Fashionably problematic

I scoffed when I saw "20 Most Annoying Beauty Problems Solved!" on the cover of the January InStyle. I know fashion and beauty can be superficial, but something about this title seemed especially superficial.

I looked at the article anyway, of course. And indeed, lots of the "beauty problems" seemed pretty trivial. But right off the bat, #1 nailed me. How often do I wash my makeup brushes? Do. Not. Ask. I am really bad about doing that. But when I read that not washing my brushes might mean I'm ruining them—especially the rather expensive Jane Iredale powder applicator—I decided to reform. I did my washing, with dish detergent, which apparently is better than soap. Lots of pigment came out of each one. I actually washed them twice. I now have something new to remember about once a month. I don't think any of the brushes are ruined yet.

There was also one about the ends of fingernails chipping. I have a lot of problems with my fingernails—or rather, curiously, with some of them. I play guitar, so I don't want my fingernails long, but I do want them to be even. I seem to have no problem growing out the nails on the index, ring, and little fingers. But the nails on my thumbs and middle fingers chip and break off. I have no idea why. For chipping nails, the article advised using a glass nail file. Mine is sapphire, I think. I had read elsewhere that glass is better, as well as longer lasting. And now I know that a glass nail file is not expensive. Something to get next time I'm at London Drugs.

Finally, there was an item about redness on the sides of the nose. I have that problem, especially in winter. I also have flaking skin there, no matter how much I moisturize. Unfortunately, I have had conflicting advice on what to do about the problems, so I might have to experiment. The item did mention something about certain kinds of moisturizer building up and irritating the skin, thus causing the flaking. I might need to change to a different kind of moisturizer. It's an unsightly problem, annoying even, so it would be worth trying to fix.

One more fashion change I need to add: beg, steal, borrow, or build more closet space. Sure, there might be items I could remove, things I really don't wear, but I did a purge just recently. Really, neither Sweetie nor I has such a big wardrobe. We do, however, seriously lack closet space. This is an old house, and there are no closets upstairs. We share an IKEA wardrobe that each of us could probably fill on her own—and that's not even counting the summer clothes that are stored in a closet downstairs (that was part of a renovation project).

The trouble with a closet that is too small (and that includes the downstairs storage) is that things get crushed together, thus always getting wrinkled even if you've just ironed them. So we have to look into storage solutions. There is space in our bedroom. We just have to use it better.

OK, some resolutions are more important than others. But hey, makeup brushes! Closet space!


Ugh, a resolution

A few days ago, the Globe and Mail online posted a poll in which they said they would ask inappropriate questions. I figured I'd have fun with it. The questions weren't all that inappropriate anyway. The answers were all multiple choice, and they didn't have an "other" option. One of them was about what you planned to do differently in the new year. Lacking a better choice, I said "lose weight."

Little did I know that it was definitely the right answer for me.

I hadn't been avoiding scales. I just hadn't got on one in a while. I tend to go more by how clothes feel, how I look out of clothes in a mirror, medical indicators like blood pressure, and how I feel in general, and none of those gave me any cause for alarm. A little concern, but not alarm. But the scale I hopped on the other day told me a different story.

So I'm engaging in a cliché—a New Year's resolution to lose weight. Except I started already. No point in waiting for an arbitrary date! My new year started two months ago anyway. So I'm actually late in getting to this. But then, I hadn't realized it needed to be done.

Please understand that there is nothing fat-phobic about this. I get kind of inundated with writing about "healthy at any size" and no fat shaming and similar themes. If someone can be healthy at a larger size, great. Even if they're not so healthy, that's not my business. I have no interest in shaming anyone—including myself.

At the same time, I am firmly in the camp of healthy and fit. I don't think there should be shaming of larger people. But I do think an emphasis on reducing preventable obesity is good. If someone is large and happy with themselves, fine by me. I think everyone should be happy with themselves. But I know that I will be better off in many ways if I get closer to the weight I want to be. And it has nothing to do with societal pressure or my admitted obsession with fashion. It comes from me and it's for me. And I'm still happy with myself, even at this size. I'm just not going to stay here.

There won't be any diet. My strategy is simple. I'm already conscious of what I eat and the size of portions I allow myself. I will continue to do that, perhaps a little more rigorously. The main difference will be to get more active. I've been either going to the gym (the cross-trainer is my aerobic machine of choice) or taking those half-hour walks. I need to do one or the other pretty much every day.

I'm in this for the long term. It's not so much about quick, unhealthy, and unsustainable weight loss as it is about a lifestyle change. I thought I was living a healthy life, but I knew I had gotten too sedentary. Now I know that I don't like the results of that. And I will make the change I want.


Missing link

I hate my LinkedIn profile.

For anyone who doesn't know, LinkedIn is yet another social networking service, but specifically about employment and careers. Everyone knows how important networking is when it comes to finding the job you want. LinkedIn is the electronic version of handing out your business card at a trade show.

In your profile, you post your employment history, your skills, your goals, any information that might come in handy when seeking employment. You want prospective employers and contacts to see the work-related side of you. You make recommendations, get recommendations, and link to as many people as you want. You never know who might be someone who can help you find a new job.

Your LinkedIn profile is basically your CV writ large, like an enhanced CV. And like your CV, what you include and what you don't include can be crucial (which is what makes me wonder why people show off their personal Twitter feeds).

Why do I hate my LinkedIn profile? Because it shows where I am now—stable, but rather stuck. It shows that I've been working on a variation of the same software for more than 20 years, on and off. It shows that my education and training are rather scattered. It's simply not an exciting profile. I am grateful, more than grateful, that my job is fulfilling and that it pays me well. But my haphazard personal development are right there for all to see.

I hate that my profile doesn't really show you who I am. With what I have to show, why on earth would you hire me?

I am a software developer and technical writer, to be sure. I've learned my crafts, even if informally for the most part (not entirely—thank you, Langara College and Michael Kuttner), and I do them well. But I am also a writer and editor, and not just of a blog—I did that professionally before I shifted to software. I was a production manager. I was and am a self-taught (except for drums) musician and songwriter. I acted on stage. I was assistant director, stage manager, and light and sound operator for one show. I worked as an extra in film and television. I have a Certificate in Counselling Skills from Vancouver Community College, with practicum experience. I have done a few different musical jobs for Girls Rock Camp and Ladies Rock Camp. I'm great at helping work out ideas and turning them into reality. I work well on multi-functional teams. I love cooking, and I'm working on improving my skills. I love fashion.

How do you put that into a resumé, even an extended one? How would it make sense? How would it translate into "I am employable"?

Obviously, you have to focus your profile. You can't tell people everything about yourself. You have to point it in the direction you want to go. It helps if it's related to the direction from which you came.

The problem for me right now is that I'm still in my current position, but once that's done, I don't want to go in the same direction whence I came. And I'm only at the stage of figuring out what that direction might be. It seems likely to me that it will be somewhere in the vicinity of food or fashion, but since I'm not yet unemployed and getting training, those are just ideas.

One of the reasons I'm really into playing music right now is that it's a way forward. It's not a career, but at least it's a personal way forward. Same with improving my culinary skills and fashion knowledge. I need to know that I'm not standing still, even when it's not the right time to make a leap.

So my LinkedIn profile is like me—a work in progress. With any luck, I'll figure out what I want to do when I grow up at least a few years before I retire. Or maybe I've been doing it all along and just haven't realized it.


Open heart

No, I'm not going to rant about who won Next Iron Chef. Apparently, they were looking for something different in an Iron Chef than I would have. Regardless of the outcome and the way-too-early exit of the delicious Chuck Hughes (him and his food both!), I really enjoyed the series.

Top chefs tend to be at the very least confident and assertive, and sometimes (or maybe even often) cocky and arrogant. In competition especially, they have to be confident in their abilities. They have to deal with weird ingredients and unexpected curve balls and blenders seizing up. With the clock ticking, there's no time for even a hint of "WTF am I doing."

I realize that we see an edited version of the show, but it was still obvious that despite the competition, the chefs had a huge amount of respect for one another. More than one person mentioned how one of the best things about the competition was the camaraderie they felt with the other chefs. This wasn't just open, friendly people like Worst Cooks in America co-hosts Anne Burrell and Beau MacMillan, with whom I bet just about anyone would love to sit down and have a beer and a chat. Even the ones who might be unapproachable in real life seemed to realize they were all in it together.

If I train as a chef, will I become arrogant?

Maybe, but I expect not. I don't think I have that in me. In fact, even though I have reached a certain level of confidence in my ability in the kitchen, I also know how much I don't know and how far I still have to go—even as a household cook.

I have never been tough. We all have to toughen up to get through life at all, but it's not something that comes easy to me. It's funny, because I'm quite outgoing, sometimes even brash. But I'm not very assertive. Sure, there are times when I've been a bitch, but even that has mostly come from thoughtlessness rather than being overly assertive. I don't try to be vulnerable. I just am. I've learned to raise shields when I need to, but I doubt they would withstand a strong phaser blast.

Still, as painful and dangerous as vulnerability can be, I would never want to lose it. I would rather cultivate it. I will not be weak. I will grow stronger. But I will not lose vulnerability. The joy is totally worth all the sorrow that necessarily comes with it.

This video is not new. Brené Brown, who studies vulnerability, gave the talk a year and a half ago, and it was posted last December. But I think this is one of the most important TED videos I've seen. I like watching it again from time to time to remind myself of things that are too easy to forget.

