Surface tension

We all take up space. Our existence as physical beings requires that we do so. Most of the time, we are well separated physically from other human beings. And the right to security of person says that all physical contact (other than unavoidable crowd contact) must be mutually consensual. Did you know that each of us has a tiny gravitational field? All physical objects have one. We warp the space around us very, very slightly.

Physical space is not the only kind that we occupy. Each of us also has an ecological footprint—the renewable and nonrenewable resources that we consume, either personally or through shared infrastructure. No one is without an ecological footprint. The footprints of some are very small due to homelessness, insufficient food, and general inability to consume very many resources. Most of us who have enough money and a home probably consume more than we really need. And some consume vastly more than they need.

Sweetie and I do fairly well on resource consumption, not because we are more righteous but because reducing our ecological footprint is a priority for us. It bothers me that I have to put things like plastic that can't be recycled into landfill. I wish we had laws for all plastics to have a recycling number (based on the type of plastic), and for there to be as few 3s and 6s as possible (coffee lids are almost always 6). I wish we had laws for the use of goods in general, so that every product came with the means to dispose of it responsibly.

Social capital is a renewable resource, but it needs funding. And that means taxation. So voting for lower taxes or avoiding paying taxes depletes social capital in favour of individual capital. That means people take up individual space at the expense of social space, which is really just a variation on our theme.

Finally there is the space that really got me started on writing this--the space that each of us takes up by our presence. Not physical space (see above). More like psychic space. There are many ways to take up psychic space. Some take up more space because they feel free to speak up, while others take up less because they are shy about speaking. Extroverts tend to take up more space than introverts.

Privilege has a psychic footprint. And there are more kinds of privilege than we imagine. Those who lack privilege in one environment might well have it in another.

I think there will always be some people who take up more psychic space than others. We are not all alike. But it is a zero-sum game. If someone takes up more space, someone else takes up less. And since we all need psychic space, there can be detrimental effects on those with less space.

I have multiple privileges. I am also fairly extroverted. I know I tend to take up a lot of space. And to some extent, that's me. But I think I can still be me without impinging upon the space of others. That is what I would like. I don't always perceive the edges of the space of others right away, but I always look for them. I want to respect them and give them room. And maybe there will be a place where spaces meld and interact.

That's something I've found while working on this. When I allow others the space that I am often too quick to claim as my own, their space can expand nicely. And when there is less claiming of space, less pushing of space against space, the edges are softer. The spaces have a better chance of co-mingling. I don't know about anyone else, but I know that's good for me.


Really really happy

Should have got even closer!
When I learned that the Muffs were touring in support of Whoop Dee Doo, their first album since Really Really Happy was released in 2004, I got very excited. During those years, the band would play occasional shows in California (where they are based) and at Maxwells in Hoboken, NJ, but never close enough for me to get to. With the new tour, of course I hoped they would make it to Vancouver. 'Twas not to be. But they were doing a show in Seattle. There are some bands for which I will take a day off, drive to Seattle, and stay overnight. The Muffs are one of those bands. I was not going to miss this chance.

Sweetie and I took off around 3. By the time we hit Seattle the evening rush hour(s) traffic had eased up a bit. We arrived at our hotel with just a little time to rest, get ready, and then head to dinner. The show was at the Crocodile in Belltown, so I had Google Mapped it and looked for little knife-and-fork symbols nearby. And it was thus that I found La Fontana Siciliana. What a find! A Sicilian restaurant with a beautiful courtyard (for summer dining) only half a block from the club. Our server Fabio took excellent care of us. The food and wine were superb. In fact, we demolished an entire bottle of wine with dinner, something we don't often do. But there would be no driving required.

We walked over to the club shortly after 9. The Suicide Notes from Portland had just started their set. The band consists of three female singers backed up by drums, bass, and guitar. Their Bandcamp site provides a pretty accurate description: like the Shangri-Las doing it with the Ramones in the back of a hearse. The singers sang together and sometimes traded lead vocals. The music was fun and energetic. We enjoyed their set very much.

No flash, moving band
The second band was the Tripwires from Ballard, a neighbourhood in the northwest of Seattle. Four not-so-young guys playing straight up rock with a flare of Americana. The set was quite listenable, but it didn't get us off like the Suicide Notes. Still, two decent opening bands is almost unheard of.

It didn't take long before the Muffs hit the stage. I have to admit that I didn't realize they would set up their own equipment, and that was pretty cool. After the setup, guitarist and singer Kim Shattuck came out in a black Wednesday Addams dress with over-the-knee stockings, while tall, thin bassist Ronnie wore a white pullover sweater with a bow tie, evoking local science guy Bill Nye. (Roy, being the drummer, gets to dress however he wants to.) The band ripped into their set of material from the new album and quite a lot of older material--older, I think, than the two albums and one compilation that I have. It didn't matter whether I was familiar with a song or not. I loved every minute of it!

Ronnie and a borrowed bass
This is what I call a rock and roll band. When they were playing, they were tight while looking like they were having fun. These are musicians who have been playing together for a long time--Kim and Ronnie since the beginning in 1991 and Roy since 1994. And between songs, there was often some fun chatter. Ronnie told how he was almost eaten by an escalator at SeaTac Airport when his shoelace got caught. Kim gave him no end of shit about this, but Ronnie came back with the best line: "At least I didn't get booted out of the Pixies." Zing! It was all in good fun.

This set was nothing if not fun. Toward the end, the bass amp—apparently belonging to the Tripwires bass player--cut out. In trying to get it repaired, Ronnie dropped his bass and broke one of the tuning pegs, which he promptly handed to an audience member. Then, while a tech and the Tripwires bass player were working on the amp, Kim played a song by herself, with a bit of help from Roy, while Ronnie went crowd surfing! After a few minutes, the amp was working again. Ronnie borrowed a bass from the Tripwires, with which he finished the set. They played for more than an hour, and then came back for a three-song encore! Really, it could not have been more satisfying. The sound at the Crocodile was very good. The crowd was enthusiastic.

I was tearing up even before we caught a cab back to our hotel, and I really was crying during the ride. I wasn't sad. I was emotionally overcome. Sure, there was some alcohol involved, but by that time I was mostly sober. It was mostly that I had finally seen one of my idols play. Kim Shattuck is a 51-year-old woman who has earned her slot of indie stardom by doing it her way. She did what I wish I had done and, even at 10 years older than Kim, still dream of doing.


Quirky white girl music faves in 2014

I can't make a complete top-whatever list. I don't listen to enough music or a wide enough variety of music. And since I mostly buy music from emusic.com, I'm missing some things like St. Vincent and Mary Timony's new band Ex Hex. But I think that what I did listen to is good stuff, and since many of these won't be on anyone's best-of-2014 list, this is my public service.

The order of this list is somewhat fluid. It's a general picture of how I feel right now, and that might change a bit over time. But I bet that's the same for the people who create numbered lists. For me, what pushes an album toward the top is the impact it has on me, musical and emotional, both on first listening and over time. I can get intellectual and technical about music, but mostly I'm interested in how it makes me feel.

I saw some great live shows this year as well, including several of the bands below as well as La Luz, Louise Burns, and the Pack a.d. For me, it was a good year for music listening, although a bit skimpy on music playing (hoping for better in 2015).

The New Pornographers - Brill Bruisers

The New Pornographers came back after several years away with an album of driving, shiny, gorgeous songs. This is Carl Newman and Dan Bejar at their songwriting best. The title song kickoff explodes the way "Mass Romantic" did 14 years ago. Neko Case soars on "Champions of Red Wine." Just try to get "Dancehall Domine" out of your brain, even if you have no idea what it means. Really the only song that I'm not crazy about is "Spyder." I liked the album right off the bat, and I still love it. We saw the first night of the tour, no Neko, band playing some of these songs in public for the first time, and it was absolutely brilliant.

PINS - Girls Like Us

I heard about Manchester band PINS from John Freeman, who writes for British online music publication The Quietus. Their debut album was worth waiting for. This is one of those rare albums that feels like a whole. It's also remarkably assured for a debut album by a fairly new band. I find that they don't always develop melody as much as they might, and that vocalist Faith goes for her yelp a bit too often. Still, those are pretty minor complaints. And when I saw PINS live, before all of two dozen people (you're going to regret that, Vancouver), they blew me away with their combination of self-assurance and playfulness. Despite the lack of audience, they seemed to be having a great deal of fun being on stage, which was infectious. I want to hear and see more of this band. Now.

White Lung - Deep Fantasy

Deep Fantasy is a breakthrough album for White Lung. They have lost none of the ferocity while adding melody and subtlety. Mish finds new range in her voice. There is wonderful interplay between her singing and Kenny Williams's guitar playing, while Anne-Marie Vassiliou's powerful drumming propels everything relentlessly forward. "Face Down" is a killer song. As I listened to "Just For You" I realized how well recorded this album is (by Jesse Gander, with whom I have worked as well, so I know he's a genius at the console), something you don't often find in albums as loud and noisy as this one. When I saw them play a few weeks ago, with Hether Fortune from Wax Idols on bass (be still, my heart!), they put on a powerful, fiery show while clearly having a great time.

