Thursday, February 28, 2013

Earl's Island

New this fall on The EW -

Seven precocious babies - SHIPWRECKED on a tropical island! EARL'S ISLAND!

No food...no lights...no motor car! Not a single luxury! But that won't stop these tenacious tykes from building their own CUTE-OPIA!

Series Premiere Wednesday at 8 after an all-new ARROW!


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Blonde Earl

Apparently I started out blonde. How strange...great picture, though. Nifty sweater, too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Number of Interest

About an hour ago I fired up the PVR to watch last week's episode of Person of Interest, "Relevance." Once again, this show proves itself one of the smartest mainstream hours on network television with a clever inversion that turns the show's regular formula on its head.

As usual, the episode opens with Harold Finch's initial monologue, "You are being watched..." But only a couple of sentences into the title sequence, it's interrupted by the Machine, who dismisses the sequence as "IRRELEVANT" and shuffles through its endless collection of files to uncover a "RELEVANT" story, the assassination of a computer expert. From here we follow the adventures of a pair of covert operatives working for the US government, and we quickly learn that these two are, like Finch and Reese, working for the Machine - only they're working on the officially relevant cases, the ones the Machine was built for, the threats of large-scale terrorism. The operatives kill a group of terrorists in Germany who are building a dirty nuclear bomb, and from here the episode follows their story, with Finch and Reese not appearing until midway through the story. It turns out, of course, that the operatives are Finch and Reese's "numbers" this week, but in this case the audience follows the victims rather than the series protagonists. It's a cool way to subvert the formula.

But perhaps even cooler is a clever bit of marketing during the episode's coda. Near the end, Finch hands his card to the week's guest star, imploring her to call if she ever needs help again. The camera lingers on Finch's phone number for just a second too long, and viewers can clearly see that it's not one of the ubiquitous 555 numbers Hollywood uses to avoid liability - it appears to be a genuine phone number, 915-285-7362, in the New York City exchange.

Aha.

Moments ago, I dialed the number. I was rewarded by a recording: "Hello, you've reached Harold Wren at Universal Heritage Insurance. I'm currently out of the office. I'm sorry I'm not available."

Another voice then indicates that the user's mailbox can't accept any more messages. Harold Wren, of course, is one of Finch's cover identities. Awesome!

Now, wouldn't it be cool and incredibly scary if the Machine phoned me back..?

Monday, February 25, 2013

44

I turned 44 about an hour ago, and Sylvia and Sean and I celebrated at The Melting Pot on Edmonton's south side. We ordered the four-course meal, consisting of a very fine bacon/brie cheese fondue, superb salads, a Mojo-style meat fondue and a really decadent Flaming Turtle chocolate fondue for dessert. Frankly this was way too much food for three people, but every course was excellent, with very fine fresh ingredients. Every piece of fruit and vegetable was perfectly ripe and succulent, and the meats (a mix of various cuts of beef, pork, chicken and shrimp) were superior. This was my first fondue experience, and I'd certainly come back again.
A couple can expect to spend up to 100 bucks for a four-course meal at The Melting Pot, not including drinks and tip. I thought it was worth every penny. Our server was efficient and personable, and I love the cozy atmosphere. Tuck me away in a dark corner to eat and I'm a happy camper indeed.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Best Picture 2012

A few hours from now Sylvia and I will once again travel to the Fitzpatricks' place for their annual Oscar party. I actually managed to see all the Best Picture nominees this year, and here's how I rank them, from worst to best:

9) Amour. I pride myself on enjoying movies of every genre, including weepy tales of suffering innocents. But I saw nothing innovative or even very interesting in this tale of two French senior citizens save for a slightly ambiguous coda and a couple of Kubrick-esque shots.

8) Zero Dark Thirty. Blunt, pedestrian, slavish to American exceptionalism, and on top of all these sins it's still somehow dull despite all the violence. I was particularly annoyed by the performances, which range from disinterested to hysterical, save for poor James Gandolfini, who acquits himself very well in an all-too-brief cameo.

7) Les Misérables. The production design and the music are enthralling, and I enjoyed the performances of Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. But why adapt a very successful stage musical to film unless you're going to add something new and different?

6) Silver Linings Playbook. I enjoyed this film as a light romantic comedy, but you won't find anything particularly daring here.

5) Life of Pi. If nothing else, Ang Lee's adaptation has convinced me that I really need to read Yann Martel's novel. Colourful, fantastical and fun, with an ambiguous ending that adds just the right touch of narrative complexity (for a Hollywood film, mind you).