Happy Chanukah to all my Jewish friends! Special wishes and much love to one whose Chanukah will probably not be happy this year. May pain and sorrow not crush us but rather make us more fully human.


Seafood showdown

And then there were two. Chefs, that is.

If you are watching Next Iron Chef and you haven't see the double-elimination penultimate episode, please don't keep reading unless you want your experience spoiled. In other words,


We were down to the final four competitors: Michael Chiarello, Elizabeth Faulkner, Alex Guarnaschelli, and Geoffrey Zakarian. Sweetie and I expected Zakarian to go through to the final. He has been very strong all along. We also expected Guarnaschelli to hit the wall. She has done well, but she was lucky to be in the final four. Even though she was talking a good game, I suspect that even she knew how lucky she was.

The Chairman's Challenge was about passion. It took place in tony Montauk on Long Island. The four were given an allowance with which they had to rush around for two hours buying ingredients at shops in Montauk (home of $12-a-pound butter), and then use those ingredients to prepare, outdoors, in two hours, a three-course seafood tasting menu, not just for the judges but for about 20 diners. Imagine constant motion, creativity, and technique for two hours without a break.

In front of the judges, Guarnaschelli presented her dishes, which were generally well received. Faulkner got a few more snaps for her offerings. Judge Simon Majumder licked his chowder bowl! But when we saw what Zakarian had come up with, we were in awe. There was an inventiveness to his dishes that was missing from those of the two women. It was really quite amazing. And what Chiarello served was not far behind.

We were not at all surprised when the judges said that Zakarian had done best and would go to the final. Neither were we surprised when Guarnaschelli was sent home. Then, the judges said that Chiarallo was just a hair away from having won first. However, according to the rules of the competition, no matter how well he had done in the Chairman's Challenge, he still had to face off against the other who remained, Faulkner.

The Secret Ingredient Challenge involved three kinds of Town House crackers and several varieties of wine. The goal was to create three bites using the crackers as a vehicle and incorporating the wine. As amazing as it is to see what people come up with for the Chairman's Challenge, it's perhaps even more amazing to see the outcome of this challenge—with such extreme ingredient limitations and so little time. Faulkner and Chiarello, two superb chefs, clearly went all out. We were pulling for Faulkner as we have been all along.

The judges nibbled their canapés, and from the comments it seemed as though Faulkner might actually have edged out the more favoured Chiarello, who had just almost won the previous challenge. And in the end, that is what the judges decided. Woo hoo! Elizabeth goes to the final!

We're thinking that Zakarian is going to be tough to beat. He not has only amazing technique but also a huge repertoire of ideas. The judges almost never dislike anything that Geoffrey serves, and we probably wouldn't either. But there is one thing Zakarian lacks—the element of surprise. If he had been up against Chiarello, the food would have been amazing and delicious, but also unsurprising. Now, with Zakarian versus Faulkner, all bets are off. Zakarian might still have an edge in some ways, but there is no telling what Faulkner is going to come up with. And if she can surprise the judges in the right way, she will become the next Iron Chef.


Hubris in heels

I woke up about 4:30 this morning. That's not unusual. At my age, I rarely sleep through the night uninterrupted. But it was less about a need to use the facilities than it was about my left ankle. It hurt! What the heck? Then I remembered.

Yesterday afternoon, a store where I buy Jane Iredale cosmetics was having a first anniversary event. I had booked myself a slot. First up upon my arrival—wine and a mini cupcake! It was a good quality Pinot Noir too, and the cupcake was from Cupcakes (by Heather and Lori). Om nom nom nom! But I had just the one.

First up was an interactive demonstration by a representative from Dermalogica. I'd known about their products for years, but I had never tried any. Four of us (the other three women about half my age) had our skin checked and then went through a particular series of cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing. My skin is in pretty good shape for my age (and the demo guy said so), but I do have sun damage, so I was particularly interested in a product that helps reduce that over time. At the end of the demo, We each took away a sheet of recommendations. There was no hard sell. It was all quite nice.

After that, we had our makeup reapplied—with Jane Iredale products, of course! I'm pretty good at evening looks, so even though it was late, I asked the makeup artist to show me a daytime look. I wasn't going anywhere but home anyway. So he worked with some nice neutral shades and achieved a result I was generally happy with. He was especially good with my eyebrows, which are in pretty good shape but thinner toward the outside. He used a good pencil first, then did a very cool thing—brushed in just a hint of red, enough to create a subtle match to my hair. I'm definitely going to try that myself!

I did think the lips were a bit too dark. It's a known fact—the older you are, the less you should go for dark lip colour. You want makeup to make you look younger and better, but dark lip colour on me makes me look, horrors, older! It was still a nice colour, but I don't think I would repeat it. Play up the eyes, keep the lips subtle. I will need to look for something in a kind of faded red, not pink, not purple (my usual shades), but not too intense. I also don't like lip liner outside the actual lip line. I've never seen that look good. Sure, I'd love fuller lips, but lip colour isn't the way to make that happen! At least not to my mind.

One reason I had gone to the event was that I needed to buy a bunch of stuff anyway. Normally I order from this store online and have the order shipped, but I figured the makeup session might help me make adjustments in tones, as indeed it did. I held off on the Dermalogica for now. I didn't want to run up that large a bill.

I headed home on transit. At the Skytrain station, there is a long escalator. Now, I was dressed in shopping clothes—top, skirt, tights, scarf, and my new favourite booties with the four-inch stiletto heel. They're very easy to walk in. So I did what I should not have done and walked down the escalator. I was being careful and sure-footed. I was almost at the bottom, and I remember thinking specifically that I was being careful and sure-footed and getting away with walking down. Just a hint of gloating. All of a sudden, I lost concentration. My left ankle came down wrong or caught something, and I twisted it. I almost had a spectacular wipeout, but I caught myself and managed to get off the escalator and continue walking toward the train with at least a shred of my dignity intact. It did not seem that I had hurt anything.

But in the wee hours, my ankle let me know that it wasn't just my dignity that was bruised. The gods always punish hubris. A classical Greek theme! It's great to be confident, but it also takes unfailing concentration, and probably not even a hint of gloating. Better and smarter to ride down the escalator without trying to hurry things, especially in heels.

Since I didn't know anything was hurt until just a few hours ago, I hadn't iced. We'll just have to see if this ankle is up for Zumba tonight!


All-star break

As a loyal watcher of America's Next Top Model, I suppose I would be remiss if I did not comment on the Cycle 17 finale. Not that I have any inside information. I'm reading the same rumours that you are.

I wrote earlier that this "all star" competition was not really grabbing me and that perhaps ANTM had jumped the shark. There were so many bizarre moments in this particular cycle. There have always been production decisions that made me scratch my head, but it was almost constant for this cycle. And you have to wonder if there's any value in winning this prize, even the all-star version.

After I almost started nodding off once we'd lost models like Bre and Bianca—who was out of control but stunningly gorgeous—they caught my attention again with the video shoots. Finally, here was something really new that made sense in the context of their "branding" exercise. Being a musician, I couldn't help but be interested in the recordings and video production. It's definitely amazing to hear what Auto-Tune can do when you've heard someone like Laura Kirkpatrick doing her vocals in the studio (bless her, but she can't carry a tune in a bucket). And it was amusing to see how smitten rapper and producer Game was by Allison Harvard. I mean, really, I thought he was going fall on one knee and propose!

The trip to Crete kept me going for a while, although it seemed that they couldn't manage to do a shoot that wasn't affected either by the incessant wind or by blazing sun. Were they purposely trying to eliminate Allison with the beautiful but light-sensitive eyes? And then we had the "motion editorial" shoot based on Tyra's novel and all was lost. That was just major dreckitude, as André Leon Tally might have said. And probably should have said. I told Sweetie that it seems sometimes that Tyra must be surrounded only by sycophants who nod enthusiastically at her every idea rather than anyone who might tell her that this or that idea was just harebrained. Like that film shoot.

Blog commentators are outraged that Allison did not win the big prize, but frankly, once Laura was eliminated, I really didn't care anymore. As far as I'm concerned, Laura was the best of the final four. Somehow, however, she could do nothing right toward the end, at least in the judges' eyes. I guess we forget the fact that she took great photos (except for the Greek salad one, where she admitted, though never complained, that she had a splitting headache) and was the one model with whom everyone loved to work.

Of the final three, I thought they were grooming Angelea Preston to win. It's not hard to see them doing that kind of thing. They've done it with several models in the past. And this despite the fact that Angelea seemed to work hard every week to undercut her own positive assets. They forgave her everything.

Until something unforgivable happened. Or whatever actually happened. The leading rumour is that Angelea blabbed about the result before the show aired and thus was eliminated. The rumour even says that she was the original winner, which wouldn't surprise me. But what we got instead was an announcement that she had become ineligible and a final panel with only Allison and Lisa D'Amato. And of those two, I thought it possible they would have chosen Allison, but much more likely that they would have chosen Lisa. Which they did. And I couldn't care less. The loud personality that the judges all seemed to adore had always been obnoxious to me.

Maybe I'd like Lisa in real life, but based on what I saw in the show, I don't think I'd want to find out. I bet Laura would be lots of fun, Allison quiet but engaging, and Angelea just a trip (at least for a while). Lisa, meh. I mean, I hope the win is good for her. I'm not going to make cracks about her age. We knew from the start that this cycle included models who, in model years, were long in the tooth. But since they were going for that total brand thing, they must have figured it didn't matter.

