Superfluous Matter
Books - Prisoners of the North by Pierre Berton

The Canadian arctic is strangely gripping. I only spent a couple weeks there but I think of it often and I know I'll go back some day. I'd like to go further north and see the Arctic Ocean and I'd also like to see Torngat Mountains National Park at the northern tip of Labrador. After those, if there's still time in my life, I'd also like to explore the Yukon.

The stickiness of Canada's north-country is the theme linking the five people profiled by one of Canada's preeminent historians in this, his fiftieth and final book. Born in the Yukon, Pierre Berton shows himself to be a "prisoner of the North" as well with many personal asides and reminiscences woven into his biographies of the five protagonists.

This book was recommended to me by Rob before I went on my trip but I didn't have time to read it until now and I'm glad events transpired in that way. Only one of the five people in the book spends his time in the tundra area of my canoe trip and I felt Berton's description of that country was too negative. I understand that the tundra is harsh and unforgiving, but it is also surprisingly beautiful and deeply moving. Other than that minor detail I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

The people profiled are: mining tycoon Joe Boyle (1867-1923); Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962); extensive traveller and facilitator of Arctic exploration Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875); eccentric woodsman John Hornby (1880-1927); and noted Canadian poet Robert Service (1874-1958).

There are some neat parallels between Joe Boyle and current environmental debates. While the Klondike gold rush was going on he went up and was the first to bring in large-scale, mechanized mining. The sort of mining that strips the earth and wreaks havoc on the environment. Although no one cared about it back then, it was hard not to think of the debate about the oil sands in Alberta and about gas fracking in the United States while reading his story. Apparently the damage done to the waterways up there is still clearly visible.

I'd never heard of Vilhjalmur Stefansson before reading this book, but I must say he was a bad-ass ahead of his time. Although he met with much criticism over the years (not all unfounded) it's hard not to be impressed with two things about him. First, unlike everyone else at the time, he did not consider the Inuit to be mindless savages. Instead he learned from them and as a result was able to thrive in the difficult environment he was exploring. He even adopted their diet, eating nothing but meat and fish for long periods of time without any ill-effects (pro-tip: This only works if you eat the whole animal, including offal, and if you eat at least some of the meat raw. Meat has enough vitamin C to stave off scurvy but cooking destroys it). The second bad-ass thing about Stefansson was that he had super-human strength and endurance. He would run for hours and days behind his dog sled, covering over twenty thousand miles in his career.

Lady Jane Franklin was probably the female equivalent of Stefansson of her day in terms of being a bad-ass. Over her life she travelled all over the world, spending lots of time in Australia with her husband when it was still a penal colony. She continued travelling extensively until just shortly before her death. And this was all at a time when travel was rather difficult. When her husband became lost-presumed-dead looking for the northwest passage she spent many years and much money organizing and financing voyages to discover his fate. She eventually succeeded and as a side effect the world's knowledge of the Canadian Arctic was improved dramatically.

I knew the tragic story of Hornby already from David Pelly's: "Thelon: A River Sanctuary" which I read in Fort Smith just before going on my canoe trip. Berton provides more detail in his book but I didn't learn anything new of significance. However, other than my complaint about his negative depiction of the tundra, I did find Berton's retelling to be much more entertaining than Pelly's.

I've read two of Robert Service's poems before without knowing anything about the author. They're his two most famous: The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee. He wrote thousands, none of them considered high art by the literary establishment of the time, but those two especially remain popular. Personally I find the rhyming schemes and his willingness to make up words to fit quite enjoyable. Berton's biography of Service is more personal than the other four. Service lived in Whitehorse when Berton was a child there and more than once he came to dinner at Berton's family's home. Berton also did an extended interview with Service for the CBC shortly before Service died.

This book is an excellent piece of Canadiana and I heartily recommend it. I think I'll seek out some other books by Pierre Berton in the future.