4) Lincoln. It's hard to deny Steven Spielberg's importance as a creator of popular culture, and to his credit he attempts here to cover an important political drama that hasn't seen much attention in film: the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, abolishing slavery. But aside from Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of the Great Emancipator, is there really anything new here? No.

3) Argo. Plays fast and loose with history and demonizes Iranians, but if you accept the film as fiction it's a well-made suspense thriller.

2) Beasts of the Southern Wild. Above all else in art, I value sincerity. Beasts of the Southern Wild is by no means a perfect film, but it addresses important social issues without being a self-important Issues Film. Instead, it's an imaginative fantasy about a little girl, her father, and their community, and how they survive the slow calamities that overtake their world.

1) Django Unchained. Yes, Quentin Tarantino leans heavily on homage, but that's because he recognizes the importance of groundbreaking work by genre directors before him, folks often unrecognized by the Academy. And Tarantino doesn't just lift the good bits of older movies and slap them together; he reinvents and revitalizes old tropes. His films are bold, direct, unapologetic and in your face. While not as good as Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained again turns history on its ear in an effort to explore and understand the darker side of humanity. And of course any film featuring Christoph Waltz (even The Green Hornet!) is improved immeasurably by his presence.

All this being said, I feel this was a pretty weak crop of nominees overall. Even my top two picks have their flaws, and they don't push the boundaries of the art form in a way that really lives up to what the Best Picture Oscar should reward. Of course, if you look at the history of the category, the winners and nominees have all been pretty safe; the Academy, artistically, is pretty conservative. As light entertainment there's nothing wrong with any of these films, but it's a shame that Hollywood doesn't encourage or reward more challenging fare.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Photobomb Sean

I curled at the Shamrock Curling Club during my three years in junior high, and that first year I brought home a first-place trophy for our team's finish. This represents one of my few sporting triumphs, although my somber grimace here seems to indicate the victory was hard-won. Sean, however, pulled off an expert photobombing, creating an amusing contrast to my woeful visage.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Forgotten Frontier

We came North before
They'd even carved a road through the icy tundra
The road came to us and we
Took pictures like tourists as men and machines
Chopped and dug and flattened with their smoke and noise
But before long they were gone and the forest was quiet again

We stayed for seven years in that quiet place far from everyone
Hidden away from the world with the trees and the snow wrapped tight around us
Until finally the call of the south was too strong to resist
And we surrendered to the cities

How few remain, lingering in that haunted wood
Waiting for the world to catch up.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Django Unchained: The Handshake Scene

Warning: Spoilers follow for Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained

In 2009, The Blind Side was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. In 2011, The Help earned the same honour. In 2012, Django Unchained joined the list of nominees.

All three films, while wildly different in style and tone, share a common theme: racism is evil. All three films are American, and in all three films people with light skin direct racial abuse at people with dark skin. And in all three films, people with dark skin enjoy a better quality of life because a small minority of people with light skin offered a helping hand. Completely unintentionally, each set of filmmakers sent a message contrary to their intended theme; because of the way these films are constructed, the subtext suggests that people with dark skin can't improve their lives without the help of people with light skin.

I was offended by both The Blind Side and The Help for precisely this reason. And while Quentin Tarantino is a far more accomplished director than John Lee Hancock or Tate Taylor, he too makes the same error, robbing Django (Jamie Foxx) of much of his agency...

...or does he?

At a crucial moment in the film, bounty hunter King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) and slaveowner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) have reached an agreement that will defuse lethal tension and allow Django and Schultz to leave Candie's plantation with Django's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Furthermore, she'll be a freed from slavery. All it costs Django and Schultz is $12,000 and a bit of their dignity. If Schultz will accede to Candie's demand of a handshake to seal the deal, everyone walks away with no harm done.

But Schultz can't do it. Visions of a slave ripped apart by Candie's dogs haunt Schultz. He can't bring himself to shake Candie's hand, and instead shoots the slaveowner through the heart, killing him.

"Sorry," Schultz shrugs. "I couldn't resist."

Of course this sets off an apocalyptic gunfight. Stunned by Schultz' action, Django has no choice but to defend himself and Broomhilda. They could have walked away peacefully, but Schultz' pride and guilt very nearly doom them all.

If Django Unchained were more like The Blind Side or The Help, Django, Broomhilda and Schultz would have ridden off into the sunset together as friends, with Schultz continuing in his role as wise elder to the apprentice bounty hunter Django. The paternalistic, patronizing relationship would have remained the status quo. But instead, Scultz pays dearly for his impulsive hubris, and in the end the final deliverance of Django and Broomhilda comes about because Django is smart and fast enough to take advantage of one final bit of good luck. Django's agency may have been thwarted early in the film, but whether ironically or intentionally, the moment of Django's true unchaining comes only after his white mentor is killed.

