Fashionably problematic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ugh, a resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Missing link

I hate my LinkedIn profile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Open heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Seafood showdown

And then there were two. Chefs, that is.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hubris in heels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All-star break

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Albums from 2011 that I downloaded (and paid for)

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

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

Beyond categories and best of all:

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

Small and crunchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big and shiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I had discovered them soon enough

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

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

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

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


Keep Yule in Yuletide

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

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

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

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

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