possible.

This was a good exercise in document restoration and using layers in Photoshop. The original card was pretty beat up, with badly faded text and colours. I've cleaned it up a little, but not completely, in order to retain a little of the card's weathered look.

Monday, June 25, 2012

All the World's a Stage...Line

Once or twice every five years or so, I'm forced to wear a suit. In 1998, Allan Sampson and I travelled to Cranbrook, British Columbia, to celebrate the nuptials of our old friends Jeff and Susan. While waiting for the ceremony to begin, Allan and I amused ourselves by posing on and around the landmarks of nearby Fort Steele.
I'm really quite happy with this photo. I like the colour and composition and Allan looks quite dapper.
I'm pretty happy with this one, too. The wedding party looks great, though I wonder why Steven Neumann (at right) looks so concerned.
I don't remember the significance of the His and Hers Frisbee, unless they were an oblique reference to the time we were all playing Frisbee in the park and Susan accidentally hit Jeff in the teeth with one. I still remember Jeff's "Earrrgghh!" with exquisite clarity.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Primed for Battle

Tonight Sean and I visited Steve to paint our squadrons for the new StarFleet: A Call to Arms tabletop wargame. It's been a very long time since I've assembled or painted models of any kind, but with Steve's guidance my small Federation flotilla is shaping up nicely. Tonight we filed off the rough edges of the models, assembled them and primed them - about three hours' work. I was surprised by the level of detail that simply priming the pewter models reveals; inking and painting them should produce an even better result.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Good Shooting

Back in the mid to late 70s, DC Comics launched a number of short-lived pulp and fantasy titles, among them Justice Inc., pictured above. Named for the 1939 story that featured the first appearance of Richard Benson, The Avenger, Justice Inc. came and went in just four issues. The first issue is astonishingly creepy, though; Benson, his wife and child make the mistake of barging onto a flight bound for Montreal, and while Benson is in the washroom, his family vanishes. Everyone on board the plane claims Benson's loved ones never boarded at all, and the shock of his loss transform's Benson's skin ghost-white and leaves his face malleable, plasticized. It doesn't make a lot of scientific sense, but it's pretty creepy, even more so in DC's 1989 adaptation of the same story.

In any event, it's a pretty good comic, but the panels above strain suspension of disbelief pretty hard. You'd have to be an incredible shot to deliberately graze the skull of a moving target in such a way as to merely knock him unconscious!

Friday, June 22, 2012

White Man in Peril

There's no reason at all for Captain America to refer to the race of the guy losing his hat, and yet he does. In fact, it seems to add greater urgency to his desire to intervene.
Rick Jones' epiphany doesn't help. "If you speak English, we must be getting near civilization!" It's fascinating how subtext so very often says so much more than text...

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Observing a Goat in Montana

On a trip through the northwestern United States in either 1983 or 1986, I shot this photo of tourists observing a goat at a national park in Montana. I was using my first camera, a Kodak that used 110 film. That little camera didn't have a lot of creative options - it was essentially a point and shoot - I think the composition is decent enough.

As we were leaving, we were briefly scrutinized by Secret Service agents because we passed very close to Vice President Bush's limo, who for some reason was visiting the park at the same time. We did not see the man himself, however; just his vehicle, with dark windows opaque to curious passers-by. "Observing a Bush in Montana" may have made a more interesting photo.

According to Mom, this photo was taken at Glacier Park, and I drove from High River to the US border in our old (well, pretty new then) Corolla hatchback. Our journey continued through Spokane and Seattle. When Mom and Dad went to San Francisco a few months ago they returned via Montana and walked up this same trail.

"The goats are still there. The walk was much harder 25 years later!"

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Forsake the Sky

You're an apprentice painter and fencing student on a planet slowly slipping out of the grip of a fading galactic empire. When your father is killed and you're put on the run from the law, what choice is there but to seize the planet's throne yourself..? 

