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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Brand New Box of Dynamite

You don't tug on Mike's mohawk.

Today is Mike Totman's birthday, which reminds me of the time he made me laugh uncontrollably for forty-five minutes or so.

Five or six (or - shudder - ten) years ago, our regular tabletop roleplaying group was involved in a near-future campaign setting; it might have been the RPG based on the Firefly TV series, or perhaps we were trying out Jovian Chronicles. Or it might have been the 1930s pulp adventure any event, at one point in the game Colin, the game master, allowed my character to purchase a box of dynamite.

My friends all know that I love dynamite, or rather, that I love the cartoonish portrayal of dynamite seen in old Western movies and Warner Brothers cartoons. Violence in the real world makes me physically ill, but I am, after all, a man, and therefore prone to cackle at the pratfalls of the Three Stooges or the characters in many of Blake Edwards' movies. In a fictional setting, giving me (or rather, my avatar) a box of dynamite was akin to handing a precocious toddler a box of matches while touring a gunpowder factory.

I waxed enthusiastic about my plans for the dynamite, and after a couple of minutes of this Mike sang, in perfect, uncanny Melanie Safka* falsetto:

"I got a brand new box of dynamite, you got a brand new key..."

Well, I lost it. I exploded with laughter, the kind of breathless, braying cackle that makes other people stare at you like you're insane, as my gathered friends certainly did. I was out of control for ages - perhaps not forty-five minutes as claimed above, but near enough. It was the exact sort of absurd pop-culture reference that I love best, and Mike's delivery and inflection were note-perfect.

Out-of-control laughter arising from utter surprise and delight is a rare gift, a pleasure I've experienced only a few times in my life. So happy birthday, Mike, and thank you from the bottom of my belly-laugh.

*If you don't get the reference, here's the original song Mike was parodying:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Pickup That Roared

Here's an old image from 1991. I don't remember who shot the photo; it might have been Dad, who managed this Fort Ignition store for a number of years. While looking for a more permanent job, I delivered auto parts to Edmonton garages.
A few Photoshop tricks make the image a little more dramatic, but this result is a far cry from what I initially imagined. I was trying to emulate the great Will Eisner, who created story titles from that flowed from the opening scene; a bridge or a building would spell out "The Spirit," for example. Using opacity, blending options and the text bending tool, I tried to make my title appear as though it were painted onto the truck. Obviously the effect isn't at all believable, but I feel compelled to continue experimenting anyway. While I'm a writer by trade, I'm fascinated by the visual arts and sometimes it's nice to push in more challenging directions.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sylvia vs. the Spider

Click to embiggen!
Before Sylvia and I started dating, we were simply friends who enjoyed Scrabble. During those early weeks, we would often meet at one of the picnic tables in the Baywood Park courtyard to duel with letters.

During one such game, I noticed that a very large spider was slowly descending from the trees above, webslinging its way onto Sylvia's shoulder. I'd already learned that Sylvia reacts badly to bugs - very badly. I froze, unsure of what to do. Warn Sylvia, prompting a scream? Or do nothing, and hope that she wouldn't notice?

I opted for the latter. For long seconds, my strategy seemed to be working; the spider perched happily upon her shoulder, Sylvia none the wiser. Soon, I thought, the spider would scamper away and Sylvia would never know. Placidly, Sylvia examined her letters.

But then the spider leapt forward, springing from her shoulder right onto the table. Sylvia's eyes bugged out, then pinched shut as she clenched her fists and released a blood-curdling sonic scream Black Canary herself would have been proud of. The spider scurried away as I desperately plugged my ringing ears. Tree leaves fell from vibrating branches, and car alarms went off for blocks around. Our letters shook themselves off the board. I was certain that a SWAT team would appear at any moment, but eventually Sylvia's defensive wail died off and the world stopped spinning.

I exaggerate only a little.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Jumpin' Jasper

Jasper Pizza Place creates really delicious pizza.
On our way home from Sunwapta Falls, Sylvia and I enjoyed a brief stop in Jasper, where we met with our friends Michael and Naomi and their three delightfully rambunctious children, plus some new friends. Great pizza and plate-smashing were enjoyed by all! I've read some articles claiming that social media tools such as blogs and Facebook harm real-life relationships, but in this case social media made a very pleasant get-together possible.

