An American in Paris (of the Prairies)

Doug Elliot's back, Rob Baker, Pat Steward, Craig Northey, Murray Atkinson
In 1992, Sweetie and I were still living near Boston. I had just spent three weeks of a summer that mostly didn't happen (Mt. Pinatubo erupted that year) in Jonquière participating in a French immersion program (and drinking too many "grosses Bleues").

Shortly after my return home, I received a cassette tape from a fellow student who was from Winnipeg. On one side was Social Distortion's second album. On the other side was side 2 of Up to Here by the Tragically Hip and a few songs from Sarah McLachlan's debut album.

I don't know why she chose to send side 2 of the Hip record, but that means the first Hip song I heard was "Boots or Hearts." That was a strange introduction. But then "Everytime You Go," "When the Weight Comes Down," "Trickle Down," and "Another Midnight" (especially), and "Opiated" followed, and this was a sound I liked. The melodic understatement and ringing guitars of R.E.M., and a bit of the also melodic earnestness of Dire Straits, but also that they sounded like no one else. I liked the lyrics as well. But Gord's voice, not so much. His singing from that period sounds harsh to me, like he was pushing too hard, and I don't the constant vibrato on line endings.

I did not know what this collection was. I thought it might have been an EP. I knew nothing about "Blow at High Dough" or the rest of side 1. It would take some time to learn the rest of the story.

Cut to August 1994 and my immigration to Canada. Day for Night was released in September of that year. Fully Completely had come out two years before. I'm not sure, but I think I bought Day for Night first, and I have always thought that was a sublime album. I'm sure I got the previous album soon after. I finally heard all of Up to Here. I still have a cassette of Road Apples. Somewhere in there I bought the first EP.

The only time I saw the Hip live was at the Moore Theater in Seattle in 1996, right after Donovan Bailey won the 100 metre sprint at the Atlanta Olympic Games. Since by that time the band were playing large venues in Canada, we thought it was a treat to get to see them in a theatre. Apparently so did many other Canadians, who made up most of the audience. At one point before the show, the place spontaneously burst into "O Canada!" and I think there was even some flag waving. And then the Hip gave us a (surprisingly) loud, sweaty rock show, marred only by the fact that everyone stood up (not great for me, much worse for my shorty).

That was the year of Trouble at the Henhouse, another strong album in a somewhat different direction. But tastes change. By Phantom Power, I wasn't listening to the Hip as much. I bought that album, as well as Music @ Work, but neither is among my favourites, and those were the last Hip albums I bought.

Since then I've occasionally heard Tragically Hip songs on the radio, both new and old. I will sometimes listen to the albums I have. And I never stopped appreciating them. They were important to Canadian music. Clearly they were important to a lot of people right until the end, and though less so, still to me as well.

A few years ago, at a special Odds show in a tiny pub to which I was fortunate enough to be invited, it was a thrill to meet and chat with Tragically Hip lead guitarist Rob Baker and then to see him play a couple of songs with the Odds as their side project, Stripper's Union. I thought I had more than one picture of that show!


Drive, she said

[I started this post shortly after we bought a car but never finished it. We are no longer car-free. Didn't want you to think that we still were!]

Early in March, we bought a car. We got a good deal on a reliable used vehicle. But I found that after five months without a car, I could not go back to status quo ante. My thinking and feelings both had shifted.

I did my first errand by car the week that we bought it. This was a trip that takes about half the time by car as it does on transit, and I did not have that kind of time.

So I was carefully heading north on Canada Way when traffic came to a halt. It took a while to learn that the two lanes had to merge into one. A big townhouse development is being built, and a cement truck was doing its cement-spewing thing from the right lane. It occurred to me that driving would work a lot better if private contractors weren't allowed to partially block a major road to spew cement.

The bus would have been caught in the same mess, but I would have been reading or doing something on my phone and not carefully inching forward to the merge point.