I suppose I'll watch the next cycle, assuming there is a next cycle, but I really don't know if there's any gas left in the ANTM tank.



The other day I was in IM with someone I know who is a professional chef. I told her that I had become addicted to Food Network Canada. She asked what I liked to watch, and I mentioned shows like The Next Iron Chef and Chopped. She said, oh, you like the competitive ones!

It's true. I rarely watch instructional cooking shows. I'll be at the gym on a cross-trainer, listening to music but with TVs in front of me with closed captioning on. On one, Rachel Ray will be whipping up some meal with serious amounts of fat in it, but I just don't find it that interesting. I'm sure I could learn a lot from the shows that demonstrate making a dish. And I like some that I've seen, notably one by an Indian woman who makes a kind of Indian-Latin fusion (I can't remember her name). I used to watch Emeril Lagasse and Martin Yan back in the day, and I'm sure I picked things up from them. I've certainly learned from Jamie Oliver.

But curiously, since I am not very competitive myself, I favour the competition shows. I might well get sucked into Top Chef Canada, which is about to start. I haven't seen much of Worst Cooks in America, but the last one I saw really engaged me. One of the most interesting shows on right now is nearing its end. It's called Recipe to Riches. The President's Choice label is sponsoring a contest in which ordinary people bring a recipe of their choice to the show in any of several categories (such as appetizers or desserts) and compete to make the one chosen to become a President's Choice product.

Maybe I could learn more from the demonstration shows, but I have way more fun watching the competitions. And I think I learn from those as well. I get ideas. I watch techniques. I'm less into following someone's recipe than I am about learning what's behind different recipes so I can come up with my own and improve what I already make. I'll hear a word like "gastrique" and I'll go off and research it. The competitive shows might not teach me directly but they certainly spur me to learn more.

And really, it's the human drama that I find so compelling. People competing with each other. People working against the limitations of required ingredients and the ever-present clock. People struggling to prove to themselves and to others that they can do what they had previously been incapable of, or thought themselves incapable of. That last one is certainly the appeal of Worst Cooks in America. In the episode I saw recently, it seemed to me that both young women, the one who won and the one who didn't, came through the experience fundamentally changed. They not only realized their capabilities in the kitchen. They realize how much more they could do in life than they had ever thought.

Lest you think I watch only the competitive shows, I also like to catch Eat St. I love seeing all the different food trucks! But it's not just entertainment. I pay attention. That might be my future.


Albums from 2011 that I downloaded (and paid for)

Judging from my downloads, I seem to like two kinds of music. My favourite music comes from rock bands, usually punk pop or indie rock or anything similar to that. But sometimes I like big, shiny, beautiful production, as long as there are good songs underneath it.

I also broke out of my eMusic-only mode. I wanted some new material that wasn't on eMusic. But it was on 7digital, so there I went. I think I've grabbed what I want of 2011 releases, but as you'll notice at the end, there can always be new discoveries.

Beyond categories and best of all:

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
PJ Harvey never stops challenging herself and challenging us. Like Neil Young, Harvey can go acoustic, electric, electronic, or something you just didn't expect. That last one would be Let England Shake. Primarily acoustic, with Polly Jean often playing an autoharp, the album is unlike anything I've heard her do before. But then, there really is no musician like PJ Harvey, and I mean that in the best possible way. This album haunts, challenges, and wraps you up in its naked honesty, not about love this time but about her native land.

Small and crunchy

Veronica Falls - Veronica Falls
I can't get enough of this album! Call it twee, call it C-86, but I just call it great songs sung brilliantly. I love the girl-boy harmonies and the flashes of surf guitar. I love how the album feels like a whole—like they had something to say. Can't wait for more from these guys! I so wish I'd been able to see them play live when they came around a few months ago.

The Pack a.d. - Unpersons
The Pack a.d.'s previous album, We Kill Computers, was so good that I was afraid that any follow-up wouldn't be able to match it. I'm glad to say my fears were unfounded. The band keep writing great songs and singing and playing them ferociously. They also keep getting better without losing their crunch. Becky Black's voice is an amazingly versatile instrument. Songs like "Pieces" push into new territory.

Vivian Girls - Share the Joy
Still marginal, still fun, with the nerve to start the album with a track ("The Other Girls") that runs 6:28 and close it with a track ("Light in Your Eyes") that runs 6:07—and both work. There's also quite a bit of variation within the lo-fi punk format. "Take It As It Comes" is great girl-group parody.

Dum Dum Girls - Only in Dreams
I know I kind of dissed this album in not just one but two posts, but I have to admit, it has grown on me. I still don't think it's at the same level as I Will Be or He Gets Me High, but several songs stick in my head—in a good way. I still think they've gone more pop/girl group than Kristen Gundred's songwriting is up to, but since the last record was only an EP, we'll call this a decent sophomore effort. And they really were very good live.

Brilliant Colors - Again and Again
Like the Dum Dum Girls before they went pop. These women write catchy songs and play them deep in a well of reverb. The result makes me happy!

Wild Flag - Wild Flag
I was none too kind to this album in an earlier review, but it has grown on me—somewhat. Especially since seeing Wild Flag live, I really appreciate that they are a band playing rock and roll and having fun. There is far too little of that right now! I just wish their collective songwriting was as good as their sound. I wish their vocals were stronger too. I love "Short Version," where everything seems to come together. I like "Something Came Over Me," "Future Crimes," and "Black Tiles." "Romance" has a killer chorus. But there are so many embarrassing lyrics, too many songs that are really riffs strung together, and too much musical self-indulgence. I hope the band is successful and keeps going, but I also hope the next album has better songs.

Wire - Red Barked Tree
The late 1970s and early 1980s were one of my formative periods, not just musically but personally. So I have to admit that I love that young bands are evoking what was then called New Wave and now tends to be called Post-Punk. And sometimes the originals still deliver. On Red Barked Tree, the now three-piece Wire, who have been around since back then, deliver an intriguing blend of slick new wave (really should be on the shiny list) and edgy post-punk.

Crystal Stilts - In Love with Oblivion
As a fan of lo-fi, I'm supposed to like Crystal Stilts. And I do like this album, sort of. I like some of it. They engage me most with the lo-fi pop songs. But eventually I get tired of the drone of the singer's tiny vocal range. And a song like "Alien Rivers" at 7:17 is just a psychedelic indulgence. I'm not going to do drugs just to make this kind of thing palatable!

Big and shiny

Feist - Metals
From the haunting opening strains of "The Bad in Each Other," you know you're in for a treat. Leslie Feist has written great songs, sung powerfully, and performed with amazing assurance. We're a long way from "1234" here. The production is gorgeous but complements rather than overpowers the songs. I have clicked "love" on Last.fm for many of these songs, but I can't think of a single one that I didn't at least like. Where her previous album was a collection of disparate songs, this album contains variety but feels like a wonderful whole.

Kathryn Calder - Bright and Vivid
As I noted last year, New Pornographers' records are becoming a bit hit-or-miss for me. Together has far too much Dan Bejar! But this record is all Kathryn Calder, and it's all good. The power and grandure sometimes remind me of Florence + The Machine. Perhaps it's the record Florence Welch should have made! Calder's beautiful voice soars, and her songwriting keeps me engaged all the way through. I adore "Walking in My Sleep," but there are many other gems here.

Florence + The Machine - Ceremonials
I love Florence Welch's voice. I love her presence. I love her fashion sense! I put my indie/alt cred in jeopardy by liking Florence + The Machine, but so what. Good music is good music, and cool people I know are going gaga over Adele (not to mention Lady G). I'm glad that pop music has improved with the injection of these truly talented people. But you know what? It's still pop music, and I'm still pretty indie/alt. Who knew? "Shake It Out" absolutely explodes. I get a serious thrill listening to that song. "No Light, No Light" and "Heartlines" catch my ear. But many others on Ceremonies? Not so much. Still great singing, still great (big) production, but not great songs.

The Jezabels - Prisoner
This year's Australian entry. I really like Hayley Mary's voice—power, range, delivery. This album (and band really) is on the "big" side of indie, as opposed to a band like, say, Brilliant Colors. They don't shy away from a big sound. But they also have good songs behind the production.

Cymbals Eat Guitars - Lenses Alien
I'm sometimes a fan of quirky pop. I'm not sure what makes me like one kind but not another. I wasn't familiar with Cymbals Eat Guitars, but I like this album. The only problem for me is that it's one of those bands in which the singer's voice is the focal point. And it's not a voice I like for 10 songs in a row.

Albums released in 2010 that might have made last year's list

If I had discovered them soon enough

Juliana Hatfield - Peace and Love
I used to love Juliana Hatfield. Her recent work has been hit-or-miss for me, but this one is definitely a hit. She goes mostly acoustic and bares her soul in a series of beautiful, heartfeld songs like she has never done before. And yes, finally confesses her love for Evan Dando of the Lemonheads.

Reading Rainbow - Prism Eyes
Information on this band is hard to come by (and hard to search for, as you might imagine). They have a blog and a page they call "band camp," as well as a Facebook page. Apparently, they are a duo from Philadelpha, with Sarah on drums, Robbie on guitar, and great harmonies. Their chosen labels are "punk, pop, psychedelic, shoegaze." This album (their second) is a bit harder in a punk/New Wave vein than some of the lo-fi music that I've found. The energy is great and so are the songs. And of course so is the reverb.

