Shoulder dance

So I'm taking this belly dance class. It's level one. I took level one from the same instructor a year and a half ago, but I was bad and never practised. This time, the instructor is going to give us a CD of the music she uses. Especially after we have the home theatre moved out of the living room (Friday!), maybe I will take advantage of the extra space and move around a bit.

In belly dance, there aren't many parts of your body that don't get involved. Belly is the least of it. Usually, your core remains still in the midst of all this other activity. There are hip shimmies, drops, and bumps. There are steps and turns. There are chest movements. There are many arm positions, all of them (one hopes) graceful and beautiful.

And there is the shoulder shimmy, not side to side or up and down but forward and back. This seems to be the most difficult thing for me to learn. I'm getting the hip movements. I'm not doing too badly with the foot choreography. My arms make me feel like an albatross sometimes, but they're getting better, especially when I remember to work them from my upper back and not so much from the arm muscles themselves. Chest lifts, drops, and other isolations aren't great, but not terrible either. But shoulders? Oy! Awkward doesn't begin to describe what I see in the mirror.

My upper body is fairly strong but also tight. When I started belly dance class, I never realized that's where I'd need to do the most work. But then, I sit at a computer all day long for work and then spend far too much time at my other computer doing things like writing this blog. My upper body is in serious need of relaxing.

Fortunately, sitting here a bit more and doing some searching on the magical interwebs gives me tips on how to do better shoulder shimmies. It seems I'm not the only one with this problem. There's a technique I'm going to try that involves squashing a bolster under my back along my spine. I hope the foam recovers from this!

It really does go beyond shoulders though. When we're doing a stretch at the end of class, the instructor will sit on the floor with her legs in front of her and curl her spine forward until her head and hands are pretty much relaxed on the floor in front of her in a classic yoga posture. I can't get anywhere close to that. And yet there is nothing wrong with my spine. As far as I know, all my vertebrae and the discs in between are doing fine. So how do I teach my spine to flex like that? I don't expect to make it happen all at once. I just need to know how to move toward it! More searching needed, obviously. Searching for stretching, made all the more necessary because of all these searches.

As for the shoulder shimmies themselves, I notice that I can do them better when I don't involve my arms. If I let my arms drop to my sides, my shoulder movement isn't bad. So I know where the muscles are, and my body knows how to respond. But as soon as I put my arms out to the side where they need to be for dancing, the shoulder movement deteriorates. I think what I have to do is train that movement without the arms so I can reach a point where the movement is well engrained in my body and I can then add the arms back in.

At my age, I'm probably supposed to be practising gentle yoga, or doing tai chi in the park, or splashing around at seniors water aerobics. But no, not me. I insist on learning belly dance with women who are young enough to be my daughters (including the instructor, I'm guessing). But I'm not reaching for the rheumatiz medicine. I probably just need to work a bit harder, perhaps take it more slowly, and not get discouraged because I can't keep up with teh youts. And maybe some yoga wouldn't be a bad idea!


Permission slip

I know, this is the fourth post in a row about music. But I love writing, and if you're bored with hearing about music, imagine how much more boring it would be if I wrote about taking belly dance lessons, helping organize this year's Ladies Rock Camp, going out with various Meetup groups, dragging myself to Zumba on Friday evening, or doing the Saturday morning grocery shopping. That and work are mostly what else is going on in my life.

So yeah, music.

Some artists just do what they want without caring whether anyone will like it or not. They are the pioneers. They blaze new trails. They boldly go where no one has gone before.

Me, well, I don't have that kind of personality. There's probably a genetic component to it. Risk aversion and conformity run in my family. Even my ancestors weren't really pioneers. They came from Normandy (mostly) not to explore but to rather to settle down, till the soil, and make tourtière (I'm probably not related to the guy who invented poutine).

So sometimes I need permission to break out of my tiny comfort zone. I need to see someone else break the rules, which tells me it's OK to do the same. I'm not a trailblazer, but I might make the trail wider. Maybe I'll even wander off onto a side path.

I like and admire so many musicians and songwriters that it would become even more boring if I were to start listing them. But a few are special, not because I like them more, but because they give me permission to break out.

A long time ago, Neil Young and Keith Richards told me it was OK to play guitar even if I was never going to be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. Later, punk and New Wave guitarists reinforced that, as well as the idea that music didn't have to be elaborate to be good.

Lately, as I relaunch my playing, singing, and songwriting, probably no one has been more influential than Polly Jean Harvey. I don't want to copy her. There's no way I could even if I wanted to. But PJ gives me multiple permissions. She lets me explore my singing and push the limits of what I think I can do. She lets me push into areas that I previously thought were too weird. In songwriting, she lets me explore my sexuality and sensuality. And if all that weren't enough, she reinforces the idea that a guitar can be an expression of self, and that playing guitar the way I do is just who I am.

Not far behind PJ Harvey are the Pixies. Now, I am never going to have a mind like Charles Thompson IV, a.k.a. Frank Black, a.k.a. Black Francis. His songs are like no one else's that I know. But again, his courage in writing what are basically twisted pop songs is inspiring. I have always written pop songs that were somewhat outside pop norms. Charles says go ahead and push that much further. And on guitar, Joey Santiago is an inspiration in textural playing. He doesn't have to be a virtuoso to add just what a song needs.

