Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Gaming!

In my quest to continue accurately cataloging my media habits, particularly at year's end, I'm writing a "year in review" post for board games and video games for the first time. (Although, upon further examination, I didn't even write year in review posts for movies or TV either of the past two years, so I'm starting to reclaim those as well.) I figured it would be easier to work both traditional (ie. board) and electronic (ie. video) games into one post, and to work it into a number of smaller lists that will give a clearer picture of what my year was like in both areas. I feel, though, that in the past year, I've really made board games a hobby more intentionally. I'm also starting to reclaim being a video gamer, especially since I now have a computer that will play new games for the first time in about five years. I'm considering buying a PS3 soon-ish in the lull before I can buy a Wii U, but for now I'm still a few years behind on games. Maybe 2012 is the year that will change. But on with the lists!

Board games I've added to my collection this year: Bean Trader (still haven't played it), Chrononauts, Citadels, Dixit, Dominion, Innovation, Puerto Rico, San Juan

Other board games I've played for the first time in the past year (all of which I really enjoyed): Agricola, Alhambra, Power Grid, Tikal

Favourite board games right now: Agricola, Dominion, Innovation

Top 10 board games I'd like to try: 7 Wonders, Glory To Rome, Jaipur, Jump Gate, Lost Cities, Race For The Galaxy, Small World, Tikal II: The Lost Temple, Troyes, Zooloretto

Video games I've downloaded (or will soon download) on Steam: Bastion, Braid, Limbo, Portal, Portal 2

Five classic games I played (or replayed) this year: Illusion of Gaia (SNES), Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master's Quest (N64/GC), Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (N64) (way unfinished), Super Mario RPG (SNES), Zoda's Revenge: Star Tropics 2 (NES - Virtual Console) (unfinished)

Five Wii games I played most this year: Donkey Kong Country Returns (unfinished), Kirby's Epic Yarn (with my wife), Fluidity (WiiWare) unfinished), Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (which is consuming most of my time now), Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (unfinished)

10 games to finish after Skyward Sword: And Yet It Moves (WiiWare), DKC Returns (Wii), Fluidity (WiiWare), Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask (GC), Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS), Mega Man 9 and 10 (WiiWare), Metroid Prime 3 (Wii), Pikmin 2 (GC), Star Tropics 2 (VC)

Top 6 games to play (or re-play) next: Kid Icarus (NES), Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (GC), Lego Batman (Wii), Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 and Years 5-7

Top 5 WiiWare games to try: LostWinds, LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias, NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, Sonic the Hedgehog 4 Episode 1, You, Me, & The Cubes

Favourite video gaming experiences of the year:
1. Being immersed in Skyward Sword in the past week (23 hours in 5 days so far) and remembering the joy of exploring a new Zelda game
2. Replaying Ocarina of Time during the summer. It's still one of the best of all-time.
3. Learning how Portal works.

So with all that in mind, I'm hoping for a much "gamier" 2012!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: The Year in Television

It feels strange to write a year in review piece about television. Not only does "2011" encompass parts of two seasons of many network shows (which seems awkward to me anyway), but much of my viewing in a given year focuses on seasons (or shows) from before 2011. With that in mind, I have not crafted a top 10, per se, but I have opted to create a number of smaller lists that I think will give a fairly clear picture of what my viewing year was like.

Shows I've added this year: Breaking Bad, Justified, The Shield, Sherlock (dramas); Better Off Ted, The Big C, Modern Family, New Girl, Parks and Recreation (comedies)

Other shows I'm still watching: Chuck (which I'm glad finishes within a month), Dexter (despite the fact that Season 6 was the worst of the series) (dramas); Survivor (reality); Community, Futurama, 30 Rock (comedies)

Shows I've given up on:
Glee - I stopped watching regularly halfway through the second season, then I blitzed through it and appreciated it. This year, I'm not missing it at all. Call it "Glee fatigue", call it "Glee is SO 2010"...I'm just not missing it.
Big Bang Theory - Season 4 was weak, but this season has been terribly unfunny (the bird was the only funny part). Unless something happens that really grabs my attention back, I'm done with BBT.
The Office - Okay, so I gave it up right after Jim and Pam's wedding early in Season 6, but I'll still count it here.

"Buzz" shows I probably won't ever end up watching (ie. shows that are appearing on many top 10 lists, so I feel the need to include here so as not to ignore them, despite a lack of affinity for their style/genre/content): American Horror Story, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, The Killing, Raising Hope, Shameless

Five "new" dramas (either that started in or came to prominence in 2011) that I will check out soon (in order of priority): Homeland (I just haven't had time yet), Boss, Luck (premieres in a month), Treme (maybe I should just forget about it), and Falling Skies (maybe if S2 has more buzz...)

Five "new" comedies to check out (in order of priority): House of Lies (a comedy that stars Don Cheadle and this guy), Episodes, Portlandia, Enlightened, Up All Night (I enjoyed the first couple of episodes, but it didn't really grab me yet), Bob's Burgers

Favourite comedies on TV right now (in order):
1. Community - Despite the awkwardness of Season 3, it's still the funniest show on TV.
2. Parks and Recreation - Entertainment 720 was a comedy goldmine.
3. Modern Family - The show has a great groove going, and it should be good for a while.

Favourite dramatic seasons I watched this year (in order):
1. Justified Season 2 (2011) - Raylan's feud with Mags and the Bennetts was captivating until the last scene, and it might be one of the
2. The Shield Season 5 (2006) - The series was brilliant all the way through, but it was this season that pitted Vic against IA's relentless Kavanaugh (Forest Whitaker) in one of the greatest battles of wills ever. The season set up the conclusion of the series and provided one of the all-time heartbreaking moments for any drama ever (seriously), and was the best of the series.
3. Breaking Bad Season 3 (2010) - The year Walter White really broke bad working for Fring. I'll probably have Season 4 done within a few weeks, judging by how I've watched the rest of the show, but Season 3 kept on accelerating the tension, even when it seemed impossible.

Next drama projects (ie. shows to watch through) after I finish Breaking Bad Season 4 and maybe rewatching Justified Season 2, in order of priority: The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men, Burn Notice, Eureka (I expect I might get through the first two, maybe three).

Next comedy projects, in order of priority: Louie, Bored To Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Dead Set, The Big C (last half of Season 1 and S2), Archer, Hiccups (I feel like I still need to give it a shot, being a sitcom by Brent Butt)

Next Netflix projects, in order of priority (unless one of the aforementioned shows pops up there, in which case it may bump some of these down): Kings (finish), The Big C (finish), Mad Men, Luther, Jekyll, Life

And finally, five TV events for which I'm excited in 2012: the Season 3 premiere of Justified (Jan. 17), the finale of Chuck (Jan. 27), the return of Community (eventually), the last season of Breaking Bad (summer), and the premiere of Survivor: One World (Feb. 15).

There you have it: my year in television!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The onset of awards season

It's about this time every year that the awards season really begins to coalesce and aspiring critics like me craft their lists of movies to see over the next few months, whenever they finally open in their city. There are usually about twenty total films that end up being part of the conversation in any given year (give or take a few); of those, I usually end up seeing around ten by the time the Oscars finally take place. I've already seen a few of the contenders for major awards (Moneyball, The Tree of Life, Beginners, Bridesmaids, Young Adult), but there are a number more that I have either not yet seen, am waiting to see, or feel the need to see out of some (likely misplaced) sense of obligation as a cinephile. Here are my quick takes on seventeen movies in the buzz that I haven't seen yet, organized by rough categories.

"True Grit": The movies that were in my sights regardless of the buzz.
The Descendants - Sideways was brilliant, and it's been too long to wait for the new Payne movie.
A Dangerous Method - Cronenberg dispenses with illusions and goes straight to filming Freud. Looks great.
The Ides of March - I still haven't seen Clooney's political take (thriller? satire?), but the cast alone (Clooney, Gosling, Giamatti, and Hoffman are four of my favourite working actors) was enough to make me notice.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Fincher's just twisted enough to pull it off and make it palatable.

"Winter's Bone": Independent (or foreign) movies that I might not have heard about if not for the buzz, but that are probably up my alley anyway.
Rampart - I'm really interested to see how Harrelson's take on the "L.A. crooked cop" compares to Michael Chiklis' Vic Mackey (The Shield), which was originally going to be entitled "Rampart" and was based on the same scandal.
Drive - Yes, I still haven't seen it.
The Flowers of War - China's entry for foreign language film - its most expensive film production ever - concerns the massacre at Nanking in 1937 and stars Christian Bale. Of course I'll see it.

"The Aviator": Movies that probably wouldn't interest me if it weren't for awards buzz
The Artist - I might have wanted to see this one anyway, but it's moved up my list because of all of the talk.
Hugo - Scorsese's pedigree meant I probably would have seen it anyway, but the buzz just bumps it higher.
War Horse - Spielbergian sentimentality is always a risk (just look at his filmography since Saving Private Ryan), but I may end up seeing this one eventually.
J. Edgar - Eastwood is usually strong, but the main draw here is DiCaprio.
Midnight In Paris - Not usually a fan of Allen (or Wilson outside of Wes Anderson films), but I'll probably see this one anyway.
My Week with Marilyn - Could this be the performance that finally gets Williams the love she deserves? It seems more and more likely all the time.

"Precious": Movies I'll probably ignore anyway:
The Help - Do I really need to watch this? I think I could get what I need to see from the trailer.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Might be authentically moving, but also looks like very manufactured sentimentality.
The Iron Lady - Looks tediously boring; when the war over the Falkland Islands is your key conflict, you know it's not going to be an exciting movie.

