Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pulpitations: Hologrammatic Truth

It was my church's third anniversary of being an Affirming Ministry, committed to equality and inclusion for all sexual orientations and gender identities. We held an Affirimiversary party last night in the form of a drag show -  a Dragstravaganza, in fact. I had no idea what to expect, but all in all, it was a pretty entertaining experience.

Today the committee took care of the church service, allowing our still-solo minister to have a well-deserved morning off. This meant another sermon for me, and this morning our committee chair, who was also serving as worship assistant, asked me how I was doing.

"Not great," I confessed. "I don't actually enjoy doing this, I enjoy having done it, if you know what I mean. Everything leading up to the actual doing is kind of unbearable, honestly."

It's true. I agonize over my choices, removing and replacing whole blocks of text, and prior to delivery, I get the clammy palms, sweaty brow and tumbling tummy associated with intense nervousness. 

This sermon was a toughie for me, as it included a piece of text I hadn't yet reconciled for myself.

"But I wouldn't trade it for anything," I continued. "I get a lot of support from everyone, which is very gratifying, it's just a bit draining."

Soon enough, the readers had presented Psalm 31, Acts 7:55-60, and John 13:3 -14:14 (pasted in below for the theologically inclined), and it was time to get up an present my own variety of scriptural insights, morality tale and call from complacency, with a dash of political current events to boot, and hope it went over well...

The Price of Truth

I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend as much time thinking as I used to. I mean, I still do more than my fair share of daydreaming, staring into space, ruminating, woolgathering, and what have you, but the times when I take a difficult idea or thorny concept and really, you know, ponder it? Those have been on a downward trend since my university days.

It’s one of the things that I am most grateful for in terms of being in the lay worship leadership program here at St. Albert United. A couple times a year, I am required to sit down with some scriptures and try to wring something insightful out of them that I can share with others. I mean, I don’t have to, but I know y’all can read them by yourselves, so I have to get my value-add in there someplace, right?

I start by looking at the passages, sometimes in a variety of translations - New Revised Standard, King James, New International, Lexham English -and looking carefully at the word choices and footnotes. Sometimes a single word is enough to give me everything I need, like when I learned that the word meek, as in ‘the meek shall inherit the earth’ doesn’t mean acquiescent, but teachable.

Then I look at the commentary written and shared by others. Sometimes you come across this in essays, other times blog posts, and in some circumstances, even complete sermons - which I can then copy outright and pray no one notices! (Kidding, kidding…)

After that comes the hard part - reflection. Discerning the lesson God wants me to take away from these words, and trying very, very hard to be open to new ideas and different interpretations. It helps to be aware of the privilege, filters, and cultural baggage I bring with me as a comfortable, middle-class, middle-aged, straight white Christian cis-male.

Sometimes the insights I gain, or the manner in which I am able to articulate them, are a little off-beat. This will come as a surprise to absolutely no-one who knows me, I’m sure. For instance, in this week’s reading from John, I realized the following:

The Bible is not a hologram.

Now, I’m certain that a lot of you were already well aware of this fact, but it is new to me. For the rest of us, let’s go back to first principles: does anyone know what a hologram is?

Right, those 3D looking images you see as a proof of authenticity on credit cards and what we used to call ‘paper’ currency. You hold them up to the light and turn them this way and that and behold! You can see part of that wee dove that you couldn’t before!

A hologram is a 2-dimensional object that replicates three dimensional space. That little credit card bird, he looks like a tiny sculpture, floating in space somewhere behind that plastic card, in a field of illusory depth. Manufacturing them is not an easy process, despite the fact you see it on hat -stickers and any other product requiring a seal of authenticity, but this ability to create a space wherein a 3D object can be viewed from multiple angles is not even the most astonishing feature of holograms.

If I tear a painting or drawing in half, I don’t really get two smaller drawings, I get two halves foa whole. If its a picture of a horse, someone is getting the back end of that horse, if you know what I mean.

If you have a larger hologram, and are able to tear it in half, you not only don’t break it, but you can still see the original image, in its entirety, in each half. If we took - hmm, what’s a good name for a mascot of credit cards...Billy! If we took that small sticker with Billy the credit card bird, and made it the size of a sheet of paper, then tore that sheet in half, we would have two Billys. If we tore those two sheets in half, we would have 4, all showing the same thing. It’s astonishing! I’m sorry I lack the hologrammatic engineering skills to have built a working example for you.

On a superficial level, you can find commonalities between the Bible and a hologram:

  • They both create depth (one literal, one metaphorical), despite being stuck in a two-dimensional medium.
  • You can look at them both from a variety of angles, and gain new perspectives, or insights.
  • They are both, in some ways, indestructible; the hologram because of the properties of optical interference through diffraction grating on superimposed planar wavefronts, and the Bible because of capital T truth; the greater truth.
The big difference though, is that a section of the Bible -say, a single verse- doesn’t always reflect that greater truth in the same way. Unlike a hologram, the piece is not an accurate depiction of the whole. And this can not only cause misunderstandings and confusion, but can actually be dangerous.

Consider today’s reading from the 14th chapter of John’s Gospel, which holds, for me, as someone who likes to think of themselves as a progressive, inclusive Christian, one of the most problematic verses in the New Testament: John 14:6: “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Well, gosh, that doesn’t sound very inclusive, does it?