The weather was absolutely perfect for a walk down Jasper's main drag. I scored a couple of sweet tin posters and a wall-mounted Coca-Cola bottle opener. Retro!
Parks Canada does a great job of maintaining Jasper's historic feel. I love little nooks and crannies such as this.
I was delighted when we ran into Jasper's statue. Does anyone but me remember the old Jasper cartoon strip?
Of course there was one strange sight...
Is that...?
Yes, it's a pair of shoes, hanging from a power line in one of Jasper's back alleys. Left there by Spring-Heeled Jasper, no doubt.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sunwapta Falls

Sylvia and I are visiting Jasper National Park today. Internet access is sporadic and slow; if possible, I will update this post later today with photos. First stop: Sunwapta Falls!
Sent from my iPhone

UPDATE: As promised, here are some photos...and a video of Sunwapta Falls:

Our cabin at the Sunwapta Falls resort. Excellent service and wonderful food.

A weathered tree stump, shaped by erosion.
Detail of the same tree stump.
Huge canyon at Sunwapta Falls.
Same canyon from the other side.
Anyone who's ever visited Sunwapta Falls remembers these distinctive rock formations, shaped over thousands (tens of thousands? millions?) of years.
I wanted to leap over the fence and feel the texture of this lush moss, but that would have been foolhardy.
Some exposed root system.
It was Sylvia's idea to visit.
Magnificent nature.
Sylvia and the bear.
We also visited the majestic Athabasca Falls.
Several visitors held little regard for nature's pernicious fury.
"All right, I've had enough of nature," Sylvia said.
So we returned to our cabin and enjoyed the fireplace.

Friday, August 26, 2011

All the Favours of Failure: Appendix A - Examples

It occurs to me that in order to further illuminate yesterday's post, it might be useful to list some examples of bad movies I love, and bad movies I loathe. This list is by no means comprehensive; it's merely a glimpse of my tastes.

Bad Movies I Love
Despite their numerous shortcomings in scripting, acting, direction, cinematography, sound, lighting, set decoration or even basic coherence, all of these films offer grand entertainment value, by virtue of epic bathos:

Robot Monster
Plan 9 from Outer Space
Battle Beyond the Stars
The Swarm
Invasion of the Bee Girls
Star Crash
Troll 2
Q: The Winged Serpent
The Creeping Terror
Glen or Glenda
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
The Green Slime
Reefer Madness

Bad Movies I Loathe
While the following films may (or may not) possess top-notch production values, clean editing, big-name directors and state-of-the-art special effects, they all fall short because they are, in one way or another, ultimately boring. Either that, or the storytelling flaws and prodution value are so slipshod that they overwhelm even ironic enjoyment of the proceedings (see: Superman IV). Here's a sampling of bad movies I loathe:

Independence Day
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
Revenge of the Sith
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace
Godzilla (1998)
Batman (1989)
Batman Returns
Batman Forever
Batman and Robin
Howard the Duck
Star Trek: Nemesis
Wild Wild West

The Awesome Elite

There is, of course, another category: films that some people foolishly declare "bad," but which are, in fact, awesome...and I mean "awesome" in the truest sense of the word. These films transcend mere mortal judgment and stand on their own as epic feats of movie myth.

Flash Gordon
Big Trouble in Little China
Evil Dead II
Army of Darkness
Destroy All Monsters
Bad Taste
Dead Alive
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

How do you categorize some of your favourite or least favourite films?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

All the Flavours of Failure

A couple of days ago an email from my friend Stephen prompted a brief discussion about movies and subjective judgment. Stephen sent our circle of friends a link to the trailer to the new Steve Soderbergh film, Contagion:

I remarked that I looked forward to seeing this film, because in my estimation Soderbergh hasn't made a bad movie yet, to which our friend Colin replied, "Says the man who likes Robot Monster."