Corin Tucker Band - 1,000 Years
It's not Sleater-Kinney, but then it shouldn't be (neither is Wild Flag). Tucker even said she was going to make a "middle-aged mom record." But it's a good one.

The Abramson Singers - The Abramson Singers
OK, so Leah Abramson is a friend. But really, this album is so beautiful! You really should buy it and listen to it. Leah is a wonderful singer and songwriter both. "Trucker's Prayer" is a gem, and there's plenty more where that came from. I also love the cover of Bob Wiseman's "You Don't Love Me."


Keep Yule in Yuletide

One of the most beloved Christmas songs of all time (and possibly one of the best little songs ever), "White Christmas," was written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish. Just a few years later, the most-recorded Christmas song, called simply "The Christmas Song" (the one that starts "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire"), was co-written by another Jewish man, Mel Tormé. People find these sorts of things remarkable, but really, look at the lyrics: the beauty of a snow-covered landscape (with the daydreaming card-writer warm inside), a bit of nostalgia, sleighs and reindeer, food, and a general good feelings. Even though the word "Christmas" is used, the songs have no Christ, no Bethlehem, no manger, no angels, and no shepherds watching over their flocks by night. These popular songs aren't about Jesus. They're about the American midwinter celebration of family, food, and gift-giving.

Christians are welcome to try to keep Christ in Christmas. I can understand their wanting to celebrate the birth of their messiah without other aspects of the season getting in the way. But they can blame their own church for that one. The early church had a habit of trying to "override" existing seasonal holidays with their own sacred days, thus stamping out the pagan celebrations. Easter took over a festival of the coming of spring. All Saints Day somewhat less successfully took over the celebration of the very end of harvest and the day when the dead drew close to the living world. And Christmas was placed pretty much on top of the Roman celebration of Saturnalia and the Celtic celebration of Yule, the shortest day of the year and the beginning of days getting longer.

The feast of Yule survives even outside pagan circles. We sing of Yuletide. We use the symbols of the evergreen tree and holly. Christmas attempted to take over the midwinter feast; the midwinter feast got its revenge. Christ gets his due, but he has to share.

Being a sort-of Wiccan, I celebrate Yule, the longest night, the birth of the god, and the return of light. I do, however, sympathize with the Christian desire to de-commercialize the season. For me, Yule, like all sabbats, is a sacred time. I love lights, food, good company, even gifts. But I don't like crazed shopping, spending into debt, and myriad market tie-ins. Let's face it: much of modern Christmas celebration is tacky.

Even though Yule is my feast, I casually celebrate Christmas as well, as most of us do in North America—sometimes even Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. And why not? In the northern hemisphere, it's very close to the shortest day. In the darkness, as the days very slowly begin to lengthen, let us light candles, take stock, think of family and friends and the wider world around us, especially those in need. And call it whatever you like.


Next aluminum chef

I'm a long way from iron. Heck, I probably shouldn't have a metal at all yet. Maybe it should be "next parchment paper chef." Never mind chefs of the calibre of those competing to be the next Iron Chef. I look at the creations of my friend and food blogger Vanessa and I'm awed by her creativity. There are still a lot of places I fear to tread.

There are, however, fewer and fewer of those as time goes on. Watching so much Food Network Canada has certainly been inspiring. I learn specific techniques and food combinations from watching shows like Next Iron Chef and Chopped (I'm addicted to both). But more important for me, I learn to be less safe. It's not like I'm going for big risks when I'm cooking. Frankly, if I want to do that, I should do it only when I'm cooking for myself (at least the first time). But I find that I'm becoming less fearful about trying new things and more open to flavour combinations that I had not thought of before.

When I was being a care-giver recently, my charge made a request: some kind of pasta dish with shrimp and scallops. Not exactly the most difficult batch of mystery ingredients! No lychee fruit or cheese curls. But I wanted to use those three ingredients well. For some reason, I didn't do as I often do, which is to go look for recipe on the web. I've made lots of pasta sauces out of my head, so I figured I'd do it this time as well. And I had a model I vaguely remembered, which is a smoked salmon sauce.

I assembled my ingredients, a little clumsily. At first, I bought green onions, but later I realized I really wanted shallots. I got a red bell pepper for colour. I got some fresh basil (on the hoof, good for future meals if it grows). I bought a lemon for its zest. And garlic, of course. There were also some materials already in the fridge.

I chopped my vegetables. Then, in a very large sauté pan (a size I find I would like to have), I seared the scallops in a mix of olive oil and rendered bacon. I set them aside, and then quickly sautéed the shrimp. I never overcook my shrimp! At least not anymore. I set those aside, and then proceeded to sauté the veggies. I added a whole lemon worth of zest, some seasoning, and chopped fresh basil. Then I finished it with some light cream that was in the fridge. I didn't want to use it all (should have thought to get more), so I went a little skimpy. I worked with some of the pasta water when I mixed in the linguine, but it could definitely have used more cream. The dish was finished with a bit of grated parmesan.

My customer and I were both happy (and she was happy later with the leftovers), but I knew I had to do better next time. Learn learn learn! First thing was to make sure there was enough cream around and not to be afraid to use it. Fear of cream! Mostly, fear of it breaking or curdling. I did some reading, and apparently, three things make a successful cream sauce: high-fat cream, not too much acidity in the sauce, and not too much heat. Some disagree with that last one, because you actually can reduce a cream sauce. In this sauce, using only zest and no lemon juice or wine, the acidity was pretty low. Because of that, for a repeat I stuck with light cream. Heavy cream is 36 percent butterfat, and that's really rich for us. As well, this didn't need a reduction, just blending, so I didn't push the heat.

One other change I made was to use fresh thyme rather than fresh basil. Thyme and lemon zest and seafood all go well together. There was nothing wrong with the basil. It's just that I think thyme works better. I still have a lot to learn about herbs. Even some professional chefs do, apparently, because I've seen more than once when someone on Chopped overpowered a dish with sage, which even I know has a strong and distinctive flavour.

The final difference was a negative one—I had no bacon! One thing I've learned from cooking shows is that bacon is a very handy thing. But packages are generally at least a half pound, and if you don't use it fairly quickly, it won't keep. What I need to find is a shop that sells bacon by the piece. I know of one, but it's far out of my normal path. I need to check locally. And save bacon fat whenever I cook bacon! Fat is flavour, and bacon fat is especially flavourful.

Even without bacon, the revised dish worked very well. I think I have overcome my creamophobia!

These days, even when I make everyday dishes, I want to add a little something that I might not have done before. Tonight, I made a simple frittata with broccoli, mushrooms, and corn that I found on Cooks.com (although I substituted Swiss cheese for the jack in the recipe). I wanted something to accompany it. White potatoes are not the best thing for Sweetie, and I didn't want to run us out of regular bread by making toast. So when I was out getting some additional supplies, I found some seedy, whole-grain ciabatta rolls shaped like triangles. I sliced them in half and grilled them with a little butter. No big deal, but just a little more clever than I once would have done. I'd like to keep finding touches like that. Not only do I want to keep Sweetie happy; I want to keep myself interested as well. Maybe I'll earn my aluminum.


Black emptiness

They call it Black Friday. Black is one of my favourite colours, but really, that just sounds sinister. Bad shit happened on Black Monday. Why should Black Friday be good?

Yes, the economy can always use consumer spending. And if stores don't do well leading up to Christmas, I suppose that's a bad sign for everything. But here's a question: does the economy need more consumer credit card debt? If you go (or went) shopping today, will the credit card(s) be paid off before interest kicks in? Was there already a balance from the previous period?

I know that I'm fortunate. I don't have to run up debt to buy things. But I also don't buy a lot of things. On this 20th anniversary Buy Nothing Day, probably the only thing I will buy is dinner, and that's only because I was away and the larder is rather bare until we go grocery shopping tomorrow. I know I won't be buying electronics.

I've seen ads in Skytrain stations about buying things for Christmas that won't have to be thrown away. We've thought this is a good idea for many years. Sweetie got her sister and sister-in-law a two-night stay in a really nice hotel, plus dinner. My family don't need anything from me. I will probably get Gifts of Hope from Plan again—donations that buy livestock (and other things) for people who can't even dream of anything like Christmas presents.

Yes, I'm a consumer. I buy all kinds of things. This Christmas, it's the kitchen that needs some stuff, like a coffee mill to replace the one that's about 15 years old. It still grinds really well but the plastic cup that catches the grounds is mostly cracked. But for gifts, unless someone knows me really well (which would not be my family, sadly) and could buy a book or DVD or CD or clothes that I would really like, I would much rather get food or a donation to someone who really needs stuff more than I do.


Mile high reviews

Not that kind of mile high, silly. Get your mind out of the airplane washroom!

I'm referring to movies watched whilst on a long flight. Air Canada offers on-demand in-flight movies (or TV or news) on a screen on the seat back in front of you. There is quite a selection available in different categories such as "Hollywood" (fairly recent commercial releases) and "Classic." Even though sometimes I prefer to listen to music or read, I often take advantage of this feature.

I find I will watch movies on an airplane that I might not rent when at home. That was the case with the movie I watched on the flight out of here, One Day. I had read the book for my book club and liked it very much. I had also heard that the movie was a stinker, but I figure I'd take a chance. Hey, I'm on a plane, and I have time to kill. And I love Anne Hathaway. How bad could she be?

