Songs in context

From time to time something reminds me that I'm not so young any more. Video games do it. I remember Pong in bars, then later PacMan and Space Invaders. But I was never big on video games, and I've never had a game console. Mainstream newspapers now review video games, but I'm, like, whatevs. There's nothing to say that I couldn't take up playing video games, but I don't find it compelling. Video games don't have the place in my growing-up psyche that they do for generations younger than me.

One thing that does distinguish me from many people my age is that I am open to new music. Some of my favourite music is new, made by people who weren't even born when I was playing in bands. I love music from all the times of my life, and some from before my time. My interest in music didn't stop when I graduated from high school or university. I am rarely nostalgic.

I'm still weird though. I actually listen to albums.

Not on a turntable. We have one, but it's not set up (yet). Not very often on CD these days either. No, we're talking MP3s, either ripped from CDs we own or downloaded from pay sites like eMusic. Well, most of them (I'm not a saint).

I can download individual tracks from eMusic. Sometimes I do. But most often, if I like a band, I buy the album. Occasionally I'll skip a track that I really don't like, but for the most part I listen straight through.

At its best, a record album is a work in itself. I don't mean concept albums in particular, just records of songs that fit together and flow from song to song. That's what a good producer can do—not only get the best performance out of the band, but also assemble a product that works as a whole.

Some bands really are singles bands. I'll listen straight through to an album by Buzzcocks or The Muffs, but that's just because I love the songs. The songs stand by themselves.

When I find an album that's really a whole, however, it's wonderful. Just the other day I was listening to PJ Harvey's Stories of the City, Stories of the Sea. A couple of years ago, I had ripped a few tracks from it to use in my DJing, and I hadn't listened to the whole album since then. When I finally did, I realized what a gorgeous album it is and how well the songs work together. The ones I ripped now have a context.

The band that made me realize that some people are still creating collections of songs that work together was Bloc Party. The first time I listened to Weekend in the City, I was blown away. The album is thematic, but it's more how the album starts jagged and hard, then ebbs and flows until you reach "Kreuzberg," which leads to the amazing climax of "I Still Remember," followed by the quieter beauty of "Sunday" and the devastating "SRXT." I cry listening to that album from the sheer beauty of the composition. It's about the songs themselves, and it's about how they work together.

Not every album has such cohesion (at least to my ears), but many give me a listening experience greater than the sum of their individual songs: Cloak and Cipher by Land of Talk, Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair, Grab That Gun by the Organ, Fantasies by Metric, The Con by Tegan and Sara, Naveed by Our Lady Peace (which they never came close to again). Going back a ways, I remember the impact the first time I listened to Document by R.E.M., the first Pretenders album (especially what was then called "side one"), and The Clash's London Calling (a desert island album if ever there was one). Even further back, The Beatles did it time and time again. The Who's Who's Next has to be one of the greatest rock albums of all time, from "Baba O'Reilly" to the explosion of "Won't Get Fooled Again." Neil Young's Tonight's the Night and Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones don't contain the best songs of either artist, but they capture a time, place, and mood so well.

I still love to DJ and mix songs up. But whenever I do, it's about creating something coherent out of the individual songs, almost like my own album. I never set up my songs ahead of time but rather go with the flow and the moment. Like any improvisation, sometimes it falls flat, but when it works, it works very well (I don't just say so myself—I've been told numerous times).

People do the same, with somewhat more planning, when they create mixtapes. And stringing songs together is, or can be, a creative process. The result is a "work." And that's what many bands and their producers do. So I like to listen to their "mixtapes" as well as my own.


eMusical year

I used to DJ in Second Life, mostly at this one club that was once the coolest indie club in SL. I wasn't actually very indie, more alt-whatever, but I was kind of "grandmothered," since I'd been spinning there almost since the place opened.

When I started DJing, my online music library was fairly pathetic. I'd ripped a bunch of stuff from our CD collection, but I needed a lot more, especially new material. And I'm frugal. OK, maybe cheap. I didn't have iTunes. I looked for alternatives. Besides, I needed cool new stuff, not just commercial stuff I knew already.

I can't remember how I found eMusic.com, but it fit the bill. eMusic often doesn't have the rights to the most popular music. Instead, they get a lot of indie stuff, as well as music from artists who are cool enough to use eMusic as an outlet. You pay a monthly fee, and eMusic lets you download a certain number of tracks per month.

This "use it or lose it" setup kept me on my toes. I had to keep finding things to download each month. And I did. eMusic expanded my musical knowledge in a big way. Sometimes one artist would lead to another via a recommendation. Sometimes, I would check out recommendations from last.fm. Without eMusic, I might never have discovered The Muffs, Cocktail Slippers, Del Cielo, The Grip Weeds, The Len Price 3, The Raveonettes, and many others. I might not have a complete Sleater-Kinney collection. I might not have been the Metric fanatic I am now.

Snaps as well to Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt, who plays with Bruce Springsteen). His The Coolest songs in the World collections are available on eMusic, and they opened up several new bands to me.