Dum Dum Girls - Too True

This is the album I've been waiting for since the He Gets Me High EP. After releases that sounded pretty but generic, Dee Dee Penny is letting her sound be distinctive once again and singing better than ever. "Cult of Love" is one of my favourite Dum Dum Girls songs ever with its contrast between minor key verse and explosive major key chorus. I only wish the song weren't so short! The single "Rimbaud Eyes" is very simple emo pop, and it's gorgeous. Dee Dee still writes too many one-line refrains that feel very repetitive, but overall I love this record.

The Raveonettes - Pe'ahi

I have loved the Raveonettes for years, and I always anticipate new releases from them. The last couple were fine but didn't bore into my brain the way Lust Lust Lust and In and Out of Control had. But Pe'ahi feels more like the Raveonettes I know and love while also surprising and delighting me. From the moody "Endless Sleeper" to the closing "Summer Ends," with its chorus of "Go fuck yourself, I don't believe you," this album feels new to me while still sounding like the Raveonettes.

La Sera - Hour of the Dawn

I discovered the Vivian Girls only toward the end of their time as a band. They were totally my kind of thing. So naturally I wanted to know what each of the members was up to. Bassist Katy Goodman has done quite well, issuing three albums of post-punk girl group music as La Sera. I saw them do a short opening set (opening for King Tuff) at Fortune Sound club, and they were brilliant. And I love this album most of the three for it's excellent songwriting, singing, and playing. The only thing I could do with less of is the J. Macis guitar sound, but that's a minor quibble.

The Muffs - Whoop Dee Doo

You have to love that Muffs leader Kim Shattuck named this album, the band's first in over 10 years, after Charles (Black Francis) Thompson's comment when asked why the Pixies fired her as bassist. And I am so glad to have new, strong Muffs material! Shattuck has lost none of her ability to write great noisy pop songs. She can also still scream, but I wish she had dialled that back just a bit. Not only have I (and everyone) been waiting for this album; I have also wanted to see the Muffs perform, something that for many years they have mostly been doing only in California and occasionally on the East Coast. Heading to Seattle!

Alvvays - Alvvays

I'm glad I'm so late in writing this piece, because that allowed me to find Alvvays. More of the stuff I can't get enough of! Female vocal over off-centre reverb-soaked pop music.

Cold Beat - Over Me

Cold Beat is led by Hannah Lew, the bass player for Grass Widow. THey did a very good show at the Fox Cabaret opening for Frankie Rose, and I bought the CD there. I hear 1980s minimalism, dreamy vocals over driving beats, and maybe even a little of the Athens sound in the interplay between bass and guitar.

Ume - Monuments

I discovered Ume via She Shreds magazine, which is dedicated to female guitarists. The band hails from Austin, Texas, and is still regional as far as I know, but definitely should be more widely known. Lauren Lawson is the guitarist, vocalist, and leader. Lots of 1990s here, some shoegaze, and even acoustic. Sometimes it feels like Metric with more guitar and no synthesizer.

The Pixies - Indie Cindy

The Pixies are back? Much as I love them, I'm tempted to throw Charles's words back at him: "Whoop-Dee-Doo." OK, it's not that bad, but I like this mostly because it's new Pixies material, not because it's great Pixies material. Songs like "Blue Eyed Hexe" grab me, but much of the rest of the material sounds, well, uninspired? Or maybe just not inspired enough.

Mirah - Changing Light

This album makes me think of Feist's Metals for some reason. It's not as slick as that, but there's something about Mirah's voice and the tone of these songs that reminded me. I think this is indie pop that is enough off centre to be more indie than pop. Very good songs. Some spots are too quiet and mellow for me, but pretty.

Azar Swan - And Blow Us a Kiss

This is not really at the bottom of my list. I put it here only because it's so untypical for me—this year's Austra. Mish Way of White Lung gets the credit (again) for bringing an artist to my attention. And even though this is nothing like what I usually listen to, I find myself completely drawn in by this record and its sound. Imaginative, usually spare electronics with cool beats. Zohra Atash's voice haunts me! It actually took quite a bit of listening before I thought of Kate Bush, a comparison Atash is often stuck with. She is from Afghanistan, and I love hearing beat and sounds from her native land at various places in the songs.


Return to sender

White nativism is incredibly ironic. Imagine being nativist in a country where your ancestors squatted on someone else's land, often slaughtering those someone elses in the process because they were in the way. It takes a special kind of ignorance, stupidity, or maybe sociopathology to come up with shit like that. Nativists think they're more native than actual native people!

And then those ancestors went and (a) bought human beings from sub-Saharan West Africa, (b) brought them here against their will, and (c) built an economy on their backs. And now you're pissed off because the descendents of slaves have the gall to want a normal life?

So yeah, right, back to Africa. Ha ha, good one. Back to Africa because African people who were brought here against their will have now overstayed their "welcome"? Back to Africa because if they're not slaves they're of no use to you? Back to Africa even though it's likely their ancestors have been in the country longer than your ancestors?

Seriously, morons. Back to Europe. Back to fucking Europe.


Vinyl: the Before Time

A plain, sturdy, oblong, wooden box, lying on its side. Stored within are vinyl records or, as we used to call them, records. Sweetie and I bought hundreds of records over the years when the only other choices were cassette tapes and eight-track cartridges. Vinyl records, none of which can be played on the only stereo system left in the house, a CD boom box that sits on the wooden box. The Sony turntable with USB interface has never been unpacked.

'Tis a sad state of affairs! It's made even sadder by the fact that the box contains all the vinyl Sweetie and I have left. We sold so many records before we moved across a continent and an international boundary 20 years ago. It was 1994. Records were done. Much of what we sold as vinyl we had replaced with CDs. Compact, right? And lighter. Much less to lug from domicile to domicile.

And now, vinyl is back. That we have no turntable set up now is simply shameful, I know. But our records are all old. We're not collectors. Are we?

I have clusters of genres in what remains of my collection. These represent different periods of my life.

The punk years are lean but high quality. I have Another Music in a Different Kitchen and Love Bites, the first two Buzzcocks albums. UK imports. I have A Different Kind of Tension as well. I have the first Clash album--import version--and London Calling, which for me would be a desert island album. I have enough Ramones albums for the collection to include some of their not-so-good work. But the great stuff is there too. And to cap it off with a sneer, there's Generation X.

The post-punk years are just plain meagre. But Public Image, the first album from Public Image Ltd., is an import. It's also great! I have the original Mission of Burma Signals Calls and Marches. And just to lighten things up a bit, I have the first Romantics album. "What I Like About You" is one of the great songs of all time.

I have some juicy classic bits. A very special Abbey Road by the Beatles that was given to me for my 17th birthday. Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds, Greatest Hits (early material) and Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Paul Revere and the Raiders (a later pickup). The Who: Tommy, Live at Leeds, and Who's Next. Most of my Neil Young catalogue (some is on cassette): Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (very well worn), After the Gold Rush, Tonight's the Night, Rust Never Sleeps, and Live Rust. And finally, the Flying Burrito Bros. albums one through five.

Got some roots I picked up well after the fact: Eddie Cochran, the Bobby Fuller Four, and an amazing album called Beatle Originals which contains original versions of about a dozen songs the Beatles covered. The Larry Williams versions of "Bad Boy" and "Slow Down" are killa!

I had a folk/country/roots/acoustic/purist phase in the 1970s before punk (some of which came from liking the Burritos). I have Mississippi John Hurt, the Weavers, Will the Circle Be Unbroken by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and many special guests. I have a Dave Van Ronk album called Sunday Street, no doubt out of print. It comes from when I interviewed him for my campus radio station. And I have a more than extensive collection of Steeleye Span, again enough to have some of the lesser works, but much great stuff, including import copies of the first three albums. I also have a couple of albums that band members Tim Hart and Maddy Prior made before they formed Steeleye.

Then there are the outliers: the King Kong Compilation, which is ska, rock steady, and reggae from the 1960s; several Firesign Theatre albums (at least some of which I borrowed from and forgot to give back to a now-deceased coworker); and Boston stuff including compilations on which my band appeared. They can go in the punk/post-punk section. There's also a compilation called the Rock and Roll Show that I have no memory of and I'm not sure is actually mine.

I have a weird 10-inch record called Tennessee Stomp. I know it's mine, but I have no idea where or when I bought it (used). Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and several others are on the record.

And then there is a smattering of seven-inch vinyl, including a treasured copy of Spiral Scratch, the first Buzzcocks record, and later material by Buzzocks and Steve Diggle (their guitarist). There are some old Kinks singles in there, which might belong to Sweetie. And there is "The Metro" by Berlin.