Am I serving as an apologist for Tarantino? I don't think so, for the film, as entertaining and clever as it is, is not without its flaws. Broomhilda, for example, presents a problem for feminists, as she's essentially an object of desire to be rescued. Her portrayal, while sympathetic, isn't terribly nuanced; her agency really does depend entirely on others, all male. But Tarantino's careful staging of the handshake scene leads me to believe that he was attempting, in his own bloodthirsty way, to offer a different spin on white liberal guilt.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Laddie Come Home

Everyone that knows me knows I'm not a dog person. I'm deathly allergic to them, and the barking and sharp teeth make me a little (well, a lot) nervous. I completely recognize that my fear of dogs is irrational, but despite my best efforts I've failed to warm up to man's best friend. It's a failing that's caused me a great deal of guilt and discomfort over the years. In a way, it's sort of like not enjoying sports; it puts you well outside the mainstream. Many of my friends love dogs and other pets, including my wife, and I'm more grateful than I can say for the patience they've shown regarding my unfortunate phobia.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I encountered a number of dogs on the campaign trail when I ran for provincial office back in 2008. Most of the time there were no problems, but at one doorstep the homeowner allowed his massive dog - a creature taller than I was - to leap up onto my chest, wrap its claws around my neck and drag its tongue all over my throat and face. I'm surprised to this day that I didn't suffer a panic attack, but my politician's mask remained in place; I used one hand to pet the slobbering canine while offering my campaign literature in the other. My heart didn't really start to race until I moved on to the next house, but I'm sure I didn't earn the dog owner's vote. While I remained calm, I'm sure he could tell that my affection for his pet was a little forced. I'm afraid I did the already soiled reputation of the political class no favours that day, coming across as just another insincere glad-hander willing to do anything for a vote. To be fair, though, as much as I wanted his vote, I was just as concerned with not hurting his feelings; I've learned that a lot of people take it very personally when you don't like their pets.

Despite my hangup, I can certainly appreciate why most people like dogs; they're affectionate, they can be trained to perform simple tasks and many of them are quite handsome, including Laddie, the Etsell family dog pictured above. Laddie died before I was born, or at least before I was old enough to remember him, but Mom certainly speaks of him with great affection. Despite my discomfort around dogs, I find this image quite peaceful. Laddie seems at ease, enjoying the sunrise (or perhaps the sunset), secure in the knowledge that his family loves him. And that's the whole point, isn't it? I've never wanted a pet, but I'm very glad that dogs and cats and so many other creatures bring joy to countless people around the world every day. The world would be a colder place without them; just imagine how bleak the wintry scene above would seem without Laddie's calming presence.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The First Decade

Ten years ago, my career as a professional writer was well underway. I'd written or contributed to a number of bestselling gardening books, I was selling short articles under my own name to a couple of different magazines, and I was the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta's official speechwriter. Things were looking good.

Earl and his notepad at the Bleak House of Blahs
And yet something was missing. Why else would I have felt the urge to start blogging, or to name this digital journal The Bleak House of Blahgs to reference a place (the so-called "Bleak House of Blahs) I lived only briefly - and that ten years prior to the blog's first post?

There were two reasons. I was lonely, and sharing my thoughts with the world was a way to feel a little less alone. And just as importantly, I needed a place to experiment. While writing for Lois and Jim Hole (and later a series of Alberta Liberal MLAs) was satisfying and challenging enough, the blog gave me a place to be as analytical or shallow or serious or goofy as I wanted to be.

Most of my early writing at The Bleak House of Blahgs centres on the mundane; should anyone struggle with insomnia, read a few of these early posts to learn what DVDs I was watching at the time, or whose birthday party I was attending, or what I was doing at work. Coming up with original content is a challenge for any writer, so I often filled the gaps with old material I'd composed years before, a sin I resort to less often these days. There are a few cryptic references to Sylvia peppered into these early posts here and there; I'd met her in late 2002, not long before starting this blog, but we didn't start a relationship until spring 2003.
Sylvia's presence, of course, informs virtually everything I've written since. While I'd had relationships prior to meeting Sylvia, they were short-lived and "unofficial," if that's the right word for it. Sylvia was my first real girlfriend, and that represented a sea change in my outlook. Suddenly I was responsible for someone, someone who in turn felt responsible for me in ways that parents and siblings cannot be; it was an entirely different kind of relationship, one I was discovering for the first time. It felt strange to be loved romantically, but it cleared my mind and freed me from many of the stresses that were preventing me from exploring the limits of whatever talent I might possess. Sylvia gave me the freedom and confidence to move forward on a number of fronts - personally, professionally. She made me a better writer and a better person, and that's given me the courage to publicly explore the questions that have always vexed me most:

Who am I, and why am I here?
What does the future hold for humanity?
Why do people suffer?
Are we alone in the universe?
What's the true nature of reality?
What does it all mean?

