Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Deadwood Society

I work for W.C. Wood Corporation, Ltd. (known as "Wood's" for short). Some years ago, a small group of Wood's employees decided to gather at a local pub after work for a beer or two, as co-workers sometimes do. As these particular co-workers happened to enjoy each others' company, perhaps more than most, they started to make a habit of meeting after hours every so often for fellowship and libations.

After a time, certain members of the group left Wood's; some to pursue other opportunities, some less voluntarily. Even after leaving Wood's, however, some of these people continued to meet with their former co-workers after hours, because it's much harder to turn one's back on friends and booze than it is to walk away from work. And then, one fateful evening, the group met as usual, and someone noticed that the majority of those present no longer worked for Wood's. In a strangely ironic turn of events, the group whose commonality consisted of working for the same employer, suddenly shared the trait of mostly not working for that same employer. And so it was that the Deadwood Society was born. According to my records, the group currently consists of roughly 20 members. It's hard to get an exact count since the faces are never the same from one gathering to the next. We do, however, have a handful of what I would call "core" members that show up fairly consistently.

Wood's is a manufacturing enterprise and, in today's economy, being a manufacturing enterprise sucks, not to put too fine a point on it. Consequently, the company has seen its share of cutbacks and downsizing over the past few years, and this has contributed to a parallel growth of the Deadwood society. Those members who indulge in darker, gallows-type humour (he said, raising his hand) have been heard to speculate that the Society's membership may soon surpass the company's remaining workforce in size.

As you can see from some the accompanying pictures, DWS alumni tend to let their hair down when they meet (well, those that have hair,at least). Conversation generally consists of gossip about Wood's and those that remain employed there, helpful tips concerning useful information such as what constitutes a "full package", and the occasional exchange of recipes for exotic culinary delights such as the infamous soup sandwich.

There are fewer more effective balms to soothe a spirit, trampled by the drudgeries and misfortunes of the workaday world, than the fellowship of good friends who accept us as we are.

I'd like to make special, if delicate, mention of Bruce and Sig; two former members of the DWS who have since taken the group's moniker just a bit more seriously than the rest of us would have liked, and now gather at that Great Pub in the Sky. They have now become Members Emeritus and are remembered fondly, if somewhat sadly, by those of us who remain.

Oh, and one last thing. The astute reader may recall that I started this post with the declaration that "I work for W.C. Wood Corporation, Ltd.", noticed the usage of the present, rather than the past, tense and wondered how I qualify for membership in the Deadwood Society. In fact, this is my second tour of duty at Wood's. I first joined the company in 1987, then, after a short tenure of about three years, left for about nine years and returned again in 1999, so I guess that makes me an honorary member, or the Lazarus of the group, if you will. Except that, unlike Lazarus, one might say that I've returned to the dead.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Starlost

Recently, I found myself thinking about The Starlost for no particular reason. In case you're not familiar with it, The Starlost was a Canadian produced science fiction series that was first aired back in 1973. More correctly, it was a really bad Canadian produced science fiction series that was first aired back in 1973.

The concept was promising enough, if not completely original. Earth had perished in some unnamed galactic disaster, but not before the last survivors managed to build a giant interstellar spaceship dubbed "The Ark" whose purpose was to take several samplings of the Earth's population to distant worlds where they would try to begin anew.

The Ark consisted of several large domes, known as "biospheres", that were interconnected by tubes but, at the same time, isolated from each other. Each biosphere represented one of Earth's indiginous populations.

Unfortunately, a few hundred years into her journey, the Ark suffered yet another unnamed disaster which killed her entire crew and set her on a collison course with a distant star. None of the surviving populations in the biospheres were aware of this catastrophe and, in fact, as the generations passed, most forgot that they were even aboard a spaceship.

The series began in one of these biospheres, known as Cypress Corners, an agrarian, Amish-like society with no idea of their true situation and fate. One particular member of this society, a young rebel known as Devon, accidentally discovers the truth of his situation after being exiled by the Elders and threatened with death. So he takes Rachel, the woman he loves and whom the Elders refuse to allow him to marry, and Garth, whom Rachel was supposed to marry and who isn't entirely fond of Devon, and the three set about finding some way of avoiding the Ark's apparent fate.

Devon was played by Keir Dullea, of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame. The story concept was penned by celebrated science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, and was produced by Douglas Trumbull, who served as effects producer for 2001: A Space Odyssey. With that kind of pedigree behind it, how could it miss, right?