"Rachel Getting Married": On the radar, will likely see eventually, but not likely in theatres. Coincidentally (or not?), these are all possible nominees for Best Actress.
Martha Marcy May Marlene - I think I got the title right.
Melancholia
We Need To Talk About Kevin

And then there's the anomaly of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, which is getting rave reviews (thanks to Brad Bird's direction) and may steal my attention for an evening in the midst of all the heady arthousey films. It looks like I've got some "work" ahead of me!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Radical Realignment

The NHL recently approved a radical plan for divisional realignment by a 26-4 vote. Both Katie Baker from Grantland and Eric Duhatschek from the Globe and Mail have done a respectable job analyzing the decision, but I have a few comments on the development that I haven't read in an analysis yet. I've organized my thoughts into positive, negative, and "interesting" (points to observe or questions that linger).

First, here are the approved conferences:
Conference A: Anaheim, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, Vancouver
Conference B: Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis, Winnipeg
Conference C: Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Montreal, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Toronto
Conference D: Carolina, New Jersey, NY Islanders, NY Rangers, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington

Positives:
1. Every team plays every other team twice each year. One of the biggest criticisms of the current system is that some teams would play each other only every few years, so marquee players like Crosby, Ovechkin, and Stamkos would not visit every year. The new plan amends that oversight, and 58 games are assigned to playing each other team twice.

2. Bigger divisions mean fewer games against each divisional rival. Under the current system, divisional rivals play each other eight times in a season, and then occasionally in the playoffs. There are 24 games to divide between the other six or seven teams in the division, meaning that each team will have no more than six games against any one opponent in a season. It should keep the rivalries fresher and more exciting!

3. More flexibility for future franchise movement. Maybe the NHL is already planning for one of the Florida teams to relocate to Southern Ontario, but the fact that this has been one of the top benefits cited thus far by the league is slightly concerning.

4. Playoff rivalries. Quick: name the top three playoff rivalries since 1999. My votes: Toronto-Ottawa, Montreal-Boston, Vancouver-Chicago. Pittsburgh-Philadelphia, Boston-Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh-Washington might also be mentioned in the discussion, but there are not many more - if any - solid candidates. Each of those top three rivalries were built by consecutive years of meeting in the playoffs, and all three grew over time. The odds of those rematches happening, however, was fairly low, and the league's seeding format did not allow for as many rivalries to develop unless chance (or fate) brought them together. The new format will have the first two rounds remain in-conference (formerly division), so there will be more chance for those rivalries to develop.

Negatives:
1. The end of the low-seed Cinderella runs. The 1999 Sabres, 2003 Mighty Ducks, the 2004 Flames, the 2006 Oilers, and the 2010 Flyers and Canadiens defied expectations and made runs deep into the playoffs as 6-, 7-, or 8- seeds, though none of those teams actually won the Cup. Though I'm not disappointed to see the re-seeding of teams go by the wayside, it won't be the same without the Cinderella stories; I suppose this may be moot once the first "fourth-place team" makes a run to the equivalent of the current Conference Finals.

Okay, so that's barely a negative, and I can't think of any more. But there are a few interesting points to consider:

1. The shift from "divisions" to "conferences": I'm not sure why they did this, exactly, but this move from using the term "conference" instead of "division" seems possibly fraught with issues in the future. Of utmost concern is that the playoff system is as-of-yet undetermined.

2. The NHL can spin the almost unanimous vote in a positive light when compared to the mess that has emerged in the NBA in the Chris Paul debacle over the past week.

3. It seems like this would be a perfect opportunity for the league to finally make the long-overdue transition in points assigned for different game outcomes. I'm in favour of every game being worth three points, rather than some being worth 2 and some 3, as has been the case in the era of the shootout. Those three points get divided according to the outcome: a regulation win is three points, a win after regulation (overtime or shootout) is two points, and a loss after regulation (OTL or SOL) is 1 point. Do it now, NHL!

4. The Florida teams in the "northeast" division. I'm not sure if rivalries can develop with their northern conference-mates, and perhaps this is just priming one of those teams to move into Southern Ontario.

5. It remains to be seen how the history of the league will be interpreted and how this shift will affect the future analysis of the NHL's development. The Wikipedia entry divides the league's almost-century long span into four quarter-century-long eras: Early years (1917-1941); Original Six (1942-1967); Expansion (1967-1992); and Current Era (1992-present). It seems mostly correct, but I think that the "Current Era" should start in 1993, when the league switched from having a President to a Commissioner. If you break down the eras more, you end up with 10-15 year eras, with the exception of the Original Six, each of which have distinct markers: 1917-1926 (early years); 1926-1941 (franchises established and solidly in place); 1941-1967 (Original Six); 1967-1980 (expansion and competition with the WHA); 1980-1993 (WHA integrated, more expansion, move to Commissioner); 1993-2005 (southern expansion, relocation, labour troubles); 2005-present (the post-lockout era, shootouts, new generation of stars). That means that this shift comes halfway through this era, and it will shape the league's history for at least this part of the league's history. If this comes near the end of Bettman's tenure (which could foreseeably conclude by the end of this era of league history), it could be his last chance to go out on top. Whatever happens, it should be, well, interesting.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Assessing the situation

The BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) has been on a "work-to-rule" job action since the school year started, meaning that they are completing no administrative tasks. Each school (and division) has dealt with this in a different way, mostly depending on the severity of union sentiment in said school, but the most recent casualty of this ongoing conflict was report cards. Many schools left teachers to send home informal reports, and a number sent out blank report cards, often only with attendance filled in, to fulfill a legal (I think?) requirement. In spite of complaints from some people that teachers "need" to supply report cards for their students, the BC Supreme Court ruled this week that report cards are not an "essential service" provided by teachers and that they cannot be legislated to deliver report cards. While I am heartened by the news for the precedent that it has established, it was mostly irrelevant for me. I'm teaching at an independent school as a non-BCTF member, so I still had to contrive the accursed documents. By my estimation, I spent around forty hours, mostly outside of regular school hours, working on my first term report cards. That includes time completing the administrative tasks (collecting grades from other teachers, compiling attendance, printing and collating the physical document), as well as editing the template, catch-up grading, and psychologically working myself up to the task. It was more difficult than I had envisioned largely because it was my first time writing them at this school for this age level of students with this level of learning adaptations and modifications. As it turns out, elementary report cards are quite different from high school report cards: there's a lot less brevity and terseness involved, and a lot more sensitivity to individual students and emotional input required. It was, in short, one of the most exhausting tasks I have endured in my short career as a teacher, and one that I am not overly excited about repeating in three months.
Between my own life-sapping experience of the past ten days, the BCTF rhetoric, and the court's ruling, I have been reflecting about the entire idea of report cards. I'm sure Sir Ken Robinson has had something to say about it, and it's likely much more erudite than the rant on which I am about to embark (if you have a link, send it my way, please), but I'll still push on. While I agree with the pedagogical ideals of authentic assessment, both qualitatively and quantitatively, as well as the integral involvement of parents in the educational process, why are we still bound to this one particular form of communication? How have teachers' associations not risen up against this incredibly stressful process and demanded we refine the process in order to preserve the sanity of our educators? How have psychologists not rallied and held demonstrations against these documents that are arguably as damaging as any written correspondences can be? (On second thought, they may choose to encourage this trend; after all, don't they profit off of people being disturbed like this? But I digress.) How has this seemingly archaic process not caught up with the possibilities afforded by advances in communication technology, even in the past decade? Why am I asking so many rhetorical questions?
I took one class in assessment in university - ironically timed after my internship - but even that was a bust. My prof was a sessional teaching the class for the first time, and although she tried really hard, any work she had tried to accomplish was undone when she chose to give our term group project (an annotated exam for which we created a unit as well as the exam) a grade of 99%, rather than the 100% it deserved, because - in her own words - she "just couldn't give out a 100%" (she justified it through pointing out one small typographical error; I'm still likely a little bitter about that one). The point of sharing this fact is that not once in the entire forty hours of the course do I remember being taught about writing report cards: no tips, hints, strategies, considerations, things to avoid, nothing. (She may have mentioned them obliquely, but not in any way that was meaningful or memorable, even at the time). They are nearly ubiqutious in their delivery at schools, yet so much of the process of writing them (not to mention interpreting them) is left to intuition, rather than exposition. They rely on teachers understanding a construct to which they have been subject in the past and combining their experience with their concrete numbers, informal observations and an abstract scale of progress, all in a style that includes educational terminology and reflects their own voice, which they have to learn to develop without direct instruction or coaching. (Like many high school English teachers teach writing, unfortunately). So I come back to my question: why do we still rely on this seemingly overly stressful yet somewhat unreliable and intuitively learned process?
I remember observing the flaws in the system even as a student. When I was in elementary school, the Saskatoon Public School division used a system in which numbers 1 through 4 were assigned. "4" meant "not meeting expectations"; "3" meant "meeting expectations"; "2" meant "exceeding expectations"; and "1" meant "exceptionally exceeding expectations". At the time, I observed what I perceived to be the logical fallacy of the system: without extreme improvement each term, it would be impossible to exceed a "3" after the first term, since the expectations that I had established would have to be exceeded in order to not be deemed as simply "meeting" them. I reflected later that the grades were not likely meant to reflect individual expectations, but rather a codified understanding of what a student at that level should be able to do. Either way, it still seemed arbitrary and meaningless to me, as exemplified in a story from my Grade 8 year. I was an extraordinary speller, easily the best in the school - staff probably included. I'm not exaggerating, either; I had almost singlehandedly led our school to victory on "The Great Spelling Bee" two years earlier, and I was often consulted more readily than the dictionary by my classmates. My teacher often asked me how to spell words in front of the class; I was all too eager, of course, to oblige an opportunity to use my talent, especially in a way that would demonstrate it publicly (I may not have been humble about it, exactly).
When I received my Term 1 report card that year, I was not surprised by most of what I saw: a column of "2"s. I was in a class for gifted students, and even though my efforts far exceeded grade expectations, a "1" was a rare commodity. Perhaps this was meant to continue to encourage us to continue to improve; perhaps the teacher just could not bear to give out "1"s readily. At any rate, I was happy with my "2"s, regardless of the fact that I knew that for the most part I had earned "1"s by this awkward scale, until I saw the aberration. It must have been a mistake, for there should have been no way I could earn a "2" in spelling. I realized that, even had it been measured against the admittedly high expectations I had set, that I deserved a "1". So I took it to her to state my case, reminding her that not only had I not spelled any words incorrectly all term, but that she used me as a resource. It seemed that she was about to justify her grade, but my dogged determination had convinced her to change it to a "1"; now, upon reflection, I think she was picking her battles, and she knew I had the capacity, tenacity, and perspicacity to make her life unbearable for the next seven months, and it was far easier for her to give in then and change one little number. Regardless of her reasons for changing my grade, I had accomplished my victory: my spelling grade was now accurate, and I had proven that the system could be manipulated. I felt like it was at that point that I realized the futility and fallacy of the entire enterprise of report cards. (I'm not even going to get into the debate about assigning alpha-numeric grades to students on a relatively arbitrary scale, other than to continue to state my relief that at least they're on the metric system; that rant is for a different post.)
And yet, here I am, a teacher - of Grade 8 students, nonetheless - forced to engage in that very same enterprise, despite my self-assured observations and equivocations. Perhaps the answer is tautological: Why do we use report cards? Because we use them. They're flawed and awkward and stressful and time-consuming and laborious and arbitrary and ambiguous and manipulated, but they're meaningful. A kind word can bring encouragement to a student and change their trajectory for the rest of their lives; a harsh word can cause a student to spiral into a descent of depression. They reflect not only the student, but the teacher. I had to invest myself in each of my reports, just like I have to invest myself in my students. I could probably go back and read all of my report cards and get insight not only on who I was, but who they were. Maybe that's why we should keep on with report cards: so that, one day, we can look back on ourselves and see who we were and who were our influences. Maybe there is some merit in the process, after all: despite all of my difficulties, I've actually learned not only more about my students, but about myself as a teacher. It's not a system that's anywhere near perfect, but it still does some good, even if that's only to see in which grade we finally earned that "1" or figured out that darn shoe-tying gig.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Stress, rest, and creativity