Once past the single lane pinch point, it was smooth sailing to my destination. But then I realized I needed to park the car. I hadn't done any of this for four and a half months. So I checked signs and avoided rush hour lanes and found a spot.

On the way home, I headed east on Highway 1 ostensibly before rush hour but there's really no such time. It was slow going through Burnaby, but not terrible. But I was still getting re-accustomed to watching in all directions and especially avoiding getting crunched by a truck. But I made it to Kensington, and Canada Way was not yet very busy.

On that Thursday afternoon, I was waiting for a bus so I could get to an appointment. But it seems Translink got wise to the fact that we owned a car again, so the bus decided not to come. Or to be very late. I don't know which, because I high-tailed it to the vehicle in our carport, promptly got stuck at another pinch point due to another huge construction project (on Kingsway at Edmonds this time), scrambled a bit for parking near my destination, but made it to my appointment on time. I really wanted to take transit, but that time it failed me.

Then on that Friday night, Sweetie and I were going to a show in Surrey. We could have taken transit, but even short walks in Surrey on major roads are often not very nice. It's very much a vehicle-oriented city. So we drove to what we thought was the venue only to find that the show was at a different venue (our mistake). The car saved our bacon! We would not have made it to the real venue on transit in time for the show.

Having a car is expensive. Having a car is a convenience. Having a car can be an annoyance. Having a car can save your bacon.

I haven't "got religion" about living car-free, but the last several months have definitely changed my attitude. I'm starting to see that individual private vehicles, even if (successfully) driverless, are not an efficient way to get around. For one thing, there will only be more and more of them on the same amount of road. Driverless can allow more efficient road use but it will likely not be fast. And a cement truck blocks all road users.

I think about parking as well and the amount of space we use to accommodate our individual vehicles. And the amount of money it might cost to store them in that space.

Seriously, putting around in little vehicles that constantly threaten to bump into each other if any driver is not paying sufficient attention seems like a primitive method of transportation. It's like a faster, more comfortable horse, rolling along on road networks that have got much bigger and more numerous since their inception but are still fundamentally the same paths they ever were.

For whatever reason, to me it feels so much more civilized and modern to walk to a spot, be picked up by a vehicle, and transfer to a conveyance that runs rapidly along a dedicated right-of-way, with fares paid via an electronic card. Even while we hang onto our car, I plan to continue to take advantage of the public transit network. Nice to have a car as backup, for now. But anymore I prefer to read or use my hand-held device or even just to sit (or stand, which happens) and think rather than to drive.

(Unless they finally invent flying cars, like in The Jetsons. If that happens, all bets are off.)


Life without car

The car-free experiment that began unexpectedly in mid-October 2016 will soon end. We have been given the opportunity to buy a used Nissan Versa in good condition for a good price. In a few days, we will once again be the owners of a motorized vehicle.

Being without a car has sometimes been challenging and often revealing. After the collision last fall, we had to figure out how to get around and do what we needed to do by transit, on foot, and occasionally using a taxi. That was pretty easy for Sweetie, who doesn't drive. Her daily life was little changed. But for me, it was a bigger deal. I still wanted to get to the farmers market, to the Drive for my usual shopping, to North Burnaby for Cioffi's (best Italian store), and a few other places.

I did what I had to do. I learned the transit system much better, especially buses. I now know buses that will get me where I need to go that I was not even aware of before. I have run errands to places I didn't know I could get to without a car.

Shortly after the experiment began, I realized that hauling two cloth bags on my shoulders was becoming both difficult and painful. So I bought a two-wheeled shopping cart, a.k.a., a granny cart, which made a huge difference. Did you know that granny cart owners talk to other cart users, like dog owners? There is lot of discussion about wheels and durability and how much a cart can haul. Granny carts are not just for grannies! Sometimes the front of the bus gets rather crowded with them.