In certain circles, this verse is what’s known as a ‘clobber text’. As in, when discussing the possibility of other, non-Christian viewpoints in terms of going to heaven, salvation, building God’s kingdom or whatever a particular denomination likes to call it, this is a verse that Christian exclusionists will trot out to clobber you with.

That verse, on its own seems pretty cut-and-dried: if you do not believe in and follow Jesus, well, I guess your theology is just not going to pay off, chum. But in the context of the larger conversation Jesus is having, this is the wrong message to be taking away.

First of all, some context: this is Jesus saying goodbye to his followers. Shortly after this final conversation, he will be arrested, tried and. crucified, and he is well aware of this. And yet, Jesus is the one comforting his disciples, who, in true human fashion are trying to make it all about them!

“You’re leaving us? Now? Why? Why so soon? Where are you gonna go? What are we gonna do? And how are we gonna follow you? WHAT THE HECK ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?!?”

To me, Jesus shows no more proof of his divinity than in this moment when he patiently, confidently, and compassionately reassures them. John 14:6, this supposed ‘clobber text’, actually clarifies that Jesus is not speaking to a multitude, but responding to an earnest question about the future, and four words make this abundantly clear: “Jesus said to him”, singular.

He is answering Thomas, the disciple we will almost always associate with doubt, who has heard Jesus say “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But Thomas doesn’t know, at least not right away, and says so: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

To which Jesus replies,”I am the way. And the truth, And the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.”

He goes on to say “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

That’s quite a bit fuller picture than that single verse, isn’t it? The Bible is not a hologram. In fact, the very idea of people using that verse to express the notion of Christian superiority or exclusivity, knowing that the very same chapter begins with Jesus saying that “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places” gets me a bit upset, if you want to know the truth of it.

Now, from the perspective of a dude with no formal theological training whatsoever, there is a vein of rich material in this first part of John 14 for sermons. There have been volumes written just about the relative worth of faith versus works, but like a lot of people, I am going to squat somewhere in the middle on that one because I personally feel they are interdependent. I happen to believe that labour done with a spiritual component has more impact and resonance than work done for strictly practical or worldly reasons. And that as good as prayer is, it stands a much better chance of moving those mountains when people roll up their sleeves and get to the digging.

Take last night’s Affirmiversary event: a Dragstravaganza! A bit of entertainment and fellowship to be sure, and a bunch of money raised for Little Warriors through the Northern Alberta drag society the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Wild Rose, to be sure. After all, the mission of the ISCWR is to support charities which provide direct services to the LGBTQ community of Edmonton or those which work to promote an accepting attitude to gays and lesbians in the community as a whole.

But we send a wider message about our work as a community of faith too, especially for our goal as an Affirming Ministry, which is “Working for the full inclusion of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the United Church of Canada and in society.” There is more to being an affirming ministry than having a rainbow sticker on the door, it means flying that rainbow flag, it means marching in Pride, it means supporting the LGBTQ community right here in St. Albert through groups like Out Loud and PFLAG. It means celebrating our third affirmiversary

And why is it do this, to stake our rainbow flag in the ground and not just implicitly welcome but explicitly invite and celebrate people from sexual minorities? Because of the persecution they have received and continue to receive at the hands of people calling themselves followers of Jesus.

Let me provide you with an example from current events: This Thursday, some 60,000 Albertans will begin picking a new leader for the new United Conservative Party. There are three candidates with a variety of diverse opinions and differing platforms, but the frontrunner feels that students who join Gay-Straight Alliances or GSAs should have their parents notified, regardless of the wishes of the student.

This flies directly in the face of most expert testimonials and statistical data. Kris Wells, from the U of A’s Institue of Sexual Minority Studies and Services, has a horrifying repertoire of stories dealing with youth who are outed before they are ready, who face the threat of scorn, exclusion, or even physical harm at home from those who are supposed to love and protect them.

The leadership candidate in last place talked to UCP members about GSAs being a useful tool to combat poverty and suicide among LGBTQ youth. What did he hear in response from some members?

That this is God’s punishment for them.

Take note: this is not a pronouncement from Biblical times, or from someplace deep in the backwoods, or in the hills of Talibanistan, this is from right here in our own backyards.

And yes, thank goodness, the United Church has taken a progressive stance on inclusivity going way back, and yes, we are an Affirming Ministry and proud to be so, but before we get a separated shoulder from patting ourselves on the back, let’s not forget that it was only, what, ten years ago, that our own congregation had a vote on sanctifying same-sex marriages that was by no means unanimous, and we saw a number of people leave us once we voted to do so. Even our vote to become an Affirming Ministry in 2014 wasn’t unanimous!

But I don’t say good riddance to those who left a decade ago, and I hope the more recent dissenter(s) from three years back are still with us, perhaps maintaining their skepticism but bearing an open mind as well, hearing this important truth: that God’s love is for everyone. Everyone.

Living the truth can be hard. Proclaiming the truth can be hard. Look at Stephen from our other new testament reading today, called to explain himself for telling others about Jesus, but instead of knuckling under, he turns the tables on his accusers, saying that they are the ones ignoring God’s law, and is killed for his troubles.