Speaking of Sweetie, she has at least as many albums on her side of the box. Completely different than mine.

I have some of the records on my list on CD and just kept the vinyl for one reason or another. But many probably never made it to CD. We need to fix the turntable situation!


Rock is dead, they say

"Long live rock!" is an appropriate response (and the next line in the song). But "rock and roll will never die"? Perhaps not. Nothing lasts forever. Still, certain musical forms persist. People have been writing symphonic and chamber music for hundreds of years. Jazz ensembles have been around for many decades. People play folk music, either modern versions or the actual songs passed down from centuries ago. And if we (some of us anyway) are still listening to ancient Indian classical music, why should rock and roll not still be a viable music form?

Rock was certainly on display at the Middle East Downstairs last Sunday night. The backline consisted of a drum kit, a bass amp, a Marshall half stack on one side, and an Orange half stack on the other. The fanciest piece of equipment that night was a looping pedal that Carrie Bradley used to play solo guitar and violin (I really enjoyed her opening set). There was nothing resembling a synthesizer, and I didn't see any laptops. This was guitar night.

Not that I have anything against keyboards or even computers. I played piano and Vox Continental organ on old recordings, and although I haven't used keys recently, I might. I also know and like bands that are basically made up of synthesizers, computers, and vocals. And with a creative DJ telling a story with ebb and flow, I can dance to EDM all night.

I also love all kinds of music, including reggae, folk, old school country, and some hip-hop, especially the hard-edged political kind. My musical taste is quite eclectic. But anyone who loves music probably has one kind that they really connect with on a visceral level, something that thrills their bodies and sets them on fire, and for me that's the various incarnations of rock and R&B. Garage, surf, punk, post-punk, maybe metal--as long as it's fairly stripped down and not too fancy (no, I am not a prog rock fan).

It's getting a bit tougher for rockers these days. I read that the big draws at the Pemberton and Squamish festivals this year were EDM acts. I know a small club in Vancouver that at this point books only electronic combos. The place fills up. And on the other side, "rockist" has become kind of an insult in music criticism, denoting a dinosaur (like me) who doesn't automatically take pop stars such as Lana Del Ray and Katy Perry as seriously as we do artists such as the New Pornographers or Sonic Youth. I confess to a weakness for Taylor Swift, and I do think that artists like Beyoncé create excellent music. I just can't live on a steady diet of EDM or pop. I need the rock. I can admire clever computer programming, but I would rather see and hear people playing actual musical instruments made of wood and steel.

Even though younger people flock to pop and hip-hop and EDM, there are always those who, like me, get off on playing guitar, or bass, or drums. They dig out their parents' old records. They delve into the past. They follow a form that at its core hasn't changed since the 1950s, and yet they reinvent it. Within the last year or so, I've seen young bands doing their own reinventions: Savages, Silvergun and Spleen, La Luz, PINS. Coming up, I'll see the Pack a.d. and punk band White Lung. I've bought great music recently by Ume, Screaming Females, La Sera, and TacocaT. Kids are still picking up guitars and whacking on actual drums. Someone in every generation seems to do that, whether rock is popular or not.

Frankly, even though it's harder to get bookings or listeners, I think it's probably better for rock to be a somewhat underground phenomenon. Rock gets bloated in the limelight. It thrives in the demi-monde.

So long live rock, in Boston and Vancouver and everywhere in between, in Manchester and Rio de Janeiro and Melbourne and even Angola (where there is a thriving death metal scene). For me, there's no feeling quite like holding an electric guitar against my body, putting my fingers on the strings, and making sweet and nasty and outrageous sounds come out of an amplifier. And some people continue to feel the same way. Maybe not forever, but I don't see an end yet.


You can go home again

Photo by Paula Worsley
This past weekend, my most successful band from when Sweetie and I lived in Boston had its first ever reunion almost 30 years after we last played together. We were on the bill of the final night of 13 shows spread over several weeks celebrating the 25th anniversary of Pipeline, a popular program on the MIT campus radio station. Bob Dubrow, the show's host, organized an incredible array of reunions of Boston bands from several eras, starting in the 1960s.

I've been in a few bands in my time, but none that ever reached the point where, years later, someone asks the band to get back together for a reunion show. Since we had done OK but weren't hugely popular, I really never expected to be asked. But then we were asked. And once we were, there was no way I was going to say no, even though it involved two return flights from Vancouver to Boston. I wasn't sure what to expect from a band reunion, especially after so many years. What I got was a beautiful, wonderful swirl of music and memory and emotions.

Sweetie and I had never lost touch with our former band mates. We lived in Boston for several years after the band broke up. After we swapped coasts, first there was email, then later Facebook. But people's lives change. Kids, new jobs, sometimes new bands, sometimes no bands. But there was never animosity as with some breakups. The band just came to an end for various reasons after about a three-year run.

When I heard we were invited to play a reunion show, I did hesitate a bit. As you know if you are a regular reader, I love playing music more than anything else in the world. And I had loved that band. But as the main songwriter, producer, and principal instigator, sometimes I felt as though I was carrying most of the weight. Everyone was committed, but I felt (rightly or wrongly) as though it wouldn't run unless I did most of the running. And that can wear you down.

But with the reunion, right away it became apparent that this was a team project, and my hesitation evaporated. Our singer, the first to be contacted about the invitation, was all in, and really putting in most of the effort—an amazing effort. And our drummer and a guitarist who had played with us during our final year were enthusiastic. Much as I am used to running things, I was happy to let our singer keep this moving along with her still considerable energy. In fact, I started to feel guilty that I wasn't doing enough! But Sweetie and I were 3,000 miles way from where things were happening, and there wasn't much we could do.

Photo by Scott Ferguson
The anticipation was intense. Walking into the practice space and seeing our singer was a wow moment. So good! And then our guitarist. And then our drummer. Like it was the most natural thing in the world, just showing up for a regular practice. We had three hours booked, and we used the time well. Better than ever really. We ran through the songs we were planning to do, and if one wasn't quite working, we figured out what needed to change, played the song again, and nailed it. This kept happening. Our singer and drummer's son, also a drummer, came by, since he was going to sit in with us. He ripped through two of our fastest songs with us as if he'd been playing them all his life. It was such a joy! I don't think I've ever practised as hard in my life, but it was the absolute best. When we were done, I knew I needed to go over some things myself, but I felt really good about where the band was.

It took us a while to say goodbye. It was just too good hanging out together again!

The next afternoon, we gathered at the club. Six acts were scheduled, so we were fortunate to be allowed an actual sound check. That let us get a feel for the stage and the rented equipment. We had never played that room, and I had never been there, so I was surprised to see how big it was. A capacity of 575 people! It reminded me of the Biltmore in Vancouver in a lot of ways. After the sound check, we went to the restaurant upstairs and shared a bunch of Lebanese food at a booth that was too small for five of us (minus guitarist, plus a very instrumental fiancé). Coziness, good food, a friendly and cute server, and we had ourselves a pre-show party.

Photo by Scott Ferguson
Our guitarist and special guest drummer arrived. We hit the stage early in the evening, but there was still a good crowd. Although I know I flubbed some of the solos, overall I think this was possibly our best show. The energy was fantastic, especially from our singer. And there is nothing better than seeing someone in the audience singing along to a song you wrote. In a way, it was good to play early, because then we could relax and enjoy the other bands. It was a great night!

And it was hard to leave at the end of it. To say goodbye again to people I love not only as musicians but as people. I still feel the buzz from the weekend. I have also cried a few times. Reunions are powerful things! I hadn't known that until I finally got the chance to experience one. We said this was our first and only time. It's difficult and expensive to get us all together. And this was certainly a singular experience. But with all of us feeling so good about it, I have to wonder if there might be more.


Adventures in guitar repair

Not as bright red as the flash makes it look
Guitar geek alert. Be warned.

I spent a pleasant afternoon in a small music shop in South Surrey called Surfside Music & Vintage Guitars. For me, musical instrument shops are right up there as great places to hang out with book stores, garden stores, and stationery stores.

My friend E told me about Surfside when I said that I wanted to restore my vintage Fender Mustang to as close to its original condition (plus wear and tear) as possible. Mostly what I wanted to do was to restore the stock bridge that had been modified (badly) before I bought the guitar, used, sometime in the late 1980s. The original bridge had a tremolo bar, a.k.a. whammy bar, which allows you to bend notes (more than you can with your fingers on the strings and more than one string at a time). You can't play surf guitar without one, and it's a good sound for other things. I can already get that sound out of my Stratocaster, but I figured if I could improve the Mustang, why not.

The man who runs Surfside Music is Robbie Keene, an affable man with no mean guitar playing skills himself. I handed him my red Mustang with the yellow racing stripe and let him take it apart.