Every year, eMusic users get polled on their favourite downloads of albums released during the year. Here more or less what I uploaded:
  1. Land of Talk, Cloak and Cipher. No contest here for my #1 pick. I've been waiting for a new Land of Talk album since their last one, Some Are Lakes. Land of Talk is basically Elizabeth Powell, a songwriter and guitarist from Montreal. I don't know any other band that sounds like this. Liz weaves her way into my brain.
  2. Kristin Hersh, Crooked. This was released last summer, but I only just discovered it. Hersh takes singer-songwriter into harsh, personal, painful territory, and makes beautiful music while doing it. I'm currently reading her book, Rat Girl, a memoir based on the year when she found out she had bipolar disorder.
  3. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs. There was such hype surrounding this album that I was prepared for a letdown. I'd enjoyed some tracks from Arcade Fire in the past, but could this album really be that good? Well, yes. It's the best thing they've done. So I guess the hype was deserved.
  4. Dum Dum Girls, I Will Be. Somehow I was never into the Jesus and Mary Chain, but low-fi noisy pop music has always been my thing. I adore The Muffs! Kim Shattuck is my idol. And I went head over heels for The Raveonettes. In and Out of Control was my second favourite album last year after Metric's Fantasies. So I was really happy to discover Dum Dum Girls. Love the songs, love the sound.
  5. The Pack A.D., We Kill Computers. A Vancouver-based duo with a huge punk blues sound. They played at Girls Rock Camp last year during lunchtime, and the older campers especially were blown away. I love how they are making their own music, not following any trends.
  6. The Black Angels, Phosphene Dream. The return of psychedelia. I'm into throwback sounds if they're done well, and I really like this album.
  7. The New Pornographers, Together. I always anticipate a New Pornographers album. This one would probably have been higher on the list if not for two things—I really don't like Dan Bejar's songs (never have really), and I don't think Carl Newman gave us his best material this time. There are really good songs on this album, but for me it's just not up to the level of Challengers or the earlier albums. And there's not enough Neko Case here! Ironically, the band sounds better than ever, more like a band than like backup for individual songs. I just wish the material had been better.
  8. Stars, The Five Ghosts. I can't always distinguish Stars from the other Toronto bands that tend to play in each others shows and all end up in Broken Social Scene, but this album has grown on me.
  9. The Young Veins, Take a Vacation! Another wonderful throwback, this time to 1960s pop music. Just plain enjoyable!
Through a last.fm recommendation, I just downloaded Crocodiles Sleep Forever. I haven't had a chance to listen to it yet, but the previews sounded really good.

And when asked for "most overrated," I said Broken Social Scene. There something about Forgiveness Rock Record that's oddly annoying.

eMusic recently changed the pricing scheme from X number of songs per month to a monetary equivalent ($0.49 per song). They say this will let them negotiate for more music. Sadly, at least in the short term, there is less music available. The Matador label recently pulled out, and that means no Sonic Youth, among other great bands. I hope eMusic succeeds in getting back on track.


Buy nothing vs. buy everything

So I guess people in the States have been shopping since midnight. At least some people. I'm glad it's not the day after anything here in Canada. That means I can go downtown in relative peace. Most people are working. I took the day off because no one is in the American office that I telecommute to. They're probably out shopping.

Black Friday. I was surprised when I first heard that term. It sounded ominous, like the way Black Monday refers to a stock market crash. But apparently it's about stores being "in the black." Supposedly if they have a good Black Friday, they'll do OK through Christmas.

It's also Buy Nothing Day in North America. Buy Nothing Day was started by the people who publish Adbusters magazine. It's pretty obvious what you're supposed to do, or not do, on Buy Nothing Day.

So it's either load up on gate-crashers or eschew buying altogether.

I'll be skirting in between, I guess. I already have plenty of buy-nothing days. I go on occasional shopping sprees, but I'm not a big spender, and neither is my sweetie. If the economy depended on us, I think it would have to move away from its addiction to rampant consumerism. But today, I'm still in pursuit of that elusive pair of medium-heel black pumps. And I need a few things at the beauty supply store. It's also time to order a little makeup. And it's not just about me. I'm also looking for a baby gift and possibly for a wedding present.

In the not-as-geeky-as-she-thinks department, I almost killed my WinAmp MP3 player yesterday. That's the one I use on my computer. I got it when I was DJing, since I could use it for streaming to the web, at least with the right plugins. Can't do that with Windows MediaPlayer. WinAmp also allows you to rip from CDs to MP3 files. At least it used to. It had been a long time since I'd done any ripping, and yesterday the buttons for doing it weren't showing up.

WinAmp gets upgraded from time to time, and I've probably upgraded several times since the last time I did any ripping. Usually, it just keeps the current configuration, but somewhere along the line something must have got lost. I wasn't sure what to do. I downloaded and installed a WinAmp plugin for outputting MP3s. Big mistake! It seemed to take over my WinAmp and turn it into a ripping machine. I couldn't play any music. I uninstalled the plugin, but kept having output problems. I reinstalled the most recent WinAmp several times. I finally realized that somewhere in all of that, an output DLL had got whacked. Fortunately, I had backup. With file restoration, I was back on the air.