And who is there to witness this, but a young man named Saul, who I discovered in my research is none other than Saul of Tarsus, but who is better known as the Apostle Paul. Stephen’s attackers drop their coats in front of Saul, presumably to make throwing easier, and proceed to pelt Stephen with stones.

The fact that Stephen’s faith in the truth of Jesus is strong enough that he is willing to lay down his life for it is not even the most astonishing part of this story to me, it is the fact that before he expires, he loudly forgives his attackers.

This feels important to me, because too often, especially in recent years, we tend to demonize those who feel differently from us. In the U.S., the political left and right have become diametrically entrenched echo chambers, not only with each clinging exclusively to the values they have long held, but each with their own paragons, and their own sources of truth.

I don’t think the purpose of our reading from Acts today is to glorify martyrdom, or to suggest that one should be prepared to die for the things they believe in. Taken with the parting instructions from Jesus, it is a reflection of just how much strength can be drawn from God, from the holy place that exists inside each one of us when we serve the truth, when we act in the service of love. Strength enough to persevere in the face of ridicule, in the face of oppression, in the face of unpopularity, and if it should come to that, in the face of death itself. Gods help

Today’s Psalm sounds like it could have been written by one of those kids Kris Wells has had to help out, youth who are trying to live the truth about who they are: “I am the scorn of my enemies, yes even my neighbours; they see me in the street and they shrink away. I hear the whispering of many, fear is on every side.” But even in the face of this, the psalmist’s faith is unbroken: “I trust in you; you are my God.”

The Bible can be a complex, contradictory, non-intuitive, and often baffling piece of divinely inspired work at times, but wisdom can always be found there. Sometimes it is a lot of work to discern it, at least for me.

There are 31,102 verses in the Bible. We heard 38 today, and they have shown us a piece of the greater truth that no single verse, especially one taken (willfully) out of context, cannot hope to. Most importantly though, we heard that final commandment from Jesus that should underscore all our works, as a church and as Christians: “That you love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love one another. Not just those who agree with you, or look like you, or who believe in precisely the same things as you, but everyone. The kingdom of God is not a geographic place, it resides in two relationships: the one we have with God, and the one we have with our neighbour.

Build a better world; a better, more loving, more tolerant, more inclusive world, with room for everyone to experience God’s love. That is what Christ calls us to do. This truth may have a price, but God is there to help us foot the bill

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Let’s ask for a better world, created in the image of the kingdom of God. It’s tantalizingly close, almost within our reach, but love is the only thing that will get us there.


After the service, I got a lot of very positive feedback (which, if I'm being honest, is a big part of why I do it!), and a lot of agreement that John 14:6 can be a tough nut to crack, which was extremely gratifying.

But the first two people to leave after the service didn't feel quite the same. An older husband and wife I didn't recognize, they were in the narthex before Betty and I got there, but the wife turned, hesitantly, and came back to speak with me.

With a mildly European accent I couldn't place, she explained that God doesn't hate homosexuals, just their behaviour, which we shouldn't promote. She felt that the children's story, about a girl with two mommies, did promote this.

I was completely taken aback. Did they not know what kind of congregation we were trying to be? Had they missed the rainbow decal on our door, or the flag just above it? Had they not, I dunno, listened to any of the sermon or prayers?

Smiling, I explained that we were going to have to agree to disagree, that we were committed to inclusion, and I was glad they had come and were able to hear a different message, and that we were able to express our differences in a civil manner.

She smiled and they left, but it was unsettling nonetheless.

Thankfully their absence was soon filled by well-wishers from the congregation, all with nice things to say, and soon after, we were on our way home.

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Acts 7:55–60
In our first reading, we hear about the first Christian martyr, Stephen, called before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council charged with administering justice. Accused of blasphemy for proclaiming the teachings of Jesus, he accuses the council of ignoring God’s law, which enrages them.

But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”  But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

John 13:33 - 14:14  
The Gospel reading is Jesus’ farewell to his followers. It includes his final commandment, and the importance of carrying on his works.

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works.  Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.  Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Superfluous, Sumptuous, Haunting - Blade Runner 2049, Reviewed

Spoiler-free, for your protection!

I never wanted to like Blade Runner 2049, for the simple reason that I didn't feel the original needed one.

Let the record clearly show that I'm a huge fan of Blade Runner, having snuck into the theater to see it when I was but 15. Within a handful of months I'd purchased the 'making of' magazine, the Marvel comic adaptation (with way more backstory, it turns out!), and even written a set of rules for playing out replicant hunting adventures in TSR's old espionage RPG, Top Secret. I watched my VHS copy more times that I can count, and likewise for the Director's and Final Cut. Hell, there are a staggering seven different versions of Blade Runner already out there, so it is fair to say that the ground has been well and fully trod upon, right?

Enter Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, to chart fresh new ground. Fresh off the critical and audience acclaim from last year's Arrival, and another outspoken fan of the original. He shares my affection for both the theatrical and director's cuts of the film, and has spoken of the tension existing between the two versions as being a source of power and inspiration. Where the original film asks the viewer "What does it mean to be human?", Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 seems to ask "Where is the humanity in a society propped up by slaves?"

It is almost impossible to talk about the plot without divulging some absolutely wonderful and occasionally stunning surprises, so I'm afraid that's off the table. I will tell you that the cast is a splendid mix of new and established faces, and Ryan Gosling conveys a tremendous amount of thought and emotion despite having a fairly taciturn role and a lot of screentime to himself.

