It's my fault

I want to apologize to my progressive American friends: I didn't get an absentee ballot this year. I haven't voted, and it's too late.

My last US residence was in Massachusetts. According to the rules, that's where I continue to vote. Now, Sweetie lived in Seattle for a few years while she was at grad school. She gets ballots in the mail seemingly on a regular basis. They sure love to vote on stuff in King County! Or maybe in all of Washington. But for me, I have to beg the town I lived in to send an absentee ballot. I don't know why they don't just send me one, but they don't.

And I didn't plan ahead. I didn't get in touch with the town clerk. OK, it's worse. I was complacent. This is Massachusetts we're talking about, the only state in the Union to give its electoral votes to George McGovern in 1972! But that was a long, long time ago. I should not have assumed that Massachusetts voters would automatically reject regressive candidates.

Usually I concern myself only with presidential elections. After all, even though I am a US citizen and have a right to vote, I no longer live in Massachusetts. I am not in touch with the politics there. Certainly I would not have weighed in on the gubernatorial race. There is no Senate race in Massachusetts this year, but if my representative in Congress loses his race by one vote to a guy who supports the Arizona immigration law and would not raise taxes even if the bipartisan deficit commission says it's necessary, then I will be very upset with myself.

It's not that I'm all that crazy about the incumbent. But at least he doesn't support position after position that I oppose.

In the US, I'm a registered independent, but it's no secret that I am both a large-L liberal (in Canada, federally, not provincially) and a small-l liberal. Proudly. Unapologetically. Not in any kind of knee-jerk way. I am a critical thinker, and I'm not "party line" on any issue. But on issue after issue, I simply tend to agree with the progressive position.

Oh yes, I'm disappointed in the Democratic leadership, and Democrats in general. I think President Obama should be governing the way he campaigned. I think the Democrats should be proudly progressive. I'm appalled that they left such a huge strategic gulf for the Tea Party to jump into. I think they should have campaigned for strong liberalism—for fairness, for equality, for opportunity, for progress, for positive change, all of which for me are as American as apple pie. I think they should have taken strong stands, regardless of how much abuse they got from opposing forces. Being wimpy and trying not to offend anyone won't work.

I don't know if that will ever happen in the US again. Political discourse is poisoned. When this person gets "the facts" from Glenn Beck, and that other person is "drinking the Kool-Aid," then how can we even discuss issues? But I do know better than to cut off my nose to spite my face. I promise not to mess up on getting an absentee ballot again.

Border guards these days

Sweetie and I have driven across the US border a couple of times within the last few months. I remember a trip a couple years back when we crossed at Aldergrove on our way to Bellingham. The guard practically waved us though. Two women off to Bellingham. Maybe he figured we were going shopping. But more recently, you never know what they're going to ask.

A week ago Thursday, the first thing the US border guard asked was where we were going. That's pretty standard. When I said Portland, he asked how Sweetie and I knew each other. That one caught me off guard! I'm OK at thinking on my feet (or my seat, as it were), but I wasn't ready for this one, so I said we were married. Immediately, I thought to myself, oh boy, now we're in a for a long one. But it wasn't terrible, just a bit tense. He asked us a few more questions, like about our occupations, and then let us go.

You do not mess around with US Customs and Border Security, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. They do not have a sense of humour. I try to do all the proper deference, but I'm going to have to be ready for more different kinds of questions!

On our way back to Canada, the first thing the customs guy asked as after the usual "where is home" was how we knew each other. Again? WTF? Have you and that blond guy been talking to each other? You're supposed to ask us how much we bought, and whether there are any alcohol, tobacco, or firearms in the car! What with this "how do you know each other" stuff? But these days, we keep in mind that Canada Customs agents are armed. Anyway, this time my answer was that we share a house. It's simpler than getting into the whole marriage thing, even though we do live in Canada where equal marriage is the law.

Maybe someone should offer a service where they would quiz you on potential questions you'll get at the border and coach you on the answers. You don't want to make it obvious to the guard that you're thinking about what to say. At the same time, you don't want to say just anything! 'Tis a dilemma.


Twice bitten

I was 10 when I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. My family usually watched Disney, but we'd heard enough about this impending event that we had to watch. My parents were unimpressed. I was amazed. Pretty soon, I was doing Beatle imitations.