As it turns out, I thought the movie was decent. Not as good as the book, but I never expect that. It's true as I had heard that Hathaway's supposedly northern accent drifts in and out and is never totally convincing, but I managed to ignore that for the most part. I found the movie similarly uneven but with several quite good scenes. Some of the "years," corresponding to chapters in the book, were pretty inconsequential, but others were quite well done. I was especially struck by the scene in which Emma's boyfriend Ian, whom she never really loves, pops back into her apartment. He's a bit of a loser, but he basically has a good heart, and you can understand why he's bitter. In fact, I quite liked Rafe Spall's performance overall. I also enjoyed the interaction between Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. As in the book, it's a bit of a mystery why Emma loves Dexter, but no mystery why he loves her. As he notes somewhere in the film, with her he's actually a good person. Without her, he's pretty much a disaster.

I'm not sorry I watched it.

On the way back, I chose one from the "Canadian" category. I'd read a lot about Starbuck. It's a comedy by Ken Scott (writer of La grande séduction, a.k.a. Seducing Dr. Lewis) starring the wonderful Patrick Huard as a kind of overgrown kid and general fuck-up who learns that, due to a mistake at the sperm bank where he had donated sperm some 20 years before, he has 533 children, several of whom are suing to find out who he is. The way he deals with this makes up the bulk of the film. Some of his encounters are amusing, but some are quite touching. It's a comedy with heart, yes? It slows down in spots but comes to a satisfying conclusion. Unlike One Day, this is one I want to rent and watch with Sweetie, who I think would enjoy it. And I'd love to see it on a screen that isn't just a few inches across.

In between flights, on terra firma (and big screen TV), I saw one film on DVD that my friend shared with me, Love Actually. I enjoyed it. Bill Nighy is a scream as an aging rock star cynically doing a Christmas version of the Troggs's 1967 hit "Love Is All Around." Hugh Grant is charming, of course, as the Prime Minister who finds love with his tea girl. I loved the relationship between a bereaved man (Liam Neeson) and his stepson. Emma Thompson is brilliant, as always, as the wife of a possibly straying Alan Rickman (yum). There is some unexpected pathos in the encounters between Laura Linney's character and her schizophrenic brother. It's a Christmas movie, so the timing was good!

By the way, why it is called the "mile high club" when cruising altitude is generally more than six miles up? The "mile high club" is something you could join by having sex in Denver!

What I did on my autumn vacation

It wasn't really a vacation. I took a week off to help a friend. I've gotten a lot of snaps for that, but believe me, it was one of the best, most rewarding weeks of my life. A friend became a true friend. A sister really. And that was worth all the flying.

It was definitely a working vacation, but it wasn't all work.

I got to meet two other online friends, people I've "known" for a long time whom I now know face to face. That was special. And if that wasn't enough, one meeting involved really yummy Burmese food, and the other some excellent crab cakes and a very good Irish red ale.

Remember about the shoes? Well, of course I did go to DSW. It really is like a candy store for me. I'm very picky about shoes, as I am about all of my wardrobe, but in a store that size, it's hard not to find something that catches my eye. I needed a new pair of ballet flats, and I found a really good pair, with not too much frou-frou and an actual grip on the bottom instead of the slick sole that my current (well-worn) pair have. And then there were the booties on a display that caught my eye. Guess, not leather (I call them "vegan boots"), but so friggin cute. I tried them on twice, because I really didn't need them. I walked around in them, looked in various mirrors, and decided I'd get myself a treat. At DSW, everything is discounted, so it really didn't break the bank. Or my customs limit.

I also stopped into Ulta. We don't have Ulta in Canada. I've seen the name often enough in InStyle, and now I've seen a store. Huge! Bigger than the Sephora stores I've been in. I didn't need anything except Nail Envy, so I didn't go wild, but I did pick up some really eye-catching purple nail polish for winter. I could see having fun in that place.

And then there was Target. We're getting Target soon in Canada, but I had to go anyway for other reasons. I imagine my slavery footprint doesn't get any smaller going to Target than it would going to WalMart (where I do not go), but I like Target stores so much better. And, hey, I really needed those jammies! I could have done a lot more damage if my suitcase hadn't already been full.

I hit my first Dunkin Donuts in ages! I grew up with DD, or "Drunken Donuts" as we called it when I got a little older. The first full day I was there, I treated myself to a breakfast sandwich. Real Hillshire Farms sausage! It was very yummy, even though they put it on an English muffin instead of the biscuit I asked for (which apparently they didn't hear).

Transportation needs were well covered too. I quite enjoyed my rented Nissan Versa. They make inexpensive small cars better than they used to. My Subaru is now old enough so that it's missing little features that show up even in cars like the Versa.

My flights were fairly uneventful too, which is what you want. But oh, whatever did I do before there was free wifi in airports? Read a lot and listened to music, which aren't bad things at all. But as an interwebs addict, I love being able to go online while waiting, especially if I have a long layover. Email, Facething, blogs, all the comforts of home! Some free wifi is better than others, of course, and sometimes I think it depends on where you sit. At least now you don't have to camp out on the floor near an outlet. Some airports set up stations. Some have outlets at certain points in the chairs.

I had luck on my side on the way home. On the small plane for the first leg of the trip, there was no one in the seat next to me. And on the longer flight, which was otherwise rather full, there was only me and a skater boy in a three-seat row! We both appreciated the extra room.

I have a crackpot theory that if you dress decently for a flight, you get treated a little better. At any rate, I like to do so. I wasn't wearing anything fancy on the way home—purple long-sleeve top, black A-line skirt, purple tights, pink and blue and purple scarf—but I know I looked nice. I decided to take a chance on the new booties, which went well with the outfit. I made it for well over 12 hours wearing those boots, including lots of airport walking and taking public transit all the way home (love the Canada Line!) in the rain. I was ready to kick them off when I got home, but my feet didn't feel too bad. It was only today that I got out my ruler and realized they had a lot higher heel than I had thought—four-and-a-half inches with a half-inch platform! Funny, I didn't feel that tall. I love those boots! Although I might not go dancing in them.

I missed the anniversary of starting this blog (it was October 27), but here's another milestone: my 100th post!


'Tis better to travel?

You've got to be kidding.

OK, a good road trip, sure. Or a nice relaxing train trip. But anything on an airplane sucks. It gets you to where you have to go, hopefully without too much discomfort, inconvenience, and potentially much worse.

I'm a pretty good traveller. I don't mind showing up early. I'm patient in lineups. I'm OK with sitting around waiting to board (as long as I have my laptop and free wifi and/or a book and/or music, and probably coffee in any case). I don't mind being on an airplane. I have no fear of flying, even during turbulence. I even deal with situations such as intrusive security theatre, flight delays, and general airline passenger insults pretty well. My expectations of service these days are low, so I'm rarely disappointed.

No, my big anxiety is about packing. I hate packing. I hate deciding what to bring, what not to bring, what I can possibly cram into a suitcase that is never large enough. I'm not a light traveller. I wish I were. I want my entire wardrobe with me, or at least a substantial part of it. That just can't happen. I have to choose and choose wisely. And that's where the anxiety comes from. I never seem to be happy with what I put together if it's for more than a couple of days.

That's what my friend says: "It's only for a week." A week! Do you have any idea how many clothing changes I can make in a week? We're not talking about undergarments. I can always pack enough of those. But outfits! Pants, tops, skirts, dresses! If I were travelling for work, packing would be fairly easy. But this is not for work.

Weather forecasts are only somewhat helpful, especially long range. Everything might change by the time you're at your destination. And even if the forecast is accurate, if it shows that temperatures will be all over the place, how do you pack for that?

Shoes are the worst. You just can't pack a lot of shoes. They're both heavy and bulky. But of course at my destination, I want a nice choice of shoes! Instead, I must compromise. And possibly go to DSW and come home with more shoes than I left with.

No, I was wrong. Shoes are not the worst. I can triage my shoes. But inevitably, too much of my suitcase, both by volume and weight, is taken up by various and sundry cosmetic products. Even when I put things into small bottles, there are a lot of them. Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, facial cleanser. Toner, serum, facial, eye moisturizer, facial moisturizer. Body moisturizer. Makeup, makeup remover. Hair dryer and mousse. These things are not optional! I do my best to leave things behind and compact the rest, but inevitably I have two large plastic bags of toiletries taking up copious amounts of suitcase real estate. It's not like you can put any of this stuff in carry-on anymore.

And then, of course, you don't want to forget anything vital. There are a lot of things which, if you forget them, you can get a replacement. I'm thinking of skipping certain toiletries and just getting some there. But there are some things that you really want to have with you and can't easily replace. Anxiety!

Somehow, I always survive. Yes, it's only a week.

[I wrote this before I left. I almost posted it but decided not to. Internet paranoia? Even though my blog is public, it's not like I have such a large readership (tiny in fact), and it's not like I think anyone is casing my house. But somehow I never want to post that I am away. I am protective of my sweetie!

My packing turned out OK. I could have used some lighter tops, but in general what I brought worked fine. I did a little socializing, but mostly I was taking care of a friend in need. And right across from the supermarket is a DSW. Yes, I returned with more shoes than I left with!]