I had thought the Mustang was a 1969. Close. It was made in 1970, which makes it the oldest guitar I own (my Telecaster Thinline was made in 1972). It still has almost all its original parts, including the nut, which showed evidence of a crack repaired with glue. The pickups, switches, pots, knobs, tuning pegs, and pick-guard are all original. The finish is original. Robbie said that the painted headstock is rare among Fender guitars, which usually have a natural-finish headstock. There is no date stamp on the neck, but that headstock, the same colour and fade pattern as the body, indicates that the neck is original as well. The guitar itself is in the kind of shape that I like—basically good with a few nicks that show that it was played (as I play it now) and not just collected.

The only things missing were the original round bar through which the strings are threaded, the springs it was mounted on, and the tremolo bar.

Robbie and I discussed the restoration of the tremolo bridge. He would have had to send away for the springs and the tremolo bar itself. That was no big deal (assuming Fender still had the parts), since I wasn't in a hurry. But he showed me why the tremolo bridge might not be the best idea. It has to do with the angle of the strings at the bottom of the guitar as they go up and over the bridge. With the modified bridge, which pinned the ends of the strings flat against the bridge plate, the angle was fairly steep, which meant the strings were stable on the bridge and are unlikely to slide (which they don't). With the original setup, the strings come through holes in a round bar at the bottom of the guitar. It's maybe a couple of millimetres height difference at most, but it makes a big difference to the stability of the strings on the bridge. Apparently, this is how Fender designed these guitars. You have to play a bit differently to compensate for the reduced string tension.

I decided to go with Robbie's recommendation and not do the whole tremolo setup. He showed me on a 1965 Mustang (first year for that model, which was named after the car) how he could flip the round bar over so that the strings would go backward through the holes, around and under the bar, and then over the bridge. That would give it about the same angle and string tension as it had before but without the ugly bar that was difficult to get strings under. It's not the original setup, but it's probably more playable. And since, as I said, I have a whammy bar on my Strat, I decided to go for more playable, especially since I would probably not want to change my playing style to prevent the strings from slipping off the bridge.

So I didn't have to leave the guitar. I just waited for about an hour, amusing myself by playing a 1981 black three-quarter-length Rickenbacker 320, a descendent of the three-pickup model 325 that you see in old photos of John Lennon. It was sweet. I also played a Telecaster Standard that was very nice. It felt like my Tele, but the sound is completely different. And I walked around the crowded shop checking out all the cool vintage guitars, basses, and other gear.

The bill was amazingly reasonable. I left with a guitar that plays pretty much the same, looks better, and has clean switches that work better. I also left with more knowledge. And if I ever want to order the hardware and go with the tremolo setup, I can do so. The shop is not around the corner, but it's not very far away, and it's the kind of place where you can get more personal service than at Tom Lee or Long & McQuaid, both of which are excellent music stores but much larger. I know I'll be back for one reason or another. That Rickenbacker is not cheap, but it might have my name on it.


The year of living agerously

There's nothing magic about the number 60. We attribute significance to numbers that end in a zero only because we use a base-10 numbering system. I can flash all the fingers on my hand six times to show it. I do like the fact that 60 is five dozen. I imagine the ancient Babylonians would have dug that.

Not that very many of them would have made it to five dozen years. I'm lucky to live in 21st century North America.

It's not like I turned 60 and suddenly was old. But somehow, 60 has a psychological weight that none of the previous zero years has had. I can't remember 10. At 20 I was in a haze, somewhere between work and university. At 30, I wondered how I was going to tell my mother that I was going to keep playing in a rock band. At 40, I moved from Boston to the other coast and another country. By 50, I was just starting to get a good handle on Vancouver, and it would take a few years more before I really hit my stride here (Vancouver is a tough nut to crack, at least when you're a somewhat older "new kid"). But overall, my 50s have been the best decade ever.

Now what can I make of my 60s?

So far, my body seems not to know that 60 isn't some magical turning point. I have been very fortunately healthy for most of my life, but ever since the beginning of this year, I have felt pain in various and sundry parts of me. It's uncanny how it started only days after my birthday. My job has me sitting down way too much, and we know now that sitting is really bad for you. I do get up as much as possible, and I walk a lot, but my right leg especially has been giving me trouble. There are times when I'm driving that the pain shoots from my hip right into my foot. I'm learning pain-management techniques because I have to.

Both knees have their good and bad times. I often feel pain in my shoulders and arms. I've finally started to realize that I can't haul quite as much as I once could, or if I can, I will pay for it later. I've started to add glucosamine sulfate to my daily regime. It never helped my elbow a while back, because that was a strained ligament, but it seems to be helping now. That's good news, but also bad news, because it means that at least some of that pain is from inflammation. And you know what joint inflammation is called.

Yep, me and Wayne Gretzky. I think maybe he's earned his osteoarthritis a bit more than I have.

There are other occasional system failures, but for the most part nothing has stopped me from being active. I suck at exercise, but I'm good at staying in motion in other ways. I can still tend my garden, although not for as long at a time. I've lugged plenty of equipment around, although more carefully than I once would have.

In some ways, I'm more active than I ever have been. I have two bands. I sing in a choir. I just finished my fourth volunteer gig of the year, and I want to get more involved in this last one. I'm less of a dilettante than I once was and passionate about and more focused on things I'm really interested in—music, cooking and food, fashion, politics. And despite being far past both my sexual prime and my sexual attractiveness, if anything I think about sex more than ever.

Nudge nudge.

In many ways, I feel stronger than I ever have. The young often feel invulnerable because life seems to go on forever. But life for young people can also be confusing and painful and even full of fear. When you're my age, much less can touch you. I know that I won't live forever. I am not afraid.

Time for some of that bucket list stuff that I've been putting off? Sweetie and I went to Italy this past spring, and I think we're going to try to travel a bit more if we can afford to. A passage to India, finally? First skydive, maybe? A bungie jump? Isolation tank? I am seriously looking forward to retirement, not to settle into a rocking chair but rather to do more things of my own choosing.

Age has its privileges. I got my first senior benefit just last night. Sweetie and I went with her sister and her sister's wife to the Richmond Night Market. It was our first time at this crazy thing modelled on the crowded, lively night markets of places like Hong Kong. For them, "senior" is 60 or older. We got to jump the long queue and get in for free! Jealous?


When the rain comes

I have so many partially written blog posts. That's all I have been able to achieve lately. I blame those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. If you are not in or near Vancouver, you might not know that we are having one of the most beautiful summers ever, or at least since I moved here just over 20 years ago. We've been through three heat waves and we might not be done yet. I'm not talking "hot for these parts," which isn't like prairie hot or Toronto hot. I'm talking seriously hot, as in 36° C on my way home yesterday. And we're near the coast. If you don't do metric, I'll just say that 37° C is about body temperature.

This is my second of two days off. My boss was away last week, and when the cat's away, it's not playtime. I become the unofficial cat in many ways. I worked hard last week, and the boss was kind enough to approve this tiny bit of stay-cation as he returned from his time off. Yesterday, on maybe the hottest day of the year so far, I was at the beach with one of my dearest friends, soaking up sun and chatting. She is such wonderful company, and her friendship is invaluable to me. Despite the fact that whoever was cooking at a certain favourite West Side all-day-breakfast place doesn't know how to make home fries ("for this reason, you have been chopped"), I had a wonderful day.

Today is a quiet day. The heat broke, and much as I love hot weather, I am enjoying the feel of cool air through the open window and the sight of a gentle rain falling on the thirsty earth. Something about the rain breaking the heat reminds me of Sweetie's and my beloved Hanalei on Kauai. We have stayed there only a total of three weeks over seven years, but I ache for it. We wonder whether we might actually retire there or at least be able to spend more time. I am enjoying the feel of caffeine circulating through my body. Yes, it's a drug. Is there anyone who doesn't self-medicate in some way? We all want to feel good. We all want to feel at peace.

I wrote once before that I am not often strongly affected by the loss of a celebrity. That time, it was Davy Jones of the Monkees, and that loss felt personal because he was so much a part of my growing up. The loss of Robin Williams feels different but no less sad. I actually did meet him once, on the set of Jumanji, because he loved to meet people. He made every extra feel like a person whose contribution he valued, even if we were just background. Not typical star behaviour! I was never a Mork and Mindy fan, but I loved Williams's improvisational comedy. He was a huge fan of Jonathan Winters, another troubled but brilliant improvisational comic. I didn't realize until I saw Dead Poets Society, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Awakenings what a fine dramatic actor Williams was. Awakenings is high on my list of favourite films. He was even successful playing very much against type as a creepy obsessive film developer in One Hour Photo. The man had talent to burn.

All of my psychological conditions are subclinical, but on occasion they have been severe enough that I have sought help. Fortunately, I got help. Still, I have thought many a time that it might be for the best to lose consciousness and never wake up. Curiously, I have even felt this when I am feeling particularly good, because I know it can't last. It's the impulse to go out on a high, to keep happiness forever, and not to hear the other shoe drop. I don't know if that's weird or not. As well, sometimes, life feels overwhelming.