I understand Colin's  skepticism regarding my taste in film; I did, after all, make the group sit through Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Colin's remark helped me realize that to an outside observer, my eclectic taste in movies might seem a little puzzling; I adore the classics, but I also treasure some of the worst movies ever made. But only some of those bad movies; I turn my nose up at other sorts of bad films. Why would I favour one bad film over another? Because sometimes a failure of imagination is worse than a failure of execution

Here's how I attempted to sum up my feelings:

I do love Robot Monster. There are all kinds of ways for movies to be entertaining. Soderbergh generally chooses the path of good scripts and innovative direction; other, less accomplished creators follow the path of breathtakingly amusing incompetence, ideally combined with overweening ambition.
I have a difficult time explaining why I love movies such as Plan 9 from Outer Space and Robot Monster, but also legitimate classics such as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or The Third Man, while shunning stuff like Independence Day or Transformers. I guess it boils down to this: subjectively, I get the feeling that the makers of Robot Monster and Plan 9 were trying to make good movies. Their effort and sincerity counts. On the other hand, while Independence Day or Transformers might be more accomplished in a technical sense, these films feel soulless to me - by-the-numbers confections to be forgotten moments after they're seen. I really can't believe that the Roland Emmerich or Michael Bay were actually trying to make good films; they were simply filling niches in the market in the most efficient way possible. There's no room for anything bold or daring in this sort of summer blockbuster; there must simply be explosions, beautiful people and good versus evil.
There are great films. There are good films. There are bad films. Each of these categories has something to offer, even if, in the latter case, it's ironic enjoyment or a simple course in how not to make a movie. But there are also mediocre films. Mediocre films are a waste of time; they don't engage the mind, they don't offer any sort of insight or beauty. Independence Day and Transformers are mediocre films. There are plenty of other examples.
Even Plan 9 from Outer Space provides a real window into the mind of its director; you can see Wood's struggle to overcome his limitations. He shoots for the stars and fails. He's Icarus, brought tragically low by his own limitations. But his efforts are something to behold. His sincerity shines (or perhaps oozes) through every frame of film he ever shot.
Is, say, Roland Emmerich a better director or producer than Ed Wood was? Technically speaking, perhaps. But I'd far sooner watch one of Wood's films. 
In other words, sincerity counts. I'd rather watch an ambitious failure that's full of heart than a well-executed but soulless confection. And you can't discount the value of unintentional comedy!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dark Enigma

I shot this strange back-lit self portrait sometime during my first year of studies at the University of Alberta. The lamp looks goofy behind my head, and I don't know why I thought it would be cool to pose in my pajamas, but I do like the lighting effects. Behind my right elbow you can see an old Atari floppy disc drive; next to my forearm, there's an Atari 130XE 8-bit computer. It may sound a little strange now, but I was one of only a small handful of students with computers on our floor at Lister Hall. Our rooms were often crowded with video-game enthusiasts. These days, I'm sure most U of A students have smart phones more powerful than my old Atari.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Living Room, Breathing Room

If you've ever played the computer game The Sims, you know that the game's titular characters are affected positively or negatively by their surroundings; they have a "room" score. The nicer the room, the happier your Sims will be.

This is what my Baywood Park apartment looked like when Sylvia and I started dating. As you can see, Sylvia is mashed into a tiny space on the couch, surrounded by towers of clutter. I still feel that any room is nicer with bookshelves, but Sylvia has very different aesthetic priorities. Her "room" score always took a dive whenever she visited my place, and with good reason; every room of my two-bedroom abode was filled with similar piles of stuff, save the bathroom. When we moved into our first condo, it took several weeks to sort out all of my stuff and bring some semblance of order back into our lives. During this time, Sylvia would often pace up and down the halls of our new home, her eyeballs rolling around madly in their sockets. Sylvia is orderly.

So am I, but only when it comes to my books and movies; those are all carefully arranged by alphabetical order or genre. Unfortunately for Sylvia, this touch of OCD is limited to media; it does not extend to arranging furniture, sorting laundry, fixing appliances and so on. This is almost certainly because I feel that the books I read and the movies I watch reflect my identity in some way. They're an expression of my outlook and style, though what message they send I'm not sure. I don't feel the same way about decor, though thanks to Sylvia I'm learning to appreciate that subtle art a little more. I actually had when Sylvia and I unpacked our artwork and hung various paintings and photographs around the house. It really does make a difference in the feel of our home. And even though I have a high tolerance for household clutter, I have to admit that from time to time I'll go on a cleaning binge to straighten out the mayhem of my office. I always feel better when I do, too.