Visually, the movie is nothing short of amazing, and I am so glad I took Earl's advice to see it in IMAX. The production design perfectly emulates the cyberpunk look the first film practically invented with its mix of high tech and low-brow. A welcome return to model-based effects, and very little in the way of discernible CGI.

Nearly every prop has some sort of design element reflective of the future, from the variety vehicles,  both ground and air, to an automat-style diner that probably wouldn't look too out of place in the Ginza today, except perhaps for the pervasive and provocative holographic ads.

Frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins handled the cinematography, and does his usual amazing work. His use of light and shadow are right up to par with what we saw 35 years ago under Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth, but he trades in a portion of the overall noir look of the original for something with more variety (i.e. the occasional brightly lit room) and nuanced, and at times, almost painfully colourful.

Most important though, is probably the tone. Hampton Fancher's screenplay, which is what compelled both Villenuve and Harrison Ford to take part, makes it easy to believe that the derelict Los Angeles of 2019 was a real place, with real inhabitants, and a history that kept on going after the elevator doors closed on Deckard and Rachel three decades previous. The present story doesn't need to connect to the past, at least not initially, and when it does, that tone is both appropriate and respectful.

In terms of literal tones, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch wrap themselves in the electronic sounds of Vangelis, but aren't afraid to make them louder, angrier and more dissonant in places. This is remarkably effective in both ratcheting up the tension and reminding you of just how much eerier Blade Runner's opening scenes were because of them.

On top of all this though, we are treated to some big science-fiction ideas, the kind where you are given a beat to realize, whoa, if that's the case, then...the world is gonna change. Between Arrival and this film, we may well be turning the corner on seeing more gorgeous looking, well written and acted sci-fi with some real meat on it.

Or maybe not.

In case you couldn't tell, I quite enjoyed Blade Runner 2049, and I advise everyone who likes a bit of though behind their sci-fi, or those who like fully imagined visions of the future (I should probably say a future- at one point you see a holo-ad of a ballerina with the caption "CCCP - Happy Soviet") to go and see it, preferably in IMAX, and without delay.  Or even if you just appreciate a sumptuously visual and imaginative take on the detective genre, which is just one more way BR 2049 emulates its forebear.

But there is also no denying that it is a long film, clocking in at 2:43. It sure didn't feel like that to me (or my two teenaged daughters, for that matter), but that may be asking a lot of the modern movie-going audience. The complexity of the story, both in plot and morality, has Wired magazine asking if audiences are too lazy to appreciate it.

It's no secret that a relatively weak box office in the face of an enormous production budget means that financially, Blade Runner 2049 may end up classified as a flop. And if that happens, well, that will make for pretty tough sleddin' for the next director who pitches a thoughtful, detailed and languid film that takes time to explore its theme instead of just delivering the next summer tentpole or special effects spectacle.

On the other hand though, maybe it will end up being a sleeper, like its predecessor. The plot that I have taken such cares to step away from, is certain to generate conversation, as is the patina of ambiguity the viewer carries away from the theater. As the author Daniel H. Wilson says in that same Wired article, "If your friend hasn’t seen it, well then they damn well better go see it, so that you can talk about it, because I’ve got things I need to talk about,” he says. “That is how this virus spreads.”

If you haven't already seen Blade Runner 2049, I hope you take steps to do so, and soon - we still have a lot to talk about.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Mountain Madness for Two

Mountains have, for me at least, always conjured feelings of awe and majesty, but in truth, they are pretty strange when you stop to think about it. They are at once sheltering and foreboding, inhospitable yet welcoming, where hot springs of mineral water spill out of cold granite.

It was this final dichotomy that compelled Glory and I to take Frankentrailer to Jasper for one final outing before sequestering him to the patio for the winter. In the weeks leading up to our sojourn, I had warned Glory that snow had already fallen a couple of times, and that the nights were likely to be below zero, but she was resolute, and confident in the insulation of her sleeping bag.

Besides, since the focus of our sortie was to partake in a final dip in Miette Hot Springs on the last weekend of the season, cold weather would make our soak seem even more worthwhile.

The other x-factor was our ability to set up camp as a twosome, something that had never been attempted before. It is certainly possible for one person to deploy Frankentrailer, but it is tedious, the real sticking point is my inability to back up with a trailer attached. In order to navigate in a rearward fashion, we must disconnect the trailer from the hitch, and while I grasp the front frame and lift it up, Glory (and whomever else is at hand) will push the trailer into to needed position.

We didn't get into our campsite at Wapiti until after 9:00, and it was well and truly dark, but we shouldered Frankentrailer into position, and Glory got the insides set up while I got the corner legs into position. We were safely ensconced in fairly short order, although it was cold enough when I woke up at 5:00 am that I was grateful we had brought along a space heater.

The next morning we breakfasted on cold smoothies and hot oatmeal, then made our way to the Jasper Skytram, discovering that Glory still qualified as a Youth and was eligible for a half-price fare until  her next birthday (Sunrise, sunset...) It was fairly cool and extremely windy at times at the top of the tram, but we were well bundled up and decided to take the trail to at least the false summit.