Don't worry about me though. I have never gone to ideation. I actually love life and, at least for now, want to keep living it.

But I understand what might lead a person to end their life. If someone can never find peace in life, and they need at least some moments of peace, then certainly the sleep of death achieves the goal. Or perhaps there is just too much pain or confusion or turmoil. Some thrive, some cope, some get by with help, and some feel they can't go on. We all die. Some just decide to hasten the process, and we feel the loss all that much more acutely.

I will stay quiet today. I will take care of some chores. Even working, I will enjoy the day off. And later, I will go rehearse with my choir section to prepare for our opening slot on Friday. Singing is some of the best self-medication I know.


Pride goeth (and cometh)

It's that time of year again: Vancouver Pride Week, with the big Pride weekend almost here. This is when I ask myself things such as, how queer do I feel? Which events will I get up the energy to go to? Which events will I miss and regret not having gone to? Where will I be with friends? Where will I feel lonely?

Being bisexual and femme, maybe I ask these questions more than many other queer people would. Or maybe it's just me. It's true that I spend much of my time in a fairly heteronormative world. Most of my closest friends are straight. I belong to a book club where I'm reasonably sure I'm the only one who's queer.

Even though I'm at ease in the wide world and pretty much myself no matter where I am, it's probably true that I am most at home and most myself among queer people. There are things I can talk about with queer people that aren't usually, shall we say, topics of polite conversation. At least not among most women. I love the openness with my queer friends. I love the freedom.

And yet sisterhood is not automatic. I've been at queer events where I felt very much the outsider because I wasn't already hanging out with one or more people. Cliques are not a heterosexual thing. We are not always one big happy queer family. Having one thing in common, even if that's a pretty big thing and much broader than just who one finds attractive, does not mean there are not other barriers.

I have made a lot of new connections since last Pride. It will be interesting to see how strong they are. I'm hoping for a good Pride! I'm planning on having fun and being fun.

There's a lovely backup even if Pride isn't what I might hope for: the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. That really does feel like one big family among staff members, volunteers, and film goers. I'm very much looking forward to that.


Our home on native land

Hardly original, but very much on point on this Canada Day, the 147th anniversary of Confederation.

Hanging out with younger people, not just in Femme City Choir but also in and around Girls Rock Camp Vancouver and other activist groups, has made me more aware of political issues that I had previously either overlooked or not taken seriously enough. I have always been liberal, but liberals can sometimes exist in a bubble of privilege. There are times that I think the kids go too far, and not always with wisdom, but that's how I was at their age too. And they are a whole lot better informed than I was. They have plenty to teach me.

So let's talk aboriginal land rights. I'm proud of the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada that the Tsilhqot'in First Nation holds title to its traditional lands in central British Columbia. The decision is firmly grounded in constitutional law and precedent, all the way back to the Royal Proclamation, 1760, which stated that the only legal way for European settlers to live in British North America was to negotiate land rights with those who held title. Two hundred fifty years later, the SCC finally said flat out that a great deal of the land non-native people are living on does not belong to them.

British Columbia is an especially egregious example of this, since so few treaties have been concluded here. The City of Vancouver made a recent acknowledgment that the land the city sits on is part of the traditional territory of three First Nations, none of which has ceded the rights to that land. It's a start.

So although I'm proud to be Canadian, and I do celebrate the birthday of Canada, I'm feeling a little subdued. We can't continue to ignore land claims. We can't continue to pretend that native people don't have rights to the land we occupy. We can't continue to act is though our ancestors did not colonize land that was never legally alienated from its rightful owners. If King George III and his government in the 18th century understood that, surely we can too.

We can't turn back the clock. We can't undo hundreds of years of history. Descendents of settlers and immigrants are not going to head back to Europe and Asia and Africa. But we must find a way to move forward together, not as colonizers, not by imposing power, but in a way that respects most especially the rights of those who were here before us.


A gift from the goddess

I'm feeling rather sober this morning.

Double entendre intended. I am of course not drunk. It's before 9 o'clock. I'm not even hung over. But last night I was not sober. I went to a club. I had a couple of drinks. I purposely stopped drinking well before I left the club and got in my car. I felt fine. My head was clear. I had no trouble driving.

It's funny how choices work. I always say that my goddess is metaphorical, but sometimes I wonder.

There are a few ways I could have driven from the club to the highway. My favourite was not really available because a large section of road is under construction to the point of being closed. I might have gone around the closed section and still joined the highway at the usual spot. That's a favourite route (at least when the road is open all the way) not only because there are few traffic lights but also because it's very unlikely that I would encounter a roadblock. Think about that reasoning.

I could also have driven the way I would have if I had been going around the closed road, and then instead of turning to get back on the open section I had just kept going. There are a lot of traffic lights in that direction, but it was late, and I wasn't in any big hurry. There probably wouldn't have been a roadblock in that direction either.

Instead of those two choices, I cut across Chinatown and took a route that zigs and zags a bit but is normally a pretty efficient way to get onto the highway. There are also a few service stations along that route, and I stopped to top up the tank at one of them. Gas prices are hitting record highs in these parts, and this one had a slightly lower price, so I took advantage of that.

By the time I reached the on-ramp to the highway, it had probably been at least an hour and a half since I'd had a drink, maybe more. Certainly not less. I noticed that traffic was backed up on the ramp. I thought about going straight, which is a slightly slower but reasonable alternative when there's a hold-up on the highway. I thought the backup was due to construction, which has continued on some nights well past when it was supposed to have been completed. I joined the lineup, thinking I wouldn't remain stuck for long.

I didn't recognize it for what it was—an RCMP roadblock—until I was committed.

They weren't letting anyone through without a stop. A member told me to pull over. She asked where I had been, and I told her. She asked if I had been drinking, and I told the truth, including the timing. She demanded my licence and then told me to get out of the car and walk to a point behind a police vehicle. There, she read a formal statement about suspicion of drinking and driving and then explained how the breathalyzer worked. I blew. We waited for the number.

We both saw the number come up. She told me what the legal limit was. My number was a fraction over that. But then she said that she was satisfied that I was fit to drive. I was surprised, but I wasn't going to go checking out the dental work of that gift horse. I got back into my car and drove away.

Just so you know, the cop was unfailingly polite through this whole thing. Firm, but polite. There is a reason that we respect the Mounties, despite some recent incidents. For the most part, they are consummate professionals. Maybe that was one reason why I remained curiously calm through the entire procedure.

If, if, if. If I had had my last drink a bit later, if I had left the club a little sooner, maybe even if I hadn't stopped for gas, my weekend might have been very different. The penalty for blowing over the limit when it's your first offence (as it would have been) is a roadside suspension. They would have impounded my car and taken my licence for 24 hours. I would not now be preparing to drive to the farmers market, the first stop in my usual Saturday morning routine.

If I had driven either of the other ways toward the highway, I would not have encountered the roadblock, and I doubt there was another in the area. You might think that would have been a happier outcome. I was calm during the ordeal, but it was still stressful. And yet, let's just call it what it is: a wake-up call. And a gift, not just from the Mountie, but from the goddess.

Decades ago, before I moved to Vancouver, a guy with whom I'd played in a band got busted for drinking and driving. He had to go to "drunk school"—mandatory classes. That was an early wake-up call. I changed my behaviour. I became more cautious. But not cautious enough. I knew it. I knew I had been on the road when I could easily have blown over the limit, with no margin for error. And however you feel about cops, I think we can all agree that operating a vehicle when you're not really in shape to do so can have tragic consequences, all too often for innocent parties. I never want to cause harm to anyone, myself included, because my judgment and reaction time are impaired by alcohol.

I already take transit when I know I will want to drink more than would be safe for driving. But clearly my calculations of safety have been a bit off. I'm still not likely to go completely sober even when I have to drive home, but I will need to drink less, or allow more time, or a combination of the two. I might still drive the route out of town that is less likely to have a roadblock because it's a good way to go. But if I am pulled over again, I am going to make sure I know that I will pass the test. And we'll all be safer for that. I was given a second chance. I don't expect a third.


Femme-tastic choir

Well, what do you know, I have a blog. I hadn't forgotten about it, but I wouldn't blame you if you thought I had. Just not feeling blog writing lately, I guess. I've never gone in for those "post something every day for a month" things. I don't always have something to say. But if I don't write every day, maybe that means I'm not a writer.

I have been writing though. Songs for V+T, sometimes in collaboration with my drummer T, which is a cool new experience. Poetry (more or less) for a project of which I am a part. I would say emails, but I don't think those count. Twitter?

At any rate, I hope this is the first of a few entries about Femme City Choir and what it means to me. Have I told you about Femme City Choir? I thought for sure I had, but I can't find evidence of having done so.