Except for one thing I discovered today: no easy enqueuing. I run Windows XP Pro SP3. Previously, I could right click on a song, and the second menu option was to Enqueue in WinAmp. That meant I could put the song in queue on the playlist. It's possible to do that from WinAmp itself, but it's cumbersome and slow. Fast enqueuing was more important when I was DJing, but I still like to do it. And I might get to DJ online again. So I did some searching for advice. I actually added some keys to the registry. Now that's a geeky thing to do! I'm not sure if the addition of keys itself did the trick, because I found an option setting as well. At any rate, everything is now back to normal.

I learned all my geeky stuff on large computer systems. When it comes to PCs, I don't know much more than anyone else and a lot less than some. Thankfully, my unsystematic persistence finally paid off.

I'd better get out the door before I break something else!

Oh, and The Beekeeper's Apprentice arrived today from Amazon.ca. Yay! Something to do on buses and SkyTrain. Only 11 reading days until the meeting!



Tomorrow (Thursday) is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. I know there are people who associate the day with things such as the theft of native land and the oppression of native people. But that's not what people celebrate. They gather to give thanks for their lives, to share food with family and friends and sometimes even strangers. They come together in community.

Happy Thanksgiving, my American cousins! Have some of everything, just not too much. :)


Good moon rising

I'm usually a fairly strong and together person, but from time to time I feel overwhelmed by life. I'm not sure why. It's not as though I have a difficult life. But sometimes the complexities of modern living are too much for me.

The day started off pretty well, although I did have to scramble a bit for a school project. For one of my classes, three of us are doing a presentation on how to play Texas Holdem poker. The two guys know how to play. I know how to play draw poker, but I'm a total novice when it comes to the specifics of Texas Holdem, so I've been catching up. I had to put some material together before meeting with them. Presentations are stressful, and shared presentations even more so.

My mood might also have had something to do with a book I was reading as I rode to school on the bus: Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh. Hersh is a musician, now solo, formerly of Throwing Muses. The book is based on a diary she wrote when she was 19, trying to get a degree at a Rhode Island university while playing in the band. It's the year that she learns that she has bipolar disorder. Life frequently overwhelms her.

The meeting went very well though. My presentation partners have their sections down. I still have work to do. They were very nice to me, maybe even indulgent, but I don't want that. If I were them, I would have been stern with me for not being as ready as I should have been. I'll be fine by Wednesday, but I hadn't done enough before this meeting.

Anyway, it was OK. After we finished, I went to catch a bus to go to Metrotown. I need to read the book The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King before my next book club meeting. It's been just out of reach at the library (too many holds), and was not available at my local bookstore, so I thought for sure I'd be able to get it at the huge Chapters at Metrotown. Fat chance! Zero copies available, "but you can order it at a kiosk." I guess I should have done that weeks ago, but I thought for sure I'd find it at a local store (preferably an independent bookstore, but it's too late now to be fussy).

If you're feeling overwhelmed, Metrotown is not the place to be, especially on a weekend not too long before Christmas. The place was swarming with shoppers. I love Metrotown when I'm in the mood, but on overwhelm days, it has a bit too much of everything.

Still, I figured since I was there, before I left I'd go to "shoe corner" to see if there were any nice walking pumps available. Even though the ones I have are from Nine West (outlet), they are foot manglers, at least on my feet, the kind you think will break in but never do. At Joneve, my new go-to store for decent shoes when I don't want to pay Nine West prices, I found exactly what I was looking for—plain black, medium heel (so I can actually walk further than between the car or taxi and wherever I'm going), almond toe, from Vianni, and on sale. I asked if they had it in a 10. Second strikeout of the day! Only as large as nine. I didn't find anything comparable at Spring or Nine West, and I was running out of juice to keep going.

I headed home. I went one stop further on SkyTrain than I normally would and gave myself a nice, brisk walk up the hill. I think I needed it. Just when I was getting to the park, I spotted my sweetie, on her way home from local errands. So that helped my mood to be able to unload a bit as we walked the rest of the way home together. And just having a little walk together was nice (I didn't whine the whole way).

Then later, while I was making lasagna, my cousin called as she was heading home from work. She just wanted to share what an incredible full moon there was rising over Deep Cove, a beautiful little corner of North Vancouver District on Indian Arm at the end of Burrard Inlet. Back in the summer, she and I had been hanging out at Sasamat Lake. An otter popped out of the water very close to us and sunned itself on a log. It was magical! I had called Sweetie to tell her about it, and my cousin was impressed. So she did the same for me this evening. And put a smile on my face as I saw the moon rise over the less scenic apartment building in my little city.

Sometimes, even when you're not doing well, people do nice little things. And put a smile on your face.


Vague Italia

Hi, I'm Véronique, and I'm a Top Modelaholic.

It's true. Sweetie and I both are, and have been for several cycles now. We don't watch much TV, and we're not big fans of so-called reality TV, but America's Next Top Model is one of the few shows that's "must see" (or "must record" at least) for us.

If you haven't watched last week's double elimination episode yet, and you care, don't keep reading. There will be spoilers from here on.