Alas, the footing and rate of incline worked against us, and we only made it about 3/4 of the way, pausing every 100 meters or so for me to catch my breath. When I saw the amount of fresh snow between us and the last two waypoints, and contrasted the environment with Glory's footwear, we decided that discretion truly is the better part of valour and turned back.

It turns out that the exertion of the ascent pales in comparison to the terror of the descent, as our return angle made us far more susceptible to slipping on the icy trails and loose scree and shale. Glory crabwalked and butt-slid for the trickiest portions, while I took a small spill but abbreviated my slide by barking my shin against an particularly immobile chunk of stone. Two days later it is still remarkably unappetizing to look at.

Eventually we hobbled back to the tram station, our necks and shoulders sore from the pent up tension of our tentative and tenderfooted declination. On the 7-minute ride back down, we marveled at the tidy terminator that demarcated the wintry upper mountain from the still autumnal valley floor, another example of mountain strangeness. Soon enough, we were sharing a cold lunch on our way to Miette.

22 years ago, Audrey and I had come to Miette on the same weekend, or perhaps the one before, just before we moved to Toronto for four years. At that time, there had been hardly anyone at the springs, but now we found the pool nearly at capacity. The deck turned our feet into tingling, ham-like slabs by the time we got into the deeper pool, but we could feel the tension melting away from our upper bodies as we looked up at the sleet falling from the heavens.

As we returned to Jasper, we though we were going to see two male elk battling it out, but it turned out they were disinterested in combat, and were only accidentally entangling their horns as they grazed to near to one another. Even more astonishing though, were the number of people getting out of their cars and coming within 15-20 meters of these massive and unpredictable ruminants.

A light rain was falling sporadically as we returned to camp, and we had an important decision to make: go back to the site, heat up our clam chowder and enjoy it by a campfire, possibly in the rain, or skip it in favour of North Face Pizza, a Jasper institution and family tradition?

In the end, the fact that we hadn't had a campfire all summer due to the fire ban convinced us to take a chance on eating outdoors, and I am glad we did. The rain never amounted to much and we were able to get a roaring blaze established in our firepit, finishing off the evening with hot s'mores and cocoa.

All too soon though, the wintry chill pushed us away from the flames and into the trailer. We turned on the space heater before we left to brush our teeth, and Frankentrailer was downright cozy by the time we returned, which was fortunate, as Glory was fighting a cold.

The next day, we crawled out of our sleeping bags at 8:08, briefly broke our fast with a few gulps of smoothie, and had the trailer packed and hooked up by 9:15. This gave us plenty of time to head over to the Best Western for their brunch buffet, possibly the best $12.95 I've ever spent on a camping trip.

Bellies full and spirits refreshed by our time in the mountains, we headed for home. We alternated our picks of albums as we traveled, limiting ourselves to soundtracks, just for fun. Conversation varied from vacations past and future, work, school, and how fortunate we are to live a stone's throw from an astonishing place that draws visitors from all around the world.

There were quiet periods too, which I do my best to respect, but after a while I broke the silence with a recollection I felt compelled to share with Glory.

"When I was in high school," I began, "I found teenage girls beguiling, mysterious and intimidating. There weren't many of them I was comfortable talking to, even though there were a few I dearly would have liked to. I swear, there were times when it felt like maybe we were two different species.

"When it turned out I was going to be raising two daughters, I was thrilled, but I always figured that once you and Fenya became teenagers, I would become less and less relevant. This is why I took so much joy in sharing your childhoods with you, making pretend, watching cartoons, that sort of thing.

"Glory, I cannot even express how grateful I am that not only have I not become irrelevant, but we can still talk to each other about damn near anything. And you are not only willing to listen, and share your ideas with me, but you are happy to spend a weekend camping with your old man in Jasper in sub-zero temperatures! More mountain strangeness, I suppose.

"So, thank you for that."

In a weekend filled with astonishing moonrises, glorious wildlife and magnificent alpinetableaux,  her quiet smile may have been the most beautiful thing I saw.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Friends, Family, Food & Fall

Somewhere along the way I decided that I had a favourite season, and that autumn was it.

I'm grateful to live in a part of the world that has four distinct seasons, and they all have something to like about them, but fall is by far my favourite.

Part of it is the weather - the crispness in the air, a balance between the fleeting memory of summer's warmth and the impending chill of winter. Alberta in autumn tends to be a bit on the dry side, at least compared to my memories of Ontario. Every dry day beings to mind some task or chore that needs to be sorted out before the arrival of snow. The raking of the lawn, the digging out of the garden, cleaning out the rain gutters. Today we put away the patio furniture, in anticipation of putting Frankentrailer on the pad after Glory and I take it to Jasper for 2017's last camping trip next weekend.

The turning of the seasons also means another delightful Geekquinox experience. This year's theme was "Big Pig", a procession of pork-based plates, each progressive platter more pleasing than the previous - a veritable porkstravaganza!

Earl's blog entry has far better pictures than mine, but I feel compelled to immortalize the evening here anyways, for my own memory if nothing else.

The bacon-wrapped shrimp cooked on Pete's Big Green Egg carried all the smokiness you might expect, offset by the saltiness of the bacon.

Did the potato-prosciutto roses taste better than they looked, or look better than they tasted?


Pete busted out the largest pot I had ever seen in a private residence in order to cook the highlight of the evening: porchetta.