Using the cart is better than carrying bags on your shoulders, but the cart doesn't haul itself. And at first I was often trudging through nasty weather and over poorly cleared sidewalks. Sometimes I wished the cart had been a sled! I also became much more aware of curb ramps—well-designed, poorly designed, blocked (by snow, ice, unmindful people), and missing entirely—and of accessibility in general, especially at SkyTrain stations. There were times during the worst of the weather that I didn't think I could keep it up. But as a cook, I value fresh ingredients, so I persisted.

It seems to be good exercise. I hate working out and so haven't done it since I has a personal trainer, so walking has long been my main physical activity. I do most of my errands within my city on foot. And then transit use adds more walking, since stops are not always right where I need to go. And why wait for a #20 when I can walk on the Drive from the SkyTrain station to Napier Street before a bus comes by? Manoeuvering my cart when it's full, up hill and down dale, has increased my fitness and helped set my weight at a place that feels comfortable for me.

Going out in the evening sans car sometimes brings extra challenges. Transit service is less frequent, especially buses, especially on weekends. Sometimes we get home rather later than we would with a car. But we have still been going out quite a lot. We've toughened up, got used to waiting longer and waiting in crappy weather, and made sure to dress for it. Somehow we have got better at finding late buses. Our taxi usage seems to have gone down.

When we have a car again, will we go back to the status quo ante? We intend not to. Even though it's a long, multi-modal trip to Nat Bailey Stadium for the Winter Farmers Market, I would still rather go by transit with my cart than have to deal with parking over there. Parking is often a deterrent to increased vehicle usage. Another is traffic. Using transit takes more time, but not as much more than driving as you might think. And much as I like to drive on a highway, I have come to appreciate being conveyed through city traffic while I read or use my phone or just look around (especially if I'm on a route I haven't taken before).

The experiment taught us that some errands are pretty much impossible without a vehicle. We have bird feeders and we buy seed in large bags. The cart would not be able to carry enough to make the long trip to the store worthwhile. Sometimes we have to buy other things that are too large to carry. It's possible to bring an accumulation of glass jars and bottles, corrugated cardboard, metal, and Styrofoam to the recycling depot, but not easy. And you can't take a road trip without a motor vehicle—unless you are the kind of cyclist I never was and will never be.

Soon I will be able to haul guitar and amp and pedal board to a gig! That is, if I ever manage to set one up again.

Sweetie and I agree that we need a car less than we had thought. We plan to try to use the new one only when we truly need to. I imagine that occasionally we will go somewhere by car that we would have done on transit. But we live in an area with an extensive transit system, in a part of our city with several bus connections, and we're happy to take advantage of that.

Postscript: Owning a car and mostly using transit instead of driving is a bad combination. We are more aware of that now. We will be paying transit fares (or buying a monthly pass) while also carrying car insurance. That bit of convenience will more than double our transportation costs (without even factoring in gas and maintenance). Once I have atoned for my collision sin, we hope to sell the car and join a car co-op. The experiment showed us that car-sharing would really make sense for us.


American unexceptionalism

The horror of the United States federal elections. The nasty aftermath. Not feeling like Christmas. The nervous lead-up to the inauguration. And the rapidly escalating seizure of power by the regime.

I'm a well-off white Canadian woman, in Canada. How could I be more privileged? But I am also American, born in the United States, the first 40 years of my life lived there. I was a sometime activist in the early 1970s, protesting against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon and the erosion of freedoms and in favour of economic democracy and an end to nuclear power. In the 1980s I wrote punk songs about Ronald Reagan. I am steeped in the Constitution and the Enlightenment thinking for which it stands.

I care very much about the republic to the south and about liberal democracy in general.

As of this writing, there can be little doubt that there is a putsch in the works. With the executive orders so far they are only getting warmed up. Part of the strategy seems to be to start with things that many defend for a some plausible (on face) reason: security in the case of the Muslim Ban, religious freedom in the case of the delayed, but certainly not for long, "religious exemptions" to serving queer people. It seems they will likely retain this kind of deniability for a while. They're doing what they're doing for security or religious freedom or some other reason, not to seize power. But the seizure is underway nonetheless.