We've been predicting the outcome each week for a few weeks now. One of the criteria of this cycle that has helped us do so is the fact that the winner will be featured twice in the Italian edition of Vogue magazine. This meant not only that the requirements were going to more demanding. It also meant that they were probably looking for a certain look, even more so than usual.

We knew Jane was not going to make it to the top two. We hadn't even expected her to make it this far. She has a gorgeous face, but for weeks she had been forgettable in photos. For the last few weeks, however, she had been stepping up her game. She did a great job with the ersatz vitamin water commercial. She started to take better photos. But in the end, I think it came down to two things. One is that as beautiful as she is, she is totally American cover girl (or even Cover Girl) and not Vogue Italia. It's like watching certain actors in period films—they just don't look like they fit. The other thing that undercut her is that she just never delivered any personality. A nice girl, but just not interesting, at least when it counted.

The big disappointment for us, though, was that Kayla was also eliminated. We've been Kayla fans almost from the start. She took great pictures. She overcame a serious problem with unresolved trauma that came from having been sexually abused (I hope she will get some help for that). And she was openly lesbian. How could we not like that?

Kayla had stayed in the middle of the pack for a while, but really stepped up her game toward the end. She looked extraordinary in the gondola shoot. We were thinking that she had just the kind of face they would be looking for. But something went wrong last week. She didn't present herself well to Francesca Sozzani, editor of Vogue Italia. She didn't really shine in the moving shoot that Tyra did. We were really surprised by that, because it seemed that she would have. She did well, but not great.

Still, we were suspicious of the actual elimination. Kayla seemed to be drawing criticism for things that that had drawn praise earlier. It didn't feel right. We wondered what was really going on. We both figure that the judgment of both Sozzani and André Leon Talley, being part of Condé Nast, must have carried a lot of weight this week. But we were disappointed and puzzled that they didn't want Kayla to continue.

So now we have Chelsey and Ann. We have never liked Chelsey. She has never taken great photos. I really don't find her look to be impressive at all. Her greatest asset has been that she knows the modelling business better than any of the other contestants and has a strong desire to win, and she reminded us of that constantly. She was always positive when facing challenges. She did the best job of presenting herself to Sozzani (and won the challenge), and then later had a great moving shoot.

Still, I just don't think she has the right face for Italian Vogue. I'm surprised the judges do. She looks very...American. Same as Jane, but in a different way. Kayla looks quite European, or can. She's a chameleon, which was to her advantage. But in the end, the judges wanted Chelsey to say.

And that leaves Ann. We've been Ann fans from the start. How could we not be? She seems so unlikely—freakishly tall and thin, painfully shy, not obviously pretty. Yet for five weeks in a row, she had best picture. On camera, she transformed herself into a top model in the making.

Things started to go south for Ann toward the middle of the cycle. No more best picture. Her confidence issues started to take over. Every time she faced something difficult, something negative came out of her mouth. She was great in still photos, but hopeless with things like the vitamin water commercial and any kind of runway walk. We still liked her, but we started to see that she was sabotaging her own chances, and that wasn't fun.

Yet two weeks ago, on the go-sees, she was the only one that the Vogue representative said he would have hired—basically because he loved her look and that tall, gawky body. And this past week, she pulled out stops we didn't know she had. She didn't do great in presenting herself to Sozzani, but she didn't do badly—probably second best. When she and Jane were left behind while Chelsey and her guest Kayla enjoyed the challenge prizes, they clearly had a really fun time, with Ann showing off just how smart and witty she could be. And finally, in the moving photo shoot, she really came through. Once again, the shy, awkward girl in the interviews turned into something quite different on camera.

Between Chelsey and Ann, we are pulling for Ann. Geek power! But we're sad that it's not a final between Ann and Kayla. That would have been a difficult choice.


Comforting comfort food

For one of my technical writing courses, we had an assignment on writing procedures. We had to come up with a recipe for something that we make just out of our heads.

I'm the default chef in this house, because I love to cook and my sweetie loves what I make. It's a successful combination. I do make some dishes without a recipe. I don't need a book to whip up something like pasta primavera. And even when I start with a recipe, I often make changes. Still, much of what I make originated from Ken Hom or Jamie Oliver or some recipe from the interwebs.

So I went with an original, more or less, and I kept it simple and slightly cheeky: a tuna melt. Not just any tuna melt. A really yummy, very melty tuna melt. (The formatting is a bit different than the version I handed in because that was done in Word. And that griddle isn't as horrid looking as it seems in the picture—honest!)

How to Make a Brilliant Tuna Melt

These instructions presume that you have a basic knowledge of food preparation, but the recipe and technique are quite simple. Almost anyone can make a tuna melt!