Something wilder

The Wild Flag show at the Biltmore on November 12 was definitely a step up from the album. The band played hard, and they played well. Unlike so many now who are too kool to kalypso, they really moved around on stage, giving off infectious energy. They were as much fun to watch as to listen to.

Having done our time years ago in mosh pits (although the pit looked pretty well behaved), my height-challenged sweetie and I found a slightly elevated perch with a side view of the stage. We didn't have a good view of Janet Weiss, but we definitely heard her. We got a good view of the rest of the band, with Rebecca Cole closest to us, Carrie Brownstein on the far side, and Mary Timony in the middle. Amazingly, the sound even from that angle was excellent! I was hoping maybe the lyrics would be buried a bit, as they so often are on stage, but no such luck. (I don't know if they are touring with their own sound person or if Swann did the sound.)

I was not taking notes. I thought about it, but the napkin got a little wet, and I figured I was not really there to write a review anyway. So I must work from memory (after two pints). Did they start with "Endless Talk"? I can't remember now, but it was a strong start. Then they went into "Short Version," and I was definitely happy. And then I totally lost track of the order of songs. I know they played "Electric Band," which did not improve on stage. Somewhere in there they played "Future Crimes" and "Black Tiles," both of which sounded good. But inevitably, we hit the first single, "Glass Tambourine." I love that Mary Timony is 41 years old (not young in rock and roll years), but that only means that she should know better than to use lyrics that she might well have written in high school (and should have left back there).

There were a few songs I didn't know. The band didn't announce them as being new, so I'm guessing they were songs from previous bands, although I did not recognize any Sleater-Kinney. They did a good hard version of "Romance," which was a high point. They also did "Something Came Over Me," which I did not realize was Timony's song. That sounded good too. They played "Boom," another song with lyrics that no amount of live energy can improve.

They ended the set with "Racehorse." It's six minutes and forty seconds of self-indulgence on the record. I'm pretty sure it ran well over 10 minutes on stage. Actually, considering the lyrics, I'd just as soon they do a long jam on the song. They're good musicians. But they seem not to realize that they are good ensemble musicians. They're not virtuosi like Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Only Weiss really reaches that level (and gave us some great Ginger Baker at one point). So the long jam isn't really what it ought to be, or what they seem to think it is.

They left the stage briefly while Manservant Hecubus retuned the guitars. Then they came back and did a short, fast song that I didn't recognize. And then they gave us their one cover for the night.* Were we going to have to suffer through "Beast of Burden"? No! It was Television's "See No Evil"! Squeeeee! They did a very good job of it, with Timony singing lead. Here's the problem though. Hearing them play "See No Evil" just makes it obvious that they aren't writing songs of that calibre.

It's interesting what you can learn from watching a band on stage that you can't perceive from the album. For instance, not only does Timony stand in the middle. She also seems to be the anchor of the band in a lot of ways, between her singing and her playing. I already knew that Weiss provided a really solid backbone and Cole's keyboard riffs were a huge part of the sound. But I guess I expected Brownstein to be more of a presence than Timony, and that wasn't true. Brownstein, in fact, while clearly having fun, gave us no rock star moves. Not even one kick, unless I missed it. Maybe the Biltmore stage is too confining.

Overall, I enjoyed the show. It's great to see such a good ensemble with members who have such fun playing together. There are no posers here! Now if they can only write material that lives up to the great sound they have together.

By the way, if I read another article that talks about Wild Flag being an "all-female band," I'm going to unleash a very poisonous pen in comments. They're a band! Seriously, that's all I saw on stage. They just happen to be women. I mean, really, when's the last time you saw a band referred to as an "all-male band"? And that's because by default, "band" = "male band." That is what male privilege means.

* OK, with the much more knowledgeable Caitlin's help, I now know there was at least one other cover.


Not so wild for Wild Flag

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a band called Sleater-Kinney. They were a brilliant trio of women who started as a punk-ish band and grew into much more, culminating in a kind of 1970s revival on their final album, The Woods.

Now we have Wild Flag. The expectations for Wild Flag were huge before the band really even existed. Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney! Mary Timony from Helium! Rebecca Cole from The Minders! The last two bands must be known to those with more serious indie cred than I have, because I have no clue who they were. When the eponymously titled album came out a couple months ago, reviewers fell over themselves to praise it to the skies.

It took me a little longer to obtain the album. I'm not exactly underwhelmed. Maybe more like confused. For a start, I think how much you like this album might depend on how much you liked The Woods. For me, that was "not so much." I had always loved the space in earlier Sleater-Kinney albums. The Woods was very full. And for me, it was more about the players showing off their chops than delivering edgy, memorable songs, which they had done so well earlier in their career.

Wild Flag seems to mine the late 1960s more than the 1970s of The Woods. Certainly that's what Timony does. "Glass Tambourine" (totally channelling Cream in the intro), "Electric Band," and "Black Tiles" bring me back to my youth, and not always in a good way. Some of the lyrics are downright embarrassing. Brownstein contributes her share of less-than-stellar lyrics too, like on "Boom" and the six-minute-plus indulgence of "Racehorse."

"Romance" starts the album off with a bang, but it also provides a good illustration of some of the problems. The chorus is absolutely killer, but the verse and the odd extra bits all sound like they belong to a different song. Much of the song sounds like riffs that were strung together, not terribly coherently. Brownstein just doesn't have the vocal power that her former band mate Corin Tucker has, nor does she seem to have much of a knack for melody. The band tries to cover all of this over with some enthusiastic and rather busy playing. There's no question the playing is good! But really, it's not quite the song it attempts to be—until that chorus hits.

The high point of the album for me is "Short Version." That's the song where it feels like everything comes together. I don't have to make an effort to like "Short Version." I just do. "Future Crimes" comes close. "Something Came Over Me" starts promising but doesn't deliver. "Endless Talk" is a cute girl-group kind of song. "Black Tiles" provides a strong closer for the album (not having an iPod and thus not buying from iTunes, I don't know what the bonus 11th track sounds like). But that's really not enough for me to go crazy for this album. Can we have more like "Short Version"?

It's interesting that the band has such a love for late-60s psychedelia. It's not often you hear anyone revive that stuff. But maybe there's a good reason for that. Maybe that was music very much of its time. I love the clip of the comedian on Tool's Aenema album about all those genius players back then—"real fuckin' high on drugs." Maybe Wild Flag need to tune in and turn on to really understand those grinding organ sounds and wailing guitars—and tacky lyrics that we'd rather forget.

The empress isn't naked. She definitely has clothes on, and pretty good ones. But I don't think she's arrayed in quite the finery that so many other reviewers and fans seem to think. I understand people wanting this to be a great album. I just don't think it lives up to the hype. And maybe that was impossible anyway. Hype can be that way.

I fully expect to be much more enthusiastic when I see Wild Flag play live on Saturday. I might not think the album is great, but I can tell the band is very good.


Fashion fail

Vancouver Fashion week ends tomorrow with a closing party. Did I attend any events? Not a one. Some fashionista I am.

Mostly it had to do with not having anyone to go with. Sweetie tends to be busy during the week between teaching school in the daytime and doing homework for a class she has on Thursday. If my friend from school had known ahead of time that her Thursday course had been cancelled, we might have gone that evening. There were even half-price tickets available through Karma Exchange. But she didn't find out about the cancellation until she was already on campus, a bit late to start the evening, especially without any tickets.

I also had a slight excuse of a minor revision to surgery I had on my right eyelid. It's hard to feel stylish when you've just had the suture taken out on Monday and your eyelid is still swollen. But it really looked fine later in the week, so it was a pretty limp excuse.

Let's face it. We're really talking fear and me letting myself be intimidated. And I'm ashamed of myself for that.

I have great confidence in my own style. I know what looks good on me. I put outfits together well. I get feedback from enough people that I know it's not just me deluding myself. I still have plenty to learn, but I should be able to show up at any event and look right in place. Better—I should stand out in the right way.

But for whatever reason, I let Fashion Week intimidate me, or at least intimidate me from going alone. And that was ridiculous. I can go places alone. I can be fabulous alone. And this is Vancouver. How fabulous could regular attendees be? Yet somehow fear got the better of me.

This would have been perfect for my new year and new start. I funked it.

But here's the deal. It's still my new year. I whine in my blog. That's what blogs are for. And then I move forward. Fall-Winter 2012 Fashion Week will happen in six months. There will be another Eco Fashion Week, which I also missed. There will be lots of smaller events, most of which don't even cost any money because they really want you there. Maybe Fashion Week was too much for me to jump into, especially without people to go with. But I'm not going to curl up in a ball.

One thing I might do is relaunch a fashion Meetup group. The Fashionistas is about to die, but I still think it's a workable idea. There have to be other women in the same situation as I am—wanting to attend events but not always having someone to go with. Starting fresh with a new membership list might let it work this time. That is, if I get off my bum and put the effort into it.

No excuses, no regrets. Is that a good mantra?


Whisper in the new

Samhain is the end of the year and the beginning of a new year. The god dies, yet his seed is within the goddess, who will give birth to him anew on Yule. It is the beginning of the darker half of the year. It is interesting that the year begins with dark and cold.

I never make resolutions, neither on conventional New Year's Day nor on Samhain. But I am feeling this cusp between the years rather strongly this year. I am especially conscious of the need to let go of what is spent (without losing what is good) and work toward new things. The new year doesn't automatically change anything. I have to make change. But it is a reminder to me that I can make the change I want and need.