Appearing first as The Skies Discrowned (1976) and republished ten years later as Forsake the Sky, this early Tim Powers novel hardly feels as though it were written by the same man who penned The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, The Stress of Her Regard, Last Call, Three Days to Never and other well-regarded works of steampunk fantasy. Shorter than his later works, with a far more linear plot, Forsake the Sky is fairly straightforward planetary romance, with a dashing young hero seeking both vengeance and a new place in the world. There are no demons or monsters here, no time travel, no magic; only spaceships and a galactic empire, which serve only as the setting of the story, dispensed with in a couple of introductory paragraphs. There are intrigues, chases and sword fights aplenty, sketched out with deft but simple prose and an undercurrent of wry, self-deprecating humour.

Though less complex and ambitious than his later novels, Forsake the Skies still serves as a quick entertaining read with a likeable hero, the orphaned painter and swordsman Frank Rovzar. Like later Powers heroes, Frank is gifted with peerless skills but pays a heavy price for them, suffering not only the loss of his father, but his lover and even some of his body parts. And there's another Powers touch: fictional poet William Ashbless, created by Powers and in some ways the star of The Anubis Gates, is mentioned in passing.

Casual fans of science fiction will find Forsake the Sky an enjoyable but perhaps ultimately forgettable effort. But for those fortunate enough to have enjoyed Powers' later works, this early novel offers a valuable glimpse of an artist who would evolve into one of the genre's masters.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Going Out With Style

I forgot to mention one thing about our trip to Mexico. During the flight, I whispered an aside to Sylvia: "I've always hoped that if I were ever in an airplane crash, I'd have the presence of mind and sense of humour to hold my hands over my head and yell 'Wheeee!' as if I were merely riding a rollercoaster."

Ideally the crash would turn out to be minor - one of those where the plane only loses its landing gear and skids to a safe halt with no injuries. I think I'd earn a lot of style points in that case, or a lot of dirty looks from the other passengers.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Star Maidens

I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about science fiction television and film, and yet until yesterday I'd never heard of Star Maidens, the story of planet Medusa, ruled by women, and the disaster that befalls their civilization. Amazons in peekaboo jumpsuits and kinky boots rule over their oppressed men, two of whom decide to "Escape to Paradise" (the name of the first episode) by stealing a rocket and setting off for Earth.

Enjoy the madness. The entire 13-episode series can be viewed on YouTube over the course of one long, baffling, entertaining evening.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Two Stories About William Woods

Hope and William Woods, July 1957
Today Sean and I took our parents out to Huckleberry's restaurant in Wetaskiwin to celebrate Father's Day and a belated Mother's Day. On our way back to Leduc, Dad related two stories about his own father, William Woods.

The first story is one of Dad's earliest memories. It takes place in 1945 or 46, when Dad was three or four years old and his family was working their farm in Moose Range, Saskatchewan. Granddad was attempting to assemble a stovepipe within a granary to provide warmth for some chicks. But however Granddad struggled, he couldn't make the pipe sections fit together. His temper slowly simmered and finally burst, and he heaved the stovepipe to the floor. "If you don't want to go in, you son of a bitch, you don't have to!" he declared, leaping into the air and flattening the pipe with one mighty stomp. Sweet revenge!

Later, when Dad was 17 and helping his father on their second farm in Dauphin, Manitoba, Granddad's tractor wouldn't start. The elder Woods' strong hands twisted the choke and cranked the key over and over to no avail, until finally Granddad - who was "5'2" and built like a box" according to Dad - leaped from the tractor's seat, delivered a spinning kick to the tire on the way down, and with balletic grace flung his felt hat upon the ground the moment his feet touched the earth. Dad was paralyzed with laughter, and indeed his driving became a little shaky as he related the tale, laughing still. The Woods temper is somewhat infamous, but luckily it's always vented against inanimate objects!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Listening to The Wind Through the Keyhole

Stephen King's latest novel returns us to Mid-World, Gilead and Roland Deschain's quest for the Dark Tower that lies at the hub of all reality. King's return to form that began with Under the Dome and 11/22/63 continues with The Wind Through the Keyhole, an interquel set between books four and five of his Dark Tower series.