Presentation, right?
  • A flat-bottom pan large enough for a slice of bread to fit, such as a non-stick square griddle
  • A pan cover larger than the bread but smaller than the pan you’re using
  • A spatula (plastic if you’re using a non-stick skillet)
  • A bowl or plate in which to make tuna salad
  • A fork and a knife

The tuna salad part
Very likely, you already know how to make tuna salad. Most people can put together a tuna sandwich. But just in case you need help, here are the ingredients:
  • One can tuna
  • Mayonnaise
  • Your seasoning of choice
The procedure:
  1. Open and drain the can of tuna.
  2. Put the tuna onto a plate or into a mixing bowl.
  3. Add seasoning and enough mayonnaise to pull it all together. You can also use only part of the can of tuna and store the rest in a container (not the can) in the refrigerator.
Caution: Do not put too much mayonnaise into the tuna salad. Later, that will result in a very messy tuna melt. Use enough to hold the tuna together. You can add more, but you can’t remove it.

Some people also like things like chopped celery in tuna salad. If you do, go for it!

The grilling part
Here are the rest of the ingredients:
  • Two slices of bread
  • Cheese
  • Soft margarine (or softened butter)
The procedure:
  1. Heat the pan or griddle on a medium-low flame (or medium low on an electric range).
  2. Put as much tuna as you want on one slice of bread.
  3. Top with the cheese of your choice—something that melts but doesn’t turn liquid works best.
  4. Top with the other slice of bread.
  5. Lightly spread margarine on the outside of the top slice and put the sandwich with that side down on the heated pan.
An alternative to using soft margarine is to melt butter in the pan itself, then put the sandwich on it to grill. You will probably have to do it again for the other side.

There's a sangwich under there
Tip: Take the pan cover, centre it on the sandwich, and push down for a few seconds. This is to substitute for the sandwich irons you see in restaurant kitchens. Leave the cover in place while the sandwich is cooking, which will help heat up the filling.

Important! Make sure the pan is not too hot. If it is, you will end up with nicely grilled bread very quickly but cold tuna salad and cheese that has not melted.

The bread should take only a few minutes to brown. Remove the pan cover and lightly spread margarine on the top slice. With the spatula, carefully flip the sandwich over. Replace the pan cover, and grill for a few minutes more.

Remove the sandwich from the griddle. Slice it if you wish. And enjoy!


Book learnin'

I have a bachelor's degree in English. After a slow start, then five years working as a staff editor on a computer publication, I shifted sideways into another part of the company where I learned about software. I still work for the successor of that company.

I enjoyed my time at university, but mostly not for the right reasons. I'm intelligent, and I love reading and learning, but studying not so much. It was many years before I did any more formal schooling. For a couple years, I was an unclassified student at the University of British Columbia, taking courses in history, psychology, and political science. I was a much better mature student than I had been an immature student, but it still wasn't something that thrilled me.

Through UBC Continuing Education, I earned something more closely associated with my work—a Certificate in the Software Engineering Process (architecture, design, project management, and more). I took some actual programming courses at Langara College. I had a brilliant and entertaining C++ instructor, someone I will always remember. He and the course really improved how I did my job.

Quite a bit later, I earned a Certificate in Counselling Skills from Vancouver Community College. I did that completely for love. Going through the program and doing the practicum were personally enriching for me. The program changed my life in a good way. But I could not afford to take the kinds of jobs that I would probably be able to get with a certificate alone, and I can't (yet) bring myself to face the attempts to get into a graduate program in counselling. Someone suggested that I take undergraduate psychology courses, for myself if nothing else, and maybe I will do that at some point.

I am now at my fourth educational institution since I moved to Canada. I am a part-time student in the technical communications program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, pretty much always called BCIT. It's not for love, as counselling was, but neither is it for my current job. It's so I can keep on working once my software job goes away (as it will at some point). I am actually an experienced technical writer, but I was always winging it. I did it reasonably well, but I was winging it nonetheless, and I find that stressful. This program will give me a certificate to show prospective employers (they love pieces up paper in Canada) and also a sense of my own competence in the field.

I'm no better a student than I ever was, but I'm keeping up with the work, and I'm learning. I had hoped to take two courses a term and thus be finished in four terms, just over a year, but I'm finding that this pace is leaving me little time for other activities.

I'm not that young. I'm not at a point where I'm willing not to have a life so that I can achieve a goal. I want to reach that goal in a reasonable amount of time (preferably before I lose my job), but I can't just go head down on it. In addition to working full time, I want to read (for pleasure), have at least a bit of a social life, watch some TV, see movies, go out to dinner, make dinner (I love to cook), blog incessantly, read blogs incessantly, waste time on Facebook, turn my garden from disgraceful to beautiful again, play guitar and work on songs, and learn to play the drums.

Oh, music! It's all the fault of Ladies Rock Camp. I'm really missing time to play music and get better at my rudimentary percussive skills. I really want to get together with old and new musical friends to have fun (and who knows what might happen).

So next term, I shall not be taking two courses, unless I suddenly find myself receiving severance pay. One course is going to be plenty of work and take plenty of time. There aren't enough hours in the day for everything I would like to do, so I have to get a few hours back. And spend at least some of that with my practice pad and maybe finally finishing my first song in years.


Slightly strange land

And not such a stranger any more.

There are a lot of Canadians and Americans who think there is little difference between our two countries. It's true that there are a great many similarities. But the differences are still there if you look for them.