One of the strongest lessons I have learned in life is that I have to follow my heart. That doesn't mean that my head doesn't come into play. Indeed, heart without head is a recipe for disaster. But head without heart is a recipe for unhappiness and frustration. Over the years, I have tried to do the "right thing," the responsible thing, the sensible thing. I have been rewarded for doing this. But the reward has often been bittersweet. I'm quite bad at doing something just because I think I ought to. If my heart isn't in what I'm doing, I can't keep doing it.

For a little over a year, I have been trying to do the responsible thing by working toward a certificate in technical communication to prepare for the eventual layoff (time unknown) from my current software job. It was never my burning ambition to be a tech writer. It was a "good idea." It was something I'd done before and could do better now. It was something that would, or could, allow me to earn a decent living. Some of the training has been interesting and useful. But my heart simply isn't in it.

I'm still being responsible. I'm holding onto my current job. I don't think I will leave that until they let me go. But training for something that I really won't want to do makes no sense. I got into high tech pretty much by accident. High tech has been berry berry good to me, and I'm grateful. But when it's done, I don't want more of the same. It will be time to follow my heart.

There's no point in me going into some other training at this point. Most training works best if you can finish with a practicum and immediately try to apply what you've learned. That can't happen while I'm still working. So for now, that releases me from the need to go to school, except perhaps for personal enrichment.

That will leave me time to do at least a couple of things that I have missed. One is to do volunteer work. I have been offered a short-term opportunity that I might take. I would like to explore some long-term opportunities that might put my counselling skills to work, even if in an informal way. I give money, but I have not given time for years, always with the excuse that I was busy with school. No more excuses.

The other thing I would like to do is play more music. I'm giving that so little time at this point. I haven't practised drums since forever. I'm barely playing guitar. I'm rarely writing songs. A friend wants to play more and see what it leads to. I really want to have time for this, and maybe to jam with some other people as well. Music brings me joy. Everyone needs some joy.

And there is more. I want to keep learning to make new recipes, to expand my cooking and baking knowledge and my repertory of dishes. I need to put some time into things this old house needs. Those are things that are more about obligation than love, but this is our house. Sometimes I still have to do the responsible thing whether I feel like it or not. My garden always needs work too.

This evening, my sweetie and I will answer doorbell rings and knocks at the door and hand out candy to kids who yell "trick or treat!" We'll enjoy the inventive costumes and how cute the littlest ones are. We'll say hi to the parents and wish everyone Happy Halloween. Then later, when no more kids come, in the quiet when it's almost time for bed, I shall have my own little solitary Samhain celebration. And I will look toward a new year that I will work to make truly new.


What if they did America's Next Top Model All-Stars...

...and nobody cared?

Also known as, Is that a shark I see in my rear-view mirror?

I really don't know why this season has gone all sideways. Your favourite models from past cycles! The best of the best duking it out for the title of America's Next Top Model All-Star! This should be a big deal. So why does it seem that they're cutting corners?

I understand that they have to try to keep the show fresh. After 16 cycles, you can imagine that there's little they haven't done already. But just when you'd think they would want to go big, they seem to be going small. After the huge and probably expensive Cycle 15, with a trip to Italy and some true couture in the photo shoots and shows, perhaps Tyra just didn't have it to spend on Cycle 17.

The show this past week started out promising. I love the idea of the models creating their own fragrance and marketing it. That seems like a very realistic kind of challenge—yes, Bianca, even the bathtub part (although I don't recall seeing Shannon sitting in the tub either). Unfortunately, the winner of the challenge was granted immunity at panel, and they decided that the winner was the one most over the top—Lisa. I don't think they were rewarding quite the right thing, but hey, it's not my show. It was a disappointment, however, to know halfway through the show that Lisa would definitely not be going home yet.

And then, another bizarre photo shoot. Two weeks ago, we had the Kardashian line of clothing for a runway challenge. That same episode, the models had to pose as various incarnations of Michael Jackson for a photo shoot. This did not bode well. And this week, we got a combination of the two. The models had to somehow embody qualities of one of two reality TV stars—Snooki from Jersey Shore or NeNe from The Real Housewives of Atlanta. Imagine—aspiring professional models are supposed to spend their time getting familiar with reality TV characters! That's serious class, Tyra. In earlier cycles, the emphasis was on knowing the fashion business. Now, for "all stars," we've sunk to slumming with Jersey Shore.

(I will admit to never having seen either Jersey Shore or any of the Real Housewives series, although I did have some idea of who Snooki was. It's hard to escape pop culture. And who knows. Maybe if I watched, they would be guilty pleasures. But somehow I doubt it. And really, what does this have to do with winning a modelling contract?)

Because no one was eliminated the week of the Michael Jackson shoot, the models knew there would have to be a double elimination at some point. And even though "TyraMail" announced that eight would be continuing after the judging, it was really only seven. That seemed a bit sloppy. I mean, really it was a lie. Lisa got best photo, even though she was already immune. I will admit that it was one of her better shots. Angelea, who no longer annoys us, had second best. Others were fairly predictable: Dominique, who has been strong all along; Laura, who has gone way beyond the sweet little hayseed from Kentucky but still needs to pick up her game if she wants to go all the way; Allison, who is still getting away with having the same look week after week; and Alexandria, who somehow manages to survive. At the bottom were Shannon, Kayla, and Bianca.

Boring St. Shannon of the querulous voice was saved. I have no idea why, except that they had to save someone. The stunning Bianca was just too much trouble, and Kayla never got even close to bringing her A-game.

And that seems to be endemic in this show. Tyra thought the idea of bringing back models from previous cycles was a good one, but it might be that one by one they all wonder just why they agreed to this. Kayla never seemed engaged. Beautiful Bre never found her focus. Among those remaining, only Lisa seems consistently happy to be there, and that might be because she herself has turned into an over-the-top reality TV star, someone you remember for being wild and crazy, not for seeming like a top model. I hope Angelea gets more consistent. I hope Laura gets more memorable. I hope even Dominique, never my favourite, starts to show some star quality. Anyone but NeNe. Excuse me, I meant Lisa.


Measure twice

I did some baking this afternoon. I made blueberry ricotta squares for this evening's women's wine and book club. Sometimes we meet at a restaurant, but this month we were meeting at a private home, so we had a potluck. Usually I bring a savoury dish, but this time I just felt like making something sweet. You can't have too much dessert, right? And this recipe was made with ricotta cheese, so it was even somewhat nutritious.

Ever since we got Food Network Canada on our cable, I've been watching a lot of cooking shows. Last night on Chopped, one of the chefs who is usually a pastry chef made a remark about how baking required precision measurement. If you're off a little on an ingredient one way or another, whatever you're making might come out all wrong, or even inedible.

As I was making the blueberry squares, what she had said really hit me. Mostly I cook. I don't bake very often. When I cook, I measure when I have to, but if I know a recipe very well, I don't need to measure. And often I'm creating something, so I'm going by feel and taste. With savoury food, you can make adjustments. Often you can adapt a dish to match ingredients you have on hand. Sometimes you can even save a dish that was going horribly wrong.

Baking is something else entirely. Measurements have to be exact, and you rarely substitute ingredients. Not only that; you also have to pay close attention to technique. When I made my first successful pie crust on Thanksgiving, part of that came from the right ingredients properly measured, but even more came from the careful handling of the dough. If I had been careless, the crust might have come out tough or not well blended.

Lately, my bread has been failing. One of those was a recipe failure, I think. It just didn't have enough liquid. But my last failure happened because they are really serious when they say make sure all the liquids are at room temperature. In the case of this bread, that meant milk, water, and eggs. I now know they were too cold, and that prevented the bread from rising properly.

I've never been that good at following directions. I do pretty well as a cook because following directions is less important, and often you can add something you missed earlier. But following directions is paramount for baking. I'd like to do more baking, and I want things to come out right. That means I'm going to have to reform my ways—read the recipe carefully, get all the measurements right, and follow the directions. There is little margin for error in baking. All cooking is chemistry, but baking even more so.

I was careful making the blueberry ricotta squares. The reward was that they came out well and were much appreciated by my fellow wine and book clubbers. And by me too!


West Side Story still packs a punch

The Vancouver Opera production of West Side Story opened last night at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Thanks to a wonderful early birthday gift to Sweetie from her sister, we had great seats in the left centre dress circle.

This was my first time at the QE. I've never seen so many dressed up Vancouverites! It did this girl's heart good. We were early enough to be able to wander around the lobbies on the various levels and do some people watching. Somehow I figured I would spot a celebrity or two on opening night, but I didn't see any. I did, however, see some sartorial excellence. We did our part. Not quite floor-length gowns, but Sweetie was wearing a pretty and very complimentary purple dress while I went in my red "Mad Men" (as Sweetie calls it) dress, complete with faux pearl necklace.

For both of us, West Side Story is the greatest musical of all time. So I will try to make this a review. But let's just say that I had raccoon eyes by the end of the show (and probably well before that) because waterproof mascara is never as waterproof as it's supposed to be.

Overall, the production was brilliant. I think the strongest aspect was the dancing. Apparently, they were using Jerome Robbins's original choreography, and it was a real treat to see. The dancers were so strong! They really brought a thrilling visual element to scenes such as "Dance at the Gym" and the song "Cool."