Books - To Be Or Not To Be: A Chooseable-Path Adventure by Ryan North and William Shakespeare

Kickstarter is awesome. And dangerous to wallets. But also awesome. Ryan North, creator of Dinosaur Comics, editor of the Machine of Death books and generally hilarious guy wrote a 700+ page version of Hamlet with updated language and in the format of a choose-your-own-adventure novel. He went to Kickstarter to raise the money to get it printed and published as an actual book. I had a bunch of those books when I was little so I really couldn't help but lend support (in return for a signed copy of the book).

The campaign ended up being the #1 most funded publishing project ever on Kickstarter. His goal was to raise $20,000 but the final count was $580,905 (that's 2904% funding). With all the extra money Mr. North increased the scope of the project significantly. Instead of a simple paperback with a few black-and-white illustrations the final product ended up having over 110 illustrations in full colour done by some of the best artists in the web-comic community. He also published a special hardcover version, signed all the books, made an e-book version, an audiobook version (how does that even work??) and a short choose-your-own-adventure prequel to Hamlet called "Poor Yorick." As a result of the huge support he has decided to do "Romeo and Juliet" in the same format. Plus he bumped up the rewards a bunch adding stickers and bookmarks and temporary tattoos and things. He also donated 400 copies of the book to schools and libraries.

But what about the book itself? Well it's awesome and hilarious as expected. Your first choice is which character to be: Hamlet, Ophelia or the king (Hamlet's Dad). If you play as the king you die right away (murdered by Claudius obviously), but then you get to continue reading as a ghost. The choices that follow the original play are marked with little Yorick skulls so I read those first. It's pretty funny because the narrator is constantly questioning you and pointing out how some parts of the original are kind of crazy from a modern perspective (e.g. how poorly Ophelia is treated and how she just takes it).

After reading through the original path I started flipping back and forth madly through all the other options and there is tons of awesome in the book. You can fight pirates, become a pirate, take down international terrorists or invent the thermometer. You can totally choose to not take revenge on Claudius and just be a really good person. Or you can double down on the mayhem in the original and make the ending even bloodier, killing literally everyone. There is a mini choose-your-own-adventure book embedded in the larger book and it is used in place of the play designed to "catch the conscience" of Claudius. As Ophelia you can challenge Queen Gertrude to a game of chess, to the death, and you actually get to pick some of the moves. And there's lots more too. It had me laughing on the subway while reading.

There are 3,001,181,439,094,525 possible different ways to read the book so obviously I haven't "finished" it. There is lots of overlap though, so I feel like I've achieved a good sampling. For now I'm putting it down and moving on to other books but I will definitely come back to this one for more adventures in Denmark (that I choose!).

TIFF 2013

For TIFF this year I saw three shows. I would have loved to see more but couldn't really justify the cost. I stuck to movies that are less likely to see wide distribution and made my choices with very little research or planning. Figuring out what to see at TIFF is daunting so I just don't try very hard and I pick stuff almost at random. Once again this strategy worked well for me. Overall I was very happy with the films I saw.

My first show was Short Cuts Canada Programme 1 which is a collection of six short films by Canadian directors. I chose this entirely because one of the films was the new one from Chris Landreth, a former employee of Alias and winner of an Oscar for his 2004 short, "Ryan." Chris's new film, "Subconscious Password" is fun stuff with crazy visuals that are typical of his style. The two other shorts I liked best from the collection were "Gloria Victoria" and "Remember Me." Four of the six films were in 3D, but Gloria Victoria made the best use of the technology I've ever seen anywhere. The animation style reminded me of the old-school, hand-drawn films of the NFB in the 1960s and 1970s, all impressionist and abstract. But to exploit the 3D Theodore Ushev layered many planes of such art and motion using the depth that is possible with stereoscopy. The images that flashed by were as intense as the music (the "Invasion" theme from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7) and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Jean-Francois Asselin's film "Remember Me" was the most accessible of all the shorts with a simple plot and a pretty unsubtle critique of social media. It was hilarious though and perfectly executed. The other three films were interesting but they didn't really speak to me for whatever reason. I didn't really understand "The Sparkling River" or "Pilgrims" without getting the Internet to explain them to me. And "Cochemare" was just bananas. It had some cool visuals but I was hoping for more substance as I loved the directors' previous film, Madame Tutli-Putli, which I first saw at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France in 2007.