Before I moved to British Columbia in 1994, I had been to Quebec and Ontario quite a few times—with family when I was young, on a school band trip, with a band on a "world tour" (i.e., Montreal and Toronto), several times with Sweetie to Montreal for extra-long weekends, and once for three weeks to Jonquière for a French immersion program. As a tourist, however, I wasn't terribly aware of anything more than superficial differences.

Immersion was a little different. Yes, that was when I learned first hand that milk comes in bags (in Quebec and Ontario anyway—it's not true here). Quebec is obviously different than the United States in many ways, not only linguistically but culturally. Still, even though Quebecers might deny it, Quebec is part of Canada and shares a lot with the rest of the Canadian experience. I think it was that very immersive stay that really got me thinking that I wanted to cross the border and stay.

Sweetie and I learned some things from a completely skewed source: The Kids in the Hall. That was the first place I heard the word "line-up" used as it is here. In the Flying Pig sketches, someone would always say, "What a line-up!" In the US, a line-up is something police do when they're trying to get a witness to identify a criminal suspect. In Canada, it simply means a line, file, or queue.

The premise of the Flying Pig sketches was that the Flying Pig would entertain people who were stuck in line-ups (this was before everyone had their own personal entertainment). And that brought out another typically Canadian characteristic—Canadians know how to wait patiently in line-ups. The British are accustomed to queues as well. Americans? Not so much.

After I moved to Vancouver, I kept finding subtle but real differences in language and culture. Before I moved to Canada, I had never heard the expressions "hard done by" or "top of mind." When I was a kid, shinny was called "pond hockey." And even though I was familiar with hockey, I had never heard the term "stick handling" used as it is here, meaning to skilfully negotiate a set of difficult circumstances. And then there is one of my favourites: "shit disturber," meaning someone who stirs things up.

See, I've learned to spell Canadian: "favourites" rather than "favorites," "skilfully" rather than "skillfully." Not that there is such a thing as agreed-upon Canadian spelling. Apparently, spellings like "honour" and "honor" have both been used in Canada for a very long time. And even when you spell it "honour," as I do, the adjective is spelled "honorable." Some spellings are becoming rare, such as "programme" and "plough." But we still write cheques here, at least when we're not whipping out our debit cards, which were used here much earlier than in the States, or our new "chip and PIN" credit cards (I haven't found that technology in the US yet). And speaking of cheques and checks, when you've finished dinner at a restaurant and you're in a hurry, you ask for the bill.

We really do queue up pretty well, and fairly patiently. Line-ups are just part of life. I think we're still a bit more polite in general and a bit more reserved.

Things change with every new generation. Kids watch a lot of American TV, play American video games, and get influenced by all things American. Fewer of them say "zed" for the last letter of the alphabet. I bet they're using more American spellings as well.

We do have traditions that endure, however, something I see much less of in the States. Yesterday is a case in point. In Canada, pretty much every city and town has a cenotaph. Canada entered the First World War in 1914 and suffered horrible losses before the Armistice was finally signed in 1918. In some smaller towns, almost an entire generation of young men were either killed, wounded, or returned damaged in some way. Although the US fought in World War I, it was toward the end of the war and for only a short time. It never made as much of an impression on Americans as it did on Canadians.

November 11 is Remembrance Day in Canada. People wear the red poppy in the days leading up to it. And we remember. Around every cenotaph there is a ceremony, a very traditional ceremony. There is almost a sacredness to it, and indeed this atheist has no problem singing "Abide With Me" along with everyone else. I don't know why. It's part of the tradition, a tradition I respect. And so many people participate, including young people. It is a shared experience, something that makes us Canadian, native-born and immigrants alike. Before I came to Canada, I had never experienced anything like it.


Let's meet!

I heart Meetup! You know how it's hard to meet new people, right? Well, with Meetup, you can meet people whom you know you have something in common with right from the start. It's wonderful for someone like me who works out of her house and doesn't have the built-in social interaction that an office or similar workplace affords.

At present, I belong to four Meetup groups. Some are more active than others, and some are a better fit than others. I really enjoy the women's wine and book club I belong to. I get to spend time with intelligent, personable women, do some wine tasting, chat about the book we read, and usually share food as well. And if we have time, chat about anything we feel like. The owner of the group is an outgoing, well-organized person, two attributes that probably contribute greatly to the success of a group. The other success factor is that quite a few women in the area find the group as interesting as I do.

Last night, I went to the first meetup of another women's group. The focus is fashion, but that's just a starting point. Six of us met at a downtown restaurant for drinks, food, and great conversation. We talked about clothes and shoes and shopping of course. But we talked about a lot more, and we got to know each other a bit.

I had some trepidation about a planned activity—rating each other's outfits. But that turned out to be quite fun. One group member had made up folders with space to write comments on one side and a series of lines on the other with labels at each end such as "Effortless" on one end and "Contrived" on the other. We wrote comments, and we put marks on the lines where we thought the outfit belonged. We were all being rather nice, I imagine, looking mostly for positive things to say. Maybe if we all get to know each other better, I might hear some real critiques. That might not be easy to hear, but it would be great feedback.