Colin Ainsworth, who played Tony, has a gorgeous, strong tenor voice. Lucia Cesaroni, who played Maria, is a trained opera singer but kept it nicely toned down. Their duets worked very well despite the very different quality of their voices. Scott Augustine, who played Riff, is apparently mostly a dancer. His singing could definitely have been stronger. But the heart of the story is Anita, and Cleopatra Williams played and sang her brilliantly. Supporting the singers was a superb pit orchestra. Such a treat to have live instrumentation!

The staging was stark, dark, and simple as it really must be. Various gang members (and Anybodys) climbed up and over a chain link fence. Kudos to the designer and builders of that piece of staging! The use of rolling stair-ladders was also excellent during Maria and Tony's "balcony scene" after the dance.

Kudos as well to whoever stepped in as Snowboy (I think it was Stephen Cota) and especially to Shawna Parry, who filled in as Anybodys. That is another pivotal role, and she did an excellent job.

Sweetie has the soundtrack memorized. I'm getting closer. We thoroughly enjoyed such crowd pleasers as "Tonight," "America," "I Feel Pretty," and "Gee, Officer Krupke." Tear ducts were fully in gear by the time Tony sang "Maria," partly because of the song and partly because of his beautiful voice. The "One Hand, One Heart" scene was wonderfully touching. And by the time Maria and Anita sang their duet "I Have a Love," I had completely lost it.

There are the edgy parts as well, mostly in small hints until the end. The fatal stabbings at the end of act one hit hard. And despite the stylization, the brutality of the scene at Doc's in which the Jets assault Anita was clear—and devastating. It's difficult for me even to write about it.

This was only my second time seeing West Side Story on stage. I have seen the film version more times than that, and for better or worse the film version sometimes gets stuck in my head. So I found that the dream-dance sequence that accompanies "Somewhere," with a recorded (originally off stage) song playing, for me undercut the emotional impact of that song. I'm usually a puddle when they sing "There's a place for us / Somewhere a place for us." In the film, I'm pretty sure that song is sung as a duet between Tony and Maria. I'm also pretty sure that the production I saw a few years ago at the Massey Theatre in New West went with something closer to the movie version, because I really was a puddle that time. So in this case, I think the film improves on the original staging. But maybe that's just me.

As well, it was definitely opening night. The first act was brilliant. The timing in the second act was not quite as smooth. Some things seemed to happen more quickly than they ought to have done. I'm sure they'll fix that as the show continues.

This West Side Story is a production well worth seeing. And I think the play still hits with devastating impact more than 50 years after it was first staged. No one talks that way anymore. Yet they still fight that way. It's just that the weapons are deadlier now.


The horns of a dilemma

I've written before that I'm working on a certificate in technical writing. I'm just finishing up a six-week (half) course called Writing for the Web. It's been a lot of work in a short time but overall fairly interesting. I mean, how can I balk at a course for which one of the requirements is to write a blog? The next half course is called Single-Sourcing for Technical Writers. I have a vague idea what that is. I've heard that it's five weeks of very dense PowerPoint slides with an exam at the end.

Even though I'm working toward something, I'm feeling a bit stuck and a bit in-between. I'm still working full time. It's a good job, and it pays me very well. There's a lot to be said for that. I'm not a big spender, but I do like the things that money can buy—travel, nice clothes and shoes, dinner out, smaller but repeating expenses like hair colour. I appreciate that I'm still fortunate enough to have this job. I would rather wait for the inevitable layoff (when my servers are retired) than to quit sooner.

There's a major downside to hanging on though. The longer I stay at this job, the older I will be when I need to look for a new one. Age discrimination is a reality. I don't look my age, but neither do I look like a fresh-out-of-university 22-year-old. And I might well be starting from the bottom.

Where's the passion?
The fresh start might not be tech writing. Even though I've done that before, and it involves writing (of a sort), and it can pay reasonably well, I'm really not sure that it's right for me. As much as I'm addicted to a good paycheque, should I really take yet another job that I like well enough but don't love? Will I ever get to do something I love? Should I not do that before I retire?

It's good to have a driving passion. My older sister is a neonatal nurse. She came to it later in life, but she should probably always have been a nurse. Caring for newborns is her passion. My younger sister is a college professor in her chosen field. That's what she wanted to do ever since she was young. My brother is a DJ. That job has not always been kind to him, and it gets rougher the older you are, but still, it was a passion that he pursued and was able to fulfill. My niece is a puppeteer and a builder of puppets. Perhaps even more than for her mother, aunt, and uncle, this is a consuming passion for her. And my beloved is an elementary school teacher. She was not young when she finally realized that was what she really wanted to do, but she didn't let that stop her, and now she is doing what she loves.

Unfortunately, I am polyamorous when it comes to career pursuits. My English degree took me into magazine editing. Sometimes I wish I had shifted out of technology publishing into something else in writing and editing, rather than shifting deeper into technology as I did. Writing is something I do because I love to. But that's water under the bridge, and as I noted, I was and continue to be amply rewarded for my choice.

I had a passion for music, but not quite enough. I had a passion for acting, but not nearly enough. At this point in life, there are a few things that get me excited, especially fashion and food (both of which I write about rather often). But does either of those make a realistic career option at my age? I could get training in fashion marketing (I have no design talent), but where would that leave me in an industry that skews toward younger people? I could get culinary training, but again, at my age, would it make sense for me to be an apprentice chef? Would there be room for me? No one should ever let age get in their way, but let's face it—you're a lot more likely to get an entry-level position when you're young than when you're older.

I have even considered getting training to be an administrative assistant. One of the things I like best about my job is being my boss's unofficial assistant, someone he discusses strategies with, someone he bounces ideas off. But as with fashion and cooking, would anyone hire a older admin with training but no experience?

Just like starting over
I'm not alone in being somewhat older and needing to start over. During this recession, such a scenario has been all too common, especially former executives who now find themselves too old to get a fresh start. But being in the same boat with other people doesn't make me feel any better.

When you're facing an uphill battle to get someone to hire you, maybe what older people like me are supposed to do is make their own way. We're supposed to start our own businesses or consulting firms. We're supposed to be our own bosses. We should be hiring other people, not waiting to be hired ourselves. Chef training, then open a food truck in Hanalei? That sounds like a pipe dream, but maybe it would just take some hard work, careful planning, and a bit of luck. OK, a lot of luck. But still, crazier things have happened.

Is it fear that holds me back? Fear of what happens when the big paycheque is gone? Fear of not being able to make something else work out? Fear of not being passionate enough about anything to make it work? I'm very intelligent. I have a lot of diverse experience. I should be able to do what I want to do. But fear is a killer.

This situation is embarrassing really. When you're young, people ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Shouldn't I have grown up by now? I'm sufficiently adult in a lot of ways, but you'd think I would have figured out this career thing long before now. I hope there's still time. It's too soon to retire without a big lottery win.



I haven't bitched yet about last week's episode of America's Next Top Model. Well, until now.

The challenge was OK, even though it featured the Kardashian line of clothing. High class, ANTM! Oh well. From what little I saw, the clothes weren't bad. And the real challenge for the models was to step onto a moving carousel and then step off it onto a runway. There was a little awkwardness, but no major spills. This all happened on the beach. It made so little impression on me that I can't even remember who won the challenge. Bre again? Might have been.

Then we moved on to the photo shoot. The theme was positively weird—the models had to portray Michael Jackson at different stages of his career. Very realistic for the modelling business, no? I'm starting to see Bianca's point. This was all done in conjunction with adviser and guest judge LaToya Jackson, Michael's sister.

It was a challenge in a way, I suppose, but really, would any of these women put this in their portfolio? I doubt it. There were some interesting shots, but nothing that really stood out. The makeup team resisted going with blackface for the white models. After all, it wasn't really necessary for the later years, was it. But Allison, the only one portraying Michael during the Jackson 5 years, was browned up. Ugh.

At panel, after going through the usual preliminaries, and hearing the opinions of the regular judges, Tyra announced that they had allowed LaToya to set the order from best to worst. Laura got best picture. I always like when Laura does well, but really, even the best shots weren't any big deal. The extremely annoying Lisa and the surprisingly much less annoying Angelea, who deservedly had best picture in the previous episode, were in the bottom two. So who went home?

Neither! LaToya decided that everyone got A for effort, and no one would be eliminated. I mean, we're going through all the build-up and I'm getting all hot and bothered when suddenly he grunts, rolls over, and starts snoring, and I'm like, yo, what about me? Srsly, this felt like a major waste of time. Sure, I know, ANTM is probably always kind of a waste of time, but normally I enjoy it. But here we had an uninspired runway contest, a more bizarre than usual photo shoot, and no payoff. I felt like I'd been played. I mean, please, couldn't they have overruled LaToya and sent Lisa home?

Even the drama has been dull! What fun is that? Bianca is having some kind of meltdown because she thinks the other women are picking on her, and Bre keeps stepping in as protective sister. Shannon is having another kind of meltdown because she can't stand conflict (meaning normal human interaction), and Bianca gives her shit for being a Christian. Lisa shoots off her mouth at every opportunity but she really hasn't taken any great photos. At every shoot, she either jumps in the air or spreads her legs. We haven't even had the seemingly tranquilized Alexandria to kick around! She seems to have decided that bland is better than pissing everyone off, and so far she's managed not to be sent home for it.

So unless they worked something out with the CW network, I'm guessing this means we're going to have a double elimination at some point. Maybe even next week. Yeah, I'll watch. Sucker. Sigh.