Pausing on their way to the Dark Tower to take shelter from a supernatural storm, Roland entertains his ka-tet by sharing a fairy tale nested within a story of his younger days. While this nesting isn't as complex as that in the Arabian Nights or Cloud Atlas, it's a relatively rare storytelling approach for King and adds a little depth that a traditional narrative wouldn't have provided.

Roland begins with "The Skin Man," which tells the story of a dangerous mission early in his career as a gunslinger. Midway through this story, young Roland attempts to calm a distraught little boy by relating the central and eponymous fairy tale, "The Wind Through the Keyhole." The story is useful both as commentary upon the novel's framing stories and as a fascinating exploration of Roland's world in the days when it hasn't quite "moved on" as much as long-time readers are used to. Set in the deep past, some forgotten technology still works, artificial intelligence and satellites existing alongside dragons and wizards.

Much of the appeal of the Dark Tower books lies in the setting, a once-great world slowly coming to an end, its technology and its magic fading, leaving behind only a few wanderers and semi-functional artifacts. Both young Roland and young Tim of the "Keyhole" fairy tale use a combination of technology and magic to achieve their respective quests, and in doing so both also come to terms with the sad realities of change, both personal and global. There are moments of great beauty and wonder in the journeys of both young men, but the overall theme is one of sad acceptance that all things must pass...innocence, happiness, the world itself.

And yet The Wind Through the Keyhole is not a depressing book; rather, it's a work that encourages us to treasure our friendships and family, to do the right thing even when it means great personal sacrifice, and to take pleasure in what beautiful things remain. As young Tim ruminates, the keyhole is time, and the wind that blows through it is all the bountiful life of the universe through the eons, truly a thing to be respected and revered. All things must pass, but time is a wheel and there's always something new on the horizon. I hope King's wheel continues to turn for a good long time to come.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Realm of Earl, June 2012

Some weeks ago I posted a map of an imaginary Dominion of Earl with borders crafted from the outermost reaches of my travels. Our trip to Mexico made an update necessary, but rather than just expanding my borders to include the Yucatan and Quintana Roo I also fired the domain cartographers and hired more accurate surveyors. Thus, this new map expands to the south, but its northern borders are more conservative, reflecting stops I've made in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta and Kenora, Ontario.

I've also renamed my demesne the Realm of Earl, mainly because "realm" and "Earl" are near-anagrams.

I'm hoping my next big trip will take us somewhere to Europe; Sylvia and I have had France and the UK on our list for a while now, but the circumstances haven't lined up yet. Maybe next summer or the meantime, I might make a quick road trip up to Yellowknife just so I can cross another territory and Canadian capital off my list. New York City is also on our short list, which would expand the Realm's borders to the Atlantic coast.

But that will have to wait until I find a new job and replenish the Realm's treasury. Heavy lies the head that wears the crown!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mexican Sendoff, Part Four

In my first post about our trip to Mexico, I touched on the private misgivings Sylvia and I shared regarding the morality of the tourist experience in developing countries. About halfway through the trip we discussed our feelings about what we'd seen: malnourished, prematurely aged citizens, homes made out of rubble, freeways overflowing with luxury vehicles burrowing through vast slums. On the resorts, tourists are isolated from these realities, but even on the short trip from the airport to the riviera the evidence of a great divide between rich and poor is abundant and unavoidable. The reality becomes even more evident when you venture beyond the tourist enclaves.

We asked each other some troubling questions: how do the Mexicans here really feel about the tourists they're serving? Are they happy to have relatively good jobs? Resentful that rich Europeans, Australians and Norteamericanos make repeated visits to luxury resorts on Mexican soil - resorts that the vast majority of Mexicans can't afford to visit?