It's always bothered me that so many of my posts seem to focus on me, me, me - what's happened to me, what did I do today, etc. And yet this is the lens through which each of us experiences life, so unless I construct some kind of artifice I'm forced to write about myself, at least tangentially, to struggle with these questions. Better writers do this successfully all the time, of course, but I work with what I have, and blogging, for now, is the best way I know how to explore the subjects I care about.

Several years ago I changed the name of this blog from The Bleak House of Blahgs to My Name is Earl (J. Woods), a change made half out of boredom, half to capitalize on a sitcom I had enjoyed at the time. Today this blog endures its third and final name change, one that's not only shorter and snappier, but also contains a classical allusion, a bad pun and a more succinct characterization of the blog's nature: The Earliad. While I have no illusions that I'll join the ranks of Homer or Virgil, I've long thought that if I ever became famous The Earliad would be the perfect name for my autobiography. While I foresee no fame in my future, I still like the title, so I'm going to put it to use.

The desire to write often comes with some hubris, particularly if the writer hopes people will read his material. How large does one's ego have to be to broadcast his thoughts to the universe?

Pretty large, I guess, and sometimes - perhaps much of the time - without much justification. But in my defence, I write because, well, I find life interesting, and that includes my life - and yours. I write because I hope that my readers will discover something that touches on your own experience, that makes you think about the world in a different way. I live for the comments people occasionally leave here, many of them far more insightful and interesting than my original posts.

I think most people want to share their experiences, because through those experiences we learn to know one another. We learn how to deal with the universe's challenges together, and maybe we even learn how to begin answering some of those big questions. And along the way, if we're lucky, we have a lot of fun together.

I've certainly had a lot of fun writing this blog for the last ten years. So much has happened since that first post: Sylvia and I were married, I ran for office against Alberta's Premier, drove the Alaska Highway, made new friends, stood on the shore of North America's east coast for the first time, flew in a helicopter, dove in a submarine, had a post featured on Reddit, served as an online tutor at MacEwan University, bought two condos, met James Cameron and returned to northern Manitoba...twice.

It's been a heck of a decade. Along with the moments already mentioned above, here are a few more of my favourite posts:

Fitzpatrick's War
The End of My Double Life
The Killer Inside
Behold...The Barf Thing!
The Only Logical Choice
The Ketchup Katastrophe
The Walls Have Ears, the Doors Have Eyes
No Job Too Small...for Superman!
Earl Jumps on a VCR
Wisteria Hysteria
The Speculative Fiction Canon
Star Trek Season Four Episode Guide
The Answering Machine Message
The Art of Friendship
Farewell to the Legislature
You Seem Wise, for a Woman

It's interesting that this anniversary should fall at this moment in my life, a time of transition. I left politics behind, but discovered that I really enjoy teaching and reinvigorated my freelance career. While I would still prefer a return to full-time work, being home has given me more time to work on my novel and short stories, to spend more time with Sylvia, to learn how to fix little things around the house, to finish the library and theatre room. I feel like my life has some balance at last, and I can't wait to see what happens next. I hope you'll join me.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Billy Preston's Nightmare

He awoke like a cliché: with a shriek of terror, sitting "bolt upright" just as they do in dime novels, eyes bulging, skin pale and glistening with the sweat of his fevered dreams.

"The gateway to Hell!" he screamed, still half-trapped in the nightmare. "I saw it in Dawson City. I was bringing in my furs and the whole town was being pulled in! And no one back home even knew I was there! No one would remember me!"

The darkness didn't respond. He began to breathe again.

"I know what the dream means," he thought to himself. "Ten years after I die, will anyone remember me? Hell, will anyone remember me even a year later? Did anything I've done make a difference?"

He concocted a plan. He would create art. It didn't have to be good, it just had to exist, and it had to catch someone's eye. And if he was lucky, maybe something noteworthy would happen to him. Maybe he'd be the first victim of a new plague. Maybe he'd find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and accidentally become a hero. Or maybe he'd go mad at the end and become famous for the form of his insanity.

That would be the trigger, he thought. And then someone, some reporter or historian, would look into his past. And they would find the slapped-together art, and infuse it with meaning.

"Billy Preston's Nightmare (2013, image manipulation) was his first attempt to reconcile his obsession with popular culture with the slow dissolution of civil society as he saw it. In Nightmare the artist alters a photo of crumbling infrastructure by combining it with murky scarlet clouds reminiscent of the early computer game Doom (1993), a game he was known to enjoy during his "blue" period post-university studies..."