There's something quite satisfying about forging order from chaos every once in a while. Sylvia's helped me appreciate this aspect of life a little more, one of many reasons why I'm so grateful to have her in my life.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Jack Layton

Jack Layton died this morning, and like countless other Canadians from across the political spectrum, I'm deeply saddened. Jack was a courageous crusader who clearly wanted to build a better nation for every citizen. During the last election, he outlined a positive vision for our country with passion, conviction and sincerity and led the federal New Democrats to their greatest electoral success ever. Jack earned that victory.

As a progressive, I mourn the loss of a man who embodied quintessential Canadian values: social justice, free speech, multiculturalism, trust, decency and integrity.

Before he died, Jack Layton gave Canada two last gifts. His victory in Quebec has, one hopes, helped heal the rift between that beautiful province and English-speaking Canada. And just a couple of days ago, he wrote an open letter to Canadians of astounding power and beauty. It concludes like this:

My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.

All my very best,
Jack Layton
Earlier today my own leader, Dr. David Swann, offered his thoughts on Layton's passing. They echo my own.
Today a stunned nation is coming to terms with the passing of a leader who died too soon. Jack Layton, Leader of the federal Official Opposition, is gone, mere months after having earned the title with the biggest NDP victory in history.

It seems unbearably cruel that Mr. Layton was denied the opportunity to lead his new Official Opposition caucus for more than a few months. As an Official Opposition Leader myself, I know how important it is for any province or nation to have a solid opposition to hold government accountable. I have no doubt that Jack would have been very effective in the role he earned in May.

Whatever his or her political affiliation, no Canadian can deny that Jack Layton lived to serve his country and his fellow citizens. His was a unique voice and a unique vision, and it was always clear that his primary motivation was the well-being of all Canadians. He tried to build a better country, and for that, we salute him.
On behalf of Alberta’s Official Opposition, I extend our sincere condolences to Mr. Layton’s loved ones and supporters.  
You will be remembered, Jack. Thank you for your service to the nation.

David Swann,
Leader of the Official Opposition

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A Bird on the Head

On the Labour Day weekend of 1974 or '75, my parents and I, along with Dad's mother and her friend Val Head, embarked on a fishing trip well north of the 57th parallel: to be precise, Mile 35 out of Lynn Lake, Manitoba on the road to Co-op Point near Vandekerckhove Lake. There we met Dad's friend Sheldon LeBlanc and LeBlanc's father-in-law. Dad met LeBlanc through Acklands, Limited; Dad set up and managed the branch in Leaf Rapids, while LeBlanc managed the store in Lynn Lake.

Before my recent trip to Alaska,this surely must have been my farthest trip north, a bumpy, desolate drive on barely-maintained gravel or dirt roads. I remember very little about the drive or the fishing (which Dad reports as "excellent;" apparently we caught plenty of great pickerel), but I recall with perfect clarity the unwanted guest that intruded upon our campfire.

Night had fallen, and it was terribly cold. The stars shone down through a clear black sky and the silhouettes of the tall pines, providing light but no warmth. For that,  the seven of us huddled around the campfire as steaks sizzled on the Hibachi. (It was so cold, in fact, that Mom put her feet right in the campfire and melted the soles of her shoes.)

Then, from out of the darkness came the rapid flutter of beating wings. A whiskeyjack landed right on the grill, attempting to steal a piece of steak. It managed only to burn its talons, leaping back into the night, circling the fire, twittering in annoyance. A moment later it landed again...right on the top of my head.

I yelled in pain as the bird's claws sank into my skull. The adults were astounded, and Mom ran into our tent trailer, searching frantically for the camera.

"Don't move!" everyone said. "It'll fly away!"

"Ow!" I responded pitifully, enduring the pain.

And so I stood there, stoic, my face scrunched up, trying not to cry. The whiskeyjack twittered arrogantly, and at last Mom emerged from the tent trailer. She got into position, raised the camera...and the bird launched itself back into the night the instant before she could trigger the shutter.