I was actually still a classical music snob, so it was really a few more years before rock music truly got under my skin. I started mildly. The first single I bought was "Georgy Girl" by the Seekers. I loved their harmonies and Judith Durham's voice. I loved harmonies in general. I can't remember which album I bought first—If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears by the Mamas & the Papas (the album that featured "California Dreamin'") or Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. But I was almost a teenager, when peer pressure really ramps up, so it wasn't long before The Beatles were part of my life again, along with The Rolling Stones and other bands of the time.

I saw my first live concert with my older sister when I was 15 at Tanglewood in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Bill Graham was booking shows there at the time, and this was the bill: B.B. King, The Who, and The Jefferson Airplane, with the Joshua Light Show as a backdrop. I can still visualize Roger Daltry in his fringed vest (and that beautiful torso), spinning his microphone. The Who were doing a lot of Tommy at the time. I didn't actually get to see that much of the Airplane, because I was at the mercy of a pickup by parental units. But I do remember seeing my favourite song, still one of my all-time favourites—"Somebody to Love."

I bought a guitar and started teaching myself to play when I was 16. I learned chords (often the wrong way) from fingering charts. I started to write awkward antiwar protest songs and even more awkward love songs. The dream of playing music for real was growing.

I spent too much of my time at university (where I was probably too immature to be at the time) playing music. We'd play both covers and originals. It wasn't until I was 27, though, that I got really serious about making my own music. For that, we can blame The Clash and Pretenders among others. I went into the basement and started to make really loud noises, much to the chagrin of my Grateful Dead-loving roommates. I started a band with my Sweetie on bass. We killed that band and formed another. Then we got ourselves a singer and formed the most successful band we had.

I put a lot of effort into "making it." But I never "turned pro." That's what we'd say about people who lost their jobs and suddenly had no choice but to play music full time. Sink or swim. I always kept my safety net. Sometimes people can still make it that way. I thought I was giving it my all, but I was really hedging. I didn't believe strongly enough in what I was doing. I doubted myself. And eventually I got distracted by theatre acting and left music behind. It was the late 1980s, and the scene wasn't as fun as it had been in the early '80s anyway.

It took me a long time to get over that dream. I didn't have a band, but I didn't stop playing. I kept writing songs. I had a portable studio on which I made recordings. I steeped myself in substances and deluded myself into thinking I still had something to offer.

Just a few years ago, I finally came to terms with the loss of the dream. I have always been a quirky guitarist at best. I wrote some decent songs, but nothing that special. I simply wasn't the creative person I had always wished I were. I had been trying to be someone who wasn't me. The punk and New Wave heydays were where I had really fit, for a while. That was then.

Coming to terms had a good effect. I could finally enjoy watching bands perform! For a long time, I would watch a show and get restless, wishing I could be playing instead of watching. The pleasure of seeing a good band was definitely mixed with the pain of it not being me up there. So it was great to be free of that.

And then rock camp happened. Sweetie and I were in Portland for a few rainy days in February 2007. One thing we did was see some interesting non-commercial films. One of them was Girls Rock! The Movie. We loved it! I found it a moving experience to watch how those girls changed in the process of going through camp and playing the showcase. Sweetie volunteered at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls in Portland in the summer of 2008. In 2009, Girls Rock Camp Vancouver started up, and there was no way I was going to miss that. I volunteered that summer and this past summer.

Suddenly, I was surrounded by music and musicians again. I was teaching guitar (those who can't do, teach). I got to play with other people for the first time in ages. I was hanging around with women who were making music, and I was really enjoying seeing their bands.

And then Ladies Rock Camp happened. I got to learn how to play drums for the first time in my life. I got to work with a band and play on stage for the first time in decades. As someone wrote in Facebook, how can I not have been doing this all my life?

Damn! I was over this! And now I've been bitten by the bug again. Of course, I'm more mature now (hah!). I'm not bitten in the "I must be a rock star!" kind of way. But I am playing guitar again and working on a song, and hopefully more songs, And playing drums was such fun that I really have to keep doing it. Even though I was never very good on guitar, I might have a chance to be good on drums. And that would totally rock!



Thank you, Ghlam, for the cool song title! Which I have nicked for a blog entry title.

For any given person, if you were to assume that the person's sexual orientation was heterosexual, odds are that you would be right. That indeed is what most people do—assume other people are heterosexual unless they learn otherwise. Most people, when they ask a woman about her partner, will say "husband" or "boyfriend" or "he," and if they ask a man about his partner (does that happen as often?), will say "wife" or "girlfriend" or "she."