Note: I started on this post a week ago. Perhaps that reflects the nature of what I'm discussing here. It's a bit rambly, but I think it's still mostly accurate to where I am in the moment.

I've been ruminating on this post for two weeks - maybe three or four - and even then I did not finish it in one sitting; it seems like this process reflects the nature of my creative, vocational, and personal existence right now. Life has been especially intense - even by my already intensified standards - since the end of July, when we returned from our trip to Saskatchewan. In that time - only three months - we have dealt with numerous significant family developments, my starting a very challenging new teaching job, and a constant monitoring of our church's current situation (financially and relationally). It makes me glad that we don't have children yet. Now, I realize that many of you will sigh, sit back, and start to glaze over as you read, since you have heard this before from me. I won't deny it: I know I've written posts like this before, and I'm sure I'll write them again. Here's my disclaimer: blogging is one way I work through the things that come up in my life, and this intstressity has consumed me over the past month or so. My blog does serve as somewhat of a journal, so in some ways it is more for me that for any of you; the fact that people are inspired/encouraged/enraged/etc. as a result of my writing is almost incidental. I do try to have something new to say whenever I post, and I think that there are some good nuggets contained even in this stream of thought about the connection between rest and creativity. So read on, brave soul.
It's hard to believe that it's closer to Christmas break than to Labour Day at this point; Daylight Savings Time and Remembrance Day are all in the foreseeable future, and the school year is already almost twenty-five per cent complete. As recently as mid-September, I felt like I was getting things on track, but October has been a real challenge. After Thanksgiving, I got sick for a week, had to deal with big picture church stuff the following week, and as a result I'm now feeling a couple of weeks behind in my work. I think the issue for me is that I expected (whether it was reasonable to think this or not) that I would be "okay" by this point. It's always bound to be crazy until Thanksgiving, but usually I'm able to find some sense of normalcy after that; this year I'm really struggling to get in step and stay caught up. It's challenging to feel that almost any minute of my day is mortgaged in some way against the future and that I'm constantly in a battle of life vs. school. I've been working through what it means to rest and how that intersects with being creative.
When I'm teaching, it feels like much of my creative spirit is diverted from my own interests into my schoolwork. It takes a constant level of creativity to work in a classroom, particularly in an environment with as many curveballs as mine provides each week. I would like to continue engaging creatively through my writing (blog and book) as well as through experiencing the media around me, but I have even struggled with that since school began. In the past two months, have read only two books, having finished both in the past week. I have been to the movie theatre once, and I'm several weeks behind on the new TV season. I've blogged four times. About my only significant cultural accomplishment is that I have watched through the first two seasons of Modern Family. I have been able to listen to many of the new albums that have been released in the past two months, but I haven't been able to process them into reviews yet. The bottom line for me is that it feels like it takes most of my creativity to get through each day and to be ready for the next.
So what's the relationship between stress, rest, and creativity? It seems that the more stress I have, the less creative I am, and the the less rest I get. But here's where I'm learning to flip it: I think that creativity might be the key to the other two, rather than a byproduct of them. It seems that when I sacrifice creativity or allow my personal creative enterprises to be subverted into my work is when I struggle the most. What if I were to place that priority on creativity, and that's what lowers the stress and brings rest regardless of what's happening around me? What if I'm giving up the very thing that would actually help me cope each day? When I've allowed myself the time to write or to watch a movie or to read, I've felt more energized; even the couple of times I've played video games with friends have felt much more inspirational than they should have. Perhaps I need to place a priority on engaging my media world, and that will help me unlock the creativity I need to succeed in my work and help me rest. Of course, the question still remains: what does it look like to do this well? Does it mean planning for "me time" each day to watch/read/listen/play something without distractions? Do I forgo sleep to get the rest that I need? How can I meet this need in the midst of working, being married, having friends here and there, maintaining a household, and being in leadership at the church? I recognize that these are challenging questions to answer at anytime, but I've been reminded of the kind of struggles I had in my first two years of teaching, the second of which was challenging primarily due to the new marriage and move. It really feels like I've been put back into my first year of teaching again, and that I'm having to work through everything from the beginning. It's a challenge to feel set back and to have to work through all of these questions again, but I think that everything will work out - as long as I can keep finding ways to be creative and to rest.

Monday, October 10, 2011

4th quarter media update: movies

The blockbuster summer is behind us, the usual August-September lull is a memory (though it was filled by Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Help), and the final awards season push is already on. This past summer of "blockbusters" wasn't really that memorable, aside from the surprisingly entertaining Apes prequel, the gut-bustingly funny Bridesmaids, and a well-composed finale to the Harry Potter series. Anything other big movies I saw ranged from "meh" to "ugh"; it was the indie movies that shone (Beginners, Tree of Life). But at least that's behind us and we can move into the final quarter of the cinematic calendar, which always provides a unique mix of horror/thrillers (thanks to Halloween), family-friendly-fare, emerging independent underdogs, un-summer action blockbusters, and bloated blatant Oscar-bait. It's a season in which movies can go from "must see" to "can't stand" in a week, and when critics really can make or break a movie. Here are the movies I'm keeping track of in the next few months.

Five favourite movies of 2011 (so far):
Beginners
Bridesmaids
Of Gods and Men
Rango (I know, I was surprised too!)
Tree of Life

Five movies from 2011 that I've missed that I'd most like to watch:
Another Earth
Everything Must Go
Source Code
Win Win
X-Men: First Class

Five movies in theatres now that I would like to see:
Contagion
Drive
50/50
The Ides of March
Moneyball

Five most anticipated movies of the next three months:
J. Edgar (Nov 9) - Never count out Clint Eastwood directing or DiCaprio acting. Should be interesting.
The Muppets (Nov 23) - Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Bret McKenzie's music, and a movie full of Muppets! I'm so there.
A Dangerous Method (Nov 23) - Cronenberg disperses with the charade and finally makes a movie about Freud.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (Dec 21) - It's the presence of Jeremy Renner and the direction of Brad Bird that draw me back in to this series.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dec 21) - Fincher's take looks dark, dreary, and unnerving. Maybe I'll wait until after Christmas to see it.

Five "wild card" movies that could go either way:
The Thing (Oct 14) - Who knows with horror sci-fi movies, especially remakes.
In Time (Oct 28) - It could be a whipsmart sci-fi action or a dredgingly boring dud. Only time will tell. (hehehe)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Dec 16) - The first movie was entertaining, but not fantastically so. Since its release, the BBC released its far superior series bringing Sherlock into the 21st century, and perhaps the audience for Ritchie's Holmes with it.
The Adventures of Tin Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Dec 21) - Steven Spielberg's name is more of an indictment than an endorsement nowadays (seriously, look at his filmography since Saving Private Ryan. You'll be shocked), but this could be an entertaining family adventure movie.
We Bought A Zoo (Dec 23) - Cameron Crowe's last couple of films haven't been spectacular, but the cast and script sound interesting.