I grumbled a little and rubbed my head, having endured the pain for nothing, but now that I'm grown I certainly understand everyone's desire to capture the image; it would have been one for the books.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Cereal Spiller

Some days it's just not worth getting up in the morning.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Capital Effort

Regarding the Edmonton Capitals game from a couple of posts ago, I think my colleague John Santos deserves a shout-out for some truly excellent sports photography, especially since he's never been to a baseball game before. He captured two of the most exciting events of the game - a shattered bat that spun across the field, and the near-brawl that erupted between the Scorpions' Tony Philips and the umpire over a disputed call. I don't like conflict, but the crowd's heckling was pretty entertaining. After Philips was ejected, another Scorpion scored a home run, to which one wag responded sarcastically: "This one's for Tony!"

I want to thank Rick Miller again for organizing this. Sylvia and I really had a wonderful time. Oh, and the Capitals won!

Take a gander at John's excellent photos.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Choke Point

I'm still sick. If anything, I feel worse today than I did yesterday. I don't have any photos of me being sick, but I do look somewhat distressed here thanks to Steven's choke hold,'s somewhat thematic, I guess. I don't recall the exact context of this photo, but I found the negative in the same batch as that containing images of Jeff and Susan's move from Edmonton to British Columbia, so perhaps these were taken at the same event.

As Tam commented insightfully on my last post, whenever those of us in generally good health feel sick, we should try to be grateful that ours is a temporary affliction, gone in a few days. People with chronic health problems aren't nearly so fortunate, so it's a bit rich to be grumpy over something as minor as a flu or head cold. On the other hand, it's hard to be philosophical when you're in pain, and I think anyone that feels bad can be forgiven for feeling a little sorry for themselves, however briefly.

It may hurt to laugh at this picture right now, but I'm still glad I found it. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


I'm feeling rather sick today, and at one point while groaning about my aching muscles I thought "Being sick is like being stuck in your own personal Alcatraz." So today's brief post captures an image of Earl at Alcatraz, or at least overlooking the famous prison island, seen here in the fog-clouded background, in the direction I'm gazing. I visited California for the second time in 1998, and took a couple of hours to explore the Golden Gate Bridge.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Capitals vs. Scorpions

Once in a while it's nice to socialize with your colleagues outside the workplace, so tonight Official Opposition staff members are enjoying a gorgeous evening of baseball, with patio seating right behind home plate. Thanks to Rick Miller for organizing a great outing! We even saw Jose Canseco take his batting practice!

Currently Scorpions lead 3-2.

Monday, August 15, 2011

You Pick Earl's Next Boss

Earlier this summer, the provincial Liberal party made it possible for any Albertan to vote in our leadership race, and you don't even have to join the party to do so. Since I work for the Official Opposition, that means that you have an opportunity not only to pick the next Leader of the Alberta Liberals, but also to choose my next boss!

Registering to vote in the race is easy. Just fill in this form. Then research the five Alberta Liberal leadership candidates before making your choice. Here are the contenders, in democratic alphabetical order:

Laurie Blakeman

Bill Harvie

Hugh MacDonald

Bruce Payne

Raj Sherman

Whether you're a Liberal or not, this is an opportunity to have a real impact on the shape of our legislature. Make sure to sign up before August 19th if you want to vote by mail, or before September 6th if you want to vote in person. The Alberta Liberal Party will communicate all the details.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Disco Earl

People have always told me that they can tell by the way I use my walk that I'm a ladies' man; no time to talk. But that's all right, that's okay; I'm happily married anyway. Don't need no suit, no shirt and tie; more pheromones than other guys. Whether I'm a writer or just another piker I'm still staying alive, staying alive.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Right Side of the Tracks

On Wednesday I documented my first trolley car ride in several years. When I learned that the Edmonton Radial Railway Society had a second car, newly restored to 1912 condition, I had to return for another trip. Here's Streetcar No. 33, the product of 17 years of restoration work. It's a work of art, inside and out. Here's a collection of images of the new car:
Period filament light bulb!
The trolley is running until 10 pm during the Fringe and stops right in the heart of the festival, so there's no better time than now to toss a doubloon into the fare box!