Given my own sexual orientation, I try not to make heteronormative assumptions. But I find it as difficult to do as most people would who never think about such things. But depending on the context I'm in, my assumption can vary.

While most of the world is heteronormative, some parts are, in fact, homonormative. In some environments, you have to flip a switch on your gaydar to put it into "straightdar" mode. And I'm not talking about Pride parades or queer events.

I know a lot of musicians. Most of the musicians I know are female. And it seems that a great many of them, maybe even a majority among those of my acquaintance, are lesbians. That might just be about who I happen to know, but it definitely sets me up to think in those terms when I am among female musicians.

So when we arrived at Ladies Rock Camp last weekend, I seem to have been in homonormative mode. Soon after I arrived, I met M (who was to become the singer in the band I was in). We started chatting about Maui, which we both love. I can't remember what I was saying, but I realized later that somewhere in my excited-to-be-at-rock-camp brain, I was thinking of us as sharing the same sexual orientation. Fortunately, either she did not pick up on this or she forgave me for making the unconscious assumption. Later on, I met her fiancé. He is definitely a guy.

I gave my head a virtual whack, shifted gears, and tried to stop making any assumptions. Good idea. I actually got into a mode where I didn't make a judgment one way or the other. It's funny though. When I found out someone I'd met actually is a lesbian, I felt oddly relieved.

It's not surprising that minorities form their own associations. At least part of the time, we want to be in a world where others are like us. A world where we don't have to explain ourselves. A world where we are the majority, if only for a while.

The great thing about rock camp was that it was an environment where sexual orientation didn't matter. At least it felt that way to me. I was totally at ease being myself. There was an incredible openness at camp. I can't say I got to know other campers intimately, not even those in my band, but we shared a lot about ourselves. That was just one of the many things I loved about being at camp.


No vagina music!

Those were the very words that V, our bass player, uttered  shortly after we got together for our first loud band practice.

Ladies Rock Camp can be a very heady thing. It's liberating, it's exhilarating, and it's very female. There are always going to be songs written about being empowered women and breaking out of our shells and things like that. So V stated her strong preference right up front. I'm not sure if it had anything to do with J, our guitarist, saying that she liked the Indigo Girls.

I've been writing songs since I was 16. But this was my first time going through a completely collaborative process, both forming the band and writing our song. Sometimes one of the band members will have at least the start of a song, some lyrics perhaps. But we started from scratch, with a bass player and a drummer (me) just beginning to learn, a guitarist who normally plays classical guitar, and a vocalist who had never rocked out. We had all gathered under the banner "folk rock," but we weren't taking that seriously. Still, we had to figure out the direction each of us wanted to go—and hope we could find one we could all agree on!

J strummed a few guitar chords. M, our singer, came up with "I'm not a hearts and flowers kind of girl." See, girls rock camps tend to have at least a few Daisy Rock guitars around. Daisy Rock makes guitars and basses specifically for girls, and stereotypical ones at that: glittery, pink or silver or purple, and sometimes in non-standard shapes. V was playing a pink heart-shaped bass. J was playing a pink flower-shaped guitar. My drums were pink, although that just happened (we were assigned the practice room). Thus, M's initial rebellion. I think a few more lines came out. But horror of horrors, it was turning into a country song. A vagina country song! V can't stand country music, and I didn't want to play it either.

I can't remember if we started fixing that at the end of loud band practice or the beginning of quiet band practice, but soon the song had morphed into something more like a rock song. And the hearts and flowers had become a reference to being in hospital. I'm pretty sure it was M who came up with the first line of the chorus: "I'm a rebel in the I.C.U.," to which I replied, "Fuckin' unplug me because I'm through." New lines and rhymes flew fast and furious during quiet practice. By the end of practice, "Rebel in the I.C.U." had become the story of someone who was sick of being condescended to by medical people and wanted out.

So we had the lyrics, but not really a tune yet. We worked on that in our next loud practice on the following day. The band wanted to start off slow and get faster, so the first verse was very slow, followed by my stick click to go into the rock section. We had phrasing problems. We had timing problems. We were getting there, but slowly. And then we had to put it on stage for staff and fellow campers! We were not ready. We did our best, but we basically crashed and burned. After supper, feeling kind of low, we went back into our rehearsal room.