Last autumn, when it became clear that Lisa's Hotcakes wouldn't be playing as much as I wanted to (and before V+T got started), I joined a choir. A choir of femme-identified people of all genders.

I showed up the first week, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. I'm used to hanging around with people younger than myself. But here I was surrounded by women (mostly) in the their mid-20s (mostly). I was very conscious of being the granny. I also didn't know anyone there, although some of us had friends in common. The first hour was taken up by an explanation of the choir and the vision of the two directors as well as by introductions of ourselves. Then we started singing.

And a funny thing happened. I kind of fell in love. Not so much with the music, although I found I could enjoy singing even material that I wouldn't normally listen to, but with the people and the space we all created. I have known plenty of femme lesbians and bisexuals, but I think this was the first time I had ever been in a room in which everyone considered themselves femme--including one guy. It was a beautiful space! It felt very special. I realized that I wanted--nay, needed--this choir in my life.

I went to rehearsals. Slowly, I got to know the others. We gathered material. Sometimes I loved the songs, sometimes not so much, but singing was always fun and challenging. I found it was good for my voice and my range. Over the course of the fall there was some attrition, and those of us who stayed started to feel like a unit. We had a great December social. In January we had another intake. By that time a lot more people had heard about us. The group got large for a while, which felt a bit confusing at first, but slowly I got to know the new people, or at least their names. Again there was some attrition, as expected. About 30 of us stuck it out.

We had a mini-debut in February with a small group made up of those of us who had been there from the start. Eleven of us did extra rehearsals with the music director and sometimes an accompanist so that we could perform two songs at a benefit. The benefit performance went very well. It helped create a buzz in anticipation for our full debut.

That full choir debut happened last Saturday, June 7, at the Wise Hall in East Vancouver. We called it Femmestravaganza. We had four guest artists, and we performed two short sets ourselves. It was a fantastic night! We did a performance that was better than any of the rehearsals, which is what you hope for. The audience response was very gratifying. Femme City Choir has arrived!

Being part of the choir has given me a lot to think about, and now that we're on a summer break, I have time for reflection. I plan to write about those reflections. Meanwhile, here's a video that an audience member shot and posted, and hopefully an official video soon. We're proud of what we have created and especially proud of our fearless (truly) leaders, Kate Monstrr and Lau Sequins.

See you at New West Pride!


No-Mother's Day

Ribes aureum
It's my first No-Mother's Day. My mom left us in February after a long and good life.

I'm bombarded with Mother's Day reminders, of course, and it's not always easy. Mother's Day can be difficult for anyone who has lost or is estranged from their mother. But it's the same for the fatherless (or estranged-from-father) on Father's Day, singles on Valentine's Day, pagans on Christmas and Easter, and so on. The majority celebrate these things. I'm not going to take that away from them or whine that I'm left out. I don't expect anyone to accommodate my difference. No one is trying to hurt me. I'm happy to wish all mothers a Happy Mother's Day. I'm especially happy to see links on Facebook and elsewhere to articles about the actual origins of Mother's Day. This ain't no Hallmark holiday! At least it shouldn't be.

So have a great day, moms! I no longer have one and have never been one, but I think moms are totally rad. My mom loved yellow flowers, so this flowering currant is for her.


Two's company

I'm not a big fan of two-piece bands--by which I mean the guitar-drums combination that was kicked off by the White Stripes and really popularized by the Black Keys. The Beatles had two guitars, bass, and drums. The Who showed us that one guitar was enough. I have been very comfortable playing in three-piece bands. But two? I never thought I'd go for that. After all, I am married to a bass player! And I love bass guitar. More than once, I have thought about putting the guitar aside and playing bass instead.

But some people have made the guitar-drums thing work well. There are not only the aforementioned White Stripes and the Black Keys, but also local (now international) hot band Japandroids and, among my favourite bands anywhere, the Pack a.d. For my money, the Pack have really shown how much possibility there is in this format--not to mention economy. They are currently touring Europe with a total of four people: themselves, their tour manager, and their sound tech.

Sometimes, you just want to go with the fewest complications. Really that means solo. I have sometimes done that and might again. But I love to play loud and play in a band. I will never rule out playing in a larger band, but right now, since I'm a guitarist and the other person I know who is also frustrated with not playing enough is a drummer, well, there you go.

We're calling ourselves V+T. Not super creative, but band names are hard to come by, and you can expend a lot of energy coming up with one that (a) is not used already (b) is easy to find with Google and (c) you both agree on.

With any format, there are always limitations. Obviously, when you have only drums and guitar, you're really straining against boundaries. Conventional guitar solos are pretty much out. Drums really need to fill space. So does the guitar. I crank up the distortion and the bottom end and I play a lot of drones. T will be making more use of toms and cymbals. Will I need a bigger amp? Yesterday, T actually asked me to turn up! Guitarists don't hear that very often.

Fundamentally, duos run on audacity. It's just not enough, right? But we're going to do it anyway! We're going to be loud! We're going to rock hard! We're going to play great songs! If it's not at least somewhat audacious, it's probably not rock and roll.

We're just beginning to put material together. We have maybe three songs at this point and lots of semi-formed ideas. Several of the songs I've been working on recently aren't right for this format. But I have a feeling we're going to find a burst of creativity. And when we're ready, or maybe even before (audacity again), we're going to be coming to your town. OK, figuratively. Or maybe literally. You never know.


Keep digging

Have you ever gone deep into a project only to realize the scope is much larger than you thought?

Insidious leafy thing (no idea what it is)
It's spring cleanup time in my gardens. I've been doing battle with dandelions, creeping buttercup, sprouts from maple and holly, and various nameless weeds, including that insidious leafy thing that spreads like wildfire. For some time, I had been eyeing a "nice to do" but not "need to do" project. Yesterday, I needed a break from weeding. It was a gorgeous day. I had time. So I went for it.

After the major renovation 11 years ago that included demolition of a derelict detached garage and construction of the deck and carport, what had been a combination of lawn and junk in the back yard was nothing but an uneven mess of dirt and rocks. I started the long process of rehabilitation to turn that mess into the native plant habitat it is today. One thing I had to deal with was water running off the lane and into the yard beyond the carport pad. I didn't know at the time that this was due to a clogged street drain. I tried to kill two birds with one stone: accommodate the runoff and make a place for an abundance of rocks. So I created a "water feature"—a little stream that ended in a tiny pond. I built a little footbridge (just a few planks bound together, nothing fancy at all) over it. I filled it with rocks. It looked nice. Even after the runoff was fixed, I figured it was OK to have a dry faux-stream. Sweetie called it the wadi, because it was mostly dry but occasionally caught some water.

Early garden picture -- with rocks
Over time, however, more and more soil made its way between the rocks. Weeds inserted themselves and were difficult to dig up. The feature was no longer a feature but really a bit of a mess. So I finally decided to rehabilitate it.

The project started fine. I removed the footbridge and started to dig out the stream again. I made a pile of the rocks I was digging up and moved recovered soil to a few beds that really need it. When I got toward the "pond," however, I started to realize something. I had forgotten just how much rock was in this thing, not to mention how big the tiny pond really was. One pile of rocks turned into two, and the two started to merge. So many of the rocks are tiny. I kept taking breaks from the hot sun, but by mid-afternoon I realized I'd hit the wall. No more digging that day. And there were more rocks to go.

Sometimes I wonder if I really should have done a massive soil replacement and maybe rented that Cat to regrade the place (would have been fun to drive). The slow rehabilitation has mostly been successful, but the quantity of rocks in this poor excuse for soil is staggering.

I should be able to finish digging today. Then I think I'll put only the largest rocks back into the waterless feature. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with all the small ones. Make a heap in a place where nothing grows anyway, I suppose. What does one do with masses of stones that are too small for anything useful?


Things we learned...

...and might do differently next time, for surely there must be a next time.

Pack what we need

We liked the idea of travelling as light as possible and getting a cheap suitcase over yonder to bring stuff back in. For many reasons, it didn't work out. First there was the problem with liquids and gels. We would have to seriously cut down on toiletries to be able to fit everything into a one-litre bag. Second, because Firenze was our first stop, and there's where we did most of our shopping, we had to buy the extra bag there (inexpensive ones near the railway station), which meant we had it with us in the car and on the train. And finally, I at least am just not that good at not having the clothes and accessories that I want. Firenze and Roma are stylish places. Although it's practical to dress very simply, I'm just not that into looking like a tourist. OK for Rick Steves, maybe, but not for me.

The same idea (with liquids somehow taken care of) might work better in the summer. As it was, we had to accommodate a wide range of weather phenomena. Spring is a very changeable time of year.

Parlo un po 'italiano

I imagine you can go pretty much anywhere in the world and get along at least to some extent without knowing the language of the place you're visiting. But it really helped us to know at least some Italian, thanks to Duolingo. Sweetie had quite a bit, and did quite well. I reached beginner Italian, and I had to settle for small victories of asking questions and getting answers, of understanding and being understood. We also did pretty well reading signs.