Those of us who care about American democracy, about the survival of the republic, about the rights and freedoms of its inhabitants are appalled, shocked, angry, and more about recent events. I am too. I'm trying to stay calm through the stress while also remaining alert and putting energy to good use and not burning out or being crushed.

But a thought occurred to me. We might claim we don't believe in American exceptionalism, a hallmark of the Right, but apparently we must. Otherwise, we wouldn't have thought it would be impossible for a putsch even to be attempted. We wouldn't have thought that the fundamentals of the American system were strong enough to withstand any attempts at abuse. We came through the Watergate crisis, and the good and decent won. We thought the movie always ended that way.

It might still end that way. We had better write the ending that way. But we should not think that this putsch, this attempted coup, is really that special. Some people live their entire lives under authoritarian rule. Many have lived through a coup d'état, or two, or more. Some have seen promising democracies slide into dictatorship.

There has never been a guarantee that any Western democracy would remain democratic and based on the rule of law. Any liberal democracy can slide into illiberal democracy and then into autocracy. Even entire civilizations can collapse.

We often see claims that love is stronger than hate. I have always held to this idea. I'm no longer confident that it's true. But the only way I can continue is by assuming it is true and acting accordingly. Failure is an option. Just not one I consider acceptable.


A bit of life in the theatre

Sweetie and I finished off 2016 by getting rid of almost a quarter truck load of stuff. We own a detached house, with basement. When we have that kind of space, we tend to fill it up and not look too often. It had been a long time since we had gone through stuff. We were pretty ruthless this time, and we're still not done. It's an ongoing process.

There was an orphaned box sitting in the living room that I thought was all Sweetie's stuff, but she said some of it was mine. Today I dug into it. Almost all of it was stuff from my time in the theatre: some sheet music for musical auditions, and a whole lot of working scripts, in binders, stapled, and even one in a Manila envelope. It doesn't represent all of my theatrical experience, but it's a curious assemblage of material from various periods of my brief career.

One of the most fun things I did in Boston was work with a children's theatre company. I found two original scripts by Stan---whose last name I forget. He was a very talented writer of musical plays for children. One script is for Cinderella (very memorable), the other Beauty and the Beast (which I remember less well). I was also part of a tiny touring company that performed Stan's version of Rumpelstiltskin.

For a few years, I worked with a voice teacher who then became my acting teacher. She invited me and a few other people to be part of creating a staged version of Dylan Thomas's poem Under Milk Wood, which was quite an honour because I was not yet very experienced. The five of us played several parts, including narration. It was mostly a dramatic recitation, but the power was in the words. I learned to play "The Rambling Sailor" on the tin whistle for the opening and closing. We toured a bit and played some interesting settings. Working on this project was a personal high point.

Despite my complete lack of Irishness, I was in several Irish plays with different directors. Away Alone by Janet Noble was one of my favourites. It's the story of young Irish people who show up in New York City, interact with others who came before them, and continue the cycle of getting work, settling in, and then breaking in new arrivals.

Undiscovered Country by Arthur Schnitzler was the height of my acting career in Boston. I didn't really like the play, and I was only a minor character, almost an extra, but I was on the stage of the Huntington Theatre in the midst of a professional company. I learned a lot from this experience, including such handy advice as that I should quit smoking lest I end up with wrinkles like the lead actor had.

I found a binder that contained The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerantz, which I believe was my last theatrical experience in Boston. For that one I was assistant director and stage manager. Every night, I ran the lights and sound. Every night I watched a gifted actor embody John Merrick and break my heart. If you've only ever seen the David Lynch film, you should seek out a good production of the play.

A Kind of Alaska, a one-act play by Harold Pinter, was the only theatre I did in Vancouver. My focus was on film and television. I didn't work well with the director, and it was not the happiest theatre experience. But every experience is one to remember.