But V and J had a brilliant idea. Part of the problem was that we'd written some lines that needed to be twisted a little so they would fit. M was unsure of phrasing and so were V and J. So V and J "did the math," as I joked, and worked out exactly where the changes happened and how long each phrase was, separate from the lyrics. That freed M up to figure out how the lyrics fit. I did a lot of kibbitzing about how the lines might work with the music. Before long, we had a real song, not the thing we had played on stage a few hours before.

I had to remember during all of this that I was the drummer, not the guitarist, not the bass player. And I wanted to participate from where I sat and allow others to have their own input. And I did! I don't know if I could have done that a few years ago. I'm pretty headstrong. But despite the heat rising a bit at times, which is pretty much unavoidable in a situation like this, we cooperated really well. None of us ever stormed out of the room! We each brought our strengths, and the result was a real, albeit short-lived, band.

During quiet practice the next day, we did the song over and over "unplugged." That was probably a good thing for all of us being able to hear exactly what was going on. Then we had our final loud practice. We were still struggling with bits here and there. Band coaches floated in to give advice and support, as they had done all weekend. This time, they were especially good at pushing us to the finish. And instrument coaches popped in as well, to help our bass player get comfortable with her part, to help our vocalist get the volume she wanted without hurting herself. The staff at camp were just outstanding!

I felt great as M-Bedded took the stage at the legendary Satyricon on Sunday afternoon, right after Slutty Black Dress and just before Ghlam. Naturally, I forgot my earplugs. The monitor was loud! But no time to adjust. J strummed the first chord. M sang the first line. I started the slow beat, with cymbals fills just as V came in on bass. And then, four clicks and we were off on the rock part.

I don't know how it sounded. I'll have to wait for the official iTune, because we didn't have anyone recording or shooting video, as some of the bands did. I know I messed up some fills. Maybe something in front of me got messed up. But I think it probably rocked. I know we were loud! I've seen a lot of still photos—J concentrating, V looking properly cool as a bass player should, M looking every inch the star that she is, and me grinning like a maniac behind the drums, not being cool at all.

So let's see...a song about being condescended to by the medical system and rebelling against it. Yikes, maybe this was vagina music after all! Vagina music that kicked ass!


The girls in the bands

What better way to relaunch this blog than with an entry about Ladies Rock Camp? Several entries, most likely. I'm not good at reading long entries, so I try not to create any.

During the past two summers, I have volunteered at Girls Rock Camp Vancouver. There are rock camps for girls all over the world, all of which aim to help girls build self-esteem through learning to play music. But it all started in Portland, Oregon. They've been running the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls for 10 years, as well as the Rock Camp Institute, an after-school program for girls.

Running rock camp takes a lot of money. One way that the Portland camp raises money is to have Ladies Rock Camp twice a year. Musicians at all levels, musicians who want to learn a different instrument, and women who want to play music come to Portland for a long weekend in the spring and fall to do pretty much what the girls do in their week-long camps: meet other women, form bands, learn or get better on their chosen instrument, practise with their band, write a song together, come up with a band name, attend a songwriting or stage-craft workshop, silkscreen the name or logo onto a T-shirt, and finally play in a showcase.

That sounds simple, but the experience of participating in camp is truly amazing. Just a few days ago, Sweetie and I went to our first camp. I went to learn to play the drums, something I've always admired and never been able to do. Sweetie, an experienced bass player, went to learn guitar.

You can learn so much about yourself! I learned I actually can play drums. Our wonderful drum instructor got three of us who had never played before up to speed rather quickly. Start with the kick drum, add the high-hat, then add the snare, and before long you have a standard rock beat. And all your limbs are doing what they're supposed to be doing! Then you keep adding more stuff.

I also learned about building a band quickly and writing a song collaboratively, which I'll go into more in another entry. It's an amazing process, not without its frustration, but ultimately very satisfying.

I sang karaoke for the first time! And after only two drinks. I've kind of avoided karaoke for a long time, but it was a lot of fun. I sang only one song, with Sweetie. I had put another in the bowl to do solo, but then a whole lot more landed on top. We didn't stay long enough for me to have my solo debut. Another time?

I really loved the musical part—playing drums for the first time ever, working with a band (it's been a long time), writing a song together, working out the problems, and finally playing it at the showcase. But probably more than that, I loved being with all those really cool women, both campers and the wonderful staff. It was quite a varied group. I wish I'd been able to interact with more people! Of necessity, you spend a lot of time with your band, and there isn't much time just for socializing. I'd like to take better advantage of the time next time.

Oh yes, there has to be a next time. More drums? Bass? Vocals? All I know is that I'm ready now!