For my second show I saw The Fake, a Korean animated film by Yeon Sang-ho. I chose this movie because I enjoy animated films and I love when directors make an animated film that is targeted entirely at a mature audience. I really believe in animation as a story-telling medium for all subject matter; it doesn't have to be just for kids stuff. Anyway, from the description and information about the director's previous film it is clear this is not a movie for children. And it was indeed a brutal film to watch. At the end I felt a bit like I did after watching Requiem for a Dream (although not quite as bad, nothing tops that movie for being able to evoke absolute depression). Despite the emotional toll I still found "The Fake" to be an excellent movie. It somehow made you care about the protagonist who, even at the end, is still a rather terrible person.

My final film of the festival was Asphalt Watches, a Canadian animated film by Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver. This film was funded through an Indiegogo campaign (similar to Kickstarter) and is a crude animated retelling of eight days the pair spent hitchhiking in western Canada. The animation was done with Flash and is way less polished than South Park or even Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The narrative is very disjointed with no particular purpose and random things often happen for no particular reason. But somehow it all comes together to make...something. I'm not sure what, but it wasn't boring. The directors were there for Q&A at the end and they both seemed a bit surprised to be part of TIFF at all. It was as if they accidentally made the movie and were surprised that it even exists let alone that people like it. I enjoyed the movie myself, but I'm not sure why.

Canoeing the Thelon River

I've finished writing my journal for my recent canoe trip on the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories. It includes tons of photos and videos as well a complete description of the whole trip. I also wrote up a special section on logistics which may be of interest to anyone who enjoys organizing canoe trips.


Since taking a more active interest in my diet and level of physical activity I have noticed improvements in my overall fitness to the point that I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm stronger and have more endurance and I can generally rely on my body to perform any task I'm interested in doing.

But healthy eating and regular exercise don't really prevent accidents.

Over the summer I've been playing in the weekly Ultimate Frisbee game organized by some people at work. It's lots of fun and a good change of pace from my usual activities (faster!). But at the game two weeks ago I collided rather brutally with another player, his shoulder driving hard into my rib cage on the right side of my body. It was totally an accident and at the time I shook it off and kept playing. However by the next morning it had become clear that I'd done some serious damage. I saw my doctor and she confirmed that I had either bruised, cracked or broken one or more ribs but that I had not injured any internal organs and there was no risk of doing so. She offered to order an x-ray but said it wouldn't change the treatment (the treatment for a broken rib being nothing except avoiding further blows to the chest). I chose to skip the unnecessary radiation.

So for the last two weeks I've been taking it easy, trying not to cough (painful) or sneeze (excruciating). I skipped climbing and yoga and I have put myself on the DL for Ultimate Frisbee for the rest of the season.

There has been some improvement since the injury so last night I decided to try climbing again to see where I'm at. I kept to the easy stuff and although I was able to climb it was fairly uncomfortable and unpleasant. I did not get a good workout.

I'm extremely frustrated by this. I know I will heal eventually and that I'm fortunate (1) to not have hurt myself worse; (2) to live in a country where I could easily and quickly get checked out by a doctor without fear of financial ruin; (3) be fit enough to participate in such a sport; and (4) be fit enough that I'll probably heal fast. But still, I've gotten myself into a spot where I actually desire regular exercise and feel groggy and sluggish if I don't get it. I've been walking more to compensate, but that's not enough and anything that involves my upper body, heavy breathing or excessive jostling is not super fun right now.

I guess I just don't like being reminded of the frailty of the human body. Despite my best efforts, a split-second of physical contact has grounded me from climbing at my limit for probably six to eight weeks. Not cool.

I guess until we become cyborgs all a person can do is keep fit, eat well and hope for the best.

2013-08 | 2013-10