There were some mysteries in the box. I found part of a script of Scenes from a Marriage by Ingmar Bergman. I have no idea why I have that. Maybe it came from a scene study class, which I did for a few years in Vancouver. I also found a play called Tide by Aidan Parkinson which is only vaguely familiar. My guess is that I participated in a reading.

I don't look back very often, but I will hang onto these scripts, at least for a while. There is plenty more in this house to clean up. Best for 2017. Stay vigilant!


Music to get through 2016 to

Back once again with my random sampling of music that came out in 2016. I bought most of this from emusic.com, and probably at least once directly from the artist via Bandcamp, so clearly it skews indie. I used the same evaluation technique as last year: listen to the albums from start to finish (at least twice) and listen to individual tracks in random order on my phone.

Sad13 - Slugger

I only just bought this, but I've listened several times, and I think it's my favourite of the year. Sad13 is Sadie (get it?) Dupuis, leader of Speedy Ortiz, and this is her first full solo release. Slugger is Sadie's great lyrics over different beats, from trip-hop to punk. It picks up where Speedy's "Raising the Skate" left off, with a strong current of feminism and just plain independent thinking. Keep your eye on this woman! Highlights: "<2"; "Get a Yes"; "Devil in U"; "Line Up" (so Lennon-esque, and not just because of the "Birthday" melodic quote); "Tell U What"; "Krampus (In Love)"; "Hype."

The Pack a.d. - Positive Thinking

After coming through some unspecified difficulties, the Pack have returned with yet another great album that deserves way more notice and respect than it will probably get. The band reaches back to their blues origins and incorporates the psychedelia of the past couple of records as well as going for bold new sounds. Highlights: "So What"; "Yes, I Know"; "Anyway"; "Los Angeles"; "Skin Me."

White Lung - Paradise

A breakthrough album for White Lung, or at least it should be. The playing is furious from Kenneth Williams on guitar and Anne-Marie Vassiliou on drums (she should be on "top drummers" lists). Mish Barber-Way is no less ferocious on vocals, as always. But the songs are among the best that the band have recorded and add melody to the mix in a way that White Lung have not done before. Highlights: "Below" and "Hungry" are huge in a whole new way; "Kiss Me When I Bleed," "I Beg You," and "Paradise" are very good. Really, 27 great minutes.

The Julie Ruin - Hit Reset

I liked Run Fast, the previous record from Kathleen Hanna's electronic punk band the Julie Ruin. I really like this record. Great songs, band sounding strong. What feels like genuine punk edge injected into the melodies. Highlights: "Hit Reset"; "I Decide"; "Mr. So and So"; "Record Breaker"; "I'm Done"; "Calverton," a sad song. I danced a lot to this record, as I did when I saw the band live this past year.

Garbage - Strange Little Birds

I've never followed Garbage beyond appreciating their singles. I always thought of them as better than the usual radio fare but not really that alternative. But maybe I'll have to work backwards through their catalogue, because this is a strong, engaging, and refreshingly dark album. Highlights: "Empty"; "Night Drive Loneliness"; "Even Though Our Love Is Doomed"; "Magnetized"; "So We Can Stay Alive."

Tacocat - Lost Time

I loved NVM. This album is growing on me and shows the band growing as well. Highlights: "Dana Katherine Scully" (try not to sing along with the chorus); "FDP"; "I Love Seattle"; "I Hate the Weekend"; and the surprisingly different "Horse Grrls." "Talk" is another interesting track that's different for Tacocat. Bummed I haven't see this band live yet (almost did but they had border problems).

Honeyblood - Babes Never Die

I learned about Honeyblood from one of my favourite bands, PINS. Enjoyable indie pop from a Scottish duo. Big, shiny production, much less "lo fi" than their previous record. They write killer chorus hooks! Highlights: "Babes Never Die"; "Ready for the Magic"; "Sea Hearts"; "Walking at Midnight"; "Sister Wolf"; "Hey, Stellar."