For whatever reason, I find that I really like the sound of Italian and the feel of it in my mouth. I want to keep learning. And use it again.

There weren't any horrible linguistic cock-ups, and only one teaching moment that I can remember. That was when, at the end of a long day, we ordered a pizza and a salad with the intention of sharing them. Sweetie told the waiter "per due," or something like that, intending to convey that the order was for both of us. Two salads and two pizzas arrived (which I'm afraid went down pretty easily). We used Google Translate to look up a word that remained important for the rest of the trip: condividere (to share). Google Translate isn't perfect, but it's pretty handy.

City mice

A lot of people, including many of our friends, would probably love to stay in a Tuscan farm house for a week or two. There is certainly some appeal in that, and we enjoyed the days when we got out into the country. But we are urbanites. We made full use for our three days in Firenze and could have used at least a day more. We could easily have used two more days in Roma. There's just more stuff happening in cities. I will say, however, that some of the best food we had was in Levanto, which although not tiny is by no means a city. So sometimes you will find great restaurants where you least expect them.

TripAdvisor is friend

We got some excellent restaurant advice from our hosts in Firenze. We said we wanted cusina tipica, and they directed us well. It turned out that they knew about the place that we stumbled upon (and went to twice). They simply hadn't thought that we would be likely to head in that direction. In Levanto, our host gave us a list of restaurants, but without much information. TripAdvisor definitely helped us there. And in Roma, our host suggested one place that was great and one that served us one of the least memorable meals of the trip. So we shall keep in mind that our host might not have the same taste in restaurants as we do. It was through TripAdvisor that we found the excellent restaurant where ate on our last night in Roma as well as the awesome panino place.

Speaking of TripAdvisor, it's definitely a better idea to consult first rather than post a bad review later. The trouble is, you probably need wifi to check it. Bar Due Ponti seemed like a reasonable lunch stop. It promised free wifi. The food was nothing special, but that's true of the little bars. But although the panino was only a little pricy, the beer cost almost €8 and a large but not that large pop cost even more. We were stunned! And the wifi barely worked. If we'd been able to check, we would have found dozens of reviews from people who had had very similar experiences there and who also wish they had checked TripAdvisor first. So be warned: do not go to Bar Due Ponti! And it's probably best to be careful of anywhere that's in the tourist areas.

For the love of money

Visa is lovely, but cash is still king. There are restaurants where you want to go that don't take credit cards. There are shops where the Visa machine is on the fritz. There are plenty of reasons to have euros in your wallet. Fortunately, we never had a problem using ATMs. The exchange rate was what it was and couldn't be helped, and the "ding" from our credit union wasn't bad. At least when you're getting it from an ATM, you can kind of keep track of your spending.

My left foot

The car we rented was a Fiat 500. It was smaller than our Subaru, but it held quite a lot of luggage in its hatch. I found it comfortable to drive. It was a five-speed standard, and I hadn't driven a standard since we sold our Honda Accord in 2002, but after one stall and a few times forgetting to clutch before I turned the key to start the car, I had no problem. I am glad, however, that I never had to hold it on a hill. I'm not sure how that skill has held up! The problem now is that even after more than a week back my left foot keeps wanting to find the clutch.


The Pisa Fiasco

So we were driving from Firenze to Levanto on the A11. It was around lunchtime, and we were getting hungry. A friend had told us that Lucca was a good place to stop, but the exits came upon us before we made a decision. I think we hesitated because we wouldn't have known where to go. We should have taken that as a lesson.

I have never used a GPS before, but I felt that I should bow to technology in this case. We didn't have any detailed maps, so I thought a GPS would be prudent. The rental agency suggested that we get in-vehicle wifi instead since we had GPS and mapping capability in both an iPad and an iPhone. It cost less. We thought it was a good idea.

Sadly, neither the iPad GPS nor the one in the iPhone seemed to work as well as we had hoped. Same for Google Maps. They were fine at the macro level, but when it came to details, not so much.

Still, we thought we would brave Pisa. Using TripAdvisor, Sweetie had found what sounded like a really good Turkish restaurant. It was somewhere near the Torre Pendente, a.k.a. the Leaning Tower. We thought we should be able to navigate toward it. And yet it seemed that every time I made a turn, it was wrong, and we had to reset and try again. Pisa is full of one-way streets and "you can't get there from here" spots. Once I found myself driving toward a government area where cars weren't allowed, yet getting out of that area was not easy. We crossed the river in both directions several times trying to find our way, all while trying not to have any close encounters with Pisa drivers.

We were getting really hungry (and cranky), and our plans weren't working. We found ourselves heading back out of town toward the highway. I was thinking that we would not find any decent food if we kept going, so I decided to turn around and try again. And what happened? Almost a duplicate of what had happened the first time, including finding myself driving toward the government area. Every time I'd see a "Torre Pendente" sign with an arrow, I would not see another, and I'd be stuck. Unbelievable. It seemed that we just weren't going to solve the Pisa puzzle.

By this time, we were starving. I stopped at what seemed to be a place we could get panini, but they showed me some frozen items. Grazie, no. I kept driving, kept getting more and more lost, and finally found another bar. This time, there was fresh food to be had, pizza or panini. I ordered two panini to go, waited for a bit, and then brought the food to the car, where we decided that any food (and the panini were pretty good) was better than no food.

Having finally got lunch, we drove out of town again. We were stopped at a traffic light when we looked right. There, across several kilometres of open space, we could see the Torre. It was like a great big middle finger taunting us. I wish we could have snapped a picture, but traffic started moving again, and we lost the chance.

No Turkish food. A good hour and a half wasted. Stress levels high. But we found our way easily to the A12 (which runs toward Genova) and proceeded on our way. Maybe someday we'll see the tower up close and get some of that Turkish food. I have a feeling that the only way to do that easily is to go on a tour bus. At least then someone else has to navigate and drive.


In-flight entertainment

The longest legs of our flights to and fron Italia were run by Delta and KLM. The planes had personal seat-back screens, same as Air Canada has. Not only are those far better to watch than shared drop-down screens; they also mean you don't get censored movies! And the selection was good in both directions. Ever since the demise of Blockbuster, Sweetie and I have fallen way behind on movies, so it was nice to do a bit of catch-up.

I always eliminate movies that would really suffer from watching on a tiny screen with the wrong aspect ratio. That meant that even though I would have liked to have seen Twelve Years a Slave and Gravity, there was no way I was going to try on an airplane. But a lot of movies run on dialogue, so those are the ones I favour.

I don't usually watch rom-coms, but for some reason I like to while flying. Maybe it's just a need for light entertainment. And I had been intrigued by trailers I saw for Enough Said, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener and starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini (in his final role). I wasn't disappointed. It wasn't even really a rom-com, although there were comedic elements, as life has. It's the story of two older, divorced people who get together and the complications that result--mainly from Louis-Dreyfus's character, a maseuse, having Gandolfini's character's ex-wife (Catherine Keener) as a client. I liked how the script was purposely left a little messy. No neat tying up of all the loose ends. Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini had a really good chemistry, and Keener and Toni Collette (best friend) were good in support. I might not have made the time to watch this if I weren't stuck on an airplane for several hours, but I'm glad I did watch it.

That was the only movie I saw on the way over. I slept a fair amount to try to get on Italian time. But on the way back, on the extra-long day, I watched three movies. Just got on a roll!

First was Inside Llewyn Davis. Sweetie and I had wanted to see this when we were stranded in Boston last winter, but we arrived just a bit too late for the start and so instead saw Philomena. But as a musician with some knowledge of the early 1960s folk music scene, I still wanted to see the film. It's by Joel and Ethan Coen and loosely based on a memoir by the late Dave Van Ronk, whom I once interviewed. Right from the start, I was drawn in. Llewyn is rather unlikeable, as has been noted elsewhere, yet I was still interested in his story. There's a lot more going on than you first know. Plus, Oscar Isaac is both a good singer and very easy on the eyes. It contains typical warped Coen humour while still showing a lot of heart. I loved this movie so much that I convinced Sweetie that we should get it on pay-per-view when we got home. I loved it even more the second time, and she was hooked as well.

With not much of a break, I then watched The Butler. This is the Lee Daniels film based (again, loosely) on the life of an actual White House butler. It's hard to go wrong with Forest Wittacker as the lead, but he is also well supported by Oprah Winfrey (wife), Cuba Gooding Jr. (friend), David Oyelowo (elder son), and even Clarence Williams III (although I thought Terrence Howard was a bit wasted as a philandering friend). And then there are the various presidents: Robin Williams as Eisenhower, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon. With Alan Rickman playing Ronald Reagan, you almost like the guy. It's a bit of a movie-of-the-week, but Daniels did delve into some of the darker and more difficult aspects of the story.