They would never know that Billy Preston's Nightmare was just another lame attempt to complete a blog post when he couldn't think of a blessed worthwhile thing to write about.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Afternoon Stir-Fry

Several days ago Jeff Shyluk posted a recipe for quinoa chicken stir fry. Intrigued, I actually ventured into a grocery store and purchased ingredients for my own version of Jeff's creation. Rarely do I attempt anything more ambitious than tacos, but Jeff's recipe certainly looked simple enough to try. With Sylvia supervising to ensure I didn't burn the house down, I sallied forth, following Jeff's instructions as closely as possible.
Jeff's recipe calls for peas, but Sylvia and I aren't fussy about them so I substituted yellow bell pepper and green onions. Would these spicy flavours complement the soya sauce and minced ginger required in Jeff's original creation, or would they completely imbalance the dish?
Well, the finished product didn't look terribly appetizing, but to my palate - and Sylvia's - it certainly tasted quite fine. I think it's safe to say that I can now reliably prepare nearly a dozen dishes:

1. Tacos
2. Quinoa chicken stir fry
3. Bacon and eggs with toast
4. Cereal
5. Fish and chips
6. Spaghetti with meat sauce (i.e. leftover meat from the tacos plus store-bought red sauce)
7. Grilled cheese sandwich
8. Garlic cheese toast
9. BLT sandwich

Thanks for the recipe, Jeff!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Saturday Night Star Skirmish

Once again the peace-loving citizens of the United Federation of Planets were called to battle tonight, and once again they went down to defeat, guns blazing, to the rapacious Klingon Empire. This time around both the Excalibur and the Encounter were destroyed, though not before the Encounter blew up one of the Klingon ships. This time around Jeremiah joined Sean , Steve and I in the melee, and it looks like he'll be building a fleet of his own. 

After the initial Federation vs. Klingon Empire skirmish, Sean and I each took command of a Romulan vessel to oppose Jeremiah and Steve's pair of Klingon intruders. For the first time we learned how the game's rules treat cloaking devices, and I put mine to good use, nearly destroying Jeremiah's ship. Unfortunately I blundered my opening move, leaving my ship too damaged to withstand Steve's vengeful retaliation. My ship went kaboom, leaving Sean to fend for himself. He very nearly managed to finish off Jeremiah's ship and even survived a withering assault from both Klingon crews. 

Thus far I've gone down to ignominious defeat four times in this game, but I'm learning something new each time. Maybe I'll survive a battle intact in our next encounter.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Day of the Asteroids


Anyone paying any attention at all to the news this week has been anticipating the flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14. While scientists predicted that the asteroid would give us a close shave, passing within the orbit of Earth's geosynchronous satellites, they assured us that there was no danger the hurtling rock would slam into Earth.

So it came as quite a surprise when reports and dramatic videos from Russia depicted a light brighter than the sun streaking across the Ural sky, followed by a shockwave that shattered countless windows and injured, at last count, over 1,100 people. We still don't know the full story, but so far it looks like the ten-ton asteroid slammed into the atmosphere at over 30,000 mph and exploded into fragments with the force of a small atom bomb.

And yet it could have been so much worse. We're lucky DA14 didn't hit Earth, because it's many, many times larger than the meteor that streaked over Russia today; the damage would have been tremendous, though not bad enough to threaten the species. Still, there are rocks flying around in our solar system more than capable of wiping out life on Earth, which is why so many scientists have been pushing governments to step up their efforts to track asteroids and other celestial bodies. With enough warning, it's possible that we might be able to deflect a species-killing asteroid before it hits us.

Such a threat, of course, might not happen for hundreds or thousands of years. Or it could happen tomorrow. But when the stakes are this high, I'd certainly rather be safe than sorry. Protecting Earth from asteroid strikes is only one reason I support space exploration, but it's one of the big ones.