Five other movies on my radar that may or may not work their way into my viewing priority list depending on their publicity and critical reception:
Rum Diary (Oct 28)
Like Crazy (Oct 28)
Coriolanus (Dec 2)
Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy (Dec 9)
The Descendants (Dec 16)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Media update: Fall TV season

Let me take you back five years to the Fall 2006 TV season, the first time I regained interest in network TV in several years. The West Wing had ended its run in the spring, but dramas like House and Lost were engaging their audiences in a new way. Arrested Development had reached its unfortunately premature demise, but it had already begun to spawn a new generation of single-camera comedies like My Name Is Earl and The Office. Even more traditional multi-cam sitcoms, like How I Met Your Mother, were a little edgier and hipper than their aging contemporaries. The new shows were fresh and engaging: Jericho and Heroes followed in the steps of Lost and captivated audiences each week; NBC's twin shows about sketch comedy shows, 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, presented different looks at the industry; Friday Night Lights became the best show nobody was watching; and Ugly Betty brought a new voice to an old idea. (Meanwhile, on cable on Showtime, record audiences were captivated by a serial killer named Dexter.) Fast forward a year to 2007, when networks again took some risks with shows like The Big Bang Theory, Chuck, Pushing Daisies, and Life. Then only a few months later, the writer's strike shortened the season and changed the future of network TV. Some shows survived the strike (Chuck), some were mercifully shortened and allowed to regroup (Friday Night Lights), some kept going in spite of themselves (Heroes and My Name Is Earl), and some were cancelled. Since then, there has been dearth of network TV shows that are engaging audiences, stretching boundaries, and enduring in creative impact. t's not that networks are not trying to be creative: Community, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Kings, Life on Mars, Glee, and Raising Hope have started to show that there are still fresh ideas in the medium, regardless of their commercial viability. That's partly what makes this fall TV season (and last fall's, for that matter) so disappointing; there were few shows that intrigued me last year, and of those, none really captured my attention (Running Wilde and Raising Hope came the closest, but didn't really catch on for me). This year, it's even slimmer pickings, with only a few shows that even moderately intrigue me. There's only one show that I have considered a "must-try" - Fox's New Girl - and even that looks like it might be weak. Up All Night has the ingredients for being a serviceable show (Lorne Michaels producing, Will Arnett, Christina Applegate, and Maya Rudolph starring), but still seems flat. Person of Interest may become too bound by its conceit, and Terra Nova has equal parts promise and pessimism. Out of all of the pilots, that makes four that I would even consider trying out; meanwhile, there are three shows on cable that intrigue me (Boss, Homeland, and American Horror Story) out of the many fewer cable shows available. It's the second of many terrible years in a row for the networks as far as I'm concerned, and it'll take a lot to convince me otherwise. With that in mind, here's some of my other thoughts about the new fall TV season.

Five shows I'm most excited about this fall:
Chuck - The final thirteen episodes of the series should be fun, with Mark Hamill as a villain.
Community - Still the funniest show on TV, though it's threatened by...
Dexter - Dexter finds religion? Count me in.
Parks and Recreation - Two words: Tammy 1.
Survivor: South Pacific - Yes, I'm still watching it in Season 23. And I still love it.

And two I'm waffling on:
The Big Bang Theory - S4 had its moments, but it was definitely a step back.
Glee - I predict that EW will be running a cover story on "Glee fatigue" by mid-season. The second half of Season 2 drew me back in, but I'm wary, as are many viewers.

Five shows I've been watching over the summer:
The Shield - The last scene of the series is still lingering in my brain.
The Big C - Laura Linney is laughable, lovable, and de-lightful.
Kings - It seems like 13 episodes are not nearly enough to tell this story; why couldn't this have been on cable?
Futurama - The last half of Season 6 really showed that the show is back at full capacity.
Parks and Recreation - I could easily watch 5 or 6 episodes in a row. And I did. Repeatedly.

Ten comedies I probably should be watching regularly: Archer, Bored To Death, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Episodes, Eureka, How To Make It In America, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Louie, Modern Family, and Raising Hope.

Five cable shows to (further investigate and/or) catch up on before their next season: Breaking Bad, Burn Notice, Mad Men, Shameless and Treme.

Top ten shows to watch on Netflix (after I finish Kings and The Big C: Newsradio, Life, Life on Mars, Luther, Jekyll, The Larry Sanders Show, Black Adder, and Mad Men, with Quantum Leap and The A-Team added in for nostalgia's sake.

And three shows that can't come back soon enough: 30 Rock, Futurama, and especially Justified.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Voice

One of the most difficult facets of their persona an artist has to develop is their voice. Writers, singers, painters, dancers, playwrights, actors: all have to learn who they are in a medium. It's what makes reality shows, from audience-judged shows like The Voice or Dancing With The Stars to competition shows like Amazing Race or Survivor so compelling for so many people: each participant is trying to find their voice in that medium. Voice (or style, as it has often been called) is the key to communication and creativity.
The area of artistry in which I work most directly in developing voice is writing, both as an educator and a reflective practitioner. It's a constant struggle to teach students about voice, especially as they are discovering an identity in a new medium of sorts: adolescence. Students have to navigate discovering their voice as they are changing as well as learning about new formats in which they can express their voice. They are forced, by the requirements of the curriculum, to focus almost exclusively on expository essay composition, but there is a wide variety of styles, formats, genres, and even media to which all writers (even high school students) are now almost required to master in order to be successful. There is a fluency in internet research that is now standard, as well as an overwhelming cacophony of existing voices through which emerging voices have to sort. There are multiple media to navigate, each of which has its own cadence and requires its own voice: print, academia, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and whatever social media tool emerges as the next dominant force in the ever-evolving marketplace.
I have, over the past fifteen years of writing (starting with my formative years contributing to and editing the Spark, my high school newspaper), worked to find my voice. Much of that struggle has been chronicled here, often to to the ongoing amusement and/or annoyance of my meager audience, I suspect. I have wrestled through issues of voice as I have presented myself in different media for different audiences with different purposes. Over the years, I have written in two university papers - The Carillon and The Sheaf -as a contributor, editor, and sometime columnist, for my blog, and for online content for Relevant Magazine and Patrol Mag. I have engaged with "side projects" like "Bring Back Vinyl", a blog about music with the elusive Kurtz in 2004-2005; "Hockey Docs", my repeatedly-attempted though ultimately aborted try at writing about hockey; or "Ecclesia Semper Reformanda", a support group for evangelicals struggling to engage with church that met weekly and blogged less frequently than that. I keep coming back to "Life of Turner", which has changed over the past seven years and at various intervals has integrated material that may have been farmed out to one of those side projects at another time, but still has remained fairly consistent (though not constant) over the past 850 posts (including this one). I have worked at adjusting to Twitter and other social media sites like Flixster and Goodreads, each of which mandates a different sensibility, and I'm happy with my voice as it is now.
Of course, I'm not content to leave things be, so I'm figuring out the next phase of my voice. I'm working through launching lifeofturner.ca as its own website and all that is entailed in that venture (it's registered, but not yet functional). I'm looking at whether some of the things I've been blogging would be enhanced or better being replaced by podcasting (such as the media update posts). I'm still figuring out what Hockey Docs looks like and whether that could become a podcast. I'm sporadically writing pieces of a book that I would like to have composed and even published before my 30th birthday (16 months away). A friend and I are considering starting a semi-regular podcast discussion. And I'm constantly interacting with other writers and taking inspiration from how they write and conduct themselves online (most recently Bill Simmons and Grantland.com). The overall goal is that I continue to grow and learn what my voice is and how to express that; in order to do that, I have to continue to evaluate what my goals are, whether I am accomplishing those goals, and whether there is another (or better) way to meet those goals. It's a constant process of evaluation, innovation, and implementation, and I, for one, am glad that there is always new territory to explore.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Approaching equilibrium

September is always crazy for teachers, so as a rule, I warn my friends and family not to expect intentional contact until Thanksgiving (that is, early October here in Canada). It's always a challenge to learn how to balance work and life after a summer of a (usually) relaxing self-determined schedule. Don't get me wrong: I love the summertime, and although I'm not always certain of the pedagogy of taking ten weeks off, I recognize the benefit (and arguably the necessity) of doing so after a long school year. Last year, I had the challenge of not going through the "back to school" routine for the first time since I was four years old; this year has presented the challenge of re-learning how to go through the process after a year away. Not only have I been rusty in my awareness of my own procedures, but I have been adjusting to teaching Grade 7/8 (for the first time) in a split class (for the first time) in a new-to-me school that focusses on accommodating students with special needs (you got it - for the first time). Any one of those factors on its own would be enough to cause me to rethink and rework my expectations, teaching methods, and materials; put them all together, and it's been a wild ride for the past few weeks. Factor in a summer that included several significant family events, a still-relatively-new role in leadership at the church, a number of relationships formed when I was unemployed, and there's a whole lot of life imbalance going on. I've been working through what it means to be at equilibrium, and what life looks like in that place of balance. The real challenge for me has been taking what I learned in my last year of non-teaching and living it out in my current circumstances, especially the need for rest and meaningful relationships. Last year, I had the time to sit back and have the space to work it through; this year, time feels like it's at much more of a premium. I want to be clear: I really am glad that I have this issue, since it means that I have a teaching position and all that goes with it, and this is not a complaint or gripe; it's merely an observation about my life as it is now. It has actually been a very positive process, and I believe that my year of limbo has already had a very positive impact on the early goings of this year. It has been particularly interesting to compare this school year to 2008, when my wife was unemployed and I was starting at a new school, and to realize just how much better we have navigated the territory this time around. I would say that I've only had one or two really difficult days in the past two weeks; that number was much higher several years ago. I had a tough day today because I didn't actually stop and rest; instead of stopping and taking a rest, I allowed a sense of needing to work to dominate my day. Ultimately, I didn't do either well, and I felt unfulfilled for a large portion of the day; it's getting better now (in part because I have worked through things in this post), and I hope this evening will be even better. It seems, for the most part, that new factors have stopped entering my life (though the fall TV season will cause some juggling), and each week it feels like I'm closer to approaching equilibrium. Of course, by the time I actually feel comfortable, something else will come up, and I'll have to work that into the overall equation. That's why it's good that now I'm finding that I enter a state of equilibrium more quickly, efficiently, and painlessly than I have before, and my wife and I are working better as a team than have in our three years of marriage. Life is good, and it's approaching equilibrium.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Space, the final frontier