I'd never had porchetta before, and this is probably for the best. This Italian pork roast is symphony of flavours, but the percussion section that backs up the orchestra is full of lipids, and the strings are made of sodium, but it is so good, I would eat it again in a (rapidly slowing, irregularly rhythmed) heartbeat.

Pete had taken a full pig belly with the skin on, seasoned it with pesto and suchlike, then cooked it in his sous vide rig for an astonishing 36 hours. Now, at this point, a man with no teeth could have eaten the roast with little to no difficulty, but Pete was intent on a crispy skin, which is what necessitated the purchase of a pot big enough to cook up several children in the style of a Germanic fairy tale.

With a few inches of oil in the bottom, Pete fried the outer surface of the roast to a savoury golden brown, sliced the roast up and served it alongside bacon mashed potatoes and grilled cabbage.

Now, I should mention here that I am a big fan of pork. I like beef and chicken too, but if you told me I could only eat one animal for the rest of my life, it would be pork, without hesitation. Chops, roasts, ham, bacon, sausages - these are the staples our household menu rotates upon.

But Pete's porchetta is, hands down, the tastiest serving of pork I have ever had in my life.

That life may now be significantly shortened, since Pete generously gave the leftovers to Audrey and I, and since she found it too rich, I ended up enjoying it three times in the space of a week, which is probably two times too many. In my defense though, there just wasn't time to arrange to attend a twelve-step, and now there is nothing left to tempt me.

As great as the meal was though, the real highlight is always the conviviality. Such fellowship, set against a backdrop of brilliant eating and drinking, always makes me wish we got together more often as a group. On the other hand, between the porchetta and the liters of porch crawler Pete had on ice when we arrived (30 cans of beer, 40 oz. of vodka, and pink lemonade concentrate), maybe it's safer that we don't.

Pete's latest culinary escapade has also had a lingering effect on my on kitchen ambitions. I lack both the skill and patience to attempt the extraordinary dishes he makes look so easy, but at least I rediscovered my willingness to experiment.

An excess of leftover communion bread from church got me looking for bread pudding recipes, and I found one that could cook all afternoon in the crock pot. Jeff had told me about the wonders of planking meat loaf, so I prepared to do that as well. Audrey prepared a spaghetti squash, one of seven she grew in her garden this year. Then I made Audrey and I an autumnally themed cocktail with pumpkin spiced whiskey, apple liqueur and ginger ale, which turned out to be delightful.

While the girls cleared the table, I made a whiskey cream sauce for the bread pudding, again using the pumpkin spiced whiskey to good effect.

With Glory's dance, and Fenya's demanding schedule for work and university, family meals are becoming a bit of a rarity, so it was nice to have the four of us around the table for a change. Much smaller in both scale and scope than Geekquinox, it shared much of the laughter and joy of that event, and even with the chill in the air and overcast skies, the warmth in the house was unmistakeable.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Spy-Fi Spectacle - Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Reviewed

Given the number of sequels that have been made, it's astonishing that the list of those that are equal or perhaps even better than their predecessor is still as short as it is. Off the top of my head, I would start the list with The Godfather Part II, followed by Wrath of Khan, Aliens, and The Dark Knight. There are others, certainly, but it is not a lengthy list.

Despite having most of the same players in place (director, writer, cast) and a novel enough premise, Kingsman: The Golden Circle does not make that illustrious list. It is, however, a tremendous action-adventure cut from much the same cloth as the first one; in fact, so much so, that may be what hinders it in becoming excellent.

The movie starts out with the independent intelligence organization Kingsman under attack, and effectively removed from the board early on. Their upending comes at the hand of Poppy, one of the most delightfully over-the-top supervillains ever to threaten the world, portrayed with unabashed joy by Julianne Moore.

From her secret lair deep in the jungle, which she has cleverly made out to look like a slice of 1950s Americana, (a la Fordlandia), she executes her plan for personal wealth and power by... well, you know what, it is hardly important, and more fun to discover yourself. Suffice to say that Moore's presence onscreen owes just as much to Martha Stewart as it does to Ernst Stavros Blofeld or Dr. No and is just tremendously fun.

Taron Egerton's Eggsy is on hand to save the day, obviously, and the filmmakers have followed through from the end of the first movie in some unexpected ways. Those of you, like me, who cheered the absence of a romantic subplot in Kingsman: The Secret Service should be prepared to see the new Galahad with someone in his life, but for the most part, this is handled pretty well. On the downside though, this doesn't have nearly as much storytelling heft as the the Pygmalion-like tutelage from the first film which transforms Eggsy from a near-hopeless, dole-seeking chav to a dapper gentleman spy.

This time around, the internal struggle is not class-based; instead, we are treated to a comparison between the methodology and styles of the preternaturally British Kingsmen and their American cousins, the Statesmen. Not tailors but liquor purveyors and not in bespoke suits but Stetsons, blue jeans and denim jackets (wait, isn't that actually a Canadian tuxedo?) , the louder, brasher, bolder Statesmen like Agents Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) stand out in sharp relief from their English counterparts, despite the shared affectations for all manner of spy gadgetry.