I'm not saying that a nation's attractions should be limited to citizens of that nation; as a humanist, I think the world belongs to all its citizens. But it does seem somewhat unjust that the world's rich peoples have so much more opportunity to enjoy Earth's cultural and geographic treasures.

There's no question that tourism is vital to the Mexican economy and contributes significantly to their GDP. It still seems unfair that I suffer less economic hardship to visit the Yucatan than, say, a poor Mexican from Mexico City would, despite the hypothetical Mexican living thousands of kilometres closer to the Mayan Riviera and all its attractions.

When Sylvia and I were in Valladolid, our supper stop after Chitzen Itza, we separated from our tour group and were caught in a sudden torrential downpour. Taking shelter near a hole-in-the-wall shop, we found ourselves conversing with a very talkative and friendly Mexican, apparently the shop owner or manager, eager to practice his English. He carried a well-worn Spanish/English dictionary with him, and we talked about fish, of all things. While we spoke, an ancient and withered woman hobbled up to us in an effort to sell us - well, I'm not sure exactly what. She spoke no English and her Spanish accent was too thick for Sylvia to penetrate, but it was clear she wanted us to buy whatever was in the heavy bags she lugged around. With only enough pesos left to cover tips for our tour guides and the staff back at the resort, I passed, though I still feel bad about it.

But that being said, I wonder if my guilt is misplaced or even paternalistic, condescending. The woman wasn't at all disappointed our put off by our disinclination to purchase; she simply moved on to the next person on the street. Her advanced age and independence suggested that she didn't need the help of rich tourists to survive, so isn't it self-indulgent to feel guilt? Or is that simply the rationalization of a comparatively wealthy person looking for excuses not to help?

These issues bounced around in my head continuously during our trip, and I still don't have any clear answers. I can say only a few things without ambiguity: first, all the Mexicans we encountered, off-resort and on, were unfailingly friendly, helpful and interesting, and they made the trip doubly rewarding. Second, Mexico possesses great natural and cultural wonders that I feel privileged to have witnessed. And finally, I hope that tourism will eventually help all Mexicans enjoy a far greater standard of living than many of them currently enjoy.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mexican Sendoff, Part Three

I suggested the Mexican Riviera as our next vacation destination for two reasons: one, so that I could visit the east coast of North America, and two, so that we could see Chitzen Itza, the wondrous and ancient Mayan ruins.
It's a three-hour bus ride from the coast of Quintana Roo into the heart of the state next door, Yucatan, home of Chitzen Itza. Young Alejandro, of proud Mayan descent himself, was our guide, and he took pains to explain Mayan science and philosophy, closely linked to their obsession with time and water. I learned that in the Yucatan peninsula, water comes from cenotes, underground rivers, rather than conventional creeks and streams. Alejandro also scoffed at those who misinterpret the Mayan calendar to claim that the world will end in 2012; to the Mayans, this year is just the end of one 5,000 year old cycle and the beginning of another.
Chitzen Itza is a protected archeological site, but it's also a tourist trap, and as you travel from ruin to ruin, you run a gauntlet of vendors hawking arts and crafts of varying quality. Alejandro offered some advice on how to avoid shysters and get good deals, but he also gave us a warning:

"If you want to buy from a vendor that I know is bad, I'm not going to say a word. Because while there is only one Alejandro, there are hundreds of vendors."
The heat was immense: plus 42. Even with my hat, sunscreen and an umbrella provided by the tour company, my endurance was quickly flagging. I was dripping with sweat in minutes, the intense discomfort alleviated only by the spectacle of the magnificent ruins around me:
Despite my physical discomfort, I was elated to witness such an ancient and magnificent spectacle with my own eyes. It's one thing to know that such wonders exist; quite another to reach out and touch them.
By the time our tour of Chitzen Itza was complete, I was badly sunburned and dehydrated. Fortunately some kindly German tourists, our driver Edem and Alejandro took good care of us, bringing cold towels, more water, and most importantly, the comfort of an air-conditioned bus. On our way back to Quintana Roo we stopped at the old Spanish-style town of Valladolid, where we enjoyed not only Spanish architecture from the 1500s, but also some excellent Lime soup and the friendliness of the locals. A fantastic outing I'll remember forever.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mexican Sendoff, Part Two