I had a great time, and hopefully the others did as well. It seemed that way. We talked about other things we might do together, such as a spa visit. Maybe we'll take a walking shopping trip down Main Street, which has a combination of local designers and consignment shops. I'm looking forward to whatever comes next.


Who's next?

I'm going to get provincial on you for a bit—literally. The premier of British Columbia, Gordon Campbell, resigned yesterday. His personal popularity stood at around nine percent. It seems likely that his caucus was close to expressing its lack of confidence in his leadership. He's a stubborn man, but even he couldn't avoid seeing the writing on the wall.

So we're about to get a new premier.

For those of you who do not live in a Commonwealth country (and maybe for some who do), in Canada we have what is called the Westminster system of government, similar to what is used in the United Kingdom. We have it at both the federal and provincial levels. I'll go with provincial terminology. There are single-member geographic constituencies. When an election is called, we vote for a person running in our constituency to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly. If one party wins a majority of seats, that party becomes the party of government, and its leader becomes premier. If a party wins a plurality of seats but not a majority, it can try to govern with a minority (as is currently the case in Ottawa).

In B.C. at this time, there are only two truly viable parties, so one or the other tends to win a majority. At present, we have a majority Liberal Party (centre-right, despite the name) government, and Gordon Campbell, as leader, was the premier. But now he has resigned as leader, and thus as premier as well.

We deviate from the Westminster System in having fixed election dates, every four years (something I disagree with), so we'd not due for another provincial election until May 14, 2013. That means the liberals will continue to govern. The only way to have an election earlier than the set date is if the government loses the confidence of the Legislative Assembly, which would happen if a majority of MLAs voted against a bill that was considered a matter of confidence (usually a spending bill like a budget). Given party discipline, that is almost certain not to happen in with a majority government.

So the Liberals must have a leadership race, or appoint a leader. I'm guessing they might appoint an interim leader, as the New Democratic Party (NDP, left to centre left, depending on leader) did when Glen Clark resigned before a new leader was chosen by the party convention. But soon, there will be an actual leader chosen by the caucus, and that person will become premier, likely until the next election.

I'm looking at the photos of potential candidates that the Vancouver Sun published. Some of the candidates are well known from having been in high-profile cabinet positions (in the Westminster system, the executive is formed by members of the legislature). That's not necessarily an asset. Kevin Falcon, now Minister of Health but former Minister of Transportation, was often seen on the news pushing through some highway or transit policy that was not popular. Solicitor General Rich Colman is the province's "top cop," so that if anything goes wrong with police in the province, he is on the hot seat. Kash Heed is the former Solicitor General and previously chief constable of the West Vancouver police service. He has ruffled his share of feathers and also had an election funding scandal attached to his name, even though he was cleared.

I don't know much about some of the people whom the Sun considers potential leaders. Iain Black is Minister of Labour. He's a mystery to me. Bill Bennett is Minister of Energy, and the only thing I know about him is that he recently grumbled in public about Campbell.

Barry Penner, now Minister of Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, was formerly Minister of the Environment. In that position, he always struck me as a straight shooter, someone who really cared about environmental issues, although that didn't always play well in his own caucus. I recall him getting his feet wet, literally, during a cleanup of the Pitt River. Attorney General Mike DeJong always seemed pretty straightforward to me as well, although he was more likely to toe the party line. Same with Minister of Education George Abbott.

It's discouraging that the only two females considered viable by the Sun aren't even in the legislature. Dianne Watts is currently mayor of Surrey, the second largest city in B.C. Sprawling Surrey, just south of Vancouver, has a well-earned reputation for being a high crime area, but Mayor Watts is credited with having done much to turn the city around. Among B.C. politicians at all levels, she is probably one of the most popular right now. And the other possibility is former Minister of Finance Carole Taylor, who was just appointed Chancellor of Simon Fraser University. Despite having the unenviable job of making (and slashing) budgets, she was probably the most popular MLA in the legislature during her brief tenure.

The Liberals have governed for nine years so far. During their first term, they made serious cutbacks in spending that hurt a lot of people. They moderated that during their second term and even won some praise for things like improving aboriginal relations. The third term, however, despite the Olympic Winter Games, has been disastrous. Shortly after the election in May 2009, the government brought in the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), combining the existing federal Goods and Services Tax (GST, a value-added tax) and the Provincial Sales Tax (PST, sales only). HST exists in several other provinces, and was recently launched in Ontario to little fanfare, but in B.C. the launch was a disaster. There was basically a tax revolt, led by former premier and perennial gadfly Bill Vander Zalm, that led to a successful petition to put the HST to a vote.

Thus, the job of premier of B.C. is not exactly desirable right now. I wonder who will want it. It will take a strong leader, someone with vision, to bring the Liberals back from their current dismal ratings in time for the next election. It might not be possible. Unlike Alberta, B.C. is not a one-party province. It's unusual for a party to win three terms in a row. The NDP, although currently in a bit of disarray itself with its own leadership difficulties, might well attract an "anyone but the Liberals" vote in 2013. It will be interesting to see what happens. At least for some of us.


The morning after

I'm not stunned by the results of the US midterm elections. They were all too predictable. Voters were wildly indignant about nearly everything, so they retaliated by sending the people who caused most of the trouble in the first place back into power in the House of Representatives and nearly in the Senate as well.