I have been thinking a lot about space lately. Not "outer space"(though I have been rewatching the recent season of Futurama), but physical and temporal space, particularly inasmuch as it affects me. In the past couple of months, I have ample opportunity to consider space. When my wife and I were travelling to the prairies, we visited a lot of our friends' homes, several for the first time; it was very interesting to see how different people used their spaces, and how their personalities were reflected in those spaces. When we returned home, we had a week in our one-bedroom suite before my father-in-law came to stay with us. He ended up staying two weeks - twice as long as we have hosted anyone before - before transitioning to his short-term accommodations. It was mostly successful, though I found myself almost obsessively cleaning and decluttering throughout his stay and thoroughly exhuming his presence from the house after his departure. The situation was likely exacerbated by the fact that I was also unable to arrange my classroom due to waiting for contractors to finish their work and for other teachers to clear out their materials. Now that most of the distractions are gone, I have a workspace and most of the physical arranging done, and I have already felt the stress beginning to subside. It is a unique challenge to design a space not only for me but also for my students, but I am feeling comfortable in that endeavour.
As I reflected on this recent obsession, I realized how much I have always considered my space. In my house, everything has a place, and I have been that way since I was young. I rarely lost anything, since I had clear definitions of my space. We moved several times from when I was nine until thirteen, and in each place I was not only able to maximize the space, but I found it necessary to do so in order to be able to enjoy myself in that space. With one exception, I moved every four or eight months over the span of eight years after I left home to go to university; in each case, I would have to be settled almost before doing anything else at all, sometimes working throughout the night to have everything the way I liked it. It didn't matter if it was my corner of the cabin at camp or a new house: I needed to be "master of my domain" (to misappropriate the classic Seinfeld phrase) as soon as possible. I know people who can function no matter what space they're in; I have concluded that I am not one of those people, and I would struggle if I had no control over my space(s). I'm going to have difficulty with kids, aren't I?

Post-script/corollary: I have also realized how essential it is for me to have a "third space" other than home or work in which I can be comfortable and have a sense of "ownership". It's an interesting how someone else's space can be shared to become "yours" as your needs dictate. Just a thought.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Who I am considers who I've been

Today was a nostalgic day in my car: I popped in Audio Adrenaline's premature 2001 greatest hits collection Hit Parade today, and I rocked out but good. It felt oddly reminiscent of the era between 1999 and 2003 when I listened to Audio A and their CCM contemporaries almost exclusively in my discman-tape setup in my Horizon. (An aside: it seems preposterous that portable CD players were in use as recently as a decade ago.) I caught myself singing along with every word in every song, even though I haven't listened to Audio A in several years, and I realized how much their albums Bloom, Some Kind of Zombie, and especially Underdog are ingrained in my subconscious from those formative years of listening. But what struck me today anew was how little irony was present throughout their lyrics. There were a few clever metaphors and allusions ("I'm Not The King", "Some Kind of Zombie"), but songs like "Big House", "Never Gonna Be As Big As Jesus", and "Hands and Feet" demonstrate an literal lyrical simplicity that is overwhelmingly cloyingly unironic in both intent and presentation. Audio A, along with their closest contemporaries Newsboys and DC Talk (who were strangely similar not only in thematic content but in sound for the first several years of their careers), as well as later acts like the O.C. Supertones and some albums by Third Day, Jars of Clay, and Skillet, embody a period in my life and faith in which I appreciated and identified closely with that level of discourse. As I listened and genuinely enjoyed the songs on the album, I started wondering when it changed for me; when did I shift from that mindset to where I am now? I realized that I knew the answer, and that it was tied to Audio Adrenaline. The date I can pinpoint was February 21, 2003. It was the day before I was to interview Switchfoot at Briercrest's Youth Quake event, which immediately preceded the release of their much-hyped "mainstream crossover" album The Beautiful Letdown. They sold the album before the release date in the campus bookstore, and I immediately bought it along with another album that was receiving an early release - Audio Adrenaline's Worldwide. Switchfoot's album greatly influenced my life in the intervening years; I barely remember the track listing of Audio A's album. I began a shift out of the immaturity of my worldview into a new understanding of the world around me through my media, and the dichotomy between the two sides was evident in those two albums; they didn't cause it, by any means, but they are emblematic of the "before and after" transformation I endured. Just as I had tastes of the "me" I would be during that phase from 1998-2003 in my selections in media, it took awhile to get out of my system as I made the shift, as evidenced, for example, by the fact that I purchased albums of this ilk through 2005 and into 2006 (and occasionally since then). But here's the key of this whole enterprise as far as I am concerned: although some of these albums (and of course other media and beliefs as represented in this form by this style of music) are anachronistic in my current life, they are part of my past, and I can appreciate them as such even if they don't hit me the same way now. I find that the process is analogous to reading past journal entries or reading notes in my Bible; there's an instant connection with my faith history - joys, struggles, successes, setbacks, and celebrations. For this reason, I find it hard to completely rid myself of those albums or others with which I identified, which range from the aforementioned artists to the Insyderz' Skalleluia albums to Superchic[k] to Tree63 to Ill Harmonics to some Relient K to...well, the list could go on. Any of the albums of which I have been able to divest myself have been albums with which I never closely connected, leaving these remnants and remembrances of who I have been and forcing me to consider the juxtaposition of who I am now with who I was. Like old letters or yearbooks or e-mail conversations, I wouldn't pull them out all the time, but I'm glad I have them for days like today.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Military complex

I finally watched Band of Brothers over the weekend. I have had good intentions of watching it several times over the past decade, but it had never become important enough for me to actually do it. I took a day to watch through the entire series with some friends, and I am glad that I did. The mini-series attempted to portray war on a scale unprecedented in modern pop culture, and it succeeded, with the possible exception of some weak character development in the first few episodes (a minor quibble with the production). It was able to balance presenting a historical account with taking creative liberties in a way that preserved both the tradition and the integrity and flow of the show. It, like its thematic predecessor Saving Private Ryan, has rightfully become the measuring stick against which any future portrayal of war is considered. The second-last episode, in which Easy Company discovers a concentration camp, is one of the most moving hours of television I have ever watched. But I knew all of this before I watched it, so I started wondering why it took me so long to sit down and work my way through it. And then I had a realization: I don't really like war movies and I don't understand the whole military ideal, so I rarely make a priority of watching them. I have watched (and own) a few examples of the genre, but the list of war movies I have not yet seen is far longer, including notable accounts of 20th century wars including: Apocalypse Now, The Bridge Over The River Kwai, Catch-22, The Deer Hunter, Downfall, MASH, Patton, Platoon, Schindler's List, and The Thin Red Line. (A full list is available here; please don't think less of me as a historian or a cinephile as a result of this admission.) They are all on my list to see, and I believe that I will watch them someday, but I actually have to make myself watch them. I know that as a historian that I should be pursuing these stories with more vigor, but I am not, and never really have been, a military historian. I have several friends who can rattle off the specs of every tank used in WWII and the weapons used in almost any conflict and the tactical strategies of any modern general; they could be featured as experts on Deadliest Warrior. I am not one of those people, and I never have been. The whole military mindset eludes me, and I have never been drawn to the idea of the military or war. I am much more interested in the social and cultural realities of war and the effects on people than I am the specifics of the conflicts themselves, and I would much rather spend time teaching students about the political or technological ramifications of war than working through the tactics used to win. I will understand battles inasmuch as they affect the larger contexts of the wars in which they are fought, not for the intricacies of military strategy. It annoys me that some historians and universities focus almost exclusively on armed conflict, and that many accounts of 20th century Europe spend far too much time focussing on the details of WWI and WWII. I think it has taken a couple of years of teaching for me to truly realize this fact about myself, and to further reason that it's okay for me to not focus on that element of history. I know that it's good for me to watch portrayals of different conflicts in order to stretch myself in my knowledge and experience of the field, so I will try to work my way through more examples of the genre.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A senseless season #riders

