Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Doomsday Is Coming! Doomsday Is Coming! Or... Well, Maybe Not.

That's going to hurt....

Well, we're two years and counting from what some would suggest to be the end of the world. Doomsayers will have you believe that the Mayan calendar has the world coming to an end in December of 2012. Not so doomsayers will point out that the Mayan calendar only comes to one end before starting another. And hack filmmakers will  make the most of it.

The prophecy zealots will have you believing that oceans will rise, cities will fall, mountains will tumble into each other, dogs and cats will be living together in sin, and Washington DC will be obliterated from the face of the earth. Scratch that last one. It's Secret Protocol #33 from the Tea Party's To Do List. Oh, and lest we forget, John Cusack will be driving away from calamity at top speed, wondering whatever happened to the days when he played interesting, professionally fulfilling roles.

Remember all that fuss over Y2K? The computer glitch that might cast us all back to the Stone Age? Well, at least until that particular fuss completely fizzled out. I thought of all those survivalists who were proclaiming the end of the world, heading off into their customized bomb shelters to wait out the apocalypse. Wouldn't it have been perfectly ironic if their shoddy construction (can't trust a government certified construction company to do the job you can do yourself!) had failed, causing their deaths? In those last seconds, the survivalists would have thought this is it! The end of the world! And they would have been crushed to death, never knowing that no, in fact, the world hadn't come to an end.

I would suppose all of this doomsday talk is at least understandable. After all, we've got a complete idiot thinking she can run for President... in 2012. Doomsday zealots would surely tell you that's a sign of the apocalypse, right? At least a sign of doom for rational thinking.

I think some of the blame must go to Nostradamus and the nutbars who buy into anything he says. Have you actually read anything by this man? It's all so vague and metaphorical that you can interpret it any way you see fit. In fact, I would suggest that all of his visions might well have been inspired by his marijuana habit. Come on, people! A weed addiction would at least explain it! I submit to you that we have to dig up whatever's left of Nostradamus, cremate it, and mix it in with the weed his current day believers are smoking. It's only fitting.

Which brings us back to the Mayans. Why should we take their word for the end date of the world? These people couldn't even predict their own demise! I remain dubious of their prediction skills if they didn't see the Spanish coming.

Allow me to suggest this scenario. It's 1488. No, in the common calendar, not the Mayan calendar. In the grand plaza of Chichen Itza, the Mayan people are going about their business on just another typical day. And walking about on the plaza grounds, wearing a sack cloth and looking perfectly crazy, is a Mayan carrying a sign. Repent! The Spaniards Are Coming!

His fellow Mayans will look at him the same way you and I look at any such contemporary nutcase carrying a sign down Madison Avenue reading Repent! Mel Gibson Is Coming!

"That crazy old Biff. Always going on about one thing or another. By the way, what's a Spaniard?"

Monday, November 29, 2010

E Is For Escape

Muppet Supervillain Escapes Custody

A United States Marshals Service plane went down across the border in Canada yesterday, in the Alberta foothills, while transporting prisoners to supermax custody in Montana. Marshals in Washington confirmed that the plane went down due to poor weather, and while somewhat damaged, the crash was not catastrophic. Though almost all of the prisoners were quickly retained in custody by the marshals on board, one escaped, and is now at large.

The RCMP have been brought in and taken charge. While the prisoners are being prepared for their return across the border, the Mounties are occupied with the matter of the escaped convict. Mr. Johnson, aka Fat Blue, the convicted muppet murderer, has managed to elude capture, and is now somewhere in the wild forests of the Rocky Mountain foothills.

"We consider this muppet extremely dangerous," RCMP Constable Lavigne told a gathering of reporters at a nearby detachment. "Johnson had Elmo murdered, and set up Grover to take the fall. He demonstrates a psychopathic hatred of Grover, a malicious nature, and a vindictive streak. We urge all members of the public not to approach him, but to call police at the first sighting."