Hopefully the hundreds of Russians injured today will make full recoveries. And perhaps more people will start looking to the skies in the wake of today's twin near-misses.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My Valentine

Ooooo! She's so good. Happy Valentine's Day, Sylvia! I'll squish you forever.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cloud Mushroom

Some days inspiration strikes, and some days inspiration strikes you down. This fake movie poster is pretty terrible, but at least it forced me to experiment with type - with decidedly mixed results, as you can see. A more gifted graphic designer would have erased the trees and replace them with a mushroom cloud, to signify more clearly the film's post-apocalyptic setting. Actually, I'm sure I can do that myself if I take the time. Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man

Well, this is meta, I thought when the scan finished: a photo of Earl taking a photo. Whether Mom or Dad took the shot, I admire the composition and the sense of motion from the windswept grass. Never afraid to mess with a good thing, I thought it would be fun to play with some of Photoshop's various filters and adjustment tools to see how the image might look as a faux painting:
Rather than just slap the watercolour filter on the whole image and call it a day, I tried for a little more sophistication this time around, selecting the sky and water and applying the hue/saturation sliders and different photo filters to bring out the blues - as if I were one of those artists who had a "blue" period. And make no mistake, that reference is the beginning and end of my knowledge on the subject; that is, I'm aware that certain artists had "blue" periods, and I imagine that these blue periods involved sadness or melancholy and the colour blue, but really I'm just guessing. I really regret that all the classical studies and art appreciation sections at the University of Alberta were already full when I was picking my courses. They sure would have come in handy.

Despite my ham-handed ignorance of art, I'm reasonably happy with this result, even though I'm fully aware Photoshop  and Mom or Dad did most of the work. What's most important to me is to stretch my boundaries and experiment in fields where I'm uncomfortable, which is why readers have been seeing more and more little projects like this on the blog and fewer essays.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Suspicious Sean

In early April 1976 Mom came home from the Leaf Rapids hospital with my little brother in tow. Witness my stunned expression at this sudden turn of events, and the suspicious look my new little brother is giving me. While it's true I would allow Sean to eat a cigarette and trick him into eating peppercorns some years in the future, I had as yet done nothing to warrant Sean's youthful wariness. Indeed, in the beginning Sean tricked me more often than not. Once, while I lay reading on the very couch pictured here, Sean climbed onto the backrest and leaped feet-first onto my ribcage, driving the wind from my lungs!

In the extreme foreground of this photo you can see the central component of a set of three matching glass-topped coffee tables. Sean's love of climbing onto things and jumping down very nearly had tragic consequences, for not long after jumping on my chest he decided to dive from the couch onto one of the glass side tables. The impact shattered the table, and Sean landed in a heap of jagged shards of dark green glass. Fortunately he was unharmed, and Mom evicted the tables immediately.

The couch lasted much longer than the tables. It moved to Leduc with us and resided in the family basement for decades. Eventually we had to recruit a bunch of my largest friends to remove the couch, for it contained a ludicrously heavy hide-a-bed. (Actually, my memories are mixed up - we actually hauled it away as detailed in this post. I must have been thinking of another piece of furniture.) I'm sure that couch would have stopped bullets.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Pitcher Plant

One fine, sunny afternoon in the summer of 1991 Sean Woods came home in search of refreshment and instead drank deep the sour draught of betrayal.

His teenage frame slick with sweat, muscles aching from the exertions of a hard-fought game of sandlot baseball, Sean anticipated with relish the sweet, cold iced tea that awaited him in its simple but comforting old pitcher of green plastic, the one with the ounces marked off in neat embossed type along the side of the container. As the youth hopped up the back stairs, flinging open a screen door whose mosquito netting bore the gashes of his cat's playful assaults, Sean imagined how the cold, wet chill of delicious lemony sugar water would erupt upon his tongue, sending a shivery rush of invigorating flavour through his weary bones.

Metaphorically licking his lips, Sean bounded into the kitchen and flung wide the refrigerator door. The green pitcher sat there like a silent emerald siren, beckoning him, and the lad could do naught but claim his prize. Triumphantly he grasped the pitcher, lifting it high and tilting it backward, the dark liquid within flowing into his waiting mouth.

So parched was the young shortstop that he greedily chugged down his repast, every cell starving for the expected burst of refreshment. But that burst never came. Instead, Sean recoiled in horror, his esophagus rebelling, gagging, spewing up dark brown froth over lips twisted in sudden, shocked disgust.

"MALLGGHHH!" yelled Sean, slamming the pitcher down on the counter, coughing and spitting - for the innocent-looking yet duplicitous pitcher contained not delicious iced tea, but plain water befouled with dish soap! Sean eyed the rank concoction with disbelief. Who would do such a thing - and why?

Enraged, Sean confronted his older brother, who having heard the commotion while reading in the basement rushed upstairs to see what was going on.

"Why would you put a pitcher full of water and dish soap in the fridge?" Sean demanded. "I drank it - I nearly puked!"

But Earl couldn't answer, doubled over with laughter, trying to protest his innocence between guffaws, tears pouring down his pink cheeks.

"I - ha ha - what? D-dish soap? Ha ha - oh dear - I swear I didn't - oh no - hee hee -" And so on.

Fuming, Sean later asked his mother if she had, for some reason, laid the trap, but she seemed entirely puzzled:

"Why would I do that?"