While Sylvia and I took great pains to prevent me from yet again getting heat stroke and sunburn in the middle of a vacation, the Mexican sun turned out to be too powerful for both of us. A couple of days of fooling around in the pool gave both of us pretty nasty burns despite our efforts to repeatedly slather ourselves with the most powerful sunblock available.
At this point, however, we were both ignorant of the damage we were doing to our skin, and blithely moved on to scratch an important item from Sylvia's bucket list: swimming with dolphins. Here are the highlights of that experience:
Sylvia proved an adept dolphin rider. Dolphin Riders of Quintana Roo...might make a good adventure series.
I managed to avoid drowning, but I did swallow quite a bit of salt water.
The dolphin gave me a kiss to help me feel better. Fresh!
To reiterate an earlier post, swimming with dolphins would never have occurred to me independently, but I'm very glad Sylvia convinced me to do it.

Here are some special bonus poolside shenanigans. Tomorrow, our adventures in Chitzen Itza!
Super Hombre Tourista displays remarkable feats of strength! Unlike the Hulk, this hero's skin turns red as he gets stronger.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Mexican Sendoff, Part One

Entrance to the Gran Bahia Principe Tulum, Mexico.
Many of my friends visited Mexico years ago, but not until this month did I have the opportunity to visit that fabled, troubled nation. Sylvia likes to travel someplace warm on a regular basis, and I enjoy visiting new places; I only insisted that we visit the east coast, since all my travels thus far have taken me west. We agreed to visit the Mayan Riviera, along the coastline of the Caribbean Sea.
I was thrilled to finally dip my toes into an eastern sea.
As soon as we landed both Sylvia and I started to feel uncomfortable about the dark side of tourism in developing countries. While we were ferried from Cancun Airport to our luxury all-inclusive resort, we passed a number of crumbling buildings...shacks and hovels with peeling paint, collapsing roofs, ramshackle construction. Panting dogs and poor Mexicans on rusted-out bicycles crept along the freeway's margins, like extras in an old Western. Neither of us said anything about our perceptions at the time, not wanting to cast a pall over the holiday. But we both felt the dissonance.
Several of my photos appear a little ghostly because the lens kept fogging up. Mexican jungles are incredibly humid.
The staff at Gran Bahia Principe Tulum were remarkably helpful, friendly and considerate; it was certainly the best service I've ever received in any of my travels. That friendliness extended to the Mexicans we met off the resort, who were all very friendly and approachable. It helped that Sylvia has a rough working knowledge of Spanish!
Sylvia and I were impressed by the lush grounds, spotlessly maintained and bountiful, though sprawling - we made extensive use of the motorized carts that cycle through the resort.
Sylvia was not a fan of the many iguanas who called the resort home...
...nor of the creepy-crawlies that wandered across the beach. I found them pretty fascinating, though, and I got an unexpected thrill out of the rainbow-coloured fish that gathered around me when I waded into the Caribbean.
Vacations are actually a lot of work. I find that we always waste a bunch of time the first couple of days just figuring out where everything is located. Still, we managed to enjoy some time lounging on the beach our first day, overlooking a turbulent sea, enjoying the breeze, our books, and each other's company.
Though were were in Mexico to relax and disconnect from the stresses of the outside world, I found myself annoyed by my own tendency to compulsively check my email whenever we entered the limited range of the resort's free wi-fi. Isn't the whole point of a vacation to get away from all that? Argh!

Our first couple of days went off without a hitch. Unlike past vacations, this time I came prepared with the strongest sunblock possible, a hat and a determination to stick to the shade whenever possible. No sunburns or heat stroke for me this time, I thought!

Of course I thought wrong.