Now me, I'm socially progressive (human rights are good), a believer in fiscal responsibility (pay your bills), and ultimately pragmatic (do what works). I'm not sure if there is anyone in Congress (or Parliament for that matter) who thinks the way I do, or rather who puts such principles into practice. But we take what we can get.

I'm going to look for the silver lining:

In Massachusetts, my state of last residence, Deval Patrick was reelected governor. And my congressperson was never in any danger of losing the seat. Massachusetts voters returns all 10 Democratic congresspeople to the House.

The Democrats retained control of the Senate, barely. At this time, three Senate races have yet to be settled. One of those is in the neighbouring state of Washington, where Patty Murray (D) has a tiny lead over Dino Rossi (R).

In California, Barbara Boxer retained her Senate seat, defeating former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who I imagine outspent Boxer by a wide margin. In Nevada, Harry Reid defeated Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle, while in Delaware Chris Coons defeated another infamous Tea Partier, Christine O'Donnell.

Also in California, Jerry Brown defeated another huge spender, Meg Whitman, in one of only two gains by the Democrats in gubernatorial races (the other is Hawaii). Even though I'm no big fan of Jerry Brown, it's nice to see that you can't actually buy an election. And in Rhode Island, an independent was elected governor. I don't know if that's good or bad. I don't think Lincoln Chafee is a former professional wrestler like Jesse Ventura was, so I imagine he won't be nearly as entertaining.

Nancy Pelosi retained her House seat in California's Eighth District, but of course she will no longer be Speaker of the House. The result in the House is too depressing for a post looking for silver linings. I see none there.

I'm not usually a doomsayer. Sometimes results that look great turn out disappointing in practice (I think we've seen that already). Sometimes results that look horrifyingly bad turn out not to be as terrible as feared. But I can't imagine this Congress will be any champion of human rights. I can't imagine progressive legislation coming out of there. And despite the whining from Tea Partiers and other about spending, the next Congress is likely to leave the Bush tax cuts in place. Even Harry Reid said so. Way to be fiscally responsible, folks!

No pill for this morning after. If the regressives have their way, probably not for the other either.


Rock the outfit

Dress like you have something to say
Riccardo Tisci, Creative Director at Givenchy, in InStyle November 2010

Saturday was unexpectedly rain-free. I headed downtown in the afternoon, not saying that much but a bit more than skinny jeans and a top.

First stop: Tom Lee Music. It felt odd going downstairs to the drum section. I'm much more accustomed to buying strings or something similar upstairs. Down in the drum lair, I asked about practice pads. The sales clerk showed me three different styles in a range of prices. I opted for the one that was a bit more expensive but much quieter than the standard pad. The clerk also told me that it has the most realist feel. At this point, I'm trusting him on that part. I also bought a pair of drumsticks, 5B (the width). I even rolled them on the counter to make sure they were not warped, on advice from my drum teacher at rock camp.

From there, I took a bus to Plum on Granville at Twelfth Avenue. Plum is one of my favourite clothing stores for a few reasons. One is that I almost always find something in their seasonal collections that I want and that works well for me. Another is that many of their items are designed and made in Canada. I look for that tag, and in fact I tend to look only at items with that tag. I am willing to pay a bit more and buy a bit less if I can get good quality clothes made somewhere that pays a living wage. And finally, the Plum staff take good care of you.

I was disappointed to see that a coat I had liked in a promo photograph was designed in Canada but made in China. And it carried a hefty price tag. I didn't really need another cold-weather coat, but outerwear is one of my downfalls, and this was really cute. I passed on it. I tried on several items, and left with only two: an adorable belted plaid mini-dress, and a black A-line skirt. The skirt I needed, and it was on sale. The dress was an indulgence. I don't know where I'll wear it. It's definitely not office wear. But it looked so adorable. It's black and grey plaid, so I can pair it with just about any colour tights. I'll find an occasion for it, I'm sure.

From a drum shop to a fashion boutique? And Plum isn't exactly a rock 'n' roll clothing store. But like Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes. Software developer by day, rock musician and fan by night, and fashionista through it all. The rock look was fine for me when I was younger. Now, I aim a little differently. I know what looks good on me and what doesn't, and there's no point in trying to fight that. And thankfully, I don't yet have to "dress my age." I really can't complain.

I do love to have something to say in what I wear. The thing is, even if you don't intend to say something, you do. It can't be helped. What we wear is a statement about ourselves. And I like to make a conscious, purposeful statement, one that says that I'm confident, together, and know what looks good on me. I don't have the looks to turn heads, but between hair and outfit I can create a positive impression and catch a few eyes.

Like music and writing, fashion is a way for me to express my creativity. I wrote that I had come to terms with not being as creative a person as I always wished I were, but I still need outlets. I'm not a fashion designer, but one way in which I can be creative is in putting outfits together. I'm pretty good at that when I try. I enjoy working with the canvas that is me.

Music and fashion actually go hand in hand, even though in my case that's not really obvious. But what about feminism and fashion? I'll leave that for another post.