Father, too, professed ignorance. And so, to this day, the Mystery of the Tainted Tea remains among the greatest unsolved enigmas of the Woods family lore.

Today, in his mid-30s, Sean remembers the incident well. When asked how he washed the taste out of his mouth, Sean answers:

"I didn't. It lingers to this day. No one confessed."

The case remains unsolved.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Copernicus Hill, Manitoba

In 1973, Manitoba's Polish community erected this monument to celebrate the quincentenary of the birth of Copernicus. It's located on Copernicus Hill, in Manitoba's Duck Mountain Provincial Park. Judging by my height in this photo, we must have visited when the monument was quite new. It was a very warm, very sunny day, and I remember how fascinated I was by the sundial; Mom and Dad explained how it worked, and my mind boggled. I'm certain this is one of those childhood incidents that sparked my interest in science, particularly astronomy, and while I didn't pursue science as a career I still follow new developments avidly. I'm really looking forward to seeing what discoveries might be made by the James Webb Space Telescope  and the Terrestrial Planet Finder, should they actually ever be completed, launched and funded. Just think - within our lifetime we might actually discover habitable planets besides Earth, or even extraterrestrial life. With Webb, we might be able to see far enough to view the light of the first galaxies being born. Awe-inspiring!

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Bushmasters

On the Victoria Day long weekend of 1974, the Woods of Leaf Rapids (Mom, Dad, me and Dad's cousin Hugh, his wife Diane and their children William and Carol Ann) decided to drive down the ramshackle trail that led to the Suwannee River for a weekend of camping. It was our first trip to what eventually became the Suwannee River campground, and it was a memorable one.

In these days there wasn't actually a formal campground yet, nor a proper road, just a trail carved through the trees. As we approached the river, we ran into a formidable obstacle: the trail had been washed out. There was no way our cars could get through.

Fortunately, living in the north had honed everyone's survival skills (or at least our "I still want to go camping" skills). Everyone climbed out of our cars and we ventured into the forest for deadfall, collecting tree trunks and logs and then lining them up across the washed out section of trail to create our own makeshift bridge. Being only five years old I wasn't much help, but I vividly remember stomping around in the mud and tossing a few sticks onto the growing pile.

I don't remember how long it took us to build our bridge, but as a child it seemed like a very long time indeed. But eventually Dad and Hugh declared the deed done and we re-entered our cars. Would the bridge hold, or would the old, dead wood split and splinter, sending our cars sinking into the quagmire? I stood up on the seat and pressed my hands to the window, eyes wide, watching as Hugh and Diane's Datsun bumped and bounced along the bridge, flattening the logs into the hungry mud. But at last they made it to the other side, and it was our turn to cross the sticky chasm.

Our vehicle was larger and heavier than the Datsun, and I watched wide eyed, bones rattling as our wheels jounced and wobbled on the span. It felt as though we were sinking, but I wasn't afraid; this was a great adventure. Perhaps the bridge would collapse and we'd slowly sink into the earth, saved only by the intervention of our cousins, hauling us out through the Plymouth's windows at the last possible second!

It didn't happen that way. In a matter of seconds we, too, had safely crossed, and minutes later we were at the campsite - really just a few clearings for vehicles and a rather disgusting outhouse.

After all that work, of course, it began to snow. The tent trailer had no heater and we spent three chilly days shivering in our sleeping blankets. (Late May, of course, is far too early to start camping in northern Manitoba if you expect a snow-free experience.)

But though we had to BBQ with our mittens on, it was still a pretty good weekend. In later years the people of Leaf Rapids would build a real campground, with proper washrooms, picnic tables and fire pits, only to abandon these facilities in the late 90s as the town slowly withered. Nature has long since reclaimed the site, so visitors attempting to visit the original Suwanee campground today (there is today another, much smaller campground at another spot on the river) might very well have to do what we did back then - engineer your own means of making your way down to the river.

But you might find the destination well worth the journey.



Thursday, February 07, 2013

Garbage Can-dy

Today Sylvia and I stopped at the Bulk Barn for provisions. I stopped in my tracks when I spotted ghosts from the past: neon-coloured cans of Garbage Can-dy, a sugary confection I first encountered as a child on a trip to Nipawin, Saskatchewan.
For nostalgia's sake I bought a can, and to my delight I discovered the contents haven't changed. Here are the discarded sneakers, pop bottles, soup cans and fish bones of my childhood, though I seem to remember there used to be bones as well. Of course these days the bottles and soup cans go in the recycle bin. Can fish bones be composted? Hmmm.