Ask any Riders fan, and they have an opinion on who's to blame for the teams 1-6 start: offense; defense; coaching; quarterback; it varies from game to game, depending on who the popular goat is at the time. The team has lost some key personnel since last year due to injuries and NFL tryouts, especially in the receiving corps, but their absence does not seem to add up to a 1-6 record, including 0-4 at home. It's a weird season so far, as only one of the losses has been close (a 22-18 loss to Calgary in week 5), and the team's only win was too lucky to be true (a 27-24 win in week 4 over the Alouettes). If the offense is rolling, the defense is porous; even if the defense is stopping everything, they eventually tire out because the offense is leaving them on the field for too long. Durant has moments in which he looks like a master QB and moments when he looks like a lost rookie; even his best receivers alternate between making highlight-reel catches and dropping passes. I think there's something to be said for some key missing players, as well as the coaching change, but even those should not have made as big a difference as they have. And that's when it hit me: this season has not, does not, and will not make sense. It seems equally likely to me that the team will finish 4-14 or 9-9. They could be eliminated from the playoffs in September, or make it to the Grey Cup. It's just one of those weird, senseless seasons where the numbers don't and won't add up, and no amount of rationalizing can make it comprehensible. Call it the law of averages, karma, or whatever, but the Riders have been overdue for a season like this; it's been due to some well-timed luck accenting their skill that they have had such a good run in the past decade. Perhaps this is the kind of adversity that the team needs to push them to the next level and make them hungry for a championship. It might seem out of reach this year, but next year is always a possibility in Rider Nation; after all, it does not take much to turn a team around in the CFL. Last year's doormats, the Blue Bombers and the Eskimos, are leading the league this year, but they have not made huge changes: a few players, a coach or two, but not complete overhauls of their teams. The difference is that the breaks are going their way this year. Winnipeg, who went 4-14 in 2010, lost nine games by four points or fewer (a CFL record) and one other game by a touchdown or less, with their top two quarterbacks each missing the equivalent of half the season, and they still beat the Riders 31-2 in the Banjo Bowl. The Eskimos, who finished 7-11 including two wins over the Riders, won five of their last seven games and almost made the playoffs despite a 2-9 start. The Riders, in contrast, lost four of their last five to finish 10-8 before barely beating Edmonton at home in the final game of the season, outlasting BC in an OT game in the first round, genuinely defeating a superior Calgary team to advance to the Grey Cup, and then bowing to the better Alouettes in the final game. The Riders, in short, did not finish the season like champions, and might easily have lost in the Western Semi-Final rather than the Grey Cup. That Grey Cup appearance obscures what might otherwise have been remembered as a failed season, and led to what now seem to be unreasonably high expectations for this year. And really, who am I to complain? We're in the midst of the Riders' most successful stretch of football since the Lancaster/Reed years, as the team has made the playoffs nine years in a row, advanced to the West Final six of those times, and played in three of the last four Grey Cups. They're the most commercially successful team in the league (and the third best in selling sports merchandise for Canadian teams behind only the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs), and they sell out every game. Even in a losing season, the team is still entertaining, and fans watch each game with unabated passion. Though it is difficult to already feel like giving up on the season before the bye week, I know it's just a senseless season, and I have to be okay with whatever happens - as long as they beat the Bombers in the Labour Day Classic.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Best of Both Worlds

I recently read through the recently-released book Star Wars vs. Star Trek: Could the Empire kick the Federation's Ass? and other galaxy-shaking enigmas by Matt Forbeck. The premise is simple: breaking down the overarching debate into micro-arguments that can be resolved through narrative analysis of hypothetical encounters between the two combatants. The book includes ninety such mini-debates, and both its content and its conclusion is mostly satisfying in an objective sense, even if it was entirely irrelevant to me. I decided the victor of the overall debate twenty years ago, when I was eight years old - well before an episode of Undergrads attempted to settle the score. I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad on Friday nights at 10:00 pm; I thought my dad was the coolest person ever, and I really liked being able to enjoy the show with him (and stay up late). We were part of "The Undiscovered Province", the local fan club, including participating in a murder mystery party as Borg (we taped calculators to black t-shirts) and we collected the sets of cards (which I still have) as they were released. I started watching either late in the fourth season or early in the fifth season, but my dad had been taping every episode meticulously on VHS, pausing the recording during commercials, so I remember some afternoons just watching several episodes in a row. The unique characters, the political intrigue, the moral dilemmas (especially "Ethics"), and even the fact that Riker played the trombone (my instrument) all captivated me even at a young age. I didn't quite get it all, but I was bright enough to catch most of it, and I loved the science of it all. I didn't catch onto the three subsequent series (DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise), but I still feel like I could watch them and make a connection. I also remember the first time I watched Star Wars when I was ten years old. I was relatively unimpressed with the movie, including the dialogue and graphics, even at that young of an age. I watched two of the Special Edition bastardizations in theatres, and I even tried to watch Phantom Menace twice in theatres; I fell asleep the first time on opening night, during the CGI droid battle scene. It just wouldn't take for me. It all seemed so forced and inauthentic and fantastical, and it lacked the nuance and deliberation of Trek. I still have not watched Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith, and I really have no desire to do so. It's partially an issue of quality (primarily Lucas' subpar screenwriting and character development), but more an issue of philosophy: I'm not the type of person to whom Star Wars appeals, and I am the type of person who is drawn in by Star Trek. Now I just need to go back and watch the Futurama episode of "Where No Fan Has Gone Before".

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Hero of Time

With all of the hoopla surrounding the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (OoT) on the 3DS and the 25th anniversary of the release of the original NES game, I decided it was time to replay one of the best games of all time. A friend lent me a copy of the Master Quest disc released for Gamecube, which includes all-new dungeons (which are exponentially more difficult than the original version) but the same fun gameplay in Hyrule. It's fun replaying the game; I remember most of it, so I am seldom frustrated or stuck, but it has been long enough that I don't recall every trick and secret and I can "rediscover" the joys of the game. I still remember the first time I played it: May long weekend, 1999. My parents left for the weekend and I stayed at home. I rented the shiny gold cartridge, plugged it into my cutting-edge N64, and somehow played 50 hours in two-and-a-half days. I made it to the Temple of Time. I bought the game later on and finished it, and then I sold it in the Great Purge of 2002 (after all, it had magic and fortune-telling; sometimes I want to go back in time and punch myself). After I returned to my senses, I repurchased the game and played it through in the summer of 2004, which brings me to my next realization: the last time I played OoT was seven years ago, and the time that elapses between Young Link and Adult Link in the game is...seven years! So as I've played through the game, I've also been reflecting on what it would be like to take me, circa 2004, and compare that person to who I am now, which is made easier through the wonder of the internet and the fact that the summer I started blogging was seven years ago. Throw in the interesting tidbit that I had the chance to reconnect with some people I hadn't seen since that summer, and it's been a fun journey in the past month. It's almost embarrassing to read the jumble of half-developed thoughts, far-too-direct mentions of my personal life, awkward addressings of a non-existent audience, and early inklings of the style I have now developed, but I keep it there as a reminder of where I started (except the first post, which was the silly sort of "Hi, welcome to my blog!" inanity that did not deserve to ever be viewed again). It's fascinating to think about some of the things in my life that I have carried through until now, and which ones remain in the past; it's somewhat analogous to the idea that Link has weapons he can only use as a child that are unusable as an adult. I look at who I thought I was and would be and what was important to me then and how different my current reality is now. It's even more fascinating to consider how I remember or view events that happened then from my current perspective and compare that to my commentary at the time. I won't belabour the point by going into detail, but suffice to say that I thoroughly amuse myself in retrospect. Of course, I'm sure I will go through a similar process in about seven years when I again decide to pick up my Ocarina and become the Hero of Time, but for now I'm content to enjoy the memories and make some new ones along the way. And just wait until I play through Majora's Mask next; that will really mess me up, what with the impending end of the world and repeating days and all. But I might finally finish it after all these years; I've gotten sidetracked partway through several times and just haven't gotten through it, but that will change this time around. And that will be the true mark of my maturity over the past seven years.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Review: Tree of Life