One word. Budget. Or, rather, lack thereof. That and it was produced in Canada, by a bunch of people who had no concept of how to successfully produce a weekly science fiction series. Quite simply stated, the effects and production values behind The Starlost were so sub-standard, they made the original 1960's Star Trek series look like Blade Runner. We're talking sets that were built using furniture taken straight out of a 1970's office furniture catalog. We're talking blue screen effects so poorly done that you could clearly see the dark outlines around the actors. We're talking background music that sounded like it was produced on a Commodore 64. Aside from Dullea, we're talking mostly B-grade actors who seem to think that they're on a stage rather than in front of a camera. Special mention goes to Robin Ward, who played Garth; an actor so wooden he'd make an oak tree jealous! An initial run of 24 episodes were planned, but the series was cancelled after only 16.

I recall watching a few episodes back when the series was first aired. In spite of its flaws, I liked it. For one thing, I always had a soft spot for sci fi of any kind, which made me more forgiving than most. Also, the show did have its charms. One that stands out most clearly in my memory is the goofy sphere projectors that would inform and enlighten Devon. They consisted of a chair positioned in front of a round CRT-style screen. Simply sitting in the chair, or even touching it, caused a very strange-looking bespectacled, bearded face to appear on the screen, which intoned the words "Can I be of ... (dramatic pause) ... assistance?" Devon would question the man on the screen and he would answer Devon's questions as best he could.

The mannerisms of the face on the sphere projector were truly amusing. It would stare intently at Devon and sometimes smile condescendingly when he asked a particularly simpleton question, such as "what is a universe?" If Devon asked a question that required a moment's thought (or, rather, data retrieval from the memory banks, I suppose), the face would pause and blink its eyes or intersperse its answers with "hmmm's". It was truly amusing to watch. Unfortunately, a part of me always suspected that it wasn't meant to be amusing.

In spite of it's appalling badness (and I don't mean that in the Michael Jackson sense of the word), I remember The Starlost fondly. Don't ask me why. It's a hard thing to explain. Part of it has to do with my natural weakness for nostalgia. Aside from that, though, The Starlost had potential. Although the execution was mishandled, the concept was quite good. Watching the show, one can't help but see the glimmer of unrealized promise from time to time. The story concepts were generally good. I don't recall any "Spock's Brain" type episodes. Also, the show's atmosphere was somewhat chilling in that the Ark seemed such an empty, forlorn place, almost like a ghost ship drifting through the cosmos. This may have been partially unintentional and owing to the paucity of sets and cast, but it somehow worked given the show's premise. I can't help thinking that if The Starlost were remade today, given modern technology and a proper budget, it might just be great.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

Support Our Troops

I get mixed feelings whenever I see a "Support Our Troops" ribbon on the back of a car or on the window of someone's house. What does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that I'm expected to condone Canada's presence in Afghanistan or, if I happen to be American, the United States' presence in Iraq?

I think that most people now understand that the Iraq war is a sham. America's reasons for invading a country which posed no threat to the United States have been shown to be invalid. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda. Iraq was not harboring Osama Bin Laden and had nothing to do with the September, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

And why are Canadian troops in Afghanistan? They went there at the request of the Americans, after the 9/11 attack, presumably to flush out Osama Bin Laden, who was presumed to be hiding somewhere in the Afghani hills, and perhaps to disrupt Al-Qaeda's operations. But, again, Bin Laden was never found, and Al-Qaeda still remains active.

Meanwhile, each week more Canadian and American families bury their young soldiers. At the time of this writing, 97 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since the start of the conflict. In total, over 1,000 coalition soldiers have lost their lives there. Over 4,500 military personnel have died in Iraq, and almost 4,200 of those were U.S. troops, and for what? What did they die for? What have we accomplished? What do we expect to accomplish before it's over?

I think we need to draw a distinction between supporting our troops, and supporting our governments' military agendas. I support our troops. I have the deepest respect and admiration for every Canadian and American soldier that goes to Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else. These are volunteers, not inductees. They have chosen, for their own reasons, to support their countries in these theatres. They are away from their families and friends and from the comforts and familiarities of home for extended periods, and many have given their lives to the cause. My problem is that I still don't fully understand what that cause is, or whether it's valid. I suspect I'm not alone.

Supporting our troops does not necessarily mean blindly supporting our governments' military agendas. For some, it means getting clarity about why they are being asked to make the sacrifices that they have been asked to make, and to ensure that the reasons justify those sacrifices. Supporting our troops means challenging those who give those troops their marching orders, in order to ensure that not one soldier dies in vain.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Dick Test

I'm overweight. I've suspected this for a long time now, to the point of being pretty darned sure that it was true; however, today I stumbled upon a non-scientific test that settles the matter unequivocably. The beauty of this test is its simplicity. I mean, you could spend all kinds of time computing your body mass index (BMI) but this is so much easier, and requires absolutely no math (always a plus with me). I stumbled upon the idea while showering this morning, and I'm going to share it with you. Here it is:
  1. Remove all your clothes.
  2. Stand straight, head up, shoulders back, arms at your side.
  3. Without bending at the waist in the slightest, look down.