Pictures of the balding, mustached blue muppet were passed around, including one with tattoos recently added to the muppet's hands. "He's added Die Grover Die to both of his hands. He really has a hate-on for Grover," Lavigne explained. "Henceforth, Grover has been taken into protective custody, along with his girlfriend. We've also called in a man with experience on the case. Inspector Lars Ulrich is heading up the search for Johnson."

Ulrich himself appeared before the reporters, glaring at all of them. "Are one of you nitwits going to ask me about Metallica?" he asked with contempt in his voice. His dislike for reporters is well known among members of the Fourth Estate.

"No sir," came a reply from the CBC correspondant. "There's no one here from an entertainment news outlet. Yet."

"Good," Ulrich said more pleasantly. "I mean, really, how stupid are those guys anyway? I'm not that Lars Ulrich. Look, this muppet's the most dangerous muppet I've ever come across. We will hunt him down to the ends of the earth. Or at least until he makes it across the border."

"Do you feel you owe that to Elmo?" a reporter with the Victoria Times Colonist asked.

"Hell, no," Ulrich said. "That little red menace with that demonic cackling? Have you heard that cackling? I have, and it's like something from the seventh circle of hell."

The search is now underway. Somewhere out there, a crazed killer muppet is on the run. Winter is coming. And he's got the Mounties hunting for him. Bets are now being taken on how long it'll be before he's caught.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Will To Live

A friend of my family from northern Ontario once saw a man stumble out of the woods onto his property, frantic and dishevelled, utterly terrified. He had been lost for merely an hour. Had he been lost for a night, he'd have probably been found dead. It's a hard fact of life: if you're lost and you panic, you're going to increase your odds of dying. If you stay calm, keep your head, and focus on the problem at hand, you've got a good chance of seeing home again.

In 2003, climber Aron Ralston took a trip into the canyons of Utah. The ordeal he went through was widely reported at the time, and later Ralston wrote about it in the book Between A Rock And  A Hard Place. Now director Danny Boyle has given us the film 127 Hours, starring James Franco as Ralston.

The first impression Franco gives us is of a man with an exuberance for life. Both in the book and in the film, Ralston comes across as an experienced outdoorsman. He loves getting out into the back country, exploring the wilderness. On this trip, however, he makes a couple of critical mistakes, which he deeply comes to rue. He goes off without telling anyone his plans, or when to expect him home. And when he comes across two women hiking in the canyon he visits, rather then leave with them, he chooses to explore further on his own.

Most people go into this film already knowing what happened to Ralston. A misstep in the tight canyon sends him falling, and a boulder comes loose, pinning his hand. And so Ralston is trapped, with no one knowing where he is, and we the audience are trapped with him. Doyle places us right there, face to face with two fears: being trapped and dying alone.

Ralston attempts to move the rock, first with his own strength and then with the equipment he has at hand, but has no success. He realizes how much trouble he's in. He has little food, little water, and he knows full well how long he might expect to live if no one comes across him. He understands that it might be days before anyone realizes he's even missing. In the days that follow, Ralston speaks to his family through the video camera he has on hand. He suffers. He hallucinates. He edges ever closer to death. And the audience can't help but feel a deep empathy for him.

I was reminded watching the film of a similar story, documented in the book and film Touching The Void. Climber Joe Simpson, presumed dead on a mountain in South America, his leg badly broken, dragged himself off the mountain to base camp, despite the pain, despite the reality that he shouldn't have been able to do so. He and his friends tell their story while actors reenact the tale, and Simpson tells us that at the end, he was convinced that he was going to die, but he didn't want to die alone. He wanted to be with someone when he went. That need is repeated in Ralston's experience.

Ralston is cut off from the world, and he knows he's going to die, alone. Finally, in a moment of clarity, he realizes what he has to do to escape, and as unthinkable as it is, he does so without reservation. The amputation scene is graphic. Don't go into this film with a full stomach. Still, it's an essential scene. Ralston takes his fate into his hands, driven by the primal need we all have to survive.

The film is outstanding. Doyle, a strong director with a varied group of films to his credit, brings us right into the situation. Another director might find the notion of a camera being confined in a small space for so long to be a daunting process, but Doyle rises to the challenge and succeeds. He's given us a film that makes us think, raises some tough questions, and ultimately uplifts the audience.