There is a more substantive conflict that arises out of Poppy's maniacal plot, which deals with our perception of those who use illegal drugs, which is not only how she accumulated her wealth and power, but also the lynchpin by which she intends to hold the world hostage. Not everyone is agreed on the correct course of action, which adds some internal tension and some grist for the debating mill, but is no substitute for Eggsy's trans-classist victory from the first film

Although it mightn't be as deep a film and the emotional notes not quite as sharp, The Golden Circle has a lot going for it. First of all, director Matthew Vaughn has lost none of his zeal for directing slam-bang action sequences, and now he has even more toys to play with: six-shooters, lassos and electro-bullwhips join the weaponized wristwatch and tactical umbrella from before. The admittedly ludicrous fights are a joy to behold, and despite the ceaseless camera movements and unconventional angles Vaughn adores, you always have a clear idea what is going on, even if what happens next transpires so quickly it has already happened by the time you perceive him setting it up. His imaginative framing continues to be one of the best elements of his movies.

I know Vaughn wanted to keep the return of Harry Hart (Colin Firth) a surprise, but the marketing fellows put paid to that despite his wishes, so let me just say that his appearance in this movie is handled appropriately, with a great deal of distance between the man he was then and the man he is in this film.

Is Hart's return, Poppy's plot, Eggsy's romance, any of it, really, at all plausible? Well, almost certainly yes, once you remember that The Golden Circle is a sequel to an adaptation of a comic book, which drew its inspiration from a legendarily popular series of spy films, which were in turn adapted from a series of far more seriously-minded novels from post-war England. All of these antecedents have played fairly fast and loose with their interpretation of reality, but none of them have leaned into the outlandishness of the gentleman spy genre and blended some of the best elements of both spy films and superhero films the way Kingsman has.

Abandoning verisimilitude for a far more entertaining larger-than-life ouvre, The Golden Circle continues to plow ahead through that same fertile ground that The Secret Service did, albeit perhaps not to the same depth. Vaughn and company have provided us with a fantastic bit of entertainment for the fall which tickles the same fancies as its predecessor, and knows exactly what kind of outlandish escapism it (mostly) is.

And while it doesn't really tread a lot of new ground and in completely unlikely to win over anyone who didn't like the precursor, fans of the first film are very likely to enjoy themselves almost as much as they did the last time they watched the world get saved.

Oh, and one of the best celebrity cameos ever, in my opinion.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Embracing Ambiversion

When I was in university, candidates for the Residence Life program were required to take a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test prior to their interview. It was the first of several introspective test I would take as an adult in order to gain some insight about myself, and perhaps a degree of quantification regarding my interactions with others.

In the interview, I was asked where I draw my energy from: by interacting with other people, or withdrawing by myself to recharge. Thinking in terms of the work I like to do, the service aspects and public speaking, extroversion seemed a pretty good fit. But that test, and several since, have placed me firmly on the fence as far as introversion/extroversion goes. And the older I get, the more sense that seems to make.

As much as I love people and social gatherings, and fancy myself a gregarious host, I can also be quite shy. I thought it was deeply ironic when I went to my first Toastmasters speech contest in Saskatoon a couple of years ago, that I was far more comfortable delivering a speech to three to four hundred strangers than I was going in to the banquet hall and wondering who to sit with, since I didn't know anyone.

It doesn't take a tremendous amount of insight to say that there will be gaps in any test trying to quantify any aspect of human interaction  or perception into one of four binary axes; life (like so many things in nature, it seems) tends to express itself as more of a spectrum, after all. Into this paradigm strides the concept of an ambivert: someone whose personality has a balance of introvert and extrovert features. And apparently, most of us are more likely to fit this descriptor than either extrovert or introvert.

Saturday was a perfect example. I was expecting to make dinner for a half-dozen or so people, so I figured I would brine a tenderloin. After driving Fenya to work and getting my groceries, I had the house to myself, as Glory and Audrey were in Saskatoon for a feis (a 4th place and 1st place medal, thanks for askin!).

By early afternoon, the washroom was cleaned, the tenderloin was soaking in salty water spiked with maple syrup and Guinness, and the potatoes were all cut. As I finished tidying up, the silence of the house became far more pronounced, but I strangely found myself hoping that my guests wouldn't be too early.

I grabbed a book (another all too rare occurrence, I'm sad to say!), and sat on the recliner with Nitti to read. Maybe it was the knowledge that the quiet time would soon be ending, but I found myself relishing the sunny, muted afternoon.

As you may well know, reticence is not one of my hallmarks, so I was glad when the first of my guests showed, and we were able to exchange greetings and beers in short order. When everyone arrived, we shared an enjoyable meal of delightful pork and sadly undercooked potatoes and enjoyed getting caught up with one another. Afterwards, we trotted out Risk Godstorm (congratulations Colin!), and laughed and chatted until after midnight. Well after midnight for the last three of us, in fact.

Beyond the good time, I hope I remember Saturday as a lesson in balance, and the importance of taking time by myself, for myself, in order to get more out of my time with others.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Long Divisions by Three Percent

It was bad enough when I read about the Three-Percenters in the United States, but then they came to Alberta.

The Three Percenters are an American Militia group, pledging to resist their own government based on their judgement that the U.S. Constitution has been infringed. They take their name from a dubious assertion that only 3% of the population of the British colonies in America actually fought in the Revolutionary War, while scholars ("or socialist eggheads", depending on who you ask) say that number was probably over 15%.