When considering how to review a film, there are two basic questions that must be asked. Did the film accomplish what it set out to do well? And was what it was trying to accomplish worth trying? Any observations about genre, technique, performance, et al. fit into the first question, which tends to be more quantitative; the second question is slightly more difficult to answer, since it entails a qualitative judgement. The second often affects the first, which is why many critics seem predisposed to giving negative reviews of superhero movies, for example. If they do not like (and or understand) what a film is trying to accomplish (ie. the genre), it becomes more difficult to evaluate the quantitative side objectively. Furthermore, the whole enterprise is complicated by the idea that there is a standard of filmmaking to which all films can aspire, regardless of intended audience or method. I liken it to a comparison between novels written for the mass-market and those written for a more informed audience. Take John Grisham, for example: some of his novels are good for their genre, while some transcend their mass status and provide literary benefit on a broader scale. Don't get me wrong: it's okay to like John Grisham, and reading his novels is far preferrable to reading, say, Harlequin romances. It's another thing entirely to argue that Grisham represents a pinnacle of literary achievement; acknowledge your preferences and the strengths and weaknesses, and that there are people with a wider perspective who can accurately place Grisham in the spectrum of novel-writers, regardless of your personal predilection. Similarly, if you are content with a diet of insipid blockbuster movies, don't try to tell me that they are "good movies"; they may be entertaining, or even good within their genre, but they are not good, and they must be considered differently than other films. With this all in mind, I also believe that it's okay to have a place to enjoy or appreciate the mass-audience movies (and novels), as long as you're aware of their status, and that the qualitative and quantitative analyses of movies/films may differ, particularly for less-experienced movie-watchers. I find that as my film-viewing skill set has grown, that I can have less distance between those two fields, meaning that I find it much more difficult to appreciate movies or films that either have poor quality or weak intent. But this is entirely background discussion to what I've been thinking about Terrence Malick's film Tree of Life.
Malick, and his film, are fascinating. It has generated almost unanimous acclaim and bewilderment, perhaps the perfect combination to win the Palme D'or (which it did). It is the fifth film in nearly four decades for the reclusive Malick, whose reputation as an auteur is indelibly attached to any film he releases as a result. His films are decidedly not for mass consumption, though his most recent two films (The Thin Red Line and The New World) were more oriented toward the public. He is not like Spielberg or Scorsese, but rather an auteur like Kubrick or P.T. Anderson: a filmmaker who is more interested in advancing the art of film than in the public reception of a film. In crafting a releasing a film, Malick (or Kubrick or Anderson) actively tries to stretch boundaries and redefine the limitations imposed on the medium. This nature of Malick's work makes it difficult to evaluate his films, and Tree of Life is easily the most obscure to interpret.
Ostensibly, it is the story of an adult reflecting on his upbringing in 1950s Texas, but it is much more than that. The film is familial yet distant, immediate yet eternal; intimate yet cosmic. It eschews narrative convention, preferring to present its story through the lens of memory, reflection, and dream. It is one of the most meditative and contemplative films I have ever seen, in so doing creating one of the most necessarily interactive cinematic experiences in which I have ever participated; watching the film requires significant thought, reflection, and self-evaluation. It is closer to a visual poem than perhaps any other film I have watched, and adjectives like philosophical and metaphysical that have been used by critics are entirely appropriate for the film (as are comparisons to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever watched, and the cinematography alone is worth viewing the film. Images, dialogue, camera angles are all presented in a way that is fresh yet familiar, and they all contribute to Malick's vision for the film. It is that vision that compels the film forward, arrests the attention of the audience, and unites what could be otherwise considered a disparate set of ideas. I would argue that Malick is attempting something that has rarely been seen in film, and that he succeeds. He has crafted a film that is challenging intellectually, and that requires reflection to understand. That's the answer to the first question.
The second question is much more difficult to answer, since I'm still working through what everything means. There are some decisions he has made in the film in terms of framing, pacing, and presentation that I'm not sure I understand, which makes it hard to process whether it was worth trying. I am still working to piece the whole thing together, but I don't think I can do it alone. I think I need to dialogue and work through the film's meaning with others, although I fear that their interpretations will influence my opinion of the film. I feel that I cannot actually rate this film on a numerical scale any more than I could evaluate a poem or a painting that is intended to push the boundaries of the medium; that does not necessarily excuse it from being judged as an example of the medium, but it does mean that I'm not sure that my existing frame of reference can accurately evaluate it. If the question is "did I like it?", I would have to challenge the nature of the question; I'm not sure this is a film that is easily "liked" or "disliked", as is the nature of the binary evaluation method of social media. I appreciated the film for what it tried to do, as well as how it did it, and I am working through whether it did in fact succeed, or whether it violated its gravitas with its presentation. I am glad to have seen the film and to be part of the dialogue surrounding it, as I am certain that there is far more dialogue to be had. In some ways, I would consider Tree of Life to be a mystical film; there are parts of it that are meant to be wrestled with and worked through, and it's not meant to be easy. If you're a viewer who wants to be challenged and to be part of the dialogue, I recommend watching it; whether you end up liking it or not, it's part of the evolution of film, and that alone makes it worth viewing.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Stanley Cup playoff update: the Finals

I was wrong. Unlike my prediction, Vancouver did not beat Boston in 6 games. Or 7 games, for that matter. In the few days that have passed since the biggest heartbreak in Canucks history (much bigger than 1994 or 2003), I have had time to reflect on the series itself, as well as some of the issues raised by this series. First, to discuss the actual hockey games that were played: this was the strangest Finals I have seen since...well, ever. It was a Jekyll-and-Hyde series for both teams: when Vancouver was on, they barely beat the Bruins; when they were not on, they got worked. It was a sweep that lasted seven games due to some great goaltending by Luongo and some timely contributions from the third line in Vancouver's first three home games. I think the bottom line was that the Bruins won the series as the better team, but I feel the need to clear a few things up along the way.

1. the "intangibles" (momentum and heart): It was weird how the Canucks had scored six goals all series and went into Boston leading 3-2, but it didn't seem out of sorts with the series at that point. Enough Canucks had stepped up, and they used their crowd to push through. I was fairly certain that Boston would win Game 6, and that how they won would determine Game 7. I was right: the Canucks looked done after the second goal of the four-goals-in-four-minutes onslaught in Period 1 of Game 6, and they never regained their composure. I can't remember the last time I saw a team go from the brink of victory to an impending and seemingly inevitable defeat so totally and so quickly. The Bruins took the series from that point on; as soon as they scored in Game 7, the Canucks deflated and imploded. They seemed to lose all motivation and desire to win, and that made the biggest difference.

2. Goaltending: Tim Thomas proved to be unbeatable, both in practice and psychology. He's the first goalie to win three Game 7s in one playoffs, and he won the last two by shutout. He let in eight goals in his last eight games. The Canucks couldn't compete with that. Although the entire fault does not rest on Luongo for the final two Canuck losses, he has to bear a lot of the blame for letting in the kind of goals that make it hard for a team to come back.

3. Offense/Special Teams/Defense: The Bruins thoroughly extinguished any advantage the Canucks had had coming into the series. And it wasn't even close. Not only could the Sedins not score, but they were repeatedly scored on. I think the play that signified the Canucks' woes was Bergeron's short-handed goal to go up 3-0 in Game 7. Not only did the Canucks not score the goal they needed; they let in the backbreaker.

4. Officiating: the refereeing was strange, to say the least. The Canucks had some grounds in any issues with the calls in the series, as there were some very questionable penalties on the Canucks and some significant missed calls on the Bruins throughout the series. But the best teams fight through the inequity and find a way to win, and Vancouver did not. They took it from the Bruins and the refs, as shown by Henrik allowing himself to be repeatedly punched in Game 7. His teammates didn't come to his rescue, refs be damned, and that's the story right there. But further to the refereeing on the ice was the oddity of NHL officials in their involvement, particularly in Rome's suspension after the Horton hit (which proved to be a huge catalyst for the Bruins). The hit was a little late, but not even really penalizable, much less subject to review by the league. It was subject to public scrutiny and poor timing, which meant that a hockey decision became a politicized one, and an unfortunate precedent to establish.

5. The riots: I feel like I need to weigh in on the riots. They were not related to the outcome of the game; win or lose, there were people who came prepared to incite a crowd to riot. It was an unfortunate blemish on a city that has done a great job for the past year and a half of hosting the Olympics, Paralympics, and now Cup Finals, and it does not reflect Vancouver or Canada.

So there you have it: my analysis of what actually happened to the Canucks. It will be an interesting off-season as they tweak their roster and identify the things that can push them over the top. I'm not sure that anything really needs to change, other than possibly bringing in a Recchi-esque veteran to help them over that hump, but the proof will be in the next season. I have a hunch that the chip on the Canucks' shoulders may be enough to make them even more dangerous all year, but time will tell.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Career crossroads

It's frustrating at times to be at this point in my career. I have two bachelor's degrees, three years of teaching experience, and my most recent year of casual employment, which includes substitute teaching and working as a semi-independent facilitator in an educational research project. I have an accomplished résumé for my age, and I have many significant work and volunteer experiences that have helped me to where I am today. But despite my myriad accomplishments, I am still at a crossroads in my career. Though I am searching a wide variety of jobs in the areas of education, communications, and ministry, I am limited by my training and experience to those fields. I have enough experience that I am not considered at a beginner's level, but I am not advanced enough that my experience allows me greater opportunities. I have to pursue jobs similar to the level at which I have worked because of my relative lack of experience as well as my lack of a graduate degree like an M.A. or an M.Ed. I have applied for positions in government, management, writing/editing, and non-profit organizations with limited response, and although I have not been applying for jobs outside of my skills or expertise, I have the feeling that my "ceiling" is considered lower than other candidates because of my level of experience. Of course, further complicating my career trajectory is our geographical location, which seems to be fixed for the foreseeable present; then again, I am not sure how much even a shift in location would change my current career standing, considering the dearth of educational positions in general. So, at this point, I have several options considering my circumstances. The least tenable option is that I could start over and switch careers, but I like my chosen path, despite the scarcity of employment, and the cost of receiving new training is distinctively prohibitive even if I could choose another field in which I wanted to pursue a career. I have already begun to expand my search as wide as it can be within my fields and training, so that takes care of a second option. I could pursue an M.A. or an M.Ed., though I have two concerns: the right fit for a program, and cost. If the right program is where I am, and I could find someone to pay for it, I would strongly consider fast-forwarding my plan and working toward a graduate degree; as it stands, I would find it difficult to invest in such an enterprise with my remaining level of student debt. My thought when I graduated was that I would likely wait until I had cleared out most of that debt (by my mid-30s) to pursue further education, and unless some magical money fairy gives me $20,000 earmarked for school, it does not look like that reality has changed. Of course, another option would be for me to take a job that requires no training, most of which are in the retail or service sectors. The problem I have with that is that, even with an increasing minimum wage, my wage would be half of what I earn as an educator. That means that for me to work half-time or casually as a teacher or teacher-on-call is still preferable to working a minimum wage job, thereby making such a decision more of a last resort than a viable option. So here I am, at a crossroads, but with a clear path laid out for me: the best option, it seems, is for me to remain on this road, continuing to pursue employment in education or a related field and filling in the financial and temporal gaps with casual employment until the right job comes up. I need to continue to find ways to engage in education so that I remain fresh and do not stagnate, but I also need to wait and see what happens. Then again, the last time that a transition into a new job or position was not sudden (ie. within a month) for me was my entry into university after high school. Since that point, any new position or endeavour I have taken has occurred rapidly, suddenly, and without personal precedent. So I will hope and wait and evaluate and synthesize and apply and learn and try and pray and express and work through and stop worrying and relax and enjoy the summer for what it will be: a time away from school. In the midst of everything that has happened, is happening, and could happen, I think that's what I need the most.