And the Oscar should just be given to James Franco right now. His performance is that good. Franco is one of those actors who seems incapable of giving a bad performance, and he's in fine form with this role. We feel deeply for our protagonist as his ordeal progresses. Franco proves adept at conveying an expression that haunts us during the ordeal. His hallucinations and one way speeches to his family during the ordeal are heartbreaking. And he captures the essence of Ralston's resourcefulness, fortitude, and courage perfectly.

This is the best film of the year.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mrs. O'Leary, Why Is Your Cow Playing With Matches?

How does one go from talking about politicians and public art to pictures of evil cows?

Norma and I have been chatting about mayors and their considerable lack of taste in public art. Sculptures go up at the behest of a moron in City Hall whose idea of art tends to be confined to the always amusing Dogs Playing Poker. Which is how you get weird sculptures that serve as restrooms for winos.

Some years ago, a former mayor of Toronto, a man with no dignity and even less imagination, looked to the city of Chicago, which of course had a series of cow sculptures. It made sense for that city, what with its history linked to the cattle industry, namely the slaughterhouse side of things.

Well, this mayor looked at that idea, and being the idiot that he was, went with a plan for Toronto to copy the idea. Only instead of cows, it would be moose sculptures.

Yes, I know. Eye rolling may commence at your leisure. Shakespeare had it right when he said that the first thing we do is kill all the lawyers. And since so many lawyers become politicians, we'll be making a preemptive strike.

I recommend casting them all out on ice floes.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Cows. This brings me to the point. It got me to thinking of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, the bovine who, legend has it, started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 by kicking over a lantern in the barn. At least that's what legend tells us.

What if it's not the truth? What if it wasn't an accident?

What if the cow was evil?

What if that cow loved setting fires?

What if that cow was descended from the same line of arsonist cows that set Rome ablaze?

Gary Larson had it right. We're through the looking glass, people....

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The City And The Valley

Talli went with the theme of reasons in her blog why she loves London. And so I thought I'd do the same for my home, Ottawa, Gatineau, and the Valley beyond. Yes, once you ignore the politicians (a wretched pack, the lot of them) and the civil servants (soulless automatons), it's a wonderful place to live.

And so, in no particular order, here we go....

Winterlude: Our annual celebration of the winter. From ice sculptures to snow sculptures, from skating to Beavertails (no, not that; get your minds out of the gutter), it's three weeks of a true celebration of the best season of the year. And I really recommend seeing fireworks in a snowstorm with the temperatures well below zero, by the way.

Music: We've got festivals for jazz, blues, folk, and chamber music (though would someone tell the Blues Festival that rap is not the blues?). We have a series of nightclubs and pubs catering to all sorts of musical tastes. We have big acts coming through all the time (incidentally, I'm attending the Great Big Sea concert in a few days). And we have the National Arts Centre Orchestra, led by one of the world's great conductors. In short, something for everyone.

The Byward Market: Ground zero for pubs, shops, boutiques, bakeries, and various forms of entertainment, plus a warren of cobblestone courtyards; it's a frequent stomping ground for me.

Pakenham: A small village to the west, alongside the Mississippi River (no, not that one). A picturesque place, and home to the only five arch stone bridge in North America. I've stopped here on many occasions, and it's a tranquil, peaceful place, and the bridge not only blends in with nature, but enhances it.

The Arboretum: A park near my university, wonderful for walking, photography, and peace and quiet. An oasis of calm in the heart of the city.

The National Gallery: Ottawa has a collection of art galleries, and this one is the main attraction. Home to an exceptional collection of Canadian and international art (my personal favourite is a marble sculpture of a dancer), the Gallery is a great place to spend a day. From the glass enclosed structure to the extensive Group of Seven collection to the Convent chapel faithfully restored in its walls, it's got something for all artistic tastes. And yes, for you Canadians, this is the spot that has the Death of General Wolfe painting you've all seen in school. So there.