Beverly - The Blue Swell

Drew Clinton and Frankie Rose apparently had creative differences, and Rose left. But Clinton is back with a strong album of indie dream pop. Highlights: "Crooked Cop"; "Victoria"; "South Collins"; "Contact."

That's only eight, but there's nothing magic about 10.

Well, maybe nine. I'm not sure. I've listened to Tanya Tagaq's Retribution a couple of times. It's challenging for sure. It's more a soundscape with music than a musical work. "Cold" stood out for me on first listen. It's interesting in the context of other songs in the random mix. I want to listen more.

I had not listened to Bob Mould in a few albums, but I decided to try his new release Patch the Sky. Some sounds like his earlier solo work. Some sounds like Hüsker Dü. It sounds fine, but it's not the sound of a musician growing.

Head Carrier from the Pixies is certainly better than Indie Cindy. New-ish bass player and vocalist Paz Lenchantin seems to have integrated well. The playing is strong. But it's a bit like Season 3 Star Trek (TOS)—new episodes, which was better than none, but no longer the glory days.

Instead of indie 1960s pop, Bleached have moved to the 1970s with Welcome the Worms. Very Joan Jett. Sometimes it's so much like 70s hard rock that it feels like a parody. The songs are hooky, and they do this stuff well, but it's not thrilling me.

Skeleton Tree is the first Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album I have ever bought. As an indie snob, I'm supposed to be into Nick Cave. I guess you either like that kind of half-spoken, marginally melodic baritone or you don't. I like the feel of this album. It's dark, slow, and moody, with songs mostly written before Cave's son died but changed because of that in the recording process. But I'm still not a Nick Cave fan.

La Sera bummed me out with Music for Listening to Music To. What started as Katy Goodman's post-Vivian Girls solo project is now more a collaboration between Goodman and her husband and guitarist Todd Wisenbaker. They teamed up with Ryan Adams and created a country-flavoured indie pop album. It's fine. It doesn't get me off.

Given that I haven't even bought the latest PJ Harvey album, clearly I need to do some non-emusic shopping.


Music for life

I'm a musician. That's a fundamental aspect of me. I tried being not-a-musician, but it made me unhappy. I realized that I love making music more than anything else, and that it is my primary source of joy. Especially at my age, I'm not going to live without that.

I'm also a songwriter. Even when I was trying to be not-a-musician, the songwriter kept popping out, making me scribble lyric ideas in notebooks or on scraps of paper.

Being a musician and songwriter, I make records. Not vinyl records, although I have in the past. More in the sense of snapshots of a set of songs at a particular time. In August and September I recorded four songs. I just received the approved masters. Three songs are available on Soundcloud. The song that is somewhat of an outlier is for later.

As well as being a musician and songwriter, I am also a performer. I have been performing on stage (mostly as a singer-musician but for several years in theatre) since I was about 17 years old. These days, public performance for profit, or even for free, is not easy to come by. I am very unfamiliar with the scene in the Lower Mainland for solo performers. There are some clubs. There are pop-up venues and house concerts. There are festivals. Obviously I must get a lot more familiar with the ins and outs if I hope to play anywhere.

Even if I never played for anyone but myself (and Sweetie, who can't help but hear), I imagine I would continue to write songs, simply because I haven't managed to turn them off when they want to be written. I can't get my brain to stop turning life into song lyrics.

But because a huge part of why I make music is that I need to communicate, to reach out to people, I do crave listeners. I'm long past dreaming of fame and fortune, but I'm pretty sure even the most confident artist needs a certain amount of affirmation from viewers, listeners, participators. Even negative feedback is better than indifference.

So, the record. At this point it's called, with much flair, Demo 2016. It's far from perfect, but I'm proud of this record of my performance of the songs. To anyone who at least gives a listen, thank you. Maybe I'll get to play for you live.