There are other bands that help explain why I make the kind of music that I do. As racist and sexist as Jeffrey Lee Pierce was, I was still infected with the edgy blue-tinged rock of the Gun Club. It's been a long time since I've made seriously dissonant music, but I still admire not only that Sonic Youth push the boundaries but how they do (or did—we all wonder if Kim and Thurston will still make music together even though they are no longer a couple).

More recently, Land of Talk, a band you might never have heard of (unless you read my blog), have been a huge inspiration. Elizabeth Powell truly plays her own brand of rock music. My love of Land of Talk goes back to the summer of 2007 in Quebec City. Sweetie and I were seeing shows at the Féstival d'été when we saw a poster that said Land of Talk would be playing a free show outside—right across the street from where we were having dinner. They had just put out their first EP, and I think I had heard one song from a free download. As the light faded, they created magic on the street.

Lizzy Powell is just one of several women who inspire me not only because they make wonderful music but specifically because they push against the inherent sexism of the industry, as we all have to do. Emily Haines of Metric, Kristin Hersh, Kim Shattuck of the Muffs, all of Sleater-Kinney, and Vancouver's own Pack a.d.—all of them and more say fuck yeah we make great music.

I wish I didn't have to seek permission, but I know myself. That's how I get started. The thing is, once I do get started, seeking permission from others becomes less of an imperative. The more I play and write, the more I give myself permission. And now that I'm working with three talented and wonderful women, I think it might be time for us all to give ourselves permission to make cool new music, music that's ours alone.


Making it work

Did you ever know something was true, but you didn't really get it until it finally hit you?

Writers write. Duh.

I have a friend who is a novelist. She writes pretty much every day, even when she has worked all day at the job that pays her much more than writing does. She writes whether she feels like it or not. She writes whether she feels inspired or not. She says, today I will finish X number of pages, and she does.

Writing songs isn't the same as writing novels, but it's not as different as I have treated it. I have written songs when the muse hit. I have written songs when they came tumbling out in one sitting. Sometimes I have written songs that took a long time to finish, but mostly because I worked on them sporadically.

That's not what songwriters do. The job of those who worked in the Brill Building (just one example) was to write songs. So that's what they did. In the process, I imagine they wrote and then tossed out a lot of crap that we never heard, but they also came up with some of the most memorable songs of all time.

My friend can write X number of words because she already had her novel plotted out and her character arcs set. She has a framework. Coming up with three-minute musical gems is different. There are a lot of aspects to the process. There's the subject, if you have one (some songwriters are really good at just writing words that sound good together but only seem to mean something). There are words, rhymes, phrasing. You want a killer chorus or a memorable refrain, usually, although it depends on the song. And then there's all the music—melody, more phrasing, rhythm, chords. Every song starts somewhere and grows from there.

Not every idea turns into a good song. Some you won't finish. Some you'll finish but throw out. But other than the rare song that writes itself, there's really only one way to write a good song—work at it.

That's what I have to do.

No doubt I will continue to scribble down lyrics that come to me whilst I'm stuck in traffic. No doubt I'll get melodies in my head when I'm not really able to grab my guitar and figure out where they go. But what I really need to do is block out time, just like my novelist friend does. And then maybe those traffic jam scribbles will get finished instead of just sitting there on a scrap of paper.


The laws have changed

Yep, a song title quote: New Pornographers from The Electric Version.

I said I wasn't going to write about the band. But this is really about me.

I've been writing songs since I was about 16 and first learned to pick out a few chords on a guitar. OK, so those were mostly bad poetry set to music, but a lot of songs are bad poetry set to music. I got better at songwriting over time, but I have never been very prolific. Over all those years, I think we're talking several dozen songs rather than, say, several hundred.

I wrote most of the material (sometimes in collaboration) for the bands I was in back in the early to mid 1980s. And when you write most of the songs, you basically shape the band. As well, since I tend to write specifically for whatever band I'm in, the band also shapes the songs. A rock band is an organic entity. It has a life and a character of its own that is more than the sum of its parts.

In one place or another, I have many of the lyrics of those songs, as well as some recordings. Some of them were discarded fairly quickly. Some were good enough in the context of a live set or a record. Some were pretty good, and occasionally I wrote something that might even be called a really good song.

Most of what I wrote back then was because I had issues. Unrequited love or lust. Political anger. Personal anger. For a lot of songwriters, the best songs tend to come out of bad situations. Writing songs is a way of dealing with the negative stuff in a relatively constructive way. And the outcome can be compelling. Ever notice what happens when a songwriter has a successful relationship? They turn into John Denver. Seriously, you need at least a little conflict to come up with good material. No one wants to listen to how happy you are.

A few years ago, I came to terms with the fact that I simply was not a genius songwriter, or even that good a one, except occasionally. All my life, I've wanted to be a creative person, but it took me a long time to understand that I could be creative in ways other than the ways I tried to be creative for so many years. And I finally came to terms with that. No Grammy or Juno or Polaris awards in my future. And that was OK.