Ready for liftoff #U2360SEA

It's disarming how comfortable U2 seems to be living in paradox. They are simultaneously grandiose and intimate, humble yet ostentatious, technologically sophisticated yet spiritually deep. During their career, they have occupied many different places on the pendulum, but it seems that they have found an equilibrium point in the midst of all of the spectacle and sacrament (I use the word metaphorically here) of being U2. As always, the practical nature of this paradox was demonstrated in their concert at Qwest Field in Seattle. The set featured songs from each album in their career, and there were as many songs from the twenty-year-old album Achtung Baby as there were from their most recent release. Even the opening trio of songs featured songs written in 1991, 1979, and 2009, respectively. Some of the most poignant moments of the show occurred during "One" and "With or Without You", which each featured video of the members of the band from the years of recording those albums - an interesting juxtaposition with the band's current appearance and performance. As a result, the entire experience was intimate and personal, even in the midst of 70,000 fans. "Space" was a significant theme, with messages from an astronaut on the International Space Station as well as the pre- and post-show songs "Space Oddity" and "Rocket Man" and Bono's repeated references to their "space ship". Speaking of which, it's one thing to see the specs for the stage, or even to see it on DVD, but the stage is unbelievable in person. It is even more amazing to see how much the stage and multimedia presentation is an integral part of the performance, especially during the sequence of "Zooropa" through to "Sunday Bloody Sunday". It also continues to amaze me to see how their songs change and adapt to new contexts. I was particularly moved by the video introduction to "Sunday Bloody Sunday", which featured Arabic text and people superimposed over images of flags of Arabic nations. The song is as old as I am, but it is still as relevant today as it was thirty years ago.
So the big question, beyond the already-established reflections on U2 at this point in their career, is what the show meant to me. As the band played the opening notes of "Even Better Than The Real Thing", I began to tear up. The moment was itself not overly emotional, but I was overwhelmed with the experience nonetheless. In that moment, I realized all of the things I have worked through in the past year, and how life has changed for me, and how much God loves me, and how grateful I am to be where I am in life. Having my wife there with me, particularly in the more romantic moments during songs such as "Stay", "All I Want Is You" and even "With Or Without You", meant so much, especially in contrast to the personal pain I was working through when I last saw the band on the Vertigo Tour. "Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me" was maybe my favourite song of the night, though Bono's heartfelt performance on "Miss Sarajevo" also still stands out. But what got me most was how authentic the experience felt from what the band portrayed. They really have tried to remove the layers obscuring the connection with the audience, and they are connecting with us in new and exciting ways. When Bono concluded the set with "We love you!" and a round of hugs with the band, it was the real thing. We know they love us, and that's why they keep being U2. And that is simply magnificent.

Main Set: Even Better Than The Real Thing, I Will Follow, Get On Your Boots, Magnificent, Mysterious Ways, Elevation, It’s the End of the World as We Know It – Until the End of the World – Where Have All the Flowers Gone, All I Want Is You, Stay (Faraway So Close), Beautiful Day – Space Oddity, Pride, Miss Sarajevo, Zooropa, City of Blinding Lights, Vertigo, I’ll Go Crazy (remix) – Discotheque – Life During Wartime – Psycho Killer, Sunday Bloody Sunday, Scarlet, Walk On – You’ll Never Walk Alone

Encore(s): One, Will You Love Me Tomorrow – Where the Streets Have No Name – All You Need is Love, Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me, With or Without You, Moment of Surrender

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Life in 360°

Three more sleeps. As I am beginning to prepare for seeing the 360° tour in Seattle (geeking out over set lists, poring over recent concert reviews, listening through the discography, watching the tour DVD), I have begun to reflect on my life now as compared to my life the last time I saw U2, at GM Place in Vancouver on April 27, 2005 near the beginning of the Vertigo Tour. This time, it will be on the 7th leg of the tour, and it will be a very different experience, as it appears that the band has been exploring their 1990s catalog for songs; when I saw them last, their 1990s contributions were limited to "One" and "Zoo Station", "The Fly", and "Mysterious Ways" in the first encore. But the point of this post is not the concert itself; it's the kind of reflective analysis that a watershed moment like this provides me. It's interesting how in many ways I have come full circle in the past six years, and how I have some eerie similarities between my life now and my life then. In 2005, I had just finished a long year of school and ministry. I was in the midst of processing a huge life transition (a broken engagement), and I was entering a time of unemployment. I was not sure about what were my next steps to take in life, and I just needed to have some time away from my regular life. I am currently facing further unemployment and working through a huge life transition (staying in Victoria and finding employment), and I have had a full year of managing ministry at my church and my employment at various schools. The Vertigo tour was the first "vacation" I had taken in years at the time; going to Seattle this weekend is arguably my first vacation since then. Sure, I've done some travelling in the meantime (summers in Taiwan and the Bay Area, and two trips to Saskatchewan), but I haven't taken an opportunity like this to go somewhere with no agenda other than my own enjoyment. Even weirder is the fact that my vehicles have been involved in my ability to pay for each ticket: I had to sell my car in 2005 to pay for the tickets, whereas my 2011 tickets were affordable because I was rear-ended and am receiving a settlement. Of course, there are some significant differences: I am much more emotionally and financially stable this time, and I get to share the U2 concert experience with my wife. I do believe, though, that this is more than a show for me; just like in 2005, when I was able to see the experience of the Vertigo tour as a shifting point in my life as a whole, I believe that there is something more for me to gain as a result of this tour. After all, I still haven't found what I'm looking for, but I'm sure it'll be even better than the real thing.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Stanley Cup playoff update, the Finals

First off, to review my picks for the Conference Finals:
Boston over Tampa in 6: RIGHT winner, wrong number of games (7). Tampa put up more of a fight than I thought they would. Game 6 was especially impressive on Tampa's part, and they demonstrated that this is not a once-off playoff run. St. Louis and Lecavalier stepped up as leaders, young players like Stamkos, Hedman, and Purcell played well above their pedigree, and the team fought through adversity to get to where they did. The only question mark for the Lightning right now is in goal, as they need someone to replace Roloson as early as this upcoming season. Despite their heart, the better team won. The Bruins have been playing very well when they've needed to, and their success has centred around Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara. They've had some sloppy games, but they're a formidable force to face in the Finals.

Vancouver over San Jose in 6: RIGHT winner, wrong number of games (5). It looked like the Sharks were exhausted from their series against Detroit. They reminded me a lot of the last team the Canucks beat to get into the Finals: the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1994. The Leafs had gone deep the year before, almost making the Finals, and they had played two tough series before bowing to the Canucks in 5. Although they played hard, they were undisciplined and exhausted, and they just couldn't do it. That's the story of the Sharks this year - and the past six. The question is what it will take San Jose to finally break through, and whether this team can do it as it is. They've changed coaches and goalies, added high-profile players like Heatley and Boyle, brought in young talented players, and done everything but make it through to the Finals. It may just take the right breaks, like the Dallas Stars of 1997-2001, or they may not push through, like the Leafs of 1999-2004. It's hard to tell.
The other story was what happened to the Canucks in this round. After rebuilding their confidence against Nashville, San Jose played perfectly into the Canucks' hands. Anytime the Sharks got some momentum, they gave Vancouver opportunities on the PP and let the Canucks take the series. It allowed most of the key players on Vancouver - especially Luongo and the Sedins - to gain some much-needed momentum and rest. The Canucks dominated the play and took advantage of their opportunities, and that's why they're in the Finals. Also, I'd like to point out that I was right with my pick for the West from the beginning of the playoffs! Which brings us to...

The 2011 Stanley Cup Finals: Vancouver and Boston, two franchises with long Cup droughts (40 and 38 years, respectively) and long stretches since their last appearance in the Finals (17 and 21 years, respectively). They both have had high expectations in recent years, and they had similarly disappointing playoff runs last year. I think the best way to do this is to break down the match-ups and see what comes out.

Goaltending: Luongo and Thomas are two of the best goalies in the game right now, and they both can play in big games. Luongo still has a nasty habit of letting in some soft goals, but he still makes saves no one else can make. Thomas is freakishly consistent, and he's had some great performances this year already. Slight advantage: Boston.

Defense: Vancouver's defense is deep, but so is Boston's. And Boston has Zdeno Chara. The Bruins have an incredibly strong defensive philosophy, while the Canucks play a bit more loose most of the time. Vancouver's defense keeps them in the game, but Boston's defense wins them games. Advantage: Boston.

Offense: While the Bruins have been getting contributions from most of their roster in a balanced attack, so have the Canucks. And they have the two reigning Hart trophy winners and Kesler and Burrows. Advantage: Vancouver.

Special teams: With players like Chara, Bergeron, Kesler, and Bieksa playing, special teams are bound to play into the final result. Despite the slight weakness of the Canucks' PK, their PP more than makes up for it. The only trick is that Boston has to get penalties. Slight advantage: Vancouver.

Coaching: Both Alain Vignault and Claude Julien have a long history of coaching in the NHL, including coach of the year honours. They both have well-established philosophies and systems. Advantage: Even.

Intangibles: Both teams have players who have struggled through adversity and who desperately want to win. Both teams have players who can carry the team (though Kesler is playing more urgently than any Bruin). But while Boston struggled to finish off Tampa, Vancouver rolled over San Jose. Boston can regroup, but the first game or two will be huge. Advantage: Vancouver

So, that makes one category even, with the remainder sitting at 3-2 for Vancouver, which is close to my thoughts anyway. I'm picking Vancouver in 6 in a tight series. At least two games will be decided in overtime, and I suspect that at least two other games will be decided by one goal. It's going to be an exciting Finals!

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