But you see how clever that is, right? If the sole surviving superpower was founded by a violent minority, well, it means anything is possible, even now! It means these guys and their camo-wearing, 'tacti-cool' wearing buddies aren't a fringe element, they are the backbone of the next revolution.

Make no mistake, this is a group of disaffected individuals who relish the thought at taking up arms against what they feel is an oppressive government, so in addition to promoting anti-immigration (and largely anti-Muslim) views, they also make a point of demonstrating that they have access to firearms, releasing videos depicting their 'drilling' and practicing 'small unit tactics'. These individuals feel that armed struggle against a 'co-opted' army and/or police is not an if, it's a when.

Worse still, they claim a significant part of their membership is ex-armed forces and ex-law enforcement, and it is easy to believe, since back in 2013, a number of Jersey City police officers were disciplined for wearing patches that read "One of the 3%".

Armed militias are nothing new, but at least in the past, they felt obliged to maintain a low profile. Not the Three Percenters though; they post videos on YouTube, have open Facebook groups, hold rallies and host demonstrations on the steps of courthouses and city halls to protest lax immigration enforcement and what they fear is the creeping manifestation of sharia law in North American society.

And these demonstration sites include Calgary.

Vice ran a feature on them back in June, describing the inherent danger of  a group "playing with the potentially lethal cocktail of xenophobia and firepower", and estimated their real-world numbers in Alberta alone at between 150 and 200. Their online registration is claimed to be over 1600.

They have showed up as 'volunteer security' at a couple of Calgary events, including a "Deplorable Day" (their words, not mine - well, mine too, I guess...) at City Hall that ended up attracting far more counter-protesters.

I have to tell you, the parallels to the 1930s are getting to the point where I am half expecting toothbrush mustaches to come back into style. As the world continues to shrink, and cultures mesh together with increasing force and friction, and more and more people are wistfully recalling the good old days that never were (well, unless you were a straight, white, Christian male of at least the middle class), there seems to be a greater and greater reflex among a growing number of people to reject it all, and become more insular and isolationist.

And while these exclusionary, totalitarian ideologies are on the rise, who is defending the rest of us against them? Antifa? The Black Bloc? The same yobbos who seem to be just as eager to bust heads as those on the other side? Didn't WWII get fought so we wouldn't have to sort this stuff out now?

Well, yes, but maybe not in the way that you think.

In a great piece for The Guardian entitled "Why we have to cut off the head of fascism again and again", novelist Patrick McGrath describes the fascist movement in Great Britain, both before and after the Second World War. Thanks to some superb historical fiction in comics and novels, as well as Sir Ian McKellen's fantastic adaptation of Richard III, I am well aware that Mosley's blackshirts and other pro-fascist, pro-Hitler elements were a movement up until England went to war, when they were sent to prison.

I had no idea that once the war ended and they got out, they got right back into it, marching speeching, scrawling swastikas in the dark. Which is where 43 Group comes into play:
The 43 Club was founded in early 1946. It was comprised, at first, of tough, well-trained Anglo-Jewish former servicemen. These men set about disrupting the public meetings of the resurgent fascist movement. They also infiltrated it, at great personal risk, to gather intelligence – to learn their enemy’s plans so as to then sabotage them. They fought the fascists on the streets of British cities, and attracted increasing numbers to their cause. They were disciplined, principled and restrained. They were highly effective tactically, and didn’t hesitate to use brute force when it was required. By 1949 the fascist movement in Britain was effectively finished. Mosley had moved to France.
(BTW, one of those members was none other than world famous hairstylist Vidal Sassoon!)

So here's the thing: as the world these days becomes more and more uncertain, I don't see the appeal of fascism becoming any less attractive to groups like the Three Percenters.

I don't see the Three Percenters realizing that the majority of people in either the U.S. and Canada would prefer not be be represented by them.

I don't see a bunch of thrill seekers in black watch caps, bandanas and sunglasses sorting them out when they get rowdy; "disciplined, principled and restrained" do not seem the most apt of descriptors.

And I don't see anyone like 43 Group willing to stand up to militia-like groups when they begin acting up in public.

So where does that leave us?

Well, I hope you didn't come here looking for answers, because I am fresh out, junior.

Unlike a lot of folks, I didn't laugh a lot when alt-right poster boy Richard Spencer got slugged in the face on camera. Many were of the opinion that punching a Nazi is just a great idea, but I had my doubts. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of it as a delicious piece of schadenfreude, but I recognized it as a guilty pleasure. As a precedent, I still find sucker-punching people with objectionable ideas to be a questionable way for any society to do business.

But I have a bad feeling there will be more opportunities for those of us with convictions to see those convictions put to the test. Maybe it will be on a bus, or in a food court, or on our way into city hall to file some paperwork, and we come across someone in a wanna-be biker outfit, flying the Three Percenter colours of a Spartan-style helmet with a Roman numeral III. Maybe they are haranguing someone for wearing a hijab, or blocking the way as part of a civil disobedience number.

I'm a middle-aged fat man who hasn't thrown a punch in anger since 4th grade, but I have a weird and unsettling feeling I might be in for a fight that day.

43 Group is alleged to have taken their name from the number of people in the room at the time of their founding. With any luck, no actual lines will get drawn up, so no one will need to actually toe them, but if it comes to that, I bet I will find more than 43 people in my corner.