I finished up with The Heat, a cop buddy movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. It's silly and over the top, but it's supposed to be. I was thoroughly entertained, and I laughed out loud several times (something you probably shouldn't do on an airplane). Bullock is great as the uptight FBI special agent who eventually loosens up, and McCarthy is phenomenal as the foul-mouthed Boston native who breaks all the rules but gets the job done better than anyone else. Her dialogue is especially sharp as she repeatedly punctures the Bullock character's carefully crafted façade. As a women's comedy, Bridesmaids didn't really work for me. This one definitely did.

Think Sweetie will let me watch The Heat again?


Planes, trains, an automobile, and some cabs and buses

Normally we book flights ourselves, but this time we enlisted the services of a travel agent in New Brunswick who was recommended by Sweetie's sister. She got us a really good return fare with only a little inconvenience. Delta and Air France on the way, KLM on the way back, but really the flights themselves were sometimes operated by different carriers because Delta and Air France and KLM and AirItalia are part of a code-share group.

To Firenze

Getting out of Vancouver proved to be more difficult than we had thought it would be. Friends had recommended that we travel as light as possible and not check luggage, which made sense. You don't want anything to get lost on your way to vacation. Our intention was to each have one roller carry-on and one backpack-sized under seat piece. Once in Italia we would buy a cheap bag and fill it with stuff we had bought and check that on the way back, because if a bag gets lost on the way home it's much less of a big deal. But you know how the best laid schemes o' mice and men oft gang aglay, especially when the Transportation Security Administration is involved.

We both know about putting liquids and gels in containers of no more than 100 ml each and then putting those into a resealable plastic bag. We've never had a problem with that before. But this time, maybe because of the Malaysia Air flight, they were strictly enforcing the one litre bag limit. Do you know how much a one litre bag holds? Pathetically little. We had to get out of line at security, redistribute some stuff between roller bags and soft bags, go back to check-in, check our rollers with liquids through to Firenze, and hope for the best. We were glad that at least we were early enough to handle this.

The first flight was to Minneapolis, where we had a layover of several hours (the price of saving money on the flights). We flew through Minneapolis two years ago on our way to New Orleans, but I hadn't remembered that the airport was as big as it is. It's quite nice, actually. There was so much shopping that I joked that they should have had a mall directory. And then I saw one! We had time for lunch (good salad bar in the food court) and even time for Sweetie to have her boots polished by a shoe shiner who entertained us with a story of a rich woman from Miami who was hitting on him to piss off her husband.

We finally left on time for the flight to Paris. I had already got some sleep on the first flight and I managed a little more on this one. They also fed us a couple of times, kind of like in the old days.

I wrote on Facebook that Aéroport Paris–Charles de Gaulle was horrible. Maybe it's not always, but it was for us. We had an hour and a half between landing and our flight to Firenze, which seemed like plenty. But as we walked down Terminal 1 toward 2G, we hit a security checkpoint. Really? We wouldn't have been on that flight if we hadn't already been cleared, but here was another. It took a good half hour to wend our way through the lineup so our stuff could get X-rayed again. We then had to go outside. Outside is secure? We were put on a shuttle bus that twisted and turned up hill and down dale and around a loop until we finally disembarked outside 2G. If you look on CDG maps, you probably won't see a 2G. That's because it's not finished. The building was clearly still under construction. We went through a lineup to have our passports chopped (stamped with a visa), then quickly walked up a flight of stairs and down a long corridor. An airport worker had told us that boarding for our flight had already closed, but it seemed to me that we had enough time, and I was right (she was referring to another flight). At the "gate," we waited in a clump for a few minutes, then went outside (again) to get on another shuttle specifically for our flight. Sweetie said, "It looks like we're going back to where we were." Sure enough, we went around the loop and twisted and turned up hill and down dale until we were back outside Terminal 1, whence we walked across the tarmac to board our small regional jet for Firenze. It was positively Kafkaesque.

Your mileage may vary, but I have to wonder how it would, considering the weird way in which CDG is laid out.

The flight from Paris to Firenze was blessedly uneventful. Once there in the small airport, it took a while for our bags to show up, but show up they did. We then took a fixed-price cab directly to our hotel. We knew that was the only sure way for us to get there at that point.

While we were in Firenze, we walked everywhere. We logged many kilometres a day, and did get a bit foot and leg sore at times, but Firenze is mostly flat, and it really felt great. Plus we had to get the only exercise we could to offset all the wonderful food we were eating.

I love the top deck of a double-decker bus
For our day trip to San Gimignano, we took a regional bus. We knew the bus station was near the main train station, Santa Maria Novella, and we had plenty of time, so we walked there through neighbourhoods somewhat west of where we had already been, which was fun. We walked by the Mercato Centrale, an absolutely enormous market, both indoors and outdoors, just as people were setting up. Once at SMN, we were a bit lost. Fortunately, there was an information place across the street. We were directed to the right bus station in time to buy our return tickets to San Gimi. We rode out of the city and through the Tuscan countryside on top of a double-decker bus to Poggibonsi, where we changed to a smaller bus for the short hop to San Gimi. Coming home, we did the reverse, minus the double-decker (not that time). It was all pretty smooth.

It was late afternoon by the time we were back at SMN. Our legs were tired, so we decided to wait for the #12 bus, which we knew ran down our street. We also knew that it made a big counterclockwise loop around the city. What we didn't know was that the loop is really big, and we were at about 9 o'clock while our hotel was at 12. It's too bad it got dark while we were travelling, because we could have had a great tour of the Oltrarno. We did get a nice view of city lights looking north from the Parco Bardini. I think we will always remember the phrase "Prossima fermata" (next stop), since we went through so many of them. I think it took us about 45 or 50 minutes to get home, about twice what it would have taken had we walked. An adventure in public transit!

Firenze to the coast

It's possible to get from Firenze to Levanto by train, but it would have been slow and difficult, so we rented a car to drive there. The only car rental places are at the airport, so we had a cab take us out there. We might have been able to do it on a bus by that point, but also by that point we had an extra bag with stuff we'd bought, so a cab seemed like a better idea. The driver took us to the aiport terminal, and when we said we needed car rental, which, duh, wasn't at the terminal itself (I should have thought of that), he laughed and laughed at the silly touriste but was nice enough to take us to the other side of the autostrada, laughing all the way.

Hilltop village seen from the A12
The drive to Levanto was my first time becoming part of Italian traffic madness. Fortunately, most of the driving was on the autostrade (A11 and A12). But that was its own kind of adventure. No leisurely passing! There are people not even in sight when you shift to the left lane who will be on your ass at 150 km/h in half a second. I learned how to pass quickly. Driving the narrow hill roads in and around Levanto was an adventure too. I felt so Italian when I passed a Piaggio Ape (slow three-wheeled pickup truck) going uphill with just enough visibility. Sweetie almost had a heart attack. By the time I drove back to Firenze, I was totally in the Italian road groove, except for the 150 km/h part. I kept it to 120 or less.

For our first visit to the Cinque Terre from Levanto, we took the train. It runs right along the coast and through several tunnels. You have to make sure you take the right one so that it stops where you want to stop, but for the most part it was easy peasy. Electric train, by the way. No diesel smoke.

Some roads lead to Rome

After we drove back to Firenze, we cabbed from the airport to the train station. We hadn't done quite enough planning and so weren't sure which train to take, but we opted for Italo, the private line, which was an express train straight to the station in Roma. We're pretty sure TrenItalia would have taken us a lot longer. The Italo train travelled at 250 km/h for most of the way. Never gone that fast on land before! It was quite comfortable, although there were a lot of tunnels, so the wifi was pretty inconsistent, and slow anyway. Boy, are we spoiled! Once in Roma, we opted for a cab again. We might have managed that trip on the metro, but again, when you don't know where you're going, it's probably best for someone who does to take you there.

We walked a lot in Roma as we had in Firenze, but we also used the metro, which is quite a nice subway system, if not yet very extensive. There are two lines that run roughly perpendicular to each other and apparently one more still under construction. When you build anything in Roma, you often have to slow way down to allow archaeologists to do the digging first.

If we had booked a shuttle earlier, we could have saved some money going to the airport to leave, but we listened to our host who spoke of a car service and didn't think that we should have done better. Still, the car was convenient, and we didn't have to wake up as early as we would have to get on the shuttle.

Security in Roma was fast and efficient. Seriously! The flight to Amsterdam was uneventful. Schiphol Airport is pretty nice but quite spread out. We grabbed some lunch and then went through the place to get our passports chopped again. We were supposed to be at our gate an hour before departure, which seemed like a lot to me. Close to that time, I ran off to get some espresso. By the time I had returned, Sweetie had all our stuff with her in a lineup. Security right at the gate! That explained the hour. We had to move from one waiting area through X-rays and porno-scanners (not sure if opt-out was even possible) and then into another waiting area.

The flight went fine. KLM knows how to do things. It was long enough for me to watch three movies. But that's the subject of another post.