Can you see your dick? If you can't, you may be overweight.

If your waistline measures 40 inches or more but you can still see your dick ... I salute you, Sir!

Oh, I should have mentioned, this test only works for guys.

I definitely have to lose some weight!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hail To The Chief!

America has elected her first black president. I intentionally avoid the politically-correct "African-American". Barack Obama is black and should be proud to be so. As historic an event as this is, Obama's victory is not a racial victory. I believe that Obama is the right man for the job, and I would still feel this way were he white, hispanic or Asian.

At the same time, I don't envy Obama. He has inherited a pointless, futile, unwinnable war, a broken economy and a nation much diminished in the eyes of the world. The job of leader of the world's biggest industrial nation is not necessarily one to be coveted at this particular point in history.

Aside from that, it would be naive not to express some concern for the man's personal security. While the United States has obviously come a long way from its racially unjust past, it is also still home to an extremist element whose fear and loathing of those different from themselves has, at times, manifested itself in the form of cruel and senseless acts of violence. This admittedly small minority nevertheless remains a danger and I, for one, do not envy those in the employ of the Secret Service in the years to come.

That having been said, I count myself among those who see this decision as a sign of hope, and a signal of America's resolve to correct the mistakes of her past. I believe that president-elect Barack Obama is more likely than anyone else to prove himself capable of turning America around and restoring to her the status of the Shining Example to be admired and emulated by the other nations of the world.

Congratulations, America. You've made the right choice.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Hallowe'en

If you saw my Batman post, you probably guessed that I'm a sucker, not only for masks and costumes, but for Hallowe'en in general. I've always enjoyed Hallowe'en and I have fond memories of Hallowe'ens past, from my childhood days. I think it was my second-favorite celebration, next to Christmas. It wasn't just the candy. The colours, the costumes, the lights ... when you think about it, Hallowe'en caters to all the things that kids love best.

Hallowe'en was different when I was a kid. I lived in a neighborhood with lots of kids, where every family knew each other. Our parents didn't accompany us when we went trick-or-treating. Instead, we kids made the rounds in bands of four to eight (usually). We observed some common-sense rules, and there was safety in numbers. Today, this would be unthinkable, I know, but back then it would have been unthinkable to us to have our parents following us around. Part of the fun of Hallowe'en was the freedom that came with roaming the night streets with your friends.

The picture above is of my sister and I, with my best friend (to this day), Martin (affectionately known as "Mart"), and his sister Christine, preparing to make our annual trick-or-treat rounds. I'm the magician, on the left. The costume was home-made by my mom. She made the hat out of black bristleboard. Mart, of course, is the Prince of Darkness.

Some years later, during our teenage years, Mart and I made ourselves Star Wars costumes (see the picture to the right). I'm Darth Vader, and he's Boba Fett. Bet you didn't know that Boba Fett is actually taller than Darth Vader. It's the camera angles that make Vader look taller in the movies.

Darth Vader is another one of my favorites, where masks are concerned. I made the one in the picture mainly out of bristleboard, except for the eye pieces, which were simple sunglass lenses, and the helmet, which was a kid's toy police helmet or army helmet or something like that, painted black. The sloped flange is, again, bristleboard. Mart made Boba Fett's helmet and rocket launcher out of paper maché. The costumes are, admittedly, a bit crude, but not bad for homemade efforts.

Nowadays, I usually carve the jack-o-lanterns that we put out on Hallowe'en. This year, I decided to get a bit fancier and carved a design using a pattern that I downloaded from http://www.jack-o-lantern.com/. That's it to the left (you can click it for a larger view). I think it came out pretty well. Complex designs like this one take a surprisingly long time. This one took me about four hours before I was done.

I did two jack-o-lanterns this year, and there's a story behind the second one. We'd had problems with kids egging our house last summer. Now, I'm an easy-going guy and kids will be kids, so the first couple of times that it happened I shrugged it off. But it started happening more and more often until, at its peak, we were getting hit at least twice each weekend. Once they even hit us a 3 in the morning. At that point, I started to get annoyed.

Well, to make a long story short, I hid myself inside a big old pine tree one evening and almost caught one of them when they came along (lucky for him, I slipped on a patch of wet grass and he was able to get around me) but that pretty much put an end to things. We didn't even have any incidents the night before Hallowe'en ("devil's night") although I did half-expect that we might. Anyway, just to show the kids that I do have a sense of humour, in the event that they came by, I found myself a white pumpkin, cut it in half with a jaggedy line to make it look like an egg that had been cracked in two, and carved the words "NO TRICKS" into it. I wish I could have found a more "egg-shaped" pumpkin, but this was the best I could do.