Except now there's the band. And even at this early stage, I absolutely love what we have. I haven't felt this excited about a project for longer than I can remember!

The band needs original material. With possibly an exception or two, I don't want to dredge up old material. That was then, and different bands (or no band). This is now, and a totally new band. I want to write material for this band and for our singer. And I'm no more prolific than I ever was. And I still know that I'm not a genius songwriter. Some of the old stress is back.

Fortunately Sweetie, who pretty much never used to write songs, has already come up with one that we're playing and one that we need to work out, with a couple more possible.

It's interesting how that changes things in itself and also reminds me that the laws have changed in other ways. She who writes most of the songs kind of runs the band. That's how it was for me in the past. This is probably the first completely democratic band I've played in, an entity in which each of us has an equal stake. That's what I've always wanted! And yet it's something I have to get used to. I need to put in the right amount of effort and yet not push too hard or try to exert too much control.

Now that I've over-analyzed the situation, mixed with the kind of unnecessary worrying that I tend to do, I need to take a page from Nike: Just do it. Stop worrying and just do it. I still have an issue or two. And the world has plenty.


Band of sisters

The moon was full last night. I had a particularly good reason to celebrate the full moon esbat. After listening to me wail for quite a few weeks now, our band found a real singer. And not just a singer. A friend who sings really well and is really cool.

Now we have four cool people in the band instead of three!

I don't think I will blog about the band, which at this point still has not discovered its name. Blog about gigs, sure, but not about the internal dynamics. That feels like blogging about my relationship with my partner, which I pretty much don't do. Bands are fragile things, like relationships. In fact, a band is a relationship, and a polyamorous one at that. It's like four people all being married to one another. Any of you poly folks out there know how challenging that can be.

I'm hoping we're mature enough to make this work. To have fun with the band and to stay friends. In fact, to become better friends. And still to be creative. And to not be afraid to butt heads sometimes but come through it all OK.

There's nothing magic about four women forming a band rather than four men. Some of the dynamics are bound to be somewhat different, but many are the same. It's still a creative endeavour. It's still four people who won't always agree. And four people with real lives and other stuff to deal with.

But then again, maybe it really is magic. Magic isn't something that happens. It's something you make happen. I hope we can make a lot of magic together.

There's that "hope" word again!



It's a good thing I didn't make a New Year's resolution to blog more! That one would have failed already. Seems life has been pretty quiet, getting back to work and all, with nothing really to blog about.

I've been going to the gym or walking on most days. I'm trying trying trying to make and eat tasty food with proper nutrition but not too much of it. That's hard. The woman who was my personal trainer two summers ago urges me to eat five small meals a day, or at least to put some protein into light between-meal snacks. I've stopped with the peanut butter sandwich at lunch (which usually made me feel bloated anyway) and added a small spoon of PB to mid-morning carrot time. It's a start. ("I will make fresh hummus.")

I still have a long way to go on my weight. The last few pounds above the weight you want are the most difficult to lose. And the only way to make this work is a long-term commitment to better habits.

I'm proud of one small thing I did even before the end of last year—I knocked the pile of mail down to nothing! If you had seen the pile, you'd know this was not really a small thing at all. I have now resolved not to let mail pile up again, and certainly to deal with important mail (not just the fun stuff) with dispatch.

I've read a few articles already about how 2012 is going to be a year of change. I don't know about the world, but I've been feeling a change in me that started a couple months ago (see, I told you my year starts at a different time).

For a time, I had to focus inwardly, out of necessity. I had to deal with some issues. It wasn't that I never looked outward—I did some volunteering and plenty of socializing—but my needs had to come first. Now that's all behind me, and I feel that I need a new orientation. I always take care of myself, but I feel that my focus needs to be more outward.

Playing music is part of that. Playing music is making me happy, but it's also about working with other musicians and, we hope, playing in front of people. If we can agree on a name, I think we can call it a band. That's exciting! It's been 25 or so years since I played a real gig, and I'm loving the possibility of the grannies rocking out in public.

I'm helping to organize this year's Ladies Rock Camp Vancouver. Since I will be volunteer coordinator, if you are local and you know me, you might well hear from me. The first camp went well, and we want to make this one even better! Of course, as well as volunteers, we'll also need women who want to tap into their inner rock goddess. Having been through the process as a participant, I can say that it's a wonderful experience.

Even though I don't seem to be getting laid off yet, the possibility of doing a fashion marketing or culinary arts program is making me feel hopeful—hopeful that there will be life after so many years of high tech. And by the time I have to make a decision, perhaps there will be other possibilities. After I'm done with Ladies Rock Camp, I'm hoping to volunteer at our local hospital. Volunteer gigs can often open you to new ideas.

It all feels hopeful to me. Hope is a word that swam into my head during my ritual a couple weeks ago. It's not a word that I had thought about much before. It's not about "hoping to goodness." It's about feeling that there are possibilities and opportunities. But I have to be ready for them, and I have to say "yes" when an opportunity arises that's right for me. I feel that I can do that now.