Just try to ignore their poor judgment for once spending a million dollars on a painting featuring three stripes on a canvas. Hell, I could paint this:

The Barron Canyon: Up the valley in Algonquin Park's east flank, it's a stunning place to hike, paddle or cross country ski. The rock walls are incredible to behold.

Di Rienzo's: An delicatessan in the heart of Little Italy, it's been a mainstay for decades, and happens to be my primary source of food (okay, so I can't cook). Their sandwiches are consistently rated the best in the city, so much so that people who know of it from further away ask their Ottawa friends to bring some when they come out to visit.

Trillium Bakery: Mmmm, good cookies!

Museums: We have museums dedicated to civilization, aviation, science and technology, war, nature, agriculture, local history, and even a jail museum. If you're fond of history, you can spend days among the collections. Oh, and three of those museums are haunted. I'll let you guess which ones.

Nepean Point: A high point behind the Gallery, overlooking Gatineau, the river, and Parliament Hill, it's an ideal spot to stop on a sunny afternoon and take in the view. It's topped with a statue of Champlain, looking upriver, to the future. Or wondering if he dropped his house keys in Montreal.


The Rideau Canal: A great stretch of waterways from Kingston to Ottawa, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with boats travelling its length in the summers and skaters in the winter in the city. And of course the tulips can be found along its route in May.

Wakefield: A small village up the Gatineau Valley by car (or a tourists' steam train if you're so inclined). It's a nice spot, peaceful and away from it all. Among its sights are a beautiful covered bridge and the final resting place of one of our best Prime Ministers, Lester Pearson.

The Upper Valley: From Arnprior up to the village of Mattawa, the river has a collection of small towns and villages with real character, extraordinary stretches of water and landscape, and an ever deepening valley. I love the drive up the valley, ending in Mattawa, where the promontories seem to plunge right down into the river.

Gatineau Park: The park offers great opportunities for hiking, swimming, skiing, and climbing, depending on the season. It's outstanding for fall colours, looks beautiful the rest of the year, and in the midst of it all, we've got the Mackenzie King estate, bestowed on us Canucks by the Prime Minister himself.

Canada Day: Every Canadian should make it here at least once for our national birthday. The place goes crazy. In a really good way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Into The Nahanni

I'm still in the midst of writing Heaven & Hell, and I'm already thinking of future books. The third book I have in mind will start close to home, with a sequence set in the Gatineau Hills (if you're ever in the area, visit it!). And later in the book, a game of cat and mouse will ensue, between hunter and hunted, in the wild landscapes of the Nahanni, deep in the Northwest Territories.

The North and South Nahanni Rivers make their way towards the Mackenzie River via the Liard, passing through what's now Nahanni National Park and its surroundings. It's a place of myth, legend, unforgiving landscapes, incredible scale, and exceptional beauty. I have not walked its ridges or paddled its rivers (yet), but it's a place I intend to get to, and a place that'll feature strongly down the line in writing.

My first real exposure to the Nahanni has been in the photography books of Pat and Rosemarie Keough, a husband and wife team of photographers who have used the Nahanni, the Ottawa Valley, Sable Island, and the Niagara Escarpment as their subject. Their skills with a camera astonish me to this day.

The Nahanni has a long and colourful history, home to native tribes since the last ice age ended, and it's a place that seems obvious for tall tales and dark foreboding warnings. Some of the tall tales tell of fierce mountain tribes, white warrior women, gold deposits, or hot springs that hint at a mystical shangri-la. Well, there are hot springs.

As for the dark foreboding warnings? What do you think when you hear of place names like Death Canyon, Death Lake, Headless Creek, or Deadman Valley? One tale has two brothers a century or so ago, their skeletons found side by side, their heads gone. Another story tells of a man who was found in the spring by a friend, kneeling by a campfire, frozen solid. So of course the place is fertile ground for a book's setting.

Where to place those scenes, that's the question. One, I suspect, that can only be answered by visiting the place first.

In the meantime, have a look and see what the Nahanni is all about...