I'm munching on one of the fish bones now, but my memory isn't good enough to tell me if the flavours have changed. It's sweet, hard and chalky, in any case.

I'm almost certain I still have at least one or two Garbage Cans from the 1970s, because I used them to store the laser guns and other accessories of my Star Wars action figures. You can hold a lot of little plastic pistols in these bins, and they snap closed very firmly so there's little risk of losing your stash.

And now, having eaten all the Can-dy, I have another empty Garbage Can. Perhaps Sylvia can use it to store her earrings.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

B-oo-oo-nnggg!

With apologies to Roy Lichtenstein.

Comics cannot be read in the same manner as prose; instead, the reader must interpret both art and text, filling in gaps in the action with his or her imagination. While the art freezes a single instant, the text encompasses several seconds. As you read the text, left to right, does your perception of the characters change? As Sean says "This blog is going to pot," is his arm raised, ready to strike? Are Earl's arms flung upward before or after you read his speech balloon? Does the sound effect - "B-oo-oo-nnggg!" - happen at the same time as the pot strikes Earl's face?

Astounding, isn't it, how your mind fills in the gaps?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Leaf Rapids Co-op

When you're the only game in town, you don't need to spend money on a fancy building or slick logos. Despite its uninviting utilitarian exterior, the Leaf Rapids Co-op was a popular shopping destination, and one of the places I found comic books on spinner racks to fire my childhood imagination. I believe it was here that Mom or Dad purchased my first comic book, an issue of Spooky: The Tuff Little Ghost.

These days, the Co-op is located in the Leaf Rapids Town Centre. It's the only place you can buy gas and other essentials, or at least that was the case back when Sean and I visited in 2009.
At some point the Co-op improved their signage before moving into the Town Centre, but there's no sign of the original building. It's a little sad; Leaf Rapids was deliberately constructed as a new kind of community, one meant to exist in harmony with nature rather than conquer it, and now nature is steadily reclaiming this fragile outpost as its residents flee in search of better economic opportunities.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Plymouth Bounce

I remember this white Plymouth vividly, for I was born in that bygone era when seat belt use wasn't universally mandatory; nor, it seems to me, had the education campaign regarding the benefits of seat belt use really begun. So perhaps it was inevitable that while on one trip or another (probably not the one pictured above), I was reading happily, sprawled across the big red bench seat in the back when Mom or Dad drove over a large bump. The car's rear end jumped and, acting like a catapult, flung my two or three year old body skyward. I bounced off the roof violently, then slammed back down onto the seat. I wasn't injured, merely shocked by my brief experience as a projectile. We carried on unperturbed.

These days, like most folks, I never drive or ride anywhere in a vehicle without wearing my seat belt, nor do my parents. This simple fact reminds me that society does change and people do adopt better habits; it just takes a little education and the collective goodwill of citizens and our elected officials. It only took a couple of decades for seat belts to catch on; this gives me hope that perhaps we shall, after all, take action to meet other challenges, the wealth gap and climate change chief among them.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Battles of the Fitzpatrick Expanse

On Friday night Sean and I travelled to Steve's place to try out A Call to Arms: Starfleet for the first time. Having (mostly) assembled and painted our miniatures months ago, it was long past time to test our metal - and mettle - against the starry backdrop of simulated interstellar conflict. Above, Sean and I prepare for battle.
Here, the intrepid souls of the U.S.S. Excalibur, representing the peaceful United Federation of Planets, enter the Fitzpatrick Expanse to explore the cosmos and extend the hand of interstellar friendship.
Alas, the warmongering sneaks of the Romulan Star Empire have laid claim to this system, ambushing the Excalibur.
Our paint jobs aren't nearly as slick as Steve's, but I think Sean and I both acquitted ourselves decently given the learning curve.
Alas, I blundered into the path of Sean's powerful plasma torpedoes and thus the Excalibur was destroyed with the loss of all hands.
I fared a little better against Steve's Klingon D7. Our match went right down to the wire, but in the end his warriors were victorious, and the Excalibur exploded a second time.

After investing a considerable amount of time and effort into assembling and painting the miniatures, I'm glad the game itself turns out to be a tremendous amount of fun. The game's mechanics are simple enough to pick up after a couple of playthroughs, but versatile enough to emulate all the dramatic action of the Star Trek television shows - reinforcing shields, performing high energy turns, sealing the bulkheads, running damage control teams, overloading the weapons and so on. I think I need one or two more practice sessions before moving on to larger-scale games with fleets, though!

Here's Steve's account of the battles.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Neumann in Town

Nothing much to say today because Sylvia and I are busy visiting with our old friend H. Steven Neumann, visiting from Vancouver. Good times!